Wednesday, October 28, 2015


At least that’s what the muffled voice appeared to say.   But through three sets of walls it was hard to even hear – much less understand – the announcement made over the loudspeaker.  And although he had already pressed every button on the control panel, that announcement caused Dave to again punch the button labeled “Alarm”, hoping against hope that someone would answer his plea, or at least recognize his presence in the building.  “I can’t afford to panic,” Dave thought to himself.
Dave never really liked elevators anyway.  Like many people he had a slight touch of claustrophobia.   And although his wasn’t strong enough to keep him out of elevators altogether, it was enough to give him a healthy respect for stairways.  Dave would always claim he took the stairs for health reasons.  He just didn’t clarify that it was for mental health reasons!
Dave knew this structure was slated for demolition.  He knew the date.  He knew the time.  He even knew how many pounds of C-4 would be needed and, ironically, which direction the elevator shaft would fall.  Such knowledge was integral to the man whose job it was to supervise the crew tasked with bringing down this once stately – now foul and crumbling 9 story monstrosity.  But for all the things Dave did know, what he could not comprehend was how he came be trapped inside this elevator… so close to zero hour.
Even when he was a child Dave loved explosives.  On the fourth of July Dave didn’t play with mere firecrackers.  He was an M-80 man!  An M-80, officially described as a pyrotechnic device, is essentially a firecracker on steroids, or at least it was – before it was banned for sale to the general public in 1966.  It contained 50 to 60 times more flash powder than a regular firecracker; enough to take a finger… or a hand.  But Dave lost nary a finger, and he knew what he wanted to be when he grew up.
The fog inside Dave’s brain oddly resembled the cloud of dust he had seen so many times before; moments after he set off the chain of events with the index finger of his right hand.   “Why did I come back into the building?” Dave asked himself, struggling to concentrate.  “I had everything ready; every charge wired and set, every man in his place.  I remember having my finger on the button.  But this isn’t the right button…”
“This can’t be happening,” Dave whispered.  “Not on one of my jobs.”  Dave prided himself in being known as Mister Blast, the best in the business at his chosen profession of explosion demolition.  But Dave didn’t bestow that moniker upon himself.  For three years running that distinction was made by Demolition Monthly, the trade periodical for those who get to play with explosives for a living.  The most recent award was announced in an article that focused on Dave’s safety record.  That month’s cover graphic was a bandage covered by a big red circle and slash, for in 136 jobs engineered by Dave, there had never been the need for as much as a band-Aid. 
Dave fought to recall why he was where he was.  What could have compelled him to walk back inside this doomed structure?  Was something wrong with one of his charges?  Or perhaps someone spotted something that wasn’t right.  Dave was familiar with the urban legends about homeless people who refused to leave and went down with the ship; so to speak.  To this day folks in Oklahoma City speak of October ’77 and that mysterious outline of a man seen staring out a window of the old Biltmore Hotel – at the very moment of the blast.  Of course, a body was never found.  Those are just made-up stories.  Or are they?
“And why are the lights even on?” Dave wondered.  Cutting the electricity to a structure is one of the first things dealt with by his crew.  We can’t have live wires hanging around, causing sparks and fires – and electrocuting innocent bystanders.  Yet not only are the lights on, but apparently the elevators are working.  Or at least they were a few moments ago.  “But this just can’t be so!” Dave thought to himself.  “Yet here I am…”  
Realizing his life was now measured in milliseconds; Dave turned and began to claw at the door.  “Must run… No time left…” Dave struggled to concentrate – to execute an escape from this prison of circumstance.  But the door would not budge.  And, even if he had possessed a step-ladder, his fruitless efforts with the door had left him too exhausted to search for a trap door in the ceiling.   “Trap doors should be located in the floor,” he foolishly thought to himself.
But Dave was not willing to give up.  He was no quitter.  He simply had no idea what to try next. And so, totally overwhelmed for the moment, he collapsed to the floor.  And sitting there realizing he was living the last seconds of his life, Dave’s thoughts turned to a different explosion that took place in Oklahoma City.
Dave’s job was to blow buildings.  But the buildings he brought down were timeworn; no longer functional, or at least no longer profitable.  And his blasts ultimately resulted in useless eyesores being replaced with beautiful things.  The building Tim McVeigh blew up in Oklahoma City was all-together a different matter.   McVeigh’s bomb was built with the purpose of causing pain and suffering; death and destruction.  And the building it brought down was not nearly ready to give up the ghost. 
In the midst of the suffering and loss of life, everyone in Oklahoma – yea, everyone in America took personal offense.  If life had left us any semblance of security, the events of April 17, 1995 dealt a death blow to that naivety.  And we were angry!  Yet Dave’s anger ran even deeper, if that is possible.  See, he considered it a personal affront; as if the man was purposely mocking his chosen profession.  “We are not killers!” Dave screamed back at his thoughts.
Dave’s recollection of the Oklahoma City attack, if not as clear, was more personal than most.   See, at 9:01 AM on that fateful morning Dave was walking down the sidewalk just one block from the front door of the Murrah Building when McVeigh pulled up and parked the Ryder Truck.  And Dave’s life was changed forever.
Dave’s injuries from the explosion on that April morning were not life threatening, but they were life changing.  He would lose the use of his left arm, and his right eye.  And that impish grin he used to try so hard to hide no longer needed to be disguised, as the disfigurement of his face permanently stole away his smile. 
And then Dave heard that word he had dreaded for the last ten agonizing seconds.  And while he grimaced in fear and anguish with what would surely be his last breath, viewers all across America watched the historic and fateful blast on their televisions. 
“Dave, are you OK?” he heard the voice asking.  Dave recognized the voice as that of Roger Taliaferro, his second in command and right-hand man.  At the sound of Roger’s voice Dave realized two things; first, that he was not dead – or else that was really the voice of an angel.  But Dave had been friends with him long enough to know Roger was definitely no angel!  
The second thing he realized was that he needed to respond, lest his inquisitor believe him dead and walk away.  “What happened?” Dave asked.
“Geez Dave, we all thought you weren’t gonna make it,” Roger responded.  “You were injured in an explosion.”
“I know, Roger.  I heard the countdown over the loudspeaker. I was trapped in an elevator,” Dave answered.  “Who gave the command?  Who pushed the button?”
“Countdown?  What Countdown?  What loudspeaker?” Roger asked with a look of concern and confusion.  “And what elevator?   You weren’t in an elevator.  You were walking down the sidewalk.”
But Dave did hear a countdown.  “I know I heard a countdown,” Dave demanded.  “It was muffled but I know it was a countdown to an explosion, because I heard the explosion.”
Right then Roger noticed what was playing on the television.  The date was May 23rd, 1995, just over a month since 168 lives were taken and over 680, including Dave, had been injured by the Murrah Building bombing.  And today was the day the remains of the building were to be leveled – by explosion; a job neither Dave nor Roger would have relished.    
The human mind is a complex organism.  It thinks and schemes.  It reckons and dreams.  And sometimes those dreams interweave themselves with reality.  Slowly the realization came upon Dave that he had not been trapped in the elevator of a doomed building, but was resting in his hospital bed; the bed he had occupied for over a month now. 
Dave prayed a prayer of thanks that day in May.  He thanked God it was just a dream.  He thanked God the bombing of 1995 would teach mankind that violence holds no answer to the troubles that plague us.   And he thanked God he survived the bombing to end all bombings, for surely never again would anyone ever hate deeply enough to destroy a whole building!


Photo of the Murrah Building, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma - in the public domain.

Monday, October 26, 2015

The Stephens County Mafia

Duncan Oklahoma is a quaint little town in the southwestern region of the state, where life is quieter and slower than the Big City.  That’s not to say the town has never had its heyday.    It was in Duncan that Earl P. Halliburton first set up shop, founding that megalith of a corporation that bears his name.  You remember Halliburton; made famous by Dick Chaney and allegations of massive war-time profit taking.

But if you are assuming Earl P. to be the only man of fame to have roots in this forgotten hamlet, allow me to set you straight.  Remember Hoyt Axton?  No?  Well, he was that county singer-composer who penned the lyrics to the infamous tune ‘Joy to the World’.  No, not the Christmas tune; the Three Dog Night tune about a bullfrog named Jeremiah!

Also hailing from Duncan would be Ron Howard (who may or may not be my brother), and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Jean Kirkpatrick.  Beyond that, the balance of those finding their genus in Duncan Oklahoma would only be famous to their own people.  Such is the case with my family.   My father’s clan as well as my mother’s put down roots there, making it a significant place in my heritage.

But nowadays, it seems only one thing takes me back to Duncan – a funeral!  Grandparents and parents; uncles and aunts; headstones pock the Duncan landscape like pepperonis on a Sicilian pizza.  So it was with pleasure I was able to make the trek back to the old hometown for a joyous occasion; the celebration of the 80th birthdays of my Uncle Cliff and his lovely wife Kay!

If Stephens County has a mafia, my Uncle Cliff is assuredly the Godfather in residence!  He wheels and deals, moves and shakes, and God forbid your business should conflict with his business.  More than once I’ve felt compelled to warn him to be careful of dallying around fruit stands, especially if his driver called in sick that day!  If this reference is lost on you, rent the flick ‘The Godfather’.  It’s high time you watched it anyway.  And I’m just kidding around.  Uncle Cliff has never had anybody rubbed out (to my knowledge).

As I continue to put years behind me, the ones ahead seem fewer.  And those I love continue to pass away.  So it was a joy to be able to reunite with uncles, aunts and cousins once again, this side of the great beyond.  I especially enjoyed visiting with my old high school classmate and fishing buddy, Cousin Greg Wallraven.  If memory serves me, I always caught more and bigger fish than him at Aunt Jessie’s pond.  (His recollection may be different.)  And I got to again greet two of his sweet daughters, who I found out are fans of my writings.  It was good to see that Greg finally caught some keepers!

Here’s to fewer funerals and more time with those we love!

Photo: Cousins as pallbearers at Grandmother (Nannie) Wallraven's Funeral, March 1998, Duncan, OK
Back row: Dan Oden, Greg Wallraven, Middle row: Reece Kepler, Joe Kepler, Front row: Mark Wallraven (RIP), Hank Wallraven