50 years after UT Tower shooting, the memories return

Fifty years ago this Aug. 1, I squeezed into a beat-up Mercedes sports car that my best friend worked on. The seats revealed springs; one windshield wiper was missing; I could see the road through the floor. When we revved the engine, the muffler was so loud that we couldn't hear the radio. So, we turned off the radio.

The sound of gunfire only registered when we jumped out of the car. Fugitives crouched in doorways yelled at us to get down and to hide. Somehow, we pressed ourselves under the car between the heat of a Texas parking lot and the blistering exhaust pipe.

At 80 miles per hour, we cruised noisily on the road from San Antonio to Austin. My best friend, Aaron, was on his way to check in to his dorm room at the University of Texas. At 18 years old, I didn't yet have a life plan, so I came along for the ride. Had we been able to hear the radio, we might have turned around.

Here is where the dream sequence takes over. I know, from what we learned afterward, that we drove into Austin as Charles Whitman, barricaded in the tower of the university, killed 14 people and wounded 32 others.

The gunfire must have been thunderous as police and armed civilians responded to Whitman's salvos. Yet we, driving down 6th Street in our noisy rattletrap, heard nothing. I remember thinking that Austin looked deserted. Aaron drove us through a neighborhood that put us out of sight of the tower but then brought us to the dorm, which was just a block away.

The sound of gunfire only registered when we jumped out of the car. Fugitives crouched in doorways yelled at us to get down and to hide. Somehow, we pressed ourselves under the car between the heat of a Texas parking lot and the blistering exhaust pipe.

As we gained some sense of the situation, we even held a conversation. Should we twist our bodies around to move our heads from under the gas tank? If he shot the car would it explode? We actually debated this question until the absurdity of it caught up with us. I don't remember who, but one of us burst out laughing and vented, "We're dead."

The dream sequence continues: The shots ended abruptly and, after some hesitation, we crawled out into the blinding sunlight. Were there sirens, loud speakers, people shouting, crying? I recall no sounds, as if I stood in a sealed room.

Aaron wanted to walk to Guadalupe Street, the university's main drag. There, we saw the carnage — pools of blood covering the sidewalk, bodies, some covered, people crying, clutching each other.

A young woman walked up to us and asked if we'd seen her brother. I don't know how I responded. By the time her question registered, she had walked up to someone else.

Aaron and I drove home to frantic parents, and we never really talked about it after that.

Yet, the memories never faded. For five decades, I have revisited Austin on that day in 1966. Do I have the facts straight? Did it happen as I remember it? I don't know. What I do know is that the memories are fixed — always the same sequence, point of view and emotions.

For many years, the memories came infrequently, not as nightmares but as rare visitors. But, a few years ago, America took a turn that brought the memories back with regularity.

Every mass killing puts me back under that car. I see the face of that young woman looking for her brother. I see the pools of blood.

Last year, the Texas Legislature passed a law allowing concealed handguns on Texas university campuses. The law will take effect on Aug. 1, the 50th anniversary of the Texas tower killings. That anyone would be so bitterly cold-hearted as to enact this law on such a horrific anniversary overwhelms me — especially as it so profoundly dishonors every victim.

The memories have come back full force.

My biggest fear is not that the memories will visit me more often — but that they will visit others, as America goes on creating more and more memories like them.

Jorge Reina Schement

Vice chancellor, Rutgers University-New Brunswick

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