I was supposed to be partaking of “senior assembly,” which was designed to keep us in our seats with our mouths shut, antsy as we all were, having already completed all our required testing and our required classroom hours with nothing real left to do but graduate the next day.
None of that boring shit for me. I sat in the shady grass, back against the brick wall of the high school gymnasium, outside and AWOL along with my companion Rex Myers, who marked the occasion by smoking a forbidden cigarette.
What were they going to do, withhold our diplomas? Nope. So we sat in the midst of a beautiful late spring day and watched the traffic go by, then listened to the gunfire.
It was 50 years ago: May 4, 1970, in Kent, Ohio.
Obscured by two buildings on the Kent State University campus across the street, we couldn’t see the teargas being fired into a crowd of students by Ohio National Guardsmen, and being tossed back at the amateur soldiers by protesters. We could hear the shouting, the chants from the crowd, but we couldn’t see the guardsmen’s inexperienced leader marching them up a hill to gain advantage on the student crowd that refused to disperse.
We couldn’t see the leader march his troops down the same hill on the other side, not realizing until the last minute that he was leading his men into a dead end marked by an 8-foot-high wire mesh fence. Now the students had climbed to the hilltop, and looked down and saw that the guardsmen were hemmed in. We couldn’t see them throwing rocks at the guard. And we couldn’t see the guard whirl around as they approached the fence, whirl around, bring their rifles down and take aim at the college kids.
But we heard the shots. I argued it was gunfire. Rex argued it was fireworks. “No fucking way they’d be using live ammunition,” I remember him saying.
But they did. They fired a volley of shots, some of which hit and killed four students and wounded others. I recall that one boy who died had just walked out of the main building at the School of Architecture on top of the hill, in order to get to another class.
We were 17 or 18, my friends and I. About to graduate high school, but then our big personal news was overshadowed by this historic shitstorm.
Why hadn’t they just called in the Ohio State Police, like they did every other time a bunch of Kent State students got out of hand? The state police were pros at this stuff by now. They’d borrow a couple of campus buses, using them to block either end of whatever street a student disturbance occurred in. The troopers would get out their finest billy clubs, line up across the roadway and walk the crowd backwards, then march them into the waiting bus.
But no, the mayor of Kent freaked out and called on dumbass Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes, who knew the very best thing to do would be to call in the National Guard.
Our concern after the shootings was that martial law had been declared. No one allowed outside after 6 p.m. Troops in chrome helmets carrying rifles marched through the city streets. And we had just discovered beer, and poker.
And so we would wait til the sun was almost down. In the dusk, we would snake our way to the house of whichever friend was having the poker game that night, then we’d snake our way back out of town after midnight, using our wily knowledge of the short-cuts and back ways in order to elude the troops.
By the summer of 1970, it seemed that those of my friends’ older brothers who weren’t busy trying to stay out of Vietnam had become drug dealers. It’s fair to say that, among people my age in that town, regard for the government and for laws in general was not high. Acts of rebellion were commonplace. So was alcohol and drug abuse.
When I look back on it, I could imagine that this episode at least contributed to some characteristics I might possess, which you could label rebelliousness, skepticism, cynicism. But I don’t know; that might’ve just been me regardless.
None of us had time to reflect upon what had happened back then, or contemplate where things would lead from here, or what it meant for the nation, or society, or politics. We were too busy living in this new moment. We improvised. We adapted. We were 17 and 18 years old, driving the back way to the poker game.