On April 19, 1995 - 20 years ago - at 9:02 a.m., I was sitting at a park bench in Honor Heights Park, enjoying the feeling of spring making its way through the park.
Cell phones were relatively new - and expensive - but I had a cheap Nokia phone that ran on Cingular, which only charged an arm to make a phone call, instead of other carriers’ arm and a leg. Back then, it was so expensive to make a cell call that you almost never gave anyone your number for fear that they would call you - because you paid for incoming calls just like you did for calls you made. When someone called, just their number showed up on the tiny screen - there wasn’t room for anything more.
On that park bench, my cell rang. The screen showed a number: 684-2903. We didn’t have to use the area code for local calls back then. I knew that number, because at work, I sent callers to it every day. It was Kristi Fry, then the city editor at the Muskogee (we still used the word Daily in the title then) Phoenix. He wasn’t my boss, but everyone knew he was in charge anyway. I was a copy editor, in charge of the Sunday and Monday papers, but during the week, I was just in charge of whichever pages the news editor, Vicky Holland, assigned to me.
I answered the call.
“Leif, this is Kristi,” he said breathlessly before I could even say hello. “Someone has blown the hell out of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Get in here as fast as you can.”
I ran to my Ford Ranger that was a thousand miles past its last hurrah and raced from the park to the newspaper’s downtown office, motor clicking angrily at me the whole way.
The newsroom was in chaos.
Reporters were scrambling to get their assignments as they and photographers piled into cars together to demolish speed limit laws all the way to the city. Advertising people were arguing with editor George Benge over how much newshole (the amount of space in the paper for news copy) we would get. Vicky Holland was voraciously munching on a white Bic pen, throwing pieces of paper at all the copy editors who had made it in.
I sat at my place on the copy desk and started hammering away on the main “wire” page, mostly horrific images from the AP photo feed and what little information the news services had been able to gather. I later would shift rather abruptly to the local section as our reporters began to call in and dictate stories - the Internet hadn’t reached the paper yet, so we still did things that way.
Our photographers had to borrow equipment from the AP office in Oklahoma City to send photos to us via satellite. As the story began to unfold of a lone American named Timothy McVeigh who had driven a Ryder truck full of fertilizer up to the front door and lit the fuse, Donna Hales began to uncover a local connection - McVeigh had visited the secretive, polygamous Cherokee County community that called itself Elohim City, where white supremacists quietly plotted against the government.
The coverage of the bombing, its aftermath and the unfolding local connection sprawled out and dominated our paper for the next month, during which I worked every single day without a day off - a record that I believe still stands to this day. I worked so much that I had no time to reflect on the horror of the news I was producing every day. Who even knew before that point that you could make a bomb out of fertilizer?
Through the years, the horror of what then was the worst terrorist attack on American soil has faded, obscured by 9/11. But there are lessons still to be had from 4/21. Oklahoma City was done not by some skulking foreign terrorist organization - though our government initially tried to blame Osama bin Laden. It was planned and executed by a clean-cut all-American psychopath who let conspiracy theories take him down a path that killed 168 people.
Today, it’s easy to think of terrorism as something foreign brown people are trying to do to us, but the reality of Oklahoma City’s bombing is that terrorists can be anywhere, even the innocent-looking boy driving a Ryder truck.
We can either cower and be suspicious of everyone all the time or we can choose to live our lives, make the best of the minuscule blink of time we have here and not worry about all the bad things that might happen. Evil is out there, stewing, brooding, planning. But it always has been. Always will. As we remember a 20-year-old tragedy this weekend, let’s choose to remember it this way - you never know when your journey here will be done, so live today like there is no tomorrow. And then hopefully tomorrow, you can live the same way. Enjoy your spouse, your children, your friends. Let them know how much you love them and appreciate how honored you are that they’re in your life.
One of my old bosses, Morris Cerullo, told me once, “When I die, lots of people are going to send flowers to me. Send them now, when I can enjoy them.”
Don’t wait to live your life.