“It seemed like any predictable 1st of August in Austin, Texas: sunny and hot. I left my summer class in European History in the Business Building adjacent to the University of Texas Tower 40 minutes before the day would suddenly become infamous in the minds and hearts of the citizens of the United States: walking directly under and by the Tower to my car.
After checking in at my Lifeguard job at Barton Springs, I went to legendary Scholz’s Garten for their 100th anniversary (and nickel beer), where, I joined the crowded garden with my six pack of Lone Star beer, as they had run out of tap beer at 10 am.
With my fellow revelers, we were witnesses of the firefight, at that time, fully in view from the beer garden. (Since that day, a building has been erected next to Scholz’s, blocking out the full view of the Tower). Our crowd could see the puffs of smoke of the sniper and the small impacts of the fire from people with rifles that the police had publicly asked to shoot at the top of the tower to suppress Whitman’s fire since the Austin police only had shotguns and pistols at that time.
It was only when we heard on the transistor radios several in the crowd had, that a linesman had been shot off a utility pole about the same distance from the tower as we were, that we realized our own vulnerability.
You could see everyone doing the math in their head, thinking, if we could see his perch, then he could see the garden and he had just shot someone at the same distance. With this news, everyone either hurriedly left, nervously went inside or dove under the concrete tables, as I did, following a girl holding what was left of her six pack. I remember peeking out every few minutes to get a glimpse of the Tower.
As we were running out of beer, someone came out of the back door and proclaimed that it was over and Whitman had been killed by an Austin policeman. I learned later that one of the students and a promising pianist, Carla Sue Wheeler, a neighbor of mine, had been shot in the hand. When I think of her and the other victims, 14 fatalities and 32 wounded, I am reminded of the lasting impact on, not only their lives, but the many adjacent lives of their friends and families. And I remember that we that were witnesses naïvely thought that the random shooting was a bizarre anomaly in our country’s history. We would have been aghast if we knew what was to follow up to this very year.
I composed the poem, “Austin Fire,” with the basic details of my day and it is included in my new book, “Reaching For Longer Water” (Texas Review Press/Texas A&M University Consortium) and “Far Out: Poems of the 60’s (Wings Press),” both collections released in the spring.”