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Brandon Shaw

The summer of '97

Brandon.jpg

I graduated from the University of Texas in the spring of 2000. It doesn’t feel like 19 years has passed since then, but it has.

After walking across the stage and receiving my diploma, I gathered up all the art and drafting supplies I had acquired over the previous five years and packed them into a repurposed fishing table box. In its drawers and compartments I placed my Prismacolor pencils and Rapidiograph pens; all my French curves and adjustable triangles; all my watercolors and India ink. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but this tackle box would remain mostly unused for the next two decades as digital technologies quickly replaced the analog techniques we learned in school.

Even so, I dutifully kept the tackle box with me. It moved with me to Chicago and then to Dallas and then to San Antonio. It traveled with me up to New Jersey when I went to grad school and it came back to Texas with me when I returned to start a family. In time the tackle box was relegated the garage of my San Antonio home. It sat between Christmas decorations and boxes of outgrown children’s clothes.

Earlier this year my two daughters and I started a routine where we would all sit together at the dining table just before bedtime. With our teeth brushed and our pajamas on we would together draw scenes from books we were reading or movies we were watching. Even if my architectural work is mostly done on the computer these days, I still have the ability to draw enchanted castles and magical rainbows with some degree of skill.

At one point we decided we needed to up our game and add color to our artistic endeavors. I was sent out to the garage to retrieve my old college art supplies.

That’s where I found him.

Brandon Shaw was underneath a pile of colored pencils. Or at least that’s where I found a small cut-out photo of him. He was an inch and a half tall - about 6’-0” at 1/4” scale. He looked exactly like I remembered him: wispy blonde hair, glasses, untucked shirt, baggy jeans, and Birkenstocks.

* * *

In the fall of 1995 close to 48,000 undergraduates attended the University of Texas at Austin. Of that number only about a hundred of us were freshman architecture students. The School of Architecture was a small island of intimacy within the sprawling mass of UT. By the end of our first semester, we all knew one another. We took most of our classes together as a group. We spent many of our nights and weekends together as well. We became friends. We became family.

Our freshman design studio met for three hours on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Brandon and I sat just a few drafting tables away from one another. In that first semester together we struggled to learn architecture’s basic concepts. We labored to produce consistent line weights with our 2H pencils. We struggled to keep ink from smearing underneath our 30-60-90 triangles.

By our second semester, we had the fundamentals figured out and could move on to larger issues of scale and site and context. One of our professors had us photograph one another and then cut out the printed photo after it had been mounted onto cardboard. We could then use these cut-outs as scale figures in the models we built for our projects.

When my sophomore year came to a close I decided to spend the summer in Austin. And so I moved out of the dorm and into an apartment. In June I began working at my first real job in an architecture office. It wasn’t the most fulfilling work but the paycheck covered the bills and I had a little cash left over at the end of the month.

That summer the Paramount Theatre featured the films of Alfred Hitchcock and I saw a number of his movies on the big screen. One of them, Rope, featured a character named Brandon Shaw. I remember smiling when I heard the name spoken and I wondered if the Brandon Shaw I knew was aware of this coincidence. I heard he, too, was in Austin for the summer and it seemed likely we would cross paths at some point.

By the end of June I had established a routine. As near as I can remember, Monday, June 30th was like any other workday that summer: I went to the office, I worked my eight hours, and at the end of the day, I drove back to my apartment.  

* * *

Even though Brandon was from Houston, Austin seemed like his home. It wasn’t just that he was a musician who always wore Birkenstock sandals, it was that he had an easygoing manner that was a perfect fit for Austin in the late nineties.

Brandon would bring his guitar to studio when you were up late ahead of a deadline. He would jab you with his pen to keep you awake during lectures the following day. He would drag you out of studio to see concerts at Antone's. He would hang out with you for hours at his apartment.

But Brandon wasn’t just some music-loving slacker. He took his schoolwork seriously. He was in a demanding dual-degree program that combined architecture and engineering. Beyond that he was a multilayered, complex individual. He could be equal parts earnest and flippant; mellow and outgoing; sarcastic and sensitive. He could confidently walk up and joke with a stranger one moment and reveal an underlying insecurity the next. 

In the spring semester of our sophomore year, Brandon and I were for the first time assigned to different studio professors. We shared the same studio space, however, and I was able to watch as Brandon began to settle in with a new group of friends. He seemed to find a balance between his classes and his outside interests. He had joined an intramural soccer league and had started taking lessons from the guitarist of a local band. He seemed to be figuring out who he was.

* * *

Back when the internet was still in its infancy news traveled much slower than it does now. There was no Facebook, then. There were no group texts. Many of us didn’t even have cell phones yet. We may have had email accounts, but few of us had access to those accounts other than at a campus computer lab or via a dial-up modem. That left the newspaper as the only real source of information.

Of course, the thing with newspapers is that by the time you read it, the information is already outdated.

Before heading back to work on the morning of Tuesday, July 1st I read about a series of carjackings that had occurred in Austin. By Wednesday morning the paper reported that one of the carjacking victims, a 25-year-old City of Austin employee, was missing. Twenty-two years later I can’t remember how I heard it, but at some point I began to hear rumors that Brandon was also missing.

On Thursday the newspaper reported that the body of the City of Austin employee had been discovered in the trunk of a car that had been pushed into Town Lake. It also reported that a second body had been recovered. The victim was described as, “A University of Texas student from Houston.”

That evening I called the City of Austin Police Department in search of more information. I spoke to a detective working the case. I identified myself as a student who was worried that a classmate of mine was the other victim. The detective asked me the name of my friend. I told him it was Brandon Shaw. There was a pause before the detective repeated that the names of the victims hadn’t been released yet.

Later that evening a group of us were still searching for answers. Someone was able to track down the phone number of one of our former studio professors who we figured he might know something. 

He did.

He told us Brandon Shaw was dead.    

* * *

I had been to memorial services before and I have been to many since. But the one held in Brandon’s honor the following Monday was something very different. I will always remember the feeling of sitting in a sanctuary full of people who were all trying to make sense of the same senseless act.

Several of us made the three-hour drive from Austin to Clear Lake City. Those of us who knew Brandon from UT made up only a small portion of those who filled the Episcopal Church. It became clear that even though Brandon had been a big part of our lives for the previous two years, he had been a bigger part of other people’s lives for much longer. 

We met Brandon’s high school friends at the memorial service. We met his family. We learned how Brandon looked up to his big brother. We learned how close he was to his sister. We learned he could talk his dad out of a bad mood and that he would dance with his mother in the kitchen. As tragic as it was to lose a classmate, his family lost far more. They lost a brother. They lost a son. They lost a part of their lives that had been there for twenty years.

The Shaw family wasn’t the only one to experience loss that summer. A few days earlier another family held their own memorial service in Austin. Juan Javier Cotera was the city of Austin employee who died with Brandon in Town Lake. Like Brandon, his life was full of promise. Like Brandon, he was denied the chance to finish his story.

* * *

In 1997 two years of college seemed to last an eternity. Now twenty-four months come and go with little to show for it except for another box of outgrown children's clothes. 

There is plenty I remember about the time I knew Brandon. Some of the details may be blurry, but back then we were blurry ourselves. As much as we struggled to figure out how to design buildings, we struggled just as much to figure out what kind of people we were going to be.

Most of us had time to figure that out. Brandon did not.

For those of us who lived past the summer of 1997 our time at UT was but one chapter of a narrative that kept getting longer as we grew older. Our stories didn’t end that summer. They continued. We went back to UT in the fall. We pulled more all-nighters. We worked more jobs. We traveled. We fell in and out of love. We graduated. We kept in touch with some friends. We lost contact with others.

As we followed our individual paths into adulthood - and, more recently, into middle-age - our memories of Brandon have stayed with us. I know Brandon’s life and death has informed my life. Now I’m closer to the age of Brandon’s parents in 1997 than to the age I was back then. I can’t help but see the events of that summer through their eyes.

I know there will come a day where my kids, like Brandon, will decide to not come home for the summer. I know there will come a time when I cannot protect them form the arbitrary evils of the world. In the meantime, though, I can hold my kids tight. I can tell them to be nicer to one another. I can tell them that I love them.

I can give them colored pencils and together we can imagine a world full of enchanted castles and magical rainbows.