Friday, August 1, 2008
Etched in steel
I am not a fan of the comments section of the Tray Press website. I find it is mostly made up of cowards afraid to use their real names and those who have no other purpose in life than to berate, harass and belittle other people for their own sick pleasures. Most of them pretend to be experts on anything and everything and I doubt if they have any real knowledge of any topic they spout upon.
Most of the stories they comment on I do not care about but a recent posting has troubled me. I was sickened to see the comments regarding the pole that was involved in a fatal accident being donated as a memorial to the Tracy School District. A steel light pole, cold and indifferent has been etched into so many hearts and minds that it seems a natural choice to make it a memorial to that terrible night. But the comments, those all “all-knowing” experts have decried the idea and lash out on tirades of teen driving. What experts of nothing, they don’t know anything. They weren’t there.
I was not there the night the car carrying Mike Ucci crashed into the pole and that is fine by me. In the 17 years I have worked as a photojournalist I have seen my fair share of fatal accident. I have lost count of the dead, the names slip by me but I remember the images. Twisted metal, suffering, grief. Those scenes playback in my mind at night sometimes like some sick slideshow that I can’t turn off. I have watched people die by the side of the road, I have seen their families agonize at their loss. I sometimes think I have seen too much of it.
A young man dies, his friends critically hurt. A city mourns. I did not see the accident but I saw the suffering the next day and in the weeks and months to come. And in the midst of all the grief and sorrow a rallying point for their despair emerged. Of all the unlikely things to hang their hearts upon they chose the light pole the car crashed into. Scarred and unbent the pole became a focus not of their anger but of their love and friendship to Mike Ucci.
Mike’s father Ken once said he didn’t want his son’s legacy to be a pole in front of the school. I don’t think it ever could be. A man young or old is remembered for his actions, how he lived his life not how it ended. In visits to the school I learned much about Mike, a friend to many a beloved son taken too soon.
I am amazed how the comments strive to vilify people. These “experts” shout their anger at teen drivers and their dangerous ways. I remember many of the fatal accidents I shot through the years. A drunken middle-aged man with his family in a van crossed the centerline and killed a young driver. An armored car driver crossing the median on I-205 killing another driver. A pair of women with their babies straying into the shoulder on a country road, overcorrecting and rolling over ejecting both adults from the car killing them. Fatalities are not limited to the young. Mistakes on the road affect all ages behind the wheel.
These commentaries say that the idea of the pole as a shrine to the accident is wrong. All they can do is criticize and condemn the victim and the driver. The problem is they weren’t there the next day. The next day found dozens of students and friends making the sorrowful visit to the pole to remember their friend and classmate. I would have thought most people would not want to see it and have anger for the piece of steel. It is hard to describe but it is almost like they had to go to the last place Mike was, where he left us. And they poured their hearts out there. They wept, they embraced, and they sought comfort and solace at the base of the pole. Slowly messages to Mike began appearing on the pole. Soon it was covered with goodbyes and messages of hope and promises of friendship everlasting. Looking back in the midst of so much pain and despair it was the first step of healing.
The pole served as the center of a candlelight vigil where the community came together to grieve as one. I still struggle with sights of that night they are added to the list of images I wish to forget but never will be able too. I know I am a different man from that night. I think many of us changed that night. Some in the crowd were forced to grow up a little sooner than they thought. Others were tested to find a strength inside themselves they didn’t know existed. And through it all young and old gathered around that pole to reflect and remember.
I don’t think of it as a shrine, nor a monument. It is a reminder to those of us who gathered that day about the frailty of life, the strength of friendship and the power of a community to come together in a time of sorrow. It is a memory etched in steel that we can still rally around in our times of despair lest we forget the life of one man.