Oklahoma memorial: Bomb site turns sacred

“Beacons of hope” have replaced sirens and searchlights; soil covered by death and destruction has become sacred. That’s how Polly Nichols describes the transformation of 3.3 acres in downtown Oklahoma City.

She is one of the more than 700 people injured in the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The incident killed 168, including 19 children.

“The experience has enriched my life in many ways,” says Nichols, who was working in an adjacent building when the bombing occurred. “We don’t know what is inside of each of us until we are tested.”

Now the bombing site is an awesome memorial, and Nichols is one of the people who introduces visitors to it.

There are about 750,000 visitors annually at the Oklahoma City National Memorial Center Museum. Kari Watkins, executive director, says about 90 percent come from outside of her state.

“We have dealt delicately with the fact that this is a tourist attraction,” Watkins says. “It has become an economic development engine for the city.”

Professor Edward Linenthal, who teaches religious studies at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, calls it “an activist memorial environment” that “really is an act of protest to the faceless nature of terrorism.”

He has done extensive research and commentary about America’s memorials since 1979; his books have included “T he Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory” (Oxford Press, 2001) and “Preserving Memory: The Struggle to Create America’s Holocaust Museum” (Columbia University Press, 2001).

Linenthal compares the compelling nature of the Oklahoma City endeavor to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Both are “living memorials” that are “for the wider culture” that otherwise tends to forget its tumultuous history.

A huge crowd will gather at the Oklahoma City memorial this weekend, to recognize the eighth anniversary of the bombing, but hundreds also gathered here after the East Coast terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001.

So the site is more than a simple comfort for the people who lost a friend or relative here. It also is a generic testimonial to the resilience of human spirit, and the need to work together during times of duress.

Dynamic design is one component of the Oklahoma City site – “beautiful but appropriate” is how locals describe it. There were 624 designs submitted from people in 23 countries.

Nichols’ former work site has become a museum that documents, in agonizing detail, the bombing and its impact. The non-profit Memorial Institute for the Prevention of Terrorism – also headquartered here – studies the causes and effects of terrorism, plus how to thwart it.

About 250 interviews with bombing survivors, people who helped them and relatives of the dead are the heart of the three-story museum. Video and audio tapes personalize the incident and tap emotions. Artifacts, be it a child’s shoe found in rubble or a mini-shrine set up for each person killed, help explain why April 19 never again will be just another day in this city.

Outside, huge “Gates of Time” – one wall says 9:01, the other 9:03 – are bookends to a shallow reflecting pool that runs the length of the Field of Empty Chairs. There is one chair for each person killed in the 9:02 a.m. bombing; the glass base of the chairs are illuminated at night.

“The lights are so special here,” Nichols says. “The people who come here, particularly at night, bond without talking.”

Sandy Price, who says she has driven by the site at all hours, never has found it empty.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s 2 a.m. or 5 am.,” says Price, of the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau. The grounds, open 24 hours every day, are patrolled by National Park Service rangers.

“We come here to remember those who were killed, those who survived and those changed forever,” reads the project’s mission statement. “May all who leave here know the impact of violence. May this memorial offer comfort, strength, peace, hope and serenity.”

For more about the memorial, call (405) 235-3333 or go to www.oklahomacitynationalmemorial.org. To help operate or maintain the site, call (888) 542-4673.

“A Shared Experience” – an exhibit about the shared horrors and hope associated with terrorism events of April 19, 1995, and Sept. 11, 2001 – is in place in the Oklahoma City museum and ready to travel to New York City, Washington DC and other locations “as soon as it seems appropriate,” Price says.

Linenthal says he has been interested in monuments and memorials since he took a high school field trip to Gettysburg, Pa. “The power of that place stayed with me,” says the UW-Oshkosh professor, whose work takes him to Oklahoma City later this month.

He contends that Civil War veterans “no doubt would be stunned if they could see how invisible the monuments of their era have become in our landscape.”

Memorials, be they simple or extravagant, historically have been deliberate testaments to the culture and values of a specific time. They range from a single stained glass window in a church, to life-size statues in a park.

They are evidence of our fear of being forgotten, Linenthal notes.

For more about Wisconsin’s significant monuments and memorials, read “Public Sculpture in Wisconsin: An Atlas of Outdoor Monuments, Memorials and Masterpieces in the Badger State” (UW Press, 1999), written by Anton Rajer and Christine Style.

I was in Oklahoma City for the spring gathering of the Midwest Travel Writers Association, whose membership covers 13 states. It is the country’s oldest association of professional travel writers.
Brought home a couple of awards from the group’s annual contest: a third for writing about traveling solo in Chicago (recent MTWA meeting sites category) and an honorable mention for writing about places to find great chocolate in Wisconsin (newspaper articles category).
It was a pleasant welcome into the organization. I applied for membership and was accepted last fall.