The Fence

One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.
—Joseph Stalin

Oblique Strategy: The most important thing is the thing most easily forgotten

I started my first “blog” (this was before anyone had thought of the name blog – we called them “online journals”) In 1996 or so. Mine was called “The Daily Epiphany.” As far as I can tell mine was the 13th online journal/blog on the internet. I wrote in it every day for more than ten years.

Tonight I was looking through my files, doing some organizing, and found an entry I had typed while driving back to Dallas from my uncle’s funeral in Kansas. It was almost exactly 20 years ago- November 30, 1997 – four years before 9/11, when our reaction to such things changed, when it became commonplace.

The entry was called “The Fence.” I printed it out and entered it into a writing contest once- It won a prize – ten dollars cash, sealed in a little envelope.

A cold, leaden day. That midwestern wet cold, a little above freezing; with wind that cuts. The sky had no blue, no indication of where the sun actually was. Only ripples, waves of lighter and darker gray.

Interstate 35, between Wichita and Dallas is mostly a straight shot. There is only one jump to the left, and a step to the right, in Oklahoma City. You have to get on I40 going west for an instant and then exit to the left, picking up southward again. Sixteen years ago, when I first moved from Hutchinson to Texas, this little jog shook me up. I hadn’t really been driving very long and had no experience with big city expressway killer traffic. The thought of quickly merging across three busy lanes to an exit filled me with dread and stress.

I was such a geek.

Now, of course, after all these years bumping and grinding through Dallas highways and byways this is second nature. I can merge and exit without a thought. Confidence, aggression, and peripheral vision.

But this time I didn’t exit. I wanted to take a break from the drive, go see something; so I continued West on I40, right into the heart of downtown Oklahoma City.

It’s not much different than downtown Wichita, or Tulsa, or any of the middle-big midwestern cities. A new baseball stadium is going up, new glass office buildings, some older brick hotels. It was Sunday, there was almost no traffic. As a matter of fact, there was some sort of BMX racing going on at the Convention Center. I saw more kids on bikes, jumping curbs, hot-dogging up and down stairs, than cars on the streets.

I didn’t know exactly how to get there, only that I was going between fourth and fifth streets, but it didn’t take long to find my way. I parked next to an older, large dark tan brick building. A typical neo-something older public place. It wasn’t until I got out onto the sidewalk I noticed that the glass had been broken out in all its windows. I knew it had been blown out.

I really didn’t know what to expect; didn’t even know why I had driven there. It has been over two years and I wasn’t even sure what had been done to the site recently. I only wanted to stop and rest for a minute, visit a piece of history, maybe try and fix the actual place that it happened in my mind.

The Murrah building itself is, of course, long gone. The planned memorial hasn’t been started yet. All that’s left is a rectangular grassy field, the lawn was yellow for the winter, that smooth professionally planted turf, put in to cover things up. To the south are some concrete remains of the foundation and parking garage. The entire city block is encircled with a high chain link fence.

And it was that fence that really packed the emotional wallop. You can watch the news stories, read the survivor’s accounts, but it doesn’t seem possible. That something so horrible could occur, not by accident, but on purpose, in the forgotten center of the country, is beyond belief. But walk up to that fence, and it’s all too real.

The worst is the toys. Hundreds of toys stuck into or tied to the bare wire. Teddy bears, stuffed animals, balls, birthday presents for children that will never grow up. A baby’s pacifier.

“Look, Mom! another Beanie Baby!” exclaimed a small girl, poking at a little toy dog on the fence with delight, too young to understand.

Other things too. Poems, letters, pictures, most laminated in plastic. One unprotected sign had run in the rain. The only legible part was the word “crying” in big, thick, colored letters. It too was fading, running, dripping down the ragged poster board. Someone had made little red felt Christmas stockings, each one with a jolly cloth Santa face. I didn’t count them, but I’m sure there were 168.

Many people seemed to go there without plans and put up what they had on hand. There were a lot of keychains. Hundreds of little crosses made of sticks.

There were quite a few people, but thankfully nobody selling anything. Many were obviously tourists, some taking pictures. Many appeared to be locals, though; alone, slowly, solemnly working their way around the fence, reading the notes, looking at the wreaths and the pictures. I wondered how many of these people had lost husbands, wives, children, friends in the blast; how many had actually been there , wondering why it hadn’t taken them; how often they went down there on cold, windy winter days to walk that stretch of chainlink.

The day was dark, but I was glad that I was wearing my sunglasses, I didn’t really want to show my eyes.

I drove on, and stopped for lunch at a Wendy’s south of town. I don’t eat fast food hamburgers any more, but I remembered being there seven years earlier with Candy and Nicholas, when he was an infant. I remember holding him, spooning a little Frosty into his mouth.

I sat at a table typing on the laptop for a bit. A crowd of kids, a ball team or bible class, boiled around me. They all had little plastic toys from their Happy Meals or whatever. They were all laughing, showing each other what they had, seeing who had the coolest toy. They were loud and a bit wild, bumping into me as I typed, but for some reason, I didn’t mind.

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