No escaping Kent State

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The best thing I can say about my final day of college 50 years ago Monday is the weather was great — and I didn’t get shot. Tragically, 13 other Kent State University students did.

Four students — two 19-year-olds, two 20-year-olds — were killed, and nine others were injured not far from where I stood at 12:24 p.m. on May 4, 1970, fearing for my 21-year-old life, as I stared at M1 rifles with bayonets pointed in my direction, tear gas filling the air, as American soldiers opened fire into a crowd of unarmed American young people at a rally protesting the Vietnam War and presence of armed troops on campus.

Tomorrow will be the 50th anniversary of the May 4 massacre, which also took place on a Monday. Public events to commemorate the anniversary were cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, although I long ago decided not to attend. I will be in the same place I have been most every May 4 for the last half century — anywhere but Kent, Ohio. In my head, unfortunately, I never can get completely away from what I experienced on that day. Sights, sounds and sensations from my front row seat, as my campus was being turned into killing fields during my final days as a student are seared into my memory, like snapshots and video from hell.

Events leading up to the shootings began four days earlier when President Richard Nixon revealed the U.S. had expanded the Vietnam War into neighboring Cambodia. The escalation of an unpopular, divisive war that Nixon had been misleading the public about ending led to a demonstration the next day, Friday, May 1, on the Kent State Commons, a large grassy expanse near the front of campus.

That night, a combination of politics, spring fever and alcohol mixed in Kent’s bar district. I stood outside of a bar and watched a group of bikers circling a bonfire in the street, followed by the sound of a storefront window across the street shattering. Soon after, I looked up the road and saw rows of police in riot gear marching in my direction. I beat it, escaped to some friends’ porch a few blocks away and was shocked and saddened as I watched billy club-wielding police chasing young people across lawns.

Kent Mayor LeRoy Satrom asked Ohio Gov. James Rhodes to send in reinforcements and the next night, Saturday, May 2, the National Guard pulled into town as the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps building, a rundown old wooden barracks, was burning near the commons.

The National Guard’s presence and Gov. Rhodes’ arrival in Kent the next day, Sunday, May 3, were pivotal in leading to the May 4 bloodshed. The villain, in my eyes, has always been Rhodes, who many believe was blinded by his thirst for greater political power — a seat in the U.S. Senate. Rhodes was involved in a tight race in the Republican Senate primary scheduled for Tuesday. May 5, against Robert Taft Jr., a member of Ohio political royalty. Taft’s grandfather, William Howard Taft, was U.S. president and U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, and his father, Robert Taft Sr., was a powerful U.S. senator who tried several times to win the GOP presidential nomination.

By bringing in the troops on the eve of the Senate primary, Rhodes, to me and others, was using Kent State as a pawn for votes. The governor fanned the flames by going full-blown demagogue at a press conference at the Kent firehouse the day before the shootings, calling some protesters revolutionaries intent on destroying higher education in Ohio. “These people just move from one campus to the other and terrorize the community,” Rhodes bellowed. “They’re worse than the (Nazi) brownshirts and the Communist element and also the night riders and the vigilantes. They’re the worst type of people that we harbor in America.”

May 3 was a surreal, sunny spring day, as rifle-toting soldiers and armored personnel carriers occupied campus. At night, a helicopter’s blinding searchlight filled my apartment. I felt both fear and anger and — because mass communication on a large college campus was difficult in the pre-Internet days — there was a lot of confusion. I planned on going to the rally the following day to hear speakers possibly lend some clarity; plus, I felt it was important to provide another body in opposition to the military takeover of campus.

I joined a crowd — estimates range from 1,500 to 3,000 — scattered around the commons at the noon rally Monday, May 4. I watched as the National Guard went into attack mode as soon as the first protestor attempted to speak and fired tear gas into the crowd on the hill overlooking the commons. I stood not far away, blocked by a phalanx of soldiers pointing rifles in my direction. Some students picked up tear gas canisters and threw them back toward the Guard. Some threw rocks.

I watched as Guardsmen forced students up the hill, where more than two dozen soldiers suddenly and — supposedly without orders or cause — pulled the triggers on their M1 rifles, firing 67 bullets at a crowd of unarmed college students. 

The attack lasted 13 seconds and ended with 13 victims, including four who were killed: 20-year-old Jeffrey Miller, 19-year-old Allison Krause, 20-year-old Sandra Scheuer and 19-year-old William Schroeder.

Miller, who was shot in the mouth, was the closest to the guard, 270 feet, nearly a football field away. A college newspaper colleague, John Filo, captured the iconic photo of a 14-year-old Florida girl, Mary Ann Vecchio, crying out, as she knelt in a stream of blood flowing from Miller’s lifeless body.

Chaos, shock and fear took hold immediately. Authorities shut down the campus, and I fled home to Rochester, N.Y. The day after the shootings, May 5, Rhodes lost the Senate primary. 

I finished schoolwork by mail, and — on June 13 — my parents and I drove to Ohio for graduation. Two days later, I started my newspaper career as a sportswriter in Akron, 15 miles from Kent.

I already was in the early stage of what I was to learn years later was PTSD, and things quickly got worse. At the end of my first week at the Akron Beacon Journal, my pregnant 26-year-old sister, Bonnie, underwent emergency surgery to remove part of a brain tumor that killed her 2 1/2 years later. Later that summer, my doctor found a malignant growth on my thyroid. I underwent surgery in December, which at least got me a medical deferment and got the Army off my back.

In the meantime, a presidential commission determined the Kent State shootings were unjustified.

It’s frustrating that I never had the “luxury” to deal with my Kent State trauma on its own. My May 4,1970, nightmare and my only sibling’s terminal brain cancer being discovered mere weeks apart are forever linked as one big, bad inseparable demon that has taken me to some dark, dangerous places. Time, therapy and a lot of hard work have helped me heal and cope and live a rich life.

I stayed in Ohio for six years after the shootings and left for a newspaper job in Virginia before heading home to Rochester in 1979.

I have been back to Kent State maybe half a dozen times in the last 40 years, the last time six years ago with a friend. I gave her the grand tour: where I stood during the shootings, the metal sculpture with a bullet hole in it. We walked through the May 4 Visitors Center in the old school newspaper office, where I spent far more time than in any classroom. I was surprised to see a 1969 photo of me and some college buddies in the May 4 exhibit. My friend and I watched a short video about the shootings, and — when I heard the gunshots — I started trembling and sobbing heavily, like I had so many, many times before.

As we walked away from the May 4 center and over the commons to my car, I felt a sense of relief, another significant step in the long healing process. I realized this likely was the last time I’d ever be back to Kent State, and that was fine.

I’m tired of thinking about my final moments there, tired of talking about it, flat-out fried on the topic. There’s nothing left there for me to see. Except in my mind. I can handle my May 4, 1970, bogeyman now. I realize we’re together, for better or worse, till death do us part.

Richard Zitrin, a 1970 graduate of Kent State University, is a freelance writer who has worked for newspapers in Rochester, N.Y., Akron, Ohio, Norfolk, Va., and Canandaigua, N.Y., the now-defunct award-winning crime news site APBnews and numerous magazines and digital news sites. Follow him on Twitter @RZitrin

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