Reading Ohio

Completed: Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State

Cover - Thirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent StateThirteen Seconds: Confrontation at Kent State
Joe Eszterhas and Michael D Roberts
1970, U.S.

Later in his speech [chaplain John Simons] said, “It seems to me that one of the faults of the older generation is their tendency to duck crucial issues for all generations. The younger generation is naïve, life is not that simple, but the elders run from change by placing the responsibility for every rocky event on some Communist conspiracy. The older generation that wields power now has sold out to its fear of Communism. Perhaps the middle generation can gain the power and achieve the maturity which is not afraid of criticism or change. If we do not, life will go on as usual–there will be more Kents and Jacksons and Vietnams and Cambodias and with each new horror the solid middle America will become smaller and smaller until there is nothing left but two unspeaking and unspeakable extremes tearing the guts out of this great country. If you are part of those extremes, get lost. I hope that you see Kent as an avoidable tragedy, not something you secretly longed for. Four young lives were lost that day and for a while one of our four freedoms was lost. Those lives are irretrievable. That freedom of assembly is retrievable.” (Ch. 10)

I’ve lived nearly my entire life (excepting four months in Italy) in Northeast Ohio. I earned my architecture degrees from Kent State. Somehow, it seems I’ve known about May 4–which is how I always think of the Kent State Shootings (among other names), just those two words of a date–for as long as I can remember. We discussed it in my high school government class. Every day I was at university, I walked past the markers, memorializing the locations where four students died. So for me, the knowledge of May 4 has always been there. I don’t have any perspective on what those far away know, are taught, though. Are high school students, studying Vietnam and the anti-war protests given more than a sentence, that at an anti-war rally at Kent State, May 4, 1970, four students were killed and nine injured (one paralyzed from the waist down)? Is Jackson State ever mentioned? Has Kent mostly been relegated to forgotten history books? After all, the book I read on the topic is only available in e-format (unless, as I did, you find a library copy).

It was strange, in a way, to read this book. It is the first time I’ve ever read a real-life narrative where I haven’t had to look for a map or search for images of the events–I knew the map already. The central part of campus where the events of May 4 took place has changed little since 1970, outside of a controversial annex to the gymnasium building. The current (soon to be former) architecture building overlooks Blanket Hill, from which the National Guard fired. The only building I couldn’t picture was the ROTC building, burned to the ground on May 2. Even the first violence that happened in the lead-up to May 4, in downtown Kent–that scene too, I could visualize, for it happened on the street where I currently work. (Although there has been much more change to the architecture of this street.)

Thirteen Seconds was begun in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, as Eszterhas and Roberts  were sent by their then-employer, the Cleveland Plain Dealer to the campus to cover the events. They spent three months interviewing many who had been there as well as friends and relatives of the victims. It was published before the end of the year, which gives it an immediacy that a later book might not have, but also means that there isn’t a perspective of looking back after many years. Not that this might mean anything in this instance; the events of that day are still controversial–no one has ever determined conclusively why the National Guard opened fire on the students. A reel-to-reel recording of the events (made by a student in one of the adjacent dorms) was analyzed in 2010 by audio experts and in 2012 by the FBI, but differing conclusions were reached as to just what the recording revealed–perhaps nothing.

This uncertainty and the confusion are represented well in the ninth chapter of Thirteen Seconds, “Monday, May 4”–Eszterhas and Roberts report conflicting accounts and perspectives from students and guardsman. It was the single most gripping chapter of the book–even though I knew what the outcome was, that events went so terribly wrong, I didn’t want to put it down once I had started. From the inexplicable maneuverings of the Guard (one of the witnesses interviewed, a Vietnam vet, couldn’t understand why one group of guardsmen moved where they did, tactically) to the conflicting witness statements to the tense post-shooting moments when a pair of university professors talked the remaining protestors–now shocked and further angered–into dispersing, it was intense reading.

Ezterhas and Roberts never lay blame–they are reporting on events, and on the lives of those impacted. Yet reading over the background leading up to May 4, it felt inevitable to me that something would happen. Tensions were way too high: the town was frightened, the National Guard were exhausted, the students were furious over the presence of the Guard, and bayonets were already fixed and guns already loaded. But the split–the divide between the students and those who thought the Guard were in the right, that they should have killed more–that is what really surprised me, what I couldn’t understand*. I didn’t really know any more about who the Weatherman were than a name; I didn’t have a context for the extreme fear felt by the town after a street party turned looting, which led the Mayor to call the Governor for assistance. Thirteen Seconds began to give me this context, providing background for the events, both on-campus and -off, leading up to the May protests. I still feel like I would like to investigate more, not just about the events at Kent, but about the late 60s/early 70s in general. It is an era I know little about, yet it seems that it must have been a time of great fear and conflict.

Two anecdotes to end with. I was sitting at my desk one morning this spring when one of the bosses walked over to look out the window at the gorgeous day. “I wonder if the daffodils are in bloom on Blanket Hill,” he said. I didn’t know, remarking that I haven’t been on that part of campus since I graduated. He then told me he has a difficult time going on campus around the start of May: he was friends with one of the students who was killed–a student who wasn’t even protesting, but just passing through. Some few days later, May 5, I was sitting at my desk eating lunch and browsing the internet when the phone conversation of another coworker caught my ear. “I was angry for many years.” “I just wish we knew what happened.” “I feel like we could talk.” He hung up his phone, and looked across the desks at me to comment–he was just talking to a former client, who had been there that day, as a guardsman, while he was a student. They had only just found out that the other had been there that day, on the opposite side. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that history happens to real people.

The NPR station affiliated with Kent State has a website devoted to the events of May 4 and its aftermath, HERE, which includes an award-winning radio documentary.

*I was also really surprised to learn both how small the city of Kent and the University were in the 1950s and how quickly both grew post-WWII. But it explains the look of the campus.