Forty-five years ago today, the front lines of the war against the war in Vietnam, and in this case more pointedly in Cambodia, formed at the base of Blanket Hill on the campus of Kent State University. Four students were killed by National Guard troops that day on the rolling hills countryside campus in northeastern Ohio. For many of us who had grown up with the British Invasion, urban riots, Freedom summer, the assassinations of two Kennedys and one King, and evening news broadcasts with an ominous number in the upper right hand corner of the black and white screen signifying the number of Americans killed that day in Vietnam, the incursion into a college campus was the final straw.
I was just finishing up my junior year in high school and at the age of 17 was fast facing a time when decisions of potential life and death were near. The violence that seemed to be brewing all around my white world always seemed distant, whether it was in the city of Philadelphia which chased many whites to the comfort and security of the suburban enclaves in surrounding counties, or the battlefields of a jungle that was a half a world away but not really that threatening in light of the deferments available in the comfort and security of the college campus.
By 1970 the Catholic Church was already having a hard time recruiting and retaining priests and the bulk of the order that taught us at Archbishop Wood High School were of the World War II generation while the lay teachers that were increasingly populating the teaching ranks were fresh out of college and therefore in their early to mid-twenties. We learned to trust their version of the importance of contemporary events and on the day following the shootings I was shaken out of my spectator slumber by a young English teacher who implored us with tears streaming down his face of the significance of what had occurred the day before. The profanity that punctuated his presentation that day only served to reinforce the urgency of the words he spoke.
For the first time many of us realized that we would be drafted, in one way or another, into the current events that were tearing the country apart. We could no longer hide in the shadows of the security offered by Friday night dances, Saturday nights at the drive-in, Sunday football games, or the general comforts of suburbia. Yes we all were intricately involved in the chess game that our leaders played but the prospect of being pawns sacrificed to protect the King and Queen had never really been that readily apparent as it was on May 5, 1970.
For me the educational lesson we received that day would ultimately influence to a great extent my life's ambitions and while I had dabbled on the safe fringes of the societal convulsions that coursed through my childhood and teen years it was now time to confront them in a serious way. Attending college took on a much heartier significance from that day forward and even though college deferments from selective service would eventually cease during my sophomore year, setting up a new dilemma of whether or not to avoid the draft, finally the war ended.
Timing in life is everything and I just happened to find myself in the right pigeon hole instead of a fox hole. But it was merely the luck of the draw, how many were not so fortunate? Well, at least 58,000 plus.
In 1977 I was a graduate assistant at Temple University and found myself teaching political science to college students, several of whom were Vietnam veterans attending college on the GI bill. On the seventh anniversary of the shootings there was a nationwide student movement to descend upon Kent State University to protest the building of a gymnasium on the site where the students were gunned down. At the prodding of several students I joined in the caravan of students from Philadelphia area colleges who boarded busses for the overnight trip to Ohio and the subsequent demonstration that took place the following day.
There were students from all across the nation gathered on campus that gray and cloudy day. There were speeches, there was camaraderie, fences were torn down, chants were chanted, authorities were amassed on the rooftops of buildings with cameras and bulletproof vests and high-powered rifles but arrests were few and luckily there was no violence. For white America the events of May 4, 1970 were an alarm bell waking us from years of watching on the sidelines. For black America the luxury of watching from the sidelines must sound like a cruel joke, for there is little attention paid to the two black students who were sacrificed at Jackson State University, the historically black college in Jackson, Mississippi, just 11 days after Kent State.
For me and many in my generation, the scars of Vietnam remain indelibly etched in our memories rather than on our bodies or in our nightmares. While lucky, we must never cease in our resolve to prevent future generations from having to cope with the horrors of war and violence, whether in Ferguson or Baltimore or Baghdad or Kabul. Unfortunately the current generation of millennials has never really known a time when we are not at war and those scars permeate a sense of fatalism that is destructive and deadly. Give peace a chance. It must be more than just a song.