- Associated Press - Sunday, April 12, 2015

RICHMOND, Ind. (AP) - The newspapers are tacked closely together in rows. Chronologically, more than a dozen across and three deep, covering a whole wall.

The headlines recount one of the darkest days in Richmond’s history, one of the city’s brightest days, a day that changed the course of the community.

A day that changed Jack Bales’ life.

April 6, 1968 - the day that back-to-back explosions rocked the intersection of Sixth and East Main streets in Richmond.

The blasts and resulting fires killed 41 people, injured more than 120, destroyed 15 buildings and splintered windows blocks away.



When the explosions occurred at 1:47 p.m. on that sunny Saturday a week before Easter, an 18-year-old Bales was standing in Marting Arms sporting goods store next to his best friend, Greg Oler.

Bales survived. Oler died, along with everyone else in the store, which was at the epicenter of the explosions.

On that day, in other cities across the country, there was unrest and rioting because civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed two days earlier. But in Richmond, people of all races stood together, wielding fire hoses, lifting stretchers and offering comfort.

“The younger generation needs to know how people stepped in and helped and did all they did for neighbors and friends and people they didn’t know,” Bales told the Palladium-Item (https://pinews.co/1FvOaBW ). “There were so many of them, black and white - there wasn’t any color on that day. Everybody was there to help.”

As a survivor, Bales is often asked about the explosions, much more often since September when he moved back to the Fountain City area where he grew up.

“People want to talk about it,” Bales said. “Grandchildren of my friends want to ask questions. I don’t mind at all.”

For the past 47 years, Bales has been quietly collecting newspapers from that day, from the days that followed, and the anniversary tributes. The papers have been collecting dust in a box as he moved around, living in Indiana, Florida, Texas and Colorado.

Now that he has resettled in his hometown, Bales has been unpacking a lifetime.

“It’s crazy to have them boxed up for another 47 years,” he said.

Bales has spent the past few months dusting off the pages, reading them carefully and arranging them on his basement wall.

“It was tough at first,” he said, a catch in his voice. “Then, it kind of got to be a project.”

Information he had forgotten was revived and he learned other things he did not know.

The explosions took place when North Korea was in the news, King Jr.’s death was causing chaos and the Vietnam war was creating strong opinions. “There was turmoil in every city,” Bales said.

Sometimes, Bales had to leave the project in the basement because the memories were too strong and painful.

Before that day, Bales and Oler, 21, were nearly inseparable. Despite the difference of a couple years in age, they had grown up as best friends. Bales lived on Bragg Road and Oler just around the corner on Fountain City Pike. The boys loved horses, riding together regularly and competing in 4-H.

After graduating from Fountain City High School, Oler had gone on to Purdue University leaving Bales to finish high school in 1967 and get a job at a local factory.

Oler was a member of Purdue’s archery team. A few weeks earlier, during a visit home, he ordered new arrows from Marting Arms.

On Saturday, Oler had talked Bales into applying to Purdue. They would be roommates, Oler promised.

The pair visited with Oler’s father at Sears in the city’s newly developed east side mall. Then they went downtown to pick up Oler’s order of arrows.

“Back then, downtown Richmond was the center of Wayne County,” Bales recalls. “Everything you bought was downtown.”

Bales and Oler entered Marting Arms using the rear entrance on South Sixth Street, where large plate glass windows showcased sporting goods. They had been in the store just minutes when the back-to-back explosions shattered the peace.

“The first blew in, from west to east. The second lifted the store and I have no memory after that,” Bales said.

Bales woke up under a beam, receiving aid from men who worked at Wayne Dairy, which was then at the corner of South Sixth and A streets.

He could hear ammunition going off, Marting Arms stock that was ignited by the explosions and subsequent fires.

The workers laid Bales face down in the alley. One told him, “This won’t hurt too bad,” and pulled an arrow from where it had stabbed him in the back under the shoulder blade. They flagged down an old station wagon, laid Bales in the back and sent him to Reid Hospital.

In the hospital emergency room, Bales waited as the more severely injured were treated. When Bales was finally examined, the medical staff peeled off the fleece-lined jacket he had donned that morning over a long-sleeve shirt.

“All I had left were my shirt sleeves,” Bales said. The rest disappeared with the explosion, and he his skin was scorched by the heat of the blast.

They bandaged his back wound and arranged for him to go home.

Bales parents took him to Winchester to the hospital, where it was discovered he had broken his back. Nurses using tweezers plucked glass from the windows out of his body for hours.

He spent more than 15 weeks in traction. At one point, doctors predicted he would be in a wheelchair by age 25, crippled by arthritis and complications. But Bales proved the doctors wrong, and at 65, he is still healthy, minus a few aches and pains.

Scars from that day remain, of course.

Just last year, a welt appeared on his lower chest. He thought it was a bug bite, but it didn’t go away. A visit to the doctor revealed it was an encapsulated piece of glass about the size of a pencil eraser emerging from his body. It’s not the first glass to make its way to the surface, and he expects it’s not the last.

The most brutal are unseen - nightmares that have plagued him since that day.

Bales thought working on the newspaper project in his basement might make them worse, or more frequent, but it didn’t.

“Maybe it will help them go away,” he said. They come on when he is overly tired, sick or stressed.

“It’s so vivid,” he said. “Being in Marting Arms. The flames, the smoke and smelling the brick dust.”

Bales prefers to recall the good that occurred that day, rather than the bad.

“There’s so many heroes in those articles,” he said, looking at the wall of newspapers. “People that rushed to the scene to help.

“People just rushed in to help others. They didn’t think of themselves,” he said. “It could’ve easily blown up again. Nobody thought about that. They just came to help.”

Perhaps it’s the attitude of neighbor helping neighbor that brought Bales back to Wayne County.

No matter what the reason, he’s glad to be home despite the memories to be found at Sixth and Main streets. Two of his three children live here, as well as grandchildren and his first great-grandchild. His mother is here too, a resident at Friends Fellowship Community.

“It’s just nice to be home,” Bales said. “I have led a blessed life. I have a real strong faith in God.”

___

Information from: Palladium-Item, https://www.pal-item.com

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