It was a school day. It was sunny, but crisp for April. The weather at the beginning of Tornado season was always unpredictable. I was in the hallway, passing from Mrs. Pearson’s English class to Mrs. Pitt’s pre-algebra class. I held my regulation 5-inch binder close to my chest, just like the sixteen other girls in my seventh-grade class. The boys in our grade had recently created a game in which points were awarded for slapping binders out of girls’ hands during passing period. The snap of flesh on plastic, then the smack of the binder hitting the floor, loosening it’s rings and spewing paper shrapnel down the hallway was their glory and our mortification.
I happened to be one of the girls—bony, be-spectacled and Chiclet-breasted as I was—for which the most de-bindering points were awarded.
So I hugged my binder tight against my ribs.
It was a rowdy passing, as all passing periods are in middle school even a small parochial school like Holy Redeemer on the south side of Oklahoma City. We were crammed in the hallway with the sixth grade and the eighth grade classes between 9:00am and 9:02am, when the BOOM rattled the building.
At first we couldn’t be sure that we had actually heard it, the BOOM. It was deep and visceral and dropped from the sky like the bellow of some celestial bloodhound. Maybe it was in my head, maybe it was the sound of a particularly full binder hitting the linoleum floor.
“Sounds like chili day in the cafeteria!” a boy named Scott joked around his braces.
“It’s a sonic boom” Mrs. Pearson said, her voice steeled with certainty, “Some air Force pilot showboating.” It sounded plausible; there was an Air Force base just south of the city. “He’s gonna get a reprimand for that.” She said as she passed back into her classroom.
In Oklahoma City, between the storms, the military presence, and binder battering, a sound like that can easily be explained away. So it passed through our minds like water once we settled into our desks in Mrs. Pitt’s classroom and passed our homework to the front.
Then another teacher raced into the room, her ankle-length denim skirt snapping urgently against her calves.
“There has been a Bomb.” She said. “A bomb downtown, two miles away.” Then she said federal building, she said truck, she said bomb again.
She said the word bomb so much that it became letter soup, like the mushy meaningless syllables you say to babies.
Then we crammed into the school library with the sixth and eighth grade classes and the television was wheeled in and we watched the local newscasters try to navigate the same vocabulary. The blonde news anchor that was accustomed to covering the Rush Springs Watermelon Festival said bomb while the screen showed people wandering a street in downtown Oklahoma City. Behind them a building gaped open like a face frozen in a scream.
The news showed us a fireman cradling a baby that he pulled from the rubble of the building that was no longer a building. The baby was not identified but we learned later she was the cousin of two of the girls in this room. They couldn’t tell it was her on the news because she was only recognizable as a tiny body, not as a person. The fireman looked into her face intently, as if the force of his will would make her a baby again.
On the asphalt there were shoes that had been blown off in the blast.
A week later I wore a red corduroy vest and a navy skirt and tie and sang a song at a memorial service where the President spoke at the state fairgrounds. We promised one another and ourselves that we would never forget.
Six years after April 19, 1995 at 9:03 am on another morning I sat in another classroom. It was central New York in the crisp autumn with nine other bleary-eyed college sophomores in a creative writing class. It was 9:15 am when we heard the words airplane, world trade center. It was 10:30 when we heard the words windows, bodies.
Like they did at 9:02am on April 19th 1995, the words collapsed on themselves.
The words became gaping holes, like the buildings that once stood, like the lungs that once drew air, the faces that smiled and cried and sang and the bodies that danced at weddings, the hearts that beat. They no longer mean and this that is, they mean something that once was and is no longer.
The eyes of my creative writing classmates on September 11, 2001 said the same word that I saw running through the minds of my classmates on April 19th, 1995.
Our eyes said Here.
Nothing is sacred; nothing is safe, not here, not even here, not anywhere, not anymore.
In and around those dates–April 1995 and September 2001– there were other pulses in other places.
Like on April 20th, 1999 in Littleton Colorado when we heard the words massacre, gun, bullying, gun, video games, goth, kids.
After those dates, there were more.
Like in 2002, when I was a junior in college, and in Washington D.C. we heard sniper, random, lockdown, chaos, gun, curfew, arbitrary victims.
Or on April 16, 2007 in Blacksburg, Virginia when we heard sniper, gun, senseless, massacre.
Like the time in Fort Hood, Texas, on the Army base where my brother was stationed on November 5, 2009 and we said sniper, senseless, massacre, gun.
Or on July 20, 2012 in Aurora, Colorado in a movie theatre we heard gun, armor, automatic weapon, high-capacity magazine, chaos, massacre.
On December 14th 2012 in Newtown at 9:35 in the morning we heard gunman, semi-automatic rifle, gun, closets, children, massacre.
Then on April 15, 2013 at 2:49 in the afternoon in Boston we heard bomb again. We said bomb, amputate, women and children, pressure-cooker, nails.
This was the America of my youth; it is the America of my present. I am part of a generation that has said and heard the words bomb, towers, gun, high-capacity magazine, bodies, sniper, shrapnel, massacre so often and for so long that they have become meaningless.
With each new pulse these words cave in.
Every time the word we are left with is Here. As we look to one another in the aftermath as we promise one another and ourselves that we will never forget, our eyes say Here.
Nothing is sacred, nothing is safe, not here, not even here, not anywhere.
Not for us, not anymore.