Freshman year…times were changin’

I had just turned eighteen that summer, and I my idealism was still rather lofty. I had plans to take it all with me when I started at Kent State in a few weeks. And, of course, it was at Kent that I would once again witness turmoil and violence during the next few years up close and personal all too often. And my earlier idealism would take off in a much different direction during that time.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the time my family and a good friend, who was in for a visit, were caught up in the violent demonstrations/riots of the 1968 Democrat Convention in downtown Chicago. At that moment in time, I was about to begin the next stage of my lifeUnknown.jpeg that coming fall at Kent State University. What I didn’t realize then, however, was just how much of a “preview” of things to come for me during the next few years at KSU the accidental experience in downtown Chicago that August night would be.

Call it culture shock or a new awareness of the way the world had become, that period of my life was disturbing, to say the least. To put it bluntly, I didn’t care at all for the nasty tone and constant mayhem that had become the norm in our world in the late 60s.

I was a law-abiding white kid, with conservative upbringing and values, being forced to choose between respecting authority or taking it to the streets and shouting obscene slogans and fomenting any kinds of anarchy that would tear the system down! Couldn’t do it.

It was everywhere, this “counter culture,” and no more evident than in in the music of the day, which seemed to be all about “drugs, sex, rock and roll…if it feels good, do it!…kill your parents…down with pigs…pigs off campus…start the Revolution!” Anything that would tear down respect for authority was the all-encompassing theme.

I trekked off to Kent, Ohio, that first fall, believing I could eventually earn a degree and be a worthwhile, contributing citizen of this great country of ours–eventually–despite being surrounded by negativity and a different kind of direction in which our country was going.

Of course, for me there were many bends in the road that freshman year. Trying to survive some of the courses in which I had very little interest and figuring out how to curtail the social life that could swallow me up if I wasn’t careful, were prime examples of those “bends.”

Other than the usual distractions and normal challenges, there were also numerous social issues that had found their way onto campus that fall, which seemed to echo the unpleasant tone of the Chicago riots. In November, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), which had organized as a campus group the previous spring, and Black United Students (BUS), held a sit-in for several hours to protest police recruiters on campus.

The next spring (1969) SDS began efforts to get rid of ROTC, law-enforcement degree programs, and to have the Liquid Crystals Institute (funded by Defense Department) removed from campus. And all of this was met with contentious feelings and often violent pushback by the protestors, clashing with the police at the administration building. Soon after, the SDS took over the Music and Speech Building (where several of my classes were) and fist fights among demonstrators and counter-demonstrators occurred. Several arrests followed. After this incident, Kent State banned SDS.

But the stage had now been set for more of this kind of upheaval on an otherwise beautiful and glorious peaceful campus. My previous expectations of what my college life would be about had taken a wild ride that first year, and I couldn’t know then how much wilder it was to become in the years to follow.

End of the Innocence (Pt. 2)…

Saturday, May 2, 1970–Kent State University

Saturday dawned chilly, gray, and overcast—a stark contrast to Friday’s spellbinding beauty. Somewhere in the apartment, a clock radio came on with the news of the morning. Through the mist of a  hangover, I heard the announcer say that police in Kent had declared a curfew for Saturday night. Further reports described the violence in downtown Kent the night before. And what did this mean to us at that moment? Perhaps it was taken as a kind of adventure. Most of us didn’t think the situation would be more than a night of being reprimanded: no bars or other nightspots would be open, and all sales of alcohol were suspended. I recall almost welcoming this turn of events as I would be forced to remain in my apartment and actually get some much-needed studying done for the upcoming final exams beginning on Monday.

Whatever happened to my willpower to study that night has been lost in the press of time, but I agreed to go along with Tim and Lance, two of my roommates and fraternity brothers, to Eastway Center on campus to bowl a few games. We had a good time, but it wasn’t long before the signs of trouble became evident. About 9 p.m. nearly 2,000 boisterous marchers passed by Eastway, yelling and protesting in that “special” way of theirs. Soon after, the fire alarm sounded, startling all who were inside. Was the building on fire? Was it something related to the trouble begun the night before? As it turned out, it was one more tactic of the glorious saviors of humanity making life increasingly uncomfortable for the majority of people at KSU.

Soon, the next step in the volatile weekend occurred. The ROTC building was reported burning! We listened to the many rumors flying about. One had the entire front campus on fire; another, the Administration Building. What we now realized was that this was much more serious than most had expected. Little did we know at that moment just how serious it would become in the next 48 hours. We ran into the president of Manchester Hall (a freshmen men’s dorm at the time), and he informed us that we would be spending the night in Eastway. We found him totally serious, and he advised us to stay inside. Despite his warning, we made our way to the exit door to make our way home.

We never got any farther because, at that moment, swarms of the long-haired and glassy-eyed marchers pushed through the doors, the nauseating smell of tear gas following along with them. We separated ourselves and retreated back inside. At this point, we heard another rumor—one that would prove true—that the Ohio National Guard was on campus. We went to another side door and saw the thick fog of tear gas outside. Again, the fog of time has blurred whatever the three of us did next. All I know is we were safe.

Next: Sunday, May 3, 1970…Calm Before the Storm