An Outsider's View
When I moved to Oklahoma in June of last year, I moved for a change of location. It didn't really matter where I moved, just that I moved from where I was in Southern Illinois.
Having graduated from the local university within the previous year, my husband, Mark, and I were stuck in a small college town where it seemed everyone had a college degree, but few had a job to show for it. There was little money for relocation to a better area. Anywhere would work, and in late May we found our way out.
Mark decided to rejoin the Air Force. He had served eight years prior to getting out to go to college, where we met in 1996. By mid-June, we moved from Illinois to our new home: Tinker Air Force Base -- just outside of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
When we found out exactly where we were moving, my first vague thought was probably: Oklahoma? What's in Oklahoma? Then all I could remember thinking was that's where they had that bombing. The bombing had happened five years earlier. I still remember the news reports from that night.
I was twenty and in college. Returning from a long day in the computer lab, I had gone to visit my mother who was staying at a friend's house while recovering from surgery. Everything was quiet as I entered house; their eyes fixed on the television screen. As I asked what they were watching, they pointed to the screen, and I soon found myself just as enthralled with the news report.
The shattered building, the emergency crews, the injured, the mourners and the police sketch of the initial three suspects. A Ryder truck, explosives and 168 people: it was an inconceivable tragedy. Five years later, I still remember that night vividly.
As we arrived in Oklahoma City I saw the signs marking the direction to the memorial, but it was six weeks before our first visit late one night. After spending several weeks apartment hunting and settling in, we decided to take our first real trip downtown. We had no idea where the memorial was. We traveled down Reno Ave, past Bricktown before turning on a side street. It was then the lights seized our attention.
It was a hot summer night in OKC. It was approaching 9 p.m., humid and nearly dusk, yet people lined this fence that ran along the sidewalk. The once plain, chain-linked fence was adorned with pictures, drawings, teddy bears, and flower wreaths.
As we read the words above the fence there was no doubt as to where we were:
We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever. May all who leave here know the impact of violence! May this memorial offer comfort, peace, hope and serenity!
Nothing could have prepared us for what we would see that night. We parked in the post office parking lot just across the street. As we walked towards the memorial, our attention moved to a lighted white statue just across the street. The figure, with its back towards the memorial, was Jesus. The statue, "And Jesus Wept," is both a remembrance of the destroyed parish house, which once stood on the same corner and of those whose lives were lost in the bombing. The statue faces a granite wall that represents all of those whose lives were changed that day.
After we crossed the street and walked past the fence, we entered the western gate of the memorial. Two Gates of Time enclose the memorial: the eastern Gate of Time reads 9:01; the western Gate of Time reads 9:03. Between them lies the reflecting pool where 5th street once was. Both the gates and reflecting pool bear witness to the horror that occurred at 9:02 a.m. April 19, 1995.
Just off from the reflecting pool lies a startling reminder of the devastation: a field of 168 empty chairs where the Alfred P. Murrah Building once stood. The chairs stand in nine rows, representing the floors where each person was when they were killed. Made of bronze and stone, each chair bears the name of a victim on its clear base. At night, these clear bases glow in remembrance.
Nineteen children died in the blast. The smaller chairs in the field remind us of their loss. Most were in the building's day care center that morning.
Walking past the field, the teddy bears and dolls resting on the chairs seize you the most. So young, innocent, and gone so quickly. You look around and see a bigger chair, a shared last name and some flowers, and wonder how you would cope if two members of your family were suddenly gone.
You remember hearing of a nineteen-year-old who died in the blast, who was born just a year earlier than you. You remember that she had married just four days prior to the bombing. On April 19th, she visited the Murrah Federal Building to do a name change with the Social Security Administration. So young, life was just starting. Everything was ahead of her.
Much of what you do each time you visit is think silently to yourself. What words you could utter would not express the confusion you feel within. The questions of how and why don't have a clear answer. You try to look at the full field, but it is too much to see in one glance: too many victims and all the anger of one person.
You think of all the destruction and you walk around the memorial to find the Survivor Tree, just opposite of the field of chairs. An American Elm, this tree survived the blast and was found amongst a parking lot of burning cars: a testament that even in tragedy, survival and healing can prevail over unjustified human terror.
I've lived in the Oklahoma City area for almost a year now, and now that I am more familiar with the area, I must say I am ashamed that the first thing that came to my mind when I heard of Oklahoma City was the bombing.
On President's Day this year, I attended the opening ceremony in which President George W. Bush spoke for the new memorial museum. Although it was a ceremony for the opening of an anti-terrorism museum that would open next to the existing memorial, hope, healing and the future, no violence prevailed in the words uttered at the dedication.
To hear the Oklahomans sing the closing anthem of the ceremony 'To Remember' you cannot help but feel the pride and perseverance of a people that will not let tragedy consume them. Their strength I admire. Their hopes for the future inspire. This is the Oklahoma I wish I had known, not the tragedy that occurred there several years earlier.
All photographs Copyright © M. E. Schmitt. 2001.
As the adage goes, if we forget history, we are destined to repeat it. This memorial is a poignant reminder of a tragedy that never should have happened. Although the memory is painful, we must not forget, so that we may all make the effort to prevent a similar occurance in the future.