Special Collections and Archives
Timothy DeFrange, Oral History
Timothy DeFrange, Oral History
Recorded: April 30, 1990
Interviewed by Helene Cooley
Transcribed by Lisa Whalen and Kathleen S. Medicus
[Timothy DeFrange]: I'm Tim Defrange, and I'm right now forty-one and I attended Kent State. My final quarter was May of 1970. The question, "Where were you on May 4th, 1970?" I was at Field High School, doing my student teaching. Yet I have a very, very powerful memory of May 4th, a first-hand memory. That I somehow stumbled upon the whole -- the whole process. My father was dying, at the time. He'd been in intensive care at Robinson Memorial Hospital in -- in that whole month. He -- he'd come there with a problem with gall stones that turned out to be pancreatitis, and he was dying. There was no way to save him, he was in intensive care. My mother had been practically living there, sleeping on the couch outside the ICU unit, and going in every, you know, couple hours, for fifteen minutes, to hold his hand. He had become nothing but just skin and bones, and he was jaundiced and very yellow, and very, very unlike the way he looked when he went in. And our family had been going through a tremendous amount of stress throughout this whole month.
So May 4th was a very upsetting thing for us as a family, but mostly on a personal level. My brother Mark had been killed in Vietnam in '69, and my mom had been against the war, and my father had been for the war, and suddenly, the whole war just didn't matter anymore, with Dad dying, and Mom at his side. And the -- the pain of Vietnam was -- was even -- you know, nothing compared with what we were going through as a family.
I got a call while I was -- well first of all, they announced -- or the teachers were saying, when I came out of my last class, or in the middle of my afternoon class, that there had been some National Guardsmen shot at Kent State. Now I had at the time, in my wallet, a critical patient pass, because the Guard had been stationed all around Kent, so that you couldn't just drive through. But I needed to go that way to get to Robinson Memorial Hospital from Field High School. So I needed to get through the Guard, and I had this critical patient pass, which got me through.
I was, you know, thinking about this all, because I could see the burning ROTC building from my house in Twin Lakes, when they burned that down We could climb a tree and watch the fire, it was way off in the distance, but we knew something bad was happening. But I still had to teach the next day, and so I had an idea that something really bad was brewing on campus, yet I really didn't care that much; I was more worried about Mom and Dad.
And as I drove through Kent, I raced to the hospital, hurrying as fast as I could, and flashing my critical patient pass to the guards that were stationed on [Interstate] 59. When I got there, my mom was already downstairs. And she said, "He's gone." And I said, "Well, how did it happen? How did he die?" She says, "You just won't believe," she says, "I was upstairs, and the -- all of a sudden there was all this noise and commotion. And then all these young people were wheeled into the ICU, from the shootings. And the doctors and the nurses were just crying. And one doctor went over and he held an x-ray up, and he was holding it, showing it to another doctor. And he said, 'Look where this bullet is lodged. This bullet is lodged in this boy's spine. He's never going to walk again. In all my years of medicine, this is the most senseless thing I've ever seen.'" So my mom, who had been there for a whole month, she walked to the window, and said, "Lord, Nick has had 55 good years. All this time, all this month, I've been praying that you would spare him. But how can I ask for that when these kids haven't even had twenty years? From now on, it's whatever you want." She turned around and went back into the ICU, and he had died. So, that's my story.
When I'd been going to school at Kent State, I was very, very upset about the Vietnam War. And during my years at Kent State, I spent a lot of energy and time trying to learn more about it. And the people who knew a lot about Vietnam were the kids in SDS. Because they got the films and stuff from off campus, and the stuff that they had was really, really excellent material. You know, film material that was not available, even on the networks. I'll never forget going to those SDS showings of the different films. I wasn't an SDS member per se, but I really knew some of those people that were in it, and I used to go to the meetings to learn more. And I remember seeing a picture of the -- of a GI, an American GI, and he was posing with a Vietnamese -- dead Viet Cong, hanging by his feet, like he'd just shot a deer. And there were other scenes of them standing with their feet on piles of the bodies of the Vietnamese. Posing, proudly, as the -- they just looked like they'd been out hunting. And the dehumanization factor was so intense.
My brother Mark, my younger brother Mark, had joined up. Wanted to -- wanted to be in the Army, right out of high school. I -- I spent a lot of time talking to him, trying to encourage him -- you know, the Army's great, but stay away from Vietnam. Don't - whatever you do, avoid going to that zone, that combat zone. And of course, he started off in boot camp, and did great, and was driving ambulance, and really enjoyed the excitement of it all. And finally ended up agreeing to go to Vietnam as a tank commander. And he -- he told me, he said, "You know, Vietnam is a great short cut. I can get in and out of the Army so fast, I get double the pay. It's just the greatest short cut in the world. I get double the pay because it will be in a combat zone." And I said, "Mark, that's crazy." I said, "There's nothing more dangerous in the whole world than for you to go to Vietnam. And there's no way you can control whats going to happen to you." And he said, "Oh, now look, if you get any MIA, missing in action notices, don't you believe 'em. I'll be holed up in the jungle, using my survival techniques. I'm trained. I'm really ready for this."
Well, he went, and he would write these letters that I knew were not really what was happening to him, because they were too tame. Because the films I'd seen in the SDS thing, I knew what he was going through had to be a lot more dangerous, and a lot more desperate, than he was describing it. I finally wrote him a letter and said, "You can come clean with me. I'll tell you everything that's in my heart for you right now, and I'll tell you what I think you're going through. And I'll tell you why I want you to come back alive, and you do everything you can to." And I wrote him a letter that was basically saying, "I love you. You know, I never got to say that to you before, but I'm saying it to you now, and I want you back. And we've got things we can do together." And he wrote me a letter. And he sent it just to me. And he told me what he felt like, and it's just a very powerful letter. Anyway, I could probably read it into the tape machine, but it was a very very desperate, very awful letter. He described a couple things ... [pause on tape]. He wrote me this letter when he described that they were on their way to their first station, and got shelled,
[Interviewer]: How long had he been there?
[Timothy DeFrange]: He died after nineteen days there. He just never got to live -- got through very much. Anyway, he was on his way with the rest of the -- the crew, to his first base. And they were shelled by Viet Cong. And the mortars were blowing holes in the road all around, big enough to drop a car into, they were dropping such heavy mortar fire. And everywhere men were screaming for their mothers and there was blood all over, and you know, it was just such a shock to him. "I had no idea it was going to be like this," he said. And he said another time, he was up on a mountaintop, with the rest of his tank crew. His job was to sit up on the top where the tank is open, tell the gunner down below how to correct the fire, so it -- you know, each time the cannon is fired, it needed to be corrected so they'd hit right on target. He said that he and his men were up there, and some guys came up in a jeep, they were just up there to send some communications up to him and the rest of the guys. They talked a while, and then they said good bye and the guys got back in the jeep, and were going back down the mountain. Well their jeep hit an anti-tank mine, and he said, "Tim, this mine is made to blow the treads off a tank. What it did to the jeep and those men I can't tell you. All of us ran down the hill when that thing went off." He said, "When we got down there, there were dogs eating the remains of the bodies of the men. Wild dogs. We opened fire and we shot all the dogs. I cry every day. And I tell my men to cry. Because that's the only way we'll get through this thing without going crazy."
So he died June 25, 1969. He was -- he was levelling, according to his commander, he was levelling accurate fire against the enemy, near some highway, and a rocket-propelled grenade got him, from behind. Came up from behind and, I don't know if the grenade was fired at the upper part of the tank or what, but some of the guys in the tank lived. But he died. He was in a hospital for twenty-four hours. You know, one of those MASH-type hospitals, for twenty-four hours, before he finally expired. They brought him there -- he died almost twenty four hours after he was wounded. So I don't really know exactly how, and what happened when he died. But --
[Interviewer]: Was he buried back here?
[Timothy DeFrange]: Yeah. He's buried across from Roosevelt, at Standing Rock. When we had gotten the news that he was missing in action, of course, you know, I remembered what he had said. But there was no way that I believed what he said. I was really scared. And when -- when we finally got the news that his body had been found, I was up in Cleveland -- actually in Maple Heights, with a girlfriend, at her house. My father called on the phone and said, "Is Tim there?" I came to the phone and he said, "They've found Mark's body." That's all he said. And I said, "Do you want me to come home?" And he said, "Do what you want." So I got in the car and I raced home like crazy. I had visions in my head of the whole family sitting around the table weeping. Just crying their eyes out, and just everybody devastated. You know, the first time that one of us, one of our immediate, nuclear family had been killed, had died. I got in there, I came in the house. Mom and Dad and all the kids were -- my brothers and sister, were sitting around the table, eating ham sandwiches. It didn't look like anything had happened. You know, Mom looked like she'd been crying, but everybody had this real pale, numb look about them -- their face. No one was discussing it. And the -- the conversation was going to, "Well, what is everybody going to do this afternoon?" So Marilyn and Dennis were going to go swimming, and Tom was gonna go do this and that. This just was an unbelievable denial of what was going on, in my heart. And I didn't know how to deal with that, and so, of course, when in Rome -- so I just -- just the same as they were. But it was just eating me alive, ya know?
We went to the funeral home, and the casket was closed, because this was Mom and Dad's intention to have a closed casket. And I was not having any sensation except a numb feeling, and my mom was crying. She was the only one who was crying, all the rest of us were just walking around - just numb. I mean, it was to the point where, company dropped in to drop off food, and Tom and I were sitting around joking, and we were just running from it; no one was letting it hit. I had a friend that kind of forced me to -- to face into it when she and I were alone. And then, later on, I realized the reason I was having such trouble was that I didn't have a sense of his loss, because I hadn't seen him. It was just a box to me, it wasn't Mark in there. So I asked my uncle, who I was close to, I said, "What do you think I should do? I think I really need to see." My uncle said, "I think that's a great idea." He was a former Army captain, and he said, "Look that's a great idea, I think some of the immediate family that really knows Mark, need to make sure that Mark's in there. Things can happen, mistakes can be made." He said, "I think we should ask your father to open the coffin, let you see, to make sure. For yourself, and for the sake of the family." I said, "He'll just say no." And he said, "You asked my opinion. My opinion is: ask your father."
So when we got home that night from the funeral home, I asked my dad. This was probably the most painful memory I have of my father. He -- he exploded. Just all the emotion, all the pent up emotion in my dad just exploded. He just yelled, he said, "Are you nuts? Are you crazy? Are you crazy?" You know, just over and over again. And my mom -- my mom strode over to me, she came up to me and she said, "Tim, you stop it." She had to side with him, you know. "Tim, you stop this. You stop it right now." So I just -- just -- I was wretched then, at that point. I just went out, and sat alone on the front step. One other thing my dad did, just before I left the room. He walked over to the telephone, and he dialed Bissler's. And he said, "Mr. Bissler, Under no circumstances," and he's looking at me the whole time he was talking to Bissler, "do I want that coffin opened." So then I sat on the front step, all by myself. I was out there - I don't know how long, and my brother Tom came out, my older brother. He said, "Tim," -- No, the next thing that happened is the car, zoomed out of the driveway. Dad was driving. He and my mom were in the car, and the car backed out of the driveway. We had like a long driveway, and the car went, "zrooom," and away they went. And then my brother Tom came out. And my brother Tom said, "Tim, I think Dad's going to let you see Mark." I said, "How do you know?" You know how brothers are: he goes (looks at me), like that. "I think he is." That's all he said.
And so we went to the funeral home the next -- for the next, you know, the next visiting hours. And after everything was over, and everyone had left, Bob Bissler came up to me. He tapped me on the shoulder and called me over and said, "You can see your brother now." And I said, "You know what my dad said, my dad said no to this." I said, "What about him?" Mr. Bissler said, "Well, your father's a very generous man." So, he brought me in the room and closed the door, and said, "There's nothing to be afraid of," he said. And he opened the coffin up, and it was a coffin that had glass on the top part, where the head and the shoulders were, and metal covered the rest of it, and everything was under glass, Mark was. His hair had grown long during the time he'd been in combat, of course. That's expected, no barbers. He had the colic(?). They had -- they had something under his uniform, because it was pointy in spots that shouldn't have been pointy. Like maybe, maybe there was a part of him that was not there, and this was a brace to make it look as though he was whole, even though he wasn't. But it was obvious, you know, that he was in a dress uniform, and he was clean looking. There was nothing the matter with his face, other than, they had set his jaw- he had a big overbite, all of us do. And they had set his jaw in such a way that it was obvious they didn't know that he never had his jaw that way. So it didn't look like him in that regard, but everything else was him. And I could really tell, and I just -- a tear rolled down my face, and I had no problem dealing with the grief, then I could grieve.
[Interviewer]: Would it have helped your folks to have seen him?
[Timothy DeFrange]: I don't know. I think it probably would have helped my dad. My dad said to my mom -- my mom told me this story later -- he said, "Ellen dear, I wish I could cry. I just wish I could cry. I just can't." When the -- when the funeral took place, later, I was good at crying, and little sister and my mother cried. But my other brothers, Dennis and Tom, didn't seem to cry much. But, I was really sobbing, and really, really needed to sob. And when we got to the -- to the cemetary, after the -- the funeral, Bill Cowling was the soldier that we had asked to accompany Mark's body back from Vietnam. And he had come, and we'd been glad to get him out of the combat zone for that short amount of time, which was something you were allowed to do. And he led the Honor Guard, and then there was Taps, and they fired the twenty-one-gun salute. And they took the flag, and they folded it up, ceremoniously. The whole thing was over now. They folded the flag up, handed it to Bill, and Bill went over to my dad, and said, "Mr. DeFrange, please accept this flag in memory of your son, Mark, from a grateful nation." And my dad just took that flag and tucked it under his arm like a newspaper, no tears or nothing. I'll never forget that. How tough he was, how hard it was for him to let go of his emotion. And so there was that -- there was this grief we were undergoing, that Vietnam had already, pretty much wiped us out as a family. I mean, we -- we were just, you know. My younger sister Marilyn was struggling through high school, and she was already having emotional problems. You know, losing Mark like this just devestated her emotionally. She never really -- it took years for her to straighten herself out from this. And then to lose my dad in 1970, you know, it was just one thing after another for our family. It was a very grief -- awful time.
[Interviewer]: You lost him on May 4th?
[Timothy DeFrange]: Yeah, Dad died on May 4th. Yeah. So, you know, later on I asked Bob Bissler, I said, "Do you remember when you opened the coffin for me? Do you remember how my dad said it would be all right?" Bob said, "I just don't remember." I don't know if he didn't want to remember, or if, you know, he just didn't want to get into it. But maybe I waited too long to ask him, he was already struggling against his heart problems. He had already been in the hospital, and I probably should have asked him sooner. I never thought to. But I got curious one time and asked him. He just didn't remember, could be, and that really could be it.
[Interviewer]: And what brought you to campus today?
[Timothy DeFrange]: Well, I've often thought about -- I know that one of the students that was paralyzed is Dean Kahler, is that right? And I just wonder if he ever knew that my mother was in the hospital, and that the doctors wept when they saw the bullet in his spine, and their reaction, you know. I just wanted -- I just wanted this little piece of -- of the experience to be known. That up there, upstairs those doctors and nurses in the intensive care unit -- they were just shocked and stunned. And mortified at the waste, the senseless waste. I don't even know which doctors they were. They probably really could say something about it. I'm sure the doctors would have something to say.
[Interviewer]: That was a moving story, Tim.
[Timothy DeFrange]: Good, good. You might remember, though, hearing about a play, a peace play called Alice in Blunderland. My brother Tom and I wrote that.
[Interviewer]: I was a real good friend of a teacher from Field High School, I think, or Roosevelt, a woman.
[Timothy DeFrange]: Leslie Hudak?
[Interviewer]: Yes. Real good friends.
[Timothy DeFrange]: She's back there now, aren't they? She's back teaching there again, yeah.
[Interviewer]: That's how -- that's why I know your name.
[Timothy DeFrange]: Okay. Well anyway, a couple things. Let's see, what was I going to say. I was talking about -- let's pause for a second here. I wasn't in SDS, I really -- I had an ambivalent feeling about the SDS people. I really believed the way they did, I was very angry about the war. There were moments that I said, "Oh, cool," when they were doing things like, carrying coffins through the middle of campus, and showing the dead, and emphasizing how -- how this was a war that was killing, and whatever. I said, "Yes. That's right. That's right." But I could never go along with the way Joy Secora and a few of the other really nice looking kids, dressed like bums, and stood on these soap boxes, and used all this foul language. And insulted all these kids, that I thought could be persuaded with reasonable dignity, you know. There was a lack of dignity and respect in their anger. Their anger was just out of control. And they really behaved radically, and they behaved socially boarishly. And it -- it didn't do us any favors, in terms of the cause. I didn't want to -- I didn't wanna belong to SDS, they -- they were people I agreed with philosophically, but I didn't approve of their behavior. So I didn't join it per se, but I loved hanging around them. And I was walking across campus, and I almost got to the Education Building. And there was a whole van-load of kids in the back of it. And I saw one of my friends, you know, that I -- his name was Scotty, and he waved me, "Come on! Come on! We're going!" So I jumped in the van. I didn't know where we were going. He said, "we're going to demonstrate against Nixon. He's going to be at Akron U." So I said, "All right." So we drove to Akron U., and we had the flyers to pass out. We passed them out, then we all went up, we all had seats in the balcony. And Dick Bliss, or Ray Bliss, the -- he was the speaker, he started to talk. And the next Republican speaker was Governor Rhodes, and then Richard Nixon came on. And all through this we were all chanting, and we had our balloons, and we're saying, "Ho ho, Ho Chi Minnie" and, "Elemental F is going to win," and some of these other chants that we used, and we were angry. Yet there was sort of an adventure about it, and finally, we were all done. And the whisper was, "Okay, now we're gonna walk out." So everybody stood up all at once, and they stared walking out, and I was the last one out. It made me angry, I looked down, and there was Nixon, still talking. There were all these people listening with rapt --he was their hero. And I just had this picture in my mind of his insensitivity towards the blacks, and this thing about law and order with justice, and I had a feeling of what was ahead, and all the suffering that was about to happen. I had no belief that he would be willing to end the war, he seemed to be so conservative. And just to me -- I just saw all the grief that was about to happen. I leaned over the balcony, and I yelled, at the top of my lungs, "God help America if you get elected!" Really loud. And there were two security guards that came up, and one and grabbed me this arm and one grabbed me by that arm; they literally carried me out, but they weren't violent. And I was appreciative for not getting beat up for that loud, disruptive remark. But it gave me such a good feeling, even later, with all that stuff with Watergate, and whatever, to have been able to say that, to Nixon, in front of a lot of people, about my opinion. I was one of those 'rowdies', you know. Even though I wasn't an SDS member. Then later on, as the years went away, and we were learning to live with the -- with the consequences of Vietnam and whatever, I raised a family and whatever. Of course, Leslie went to Washington to hear about the Alice in Blunderland, well, she heard about the issue from Helen Caldicott, and then that's when we wrote the play, and thats another whole story in itself. But, that's really not what we're talking about here, so...
This is one other memory I had during this time: it was the moratorium on the war. We were all getting in buses, we're all going to Washington, D.C., to demonstrate against the war. And this was sort of, to me -- I was a little resentful of some of the people that were climbing on the bus, because we had been fighting this war for so long, and now it was finally catching on. And now everybody wanted to be against the war, and there was a little part of me that was mad about this. That -- that a lot of us had been all alone for so long, and now, suddenly the tide is turning, and now it's a popular thing to do, and I just felt a little bit resentful. But, I signed up and we climbed on the buses, and you know, they were all Kent people. And as I sat sown in a seat, I looked back, and there was a sea of this khaki, with all these Vietnam red flags, all in the back. They were all in the back, and they were all ready, all pumped and everything, al, "Ho ho Ho Chi Min," and everything else. Well, Harriet Begala got on the bus. She got on the bus, and she said, "I have a flag that I would like someone to carry to Washington, D.C. Will someone carry this flag?" She held it up, and it was an American flag. You should have heard that bus load of people. They all started all yelling and screaming, "We don't love that flag, that flag stands for murder. That flag stands for deceit. That flag stands for everything that's evil in the world." They were just yelling all these abusive things at Harriet, and I stood up and I said, "I'll take it." And I took that flag, and I carried it all up and down the Mall in Washington, D.C. And I just think that the American flag is the reason that makes those of us that believe that our country's wrong, it gives us credibility with the rest of America. You carry a foreign flag, you don't stand for anything. But if you're an American against what America is doing, you stand for something. I think that's the secret to what happened, finally, with the protesters. They stopped carrying around a foreign flag and started carrying our flag. You know, and then people start seeing that Americans don't believe that our country is headed in the right direction. So I was really happy to be able to carry that flag. I didn't bring one, but I'm so glad Harriet provided me with one to carry. Because there were lots of red flags, and there were not very many American flags. And I was proud to have the American flag. It really made me feel good. That was the other thing I wanted to tell you.
I had a friend named Howard Ruffner. He was -- he was always carrying his camera around campus and everything. And I remember, you know, a couple of times -- I loved talking to the guy. He was a really nice guy. And one time I was going over Taylor Hall, over -- right up over the hill of Taylor Hall, on my way with my girlfriend. He stood right there and he snapped my picture, with her. It was the nicest picture. It was just a gorgeous picture, one of the nicest pictures -- we were just at a happy moment, it was such a beautiful, romantic picture. And then I kind of lost touch with him as I was student teaching and everything. Its just so ironic that there's this picture that he took of us, on top of Taylor Hill, there by Taylor Hall, almost the exact spot where the guardsmen were standing when they shot. They were up there on the top, shooting down the other way, and it just was so ironic. And there he was, taking pictures of that time.
[Interviewed]: What year was that?
[Timothy DeFrange]: Well, that was -- that was -- the picture that he took was probably '69, and then of course, the next year, he just happened to be there. And his pictures were sold to Life Magazine and everything.
[Interviewer]: Is that right? I didn't realize those were his pictures.
[Timothy DeFrange]: Yeah. Those were Howard's pictures, a lot of those pictures he took. He took those stills that are in Life, those black and whites. So that was kind of neat, but amazing. So ironic. The whole thing is so ironic. There's such irony in it. There were stories that people would tell, you know, the people, the administrators, that stood there and watched the building burn, that just sort of stood there quietly, without really saying much. I don't know if maybe, whether or not they saw that they could have any control over it. Maybe they feared for their own safety if they were to try to stop a mob that was out of control. And I -- I don't blame them. But I just wonder how it is when you -- when I deal with kids. And kids, if these adults say nothing, they take it for approval. They take it for permission. And that must have been a very, very upsetting thing for them to be watching, but it also must be a thing that bothers them when they think back. That they didn't say something.