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A perfect Tuscon day clouded by tragedy

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Saturday was one of those sterling Tucson days that warms one to the core. Still. Sixty-five. Perfectly clear and sunny. 

To take advantage, I drove up to the Rillito River, which is dry all but a few days per year, to walk the landscaped trails on the river bank. 

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The streets were quiet. The ten minute drive only took five. 

A perfect Tucson winter day can be cool in the shade. The air is dry and thin. 

But where the Tucson sun shines, it doesn't just shine: it reaches down with a big warm hand and strokes your head. 

Like a lazy old cat, I close my eyes in the Tucson sun and slowly twist my head in circles to make sure the sun scratches all the spots. 

While unwisely basking and walking, I often bump into a low-bent limb of a gnarled mesquite tree.

No head bump on this walk. 

But when I arrived home, content as a plump cactus, I found out why Tucson's streets were as empty Saturday as they are on Super Bowl Sunday. 

Five miles north of my idyllic walk, a deranged kid killed six people and injured nearly a dozen, including popular Tucson Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. 

Tucson residents were off the streets, in shock and glued to the TV.

Still dressed in running shorts and a t-shirt, I walked across the University of Arizona campus to the University Medical Center, where most of the injured had been transported. 

It struck me as impossible that such a tragedy would happen under such perfect skies, in such perfect weather, in such a mild setting. Who wouldn't be happy? 

On the walk to the hospital, the back streets were silent. The sun still stroked my head. The killings seemed unreal, an affront to the beautiful day.  

Around the hospital, cops stood everywhere, directing traffic and telling people where to go. Without exception, they were kind, friendly and subdued. 

News crews set up on the little patches of irrigated grass. The pretty talking heads rehearsed their lines, tweaked their make-up, adjusted their ties. 

On a concrete veranda, the more grizzled print journalists quizzed shaken aides to Congresswoman Giffords. 

Sad groups came and went. People hugged and cried. I wondered who of the slain or injured they knew and how. 

Minor politicians from both parties lingered, hands in pockets, clearly angling for interviews. Some seemed a little too jovial for the occasion, and I was briefly offended.

But after a while I realized politicians are the sort of people who respond to stress with joviality. An attempted assassination is apparently no exception. Not very deep down, they were upset, too. 

I walked back to the apartment, ruminating on the loss of life and how this tragedy in sunny Tucson would cast a black cloud over the entire country. 

That evening, several of us from the neighborhood walked back to the hospital to attend the candlelight vigil. Bearing two bags of jar candles, we trekked a mile through abandoned campus courtyards to the cavernous U-shaped courtyard outside the hospital entrance. 

Several hundred people had gathered. Somebody had set up a tinny little sound system. People sang spontaneously. Others delivered makeshift speeches of varying appropriateness. People hugged. 

There was no evident rage. 

The klieg lamps of the television crews overwhelmed the gentle light of the candles. 

The pretty talking TV heads angled for anger amongst the crowd. At times they dredged a little up. But it took effort. 

The ornamental patch of irrigated grass squished and sunk with every step. It wasn't designed to support a vigil. 

Several in the crowd decided they knew which window was Congresswoman Gabby's. They pointed and shouted up, "Get well, Gabby, get well!" 

The heartbreaking shouts echoed between the high concrete stories of the hospital complex. 

The vigil was a classic Tucson gathering: Scruffy, diverse, warm, accepting, eccentric, irreverent, spontaneous and at times a little bit weird. 

Gospel hymns sung by trained choristers alternated with pagan blessings by bearded elves and multi-shawled earth women. 

James Taylor's "Shower the People" was followed by "Precious Lord, Take my Hand." 

After an hour, our group left. We had paid our respects. We felt a bit better. 

We stopped at a neighborhood saloon for a few rounds of pool, a good way to wind down and feel a little more normal.

It was a Tucson way to end a senseless and tragic day. 

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