Forty-one years before Virginia Tech, there was the University of Texas. Jim Gabour has reason to remember.
"M.J and Mary Gabour, their two sons, and William and Marguerite Lamport were headed up the steps from the 27th floor. They found the door barricaded by a desk. Mark and Mike Gabour pushed the desk away and leaned in the door to see what was going on. Suddenly Charlie rushed at them, spraying them with pellets from his sawed-off shotgun. Mark died instantly. Charlie fired down the stairway at least three more times. Marguerite Lamport was killed; Mary Gabour was critically wounded, as was her son Mike. They would lay where they fell for more than an hour."
Marlee MacLeod, Charles Whitman: The Texas Tower Sniper (account of University of Texas tower massacre, 1 August 1966)
I remember when the word came in. I was home from school for the summer, doing full-time manual labor at my family's small weekly newspaper in central Louisiana. The white concrete was hot that day on Boeuf Trace, "Cattle Trail" in Cajun French, which was the name of our recently-paved street, running for a mile along palmetto-filled pastures. We were home for an afternoon meal when the heavy old black telephone receiver began ringing metallically in the kitchen. Maybe I sensed something, knew it wasn't one of my buds, because I did not rush the phone as usual.
Among Jim Gabours articles in openDemocracy:
A New Orleans diary (13 February 2006)
An electoral storm in New Orleans
(21 April 2006)
The choice is not choice (19 May 2006)
(23 June 2006)
(4 August 2006)
Another day in New Orleans
(9 January 2007)
The two worlds of New Orleans
(26 January 2007)
Death and life in New Orleans
(15 March 2007)
My father took the call.
He was standing at first. I watched the pale, disbelieving look grow on his face as he slowly and carefully sat on the kitchen stool, the phone poised a few inches from his ear, stopping to stare at it every few seconds like it was something horrible, something foul.
He listened to the voice, grew paler. Held to the windowsill like he was dizzy. I stood a few feet away and watched silently. Not wanting to intrude. Something was happening here, something was being told to my father. Something bad.
I do not remember who was on the phone, who called us first. But the voice told my father that his sister Marguerite Gabour Lamport and his brother's son Mark Gabour were dead. His sister-in-law Mary Francis and our cousin Mike were critically wounded. His brother MJ was tending them, but it was not known if they would survive.
Mike, a cadet at the United States air force academy, lived but his legs had been ruined forever from the shotgun blasts. His mother would be paralysed from the neck down for the rest of her life.
They had been on a tour of the University of Texas tower. Where my two vacationing young brothers had also been, exactly one week before, taken there by the same Lamports, who were all the family's favorite couple.
Only a few days later the cover of Time magazine held a heart-wrenching picture of our Uncle Bill walking in a trance alongside a stretcher that held Aunt Margie, her body covered by a bloody sheet. Uncle Bill, himself spattered with his wife's blood, was still holding his wife's hand as the attendants carried her to the waiting hearse. I cried when I saw it. We all did.
Our family was changed forever.
We seldom speak of it these days.
We never speak of it.
And I must apologise to my father and to my extended family if they see this article and think I should not have brought it up again. If I made us all hurt again.
But this is personal.
Today, here in New Orleans, which has seen its share of smaller single-event massacres (the Howard Johnson sniper, new-year's eve 1972), but retains a pattern of more regular ongoing bloodshed, a letter to the editor was published in the Times-Picayune in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech killings on 16 April 2007.
A "Professor of Law" at Southern University, a man named MR Franks, wrote the letter, published under the title, "Shooting back could save lives". As a closing paragraph he wrote:
"The unfortunate events in Virginia suggest that defensive weapons are needed even more on college campuses than in the shopping malls and theatres and restaurants."
He was serious. And thus the quotation marks around his title.
One question immediately came to mind: does this man, this "professor", carry a firearm to class? Would he? Can such a person possibly be a worthy mentor to our children, much less to students of the law?
I've always believed the posturing of the National Rifle Association - Charlton Heston screaming at a podium that the Feds would only take his musket from his "cold and dead hands" - was a salacious joke. Even so, I excused the actor. Charlton may have seen Ben Hur once too often in his elder years. Maybe he didn't remember his part in The Ten Commandments as well.
But today comes a "Professor of Law", declaring that the population of the United States of America should arm itself against itself.
I am aghast.
Writing further seems a waste. Franks and his ilk will never believe that a civilised country can exist without a vast arsenal of killing weapons in every closet. And I myself must admit that after the Katrina barbarism and its fallout - hordes of semi-humans walking the streets with many weapons, with few police and no conscience to restrain them - I have considered the possibility of purchasing a gun myself.
I have not done so. Yet.
But when our universities start preaching the use of the physical instruments of death, rather than logic and aesthetics and moral values, I begin to wonder.
I begin to remember my Aunt Margie, as luminous and joyful a creature as ever walked the earth. I remember my cousin Mark, a great soft-spoken spirit, full of the happiness and innocence of youth.
I begin to wonder what it will take to simply live life without taking life.
Teach that, Professor Franks, and I will take the class.