Remembering Kent State

For those of us who were young adults or near adults, it should be a bit of a somber day. Fifty years ago, today, four Kent State students were shot, nine others wounded, one paralyzed.  Twenty-eight Ohio National Guardsmen fired approximately seventy rounds in less than fifteen seconds into students, some protesting President Nixon’s “Cambodian Incursion” by the US military, others who were simply watching from a distance, one was walking from one class to another.  Nixon had promised the day before to get us out of the war.

It had been a contentious period in our history, “The Kent State Massacre” was neither the beginning of the violence nor would it be the concluding chapter.  Three protesting students were killed and some thirty injured during a protest at South Carolina State in Orangeburg, SC in February.  Several days after Kent State, two students were killed, and a dozen injured at Jackson State.  Both were confrontations with the police and on a small scale exemplified the student unrest over the Vietnam War and Civil Rights.

Kent State had been a hot spot for student protest beginning in the middle Sixties.  Students For a Democratic Society (SDS), the Black Student Organization and the Youth International Party, (Yippies) all staged sit-ins, marches and other protests, including an attempted take over of the Administrative Offices by the SDS that led to fifty-eight students being arrested by the Ohio Highway Patrol.  There had been scattered violence, including the burning of the ROTC building, but no deaths until May 4, 1970.

Monday, May Fourth. was the culmination of four days of unrest that began the previous Friday after President Nixon announced the Cambodian Incursion on the previous Thursday.  From the aforementioned fire, a protest march, beer bottles and rocks being thrown at police, bonfires in the street, and numerous arrests, violence reared its ugly head, violence from the students, and from groups sworn to protect them.

Unconfirmed rumors of students with caches of arms, spiking the local water supply with LSD, and of students building tunnels for the purpose of blowing up the town’s main buildings added gasoline to an already volatile cocktail.  The city mayor requested National Guard Troops from the governor and the request was granted.  They came armed with loaded M-1 Garands, bayonets, tear gas, and smoke grenades.

The National Guard first became entangled on the Third, breaking up a rally and a sit-in, using tear gas and even bayoneting students.  A noon rally of some 2000 students on the Fourth became the catalyst for the shooting.  Again, rocks and tear gas were involved until the shots rang out.  It became a they said-they said situation after the gunpowder had cleared.

I was a struggling sophomore in college, less than a month past my twentieth birthday when news of the massacre flashed across the community tv screen in the basement of Brokaw Hall.  I remember the silence that followed and the debate that issued later.  Despite being a Southern liberal arts college, Newberry was not a fertile ground for liberal thoughts.

Near the end of the semester, I was more concerned about the effect exams might have on my grades than what had taken place in faraway Ohio or nearby Orangeburg.  I was also mourning the end of my first serious relationship, one I characterized as a hurricane waiting to happen.  You knew you were in for a big storm you just didn’t know when or where it would happen.  It had happened.  A hurricane that had turned my grades into a shambles.

It wasn’t that I wasn’t aware, I was.  A male, I had just participated in the first draft lottery and hadn’t won but I hadn’t lost either…April 9th came up 219…kinda in the middle.  My awareness was focused on my poor but improving grades and fear.

I had no desire to die in a rice paddy in a Southeast Asian country but like many of the young men surrounding me, I would have gone to my death rather than disappointing my family and friends.  I would do what was expected.

As I look back, I am both proud and ashamed.  Happy I wasn’t called while feeling I missed something by not being called to serve.  Ashamed for not taking a more active interest in protesting the war.  Confliction but I am a conflicted person.

There were several veterans on third floor Brokaw my freshman year taking advantage of the GI Bill.  They were good guys, damaged good guys.  Few returned for our sophomore year, fewer still graduated.   They were just too damaged.

I wondered which was worse, dying in a jungle or leaving a part of your soul there.  They all participated in the activities of college life, but it seemed they only participated from the periphery.  All still had the “Thousand Yard Stare.”

One vet, of Marine Force Recon, had been our protector during our freshman year.  I didn’t know what Force Recon was, I just knew from the whispers he was a badass dude.  He was much older and became a buffer against Rat Week and later the fraternity bull pledges whose grades were so low they had been moved out of fraternity housing and onto the freshman halls.  They weren’t happy and wanted to take it out on the ‘rats’.  Force Recon would have none of it and the bull pledges left us alone.

He sat next to me as Walter told us about Kent State.  A man of few words, he leaned over and asked, “Who gives fucking National Guardsmen live ammo against students?”  I wondered myself.  Several friends were National Guardsmen and I wouldn’t have trusted them with a pea shooter.  Thankfully, they were members of the SC National Guard Band.  They blew into their instruments instead of blowing things up.

Later, Force Recon would suggest in a bit of a drunken stupor, “If you get drafted, run to Canada.  It ain’t worth dying for.”  This from the same man who ‘liberated’ a Christmas tree from the Winn Dixie parking lot late one night so we could decorate with toilet paper and beer cans in our community restroom…good times.  Coming from a veteran I began to rethink the war.

Violence begets violence and the violence didn’t end in May of 1970.  Many more Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians would die before that little policing action was over.

The shootings at Kent State would trigger more protests, one in Washington estimated at a hundred thousand that caused President Nixon to be whisked away to Camp David.  Hundreds of college campuses would close involving over four million students due to student protest.  Eleven students were bayoneted at the University of New Mexico during a peace rally and peace protesters battled pro-Nixon construction workers in what became known as the Hard Hat Riots.

1968 was bad, ‘69 was a bit of reprieve if you didn’t look past the moon landing to the Manson Murders and Mai Lai.  ‘70 was a return to the bad but as some smart someone said, “it gets darkest just before the dawn.”  It would be five long years before dawn and the Vietnam War ended but the US had been out of the warzone for the last two.  I must believe Kent State and the protests that followed helped get us out of a war we should never have been involved in.  Helped to stop the killing.

***

I drew from a lot of sources but since I am not selling this I’m not going to footnote.   If you question something other than my sanity I will go back and do so.

The featured image is the iconic photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of student Jeffrey Miller, who was killed by Ohio National Guard troops during an antiwar demonstration at Kent State University on May 4, 1970.

Don Miller writes on various subjects and various genres.  His authors page is at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM?fbclid=IwAR2Iyegsi5CjQ4ZNPU2nA9C1e3q7jekDZ6e3T8qw5QUgwNhM9Yj_-dKOag4

 

“Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet…”

I saw the ’56 Chevrolet sitting at a local diner, parked off to the side as if to keep it out of harm’s way.  As a teen in the middle and late Sixties, the Belair was my dream car…my first unrequited love…just like Elizabeth Taylor looking wantonly at me from a picture wearing that light blue slip.   Neither proved to be attainable.  Both the car and Liz caused a flood of teenage hormones of Biblical proportions.  My teenage libido revved like the V-8 under the Chevy’s hood.

The car brought memories of pulling into Porter’s Grill or the Wheel-In as a teenager.   Sometimes with friends, occasionally with that special someone.  Carhops in white paper “garrison” style hats rushing out to take our orders in hopes of a good tip…”Don’t take no wooden nickels”…Ha!

Food brought on a tray that hooked on to your car door while the “Devil’s music” played from tinny-sounding speakers hung above the covered parking places. ”One, two three o’clock, four o’clock rock….”  The smell of deep-fried anything and sliced onions permeated my memories.  An “American Graffiti” moment…or maybe a Shoney’s Big Boy moment.

The car I paused lust after was a bone stock Belair in turquoise and white and reminded me of many that I saw during my teenage years in the Sixties…except this one might have been in better shape fifty years later.  The car’s paint was flawlessly polished, the chrome smooth and shining in the bright sunshine, the interior clean as a whistle and only lightly worn.  Wow, what a beauty.  Is that a three on the tree?…nope, a two-speed PowerGlide.

My folks were Ford people for the most part right down to my Dad’s ’64 Ranchero.  My father did have a momentary lapse of judgment with a ’68 Buick Skylark.  Thankfully my brother wrecked it with no harm to himself.  Late in my father’s life, there was an Olds Cutless but no Chevys.

People of that day were loyal to certain car brands, especially during NASCAR races.  I pulled for “Fast” Freddie Lorenzen and his Galaxie 500…the same model we drove except his didn’t have four doors.  Pulled for him until he went over to the dark side driving Dodges and Plymouths.  “Traitor!!!!”

People kept cars longer back then and had time to develop loyalties.  There were no lease plans, people of my father’s generation just drove them until they wore them out, new technologies and designs be damned.  There were still many Forties vintage sedans parked in the church parking lot on a Sunday morning in the mid-Sixties.  Even a late Thirties Pontiac, headlights still on top of the fenders.

Despite our Ford loyalty, my older cousin’s Nassau Blue 55 Belair caused me to break a few of the Lord’s commandments.  Coveting was assuredly one.  It’s tiny two sixty-five V-8 fitted with Corvette accouterments and a racing cam put out a throaty growl as it flew low down Highway 521.

Three on the floor, I did love the white knob sitting atop the shifter.  Lake pipes peaked out from under the doors and matched the chrome rims with half-moon hubcaps.  Like most young teenagers I was in love.

The only Chevy I ever owned was a more rusted than blue ’72 Chevy C10 work truck I bought for a paltry one hundred and fifty dollars in the early Eighties.  It had been old long before I bought it and showed near one hundred thousand miles on its broken odometer.  There was still a throaty roar from rusted-out mufflers, the sucking sound associated with a Holly four-barrel, and an alternator whine you didn’t get from other brands.

I was a teenager in the muscle car era of the Sixties and drooled over ’63 Stingray Split Windows, GTOs, Cobras, Hemi powered Plymouths and the like…still do.   I couldn’t wait for my monthly Hot Rod Magazine to be delivered RFD.

Briefly, in the Seventies, I owned a ’66 GTO, “Little GTO, You’re really lookin’ fine.  Three deuces and a four-speed and a 389…”  Yeah, the old Ronnie and the Daytona’s tune pops into my head but my Marina Turquoise ’66 would fall to the wayside, abandoned due to rising gasoline prices and the oil embargo.  I wish I had had a crystal ball during those days, but single-digit gas mileages didn’t cut it.

My high school parking lot was loaded with tricked out Chevys, but few Fords.  Most were for show rather than go.  There was a white ’58 with the Impala badge that rocked with a type of slow lope associated with the 348 Chevy had introduced that year.  Red bucket seats matching the red trim down the side…a beautiful car.

Unlike baseball, cars were no more an American creation than…well…apple pie and hot dogs, but we found a way to turn them into the American culture traits the Chevy commercial sang about.

Young men piecing together spare parts into cheap “rat rods.”  Jan and Dean lamenting Dead Man’s Curve or ‘grabbing their girls and a bit of money’ heading out to Drag City.  The Beach Boy’s close harmony singing about their ‘Little Duece Coupe‘.  “Necking” at The Fort Roc Drive-In Theater before a milkshake at a drive-in diner, Hardee’s fifteen cent hamburgers, the suburbs.  Cars cruising main streets on Saturday nights across America.  The ultimate car TV show, Route 66.

I never drove across America’s highway, Route 66.  The closest was the Woodpecker Trail from North Carolina through South Carolina, Georgia and Florida with its alligator farms, swamps, Spanish moss, and Magnolia trees.  Small signs posted at close intervals telling me that “the…end…is…near…Repent!”  Shops selling matching salt and pepper shakers to commemorate our travels.

Roadside pull-offs with picnic tables to enjoy homemade fried chicken wrapped in wax paper, Pepsi Colas iced down in old-style metal coolers.  Roadside treats geared toward travelers in their automobiles.  It would have been more exciting if I had made the trip in an early ‘60s Vette with either Tod or Buz instead of my family in a ’63 Ford.

Americans have a love affair with their cars, but I find that my tastes have changed.  I still pause and commit a mortal sin looking at cars from the period of my youth and wouldn’t turn down a ’61 Impala Bubbletop or an Oldsmobile 442.  A Jaguar XKE might be nice…hum.  I wouldn’t turn down the old four-door ‘63 Galaxie.

Today my taste runs toward the more utilitarian. Four-wheel drive pickup trucks, Jeeps or a certain Japanese vehicle quite capable of off-roading.  As ugly as my Landcruiser was I still miss the ’77 FJ-40 that was stolen from my front yard.  It broke my heart when I found it burned.  It breaks my heart when I see one for sale and the price they sell for.

Despite my change in taste I can still pause at a drive-in diner and appreciate an amazing old car.  Appreciate its artistic beauty and the efforts of its owner to maintain it…Appreciate my memories of past road trips and the cars that made them possible.

Intro to Route 66

 

Videos are courtesy of YouTube

Don Miller’s author’s page may be found at https://www.amazon.com/Don-Miller/e/B018IT38GM

The picture of the ’56 Belair was taken from Pinterest