Special Collections and Archives
Chuck Ayers, Oral History
Chuck Ayers, Oral History
Recorded: August 16, 2007
Interviewed and Transcribed by Craig Simpson
[Interviewer]: Good morning. My name is Craig Simpson. The date is August 16, 2007. We are conducting an interview today for the May 4 Oral History Project, and could you please state your name?
[Chuck Ayers]: My name is Chuck Ayers.
[Interviewer]: And where were you born?
[Chuck Ayers]: Akron, Ohio.
[Interviewer]: What years did you go to Kent State?
[Chuck Ayers]: I started Kent in the Fall of '66. I graduated in March of '71.
[Interviewer]: What made you decide to go to Kent State?
[Chuck Ayers]: The art department. The program here was always very good, and I had gone to a high school in Akron with a very strong art program. It was actually involved with the vocational education there, in their program. Today it's in magnet arts programs in the schools. But I've always been interested in art. I actually spent a year at Akron U[niversity] because, when I graduated, I didn't have any money. [laughs] I put myself through school. I worked my way through school. So I spent a year at Akron U before I transferred here to Kent.
[Interviewer]: So you were still an undergraduate in 1970?
[Chuck Ayers]: Yes.
[Interviewer]: And what was your major again?
[Chuck Ayers]: I was a graphic design major.
[Interviewer]: How would you describe the university prior to the events of that year, just some of your general thoughts?
[Chuck Ayers]: I think Kent had a real kind of a party-school reputation at the time. The old joke, of course they use it for every school, but I used to hear it all the time: "If you can't go to a real school, go to Kent." I would hear things like that. But, you know, I came from Akron U. [laughs] So it was a smaller school when I was there. There was political activity around. The Kent Committee to End the War in Vietnam had been demonstrating for several years on campus. The spring before that, spring of '69, was the SDS thing at the Music and Speech Building. So I was sort of politically aware in those terms. I was attending some of those rallies and events. Nothing out of the ordinary. It was just a college campus.
[Interviewer]: What [were] your feelings about the town, or maybe the relationship with the town, between the town and the university?
[Chuck Ayers]: Actually, because I lived in Akron, I didn't have much of a relationship with the town at all.
[Interviewer]: You didn't live on campus?
[Chuck Ayers]: No. I never did.
[Interviewer]: So you commuted.
[Chuck Ayers]: Yeah. Like I said, my folks were in a situation where they didn't have enough money to send me to school. I worked my way through school. The only help I got was--I lived at home. We were in Goodyear Heights, so it's about as close to being in Akron that you can be that's in the closest part to Kent. So I had a lot of friends still--I hung around here on campus. I was usually on campus seven days a week. I would just go home to sleep, basically. But I still had a lot of friends from Akron U and from my high school and things like that, so I spent a lot of time when I wasn't in school doing things in Akron rather than here in Kent.
[Interviewer]: What memories do you have of those four days in May, maybe just starting with May 1st?
[Chuck Ayers]: Well, actually, my real memories of it go back beyond that--
[Interviewer]: Okay. We can start wherever you like.
[Chuck Ayers]: --because I think it's important in a lot of ways to sort of set up the things that I had been experiencing and going through coming into May. And it begins really like in '69. And I think one of the things--I was working as a cartoonist for the [Daily Kent] Stater at the time. And these were not really political cartoons, they were more social cartoons. But we actually missed a lot of what was going on with Music and Speech because we were at a newspaper convention down at Ohio University at the time, a number of us from Kent State. So we heard about some of the things that were going on. When we got back, I was able to be at Music and Speech the night of all the events. So I watched these things unfold. It was a good learning experience in that I got to watch how the authorities treated protesters. I got to watch the arrests. And, you know, when the State Highway Patrol moved in--those guys are all about ten feet tall and shoulders about sixteen feet wide, and when they would come up to somebody and say, "You're under arrest," people would just say, "Yes, sir," and go along with them. There really was no resistance, other than maybe a token resistance of just sitting there. I got to watch some of that.
Around the same time, and I can't remember the dates, there was an event at the University of Akron where the Black United Students took over Buchtel Hall for a day. I was on campus with a number of my friends, and my friends were all kind of strange. I had friends who were in SDS, I had friends who were in Young Republicans, so my friends ran the gamut of political experience here. We heard about this, these rioting black students were at Akron U and had taken over the building, and there was reports of guns in the building. So I was talking to a couple of these guys, one of whom was a Young Republican, and I said, "I work at the newspaper and I'm not quite sure I believe what I'm hearing on the radio. Let's go take a look." Which was a really stupid thing in some ways to do, but four of us piled in the car and drove down to Akron U. We were able to walk right up to the front of Buchtel Hall. And there were a million police around. I don't know if you know the area, but what is now the mall in front of Buchtel Mall used to be Buchtel Avenue. It was one way. And this thing was three or four lanes across, and when we got there every lane was filled with parked police cars of some sort. We walked right through that group, we walked right past all the policemen, we walked right up to the front of the building. And basically I became aware at that time that this was one of Jim Rhodes--Governor Rhodes' political shows. He was running in May in the primary for the United States Senate, and this was his "law-and-order" approach to things.
This is just background stuff, but it's kind of important as to where I was at the time.
One of my good friends that graduated in June of '69--or, he was graduating in June of '70, but in June of '69 he got drafted. He contacted the draft board and said, "You can't draft me, I'm still in school," and they said, "Well, you're graduating in June and as soon as June happens you're ours." So I was sort of dealing with that with him. I got called up for a pre-induction physical. I had already been in school six years, [laughs] and they knew that they wanted us. So I got called up for a pre-induction physical in the summer of '69, and I was with a number of people that I had gone to junior high school and high school with, because we were all in the same draft board. They shipped us up to Cleveland and ran us through the pre-induction physical, and I think part of it was to intimidate us, to think, well, you're going to get drafted, so to avoid being drafted maybe you'd better sign up. Things like that. The first draft lottery in '69. If you didn't go through those times it's hard to understand what was going through people's heads, because--actually, only a couple years ago I finally put my draft card away. I carried it from the time I was eighteen until just a couple years ago, just because it was such an important thing at that time. It was not supposed to be--it's like your social security card--it wasn't supposed to be for identification, but you couldn't go anywhere at that time if you were a male who was obviously over eighteen without--that was your ID. You showed them your draft card. It was December 1st, '69. It's one of those dates I'll never forget. And I had a high number--mine was 263 or something like that. And the day after, on campus, the first few guys that you would run into, you'd say, "What was your number last night?" And somebody would say, "Oh, mine was 300-something." And somebody else would go, "3." And you knew he was drafted. So there was this dynamic going on all day long, it got by lunch time when two men would meet each other on campus, you wouldn't say hello, you wouldn't ask what the number was, you greeted each other by saying, "263," and the other guy would say, "48," and then you would start your conversation from there. That was all that was being discussed that day. These are the kinds of things that were leading up into that spring.
Getting right into the events themselves, my first memories were really of Thursday, April 30th. My girlfriend Karen worked at the Stater. We both worked there. We were going to go to a film festival that Thursday night in University Auditorium. We got in, we sat down. I don't remember if the films had begun yet or not, I don't think so. I just remember somebody walking onto the stage, setting down a little black-and-white portable TV--you know, we're there for a film festival--setting down this little black-and-white portable TV, plugging it in, turning it on, and there was Nixon making the announcement about the invasion of Cambodia. And so that obviously altered the fun of the evening. We sat there, we watched some of the films. I think we left early, because it just wasn't much fun after that. But she was going to go back up to work, she was working at the Stater office up in Taylor Hall, so walking from University Auditorium to Taylor Hall we walked past the ROTC Building. I've told people about this, I don't know if anybody believes me or not, and I don't much care. But as we walked past the building, Karen and I both in mid-step stopped and looked at each other. And I can remember saying, "You felt that too, huh?" And she said, "Yeah." And it was just this strange cold feeling that wasn't like a physical cold. I've just never forgotten that.
[Interviewer]: Something in the atmosphere?
[Chuck Ayers]: I think so. But we were right beside the building that within forty-eight hours would be burned. Anyway, I took her up to the Stater office and then I went home. Came in on Friday. I had heard about the ceremony that some of the--I believe it was the political science and history graduate students were burying a copy of the Constitution, and I decided to go. I was taking a photography class at the time as part of my requirements as a graphic design major, but I knew all the Stater people too, so while when I would attend these rallies and things I was always a bystander, I was always at the very back. This one was different, because I was taking pictures. I had been at the [Akron] Beacon Journal then for a couple of years. I wasn't doing any cartooning for them, any kind of political cartooning, I was just a part-time staff artist. But I was really learning what journalism was about, so I thought this was a perfect time to take some pictures. A couple weeks before, when Jerry Rubin had been on campus, I was kind of up front taking photos--all for the class. So we sat right in front. I sat there with a couple of the Stater and Burr photographers and watched the event that went on that day, and I recall not thinking a whole lot of it, because it was just one those gestures--it was pretty important to the people that were really involved, but I thought, What kind of an impact is this going to have on anybody?
So anyway, I watched that. And that evening, Friday evening, I was actually going to go downtown. This was one of the few times that I was actually going to be in downtown Kent, partly because I had gotten myself involved with a fraternity. I had already been a senior like for two years, but there was a fraternity, Sigma Tau Gamma, that had been on campus before. A number of the national officers and things like that were Kent alumni or faculty or staff at the time. Kent had no chapter on campus, and they were trying to put this back on campus and they were trying to be different, they were getting student leaders. I was chairman of the Chestnut League at the time, I was working for the Stater and involved in a few other things, so I was considered a student leader at the time. And the thing actually that clinched it was one of the guys who had transferred from another school that was getting involved with it, said he had been in Sig Tau on his campus, and the previous October--October of '69--when they had the big war moratorium across the country, Sigma Tau Gamma had sponsored the moratorium on his campus, and I thought, Well, this is the fraternity I want to get involved with. So this was sort of like our coming-out party. We had done t-shirts. We went to a thing at the Sigma Nu house on [Route] 43, earlier in the evening, it was like a hamburger thing for dinner, with all the fraternities and sororities. And I was still really feeling out of place, I was not a real Greek. But we were there.
And so a bunch of us decided to go downtown. And this was cool, so we're downtown and just going from place to place. And my girlfriend Karen and some of her friends--her roommates--had gone down. Well, we went into, I think it was JB's, ran into Karen, and all of a sudden the guys just looked at me and said, "Well, he's gone for the night, we'll never see him again." So Karen and I bummed around for a little while, but I was working at the Beacon, so we started Saturday morning shift at--I don't remember exactly what time it was at that time, we shifted back and forth periodically from like a 6:30 a.m. starting time to a 7:00 a.m. starting time, so I knew I had to get up and get into work. So we didn't stay around terribly long, and I finally walked her back up to her apartment, got my car and came home. And found out the next morning that all the trouble had happened in downtown Kent apparently right after we left, because with the timing that I heard on the radio reports and the time that we left we must have missed it by fifteen or twenty minutes.
But one of my jobs at the Beacon was to--reproduction on newspapers was horrible at the time, they didn't have any of the computer stuff, so one of our jobs was to retouch the photographs just to enhance them for reproduction in the paper. One of the photos I recalled working on and handling that morning was the photo of the bonfire on Water Street. I sort of felt this connection because I thought, Geez, I just missed that, I was just down there, we walked right across the street right there.
[Interviewer]: Was there anything at the bars in that area that led you to believe something was going to happen?
[Chuck Ayers]: No. No. There was an energy, there was a high energy going on, but--one of the other things that I recall too is the Sunday, two Sundays preceding, not the day before the shootings but the week before that, I recall as being one of the very first really nice days of that spring. It was not a great spring. Not awful, but the temperatures never really got real high. I think it was raining a lot. And that Sunday happened to be just an incredible Sunday. The day after that, exactly one week before the shootings, there was one of these water fights that broke out in the Quad back there--the buildings they tore down--Lake and Olson and Stopher and Johnson. And there was a small building called the Student Activities Building there where the Chestnut League offices were, so we were down there and heard some commotion outside Monday evening and there was this water fight going on. And it was big, and it spread across campus, it spread over to near Taylor Hall and spread down to some of the other dorms, and there was some damage done. I don't think there had ever been a water fight on campus where there was actual physical damage to buildings, other than some water damage. But there were broken windows, there were things pulled down from buildings, and I remember thinking this is kind of strange.
And that's why I think I went into all that preliminary stuff. There was a tension in almost everything that people did at that time. Things in the war were just building up, the antiwar feelings were getting stronger and stronger all the time, so even a Friday night downtown in the bars on the second good weekend of spring had a tension about it, that things seemed a bit more intense. I didn't expect anything like this, but looking back on it, it was a more intense evening than some that I had experienced.
[Interviewer]: Would you account for that due to the general student feel, or would you chalk that up to what some people have called "outsiders" that were in the area that particular event?
[Chuck Ayers]: I have heard stories about the outsiders. I've heard that there was a group in--not a political group--a group that was in just kind of partying and things got out of hand, that may have led to some of it, some of the tension. But I think that, the night before Nixon announces the invasion of Cambodia, people who really thought that some of the Vietnam War was winding down now saw an expansion of the war. I think there was a lot of that in it. A lot of it was just, like I said, just tense times anyway and a beautiful spring night. Nothing specific in there that I saw or felt.
[Interviewer]: What do you remember about Saturday, May 2nd?
[Chuck Ayers]: Well, after I got off work, which would have been two or three in the afternoon, I called Karen. She said that she could see--she lived in an apartment building on Crain just a block north of campus, and she had seen a lot of police around. We had both heard about a curfew that night that had been imposed. We had already made some plans to go out. We were just going to go over to my parents' house and watch a baseball game; we were going to watch the Cleveland Indians on TV. Real exciting Saturday night. But we talked about the curfew, and I said, "Well, you know, you and I both know the back ways in. If anything happens it's going to be downtown. I should be able to get you back." So I picked her up and we ran around, we did a few things, we went over to my folks' house. We were sitting there watching the Indians game on TV, and they broke in with an announcement that, "Rioting Kent State students had burned the ROTC building on campus." And again, you have to go back to another incident which colored how I reacted to that announcement. It was about a year or so before when the art students had torched part of the old art building that was just right--one of the other door--uh, barracks, the old barracks, army barracks--it was right next to the ROTC building. I remember hearing about that one on the radio, first thing in the morning again, and it sounded like every student on campus was there and there was nothing left. Now I drove into campus that day then, and there was a few scorch marks around a couple windows. The building was there, there were classes in it again within a week or two. And this was angry art students because we had been promised a new art building for the whole time I had been at Kent State: "You guys are next on the list, you're getting a new art building." Because we were scattered all over. We were in Van Deusen Hall, we were in the temporary halls--I think it was East and West, I'm not sure--that were the old barracks, we were in the old education building. So if you were an art student you had taken classes all around campus and they were all art classes, so they were angry because we hadn't gotten our building.
[Interviewer]: So how did that color your reaction to--
[Chuck Ayers]: I heard this and I heard, "Rampaging students have burned the ROTC building." I thought [skeptically], Oh God, what the hell? I'll go on campus and we'll see a little something. But Karen decided to call her roommates, and they said--from where they were, like I said, it was just a block north of campus right, I forget the street that comes out between Terrace Hall and the old president's--what's now the Alumni Office, but they lived, if you went straight across 43 there--or not 43, [Route] 59, it was that one block, it was right there. And they said from their room on the second floor they could see the flames from the building. They could already see--they were a block off campus, there were jeeps and army--National Guard trucks on their street. There were helicopters flying over. I got on the phone with them, I could hear the helicopters over the telephone, and they said, "Don't come back. You are not going to get back to the apartment tonight." So she spent the night at my folks' house, and we got up early the next morning, Sunday morning, and drove up to campus.
I was still expecting to see minor damage. But as we got closer and closer to Kent, we would drive in through Tallmadge on [Route] 261, coming that way over by the--University Plaza over there, is that what it's called? I think, yeah. And as soon as we hit the city limits, there were army jeeps, there were trucks on the road, there were just about every large parking lot had at least one or two vehicles, either a truck or a couple of jeeps. They were going up and down the streets, there were army helicopters in the air, there were police helicopters in the air. And we drove in and, because of my position as Chestnut League Chairman, I had a parking permit right on campus which was right next to the Student Activities Building. There was a little parking lot there. It's gone now. There's kind of a paved area right now, but recently they turned it into like basketball courts or something. And that was the parking lot where my permit was good for. So I was going to drive in, come across Summit and come in past--Bowman Hall? Yeah. And there was a road block, couldn't park there. [I thought,] Oh, I don't know where we're going to go. So we went east on Summit and at the old University School there were jeeps and trucks everywhere, there were jeeps in the parking lot where the current parking lot is, the old football stadium had been there before, but it wasn't finished the way it is now, it was just a blacktop lot. And we had to drive past that to another lot that was down the road a ways, and got out of the car and came walking back, just watching all this military activity all around us, and walked to that intersection where I had tried originally to drive on campus at Bowman Hall, and we were stopped by two Guardsmen. There was a roadblock across the street but we were on foot, so I thought we'd just walk up the sidewalk, and these guys yelled at us, "Where the hell are you going?" I said, "Going on campus." [He said,] "You can't go through here." And I said, "Well, yeah, we can, we're students." [He said,] "I don't care who you are, you can't walk here." And they were very angry, and with some reason. One of the guys I worked with at the Beacon Journal was in the National Guard at the time. He had been on campus that day. I didn't know it at the time, but he had been called up a few days earlier for that Teamster strike; and working at the newspaper, I was hearing some of the inside stories--that there was shooting at these truck convoys that were being escorted by National Guard from overpasses. So these guys had already been in a very awful situation. They were probably fearing for their lives working on the Teamster strike, and then they're pulled away from that and they're on a college campus where they're the same age as everybody that's there, but they're the guys in the uniforms with the guns and it's their job to yell at people, keep them from going here and going there. So I thought, Okay, okay. I backed off and we went around the building there on the corner. [laughs] It's so stupid. Karen and I walked around the building, we came back out, and we purposely--we could have gone another way to avoid these guys, but we purposely came right around the three sides, came right back onto that sidewalk. We were a hundred feet away from them, if that. They looked at us, we looked back at them, I went like that [waves], and we just walked onto campus. We had not gone through the roadblock, and that was their job, so there wasn't anything they were going to do.
But once we were near that intersection, I could smell the burning building. That burnt-wood smell was all over, and that surprised me. I was surprised primarily because of my experience with the art building the year before. And the smell kept getting stronger and stronger as we walked, and finally I topped that little bit of a hill and I could see it for the very first time, and I just stopped dead in my tracks because there was no building left. And I really did not expect that. I had my camera with me because of the photography class, so I was taking pictures of a lot of this. I've got a couple shots of the two guys at the roadblock, my shots of the ROTC Building. So Karen and I walked down there and we roamed around for a while, we went where we could go. We kept running into people we knew. Some of them lived on campus so they were telling us their stories about what they had seen the night before when the Guard came in. And the Guardsmen were just everywhere.
And there's been a lot of debate, a lot of people have said that they didn't think that these guys had loaded guns at all. And I don't know if they were loaded or not, but I have a very distinct recollection of seeing an ammo clip on a belt. So whether the ammo was actually in the gun or not, it took two seconds for this guy to grab it off his belt and put it in the gun. Plus, they had fixed bayonets. They're sharp, they're pointy. I know those were there. But it was just an hour or two of walking around, looking at this, talking to people. Well, Karen hadn't been home for twenty-four hours or so by that time, so she said, "Well I'm"--I think one of her roommates came up--so she said, "I'm going back to the apartment. I'm gonna shower and do what I have to do." [I said,] "Okay." So she left, and I stuck around there for a while, ran into a few more people, and finally, I don't know, it was getting to be maybe mid to late afternoon. And I thought, Well, there's all this activity around, I think I'll go down to front campus and just see what's going on down there. So I walked over to where the Administration Building is, and at that time Kent Hall and--is it Merrill? no, the other one. They come into it on both sides, they were attached. I've seen it lately, and at least one of them now there's a gap between the buildings, they've torn a section out where you can just walk through. But they had been attached, and I often used that as a short cut going out to Front Campus where you go in the one door, you just walk across the hall out the other door and then down towards the front of the Administration Building. And as I walked in the back door I remember thinking, This is odd, because of all the people that were outside, there was not a single person in the hallway. Because I could stand there in the center and look down to the two buildings on either side and see the hallways, and they were absolutely empty. And the University Police Office was right there on the first floor of the Administration Building, and it was all glassed in. I remember turning and looking in there and saying, "Well, that's strange, I don't see a single person in here either." So I walked across the hall, went out the other door. I'm walking down along the side of the Administration Building to the front of it, and I see this group of people. And I realized that--excuse me a second. [drinks water] You know, I work by myself all day long. I don't talk this long ever.
[Chuck Ayers]: As I got to the edge of the building, I realized that there was a lot of people and there was a semi-circle in front of the building. And in this semi-circle I could see the backs of National Guardsmen, and beyond them the faces of students. And I walked into this, and one of my friends, a guy who worked for the Stater, I remember very distinctly, he went, "Hey, Ayers! What the hell are you doing over there?" And immediately probably a dozen National Guardsmen spun around, lowered their M-1s at me. Now, I had seen ammunition. I didn't know if there was any bullets in the guns or not, but like I said before, I know they had fixed bayonets. So there were maybe a dozen fixed bayonets pointed right at me. I knew I was no threat. But I used to wear a camouflage army jacket all the time, I had a Kent State t-shirt on. As a gag for the day, and most people understood it, I had an old campaign button from the '68 campaign that said NIXON'S THE ONE. And it just seemed appropriate in the course of all this. And I was not a real protester, I was an art student, so you'd do these kind of silly little protests like that, so the button seemed to make sense.
[Chuck Ayers]: Yeah. REBEL WITHOUT A CLUE, you know. And I've got these bayonets pointed at me, and I remember, just to show that I was no threat--and I love old army movies too--so I put my hands up on top of my head like this. Like I was surrendering. I just kept walking, and they grabbed me, and somebody yelled at me, "What are you doing in there? How'd you get in here?" And I remember saying to one of the officers, I said, "Well, you know, I just walked through those two doors. If you have cordoned off this building you are really doing a piss-poor job of it, because I just walked through and there's nobody in there, and there's nobody on the other side." I was a little angry by this time because of the way that I got grabbed. And I could see them, they looked at each other, "Pssst pssst pssst," they're whispering. And they sort of grabbed me again, threw me on the other side of the line where all the students were. And I could see all these Guardsmen rushing into the building to close off.
So again, I ran into a few more friends, I took a couple photos, and then I walked down to the intersection of Main and Lincoln, down by the Robin Hood and the old Captain Brady's and stuff, and there was an armored personnel carrier sitting down there at the intersection. And I walked around there for awhile, I don't remember if I was seeing anybody I knew then or not. But antiwar or not, I still had this fascination with tanks and armored personnel carriers and uniforms. And there was a guy sitting up on top of it, and the way they're built there's a big round hatch kind of in the center of this thing. There's no turret, it's not a tank, but there was a big round hatch. He was sitting up there, had an M-1, and he looked at another one of the Guardsmen, and the look on the guy's face who was sitting up on top, he had just had it, and I think he was probably one of the guys that came from the Teamster strike. But he was cussing and swearing and saying something about, "Goddamn these people! I feel like I'm a monkey in a zoo. When are these people gonna leave us alone?" And he had the gun, and I remember he slammed it down on top of the armored personnel carrier. I saw him slide down into that hatch, and the hand come back up, get the gun and went down inside. I just didn't like the feel of that. You just got too many angry people around. But still, I didn't think anything big would happen. Somebody might get punched. Somebody might get hit with the butt of a gun. Somebody might get arrested for no reason. I thought that might be where this would go.
So I stuck around down there. But, there was a curfew again. I think it was 8:00 [p.m.] So, I had to get out of town because there was no place for me to stay on campus, so I left just before 8. There were pulling in roadblocks at the streets at the city limits as I was leaving. And so that's the way Sunday ended.
[Interviewer]: That was Sunday?
[Chuck Ayers]: Yeah.
[Chuck Ayers]: Actually, it didn't quite end that way, because when I got home, starting Monday was midterms. Midterm exams. And I had a couple of midterms on Monday, and I was supposed to be studying, but I was watching things on TV, they had news reports coming on the local TV from Kent State about everything [that] was going on, and I called Karen again at her apartment and she said, "It's just crazy right now." There were things that happened, there was some rally out in the street that I only knew of after the fact, but apparently they had just broken it up. I think the National Guard came in and chased these people away, but it was at the time when I was talking to Karen on the phone, and she said there were people running through the streets, there are Guardsmen running after them, there are jeeps, there are armored personnel carriers moving through the streets. And all of a sudden, I can remember very distinctly hearing her roommate scream, "Oh my God, there it is again!" And I said, "What's going on?" And I could hear a helicopter over the phone. They were flying around with spotlights and they were shining them on houses, in the yards. I'm sure what they were doing was chasing people, but this came right through the window of the apartment. And Karen told me, "The helicopter spotlight is shining in the window right now."
[Interviewer]: And this is still Sunday night?
[Chuck Ayers]: This is Sunday night. And needless to say, none of them studied. I didn't study. And that's kind of the way the evening ended. And then Monday I came in really early onto campus. I went back over to the ROTC site, took a couple of photographs again.
[Interviewer]: This is for your photography class?
[Chuck Ayers]: Yeah.
[Interviewer]: Who was the instructor of your class?
[Chuck Ayers]: Charlie Brill. And I went over to the parking lot that is behind the old Wills Gym and took some photos down in there, because there was a headquarters armored personnel carrier set up, there was I believe a Red Cross--one of their army unit Red Cross armored personnel carriers there, there were jeeps around. I recall taking a photograph of some guys standing at a jeep, one is holding a Cleveland Plain Dealer and the headline on the paper is TEAMSTER STRIKE SETTLED. And I remember I took a close-up photo of one of the jeeps. I don't know why, I thought it was cool stuff for my class. And then I thought, Well, it's time to go over to my midterm, which appropriately enough was in Nixson Hall. Not spelled the same way, but I could not miss the irony of that that day.
[Interviewer]: Was it midterms or finals?
[Chuck Ayers]: Midterms.
[Interviewer]: Midterms. Okay.
[Chuck Ayers]: See the whole calendar has shifted so much now--
[Interviewer]: Oh, okay.
[Chuck Ayers]: --we were on quarters then, not semesters. We started school the last week in September, and didn't get out until the end of June. So May 4th was midterms. And I was taking a--it was actually a home ec[onomics] course, but it was in History of Costume, and as an art major I thought this will really be something I could use. So that happened to be the midterm I was taking first thing, probably around 9 or 10 o'clock. And I went over and came out of it thinking, God, I just did so miserably. I hadn't studied at all. And I remember the instructor saying, "I realize that you guys probably didn't study very much last night, so we will probably take that into account." And I went straight from there, which took me walking past back to the Chestnut League office, took me right by Taylor Hall again, and I don't recall if I stopped in or not. I think I did, I think Karen was in there working already on the Stater. I don't remember exactly when we set this up, but somebody had asked me to do a cartoon for the Stater, for the--it didn't publish on Monday, so it would have been the Tuesday, May 5th edition--about Campus Day was coming up the next weekend, so "Would you like to do a cartoon about Campus Day and what it's going to be like if the National Guard's still on campus." And [I said], "Yeah, okay, that sounds pretty cool."
So I went over to the Chestnut League office, and I was sitting in there working on some ideas and a drawing for the Stater that never appeared. I don't even know whatever happened to the drawing I did. I was sitting there working, and I can recall, right around, just before noon I think, I heard the Victory Bell, because it was not even a hundred yards away from where I was sitting at the time. And I thought, Oh, must be some rally or something going on now. And after the fact I learned that they said that all--there had been a court order to ban all gatherings on campus. I honestly don't remember ever hearing that, or seeing it. I know I've seen photos of that notice posted in windows and the doors of buildings, but I don't ever recall seeing one. And so I saw this group forming. Victory Bell was ringing, the National Guard was around the remains of the ROTC building, and I could hear this footsteps marching. And the road that went down--it's now obliterated by the Art Building, but it came down around there, there was a ringed large contingent of National Guard marching down the middle of the street down to the ROTC Building. [I thought], Something's up here.
So I went back in. I remember I had on a sweater vest, a shirt and a Kent State t-shirt on underneath. It was a fairly warm day, but I don't think it had anything to do with being warm. I think I wanted to be identified as a Kent State student. Don't expect me to explain that, because I don't really know why. I think it was my protest, my somewhat show of solidarity with the students and what they were going through. But I stripped off the sweater vest and the shirt and had the Kent State t-shirt on, took my camera and went back outside.
Again, I was not part of the group at all. I was standing up in that parking lot taking some pictures. I took a couple of shots of the group down by the Victory Bell. I walked down the sidewalk over to where the National Guard was, and I was actually on the other side of a chain-link fence. And I had noticed that before I walked down to them that it looked like they were putting on gas masks. I wasn't sure, so when I walked down there I could see that one guy was holding a couple rifles while the other guys were putting on their masks, the helmets on the ground or under their arms, they're adjusting these things and they're getting their guns ready. And I thought, Well, you know, from what I'd heard of them chasing people around the night before, I thought, Well, they're gonna chase them around some more. And I'm still down there, basically right beside the Guardsmen, right beside the line of Guardsmen, as I heard yelling, obviously an order to move out. And they just started to move en masse.
It's impressive in that you are not, you will not fail to move when you see a line of soldiers with helmets and gas masks where you cannot see a face, M-1 rifles with fixed bayonets--and again, whether there are bullets in those guns or not, this is a dangerous force. Plus they had been shooting tear gas back and forth, I forgot that part. And that was interesting too, because they would shoot it into the crowd and see people scatter, someone would come up and grab the tear gas canister and throw it back at the Guardsmen. They started doing this running--I'm sorry, I forgot another element, when the jeep came out. That was comical, because you had these two groups facing off across the Commons, and by this time I think the anger on the part of the students is not Vietnam or Cambodia but, "This is my home." I did not live on campus, but most of the people lived there. This is like having National Guard camped out in your back yard, and pushing you around. And from the stories I'd heard, I heard of guys that had been places on campus that were walking back to their dorms or apartments would be cut off by the National Guard and pushed the opposite way while the Guard is telling you, "Go home." So they're going the opposite way of where they need to be, so there's a lot of anger on campus by this time. And this lone jeep pulls out, and the guy on the P.A. was just not the right one to pick. Should have been somebody with this big bellering deep voice. [He had a ] squeaky little voice and I'm sure this little hand-held P.A. didn't help at all. And I've heard recordings of it, and it doesn't sound as bad on the recordings as it sounded to me in real life. But it was just a squeaky voice saying, "This is an illegal gathering, you people have to leave and [imitates voice] rah rah rah." And pretty soon there were shouts and some rocks being thrown and I remember some guy running out--one of the Guardsman--to the jeep [and saying], "All right! Get back, get back!" And the jeep turns back. And that's when I saw the Guardsmen starting to prepare themselves. Tear gas is flying both ways. And the protesters--the group they were really after--was right down around the Victory Bell. And they were shooting tear gas everywhere. In Stopher Hall, people were at the windows--Stopher and Johnson both--open windows, like I said, it's a beautiful day, so a lot of the windows are open anyway, they're in their own dorm rooms watching this event, and I saw tear gas canisters bounce off the walls, almost go into the windows of the dorms.
[Interviewer]: They weren't being selective in their--
[Chuck Ayers]: They were shooting it everywhere. If they saw somebody that looked like a student--I don't know what threat a student sitting in his dorm room posed to the National Guard at that moment. They weren't even chasing people at that time. They were standing there facing a group of yelling people.
I had my car parked again in that lot, a Volkswagen Beetle next to a Volkswagen Bus, and I remember distinctly watching this tear gas canister shot and arc through the air, and I thought, Oh my God, it's going to hit the car. It landed right between the two and bounced away, and I remember somebody running up and grabbing it and throwing it back. I could smell a little tear gas on the car afterwards but it didn't get hurt. And then I was down there taking the pictures near the Guard lines, and as they started to move out I ran back up the sidewalk to get back into that parking lot to take some more pictures. And I was in the lot fairly near the corner that would look down into the Commons, not the corner that would look up towards Taylor Hall. And as I'm standing there, obviously the students are moving off over the hill to my right, the Guard is coming up the hill from my left. And a guy in an olive drab army jacket, kind of long hair, I think he had a beard, and a suitca--er, a briefcase in his hand, started yelling at the Guardsmen as they were walking by. I have no idea what he was yelling, it was pretty loud at that time. But I saw at least two Guardsmen confront him. I think it's in one of the photos. And they're standing there facing him. One of the Guardsmen has this club-like thing in his hand. It looks like one of these whiffle golf clubs, with a big plastic head on the golf clubs, but this thing looks like it's wood or something. It's got a big head on it. And this guy continued to yell at them, and through the gas masks I could hear this muffled yelling back at the guy. And I'm only a few feet away from them, just behind this. Then I believe a third Guardsman came up--I don't know if it was one of those two, but I think it was a third one came up--and had some sort of a bolt-action gun. Because I just remember him not raising the gun, aiming it, but just pulling it up like this, at sort of a forty-five degree angle in front of his body, and then there was this crack-crack as he pulled the bolt back and crack-crack as it went back in place, to intimidate this guy. Well, it didn't seem to intimidate him, but I have never moved as fast in my life. I was back probably 20 or 30 feet because of that. By the time I turned around and looked again, it was over. This guy was still standing there, and the Guardsmen were heading up the hill. I could see people leaving over the top of the hill. There was still tear gas being shot over that way. I watched the Guardsmen march up the hill, disappear across the crest of the hill. After seeing that little confrontation right in front of me, I wasn't about to get too close at that time. Once they were out of sight I thought, Well, maybe it's safe now, and I'll follow cautiously.
I was about halfway up the hill past Taylor, and I remember a friend of mine coming down the hill the other way holding a spent tear gas canister in his hand. That was his souvenir of the day. And then I crested the hill, and in front of me was the practice football field and just hundreds of students standing on the hill right, just barely past the Pagoda. The old driveway was beyond that, then the practice football field, and there was this line of Guardsmen stretched out on the field. And I remember cresting the hill, taking a few pictures, talking to a couple of people that I knew, looking over into the Prentice Hall parking lot, and I would see students over there, a few waving flags, and they would shoot tear gas again towards Prentice Hall. We had the same routine. Somebody would come running up, usually with a wet towel or something over their face, pick up the tear gas canister and throw it right back into the middle of the Guardsmen, who all had the gasmasks. So it would land in the middle of them, they would pick up, throw it back. Sometimes these canisters, the same canister, would go back three, four, six times. And there were some rocks being thrown. I never saw anybody hit with a rock. Doesn't mean it didn't happen. But every time I would watch someone throwing a rock and could follow the trajectory of the rock, it would land some distance away from the Guardsmen, and you could see them sort of sidestep it. It rolled past. One of the Guardsmen would pick up the same rock, throw it back into the parking lot of the students, who would see it coming and they would sidestep it. And so sometimes the same rock went back and forth several times. And so this was going on and I thought, This is really silly stuff. And it was exciting, but it still didn't feel any sense of it being serious at this time. It just didn't make sense to me.
At one point, I had my camera up. I remember panning across--a little 35mm camera--panning across the line of Guardsmen. Somewhere in the line, I can't even tell you where it was, although I think it was close to the front of the line facing the Prentice parking lot, I saw one of the guys pull his arm into the air--I can't tell you if it was right or left handed, because I've heard all the debates about that since then--and saw the arm recoil like that, and heard this pop. And I talked to several friends right after that and I said, "God, can you believe this guy is shooting in the air?" And they said, "What are you talking about?" These were people that were standing right next to me. It was in my viewfinder. That's why I saw it. If you weren't looking exactly there you probably wouldn't have noticed it, and there was so much noise that if I hadn't seen that, that pop probably would never have registered to me as a gunshot. There are rocks hitting pavement, there are people all around, there's yelling, there are people dropping books on the ground. Not like they're running or anything, but when people are standing there, you put your books down like that and stand and watch. There's a lot of noise. But I saw that and I just thought, That's even stupider. That just provokes people.
It wasn't long after that that I noticed that this straight line suddenly turned like this, at a right angle, with several Guardsmen facing the parking lot. They knelt down on one knee, they took the rifles and aimed into the crowd. I know a lot of people scattered, but I don't think that they had proved that they were a force to be feared at that time. Mostly just a bunch of silly guys in uniforms. This is one of the main reasons why I spoke earlier about the events at Music and Speech the year before. The army itself was the symbol of what everyone was angry about. The National Guard, as I understand the law, the National Guard should have been the one to come in before the--or, the State Highway Patrol should have come in before the National Guard onto a college cam--a state campus. Those guys would have moved around and gotten people out of the way and nothing would have happened. But here was this, the symbol of what everybody was angry about, kneeling, aiming rifles not just at protesters or rock throwers--or whatever they thought they were--in a parking lot, but at a dormitory full of big glass windows filled with students. And I thought, That's really bad. Again, I'm thinking that all this is doing is, if they're trying to defuse the situation, they're doing the exact opposite, because everything that they seem to have done so far--the tear gas, the randomness of the dispersal of the tear gas, chasing people who are doing nothing but standing in a group, and again, I didn't know about the ban on group gatherings at the time, chasing people around, aiming guns at them. It's like I said before, a group of people who are unarmed, at least it's not an army. They may have rocks, they may have things to throw. But when you get a group of guys in full battle gear--helmets, gas masks and fixed bayonets--as they move it's like the parting of the Red Sea. The crowd goes this way and that way. Nobody stands their ground and confronts these people. They never had any difficulty moving anywhere they wanted to be, which is one of the reasons I was so surprised to see them stopped on the football field. I've heard all the stories about, oh, they were hemmed in, they were surrounded by students and this chain-link fence. Well, the chain-link fence is on two sides of a practice football field and it is wide open on the other two sides. Anywhere they wanted to walk they would have walked, and the crowd would have parted.
So anyway, I watched this for awhile, and the guys that were kneeling finally stood up and sort of rejoined the line. And they sort of did, not an about-face, but they were walking down, training down the line that they had been standing in, walking towards the end of the football field down where the--this direction, here the library and the--I still call it the new Student Center, stand now, because it was under construction at the time. And I remember thinking, I haven't seen any tear gas for a while, they must have run out of tear gas, so I think it's over. So they marched down the line that way, then all of a sudden they just, the whole line did a right-face, and they started marching across, from side to side, on the practice football field. I took a photo of them as they were down there, and I thought, Well, this is all over. I knew that Karen should have been working in the Stater office at the time, and I thought, Well, this would be a good time to go in and see if she saw anything interesting. Talk to her. Plus the fact that where I was standing, I was aware that, as the Guard moved--they were going to go back over the top of the hill next to the Pagoda again--that it was going to put me again right between the two groups. And I thought, God, I really don't want to get hit by a rock. That was it.
I turned, I walked in the door of Taylor Hall. As I walked in I ran into a friend who had been down in the photo labs, journalism student, complaining because he had just gotten kicked out because he was getting wet cloths because of the tear gas. He had just been kicked out of there by one of the profs. He was mad. I said, "Well, I think it's all over." He said [angrily], "Well, I got all these things in there--" And he walked out, I kept going in. The door closed behind me, and the stairwell was right there, so I went down the stairwell going down to the Stater office. I ran into this guy after May 4th, and he said that he walked out the doors, and the first thing he saw was the Guard turn and fire right through the area that I had just been standing in. I think he saw Jeff Miller fall. And I never even heard the shots.
[Interviewer]: You were inside the building, you didn't hear it?
[Chuck Ayers]: No. Again, there's a lot of yelling outside constantly. And this yelling is everything. It's everything from people swearing at the Guardsmen, to somebody who sees his pal across the--[and says], "Hey, Joe! Come on over here, look what I saw!" There's just this din out there. I walked in, I got down to the first floor, went into the Stater office, I saw Karen and her roommate. I remember saying, "I think it's all over. What did you guys see?" And she said, "Well, there was people right in front of the windows here. Somebody was hitting somebody with a club or something." And just about that time it was like this bang like the doors, and there was screaming and yelling, and I thought, What's going on? And this surge of people just came through the hallways, past the Stater office. I remember going to the door, and the first words I heard were, "They just killed four kids." I don't know how this person determined this in seconds. They must have seen four people down. They were yelling, "They're shooting. They're killing people." And I thought back to the single shot that I saw, and I thought, No, they're shooting in the air. I was so confident that that's all they were doing. But this mass of screaming people and people crying kept coming in, and there was one guy who I recall was a freshman, who had been somewhere and saw most of the shootings, came into the Stater office crying, had a puppy with him, and he crawled under a desk and just sat there and cried. [pauses, drinks water] That is emotional.
And so, we realized something had happened, but we didn't know where or exactly what or where these people still would be. I didn't know if there was a full-scale fight going on out there, if they had just shot into the crowd, if they had shot some individuals--specific individuals that something had happened. I didn't know what had happened or where they were. I wasn't about to go out any door, thinking I could step out a door, and be a target.
[Interviewer]: What did you do next?
[Chuck Ayers]: We stayed in the Stater office for a while. We were very conscious of our surroundings. We were looking out the windows that face into the Commons, and we could see students running everywhere. And we stayed there for a short while, until I finally saw the whole unit of Guardsmen marching back down the hill towards the ROTC building. It's so funny in hindsight: I was Mr. Macho for a moment there, because I said, "I'm going to go out and see what's going on." Karen and her roommate said, "We'll go with you," [and I said,] "Oh no no no, you women stay here. The man will go outside." I didn't say it that way, but I look back on it, and it must have sounded like that to everybody. And I retraced my steps. I went back up the same stairwell I'd come out, I came back out the same door, and the very first thing I saw was Jeff Miller in the street. Initially, I found out when he fell he was face-down, chest-down, his head to the side, and somebody had turned him over, and there were several people kneeling around him, and there was already this river of blood rolling down, I mean it must have been 12 to 15 feet long at that time. My experience had been that I had no close relatives, I had sort of a nuclear family--mom and dad and my brother and I. We had no close relatives, and for some reason the only relatives that had ever passed away were people I had never met, out of town, that my folks would go to the funerals and stuff. I had never gone to a funeral. I was 22. And there was this guy in the street, and I kept saying to myself, No, he's not dead, they'll patch him up, he'll be okay. And I just remember looking at how utterly limp he was--and they had pulled his shirt up--and how absolutely hollow his stomach looked. Everything had just collapsed on this guy. And I kept saying to myself, No he's not dead, he's not dead, until I heard an ambulance come up over the hill and started picking up people, and the gurneys went right past him. [I thought], Oh my God, he's dead, because they didn't stop to pick him up.
I stayed out there for a while. I took a shot, but it was from up on the balcony around--it's all blocked off now, but you used to be able to walk all around that platform area outside Taylor. And I just didn't want to get any closer with my camera. It just didn't feel right to me to be taking pictures. I wasn't that much of a journalist yet. I still felt I was invading with it, so I didn't take any more pictures out there. Went back in and started talking to people in the Stater office. Then we went back out front to the side that faces the Commons. People were gathered around. Already over by the Student Activities Building, someone had--there were people on the roof of it--and someone had draped a big white sheet with a red cross on it. Apparently they had set up some sort of a student first aid unit over there. And people were sitting on the hillside and standing in front of Taylor Hall and you could see the Guardsmen down front. There were several faculty and, I think they were grad students, coming up, who had been talking to the Guardsmen, who had bullhorns, who were trying to disperse the crowd. I remember seeing Glenn Frank, who I'd had for geology class, just listening to him plead with the people to be calm and disperse and to avoid anyone else being killed. And as I was standing there I looked back down at the Guardsmen, and they were putting gas masks on again. And I thought, They're coming back, they're gonna come back. And I had seen Guardsmen all across campus, so I didn't know what was happening anywhere else. I didn't know if the whole campus had turned into a battleground. I didn't know just what was going to be happening. So a couple of us walked inside and we thought, What are we gonna do? I remember saying, "If they come back up, people are gonna run in the building. If somebody has done something, or a Guardsman is angry enough, is chasing an individual, they've already killed people. What's to say they're not gonna come in the building and start shooting?" And we started looking around trying to decide what to do. But we're standing in the Stater office with floor-to-ceiling windows, and we said, "This is not the place to be." And the Burr office, which was then the yearbook, was right next door. So we walked into there, and I remember going into the darkroom, and I said, "This is a good spot." I laugh at it now, but I remember saying to people, "If they shoot us here, they have to shoot through two cinderblock walls to get to us." That's where I was at that moment.
We went into the darkroom, and there was an air vent, and I thought, Oh my God, they'll throw tear gas in here. We need to close off that vent. So we got something and we're taping it up over the vent. We were making all these plans. We were making a bunker out of the darkroom in the Burr office. And then went back outside to watch, because I thought at least out there I can see when movement starts and if it's coming our way or not. And we were there and the confrontation just seemed to intensify for a long time. And then, just sort of out of nowhere--to my mind at least--I recall people with bullhorns coming up and saying, "Campus is now closed officially until further notice. Everyone has to leave campus as soon as possible." And the bullhorns and they're walking around. And another image that I recall at that time is the tennis courts that are right down there by the back of Terrace Hall. There were people playing tennis. So much of it was just so surreal, because there were a lot of the normal campus things going on, as evidenced by the students who were going to class who were shot. My friend Jim Russell was just going to class, and the opposite direction of everybody else who was shot.
[Interviewer]: Did you know any of the other students who had been shot besides Jim?
[Chuck Ayers]: I had met Allison Krause once, maybe twice. I recall someone introducing us, I probably never said more to her than hello. But I recall meeting her once, maybe twice. And Jim and I had been in art classes together for several years.
But suddenly they're saying, "Campus is closed. It's done." I remember trying to--again, I lived at home. My mother would have been listening to the radio. I can remember we had a radio on inside the Stater office, and it said that three students and a Guardsman had been killed. And I tried to call home, and this is before the days of cell phones and everything, where everybody calls everybody immediately, and the phones were all dead already in the Stater office. I found a pay phone up in the hallway upstairs in Taylor Hall. Somebody was just getting off. I said, "Good, a phone that works." Dropped my dime in and made the call. I said, "Hey, it's me. I'm sure you've heard the news. I'm fine, everything is going okay." And in the middle of the sentence, that phone died. So I thought, Well, at least she heard from me. I don't like the way the conversation ended, but at least she heard from me. So when they said to leave campus, I went back over and gathered up my stuff from the Chestnut League office, locked it up and went to my car, which like I said smelled still a bit like some tear gas. Because I worked for the newspaper, in the summer of '68 there were some race riots in Akron, and I had to be at work before the curfew ended in the morning. So I had been given a press sign to put on my visor of the car, and I never took it off. It was just kind of a gag whenever somebody would get in the car, here's this big press sign on my visor. [They would say], "Oh, you're important, aren't you?" Well, I walked to the car, and I had finally started to see some State Highway Patrolmen, groups of them, coming around the area. And not just one or two, but like a dozen or more at a time, in groups. And there was a line of them across the driveway that I had to drive out, and I thought, Well, this is a good time to use this little press thing again. So it said AKRON BEACON JOURNAL--PRESS, in big letters. I don't know if they would have believed me. I don't even know if I had an I.D. card at that time. I was only part-time. But I got in the car and I decided what I was going to do was drive back to work and see if I could help. I was only a part-timer, I was only working Saturdays at the time, and full-time during the summers and breaks. So I got in the car, drove past the State Highway Patrolmen, which didn't bother me, but at the end of the driveway, which emptied into the street, and maybe across the street as well, were National Guardsmen. All with their guns. By now I know they've got bullets in those guns. They've all got fixed bayonets. They have their helmets on but they've pulled the gas masks down, so they're hanging around their throats. And they've got a look on their face like they're scared and angry all at the same time. And I just didn't want to do anything to provoke them, so I had the sign down, I drove through real slow, I kind of waved at them as I went through, and I got off campus and drove into Akron.
And this is nothing earth-shaking, but it's just one of those little things I remember. I'm driving down 261 into Tallmadge, which is the way I always went, through Tallmadge Circle then down into downtown Akron. And part-way there, I had the radio on because I was listening to some of the news reports, and [they] said, "Okay, we'll be right back after some music and we'll tell you some more about what's going on on the campus at Kent State." And it was that song, "Everything is Beautiful," by Ray Stevens. And I'd just come off campus with everything that I had seen. I saw a dead student in the street, I saw other people being carted away into ambulances, I saw the blood and the gore, and I'm sitting in the car hearing this song [singing], "Everything is beautiful...." [I thought], God, what a joke. I've never forgotten that image and that contrast of what I was feeling and what that song was saying at the time.
So I drove into the Beacon, parked the car in the deck, and as I walked in, everybody knew I was a Kent State student. [They said,] "Were you there? Were you there?" And I said, "Yeah, I was there." And they said, "Well, come on in, tell us what you saw and everything." Immediately they started interviewing me, and I said, "Wait a minute. First, I've got a roll of film here. I was taking pictures for my photography class, and I don't know if there's anything you can use or not." So I offered it to them, I gave them the film. And immediately they're interviewing me, they're asking me, we're pulling out maps of campus, they're saying, "Where were you? What happened? Where was it?" By this time the few reporters that were on campus and the photographers were all coming back too. So we are discussing all of this, and I don't even remember who it was, somebody from Photo came back in, had my negatives in an envelope and said, "Here are your negatives. Thanks for offering them. There's really nothing we can use." And I thought, Well, that's okay. That's fine. But they kept talking to me, they kept interviewing me, different reporters and editors. And finally somebody said, "You're an artist. Can you do some eyewitness drawings from memory?" And I said, "I sure can. I know I can do that." And they said, "Well, would you?" And I said, "Yeah, I'll do that." So I got to work on it and did a series of drawings. And they're important to me in two respects. Not that it's some honor that you race to be the first artist to draw something about a tragedy, but I'm sure these were the first drawings, at least that would have been published, of any type of artwork, any type of an artistic impression, of May 4th that was published. And just the fact that I was able to help, was able to contribute that to the community, is important. Plus the fact that when I drew these I had not seen a single photograph from May 4th yet. I didn't even know what mine looked like. All I had was an envelope with negatives. I knew what I had seen through the viewfinder when I snapped the shot, but that was it. So I'm guessing it must have been around two o'clock that I got to the newspaper, and probably worked for about five or six hours. And they said, "You've done a good job. Thanks for all the help." And I even remember immediately, before I left work that day, somebody, one of the editors saying, "Well, I guess you won't be going back to school tomorrow." And I said, "I guess not." And he said, "Well, do you wanna start working full-time like you do during breaks and summer, until classes start again?" And it was a real honor that they did that, but I think also coming in the way I did was part of that. So I went home scheduled to work the next day, instead of going to school.
Went home, saw my folks. I called them from the Beacon so they knew where I was and what I was doing and everything. I was talking to them at home. We watched, I'm sure it was the eleven o'clock news. There was a woman on one of the Cleveland stations, a woman named Dorothy Fuldheim, who was kind of one of these crusty old women who commented on everything, and was kind of the butt of a lot of jokes just because of the way she was quite old.
[Interviewer]: We have a collection of some of her materials.
[Chuck Ayers]: Oh, okay. You know--
[Chuck Ayers]: Good. But she's talking about the shootings, and I remember it was almost like [unintelligible], like, "Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah." What she was saying just didn't seem to make any sense to me, I couldn't understand quite what she was--why she was talking, why she had a comment on this. But then they said, "We've got some footage here," and it was a TV shot from down on the Commons looking up over the hill to the Pagoda, and you could see the line of Guardsmen, and all of a sudden there's the shooting. And it was the first time that I had heard the shots. And I just shivered. I just didn't realize, even until that point, even with being at the newspaper and talking to the photographers that were standing in the middle of the Guardsmen as they were shooting, quite how long it lasted and what it sounded like. So finally the day ended. I went to bed thinking, I'd better get some sleep because I'm going in early in the morning again, and I'll be working on this some more with them.
So I went in the next day, and basically I didn't do any work for the next couple days, because my work was being the witness. I was being interviewed over and over and over again, by reporters and editors: "What did you see here? What did you see there?" So it may be one of the reasons why I've memorized so much of this; I had to do it for a couple of days. I recall it was just getting to me. On Wednesday--because I had gone through the shootings on Monday, had been at work Monday evening, had gone through all this on Tuesday, had gone through all of it again on Wednesday, and I just remember walking into somebody and saying, "Would you mind if I leave like an hour early? I need to get away from this for a little bit." And they said, "No, it's okay." I drove up to Virginia Kendall Park. I thought I just wanted to be away from everybody and everything for a while. And I pulled into the parking lot--and that's a big park, even the parking lot is pretty big--I saw one car. And I thought, This is great, because the chances of seeing this other person are pretty slim. And it was just a pretty day and I just started walking the trails back in the woods. I remember--I'm just one of these people who, my son and I are the same way, especially if there's some water around, if there's a rock you pick it up, you toss it at a tree in the woods or you toss it in the water. I've just always been like that. And I'm walking along and I'm stepping on all these rocks and I got just this strange feeling and I thought, These are just like the ones I saw thrown. And it was a weird sensation, because I never thought that I would think that, but I wouldn't touch the rocks, I hated walking on them, they just felt bad. But I kept going and I kept going for a while, and there was something about the day, there was some ravines off to the side and obviously some water down in there, and there was some fog, some mist coming off. And I caught it out of the corner of my eye, and I remember saying to myself, My God, why are they shooting tear gas here? I thought, This is stupid. This is mist, this is fog, these are rocks that have been in this park. And I walked on a little bit farther, and a tree limb cracked behind me, and it sounded exactly like that bolt-action on that rifle. And I jumped, I probably yelled, and I hot-footed it. I wasn't running, but I wanted to get out of there. There was nobody else around, and it was just like this whole thing was closing in on me. Got back in the car and left.
As I recall that was Wednesday. And either Wednesday night or Thursday night, I was driving around again. It was one of those things, I couldn't just sit at home. I hated to think. My parents were thinking about it, but it was just obvious that I was really anxious, so I just said, "I'm going for a drive." Got in my old Volkswagen Beetle, with the Kent State decals in the back window, and drove past Akron U. And there were people on the street out on Buchtel Avenue. They were yelling, "Come on back! There's a rally going on on Lee Jackson field back here." And as I pulled by, they saw the Kent State decals and people started yelling at me. Everybody's flashing peace signs, and I'm flashing peace signs back at them. It was an absolute accident that I happened upon this. Finally some of them started yelling. They said, "You're from Kent State?" I said, "Yeah, yeah." I stopped the car for a while and I talked to them, and they said, "Well, man, there's a big rally going on back here. We're protesting the shootings at Kent and the war and everything. It'd really be nice if you came over to it." And I thought, You know, it beats driving around by myself just getting weirded out by nothing. So I parked the car and went back over there. And I didn't see anybody I knew. But I walked around for a while, and I had nothing on that identified me as a Kent State student, so once I got out of the car I was just sort of anonymous again. But I did see John Seiberling was at the rally. He was running for--was it--congressman? Yeah, 14th District Congress. Tuesday had been the primary election. Thank God Jim Rhodes lost. But Seiberling had won the primary, and was going to be running against Republican Bill Ayres. But it's spelled differently. It's spelled A-y-r-e-s, not A-y-e-r-s like mine. But I was definitely not a Republican. We had some contact with him in that my dad was a letter carrier and delivered mail to Bill Ayres' office, so in the family we always joked about Uncle Bill doing this and Uncle Bill doing that and really glad that he really wasn't, because we were all pretty much Democrats and he was a strong war Republican at the time. So here's John Seiberling being introduced at this rally and I thought, Well, I'm sure I'm gonna vote for this guy now, even if I wasn't before. I remember him saying some good things and just watching the rally and leaving.
Friday, the folks at the Beacon said, "Well, you've been here five days this week. You're scheduled Saturday. That would make six days now. Do you wanna take Saturday off?" And I said, "I'd love that." The entire time that I was in college--almost six years [laughs]--I think I worked every Saturday but about two or three, and that was one of them. My girlfriend had gone with her roommate up to North Olmsted, where her roommate lived. My girlfriend's from Rochester, New York, and we thought we'd be back on campus in a couple days. I was talking to her, and the roommate said, "Hey, my mom and dad said if you guys, if you want to come up--come up for the weekend--we've got an extra bedroom and stuff, and you can come and stay." I thought, I'd really like that. So I said, "Sure, I'll be there. But I can't come until Saturday morning because some friends are getting married Friday night." So Friday night I went to the wedding, and it was the church that's back here on Summit. I don't even know what kind of a church it was. But two of my friends were getting married. I was excited because I hadn't seen anybody from campus really since I left Monday, and I saw a number of the students that we all knew. Went to the wedding. It was a beautiful wedding. And we're standing in the parking lot afterwards, and at that time there was just this big grassy field behind the parking lot, kind of a little bit of a hill on it. And I was talking to Frank Fusina, who was then the student body president, and I'm looking at him like I'm looking at you, and behind him is that little grassy hill. And over his shoulder I saw something, and I reacted. And I remember him saying, "I know what you just saw. Please don't say anything. It was the only way that we were allowed to have this wedding go on inside the city of Kent." Because I found out that basically what this was the first student gathering of any kind since the shootings had occurred. And they had armed guards in the field, and standing around, and everybody saw it at the same time. These guys were ridiculous about it, because they weren't hiding. It wasn't like they were there in case something happened. They were showing themselves. [They thought,] You bunch of punks, don't get out of hand at this wedding or we'll shoot you. So the wedding went on inside the city limits, but they had to at the last minute move [the] reception to, I think it was at the Holiday Inn at [Interstate-]76 out there, because it was outside the city limits and outside of the curfew, and they couldn't do it inside the city because the reception was going to last beyond curfew time. So they had to move it out there, so we went out there. Course everybody is joking with these folks about it being a shotgun wedding and stuff. We had a great time with it.
And I left, and then Saturday morning I drove up to North Olmsted. I saw Karen, her roommate Cathy, and we just sort of hung out for the day, just ran around and just kind of talking to them about things we'd seen and stuff. And my parents called. And I thought, Oh, why are you calling me up here? They knew I was going up and everything. And my mom said, "The FBI called and wants to talk to you." [I thought], Oh, God! This is bizarre. North Olmsted, and they essentially had tracked me down. And I had a phone number to call, and I called it and said, "Well, what do you want?" And they said, "We understand that you had seen some things, and we want to know if you would be willing to be interviewed?" And I said, "Okay."
I drove back on Sunday, and again, we had to meet at the Holiday Inn because it was going to be an evening interview, and they were offering to actually escort me in and out of town if we met someplace inside the city limits. But they finally just said, "Well, it's probably going to be easier to just meet you at the Holiday Inn." So I met there, met with two FBI agents, and I was nervous enough, the old FBI show was on Sunday nights. The first thing I say to them is, "I just saw the FBI on TV!" They gave me this look like, Oh, God, what are we dealing with here? And I felt like a jerk, but I was just so nervous I didn't quite know what to say. And they asked me if I'd be willing to talk about what I had seen that day, so after all the interviews that I'd done at the newspaper during the week I'm being interviewed again Sunday night. Finally they said, "We have some photographs here. Would you mind--we wanna to know if you wouldn't mind looking at them and seeing if you can identify some people?" And I said, "I'll look at them." Looked at all these photos, and again, I didn't really know any of the protesters that were really involved with it, and the photos they showed me I could pick out a couple of people, because they were all people who were standing around with me watching. And I knew they weren't involved, So I thought, Sure, I can identify them and it's not going to hurt anything, because I know we were just standing there. And we went through it, and that was kind of the end of it. And when school started up again in the fall, I saw some of these people. I'd walk up to them and say, "Hey, I identified you to the FBI!" And these same people, every time, would say, "Oh, yeah? Well I identified you to the FBI!" And we started talking, and something had occurred to me, and it wasn't until we were talking that it really came out. I thought something was odd with all the pictures and I didn't realize what it was. And we all realized at the same time that from the shootings on Monday until Sunday afternoon, they had time to collect all these photos and determine who most of the people were, and track down these people to see if they could identify other people. And they obviously had been able to sort through them in such a way--and I don't know why. Self-incrimination may be just a silly reason, but it's the one reason that I can think of, but we all realized that as we were identifying each other in these photos, none of us ever saw ourselves in any of the photos. I was not in any of the pictures, but people that I was identifying, who I know were standing very near me, were in the pictures. And the pictures that they were identifying where I was, and I was standing near them, they were not in the pictures when they saw them.
So, went through all that. Things happened after that. I was doing--I designed a logo that eventually was picked up and used by the "Kent 25" on some of their fundraising materials. Did a cartoon for the Stater the day after the Portage County Grand Jury Report was issued. I happened to be in the Stater office when the Stater got a hold of several copies of it, and they gave me one and I read through it and I was just so incensed by what they said in the Grand Jury Report. It just seemed so totally out of line with what I had seen that day. And the fact that one of the things they used was the Jefferson Airplane concert, that occurred in the Fall of 1970, as living proof that this is still this hotbed of radicals on the Kent State campus, because you had this crazy hippie group from San Francisco who said antiwar things at a concert. I did a cartoon about it for the Stater, a very emotional kind of a cartoon, but more political than anything I'd ever done before. And the day I turned it in at the Stater, it just so happened a stringer [i.e., freelance journalist] from the New York Times was there, writing a story about the Portage County Grand Jury Report for the New York Times. I don't even remember who the person was, but they were standing there as we were discussing the cartoon, and somebody showed it to the stringer and the stringer said, "Hey, I'm working on a piece for the New York Times. Would you mind if I sent a copy of this along to see if they want to use it?" [I said,] "Geez, sure, the New York Times. That'd be pretty cool." And sure enough, they ran the story with a reproduction of the cartoon, so essentially the very first full-fledged editorial cartoon I ever did was printed in the New York Times.
[Interviewer]: What was the cartoon?
[Chuck Ayers]: Um, I don't know if I have it here. [flips through his portfolio] It was-- [describes cartoon] It's just kind of this mother-figure, a blindfolded mother-figure standing over Jeff Miller's body and kind of protecting her little Ohio National Guardsman. And basically she just says, "You damn bunch a brats, that'll teach ya!" And just a lot of other crap in there. It's really an awful cartoon because it was just--I just didn't know how to do it. But it was picked up in the New York Times and then we started getting requests at the Stater from college newspapers all across the country, so this cartoon ran in college papers everywhere.
[Interviewer]: Did you take correspondence courses that summer, or that kind of thing?
[Chuck Ayers]: No. No.
[Interviewer]: You didn't take any classes?
[Ayers and Interviewer laugh.]
[Chuck Ayers]: Oh, that's a hoot. That's a hoot, because we started getting all the information saying, "Obviously you're not going back to school this semester--or this quarter, and we've got to make some other arrangements." I was taking an art history course from Mr. Swanson in the art history department, who I just thoroughly--I loved taking his classes. This was a class on Sub-Saharan African Art. I had taken a series of Oriental Art History from him--it was called Oriental Art History at the time, it's Asian Art now--a series of three classes in that. I had taken another one, was just sort of a basic art history. I loved taking art history from this guy. Got a note from him saying he was so frustrated with all the politics going on that he was leaving the university, and we all had passing grades. Because the options were to drop the class, take the class pass/fail, or take it for a grade. So he just all gave us passing grades and was gone. There was another history class that I was taking, there had been a screw-up with the books, I had not even been able to get hold of the book yet. They ran out of them at the bookstore, so I was borrowing books. The instructors knew about it. We were trying to work our way through as much of the class until I could get a book. Had not gotten one yet, and so I dropped the class because there was no way without a book that I could finish that class. There was a couple others that I was taking. A photography class--since I no longer had access to a dark room, I had to drop that. The home ec class--the History of Clothing and Costume--I opted to take it pass/fail. We had a take-home final exam, which I aced, and they threw out the midterm, so I would have aced the class but I ended up opting for pass/fail, so I blew that "A." And I was taking a bowling class. I had a gym class to complete. I was taking bowling, and the grade was based on some written test that we took and I got a "B" on that, and it was my only actual grade for the quarter. So I had a two-point [2.0] for the quarter, because of--I mean a three-point [3.0], because of the "B." But, yeah, it was kind of strange. I had left thinking that I was going to get back into the Chestnut League office quite soon. I had left some personal stuff in there. I knew one of the administrators who, gave him a call and told him about my plight, and he said, "Well, I can't get you on campus but I have a key to that office and I'll get the stuff for you." So he got it and delivered it to me.
[Interviewer]: What was the atmosphere like on campus the following year?
[Chuck Ayers]: It was crazy. I got out of a lot of classes, especially when there was a test, because of bomb scares. It was a couple of week, where people were calling in bomb scares. To be on campus, you had to show your I.D. everywhere. Nobody seemed to trust who you were. There was a lot of talk about what had happened and what it meant and how it had affected us personally and how it affected the school, the campus, all mixed in with bomb scares. And I went back to working at the Stater doing cartoons, but now every cartoon I did basically was an editorial cartoon, because all the campus issues I'd been dealing with were now national issues. And that's actually what prompted me to really get serious about the thoughts of doing that. I thought it was a way of getting involved without being a protester or something. So my last quarter on campus--I was there in the Fall and Winter Quarters, Fall of '70 and Winter of '71--and I was taking political science classes, I was working on editorial cartoons, I was, had the instructors looking at my political cartoon ideas, I was taking those same political cartoons and doing individual studies art classes with art teachers who were--the poli-sci profs were looking at it for content and the art teachers were looking at it for the way the thing was drawn and constructed, and so I was getting double duty out of those. They were not--they were legitimate, straight editorial cartoons all done for class. None of that was getting into the Stater. But it was moving in that direction. So that's what got me into the career of doing editorial cartoons for thirteen years at the Beacon.
[Interviewer]: What do you think think the consequen--[clears throat]. Excuse me. What do you think the consequences of the shootings were for the university?
[Chuck Ayers]: In some ways I'm sure it hurt the school. Some ways, I think, at least for a while, it maybe helped.
[Interviewer]: How so?
[Chuck Ayers]: Didn't have that reputation of being a party school anymore. The new reputation was much overblown--you would hear Kent State and Berkeley in the same sentence. Well, Berkeley had gone through stuff like this for years and years, Kent State basically had one day of it. But I think people noticed Kent. There's that old saying about no advertising is bad advertising. No exposure. So even if what went on sounded bad about Kent for such a long time, people took notice of the school, and I think once things finally leveled out some, people know Kent State now. And it's far enough away from the event that now they say, "Oh, that's where that trouble was. Somebody got shot there or something. Oh, Kent State. Yeah, I know Kent State." So I think maybe, in some ways, there was some benefit that, just in terms of the notoriety of the campus. I can't really compare it to other campuses, because when you have schools closing down across the country in protest of what happened here at Kent State, the politicizing of the student bodies across the country was pretty universal at the time. So Kent probably came out of it no different than anybody else other than the fact that we had the tragedy here, and at Jackson State too.
But, the things that it did for me as a former Kent student, I would go places and have a Kent State t-shirt on, and people will say, "Well, were you there?" This had gotten to the point where you can answer that question basically before they even finish that sentence, because you can see the look in their faces, you know what the question is going to be. [I'd say], "Yeah, I was there."
[Interviewer]: Did you ever encounter hostility?
[Chuck Ayers]: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Well, when I graduated in March, I went down--the friend of mine that I told you had been drafted, and they were holding off taking him until he graduated, was in the army, and so in March of '71 when I graduated I went down to D.C. to visit him. He was then working--he had just left a job at the Pentagon and was working in the Forestal Building, I believe. So I went down and visited Mike, and he was showing me D.C. and he was off-duty, so he wasn't wearing his uniform, but he said, "You ever been in the Pentagon?" And I said, "No, I've never been in D.C. before." And he said, "Well, I'll show you around." So, he's got a jacket on, says KENT STATE on it, it's real unobtrusive. It's one of those old blue ones that they used to have, it just had a little gold logo, just said KENT STATE UNIVERSITY with a little logo on the pocket. And I remember having a Kent State t-shirt on. And we went into the Pentagon. It's open to the public and there were public areas and there's artwork on all the hallways and stuff, and he knew I'd like to see the artwork. And that was really the reason we went there. We'd been in there for just a short while, and I remember looking at this one painting and Mike said to me, "Don't make it real obvious, but just kind of look at some paintings down the hallway and when you're doing that, just kind of look at all the people that you see." So I said, "Yeah, this one's really nice," and I turned around, "Yeah, there's some nice ones too," and I sort of took note of the people. We walked around. A few minutes later he said, "Check the hallway again." I said, "There's some nice paintings," and I looked back, and it's one of the guys that I'd seen before. And we walked around for half an hour or more, and this guy was never out of stight--out of sight. He trailed us through the Pentagon. And it wasn't really hostile, but it just, we were watched, and it was close enough at the time.
And I went down to D.C. another time. I used to go down there just by myself a lot. I loved the city. I love the Smithsonian, I could just lose myself in there for days at a time. And I happened to be down there during the time of the Nixon impeachment hearings, the House Judiciary Committee Hearings were going on. And I was in my room and I saw that they were going to be doing the hearings again the next day, and [I thought], That'd be fun to see. And as soon as I said that to myself, they said, "They're open to the public. Here's where you go. Here's where the line starts. It'll be very crowded. You won't be allowed in for long. But if you don't mind a long wait, you can sit in on some history." I thought, That's for me. So I showed up quite early.And I'm standing in line, and when you're in line for three or four hours you start to meet the people around you. I met a guy in front of me who, I don't remember where he was from, he was a college stu--he had just graduated from college, he was going into the Peace Corps down in Latin America someplace. So I think, Wow, what a cool story. We talked to the guy behind us, who has this very thick English accent, and he's teaching at one of the universities there in D.C. A college instructor, you know. And they said, "What do you do?" And I said, "Well, I'm an editorial cartoonist." They went, "Wow, an editorial cartoonist. That's so cool." And we started talking about some other things, and the guy going into the Peace Corps, somebody asked, "Where did you go to school?" and he told us; and we asked the guy from England, "Where did you go to school?" and he told us someplace in England. They looked at me and they said, "Where did you go to school?" and I said "Well, I went to Kent State." [They said,] "Kent State! Wow, and an editorial cartoonist! Oh my God, this is so cool." So we just kind of got to be buddies standing in this line for several hours.
They were only taking ten or fifteen people in at a time, and would only allow you--there were so many people--they'd only allow you like five minutes in there. There was a bench in the very back of the room. There's two doors, you'd come in this door--the whole committee was up front--you'd come in this door, you'd walk through, they had just enough people to sit down on the bench, you'd sit in the bench, then they'd say [whispers], "Okay, your time is up," and you'd get up and walk out a door on the other side. I had my sketchbook with me, because I--I always carried it at that time, but I thought this is my chance to draw a little piece of history. And so I'm with the guys, and they even knew that I was planning on doing a little drawing in there, and the way we were all standing, they were ahead of me and were being pulled forward. You'd go from one station to wait, and then another station to wait, and you kept getting closer and closer. And finally they said, "Okay, now you guys can come in," and they took them, and just as the guy in front of me got there, the arm came in front [of me, and somebody said], "Oh, you have to wait for the next one." And these guys looked back and they said, "Bye," because they're pushing you along. And they were in there for their five minutes or so, and I'm the first one in line, and finally they said, "Okay, you can come now." Come and I walk in and I go to the end of the row to sit down, and I sit down and I open up my sketchbook and I thought, This is so cool. There's John Seiberling and all the people on the Committee and I'm drawing this stuff and--that never occurred to me. There was that connection there from that thing when I had saw him at Akron U. So I did this very quick little sketch and I'm just getting into it, and one of these big guards leans over, and I thought, Oh, God, I've done something wrong, I'm not supposed to do this. And he said, "That's very nice. I'm going to give your group an extra five minutes." And he stood back up like this and he looked over and he smiled. So I did just a little sketch, real quick, of a couple of the people on the Committee. Nodded at this guard as I left, and he smiled at me. I get out, and there's these two guys waiting. [They said,] "Well, did you draw anything?" So I showed them what I did. And we spent the rest of the day together, going to the museums, we had lunch in one of the office buildings there, one of the government buildings. But, you know, it's that Kent State connection that very often has been sort of strange with different things, and it just keeps coming back all the time.
I came back to so many of the May 4th commemorations, and it's pretty strange because I talked to one or two guys that I knew who had been in Vietnam, who actually went through some Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I was very reluctant to say anything but I happened to one time, and they said, "Yeah, that's probably what you're going through. It sounds like what we did." There's sort of the "Survivor syndrome." When I got back on campus that Fall, I remember one of the things I did was take all my photos, because a lot of it was kind of a blur in some ways. So I had a copy of all my pictures and went from place to place holding a picture in front of me, and I said, "Okay, here's where I was standing when I took this photo." And the one that just gave me chills was the last photo I'd taken before the [shootings], because I stood there, I was taking a picture of the Guard marching towards the Pagoda off the practice football field, and I looked and I realized where I was standing was a direct line between the Pagoda and where Jeff Miller was shot.
And another thing--I just remembered another thing about the photos. Because I didn't have access to a darkroom after they brought me back the negatives the day of the shootings, day or so later I asked one of the photographers, I said, "You know, I don't really want to send these out someplace to get them printed, but would you guys mind printing off a copy--a set of copies for me?" They said, "No problem. It'll be a little while because we're busy with all this stuff, but sure." I said, "Thanks a lot." So, my negatives were all back in the Beacon Journal photo department when the FBI came in with a subpoena for all the photos. So I heard about it sort of after the fact, [somebody said], "Your subpoenas--er, your photos are with the FBI now. We can't print them." [I thought], Oh, God. But they did a real good job. Those guys printed them off and the negatives came back I think within a day, so I got my first set of prints from the Beacon photos, of the Beacon photographers then. But one of my photos is here in the Campus Unrest [flips through book], The President's Commission on Campus Unrest, with a Beacon Journal credit line because when they got them they didn't know that these were the Chuck Ayers photos that were just sitting in there. They assumed that they were all Beacon photos, so that was used--I didn't know that was being used until I bought the book.
[Interviewer]: So this is one of the last photos you took before the shootings?
[Chuck Ayers]: Yeah, within a few--you know, I can tell you almost exactly, I got some photos here. [flips through portfolio] I don't know if it would have helped--this is the photo. This is relatively early. This would have been the first one. This is the Guardsmen going up over the top of the hill. This is the parking lot I'm in. There's the Volkswagen Bus and the little Beetle right behind that guy's shoulder is my car. So this would have been the first photo I took after I came over the hilltop and saw them lined up like this. And this was after they had knelt to aim at the parking lot, there's tear gas around them, this is the students in the parking lot. This is the photo. You can see they've already made their turn and they're nearly to the road, and all they have to do is get to the road, climb that hill a short distance. So this photo, I'm guessing, because I went out and walked that a few times, is somewhere just slightly over thirty seconds, possibly, before they turned and fired right through where I was standing at that moment.
[Interviewer]: And in that previous photo, where they were kneeling, did I understand earlier you had said that you thought they did that right after you saw the person in the viewfinder with the--fire the gun in the air?
[Chuck Ayers]: Yeah, yeah. I think I may have been working on this photo when I saw that. But I've looked through again--[points to photograph] this guy [in the parking lot, left side of the frame] kind of looks like he might have his arm in the air, but I don't remember. It's different seeing a still image from seeing somebody moving. I could see the gun above his head, I could see the recoil, heard the little pop. So this may have been at that time, it may have been earlier, it may have been just after. I'm not sure.
[Interviewer]: Are there any other thoughts you'd like to share?
[Chuck Ayers]: [exhales] Not right now.
[Ayers and Interviewer laugh.]
[Chuck Ayers]: It's always difficult. It's always difficult. And I never am able to stop talking about it. I was on campus seven years ago for the twentieth anniversary--thirtieth anniversary. I wish it was twenty. And that was one of the most emotional couple of days that I've ever gone through. I was with Jim Russell quite a bit of that time. Jim has introduced me--had introduced me to most of the other survivors, so I think I've met all of them. Joe Lewis especially, who is just a great guy. Those days on campus, being with Jim, being with the other survivors who were actually shot, being with the other people that I was with on those days--there were a couple of people that I'm sure I hadn't seen since the morning of May 4th. And it was wild to see so many grown men--we were all older by that time, lots of gray beards around--just openly weeping over what we had gone through. And you could tell talking to some of these people that they'd held it in and never let it out ever before. It was very moving, very moving.
And that's a big part of why Tom [Batiuk] and I did the comic strip, the Crankshaft series, about May 4th for the 30th anniversary. And I've gone through it again now with the passing of Jim Russell, because I wasn't on campus this May 4th. But I saw pictures in the paper and saw that he was here, and I took some comfort in the fact that Jim was here. I remember thinking that when I saw the pictures. But, yeah, life goes on, I guess.
[Interviewer]: Chuck, thank you very much for speaking with us today.
[Chuck Ayers]: Thank you.