Boom Boom... Out Go the Lights

Charles Whitman in the UT Tower

illustration by Roy Tompkins

Imagine: It's a sunny Monday, the first of August, 1966 -- and there you are, Young American, complete with your Homecoming King, or Queen. The most advanced nutritional system on the planet generates the protein-rich essence which flushes a rosy glow the pair of you radiate as you languidly stroll hand-in-hand through the tree-shaded quadrangles of UT-- the both of you on the cusp of your individualized American Dream.

Suddenly, Blam!... Blam... Blam Blam Blam! Your love interest collapses beside you, their stylish blonde "flip" or "crew" in sharp contrast to the pool of blood already inching away from the motionless form. Everything fades.

The next thing you see is a face, perhaps resembling your grandfather's -- a kindly white-haired old guy. He sits down beside you.

"I'm afraid I've got some bad news...."

Your eyes widen as you absorb the verdict. The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi is history, as is your ability to walk.

"And your... your... sex, as well. I'm sorry.

How does one comprehend the incomprehensible?

"Each individual has this absurd notion that he has this dormant potential ... this stupid idea 95% of the brain is unused.

"All it does is frustrate man.

"All it does is remind him of his limitations.

"...a concoction of lies, a dynamic that drives men to do things...."

The publication of A Sniper in the Tower: The Charles Whitman Murders by Gary M. Lavergne (University of North Texas Press, $18.95, paper), a factually definitive (though suppositionally flawed) history of Charles Whitman's August First, 1966 UT "marksmanship display" -- in combination with films like Raoul Walsh's 1949 White Heat and Richard Linklater's Slacker -- Should further guide one towards something of what has been billed as "America's first mass murder:" an event leaving 16 dead, 31 wounded, and Charles Whitman's name smeared across a generation's newsprint.

Together with Chicago's Richard Speck and Smith and Hickock of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Charles Whitman ushered in the era of the Killer Kult, a uniquely American phenomena, aesthetically bracketed by Lee Harvey Oswald and would-be George Wallace assassin Arthur Bremer, who neatly summarized the Kult concept when he breathlessly inquired of arresting officers, "How much do you think I'll get for my memoirs?"

But in many ways Charles Whitman is more than just a trading card for morbid collectors of Americana. He remains an emblem -- the man who shot out the lights illuminating the last vestiges of our innocence, the catalyst of an entirely new reality guided by irrationality, chance and intuition.

In many ways, Charles Whitman was the key player in contemporary America's first public act of DaDa. And it was a bloodbath. One is ultimately forced to pose the question, despite our "objective" posturing and hypothesizing, "What does this event say about us?" And the answers are both less savory, and less obvious, than we might prefer.

On November 18, 1981, Jack Henry Abbott, author of the radical anti-penal system manifesto In the Belly of the Beast, stabbed a waiter to death outside a restaurant on New York's Lower East Side. A near lifetime guest of the American prison system, Abbott, at that juncture, had everything -- a critical literary success, Norman Mailer's patronage, the first real money of his life -- and he tossed it away almost instinctively. In his sole book, Abbott cites a personal history, "At age nine I began serving long stints in juvenile detention quarters. At age twelve I was sent to the Utah State Industrial School For Boys... at age eighteen I was released as an adult," as a part of his supposition he exemplifies "a child of the state."

C.A. Whitman, Charles Whitman's father, is, likewise, a child of "the state," the far more benevolent-sounding Bethesda Orphanage in Savannah, Georgia. One can imagine C.A. as a boy lying awake nights in a narrow metal bed, in an identical row of them, silently vowing -- over and over -- "gonna make it, gonna make it."

He came up the hard way, disposing of his social better's "waste." But he pulled it off. He achieved his personal American Dream, as a wealthy self-made plumbing contractor in Lake Worth, Florida. Not without cost, however: according to Lavergne "...he provided well for his family -- and never let them forget it."

C.A.'s seemingly inbred resentment of his formative circumstances, and the society participating in their perpetration, conveyed itself, quite literally, as "tough love." He self-admittedly, beat both his wife, and all three sons: "I don't think I spanked enough, if you want to know the truth about it."

He relentlessly pushed eldest son Charles to succeed, laying a strap on the piano as the boy practiced, coercing the child to become the world's youngest Eagle Scout at age twelve, "endowing" the boy with every shred of his own tortured "American Dream" psyche.

Of course, resentment was brewing. "He was completely normal. Just one of the guys," says Frank McCarty, a boyhood friend of Charles, in Lavergne's book. But beneath the carefully constructed facade, seethed hatred, a hatred culminating in a drunken poolside brawl that landed the boy in the drink. There wasn't really much alternative. On July 6, 1959, Charles Whitman, with his mother Margaret's support, joined the Marines.

"And you got the whole other end of the realm ... the smurfs. They've got this little colony group together where everybody hangs right together, everything flows real well...."

-- Slacker

In his flippant, offhand way, Richard Linklater connects his first feature film, 1992's Slacker, with Whitman references, "this town's finest hour." Linklater is just onto something, some "vibe," some feel that is, uniquely, "Austin." Here, you don't "make it." It "makes you." Either you accept it, or split -- leaving a nasty note denying all culpability for your failure in your wake -- or die, or go berserk or some unspeakable combination thereof. It's the charm of the place, its laconic uncertainty, its vague whiff of potential physical violence of a metaphysical nature.

Charles Whitman seemed the perfect Smurf. He smurfed his way into the University of Texas Engineering College via the Marines (to quote Lavergne, "His first active hitch can only be described as successful. He evolved from a toy soldier to a marine sharp-shooter. As in his relationship with his father, Charlie approached his orders dutifully."). And once ensconced in Austin Charles lost no time in finding himself the perfect Smurfette, Kathy Leissner, Methodist Needville, Texas in full bloom. The courtship was swift. Soon, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Whitman were living on Jewell Street in South Austin, the paragons of their neighborhood. It was a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.

The truth, of course, was the artist in Charlie's brain was taking cues from Hieronymous Bosch. Consequently, if acting awards were handed out for real-time performances, Charles Whitman would have had a shelf full of them.

Lavergne gnaws on this aspect of Whitman's emotional make-up, contending, in addition to the brain tornado foaming, frothing, and funneling in his frontal lobe, Charlie wasn't all that fine a fellow to begin with, citing a laissez faire attitude towards gambling debts, a tendency to throw around his weight, and the occasional smirk at others' discomfort as his decidedly empirical evidence. It's the departure point for A Sniper in the Tower, the fork in the road you either buy into, or dismiss utterly.

Charles Whitman was no angel gone astray. In many ways he was a punk, a punk no different from entitled, drunken Frat Boys acting out Krystal Nacht somewhere downtown or on campus any night of the year. But, it still eludes me how, with all the evidence staring him in the face, evidence he himself compiled, Lavergne can erroneously conclude, "Charles Whitman became a killer because he did not respect or admire himself . . . Charles Whitman was an extraordinary coward."

In a recent telephone conversation, Larry Fuess, of L.A. Fuess Partners Engineers of Dallas, A Sniper in the Tower's oft-mentioned best friend of Charles Whitman, reacted with silence when I read him Lavergne's quote. I got the impression Mr. Fuess, though thoughtful and pleasant, was weary of the whole affair, not so much for himself as for the man who, after all, had been his friend.

After a few moments Fuess told me, "I come to a different conclusion than Mr. Lavergne. [Whitman] was troubled, had a lot of difficulty with his family he didn't make me party to, but that I knew was there. Charlie pushed himself to live up to standards he just couldn't meet." Sure, it's the conclusion of a biased party, but it speaks volumes more than Lavergne's vengeful supposition.

On pages 243 and 244 of A Sniper in the Tower, Lavergne states "[The period after the shootings] was a period of kindness. The police and even the Travis County Grand Jury sought to protect C.A. Whitman from his son's vitriolic notes." Charlie apparently wrote lots of notes, including one asking "After my death I wish that an autopsy be performed on me to see if there is any visible physical disorder." Just how many of these notes the actual public at large has been privy to is anybody's guess. I'd venture there's stuff we've never even seen. Evidence for my assumption: The Austin Police Department and Chief Bob Miles scrambling to cover their butts in the wake of the disaster, spin-controlling the whole mess from an Anglo fuck-up to a Hispanic triumph ala the patrolman who actually killed Whitman.

The medical community ran scared as well: UT's, due to unwariness (On March 29, 1966, Whitman had spent an hour with psychiatrist Dr. Maurice Dean Heatley at the University Health Center. During this meeting Dr. Heatley noted Charles "oozing hostility," and recalled Whitman's reference to "thinking about going up on the tower with a deer rifle and start shooting people." Charles was told to "make an appointment for the same day next week." He never did.), the community at large, Dr. Coleman de Chenar, presiding, declaring the 2x1.5x1 cm. tumor found in Whitman's brain not to have "had any correlation to psychosis...," an autopsy performed, according to Lavergne, "after Whitman had been embalmed."

In fact, it would seem the powers-that-were were mostly interested in covering asses, both C.A. Whitman's, and their own while waiting for the whole thing to dissipate sans explanation, like the Tomcat Society trying to obscure the fact they often dine on their young.

Lavergne travels, as a kind of epilogue, to interview C.A. Whitman in Florida. The man is the sole survivor of his clan -- eldest son, Charles, wife Margaret, youngest son Johnnie-Mike dead by a gunshot wound in a parking lot brawl, middle son Patrick of AIDS. The man also asked to be paid for the interview.

In this context, it's easy to envision C.A. Whitman as the Robert DeNiro character, Louis Cypher, at the end of the film Angel Heart, his eyes contracting and changing color -- pupils dilating, eyes yellowing, narrowing, achieving a feline cast -- as he implies payment for an interview with Lavergne; the ghosts of the only people who ever gave a damn about C.A. wafting silently in the space around them.

C.A. Whitman -- this model citizen, this product of our "state," this flip-side to Jack Henry Abbot's coin -- socially acceptable, but every bit as deviant and mean -- mean like an animal reared from infancy in the streets -- this logical creation of our perverse need to succeed beyond all reasonable expectations; a patriarch who is really no different from Ma Jarrett in White Heat, pushing and prodding son Cody, played by James Cagney, to the top of the criminal heap, "Top of the world, son. Top of the world."

"But anytime any one of them [Smurfs] tries to take off and do his own little trip, Mr. Evil comes down off the hill and, like, stomps on `em."

-- Slacker

Charles Whitman was in open rebellion. And he know his actions would bring about his destruction. In the abstract, one has to feel compassion for Whitman in much the same way one has to pity Frankenstein. Neither asked for their fate, they merely reacted to external stimuli to bring it about.

In the end, Charles Whitman is us. He is our creation. Like Frankenstein, the goal was to destroy the symbols of a life neither desired, or accepted. Whitman viewed this mortal coil as a hell to be endured until "summoned" to a better place (Whitman's arcane religious beliefs would have made him perfect for Seventies religious cults had he lived that long). Best guess is he finally heard the call.

But it's the filmmakers who catch the true "spirit" inspiring the carnage.

There's Charles, white headband in place, looking out over the site of his failure from the UT clock tower's observation deck. The ridges of the hill country rise in the west, to the north, south, and east the land goes on as far as the eye can see. He's just decimated M.J. Gabour's family in the tower's stairwell after knifing his mother, his wife, and Observation Deck receptionist Edna Townsley who still writhes on the floor inside of the tower. "Top of the world, pa, you son-of-a-bitch. Live with this."

Linklater fills in the remaining gaps:

"Every action is a positive action, even if it has a negative result," the video guy in Slacker declaims as he points a rifle at the camera. "What could be better than a short, uncomplicated life that goes out in a blaze of glory?"

No one can say, exactly, what was short-circuiting in Charles Whitman's brain that August day. But there's a surreal quality to the image of Whitman sighting his first tower round on the baby in Clare Wilson's womb. He looks up for but a second, readjusting the shoulder strap now girding the length of his left arm for control. He lowers to fire, mumbling once, "Rock `n' Roll."

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