Jonathan Wolfman's Blog
MAY 4, 2012 6:55AM

Memory's an Eel -- Kent State, 42 Years On

Rate: 26 Flag





 This is an edit of a two-year-old post. 



 May 4, 1970, Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling



Kent, Ohio




The Palestra, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia





 Memory's an eel. 

forty-two years' reach
so unreliable.
No news, that:  plagues us all--
 .two-timing lovers,
 .conspiracy enthusiasts,
 .fans of Classic Series stats,
 .Gospel Writers
and all of us, Ordinaries.
Time trips us up so thoroughly
I wonder
that we ever know history even
in our own age.
I'd've sworn we packed Penn's Palestra
so very angry and afraid
afraid they were willing now to murder
young white-privilege
not only
Black Jackson State kids--
on a Friday-not-a-Monday--
no, no, it was Monday evening,
May 4th, 1970
and we rallied inside
our Palestra
sang and marched
from campus three miles to
Center City
then north two more miles
down North Broad
to the Induction Center--
and yet
and yet after years and years
and conversation upon
...there was no march that night.
Yet in my memory there was.
And it was a hell of a march.
Snug in Our Palestra.
The "Cathedral of College Basketball".
But not this night.
Racing-to-radio-rumors, racing from classes to the Palestra.
Words, horrid truths at first so disbelieved, disbelieved-words so quickly spread, at first so horribly disbelieved then so very crushing-swift:
students wholly believed-sinking-in
Nixon, we knew, we knew
right there in the stands
we knew,
We knew that man wanted us dead--Us!--
How Fucking Unreal, Man!
as truth lay sprawled on grass and asphalt
at Kent
unarmed and quite dead.
And yet.
I recall feeling ashamed-in-the-stands,
implored to Fear, here, in the very safe-
very safe
Penn Palestra, 9,000, 10,000, 15,000
sharing a ginned-up privilege-fear
we never ever deserved.
Outrage; That was justified.
Fear? Come on!
No; No,
and yet I do remember
all the
trumped up
jumped up
calls to
Share the Fright and Horror
Kent State students,
of a sudden our kin-our blood--
I remember thinking, in the stands,
listening to
make certain we are not just outraged at
the Guard
the truth
that the Guard had really done it    now
to us
to us
to us--
right here inside our sweaty, cozy,
safe gymnasium.
I remember thinking:
(I do remember thinking t h i s):
How the hell many of us have sat-in
been beaten at a Carolina lunch counter,
at a Mississippi polling place,
at a Philly draft board office?
I had been a high school non-hero
sweetly arrested
at the draft board
401 North Broad Street
December 17, 1967--
I do recall the date
I recall it, six glorious hours in
lock-up and 
one full glorious glorious week
myself a revolutionary at sixteen.
Ho. Ho. Ho. Chi. Minh.
NLF. is. Gonna. Win.
Memory is an eel.
I was as snug as a swaddled child
in a Palestra cheering section 
thinking that none of us had ever been
as brave as to sit,
not among 12,000 like-minded 
but with three or four deadly-frightened
yet committed souls at a Woolworth's Counter,
order a malted, and get the shit beat out of you
and again
and again
and again.
I do recall thinking that.
I know what Kent State did.
It brought that war-stench home
in ways not brought before
to white privilege
I suppose,
thank God, too
that's when Congress decided
just may be
stumbling loopy-blind through that
flat-out vicious-stupid jungle war
just might
be incredibly dangerous.
And it took
five.  more.  fucking. 
Memory's often slippery.
  History's always sure.
Here are some terrific resources. There's so much Kent State Myth out there. This stuff's reliable.

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Memory is an eel; it's at its slipperiest when you're certain of your grasp.
Jon ~ 42 years later I am hard pressed to say we've made much progress in this nation. Various tactics now being employed against Occupy protesters around the country make a mockery of our right to freedom of speech and assembly!
des it's a very tough time; yes.
I seem to remember being on my way to class, in front of Brown Hall at Ohio State- ( Walking through a line of National Guard Soldiers from my home town ( Hi Bill) ) when I first felt the news rippling through the campus- I wasn't sure what nonsense they were spreading, but I vaguely heard "Kent State" and tuned it out as being irrelevant to me.

I seem to remember that, but I don't know for certain that's how I came to know- I was busy trying to become an architect, the "Strike" was at worst an inconvenience, at best an excuse for a day off-- memory is an eel
der Rude it sure as hell is.
It's funny I remember it as yesterday... Columbia exploded, classes closed, Broadway closed, with thousands of students marching...
Was in Ohio in the late 70's and began to understand... a completely different world view, and where no one was willing to accept responsibility.... A bunch of scared national guardsmen, who were poorly trained....a reactionary Governor, and as rumors have it ( a FBI infiltrator who fired a shot).... a tragedy that should have never happened, where poor students were made an example... of what I don't know...

I was in high school during Kent State. My wife, a couple of years younger, experienced that more intensely because she's from Ohio, and she was horrified to find that adults around her thought those kids deserved it.

I was in college during Jackson State and we did march through town, silent, escorted by local police.

Ray it was just awful Thanks for reading this and sharing, Ray.
Kosh thanks so much and yes, sheltered, priviege still is except for the time immediately after Ms. V. kneeled there. (She still does public speaking.)
And thanks for this as well. Terrific. "Time trips us up so thoroughly." It certainly does, which is why so many walk around today in a state of amnesia. Kent State and My Lai exposed horrifying truths about ourselves. But as appalling as the reactions were, I can also understand why people reacted as they did at the time, blindly defending the troops and blaming the students. We are all tribal. We all close ranks to protect the family. And that is why history is so important. When passions cool, history gives us the chance to ensure that the contemporaneous reactions at the time are not the last word.
Ted thanks and you're so right.
My friend was there and she told me many times of the horror that should not happen. Then I see the brute force in Oakland this week and ealize not much has changed.
Linda some has, not nearly enough. Thanks, friend.
It's so hard to believe that actually happened in our country. I still love the CSNY song "Ohio."
Balt I hope "Billy" can do better and thanks very much for the info re: Kent state; I'd no idea.
Lynn I wonder if Iraq had been on TV every night would the tension have been similar. Thanks!
Deborah I like the number, too, tho I wish CSNY hadn't pandered quite so much in the lyrics to white, privileged kids.
Not to sound too cynical Jon, but at least you remember Jackson State which got lost behind the Ohio Guard and Kent State...

designator's comment brings to mind the movie Under Fire where Ron Shelton wrote a line in the screenplay that he drew from a news story about Sandinista reaction to Jimmy Carter's policy changes after the discovery of the bodies of four American nuns: "Hell, if we knew that four dead nuns would end American aid to Samoza, we'd have killed some years ago!"

Too bad Daniel Ortega turned out to be such a self-serving shit.
I hadn't thought about THAT tragedy for quite some time. May has always been the month I remember as having so many memories, most of which, like yours, are celebrated as anniversaries of years gone by.

Happy Mother's Day, ladies.
jmac thanks and yes; part of my point here is that there was a class and a race issue going on in the reaction to KSU.
Rated. Reality sucks.

I would've been fixin' to be nine two days after this horrific historical event.
B. and a fine one, friend, to you as well.
Well done. Is there a theme propagating the feeds today?
bobot thank you as to the feed, i've only seen one other piece on Kent here (and a great one), Ted Frier's piece.
It was a long time ago, yet on our lips still, because we know tomorrow it can happen again.

your poem is quite moving.

Since I was only 10 at the time, I was oblivious to what was happening around me regarding Kent State. I only remember my mother worrying about my brother relatively low draft number, but he went to school like yourself at Penn from 68-72 and my very well have been in the Palestra with you. We were sheltered from that as you said.
My social consciousnesss was awakened by Watergate, a few years later, watching those hearings on TV during dinner time with Sam Ervin and my father being rivetted by his questions.
Kent State for me was the CSNY song and the photograph. And looking at that photograph today, the image is more chilling than than I ever experienced. I dont know why. The expression on the student's face - her singular shock among a group of others seemingly walking nonchalantly by the fallen body remains powerful.
I am glad that the newspapers prints photos showing the grief of the family of fallen soldiers. I need not to look nonchalantly at those photos though
Sheila of course it can; yes.
TTE thank you, and yes, we were too sheltered.
Maybe it was somewhat symbolic, although unintentionally - it just happened to be a wide open space on campus and a traditional gathering place - but the rally and shootings happened just in front of and just behind Taylor Hall, which is where the school of journalism is housed. If it had to unfold, that's where it should have happened, under the watchful eye of a free press. Judging by the way the Occupy protests have been covered (or not covered), as well as the Trayvon Martin shooting, I think we know how something like this would be handled by the media today.
Jeanette I think you may well be correct. Thank you!
I remember this very well, Jonathan. At least I could trust that Walter Cronkite would tell me the truth. Watching the news today is an exercise in self-deception. And nothing has changed, the police are still beating protesters with billy clubs in the name of law and order.
cc sadly, yes, all too often
Jon, this is a remarkable piece. I was in junior high and I remember the fear. Fear gripped everyone. The high school reacted by kicking a bunch of kids out of the National Honor Society who wore black arm bands in honor of the deceased students. That is just so bizarre to me now.
Amy The case of Mary Beth Tinker (1965 ?) had already established the right of studnts to wear the armbands.
Amy the school distr you speak of was not only morally stupid but it likely violated a Scrt ruling.
Jonathan, this is ... amazing. Kudos. I made a comment on another post (Bobbot's) that I won't repeat here. Let me just say without irony or humour: May the fourth always be with us....
Bo thanks very, very much. :)
Are humans as evolved as they are ever going to get? You'd have thought that we'd have learned from the 60s and 70s--if not other eras in our history--and made changes that would ensure the viability of our species. But I don't see it. Perhaps our current state of global economic drama, wars, hatemongering, and human rights atrocities is the dark before the dawn. That's the only hopeful spin I can put on it all. I don't trust masses of people. Even before I studied sociology, I was aware of the incendiary hysteria that lurks, especially in angry or fear-laced gatherings. Kent State, Jackson State...all horror shows...passion plays. But, how quickly we--as a species--forget that devouring the young is a form of suicide. We keep serving up our children much as the ancients did.
beauty cultural suicide perhaps yet i do remain hopeful
Family, friends, even life itself are all like wet bars of soap. Holding them securely is difficult enough, but if you squeeze just a little too hard...
Tor I'm somewhat more hopeful.
Excellent, John. I was in my very first semester of Air Force ROTC, and was very gung-ho, despite my major doubts about the Vietnam War. Kent State *really* rocked me back, as it did everyone I knew -- including most in the military (and I've always known a bunch of those folks; still do).

Good piece. Rated.
"did you know all the buildings on campus - every one of them - is new since the day of the shooting."

I haven't been back for a few years, but I don't think that's true. In fact, that's virtually impossible.
This is the best poetry you've ever written!
Kurt you know, I never thought the majority of military fellas would've supported such a scurrilous move.
Thank you.
Jeanette I have no way of knowing.
I remember Vice President Agnew stating that if the students hadn't been where they were, they wouldn't have been shot, so they should blame themselves. One could also make the argument that if Agnew hadn't been where he was when he received the bribes, he wouldn't have had to resign. Appalling, but I do resist the comparison with Occupy Wall Street. The kids at Kent State had a genuine, supremely important cause. The Occupiers are just a hokey Obama re-election ploy. And the worst of them are vandals and hoodlums.
Jon: We haven't really come that far, yet, have we?
We are more enmeshed in ugly politics than ever before, it seems.
People are enthralled buy the media, and buy its propaganda for them almost before thinking, without reasoning.
We live in some dangerous times today, too, dude. It's just not as obvious today. Not as obvious as four bodies lying limp on the grounds of Kent State. But just as lethal.
Take care. Love your sojourns into verse.
Arthur I am not inclined to make that comparison--not sure who does--tho not for the same reasons.
PW We've really missed you here. :)