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.

Una Battaglia – Friday Snippet

Una Battaglia (A Battle) – Arnaldo Pomodoro

The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden – New Orleans Museum of Art

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city

R’leigh and Sansom started their climb in the pitch black pre-dawn darkness. The lights mounted on their helmets cast yellow ovals that would dim after every few minutes. Then they had to pull them off and crank the little handles in the dark for a new charge. R’leigh would shiver as she felt the cool air off the vastness beyond the cliff blowing her hair and the tension in the unseen ropes holding her to the metal pins Sansom hammered into cracks in the rock while she worked at the generator built into her helmet light.

It seemed like forever, but they had moved about a third of the way on their way to the top when the sky began to glow salmon through the thick clouds. The rising sun itself was hidden but the faint glow of dawn was replaced by the slate-gray light of every day under the globe-girdling smoke cloud that had choked the earth from times before R’leigh was born. At least they could climb without the headlights and R’leigh rested against the rough granite while Sansom pulled their heavy equipment up from the base of the cliff far below. He then reeled in all the extra rope – now that they could be seen, they could not be reached.

The day settled in to a long, exhausting routine of Sansom pounding in pins above, then the two of them moving up in turns, each belaying the other in case one fell, then Sansom pulling up the equipment over the height they had gained.

While R’leigh braced herself safe and still and watched Sansom work she thought of a time three years ago, not long after they had started planning and training for this day. The two of them were on a school outing to a rare grove of trees preserved in a museum on the 598 level. The museum had done its best to duplicate at least a piece of a real forest, distributing the trees in a thick, random pattern over a rolling hill – artificial light streamed down from a ceiling painted an unreal blue.

The teachers had let the students wander around in the trees and told them to try and imagine a time when forests like this covered a large part of the earth – they went on for thousands of miles. R’leigh found that hard to believe and didn’t really understand what the big deal was – but Sansom pulled her into the center of the cluster of trees and then down a little gully away from the crest of the hill. There the grove was at its thickest.

He spent some time looking carefully up and around, until he had satisfied himself that they were hidden from the handful of cameras set up to keep an eye on the precious trees. He had already begun his secret training and was quickly becoming an expert on avoiding the surveillance. Looking straight at R’leigh, he slipped a hand into his jacket and pulled out a small, silver object which unfolded in the center.

“A pocketknife,” he said quietly. “The cell, we all made these out of scraps of cooling duct.”

He turned and moved the knife quickly and surely across the surface of the tree, slicing the bark in confident, sharp lines. R’leigh saw liquid welling up in the cut lines. She didn’t know that trees would bleed. Instead of red blood, though, the sap oozed out in a series of little clear globs, strings of sparkling jewels like a living necklace along the lines that Sansom was carving. The air quickly filled with a sharp smell – the life of the tree leaking into the air. She was so intrigued by the crystal-like sap she didn’t even notice what he was cutting out.

Before she realized what he was doing, he stopped, then stood back and, with a self-satisfied smirk, gestured as his work. He had carved the simple outline of a heart with the initials, SS + RL inscribed within.

“Look quick, hard and close, I want you to remember this. But we need to go before they find us and see what I’ve done.”

R’leigh felt her pulse quicken and she let out a gasp. The risk he was taking; they would scrub the both of them if they were caught damaging anything as precious at that tree. She allowed herself five seconds to memorize the heart, the letters, and the gleaming jewels of sap until it was burned in her mind forever. In the three years since, she had been tempted to return to the museum and the grove of trees and see if the design was still there but neither of them dared – they might be watching to see who comes back.

Her reverie ended when Sansom jerked on the rope and it was time to continue moving upwards. She allowed herself a second to look out over the landscape that was opening up beneath and around them. They were high enough now, almost to the top of the spire, that they could see a vast panorama of dead twisted gray rock reaching up from endless beds of sterile gravel. This was the world that they lived in.

Within another hour they reached the flat top of the rock spire. It had taken half a day of climbing. Their years of training in every spare hour had paid off – her arms were tired but she had enough energy to feel excitement at their accomplishment. Sansom disappeared over the edge above her, and then his head reappeared as he reached down to help her up and over. Then the two of them worked together to pull and wrestle the equipment bags over the edge and spread them out away from the sheer cliff edge that they had just climbed.

Only when the equipment was safe did they walk the few steps to the opposite side of the rock cap and look out at the city. It had been hidden from them by the bulk of the spire while they climbed the opposite side, as the rock had hidden them from the watchers on the high walls. R’leigh had, of course, never seen the city from this vantage point and she gasped at its size and beauty.

The city was made up of two parts. Down below, was the huge and squat old city – burned, torn, and rendered from the war. Enormous hunks had been blasted away from the sloped sides of the square bunker shaped edifice. Great cracks wandered over what was left behind, though they could see the ugly patches that had been applied to keep the remains from crumbling apart.

Above this wreck rose the high shining rectangular tower of the new city. Built after the war on the remains of the old, this gleaming monolith reached upwards beyond the height of even the tallest rock spire which they had climbed, still being built as floors were added to the unseen top.

R’leigh and Sansom set to work quickly, unloading the equipment bags and assembling the heavy tripod first. They had practiced this many times and R’leigh found herself stealing looks at the immense and distant city as they worked; her arms and hands moving with familiarity over the tubing and fasteners almost without her conscious knowledge.

She realized she loved the city. It had been her home her entire life and she could count on one hand how many times she had been outside that gleaming tower before today. Inside, a person could not understand or comprehend its size and simple beauty. It took her breath away to see it like this – she found herself staring at it every second, even taking her eyes off Sansom as he worked alongside her, something she rarely ever did.

Soon, the tripod was complete and using the ropes they had climbed with and a pair of long, strong poles assembled from sections in the equipment bags the two of them lifted and levered the heavy tube onto the tripod and fastened it firmly in place.

R’leigh stepped back while Sansom tightened up all the bolts and began final adjustments of the apparatus. There, in front of her were both Sansom, sweating with effort and concentration while he worked, and in the distance beyond, the lustrous metallic surface of the city. R’leaih’s heart began to race, both at the excitement of what they were about to do and with the sheer beauty of the scene.

She loved what she was looking at, but she thirsted for destruction, and after years of careful planning and preparation, she was about to drink. Sansom had finished and he came back to where she was standing, holding a small metal box trailing a fine wire that spooled out of the apparatus.

He placed his arm around R’leigh’s shoulders and looked like he was trying to think of what to say.

“There’s nothing to say,” said R’leigh, “we’re ready now, it’s time for the completion of all our work.”

“My love, here, push the button,” Sansom said as he handed her the box. It had only a small red circle on one face.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“Absolutely.”

And with that she pressed the red circle. Immediately the rocket ignited and with a flash and a roar loud enough to make them jump it moved out, surprisingly slowly at first, but gathering speed at a frightening pace. The small rocket soon disappeared in the distance but the mane of black smoke showed its progress as it arced up into the gray sky and unerringly flew into the city.

Within a few minutes it had jumped the long gap between their rock spire and the gleaming city and struck right where it was intended, about a third of the way up along the huge structure. Its initial strike was not much more than a pinprick but the missile was designed to penetrate the skin of the structure and explode within.

The small but efficiently powerful fusion device in the rockets nose cone exploded inside the city and the entire edifice began to shake. Huge cracks appeared in its carefully polished surface, glowing with orange fire as the reaction began wreaking its destruction. The city was now tearing itself apart from the inside, mortally injured by the power of the tiny missile which had started a chain reaction which doomed the gigantic edifice. It took several minutes for the sound to reach them, but the massive explosions would shake the very stone that they were standing on.

R’leigh and Sansom stood together, their arms wrapped around each other as they swayed slightly back and forth, watching the beauty of what they had done.