Saturday, August 13, 2011

Deep in the Heart of Texas

A thousand lifetimes ago, I believed with all my heart that I would be a musician. The impulse began in childhood with the accordion, and later, the piano and percussion. It took me halfway through college as a music major to realize the music life was not for me, but I was left with some indelible memories. One such memory occurred when I was nearing the end of my freshman year in high school. The year was successful, and I felt as if I had found my niche in the difficult hierarchy of secondary education—not an athlete, but I had a front row seat at all the football games, and I was part of the percussion section, the coolest subgroup within the band.

In April, the band traveled to San Antonio, Texas for the annual Battle of the Flowers Festival, an event that commemorated the much-mythologized siege of the Alamo during the Texas War of Independence in the 1830s.

We arrived in San Antonio for some sightseeing leading up to our performance on a Thursday evening at an open air stadium in front of thousands of screaming fans. In marching band lore, this kind of performance is called a field show, and consists of formations and music on a football field, similar to a halftime show. I had never performed in front of such a large crowd, and the energy of the audience was like a drug. We were singing, screaming, and cheering all the way back to the hotel.

On Friday, we were scheduled to march in the Battle of the Flowers parade through downtown San Antonio. We arrived on time at the staging area, a large empty parking lot under a curving freeway overpass one block from the start of the parade. We were to be the third group to step off, with a local band and a float ahead of us. The drumline gathered under the overpass to warm up. We played through our exercises, taking great pleasure in the sheer cacophony of the thunderous drums echoing off the concrete above us. Across the parking lot were the backs of all the shops lining the parade route. As we pounded through our warm-ups, I kept trying to see between the buildings, wondering if the first band was off and running.

I remember glancing around at the other bands watching us warm up. I remember people milling about, some in parade costumes—clown suits, matadors, Spanish dancers. When I looked back toward the buildings along the parade route, a good seventy-five yards across burning asphalt, I saw hundreds of people running toward us. The looks on their faces could only be described as panic-stricken. Mothers were clutching children and literally dragging them along. I motioned to the other drummers to stop playing. The wave of humanity advanced toward us, and I began to feel a rush of adrenaline. All I heard were their screams.

The wave of humanity engulfed, and then passed us. Almost immediately, we became aware of another sound. Pops and deeper, more resonant explosions purpled the air, sounding at first like firecrackers, but then we heard the whacking slap of something repeatedly striking the concrete above us. I recognized the whine of a ricochet: bullets were flying. The band director yelled for us to drop our instruments and run after the crowd. We all made it around the corner of a building and down into a loading dock area between two tractor-trailers. At least a hundred people crowded and crouched in the bright sunlight. Next to me, a woman cradled her child in her arms, sobbing softly. I began hearing sirens in the distance.

The gunfire increased exponentially, and I could tell that there were now multiple shooters by the sound of the different caliber of weapons. With each sharp volley, people ducked reflexively, praying the bullets were not headed our way. Across the top of the loading dock was a sign: The Lone Star Brewery.

“He’s coming,” someone screamed.

A policeman sprinted around the corner of one of the trucks. “Gun, gun, gun,” he shouted.

In mass, the sea of people flooded under the trailer. The woman with child was caught up by the crowd like a piece of driftwood in a wave. I watched as her head slammed into the rigging under the trailer and she went down. Several people surrounded her to prevent the others from trampling her. When they pulled her to her feet on the other side of the trailer, she was bleeding profusely from a head wound.

We crossed an alley lined with police officers and entered into the walled courtyard of the brewery. The policemen shouted at us to get inside and stay near the brick walls. After the last person entered, the heavy iron doors were pulled closed. The barrage of gunfire continued less than a block away, and now helicopters hovered overhead. The band gathered around the director in one corner of the courtyard where he took a roll call to make sure no one was missing. Miraculously, we had all made it inside.

The gunfire continued, sporadically, and various rumors spread through the huge crowd of people: there were multiple gunmen; there was one gunman; he was firing from a camper in a gas station on the parade route; the first band to step off was directly in front of him and suffered casualties; and, tear gas was being used to pry him out of his hiding place. We had no choice but to sit around and wait. Someone provided water, and allowed us to be escorted individually to a bathroom inside the brewery.

The standoff lasted several hours, and culminated in a massive barrage of gunfire and explosions. Whatever was going on, it sounded like the Battle of the Bulge. As the sun started to go down, the band director moved us through the beer factory and out the other side to our buses. Most of our instruments were still back in the parking lot, but he told us they would be retrieved later.

Once back at our hotel, we were told to go to our rooms and wait to be called for a meeting. My three roommates and I sat in stunned silence, the TV and air conditioner on, watching the story we had just experienced firsthand unfold on the evening news.

The shooter was a 65 year old man named Ira Attebury. This was the third year he had attended the festival and parade, parking his camper in a paid spot outside a tire store eighteen feet from the intersection where the parade was to begin. He told neighbors that he would attend the festival and then embark on a multi-state vacation in his RV. Family members said he had become paranoid recently, fearing the police were following him. Whatever the case, at one p.m. on Friday, April 27, 1979, Attebury kicked open the door of his trailer and began firing one of six high caliber rifles at the 4000-5000 people lining the parade route in front of him. Witnesses said he shouted “Traitors, traitors, traitors,” and “What kind of a society is this,” as he fired into the crowds scrambling to take cover. Ida Long, age 26, and Amalia Castillo, 48, were killed. Thirty-two people were injured by direct gunfire, bullet or shrapnel fragments, or flying glass. Twenty were hurt in the resulting melee. Six policemen were also shot. After thirty minutes, a police officer managed to wound Attebury while he was reloading one of his weapons. Officers surrounded the now quiet camper and unloaded a barrage of bullets and tear gas into the vehicle hoping to finish the job. When the smoke cleared, Attebury was dead, possibly from a self-inflicted bullet wound in the head. Investigators said he had an arsenal of weapons and enough ammo for a war.

The following evening, we were scheduled to march in a night parade along the exact same route where the shooting occurred. Each band member would have strings of lights powered by a small battery pack attached to his or her uniform and instruments. We would all be fully outlined in lights as we marched down the boulevard. Most of us believed we would be heading home after the tragedy, but the director made a startling announcement. We would do the night parade. Police officers would line the route, and all attendees would be screened and searched before taking their seats on the street. Law enforcement, parade officials, and our teachers believed the shooting was the work of a lone, crazed gunman, and that we would be safe with all the security now deployed on the parade route. I was truly fearful, as were many of the other members. Our bodies would be outlined in lights; what better targets would a shooter have?

The next night, we arrived at the parking lot and suited up for the parade. I did not think many people would show up to watch the parade after what happened, but I was wrong. The crowds seemed larger than the day before, with people wildly cheering and screaming as we lined up at the fateful intersection to step off. As we marched the parade route, several people threw firecrackers into the street, and it took strength to fight the urge to panic and run. Cops swarmed the areas from where the fireworks were thrown. A man also ran through our ranks screaming, which unnerved all of us, but he was quickly surrounded and carted off.

At the end of the parade route, we stripped down our equipment and packed up. All of us were drenched in sweat as much from the humidity of a spring San Antonio night as well as from nerves. We boarded the bus and went for a late dinner of pizza near the hotel. By the time we arrived at the restaurant, we were screaming and cheering again. We had made it, and we were happy. The fear and trepidation vanished and we made jokes and told stories about what we saw and experienced. Death had touched us, but we had lived to tell the tale. We were invincible, as only young people believe they are.

Read more about this incident from other accounts here, here, and here.


  1. Paul:
    What an incredible story; the emotional trauma on you kids after the fact had to be horrible. And how in the world did you guys manage to play the next day at the parade? That had to be above and beyond.
    I've been a "serious, non-professional musician" (to use a friend's characterization) since I was 14; played a few gigs where the drunks in the bar got a little stupid, but I never played where shots were fired in my direction.
    It gives a whole 'nother point of view to the phrase "grace under fire", doesn't it?
    Hope you folks are well; my best to Silvie.

  2. In retrospect, and having spent so many years as a teacher, I find it hard to believe we marched the next evening, too. I am sure today, parents would be threatening lawsuits. I also have some stories about playing some dives which I'll probably write about at some point in the future. I have met a number of musicians who were great storytellers about the days on the road. Some of them are quite funny and interesting. We are well, thanks for the asking, and we hope things are good with you, too. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment, and be sure that I am keeping up with your blog as well.

  3. A horrible episode beautifully recounted, Paul. The additional shocks are, one, that this kind of thing has become so commonplace now. Two, what was up with the idiots who had firecrackers and the guy who ran into the parade? You'd think after a tragedy like that, people could behave themselves for a day or two. Civilization ... the thin veneer.

  4. Yes, I agree about us becoming so desensitized to events like this. I remember when a school shooting would initiate a week of coverage on the news. Now they pass with barely a mention. What does shock us anymore? Hard to say. Thanks for the comment.

  5. Evocative writing, Paul. I could see some paranoid person doing something like that today.

  6. Thank you, Jeff. Unfortunately, it happens today all too often, and we have become almost immune to it.


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