Saturday, August 1, 2009

The Sniper in the Tower

From all the accounts I have read, Monday, Aug. 1, 1966 started out as a pretty ordinary, sweltering midsummer day in Austin, Texas.

I've never lived in Austin, but I've lived through enough Texas summers to know that, on a typical July or August day in Texas, the highs can be in the upper 90s or lower 100s, and the temperatures may only drop to the upper 70s at night if you are lucky. At this time of year, rain seldom seems to have the cooling effect it can have in some places. Here, it just seems to make the heat wet and even more unpleasant, if that is possible.

(I lived in Oklahoma for awhile, and it can get hot there, too. I recall standing in line at the bank one hot summer day, and a man who may have been in his mid–50s and a younger man, who appeared to be his 20–something son, were standing behind me in line and I overheard them talking about the weather. The older man said, "It's July — when Okies get sick and outsiders die!")

Actually, I only mention the heat because I know that the heat can make people do crazy things. Some people just get lethargic in the summer. But others just do crazy things. In the days when I worked as a general assignment reporter, I covered the police beat. And I saw some crazy things in the summer, the kinds of things I never saw during the rest of the year.

Maybe it was the summer weather, maybe it was the alignment of the stars and the planets, that led ex–Marine Charles Whitman to scale the tower at the University of Texas and terrorize the area with sniper fire from the observation deck for 1½ hours. But that is precisely what he did on Aug. 1, 1966.

No one will ever know why Whitman did what he did. But maybe — just maybe — the severe headaches that he complained about had something to do with it.

I was about to enter first grade. In fact, I'm not entirely sure if my family had a TV set yet. We got a small black–and–white portable that year, but I don't think we had it when Whitman opened fire on that summer day.

Consequently, I don't remember how we heard about the shootings, which began shortly before noon. Maybe we heard about them on the radio.

Whitman's rampage — which actually began with the murders of his mother and his wife several hours earlier — resulted in 15 deaths plus the death of an unborn child (not counting the gunman himself) and 32 wounded. After it was over, investigators recovered notes and a journal in which Whitman expressed an inability to comprehend why he killed his mother and wife, and he didn't mention the sniper attack to come, but he apparently expected to die that day, either by his own hand or someone else's.

In either his notes or his journal, Whitman asked that an autopsy be performed to see if a physical cause could be found. I think he suspected that his headaches would lead him to do something extraordinary. And, in 1966, mass murders were, indeed, quite rare in the United States. My father was a professor at a small liberal arts college, and I know the shootings on the UT campus sent shock waves through the faculty.

Some may have blamed the shootings on the Dexedrine Whitman had been prescribed and was found on his body, but it couldn't be established that any medication caused him to snap because the body was embalmed prior to the autopsy and there were no bodily fluids to test. But the autopsy revealed the presence of a cancerous brain tumor that could have been a factor.

I wrote earlier that I believe Whitman expected to die that day. Here is a passage from one of his final notes:
"If my life insurance policy is valid please pay off my debts ... donate the rest anonymously to a mental health foundation. Maybe research can prevent further tragedies of this type."
Maybe he wasn't completely insane. Maybe enough sanity remained for him to make a final plea for something that would benefit one small corner of the world.

We probably will never know if any good at all came from that terrible day 43 years ago.

But we can always hope, can't we?

No comments: