Progressive Memories

On August 1, 1966, 25-year-old Charles Whitman killed his mother and his wife with knives, then made his way to the University of Texas Tower in Austin, Texas, where he shot and killed three people inside the building. In the space of 96 minutes, he murdered those three people, then killed an additional eleven people, shooting from the Tower deck, and wounded 31 others. One of the injured victims died 35 years later of wounds received that day. Whitman was shot and killed by two Austin police officers, who made their way into and up the Tower. Though an autopsy on Whitman, and subsequent exploratory commission, did not reach a universally-agreed conclusion, evidence suggested a brain tumor pressing against his amygdala may have contributed to Whitman’s actions.  I remember hearing about Whitman’s murder spree as it was taking place. As I recall, one of my sisters, who was attending the University of Texas at the time, was inside the nearby undergraduate library at the time; no one was permitted to leave during Whitman’s rampage. I remember it took what may have been hours from the time my family (we were in Corpus Christi at the time) first heard about the chaos until we were able to talk to my sister by telephone and learn that she was safe. Those grueling hours were among the slowest I have ever experienced.


Four years later, on August 3, 1970, Hurricane Celia slammed into Corpus Christi. The storm intensified, reaching Category 4 before making landfall that afternoon, with maximum sustained winds of 140 miles per hour. Gusts of 161 miles per hour were recorded by the National Weather Service in Corpus Christi. Maximum gusts of 180 miles per hour were estimated  in nearby Robstown and Aransas Pass. My parents’ house was badly damaged by Celia. The roof was ripped off the house and windows were shattered. When the house began to suffer the worst of the storm, we gathered in a hallway for safety. The wind thrust the pull-down attic stairs in the hallway downward, hitting my eldest sister in the head; she was not badly injured, but I was terrified. I remember screaming at my father, who was surveying damage during the height of the storm, to come back into the hallway and get underneath a mattress we had pulled from an adjacent bedroom. That experience revealed to me that I was susceptible to panic; bravery has never been my strong suit. When the worst of the storm passed, we ventured outside, because the house was uninhabitable. My family went looking for a place to spend the night. We were turned away from an elementary school, where the custodian and his friends/family were taking shelter. We ended up spending the night on the wet pews of a Methodist church.  My father and two of my brothers sold the remains of my parents’ house as scrap.  My memories of the weeks and months after the storm are vague. For a few days, the family split up and stayed with various neighbors. My parents then—sometime later—rented a house just a couple of doors down from the one destroyed by the hurricane.  Within a year or two (I just cannot recall details), they had another house built on the site of the one the hurricane had reduced to rubble. The old house, probably built in the 1940s, was unairconditioned and otherwise rather uncomfortable. The new one was small, but modern and air-tight. I left Corpus Christi in late May 1972, immediately after high school graduation, to pursue my college career at the University of Texas at Austin. That period of my life is little more than a blur. I was shy and lacked social skills. But one memory is clear: I periodically bought carne guisada tacos from a little taqueria on 26th Street. They were my special treat to myself. That, and from Hansel & Gretel restaurant, a pastrami on rye sandwiches slathered with spicy German mustard and washed down with a mug of dark beer.


I wonder why these memories forced themselves to the surface this morning? It’s not August…there’s no obvious reason they should pop up at this moment. But there they are. And, now, I think I’ll join several men of my church for their regular weekly Thursday breakfast, something I have not done in months and months. I must be improving. Still not at 100%, not by far, but making progress.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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