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April 19th

Perry Cuskey

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It rained during the afternoon. That's one of the things I remember from twenty years ago today.

Dozens of us had been standing in line for a few hours by that point, and the wait would end up being a few more hours yet. The small strip-mall where the blood donation center was located fortunately had a covered walkway. Those of us already underneath tried to scoot a little closer together so the ones further back might have a some cover. The line was already starting to stretch around the corner by the time I got there. It was far past that point by now.

A few umbrellas appeared as if by magic, handed out by someone. No one complained about the weather. Almost no one left, regardless of how long the wait was. Sometimes when someone did leave because they finally had to, they usually apologized to no one in particular, as if they had done something wrong. They hadn't. Everyone understood.

We were all there for the same reason.

My car was maybe twenty or thirty minutes away from being finished when the blast occurred earlier that day. I was in the waiting room of a local tire shop, reading some magazine, not really paying attention to the nearby TV, or much of anything else. The building was six miles away from the explosion.

Three miles further out, my mother's house shook so hard she thought the windows might break. A few miles directly north of downtown, the floor of the building in which my sister worked suddenly lifted up, and for a moment, everything was weightless. It was accompanied by a sound she'll likely never forget. She knew instantly that a bomb had gone off somewhere. There would later be reports that the sound of the bomb going off could be heard dozens of miles away, in every direction.

I've wondered from time to time if I heard or felt the blast, but didn't realize it, sitting there in that waiting room, six miles to the east. A major Air Force base sits only two or so miles directly south, and we were used to hearing jets scream by overhead, and the sound of engines roaring to life as they were tested over on the base. So used to such things in fact, that we tended to ignore them, or pay very little attention.

If those of us in that little waiting room heard or felt anything, it did not register. I don't recall hearing or feeling anything at all.

Sometime shortly after 9:00, a report suddenly came on the TV about some sort of major explosion in downtown Oklahoma City. They had no further word, but they would let us know when they did. I don't recall much else about that moment except feeling very uneasy as a I listened to that report.

As further reports came in, I found myself more or less praying that it was a gas line explosion. Something, anything, other than what I began to fear more and more it might actually be. Each report was worse than the one before, and it didn't take long to understand that whatever had happened, it was very bad.

Finally, the channel we were watching cut to their helicopter, circling overhead downtown. When the picture first appeared, there was nothing to see. Everything was completely obscured by smoke. The helicopter circled around to the north, looking back toward what appeared to be a building. Suddenly the smoke cleared away, and there it was.

The only thing I remember feeling right then was stunned disbelief. And knowing instinctively that no gas line explosion had done what I was looking at on that little television set above my head.

The rain only lasted a little while. The day had started out bright and sunny, with a high perhaps in the 60's. A typically gorgeous April morning in Oklahoma. When the clouds began to clear that afternoon after the shower and the sun returned, the day turned gorgeous once again. I doubt anyone noticed.

Typically when I would donate blood, my blood pressure would be on the high side. Not enough to prevent my donating, but often enough that whoever was taking it would comment that it was a little elevated. I'd usually make a joke about being nervous about someone coming at me with a needle, or blaming them for having so many cute gals working there.

On this particular day, after standing in line for some six hours following the most horrific thing ever to happen to my home town, my blood pressure was the lowest it had ever been when donating blood. Not just normal, but actually in the low range of normal.

I still can't explain that.

For a few years, I was drawn to the bomb site and memorial on an almost weekly basis. The original memorial consisted of a simple chain-link fence on which people would leave mementos and personal messages. Often it would be nothing more than a small key-chain, or a hat, or whatever the person had happened to have on them at that moment. Something to leave behind as a way of saying they were there, and they cared.

A few people, perhaps having nothing to leave, took small twigs lying on the ground nearby, fashioned them into tiny crosses, and left them against the fence.

Part of the fence is still there, incorporated into the the final design of the memorial. The entire memorial is touching in a way you have to visit to really experience. Those who do visit still leave things on the fence. They were there. And they cared.

At some point I'd had enough of hearing about the bombing and visiting the site, and went through a phase where I literally avoided going downtown, let alone to the memorial. Maybe it was part of my own personal healing process. I lost no one in the bombing. I know people who did. But I lost no one. It still affected me. I had dreams for several weeks after it happened, the details of which I don't remember. Only that they were bad.

I eventually got past that phase, and anymore I'm okay with being downtown, and visiting the memorial. It's unspeakably beautiful at all times. At sunrise and sunset.....words don't do it justice.

I still haven't been able to bring myself to visit the accompanying museum about the bombing and aftermath. That's the next step for me. It may happen very soon. It may happen never.

What does any of this have to do with the Civil War? Not much I suppose. Except perhaps that going through traumatic experiences, painful though they are, sometimes inexpressibly so, teaches us about compassion, and caring, and empathy. In the worst way perhaps. But even the worst things can be turned into good things, if we're willing to do it.

I've always felt a connection to the war, and the people who lived through it, in a way that I often find difficult to explain, even to myself. When I find myself standing on a silent battlefield, the words often don't come, and understanding quietly steps back just beyond reach. But the connection is there. And the connection is personal.

It's the same way when I visit the memorial in Oklahoma City. I wasn't there twenty years ago today. But I'm connected to what happened. And to the painful, remarkably wonderful, recovery and re-birth of this city that followed.

Earlier this afternoon, as I was thinking back on the events of 1995 and where I was that day, I heard thunder in the distance. A short time later, it rained for a little while before clearing off. The sun came back out, and it was another gorgeous April day in Oklahoma.

We hold them in our hearts as we move forward.

Perry



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Perry, I've never been more proud to call you my friend. You have a way of remembering and helping others remember and understand that is so rare.

 

And to add to what I said on Facebook . . . I suppose this should come as no surprise to those of us who know you from here.  The connection you sense to the people, places, and events of the war is something every reader can feel in your writing.  You have more than a mind for history; you have a heart for it and it shows. 

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Perry......

 

I've read 20 years of your thoughts and memories of historical and non-historical events in chat rooms, discussion groups, articles, blogs, on-line essays, our research projects, and in our personal correspondence and texts.  Like a fine wine, you only improve with age, dearest friend.  We've visited and continue to visit many of the places you write about.  Thanks for sharing with me and everyone one else whose lives you've touched over the years with your words.  :D

 

THE MANASSAS BELLE

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