Saturday, April 21, 2007

August 1966

The nightmarish Virginia Tech shootings have reminded me of my own very remote memory of the Charles Whitman shootings from the University of Texas tower on Aug. 1, 1966. We were living in Austin at the time, and once it became clear what was happening on the campus, the local TV station started showing live pictures of the Tower. Not much to see; every couple of minutes, a puff of smoke appeared as Whitman squeezed off another round. That's it.

I remember going out in the front yard and looking at the Tower, a couple of miles away. Back then, there were only two buildings on the Austin skyline, the Capitol building and the Tower. There the tower was, looking like it always did, and the puffs of smoke were not visible at that distance. It was hard to believe that carnage was taking place. It was a miserably hot still day, like almost all August days in Austin. It felt like a furnace outside.

Later on I biked south (toward the Tower) to go hang out at my friend Arthur Aleman's house. We were still well out of range, and we eventually got bored watching the TV feed of the motionless Tower with the occasional smoke and pop of gunfire from the invisible sniper. Arthur's dad said he was going to go down there and "see what was happening." I thought that was an incredibly stupid thing to do, but I couldn't say that to Arthur's dad. By the time Mr. Aleman arrived for his sightseeing, it was all over, so he came back.

I went home. Later on the whole thing was on the national news, and I remember thinking how strange it was that Austin, the Tower, Guadalupe Street ("The Drag") and all the other places I knew so well were talked about by Huntley & Brinkley.

Years later, when I was a student at UT in the early '70's, I went up to the Tower deck (it was still open to the public then) and looked down, imagining what Whitman saw. The people looked as small as ants; maybe he even thought of them as ants, but through a rifle scope they would look like individual persons. Over in the corner where Whitman died, there was still an unrepaired gouge in the wall from a shotgun blast fired by one of the cops who killed him.

I think the observation deck is closed these days; I can't say I'm sorry. Someone I knew, slightly, jumped to his death from there in 1974, and then they shut it down. It's an amazing edifice, but for me it is always somewhat redolent of violent death.