The Madman on the Tower

I remember every detail of that day twenty years ago—the blue sky, the noonday heat, the gunshots, the screams, the blood, and …

It’s like belonging to a fraternity that never meets: you are talking with someone and learn he was living in Austin in 1966, and pretty soon the subject of Charles Whitman comes up. Then for a minute or so, it’s where-were-you time—that Monday, August 1, under bright skies with the temperature approaching one hundred. I was a University of Texas graduate student supervising student publications as a part-time job. Walking from the old journalism building on Twenty-fourth Street to the Union to get a sandwich for lunch, I could hear loud reports that had the boom, snap quality of rifle shots. They were coming from the vicinity of the Main Building, but I didn’t see any unusual activity there and shrugged them off as the sounds of a nail-driving gun, which had been periodically banging away on a construction project there. Later I discovered that everyone hearing that noise was running it though a mental card-sorter until it found a slot that offered a perfectly ordinary explanation. One person, also mindful of the construction, decided that it was the sound of large planks falling over and slapping concrete. Another, closer to the mark, decided the ROTC must be shooting blanks for some ceremonial reason on the mall in front of the Main Building with its 27-story Tower. Yet another saw a girl fling herself to the grass and assumed, having read a feature in the campus paper a few days earlier, that it was some kind of goofy crowd-response experiment being carried out by the psychology folks.

I was still operating on the nail-gun theory when some students standing behind a pillar of the Academic Center started shouting something about a guy on the Tower shooting people and how I should get moving. My first response was to resent being yelled at, so I just stood there in the middle of a grassy inner-drive area, squinting up at the Tower’s northwest corner. Sure enough, I could see a gun barrel poke out over the parapet and emit smoke, followed an instant later by the boom I had been hearing. Now the computer was working a lot faster but still coming up with a bad readout: Just look at that! There’s some fool up there with a rifle, trying to get himself in one hell of a lot of trouble! From my angle, it didn’t look like the man was shooting downward, but was trying to create a commotion.

So I turned around and started walking (don’t show fear, they can smell it) the two hundred or so feet back to the protective corner of Hogg Auditorium, maybe trotting the last few yards. A student already there was pointing and jabbering about a girl who was hit in the side yard of the biology building, which I had just crossed coming from journalism. That bumped the alarm meter up substantially, and I joined him in yelling at a student strolling along the sidewalk past the old Littlefield Home, right behind us and to our left. We nearly got the guy killed, for when he stopped to look at us in puzzlement, the sniper opened up on him with a semiautomatic rifle. That sent him scrambling to the protection of an alley as bullets whacked into the low limestone wall behind him, popping like movie squibs. Since then, I’ve wondered if he knew how lucky he was that Whitman had evidently emptied his two other rifles and was using his little open-sight Army carbine. With his scoped 6mm bolt-action Remington, it had been strictly one shot, one man, in the old Marine Corps tradition.

That bit of excitement convinced me that something not only very weird but very bad was happening. I had a queasy feeling that returned later that day when the paper said one Tower office employee looked out and saw “two young boys laying face down in front of Hogg Auditorium,” and it came back a few days later, when a Life magazine aerial photo showed X’s where people had been hit along the route I had just taken.

I had been a little slow in switching over to emergency, but my wits were supposedly about me as I made my way around the back of the auditorium to the Union, where I knew of a stairwell window that afforded a good and, I thought, a safe view of the Tower. The window was wide open, and a girl in a white blouse was already sharing the right-hand side with someone, so I went to the left where only one student was standing and looked over his shoulder. Everyone was talking, and I could hear people downstairs in the Union lobby, babbling in confusion. Someone had come in from outside and was running through the lobby, crying, “That man is dead! That man is dead!” as though such a thing were entirely impossible.

I could see the sniper fairly well; he would lean out over the parapet, bring the rifle to bear on target, fire, tip the weapon up as he worked the action, then walk quickly to another point and do the same thing. It must have been about that time that he hit an electrician next to his truck at Twentieth Street and University Avenue, a quarter of a mile away. It was about that time, too, that the Tower clock started chiming and then, with cold-blooded indifference, tolled the noon hour. And it must have been only moments after those echoes died that the sniper, evidently firing through one of the Tower’s drain spouts, put a shot through the open window where the four of us stood gawking.

The bullet struck the edge of the window opening in front of the girl’s face like an exploding stick of dynamite, filling the stairwell with glass,

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