I never met the man I’ll refer to as Robert, but I feel like I know him. Tragically, his story is true.
Robert was only 20 years old when he was killed in Vietnam. It can be persuasively argued that he died an unnecessary death. Today he is just another heartbreaking statistic like the tens of thousands of other soldiers who died in the national tragedy that was referred to as merely a conflict even though our involvement spanned 15 plus years and 5 Presidencies. His death occurred in the early 1970’s as a result of “small arms fire” – an innocuous phrase which doesn’t begin to relate the horror of dying alone, thousands of miles from home. Unfortunately, his story is not much different from that of so many other soldiers who served in Southeast Asia, which is what makes it so infuriating. Sadly, as history has proved, there was no need for his life to be snuffed out at such a tender age.
I discovered Robert by accident while looking online at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. I did some research and discovered that there were many things about us that were similar – including the fact that we were born in the same month within a few days of each other – however – he was 4 years older than me, and that simple fact cost him his life and saved mine. 48 months made all the difference in which of us had to go to hell and die and who got to stay home, get married, have a child, run a successful business and have a long, rewarding life. The unfairness of one person dying while another gets to live is an issue that humanity has always struggled with, but the inequity is even more pronounced when death occurs without sufficient cause.
I do not know whether Robert was drafted or if he enlisted. Perhaps he believed in the moral claim that we should fight communism wherever we might find it, on the other hand, he may have had strong feelings that the war was immoral and that we had no right to be there. Whatever the case, he lost his life due to the poor decisions that were made by politicians who were far too willing to escalate the fighting as long as they didn’t have to witness first hand the effects of their decisions. It has always been the case that the price of war is paid by the brave soldiers who are wounded and killed while political leaders sit back in safety and comfort pondering their next military move without considering the appalling death and destruction that result from their actions.
If Robert had lived he would be nearing retirement age, but he would still have many years of life ahead of him to enjoy. If he had not been cut down in Vietnam he probably would have gotten married and had children who, in turn, could have given him grandchildren to spoil. He could have chosen a meaningful career and spent his free time engaged in pursuits that he found fulfilling. He could’ve used his life to make a positive difference for others. It is impossible to know how many lives he could have affected, the influence he could have had or the change he could have made in the world – but it was not to be. Robert’s life was taken by another human being who knew that shooting him was absolutely necessary to avoid being shot himself…kill or be killed…that is the insanity of war.
Each tragic death that occurs during a military action produces countless questions. Did Robert look into the eyes of the person who shot him or did the bullet seem to come from nowhere? Did Robert die instantly? Was he allowed to escape agonizing pain or did he linger and suffer while waiting for a helicopter to come to his aid? Did he slip quietly into shock or did he cry out over and over again for his loved ones? Were his buddies able to get to him immediately or did it take hours to recover his body? What about the individual who shot him? Was Robert the first person he had ever killed or had he been exposed to the horror of war for so long that it was no longer shocking to take a human life? Perhaps his enemy is still alive today or maybe they eventually shared the same fate.
When I think I’m having a bad day, I try to remember Robert. The sacrifice of his life certainly puts my insignificant problems into perspective. I have now been blessed with an additional 38 years that was denied to him. I hope that I have not wasted those decades foolishly. I do know that as I grow older I have a more heightened sense of time. The realization of just how brief a human life span really is begins to settle in when you reach your mid-fifties. You look back and consider the choices you made, you think about the things you did or didn’t do. You wonder if you were unkind or selfish. You worry that you might have taken advantage of other people. You are concerned that you might have hurt others by being careless. But worst of all you are afraid that you neglected the ones you love. In the end you wonder whether you contributed in any meaningful way to making life better in this world. Upon reflection it is quite easy to feel regret about not appreciating the value of every single day.
But at least I was allowed to experience those days. By being born 4 years after Robert I did not have to experience the terror or degradation of war. I was spared the stench of seared flesh and the sight of mangled corpses. I was spared from seeing the small graves dug for children. I was spared from the brutal reality of having to pull a trigger and end another human being’s life. I certainly did nothing to deserve my good fortune, anymore than Robert deserved the fate that was handed to him. It is simply the way it happened all those years ago.
The legacy of Vietnam can be found in the horrific numbers; 58,227 killed. 150,000 plus wounded. 21,000 permanently disabled. Each individual statistic represents a human being who had hopes and dreams just like you and me. Each one of these people had family and friends who loved them deeply and whose lives were changed forever by their death. Robert was simply one person who, along with more than 200,000 others, had their lives shattered by political considerations that were given more weight than the value of human lives.
I know for a fact that both of Robert’s parents lived many more years without him. How deep was their pain each time they endured another Christmas without their son? How much sorrow did they have to withstand when his birthday came each year? How many times did his mother wish she could give him one more hug? How often did his father grieve because he knew that Robert would have been a wonderful dad if he’d been given the chance to have children of his own? How many years did the anniversary of his death haunt their lives? While it is true that the pain of losing a loved one diminishes over time, the fact remains that a parent never expects to outlive their child. It does not seem right. It is not the natural order of things. But, of course, there is nothing natural about war.
Each year on the last Monday in May we remember those who have tragically fallen in the line of duty – but the true tragedy is that there has to be a Memorial Day at all.
DOES IT MATTER HOW A CHILD DIES?
You are driving alone down a city street. It is a nice day and you are in no particular hurry. You are observing the speed limit of 40 miles per hour and you are paying full attention to your driving. Your cell phone is turned off, and for once you don’t have the stereo on. Suddenly you notice something out of the corner of your eye. From the right side of the street a small child darts out in front of you. In a split second you slam on the brakes with all your strength. You yank the wheel as hard as you can to the left, but it is too late. You hear and feel the sickening impact as your vehicle strikes the little boy.
The force of the impact hurls his body over 15 feet. He hits the pavement and rolls several times and then lies motionless. Your car has come to a stop but you can’t let go of the wheel. You can’t breathe and you feel sick at your stomach. You realize you are shaking violently, but you can’t bring yourself to open the door. Slowly you become aware of other people. Some have cell phones and are obviously calling 911, others rush to the child. They crowd around his body so your view is blocked. You feel tears rolling down your cheeks and you blink to try and hold them back but you can’t. You hear someone yell that the boy is not breathing. You watch in absolute horror as people move back to make room for a woman who begins to perform CPR.
You open your car door and step out, but your knees buckle and you collapse to the pavement. You are softly crying and you begin to pray as other people run over to you. A lady leans down and tells you that it wasn’t your fault. The child came out of nowhere, and there was no way you could miss him. Her words are meaningless. A person kneeling near the child calls out that the boy is not responding. You begin to sob. How could this be happening? You were doing everything you were supposed to do. You were being safe. You were following the rules. That child should not be lying in the street without a heartbeat.
Off in the distance you begin to hear the sirens. Help is on the way but you know it’s too late. Within minutes a police officer is by your side, and paramedics have taken over the life saving efforts on the little boy. Everything is a blur, you can’t clear your mind and focus. The officer is asking you questions but you can only think about the child. Time is suspended. You begin to realize that by taking this human life you have also destroyed your own life. Nothing will ever be the same. This day on the calendar will bring recurring pain for the rest of your life.
Months later you are still dealing with the horror of that day. It is difficult to sleep and when you do, you dream of the impact over and over again. Friends and family don’t know how to help you. Everyone has tried to point out that you are a good person, and that it wasn’t your fault. It was just “one of those things” that unfortunately happens in life, but their words ring hollow and bring no comfort. Being a good person doesn’t enter into the fact that you inadvertently took the life of an innocent child. The little boy is dead. His family lives in despair. Your life is filled with misery. You will never again be the person that you were.
How much money would you give to bring back that child’s life?
How much would you pay to go back in time and relive that day so that you could take a different route and this tragedy would not have occurred? What would you pay to avoid killing that child?…Would that little boy’s life be worth 25 cents to you? That is how much it cost to feed a meal to a child in extreme poverty. For a quarter you can feed a child a meal that will keep them alive. For $7.50 you can feed a meal to that child every day for a month and by doing so you can save their life.
It may seem inappropriate to put a price on human life but it is necessary in this case to demonstrate what a significant difference a small amount of money can make. Most people would spend every dollar they have in the world to bring back a child they accidentally killed with their car, but those same decent people won’t spend a quarter to save the life of a starving child. It is two totally different reactions to the same result; the death of an innocent human being.
Whether we accidentally kill a child near our house or a child starves to death out of our sight on the other side of the world they are both just as dead. Whether we strike the child with our car or let them starve from our neglect, we play a role in both deaths. The world’s children, no matter where they may live, depend on adults to take care of them, and it is our responsibility to do so. Is a particular child’s life more valuable than another’s? Aren’t the lives of all children everywhere precious? How can we make the distinction that unless we are directly involved, the child’s life doesn’t matter?
We would never be negligent to the point where we would harm a child while driving and yet every day we are negligent in feeding children, ensuring they have safe water, providing medical care for them and educating them. We feel no guilt over this. It has no effect on our lives. We still feel good about ourselves. 25,000 children die needlessly each day from extreme poverty, a total of 9,125,000 a year, and it doesn’t bother us at all. But if we were directly involved in the traffic related death of one child we would never recover. We must learn to place equal value on the lives of children everywhere. We must realize they all deserve our compassion and our help.
THE DEATH OF A CHILD IS A HEARTBREAKING TRAGEDY NO MATTER HOW OR WHERE IT OCCURS.
They are not saints – they are not superhuman and they are not perfect. The parents of children and adults with intellectual challenges are just ordinary people. They come from all walks of life. They can be wealthy, economically deprived or part of the middle-class. They can belong to any religious faith or have no affiliation whatsoever. Their ethnicity is meaningless. They can be liberal, conservative or moderate in their political views. They can be any nationality on earth and their age can fall anywhere over a span of 7 decades. However, they do share one special bond that other parents may not understand. They have endured difficult experiences with their loved ones that most of us have been spared, while at the same time, they have developed a deep appreciation for what is really important in life. They have been tested and they have risen to the occasion.
For some, the life they lead was a choice. They lovingly made the decision to adopt a child with special needs or they courageously decided to go ahead and give birth to their baby after a diagnosis of Down syndrome was made. But many mothers and fathers were thrust into this role with no advance warning, and they had no idea what the future held for them and their loved one. To go from the hopeful expectation of having a baby who is perfect, to the realization that your newborn will have certain challenges to deal with for its entire life is a powerful combination of disappointment, fear, anger and finally an acceptance of who their child is and who they will become. Some parents handle this torrent of emotions better than others. Some immediately welcome their child into their family without regard for the changes that will be brought into all of their lives, while other parents go into a form of denial and refuse to believe that their child cannot somehow be made “normal” with enough effort and sacrifice.
However they react, there is a full range of human emotions that any man or woman can go through when they find out that they are now the parent of a child who is developmentally disabled. It is just the first of many times in their lives when they are going to face a reality that is different from what they expected. The adjustments they are forced to make in their own lives and in the lives of other family members are just the beginning. Their future has been altered forever. There is no going back to “before”. Most of the decisions they make in the years ahead will revolve, at least in part, in how they will affect their special needs child. A day will not go by where they can completely forget about the responsibility that has now been thrust upon them. It is a pressure that never goes away because raising a child with special needs is not an easy road. There are moments of pure frustration and searing anger along the way. For some parents there are times when they just don’t understand why they have been placed in this position. They will feel like giving up. They will feel that caring for their child is a burden that is affecting the rest of their family. These are all genuine emotions that are completely valid. To have these thoughts is not wrong. To have doubts and worries is not wrong. To sometimes wish that your life was like everyone else’s is not wrong. It just means you are having human reactions to what, at times, can feel like overwhelming circumstances.
Unfortunately, one of the most serious circumstances that must be continually dealt with is the safety of their child within society itself. Parents of those with special needs rightfully feel protective of their children, but they also know that they cannot completely shield them at all times from those who will be cruel and insensitive. It is the agonizing realization of each parent that their child can be a target for verbal and even physical abuse and that they have to be constantly on guard to make sure that their child is not placed into an unsafe situation. It is a sad commentary on the world we live in, but it is a fact that there are individuals who will take advantage of a trusting child or adult if given the opportunity.
But for all the difficulties and heartaches, there are other moments that make the tears, the frustration and the sacrifices more than worthwhile. When a child begins to communicate either verbally or in some other creative way, when they become ambulatory in some fashion, when they begin the educational process and when they are older and they find employment – these are all milestones that are celebrated with intense pride and unbridled joy by the parents who played such a crucial role in making it happen. But above all else, the one single thing that makes the journey of life with a child who has special needs so rewarding is the love. There is a purity of love that an intellectually challenged individual has for a parent. There is a complete and total trust between that child and their mother and father. It is a bond that will last through all of their lives and it will provide them with the strength, the will power and the good humor to face the many obstacles that society will place in their paths. For each intellectually challenged child that you see accomplishing far more than the “experts” ever expected, there is a loving mother, father or both who have made incredible sacrifices to ensure that their child received the education and supports they were entitled to. When a developmentally disabled adult is able to lead a life that is enriching, they have, for the most part, accomplished this with significant parental help.
In the end it comes down to this; two human beings create a third. The result of that union, no matter how society at large may label them, is a beautiful baby. They are a completely equal member of the human family. They have the same rights as you and I and they deserve the same dignity and respect as anyone else. Whatever medical or psychological terms may be applied to that child as they are growing up the fact remains that they are a living breathing human being who deserves to be loved. When it comes to their worth as a person their IQ does not matter. Their motor skills are not important. Their cognitive abilities are meaningless. They are simply a person who is alive at this moment – on this earth – with everyone else. They deserve the same opportunities, as we all do, to live the best life possible and they have the right to be healthy, safe and happy. A good deal of this will be accomplished by the love and devotion of their parents.
The men and women who love and nurture their children from birth through adulthood know that it is a commitment that lasts for a lifetime. It is a commitment they will never relinquish. It is a commitment that they will never shirk. It is a commitment of pure love. The parents are the unsung heroes who often remain in the background gently guiding their children as they struggle for acceptance and success in life. Their reward is the knowledge that they have given their all to see that their child has the best life possible. Because of those efforts they deserve our admiration and respect. In most cases it was not a life they volunteered for – it was simply the life that was handed to them – and they responded with courage, patience, compassion and dedication.
We should all embrace those characteristics for they represent the very best of humanity.
Unfortunately, one extra chromosome is all it takes to convince some people that you do not have the right to be born – and if you are allowed to come into this world you are considered to be a lesser person by many. Having 47 chromosomes instead of 46 simply means you have Down syndrome. This is a condition that affects an individual physically as well as intellectually, however, it in no way detracts from their humanity or the fact that they are entitled to the same rights as someone who has 46 chromosomes and gives birth. Individuals with Down syndrome deserve the same respect and dignity that you are entitled to because ALL human beings are equal members of the human family no matter what their genetic makeup.
The heartbreaking reality is that at least 90% of all pregnancies in which Down syndrome is diagnosed are terminated. The baby doesn’t die from the condition – it dies from someone else’s decision not to deal with the condition. When you see a new baby girl with Down syndrome you are looking at a human being that has already defied the odds. But that is just the beginning. Throughout her life she will defy the odds at every turn. Professionals will set arbitrary limits on what they think she will achieve and she will surpass them. Some in society will shun her or pity her but she will rise above their ignorance. Some will be verbally abusive and cruel but she will return their small mindedness with the purity of love that she shares with every person she meets. She will make the people in her life feel blessed for having known her and she will make the world a far kinder and gentler place – all because she was not one of the 90%.
In the United States, there are approximately 350,000 people living with this condition. These individuals go to school, they hold down jobs, some live independently and they all have significant abilities and talents to offer society - but we have to be willing to give them the chance. Is it too much to ask that a baby with a chromosomal disorder simply be allowed to be born so that it has the same chance at life as every other baby? Is that really expecting too much of us as human beings? The next time you meet a person with Down syndrome please realize you are interacting with one of the fortunate 10%, but also understand that you are fortunate for having the opportunity to get to know them, accept them and to establish a relationship built on mutual respect. Our days are enriched by their presence.
I have many good friends who happen to have Down syndrome, and they bring amazing joy into my life. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I did not get to spend time with them and do things with them. Their friendship is important. I look at them and I see human beings who are just like me. In fact I have gained a great deal of knowledge from them. I have learned how important it is to be accepted for who you really are. I have learned that it is perfectly all right not to be the biggest or the fastest – the bravest or the coolest. I have learned the value of being tolerant and forgiving. I have learned that words can hurt and that no one should be labeled by others. I have learned that laughter and joy belongs to all of us and not just to those who have money, prestige or power. I have learned that we are all basically the same in the important areas of life – and most of all, I have learned what it simply means to be human.
The number of chromosomes an individual has should in no way determine their opportunities in life. It cannot be allowed to limit their choices or influence their ability to dream. Each one of us deserves the right to be the person we really are. A medical classification should not detract from the fact that we are each entitled to live a full and rewarding life based on respect for our humanity. Every person on earth needs love and has love to give so who are we to say that a person is different just because of a physical aberration from what is considered “normal”? One extra chromosome – so what? An individual living with Down syndrome simply wants to be valued as a person – the same as you or I.
When I think of the countless lives represented by the 90% who are not even given a chance to survive, it makes me wonder what beautiful experiences we are all missing. How much more love and tolerance would there be in the world if those lives were here with us, adding joy and laughter to our world. Life would surely be richer and fuller if they were present and we would certainly be better people for having the privilege of being their friends and loved ones. It is humanity’s tragic loss when the innocent and defenseless are judged to be “inferior” and are not allowed to walk among us as equals. Down syndrome is a scientific fact of life. It is a condition that a person lives with just like any other medical issue, therefore, when it is discovered during pregnancy it should not become a death sentence.
Do you know what your IQ is? Do you feel it is the most important thing about you? Would you want your entire life to be judged by that one single number? Does it accurately describe your personality or your temperament? Should your opportunities or choices be limited by your test results? Would you want others to think less of you if their IQ was higher?
These are the issues faced by a segment of the population that has been categorized as intellectually disabled. For some, their lives have been unfairly limited by this one particular measurement. The weight it has carried has, in some cases, determined the direction of their lives. Often it has been the overriding factor in decisions that may or may not have been correct or in the best interest of the individual. The power of that one number cannot be overstated when dealing with the lives of the men and women who are at the mercy of professionals who make judgments and recommendations based on the results of this data.
No one should have their life adversely affected just because of how they performed on a test. We do not all fit into neat categories. Many people do not endure the stress of the testing process that well. For some, a simple lack of focus can skew results. Others do not feel comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings creating anxiety which produces less than accurate scores. This is not an attempt to make excuses for how people do on these exams, but it is an effort to point out that the results can be affected by a variety of factors.
In the world of intellectual challenges, IQ tests play a prominent role in determining possibilities, predicting outcomes and in setting realistic goals. Of course some people place more emphasis on the number than others. State agencies often use test results as part of the criteria for deciding who is eligible for aid and services. Health providers use it as a screening tool to help them focus more clearly on the ability of an individual to function at a certain predetermined level. In both of these cases the test results are used as part of a plan to improve the lives of those who it is felt could benefit from extra levels of care and support.
However, some in the general public view a lower IQ as a basis for intolerance, prejudice and neglect. Individuals who are perceived to be below a certain level of intellectual capacity become targets for exclusion, cruelty and abuse. But what does it say about the abuser’s own intelligence if they lack the ability to feel compassion and respect for those who deserve to have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else? What good does it do to have a higher IQ if your behavior is still guided by ignorance and insensitivity?
I am constantly amazed by how some people believe you cannot interact or, more importantly, be friends with someone whose IQ is significantly different than yours. Why not? You have far more in common as human beings than any differences that might exist. Friendship is built on trust and respect. It thrives on non-judgment and acceptance. It develops through tolerance and understanding. These are qualities we should all be seeking. The world would be a much better place if we would all embrace these truths and apply them in each of our own lives.
When we examine the true significance of measurable intelligence we must consider how it relates to our humanity. Do we honestly believe that it is the most important factor in determining the value of a person? Certainly it can be an indispensable tool in delivering the appropriate supports to a particular individual, but we can never allow ourselves to lose sight of the human being represented by the test score. Each person must be viewed in total and must not be reduced to a number that cannot provide a completely accurate representation of who that man or woman is or what they can achieve.
That is why it is so critically important to remember what IQ does not measure…It does not measure how kind you are, how generous you are or how forgiving you are. It does not measure your sense of humor or the acceptance you find in friendship. It does not measure your enthusiasm or your determination. It does not measure the joy you have for life. It does not measure your ability to dream or to help others find their dreams. It does not measure your honesty, your gentleness or your courage. It does not measure the happiness you bring into this life. It does not measure your sense of wonder, your sense of adventure or your imagination. It does not measure the impact you can have on the world. It does not measure your ability to love and be loved – and most importantly – your IQ does not measure your worth as a human being.
We can never forget that each individual in our society, regardless of a test score, is a completely equal member of the human family. We all have the same rights and deserve the same respect and dignity. No one, under any circumstances, should have their life defined by a single number.
When the average person thinks about Oklahoma two things usually come to mind: Native Americans and the OU Sooner football team – but there is considerably more to it than that.
This medium size state with its uniquely shaped panhandle has been my home for 57 of my 58 years. My family moved here when I was just nine months old which makes it the only home I‘ve ever really known. However, for a good part of my life I spent a significant amount of time wishing I lived somewhere else. This flat, dusty, wind-swept stretch of earth did not hold the same appeal for me as an exciting place like New York City where every opportunity and possibility existed. It wasn’t that Oklahoma was a bad place; it just wasn’t where I wanted to be.
Part of the problem was that I didn’t fit in. Out here in the heartland people drive pick-up trucks. They hunt and they fish. They know how to work with their hands, and they have a special affinity for the land. They embrace nature, and they spend as much time outdoors as they can…I might as well be from another planet. I drive a car made by a company based in South Korea. I’m a vegetarian so I have no interest in killing living things in order to consume them. I have no ability to use my hands in any meaningful type of work, and I can stay indoors for days on end sitting in front of a computer without giving nature a second thought until I hear the squirrels chewing on the wiring in the attic.
But that’s not all. There were other ways in which I felt I did not belong. Politically, Oklahoma is very conservative. I’m a liberal Democrat. My home state is part of the so called “Bible Belt” and Christian fundamentalism is prominent. I choose to abstain from all forms of organized religion. Oklahoma is a hotbed for country music. Garth, Reba, Vince and Carrie all come from here, however, I prefer Dylan and the Stones. I love big cities, but there is an overall rural feel to Oklahoma. Even in the metropolitan areas of this state you know you are only a few miles away from cows. It is an odd place in the sense that it is comprised, for the most part, of empty space. On a clear day you can see 15 miles in every direction. There is nothing, man-made or otherwise, to obstruct your view.
Oklahoma has always had to play second fiddle to Texas, which has bigger cities that attract people, jobs and money. Until we landed the Oklahoma City Thunder NBA franchise we had always been a minor league state. If you wanted to see pro sports you had to drive to Dallas or Kansas City or St. Louis. As a kid growing up, everyone my age idolized Oklahoma’s own Mickey Mantle, the legendary center fielder for the Yankees. And yet no one I knew had ever gotten to see a big league game. We were convinced we lived in the middle of nowhere. It just felt like Oklahoma didn’t belong on the same stage as the big boys. We were always second best. Major corporations would locate their headquarters in the Dallas – Fort Worth metroplex and then if we were lucky we would get a small branch office in OKC or Tulsa. It’s not easy to live in the shadow of the largest state in the lower 48. It seemed like Oklahoma was a place that was easy for the rest of the nation to ignore.
Unfortunately, our history had contributed to an inaccurate portrait of the state. The dust bowl in the 30’s and the stereotyping of “Okies” painted a picture of poverty and a certain lack of sophistication. While it is true to this day that there is still plenty of dust and wind in Oklahoma, it is no less true that it has become a picturesque place in a pastoral kind of way. Out here on the Great Plains, the prairie seems to stretch out endlessly in all directions. On the other hand, it is precisely because of our location that we get to endure a seemingly endless string of tornadoes each year. The Storm Prediction Center of the National Weather Service is located in Norman with good reason. Storm chasers from all over the nation converge on our state each spring because they know that Oklahoma is in the bull’s eye of tornado alley. The wailing of sirens is something you grow up with around here. It is a part of life that you learn to accept just like the relentless 30 mph wind that strikes fear into the heart of any man with a comb over. Twisters, as they are referred to by the locals, are usually rated by old timers based on the year in which they occurred. “Yeah the twister last year was big, but it didn’t hold a candle to the one that took out Ponca City back in ‘55!”
So, all things considered, Oklahoma, in my mind, was not a place you wanted to go to - but rather a place you wanted to get away from.
However, my thinking changed completely on April 19, 1995.
It has been 18 years since the Oklahoma City bombing. 168 mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters were murdered that day. More than 680 were physically injured and many others suffered psychologically as entire families were ripped apart. Not even the most innocent were spared. 19 were slaughtered under the age of 6. On that day, nothing about you mattered. Your gender, your ethnicity and your age played no part in whether you lived or died. The insanity that exploded just outside the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building at 9:02 AM claimed its victims with utter randomness. Flying debris struck down one person while completely missing another. Walls collapsed in one office but remained standing in the next. The thin line between life and death could not have been finer. But for 168 human beings the end of their lives came with such shocking abruptness that it is still difficult to understand. How could such heartbreaking carnage take place on sunny spring day in a quiet out-of-the-way place like Oklahoma.
As the scope of the disaster began to unfold, the entire nation started to grieve for a region that had too often been dismissed by me, and others, as a barren, insignificant part of the Southwest. Suddenly Oklahomans were no longer faceless caricatures stuck in the middle of the country. They were recognized for what they really were; fellow citizens who had suffered the most devastating kind of loss imaginable. It is one thing to lose loved ones because of circumstances that cannot be prevented, but to have them torn from your life needlessly, adds another dimension of pain and heartache.
For a few terrible days Oklahoma became the focal point of the country, and what the nation witnessed was the quiet courage, strength and dignity demonstrated by a region that most Americans had very little knowledge about. They watched with admiration as the people of this state came together as one. After all this time, it is still not unusual to meet someone who lost a family member, friend or co-worker in the tragedy. It is the defining moment in our state’s history, and although it is not something that is constantly discussed or dwelled on, it is ever-present in the fabric of our society. From time to time you come across unexpected memorials put up in various locations honoring those who were senselessly killed, and, of course, there is the Bombing Memorial itself.
When people visit our state, the Oklahoma City National Memorial & Museum is one of the first sites they want to see. It draws people from all walks of life back to a tragic moment in time that united our nation in sorrow. It is a very special place filled with both pain and hope. It honors those who died, as well as those who risked their own safety to rescue the injured. It shows the resilience of the people of Oklahoma and their ability to embrace the future without forgetting the past. But most importantly, the Memorial helps to replace statistics with 168 names and faces.
It was in those immediate days following the bombing that my opinion of Oklahoma changed forever. I finally realized that what really mattered about my home was the inspiring compassion of the people. Our differences no longer seemed relevant. In the span of a week I witnessed the horror of death and the courage of survival. I not only saw neighbors help neighbors I also watched people make amazing sacrifices for complete strangers. In the worst possible moment I saw the best of humanity. The people of Oklahoma demonstrated strength of character that rose above the cruel brutality that had shattered so many lives. I was proud of my state, and I knew that no matter where I might search I would never find better people.
Oklahoma is my home. It is where I went to school, raised a family and will probably retire. It is regrettable that it took such a tragedy to open my eyes to what was already all around me – but it was just one more lesson learned from that awful day.
It is important to remember April 19th for exactly what it was.
It was a day when children waited for mothers and fathers who never came home.
I used to frequent a restaurant on Saturday mornings, and there was a group of old men who sat in the corner and drank coffee together. It was usually the same bunch of ten to twelve although occasionally someone new would join and a regular would drop out. The old men liked to sit and solve the world’s problems over steaming cups of black coffee. You wouldn’t find these guys drinking flavors like Irish Mocha or French Vanilla or adding whipped cream to their drinks. These were men with nicotine stained fingers that sometimes bothered to shave the overnight stubble but just as likely would not. Their faces were deeply lined and their skin was leathery from years of hard work in the sun. None of these men had ever paid for a tan. They would discuss politics, religion and every other topic that is forbidden and occasionally the political talk would become heated, but eventually cooler heads would prevail and the local sports teams would become the unifying subject they could all agree on. Some of these men were obviously farmers. They proudly wore caps with the logo of their favorite farm machinery on them, and a couple wore overalls every week. Others had probably been businessmen, factory workers – almost anything.
Over the months I couldn’t help but notice that one of the men was a little quieter than the others. He seemed to have full acceptance within the group, but he caught my attention because he wasn’t as loud and didn’t laugh quite as much as the rest. I eventually learned his name was Pete. One morning the guys got to talking about how annoying their wives were, and they began throwing around the usual stereotypes that crop up when a group of men, who have been married to the same long-suffering woman for decades, feel the need to express their marital frustrations. However, I noticed that Pete didn’t say a word. He just sat silently staring into his coffee cup. It was at that point I noticed he wasn’t wearing a wedding ring like the others. After the joking and complaining about the wives subsided one of the men turned to Pete and gently asked, “How long has Louise been gone now?” Pete looked up with an expression that conveyed both weariness and pain and softly answered, “Three years, last month.” The old men sat silently for a time each contemplating what their days would be like if the woman they had shared a lifetime with was no longer by their side.
As I eventually learned, Pete had been a medic in the Korean War, and the horror he witnessed during that conflict affected him for the rest of his life. He had come home in a different mental state, and his outlook on the world had completely changed. He often disagreed with the other old men who always seemed gung-ho to bomb someone somewhere back into the Stone Age, however, he had witnessed so much death that he could no longer stomach the thought of it. But it was the fact that Pete had lost a son in Vietnam that made the others respect his opinions about peace. His boy had been killed by small arms fire just 6 weeks before his tour of duty was over. Pete and Louise had gone to Washington DC one summer to visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Like so many others they had found their son’s name and made a tracing of it on a sheet of paper. Pete carried it in his wallet so that he was never without it…But there were also good things in his life. I found out Pete had two beautiful daughters who meant the world to him, and he loved to show off photos of his great-grandchildren. He didn’t travel to see them as much now that Louise was gone, but they still kept in touch and came to visit him whenever possible.
Over the next year or so I slowly learned that after returning home from the army Pete briefly considered using his medical training for some type of civilian work, but his nerves were frayed, and he knew he couldn’t handle anymore human suffering. Instead he took a job at a local manufacturing plant that produced tires for cars and trucks. He spent 46 years at the plant working his way up to management. When he retired, a small party was thrown for him and he was given a few simple gifts and a pat on the back for giving four decades of his life to the company. It was a few months after his retirement when Pete stumbled onto the group of men drinking coffee each morning at the restaurant near his home. Like him, many had been told their services were no longer needed, and they too had been cast aside after it was determined their ongoing usefulness to a particular organization was in doubt. Pete had felt lost without a job to go to each day, but now he discovered he wasn’t alone. It didn’t take long for Pete to become one of the regulars.
Over the next couple of years I had breakfast almost every Saturday morning at the restaurant while I listened to the old timers talk longingly about how things used to be. But my attention was always drawn to Pete. In the beginning I thought he was just another old man, the kind of person you see every day without giving a thought to, but the more I learned about him the more interesting he became. It was an odd thing because it seemed like I knew him fairly well and yet we never spoke. We had seen each other so often that each of us would nod when the other came into the building but that was it – just a quiet acknowledgement of the other’s existence – nothing more.
Finally one Saturday morning I came into the restaurant and noticed the old men sitting quietly. As I ate, I kept wondering when Pete would arrive but soon enough I understood that he was never again going to be part of the group. As I listened to the brief snatches of conversation the picture became clear. Pete had suffered a massive stroke earlier in the week. One of the men had spoken to Pete’s oldest daughter, and she had told him that the doctors said that her father would never recover. It was apparently now just a matter of time until he passed. Several of the men blustered about how they would never want to be kept alive in that condition, but it seemed that no one really had the heart to express their opinion on the pros and cons of extending life. The group soon fell silent as they sipped their coffee lost in their own thoughts.
It was a strange feeling that came over me when I realized I would never see Pete again. I wasn’t sure why I felt so sad. I didn’t even know his last name. But for some reason Pete remained in my thoughts over the next few months. I would think about him when I saw other elderly men. I would wonder if he was still alive, if he could recognize the face of a grandchild. About 6 months later the restaurant was closed and eventually it was torn down, but it had served its purpose. It had been a place of community for a group of men who had lived long hard lives, who had been patriotic with more than just words but also with deeds. These were men who had raised families and did their best to make the world a safe and prosperous place for their children. These were men who were now being passed by as younger generations ignored them and the sacrifices they had made.
I’m sure some of the old men scattered to new places to drink and solve the latest world crisis, while others just stayed home. But for a time they had shared their hopes, dreams and experiences. They had connected in a way that younger people do not. Their shared history of life created a bond that was difficult for someone of a different age to understand. Although their appreciation and sympathy for each other went unspoken, it was clearly understood. Each man valued the worth of the other because they were equals. They were survivors.
Pete had led an anonymous life. How many others were like me and had never bothered to learn his last name? But it would the worst kind of disrespect to say it was not a life of consequence. He had been married to someone he obviously loved deeply. He had brought three children into the world and he had been blessed with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He had fought for the country he loved and he had saved many lives in the process. It appeared that he had been a man of character and convictions, and yet he had endured the worst that life has to offer. Pete was just an ordinary man who had done the best he could, in the circumstances he found himself in. What more can anyone do?
How often do we look at older men or women without really seeing them? Do we realize the history that is represented by each of these lives? Many of them made extraordinary sacrifices that I can’t even imagine. They lived through the Great Depression and World War II. They survived marriages, divorces, the birth and deaths of loved ones. They have had a jobs and careers through the years and possibly lost them both. As they aged they have battled their own health problems and they may be bravely living with a disease or condition right now that will eventually claim their life. Everyone that is my age and younger owes a debt to those who came before us that we will never be able to repay. When you see an older person it is easy to forget that they were once the exact same age as you. When you look at them you are seeing your future. We must treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve because one day we will be in their place.
Who knows, maybe someday I’ll sit in the corner of a restaurant and drink coffee with a group of my contemporaries. Perhaps we will also trade lies, exaggerated stories and mindless conversation to pass the time. And if I do, I’m sure I’ll remember Pete and his friends. I will be fortunate to have what they had.