Deep in the Heart

Resting in Peace

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A long-ago death and the strange solace of language

Anne Worner/Flickr

By Dennis Covington

December 29, 2017


 

One night, alone and heading east from Lubbock to Birmingham in an old RV, I stopped to say hello to a couple of friends who’d let my daughter and me live rent-free in an abandoned farmhouse while I got back on my feet after bankruptcy.

My friends said there weren’t any open gas stations on the route I’d planned to take, so they encouraged me to spend the night at a nearby RV park and get a fresh start early the next morning. They also suggested a better route to take. It went through a small Texas town called Spur (pop. 1,318). The name rang a bell, because I’d been researching the sniper shooting at the University of Texas on August 1, 1966. That day, a gunman opened fire from the observation deck of the UT Tower, killing 14 people. One of those 14 had been from Spur.

His name was Thomas Karr, 24, an Army veteran and senior at UT, where he was majoring in Latin American Studies. He was walking along Guadeloupe Street after a Spanish exam when a 17-year-old high school student named Karen Griffith was shot in the chest in front of him. When Thomas tried to help her, the sniper shot him in the back. Thomas died on the operating table at Brackenridge Hospital. Karen underwent surgery to have her right lung removed and died in the hospital a week later.

I stopped at the donut shop in Spur and asked a table of men if they knew anything about Thomas Karr and the Tower shooting. They’d heard about the shooting, of course, but didn’t know much about the young man who’d been killed. It had all happened at least 50 years ago.

“You might try his sister-in-law, though.”

“You think she’d talk to me?”

“Oh, she’ll talk,” the men said.

So I gave Brenda Karr a call. She was only 11 at the time of Tommy’s death and was at the graveside when they buried him. So was Tommy’s girlfriend, whom Brenda thought Tommy had wanted to marry.

Years later, Brenda married Tommy’s brother, Don, but he didn’t want to talk much about the effect Tommy’s death had had on the family.

There was one detail, though, that Brenda could share with me. She said that Spencer Campbell, the mortician in Spur, had driven the boys’ father down to Austin to retrieve Tommy’s body and bring it back home. According to news reports, Tommy had died instantly, but emergency rescue personnel told Mr. Campbell that Tommy had actually said four words: “It hurts, it hurts.”

When Mr. Campbell told that to Mr. Karr, Tommy’s father took solace in it, because at least his son had lived long enough to say his last words.


Dennis Covington is the author of six books, including Salvation on Sand Mountain, a finalist for the National Book Award. His most recent book is Revelation: A Search for Faith in a Violent Religious World.


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