He remembers watching the guard march up the hill, bayonets fixed, gas masks hiding their faces, seeing them halt, turn around and crouch, rifles extended, and then hearing that short, sharp, crackling burst of noise echo over the campus: pap pap pap, pap pap pap, pap pap pap. "I remember thinking, 'That sounds like gunfire. But they won't shoot anybody; it's got to be blanks.'"
The photographs taken that soft spring afternoon show the sequence of events, each frozen in time, that plunged th nation into one of the gravest domestic crises since the Civil War. When the smoke cleared from the ragged volley fired directly into the crowd below, 13 students had been shot -- two in the front, seven in the side, four in the back -- and four lay dead. Play those reels backward now, in slow motion, and you see the faces, and the forces, that ushered in and shaped a decade: the angry students hurling rocks, shouting obscentities, burning American flags and waving Vietcong banners, violently protesting a president's authority to continue waging the nation's longest, most unpopular war; the equally young guardsmen, drawn from the same rolling Ohio countryside, fearful and resentful, reflecting a different view of American values, meeting violence with violence and transforming an explosive moment into an American tragedy.
Several hours after the Kent State shootings May 4, 1970, when I first climbed that hill, guardsmen from Kent and nearby Ravenna were still kneeling nervously behind bushes, their weapons at the ready, as blood congealed on the asphalt below. The war that came to the quiet towns of northeastern Ohio was no aberration: Within days nearly a thousand U.S. universities and colleges either shut down or came close to it, demonstrations swept the country and serious people spoke about revolution. Nor were the issues and attitudes that flared into conflict any different from those encountered in countless other communities.
Therein lies a proposition. What the visitor finds here today at the advent of the 80s speaks just as faithfully to the American present as did those violent acts that made Kent State a dateline of trouble around the world and a symbol of American division at the beginning of the 70s.
Stand on the same hill now and you see evidence of new protest and anger in the form of banners hung from dormitory windows. "Iranians Go Home" and "Death to Iran" and "Blackmail Won't Work," they say. Speak to students and you hear of the rise of fraternities and sororities after their near demise a few years ago, of smoking less dope and drinking more beer, of the intense if not grim effort to carve out careers after the free-wheeling days of the commune and the counterculture, of their being more serious and less certain, and of caring at least as little about politics and politicians as their more active predecessors. (It isn't just that they have no heroes; they don't seem to identify with anyone whom they admire or want to emulate in any field. No one living, that is. Even the rock stars "all die soon," as one person said.)
Listen to university administrators and you learn of the struggle to maintain the standards of an institution that began the decade flush with federal funds, that believed in growth as an article of faith, and that ends the decade battling declining enrollments and revenues amid new uncertainty about the future. "Where we are" one of them said, "might be summed up in this question: How do you lead a retreat?"
"Like other institutions coming out of the 60s, we were really on the make," says Gordon W. Keller, associate vice president of academic and student affairs. "They were go-go days for us, and I think we bought into all that kind of rhetoric. We acquiring a sophisticated research-oriented faculty and building up the library like mad. All we did, was turn on the spigot and the dollars poured out. We were thinking big, and a lot of our students were, too.
"they were blue-collar kids from Akron and Youngstown, first-generation college students, and they got involved in political ideology and took it very seriously. The same kinds of currents sweeping the country were sweeping Kent, too. What happened in Kent was a historical accident; it could have happened anywhere. If you were a political scientist like I was, you couldn't have been in a better place. Kent was the U.S. in a kind of microcosm, with all its good and its potential and all its bad at the same time. Then the roof fell in and we went through the fires of the damned. We were thinking big. Now we're thinking of a diminution of resources of how to do it with less. Now we're consumed with managing change and decline."
Which is just about where the United States finds itself today after the Me Decade of Vietnam and Watergate, Nixon and Agnew, oil embargoes and gasoline shortages inflation and the dwindling dollar, withdrawal and self-conscious self-improvement at any cost. For all the recent talk about American weakness and impotence, the nation probably stands as tougher, more self-reliant and practical, but also as more doubtful. Now the decade ends, fittingly, with a kind of crisis that could only be born of the 70s, a crisis spawned in an alien land by a throwback to primitive religious mysticism. It is led by a fanatic opposed to modern culture in all its forms who nonetheless employs with great sophistication and skill the new weapons of organized terrorism, the devilishly ingenious political tactic of the times, against which all the normal forms of power we believed set us apart and ensured our survival seem useless.
It has been, as a dean here said, too much to take in: too complex, too confounding, too intimidating. "I feel it's like something I have characterized for students as informatioin overload," says Janet Hoover of the College of Arts and Sciences. "With all these things coming at you, there's more going on than you can really take in. People feel overwhelmed by events at large."
End-of-decade stories are becoming one of journalism's most cherished cliches. Everyone writes them, and finds new insights in the retelling of old episodes. Since the accent always is on the new, the artificial break in time that delineates our decades must be presented as something fresh, as the hallmark of a new age, and the people singled out as the vanguard of the future. They'd better be different, damn it, or we'll make them so.
Still, a case can be made that, after all the turmoil and shocks of recent years, a state of normality has returned to American campuses. The 50s redux: beer busts and homecoming queens, more decorum in dress and behavior , less political activism and protest. Farewell, Mao; welcome back, Ike; trim the hair, dust off the old gray flannels and remember, the grade's the thing whereing you'll catch the golden career ring.
Certainly the evidence at Kent State testifies that all this is true, at least in part. The study halls and the library carrels are filled at night, the campus is more tranquil than at any time during the decade. The students worry about getting into graduate school and reflect, says a senior professor, far more the personal and political values of their elder brother and sisters. "There's been a backlash," says George Betts, professor of political science. "They're much more conservative in all respects. There's a whole different attitude about what life's about." (That doesn't mean these students fall into easily definable ideological categories. No "new left" or "new right" dominates campus political discussions. They, like the country at large, reflect greater tolerance and diversity. What Washington likes to call "single interests" -- race, ecology, consumerism, feminism, sexual preference -- are the norm on campus today. "Our gay community says" is an expression you wouldn't have heard at Kent State 10 years ago. Now it's merely a statement of unremarkable fact, and part of everyday life.)
On the surface there are striking differences between today's Kent State students and those of the earlier demonstration days -- and they go beyond such things as turning from acid rock to disco dancing or leaning more to booze than drugs. Before, campus criticism would be levied strongly against the university administration. Now a notable sense of boosterism abounds: Kent State is the best, and don't dare critize it. Before, being a member of a Greek fraternity or sorority was scorned and ridiculed. Now it's becoming again a dominant factor on campus. Before, campuses like Kent State were gathering grounds for a subterranean world of young people who either passed through or stayed temporarily before moving on again. (It was fitting of the restless celebration of supposed youthful "counter-culture" that the picture which symbolized Kent's tragedy and student protest over Vietnam turned out not to be of a student at all. The photograph of the gangling, big-eyed girl with the long hair, angular face and high cheek bones whose look of horror as she kneeled over one of the slain students touched the nation was of Mary Vecchio, a 14-year-old runaway from her Florida home.) Now, that student subculture has virtually disappeared and you meet older people returning to campus for postgraduate training. Before, a strong flavor of social-injustice conversation was common. Now, concerns about getting jobs are expressed. Before, condemnation about America's support of corrupt dictators like the shah would ring across a campus when a crisis such as Iran erupted. Now, the temper is directed against the revolutionary forces seizing control of thirdworld countries. The ayatollah stands as the enemy; in the dorms people talk about "nuking" Iran with oldfashioned cries of patriotism such as,"How dare they do that to our country?"
But the greatest differences lie in the students' own expressed views of themselves.
The scene: Mid-morning, the cafeteria, the student center.
The characters: two male students, one wearing a green Sigma Chi T-shirt, and a coed are talking animatedly, books piled on table, during a coffee break.
Typical? Well, judge for yourself. They're discussing their conception of their generation.
"I think our generation's a little bit different in that it's kind of scary graduating and not thinking that things are going to get better," says Mary Englehart, a senior and this year's homecomng queen. "I mean, maybe in the 50s and 60s you had something to work for. You could afford that car, you could afford that house. Now, it's like everyone's got a degree, and am I going to have enough money even to put down a down payment? Things aren't getting better, you know. We look to the future and we wonder even if we should attempt to have children."
At this point she doesn't see marriage in her future. "I want to develop my own career, and I don't want to have to mesh it with someone else's and find out when we mesh our careers we end up being different people. I want to channel all my efforts into just being successful. That's where it's going to be. That's what's going to satisfy me the most. That's why I'm here."
Bob Henricks, a junior, the Sigma Chi president, agrees. "I'm hardheaded," he says. "I'm a very stubborn person, and there's no one, as far as I'm concerned, who is going to get in my way on the road to success. That's something I've got to do. Back in the 60s I think they could have a more lackadaisical attitude. Now that things are tougher and the economy's tightening up, the people who are graduating have a better attitude toward a career. They realize how hard it's going to be to accomplish that goal."
His companion, Tom Trotter, speaks up:
"My personal goal I know I'm going to get. I'm not worried about what my down payments are going to be, I'm going to be working my butt off. That's all that really matters to me. Really, the attitudes have changed in the 70s. More and more people are saying the same things."
Tom Wolfe would be pleased. His "Me Generation" is vocally active at Kent State University. Except that behind these self-assured, determined words lies another strain. Today's students, their teachers will tell you, are also much less assertive than before. They're hoop jumpers, an administrator says: "Tell us what to do and we'll do it. Show where the hoops are and we'll jump them."
Seated around the table on a Sunday afternoon, in a paneled university office, are some of the top administrators. They're talking about the students and some of the trends they detect now -- more suicide attempts for one, more turning toward organized religious groups, for another -- when one of them says: "I teach one class a year, still. Almost invariably it's an honor's class. A small group of kids. They're much less interesting to teach than the ones 10 years ago. They're not as intellectually curious. They're not reading. Some of them can't read. Used to be that kids in my class would quote sections of Marx, or whatever, back to me to correct me. They'd stand up and tell me I was handing a lot of liberal bulls---. They put me right up against the wall. I mean, they'd really go after me. You don't get that now. It's gone. I don't know how to describe them other than to use these cliches -- and these are our best kids, the honors group -- but they're gray. They're just plain gray."
A colleague chimes in:
"But they think we are too. What I'm afraid [of] is this decade has washed out a lot of good people. I don't mean thrown them out, I mean burned them out. There are a lot of professors I know -- not just here but all over the country -- who literally feel emotionally burned out. They just can't do anything."
They talk of personal frustrations... of wanting to retire... of not finding as much enjoyment in their work... of the half-life of a university president in the United States being four years... of struggling to cut rising costs and meet payrolls...of having to contend with increasing federal government regulations over educational funds and programs emanating from Washington...of being forced to fight more and more lawsuits over affirmative action or civil rights or privacy . . . of being unable to hire one new history professor in a decade but battling to get accountants at almost any price. And the more they spoke, the clearer it became that you could hear those same complaints, expressed in those same searching ways, during conversations in Washington or with corporate executives throughout the country. "One thing I see happening here," and administrator says, "and it's critical of us: We're so busy managing, leading the retreat, that we're not thinking about the future. It's always that bottom line today."
Another voice: "We've been tested every year of this decade and we're going to be tested even more every year of the next two decades."
He stood on that hill 10 years ago, saw the shoots, heard the screams and found his life had changed. Dennis Carey then was finishing his graduate work in psychology and felt his future was well planned: He'd teach and publish and enjoy the pleasant life of a university professor. But the agony of Kent State, and the self-examination among faculty members, brought a new program and role for the university and Carey.
"Those next three days after May 4 had to be the most striking days in my life," Carey says. Out of them came the creation of a peace studies program. For the last 10 years Carey's been involved in that, and now he is acting director of Kent's Center for Peaceful Change. Now he confesses to thinking maybe it's time to move on to something else.
"Kids who come into our program are still very much influenced by the belief you can do something, that you can make a difference," he says. "But other kids that we get in our classes will say, 'Yes, I see your point, but there isn't a hell of a lot we can do about that. It's too big, it's gone too far down the road. And at this point I measure the boundaries of my personal application of energy to what it is I need to carve out of a life for me, to make money and stay out of trouble.'
"Many of them simplu believe they may not survive their lifetime. They honest-to-God believe that, deep down. And perhaps the main reason they carve so small a place for themselves is there's no point in trying something else: They think they have this time to enjoy this much. I think the arms race is real to them, and that spells a kind of imminent disaster. Not being able to get a job like they've been told they're going to be able to get, and the economic collapse of the country are real enough. And, unlike years ago, they don't see profound political problems causing that. They simply think it's the system running out. And what do you do in these circumstances? tYou say,'Look you've convinced me. I believe it. Okay. Leave me alone and let me enjoy what I've got.
"It's frightening, really frightening, because the motivations have become so narrow."
That, of course, is one way to draw some personal lessons from the end of a decade, and quite likely too negative. Another is to recall something often forgotten. When Kent State closed after those shootings in 1970, some believed it might never reopen. Instead, faculty members housed, fed and taught students in their homes. They enabled the seniors to get their degrees and the university's mission to continue.
Together, they became the first survivors of the 1970s. CAPTION: Picture 1, Kent State, 1970; by John Filo; Copyright (c) Tarentum Valley News; Picture 2, Kent State, today; by Madeline Drexler for The Washington Post; Picture 3, In 1970 students were burning U.S. flags. Today, in reaction to events in Iran, students at Kent State are displaying them in dormitory windows to show their support for America. by Madeline Drexler for The Washington Post; Picture 4, Kent State campus in 1970; Copyright (c) 1970 Howard Ruffner