IN THE SHADOW OF THE TOWER

Or Reflections on Psalm 123      August 1, 2016

 

My dad called my mom from The Barn, our family’s restaurant down the street.

 

“Where’s John?”

 

Mom took a quick glance out the window into our shady backyard and saw me quietly playing.

 

“Get him inside quick, and stay away from the windows,” Dad said. “There’s some guy in the Tower shooting people.”

 

Even though we lived miles from the University of Texas campus and it would have been absolutely impossible for a bullet to make its way anywhere near us, Mom gathered me up and rushed me inside.

 

I was a little more than two years old. I have no recollection of the event whatsoever. I don’t even think I was aware that it happened until my early teenage years, when another murderous shooting at an Austin school would change my life forever and the events were linked in the news reporting.

 

What I do remember much more vividly is the framed photo that hung on my boyhood bedroom wall of the same tower at night, glowing burnt orange with windows lit up in a giant number “1” running from top to bottom. A Texas-sized national championship football trophy if there ever was one. While the University sought for years to cover over this tragic part of its history, it had no problem promoting its sports conquests.

 

The Tower. In Austin, there is no need for the qualifier “UT” in front of it. It’s as much a symbol of the University as the beloved longhorn mascot, Bevo. As a UT student, I would spend pleasant afternoons on the long lawn stretching out in front of it toward the Littlefield Fountain. Years after being whisked out of my own backyard miles away, I would sit reading or, better, checking out girls, dead-center in the former field of fire without a thought in my head about Charles Whitman or the massacre.

 

Fifty years later, I sit in my living room in Fayetteville, Arkansas, three blocks from another (former) Southwestern Conference university. I peer out the window at the deep green leaves of the massive oaks that shade our yard. In the intervening years I have seen the carnage of all kinds of violence — not just the kind spewed out from deranged people with guns, but the slow, systemic massacre by proud policies and ignorant politics, rampant racism and coopted theologies.

 

I have rolled into cities bombed out from siege and laid flat by hurricane. I have quietly come to communities reeling from unforeseeable tragedy. I have walked streets made ferral and desolate by market manipulation and government-enforced discrimination.

 

I am tired of the death toll, the body counts — heartbroken by the endless suffering and post traumatic shock of the survivors. Including my own.

 

It makes me want to pull all the children inside.

 

Because, really, no place in the world is safe from the snipers.

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