Paint and Pain

Four years later, "A" Mountain's repainting remains an open wound

In frontier days, "A" Mountain--aka Sentinel Peak--was a lookout post for fretful settlers. Later, it was a hookup hub for lusty teens. And in 2003, this scruffy mountain became a proxy battleground over the unfolding Iraq war.

In stealth, anti-war guerillas painted the traditionally white "A" a sullen black. But boosters of patriotism eventually prevailed, and the giant "A" was soon coated in the colors of Old Glory, via a unanimous vote by the Tucson City Council. Donated paint, volunteer sweat and loads of breast-beating were orchestrated by broadcasting giant Clear Channel.

Among the paint job's biggest cheerleaders was Rich Berra, co-host of KRQ FM 93.7's Johnjay and Rich show. "We are the keepers of the red, white and blue flame, so to speak," Berra told the Tucson Citizen. "We will make sure the A is kept up and looking real nice."

That was a good thing, too, since the City Council resolution required that maintaining the "A" was to be a purely volunteer gig.

Four years later, the war in Iraq drags on. Meanwhile, all those volunteer patriots seem to have vanished. To find out where they went, we left several messages with Nikki Van Doran, marketing director for Clear Channel. Unfortunately, we couldn't track her down, either.

Instead, these days, taxpayers shell out a few thousand bucks annually to maintain the multi-hued "A." And four years after it became a symbol of division over the war, that fact salts a bitter wound.

"It outrages me," says peace activist Bill Moeller, who can glimpse "A" Mountain from his downtown home. "Four years have passed, and the attitude toward this war has changed. The city is spending city money--our tax dollars--supporting an illegal and murderous war."

Fred Ronstadt sees it differently. He's a former Ward 6 councilman who was knee-deep in the repainting movement. And he says it was just meant to honor the military. "Obviously, there was a lot of rhetoric at the time. But I always try to stay on the point that this is about supporting the troops. I hope that's what is recalled and thought about."

However, growing ambivalence about the Iraq war seems to be taking a toll on other patriotic "A" supporters. For example, neither Mayor Bob Walkup nor Ward 1 Councilman José Ibarra--both of whom voted for the paint job--returned repeated phone calls from the Tucson Weekly. Fortunately, we were able to get Councilman Ibarra's viewpoint on "A" Mountain from his downtown offices (see photo).

Still, the question remains: Why has "A" Mountain remained the focus of conflict? To find out, we contacted Carolyn Marvin. She teaches national symbolism at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication.

"I'm not surprised the struggle over ("A" Mountain) is intense," Dr. Marvin writes in an e-mail to the Tucson Weekly. "The fight here is about who has the best symbol for displaying the 'right' set of public community values--no trivial issues to the folks involved."

She calls our "A" a vent for shackled frustration. "There have been few ways in this conflict for people to publicly signal their views. So when an arena ... that already means something to folks opens up, it becomes invested with all the pent-up feelings that people have had, and not much been able to express except to their immediate friends."

It's also about tensions particular to Tucson, where a college campus and a military base rub shoulders. Colors of the flag "become a negotiated symbol, and such symbols become flashpoints," says Dr. Jan Leighley, a UA political science professor. "Clearly, it ties into patriotism and this community. Here, you also have a more liberal community, with a somewhat diverse (UA) student body, all within a conservative, broader state context."

That's a big load for "A" Mountain to bear. And deep into this unpopular war, many are wondering whether it's an undue burden. Among them is George Miller, the former Tucson mayor; he later joined peace protests against the Iraq invasion. "I think the council got carried away because of Sept. 11," he says.

His wife agrees. "When it was first painted red, white and blue, I immediately thought of all the people who wrap themselves in the flag," says Roslyn Miller. "And that's supposed to symbolize that they're holier and more patriotic than thou. But that's not the kind of patriotism that I understand."

It's high time for another look at "A" Mountain, she says, "in the light of what we know about the Iraq war, and the way things are now. The 'A' doesn't have anything to do with the fact that our kids are dying over there and not being supported by our president. He should bring them home."

To Ronstadt, however, supporting our troops remains foremost until they return for good. "One of the things that struck me then, and strikes me still, is that airmen flying in and out of Tucson ... that's one of the first things they see when they're leaving or coming home."

"Should it change? I think the council is ultimately going to have to make that decision, based on what they hear from the community," he says. "My wish is that it would stay as it is."

But Moeller couldn't disagree more. "Everybody was riled up, and Sept. 11 was still fresh in our memories," he says. "Everybody wanted red, white and blue. But things have changed since then. Four years have passed, and the attitude towards this war has changed."

Meanwhile, Ward 5 Councilman Steve Leal--a repainting supporter--wants to avoid another nasty tussle over the mountain. "If people say it should go back to whatever color it was, then of course the other side will come out and repaint it. And then the first side will come back and repaint it again. And then we really will be spending a lot of money.

"I've got better things to do than get sucked into some symbolic drama here," he says. "It's going to be like the trench warfare at Verdun," considered the longest battle of World War I. "The right comes out, and then the left comes out, and then none of us are paying attention to anything that matters. We're involved in this symbolism."

But in the end, symbols do matter. And so does "A" Mountain, so long as it reflects simmering conflict over a souring and costly war.

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