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Writing releases pain of Tower tragedy


This story originally was published on August 6, 2006.

For the past week, in response to the 40th anniversary of the University of Texas Tower shootings, the American-Statesman has heard from scores of readers wanting to share their memories of Aug. 1, 1966. The outpouring of reminiscences illustrated two truths.

First, Austin was in every way a smaller town then. Though its population was close to 212,000 in 1966, Austin still revolved around the university-Capitol axis; everyone, it seemed, knew someone who daily spent time in that compact area, barely larger than a square mile. A mass murder there wasn't just a shocking occurrence, it was a personal one.

Second, media stories that accompany the marking of anniversaries such as this stimulate an almost collective urge to bear witness to the past.

That's why Toby Hamilton, for the first time in his life, sat down to write his own story. When he finished, he says, "I was bawling like a child."

Hamilton was 12 years old in 1966, the fourth of six kids. His story is unusual for its odd coincidences, the sort of confluences that could still happen in the small town that was Austin then. But it also speaks for many others who wrote to say how affected they were by that day and the loss of innocence it represented for them.

Having lived with the UT sniper tragedy all of my life, I have suppressed a lot. I was a bright, energetic kid and saw the world as a wonderful adventure. Aug. 1, 1966 changed all that for me forever. It's a day that remains painful to me even 40 years later.

For me it all started in June. I was in the Boy Scouts, and we were going on a campout that had started Friday night and continued through Sunday. I had music lessons on Saturday mornings so I was not allowed to go Friday night. This was a really big deal to me because I wanted to be with my friends.

My Scoutmaster, Mr. Whitman, had a class at UT on Saturday morning and he offered to pick me up and take me to Bastrop State Park to spend some of Saturday and Saturday night with the Scout troop. I thought that was cool so I said I would.

When he arrived at my house, he made me a little nervous because he seemed focused on something far away and seemed angry. On the way to the campout, I tried repeatedly to talk to Mr. Whitman, but he wouldn’t respond and acted like I was bothering him. By the time we got to Bastrop State Park, I was really feeling uneasy and couldn’t wait to get out of the car, away from him.

My Uncle Richard suddenly passed away in July. He was always so good to me and fun to be with. He made me laugh. He had been a submariner in World War II and his final wish was to be cremated and buried at sea in the Atlantic Ocean. My dad and mother went to Norfolk, Va., to take care of the arrangements.

I was in summer school for gifted kids at University Junior High, where the Lee and Joe Jamail Texas Swimming Center now sits, so I could not go to the service. My parents asked some college kids we knew to stay with me for two weeks while they were gone. Their names were Claire Wilson and Tom Eckman. Claire was eight months pregnant, which is a bad way to be in late July in Austin. We didn’t have air conditioning at my house, so I slept in a pool of sweat every night.

Claire was maybe the sweetest person I had ever met, and Tom was like a big brother to me. By the time my parents came back, I wished I lived with Tom and Claire. I loved them both.

My summer school was made up of two classes: astronomy and computer programming. We were hooked into the UT mainframe computer. I used a telescope to look endlessly at the stars and planets and learned about programming before anyone even thought of having computers in their houses.

Summer school was fun because there were not many kids in my neighborhood. We lived off Lamar up the hill at 1002 Baylor St. From my front yard I could see downtown and the UT Tower. I used to look at the tower through my telescope and see the heads and shoulders of people milling around on the observation deck.

The next week, August started. It was a hot Texas summer day. The sky was blue and filled with clouds that looked like cotton balls. I was listening to KNOW-AM (the only young people's radio station in Austin at the time) and playing in the front yard when a report broke in and said a man was on the tower at UT shooting and killing people.

This kind of thing had never happened before anywhere. I was in shock and also intrigued. I took my telescope outside and through it I could see puffs of smoke coming out of the drain holes in the tower and puffs of limestone dust from bullets hitting the tower after being fired from below.

It was so surreal. No one would have ever thought of walking down the sidewalk and being shot for no reason. My friends Claire and Tom were walking on the main mall, and suddenly Claire dropped to the ground. Tom moved to shield her and was shot dead. She survived but lost her baby.

When they finally killed the sniper, he was identified as Charles Whitman, my Scoutmaster. Somehow I was not surprised.

This was a defining point in my life. It was a very awful experience for me, finding out that Mr. Whitman did that. He was a Marine, he'd been the youngest Eagle Scout. This is a guy young boys looked up to. And he's a cold-blooded ass.

We all left the Scouts after that. We hardly spoke to each other about it. In those days, children were to be seen and not heard so no one interviewed any of us Boy Scouts under Whitman.

When you're 12 years old, you don't know anything. This hit every emotional bone in my body. I talked about it some with my mother, not my father. There were no counselors in the schools, no psychiatrists. You just had to buck up and move on.

It affected my schoolwork. I had been a good student but lost interest pretty soon after that. I lost all respect for authority and rebelled against almost everything.

I have never written about this until now. It was just too painful. Letting this out has released demons from me that have been there for 40 years.

To be honest, I wrote this because it may help some young kid who is troubled and angry to know that we all carry some sort of burden and that, indeed, life does get better. At age 52, I do believe that people need to know what happened that day. The world as we knew it changed forever.

Toby Hamilton is a computer consultant in Austin.


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