Thursday, June 5, 1997
Oklahoma looks a lot like home

The Cincinnati Enquirer

This is about Oklahoma City, I promise, but I want to get there through the flat farmlands of Ohio.

When my husband and I were first married, we went to his mom and dad's house for Sunday dinner. At noon. Supper was at night, and lunch was not something they ate, but something for those people who "slept in" until 6.

After a relentlessly bountiful farm meal - two kinds of meat and mashed potatoes and gravy and noodles and green beans with ham and made-from-scratch pie - my pants fit like a tourniquet, and I wondered whether it would be impolite to lapse into a coma. My father-in-law had disappeared toward the barn, where I thought maybe he'd hidden a six-pack of Maalox.

Question from Mars

Instead, he drove down the lane on a green John Deere tractor and waited at the edge of the road. I looked out the window to see a dozen dusty farm machines rumbling toward us. My mother-in-law told me a neighbor was sick and unable to harvest his crop - actually she said "take off his beans," but I knew what she meant.

"That is," I said fatuously, "so nice."

She looked at me as though I was from Mars. "Well, what else would we do?"

What else, indeed.

You could have ignored them or ripped them off. You could have pretended not to notice. You could have demanded that a government agency step in. You could have waited for them to ask for help. You could have insisted on a day of rest after six days of working your own fields.

And the people of Oklahoma City might have behaved very differently after the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was blasted by a 4,800-pound truck bomb on April 19, 1995. They might have looted. But, of course, they did not. Not once. Not ever.

They lined up to give blood, and collected bedsheets and tarps to serve as makeshift bodybags. Volunteers crawled through a treachery of collapsed walls and dangling wires and sagging floors, over bodies and parts of bodies, looking for life. A firefighter said, "All I've found here is a baby's finger and an American flag. You find out who did this."

After Timothy McVeigh was found guilty, they could have mobbed him. They could have sent threatening letters to his court-appointed attorney. Most of them were disappointed, some angry, when the trial was moved to Denver. They could have rioted.

What they did instead was raise $7 million for scholarships for the 70 children orphaned and 120 who lost one parent. They paid for the funerals of strangers. They were at the bedsides of survivors, 29 of whom are permanently disfigured. They planted trees. They prayed. They left teddy bears and flowers at the base of the rubble. A slippery elm, scarred from the blast, became their survival symbol.

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating said firmly, "Anyone who would murder 168 of his neighbors and smash into oblivion 19 children deserves the death penalty."

No pushovers

That sounds about right, too. These people have been dignified and generous, but they are also strong and tough. Farmers keep nice big dogs that flop lazily on the porch, letting barn kittens tumble over their paws. But they will use their teeth on intruders.

Straddling an oil field and boasting the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Oklahoma City was settled in a single day in April 1889 when 10,000 homesteaders charged in to stake the first claim. Tough guys and farmers. Now its citizens earn more money from industry than from the land, but they still grow respectable crops of winter wheat, sorghum and soybeans.

Not quite Texas, a little bit Sunbelt, a shade Midwestern, Oklahoma is our country's heartland. We know its people. They are like all of us. On a good day.

Right after the verdict Monday, a chirpy network subanchor was talking to a man from Oklahoma City about the way the town has rallied behind the victims. As she blithered - fatuously - about the remarkable kindness and grace of the people of Oklahoma, the look on the man's face was very familiar. It was the "you must be from Mars" face, and I thought I knew what he was thinking.

What else would we do?

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio, and as a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition.