Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Only 14 Years Ago

Late in the afternoon on June 6, I arrived at the generically named Oklahoma City National Memorial -- nothing in the name about bombing, or the federal building that once stood there. I suppose no one old enough to remember the bombing, which is still most of us, needs to be reminded about those particulars.

Still, human memory being the faulty thing that it is, I have to wonder how long the memory of the Murrah Federal Building bombing will endure. It's idle speculation, since by definition none of us will still be around after the living memory of the attack is gone. But it's instructive to note that few these days have ever heard of the Wall Street bombing of 1920 or the ghastly Bath, Michigan, schoolhouse bombing of 1927, just to cite two similar crimes that weren't even a century ago.

On the other hand, if collective memory can be buttressed by an arrestingly poignant memorial, Oklahoma City stands a good chance of being remembered far into the future. More about the designers, who are not household words, here. Posterity may become fuzzy on the details, but the significance of 168 empty chairs isn't likely to be lost.

The chairs are in rows, one for each floor of the building, in a green space that was once the footprint of the building. The only part of the building still standing is a fragment of a wall off in a corner, inscribed with names of survivors. What was once the street in front of the building is now a reflecting pool. The other side of the pool is given over to a terraced green space with some trees, especially a large elm that used to be the only shade for the Murrah Federal Building's parking lot, and which somehow survived the blast. It's called the "Survivor Tree" now.

Even at 90-plus degrees, the memorial was a popular place. A few dozen people were looking around at the same time I was. I spoke briefly to the park service employee on duty at the memorial, and he was able to point out the spot where the bomb went off, which is otherwise unmarked.

I'd read about the "Gates of Time," and the memorial web site says that "these monumental twin gates frame the moment of destruction – 9:02 a.m. – and mark the formal entrances to the Memorial. The East Gate represents 9:01 a.m. on April 19, and the innocence of the city before the attack. The West Gate represents 9:03 a.m., the moment we were changed forever..."

Just reading about them before I visited, the gates sounded odd. Time-stamps? But the gates are essential. Without the frame they create, the rest of the memorial wouldn't be nearly as complete as it is, especially since they mark the boundary between the city outside the memorial -- now -- and the memorial -- then -- as you enter. I came in through the 9:01 gate, pictured above looking toward the 9:03 gate (the empty chairs are to the left in that picture, the Survivor Tree to the right). The time-stamps, cut so starkly in the gates and facing inside the memorial, remind you that everything can be blown away, figuratively or sometimes very literally, in an instant.

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home