The first time I came to this great state was in September 2001. The first time I came to Denver was to visit the airport on 10 September 2001. The 18th African Children’s Choir were set to fly back to West Africa, via Belfast and Choir 19 (that I was chaperoning) met up with them to hand over some equipment and say goodbye. We had a concert that evening in Colorado Springs but went with the choir to say goodbye.
A month before we had been in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I had stayed with a wonderful host family, a brother and sister, and one morning I awoke to see a sky full of 750 hot air balloons, as the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta got under way.
As always we were performing a concert in a local church, and I always made a point of helping the local sound engineers out with tuning, repairs and set up – most are volunteers and always appreciated the help. This time I struck gold, as the engineer was actually a registered flight instructor and a jumbo pilot for one of the major airlines. Before I knew it I was in the cockpit of a Cessna flying over the New Mexico plains. I often repeat this story to young people as being mostly blind in one eye I can ‘never be an airplane pilot’, but on that day in 2001 I was just that.
A month later though, I was standing at the gate waving goodbye to Choir 18. Airports in America were no different to bus stations, it was so different to Heathrow or UK airports were we lived under the shadow of the IRA bombings. It was friendly and fun.
Choir 18’s flight was just past the point of no return when the planes hit the Twin Towers, so they weren’t turned around and made it to Belfast.
The next few weeks in Colorado will remain with me for ever. I couldn’t go a night without a host family asking me why ‘everyone hated America so much’. It was a country waking up to the idea that they weren’t universally loved, that there were people out there that would do them harm, and like most people there initial reaction was horror and a genuine fear that meant they had no concept of the scale of the issue. The next attack could come at any second, they were in a war they don’t remember entering. In 2001 you would rarely see any news about the world outside the US, by October that all changed. The conversations I had were haunting, painful, people were genuinely scared.
During that time, I fell in love with Colorado, and when we left to continue our tour in Utah, the memories of those conversations and the place stuck with me. A beautiful state, with beautiful people.
Ten years later, I was in a completely different life. Instead of a volunteer sound engineer with the African Children’s Choir, I was Chief Executive of Web Applications UK – a rapidly growing IT company expanding into the US. When the question came as to where we would base our new head office, Colorado was always going to be first choice. We came out in May 2011 and stayed in Colorado Springs for the first time since that 2001 trip, and I fell in love with the state once again.
Today we’re back signing paperwork and preparing the final steps of launching Web Applications US. It’s and arduous complex process, countries don’t make it as easy as possible for foreigners to form businesses and create jobs. Vivienne and I are staying in Denver for the first time since I was here with the Choir. Late last night a young man walked into a midnight premier of “The Dark Knight Rises” and shot and injured seventy men, women and children, twelve of them died, and a number remain in critical condition as I write. The cinema is just down the road from where we’re staying, and once again I find myself in the heart of a community struggling to come to terms with inexplicable tragedy.
A lot is being said about gun control and second amendment rights. The media is obsessed with the gunman and his potential motives and wild stories are flying around. The scale of the tragedy is growing with each fresh announcement, and people are reeling. I’ll leave those conversations for others, instead I want to focus on the two things that made me fall in love with Colorado all those years ago. The people and the place.
The Coloradoan spirit is indomitable, they will reel, they will mourn, they will grieve, but they will ultimately survive. The night of the tragedy I was in Parker meeting with members of the Parker Chamber of Commerce. We wanted to meet business men and women from the town to get a sense of the spirit of the place. Web Applications UK is committed to Oldham and it’s local community, it defines the kind of business we want to be. For Web Applications US we want to ensure that same anchor to the local community exists.
The people I found weren’t suspicious, unfriendly, wary. They were warm, welcoming and kind. For a state and a community that has lived through Columbine, September 11 and now the Aurora Shooting, I have no doubt that the people will remain true to themselves and to their spirit.
Finally, I fell in love with the place. The beautiful Rockies, the lakes, rivers and streams, the rolling hills and grasslands; Colorado is one of the most beautiful places in the entire world. No crazed gunman will ever change that. When Web Applications US finally opens shop fully, it will have a beautiful home and employ beautiful people.