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.

Homemade Habanero Hotsauce

According to WordPress, this is the one thousandth entry in my blog. I’ve written a little over one blog a day, not missing a day, for almost three years now.

This is the third or fourth blog I’ve done over the years – the first one, The Daily Epiphany, was the thirteenth (as best as I can tell) blog in the world, started in July 25, 1996. Of course, there weren’t any blogs in those days – we called them online journals. It was a lot of work back then – the entries were written in Notepad and all the HTML tags were written out by hand. Think of how much work it was to add new entries with back and forward links and tables of contents – all done without electronic help and uploaded by FTP. Within a year I had developed a series of Microsoft Word Templates with macros to help do all that – but it was a long way from today’s fully automated content systems.

I wrote every day for seven years or so, until my kids grew old enough to read the thing and share it with their friends and I had to give it up. For a long time then, I switched to paper – looking to my left I see a stack of Moleskines I filled up in the years I would write every day in longhand.

Finally, a friend of mine started a WordPress Blog and I thought it would be fun, so I cast my line in. Old habits die hard and I found that putting an entry up every day was important to me, even though I hadn’t intended to do this starting out. I don’t put much effort into the thing – most of my writing blood, sweat, and tears, nowadays goes into my pitiful attempts at fiction. I know I often only put up a single photograph… maybe a bilious quotation – but I have learned that if you are going to put something up every day you have to give yourself permission to sometimes do something easy.

If you don’t like it, I’ll refund your money.

At any rate, a while back I came across a recipe for Habanero Hot Sauce on the Facebook page of a friend.

6 habaneros
1/2 can peaches in light syrup
1/4 cup yellow mustard
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup cider vinegar
1 T salt
1 T paprika
2 tsp black pepper
2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp allspice

Whirl it all up in a blender or food processor until it’s smooth.
I poured mine into an old 12 oz Crystal hot sauce bottle I’d washed out. The ingredients sound a bit strange, but it works!

A similar recipe I found also added 1/4 cup of molasses, but I didn’t have any in the house.

I like hot sauce and this one looked good… so I bought a handful of red, round peppers and ground it all up.

It tuned out very good… and very hot. There is a lot of talk about bhut jolokia – Ghost Chilies and Trinidad Moruga Scorpion and such – but let’s face it – habaneros are pretty damn hot and they are readily available. I still have wonderful memories of fresh grilled seafood served with an Habanero paste that I had on Passion Island off of Cozumel – the best meal of my life.

When I first tried the sauce my lips were swollen, my face burned, and the top of my head was drenched with sweat. When I tried the same dose a couple days later, it wasn’t nearly as toxic. At first, I thought it was losing its punch – but I realized that I was quickly developing a resistance. I began plotting meals that I could use to eat a little (only a little) of the sauce.

When my two sons came home for the holidays, the remaining sauce quickly disappeared and I knew I had to kick up the production and at least triple the batch sizes. I had to go to work for a while today and on the way home stopped off at the local Fiesta Mart for a bag of habaneros.

Recently, Candy bought a Ninja Master Prep food processor – Hey… just because it’s on TV doesn’t mean it doesn’t work – and it’s perfect for the dangerous task of chopping up the toxic peppers. My first batch had the seeds in it, which tended to stop up the dispensing apparatus, so I thought about cleaning the peppers first – but that’s a tricky proposition, so I simply screened the seeds out afterward.

This batch came out even hotter than the first – but pretty darn flavorful. I have a feeling I might be making more of this stuff in the future.

Funny, they don't look that hot.

Funny, they don’t look that hot.

Habaneros and other main ingredients

Habaneros and other main ingredients

Ninja Food Processor with hot sauce and spices

Ninja Food Processor with hot sauce and spices

Final product - filtered into re-purposed containers.

Final product – filtered into re-purposed containers.