Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Remembering a mass murder

I was on the University of Texas campus on August 1, 1966, when Charlie Whitman started shooting people from the university tower. I had graduated from UT 2 years before, had lived in San Francisco after joining the Army reserves, and had just returned to Austin. I was unemployed, trying to decide whether to go back to San Francisco, and was hanging out in the student union (already a slacker.)

I heard banging noises which sounded like they were coming from the courtyard between the student union building and a library building. It was an odd sound, and for some bizarre reason my mind finally concluded it was someone cracking a whip there. Never mind that I had never in my time as a student seen anyone cracking a whip on the University of Texas campus, or anywhere else in Austin for that matter--it was somehow what I thought. And I thought nothing more about it for several minutes.

The whip cracking continued. I idly decided to see what was going on, and walked over to where I could see the courtyard. No whip cracker, but the noise continued. Someone came running down the student union hallway and said that a guy had been shot while riding a bicycle on the Drag, as the main street on the west side of the campus was called.

I heard somebody else say someone was shooting from the tower.

So, naturally, I went to the nearest window in the student union building where I could see the tower. I stood there in the middle of the window, along with several other people, and I could clearly see Whitman with his rifle. He was shooting over the tower parapet at that time. (Later, when police and deer-hunter citizens started shooting back, he began shooting from some port holes under the stone parapet.)

It should have occurred to me that if I could see Whitman clearly, he could see me clearly. But that thought did not enter my head. I decided to make room for others to gawk, and as I moved away from the window, Whitman shot someone who had been standing next to me. There was a big commotion, and all I could see was that someone fell down, people ran away from the window and they pulled the wounded person away. That wounded person lived.

Nobody stood in the window after that.

I didn't know any of the people killed, though one of them was the son of a professor I liked.

I was staying with a friend of mine who was a grad student in biology. He and his wife and I went to see a movie later that day, in the middle of the afternoon, a comedy, I think, though I remember nothing about it. I remember sitting in the dark in an old-fashioned downtown movie theater paying no attention to whatever was on the screen. Sitting in the dark for 2 hours watching a movie none of us paid any attention to seemed to make us all feel better.

The murders were very shocking to me--more so even than the one yesterday in Virginia, though probably that was because I happened to be present at the UT tower shooting. Still, I wonder if my impression that a crime like that was more unimaginable then than now, is true. That the mere fact that crimes like that are more imaginable, makes them more possible?

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