Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Past and Present in Oklahoma

John and Claire Martinez were waiting for their car to get fixed at the Brake Masters car care center next to the Motel 6 in Santa Fe. We were tossing our bags in the truck, ready to hit the road for Oklahoma City when they approached.

‘I think of that padre,’ Claire said. ‘Went in right along with those firemen to help…he didn’t make it either…’ Originally from Massachusetts, Claire had family in New Jersey. She said she had more to say but didn’t think she could; with a little gentle prodding from Jon she continued, running a finger under her watering eyes. ‘I was watching it on TV, watching those buildings burn, and the woman next to me said What’s that? I looked closer, and that was then I noticed those people
 jumping out of the windows, flapping their arms…They didn’t have a chance, or didn’t want to burn…’

‘For all those who died on September 11th,’ John wrote on a piece of paper. ‘You might be gone but you’ll always be in our hearts.’

Heading east from Santa Fe the mountains turned into hills, which slowly gave way to flat desert horizons. Across the plains of the Texas panhandle and into Oklahoma we spotted dust devils and smoke from what might have been a huge brush fire. Miles and miles of open space along the eternal highway, rarely a farm or a windmill, an occasional town, and wire fence lining the road on both sides the entire way. Jon noted that it was a blessing, perhaps, that our departure was delayed two days while we waited for our camera crew – otherwise we might have gotten caught in the tornados responsible for all the debris and bent, twisted signs and the dozens of uprooted and broken trees we saw along the several miles leading into Oklahoma City.
Not sure exactly which way to go we found ourselves rolling through downtown Bricktown. Outside the arena hundreds of purple-robed graduates talked with their parents and each other, laughing and snapping pictures. Lights towered above the surrounding buildings; the Big 12 baseball tournament was going on right there in the middle of town. A minute later we were passing under the interstate and heading out of town again. Oklahoma City seemed not so much a capital city, but simply a town with a long history trying to dress up in cleaner, more modern clothes. At a crab house later that evening, joking with our waitress, we found that the city had a truly friendly, welcoming face.

It was after midnight when we walked up to the Oklahoma National Memorial, also known as the site of the former Murrah government building. Some of us had seen pictures of the Memorial on the web; none of us were prepared for what we would see and feel walking through the 9:01 gate and seeing 169 empty chairs facing the placid water where there was in a terrible moment a Ryder truck packed with fertilizer.
‘This is so insignificant,’ said Jon of our journey, ‘compared to all the stuff that has happened, and is happening now, in places like Joplin, Missouri.’