Mr. Calvin Battle had suffered a stroke. He was 62 years old, and he and his wife Peola had decided to apply for disability assistance, so they were there that morning, at the Social Security Office of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, downtown Oklahoma City, just after nine, when Timothy McVeigh detonated the massive explosive charge that killed them, both of them, and 166 others.
It was April 19, 1995, a date McVeigh deliberately chose because it was fittingly a double anniversary. McVeigh was not without a sense of history, after all. He chose April 19, because that day was the anniversary of the FBI's siege of the compound of David Koresch at Waco, Texas, a siege which had ended in an inferno that took the lives of 76 Branch Davidians.
April 19th was also the 220th anniversary of the "shot heard round the world," as Emerson put it, at the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the first military engagement of the American Revolutionary War, in 1775. McVeigh considered himself a super-patriot. He was convinced the government was evil, the second amendment under siege. He was ex-military, had served his country, and had argued himself into believing that he was serving freedom itself by renting a truck, filling it with explosives, and blowing up the Murrah building, downtown Oklahoma City, in retaliation for what the government had done to Koresch and his followers and, he must have figured, what they would continue to do in the war against freedom. He wore a t-shirt that morning with an inscription he took from the pen of Thomas Jefferson: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants."
He was more than willing to kill innocent victims like Mr. Calvin Battle and his wife Peola, but he was also willing to die himself. He was, after all, a patriot. The government was the tyrant.
An old American elm across the street lost all its leaves in that bombing, a bombing that killed 168 people, including 19 children at the Murrah building's second-story day care, and destroyed hundreds of buildings all around the site. That old elm has battled back and still stands where it was, and is, therefore, in some ways, the most glorious symbol of the stunning memorial which the city has built at the site.
A nearly motionless reflecting pool lies quietly right there where the street once was, and just to the south stand 168 empty chairs at places roughly corresponding with the places where each of the innocent died that morning, Calvin and Peola Battle among them. A remnant of the wall is still there too, its jagged outline a reminder of destruction created by an explosive charge McVeigh smartly jerry-rigged for little more than $5000.
That black slash in the earth that is the Vietnam Memorial, in Washington D. C., simply shushes those who visit. The Oklahoma City Memorial has the same effect. Here, it may well be the look and sound of the water. Whatever the reason, it's a stunning place to visit, as memorable, in many ways, as the Vietnam Memorial.
Yet, the two could not be more different. Maya Lin's masterpiece design stuns visitors by reminding them of the massive gifts the American military, America itself, gave in a cause history will question for hundreds of years. It's a slash, a scar, an incredibly beautiful scar, if there can be such a thing.
But Calvin and Peola Battle weren't military. They hadn't enlisted in anyone's cause, and they hadn't been drafted either. They weren't there that morning for a cause. They may well not have even known much about David Koresh or even the shot heard round the world. They simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, a moment when a madman super-patriot determined that the government had to pay for its evil because this was a holy, holy war.
The Vietnam Memorial begs us not to forget those who died for us. That motionless reflecting pool on the street where McVeigh parked his rental truck full of death begs us always to remember that madness, even when it's cloaked in love of country--and maybe especially then--is still madness.
But that old elm is still there, and when we visited Saturday at dusk, it was beautiful in the setting sun, just beautiful. It has been watered by blood, but it is no more a symbol of freedom than is that jagged wall.
That old elm is a symbol of life itself. It's there. It's still there. And it's beautiful, remarkably beautiful.