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Magazine | Done That

The Ways We Remember

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Posted 06.01.12

His four-day road trip traced I-40 from Durham to L.A. By the end he’d seen the Smoky Mountains, Meteor Crater in Arizona, and met a street cleaner/civic worker named Eureka who showed him around Nashville, where he wandered through the Hilton she’d told him was a favorite among the big country stars. By the time he crossed the Oklahoma state line he’d been on the road for hours. The Devon tower sucked him in, luring him down from the highway as he drove his 2005 Sonata toward downtown Oklahoma City. Chris Bazett was fresh out of Duke, the end of the road of a seven-year-long education in engineering and management. He had to stop to see this building, which he described as strange, the scale of it out of whack with everything around it.

“Do you know anything about this tower?” he asked me, thumbing at the structure behind him. “Do you know how many floors it has?” We stood between the Survivor Wall and the 9:01 gate of the bombing memorial, the bill of Chris’s Duke baseball cap now aimed at the top of the tower, which was hidden in a rain cloud. The drizzle that turned to rain as we talked; the reflecting pool looked as if it had been filled with tiny fish, swimming to the surface to nip at the sky.

Chris was 10 when he first saw the images of the bombing, on the TV in his house where he grew up near Vancouver—“9/11 is another example of seeing something on TV that was surreal, and it’s hard to relate to it because it’s not every day you see something that tragic as it’s happening.” He thinks it might have been the first time he’d ever thought about Oklahoma. He’d wandered away from the construction site around the Devon tower and ducked into the memorial in search of quiet so he could place a phone call—an interview with someone who had a lead for his dream job in Silicon Valley, his ultimate destination. He’d thought the memorial was just a pocket of urban greenspace. I got a call a few minutes after I left him at the gate—by then I’d made it to the west side of the memorial, where the bathroom is marked with a sign shaped like the Survivor Tree—asking if I knew of somewhere else he could conduct his interview.

Chris had never been to Oklahoma before, and he wouldn’t confess to any preconceived notions of the place. He didn’t ask me a single question about cowboys, Indians, or where we were hiding all the teepees. He’s actually a typical visitor to the memorial—the smiling woman at the ticket desk inside the museum told me that she keys in a litany of zip codes that visitors recite for her each day. “We always get someone from Canada,” she said, “from England, Germany—Europeans on the Route. They like to take these kinds of trips.”

The experience begins in an elevator, which assumes the role of time machine, with doors that close with a mechanical wheeze. It rises slowly to the third floor of the old Journal Record building, which now houses the museum. The exhibit moves from a mural- sized aerial photo of downtown Oklahoma City—the Murrah Federal Building blending in to the cityscape against a stark blue, prairie sky—to a recording of the blast that was captured as part of a taped hearing at the Water Resource Board across the street. The blast was recreated for us when we passed through a corner doorway, which shut once we’d entered, coming from unseen speakers above where we sat on benches, in the dark, vestibule-like space. Another door will open then, a museum guide had told us, and we’d get to stand up and walk out. Just like the people in that room on the morning of April 19, she said.

Suspended from the ceiling over the doorway out is a flatscreen, lit up with what was probably the world’s first glimpse of the results of the then-most-violent act of terrorism within U.S. borders. The video was shot from a camera in a helicopter as it circled the building from the east to expose the north. The sound of the reeling of the reporters’ minds is as audible as their voices. They seemed to struggle with that to say, what to report.

From there it’s a multimedia barrage for the museum visitor, anchors in dated hairdos and images of bodies and rubble lit up on screens that seemed to be omnipresent, from which I found reprieve only in the ladies’ restroom. Familiar faces and names were tied to artifacts like a set of tattered manila folders in a leather briefcase, scribbles of no-nonsense handwriting still visible on the tabs; crushed file cabinets and rotary phones; a pile of shoes in a Plexiglass box, one hovering over the rest on a shelf; a pair of white L.A. Lights belonging to a girl whose name I recognized from the rows of chairs outside, the laces dangling. She was my son’s age when she was killed. What can a tragedy museum do, when our families have to share their dead with an experience to which every American, even the ones in visors who always sit in the same seat on the tour bus, feels the right? The final set of elevators that return to the ground floor opens next to the gift shop, where mementos like rescue dog plush toys and Survivor Tree key chains are beautifully merchandised and arranged, all in rows.

The two-millionth visitor to the museum was part of a small group of Oklahomans—four women and three children who had just left a June wedding. Vicki Cousatte walked on a red carpet in ripped jeans and flip flops through a crowd of clapping dignitaries. Kari Watkins, executive director, has commented on how she wished more Oklahomans visited the museum. The turnout from residents of our state will continue to improve, Watkins said—“partly because we’re far enough away from the event. People are not as—it’s not as fresh in our system,” she told me. “We were just trying to get somewhere where it was cool,” Cousatte told the welcoming committee. One of the children mentioned how “it was 9:01 when it happened. So we were trying to talk to him a little bit. Then they said they wanted to go through the museum. So we just walked in.”