Sandra Perlman Halem, Commentary
[Written May 4, 1970?]
Speaking Out: Reflections on a Tragedy
Sandra Halem May 4, 1970
It is difficult to sit here and not scream. At least I should throw something or pound my fists...or cry. But the tears already came when I saw the newsclips of that National Guardsman staring down his gunsight at the students. An M1 is so accurate. There are four young, dead bodies lying in morgues in a peaceful Ohio town...lying cold and dead, a girl with no head, just a few blocks from where my husband and I got married. They threw stones at the National Guard. David threw stones at the giant and he fell. They threw stones and they were felled-instantly. The Commander of the Ohio National Guard said it "was regrettable- but necessary." Or did he make a grammatical mistake? Did he mean to say regrettably necessary? And for what? For the sanctity of a clapboard building which was going to be torn down within the year anyway? I am a teacher. I cannot understand Mr. Commander, I can only see pictures of one of my own students...but I teach in a high school where the students will never be protesting on a college campus. Why? Because in this great society my students are 18 and still can't write complete sentence...they can't read your statement in the newspaper because they don't read the newspaper...they'll never know why you thought it was so "necessary."
Kent, Ohio should have been the last place that would have been bloodied. The last place that the children of the "Silent Majority" should have lain with their neck blown out from under their head. It was a `quiet campus where apathy seemed the order of the day. Just last Friday after the President announced his "necessary" drive into a neutral country, we wondered why there was no reaction. This was a neutral country. These were quiet streets last week. The loudest noise during the heat spell had been the laughter of Fraternity houses, of America's playful children whooping it up-happily euphoric on 3.2 beer. What happened Mr. President?
They had gathered on that Friday night. They had gathered on Main street, Kent, USA to talk about their frustration. Some of them had noticed all those foreigners standing all too visibly, clutching their guns and waiting...did they know even then that the battle had just begun. No announcement. No meeting with the masses. Just waiting. Some of the troops on either side began to taunt each other. It was slow and then there was glass all over the sidewalks. East Ohio Gas. The Portage National Bank. The City Bank. Ohio Edison and a few innocent windows broken.
They had gathered on that Saturday night. They has met on the commons and suddenly there was fire. The R.O.T.C. crackled and snarled its resistance. There were shouts hurled through the air. There was water. There was fire and shouting and applause and rocks. Quiet. There was movement. Footsteps. And the tanks moved in and the Guards ringed circles around the flames to protect the flames. It was bright and there was smoke all over. The building was smoldering in ruins. They had gathered; there numbers had grown on both sides; their frustration had grown. It was a war that nobody wanted but no one could end. The one side had nothing more to lose; it was this battle field or another several thousand miles away. Their positions were locked in.
They marched towards each other. The one side had been given orders to disperse; the other side had seemingly begun to retreat. There was much teargas on the air but there was no crying yet. Suddenly-the retreating troops turned back on their enemy and charged back down the hill. They were charging but what were their orders? They were charging but who was their enemy? They were charging and then they were shooting. There was no more teargas, but there were now tears. There was no more fighting, but there were now dead. There was no more shouting, but there were bodies and blood and children who were no longer children. Who, perhaps, had been a little headstrong, but now would never learn.
This is emotional. Death is emotional; buildings are not. Buildings are replaceable; children are not.
Why in Ohio? Ohio is still flesh and blood and children who grow up understand. Sherwood Anderson wrote about these children over 50 years ago. In his short story, "Sophistication".
From being quite sure of himself and his future he becomes not at all sure. If he be an imaginative boy a door is torn open and for the first time he looks out upon the world. Seeing, ad though they marched along in procession before him, the countless figures of men who before his time have come out of nothingness. The sadness of Sophistication has come to the boy. With a little gasp he sees himself as merely a leaf blown by the wind through the streets of his village. He knowd that in spite of all the stout talk of his fellows he must live and die in uncertainty, a thing blown by the winds, a thing destined like corn to wilt in the sun. He shivers and looks eagerly about it. The eighteen years he has lived seem but a moment, a breathing space in the long march of humanity. Already he hears death calling. With all his heart he wants to come close to some other human, touch someone with his hands, be touched by hands of another.
On that Monday morning in Kent, Ohio the boys and girls reached out to touch, perhaps to clutch. In that moment of reaching they felt both life and death. And no one here will ever be quite the same again.