On March 1, 2013, we set out early in the morning for Dallas, Texas. Today, I consider it a pretty long drive. After all, now I only commute three blocks to work. There was a time, however, when I took more long interstate drives, so I recognized the subtle thrill that comes from packing the suitcase into the back of the truck and making sure our road munchies, insulated cups and cell phones were accounted for. Then, we were on the road.
Great Bend, Kans. to Dallas is a right angled drive. You drive two blocks from my house, then head East for two hours, then head south for another six hours. Conversation started slowly, but by the time we reached McPherson, my mom and I were thick into solving the problems of the world, while dear husband kept his eyes on the road and fit a comment in edgewise when one of us stopped to breathe. Dear daughter alternated from listening to boredom to sleep.
One destination along the way I suggested was the Oklahoma City National Monument. I was happy mom and daughter were interested. Our wonderful driver was happy to humor us. I’d like to believe it touched him to see the field of empty chairs and the soothing, black marble “pond” of centimeter deep water that passed between the bookend marble slabs at either of end of the block, labeled simply 9:01 and 9:03. We wondered aloud what they meant, and were answered by a National Parks guide.
“It signifies the moment between when life was ordinary, and when everything changed, not only for the people of Oklahoma City, but the entire nation,” he said. So often today, after the tragedy of 9-11, it’s easy to forget that this bombing was a first for the country.
In 2008, on a different trip to Dallas, I’d stopped for the first time, in the middle of summer. It was sultry, and there was a different feeling than on this cold March morning when we stopped. The first time, I lingered, looking at artwork, reading the notes left on the chain-link curtain along the street outside the memorial. I slowly made my way to the Survivor Tree, and reached up and picked a leaf to press in one of my herbal books. I read the plaques and wished I had time to go through the museum before I was expected at my destination.
This time, I took more time to really look at the empty chairs. I noticed that the name of each of the victims was etched into the base. I was told at night, the glass bases light up, and the names are very visible then. There were tiny, impromptu memorials, stuffed animals and flowers left on some, evidence that on top of not being forgotten by their country, they were also not forgotten by their loved ones. This time, I registered that the walls behind the chairs were foundation walls–of a building no longer standing. I knew all of this before, but somehow standing in the cold breeze, it was far more noticeable. I turned around, and there was the Survivor tree, standing bare in it’s spot in the former parking area where many of the victims and survivors left their cars before heading into the Alfred P. Murrah building each day for work. Now, several semi-circular levels lead your eye up to the ground level on the north side of the pond. Another guide told us the pond was where the road was where the truck bomb was parked before it detonated. I pointed to the fourth pine tree from the east, “There, there was a loading zone where he parked it, and ran to get in his other car,” he said. “He claimed he didn’t know there was a daycare center there, but in the end, he shrugged and called it collateral damage.”
He was only too happy to tell us more, with far fewer visitors there the first of March than on my first August visit.
Daughter asked questions, “When did it happen, did anyone survive?” Two years before she was born. I remember not being able to stop from crying when I saw Charles Porter’s photograph of a firefighter carrying the body of an unconscious toddler, smeared in blood and debris from the scene.
It made me curious to learn if the child had lived or died–something I probably forgo over the past 18 years. Sadly, I learned she did not–having passed away shortly after the photo was taken. As we turned to leave for the warmth of our car and the rest of the trip to Dallas, daughter spied a tear in my eye, and asked quietly if I was crying. I choked out that it was a very emotional place. And I was grateful that for once, she didn’t laugh.