“We shall meet but we shall miss him.
There will be one vacant chair.
We shall linger to caress him,
while we breathe our ev’ning prayer.”
(“The Vacant Chair,” a Civil War song; words by Henry Washburn, melody by George F. Root.)
There are 168 vacant chairs at the Oklahoma City National Memorial. Vacant of human presence, that is; the chairs themselves are filled with love, memories, grief, longing, spirit — everything that represents each victim to their families and friends, and to those of us who knew no one killed but mourn just the same.
I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to visit the memorial if I found myself in Oklahoma City someday. The tragedy seared me, as it did most Americans who watched that horrible story unfold. I was in a stupor of horror, imagining what it was like for everyone, from the victims themselves to the devastated families to the rescue workers. The stories about the children in the child care center, the building’s workers, the people who had simply gone to the Social Security office to complete some task…the personal stories were wrenching. And the barbaric waste was beyond comprehending. Why?
It all came back with unexpected force when I watched the coverage of McVeigh’s execution. The focus was on those 168 adults and children lost on April 19, their pictures and names fading in and out, one by one, during the minutes it took to dispatch their murderer.
When the memorial was about to open, I admired what I saw on the programs about the design and layout of the site, moved by the touching beauty of it. However, I really thought my knees might buckle if I ever tried to enter one of those big gates and stand where it all had happened.
Last summer, though, I had the opportunity to attend a poetry convention in Oklahoma City. The sponsors organized a side trip to the memorial, and I knew I had to go, even though I dreaded it.
We exited the shuttle bus near the chain link fence where people still leave mementos and tributes. I steeled myself by surveying this living monument; then I was ready to enter through the gate.
I was impressed with how peaceful the memorial grounds are. My feelings were similar to what I experience when I visit the Gettysburg battlefield: It’s impossible not to be mindful of what happened there, but the beauty of the place seems to guide the visitor onto a separate plane that rises above the ugliness of blood, destruction, and suffering.
I thought the sight of the chairs would hit me like a blow to the stomach. There’s that cemetery scene in the play Our Town that often depicts the dead as sitting calmly, dispassionately on chairs (I’m thinking specifically of the television production I saw in the 1970s). I thought I would see the Oklahoma City victims seated thus; instead, I saw absence. The vacancies spoke of the futures, the potential that blast robbed from each person the chairs represented, and what their friends and loved ones were robbed of as well.
Although I didn’t feel it was my place, I did walk among the chairs, saying each victim’s name to myself. Naming them was the only tribute I could provide.
I took quite a few photos that day. When I got home and downloaded them to my computer, one that really struck me was this:
I took it standing within the 9:01 gate, looking toward the 9:03 gate. I’m sure it’s a very typical tourist shot, and it didn’t stand out to me at the time as I tried to record what I was seeing. At home, though, with distance adding perspective, the photo took on added meaning for me. It illustrates a kind of timeline of the bombing (the chairs, to the left, are in the footprint of the Murrah Building, the pool is where the street ran where the Ryder truck was parked). It suggests as well the interruption of life and history, as if “normal” life without the bomb continues on beyond that distant gate, with everyone having the day they should have had, the lives they should have enjoyed, as though it’s all behind an invisible shield, out of reach.
I also imagine standing in that gate that commemorates the second before the bomb detonated and being able to freeze that second. Or at least be able to block the truck from progressing on to that fatal spot before the Murrah Building, being able to hold up a omnipotent hand and say, “No, you’re not going there, this isn’t going to happen.”
These aren’t magical gates, though. They’re solid, real symbols of action and consequence and the impact one second can have on the world.