‘Are we playing for keeps?’

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Mass shootings are unfortunately too common these days. At schools, night clubs, movie theaters, city streets. Not going to get into the why fors and here abouts; each incident is peculiar in its own horror. If there’s a link in these tragedies, a genesis starts with Charles Whitman.

Fifty years ago, Aug 1, 1966, Whitman shot 49 people, killing 16, as a sniper atop the University of Texas campus tower in Austin. He started shooting at about 11:30 a.m. as classes emptied on campus. Earlier that day, he killed his wife and mother. The shootings lasted 96 minutes. The crime scene was five square blocks; he killed one person at 1,500 feet. He legally bought multiple weapons the day before and came loaded for bear.

In those days, Austin police had no response teams like today. No SWAT personnel and armored vehicles. It was handguns and shotguns, no use against a barricaded sniper, 27 floors above a campus. Police officers, students and civilians went to their homes to retrieve hunting rifles. Allen Crum, a UT bookstore manager, joined police officers as they ascended to the tower. Crum, 40, affirmed that he wanted to help and took a hunting rifle from another officer.

“Are we playing for keeps?” Crum asked Ramiro Martinez, an Austin police officer as they went up.

“You’re damn right we’re playing for keeps,” Martinez replied.

“Well, then you better deputize me,” Crum said. He was the only civilian involved in Whitman’s takedown. He was a former Air Force gunner in WWII.

••••••

My father was the publisher of the Marshall, Texas, News Messenger then and I was summer league sports writer and summer intern — in other words, a gopher and the boss’ kid. I was almost 14. The presses were running when Whitman started shooting from the tower. In those days, breaking news came over The Associated Press teletype machines. The monotonous clack-clack-clack sound was ubiquitous. One of my jobs was to change the ribbons on the two machines, keep the paper stocked, and when stories piled up on the floor behind, strip them and file by category — news, sports, features and so forth — and place upon an editor’s desk. That day the boredom and newsroom smells — you could smoke and eat a Dairy Queen cheeseburger with onions and fries at your desk — was interrupted suddenly by the loud ringing of bells from the teletype. This meant BULLETIN, back when capital letters meant something.

My father stopped the presses. An afternoon paper in 1966 put out a “bulldog” edition early for newsstands and later, printed the home delivery edition. He recalled the single copy editions from vending machines and dealers. We all got busy working the phones investigating connections from Marshall families to the UT campus. We were going to print an EXTRA. In his career, he published two, the first being three years earlier with President Kennedy’s assassination in nearby Dallas. Publishing an EXTRA was a big deal back then. Online news today has taken care of that. (I’ve published one, subsequent to the 9/11 attacks.)

••••••

Ramiro Martinez, an off duty police officer, is credited with ending Whitman’s life in a shootout. Along with officer Houston McCoy and Crum, the three reached Whitman and stopped the carnage. Martinez went on to a career in the Texas Rangers and is retired. McCoy died in 2012. Crum was scarred by the episode. He told local media he developed a “1,000 yard stare” and left Austin hastily a few years later, never returning.

This coming Monday, Aug. 1, is the first day under a new “campus carry” law at the University of Texas. It was passed last year by the Texas Legislature in response to other college campus shootings. It’s controversial. Critics cite irony and Whitman. Martinez said that civilians shooting back at Whitman narrowed his range of targets and forced him to hole up and take cover; the Austin chief of police said that officers were put at risk regarding “friendly fire” from below. The shooting stopped when Crum waved a white handkerchief from over the observation wall.

Whitman’s mass murder of civilians and one police officer was voted the second most important story of 1966 behind Vietnam. During an autopsy, it was revealed that Whitman had a brain tumor the size of a pecan, but the physician making the determination said the tumor wasn’t the cause of Whitman’s unhinged behavior.

Gov. John Connally convened a commission to investigate further and while it provided no “clarity” to mental illness, that brain tumor/mental illness diagnosis stuck.

Gary Lavergne’s book, “A Sniper in the Tower,” is the most comprehensive on the subject.

By |July 28th, 2016|

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