(Generally useful map, from the Nixon Administration’s investigation, of the ground on which the Kent State shootings took place. Bill Schroeder’s body is placed a long way from where he fell, perhaps to give some validity to the one truly wry element, which is the caption placed next to Step 6 that reads “GUARD HEADED BACK UP HILL–STUDENTS FOLLOW.” Never mind that none of the hundreds of photographs taken show students meeting any rational definition of the word “follow.” One only needs to note the distance to the Prentice Hall parking lot, where the fire was heavily concentrated and where, in fact, all of the dead and most of the wounded actually fell. The parking lot is a hundred yards away and fifty feet downhill. I suppose a fully accurate map might have risked representing what a true “threat” the “rioting” students at Kent State University represented to men who were armed with high-powered rifles and literally a few paces away from the safety of no longer being offended by people yelling insults and giving them the finger.)
The murder of four college students at Kent State University on May 4th, 1970, by members of Troop G of the Ohio National Guard, is the only event I commemorate annually on this blog. For previous thoughts, photos and links you can go here (2012), here (2013) and here (2014). As always, I especially recommend the piece I linked in 2012 and 2013, a beautifully reported account of the the memories of the three student photographers who took the iconic photos which have kept the event much more alive in the nation’s memory than it otherwise would be (not least by directly inspiring Neil Young’s famous song).
After I visited the campus for the first time in 1998 (on the 28th anniversary, which happened to coincide with an ultimately successful protest asking the university to permanently close the parking spots where the murder victims fell and also place memorials on them), I “wrote up” my impressions for family and friends. At some point I’ll probably share some of that piece, but, for now, I’ll recount a memory from 2000, which was the last time I was able to be on the campus.
By the time of this, my third visit, I was familiar with the campus layout (my absolute unfamiliarity made my first visit very much a serio-comic tale of stumbling around in the dark). As such, I was able to fully comprehend the logistics of what had taken place thirty years earlier. I had a sense of the utter ineptitude of the Guard’s leadership on the day in question (worth a long post in itself some day), which, despite amounting to criminal stupidity, in no way justified the actions of the men under their command (whether or not those men acted on some kind of order).
Everything I had learned to that point led me to believe, then as now, that “Kent State” was both horribly inevitable (in the general sense of the times) and consummately preventable (in the specific sense of what actually went down).
But the thing that had changed most dramatically in the interrum for the purposes of the May 4th commemoration ceremony (when the Prentice Hall parking lot is closed anyway), was the presence of those permanent markers that closed off the four parking spaces.
The student organization at Kent State that runs the commemorations (which, by the time of my first visit, consisted entirely of students not born when the murders took place) had always taken on the task of marking the spots on the actual anniversary, so it wasn’t as though I hadn’t known where they were, or failed to be deeply moved by the tradition of students and others chalking their feelings on the pavement (many quite lengthy–you’d be surprised how eloquent chalk-on-pavement can be).
But seeing those new markers actually set in the asphalt gave the place a new feeling of permanence, significant, I thought, on a college campus where the very first impression a visitor gets is a sense of overwhelming ordinariness–of just how close to madness a society has to come for anything like the Kent State massacre to be conceivable, let alone actually happen, and, by extension, just how tenuous civilization really is.
So, with all that in mind, I once again set out to do what I do at any historical place. Stalk the ground and try to imagine myself one of the participants.
I had tried it with both guard and students in the two years prior and again on this visit. Step by empathetic step, I had come to my conclusions: craziness, madness, meanness, fear. The usual combinations for tragedy.
I had felt the ghosts–or thought I had.
And then, near the end of this third visit, something clicked. Some set of memories gathered around a sorority girl named Sandra Scheuer: leaving her dorm, walking to class, wearing a red sweater, stopping to talk to her boyfriend (who had taken part in the protest and was just leaving), being gunned down within seconds after breaking off their conversation to proceed to her next class.
Going to the class, I suddenly realized, that was in that building over there.
And leaving the dorm room that was in that building back there.
Standing next to Scheuer’s particular marker–looking up at the hill where the small (in spirit, not size), mean element in Troop G turned (in unison) and fired (in unison) almost certainly at specific targets they had picked out as the ones most worthy of offing (because they had flipped a bird, chanted an obscenity, waved a black flag, heaved a rock from some distance that James Michener, after conducting an experiment with a member of the Kent State baseball team, concluded couldn’t be covered by Willie Mays)–the parking lot I was in suddenly became a center of some larger picture.
If she was coming from over there and headed for that building up there…
I suddenly realized that, unlike Jeff Miller (committed “radical”…”You don’t think Jeff was there, do you?” his grandmother asked when the news reached home…”Of course he was there,” Miller’s brother told her on the day (and us, thirty years later), “but I’m sure he’s okay.”) or Bill Schroeder (ROTC member committed to observing, thinking, wondering who was right) or Alison Krause (“radicalized” the previous weekend, when she found herself being chased on campus by tear gas and bayonets, last off the Landis Green on May 4th, shaking her fist and shouting “This isn’t right” a true threat to society), all of whom had wandered around a bit, Sandy Scheuer had walked a straight line from where she was to where she was going.
So, if I wanted to walk in the shoes of somebody who was simply going about her business while those other students were “rioting” or “assaulting the Guard” or “brandishing weapons” or any of the other multitude of crimes they were accused of in turn which were, in turn, made so patently ridiculous by the actual evidence that an establishment led by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, looking desperately to convict them in absentia, finally had to give up and go home and hope the memory would die, she was the one.
Caught up in my idea, I went over to the main doorway of the dorm building Sandra Scheuer had left around 12:20-25 p.m. local time on May 4th, 1970.
Then I took a deep breath and I walked her path.
As I say, I haven’t been back since 2000. Details fuzz a bit. But not the essence.
The essence was a few steps to a sidewalk, a small left turn, another few steps. Look both ways. Cross a street that winds through that part of the campus.
Come up on the corner of Prentice Hall.
Take a few more steps.
Turn the corner to the parking lot.
See the top of the building she was heading for (the nursing school if memory serves).
Imagine the day thirty years earlier.
What sort of scene was the student walking from her dorm to class encountering?
Riot? Pillage? A situation careening out of control?
Even a National Guard unit preparing for a slaughter?
I guess not.
Because she kept walking.
She kept walking straight toward her class. Without deviation.
The reason I know she kept walking without deviation, without any hint of the fear you would have if you even remotely suspected your life was at stake (walking in her new red sweater that some member of Troop G very likely mistook for another red sweater on another girl who had been active in the protest) is because when I stood in the place that was the logical entry to the Prentice Hall parking lot for someone coming from Sandy Scheuer’s dorm and looked straight over the top of the permanent marker that was now finally resting where she fell, what I saw was the top of the building where her next class was.
That’s when I realized Kent State really just came down to this.
Finally, they needed to shoot somebody.
We can each decide for ourselves who “they” were.
For my part, I’ll just say that the members of Troop G of the Ohio National Guard, who actually pulled all those triggers, were guilty as hell. But they were hardly alone.
You want to blame their commanders (present or absent)? The governor of Ohio? President Nixon?
Well, I’m hardly unsympathetic.
But the truth is we failed to meaningfully punish any of those people, troops included.
If we had, I wonder if those ghosts would have such a strong presence now whenever May 4th rolls around in Kent, Ohio.
For the record:
Killed (and approximate distance from the National Guard):
Allison Krause 343 ft. (105 m); fatal left chest wound
Jeffrey Glen Miller 265 ft. (81 m); shot through the mouth – killed instantly
Sandra Lee Scheuer 390 ft. (119 m); fatal neck wound
William Knox Schroeder 382 ft. (116 m); fatal chest wound
Wounded (and approximate distance from the National Guard):
Thomas Mark Grace 225 ft. (69 m); struck in left ankle
Joseph Lewis Jr. 71 ft. (22 m); hit twice in the right abdomen and left lower leg
John R. Cleary 110 ft. (34 m); upper left chest wound
Alan Canfora 225 ft. (69 m); hit in his right wrist
Dean Kahler 300 ft. (91 m); back wound fracturing the vertebrae – permanently paralyzed from the chest down
Douglas Wrentmore 329 ft. (100 m); hit in his right knee
James Dennis Russell 375 ft. (114 m); hit in his right thigh from a bullet and in the right forehead by birdshot – both wounds minor
Robert Stamps 495 ft. (151 m); hit in his right buttock
Donald Scott MacKenzie 750 ft. (229 m); neck wound
(For a fine article on the memories of John Filo, who took the day’s most iconic photograph, you can go here.)