On Sunday we left Amarillo, a fair sized city in the Texas Panhandle, for Stroud, Oklahoma. Oklahoma City is on the way to Stroud and Cora and I debated about keeping the Oklahoma City National Memorial on our itinerary. I wasn’t ecstatic about taking on city traffic, but given that it was Sunday we decided to detour off the main highway and into the city.
The Oklahoma City Memorial is a monument of remembrance, to the victims, the survivors, the responders and to the nation, of an event that shook the nation and the world. It was at 9:02 in the morning of April 19, 1995, the start of a busy workday, when Timothy McVeigh detonated a homemade bomb composed of more than two tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil, all packed into a rental truck. The blast decimated the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing 168 and injuring more than 680. The building housed a children’s daycare center. Nineteen children were killed in the blast.
McVeigh, a Gulf War Veteran, came out of the service disgruntled with the Federal Government, unable to find a job and looking for camaraderie. He found his niche in the radical fringe of the far right. He became an acolyte of a fiction book titled The Turner Diaries, written by an American Nazi/white supremacist named Luther Pierce.
The book chronicles the overthrow of the Federal Government and the extermination of non-whites. It became and continues to be a sort of bible for the far right.
McVeigh’s reason for the bombing of the Murrah Building was retaliation for the sieges at Ruby Ridge and Waco. He had thrown in with fringe militants whose mission it was, and still is, to overthrow the Federal Government.
The following day, Memorial Day, we drove to our next destination, Springdale, Arkansas. It was a short drive, short relative to the drives we’d been taking during the 2 weeks of our road trip.
This marked our departure from Route 66, The Mother Road. I suppose that at sometime we all have to bid goodbye to our moms and, for me, there were a few moments of sadness. We’d been with her for nearly two weeks.
Sure, we took our leave at times; a day at The Grand Canyon, one at Sedona and another to The Painted Desert. But we always returned.
Arriving at our motel at noon, made it, what you might call, a free day. Cora chose to stay in the room and relax, while I took the 30 mile drive to Pea Ridge National Military Park.
I’ve had a lifelong interest in the American Civil War and, being Memorial Day, it seemed appropriate to visit the site of a pivotal battle of the Southwestern Theater of the war; a battle for control of the border state of Missouri.
On March 7, 1862 a Confederate force of 16,000 men, under the command of General Earl Van Dorn attacked a Union force of 10,000. At the end of the first day, the Confederates had gained control of Elkhorn Tavern and the Telegraph Road, just three miles shy of the Missouri border.
The following day, the Union Army staged a counterattack. After being pounded by Union artillery, and running short of ammunition, Van Dorn ceded the field to the Union, securing the State of Missouri for the Federals.
In the end, the Confederates lost 2,000 soldiers, the Union 1,384.
One hundred and thirty-three years separate Pea Ridge and Oklahoma City, yet both mark incidents of rebellion against The United States Government, and both incidents had roots in racist and separatist ideologies. Both the Civil War and McVeigh’s bombing of The Murrah Building, were inspired by an identical racist, dystopian ideology of separatism that was, and still is, promoted by far right propaganda.
Touring both the Oklahoma City Memorial and the Pea Ridge Battlefield one gets a sense of peace. Indeed, that feeling was the purpose behind the design of the Oklahoma City Memorial. At Pea Ridge it was nature that took on the work of repairing the destruction that man’s violence had wrought. Nature, filled in the shell craters, and healed the wounds on the vast field with swaths of green enveloped by stands of trees.
Meanwhile, the centerpiece of The Oklahoma City Memorial is a reflecting pool, bracketed on each end by massive twin gates. One gate is engraved with the time 9:01, the other, with the time 9:03; framing the exact moment of the detonation – 9:02. The 9:01 gate represents the innocence before the blast, and its twin represents the moment that healing began.
From the Oklahoma City National Memorial Website, “The pool occupies what was once N.W. Fifth Street. Here, a shallow depth of gently flowing water helps soothe wounds, with calming sounds providing a peaceful setting for quiet thoughts. The placid surface creates the reflection of someone changed forever by their visit to the Memorial.”
Off to the side of the reflecting pool are 168 chairs, each representing a victim of the bombing. Nineteen of the chairs, smaller ones, represent the children who were killed.
I’ve toured a number of Civil War Battlefields; Gettysburg, Spotsylvania, The Wilderness and Fredericksburg. They’re bucolic places now; vast fields of emerald green, dotted with flowers and ringed by lush trees.
As I walked around The Pea Ridge Battlefield I could imagine spreading out a blanket and enjoying a picnic lunch while listening to the chirping of birds and leaves rustled by a pleasant light breeze.
What was once a place of destruction, death and horror is now one of tranquility. It’s a place where people go for a jog or ride a bike or, yes, have a picnic. But, for the instruments of war that remain, cannons that mark the lines of opposing armies, one wouldn’t know that over 3300 young men were either killed or wounded in a place that is now so incredibly serene.
When the Civil War ended, Abraham Lincoln’s new objective was to bring the nation back together, to heal. He was of course assassinated before he could take on that task.
Over a century later, the twin gates at Oklahoma City were built to represent innocence and healing. Looking back and seeing where we are today, I wonder if that innocence wasn’t really naivete. The twisted ideology that McVeigh adopted was birthed before The Civil War, became the fuse that lit that war and endured until 9:02 on April 19, 1995, and unfortunately, beyond.
What of the gate that represents healing? The ideology that captured McVeigh’s perverted imagination never went away. McVeigh was, and still is, seen as a hero by white supremacists; a martyr following his execution.
It’s an ideology that, long after McVeigh became a foggy memory, we’ve denied or pigeon holed away as fringe lunacy. And then it all presented itself again on January 6th of this year.
This isn’t the travel piece that I’d envisioned writing but it was impossible to ignore the ironies, to leave them unsaid. The irony of two points, a mere few hours apart, being so incredibly serene and beautiful after having witnessed horrific violence.
Nature reclaimed Pea Ridge, restoring it to its original beauty; a scene that makes it difficult to comprehend the destruction that occurred there. In building the Oklahoma Memorial, man didn’t erect another building, but instead turned to the elements of nature. He incorporated those elements of nature that suggest quietude; a pool of reflecting water, the green grass, and colorful flowers.
It’s ironic that I found myself in these places on the weekend when we honor the fallen in war, Memorial Day, established following The Civil War.
Both Pea Ridge and the site of the Oklahoma City bombing are former battlefields in a war that continues. It’s our national internal struggle over the same perverted ideology that has long threatened our peace.
These places and events carried a warning that we failed to heed, a failure evidenced by the events of January 6th, 2021.