Category Archives: Forgotten history

One Hot Day In August

 

ut_tower_-_main_building

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

On Aug. 1, 1966, I was working a summer job between my sophomore and junior year in college. I worked late-night shift  as a janitor in an office building in downtown Tulsa. That night the rest of crew, all working class folk, turned to me, the college boy, to explain what the hell happened in Texas that day.

 

Charles Whitman, an ex-Marine and student at the University of Texas at Austin stabbed him wife and mother to death in their respective beds, then later that morning he sneaked an arsenal to the top of the iconic UT clock tower. And at about noon, he began firing with a high-powered rifle from the observation deck 307 feet above ground, picking off human targets with stunning accuracy. Ninety minutes later, his murderous spree ended as two Austin police officers and a civilian kicked through a barricaded door and killed him. Whitman had killed 14 dead and 32 wounded.

Whitman ‘s rampage sent shockwaves across the nation. We were not used to mass murders then, certainly not on a university campus. As we gathered in the lunchroom, my janitor colleagues asked me with worry in their eyes why? Why would a young man kill his wife and mother and then casually pick off strangers from a sniper’s roost?

I had no answers. It was alien territory for me. The university life I knew involved studies, drinking beer and thinking about women. No one I knew wanted to murder anyone.

Twenty years later, as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News, I had the opportunity to revisit Charles Whitman’s day of terror in Austin. I read the police investigation report and Whitman’s journal as he recorded his decline into madness.I read the university psychologist’s report on Whitman and read his autopsy.  I visited with victim’s families, with survivors, with school officials, with those who had been on campus, with law enforcement officers, and with the police officer who killed Whitman. None of them ever fully recovered from their encounter with Whitman. As they walked across campus, they still looked up at the tower, looking for shadows along the observation deck. I learned many things. But I never figured out why.

Now it is the 50th anniversary of that terrible day. We’ve seen many, many more incidents of mass killings across this country, far too many of them on school campuses. There will be many 50th anniversary commentaries. I have nothing new to add. But I am including my two reports from 1986. I hope it adds something to the conversation.

SNIPER’S 20-YEAR-OLD LEGACY HAUNTS AUSTIN (PART I)

David McLemore

AUSTIN — The shooting was an inexplicable burst of violence 20 years

ago. But it introduced to Austin a new and terrible age.

 

After Charles Joseph Whitman unleashed his demons Aug. 1, 1966,

life was never so simple, people never so trusting. After Whitman, all

that could be expected was the unexpected.

 

Shortly before noon on Aug. 1, 1966, Whitman, a 25-year-old

University of Texas student, stood with a hunting rifle in the clock

tower 335 feet above the campus. He began firing with uncanny accuracy

at the people below.

 

In 99 minutes, before police gunned him down, Whitman killed 14

people and wounded 31 others. Twelve hours before his shooting spree

began, he had fatally shot and stabbed his mother and savagely stabbed

his wife to death.

 

That day, people in Austin began living with the edgy awareness

that the blond former Eagle Scout, the dutiful son, the all-American

boy who smiled politely and worked hard, could, in an instant on a

summer day, turn killer.

 

Twenty years later, when a car backfires on Guadalupe Street, eyes

look up to the Tower.

 

Morris Hohmann, 50, sits in his office at Hyltin-Manor Mortuary. Now

he owns it. Twenty years ago, as an ambulance driver, he answered a

police call for a shooting at the UT campus.

 

“From that day, I better realized there is such a thing as

mortality,’ Hohmann said. “Since then, I’ve given thanks every day for

another day.’

 

His first run to UT was uneventful. “All I knew was someone had

been shot. When I got the body back to the hospital, I suddenly

realized the magnitude of the situation.’

 

A second call sent Hohmann to Sheftall Jewelers, then at 23rd and

Guadalupe streets. “Sheftall’s front door was shattered by gunfire and

people were bleeding inside,’ Hohmann said. “We were directed around to

the rear. I stayed outside the truck and guided it around the corner; I

lost my cover. That’s when I got it.’

 

Hohmann said two shots were fired at him. One shattered a car’s

windshield. While he was running, the other shot struck him above the

right knee. Hohmann rolled under the car with the shattered windshield,

where he lay bleeding for an hour.

 

“I wasn’t really afraid of dying right then,’ he said. “My biggest

concern was loss of blood. I remember laying in the heat, listening to

gunfire and two workers 30 feet away arguing which one would try to

rescue me. Finally, they both did.’

 

Hohmann was taken to Brackenridge Hospital in his own ambulance.

Doctors told him a 6mm hollow-point bullet had exploded on impact,

shredding a vein up into his thigh. There was no permanent damage. “It

wasn’t my time,’ Hohmann said. “Somebody besides the sniper was looking

down at me through that scope.’

 

In his desk, Hohmann keeps a 6mm cartridge casing police retrieved

from the Tower that day. “I never really give Charles Whitman a

thought,’ he said. “But it’s funny that of all the things I’ve done in

my life, getting shot by him is what I’m best remembered for.’

 

An amazing amount of information was accumulated about Charles Joseph

Whitman. But few ever saw it. For nearly 20 years, the investigation

files on Whitman by the Austin police, the Department of Public Safety

and the FBI were sealed at the suggestion of the Travis County grand

jury. They have only recently been made public.

 

This much is known. Whitman was born June 24, 1941, in Lake Worth,

Fla. His mother, Margaret Whitman was an unassuming woman devoted to

the Catholic church. His father, Charles A. Whitman, a plumbing

contractor, is remembered by neighbors as an egotistical, overbearing

man, a disciplinarian who pushed his three sons to succeed. Especially

Charles Joseph, the oldest.

 

Beneath the son’s exterior as a dutiful and obedient son, Whitman

harbored a growing hatred for his father.

 

Charles A. Whitman now lives in Lantana, Fla., where he is a

plumbing contractor. Margaret and Charles Joseph Whitman are buried in

nearby Lake Worth. The elder Whitman has been married to his current

wife, Betty, since 1967.

 

“I was never aware Charlie felt that way about me,’ he said in an

interview earlier this year. “I’ve thought and thought on it for 20

years why he hated me, why things happened as they did.’

 

The elder Whitman acknowledged that he was strict with his three

sons and that he was a domineering person. “But I wasn’t all bad,’ he

said. “Daddies aren’t worth a damn if they don’t want their kids to be

better than what they are.’

 

Whitman grew up a good student and an obedient son. Neighbors

remembered him as the all-American boy. He hunted with his father. He

was an altar boy. His father became a scoutmaster and Whitman became an

Eagle Scout at 12, the youngest in the world. At age 14, he wrote his

autobiography, the handwriting neat and precise.

On a summer day in 1986, the mall below the clock tower is awash in

students. Some sit in the shade, reading. Others stop to talk with

friends, waiting for classes to begin. Above them, the carillon bells

in the Tower ring out the quarter-hour.

 

“Every day, I walk through the mall and look up at the Tower.

Sometimes I wonder where people hid, what it must have been like,’ said

Carla Noren of Round Rock. An 18-year-old freshman, she wasn’t born

when Whitman moved quickly around the observation deck, killing people.

 

“It’s something I heard all my life,’ Miss Noren said. “I can’t

help but wonder about it. You wonder, could it happen again?’ The Tower

was closed to the public in 1975, and officials cited security

concerns. Last February, an attempt by students to briefly reopen the

Tower failed.

 

Whitman‘s rampage is little more than history for Chris Lansford,

18, of Houston. “My dad was a student here then. He had to take cover

in the sun for an hour. Sometimes, he’d talk about it at the dinner

table,’ Lansford said. “If it had been my friends shot at, I’d be

freaked out. But really, no one thinks much about it now.’

 

SNIPER’S 20-YEAR-OLD LEGACY HAUNTS AUSTIN (PART II)

Whitman joined the Marines at age 18. He became an expert marksman.

In 1961, he enrolled at UT on a Marine scholarship. Friends remembered

him as an intense student obsessed with succeeding. He often talked

about how much he hated his father.

 

Francis Schuck Jr., a classmate of Whitman‘s in 1962, told the FBI

how Whitman was constantly concerned with making something of himself.

He also began using Dexedrine, an amphetamine, to stay up nights

studying.

 

One night in 1962, Whitman looked out the dorm window at the clock

tower. “He told me one man could hold off any army there,’ Schuck said.

“Another time, he said he’d like to go up in the Tower and shoot people.’

 

At UT, Whitman met Kathy Leissner, who was studying to be a teacher.

They married Aug. 17, 1962, in her hometown of Needville, Texas. Eight

months later, they were separated when the Marines canceled Whitman‘s

scholarship and sent him back to active duty because of his mediocre

grades.

 

At Camp Lejeune, N.C., Whitman was court-martialed in November

1963 for threatening fellow Marines who didn’t repay loans he had made

at high-interest rates. He was demoted to private first class and

sentenced to 90 days at hard labor. It was a low point in Whitman‘s

life.

 

On Nov. 11, 1963, he wrote in his diary, “Will I ever accomplish

anything I set out to do?’ In December 1964, he was honorably

discharged from the Marines. Whitman rejoined Kathy in Austin.

 

He enrolled again as an architectural engineering student. He made

A’s and B’s. He told friends he ate Dexedrine “like popcorn.’ He

received $380 a month from his father. In 1966, his father bought him a

new Chevrolet.

 

Whitman had always been devoted to his mother. In March 1966, when

Margaret Whitman decided to leave her husband, Whitman drove to

Florida, picked her up and brought her back to Austin. She soon got a

job at a Wyatt’s Cafeteria and moved into a fifth-floor apartment at

the Penthouse at 13th and Guadalupe streets.

 

“This massive, muscular youth seemed to be oozing hostility as he

initiated the hour with a statement that something was happening to him

and he didn’t seem to be himself. He expressed himself as being very

fond of his wife but admitted that his tactics were similar to his

father’s and that he’d on two occasions assaulted his wife physically.

 

Repeated inquiries attempting to analyze his exact experiences were not

too successful with the exception of his vivid reference to “thinking

about going up on the Tower with a deer rifle and start shooting

people.’ He was told to make an appointment for the same day next

week.’ — Excerpts of university psychiatrist M.D. Heatley’s interview

with Charles J. Whitman, March 29, 1966. The record indicates Whitman

never saw a psychiatrist again.

 

At 6:45 p.m. July 31, 1966, Whitman typed in the living room of his

house at 906 Jewell St., trying to explain why he would kill his wife

and mother. “I cannot rationally pinpoint any specific reasons for

doing this,’ he wrote.

 

He wrote of his love for Kathy and how wonderful a wife she was.

“I truly do not consider this world worth living in and am prepared to

die and I do not want to leave her to suffer alone in it. I intend to

kill her as painlessly as possible.’

 

His typing was interrupted by a visit from friends. Later, a

friend of Kathy’s called. Whitman told her to call back later. At 9:30

p.m., he picked up Kathy at her part-time job at the telephone company

and drove her home.

 

About 10:45 p.m., Margaret Whitman called her son. Whitman asked

whether he could go to her apartment to study. He arrived at about

midnight. Mrs. Whitman introduced him to a building guard as “my

Charlie.’ They entered her apartment.

 

In a note dated 12:30 p.m., Whitman wrote, “I have just taken my

mother’s life.’ In a precise hand, Whitman described how, as a child,

he watched in silence as his father regularly beat his mother.

 

“The intense hatred I feel for my father is beyond description,’ he wrote.

“I am truly sorry that this is the only way I could see to relieve her

suffering. Let there be no doubt in your mind I loved the woman with

all my heart. If there exists a God, let him understand my actions and

judge me accordingly.’

 

Twelve hours later, police found Margaret Whitman‘s body. Whitman

had been stabbed her in the chest and shot her once in the back of the

head. Whitman then had placed her in bed, covering her with a floral

bedspread.

 

By 2 a.m., Whitman returned to his South Austin house. With the

bayonet he had used on his mother, Whitman stabbed Kathy five times in

the chest as she slept. He returned to the living room, where he wrote,

now in a shapeless scrawl, on the typed note, “Friends interrupted.

8-1-66. 3 a.m., both dead.’

 

He then added, “I imagine it appears that I brutally killed both

my loved ones. I was only trying to do a quick, thorough job.’

 

Whitman then asked that his insurance money be used to pay off his

debts and requested that any left over be given to a mental health

foundation. His final wish was to be cremated.

 

Whitman also wrote letters to his father and brothers, dated at 3

a.m., Aug. 1. The letter to 16-year-old John read, “Dear Johnnie, I am

terribly sorry to have let you down. Please try to do better than I

have. It won’t be hard. John, Mom loved you very much. Your brother,

Charlie.’

 

Whitman‘s father has never made public the contents of his son’s

last letter to him.

 

Sometime after 11 a.m., Whitman loaded a footlocker of supplies into

the back seat of his Impala. He was prepared for a siege. He had food,

water, gasoline, a flashlight, toilet paper and an arsenal of two

hunting rifles, two pistols, an M-1 carbine and a sawed-off shotgun. He

also had 700 rounds of ammunition. He then drove to the UT campus.

 

By 11:30 a.m., he had pulled the footlocker into the 28th-floor

reception area of the observation deck in the clock tower. There, he

killed receptionist Edna Townsley with a shotgun blast and stuffed her

body behind the couch.

 

Only minutes after his third slaying, Don Walden and Cheryl Botts

walked into the reception area from the observation area. Walden told

police later that he saw a man with two rifles in his hands. “We

smiled, said hello, he nodded back,’ Walden said. As the couple walked

toward the elevators, Miss Botts warned Walden to not step in a dark

stain on the floor. They stepped across it to get on the elevator and

went downstairs.

 

Two visiting families, the Gabours of Texarkana and the Lamports of

Austin, were climbing the stairway to the reception area when Whitman

fired at them with the shotgun. Marguerite Lamport and her 16-year-old

nephew, Mark Gabour, died instantly. The boy’s brother, Mike, 18, and

their mother, Mary Elizabeth Gabour, were critically wounded. Mrs.

Gabour was left paralyzed and blind. Charles Whitman‘s face is the last

thing she saw.

 

Whitman walked out onto the observation deck shortly before 11:45

a.m. He looked down a scope on his 6mm rifle and began firing on three

sides. His targets were picked at random, at distances as far as 500

yards.

 

What Whitman shot at, he usually hit. He fired about 100 rounds.

He hit 47 people and hit an observation plane three or four times.

 

“I got to the fountain on the south mall. People were lying all over

the place, seeking cover where they could,’ said Joe Roddy, now a UT

Board of Regents spokesman. On Aug. 1, he was a radio newsman for KTBC

in Austin. “The sirens wailed and people had gone home to get rifles to

shoot back. It wasn’t a war, but it looked like it for a while. I guess

it was a war to him.’

 

Roddy went to Brackenridge Hospital to report on the wounded and

dying. “It seemed like the ambulances were coming in every few seconds.

I can still remember all the stretchers they had. There were two or

three dozen, just piled up, waiting.’

 

Many years later, Roddy, after he went to work for the university,

suggested to UT officials that a memorial plaque be dedicated at the

Tower to Whitman‘s victims. No one else agreed.

 

“What he did was bring modern times to Austin. Whitman introduced

us to the real world,’ Roddy said. “This was just a small town then, a

real innocent place, and he took it away. That Tower is always going to

be Whitman‘s.’

 

Within minutes after the shooting began, police circled the Tower.

They were joined by students and townspeople with deer rifles. Whitman

controlled the high ground. Bullets whizzed in the air. The mall

shimmered in the nearly 100-degree heat. And no one could move.

Nearly 20 years later, it’s another hot day on Guadalupe Street, known

to generations of UT students at the Drag. Where bodies bled on the

pavement, students parade past vendors selling T-shirts, jewelry and

soft drinks.

“It was a terrible day,’ said Kathy, who wouldn’t give her last

name. “After Whitman, you knew something like that could happen to you.

You never felt so secure again.’

 

Kathy, who sells handmade jewelry at 23rd and Guadalupe, was a UT

student 20 years ago. She had skipped her English class that Monday.

Otherwise, she would have been walking across the mall when the

shooting began. Instead, she watched from the sidelines.

 

“There was so much noise, so much confusion. No one knew what was

going on,’ she said. “That was the most distressing thing.’

 

Kathy’s friend, Cecille Hollyfield, 34, who sells T-shirts at the

next booth, was visiting her grandfather in Buda, Texas, on Aug. 1,

  1. She unfolded on television.

 

“It was just an inconceivable thing,’ she said.

“Stuff like that happened in other places. It didn’t happen in Austin.

After that, Whitman became the boogeyman to me. He was every man with a

gun, the one you can’t predict.’

 

Kathy looked at the Tower. “He was our initiation into a terrible

time,’ she said. “After Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy and Kent

State, we grew numb. He was supposed to be an All-American Boy. The sad

thing is, maybe he really was.’

 

On Aug. 1, 1966, shortly before 1 p.m., a small airplane carrying a

police marksman buzzed the Tower. Air turbulence prevented police Lt.

Marion Lee from getting a shot. The pilot, Jim Boutwell, continued

flying close to the Tower for 30 minutes. He remembers the feel of

Whitman‘s bullets hitting his plane like a sledgehammer.

 

“We kept his attention but then, he kept ours, too,’ said Boutwell,

who ran a flying school in North Austin in 1966. “The plane was

bouncing too much for Marion to get him in the scope. But we had the

best seat in the house.’

 

Lee agreed Austin was not prepared for Whitman‘s day of rage. “I

don’t think anyone could have been. We didn’t dwell on Whitman

afterward. If he had any effect, it was that he made us a little more

cautious,’ said Lee, who retired in 1968. “I guess no one ever took too

much for granted again.’

 

Boutwell, now sheriff of Williamson County, still flies. Lee

hasn’t been up in a plane since that day.

 

Police finally worked their way to the reception area shortly after 1

p.m. Austin police officers Jerry Day, Ramiro Martinez and Houston

McCoy, joined by UT employee Allen Crum, waited by the glass door

leading out to the deck. Suddenly, Martinez went outside. McCoy, armed

with a shotgun, followed him. It was McCoy’s first time in the Tower.

 

“I’m not concerned with why it happened. It did and there’s not much I

can do about it,’ McCoy said. “I can’t say how it changed my life

because I don’t know what life is without it.’

 

For the past 12 years, McCoy, 46, has managed a Boy Scout camp in

his native Menard County. For 20 years, he has known he was the man who

killed Charles Whitman. He recalls the shooting in sharp detail, like

still photos.

 

“Martinez turned the northeast corner, and the gunman was at the

other corner. Martinez emptied his .38, real fast. I jumped out.

Whitman was turning, looking at me, his carbine in the air.

 

“I aimed, pulled the trigger and saw his head jump back. I fired

again. His head jumped again. My most vivid memory is him lying slumped

against the wall, his white headband turning a bright red.’

 

McCoy said Martinez threw his revolver down, grabbed McCoy’s

shotgun and ran, screaming, to Whitman and fired another round into the

body.

 

“Afterward, it was quiet, just the sniper’s radio playing news

reports of the sniping. Martinez went around to get Jerry Day,’ McCoy

said. “A reporter came on the radio, said Billy Speed (an Austin

policeman killed by Whitman) was dead. I squatted down by the body, to

check the ID.

 

“A puddle of blood was inching toward my boots. I told him if he

got my boots bloody, I’d throw him over the side,’ McCoy said.

Afterward, Martinez was hailed as a hero, the man who killed Whitman.

He quit the police force and became a Texas Ranger. He still insists

that neither he nor anyone but God knows which shot really killed

Whitman.

 

An autopsy report, part of the file sealed for 20 years, stated

that the fatal injury occurred when two shotgun blasts shattered

Whitman‘s skull and destroyed much of the brain.

 

Twenty years later, McCoy said he doesn’t care too much about the

controversy over who killed Whitman. “Ramiro was a brave man and I take

nothing away from him. As for me, you can’t make too many mistakes with

a shotgun.

 

“It doesn’t bother me that I shot him. It was like shooting a

rattlesnake,’ McCoy said. “I understand he was a good old boy and I’ve

probably met some just like him. But I try not to think much about him

at all.

 

“But I do think he planned everything that day, even how we would

get him,’ McCoy said. “He could have killed Martinez and me pretty

easy. It was almost as if he was waiting for us.’

 

McCoy left the police force in 1968. The day in the Tower was his

only shoot-out.

 

After the shooting, an exhaustive investigation began immediately.

The autopsy discovered a small, pecan-sized malignant tumor at the base

of Whitman‘s brain. It may have caused pain but could not be considered

the cause of Whitman‘s actions, doctors said.

 

His longtime use of amphetamines may have been a factor, but the

body was embalmed before the autopsy and the presence of drugs couldn’t

be shown conclusively.

 

Whitman‘s past was combed by authorities looking for clues about

why he turned homicidal. But his life was as enigmatic as his death.

Whitman was a like a tightly wound spring. One day it broke and no one

could understand why.

 

In the note left at his house, Whitman asked that his dog Schocie

be given to Kathy’s parents. But the dog ran away Aug. 1 and was never

seen again.

 

Police found other items at the Whitman house — notebooks, a diary

and papers. Among them was a neatly printed list of such trite,

self-help phrases as, “If you want to be better than average, you have

to be better than the average. Think before you speak.’

 

One thing on the list was underlined. “Tomorrow is mine to win or

to lose. I am resolved that I should win the tomorrows before me.’

 

The list was folded in an envelope titled Thoughts to Start the

Day. Across the envelope, Whitman had scrawled, “8-1-66. I could never

quite make it. These thoughts were too much for me.’

 

 

 

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Filed under Charles Whitman, Forgotten history, Texas journalism, Uncategorized, UT Tower shooting

Twenty Years Ago, We Discovered The Enemy Was Among Us

OKCTwenty years ago this Sunday, on a quiet spring morning, I found myself on a Southwest Airline flight, headed toward Oklahoma City. That had not been my plan that morning. But a phone call to my bureau office sometime after 9 am changed everything.

‘Someone just blew up the federal building in Oklahoma CIty,’ my editor in Dallas yelled. He was not a man given to yelling. I asked for details. You rush off into a storm of a story, it’s good to know what happened, what to expect. ‘Terrorists. Somebody. We don’t know,’ the editor yelled. ‘Just get there.’ So I did.

I called Ginny at home, asked her to throw some clothes in a carry-on, packed up my laptop and called Hertz for a rental car in OKC. Then I rushed to the house. If I hurried, I could make the last morning flight, Ginny drove me to the airport, her face tight with anxiety. She’d sent me off to tornadoes, hurricanes and other calamities. But this was new. This was different.

Conversation boiled over in the airport about the images starting to flood CNN blasting out of every TV set there. Speculation ran rampant that Muslim terrorists were involved. Or maybe drug criminal gangs. The flight was packed I grabbed a window seat and waited to see what would come next once I got to the destination.

As we approached OKC, the pilot advised that we’d be passing over downtown, pointing out the damaged hulk of federal building. The plane’s conversational buzz came to complete silence. I looked out my window and saw the 10-story building with it’s front scooped out in a gaping hole. As firefighters and rescue teams swirled around the  base of building, it looked like an ant bed destroyed by a child.

When I got downtown, police had set a security barrier for several blocks. I parked, and ran toward the epicenter of the blast, calling in to the Dallas office to find out who else was there and where we could link up. Up closer, the back of the building looked almost undamaged, but the frenzy of activity around the perimeter of the blast area was more intense. Downtown workers evacuated from neighboring offices stood together, their faces dazed with shock and disbelief. No one could grasp how the kind of horror commonplace in, say, Beirut or elsewhere in the Middle East, could arrive unbidden in their little town. A wind picked up from the north and the stench of burning plastic and other things filled the air.  The crowd of bystanders grew larger, their faces locked on the ruined building.

I won’t bore you with the common details of my reporting. For the next four of five days, I met with my colleagues from the Dallas Morning News, talked to people, attended impromptu press conferences with police, fire and federal officials, gleaning the raw data of news. And phoned them in. Like every other reporter, I picked up pieces of the story that homegrown terrorists who viewed themselves as patriots for blowing up office workers and children, had packed a van with barrels of fertilizer and fuel and set it off shortly after 9 a.m on April 19, 1995.

The people of Oklahoma City rebounded. They began doing what they could to help the survivors and grieve with the families of the 168 dead. They talked with disbelief that an American, a ex-soldier could act with such evil intent toward his own countrymen. They cursed the name of Timothy McVeigh, the bomber. and on Sunday, attended church and prayed for his soul and those of the survivors. They talked about how they would rebuild, how they would remember the dead.

My most vivid  memory of the event isn’t tied to the rescue teams pulling out the wounded and the dead, or the shell-shocked firefighters working the scene. But on a day or two after the bombing, I stood in a light rain brought by a late cold front, soaking up the images of the ruined downtown. Thousands of panes of glass had been shattered in a 10-block area by the sheer force of the explosion, someone told me. But there, in front of the bombed federal building was a high-rise hotel, every window blown out by the blast. The building seemed to sag and lean inwardly. I could see light-colored drapes, sucked out of the shattered windows as they waved limply in the rain.

It became, for me anyway, the sad reminder that evil can grow in the oddest of places, right here at home.

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Remembering the Alamo


Alamo Tejanos

At dawn on this day, 178 years ago, the Mexican army broke through the walls of the Alamo, killing the 180 to 200 of the Texian defenders. It was a quick & brutal end to a 13-day siege that went became a worldwide standard for sacrifice & honor.

Among them were a number of Tejanos – native-born residents of the northern Tejas province of Mexico. They were defending their homes and their families, and like their Anglo allies, knew they were going to die. But the Tejanos’ sacrifice was, for generations, forgotten.

I found this piece I wrote in 1989 about the Tejanos at the Alamo. This year, a new exhibit at the Alamo shrine, “Standing Their Ground: Tejanos at the Alamo,” brings the story of the Tejano defenders alive, with interactive displays in which visitors can hear the words of the Tejanos and Tejanas who were part of the final battle. And while we’ve come a long way from thinking only white guys fought at the Alamo, the Tejanos’ part is still largely ignored. If we’re going to remember the Alamo, we should remember all of it.

The Forgotten Sacrifices of Tejanos in Texas’ Fight

San Antonio — A Texas Independence Day pop quiz: On which side did Gregorio Esparza and Toribio Losoya fight during the siege of the Alamo?

If you answered, ‘the Mexican army, you’re wrong. They were among seven Tejanos who died defending the Alamo on March 6,1836.

Tejanos — Hispanics who were born in what would later become Texas — were an important faction in the fight for Texas independence. Influential Tejanos Jose Antonio Navarro and Lorenzo de Zavala proudly risked death with the other signers of the Texas Declaration of Independence on March 2,1836.

Yet the sacrifices of Tejanos were forgotten — sometimes purpose fully, historians remind us — while Hollywood and myth persist in painting the Texas rebellion against Mexico as a battle solely between Anglo settlers and the Mexican government.

“Little has been done to explore the depth of Tejano involvement in the 1836 rebellion,” said historian Gerald Poyo, a research associate at the University of Texas Institute of Texan Culture at San Antonio.

“Perhaps we’re better off not celebrating Texas Independence Day until we gain a fuller appreciation of all those involved in the struggle,” Poyo said.

Poyo and Gilberto Hinojosa, a historian and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Texas at San Antonio, are writing a book on 18th-century Texas.

The roots of rebellion lie deeper the Tejano community than in the johnny-come-lately Anglo settlers, Poyo said.

There had been a pattern of resistance to the rule of central government from Mexico City since the Spanish period of the 1770s, he said. That feeling predated the dissatisfaction with the Anglos by 50 years, according to Poyo.

Many of the Tejano elite backed the abortive attempt to set up an independent Republic of the North in 1813. Later, Tejanos were ardent supporters of the successful Mexican revolt against Spain in 1821, only to grow as unhappy with Mexican rule as with Spanish rule.

There is indication that the Tejanos preferred working toward independence through legal channels, while Anglos always had annexation by the U.S. in the back of their. minds,” Poyo said. “When open; revolt was declared, the tejanos had to make a decision, and they sided with the rebellion.

” ln 1836, about 4,000 Tejanos lived north of the Nueces River, where settlement was concentrated. Anglos numbered about 35,000, most of them fairly recent arrivals from the United States, Poyo said.

While the full extent of Tejano participation is not known, Hinojosa’s research indicates that,Tejanos and established Anglo colonist participated equally in the rebellion but were far outnumbered the newly arrived Americans.

Juan N. Seguin, son of a pioneer Tejano family, formed a volunteer company of Tejano soldiers with the ringing proclamation that “Texas shall be free, independent or we shall perish with glory in battle.”

Members of Seguin’s company served as scouts for Sam Houston and fought in three battles of the Texas revolution, including the Alamo and the decisive battle at San Jacinto.

Seguin escaped death at the Alamo only because he borrowed James Bowie’s horse to seek help a few days before the old mission fell to Santa Anna’s soldiers.

In his book Anglos and Mexicans, University of New Mexico sociologist David Montejano calls the Tejanos a people of paradox.

“Jose Antonio Navarro and Juan Seguin believed it possible to be both a proud Mexican and a loyal Tejano,” Montejano wrote. Yet, “the political alliance between Mexicans and Anglos in Texas ….began unraveling soon after the rout of Santa Anna’s army at San Jacinto.”

What followed was a sad and brutal period of Texas history.

The Texas rebellion was an example of nation-building at work, and it was an Anglo nation being built,” Poyo said. “Land that had been in Tejano hands for generations was soon transferred to Anglos, often through threat or out right fraud.”

From 1836 until Texas statehood a decade later, Tejano communities in Victoria, Refugio, Goliad and other places were subjugated by Anglo settlers, Montejano wrote. In 1839, 100 Tejano families were forced to abandon their homes in Nacogdoches and flee south.

Land speculators benefitted by making quick, cheap real estate buys from Tejanos driven from their land.

According to state land records dating from 1837 to 1842,13 “American” buyers purchased 1.4 million acres of land from 358 Mexican owners, Montejano wrote.

Even such heroes of the revolt as Juan Seguin were not exempt. As mayor of San Antonio in 1840, he grieved over the treatment of Tejanos by Anglo newcomers.

“Could I leave them defenseless, exposed to the assaults of foreigners, who, on the pretext that they were Mexicans, treated them worse than brutes?” Seguin wrote. In 1842, after numerous death threats, Seguin left his native San Antonio for exile in Mexico.

Another round of anti-Mexican sentiment and expulsions followed Texas’ entry into the United States in 1845 and the Mexican War a year later, Montejano noted.

What we hope to do is open up areas of historical inquiry that have too long been ignored,” Poyo said. “Perhaps we can get into the school textbooks a more balanced view of Tejano participation in Texas history, one that does not stigmatize Hispanics as the bad guys.” 


Source: San Antonio Bureau of The Dallas Morning News, Thursday, March 2, 1989 pages 1a & 12a

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Why the 5th of May? Why not.

I had not been in San Antonio long when I first encountered el Cinco de Mayo. There was a parade. Of course, in San Antonio, there are about 300 parades a year and so, I thought, why not celebrate the 5th of May.  I was told it was a big holiday in Mexico. Or something. Based on the ads for the celebration, it was to commemorate drinking beer and listening to mariachi bands. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

It was a while before I learned what happened on May 5th. It is not Mexican Independence Day. That comes September 16 and is also cause of celebration, parades and beer-drinking. Cinco de Mayo commemorates the battle of Puebla in 1862, when Mexican forces under General Ignacio Zaragoza emphatically defeated a larger and more experienced French army that had invaded Mexico.  It did not, however, end the French invasion or the war. The French won a protracted series of battles and drove out President Benito Juarez to exile. Napoleon II of France then installed a puppet, Maximilian, an Austrian, as emperor. So, that means Cinco de Mayo commemorates a Mexican victory that presaged the ultimate defeat and establishment of a French-backed emperor on a nation now used to democratic rule. It did not end well for Maximilian. But that has nothing to do with why celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

Oddly, it’s not that big a celebration in Mexico. The State of Puebla sees it as a Big Deal. But it has been celebrated consistently in California since 1863, while Mexico sees it as a regional holiday. Now, there are more than 120 Cinco de Mayo celebrations in more than 20 states.

Often, you will hear US citizens, usually grumpy old farts who can’t figure out why English isn’t the official language in Texas, Colorado, Colorado, New Mexico and other states that were once Mexico, wonder why we celebrate Cinco de Mayo. And the reply is: Why not? We celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, right? 

If honoring the contributions of Latino culture and language to the United States – and for most old farts, it’s not – then understand it also celebrates the drive toward freedom and it’s costs. That makes it a universal celebration and, perhaps, a uniquely American one. Some historians say the victory at the Battle of Puebla kept the French army busy for another year, breaking up Napoleon II’s goal of helping the Confederacy by providing  base of support, as well as a continuing threat to Union forces.

Besides, it’s an official US holiday.  On  June 7, 2005, Congress called on the president to issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States to observe Cinco de Mayo ‘with appropriate ceremonies and activities.’  Which appears to be parades, mariachis and beer.

 

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Antietam

The Cornfield at Antietam Battlefield, where hundreds died for no apparent reason in 1862

This may easily be the saddest piece of real estate in America. The battle fought here on Sept. 17, 1862, along Antietam Creek (and near the village of Sharpsburg, Maryland, resulted in more than 23,000 casualties – the bloodiest single day of combat in US  history. It was, at best, a draw.

It is a serenely beautiful landscape. Rolling hills and wide fields of corn, dotted by thick stands of trees, it seems incredible great horrors happened here. But they did. Over and over again. Antietam, as much as any battle in the Civil War demonstrated the sheer force of personal courage and grace under fire by individual soldiers and the staggering arrogance & incompetence of their commanders. The Corn Field. The Bloody Lane. Burnside’s Bridge. Each redefined pointless carnage and the chaotic violence that became war that day.

At the Antietam Battlefield Park museum, I overheard a mother attempting to answer her daughter’s questions about the exhibits.

“The soldiers wanted to take care of each other,” she said when asked why the soldiers on both sides kept charging into brutal cannon and musket fire.

‘Well,’  the daughter asked, ‘Who were the good guys? Which side were we on?’

‘These were all good Americans, honey. We don’t have a side and they weren’t bad guys.’

The daughter, maybe age 9, grasped that. Or at least accepted it.  ‘But who won?’

‘Nobody won, honey. It wasn’t that kind of battle.’

‘Well, when grandpa was in the Army, his side won,’ the little girl said.

‘No, grandpa was in Vietnam. He didn’t win either.’

I doubt anyone could have put the matter more honestly.

We have been on a whirlwind trip through the south, touring Civil War battlefields, old Civil war forts and the more pleasant recreations of Savannah and Washington D.C. It creates quite a breakdown in reason after a while. Reading histories of the war, you don’t get the feel of how close, how concentrated the battles were. These were not ideological fights. This was raw and personal. The body count is horrendous and we still feel the impact of those battles today

This is beautiful country around Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville battlefields in Virginia, Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and Antietam. We are at this writing staying in a beautiful B&B in Boons boro, Maryland created out of an old 19th Century house. I am sure the residents heard the musket rattle and cannon’s roar from  Antietam nearly a 150 years ago. Now, we’re going down for cheese, fruit and wine.

It’s going to take a while to get any coherence out of this trip.

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Visiting Hot Wells

The first time I ever heard of the Hot Wells Hotel was more than 30 years ago. San Antonio friends told me ab0ut this spooky old place out on the South East side – the ruins of an old resort spa. It had long been a particular favorite spot for people to sneak out to at night, drink beer and break other crimes that seemed best amid broken ruins in the moonlight.

I never went myself. Sometimes while going to Espada Dam or driving along South Presa Street, I’d catch the glimpse of the shadow of brick walls shrouded by overgrowth and tattered palm trees. But it always seemed oddly improper, like visiting a stranger’s sick bed, to sneak in past the fence and walk around.

Recently, I got the chance. Work and the new owner got me on the property. All that’s left are the sad remains of the bathhouse. And yet there is a regal sense of place. This was the queen of early 20th Century living and she may be down on her luck and broken, but she’s still lovely.

In 1892, workers discovered a hot sulphur artesian spring on the grounds of what was then called the San Antonio Lunatic Asylum. A year later, a far-thinking entrepreneur decided it would be the ideal spot for ‘a first-class bathhouse’ and leased the hot springs and the acreage around it. That was the first Hot Wells Hotel.

In the 1890s, folks were convinced that foul-smelling, sulphur-laden water was good for you, curing any manner of  “rheumatism, kidney, liver and skin diseases and blood poisoning.” Guests came, splashed in the pool and lived it up among the luxuries of the resort and its’ park-like grounds.

A fire in 1894 destroyed the hotel. The entrepreneur eventually sold out to San Antonio beer baron, Otto Koehler – think Pearl Brewery – in 1900. Koehler built on the theme, adding a bit of glitz to the healthy regimen of life at Hot Wells.

In 1902, Koehler added an area with three pools – for gents, for ladies and for those with ailments like skin diseases others wouldn’t necessarily enjoying the waters with. He provided electricity, hot and cold running waters in the hotel rooms and other amenities — including a bookie office on the first floor of the hotel.

Hot Wells became the place to play for rich and famous unburdened with daily labor. The days were brightened with concerts, domino tournaments, poetry readings and lectures. At night, there was dancing and drinks in the garden,

Rudolph Valentino came to play, as did Sarah Burnhardt, Douglas Fairbanks, Tom Mix and a young Cecil B. DeMile. Teddy Roosevelt visited, as did Mexican President Porfirio Diaz in the waning days of his office before the Revolution.

Prohibition ruined the mood at Hot Wells and Wall Street’s collapse in 1929 spelled the end. Hot Wells was sold to a Christian Scientist group as a school. It later became a tourist camp, a care, a honky-tonk and a trailer park. Subsequent fires totally destroyed the old hotel and the bathhouse began falling down around the pools. Neighborhood kids would still drop in to sneak a swim in the sulphur pools. The last residents in the trailer park left in the early 197os.

Developer James Lifshutz hopes to bring Hot Wells back to life. He plans to preserve the ruins as an attractive center around another luxury hotel and upscale RV park (yes, such things exist) and build in the economic development boom rippling through the South Side. It remains, at this point, only a plan. There have been many plans over the years to save Hot Wells.

But on this hot, windless day, brush clogs the evidence of the entrance to the bathhouse and dying palm trees stand miserable guard. Weedy plants that have turned into ill-kept trees rise up above the brick walls and empty windows.

But turn a corner, and you can still hear ghostly echoes of the orchestra strike up a foxtrot. Or listen to the bright chatter of women in glittering gowns and men in black tie formality. Maybe they looked into the night sky and thought such a life, such beauty, would never end.

UPDATE: For an excellent slideshow of past and current views of Hot Wells, go here. This is also a shameless plug, since I also wrote the story for NOWCastSA. Any similarity in the two stories is purely intentional.

Photo courtesy of Heather DiMasi/NOWCastSA

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Will you still need me; will you still feed me…

Now I’m 64. Urgent: Need Answer Immediately

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