I lived in the Tucson area for a number of years, long ago. Too long. I still miss it terribly. Back then, residents often thought of it as America’s largest small town. I guess it still is. Two thousand miles distant and decades later (give or take), the awful events of this past weekend, beyond the sadness and heartbreak we’ve all shared, have come with so many reminders of my time there, ties that personalize this tragedy for me in so many ways. Watching the reporting on TV, I can’t help think and feel “I know these places, these people; they’re a part of me.”
It happens that the very area where the shootings occurred has, ironically, had a very special place in my heart. My telescope (a vintage 1978 Celestron 8″) had its “first light” there — in a good friend’s backyard less than two miles almost due north of the Safeway where the shootings occurred. I (along with my telescope) would pass through Safeway’s intersection at Ina and Oracle roads many times on my way there. Before this event, if you’d asked me what comes to mind about that area of Tucson, I’d have said, “That’s where I first saw Saturn’s rings and the Ring Nebula!”
That friend was, at the time, the baseball coach at Canyon Del Oro high school. I went to some of their games. I just read 9 year-old victim Christina Taylor Green was in the Canyon Del Oro little league. I wonder if she ever played on that same field or attended any of their games, too?
Federal Judge John Roll, also killed in the attack, was in law school at the University of Arizona while I was starting as an undergraduate. He later taught there, so our years there may have overlapped quite a bit. I can’t help wonder if we ever crossed paths on campus, at the student union, or the library, or a football game, perhaps even a class? Perhaps we shook hands at Mass? I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
For a two-year span during my time as a student at the U of A, the first thing I would see when I opened my door was University Medical Center (UMC), just a block away, separated only by, what was then, a dirt parking lot. At first, seeing it so often both haunted and yet tugged at me. I had spent some rather painful times as a child as a long-term patient in hospitals in New York. I was reminded of them each time I looked over at UMC. I couldn’t help wonder if there was anyone there, especially kids, going through what I went through. So, I gave in — I wound up becoming a volunteer there, in Peds (pediatrics). I was happy helping treat the one sickness I was actually qualified to treat, despite not having any formal medical training: hospital-induced homesickness.Seeing this same hospital on the news these past few days has brought back dozens of memories of some very special people and moments there I’d long forgotten — patients, nurses, staff. I remember feeding a young girl, perhaps seven years old. She spoke Spanish; I didn’t. She was blindfolded by bandages and couldn’t see.How could I tell her the cream of wheat I was about to feed her was hot? I pressed her finger against the bowl.She nodded. Now, each time I see Dr. Peter Rhee and the staff briefing the media on the condition of Congresswoman Giffords and the other victims, I can’t help but feel some pride that I was once part of the UMC family, however minor and briefly.
Sunday night, flipping from one news program to another, I happened upon Katie Couric introducing a segment involving an interview with someone from the U of A. I was thinking “can’t be anyone I’d know.” It’s a big school, and many years had passed. But as this face appeared on screen, I could feel areas of my brain, long dormant, sputtering to life, then flaring with a sense of recognition. Seconds before the voice-over introduced him or any caption appeared, I smiled and blurted out loud, “That’s Tom Volgy!,” recognizing the face of an old friend again, right there on my TV. He was one of my government professors. During one semester, perhaps my favorite class, we did a simulation of international relations, where the class played different roles. He played God — I was Jerry Ford.
Speaking of Jerry Ford, I read this morning about President Obama traveling to Tucson. Even that news brought back a memory, this one of opening my door one morning (again facing UMC), looking to the northwest horizon and seeing a 707 slowly transform into Air Force One as it got closer — the first time I’d ever seen Air Force One — on approach to Davis-Monthan Air Force Base … with the real Gerald Ford on board. The color and paint scheme, with the presidential seal, all sostately and dignified,the engines roaring — I still remember the chills it gave me. I can’t watch or read the coverage of this horrible event without some fond memory firing up.
No, I don’t actually know any of the victims in the Tucson shooting. Like most of you, I knew Congresswoman Giffords only as @ShuttleCDRKelly’s wife (which, I regret to admit I had to be reminded of — a genuine “OMG” moment). But I sure feel like I know these people. Tucson does that to you.As the husband of one victim at today’s medical briefing said, “That’s Tucson.” In fact, seeing so much of it on TV these past few days, I feel like I just left. They are good people, they did not deserve this, and they have all my love, respect, and prayers. I’m proud to say I was once one of them. If I’m lucky, perhaps, someday, maybe I’ll be again.