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.