Sunday, July 24, 2016

UT Austin, August 1, 1966

Munich, Dallas, Orlando, Phoenix, Virginia Tech, Columbine...Austin.

I didn't have space to list all the mass shootings on record, but the one I remember most happened  50 years ago next week, long before mass shootings crowded our headlines, before flags seemed to be permanently at half-staff.

It was an ordinary August day.  My two children, one in preschool, the other about to start first grade, were up early, ready to play.  I don't remember exactly what we did that morning, but I vividly remember that the afternoon began with a phone call from a friend I'd gone to college with at the University of Texas.  "Turn on your radio," she said.  "There's a guy shooting people from the Tower."

For a moment I was confused.  "What tower?" I asked.

"The UT Tower.  He's up at the top with a rifle, killing people."

Shocked, I turned on my radio.  This was long before the 24-hour news cycle.  Listening, I suddenly got a cold chill.  My sister was in Austin visiting our parents, and I remembered she and Mother and a friend were planning to go out to lunch.  Where?  I called home.  The housekeeper answered the phone.  "I think they went to the Night Hawk," she said, "the one on the Drag."

The Drag.  Guadalupe street, across from the UT campus.  In sight of the Tower.  "Tell them to call me as soon as they get home," I said.  (There were, of course, no cell phones in 1966.)  Then I went on listening to reports of students lying dead on the mall in front of the Tower, people hiding behind bushes,  running for cover screaming, and finally news that the sniper had been killed.

By the time I got the call from my sister that they hadn't gone to the Drag--they'd changed their luncheon plans--I'd learned that the shooter was a student named Charles Whitman, a former serviceman, a "nice guy" according to people who knew him.  Aren't they all "nice guys" until they go berserk and murder innocent people?  Yes, he was easily angered but otherwise pretty ordinary.  Except the night before his rampage on campus, he'd killed his wife and his mother.  An autopsy revealed he had a brain tumor.

All week I've heard radio clips, read articles about the 50-year-ago massacre, and last night I dreamed I was there, on the Texas campus, hiding in an office with a crowd of other people, keeping the door blockaded, watching from the window as people died before our eyes.  The dream, unlike most, didn't fade away.  It's been on my mind all day.

Charles Whitman's name has gone down in University of Texas history.  Now there are so many names, we hardly remember them. So many useless deaths.  When will the violence stop?



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