In the real world, the outside world, time keeps moving. It only really stops inside us, in our heads, in our hearts. We carry images frozen there, looking back at them, remembering what we were doing when we saw that, heard that, smelled that, felt that. Sometimes they’re sweet things, like a first kiss, a spring day as a child in a park, a new puppy nibbling at our fingers. Sometimes, though, they are horrible things. Sometimes they are explosions and falling buildings and people crying and bleeding as they dig through rubble looking for their children, their spouses, their friends or their co-workers. Sometimes they are images of a stone-faced young man being led from a small-town jail surrounded by federal marshalls as he’s taken to a helicopter and flown to a state penitentiary for murdering 168 people and stealing another piece of a nation’s innocense.
Ten years ago today I had no college education. I was working in a machine shop in an industrial part of Oklahoma City, downwind from a Hormel chili factory. I was running the biggest vertical lathe in the shop, an antique monster that would eventually change my life. I heard a boom and assumed somebody in another part of the shop had dropped one of the massive oilfield parts we machined there. A few minutes later word spread through the shop that a building downtown had exploded. Bit by bit the information came. It was the federal building. It was a bomb. There were more bombs that would explode soon.
I worked a hell of a lot of overtime in those days. When the bomb exploded at 9:02 a.m. I’d probably been at work four hours already. I got off work at about 4:30 p.m. and rushed home to the television. The images were … unbelievable. Every network was showing rescue efforts and replaying events from earlier in the day. There was still a belief that Middle Eastern terrorists had done the bombing and had fled east on Interstate 40. As darkness came, lights were brought in and shone on the wreckage of the Murrah building so people could keep digging. People were found alive. People were found dead. People were found in pieces. The body count climbed.
Somebody finally put the date together with what happened in Waco, Texas, when Janet Reno ordered the end to the Branch Davidian siege. Then the sketches came out — John Doe 1 and John Doe 2. They looked like us. They weren’t Middle Eastern. They weren’t them at all. Then word came that a fluke arrest by a Perry cop had ended the flight of John Doe 1. Timothy McVeigh was pulled over because he was driving a car without a license plate. Fate? Stupidity? Who knows? We watched the Perry jail and eventually we got our first look of the accused, a young man with a set jaw and angry eyes, handcuffed, rushed out of the jail and into a car by a mob of police while a mob of angry citizens yelled at him, calling him baby-killer, asked if he did it, why he did it. He ignored them. TV cameras followed the car to a helicopter pad at a local factory. McVeigh was put on the chopper and flown to the prison at El Reno. He was assigned a lawyer from my hometown of Enid, a little man who ate at the Lotta Burger where my mom worked.
I went to the bombing site the weekend after. A lot of people did. I saw the faceless, wounded building, saw the rubble, knew there were still people buried there.
Then that lathe changed my life. A bolt on the chuck broke as I was tightening it, forever damaging my right shoulder. I spent the next several months on workers’ compensation, then nothing, then unemployment. During that summer I enrolled Alex, then three years old, in a learning program at a church downtown. It was only an hour a day, once a week, I think. Kim had been forced to go to work full time by then, so it was me and baby Sara downtown for an hour a week while Alex was in class. Sara and I went to the Murrah site several times. It was still fresh. The chainlink fence was still all around it. The fence was covered in various items. There were stuffed animals, notes from people all over the world, photos of the dead left by family members. People came and left the hats they wore, tied ribbons to the fence, wove flowers into the chainlinks. There was always a crowd of people moving along the fence, looking, talking quietly, crying softly.
My workers’ comp case was finally settled. I had to change careers, so I went to college. I didn’t have another experience with the Murrah site until about the third anniversary, when I was working as a reporter for the Oklahoman newspaper. I’m sad to say I can’t remember the details, but I think the Amber-Pocasset school district was renaming the elementary library after a student who died in the bombing. It was the same year the bombing memorial was dedicated. Again, it saddens me I can’t remember the little boy’s name. I could find it. I should find it. I met his parents, talked to them. A couple of weeks later I made my first visit to the memorial. Most of the fence was gone, though a large section was incorporated into the memorial and people still decorate it to this day. But the chairs … 168 chairs, 19 of which are small to represent the children who died in the daycare. I found that boy’s chair — it was my first personal connection to the tragedy — and thought about his parents. I thought about dropping off a happy, healthy child at a daycare in the same building as an FBI office. And I thought about learning the building was bombed, the child dead. The horror is almost unimaginable.
Now McVeigh is dead. Terry Nichols, who was not John Doe 2, will be in prison until he dies. Conspiracies still float around about John Doe 2 and whether he might have been one of them … a Middle Eastern man. The least reputable of our local TV stations was sued for harassing an Arabic man somebody there was convinced was John Doe 2 (no, it wasn’t the Fox affiliate). Sometimes the media will do an update on survivors of the bombing. Most have moved on. At least one rescuer has committed suicide because of the images frozen in his own mind.
Time. For the living, it kept moving. We kept the images from the Murrah bombing with us. Too soon we thought something so bad would never again happen to us at home. We had survived the worst. And then, one fine morning in September 2001 …