SHOT SHOWN ROUND THE WORLD: John Filo's photo of Mary Vecchio responding to the death of student Jeffrey Miller immortalized the Kent State shootings and won Filo a Pulitzer.
On the 40th anniversary of Kent State, a Santa Cruz writer who was there looks back on the military action that stunned the nation
By Lois Van Buren
"Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him. It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person, "the world today" or "life" or "reality," he will assume that you meant this moment, even if it is 50 years past."
John Knowles, 'A Separate Peace'
A STRIKING feature of the natural world in Kent, Ohio, is its black squirrels. Each fall, new students arriving at Kent State University notice these uniquely colored little creatures within a day or two, and inquiries soon follow. They're told that a dozen or so black squirrels were conscripted from Canada by a university groundskeeper in 1961. His reason for recruiting these rodents eludes the inquisitive, since no one seems to know. What is known for sure is that these lovable little varmints have proliferated to the point of being ubiquitous, so much so that in 1981 an annual Black Squirrel Festival was established as part of Kent State's welcoming festivities for new students. That was long after my time at Kent State. I was a new student at that Midwestern campus in the fall of 1969, and like everyone else I took note of the black squirrels.
Except for one prescient night, most of that year went merrily by, a superbly orchestrated postponement of responsibility. That one night, Dec. 1, a single serious moment peeking around the corner of all those untroubled hours of university life, was the night the draft lottery was held. I remember it clearly. All the girls in the dorm huddled around a radio in the lobby to listen for our boyfriends' birth dates to be called. Other than that, we displayed with casual panache the blissful ignorance expected of college freshmen by taking pleasure not only in the natural world but in the social and academic worlds as well, all three fusing to make our one utopia. Then, a few months later, I met up with my particular moment in history.
It was the evening of April 30, 1970, a Thursday. In the middle of a film festival that had been going on all week, someone from the projection room interrupted with the announcement, "We've just learned that Nixon has sent troops into Cambodia." The atmosphere of the auditorium had been quite the party, so the seriousness with which the statement was made didn't register. We'd been acting like kids, throwing popcorn and paper airplanes, applauding, hissing and booing, and shouting out comments. The film we were watching, Bambi Meets Godzilla, had sent our already high spirits over the top.
But when the projector was turned off and the statement was repeated, my feelings changed from playful to shocked and hurt. I didn't know it yet, but that announcement would fix the moment in my personal history, much like the announcement of President Kennedy's assassination had fixed the moment in many people's personal histories seven years before, when I was 13. Following that incident, I had seen stunned teachers and crying girls in the hall, but felt nothing. Here, at 19, I did have feelings for my country, my homeland. Something like Nixon going into Cambodia, a decision of such magnitude, went straight to the heart.
The next morning I walked over to The Hub, a popular meeting place on campus, to hear the latest news of the war. I ran into a young woman professor. "What are we going to do?" I said. "Here. You can start with these," she replied, handing me a stack of flyers. They were a declaration by some of the professors who opposed entering Cambodia. Included was an announcement that they were going to bury the U.S. Constitution on the commons, near the Victory Bell, at noon that day, Friday. As I walked away, already distributing the leaflets, she called after me, "You know, something else you can do is play your music loud. Jefferson Airplane. Loud." This I did. At noon I went over to the commons. There was a speech or two, crowds of people, and that was that.
I met up with friends in a third-floor apartment near town, in one of those big old houses that get split up into rooms for students. We were well into our usual Friday night revelries when a fellow stumbled breathlessly up the stairs shouting, "The revolution's started! The revolution's started!" Excited, we went down, all in a bunch, to see what was going on.
A large group of students had gone into the town of Kent to stir the pot of anti-war sentiment, it seemed. There was a lot of running and yelling, and the police were out. For me, going into the streets, observing the crowd, rekindled my desire to do something about the war, but I had no bones to pick with the shopkeepers of Kent so I went home and went to bed.
Very early Saturday morning, some friends who'd stayed up all night shook me awake with the words, "You've got to see this." As we walked across campus, we saw a soldier running with a cup of coffee. We followed a short distance behind, like spies in a juicy novel. When he mounted a small hill, we hid down low behind it. Then we crawled over the rise and saw what looked like an encampment. We couldn't believe our eyes. That was the first evidence of a military presence. To my knowledge there hadn't been any outright rioting, but some windows had been broken and the fear of what might happen had obviously prompted a call for backup. Maybe the revolution is starting, I thought.
On Saturday afternoon, the campus was in a state of nervous anticipation—of what, no one was sure. Rumors circulated that there was going to be another gathering that evening. Rumor became reality. As we stood on the commons, waiting for something to happen, someone near me, looking over at the ROTC building, got the idea to burn it down. That sounded like fun. There was a motorcycle parked nearby, and a couple of us thought, "Gee, you know, we could siphon some gas out of the tank and splatter it all over the building." There was a dumpster next to the ROTC building. Someone else thought we could get the trash in it going with a rag soaked in gasoline from the motorcycle, and then push it into the building to see if that would do the job. I had not been what you'd call a radicalized student, but in less than 24 hours I was swept up in the political current, concocting the burning of buildings.
While we were thinking, others were acting, and the fire department was called out. The crowd tried hard to cut the fire hose they had placed on the field next to the ROTC building. It was pretty tough stuff, but we pulled off some slashes. There was a photographer present. By the look of his camera, he was a professional. He was trying to take pictures of what we were doing when some of the students struggled with him for the camera, got him to the ground, and took it. An older woman saw this and cried out, "Let's keep it calm. Please, let's keep it calm." I was moved by the pain in her face. I had never experienced such violence before, but it seemed maybe she had.
A line of people, the length of the field, held onto the fire hose, trying to keep it from the firefighters as we continued trying to cut it. It was heavy and we were clumsy, so our efforts were ineffectual. The crowd, by now a mob, decided to march downtown, and by "decided" I mean that they followed whoever had the loudest voice and the most aggressive manner. A fellow I knew, who had literally starved himself to get out of the draft, was leading the crowd downtown, creating a path of destruction as he went. Some looted parking meters. Others threatened cars that were in the wrong place at the wrong time. One, with a family inside, was close enough for me to catch the mom's eye. She hurriedly locked her door and had her children do the same. The fear on her face startled me.
That night I returned to campus and saw that the ROTC building was now in full blaze. Somehow, somebody had had success in the effort. For several hours, everyone there stared, mesmerized by the fire. When it was nothing more than a pile of burnt rubble, we were herded back to the dorms. A group of us got caught in The Pit, the central area of one of the dorm complexes. Jammed together and fearful of more of the tear gas that had been directed our way that afternoon, we could have succumbed to paranoia. Instead, guitars and drums appeared and we partied. All night long helicopters flew by. They were loud, and their searchlights in the dorm windows kept us awake. We thought we were under siege, but it seemed more like a siege in a toy war. Cowboys and Indians—this is how we spoke of it.
Sunday morning a convoy of trucks and army tanks—tanks!—moved slowly down the main street of Kent. Now we were calling it the Boy Scout Jamboree, but it was nothing of the sort. It was the National Guard, our citizen soldiers, the ones we call to action during national emergencies. But we were just America's kids. How could this be a national emergency? In fact, while we waited outside of Kent Hall to hear the outcome of the negotiations taking place that afternoon, some of us girls flirted with the Guardsmen. They were from Akron, only 10 miles from Kent. One of them was cute. As I put flowers in the muzzle of his rifle, I looked into his eyes and realized that he was as young as I.
In the evening, a group of us conducted a sit-in at an intersection near the entrance to campus. For what seemed like hours, we waited for an official who, we had been told, would come and talk to us. Then I noticed Guardsmen at the back edges of the crowd, quietly surrounding us. Others noticed it, too. Mayhem again. We'd run so much over the weekend that the feeling of being chased became a feeling of being hunted. At one point, we'd actually stampeded a Cyclone fence down because it blocked the only way out. Unarmed, the thought of fighting never arose.
A rally had been scheduled for Monday, and despite an injunction, it took place. I don't know what we expected to come out of it or how we were planning to resolve the situation. I went down to the commons when all of a sudden we were running again, presumably just ahead of the next barrage of gas vapors. But then I heard pinging and something whoosh by my head. I looked to my left and saw a car window shatter. I looked to my right and saw a student fall. I heard someone yell, "They're shooting! Get down!" I felt something hit my leg. I dove under a bush.
Panic was in the air. Though everyone was crying and calling out to their friends, a strange silence had settled on the whole area. It was then that I wanted to shoot whoever was behind me because that's where the National Guard was, where Nixon was, where my country was, and I hated them. I wanted to kill and I knew I could. If I'd had a gun in my hand, I would have been shooting blindly, I'm certain of it, and that moment stands by itself, separate from all else. Turning, I stared in the direction of the onslaught, but the only thing I could see was the movie screen of my mind. On it was footage of me in third or fourth grade, standing with all of my classmates, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. But now, suddenly, I had been stripped of everything, of all those beliefs that had protected me.
I watched one of the four die. Some people were stooping over her. A guy wiped out her mouth, flinging pink and white matter from his hand. Maybe she had vomited, or maybe it was flesh and guts, I wasn't sure. He tried to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. I watched, but it was not a person I was watching. It was a biological organism. It was a body straining hard to breathe, or maybe that was the futile breaths of her rescuer, I wasn't sure. He lifted his head and said, "She's gone." My first thought was that she'd fainted. Then I understood she was dead.
In a daze, I also watched as a friend of mine, Scott, was taken away on a stretcher. He had been shot in the neck.
Those of us left behind after the ambulances drove off tried to have some kind of civil discussion about what to do next, but it was no use. We disbanded. A bulletin went out over a loudspeaker telling everyone to leave. We were to take only as many belongings as we could carry and go home. No one wanted to get shot at again, so orders were peacefully followed. Cars were packed. My friend Wendy and I got a ride together. Once we got out of town, we hitchhiked the rest of the way to our parents' homes in New Jersey. That was it for the year at Kent. Campus closed. Exams were sent through the mail.
By 1998 I had become a respectable wife, mother, and small business owner. That year my son Austin and I took a road trip across the country, which included a visit to Kent so that I could see the May 4 Memorial and he could see the place so significant in his mom's life. It had been almost 30 years since I'd been there, and at first nothing looked the same. Then, as my mind adjusted, I began to recognize many of my old haunts. After a nostalgic lunch at Jerry's Diner, where I'd worked the graveyard shift, we drove up to campus.
I had been a part of what happened there, yet I felt a stranger to its memorial. Uncertain of the way, I led my son tentatively along the path leading to the plaza. There were granite tributes to the dead here in Ohio, and daffodils had been planted in remembrance of those lost in Vietnam, one for each of the fallen. The unyielding rock, the yellow blossoms that came to life each spring—these symbols, together here, linked the student and the soldier in the ideals of their youth.
I caught sight of some pamphlets and took one. It included a recounting of the weekend's events so similar to my own recollection that I felt I'd been consulted on its writing. Suddenly, studying the pamphlet's map of the site, I did not feel so alone in my pilgrimage. As I arrived at the spot where I stood when the shooting stopped, I looked at the map's 13 circled letters, A through M, denoting the locations where the nine wounded and four dead had fallen. How close I had been!
Now, at the 40-year mark, am I the only one who wonders if black squirrels romp among the 58,175 daffodils on a hill in Kent, Ohio? Can my memories be woven with others' into a cohesive story of innocence, rage, sorrow, and healing? Or are they a heart-shaped balloon, cut loose, drifting, lifting, floating higher and higher into the atmosphere? Someone sees it. She points. The day goes on.
Lois Van Buren, a resident of Santa Cruz County since 1977, is a first-time author. Read a longer version of this piece, an excerpt from her novel 'Distraction,' online at http://news.santacruz.com/.
Send a letter to the editor about this story.