Lorrie J. Accettola, Personal Narrative
Submitted via email, November 13, 1999
Although it's been a very long time, my memories of that fateful day and the aftermath are still vivid and chilling. In the spring of 1970 I was a 23 year old senior at KSU hoping to get my BS degree in Secondary Education. I had been married at that time for about 10 months. I had been living in South Euclid, Ohio and commuting to campus every day. I had previously lived in Kent and knew the city well. Besides being a full-time student, I was employed full time on 3rd shift by the Penn Central Railroad in Bedford, Ohio.
My knowledge of the weekend preceding the shootings, the burning of the ROTC building, the vandalism in downtown Kent and any other events is second-hand. I was miles away. As for May 4th, that's another matter. I was right there.
As usual, I'd finish work, jump into my 1957 Ford station wagon and drive to Kent from Bedford Ohio. Usually arriving at approximately 6:00 a.m., I'd find a good parking spot a few blocks from campus and jump in the back of the car to get some sleep before my first class. On this particular morning there was too much excitement to go to sleep. The campus looked like an Army base. Soldiers, jeeps, and big military trucks zoomed around the streets inside the campus.
On May 4, 1970, I routinely went to my morning classes as I would have on any other day. In each class the topic of conversation was the same as it had been for the last week, namely, the war in Vietnam, the bombing of Cambodia and the turmoil that had visited the city of Kent the previous weekend.
While in one of my morning classes, a soldier came to the classroom and interrupted our lecture. He spoke to us and made it clear that the university was under martial law. We were told in no uncertain terms that we were not to attend the planned rally in the commons at noon.
Military jeeps carried soldiers holding bullhorns canvassed the streets of the campus. All the messages were the same, “do not attend the noon rally”. In my estimation, this was one of the many crucial mistakes made by the Ohio National Guard made over the next few hours. Many students had no idea of the rally until they were ordered not to attend it. Besides inadvertently advertising this rally, the mere mention to a "war tired" college population that they were not allowed to attend this rally was the last straw. In reality it was almost like an invitation or some sort of challenge. I remember feeling like it was time to actively resist authority. Apparently, many others did too. As soon as class was over, I headed for the commons.
I walked down to Blanket Hill from my class at Bowman Hall and saw that a large crowd had started to gather in the commons. Around the perimeter of the commons people had made a human ring. The building tops, stairways and dorm windows were crowded with people trying to get a glimpse of the confrontation they knew was soon to come. In the center of the commons was a fairly large group of students and the Ohio National Guard. The scene was eerily reminiscent of descriptions I had heard long ago regarding the Christians and the Gladiators in the Roman Coliseum. After some time elapsed, the National Guard, led by Gen. Del Corso, issued some statements via loudspeaker that we were in violation of martial law and that we were to disperse immediately. After each warning, the crowds, even the people in the outer areas, replied in unison, "F*ck You, F*ck You". I swear that retort was so loud and so clear it seemed it would be heard for miles. Over and over the Ohio National Guard would mobilize in formation and try to disperse the small band of students that had grouped together on the Commons. Each time the students would scurry to another position on the Commons to avoid being trapped. Tear gas was shot into the crowd of protesters a number of times and each time a demonstrator, holding a wet cloth over his nose and mouth would pick up the smoking canister and heave it back into the National Guard formation. It seemed like great fun. Early on, this exercise of civil disobedience was indeed comical, but this "cat and mouse game would soon get ugly. Many attempts to disperse or arrest some of the hard-core demonstrators continued.
At one point the National Guard was successful at cutting off about 10 students and seemingly trapping them in the 3-sided (fence) practice football field. As the National Guard marched down the field it looked like the demonstrators were trapped, but at the last moment, they climbed a high chain link fence and jumped down to the safety of the other side. It is important that I mention that after they safely landed on the other side of the fence, many of them threw rocks over the fence at the foolish looking National Guard. During this brief incident, it was the only time I saw anyone throw anything at the National Guard. This particular encounter was at least 10 minutes and hundreds of feet away from where the actual shootings took place. The National Guard reformed, and headed towards Taylor Hall. When they came to the crest of the hill, approximately 30 feet from where the Iron sculpture stands, they started shooting for what I thought was no apparent reason. I was just down the hill in the parking lot at this time. I remember the sounds of the bullets flying through the air. They sizzled and hissed as they flew by my head. I immediately fell to the ground. After the shooting stopped I got up and ran. The thought actually crossed my mind that it might be very possible that they would shoot everyone. I ran for my life. East of the parking lot there was some construction being done and a large trench, probably for a sewer or a water line had been dug. Instinctively I jumped into the ditch and waited there for the commotion to end. My heart pounded. I was still in disbelief. I looked up and saw that most people had fled. After a few minutes, I got up and saw that the National Guard had gone too. I went back to the parking lot and saw the carnage. I was stunned and scared to think that I was so close to death. Ambulances and rescue vehicles flooded the area, as did more spectators. After about 30 minutes, I walked to my car on the other side of town and drove around outside the campus with the radio playing the news. That was the last time I was on campus until the following fall quarter.
I learned the hard way that "facts" were secondary to the news media that day. All the Cleveland stations, both radio and TV broadcasted many variations of what happened that afternoon, including a fictitious number of casualties. I can remember hearing that two Ohio National Guardsmen were killed and that a "rooftop sniper" was responsible for firing the first shot. All news bulletins were slanted to favor the "Guard".
That afternoon when I got home, my wife, who had been listening to the news, told me of how she had worried that something had happened to me. I immediately made preparations so that if the police or any other governmental agencies came to my house I'd be clean as a whistle. When the 6 p.m. network news came on I watched the footage of K.S.U. coverage and saw a close up of myself. I was scared and fully expected the goon squad to visit my home, but no one ever came. The following fall quarter (Sept. 1970) a history professor that had taught me earlier (Dr. Calkins) told me that shortly after the shootings the FBI had questioned him about many students photographed at the rally. He told me they showed him my picture which had been taken of me amongst the crowd. They questioned him briefly about me and that was the extent of it.
The remaining quarter after May 4th was completed by "correspondence". Everything, even the final exams were done by mail. The campus was off limits. What a farce! I and almost every other student I knew got very high grades.
After the shootings most of the people in this area were somber and subdued. The only exceptions I remember were my fellow workers on the railroad. They were a group of mostly older, blue-collar types. They were less than sympathetic. Over the following months I repeatedly heard them proclaim that anyone who burned buildings or throws rocks at soldiers "deserves" to be shot. It was useless to try to explain. At every instance, I was yelled down and the reasoning they used was devoid of any logic. That was unbridled hate and fear, the beast that gave birth to May 4th from the beginning.
That was almost 30 years ago. God, how time flies! What do I, a 53-year-old man, think about the events on that sunny spring day today? It was, in my estimation, a predictable reaction to the reactionary tactics of the government in some very troubled times. What about the slain and wounded? Were they martyrs? Maybe in some ways, but I think they were more like victims. Victims of a "collective frenzy" fueled, orchestrated and perpetrated by the Ohio National Guard. They were kids like me, filled with frustration and a loathing for the government. The majority of students had varying degrees of distrust for men such as President Nixon, Vice President Agnew, Ohio Gov. Jim Rhodes and General Del Corso. May 4th should never have happened. A more gentle approach would have sufficed. Those students were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were cut down in the prime of their lives, leaving so many dreams and experiences never to be fulfilled.
I sincerely feel that their deaths were not in vain. With the passing of their lives and the suffering of the wounded, the people of our country were forced to examine the role of the USA in Vietnam. What it was costing in morale and lives? What was this war doing to our country?
On May 4th, 1970, the war in Southeast Asia visited a shady little town called Kent, Ohio. The rest is history, a hard lesson written with innocent blood. As for me, it's been a nagging reminder of how close to the edge we all live our lives. One never fully realizes how easily our existence can be altered or extinguished by others against our will.
Lorrie J. Accettola
Kent State University '70