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 Texas : Features : Columns : "The Girl Detective's Theory of Everything"

Faith Triumphant

by Elizabeth Bussey Sowdal
Elizabeth Bussey Sowdal

I went to Oklahoma City today. And it is beautiful. But, you ask, don't you live in Oklahoma City? I do. But I very rarely go downtown. Today I did, and I was very impressed! I went for a meeting and I guess it was cancelled. At the risk of revealing my basic insecurity I will tell you that I was a little embarrassed to go back to the parking garage after leaving my car there only ten minutes. So I wandered.

It was a beautiful, crisp morning. Everything looked clean and bright. A farmer's market was set up and there was a band playing. Everyone looked happy and nodded or smiled in greeting. I found myself grinning and thrilled, the way I feel when I am in Manhattan. I did not hesitate to crane my neck up to look at the tall, beautiful buildings, both historic and new. I could smell meat grilling, there was sculpture and new construction, beautiful landscaping, bright sun and a cool breeze. There were handsome men in suits and men in cowboy boots and men in t-shirts and jeans. There were women in beautifully tailored business suits, yoga clothes and light fall skirts and blouses. I had a grand time.

Finally, deciding that a decent interval had passed, I went back and retrieved my car. I felt rather cosmopolitan as I slipped the attendant a buck, just as smooth as glass, and enjoyed noticing the equally smooth way he slipped it into his pocket. Just like I used a parking garage every day. Fancy me!

As I left downtown for my own neighborhood, not so far away, I drove past the Oklahoma City National Memorial. On a whim, I decided to stop. There are two tall black walls called The Gates of Time. One is inscribed 9:01 for the moment before the blast on April 19, 1995 which destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, and the other inscribed 9:03 for the moment after. Between the two gates is a long reflecting pool. On the grassy bank to the south of the pool are 168 bronze chairs resting on glass pedestals. Each chair is inscribed with the name of one of the people who died in the blast. There are 19 small chairs for the 19 little children who were killed.

I wandered down the walk, past the chairs. All those chairs. I felt a bit teary, but also thankful to be alive and to be enjoying the sun and the grass and the gleam of the water, the murmur of it and the call of a mockingbird. I remembered a little about that day.

I'd worked the night shift and was sleeping in bed with my youngest son who was 19 months old. I remember being awakened by the blast, how the windows rattled, although our house is three miles away. It was so loud that I woke up thinking that the boiler of the elementary school across the street had blown up. I looked out the window and the school was fine. I went back to bed and cuddled Andrew. A few minutes later the phone rang. It was my husband calling to say that, "something bad has happened downtown. You may need to go to work." As soon as I hung up the phone it rang again. It was the secretary on the med-surg unit where I worked. "This is a Code Black. You are required to be prepared to come to work. Stay where you can be reached by phone."

"Norma?" I asked, "is that you? What's going on?"

"It's a Code Black, Liz. There's been a disaster and we may need to call the night shift in to work later."

"But Norma, who will watch Andy?'

"That's your problem, Liz."

And that is when I knew that something truly terrible had happened, because I knew Norma to be one of the kindest, most gentle people I had ever met. This morning she was all business, and none of it was good.

By 10:00 my step-daughter Anne had arrived ready to watch Andy. I left for the hospital with the car radio on. I was at 13th and Harvey when I heard on the radio, "Someone who knows CPR is needed at the corner of Harvey and 6th St. I repeat, someone who knows CPR is needed at the corner of Harvey and 6th St." I turned south onto Harvey, my heart hammering. But Harvey is one way going north and it was filled with cars leaving downtown. I was confused and frightened and didn't know what to do. I pulled the car into an empty lot on the corner and turned around. I went on to the hospital, trusting and hoping that someone else was able to help. I don't know what happened, if someone was there to help. I hope so.

By the time I got to University Hospital the cafeteria had been transformed into a huge emergency room. I went up to the 10th floor where I worked to see if I was needed, and was told that I should go on to St. Anthony's Hospital which is nearer the blast sight.

As I neared St. Anthony's my shock deepened. Everywhere were people wandering slack faced, streaked in dirt and blood. I saw one man sitting on a wall with his hands hanging limp between his knees, his tie loosened, covered in dirt.

When I got to St. Anthony's I was sent to the gymnasium of the mental health center. It was full to overflowing with healthcare workers who had got there as fast as they could. I waited two hours and then went and asked the lady who was taking our names and professions if it would be alright to go home, because I had to go to work that night. She said it was.

Today, however, eleven years later, I wasn't thinking too much about April 19, 1995, despite where I was. I only wandered, vaguely aware of the bright sun on my head and the fall smell of the breeze.

I decided to go to the museum. I had not been before. I went in and was met at the elevator by a pleasant volunteer who directed me to the third floor.

This museum is like no other I have seen. You start by walking through a gallery on the third floor which shows what was going on that morning, around town. There is some art, some framed newspapers, there is a recording playing of people starting their day.

Next you go into a room and sit on a bench. There is a large table cut in half diagonally in the room and chairs. There is a recording playing of a meeting being brought to order. As I listened to the beginning of that meeting, to the calm, normal voice of the speaker, my chest began to tighten. I realized that I was listening to a real recording. And what I expected came, but my expectation did not lessen my shock. The sound of the explosion seemed to go on and on and on. The lights flashed. We visitors heard the voices on the tape, the voice of an amazingly cool headed woman directing the members of the meeting to safety. It was horrible.

The next gallery is a series of cases with objects. A pile of watches. A pile of key rings. A pile of glasses. Worst of all a pile of shoes. And I could not be there any more. I hurried down the stairs and around unseeing through the second floor. Another volunteer directed me to the exit and soon I was out in the fresh fall air hurrying to my car.

As I drove home I wondered why the piles of watches, glasses, shoes? It was horrible. Sickening. Devastating. And then I realized. It was not the intent of the designers that we should see that exhibit and be detached. It was not an exhibit designed to make us feel better. It was a tribute and a memorial to our pain and loss and horror.

If I had been able to stay, I might have found comfort and healing as I progressed through the museum. I suspect that this is so. Someday I will go back to see the rest. But today, going in there without preparing my heart or my mind for what I might expect to see, it was too much for me.

I knew that I wanted to tell you about this, though I am not sure why. Maybe because it is nearly Sept. 11. I don't know. Before I started writing I did a quotation search. The word I chose to search, without thinking about it, was "triumphant." I found this by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and I think it is just right:
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o'er our fears . . .

Elizabeth Bussey Sowdal
"The Girl Detective's Theory of Everything" >
September 11, 2006 Column
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