April 30, 2008
By Jean Pouliot
I and my family are history nuts. When others visit Disneyland, we
ogle old rockets and moon rocks at Cape Canaveral. In D.C., we gladly
swap Busch Gardens for Arlington National Cemetery, the Capitol and
Ford's Theater. So on a college-hunting trip to Chicago this spring,
we made time to visit historic sites. Deep dish pizza is all well and
good. But take us where the Chicago fire, the 1968 demonstrations and
the 1893 Columbian World Exposition happened! And what better way to
cap off the long trip home than a stop in Kent, Ohio, to view the
site where college students were shot by National Guardsmen at the
height of the Vietnam War protests?
That last leg of our cross-country excursion proved to be the most
thought-provoking of the trip.
At the time of the shootings in 1970, I was an eighth-grader and my
wife was finishing her freshman year in high school. I vaguely recall
my perplexity and shock, but my wife, with a draft-age brother and
protest-age sister, recalls being terrified. Our visit would help us
grapple with our fears and sadness, and to share our memories with our kids.
But as the visit drew nearer, I became uneasy. I worried about being
seen (perhaps accurately) as a ghoulish tourist. Kent is an active
college campus with real-life 19-year-olds trying to get an
education. How would they react to a couple of 50-something
interlopers keen on keeping alive a bunch of irrelevant "old stuff"?
Besides, what kind of vacation pictures could I take? Me and the wife
frowning in front of the memorials? The kids in front of the
umbrella-shaped pagoda where the shooting started? The whole thing
was taking on the tinge of a morbid souvenir hunt. Maybe discretion
would take the edge off. "When we visit Kent State," I announced
anxiously at dinner one night, "let's not make it obvious what we are
doing." Later, in our hotel room, I scoured the Web for decent maps
of the site. At least I would not blow my cover by asking for directions.
A couple of days later, we drove onto campus through a cold March
rain. After getting lost several times, thanks to my no-directions
policy, we located the May 4 memorial. We had just parked when my
college-aged son spoke up with emotion. Though days earlier his eyes
had lit up at the mention of the visit, the sight of so many kids his
own age, performing the ordinary work of trudging to class, made him
feel embarrassed and conspicuous. Had it been him who had died, he
said, he wouldn't want people "gawking" at the place where he fell.
He did not want his picture taken. He would take ours if we wanted.
But no way would he add to anyone's pain. Our younger son, perhaps
out of fraternal solidarity, concurred. I was a little disappointed
that my fantasy visit had evaporated, but I was proud of my boys for
speaking up. Maybe, I said, it would be better to just forget the
whole thing and head home.
But my wife needed to visit, and ultimately, she and I left the
camera in the car, the kids to their iPods, and made our way through
the cold drizzle to the memorial. We took it all in the Victory
Bell that roused the students, the pagoda from which the shots were
fired, the bullet-pierced metal sculpture, the too-perky Ohio State
Historical Marker, the Prentice Hall parking lot whose somber
memorials were strewn with dirty winter snow. After a few minutes, we
recited a prayer for peace and left.
The world has changed much in the nearly four decades since shouting
and gunfire broke the quiet of a sunlit May day in Ohio. But in some
ways, it was hardly changed at all. Then, as now, the nation is
involved in an unpopular war. Then, as now, some young people have
heeded their country's military call, and others have not. But
Americans (especially young Americans) are not turning on each other.
It could be argued that this is the product of youthful apathy. But
perhaps the ghosts of Kent State are whispering to our young, urging
them to reject the unreasoning passions that led to violent
confrontation 38 years ago.
My wife and I are still wound up in the KSU shootings, but our kids
are not. For them, sensitivity to the living outweighs outage over
the dead. Maybe this is hopeful letting the past lie to stroll hand
in hand into a shared future. It's certainly a switch from the
often-antagonistic gap that yawned between generations for the last 60 years.
If a botched vacation stop can bring that much to light, it was not a mistake.
Jean Pouliot lives in Newburyport