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The March of Time

Tick, tick, tick, tick. . . .

Time marked off the seconds and the seconds became minutes, and the minutes became hours and the hours became months.

And what had been the mystical dawn of a new millennium has, drained of its magic, become just another fading tick on a cosmic clock. The year 2000. Easy come, easy go.

No monumental disaster marked the coming of the new century. A predicted doomsday failed to materialize. Computers didn’t simultaneously crash. There were no food riots. The world didn’t end.

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We bumbled along as always, dealing with the inadequacies, laughing at our idiosyncrasies, pondering the inconsistencies, crying at the calamities.

The presidential election had all of those. We saw votes counted, miscounted, recounted and uncounted, lawyers leaping like gazelles from docket to docket, and the whole thing finally ending in uneasy compliance.

In L.A., we grabbed what glory we could. We saw the janitors march and win, and the Lakers play and win. We saw a subway system move achingly forward. And we saw a confident Al Gore accept his party’s nomination when hope was still an arena of balloons and marching music.

But we also saw thugs in the streets mar the Lakers’ championship celebrations and protests surround the DNC. We saw windows break and police truncheons swing. We heard music and we heard sirens. And time passed. . . .

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Tick, tick, tick. . . .

*

And then there was Rampart.

The corruption scandal within the department unfolded like an evening of bad theater. What began with a crooked cop trying to save his own skin ballooned into massive investigations and bitter soul-searching.

Rafael Perez pointed his finger at about 70 so-called dirty cops, and details emerged of a disgrace that would further taint an already burdened Police Department.

The melodrama continued through the disquieting year and still plays on. Four cops went to trial, three were found guilty of corruption. But only weeks later, as the clock ticked down the hours, their convictions were overturned.

For Police Chief Bernard Parks, 2000 was a time of despair. Already humiliated by the Rampart scandal, he faced challenges in the streets during both the Lakers’ victory celebrations and the Democratic National Convention.

And while he struggled with crowds and protests, the murder rate climbed an alarming 25% in the city, reversing a downward trend. A symbol of the rising violence came in the person of the chief’s bright 20-year-old granddaughter, Lori Gonzalez, who was shot to death while sitting in a car with a friend.

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“It is,” said a saddened chief, “a very dangerous time.”

Tick, tick, tick, tick. . . .

*

Tragedy is never a small thing. Grief shrieks for attention, for atonement, for answers. The death of one person can end a world for someone. A wife dies. A father. A brother. A sister.

And when many die at once, many worlds end.

It was that way in the early evening of January 31st, just as the sun was setting in streams of color that set the sky afire. The shimmery reds and golds and glowing oranges were God’s final gift to 88 people whose lives ended on a trip from Puerto Vallarta to infinity.

They were aboard Alaska Airlines Flight 261 that fell from the iridescent sky like a wounded bird and plunged into the ocean off the Ventura County coast. All aboard were lost, apparent victims of a small chunk of metal called a jackscrew.

Of all the events in the year 2000, that one affected me most. I have seen and reported other plane crashes and I was miles away from this one when it occurred. But what linked me to it was that sunset.

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I had stopped on a mountaintop out of Riverside to marvel at the colors splashed across the horizon at the precise moment, I learned later, that Flight 261 had gone down with 88 aboard. We had shared a sunset. Mine for a moment, theirs for eternity.

That will stay with me for all the tomorrows that time allows. It was my story of the year.

Tick, tick, tick, tick. . . .

*

Al Martinez’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. He can be reached online at al.martinez@latimes.com


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