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A day full of tributes, flags and questions

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD,TAMARA LUSH, MELIA BOWIE and MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2002


TAMPA -- In his brand new dress shirt and clip-on tie, tiny Mason Washington, 5, stood on stage Wednesday at Joe Chillura Courthouse Square amid judges, politicians and military brass from MacDill Air Force Base.

TAMPA -- In his brand new dress shirt and clip-on tie, tiny Mason Washington, 5, stood on stage Wednesday at Joe Chillura Courthouse Square amid judges, politicians and military brass from MacDill Air Force Base.

The boy stepped forward, clapped his hand over his heart and said the 31 important words he had been practicing all week.

A year ago, Mason recited the Pledge of Allegiance at a memorial soon after the terrorist attacks. But he was a little intimidated by the crowd, spoke with his head lowered and stumbled over a word or two.

This time, when Donald Washington learned his son had been chosen to launch this year's downtown Sept. 11 ceremony with the pledge, he made sure the boy had it perfect. The elder Washington, an Air Force veteran, drilled him on the words 20 times a day.

The word "Republic" proved tough for the 5-year-old to pronounce. And he kept leaving out the preposition before "America."

"He was intent on saying "the America,' and I said, "No, no, no, of America," the father said. "I got that out of his system. He took it like a champion."

On Wednesday morning, Mason was too nervous to touch his breakfast of pancakes and waffles. His father gave him a haircut and discovered the boy had outgrown last year's dress shirt.

They picked up a new one at Wal-Mart on the way to the ceremony.

Standing on the stage before a crowd of hundreds, the boy looked around for his cue to speak. He found his dad in the crowd, giving him the thumbs-up.

He said all the words without a flaw, looking straight ahead.

Afterward, he needed a meal and a nap.

"He knows it backwards and forwards," said Donald Washington, 49. "I was so proud of him being up there."

Loud and proud for Sept. 11

Harley-Davidsons are quintessentially American machines. They are big. They are brash. They are loud.

So is Billy Riley.

He has five tattoos, including one that says "9-11-01 Never Forgotten." He has a big chest and a wicked grin. The portion of his chin directly under his bottom lip is graced by a small patch of hair, kind of like John Belushi's in The Blues Brothers.

Billy Riley is a Harley man.

After Sept. 11, Harley-Davidson decided to manufacture a special edition bike just for firefighters. They are red-orange Road Kings, accented with gold pinstripes and sleek chrome.

Riley, a 44-year-old captain with Hillsborough Fire Rescue Station 7 in Bloomingdale, had to have one. He sold his two Harley Sportsters and showed the salesman proof of his firefighter status.

He was the first firefighter in Hillsborough, possibly the first in Florida, to get one of the 2002 firefighter bikes.

Until Wednesday, he had only ridden solo. Braving the rain and the gray skies, Riley rode alongside 3,000 other bikers as a tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and as a fundraiser for the families of fallen local firefighters.

The bikes started at Tampa Harley-Davidson on N Dale Mabry Highway. They stopped traffic, shut down three-lane roads and made the pavement throb with throttle. They ended in downtown Tampa, at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Riley could have ridden his special bike at the front of the pack. But instead, he rode with the crew from his fire department.

"I figured it was only right," he said. "You spend more time with guys and gals at work than you do with your family. (Being a firefighter) is almost like going to summer camp every day."

Is it just cosmetic patriotism?

Robert Eldred spent Sept. 11, 2002, exactly where he spends every weekday: hawking newspapers on the Hillsborough County Courthouse steps, with a waist pouch full of coins and cheap cigarettes.

Not much has changed in his life since the terrorist attacks. The main difference: He lived in one Tampa homeless shelter then, and another one now. On a good seven-hour workday, he can pocket $15.

But Eldred, 45, says he would rather be poor in America than rich somewhere else. He can't watch a John Wayne movie without a spine-tingle of pride.

Still, on Wednesday, as he watched people pour up and down the courthouse steps in star-spangled hues, he somehow felt less patriotic than on a normal day. While the sidewalks were awash with fervor for the U.S., how much of it was cosmetic?

"I like the idea that as Americans we're pulling together instead of fighting each other," Eldred said, but added: "Tomorrow they'll be back in their normal clothes. Most of these people wouldn't be flying flags if it weren't a patriotic day. They're told to."

To Eldred, that's like buying your girlfriend roses only on Valentine's Day or praying only on Sunday. Plus, he said, "I've seen as many Bucs flags as I have American flags today. It doesn't make sense to me. Football's just a game. It doesn't give you food or shelter or protect you. But America does."

A day that shines through rain

The ladies of the GFWC Lutz-Land O' Lakes Woman's Club just told folks to be there. To drop by the old brick schoolhouse on U.S. 41 between 4 and 7 p.m. to wave a flag, smile at the cars and make the day a little brighter for someone.

No one counted how many trudged out in the rain to participate. But it was enough to crowd the sidewalks between Second and Fourth avenues with families, firefighters and sheriff's deputies, and that was plenty.

"I think for the most part people were dreading today; I know I was," said Sandi Loyd, 50, a postal worker who came with her 6-year-old grandson Jason Marrow.

The pair wore matching hats, patriotic shirts and beads. As they waved flags the rush-hour traffic honked loudly in appreciation.

Loyd refused to watch television Wednesday, or read special sections in the newspaper. Instead, she opted to go out and do something.

"On a community level this is important," she said, just as it is important for her grandson to understand what was lost and gained a year ago.

As anthems blared from a patrol car speaker, Jason offered up a spare flag to a passer-by and explained how next year he will paint his hair red, white and blue.

"Just like the flag," he said. "I want to look like the flag."

Students salute red, white and blue

The beige cafeteria at Grady Elementary School was filled with small hands waving hundreds of plastic versions of the red, white and blue.

The children -- clothed in patriotic clothing -- belted out the Pledge of Allegiance and the Preamble to the Constitution. Then they sang, "O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave ..."

They were absorbed by the celebration, including one kindergartner who came to school dressed as the Statue of Liberty with a big paper star strapped over her curls.

It was a sweet sight on a somber day that brought tears to the eyes of several teachers.

"You look beautiful," principal Fontaine Marion told her charges.

The children had gathered there, driven indoors by the downpour that soaked their plans to meet around the flag pole.

Marion told the children the rain was really tears, "crying on what happened last year."

During the program, fifth-grader Talanda Poole stood onstage with other members of the school's safety patrol and closed her eyes during a moment of silence.

After the terrorist attacks, the bright-eyed girl redecorated her animal-themed bedroom to red, white and blue. She hung up a poster of the twin towers "because I want people to know I'm sad."

On Wednesday, instead of one miniature flag, the 10-year-old carried two, one in each hand.

"I feel proud of my country," she said.

Three students recited essays, including 9-year-old Jonathan Colon, who wrote one titled "America Remembers!"

"I don't understand why they did this to us," he said, peeking over the podium at his classmates below, "but I do know that the world suffered.

"We will never forget this day."

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