Sunday, May 6, 2012
Kent State, 4 May 1970
In May 1970, Joyce and I had been married just four months. I was teaching full time at the old Aurora Middle School (102 E. Garfield Road) and was taking graduate courses at KSU at night. Joyce was a full-time grad student at Kent, working toward her master's in English. Although both of us were strongly opposed to the Vietnam War, we were not involved in any of the demonstrations. It was safe for me to oppose the war: after all, I had a teacher's deferment and would soon be 26--the cut-off age for the draft. I do not recall that attitude with pride--but it was the attitude I had at the time.
There had been lots of protesting in the streets in recent days; sirens sang our lullabies each night. Searchlights were our nightlights.
On the morning of May 4 I drove to school, knowing that Joyce had planned to be up on campus for the day for classes and then some research in the library.
The first news of the shootings I got in the teachers' lounge: Someone came in and said they heard that several National Guardsmen had been shot on the campus. (That was the first story we heard--soldiers shot, not students.) But when the actual news came through a bit later, I was alarmed. Four students ... shot and killed. Others wounded.
I tried to call home, but everyone else on earth was trying to call Kent also. Nothing but a busy signal. And computers and cell phones lay far in the future.
I went to see my principal, Mike Lenzo, and told him I had to get home to find out if Joyce was all right. He quickly agreed (I don't remember who took my afternoon classes), and I headed for Kent on Rte. 43. But when I got to Streetsboro, the Highway Patrol had blocked 43--no access there to any points south (meaning: Kent). But I was frightened--and I'd grown up in Portage County--so I took some back roads I knew and got to our apartment without any other problems.
And Joyce was there. The relief I felt I cannot to this day express.
Joyce told me that a student had run in the library while she was there. They're killing us! he cried. They're killing us! His hands were blood-soaked.
We decided we would not stay in town. Helicopters were hovering overhead; armed soldiers were in the streets of Kent. We had no idea what the night might bring. Mike had told me we could stay with them, so we packed a few things and headed for the Lenzos' home in Twin Lakes. We stayed there a couple of nights.
As we sat there at the red light, a student leaned out of an upper window of the rooming house and yelled, Fuck all you murdering pigs!
We looked at the soldiers, who swiftly swung the machine gun our way.
I ran the red light.
In a few days, back in our home, we walked the streets of Kent and marveled. All the driveways to the university were blocked by armed Guardsmen. Downtown, I took a picture of a store window. It bore a large message: Happy Mother's Day! But the reflection showed an armored military vehicle passing by. (I can't find that old photo now--will look more assiduously later.) Mother's Day was on May 10 that year.
We had to finish our courses by snail-mail. (No faxes in those days; no email.)
So ... we were not directly involved. No one shot at us. We had a very dear friend who was involved that year, though. Harry Vincent, from Garrettsville (I'd played on baseball teams with him, had been in college with him and his older brother, Jim) had to hit the ground when the bullets flew.
Both Joyce and I, though--and millions of other Americans--were wondering what was happening to the country we grew up in. JFK, 1963. MLK, 1968. RFK, 1968. KSU, 1970. Jackson State, 1970. It was a horrifying time of blood and loss, of dreams shattered by gunfire, while a country lost its moorings and drifted toward madness.