Jim Hillibish: For 20,000 of us, May 4 will always mean something

Denise Sautters

May 4 should be just another May 4, not much different than May 3 or May 5. The date is meaningless to all but 20,000 Kent State students.

It burns in our memories.

I was in the Hub on April 30, 1970. We’d gathered around a TV watching a “My fellow Americans” speech by Nixon. We thought it would be more of the same, then he dropped a bomb, this time on us. He was vastly expanding the Vietnam War. U.S. troops already were fighting in Cambodia.

It was like G.W. Bush and his elusive weapons of mass destruction. Nixon insisted Cambodia housed the headquarters of the communist insurgency, somewhere. As in Iraq, they never found it. The cost in lives was startling.

We just stared at Nixon. Then somebody said, “Uh-oh.”

That Friday night was the first hot one after a severe winter. At Kent State, the tradition was to flood the downtown bars, get plastered and spill out into the street. The cops were ready. No May in mayhem.

This time, the crowd flowed toward a ramshackle, World War II “temporary” building on campus, our one tie to the military, the ROTC classrooms. It went up like a Roman candle.

Then the National Guard appeared that weekend. Their armored personnel carriers rattled around campus. Not a few of us noticed these guys had guns with ammo clips.

The big demonstration would happen Tuesday morning. Students would gather in the center of campus and march to Blanket Hill. It had something to do with ringing the victory bell; nobody really knew.

We heard shots. We heard screams. A kid burst into nearby Taylor Hall, “They’re killing us.” Four dead lay outside.

The cops went around with loud- speakers, “The campus is closed. Get out. Go home.” That was the end of Kent for five months.

When we got back, it seemed most people thought we were the perpetrators, not the victims. Enough already, let’s get on with school.

I was doing OK until I climbed Blanket Hill. I was walking past the Taylor Hall sculpture. A ray of sunlight caught my eye. It was streaming through a bullet hole. I’m not ashamed to say I lost it right there.

May 4, 2010. Put Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio” on the stereo. Pour the cheap wine.

“Four dead in O-hi-o.” Then it hits all 20,000 of us once again: “Oh my God, how could this happen?”

Jim Hillibish writes for The Repository in Canton, Ohio. Contact him at jim.hillibish@cantonrep.com.