I wrote this for a Facebook group about Kent State, The May Fourth Movement, regarding the shooting on May 4th, 1970, by the National Guard, that killed four and injured nine others. This was to be the fiftieth anniversary, and I had plans to go to Kent, Ohio, for the memorial. Of course, that was thwarted by the pandemic.
I wrote about the event and its impact upon me, as well as how it really affected me, and the effect it had upon me and the rest of my life. I think it’s important to share here as well.
I wasn’t there, though I went there.
I grew up in Northeast Ohio. At five years old, we were living in Cleveland Heights, just a few miles outside of Cleveland, and a few more miles away from Kent, Ohio. My memories of that time include regularly watching the evening news on a black & white television, local, then national. It was a staple of my existence through and until the time when I had other things to do and other ways to get there.
Every night the war was brought into our living room. I remember soldiers in every state of being, from happy and high, passing something between themselves in a tall grassy field, all the way to gravely injured and/or dead and being carried away. It truly had an effect upon me. It would have been a very difficult task to explain to the point of me having an ability to comprehend, why there was war, and why we were involved in this particular one. Soldiers looked like the kid that lived down the street that we hadn’t seen in a few months because he was now in basic training. At only five years old, I did realize that they, the kids up the street, weren’t much older than I was and fifteen years, three times as long as I’d been alive, I could be called. Seriously, how is that possible?
At the young age of five, I was subjected to imagery that even today I find difficult to watch, especially since I know it’s not a fictionalized depiction like a movie, it’s reality. I recently watched all ten parts of Ken Burns’ documentary on Vietnam and was shocked at how much of the images and films that played in that documentary were ones that I remember on the evening news.
Later that year, 1970, I was to start school. I was already classified as a ‘student’, however I realized that kindergarten wasn’t really being in school, so I couldn’t be a ‘student’ yet. Around my birthday I would truly be a “student”.
May 4th, 1970 comes around and I remember my father and I were watching television, the evening news, local, then national. Familiar faces were telling me about how there was something that happened and it wasn’t far from where I was standing. Even in my short life, I realized it hadn’t been that long ago that we watched achievements and celebrations happen. A man walked on the moon and there was a music festival that happened.
May 4th, 1970 comes around and I watch in horror as I see that students were killed and injured, not really that far away. I watched, and was told that Cleveland State, which was closer than Kent State (which I admit I thought at the time was a different state of the Union), had been put on lock down and I wondered if the war made it to Kent, and Cleveland was preparing for it, how long until it hit closer to me? My block? My street? My home? I’m going to be a ‘student’, will they shoot me, or just at me?
Wait… the governor sent the soldiers to the school and they shot students? Remember, I was five years old trying to grasp these concepts and this is how it was presented to me, thank you Mr. Cronkite (whom I still would trust over anyone that holds an office and he’s been dead for years now).
My father was a very conservative man, towing the Republican line and a full believer that Nixon was an honest man and had his best interests at heart. At a very early age I saw the difference between what was being said and what was being done. When during the few days prior to the 4th, the president had announced that soldiers, whom I did think of as my friends from up the street and their friends, also known as the “teenagers”, and ones to look up to and eventually emulate (for what reason I still don’t know, other than they were ‘cool’), were being sent into another country, one called Cambodia, to fight the Vietnam war, I saw how much that went against everything else that had been said before. And that to me was something one might protest against, of course even then I knew more information was needed.
May 4th, 1970, and there I was a five year old with a lot of thoughts about the world and how it works, formulating in my head, and all I really wanted to do was ride my bike. If the war was coming to me, which in the mind of a five year old is a distinct possibility, then riding my bike might not be in my best interest.
Years later I attended Kenston High School, one that was named after the same person that named Kent, Ohio, and also Kent State University. I saw the connection and equally felt connected. Stories came up from teachers, okay, primarily one teacher, Andrew Kenen, who talked about having been there, at Kent State, when the tragedy was about to happen. My recollection is that he escaped the town before the buses were pulled across the streets to block egress. A field trip to KSU, to see their radio station facility, felt familiar to me in kind of a reverse way, where I knew I’d be back. Those aren’t the only reasons why I picked to go to Kent State, yet Andy’s influence was strong in that regard. I do remember on that trip buying the two record set called and by the Chicago Transit Authority.
When I attended Kent State, it’s really as if the campus itself says to you, “Yes, this happened here and no, we can’t do anything about it that it did happen, nor can we or should we forget it. Now, you new student here… go learn, and learn from what happened here also…. and become something.”
No, I wasn’t there, yet I went there. Yes, it happened and seriously I feel it could happen again after some other catalyst. I don’t think it stopped happening, just not always by National Guard, sometimes police or just civilians.
Lies and trying to cover it all up. That’s what happened, that’s why it happened, and that’s what happened afterward. To some this may present as a strange analogy, yet two years, one month and one day prior to May 4th, 1970, the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” was released in the U. S., which depicted an artificial intelligence that was told to lie, and instead chose to kill everyone that it had originally been designed to keep alive. If you’ve not seen the film, sorry about that spoiler, though seriously, what are you doing reading something I’ve written and not have seen that film? My point is that lies kill. I’ve always hated a liar, yet apparently there are more of them than we are told there are, and it seems there have always been.
May 4th, 1970, changed my life. It changed my life when it happened. It changed my life as I grew up just knowing that it happened and had happened so close. It changed my life when I attended the school, a time I still refer to as ‘the most expensive party ever thrown’, which I admit here is an exaggeration as I did learn. I learned a lot. I reflect upon it and I continue to learn. It is my sincere wish that others may do the same, and by that I mean learn.
I wasn’t there. I went there. I wanted to return and could not. I will return when I’m able. That is, when we are all able. Stay safe.
After posting this, I got responses that amaze me.
Andrew Kenen: “Well written, says your former English teacher.”
Matt Wood: “As a kid who grew up in the same area, it was a big deal. It was always a really big deal. I never really understood why at the time… but it was a big deal.”
Michael Smicklas: “Well said, brother.”
Melanie Salter: “Beautifully said. It just goes to show how far and wide the ripples go when something like this happens. It’s not just the immediate people involved who are affected, but it also goes to show how far the ripples go to make sure things like Kent State are never forgotten. ❤️🙏”
Nancy Tuttle: “Your essay means so much to me, because it assures me that it all made a difference. Bill was my brother, so it had to make a difference.”
Of those that commented, Andrew Kenen is the one I spoke about, being the teacher of mine that had attended KSU and ‘escaped’ that fateful day. His comment means a lot to me on a lot of levels. Matt Wood’s comment emphasizes the beginning parts of what I wrote, really how we felt growing up in the area. Michael Smicklas, my brother from another mother, he and I were dorm-mates at Kent. Melanie Salter is an author, who wrote a book where her characters traveled through Kent on that day. She incorporated true history into her fiction in a beautiful way. She’s on the other side of the planet from me and yet I feel an amazing connection to her. She also thanked me in her book as I confirmed her descriptions as being geographically correct – I made sure her stars are aligned.
And then there’s Nancy Tuttle. How do I respond to a comment like that? I would so much prefer that Bill were still with us, and that the difference made didn’t cost him his life, nor was it a difference needing to be made and that we all had been better to begin with. I truly was stunned when I got this comment.