Sunday, April 19, 2015

Bad postcard of the week: Fort Riley, tragedy and baseball 20 years ago today

This week’s bad postcard has a bit more of a story about it.

The postcard shows us Fort Riley in Kansas – from a great distance. We’re so far away that we can’t make out anything other than it appears an interstate runs alongside of it.

That’s a shame, because the fort has an interesting history – including that Jackie Robinson was once station there. But so were Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, which is why I once stayed nearby.

That brings us to a tale from the archives. You see, 20 years ago today I was sitting in a microbrewery at Coors Field in Denver, eating a burger and watching the first televised reports of the Oklahoma City bombing.

In town for an education writers conference, I had no idea that I was about to embark on adventures that had a little bit of danger and, of course, baseball.

The first thing I did after checking in at the Westin was to walk to Coors, which that weekend was to host its first ever game with real players, an exhibition game between the Rockies and the vile Yankees.

This was the year following the baseball strike, and the start of the season was delayed nearly a month because a deal was reached near the end of spring training. Before the deal, the owners had threatened to start the season with replacement players, and Coors had already hosted an exhibition game between the replacement Rockies and replacement Yanks.

After lunch, I walked around taking photos of the outside of the stadium and raiding the gift shop of inaugural year merchandise.

Passing the box office, I thought, "What the heck," and asked if there were any tickets available for the game, which was scheduled for the following night, the same time as the keynote address of the education writers conference.

My experience is that when you’re asking for just one ticket, you can sometimes get in to a game that’s listed as being sold out, especially on the day before the game. Teams hold back tickets for players and VIPs, and if they're not going to be used they send them to the box office. But I surely didn’t expect there to be anything for a first game at a new stadium.

But the patient woman behind the glass said that she could indeed get me in, and with a pretty good seat, too.

This was a pretty heavy decision. And a lot of things weighed on my mind. I’d have to miss the keynote address of my conference. But this was the first game at Coors Field with real players with a seat behind home plate.

Indeed, these things weighed on my mind for a matter of three or four nanoseconds before I slipped the required cash under the window.

Coors is an absolutely wonderful stadium, beautiful with its exposed brick and green ironwork. There’s a row of purple seats in the upper deck to note when you are a mile above sea level, and you can see the spectacular Rocky Mountains if you face away from field.

Before the game I bought an official souvenir ball with both team’s logos on it, and future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs signed it for me.

The vile Yankees won 7-2. Scott Kamieniecki -- my neighbor for a short time -- started the game, and Dante Bichette hit the first of what was to be many Coors homers for him.

After the game I was excited to find out that the Yankees were staying at our hotel, I saw Don Mattingly at the front desk.

The first two days of the conference were pretty informative. Then on the afternoon of the third day I was sitting in a conference room attending a session when the phone on the wall started ringing. This was before we all had cell phones. It was one of the Flint Journal editors. "There’s a Flint connection to the Oklahoma City bombing. Rent a car and get yourself to Kansas." I explained that Colorado and Kansas share a border, but they’re huge and it’s not like driving between Michigan and Ohio. "OK, check out and catch a flight."

I spent my first night in Kansas in the same motel where Timothy McVeigh stayed a couple days before, and passed the place where he rented the Ryder truck that he filled with explosives to blow up the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.

I wasn’t trying to be dramatic -- there just aren’t too many places to stay in that part of Kansas.

My assignment was to cover the court proceedings involving Terry Nichols, and to try to find out as much as I could about the man, who used to be a farmer on the fringes of the Flint Journal’s circulation area.

The next morning I drove down to Herrington, the small town where Nichols lived. I was a day behind the media horde that descended on the town, and it worked out better than I could have hoped.

Police blocked off the streets around Nichols small home the day before as they searched the house for bombs and clues. But this day life had more closely returned to normal and people where back in their homes. I spotted some of Nichols’ neighbors talking in their backyard and they invited me to talk.

Later that night a local church hosted a memorial service for the bombing victims in the biggest room in the town. I sensed a mixture of shock, shame and hurt. I think people had a hard time dealing with the idea that one of their own was somehow involved with such a horrible crime.

Herrington is one of those small Midwestern towns that John Mellencamp sings about. Everyone knows everyone. And I think people were shocked that they didn’t know what this man was capable of doing.
The service was an outlet for these people, as if to say this man was from this place, but he was not one of us. There were a lot of tears. Reporters are supposed to be observers. I felt like an intruder.

I spent much of the next week in Wichita, the closest city and site of the court house where Nichols preliminary hearing would be held. Since we didn’t know which day that would be, I was essentially staking out the courthouse all day.

There were a couple of other reporters doing the same thing, and that leaves time for friendly banter.
I got to know the court people a little bit since I was hanging around the building all week. And late in the week they let me know that Nichols would be coming in the next afternoon and showed me the big courtroom where the proceedings would take place.

Early next day the media horde arrived. The court activity wasn’t going to take place until 1 p.m. but people started setting up to get a glimpse of Nichols being hustled into the building.

A deputy told us that we could start lining up to get into the courtroom at 10 a.m. I planned to hang outside with the others, and I knew the courtroom was plenty big. But something inside told me to get on line. After burning through the Journal’s money all week, if I did not get into that court I’d have a lot of explaining to do once I got back to Flint.

The court officers lined us up on a bench in a lobby down the hall from the courtroom. I was No. 11 on line, with an artists hired by television stations to make the courtroom sketches, an Associated Press reporter, a writer from the Wichita Eagle-Beacon and a woman from a Detroit television station.

We had nice time sitting there gabbing, taking turns going on food runs and letting the artist warm up by sketching us. The line got longer and longer as time passed – I counted well more than 100 people.

A bailiff announced it was time to go in. He looked at the front of the line and counted off. “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11 and 12, follow me.” I thought they were taking us down in small groups.

Walking down the long hall, the guy from the Eagle-Beacon joked that we were going to be “In the front row,” saying it in the famous Bob Uecker voice.

We entered the court and I could feel the door close behind me. The big courtroom was already filled with every lawyer, court employee and person with connections who wanted in. We were not in the front row. We were in the last row – and no one else was getting in.

The Eagle-Beacon reporter shot me a wide-eyed look that was part amazement and part sheer joy. We waited on line three hours and got in. People who came minutes after us were down the hall with the people who walked in right at 1 p.m. – and we could faintly hear the angry screams of people who would have to explain to their editors why they did not get in that courtroom.

The proceedings started, and the key testimony was someone who said Nichols told him that “something big was going to happen.”

There at the defense table sat Terry Nichols. I was struck that he looked so … ordinary.

Even after talking to his neighbors, I think I expected a monster. McVeigh, after all, with his buzz cut, focused stare and unrepentant expression, looked the part of someone who could blow up a day-care center.

But there sat a slight man with metal-framed glasses. He didn’t look like a killer. He looked scared.

The proceedings lasted a while. As a person left the room, a harried and grateful reporter who was nest in line was allowed in. And when it was over, people trapped outside swarmed around the Associated Press reporter and pinned him against a wall as he read from his notebook.

I hurried to find a payphone—again, no cellphones at the time. My adventure had taken me away from home for nearly two weeks and it was time to dictate my story and head home.

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