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‘It’s been that long ago’

Josh Cotton

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,

We’re finally on our own.

This summer I hear the drumming,

Four dead in Ohio.

——

Gotta get down to it

Soldiers are cutting us down

Should have been done long ago.

What if you knew her

And found her dead on the ground

How can you run when you know?

The lyrics from “Ohio” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young didn’t come out of thin air.

They were inspired by an event that marked its 50th anniversary this week — the Kent State shootings.

On May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four Kent State University students amid ongoing protests over the Guard’s presence on campus and — much more importantly — the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War, specifically the expansion of the conflict into Cambodia.

I’m not wading into who was right and who was wrong; plenty has been written casting blame on the students and blame on the Guard. I don’t even want to wade into the historical significance of the event but I do know that it’s impossible to discuss anti-Vietnam protests without Kent State entering the dialogue.

But, for me, this isn’t just another event in a history textbook — my dad, Tim, was raised in Kent (and went to Kent State) and my mom, Laura, enrolled at Kent State in the fall of 1971.

So I’ve been to basketball and football games at Kent… and to the scene of shooting. It’s been a while but I can still vividly remember looking at some piece of steel art that still has a bullet hole in it from May 4.

In short, it hit me that I have a personal connection to the most turbulent era of the century. So (and this will surprise no one who knows me), I wanted to know what my parents experienced.

We were talking earlier this week and I mentioned that it had been 50 years and before I knew it, I had a slew of notes from what my dad remembered.

I talked to my mom later in the day and picked up even more. Suffice it to say I thank them for their willingness to share. My dad had been on a family vacation in Washington, D.C. (he would have been 10) when the shootings took place.

They knew people involved in campus ministry and immediately wondered who had been shot.

“The whole city had National Guard posted at every entryway,” he said. My grandfather had to show ID to get into the city and “explain why we were coming to town. Every entrance to campus was shut down.”

He recalled going onto campus with a representative from the campus ministry organization Navigators in the days after the shootings.

“He had to whip out credentials to justify even going onto the campus,” my dad said. “They completely clamped down the campus, added extra barricades, shut down the city… controlling anyone coming in and out of town.

“I know there was rioting (in town),” he added. “Most of it was student-driven. There were people that came in that were just attracted to ‘I want to protest.'”

My mom’s brother went to high school with one of the students who was wounded in the shootings.

Once my mom made the decision to attend Kent State, she said one of her teachers told her she “wouldn’t go there.”

“That’s a nice encouragement from a teacher,” she joked, though she said she didn’t remember there being much discussion about the shootings a year later.

My mom was also aware of other challenges that colleges were having — my uncle’s commencement ceremony at Ohio University in 1970 had been canceled.

“The fall of 1971 is when I first went there,” she said, noting that the area of the shootings was “one of the first things we went and checked” when she arrived for band camp that summer.

The Vietnam War continued and Jane Fonda — who had picked up the nickname “Hanoi Jane” by that point — came to speak on campus in the spring of 1972.

“I just remember seeing her at a distance,” my mom said. She said that day into the evening there were rumblings and people gathering.

“It freaked me out,” she said. “(I) called my dad and I went home for the night (and) came back to school the following morning.”

50 years later, there are memorials at the site but it’s not a stretch to say that the shootings are largely a forgotten part of our cultural landscape.

“I’m shocked it’s been that long ago,” my mom said. “Throughout the years… it just seemed like it was less of a big deal (the) further (we) got away from it.”

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