Monday, April 19, 2010

OKC: 15 years later

I always thought it was a little strange when older people spoke firsthand about events I read about in history class. Their stories typically swirled around the phrase, "I remember where I was when I heard that... Kennedy had been shot... we landed on the moon... Pearl Harbor had been attacked... the printing press had been invented." Okay, maybe not that last one.

I find it stranger that I'm beginning to have similar conversations. The problem is that I'm not that old. Even still, I'm finding that there are more and more things that I need to remember. Which is why I write today. The anniversary of the OKC bombing.

It is hard to believe that it has been 15 years since Timothy McVeigh took the lives of 168 people and damaged many more when he detonated a truck filled with explosives parked next to the Oklahoma City Federal Building. It is also hard to believe that most of the nation, struggles to remember the events that took place in downtown OKC. I understand that it doesn't compare, by the numbers at least, to the attacks on 9/11, but that still doesn't change the fact that I remember where I was when I heard.

Okay. Confession time. I'll admit that my memory of the story is a little lame. I was in 7th grade at Alice Robertson Middle School. The day was a pretty normal one for me. Perfectly normal. Nothing out of the ordinary at all. It was so normal because I didn't know about the bombing until after school. Looking back, I don't know how I missed it. My wife claims that her school went under lock down. She says they watched the news all day long. I went to class. I awkwardly talked to girls in the hallway. I took a math test. This is how I experienced history.

I have to believe that my teachers knew about it. Perhaps they wanted to shield us innocent 7th graders from the evils of the outside world. But if that's the case, I don't know how they kept their cool. Growing up in Oklahoma, I didn't know anyone involved in the World Trade Center attacks. But I remember the days following the OKC bombing. Everyone knew someone who knew someone who was in Oklahoma City or was scheduled to be in Oklahoma City on April 19th. My story? I remember my grandfather telling us that he saw the smoke rising above the skyline on his way to his dental office that morning. He assumed it was a fire. Turns out that he was right... kind of.

My ignorance aside, I do remember where I was when I found out. Close to seven hours after the attack, my mom picked me up in front of the school. I got in the car, threw my backpack on the back seat, and she asked me, "Did you hear about what happened in Oklahoma City?" She said it in a way that implied that I should have known what had happened in her hometown. "No" I said, "what happened?"

That's when it changed.

I'm not a parent but I have to believe that those are difficult conversations to have with your kids. Most parents want what is best for their offspring but a world where crazed men make homemade baby-killing bombs doesn't fit into that equation. I remember my mom choking back and explaining, in sketchy details, that someone had attacked an office building in Oklahoma City. Then we drove home.

We usually listened to the top 40 station on the way home from school. The ride was quiet that day.

Things were different the next few days. We watched the news all the time. It was on at home. It was on at school. I remember images of national reporters standing in front of what was left of the building trying to talk over the sound of rescue workers digging through rubble. I remember that picture of the fireman holding the little girl. You know the one. It became a iconic image of the event. I bet you could google "OKC fireman with baby" right now and it would pop up. There were cards, notes and makeshift memorials all along the fence just beyond the rubble. These are images that I still have 15 years later.

I'm sometimes amazed at the random things I remember. And this is one of them. A few nights after the attack, my family was eating dinner on our back porch. This was unusual enough. I can count on one hand the number of times we did this. But I remember sitting on the porch and listening to my parents talk about the bombing. I knew that the authorities were still looking for suspects. This fact freaked me out. So I sat in my backyard and looked out into the darkness of the field behind our house. I had never experienced a worry quite like I did in that moment. I remember thinking that someone could be out there and that someone could hurt me.

15 years later, I'm still not sure I know what to do with that moment. It was weird. Chalk it up as innocence lost I guess. Maybe it is a natural part of growing up. Maybe I should have gone to counseling. Maybe I was just a weird kid.

Whatever the case, I'd be lying to you if I told you that I thought about those dark feelings from that day to now. We finished dinner and went back inside. The worry went away. They caught the bad guys. OKC came back stronger. I went to high school. I went to college. I got married. I grew up. But looking back on that moment, I think that was the first time I realized things weren't right in the world.

And I remember exactly where I was.

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