KENT, Ohio — The campus in the center of town where my husband taught, where our children earned degrees, where our family attended countless concerts, plays and sporting events, is eerily quiet now, its well-tended spring lawns a verdant contrast to the 23,000 students who vanished in March.
The COVID-induced silence, echoed in the “Closed For Now” signs on restaurants, bars and shops throughout our little college town, is especially pronounced this first week of May.
This is the week when 3,600 seniors — including the youngest of my three — would be gearing up to promenade through the transformed basketball arena to the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.”
This is also the week when we would have commemorated an event notorious beyond our borders — the Kent State shootings of May 4, 1970, when four students were killed and nine were wounded by National Guard rifle fire after several days of escalated anti-war protests.
The protests, punctuated by chants and taunts, occasional violence with rocks being thrown, the ROTC building being set ablaze and the governor calling in the National Guard armed with M-1 military rifles, had begun several days before, after President Richard M. Nixon announced he had authorized U.S. troops to invade neutral Cambodia.
An event that not only brought lasting name recognition to Kent, but also, as journalist Howard Means writes, “the end of American innocence,” the Kent State shootings have been studied, written about, cited, dissected, vilified, glorified, taken to court and formally regretted — yet never fully understood.
The question that plagued the event and still does for many historians: Did the Guardsmen fire those 67 rounds in self-defense, and therefore the shootings were justified? Or were the Guardsmen not in immediate danger, and therefore the shootings were unjustified? A special, Nixon-appointed commission on campus unrest ultimately denounced the shootings, saying “The indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.” A grainy audio recording that depicts the Guardsmen being given a full command to fire was unearthed. But a criminal case was dismissed for lack of evidence. A civil case resulted in an out-of-court settlement; the state of Ohio paying families $675,000; and a statement of regret from the Guardsmen that the families say admitted wrongdoing, but that some historians say didn’t go far enough.
One clear glimmer lies in the relentless, decades-long determination of students, families, professors and ultimately administrators, that the events of May 4 would not be forgotten.
The Kent State shootings are remembered every day on campus with a physical memorial, a museum, a narrated tour, and each year, with ceremony, with speeches and music, a candlelight walk and vigil and the ringing of the Victory Bell where the shootings took place.
This year’s 50th anniversary was to be especially memorable: Organizers had spent nearly three years building a long weekend of panels, films, exhibits, speeches by family, victims, activists and the celebrity appearances of Joe Walsh, David Crosby and Jane Fonda.
Instead, the campus the weekend of May 4, 2020 and in the days following, was striking in the long shadows of its COVID silence, like the stunned hush after the 13 seconds of gunfire when witnesses say all sound stopped, like the four months that followed, the only other time pre-COVID in the university’s 110-year history when its halls were shut for an extended period.
COVID notwithstanding, plans for the commemoration went on, only smaller, virtually, with a video presentation at noon May 4, a virtual candle-lighting and online access to countless voices, exhibits, and speeches, and including the excellent “May 4 voices.” There’s an app now, “May 4th Augmented Reality Experience App” that allows a virtual reality of events via phone.
A few days after the commemoration, plans were for the spring graduation of 2020 to also be virtual; instead of my son walking the walk, his black robe flapping behind him as his family waves wildly from the bleachers above his mortared head, Benjie would sit at home quietly with his brother and me, listening to official speeches and then his name being called on a laptop.
“You can’t see what your future is right now,’” I think to tell my son in a moment of clarity. “But you will have one. You will have a future.”
I say these words to my son as we move to his graduation Mother’s Day weekend, even as my thoughts keep returning to the young people who didn’t get their futures or a dose of elder wisdom upon graduation, the ones on Kent State’s Blanket Hill at 12:24 p.m. that day, railing with childlike vigor against something they didn’t believe the adults in charge were getting right.
Not only war. Not only the killing of innocents at My Lai and Cambodia. But the draft that had been instituted five months before that was bringing home their friends in body bags. The average age of the average American soldier in Vietnam was 19, the same age as two of the students killed. The other two were 20. In all, 58,175 Americans soldiers died in Vietnam, a number represented in Kent by flowers; some 20 years after the shootings, 58,175 daffodils were planted near the spot where they took place. They are blooming now in the late-arriving Ohio spring.
On the eve of May 4 this year, at a virtual church service in Kent, I was privileged to hear the words of The Rev. Barbara Child, an English professor at Kent at the time of the shootings, now a retired Unitarian-Universalist minister in Indiana. While others continue to debate who should have not done what that dismal day, The Rev. Child says the message of Kent State for her is clear.
“At Kent State University, in the midst of the American war in Vietnam, the fathers had no compunction about cutting down the children.”
I think of the voices of those young people on the hill and what they might like to say to us now about what they were trying to say then: “Value all life. Consider the innocents. Protect us. Hear us.”
I’d like to think I’m listening, not just this week, but every time I look up the hill that sits across the street from my neighborhood, every time I pass the markers in the parking lot near where the students were shot, the same area my son rode his bike through on his way to the library just a few weeks ago pre-COVID.
I’d like to think I can hear them especially now this week, not just in the gripping remembrances, not just in the ringing of the bell or the remembered words of Neil Young, “We’re finally on our own. This summer I hear the drumming. Four dead in Ohio.”
But, ironically, in this unyielding quiet.
(Debra-Lynn B. Hook of Kent, Ohio, has been writing about family life since 1988. Visit her website at www.debralynnhook.com; email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or join her column’s Facebook discussion group at Debra-Lynn Hook: Bringing Up Mommy
©2020 Debra-Lynn B. Hook
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