Read the entire first chapter of When Normal Blew Up: The Story of the People Who Died and the People Who Lived On by Joni Foster.
I was nine when it happened. Where did time go? Fifty years later and I am still haunted by this event, the illogical tragedy that occurred in the little town of Circleville, Ohio, in 1967: the bombing of Bingman’s Drug Store by a jealous husband. My dad, Ted Foster, a pharmacist at the store, left behind a grieving wife and five young children.
My family rarely talked about the event, and when we did, we only talked in whispers and sketches. I asked every twenty years or so for a remembrance, but my family was at a loss for words. What was there to say? It happened; we were sad; we moved on. That was the sum total of our processing of the event. I took my cues from them and understood it was taboo to talk about that day or the dead.
Last summer, my mom passed away. She was eulogized at the Community United Methodist Church by a young preacher nine “preacher-generations” removed from the knowledge of the tragedy that befell Circleville. As we sat around a conference table at the church preparing the preacher for the service, we were surprisingly compelled to tell him about our family and our relationship to the church as defined by that moment almost five decades before. We talked about the event, the double funeral at this very church, how afterward the church raised us and kept us, as in the Bible verse.[i]
It seemed like very old history. My brothers and sister and I had moved away years ago; my aging mom and stepdad in the past decade had been unable to attend services regularly or be active in the affairs of the church as in the past. But my family nonetheless still felt an ownership of this church; and the church owned our hearts, tethered by an invisible connection to the worst day of our lives. The flood of memories rekindled my desire to know more, so I embarked on a mission: to audaciously break the taboo and talk to people outside of my family about what happened.
By the time that I found the nerve, though, most of the victim’s spouses and many of the first responders had already gone on to their glory. All who remained, those who might remember, were of the advanced age where recall fades and details become sketchy. Yet, with the help of family and friends, I started a conversation.
Remarkably, many people were ready to share their story. Stories that, many told me, they had never shared with anyone before. Stories that were held sacred. It was as if, for all these years, we had protected our collective memories from the light, precious bundles held tightly, silently, and dearly to our hearts. We had held our memories so close to the chest, without sharing, that we could still feel the intensity of the emotions they packed, and the blast of grief threatened to overwhelm us. Paradoxically, in the telling and retelling of our stories, we were finally able to find some distance from the pain, and our memories lost some of their staggering impact.
Still, we never wanted to lose those feelings completely, because they were all that kept us connected to the people we had lost. If we let go too much, would the memories of our loved ones fade? Eventually disappear? That’s why I needed to write this story, so I wouldn’t forget.
The tale is, after all, at its core, one of horror and sorrow. I worried about how to hold the conversations and write the story in a way that wouldn’t re-traumatize people. I longed for a story that could be healing, not just for me but for those I interviewed and others who might read it. I was driven to lay out what happened in excruciating detail, to finally hold in my memory a complete and full picture of the event, not just the two or three sentences that I knew growing up. I also wanted to find the truth and dispel the rumors and false details that had floated about all these years.
I quickly became aware that telling the full story involved people who might prefer the history remain buried lest shame and grief engulf them all over again. And I needed strength and courage to listen to the painful recounting, lest my own heart turn to stone in reaction. To help me stay soft and open, I repeated a mantra often during my work:
I believe in the transformative power of love.
Block out all other voices in my head and listen only for the voice of love.
Let the voice of love fill my heart and melt the ice.
I believe in the transformative power of love that works through me.
I believe in the transformative power of love that works through others.
Keep me listening for the voice of love.
Bathe my heart in the warmth of love.
Keep my heart warm, not cold.
This mantra of love was especially important as I struggled to know what to call the event. The bombing? The murder? The tragedy? The unimaginable thing that happened for which no explanation seemed adequate? I ended up calling it “the event” in most instances. It helped me to keep my emotions in check and move forward with painful detail.
I struggled with knowing I would have to learn more about the man who carried the bomb. Up until now, he was a one-liner to me in fifty years of prolific conversation about everything except this event. I had not even remembered his name. I had never learned to hate this man, but it seemed wrong, even now, to get to know him. Yet I needed to know who he was, his background, his story, for me to get any satisfaction to the answer of “Why?”
No matter what I learned, I certainly didn’t want to cast him in a light to be envied or admired. I didn’t want to know him in any way that might soften me to his deed. Yet, unless I wanted my heart to harden, I had to allow the transformational power of love to be my guide as I got to know him. I came to accept that I had to listen to both the good and the bad about him, and come to terms that he might have been both.
What should I call him in this story? Criminal? Murderer? The Devil? These words seemed too dastardly, too wicked, almost too smart. “Crazy” seemed the most fitting; after all, he seemed to have lost connection with reality; and he planned and carried out something that had bigger consequences than he ever seemed to have contemplated. But even crazy seemed apologetic. Finally, I decided just to call him by his last name, Holbrook.
When I started this project, I found that I was not alone in the mistaken belief that his wife had also died in the event. In addition, before I began interviewing people, I had never realized that Holbrook had children. But as I pieced together the “players” in this tragedy, those who had been affected, I found that Holbrook had been married for twenty years, and had three, mostly grown children at the time.
Another common thought among people I spoke with was that, of course, the man’s family would have left the area by now. They would have been catastrophically shamed. Guilty by association. My fantasy world had them fleeing under the cover of night for fear of revenge or retaliation. They surely wouldn’t have wanted to face townspeople every day and be reminded of what their father, husband, son had done.
But the truth is exactly the opposite. The family had mostly stayed in town, in the area. Kept a low profile, but stayed nonetheless, because they, too, were in shock. They, too, were a part of a community. They had ties with friends and neighbors who reached out and held their hands through the ordeal and the aftermath. In fact, I came to realize that their world was rocked and shattered in a way far worse than mine, and worse than the other bystanders of this story. They knew this man, had lived with him, had loved him, had shared his name. No one would ever want to believe that someone they had loved would be capable of such a methodical and horrific lapse in judgment. This was no longer just my story. This was their story, too.
[i] Numbers 6:24-26 King James Version. The verse is: “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee; The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”
When Normal Blew Up: The Story of the People Who Died and the People Who Lived On by Joni Foster is available here.