The slaughter at Kent State University on May 4, 1970 planted some worry in me at the time. I had just turned seven. My father was teaching at a college in Ohio. The massacre happened at a college in Ohio. (Kent was/is a large public university, Marietta College was/is a small liberal arts college, but I couldn’t make the distinction when I was that young.) I was afraid that soldiers were going to march onto the Marietta College campus and kill students and maybe even faculty. Several of my dad’s students had been my babysitters, several had been dinner guests, and I had met many more in his office. So, in my child’s mind, I made the leap… it would happen at Marietta.
Although Marietta’s campus would never be as chaotic as other campuses during the Vietnam War years, my fears about trouble were not without foundation. An arsonist had burned down the old bookstore the year before, and I associated it with what had happened at Kent. (The arson, as it turned out, had nothing to do with Vietnam protests. It was peripherally an event protesting the expulsion of student body president Earle Maiman for “inflammatory remarks.”)
The following year, Reader’s Digest published excerpts from James A. Michener’s upcoming account of the tragedy, Kent State: What Happened and Why. I remember sitting on our back porch paging through that issue, and coming upon the iconic black-and-white photo of teenage runaway Mary Ann Vecchio weeping over the body of Jeffrey Miller. The picture troubled my sleep for many nights to come.
In high school, the subject fascinated me, much the way the Lincoln assassination had in the past (and continues to). I read every book I could find on the subject, and even began a novel loosely based on the event. (The novel, which sputtered and died after filling 1.5 typing paper cartons, was also an homage to Jim Bishop’s The Day Lincoln Was Shot, with each chapter representing one hour. Each of my chapters ran to about 40 double-spaced typed pages.) In my junior year of high school, I met Dean Kahler, the only one of nine survivors left permanently disabled from the shooting (paralyzed from the chest down) in a classroom at Marietta High School.
I was in Kent for the tenth anniversary of the shooting, and I caused many eyes to roll when they saw me carrying a hardcover of Michener’s book. At the time, I didn’t realize how inaccurate it was in many places, and how careless Michener had been with note-taking and cataloging of interviews. My main purpose, in those pre-GPS and -MapQuest days, in having his book with me was to use the street maps on the end papers to find my way around.
The weekend brought out the best and the worst. I remember standing a silent vigil with a young woman at the site where William Schroeder had received his fatal injuries, both of us silently holding candles. Many people milled by, some stopped by for a second, and I remember one young man standing in front of us, head bowed, for several moments. He then silently made the sign of the cross and left. I was standing in the predawn wind in a T-shirt, and one person saw I was shivering a little. He reached into his knapsack, brought out a plaid work shirt, and tossed it my way. “Have it,” he said, leaving before I could thank him.
That weekend was also my first experience with the now-defunct Spartacus Youth League, the youth organization of the Spartacist League, a Trotskyite organization that made up in decibels and ubiquitousness what it lacked in influence. When I saw they were handing out flyers that said, “Support the Soviet Army in Afghanistan!”, I knew they were an organization I would avoid at all costs.
Dean Kahler would become a friend during my years in Athens. He was active in the Democratic Party, so I saw a lot of him in the spring of 1982, while I participated in a campaign to nominate a Democratic candidate for the 10th Congressional District of Ohio. (The candidate was unsuccessful.) I was constantly travelling, usually by thumb, back and forth from Marietta to Athens and back for campaign meetings and events. I would see him on a brief visit to Athens in 1983, during the time I lived in Boston. I stopped off in Ohio while coming back to New England from California by bus, ran into him on Court Street, and we drank beer in one of the many bars for quite some time.
Leaving Boston for Athens in 1984, ostensibly to pursue academic excellence, I handed out leaflets and signed up voters when Dean ran (successfully) for Athens County Commissioner. The Friday before the Democratic primary, the two of us met so we could hand out literature. Beforehand, he treated me to doughnuts and milk at Carol Lee’s, the all-night bakery on Court Street. Across the small table from me, he browsed through the O.U. student newspaper, The Post, and chuckled. The front-page picture of him was a dreadful one. It looked like the photographer had caught him in mid-sneeze or -yawn. “And look at the date!” he said, pointing to the masthead. It was May 4.
I kicked myself for not bringing my digital camera downtown. In front of the State Office Tower is a statue of James Rhodes, and on previous May 4ths, I have seen four red roses placed at the base of this statue.
It would be too easy to mark the occasion with the picture of Mary Ann Vecchio and the body of Jeffrey Miller. Therefore, I will display this Life magazine cover.