How does a mild-mannered young man become a mass murderer? For Charles Whitman--and perhaps my editor--it all started with the Boy Scouts.
THIS, GENTILE READER, is a tale of two Eagle Scouts. One was Charles Joseph Whitman, who, in 1966, climbed the Tower at the University of Texas and shot 45 people. The other is my mild-mannered editor, Brian D. Sweany. Both loved the Boy Scouts, both attended large Texas universities, both married beautiful blond women, and both had dogs and guns. Indeed, the only discernible difference between the two is that my editor hasn’t shot 45 people yet. Nevertheless, I usually avoid getting into tension conventions with Brian. He is, after all, an Eagle Scout.
Why is this important? Because I believe there is something in the mind-set of the Eagle Scout that provides an excellent breeding ground for the future mass murderers of America. Maybe it’s that, while the rest of us are desperately trying to extricate ourselves from a turbulent and troubling adolescence, the Eagle Scout is assiduously applying himself to the narrow, maddening craft of knot tying. It’s my theory that in a universe of Eagle Scouts, you’d find an extremely high proportion of psychopaths. I can’t prove my theory because I don’t have a computer nor am I ever likely to have one. If some geeky ten-year-old has a little time on his hands, however, it might be helpful to establish the statistical link between Eagle Scouts and mass murderers. Once this is done, all we’d have to do is send all the Eagle Scouts to Eagle Pass for a lucid-dreaming seminar.
I have yet to write a song about my editor, but back in the sixties I did pen an infamous little ditty about that other Eagle Scout. It’s called “The Ballad of Charles Whitman.” If you like, I can hum a few bars:
He was sittin’ up there for more than an hour,
Way up there on the Texas Tower,
Shooting from the twenty-seventh floor.
He didn’t choke or slash or slit them,
Not our Charles Joseph Whitman.
He won’t be an architect no more.
Got up that morning calm and cool.
He picked up his guns and walked to school.
All the while he smiled so sweetly,
Then he blew their minds completely.
They’d never seen an Eagle Scout so cruel.
There was a rumor about a tumor
Nestled at the base of his brain.
He was sitting up there with his .36 Magnum,
Laughin’ wildly as he bagged ‘em.
Who are we to say the boy’s insane?
Of course, I’m wary of more than just Eagle Scouts. Another pet theory of mine deals with people who have the name “Wayne.” I believe we should keep an eye on these folks. Most of them are up to no good. The problem, I contend, begins at birth when the father, invariably a fan of John Wayne’s, blithely borrows the name for his son. The son, no doubt, cannot live up to the John Wayne lifestyle and may indeed prefer to be an interior decorator subsisting almost entirely on banana bread and Brie. This irritates the macho father to no end and causes a deep guilt to fester in the young man until one day he snaps his wig completely and swerves to hit a school bus. Examples of the Wayne Phenomenon are legion: John Wayne Gacy, Elmer Wayne Henley, John Wayne Nobles, Wayne Williams, Michael Wayne McGray, Christopher Wayne Lippard, Dennis Wayne Eaton, and Wayne Nance, merry mass murderers and serial killers all.
Personally, I have nothing against John Wayne, and I don’t believe that the Duke’s impossibly high macho standard should be held against him. It’s not his fault that a statistically significant number of screwed-up young men bearing his name struggle to please their equally misguided fathers. Willie Nelson, it should be noted, was never a big fan of Wayne’s. Willie once commented about the Duke: “He couldn’t sing, and his horse was never smart.” Even John Ford, who was a friend of Wayne’s and directed a number of his movies, became a little nervous in the service when working with the Duke. “Sometimes,” said Ford, “he thinks he’s John Wayne.”
Wayne, of course, was not from Texas, but he acted like he was. Texas has always had a lot to brag about, and one area of which we’re particularly proud is the many mass murderers who were born in the Lone Star State. There’s Richard Speck, who killed eight nurses in Chicago (he was a sick chicken and then he took a turn for the nurse); Charles “Tex” Watson, Charlie Manson’s executive butt boy (never trust a guy named “Tex”); and Henry Lee Lucas, who killed about 400 million people but can’t remember where he buried the bodies. Occasionally, no doubt, Texans tend to get a bit overzealous, and we brag about murders that aren’t even our own, so to speak. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is a good example. It’s loosely based on an incident that took place in Wisconsin.
But Charles Whitman (Charles Watson, Charles Manson could be something here) was one of the first modern mass murderers. On the surface he was just an ex-Marine sharpshooter who may have been studying too hard in the stacks until he blew his own stack. As a Tower guard told me years later: “It’ll happen to you.”
“The Ballad of Charles Whitman” closes with the following verse:
The doctors tore his poor brain down,
But not a snitch of illness could be found.
Most folks couldn’t figure just why he did it,
And them that could would not admit it.
There’s still a lot of Eagle Scouts around.
Jesus, I sure hope Brian likes this column.