I wanted to enter a memoir writing contest and when I sat down to think of what I had experienced that was memorable, this is what came to me.
I hope you enjoy reading a different perspective on those four days in May.
What I remember most of those tragic days in May of 1970 is the fear. The palpable fear I sensed encompassing the guardians of my world. When you are a child, nothing is more unsettling than to know your parents, and every other grown-up you know, are afraid.
Much has been written as to the events, the causes and effects of those few days in May of 1970. Dates, facts, logistics - information accepted and information disputed. What I have are an eight-year-old’s memories. A perception that differs greatly from anything I’ve read or been taught about those days.
It was a time of frightening insecurity. What happened on the Commons of Kent State University didn’t just affect those on campus; it affected those who lived in the communities as well.
I grew up in the city just west of Kent, the Akron suburb of Stow, Ohio. The church I’d attended since I was born was in Kent. Many of the people we knew lived or worked there. It was part of my home. A man in our church was in the National Guard. A woman was a good friend of the Kent Police Chief’s daughter and had lived with them.
I suppose the fear went much farther back than what happened those few days in May. I was three when JFK was assassinated, six when Bobby died. Television news covered their deaths, funerals, the riots in Chicago and every evening the six o’clock news exposed us to scenes of war. The Vietnam War played out right before our eyes. I can remember coming in from playing Red Rover or Hide and Seek and being jolted into another realm of reality by the war on TV. Not the GI Joe kind some kids played but of real soldiers creeping through jungles firing real guns. Did we see men being shot, being killed? It seemed in my mind we did. Or perhaps I looked away because I was afraid of what I might see. War on the six o’clock news. The prelude or postlude to dinner.
But focusing on those days of early May 1970, as I remember, it began on the Friday before the shootings. I was in the second grade at Echo Hills Elementary School. Thirty some of us seated in our little desks, probably getting our first introduction to multiplication and wondering if lunch would be as good as the freshly baked peanut butter cookies smelled. Hoping the lunch ladies would take them out of the oven now when they smelled just right and not allow the bottoms to get blackened as too often happened. We were probably planning to snag the best long chained swing at recess or scheming how we could give more teeth-rattling cherry bumps on the teeter-totter than we got and how we’d be the first to jump off so the other guy was sent back to earth with a bone-jarring crash. Thirty something young children sitting facing the chrome edged blackboard with a green and white perfectly penned cursive alphabet tacked above. The memories of school are pure, untouched by the horrors of war, protests and killing. Green lined paper, fat learner pencils, the smell of Elmer’s glue and construction paper. That was my world.
In Kent demonstrations were being held on the Commons. The whispers that must have percolated through the school didn’t reach my little ears, so it came as a shock when the announcement was made. School was ending early for the day and we were all to go home. Directly home. No emergency action plan existed in those days. The response to inclement weather or fear of rioting was to fling open the doors and set us loose.
It wasn’t until I arrived home that the fragments of conversations reached my ears. Kent State’s airport is in Stow. Officials were worried the rioting might spread to the airport. Over the next two days, snippets filtered down to me. The coworker and friend of my father who had a heart attack on Friday night and couldn’t get to the hospital because the police had barricaded the area in response to the rioting and looting. The indignation of my mother and her friends against the protesters who had descended upon not only the campus, but were terrorizing the community as well.
Did we go to church that Sunday? I would have thought not but my mother said we did. A State of Emergency existed. The police couldn’t maintain order and the National Guard had been brought in. The ROTC building had been burned, there had been rioting in the streets, fires set, businesses looted, graffiti sprayed everywhere and rumors were circulating that revolutionaries planned to destroy the campus and the city. And yet we still went to church. As helicopters flew overhead, the wisdom of that decision was questioned, but Sunday was Sunday and church was church. With the whole world falling apart around us, we still went to church.
Did we go to school that tragic Monday? I have to think not. I cannot remember. I am not even certain if we were sent home on Friday or if we went to school on Monday and were sent home then.
I have no memories or recollections of hearing the news of the students killed. What I remember are the events being discussed in the aftermath.
Others who attended school after me learned of the tragic deaths of the four students and the wounding of nine. Always, it seemed painting the National Guardsmen as criminal toters of guns entering a peaceful daisy strewn field of gentle protesters to shoot down the innocent in cold blood.
The stories I heard were different. I heard of how the Police Chief of Kent had to spirit away his family Friday night because they were under threat of death. I heard of the destruction of property, the fires, the looting. And I knew the fear. By the fourth day, nothing was peaceful or innocent about the protests any longer. I heard stories of what the protesters did to the National Guardsmen. The taunts, the throwing of rocks, the dumping of buckets of urine on their heads. It became quite easy for me to imagine how things got so tragically out of hand.
My remembrances of those four days in May are of out-of-town instigators who descended upon our quiet college town, inciting a riot that terrorized our communities and resulted in the deaths of four students and the wounding of nine.
I never heard a local blame the kids in the National Guard for the tragedy that happened that day in May. How universal that perception is, I cannot say. But, for us it was all too close to home. It was personal. Those were our friends, churches, schools, homes, and businesses in danger. We were uncertain of our very lives. We had known the fear.
How much the events of those four days in May shaped my young psyche I’ll never know. But not even the youngest of us came away from them unscathed.
Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it is like inside somebody else's skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.
- Frederick Buechner
If society prospers at the expense of the intangibles,
how can it be called progress?