99 minutes, 30 years later


This story originally was published on July 29, 1996.

He dreamed of the Tower.

People dream about the Tower all the time. Some want to jump off it, and nine people did between 1937 and 1974. Some dream they're falling off it. Some dream it's falling over on top of them. One student, years and years ago, dreamed of it blasting off like a Mercury rocket. Some go to a campus psychiatrist and talk about their anxieties, pop quizzes, success, champions, failure. That's what he did. And it went in his file. And he missed his second appointment, never called back.

It is the middle of a warm day high above Austin, and you have climbed, with a University of Texas police escort, the last two flights of dusty stairs past the forever-locked cage door beyond the 27th floor of the symbolic, celebrated, maligned Texas Tower. The walls inside are mint green. The officer says they used to tell the rookies ghost stories.

The ghost of Charles Whitman.

Step into the brightness outside, the wind, the silence almost 300 feet high on the parapet beneath the gold-bordered clock faces. The world murmurs below.

Look over a limestone edge and think back 30 years to Aug. 1, 1966: Sixteen dead, 31 injured, 99 minutes of terror. At some point, a tragedy segues into legend. Time takes something awful and makes it lore. And then you imagine the random cruelty, yourself down there on the wide lawns, along the sidewalks, between the red tile roofs, a speck among the specks. And then think of the scary genius of it, as you crouch down to peer through the deck's narrow drain spouts that seem somehow in complicity with sniping.

Going back now. He stabbed and shot his mother in her home at the Penthouse Apartments on Guadalupe Street, and then stabbed his wife at their home on Jewell Street. He was impressed with the middle-of-the-night meticulousness of it all, typing a narration as he went along, saying he killed the women because he loved them, jotting down final thoughts. He wanted his brain to be dissected. He wanted a roll of film developed, pictures of him sitting on the porch, reading a paper, next to the dog. He wanted the dog to go to his in-laws.

It is, to some people who have studied the incident, obvious he wanted something else, something very specific, but we'll get to that.

He packed Spam and Mennen deodorant, a machete and 700 rounds.

The 56-bell carillon chimes the quarter-hour.

 

"Got up that morning calm and cool,
He picked up his guns and went to school.
All the while he smiled so sweetly,
And it blew their minds completely,
They'd never seen an Eagle Scout so cruel."

--"The Ballad of Charles Whitman," Kinky Friedman

 

Across campus, another afternoon, a different era.

Charles Whitman is dead, but he seems alive, somewhere in the shadows, in that place where it occurs to you that the world, however humdrum, isn't safe.

In Austin, some people worry that time has made him a folk hero. His name is mentioned in movies and punk-rock songs, country ballads and mass-murderer collector cards. He is on a Web site, "The Charles Whitman Fan Club," where browsers from as far away as Tokyo have left their thoughts on Texas' sniper in the sky. ("As a foreigner, I wanna say one thing I appreciate about America is it's a country where any slob can kill a bunch o' people and become famous ...")

A librarian at the university's Center for American History archives brings out a large, awkward-looking package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. Unwrapped, a scrapbook spills newspaper clippings that fall apart in your hand.

So much of it is by now familiar: The young secretary forever crouched on the hot pavement behind a flagpole, a picture that came to symbolize the event's terror. The Belltower Boy in portrait, suitcoat and tie, his hair freshly flat-topped. The station-wagon ambulances, the shattered windows along Guadalupe Street storefronts, the cover of Life.

"They've got a whole file on it here?" says a voice from behind.

It's a man at another table in the center's reading room. He is tall, bald, with a gray beard, looking up from his own research.

"Charles Whitman," is what you say. "Know him?"

"I was shot by him," the man replies.

And you know he is telling the truth, because it's been like this the whole way; maybe the more Austin grows, the smaller it gets. Shots fired 30 years ago still echo; people know, or know someone who knows, who saw what, who barely ducked death. (The police officer who took you up the Tower -- his biology teacher at Lanier High School was Kathy Whitman, the murdered wife: "She was very nice," Kenneth Williams says. "Real pretty.")

Robert Heard was a 36-year-old reporter for The Associated Press bureau in Austin that August afternoon. He made the decision to count to five and follow two highway patrolmen on a wild sprint across a parking lot. Whitman shot Heard once in the shoulder.

"Right here," he says, pointing across his left shoulder blade. And, just like he said in the papers 30 years ago: "Six more inches and that would have been it."

And: "He was looking at me with binoculars."

And: "I remember when some people ran out and risked their own lives and carried me off. I never knew who they were. Before I knew it, I was in an ambulance on my way to Brackenridge."

And: "People always talked about how he was a Marine. How Oswald was a Marine. Well, I was a Marine. I don't think there was really much of a connection there."

Few ask about it now, Heard says, and that is fine with him. "It's worn out its welcome as something to talk about, if it ever had one in the first place. It's kind of gone underground. ... When you think about it, maybe that works: Ignore something long enough and it goes away."

But it doesn't. "You still hear about him being an honor student, the all-American boy who never had any problems, which just isn't true," says Gary Lavergne, 40, a sometimes historian who wrote a book about Whitman and the shootings, mostly because no one else ever has. "I sat there one time and tried to figure out, from the information we have, (Whitman's) grade point average and, at best, when he died he had a 2.0."

Lavergne once saw a TV documentary about mass killers that mentioned the Tower incident; he looked for books on the subject and found there weren't any.

"Superficially, you could say the city, and the university, are in a state of denial, that people don't want to go back over it," he says. "I prefer not to believe that."

Others prefer it wrapped away. "When you ask why is there no (campus) memorial ... why should there be?" says William Livingston, a senior vice president at UT who has taught there since 1949, and was chairman of the government department, sitting in his office, on the afternoon of Whitman's spree, then gathering the students into a nearby lounge and keeping everyone away from the windows, which seemed to explode.

"It is so heinous a crime, so macabre an occasion," Livingston says. "It's a day of horror, and not one of triumph or gratification. We lamented the deaths, but I think any sentiment since then has been how to avoid it ever happening again."

 

"A wrong is greater that only one person has done, or has been the first to do, or is one among few to have ever done. ..."

--Aristotle


It was a time when America was inventing all kinds of killers, and Charles Whitman was an archetype, the first Nut with a Gun.

In 1965, there were 5,015 gun-related murders in this country (now there are roughly 18,000 a year); Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" was a best-seller, a true story of socio-psychopathic killers in rural Kansas. No city had a SWAT team. The Chicago St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929, when Al Capone's gang shot seven members of Bugs Moran's gang, would have been the only eventremotely like the Tower incident, except for a man named Howard Unruh, who shot 12 people on a street in Camden, N.J., in 1949, a short burst of automatic-weapon fire by a diagnosed schizophrenic who spent the rest of his life locked away.

Richard Speck murdered eight nurses in a Chicago dormitory only two weeks before Whitman ascended the Tower. The press wanted it to somehow relate; maybe Charlie got the idea to kill a lot of people from what Speck had done. But it was different. We know that now. It was young nurses, strangled and stabbed by a nighttime bogeyman, another problem altogether.

There was, just three years earlier, the Kennedy assassination in Dallas, and people wondered about theCR> suggestive power there as well -- ex-Marine marksman and a vantage point etc. But a Lee Harvey Oswald (or a James Earl Ray, or a Sirhan Sirhan) is again different from a Charles Whitman, who was a political and ideological blank slate. Three summers after the Tower incident, actress Sharon Tate and five others were murdered in the Los Angeles hills by members of the Manson Family, inserting stillanother fear, of drug-fed cultists.

And so on. The 1960s and '70s served a steady, grisly diet, terrorist actions both home-grown and foreign, deaths urban and suburban, mass suicides, more snipers. Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, one of the Manson girls, was arrested for trying to shoot President Ford in 1975 (she had, in a way, crossed genres) and reminded the gathered reporters, simply, chillingly: "Anybody can kill anybody."

Patrick Sherrill, an unhappy reprimanded post office employee, showed up to work in Edmond, Okla., 20 Augusts after Whitman, killing 14 co-workers and then himself, revising the Nut with a Gun scenario to include workplace disgruntlement and adding to our lexicon the act of "going postal."

A McDonald's in California. A Luby's in Killeen. More post offices, a schoolyard, the freeway, a university physics department. Men go postal when their wives leave, showing up at her workplace, a restaurant, an aerobics studio, showing up armed.

Charles Whitman went postal.

We think of him whenever someone does.

Rosa Eberly, 33, a UT assistant professor of rhetoric and composition, came to Austin two years ago. The shootings were for her a piece of trivia far removed, a line she remembered from a Harry Chapin song about snipers. Two springs ago, she was at commencement, in front of the Tower, and the ceremonies included a fireworks display.

"No one ever says anything, officially, about the shootings. ... Dan Rather was the speaker, and many of his remarks centered on coming to Austin as a young man, the Tower, and how it was connected to the university for him. But whCR>en the fireworks started going off from the Tower, I have to say it freaked me out. I thought: Here is an institution coming to terms with something horrible. It gave me a lot to reflect on."

Then she heard a local radio show that had invited listeners to call and talk about the Tower shootings. "All these people were calling in with individual memories. You don't even have to ask them to talk about it, which leads to my work -- people and institutions and how public memory coalesces. The Tower is an excellent case study (that) the Holocaust and JFK can't get us, in terms of how a local community deals with such a thing."

It all led Eberly to teach a writing class this fall called "The UT Tower and Public Memory," asking students to discover and write about the Tower's place on the local mindscape. It is one of the few times UT has acknowledged the incident; Eberly says her course proposal was never challenged by administrators.

With a nod to the work of Aristotle (the original rhetorician), Eberly says what Whitman leaves us is a problem of magnitude: "There are deep, unarticulated feelings about the Tower," she says.

Philosophers refer to the "largeness and smallness of things," the "more" (victim tallies, almanac entries) and the "less" (vague fears, missed shots). The question is, what does it take to turn our heads, and what do we do once our attention is fixed on it? Culture absorbs it, serving it back to us as drama, or memory, or catharsis.

"People say that we no longer have magnitude, that it isn't there anymore," Eberly says. "But magnitude still operates. It takes a federal building bombing, something bigger now."

 

"I don't really understand myself these days. I am supposed to be an average, reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can't recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts ..."

--Charles Whitman letter, July 31, 1966


When it was over -- after "every Bubba with a gun" had shown up to shoot back -- it seemed incredible to a stunned, terrified city (and country) that Whitman had seen the shrink, had filled out the forms (Reason for referral?: "THAT'S WHY I'M HERE," he wrote) and no one had done anything.

He was 25, living in a familiar realm, "B average" grad student, ex-Marine, "blond, nice, a good neighbor," an Eagle Scout, an altar boy, "devoted" to his wife and "preoccupied" with doing well -- all those properties belonging to him before he became the modern madman. Then it was revealed, in neatly typewritten observations by Dr. Maurice D. Heatly, that Whitman, "this massive, muscular youth," was "oozing with hostility," and vividly fantasized "going up on the Tower with a deer rifle and start shooting people." There were the chronic headaches. His mother had left his father in Florida and moved to Austin. These facts helped some people put it all together.

That an autopsy produced a pecan-sized tumor from the base of Whitman's brain was sufficient explanation for others (including his in-laws, who several years later said they "bore him no grudge") but meant almost nothing to the doctors who found it.

The halo tilts as more Whitman stories surfaced: his boast that he ate amphetamines "like popcorn"; that he was discharged from the Marines for loan-sharking and threatening to kill another soldier; that he threw a foreign student out of a classroom for sitting in his chair; that he once dangled from a dormitory balcony to get Kathy's attention; that, like his father before him, he had hit his wife a time or two.

"He wanted two things," says Gary Lavergne, whose book is tentatively titled "A Tower to Climb" and will be published by the University of North Texas Press next year.

"First, he wanted to die. But he didn't want to commit suicide. He wanted to go out in a big way. When he murdered his mother and his wife and says he wanted to spare them the embarrassment, he meant that.

"The other thing he wanted, most of all, was for his father to answer for what went on in (the family). The elder Mr. Whitman had reporters on his front porch that day and said some injudicious things, like: 'I don't beat my wife any more than the average man.' ... Deep inside, Whitman must have known his dad would say things like that."

But the elder Mr. Whitman, still alive in Florida, still a plumbing contractor, in his late 70s, has never been much for mea culpas; he won't be interviewed now without being paid (something Lavergne nor anyone else seems willing to do), and at one point sued for the cash and "sentimental" value of his son's firearms and other belongings.

Another of Whitman's three sons was shot dead in a barroom fight in 1974. Whitman remarried twice, telling the American-Statesman in 1986 that he had beat his first wife, his children ("I don't think I spanked my children enough, if you want to know the truth of it") and beat his current wife, too, but "in the last few years I don't think I've touched her.

"Yes, (Charlie's) punishing me," Whitman's father went on. "In the fact that I had to go out and, you might say, let the world know that if I did wrong, I'm sorry for it. I did the best a father could do and I saw no wrong in what I was doing."

That is what the Belltower Boy always wants, for an old man to make excuses on a front porch in Florida.
We always go to the Tower instead.


"I would have been there, too. I had lunch right in front there every day that summer but my (expletive) wife, God rest her soul, she had some stupid appointment that day. So during this town's finest hour, where was I? Way the hell out on South Congress ..."

--Old anarchist, from the movie “Slacker”


Another porch, the wrong porch, a different era.

"Can I help you?" a woman asks suspiciously. Her name is Janice. She is wearing a blue tank top and glasses, talking on the phone in her house on Jewell Street. This is the small rental house, just south of Auditorium Shores, where Charles Whitman killed his wife, packed his gear, typed his notes.

How many dozens of people have lived here since, and still the occasional visitor drives by slowly. "Kooks, mostly," Janice says, inferring through the screen door that you too are a kook. Maybe so. "A producer came by and wanted to see the back bedroom," she says. "He left his card. He said he worked on `NYPD Blue' and some other shows. He's doing a `psychological profile' of Whitman. I don't know. I've lived here a year and a half. I was 11 years old and living in Ohio whenever it happened. It doesn't mean anything to me. People are sick ...

"I never would have known, except the mailman told me."

The largeness and smallness of things.

Anybody can kill anybody.

He is where we left him 30 years ago. He is frighteningly polite, waving to the security guard at the gate, parking close, wheeling his footlocker into the elevator. He is smiling, even to the couple who did not know the receptionist was already bludgeoned, shot, bleeding behind the couch. He is up there with no demands, no alternate plan. He is not letting on about the darkness inside, until it's too late. We are still the specks among specks. Magnitude loses some meaning. There is a Nut with a Gun, looking down.


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