Falling from the Moon
What is the greatest height you have ever jumped or fallen from? Parachutes and water landings don’t count; I’m talking about a free fall interrupted by Mother Earth herself. For an acrophobic like me, the answer is about ten feet. I’ve read newspaper articles about folks surviving falls of thirty to forty feet. The son of an acquaintance recently fell from the top of a six-story Austin building and miraculously lived to tell about it. None of this, however, compares with the experience of 11-year-old Jamie Fowler, who in 1930 plunged from the top of one of Austin’s most iconic structures, a 165-foot moon tower, and escaped with nothing more serious than several nasty bruises.
If you’ve only recently moved to Austin, you’re probably itching to ask, “What the heck is a moon tower?” I had driven past the one at 15th and San Antonio many times over the course of several years before I thought to ask somebody about it. He didn’t know. But on a trip to the Austin History Center at 9th and Guadalupe I noticed another of the strange structures looming overhead. The folks inside were delighted to explain and I soon had several folders of newspaper clippings and photographs stacked before me.
Austin’s moon towers originated at – what else? – a city council meeting. In 1894 consulting engineer J. T. Fanning presented estimates of lighting city streets with various types of standard street lamps. The cost would range from $126,000 to $153,000. E. J. O’Bierne of the Fort Wayne Electric Company then told council members that his company could erect 30 wrought iron towers holding six arc lamps each at a cost of only $113,500. Each tower would come with the guarantee that the light produced would make it possible to read the time on an ordinary watch at a distance of 1500 feet. Furthermore, Austin would only have to pony up $70,000 in cash; payment for the remainder could be in the form of the narrow gauge railroad then being used to haul construction materials to the almost-completed Austin dam.
Mayor A. P. Wooldridge and the council jumped at the chance to save so much money and accepted O’Bierne’s offer. Subsequent negotiations increased the number of the towers to 31. On May 6, 1895, someone flipped a switch and for the first time the city of Austin was bathed in artificial “moonlight.”
When Austin first installed its moon towers it was one of several cities around the country to employ this method of street lighting. By 1928, when former Mayor Wooldridge put his recollections of their construction to paper, the moon towers in Austin had achieved the distinction of being the only such towers in the country. In his letter, Wooldridge reported that 29 towers remained in service. Safety considerations, construction projects, and errant city utility trucks have reduced that total to seventeen.
Now to Jamie Fowler. Of her son, Kate Fowler said, “My boy was the last person in the world I expected to climb up on a tower.” But in 1930 Jamie did just that. His boldness surprised his mother, who described him as “a rather timid boy.”
Jamie walked home from Pease Elementary School one warm spring afternoon happy in anticipation of receiving his grade school certificate the next day. “I’m home, Mama,” he shouted as he entered his home at 701 Guadalupe. He snatched a piece of banana cake from the kitchen table before going to his room to change clothes. Nothing much happened until after supper, when a friend, Hugh Smith stopped by for a game of hide and seek. Quickly tiring of the game, the two boys went inside and told Mrs. Fowler that they were going to Wooldridge Park three blocks away, where they were met by another friend named Johnson Wood. After romping around on the park’s grassy slope for a while the trio ended up underneath the moon tower across the street.
It doesn’t take long for three boys staring up at an enormous tower to wonder about the view from the top. Finally, one of them said, “Anyone who hasn’t climbed the tower by the time he is 12 is a sissy.” Jamie, whose twelfth birthday would arrive in October, began the ascent. Johnson Wood followed him.
At the top, Jamie and Johnson marveled at the sight of the city spread at their feet. They passed several minutes pointing out familiar landmarks before Jamie said, “I’m dizzy. I’m getting down.”
Johnson cried, “Don’t look down, you’ll fall!”
Too late. Jamie dropped “like a bullet” from a height of 165 feet. Fortunately, he fell between the sides of the triangular structure, bouncing off the bars like a marble in a pinball machine before landing on the catwalk 15 feet above the sidewalk. The other two horrified boys began screaming for help.
Jamie's parents, Rex and Kate Fowler
Back in the house on Guadalupe Street, Captain Rex Fowler of the Austin Police Department had already gone to bed. Waiting up for her son, Kate took no notice of the sirens wailing in the distance. The phone rang and Kate answered. It was a policeman friend, Jimmy Fariss.
“I want to talk to Rex,” Fariss said.
“Could I take a message? He is asleep,” replied Kate.
“No, I must talk with him now.”
Once the sleepy husband was on the line he heard his friend say, “Rex, your boy just fell of the light tower at Wooldridge Park. We think he is dead.”
After rushing to Brackenridge Hospital, Kate and Rex Fowler found Jamie lying unconscious in a hospital bed, his bandage-encased head “swollen to nearly twice its normal size.” The thankful mother described her son as “a mass of bruises and cuts. You can’t find a two inch spot that isn’t black and blue.” But, miraculously, no bones had broken. Nevertheless, doctors feared that the boy would die.
In addition to being an Austin history buff, I am also a pediatric neurologist. During my twenty-plus years of practice, I have seen dozens of similarly injured patients. The scene in the intensive care unit is always heartbreaking. Terrified parents hover at the bedside of a beautiful child who, only hours before, had enjoyed perfect health. Once the initial crisis has passed, the parents settle into a routine in which one of them is always at the bedside. In the Fowler’s case, Kate assumed this task. For days she sat with her son, holding his hand, talking to him, and wincing every time he moaned or cried out in pain. Then came the miracle. On the ninth day the battered boy opened his eyes. Doctors told Kate that Jamie would live. Three weeks later he left the hospital and returned home.
Kate and Rex naively expected that Jamie’s survival meant that he had completely recovered. But brains do not heal so quickly. Jamie’s forgetfulness frightened his parents. At first, he could not recall events from one day to the next. This had improved considerably by September when the boy resumed school but he nevertheless failed the seventh grade. Kate asked herself, “Has one prayer been answered and the other unheard?” But Jamie continued to improve over the next two years and he graduated from Austin High School at age 20 in 1938.
Jamie joined the Army in January 1941 and served throughout WWII. Once, a fellow soldier, Paul Graz of Los Angeles, asked him about the large scar on his forehead. Jamie told the tale of his plunge from the moon tower. A disbelieving Graz wrote to American-Statesman for verification. After corroborating Jamie’s story, the newspaper’s managing editor wrote, “If you wish further verification of Corp. Fowler’s fall, you might contact Ripley of ‘Believe It or Not.’ The item was featured in his column some years ago.”
Jamie Fowler cheated death to live another 62 years. He moved to Phoenix after the war and became a policeman like his father. In 1956 he told a newspaper reporter that he preferred not to discuss the incident with his sons. “I hate for the boys to know I was so foolish,” he explained. “I lost my desire for climbing a long time ago.”