Suzanne Irvin, Personal Narrative
Submitted via email, February 1, 1996
I came upon this site tonight while surfing the Net, looking for something else. When I found the KSU, May 4 site, my memories rushed back:
I was a student at KSU on May 4, 1970. Though I had been gone for the weekend, I returned to campus that Monday morning, wondering why these soldiers were all over the place. Tents were pitched everywhere, the campus had become a military encampment over the two days I had been gone. I had heard of the activities of the weekend, but never dreamed what the next few hours held in store for us all.
I first attended a Shakespeare class taught by Dr. Doris Franklin (a wonderful woman). After class, I proceeded to Taylor Hall, where I sat through a journalism class, my mind being more focused on the National Guard troops outside than my class inside.
After this class (which ended at 11:50 a.m.), I walked over to Lilac Lane, to see how far along the lilacs were in budding out. I knew that a demonstration was to take place at noon. Within a few minutes, a long line of guardsmen suddenly appeared, facing Taylor Hall, in front of the ruins of what had been an old wooden shack, used by the ROTC. It had been burned down over the weekend, apparently by protestors.
It soon felt as though I had been thrust out of time and space, and into a scene like those I had been watching during the 1960s on the nightly news. They ranged from VietNam every night for years, to the murders of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, to the bloody streets of Chicago in 1968 (during the Democratic Convention), racial unrest, etc.
I walked past the line of guard, not thinking too seriously about the noon demonstration, not feeling as though it would or could escalate into anything violent. Such was the innocence of so many of us, though it surely ended that day.
On the other side of the line of guardsmen, I saw my roommate. She and I stood in what became the front of a line of students, running from Johnson Hall down to near the line of guardsmen. At first, it seemed like a sort of comedy. A few guardsmen were riding around in a jeep before us, shouting through a bullhorn, which oddly distorted the voice(s). We were told to disperse immediately, that this was an unlawful assembly, and that we were under martial law.
I was 21 years old and had never even heard of martial law. I knew that they meant business, but the spirit of the times (and of the group around the Commons) was such that we felt united in wanting them off of OUR campus with their guns! They were the ones who should get lost, in the group's opinion. I later realized that there were more than KSU students in the crowd that day.
There was some laughter, as I recall. Then the Guard began to fire tear gas canisters toward the group of students who were near the old Victory Bell, by Taylor Hall. The young guys threw the tear canisters back at the guardsmen, though of course the kids didn't have gas masks on, and the guardsmen did. It reminded me of the silly Spring antics on campus back then, like the annual "panty raids" on dorms --- that was the era from which we had so recently emerged.
Within a very short time, the guard were marching up the hill, right in front of us. I couldn't figure out why they were going up and around Taylor Hall to the right. It had seemed to me that they would have gone directly toward the people near the bell, who were throwing back the canisters and yelling at the guard.
Suddenly, we heard what sounded like fireworks and in no time, a girl came running down the hill in front of us, with one shoe on and one shoe off. She was screaming and wailing: "They've shot people, they've killed people," words to that effect. Immediately after her, a man came running down the same hill. He was a plain-clothed policeman or federal agent (or so I have always believed), who wore a tan sports coat and who had a handgun in his right hand. He was so close to us that we could have easily touched him. He ran for safety into the original line of the National guardsmen. We were dumbstuck.
When a professor took the bullhorn and implored us to leave the campus, we tried to do so. I turned around and found that there was a line of guardsmen behind us, kneeling down, with rifles and bayonets literally in our faces. We had to beg them to allow us to get beyond them in order to leave the campus. I think that they didn't know whether to hold us or to let us go! Tear gas was affecting everyone in the area.
Once we got beyond the line, I saw Dr. Jerry Lewis, the Sociology professor, talking with a few other instructors. I asked him what was happening, whether the school was going to close, or what? He responded: "I think it's worse than that." He was right.
I made my way to my old VW bug, to get it off campus as quickly as possible, and returned to my apartment. The girlfriend of our next-door neighbor was Allison Krause. I did not know her, having recently moved into the building. By the time I got home and tried to telephone my parents, to assure them of my safety, the telephone lines had all been shut down. I couldn't reach them. I watched Dorothy Fuldheim on the Cleveland news that evening. She was full of outrage at the shootings, while others were condemning the killed and wounded students, creating unspeakable lies about them/us all. That night there were helicopters flying overhead, flashing bright beams down from above. Everyone was told to stay inside. I now understood what martial law was ...
The next morning, my Father came to take me home. As we drove by campus, there were tanks parked everywhere around the perimeter. Our campus had been taken over and our world was irrevocably changed.
I had lost classmates from high school in the war, and had gone to the funeral of one who died at 19 in the January 1968 Tet Offensive. To watch a young man be so-buried, with the ground frozen, deeply covered with snow, and his fiancee sobbing, was devastating. By January of 1970, my dearest friend from high school had lost a leg in VietNam. We went to visit him in the Amputee Ward at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. That experience, as illustrated so well in films like "Coming Home" and "Born on the Fourth of July," was extremely intense.
It was very heavy stuff for naive young Americans. It may be everyday life in some places of the world, but it was not the "Leave it to Beaver" world of the 1950s, in which we had been raised. Life had brought some very drastic changes on us right out of high school. In November 1969, I joined the people who marched on Washington, D.C. in the Moratorium Against the war, to express our anger and frustration over a War that we could SEE (for a long time) was NOT a war that our country should be fighting. It was also horrible to see HOW it was being fought. We watched as the young men of our generation were killed and maimed in VietNam, day by day, week by week, month by month and year after year.
It was tortuous.
This account may not be comprehended by many young Americans today (nearly 26 years later), perhaps. The military engagements in which the United States has involved itself since VietNam have been relatively brief, and the reasons for our involvement have pretty much been understandable to the true majority of Americans.
I am very moved by the photographs that I see of the Memorial. I left Ohio in 1971, to follow a husband in the Army, ironically, as the War continued. That war changed the lives of an entire generation of young men and young women. It also changed American society very deeply, in many ways. I used to go back to the KSU campus when I would return to Ohio. I have not done that for many years now. It was just too painful.
When I do return some day, I would love to see the May 4 Archives, as I have spent my career as a librarian these many years since graduating from KSU, then the University of Hawaii. I have many good memories of Kent State. However, the strongest memory I carry (and always will) of KSU is of that May day, when the sun shined down so brightly and teased of Spring, only to be replaced by death and horror shortly after noon.
I attended classes on that Summer, a very sad time on campus, and graduated in August 1971, to leave Ohio forever (though I didn't realize it then) the very next month.
May God bless the students who attend KSU now and in the future. May they learn from the past, so that as the philosopher George Santayana said "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". May these young people CARE about what is going on with their government, with their country, with their world. May they realize that they have active roles to play as citizens. And may they become even more educated, continue to read throughout their lives, be aware and always vigilant.
I wish PEACE to your generation.