Monday, April 19, 2010

Remembering the Oklahoma City Bombing

Fifteen years have passed, but memories of April 19, 1995 remain vivid in my mind. Thoughts swirl through my head, making it difficult to verbalize.


On that day I was substitute teaching at an Oklahoma City middle school three miles from the bomb site. Teachers were in their classrooms, preparing for the day. The blast literally shook the building; it felt like being in an earthquake, but the noise told me it was something else.


I didn’t get much information about what had happened until after school. My route home took me near the site. I listened as radio newscasters described the horrors. Sirens filled the air. I remember thinking “Why would anyone do this to my city?”


Later that afternoon, I learned that my husband had been at the site within minutes of the bombing. He happened to be looking out the window from his office at the state capital complex when the bomb exploded. As a Viet Nam veteran, he knew instantly that it was a bomb, and as a geographer with a strong sense of place, he knew it was near the Journal Record building, where his agency had employees. He and a coworker rushed to the Journal Record building (next to the Murrah building) to check on them. I remember that his shoes were soaked with blood and cut to shreds by all the glass he walked over.


Around six o’clock I got a call from the nursing home where my mother had been recovering from a broken hip. She had refractured her hip and staff members were sending her to the hospital by ambulance. I spent hours that evening in the hospital emergency room, trying to comfort my mother, who suffered from dementia. Medical personnel were far too busy dealing with bombing victims to do much for her, of course, so my recollections of that day are tied to my personal nightmare of dealing with a frightened and hurting elderly mother.


I knew only one of the 168 people who died, but in the days that followed, Oklahoma City seemed like a small town as it became clear how we are all connected. I discovered that I was only one person away from most of the victims. Everyone I knew lost someone that day.


I’ve often thought about the coincidences that made a difference as to who died and who escaped on that day. My husband had been scheduled for a meeting in the Journal Record building that day, but the participants managed to finish their business the night before, so the meeting was canceled. A friend was late to work, and arrived after the bomb had exploded. My daughter-in-law’s father worked in the Murrah building but had been elsewhere that day.


Then there are the uncounted victims, the people who survived but whose lives were shattered. My friend’s husband, a police officer who carried dead babies out of the building, was so traumatized that he never recovered. Unable to be around his family, he filed for divorce within a year. Stories of people who turned to drugs or alcohol abound. Some chose suicide to escape the pain.


The day after the bombing, I took a dozen newspapers to school. All day long, my classroom was silent as middle school children devoured them. I remember that Oklahoma City Public Schools received thousands of letters, cards, and drawings from school children across the country; students and teachers spent hours responding to them. I remember pages and pages of obituaries in The Daily Oklahoman. I remember that it rained for days, and that motorists drove through the streets with their lights on, to honor the victims. I remember feeling so proud of my state and the way its citizens pulled together.


Today, fifteen years later, I am surprised at how hard it has been to write this. I did not suffer nearly as much as many people in Oklahoma City, but the painful memories of that day remain.


I’ve been saddened and even frightened lately by the widespread lack of civility among Americans who disagree. Even on facebook, sometimes people I know and love post such strong words of anger and hatred that it startles me. Many in our society seem to believe that character assassination and threats are acceptable. They appear to think that disagreement with government officials and policies justifies drastic action.


In an interview today, Bill Clinton talked about taking “responsibility for the possible consequences of what we say.” “The words we use really do matter,” he said, pointing out that the “unhinged” can be affected by them.


Fifteen years ago an unhinged man thought his anti-government beliefs justified killing innocent people. Because of Timothy McVeigh’s actions, the people of my city are forever changed. I hope to God that no other city has to experience domestic violence anything like April 19, 1995 in Oklahoma City.


Joan said...

Well said...

Oklahoma Granny said...

I've relived the bombing many times today through the local news coverage of the anniversary, a short post that I made (there weren't enough words to express everything that I felt back then or today) and reading several other Oklahoman's posts. With each and every blog post the goosebumps have covered my body and tears come to my eyes. Such a terrible event in, not only Oklahoma's history, but our country's history. Probably the hardest of all are the children that were killed or who lost a parent or sibling. I pray for each and every one that was directly affected by that day.

Gayleen said...

Your post made me cry thinking about the ripple effect of the violence.
You are so right, words do matter. Spreading hate and calling for radical action is a dangerous path and I applaud you for making such an eloquent statement about the devastating effects it can have.

Kent Anderson said...

Jeannie, this is a brilliantly eloquent statement. You put into words a lot of things that I could not. Thanks.

tammi said...

Powerful post, Jeannie.

drlobojo said...

Memories of the aftermath: I really loved those damn Hush Puppy shoes I wore that day. I also love that M.C. Escher tie I was wearing. Of course I threw the shoes away that same afternoon but not before I and others tracked the blood into my VW bus.
Even after washing the bus's rug I had to let it air out for a couple of weeks to get the death stench out of it. Never have bought another pair of Hush Puppies.

The tie I still have. It is in an album with photos of our offices after the bombing. I can't wear it any more.