Join me on the flip for the story of my journey of reconciliation back to Kent State, 29 years after I left.
Also, before I go further, I have to thank my most dear and beloved sister, littlesky, who accompanied me on this journey and took most of these pictures. Without her, I almost certainly wouldn't have had the courage to go back. Her strong shoulder when I totally fell apart, her keen sense of humor when the tears left room for laughter and her ability to withstand the onslaught of ranting as I discovered outrage piled upon outrage helped make the weekend not only bearable but, in some strange way, enjoyable. Thanks again, littlesky. You're not only the most evolved of Rita and Bill's kids, you're one of my personal heroes.
Finally, I do apologize that some of these photos had to be further shrunk to fit kos margins after the annotations were already in place. This makes some of the captioning pretty hard to read but the text should explain what you need to understand the photos.
All right, on to the subject. First, here, again, is a map of the shooting site to keep you oriented.
In 1977, Kent State decided to build a gymnasium annex partially obscuring the shooting site. After being persuaded not to join hundreds of others in civil disobedience because of the possible adverse impacts on my plans to attend law school, I walked off campus in mid-July 1977 with Allison Krause's father. Both of us vowed never to return, a promise I believe he kept as did I until a month ago. Now, as I work on a novel based on the shootings at Kent State and the questions that remain unanswered, I realized I needed to see the site as it is today.
So, on Friday, July 21, twenty-nine years and about ten days after I left Kent State the last time, littlesky and I returned. Since my return was triggered in part by research for my novel, I wanted to follow what would be my main character's route into Kent, from the north (Streetsboro). So, after littlesky picked me up at my husband's brother's in Cuyahoga Falls, we drove through the Cuyahoga Valley National Park and then headed to Kent. Coming into town, I hoped sense memory might guide me to the parking lot but too much had changed. After first cruising East Summit to look for Jeff's house (414-9 E. Summit - gone), we followed maps to Midway Drive. When we pulled in and I saw the first stanchions of Sandy's memorial, I managed to choke out, "This is it." My first thought, in that odd way of all things remembered, was "it's so small." We parked at the base of the hill and, after a few deep breaths that didn't seem helpful at all in steadying my nerves, I got out and gathered my crutches. Then, looking around, I got my first jolt.
"Where's the pagoda?" I stammered, feeling some panic. "Did they tear down the Pagoda???"
The more mobile littlesky took a few steps and reassured me that, no, it was just hidden behind the trees. Feeling only marginally better, I turned and began walking over to Jeff's memorial. This, I knew, would be the hardest. Something about Jeff connected with me on a very basic level and, for years, he was a near constant presence in my life, in my head, my heart, and often, my dreams. I've always been relatively sensitive to psychic vibrations and, on several occasions, I had had extremely close encounters with Jeff, several of them quite frightening. Especially at Kent, I felt a continuing rage and frustration in him so strong that it threatened to suck me down into some unknown space. What I didn't tell littlesky until we had safely arrived was that, on my last two trips to Kent, Jeff manifested himself in decidedly unfriendly ways. But, approaching the memorial, I felt no evidence of him. I even thought I was in control.
Until, that is, about 5 feet away.... And then I just sort of remember a rush to get there before my feet buckled and the next I knew, I was sitting next to Jeff's name, crumpled and sobbing. How long that lasted only littlesky could say. Finally, the sobs eased to tears and then deep sighs and finally a few breathy, muttered words to littlesky. Then a loud rustle and big whoosh distracted us. Looking over, we watched as a large hawk landed in the (former, now transformed) practice field, maybe 50 yards away.
For 5 minutes or so, the hawk sat there and played, played, with a black walnut. He'd pick it up and toss it & then go poke at it some more. Pick it up again, toss it, play again. Over and over. We just sat there, transfixed.
Now, maybe this isn't as remarkable as it seems to me. Please, ohiojack and others familiar with this area: do hawks often land and play? My husband, who has always been skeptical, at best, of psychic connections and tends not to look for buried spiritual significance in every day events, immediately invested this hawk with supernatural energy. I'd love to hear others' interpretation. (And can anyone identify the type of hawk from littlesky's remarkable photo? If a larger one would help, I can send the non-shrunk version.) Looking back now, I see this hawk as a visit from at least one, if not all, of the kids. I had, after all, worn my best hippie garb - tie-dyed skirt and gauze tunic - so they would recognize this gray-haired old lady! Otherwise, it was pleasing to me that, contrary to all my other visits to Kent State, I didn't feel the kids' presence this time. That was comforting because I believe it means they're more at peace now and have moved on. At the time, I missed the significance of the hawk because I was waiting for the old ways of communicating. Now, however, I prize that encounter with the hawk.
When the hawk left, we visited the other kids. Luckily, I didn't break down with each, having spent all my emotions at Jeff's site. Instead, I now began to critically assess the site changes. I had previously seen photos of, and deeply disliked, the individual markers installed in 1999:
But they are more offensive than I even imagined. The stanchions are enormous, completely oversized. The nameplates are shoved off in the corner, as if the kids are an afterthought. The odd little curb seems to have no real purpose except to put you off. And, if the stanchions light up, we saw no evidence of it despite staying well into dusk. Littlesky, a sign designer by profession, quickly came up with a delicate, gentle design that would have been warm and inviting for visitors rather than austere, hard and cold.
As I stood at Sandy's memorial, instinct told me it was wrong. At my last May 4 memorial, I stood a vigil for Sandy while Dean Kahler, paralyzed from a guardsmen's bullet, sat one for Bill. For half an hour, we essentially stared at each other. But standing at Sandy's memorial now, Bill was several spaces down and felt much too far away. (The picture above shows Bill's and Sandy's memorials.) I sent Littlesky back to the car to retrieve Peter Davies's book, with its wealth of photos. I needed to check Beverly Knowles's picture of the scene immediately after the shootings, with every victim visible. Then we counted the spaces in the picture and on the ground. Sure enough, Sandy's memorial is a row back and several spaces over from her proper position in the parking lot.
Adding to the insult of this, I would find several official Kent State maps of the scene and every single one of them has Sandy marked correctly. That can only mean one thing: it was crass indifference, nothing more and nothing less, that led them to misplace her marker. Thus far, that was the most direct punch to the gut.
Meanwhile, Littlesky, heading towards the hill, had encountered one of Kent's famous black squirrels:
A young couple, also visiting the site, said the squirrels were making a comeback after several lean years. A few idle stranger comments later, we were talking about May 4. They were both KSU grads but knew very little about the site. They asked if I knew where the guard had been when they opened fire. I had hoped to avoid becoming a tour guide but I couldn't, in all good conscience, allow such ignorance to stand:
(sorry the text in that photo got shrunk so badly after I created it.)
As I explained events of May 4 to these KSU grads, another lone gentleman and couple came to the site. Both of them soon realized I seemed to know a lot and so they hovered on the edges, where they could hear without appearing to eavesdrop. The guy in the picture above walked around us in an arc while the couple (hidden by the tree) circled the Drumm sculpture. Littlesky, standing on the hill, was tempted to tell them I didn't know that couple, I was just telling what I knew, and they should go listen. But she resisted for which I was quite grateful. As a historian and public speaker, one of my curses in visiting my favorite historic sites is attracting a crowd. Yet, one of the nicest parts of our visit was the number of other people exploring the site. On Friday, at least 15 other people arrived during the several hours we were there.
Finally, I climbed the hill and understood the main reason the entire site looks so different. Littlesky had already discovered and verified it with the 1970 photos. In one of the most cynical moves yet, Kent State has planted a large black maple directly in the middle of the Guard's sightline as they shot.
Today, standing where the Guard stood, you can't even see the parking lot. I clearly remember standing up there several times and identifying people down in the parking lot. The first time it happened, I was shocked to realize how easily the guardsmen could actually have targeted specific individuals. No one will again have that experience. What the gymnasium hasn't obscured, the tree has.
The gymnasium did exactly what everyone predicted: chopped up the field, changing the entire character of the site. The guard fired because the kids were closing in on them? Today, it appears to be an extremely reasonable explanation. Of course, it is actually total garbage as the old site told you. In addition, the practice field, where they first threatened the students with their guns, is also gone, having morphed into a small patch of campus green.
The gymnasium did another offensive thing. The university swore it would not cover the actual site where any student was shot. Perhaps technically true but, standing on the hill, you can't see the site where Jim Russell (hit by falling buckshot 90 degrees removed from the rest) fell. No, it's buried in some hidden alcove doorway of the gym.
One thing that did make me feel good was the Drumm sculpture, which was also shot that day. The bullet hole has been sanded down, no longer bearing the jagged scars of pierced metal. But that was almost certainly a public safety issue - people want to touch it - and I found it easy enough to dismiss the change as the Drumm sculpture healing itself after all these years.
Offerings and chalked messages cover the sculpture, now a sort of bulletin board for visitors with (mostly) lovely messages of healing. On Saturday, when we returned with our offerings, we left our own candle.
Next, we walked towards the Commons. Coming around the corner of Taylor Hall, I burst out laughing. There, smack dab in the middle of the Guard's line of retreat after the shootings was a new emergency pole!
I like to think someone was laughing their ass off when they erected this but fear no one even understood the significance. We didn't go down to the victory bell - long climb for me - but it looked very much the same and I'm sure it has messages on it, too.
Next stop: the 1990 Bruno Ast memorial. No pictures of this. Can I just say We didn't get it! I could transcribe the university's explanation in their May 4 site guide but why? What we experienced bore no resemblance to their flowery description. The five disks that are supposed to be reflecting our image are invisible, totally covered in ivy, certainly not leading us to "four free-standing pylons stand(ing) as mute sentinels to the force of violence and the memory of the four students killed." Nope, sorry, never saw them. Never saw the "jagged, abstract border symbolic of disruptions and the conflict of ideas" either. Nope, didn't see any of it. What we saw was a massively overgrown site with big blocks of granite, a wall, and a bench. And the words "Inquire, Learn, Reflect" to which I wanted to add "Get pissed!" The memorial we visited did not invite walking or any of those activities. Instead, what we witnessed was more of the same: hard and cold and neglected.
What I also didn't see were the names of the four kids. In 1990, before the 20th anniversary when this was to be dedicated, Elaine Holstein, Jeff's mother, asked me to consider meeting her at Kent for the anniversary. Even for Elaine, I couldn't do it. Then she said she wasn't going. She had learned the kids' names would not be on the memorial and, therefore, she wouldn't attend. Later, she said Kent agreed to add the names and so her trip was back on. Well, littlesky and I searched but no names. Did Elaine just not tell me that they reneged? Did they promise to do it later and then not? Now I wonder if perhaps they were on the free-standing, mute sentinel pylons and we missed them. Whatever the truth, this began a recurring mantra echoing in my head. When Arthur Krause and I left campus in 1977, one of the last things he said to me was, "They'll look you right in the eye, Les, and lie to your face." This trip proved the truth of another of Arthur's many prescient statements.
Now late, littlesky and I retreated to a rather ratty Quality Inn to eat some good pizza and plan strategy for Saturday. Brushing my teeth, I read the brochure we'd picked up at the Ast memorial. It would soon be known as the "foot-stomping" brochure because, with my mouth full of toothpaste, I could only stomp my foot repeatedly in disgust as I read misstatement after half-truth after damned close to outright lies. "They'll look you in the eye, Les, and lie to your face" reverberated.
Finally, when I had calmed down a bit, we began to plot strategy for Saturday and, eventually, we had our plan. The next day, we would first take a printed copy of these diaries (without the comments) to the library, then return to the site and leave flowers and tokens for the kids, place a candle on the Drumm sculpture, correctly mark the spot where Sandy died and, finally, make our own helpful additions to every one of the brochures at the Ast sculpture. Under the heading for May 1-4 timeline, we would write For more details, see dailykos.com/user/kainah. Under "The Aftermath: Inquire, Learn, Reflect," we would add: "They'll look you in the eye and lie to your face" - Arthur Krause, 1977. Those would be our contributions to Kent State twenty-nine years later.
Saturday arrived wet and rainy. After buying flowers, mementoes, chalk, and a candle, we headed for the library, a dry destination. There, we visited the May 4 Resource Room, supposedly a room of May 4 resources for quiet study and reflection. There are four pretty stained glass windows, pictures of the kids, and a clock stopped at 12:24. I immediately went to check the bookcase contents. Fairly normal assortment of resources on the `60s and student activism. But then I noticed something else. None of the best books on Kent State were there! Not Davies, not Bill Gordon, not Esterhas and Roberts, not "Middle of the Country," not even the KSU-published anthology by Scott Bills! Could they be checked out? Perhaps, but a quick check of the books there gave no sign that these books circulate. Was it an attempt to ensure the "right story,"i.e., Michener's, was told? I don't know.
When we went to sign the visitor guestbook, no pen. We had one, however, in preparation for our brochure additions. I was tempted to write "fess up!" under comments but opted instead to refer people to these diaries. At the desk, when we explained about my diaries and handed them to the professional librarian we were referred to, he was appreciative and sincere, promising to deliver them to the May 4 archives come Monday.
Now, remarkably, as we approached the parking lot again, it stopped raining. (It would not start again until the moment we got into the car to leave.) It was way too wet to sit and helpfully annotate the brochures. It was probably also too wet to mark Sandy's spot accurately but, at least, we could leave our flowers, mementoes and candle. The day before, I'd been appalled to realize I hadn't brought anything to leave. Searching my belongings, I could only find a little guardian angel and one peace button. (I usually have 2-5 around.) I left the guardian angel for Jeff:
And the peace button (Let Peace Grow) with Allison, but returned Saturday with magnets of flowers (daisies for Sandy, violets for Allison) and butterflies for Bill and Jeff along with a calla lily for each.
When we went to give Allison her offerings, I placed the calla lily and then propped the violets magnet against the stanchion base. (No sticking - the posts are concrete painted black.) Nice, but a little crooked. As I tried to straighten it, it slipped into the stanchion's base. "I have tweezers," Littlesky announced, heading for the car. I tried, and failed to retrieve the violets. Then she tried, also without success. We could see still them down there until, suddenly, poof, they vanished. Gone. Whoosh! Disappeared. It could have been upsetting but, instead, I just laughed. "Gee," I said, "Allison really wanted her violets!" And I could hardly blame her for not wanting them against those ugly stanchions.
After leaving all our offerings, I decided the ground might be dry enough to mark Sandy's spot correctly. I pulled out the pink chalk and went to work:
(I wish I'd noticed and picked up that cigarette butt!) I knew it wouldn't last but, for that moment, people would know the truth! And, as we pulled out of the parking lot as it started to rain again, two young guys pulled in and parked next to Sandy's memorial. They got out and walked towards Sandy's space. Certainly, they saw it.
I stopped to say one last good-bye to Jeff. Approaching, for the first time since arriving the day before, I felt another presence. Then, as I stood there, I clearly heard Jeff's mother's voice telling me to give him her love. I originally thought the presence I felt was Jeff but now I suspect that it was, instead, Elaine. Which is kind of intriguing because, you see, I don't know whether Elaine is alive or not. The last time I heard from her, several years ago, she'd just had surgery for a brain tumor. We were very close but my relationship with her husband (not Jeff's father) was understandably more difficult. He wanted to protect her and wasn't always sure our relationship, with its emphasis on Jeff and Kent State, was helpful, a fear shared by my husband. I love her like a mother and miss her enormously but I respect the silence that leaves me not really knowing. Whether it was Jeff or Elaine, her voice was clear and so, my last act was to leave Jeff a note. I've tried several times to post littlesky's picture of this but it refuses to appear. I regard that as a sign and will try no more.
Then we got back in our car and drove off campus.
Epilogue: The trip to Kent, no matter how many terrible things I discovered, was very therapeutic. The trip, and these diaries, really clarified my book for me. Back home, I wrote a complete synopsis and outline, unimaginable six months ago. I also discovered that Kent State can't hurt me any more. They ripped out and stomped on my heart so long ago, I'm immune now. That helps me reclaim my own emotions. I now know I could - and no doubt will - some day return for a memorial. Each marks a step in healing the ugly, open gash May 4 left on my soul. Again, I thank all of you for your many contributions to that process.