I Hid From the Texas Tower Sniper. His Successors Have Found Us All.

Brenda Bell / The Washington Post
I Hid From the Texas Tower Sniper. His Successors Have Found Us All. A puff of smoke from sniper Charles Whitman's rifle emerges from the observation deck of the Tower at the University of Texas at Austin on Aug. 1, 1966. Whitman killed 16 people and wounded 31 before being fatally shot by police. (photo: AP)

In 1966, we had no idea this school massacre would be just the first

When I saw the photograph posted on Twitter by Daniel Defense, maker of the weapon that turned a Texas elementary school into a killing field a little over a week ago, I felt a jolt of recognition. The photo was of a small boy sitting cross-legged on the floor and holding a similar high-powered rifle. The caption was a biblical verse: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” This advertising image recalled instantly for me the haunting photo of another child, barely out of diapers, holding a pair of his daddy’s rifles. This boy was Charles Joseph Whitman, age 2.

Raised by a brutal, damaged father who taught him to shoot — and shoot well — before he was school age, Charlie did not “depart from it.” I was in a Shakespeare class at the University of Texas in Austin on Aug. 1, 1966, when Whitman, by then 25, took his weapons and his torments to the top of the university’s Main Building and from its clock tower became the first modern entry on a uniquely American timeline of what we now call mass shooters. All together, he killed 15 people and wounded 31, many grievously, including a man who died decades later of the injuries he suffered.

Those of us forced to witness the carnage, who hid from the crosshairs of Whitman’s sniper scope and stepped around puddles of blood that darkened in the hot sun before it was finally over, cannot forget even if we wanted to. The shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde is both its own distinct nightmare and simply the latest reminder.

“Tell me, hon,” Whitman’s father, also Charles, said to me in 1976, when I interviewed him for a story on the anniversary of the shootings. “How do they feel about this in Austin 10 years later? Do they blame the family? Or do they think Charlie was just sick?”

Here’s one thing nobody was thinking back then — that we would still be having these conversations 56 years later. The Vietnam War was barely underway in 1966. We’d never heard of military-style weapons in the hands of civilians. We thought Whitman was an aberration. But “what began on the UT campus two generations ago has never ended,” as a recent essay in the Texas Tribune put it. “It’s been repeated again and again.”

Yet mass shootings did pause, in Texas and elsewhere, for many years. One thing that changed was the weaponry. In 1989, a suicidal angry drifter with an AK-47-style rifle killed five and wounded 32 at an elementary school in Stockton, Calif. The outcry prompted California and later Congress to ban such weapons. The federal ban ended in 2004.

In a way, Whitman was an anomaly compared to later shooters — an older, former Marine sharpshooter who picked off his victims one by one with a Remington 700 bolt-action rifle, a classic hunting (and sniper) weapon that in skilled hands can fire up to 10 rounds a minute. For boys taught to hunt like he was, skill was key. It was a point of pride to make the first shot the killing shot, so the animal wouldn’t get far or needlessly suffer.

My cousin Blaine Bennett, who grew up in Uvalde and still lives there, remembers once asking his father for more capacity for his deer rifle. It held three bullets, and he wanted five. My uncle refused. “His reasoning was if I hadn’t dropped that deer in three shots, then I was just a bad shot,” Blaine recalled. “In fact, his expectation for me was one shot.” My cousin was 8 at the time.

Old-school Texans like him are repelled by the idea that anyone, much less teenagers, as the shooters in Uvalde and Buffalo and Parkland were, can easily buy and wreak havoc with weapons that are designed to tear apart scores of human bodies within seconds and cause maximum suffering. Gun advocates deride the “spray and pray” reputation of the AR-15 as a myth but it’s capable of firing six times as many rounds a minute as a bolt-action rifle.

However, if the Tower shootings were an aberration, they were also a template for the mass slayings that followed. We know the script by heart. There will be shock and horror and mourning of senseless deaths. Interviews with survivors and relatives of victims and shooters. Photographs of those who were slain and their funerals. GoFundMe pages. Gun debates. Much talk about a mental health crisis. Explosive news conferences about what went wrong, because something always goes wrong, whether it’s before, during or after the shooting or all three.

When I dragged my two dusty boxes of Whitman sniper files from my garage and paged through the yellowed copies of the Aug. 1 police reports, I was struck by the echoes of Uvalde in the chaos and terror of that afternoon in Austin. In a way mass shootings are like war, difficult even for cops to comprehend unless they’ve been there.

Houston McCoy was a military veteran, perhaps the first police officer to arrive at the Tower after the shooting began. His handwritten account of that afternoon, the adrenaline and confusion and fear, is remarkable for its plain-spoken honesty. “Grab my shotgun, look for an entrance. Don’t see one, look toward the top and see all the windows. Feel like there is somebody with a gun behind each window, get scared, run back to my (police car).”

The endless hash and rehash of what the “good guys” did or didn’t do in Uvalde is an old story. There will always be lapses and mistakes and missed warning signs, despite the shooter drills and training and fancy equipment that are supposed to avoid them. When Whitman told a doctor at the student health center about his urge to take a deer rifle to the top of UT’s Main Building and shoot people, the doctor took notes but did nothing except schedule him for another appointment. Whitman never showed. The unarmed campus cop on guard duty when Whitman drove on campus could have checked his claim that the footlocker in his back seat contained equipment for the science building. It actually contained his arsenal. But there was no reason in 1966 to be suspicious of this young man.

The rapid shots from the observation deck were ringing above their heads as McCoy and other officers got the word to converge near the Tower. McCoy thought, “Oh boy, someone has finally come up with a plan,” he later recounted. But there was no plan. Almost an hour would pass before he and Officer Ramiro Martinez felled Whitman in a helter-skelter rush to the observation deck, an hour in which the body count rose. Though he was a hero that day, McCoy blamed himself for those bodies for the rest of his life.

That’s the trouble with trauma, as the survivors and the bereaved in Uvalde are learning, like all the others who came before. It ripples through people and communities and even generations endlessly, never reaching the shore where it can spend itself for good. Losing any loved one is hard, but losing your child is particularly devastating. As I learned when talking to survivors of the Tower shootings many years later, those traumas can upend lives, destroy marriages, rip apart families.

Those of us who were there in 1966 are in our 70s and 80s now. We've lived long enough to die of natural causes. It’s our grandchildren who are having shooting drills in school. Grandchildren who were shot to pieces in Uvalde, who will be shot to pieces somewhere else. There have been worse mass shootings in terms of numbers, but there’s something unbearable about those young faces, row upon row of them, looking so hopefully at the camera when they were alive.

What was an unprecedented massacre on a placid college campus has repeated itself for two generations and counting. An endless loop, therefore a predictable one, abetted by unspeakably deadly weapons that almost anyone can buy, anywhere. We didn’t know that going in, in 1966. But every decade since, we’ve learned. We’ve learned.

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