It began as the sweetest of days. The sky was blue, almost cloudless as I remember, the temperature in the high 60s, calibrated for joy. It was a Monday with promise, a day of expectation -- especially if you were a student on a campus in a climate where winter rubbed the spirit raw. Spring was salve to the wound.
It began that way at Kent State University. But by noon, the day turned with such unexpected tragedy that it ended in the kind of historical infamy that forever memorializes the date: December 7, November 22, and May 4. Dates damned into memory.
For me, the recollection of the day's sweet beginning and its apocalyptic ending will forever bring a pause, a prayer, and a sense of anger that finds no true resolution with time.
My memory of this day is in color: The sky, Jeff Miller's dark blood on the sidewalk, the wood grain of the rifle stocks, and the bright complexion of the living. When I scanned the microfilm recently to see what I had written for The Plain Dealer 30 years ago, the day was all black and white, stark with fact and the anger of the times.
It is hard to convey the anger of those days to a generation that dreams dot-com, indifferent to everything but the NASDAQ. Yet, what happened in the '60s -- the shooting at Kent marked the final day of the decade -- changed American life forever.
The '60s were a great time to be a reporter. And a terrible time to be a reporter.
Great, because there was so much to witness: civil rights, urban riots, assassinations, a war, campus unrest, peace rallies, political conventions gone mad, drugs, a sexual revolution, and a generation gap.
Terrible, because there was only so much of this you could endure before the sweep of events sucked you into its vortex and left you dead or disillusioned or worse. The times were like drugs. You knew they were bad, but you needed the fix.
The opportunities were limitless. I witnessed the Hough Riots, the Tet Offensive, the siege at Khe Sanh, a public hanging in Baghdad, some scary nights on the Sinai, as well as the usual assortment of shootings, stabbings, robberies, assaults, and rapes. Add a major plane crash and the collapse of a bridge that made for a fatal rush hour, plus the miscellaneous shit they asked you to pick up on the way into the office, and that was work.
Almost everything in the '60s ended in second-day stories -- funerals, generally. The worst funerals were the ones that ended with the mournful cry of Taps, as they buried the kid down the street who never knew what hit him in Vietnam. Those days made you wonder how many questions you could ask before you smelled of ghoul.
By May 4, 1970, the last thing I wanted to do was draw the heartbreaker of them all -- those 13 seconds of shooting at Kent State that left four dead, telling America that it could happen here, too.
My day had begun lazily, on vacation from work in The Plain Dealer's Washington bureau, looking forward to a day off in Cleveland to spend with friends over lunch, talking stories, indicting editors on various counts of idiocy, wondering where the turmoil we were experiencing as young reporters would take us.
The generation gap between editors and reporters in the newsroom was a moat of suspicion. The editors, largely formed of earlier generations, could not grasp the mood that had descended over the nation. The only way most of them could have a personal feel for the changes convulsing the nation was through a bunch of young reporters whom they did not fully trust. Except for the list of local casualties, issued once a week, Vietnam was an Associated Press story.
If you had any sense, you got out of the office on that day -- Tuesday, I think. Because the way the war was going, the KIAs eventually hit every blue-collar neighborhood in the city and even a few good suburban addresses. It was no joy to call upon the survivors and ask for a picture and an interview.
Outside the newsroom, the nation was under siege. The reporters saw it and reported it, but only after spending agonizing hours convincing editors who had grown up in the McCarthy era that what was happening was not the work of a communist conspiracy.
Editors cautioned us not to mislead the public by blowing out of proportion any incident that appeared to be instigated by those seeking to undermine the republic. If anything, much of what we reported during those years was understated.
It was in this context that the fateful May weekend, which would culminate in the darkest of Mondays, came to be.
Campus unrest had been triggered nationally three days before, when it was announced that U.S. troops were invading Cambodia to destroy North Vietnamese supply dumps and headquarters areas. The move shocked the American public, which had elected Richard M. Nixon the previous fall with the understanding he would end the war in Vietnam.
Following Nixon's announcement, the city of Kent and the university campus became the scene of weekend disturbances that included the burning of the ROTC building and the arrest of many students and, finally, the ordering of the Ohio National Guard to the scene.
It was Ohio Governor James A. Rhodes, running in the Republican primary for U.S. Senator, who dispatched the National Guard, tired and with their rifles locked and loaded. The Guardsmen had been on duty patrolling the Ohio Turnpike, where some sniping had taken place during a Teamsters strike.
Kent State University seemed an unlikely place for serious confrontation. Usually, spring was heralded with a panty raid or beer-splashed clashes between students and townies. The school had a reputation for bad football and a curriculum studied largely by commuters who had little time for the frivolities of campus life. It was a solid enough place, attended by people who went on to solid if not spectacular careers.
The appearance of the National Guard at Kent inflamed the situation. Students felt their campus was being invaded by a force that was an extension of the war machine in Southeast Asia.
On Monday, The Plain Dealer made a serious miscalculation. Out of sync with the times, mistrustful of young reporters, and no doubt saving on overtime, an editor made the mistake of his career. He failed to staff the ongoing situation at Kent.
As mistakes went that day, it was inconsequential. Other mistakes would follow and compound as if they were acts in a tragedy played out on a stage.
And, in a sense, they were.
we almost made it to lunch.
I was nearly out the door with a friend, reporter Joe Eszterhas, who would later become a successful screenwriter, and the last thing I wanted to do was work. Suddenly a harried editor, Wilson Hirschfeld, signaled to us that we were not to waste a minute in getting to Kent. A major confrontation was in progress, was the way he put it, and the paper had no reporters there.
I cursed Hirschfeld during the entire trip to Kent. Walking cold into something like this is a nightmare for a reporter. Confusion, misinformation, bad communications, and no idea of what lay ahead made for a bad workday. It was not long before we learned how bad a day it would be.
The shooting took place at 12:25 p.m. We arrived minutes later. We could tell by the faces in the dispersing crowd, full of pain and shock, that something awful had occurred. Women cried and men held them. Lips were pursed into scowls of anguish that contorted faces into sorrowful masks.
There is a rule for reporters in situations like this: It is best to do your work quickly, before the shock turns to anger. It is an unpleasant task, but at that moment some of the most reliable responses can be gathered.
The first information we had was that a number of persons had been shot, some killed. The National Guard was armed with M-1 rifles, a .30 caliber weapon that can kill at a range of 500 yards. My worst fears were confirmed. Firing into a crowd with a weapon like this could result in the death of dozens.
I found several Guardsmen in a men's room. Their eyes had the strangest of stares, the kind that you sometimes see on the battlefield, when fatigue and fear leave no focus. They had a hard time swallowing.
I asked one what had happened. He looked at me with those hollow eyes and said he didn't know.
"It all happened so fast," he said. "The kids were there, throwing stuff, and it happened. Jesus Christ, it happened."
The shooting had taken place in the span of 13 seconds, a fairly long burst of fire. Later, a federal investigation confirmed that Guardsmen had fired 55 shots from M-1 rifles, five .45 caliber rounds from pistols, and one shotgun blast.
After a year covering the war in Vietnam, I had become very wary of weapons. In the wrong hands, they are accidents waiting to happen. Unless you have been exposed to the lethal nature of military weapons, it is hard to imagine how much damage they can cause. I cursed the students for their naïveté, sick at the thought of them in an open field of fire.
The miracle of Kent State is that, in a crowd that may have numbered 2,000, dozens more were not killed and wounded. There is probable truth in the testimony of the 21 Guardsmen who said they fired 41 rounds in the air. Four other Guardsmen admitted to firing a total of 11 shots into the crowd.
It is also probable that, of the four students killed, three were hit by stray fire, as were the nine wounded. I always thought that Jeffrey Miller, who had taunted the troops with a flag, made an easy target and most likely drew fire. Conversely, William Schroeder, who was in school on an ROTC scholarship, was walking some 130 yards behind the Guard when he was shot in the back and killed.
Later, in reconstructing the events that led to the killings, I studied the photographs, talked to participants, and read most of the eyewitness accounts of the moment. I listened to a recording of the shooting countless times. There is a single shot, a pause, and then the fusillade of fire.
Key among the many mistakes made that morning was the decision to push the assembled students from the Commons, where there was nothing they could harm. National Guard leaders blamed school officials for that decision. The university blamed the Guard.
In pushing the crowd from the Commons, the Guardsmen maneuvered themselves into a position that allowed the students to flank them. As soon as they realized this, the Guardsmen began to withdraw. Their retreat emboldened the crowd, which harassed them, with some students hurling small objects at them.
The fact that most of the Guardsmen wore gas masks did not help them communicate in the increasingly confused situation. There was also some question as to who was leading the group of Guardsmen at this point. There were a number of officers among them, but it was not clear who was in command.
Although the investigations into the incident concluded that no order was given to fire, there were some who believed that these findings were part of a cover-up. I have always thought that the Guardsman who fired the first shot did so as a warning -- yet another mistake in a day so full of bad judgment. Upon hearing the shot, many of the men, their backs to the crowd, appear in the photos to turn and shoot.
To employ troops that were tired, disorganized, and armed with rifles to put down a civil disturbance was the last and most deadly mistake. It was National Guard policy to carry rifles locked and loaded into disturbances, which meant they could be fired simply by disengaging the safety and pulling the trigger.
Ihave three vivid memories of that day.
One is the pool of blood from Jeff Miller's body. It was dark and vast. He had been hit in the mouth.
Another is of a toll-taker on the Ohio Turnpike who, upon learning we had been at Kent, said they should have shot more of those kids. There was hate in the day as well as tragedy. Rhodes, who had been running badly in the polls, lost in the primary the next day, though not nearly as badly as expected, thanks to his law-and-order stand.
The other memory is of the arrival of Dorothy Fuldheim, the aging icon of Cleveland television, by helicopter.
For a good part of the afternoon I had tried to convince the Guard commander, Brigadier General Robert Canterbury, to talk at length. He had answered a few of my questions, but I wanted him to address the situation in detail, even if he did it in a press conference. The national media were about to descend upon the campus, and if we could persuade Canterbury to talk before their arrival, we would have an advantage in covering the story.
I explained to Canterbury the national significance of what had happened and urged him to respond to questions. The Guard chaplain agreed with me, and I could sense I was winning him over.
Out of nowhere, Fuldheim approached with her entourage, which included a cameraman. The moment she was told who Canterbury was, she turned on him and shouted in her best show-business voice:
"You, sir, are a killer, and your troops are murderers."
Any thought of further interviews with Canterbury was finished. He had spent half his life in the military, serving what he considered to be the best interests of his country, and to have it come to this turned him mute. Fuldheim's grandstanding blew the day for those of us who were trying to figure out whether there was any validity to the reports of a sniper.
The possibility that a sniper had fired the first shot was a theory that Guard officials spoke of in those first few hours. It later proved to be false and became a joke that Eszterhas and I used to dull the anguish and stress of it all.
We poked around the bars in Kent that summer, using the excuse that we were trying to locate the sniper. Once we identified a likely subject across the bar, only to learn that it was author James A. Michener, who had begun work on a book about the shootings.
By then, we, too, were engaged in a book. Focusing each day for the next four months on the shootings, I spent hours interviewing the parents and friends of the two dead girls, Sandra Lee Scheuer and Allison Krause. Those were difficult sessions, sitting on the front porch of the Scheuers' home on a quiet street in Youngstown, speaking with her grieving mother. Meeting with a bitter Arthur Krause in Pittsburgh was even more difficult, as he asked me repeatedly how this could happen in our country.
I needed to know what kind of people the victims were. Were they radicals who helped provoke the incident, as many of the citizens of Kent claimed, or were they simply innocent bystanders?
Sandy Scheuer was 130 yards away from the Guard when she was hit in the left front side of her neck. She was walking to class, a passerby who became a victim of fate. Allison Krause was 110 yards away when she was hit by a bullet that passed through her left upper arm and drove into her left side. By many accounts, Allison had been active in the demonstration, throwing stones and, at one point, placing a flower in the barrel of a Guardsman's rifle.
Regardless, Allison Krause, age 19, was no threat to the republic.
When our book was published, we appeared on the Today show with Michener, who more or less blamed student activists for creating the confrontation. Eszterhas and Michener got into a loud dispute that Barbara Walters could not calm, forcing the producers to cut to a commercial. Finally, the three of us went out for a drink and exchanged our perspectives in a more civil manner.
Before letting go of the story, I covered the report by the President's Commission on Campus Unrest for The Plain Dealer, fighting over every word with editors who feared a distortion or opinion might creep into the account. The report drew no startling conclusions, and the shootings slipped off page one and into history.
The next spring, The Akron Beacon Journal won the Pulitzer Prize for covering Kent State. The Plain Dealer editor who failed to have staff on hand when the shooting took place was promoted.
The war ended badly, Saigon falling to the North Vietnamese four days before the fifth anniversary of the shootings. And in time, Kent State would present me with a private irony.
A few years later in San Francisco, I met with a relative, Elvy B. Roberts, a retired Army general whom I had met only once before, in Vietnam. He had a distinguished military career, fighting in World War II at Normandy, where he was wounded, and later at the Bulge. He also had several tours in Vietnam leading combat troops.
Roberts had invited me to lunch at the Bohemian Club, and as we were dining and catching up, I mentioned Kent State. He paused for a moment, then asked whether I knew it was he who had commanded the Cambodian incursion.
I did not. So he told me of the bizarre events that led the White House to order him to take the assignment, just a day before he was to end his tour and return to the U.S.
As part of Nixon's war policy, the South Vietnamese were to take responsibility for the attack into Cambodia, which was designed to buy time for the U.S. withdrawals. A few days before the operation, the South Vietnamese general tasked with leading the mission visited an astrologer, who cautioned him that the planets were not in the right alignment for good luck.
The general begged out, and Roberts was ordered by the White House to take over the mission.
But the astrologer was right. Roberts had his helicopter shot down twice during the first day of operation, which preceded the demonstrations at Kent by four days.
Last fall I returned to Vietnam. I was surprised by the friendliness of the people and their willingness to set aside the past for the promise of the future. I asked many people about the war, though few wanted to speak of it. Surprisingly, one university professor in Ho Chi Minh City brought up Kent State in our conversation.
"What happened at Kent State showed us that the American people were subject to the same actions we were," he said. "They were in the same war, and their government was an enemy to them, as it was to us."
I tried to explain to him that was not exactly the case, but I gave up. There was a propaganda gap that was not worth arguing over. Still, the remark about being in the same war struck me.
If there is a mystery to what happened at Kent State, it is the same mystery that gave us a war we could not win, let alone understand. In a sense, the last shots in that war were fired at Kent State, shots that shook American sensibilities and values. We were never te same after it
Michael D. Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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