Oklahoma City National Memorial

The most well known attraction in Oklahoma City is also the most tragic – the National Memorial and Museum highlights the bombing of the Murrah Federal building on April 19, 1995 which killed 168 people and injured almost 700.   At the time, it was the biggest terrorist attack in the history of the U.S.   If I was to make a list of the top ten museums I have visited during this trip this would be on the list.   It is an exceptional memorial and museum.    One word kept going through my head as I wandered the museum exhibits, “powerful.”   The museum really brings to life the horror of this day and the aftermath for the citizens of Oklahoma City, a very sobering place and a not to be missed visit.   The original message in photo above was written by a rescue worker and is on the building where the museum is now located.

A visit here encompasses two experiences, the memorial and the museum.   I checked out the memorial first which is the former location of the Murrah Building.    Where the building once stood is now a field of empty chairs arranged in nine rows that show where victims were working or visiting when the bomb exploded.   There is a chair with the name etched of each person killed.

The reflecting pool was once NW Fifth Street in front of the building and at each end are the “Gates of Time.”    The 9:01 East Gate depicts the innocence before the attack and the 9:03 West Gate marks when healing began.

The museum is located in the former 80 year old Journal Record Building which sits across from the reflecting pool and field of chairs.    Prior to the bombing, this building housed a newspaper office, Masonic lodge and insurance company.   It survived but needed repairs and renovation before opening as a museum in 2011.

The museum has a large number of interactive exhibits and one of the first sets the stage for the attack.    I sat in a room with other visitors and listened to the only audio of the blast which was captured at the Oklahoma Water Resources Board Meeting located in a building across from the Murrah building.   The meeting had begun on time at 9:00 a.m. with introductory information provided until 9:02 when the explosion could clearly be heard followed by exclamations from board members.   Side doors of the room where I sat then opened and myself and others filed out to explore the many exhibits filled with photos, artifacts and information about the confusion and chaos that followed.   The force from the bombs collapsed almost half of the Murrah Building and destroyed nine other buildings in the vicinity.  Twenty-five other structures were also seriously damaged and across the downtown, 312 buildings had shattered glass and other damage.   Below is a photo showing the destroyed half of the building.

The museum has artifact displays brought out from the building including the rubble in the photo below filled with office remnants like a phone, reference book and personal items like an umbrella and shoe.   In the next photo you see a battered file cabinet and computer monitor.

Perhaps the saddest part of the bombing were the 19 children killed in the day care located on the second floor.   Below is a photo of a small shoe that was found on site.

One of the more interesting things I read was how location in the building could determine who lived or died.   Just stepping away from one’s desk to the bathroom or copy machine before the blast could change the outcome.   As the signboard pictured below shows, one employee survived while others near by did not.

Another factor that turned out to be a life saver was a change in work schedule that kept some workers away from the building for appointments or other responsibilities.   As I wrote this I thought about my own work schedule before retirement.    I am not a morning person and usually got to work about 9:00 a.m. which means if I was an employee at this building I would have just been getting myself situated at my desk when the bomb exploded.   Or if I was a few minutes late, I might have been walking in the main door when it was going off.

There were many exhibits about rescue operations and the heroes who spent days combing the wreckage, bringing out survivors and finding the dead.   I read in one account that more than 12,000 people took part as well as specially trained dogs.   On May 1, after a few weeks of searching, rescue operations ceased and on May 25 the building was demolished.   The most enduring symbol was the photo of a firefighter carrying out little Baylee who had just turned one year old.   She did not survive.   A sculpture was created depicting the event.

Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, army veterans and perpetrators of the crime were angry at the U.S. government and wanted to bomb a federal building.   The incident at Waco where 80 members of a religious cult died when the FBI stormed the compound is the incident believed to have set the pair off.   The April 19 date of the bombing was the second anniversary of the Waco standoff.   McVeigh drove a Ryder rental truck from Kansas and parked in front of the Murrah Building with explosives made out of all things, fertilizer ingredients.   In one account I read that McVeigh chose the Murrah Building because he believed federal agents in Oklahoma City had a connection to Waco and the building was an easy target.   McVeigh was arrested shortly after the bombing in his getaway car (above) which is exhibited at the museum.   He was stopped by an Oklahoma state trooper because his car did not have a license plate.   He was then arrested for driving without plates and illegal possession of a firearm.   In 2001, McVeigh was executed and co-conspirator Nichols was ordered to serve a life sentence.

After I was done with the exhibits, I took the above photo inside the museum looking out at the memorial and downtown Oklahoma City.   What a great visit – although it has been many years since the bombing, I am so glad I was finally able to visit this special place.

Thanks for checking in!   In my next post an update on our current stay in Northern California and family fun during the Christmas holiday!

Oklahoma City – Bones, Banjos and Beef

One of the more unusual museums I have visited is the Museum of Osteology with over 300 actual skeletons on display.   Many museums of natural science have some displays of skeletons but this museum is unique as it is only about skeletons.   There is only one other museum like this one in the U.S. and it opened in Florida in 2015.   It is run by the same company.

When I first got to the museum I was surprised that the building looked smaller outside than I expected, but inside it was packed with many exhibits on two floors.   The museum is quite detailed with skeletons of many animals seen around the world from large to small.   Although not an exhaustive list, here you can find displays from the families of whale, giraffe, hippo, rhino, elephant, horse, dog, cat, pig, camel, sheep, goat, primate, alligator, turtle, amphibian, snake, lizard, dolphin, fish and bird.  I found it to be a fascinating, informative and different way to look at the animal world.   There are also 400 human and animal skulls.

Upon entry I learned how the museum cleans the skeletons they get.   They use dermestid beetles which are nature’s decomposers.  They clean the bones and skulls by eating the soft tissue (muscle and skin) in all the hard to reach places, doing it quickly.   After the beetles are done the specimen is soaked in different chemicals to remove oils, whiten and sanitize the bones.    Although rather fascinating, I won’t be posting a photo of these beetles doing their work as some readers might find it a little much.

The museum came to be due to the efforts of one man named Jay Villemarette.   As a boy he became interested in collecting skulls and after graduating high school began selling skulls in his spare time.   In 1986 his hobby became a business in Oklahoma City called “Skulls Unlimited” which sold bones and skulls to interested clients.   That business continues today on the same property next door to the museum.   In 2010, the museum was opened.   This is a hobby and business I had not been exposed to before, certainly a unique venture!   Mark is a hobbyist and luckily this is one hobby he has not shown an interest in, at least not yet!   For those that are interested, the small gift shop sells some skeletons and skulls or others can be purchased through the business.

The American Banjo Museum has the largest collection of banjos on public display in the world. Located on two floors, I was amazed at the number of banjos that can be seen here, more than 400.  One room contained row after row, much more than one can take in.

Exhibits show the long history of the banjo and how the instrument evolved through the years. Starting with primitive banjos made by African slaves in the 1600’s, it moved from the plantation to the stage in the 1840’s with minstrel shows.   During the “classic era” of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, banjos became a popular instrument to perform in the concert halls by classically trained musicians.   In the jazz age of the 20’s and 30’s the best banjos were made with ornately decorated backs like the ones pictured below.

It was after World War II that the banjo found a new popularity with bluegrass music.   Mark and I have enjoyed a number of bluegrass shows featuring the banjo.   In fact, Mark and I met because of the banjo, but that is a story for another day.   Then in the 1950’s and 60’s the banjo was a favored instrument in traditional folk music.   The museum features exhibits of well known and famous bluegrass and folk musicians and their instruments.   The most fun exhibit is on Jim Henson and his Muppets creation, with a focus on Kermit the Frog.   Kermit was a banjo player and best known for playing and singing the “Rainbow Connection” at the beginning of the Muppet Movie.   It had been a long time since I had heard that song or seen the movie, so I was glad the museum was showing a film clip of it.

In the Muppet area is the Muppet Banjo, one of the most famous banjos originally owned and played by British musician Martin Kershaw.   Martin was part of the studio band for the Muppet Show.   Julie Andrews who was a guest of the show first signed the head of the banjo in 1977 and a tradition began.   During subsequent tapings of the Muppet Show guest stars including Gene Kelley, Roy Rogers, Johnny Cash, Elton John, Diana Ross, Peter Sellers and many more signed it until space could no longer be found.

For those that want to give banjo playing a try, there is the Learning Lounge with educational videos on how to play.   Visitors can also select a banjo hanging on the wall and follow one of the instructional videos.   Mark had been wanting to get a banjo for awhile and he was able to purchase one here, the exact one he had been looking into and it was on sale.    The museum staff were friendly and personable which made the visit even nicer.   One staff member named Lucas came down from his office to chat and brought his banjo to play for us.   At certain times Lucas plays in the special event room here which looks similar to the old Shakey’s Pizza Parlors that were popular back in the 70’s and 80’s.   Do you notice how his banjo has a honeycomb pattern on the head?   It was custom made for him because his family is the largest honey producer in Oklahoma.

After looking at bones and banjos it was time to get some beef for dinner!   The place that I had read about previously and people recommended to us could be found next to the National Stockyards in Stockyards City, a part of Oklahoma City.   Stockyards City was founded in 1910, built to serve the nation as a primary source for meat processing and packing.   Cattle, hogs and sheep were transported here first by cattle drive and later by railroad and truck.   The packing plants closed by 1961, but the Stockyards still operate with cattle trading and related businesses.   Stockyards City is the place that cowboys, cattlemen, ranchers and horsemen come to shop for clothing, equipment and supplies.   They also come to get a good meal like the one they can find at Cattlemen’s Cafe, one of the most famous restaurants in Oklahoma.

Cattlemen’s Cafe has also been around since 1910 and is known for their excellent steaks.   It had been a long time since we had eaten at a steak restaurant, perhaps the second time during this trip.   I am not a big steak person but I loved the steak I ordered here, it was so good!   It reminded me how great a perfectly cooked steak can be.    The atmosphere felt small town with the locals catching up with each other in the old fashioned dining room.

Thanks for reading!   In the next blog my favorite museum visit in Oklahoma City!

Oklahoma City – Capitol, Centennial Land Run & Cowboy Museum

We arrived at Oklahoma City, a place I had been wanting to visit for several years and the 31st state of our RV travels!   We stayed five nights and for me this became my “museum visit” because for several days in a row I explored five different museums, some of the best of our travels.   I was also able to add another capitol building to my list, bringing the total this trip to 13.   The Oklahoma Capitol has an unusual significance that you won’t see at any other – a working oil rig.   Standing in front of the building, it is named Petunia #1 because in 1941 it was drilled in the middle of a flower bed.   The Capitol grounds actually sit on an oil field that has produced millions of barrels over the years, more than enough to pay for the building.    There used to be more oil rigs but the wells dried up so Petunia is the only producing well left.

The capitol building was having major work done with scaffolding, construction signs, temporary fences and cranes all around.   There was no way to get a photo without all that stuff in it.   It looks like a beautiful building and I would have liked to have seen it “unadorned.”  Due to time constraints I didn’t check out the inside and besides with all that was going on outside, I felt less enthusiastic about trying to locate the entrance.

Located nearby was the Flags Plaza of Indian Tribes of Oklahoma.   There are many in this state – 39 tribal nations with flags marking each one circling the plaza.   Most of the tribes were forced to migrate here from their ancestral homelands, for example the famous trail of tears for the Cherokee nation.   Only five tribes are indigenous to the State.   The name Oklahoma comes from the Choctaw words “Okla homma” which means “red people.”    As we drove through the State I really got a feel for how many tribal nations there are as we kept passing signs that we were leaving one tribal land and entering another.

The Centennial Land Run Monument is an amazing sculpture display of 38 life-like bronze figures.   The land run was an event in 1889 when the unassigned lands were opened up in Oklahoma territory and more than 50,000 Americans rushed off to be the first to grab 160 acres or a town lot.   The Monument depicts how they traveled which was by wagon, horse or on foot.

The fervor and excitement of that time period is shown in the faces and demeanor of the figures.   Since the monument is so big I couldn’t capture all the figures in one photo, but here are some views.    More are yet to be completed by the sculptor and I read they could be finished by 2020.   This Monument has the largest outdoor display of bronzed figures that I have seen in my travels.

Twin Fountains RV Park was our home base in Oklahoma City and staying here came with a nice perk, limousine service.    The Park has two limousines, one for a large group and another for just a few passengers.   A driver will take you wherever you want to go within a four mile radius of the Park and I decided to get a lift to the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, just because I could.  This is one of the best museums in the U.S. related to the American West.   I was especially looking forward to seeing all the western art displayed here.   This place is really big with so much to see that I was there for more than five hours.    Below, a photo after my limo drop off.

The centerpiece upon museum entry is “The End of the Trail,” one of the more recognized images of the Native American experience.    The artist, James Earle Fraser grew up on the plains in South Dakota where he befriended many of the Plains Indians, sympathizing with their hardships as their lands were being taken.   He completed this sculpture in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

Another favorite is called the “Canyon Princess” featuring an 18 foot tall cougar.   Completed by a self-taught sculptor, 31 tons of marble was carved down to eight tons, taking more than a year.   It is a gorgeous piece of art.

The museum has a number of rooms filled with historic western paintings and sculptures plus art from current artists that are part of an art show and also for sale.

The display of fancy saddles was interesting but I found the price tags to be incredible.   For example, the saddle pictured below had a price of $41,000 and most of the other saddles were priced at $30,000 and up.   That is more money than we have ever paid for any vehicle.

Besides artwork there are exhibits of Native American artifacts and rooms full of all things related to the cowboy.   The Western Performers Gallery has displays pertaining to Hollywood films and stars including film clips and kiosks to test your knowledge.   There are rooms on the Calvary and firearms.    One interesting exhibit features the rodeo with video monitors showing and explaining the different kinds of events.

A recreated frontier town called “Prosperity Junction” (pictured below) has a number of buildings alongside a Main Street complete with the sounds of town business being conducted as I walked into the various store fronts.

Perhaps the most unusual exhibit was on barbed wire and the Museum has a collection of more than 8,000 different strands of wire as well as 1,300 strands on display.    In the photo below,  I pulled open two of the drawers so you can see how the wire is displayed.   I cannot imagine wanting to examine all the wire in this room, I certainly didn’t have the focus for seeing more than a few strands of it.   It must take a real aficionado for the subject, but I did find it interesting that there were so many, many different kinds to be studied.

Once I was done inside the museum there was plenty to see out back in the attached park including more sculptures and memorials to faithful horses and a bull, a couple even buried in the park.   All in all, what a great museum!  When I was done I called for my limo pickup and headed back “home.”

I hope you enjoyed a taste of what Oklahoma City has to offer.   In the next post I visit more unique museums here.