Remembering Oklahoma City

Miss C and I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial Museum today. It took about three hours to drive there from my grandparents house in north Texas, where we visited for the weekend. We left later than planned and I was so anxious about getting there before it closed, but fortunately, we didn’t run into any traffic and got there with about an hour and a half to spare.

I did my best to explain to Miss C what we were going to see inside the museum before we got there, but I wasn’t even sure what to expect. I’d visited the memorial’s web site before our visit, and I felt comfortable enough to take Miss C inside with me. Just this past September, she and I sat down with one of my photo books about September 11, 2001, and we had a good, age-appropriate conversation about the events of that day. She was very receptive, so I felt it was also important for her to learn about the events of April 19, 1995.

It was important for me to visit, too.

I was in the eighth grade and home sick from school that day. I was home alone, since I was old enough to care for myself, but it wasn’t much fun. I was getting over a really bad stomach virus, still weak with no appetite, so I planted myself on our living room couch, buried under blankets and surrounded by Gatorade, soup and a bucket (just in case). The only highlight of my day was being able to watch Regis and Kathy Lee, beginning at 9 a.m., followed by Family Feud, followed by The Price is Right – all shows I enjoyed from the summer, but never got to watch during the school year.

That was supposed to be the line-up, anyway.

Around 9:30 a.m., a special report news bulletin interrupted Regis and Kathy Lee, showing that now-infamous image of the Alfred P. Murrah building with half a facade. At first, I was annoyed. I was missing my shows. In that first half-hour of coverage, all that appeared on the screen was a blown-up building with the anchorman trying to describe what was happening. There was speculation of a gas leak. I grew antsy. Where was the return to scheduled programming? Why would a gas-leak explosion make the news like this?

But as time passed, and the news continued broadcasting, the first images of survivors coming out of the building aired and it became obvious that this was something way more sinister than a gas-leak explosion. I was transfixed. I didn’t get up from the couch until around 2 p.m., which was when I called my mother in tears. I remember asking her how could anyone do such a thing, and her calming me down. What she didn’t tell me was that earlier in the day, her office in Cincinnati had been evacuated since it was located across the street from a federal building, which had been cleared in case it was a target, too. She knew that would have really freaked me out. I was upset enough by the images on my television and the loss of life playing out on live television.

So, I’d always wanted to visit the memorial and pay my respects.

The first thing we saw were the black gates of time on both sides of the memorial, which takes up the entire city block the building once occupied. For those who aren’t familiar with the layout, the gates represent the minutes before and after the explosion, which happened at 9:02 a.m. that day. Miss C, Trev (my mother’s boyfriend) and I walked through the 9:01 gate, where we saw the reflecting pond and the chairs lined up on our left.

It had snowed the days before our visit, and while most of it had melted, patches of it remained. Each chair was decorated with a Christmas wreath and red bow. We were the only ones walking along the path at that time and even though we were in the middle of the city, it was very quiet and still.
The museum is located in the building that was across from the Murrah building, with the entrance next to the 9:03 gate, so we made our way around the reflecting pond to go inside.

No photos are allowed inside the museum, so I put my camera aside and spent the time walking through it with Miss C. It’s designed as a sequence of events, with the top floor dedicated to showing life in the building before the attack. Then, we entered a room set up to look like a small courtroom which was across the street from the Murrah building. A hearing was being held that day, and it was recorded on audio tape, which captured the sound of the explosion. A museum volunteer explained that as soon as we entered the room, the recording would begin and two minutes later, we would hear the explosion. Miss C heard this, and as soon as we took our seats in the room, she buried her face in my coat and covered her ears.

Uh, oh, I thought. Was I about to totally scar her for life?

As indicated, the sound of the explosion blasted through the room and the lights were turned off as the sound of people yelling followed as the recording continued. A split second later, photos of the victims flashed up on the screen in front of us and then the lights came back on. A door slid open on the side, allowing us to enter the part of the museum showcasing the initial response.

There were television sets throughout, showing the very first news clips broadcasted about the bombing, including the first helicopter images. Rubble from the blast was on display, as well as office equipment and personal effects. I was torn: I wanted to stop and look at everything, to read every text block, but I also didn’t want to linger if it upset Miss C. So I took her hand and tried to lead her out of that first room. But she hesitated, her eyes transfixed on one of the television screens.

“No, Mom,” she said. “I want to watch this.”

So, we stayed in that room, looking at all the destruction. Then we silently went to the next room, which showcased the first responders. Each room had many televisions; some showed the news coverage; others showed videotaped interviews with survivors and rescuers. There were pictures of rescued people, people crying, people hugging.

I watched Miss C’s face as we walked along. Miss C has not perfected her poker face; every single emotion she feels flickers on her face as clear as day. She looked pensive, with a faint “stiff upper lip” expression. At one point, I asked what she was thinking.

“Some babies died there,” she said. “I can see their toys.”

“That’s right,” I said. “Some babies did die.”

When we came upon the famous photo of the firefighter carrying the baby, she pointed out that it looked like Lola, which isn’t a stretch as Lola is the same age Bailey Almon was when she was killed. When I pointed that out, Miss C just nodded and continued on.

We entered a room dedicated to all the people killed in the attack, where their individual photos were displayed along with a personal item donated by their families to represent the individual’s personality. This was the most touching display, in my opinion, and the one I appreciated the most. There were a lot of Lion King toys in the children’s displays, which made sense since that was the latest Disney movie at the time.

The last few rooms of the museum are dedicated to the response to the attack, with quilts, signs and cards from around the world on display. There was even a kids room, which had videos of other children explaining the event. One of the last rooms showed pictures of the 9/11 attacks, which Miss C recognized, and there were even photos of military personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, which she also recognized.

“Mom, that’s what you did when you were far, far away,” she said, pointing to a Soldier surrounded by kids at what I assume was a refugee camp in one of those countries. It was the perfect opportunity to explain how my deployment, like the Soldier’s in the picture, was an effort to keep her and other kids safe from future attacks like the one she just witnessed in the photos and video. She seemed impressed by this.

The sun was just about set as we left the museum and walked past the fence, which is used by passersby to leave notes and items at the memorial. We entered the 9:03 gate to walk across to the 9:01 gate, where my mother was parked with Lola, waiting for us.

And I had Trev snap a photo of Miss C and me at the 9:01 gate. Although some parts of the museum made me briefly doubt my decision to take Miss C, ultimately, I’m glad we went together. I’m glad I was there to explain things to her and answer her questions. When we got in the vehicle with my mother, she asked Miss C about the visit and Miss C explained it very succinctly. She didn’t seem fazed at all, and was even proud to later talk about the visit with her Dad on the phone.

I think I can safely say that our visit to the National Memorial museum and site was both sad and uplifting, emotional and moving. It’s a part of our trip, and of America’s history, we won’t soon forget.