August 21, 2014

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40 Years Ago Today: Kent State shootings

We pause to remember the tragic events of 40 years ago. Was it really that long ago?

I have probably written about Kent State before, as I went to visit about five years ago to see what it was all about.

I was 14 in 1970, and sitting around the dinning room table eating dinner as the radio news reporter read the wire service story about the shootings at KSU.  I had never heard of Kent State and it conjured up images of Clark Kent for me.

My mother was a good bit more upset by the news, as my sister was going away to college the next fall, though not in the same state.

"How could they do that," she asked my father.

"They had them backed into a corner," replied my father, and the topic was closed.

It didn't occur to me at the time, but I wonder how my father could have known that, barely five hours after event, and a state away. About twenty years later, the question would come up after a most unusual connection was made.  It's also covered in James Michner's incredibly thick book , "Kent State".

In 1989, I moved to Athens, Ohio so my wife could earn a masters degree.  Our county commissioner, it turned out, was Dean Kahler, a handicapper who got around quite well.  I also learned that he was one of the thirteen students shot at Kent State.

I was surprised.  He didn't look like a student, certainly not like the other students attending Ohio University in our community. He was older. (And so was I.)

Through occasional conversations, I learned of his involvement in the tragic events that warm spring day in Ohio.  I also learned that there was a great resentment against him, the victims and all college students, brewing in the conservative county residents that lived in Athens county.

I started reading anything I could get my hands on regarding Kent State and the shootings of May 4th, 1970.  And there were a lot of books.  Many were in the Alden Library at Ohio University.  Some were stunning.  Some were profoundly poorly researched.  But the photos of the event itself were incredible.  The chaos of the day, the confusion and the progression of events were clearly captured.

But after awhile, a time-line began to emerge. The later a book has been written, the longer view was contained.  Later books seemed to accept the fact that the Guard had turned and fired when they were not at risk.  But not every book held that view.

Soon, I learned the perceptions of the event were colored by who you were and your station in life.

If you were a guard member, you felt the shootings were justified.

If you were a student, you were outraged and shocked.

If you were a conservative adult, you thought the protest was unfounded.

If you were a protester, you felt the guard was illegally possessing your campus.

And if you were a 14 junior high student, this was just a major event and touchstone in your life.  Something to remember where you were and what the reaction of your family was.  But nothing else.

Nowadays, I remember each anniversary and my research into it, decades after the fact.  And I'm even more amazed to learn that not many others mark the day.   The date doesn't mean anything to the majority of current students.  And only my generation remembers.

A conservative talk show host winces each time I call up to remind him what day it is on May 4th.  I never understood why, until now.  It's like a sore scab for many people.  They want to ignore it and don't like it to be brought up again.

And it won't be... until next year.  

Or one of the guardsmen break their silence and explain how it happened.  

Do you think we will still care when that day happens?  I have my doubts now.

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