September 30, 2014
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The power of place
John Howell
EXACTLY 100 INCHES: Welder Paul Pelletier created the railing to the memorial. When he was finished, he measured the handrail and, to his amazement, it measured exactly 100 inches. One hundred died in the fire the memorial remembers.

As soon as the phone vibrated, I knew it was Jody with another update.

“I had to call,” he said breathlessly. “You’re not going to believe this, you have got to see this,” he said without pausing.

I was about to hear another moment of triumph. There have been a lot of them since ground was broken for the Warwick Station Nightclub Memorial about a month ago.

At the time, the schedule to have the memorial completed for a dedication Saturday seemed monumental, if not impossible. So much had to be done; so many pieces had to come together and so little time to do it.

So much could go wrong, too, from the lack of manpower and materials to the weather that put a stop to the project.

By last Monday, Jody was breathing easier, and so were architect Harvey Wagner and project manager Scott Small who literally spent every day of the prior three weeks at the site on Veterans Memorial Drive. Jody King’s dream for a park in memory of his brother Tracy and the nine other Warwick residents who died in the Station Nightclub fire was close to becoming reality.

What was left were the finishing touches, although installing flagpoles, sod, six stone benches and the tablet that is the centerpiece were not inconsequential. The arduous chore of grading the site, pouring the cement walkways, installing 1,700 bricks, tree plantings and replacing a crumbling asphalt sidewalk had all been completed. It was going to happen, even though from the forecasts Friday would be a washout and a lost day.

“I’m on my way there, do you want me to stop and pick you up?” Jody continued.

“You’re not going to believe this,” he repeated.

The timing wasn’t going to work, so I begged off, saying I would get to see the hand railings at the site. These were no ordinary wrought iron railings, but ones fabricated by Paul Pelletier. Like so much that has gone into the memorial, Paul wouldn’t charge for work or materials. When it came time to settle up, Paul extended his hand and, with a shake, said it was taken care of.

That alone was enough to have Jody excited. The work is remarkable. A leafed vine weaves beneath the railing that incorporates 2003, the year of the fire, with doves, butterflies and dragonflies. When it was completed, Jody asked if I knew of anyone who could airbrush the work to bring color and life to it. I didn’t. Jody wasn’t deterred. I don’t know how the connection was made, but he ended up at Joe’s Towing, where he spotted the motorcycle artwork of Tom Long.

With the help of former Governor Donald Carcieri and a tape measure at Saturday’s dedication, Paul measured the railing for the record; the material was 100 inches.

“It’s exactly 100 inches; not one centimeter more or less,” Jody said. The connection to the 100 who died on February 20, 2003 was apparent.

It hadn’t been planned. It just happened. So much of the memorial has been guided by circumstance, although that doesn’t adequately describe the feat. There is no mistaking the generosity and willingness of so many to help. That was an incredible outpouring and by itself is a testament to community caring and solidarity. It’s an inspiration.

I found myself thinking of the unplanned elements and consequences of a dream that galvanized so many at Saturday’s dedication.

The site was not Jody’s first choice. He hoped for a place overlooking the Bay. That would have offered solitude but, on reflection, as the traffic circled Apponaug and jets from Green interrupted the ceremony, there could be no better place. It is the site of the former fire memorial, which has been relocated across the street when the new fire Station 1 was built. The memorial is in the midst of life – the city heartbeat – and yet a place for reflection. Should we not be reminded of the loss of so many? Even if just a casual glance getting into the proper lane for Dunkin’ Donuts, or make a right turn at the Four Corners?

Harvey hadn’t planned it, because initially the memorial was designed to remember the 10 Warwick victims, but as it turned out, the circular plaza he designed exactly incorporated 100 eight-by-eight bricks with the names of all 100. It just happened that way.

I found myself in that circle Saturday, surrounded by people I know and people I met and by the names of 100 people I will never meet in this life. The only exception was Tracy, who I met on several occasions.

There is a power of place and it usually is where life-changing events have occurred. They can be individually meaningful, such as the place where you proposed, or where a significant battle or tragedy occurred. Obviously this is not the site of the Station Nightclub. There will be a memorial there someday and it will have a unique feeling.

The power here is in life. Stop on your way through Apponaug. It’s not much time. Walk up the steps, look at the railing, look at the names and the pictures of the victims etched in the tablet created by Anthony Scioto and Anthony Jr., and as you are standing there. Think of how you are surrounded by the names of so many more. They, like you, are present here in the midst of life and yet they aren’t – it’s a feeling you won’t forget.


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