Tuesday, August 24, 2004

The Founder

originally posted in Arizona Daily Star by Carmen Duarte on August 24, 2004

Richard A. Lopez does not want people to forget Sept. 11, 2001. That's why the Northwest Side resident has turned his 1975 Chevrolet Nova into an artistic memorial and plans to display it at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on Sept. 11. It will be Lopez's second trip with the Nova to the Tomb of the Unknowns to commemorate those who died during the terrorist attacks.

This trip also has additional meaning to Lopez, 53, a material handler at Raytheon Missile Systems.

Lopez will commemorate the death of his father, Frank Romero Lopez, a veteran of World War II and of the Korean War. The elder Lopez died July 11. "My dad loved this country and he taught me to love it, too," Richard said.

He said the "love and respect for the United States of America" is portrayed in images on the car, which he uses as a teaching tool for children through his nonprofit group Children's Second Chance. Lopez founded the organization to combat substance abuse among youth and used the Nova - covered with murals — to get his message out at schools.

Today, through the work of airbrush artists Fred Spargo, Jaime Rodriguez, Paul Collins and Nancy Garcia, events of Sept. 11, 2001 and after have been captured on the car's hood, side panels and trunk. Lopez said he describes the images and the artists respond — doing research and painting his thoughts.

There are vivid scenes that evoke emotion. The smoking towers of the World Trade Center in Manhattan are painted on the front fender on the driver's side. A flag-draped coffin on a rear fender represents many coffins carrying loved ones crushed within the mortar, bricks and steel columns of collapsed buildings. Firefighters salute and fight back tears at funerals. Two steel beams form a cross standing tall at Ground Zero.

Last week, at Arizona Fleet Rebuilders, 530 N. Seventh Ave., co-owner Mark Cleveland donated touch-up work on the car, putting on a coating to protect the murals. "I think this work is tremendous and it helps us not to forget," said Cleveland, 63.

Cleveland's son David, 25, added: "I remember when the attacks first happened, people were driving around with flags on their cars, and now the flags are gone. People need to remember."

Lopez said he cannot forget. He said he learned about patriotism from his father, who died at age 83."My father was a bartender and boxer. He was born in Hayden and enlisted in the Army during World War II," Lopez said.

Lopez's father was a foot soldier in the Philippines and survived a bullet that went through his helmet, a fragment lodging in his neck. Frank Romero Lopez received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.

During the Korean War, Lopez's father enlisted again — this time in the Marines.

Lopez said he didn't really get close to his dad until the last four years of his dad's life. They reconnected in 2000. "My father left the family when I was 9. I didn't understand many things until we reunited and he shared stories about the death he saw in war and how it changed him," Lopez said.

Lopez learned that his father's arms and mind had gone through too much. During combat, he cradled soldiers who died in his arms. Back at home, he held a 6-month-old son, "Little Ray," who died in his arms in the late 1940s. This, explained Lopez, turned his father into a cold man who spent much of his life wandering, resulting in a lifetime without getting to know his living son.

But Lopez said he got a chance to understand his father, and they made their peace.

He said he will honor his father at Arlington National Cemetery when he commemorates those who died during the 9/11 attacks three years ago. He also will remember and pray for the fallen soldiers in Iraq, those who are coming home without limbs or are burned and disfigured.

Lopez said he will pray for those who remain in Iraq - in a war that he believes his necessary.

"Freedom is not free," said Lopez. "We all pay a price, and some pay with their lives."