The Sanctuary of Time
August 1, 1966 began as a typical cloudless scorcher of a day in Austin, Texas. My best childhood friend, Paul Sonntag and his girlfriend, Claudia Rutt were on Guadalupe Street, a short walk to the Mall of the University of Texas Main Campus. In the next moment of inconceivable horror, they randomly became the ninth and tenth victims of an unseen sniper shooting from 1200 feet away on the University’s Library Tower Observation Deck. Paul, Claudia and I had all grown up in Austin, and that summer we were proud 18-year-old high school graduates only weeks away from leaving home for college.
Since their deaths, I have learned through 50 years of life experience and three decades of clinical practice and teaching, that trauma refers not only to the blow that is delivered, but to the enduring injury that lingers long after the precipitating assault, reverberating publically across communities while languishing privately in a survivor’s long-term memory and nervous system. The repeating episodes of public violence in our society may bring people together initially, but over time and space, such trauma, when unattended, separates us for generations from our emotional lives and from each other.
Though I stayed in touch with Paul’s parents after his death, I assiduously avoided talking about my loss or the personal experience of that tragic day, even while teaching for years about the psychological impact of death, trauma and bereavement on survivors and families. This long self-imposed silence seems astonishing to me now. But such emotional numbing and social isolation serves a protective function, helping all trauma survivors avoid the pain and helplessness that traumatic experience creates for a lifetime.
In 2013, after bitter family debate, my siblings and I closed the children’s camp in Texas that my parents had founded in 1952—a precious legacy passed down across three generations in our family. As the next summer approached, the first with the camp shuttered after sixty-two years, the last ten of which my wife and I had been camp co-directors, I sat alone in my 8th floor office in Maryland. It was early June, 2014. I could see how broken my family had become. I started grieving for Paul again. Old and recent traumatic memories are archived together in the hippocampus and often get activated at the same time by new external stimulus. But now, for the first time vivid joyful images of Paul and me playing ball flickered across my mind---that yelping childhood spirit of feeling safe with a best friend and cheering each other after a good catch filled in a once somber newsreel with brilliant colors and rich sound. That evening I felt compelled to write and start making sense of these paradoxical new sensations. In a few days a sad and healing narrative emerged that would become “The Sanctuary of Time.”
Paul Sonntag and his girlfriend, Claudia Rutt, July 30, 1966. Photograph provided by the author.
THE SANCTUARY OF TIME
EDITOR’S NOTE: A revised version of this memoir appeared as the Foreword in Tower Sniper: The Terror of America’s First Active Shooter on Campus, by Akers, Akers, and Friedman, John M. Hardy Press, Houston, 2016.
Today, if you head down Pecos Drive, a hilly, meandering residential street in North Austin, you’d probably pass right by the neighborhood park across the road from the earth-hugging, red-brick rambler where my first best friend, Paul Sonntag and his family, lived in 1957. If you get to 35th Street, you’ve gone too far. Turn around and come back slowly. Watch closely and you will spot the park entrance marked by a small wooden placard hanging between two cedar posts that are sunk deep in the dry Texas dirt. The marker stands on the edge of a grove of old Live Oak trees that have shaded the rolling hills in this part of Austin for a hundred years. REED PARK is chiseled in the sign’s weathered wood and underneath in neat cursive you can make out the words, “City of Austin – 1954.”
In a city that even then was known for its expansive and lush public parks, Reed Park was just a pint-sized community green space. It had a smallish, fenced in swimming pool in the back where during high school I occasionally hung out with Paul who worked there as a Lifeguard. But what really drew me, Paul and other neighborhood kids most weekends from 1957 to 1961---with a centripetal force that I can still feel soaring through my body, was the grass and dirt meadow in the front part of the park. Paul and I were nine years old when we met in 4th grade at Casis Elementary, our local public school. He was shorter and skinnier than me, with light brown hair combed just so to the side. He was incredibly fast and could outrun me and most other kids we played with at Reed Park. He could catch anything that came near him; a loopy, spiraling football or a long hard throw from the outfield bouncing in the dirt. I was built more like a junior-sized quarterback, and had a dark brown crew-cut I was proud of. Even as a kid I could hit the ball and had a throwing arm that wouldn’t quit. In blue jeans, white-t shirts and gym shoes, we were a perfect team. That meadow in the front of Reed Park was the sports stadium of our dreams. Springtime was baseball season at Reed Park, but fall and winter belonged to football.
Every kid I knew loved the University of Texas Longhorn football team back then. On Saturday nights during football season, we watched to see if the Library Tower on campus was lit up in orange or white, the school colors. If it was orange it meant we’d won and if it was white the Longhorns had lost. Our mutual love for the Longhorns and our dreams of becoming big-time athletes drew Paul and me together in the 4th grade. We loved to play football or baseball at the drop of a hat and with boundless, childhood energy. But there was more than that. My family had just moved from Houston in 1957 so my Dad could finish a doctorate in Education at UT and Paul’s family had recently come to town from Round Rock. We were both searching for a new friend. We liked school and were good, fastidious students. We were introverts, more comfortable sitting on the floor in his room arranging Civil War battle scenes with his tin soldiers than hanging out with a whole gang of kids at school.
Paul idolized the Longhorns’ little half back, James Saxton; we’d both read the newspaper story that said Saxton was ‘as quick as a minnow.” I wanted to be Mike Cotton, the tall Texas quarterback with an amazing arm. On TV in the fall of 1959, we had seen Cotton pump fake a long throw and then flip a perfect spiral, underhanded, for 25 yards to Saxton who ran for a touchdown. It was the coolest play we’d ever seen and for the week following that game we secretly practiced the play in Paul’s backyard. The next weekend, when we had enough guys together to play a game at Reed Park, I faked a long one and then flipped Paul the same perfect underhand pass. He caught it mid-stride and took off like he was chasing down jack rabbits and scored. The other team’s only defense was to scream in unison, “EEleeegal play,” but we knew better.
In the spring of 1960, I would run around the outfield, diving all-out to catch sinking line drives, scrambling to my feet and firing the ball back to Paul at home plate. We always pretended it was the bottom of the ninth and we had to stop a rally by the Los Angeles Dodgers; a team we both hated. I hated them because they had beaten my family’s beloved Chicago White Sox in the 1959 World Series, and Paul hated them just because he was my best friend by then. Our ball games stopped only when it got too dark to see the ball coming at you. We walked across the street then to Paul’s house, and his mother served us baloney sandwiches on white Wonder Bread that she’d pre-made and kept in her freezer.
The only time Paul ever got mad at me was when, in his room after one of those dinners, I said I thought it was weird to freeze sandwiches like that. He got a stern look on his face and said I was being disrespectful toward his mother. Unlike me, Paul didn’t cuss and would never argue with his parents. He said ‘I learned that it was important to respect my parents in Bible School’ and he thought it was part of being a good Methodist. Though we rarely spoke it, Paul was the first non-Jewish kid I’d ever had as a friend and I was the first Jewish kid he had ever played with so much. We were kindred spirits though and were curious about our differences. Fifteen minutes later that evening, as we worked in silence setting up a new Civil War scene with his tin soldiers, I apologized for saying his mother’s sandwiches were weird.
In June of 1962, Paul and I finished 8th grade together at O. Henry Junior High. We were both thirteen years old. As fate would have it, my family moved further into north Austin and I started high school across town in the fall at A.N. McCallum. Paul continued on to his local high school, Stephen F. Austin. I had my Bar Mitzvah that fall and we invited Paul and his family, and he showed up so spit and polished I barely recognized him. The loss of common ground, the geographical distance and our desperate need to get anchored in big and competing public high schools seemed to loosen the bond we had. Entering adolescence meant we were leaving the sanctuary of time that nourished our boyhood friendship and the simple super-hero sports life we had created at Reed Park. We were nervously brave and serious, full of ourselves, thrilled to be going to high school, and totally unaware of the horror that lay four years ahead.
The 307-foot granite Library Tower stood tall in the center of the University of Texas at Austin campus. Its Observation Deck commanded a panoramic view that included the great mall crisscrossing the campus grounds as well as the busy streets and shops that form its border. All of Austin saw the Texas Tower as the University's most distinguishing landmark and a symbol of academic excellence, personal opportunity, and Lonestar pride.
On Monday noon, August the 1st, 1966, the summer Paul and I finished high school, Charles Whitman, a muscular, crew-cut 26 year old engineering student and Marine, brought a footlocker full of rifles, pistols and 700 rounds of ammunition up to the Tower’s Observation Deck. He’d stabbed his wife and mother to death the night before and for 90 minutes rained terror down on the world below. He shot and killed 14 people on campus and wounded 31.
The ninth person Charles Whitman killed that day, shooting from a distance of about 350 feet from the Tower’s Observation Deck, was Paul Sonntag. One shot, directly into Paul’s mouth with a hollow-point bullet that exploded upon impact and destroyed the back of his head. Claudia Rutt, who was walking with Paul, turned to help him when he fell forward onto the ground. She was the tenth victim. Shot in the chest. Near her heart. The news reports said “she died instantly.” Just like Paul. Two Austin cops, Houston McCoy assisted by Ramiro Martinez, finally snuck up on the Observation Deck and gunned Whitman down from fifty feet away with a 12 gauge shotgun at 1:24PM.
I was working that summer as the wrangler at my family’s children’s camp in the hill country about 200 miles west of Austin. My mother sent a counselor out to get me on a horseback ride I was leading that Monday morning. The message was that someone was shooting from the Tower in Austin and she thought that Paul Sonntag, a friend of mine had been hurt. I drove the dusty red ranch pickup into Austin that evening. What was often a leisurely two hour drive on Highway 290 seemed endless and full of dread. The closer I got to Austin, the more overwhelmed I felt.
I listened to frantic news bulletins on the radio from the Emergency Room at Brackenridge Hospital and learned that Paul Sonntag was dead, along with his fiancée Claudia Rutt. I had heard they were dating, but wasn’t sure that fiancée thing was right. I knew Claudia too. She was part of the small group of Jewish kids my age in Austin. We’d been in the same class in religious school for ten years at Temple Beth Israel. The reporter said that Paul had just graduated from high school, worked as a lifeguard at Reed Park Pool that summer, and had come downtown to pick up his final paycheck from the Parks and Recreation Office that was a block off of the UT campus. Claudia, also a recent graduate of Austin High School, had gone along for the ride.
I decided to go to Claudia’s home first because I thought it would be easier emotionally. I knew her home would be packed with relatives, Temple friends and lots of food. That was Jewish tradition--grieve together, say a Kaddish, cry, tell stories, laugh a little, and then eat a lot. I was drained when I pulled into her neighborhood and found a parking spot about 8:00 pm. The front door was propped open and I entered the crowded first floor with lots of familiar sad faces. A few parents and kids turned to silently welcome me with a nod and then I saw my good friend Mark Simon standing in the corner of the dining room, holding a massive roast beef sandwich, looking gloomy and alone.
I was glad to see Mark and I made my way through the crowd to him. I told him I’d just gotten into town from camp and had heard everything on the radio. He said he’d been at work at his family’s downtown clothing store that morning. He heard all the sirens, turned on the TV in the store office and couldn’t believe his eyes. He said that Claudia was wearing Paul’s senior ring on a chain around her neck when she died. Mark told me that he wasn’t sure about the fiancée thing either. He had heard that Paul was going to be buried in what he was wearing when he was shot: a surfer shirt, blue jean cut-offs and flip-flops. That image burned itself into my mind. I suddenly pictured my friend, face –up and eyes closed, stretched out on his back with his arms to his sides in a coffin---wearing a bloody surfer shirt and his cut-offs. It made it seem that Paul was really dead. If Paul could be killed and buried just like that, the same thing could happen to me. I was speechless. The room went silent. I stared at the floor. I felt ancient tectonic plates shifting deep in the earth right under my feet. I felt thrown off balance, like I might faint or collapse on the floor right there in the dining room.
Then rage flooded through my body. I’d never felt any of this before. I mumbled angrily that I was set to leave for Northwestern University in a few weeks, but who the fuck really cared anymore? The world had changed around me; forever---in a fucking blink of an eye. My old buddy had gotten the back of his head blown off by a crazy student marine---everyone thought that guy was normal until he showed he was not. And Claudia was killed just because she wanted to hang out with Paul. It made no sense. “That could’ve been you or me, Mark, buying a book at the Co-op or getting some Mexican food on the Drag,” I said. Underneath my 18 year old rage was a terrifying, sorrowful awareness that I tried hard to ignore----that life was totally fragile, dangerous and could be snuffed out at any minute. As a kid, I’d been taught that the world was a safe and stable place--that was a cruel fairy tale.
I picked up the phone in the back of the crowded den and dialed Paul’s home number from memory. A silver metallic wall clock read 9:25PM. The phone rang maybe five times and Paul’s Dad finally answered with an irritated voice, “Hello, Hello….who is this?” When he heard it was me, his tone softened and he said that they would love for me to stop by. I said “Well, it’s pretty late Mr. Sonntag; I can come by in the morning just as well.” He quickly responded, “No, Roger tomorrow is going to be crazy with everyone coming in and the funeral and all. We haven’t seen you in a long time. We’d really like you to come over tonight. Don’t wait until the morning.”
I hadn’t been to Paul’s house since the days I’d ridden by bike there to play ball at Reed Park. When I pulled up it looked empty and dark save for the porch light---just one car in the driveway. As I rang the doorbell it occurred to me that only Paul’s parents were home--my God, what was I going to say? Where the hell were all their relatives and Church friends? I had naively expected the same kind of tearful, crowded gathering as there had been at Claudia’s. I wondered if Methodists just did their grieving alone. At least that night, Paul’s family did.
His parents looked terrible. Their faces were drawn. Eyes red from crying. His Dad wore a wrinkled old robe that hung sadly from his skinny shoulders. His Mom was trying to be perky and wore a pair of jeans and a baggy Longhorn sweatshirt. She gave me a soft tentative hug and said they’d sent George and Barney, Paul’s younger brothers, over to their Grandparents’ house for the week. They led me down the long narrow hall to Paul’s room. When we got there, his mom switched on the overhead light, and his Dad and I sat down on the neatly made bed. She collapsed into a bean bag chair that wasn’t there when Paul and I were kids. They asked me about camp that summer and where I was going to college, and how my mom and dad were.
The chit chat was too normal. Finally there was silence. Looking at no one, I said as calmly as I could, “I’m really sorry about what happened.” I began to tear up and Mr. Sonntag openly cried.
Mrs. Sonntag broke the enveloping sadness. She blew her nose softly into a piece of Kleenex and said with a funny smile, “Now Roger….I want to know the truth about those baloney sandwiches. Paul told me you loved them, but I know how boys eat and you never finished a one!” And we all started laughing. I told them about Paul and me secretly practicing that underhand pass play in their backyard. And we laughed and cried again. The tears were sweeter now, not so bitter. I felt safer crying, not afraid. It was the strangest, saddest night of my 18 year old life. I had the uncanny feeling that his parents were confusing me with Paul.
The Sonntags invited me to spend the night but I declined. I was deadened, empty and amazingly hungry again. I drove back home that night, wondering what happens now to my friendship with Paul? What happens inside of you when a 10 year old soulmate is killed and you can’t ever share another conversation, or joke or ballgame with him, ever? Death was so unreal to me-----part of me thought, I’ll call Paul in the morning and this horrible day will be over; the nightmare would end when the light of day arrived. No one had ever told me a best friend could be killed walking around on the Drag with his girlfriend on a Monday afternoon. I was learning terrible knowledge about life.
After I left that night I stayed in touch with the Sonntags through occasional letters, but I didn’t see them again for 15 years. In the spring of 1981, I was in Austin with Roz, my wife-to-be, visiting from Maryland where we were living together at the time. I was thirty-three years old and Roz was thirty-one. I was finishing up a doctoral program in developmental psychology and Roz had started working as a clinical social worker for Montgomery County. I’d found myself thinking a lot about Paul those days--mostly in the spring or early summer when I played pickup baseball and wished I could be 10 years old again at Reed Park running plays with him. I missed Paul terribly really, but it was hard to admit that to myself, because it made me too sad and reminded me of just how tenuous life was. Including my own and Roz’s. How could I marry someone who might be taken from me in an instant? I think staying in touch with the Sonntags over time, was a way to keep Paul alive for myself and for them--to avoid, even after 15 years, the unnerving lesson that his violent death had forced upon me. There is a sudden finality in life that is unbearable to think about; I have no control over when I or a loved one will have to face that truth.
I knew that I wanted the Sonntags to meet Roz. After leaving a message that we were coming by on their answering machine, we drove over to their house. I rang the doorbell and Mrs. Sonntag happily welcomed us into the living room like no time had passed. She called out for Jim to come see who’d dropped in. He gave us both big bear hugs. I introduced Roz to them and they eagerly asked all about our lives. I said I’d like to hear about George and Barney, and Mr. Sonntag cautiously responded that George was studying to be an architect, but Barney wasn’t doing so well. I could tell answering my question was hard on him. Half an hour later, as we were leaving, I said “I was nervous about coming by because I thought it might bring up sad memories of Paul for you.” Mrs. Sonntag laughed, “No, honey, it’s just the other way around. We love knowing that someone else out there remembers Paul. It means so much to us. It means his life made a difference. You two were such good friends. And by the way, you all please call us Beverly and Jim now. Just makes sense, doesn’t it?”
We returned in 1986, after my mother died, because I wanted Beverly and Jim to meet our two year-old first child, Amanda. In a fantasy I was not conscious of at the time, I think I was hoping the Sonntags would feel that Paul was still around because I was still around---and more than that, a new generation was coming into the world, and maybe my daughter could be their granddaughter as well. Maybe we all actually could live forever. The visit started off joyfully with hugs all around. Then I asked about the large tent I noticed in the backyard, and Jim softly said it was where Barney came to stay in bad weather because he was homeless right now.
Beverly invited us to see her collection of dolls gathered from yard sales that she and Jim frequented over the years. We followed her down the hallway but held up abruptly as we entered Paul’s old bedroom: it was empty of furniture except for large metal book shelves that lined the walls and were wedged full of hundreds of dolls. Fashion dolls, Shirley Temples, Cowgirls, Raggedy Ann’s, and Granny dolls. Some were made of porcelain, others of plastic, and all were staring out into space with empty eyes and tiny smiles. Beverly seemed in a reverie but it was really kind of eerie. She sweetly offered Amanda a little Shirley Temple and my daughter accepted the doll with a worried grin. Roz glanced at me, concerned about the hint of fear she saw in Amanda’s eyes. We thanked Beverly for the generous gift and then I took Amanda’s hand and turned to leave the room. When we came back to the living room, Jim didn’t notice us. He was sitting in his tattered easy chair, staring hypnotically into the cold, empty fireplace.
In 1994 I got a note from Beverly in barely legible cursive saying Jim had died at the age of 68, and she was moving into assisted living. I wrote her back several times, called and left messages, but never heard from her again. In 1998 Beverly died at 71 and was buried next to Jim and Paul in the Austin Memorial Park Cemetery.