In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Use It or Lose It.”
“I thought we’d never come back from those killings.” Just months after the Ohio National Guard marched onto my campus, Kent State University, placed tanks on the lawns, and bivouacked in the parking lot below Satterfield and Bowman Halls, I sat transfixed with the intrusive memories of that horrific day. Despite nationwide protests against the Vietnam War, most students were like me, working to put ourselves through college (or loafing on daddy’s dime), focusing on our studies, preparing for exams, hell, surviving. And yet, they killed us with bullets and then over and over again with their lies.
The weekend prior to that fateful Monday, I was finishing (filling, glazing, decorating) donuts at my first full-time job (without benefits). Spare moments were spent reading and studying for exams, with some TV and meals an afterthought. A small group of so-called protesters, most of whom were outsiders set on violence and mayhem, tried to riot on the streets of Kent, a town dependent on the university yet resentful of students. Some were jailed, others dispersed. Then a larger group stormed the ROTC building and burned it to the ground. All of this was reported with vivid pictures on the evening news, and like most people, I was astounded and appalled by the actions of agitators.
Despite the weekend violence, Gov. Rhodes refused to declare an emergency situation, which would have forced the colleges and universities in the state to shut down. I still blame him, in part, for the uncalled-for attack on students that Monday. May 4, 1970, as I rode the bus to class, I was jabbed in the gut by the sight of a large Army tank parked in the front lawn of McGilvrey Hall, where they taught science and math (I think). Descending the hill to Satterfield and disembarking, we noticed tents and armed men in the parking lot nearby. We had been invaded by the National Guard.
The problem? The university was open that day and we all had classes that had NOT been canceled. Some of us had exams that day; we all expected a ‘normal’ day at Kent State. Lots of rumors floated around as students gathered in small groups waiting for earlier classes to let out. We heard that SDS, the Students for a Democratic Society, was planning to picket the Administration Building on the other side of campus, and some students intended to watch the ‘spectacle.’ The falsely named SDS was actually a communist activist group dedicated to violence and destruction. No one I knew would have joined such an outfit; I still doubt whether any real students were members. At the time, we had an ‘open’ university which allowed anyone to come on campus. Another big mistake.
I had a couple of classes, but most were cancelled, a fact not announced until we had waited patiently for professors who never appeared. The atmosphere became a bit ominous. The air was tinged with an unnatural excitement, as if we all expected something dramatic to occur. No one could have imagined we would have a confrontation resulting in mass murder and wounding. Certainly, I would never have dreamed that we American students would be attacked by Guardsmen who were supposed to protect all citizens.
As noon drew near, many students returned to dorms or headed to other class buildings or to the Administration Building that also housed my psychology classes. I walked up the grassy hill alone, yet surrounded by other students chattering away about what had happened over the weekend and anticipating the speeches planned for the Admin protest groups. I was curious about it all but intent on reaching the building before a march, if there was to be one. My only concern was my classwork and I had questions about the upcoming finals.
…I saw the crowds of students, laughing and shouting rude epithets to the armed men standing grimly in the spring warmth. No speeches that day, no marches. Just students, some confronting the ‘soldiers’; most, like me, curious but intent on attending to our classes. Suddenly, they were tossing tear gas canisters at the students, and a few threw them back, along with a few rocks. Within minutes, without warning, without an order from an officer, the guard began firing into the unarmed crowd of students, emptying their clips. Four kids dropped dead, 9 more fell to the ground with nonfatal injuries, others dropped out of fear. Most, like me, ran for their lives. The screams were nearly as sharp as the gunfire.
I escaped to what turned out to be the last bus running off campus that day. Reaching the Stow-Kent Shopping Center, I sped out of the lot and headed home to Cuyahoga Falls, ten miles of abject fear and despair. As I got close to home, the radio news announced in essence that our brave military had saved us all from a violent crowd of thugs who had shot at them from dorm windows and had thrown boulders and railroad ties at them. In self defense, we were told, the guards had opened fire.
My parents were upset and surprised when I told them what had really happened, but even they, who should have known better, believed the false stories being reported. It was in the news, so it must be true. Two or three days later, an aged and experienced newscaster who had interviewed every world leader from Roosevelt to Hitler to Nixon, our own Cleveland-area reporter, Dorothy Fuldheim, opened her evening broadcast with the stunning news that everything we had been told about the ‘incident’ at Kent State was false. We had been deliberately lied to and she was digging to the bottom of it. I cried that evening, I think for the first time since witnessing murder.
Why had it happened? Why the cover-up and lies? There were no guns on campus. Dorm windows were sealed and no dorm was close enough for a shot from the world’s best sniper. If you could find railroad ties on campus that day, let alone a student who could lift one and throw it, I’ll give you a million dollars. Of the kids shot that day, perhaps two had been involved in the peaceful protest; the rest, bystanders. Until Ms Fuldheim made her stunning declaration, most of middle-class America (the very people I served at Dunkin’ Donuts 6 days a week) had cheered for the actions of the guards.
We were their children and they murdered us, with glee. This couldn’t happen in America…
© Copyright 2015 Linda L Labin, PhD