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May 4, 1970

May 6, 2017

Every year as May 4th approaches, I  remember my freshman year at Kent and the eventful days of that first weekend in May. My brother was in jail in Ravenna, serving time for civil disobedience on campus and off the year before. The Vietnam War had escalated into Cambodia, and it was spring, so many of us were out on campus protesting the war. All weekend people had been protesting, and the Governor had called in the National Guard, but mostly they just stood around and cute girls put flowers in their rifles and encouraged them to make love, not war.

That May 4th Monday morning, I had Geography at noon, not one of my favorite classes, and there was a protest by the Taylor building, which was on my way, so I went to the protest.

The Taylor building is at the top of a hill, and the valley in front of it is a natural rallying spot. There were temporary buildings there just beyond the foot of the hill, where ROTC classes were held, and the Guard were gathered there. People were all around the edges of the hill, and some protesters took their T shirts off so they could pick up the tear gas containers and toss them back at the Guard who had fired them at us. Between that and the natural flow of air, the tear gas was having no effect.

Protesters were shouting that the Guard should go home, that we should get out of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. The Guard fixed their bayonets and proceeded to march through the protesters and up around the Taylor building. The protesters just moved aside for them, and came back to the center of the hill after the Guard marched around the top of the Taylor building and out of sight. It was a lovely day and more and more people kept joining the protest, or at least looking on.

Quite a few people went up this side of the Taylor building to see what was going on. After a bit we heard what sounded like capguns. Soon people came back from the top of the hill and everyone was shouting. Noone seemed to know what was going on, I thought, ‘it couldn’t be real ammo, maybe they shot blanks.’ My brother’s roommate, whom I had met the year before, came from over the hill in my direction – I got his attention and asked him what was going on. There were 2 or 3 ambulances at the foot of the hill, and they were starting their engines and working their way up the hill to the other side of Taylor. He said, ‘each of those ambulances can hold 8 people. They won’t be enough!’ I said, ‘They used real bullets?” I couldn’t believe it. The only thing the protesters were throwing was the tear gas that had been fired at us!

People continued to gather, but when the Guard marched back down the hill, the crowd stayed to the side for a lot longer. At some point my psychology prof, who had his gym shoes in his hand, went up to the guard and spoke to the superior. Then he spoke to us: ‘I felt I could talk to them because I wasn’t unarmed, I had my shoes in my hand. I asked if we could sit and nonviolently protest, and he said yes, so please sit down.’ We all sat, then he asked for volunteers to go get some sandwiches from one of the nearby dorms, as we had missed our lunch and weren’t thinking too clearly right now. I volunteered, as did a couple others, among whom was the 16 year old runaway whose picture won a Pulitzer Prize. I didn’t catch her name, and when the trays were ready, she was nowhere to be seen. I guess she took that opportunity to go back home. When we got back to the hill, where we had all been sitting 15 minutes earlier, the center of the hill was empty and the Guard were lined up around the perimeter. My jacket and books were on the ground where I had been sitting, surrounded by empty space. I didn’t think I could just go get them, so I ate a sandwich and then went back to my dorm. Helicopters were buzzing the campus and started announcing that everyone should stay indoors.

I went to my room and everyone was listening to the radio, which was announcing that someone had fired on the Guard. I said, ‘That isn’t true, they shot at the protesters.’ One of the girls shushed me, saying another of the girls on the floor had a brother in the Guard. I shouted, ‘They shot at us! No Guard were killed, we were!’ They continued to shush me and I shouted, “I was there! We didn’t fire on them, they shot at us!’ I ran out of the building, but the helicopters were buzzing overhead and there was nowhere to go. Then they announced they were closing the campus and were bussing people who lived nearby to Cleveland. so I ran to my room, packed a bag, and went to where they were loading the busses.

The highway to Cleveland runs right past the exit to my house, so I asked the bus driver if he could drop me off at the gas station, where I could call my father. Several other girls lived nearby as well and asked if my father would drop them off, and I agreed for him.

Pay phones still worked in those days, so I called Papa and he came out for us. Later, he told me he and Mama had just gotten back from trying to come pick me up, as he had an old press pass and thought they might let him in on the strength of it but when they got off the freeway at route 43, the cars were backed up the entire way to Kent (about 6 miles), and the radio announced they were bussing the nearby students to Cleveland, so he turned around and came home. As they came in the door, the phone rang and it was me asking him to come pick me and the other kids up. They weren’t releasing the names of those shot yet.

One of the other girls lived in Northfield, so Papa asked her for directions. She kept saying, ‘Oh, you should have turned there’ after we had passed her turn, but we eventually found our way to her door. After we had delivered all the girls to their homes and were on our way to ours, Papa said, “If you ever give directions like that . . ” I got the impression I would be disowned!

We never did our finals that semester. Some classes graded us on what we had done so far, some sent for a final essay, some just gave us a pass. My psychology professor gave me a C based on what I had done so far that year. I tried to convince him that I had learned a great deal about psychology that couldn’t be gotten from books that weekend, but he was unimpressed.

Papa didn’t want me to go back to Kent the following year, because he thought it would be very strict, with curfews and forbidding protest in the future. I loved that that was his reasoning, not fear for my safety – which was probably in there, too, but he knew that wouldn’t work. I continued at school, started auditioning and discovered the theatre folk, meeting people who are lifelong friends, some of whom had been on the other side of Taylor and shared their stories on a later May 4th, but that is it for now.

4 dead in Ohio. When I was waitressing that summer at Manner’s Big Boy, some of the counter customers thought they should have shot more kids. I couldn’t wait on them. My boss cut me some slack. They were probably the same ones who put ketchup on scrambled eggs. Be seeing you.

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2 Comments
  1. Wow! I didn’t know you were at KS when that happened. Thank you for sharing. It was insightful . The people who thought they should have shot more kids reminds me of the many voices I have heard recently at just about any protest where people are hurt or killed by authorities, the same types of voices who think they should have gotten more of them. Disgusting. Patriotism is not only displayed on battlefields it can be paraded in the streets and on college campuses when our government is taking us down the wrong path or even breaking the law. God I love the first amendment, I just wish more Americans understood it.

    • Thank you for your comment! Too true, we need more knowledge in ourselves and more action.

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