You can read about it here, but I was there and this is how it was for me. I don’t know why I’m publishing this now, sitting here at 7,000 feet in northern New Mexico so many years later. I actually tried to write a song about it, and I’ve rewritten this essay over a dozen times in the last few weeks. The goddamn thing has strangled me and I have had enough. I think I simply need to tell someone about the blood…
After I published this, I learned of the amazing film from 2017, “Tower,” by Keith Maitland, available for free streaming at that link, and strongly urge everyone to watch it for a greater understanding of my own recollection below. Most of the action of the film focuses on the south side of the Tower. Though I spent most of my time that day on the north side, there are a couple of very brief scenes in the film where I was only a few feet out of camera range. Strangely, the photo above appears for about half a second also. I thought I’d cropped it out of a much larger photo I found online, but perhaps my memory fails me here.
It was gut-wrenching to watch “Tower.” My few memories fail to convey the full impact of that day, which came back with a wallop while I watched. Mysteriously, one of the persons featured in the film appears to have been living at Stag Co-op, where I also lived the year before. Every location shown is somewhere I walked or sat every single day I was a student. Absent the gunfire and the drama, someone could have been following me around with a camera. The “coincidences” are unnerving. – JHF
Walking toward the Tower at the moment that it started, bang-bang-bang, people dropping on the sidewalk a block ahead before it curved into the shade of big green live oaks. I thought it was a rush week stunt at first I swear, firecrackers, maybe, except the people on the ground were lying still on noon-hot concrete. Someone started screaming.
I’d just stepped off the curb to cross the street. No way. I must have turned around and retreated into the Littlefield House, an old two-story limestone building used for music practice rooms, because I remember sitting downstairs hearing bullets go through the wooden roof like metal bumblebees. That drove me outside to the alley, separated from the yard and sidewalk by a four-foot wall. There was an Austin policeman with a revolver and a civilian with a deer rifle hunkered down behind it, shooting up at the Tower. I didn’t see how they could possibly be effective. The shots coming from the Tower were professional, loud, and dangerous. At this point, people were still driving onto campus 30 feet away because no one had thought to block the entrance. How would you know it wasn’t just another day? I remember being much more excited than scared.
The University of Texas Tower (Main Building) was the center of the campus. Most people passed by or walked through every day if just to hit the bathrooms and the water fountains. Administrative offices below, the huge Main Library above, and then the tower itself, 27 levels of offices and library stacks with study carrels around the perimeter where anyone could sit. Graduate students had reserved carrels on the quieter upper floors where you could keep your books and papers spread out. The elevator ran through the center of the Tower, all the way to a room below the observation deck. There were stairs you walked up one more level to a kind of waiting room with windows and doors that led outside. At the top of the stairs was a desk where a Texas granny-lady welcomed you and had you sign the guest book. What a great job she had, I used to think. (He killed her with a shotgun.) All of this was free and easy. The view from 300 feet up outside in the open air, with my elbows resting on the wide smooth masonry wall, made me feel a privileged son of Texas. It was never crowded up there and I often wondered why.
The afternoon was ad hoc chaos. A private plane circled the top of the Tower with someone inside firing out the window. I was surprised that Whitman didn’t shoot it down. From wherever I happened to be one point—I roamed around a lot—I could see the barrel of the gunman’s sniper rifle poking out from the observation deck. Eventually I circled around on the east side to make my way to the Tower, keeping to the cover of the trees. I simply had to be there. I may have heard a radio and known the end was near.
There were dozens of people clustered around the west ground floor entrance to the Main Building, maybe more. I guess we figured he couldn’t shoot straight down. Campus police weren’t letting anyone inside. I maneuvered my way as close to the door as I could get, knowing that’s where they’d bring him out, alive or dead. All at once they did, moving quickly with the stretcher held down low. I’ll never forget what I saw:
The body was long and obviously heavy, covered from head to ankle with a sheet completely soaked in blood. I mean wringing wet all over, drops falling on the sidewalk. His feet were hanging off the end of the stretcher. The socks were soaked as well, bright red like the sheet. Where were the shoes, I thought. Did they blast the guy right out of his boots? (It happens.)* And how did the socks get wet like that? Did that much blood run down his legs before he cratered and the two cops emptied all their weapons in a final frenzy?
Afterwards I walked across the south mall, probably to retrieve my bike. There were dozens of students hurrying home or to a phone, whatever one does after a disaster. Several people had been shot out there in the blazing sun, though their bodies were now gone. What hadn’t been removed was all the blood, and there was plenty of it. A university groundskeeping crew was hosing it off the mall and down the steps into the storm drains. Most of it had already congealed into translucent slabs of reddish-purple jello.
Just like Whitman’s bloody socks, this was something I knew I’d never see again: an older fellow wearing overalls and a big straw cowboy hat, stoically hosing globs of human blood down the steps I climbed up every day heading from my classrooms to the Texas Union or the library. Everything about the cleanup scene was wrong, though.
Something in me wanted them to leave it like it was.
*In the film, Whitman is shown dead on the observation deck with his shoes on. What are we to make of that?