Sitting in my third grade classroom we were suddenly interrupted by another third grade teacher rushing in; her son being in my class. She spoke to our teacher, hugged her son, and checked him out for the day. None of us knew why at the time. Getting home after school we went into our normal Wednesday afternoon routine with snacks and homework. I’m sure we probably took a nap because that’s what we did on Wednesday’s. We would eat dinner at the church, attending art classes afterwards, while the parents had choir practice. Then we’d hop back in the minivan and drive the 20 minutes south from Oklahoma City to Norman, getting tucked in bed, well past our typical 8pm bedtime, in order to be rested before school the next day.
This particular Wednesday however wasn’t normal. I don’t know what words she used exactly. I don’t remember if my sister was sitting with me. I just remember sitting on the blue sectional sofa – the kind that were so popular in the 90’s, with the poofy arms and billowy headrests – as my mom explained that we wouldn’t be going to church that evening because someone had destroyed a government building downtown.
Days later the kid that had gotten checked out of our class told us his dad should’ve been in that building. He happened to be somewhere else that morning, diverting from his normal routine. He, unlike so many others, was completely unharmed. The student’s mom just hadn’t known it at the time.
Yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the bombing. If you’re from Oklahoma that’s all we say. Not which bombing. Not what bombing. Just, “the bombing.” If you’re not from Oklahoma, yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the the Alfred P. Murrah federal building bombing in downtown Oklahoma City. I was 9 years old. I could tell you where my desk was in the classroom when that third grade mom came in. I can also tell you that our Methodist church’s gym was big enough and close enough to take hospital patient overflow and blood donations, a curious thing for children who had no capacity until years later for what had happened. The windows were covered in black paper, giving patients and donors privacy, but inquisitive young eyes might catch a glimpse inside as the doors opened when walking by. It was however, far enough away that only one small stained glass window was broken by the vibrations of the blast.
Growing up the landscape of the area changed substatially. Rubble was removed, leaving a partial structure for remembrance. Field trips were taken to see the survivor tree, ever bigger, ever stronger. Youth groups visited the reflection pool with the memorial chairs. If they don’t tug at your soul, the nineteen tiny chairs will pull you apart. Families moved away and then returned. Adults spent Sunday afternoons touring the museum, sharing their history with new visitors; always following the path of the day and the aftermath of the occasion, filling in the holes of a 9 year old’s memories.
It’s a funny thing, living history. One could of course argue that we actively do that every day, but many things never make it into the history books. Very rarely do we recognize in the moment that an event will be studied by students in every U.S. history class across the nation. It feels so strange realizing it’s been long enough that many will only know of the event in that way. At one point during my travels, waiting in a crowded airport, making small talk with strangers, a woman told me they’d vacationed in Oklahoma, making sure the memorial was on their itinerary. It was then that I finally realized it was an event the whole nation still studied, much like The Mall in DC, albeit on a potentially more somber note. That might seem incredibly obvious to you in the way it is to me now, but growing up that logistically close, it’s easy to think of an event on a smaller scale, something everyone knows of, in an overwhelming way at the time, but with memories fading, conversations disappear and interest tends to move from one thing to the next over time.