Kent State: “Never Forget”

kls-at-ou-riotEvery May 4, I can count on getting a message from John J. Lopinot,  friend and former chief photographer at The Palm Beach Post.

Never Forget

The subject line is always “Never Forget.” Sometimes that’s all it says. That’s all it needs to say.

This morning’s message was a little longer: NEVER FORGET! 39 years ago today, Kent State.

On the morning of May 4

On the morning of May 4, another photographer and I decided to leave Athens, OH, where I was chief photographer for The Athens Messenger, and go to Marietta, OH, where there was an army-navy surplus store that sold gas masks. From there, we were going to drive to Kent State, where things looked like they were heating up.

We didn’t make it to Kent State

On the way to Marietta, we heard a radio bulletin  that there had been a shooting at Kent State University and that there were fatalities. The first broadcast made it sound like students had killed troopers. In fact, the guardsmen had killed four students and wounded nine others.

We decided that we should still get the riot gear, but we should get back to Athens in case violence broke out there.

An Athens County Deputy pulled me over

Shortly after we had crossed over into Athens County, a deputy I knew (fortunately) pulled us over. “We got a call from a surplus store over in Marietta that some student hippy-types were buying up riot gear and heading to Athens. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

I confessed that “that would be us.”

“Do you know anything I should know?” he asked.

“Just being ready,” I replied. “Your guess about what’s going to happen is as good as mine.”

Ohio University student talks with National GuardsmenThat night in Athens

Thousands of students assembled that night on the Main Green. Student after student took to the microphone and the crowd looked like it was going to turn ugly.

Just then, a couple burst out of the shadows, seized the mike and said something to the effect of “We were at Kent State this morning and saw the shootings, saw the bodies, and my friends and I said we had to split up and make it around to all the other schools to say, “‘You don’t want that to happen here.””

They were gone as quickly as they had arrived. I never did find out who they were or if they had actually been at Kent State. Their sincerity, though, quickly changed the mood of the crowd. Slowly, students drifted away. I didn’t need my gas mask after all.

Ohio University student protester with toy grenadesOU didn’t riot until about two weeks later

During that time, though, there was some kind of march, protest or building burning almost every night. What is exciting at first gets really tiring after a week. I swore that I was going to go crazy if I had to hear one more rendition of “Give Peace a Chance.”

Everybody else was just about burned out, too. The students were just going through the motions. I thought it had hit the point where there was going to be one last march to the university president’s house and then the movement would have lost its steam.

Suddenly, though, students who had been drifting back to their dorms returned saying that the Main Green was surrounded by cops, many from surrounding towns. Instead of letting the students go home, they were turning them back to the demonstration.

Athens, Ohio, policeman with riot gearTear gas started to fly

Sgt. Beasley, an Athens cop with whom I had a pretty good relationship saw me standing 50 or 75 feet away at the basement entrance to the Ohio University Post newspaper. He waved at me, grinned and then sent a tear gas grenade skittering down the street into the entrance to The Post.

I waved back, grinned and pulled on my gas mask and went down into the basement to lead out the gassed Posties.

Tear gas at Athen's Ohio UniversityThey used up every toy they had

Before the sun came up, every piece of ordinance they could fling, launch, spray or shoot had been used up. There were trees on the main campus with holes an inch-and-a-half around and half an inch deep left by tear gas projectiles that were fired straight ahead instead of being aimed up for maximum dispersal. It’s a wonder nobody was killed that night.

We were living in a ghost town

The decision was made to close the university and send everyone home as quickly as possible. Students were given the option of a pass/fail grade in their classes.

[ Personal note: I had 10 hours of independent studies classes I had every intention of finishing, so I opted for an incomplete in the courses, instead of taking the pass / fail deal. That came back to bite me when I took a job in Gastonia, NC, before the end of the next quarter. I’m still 10 hours short of a BFA. That doesn’t keep some poor student from OU from calling me every year asking for money. I just say, “Let me tell you a long, sad story….”]

With powdered tear gas still falling from the tree leaves, students descended on the bank where Wife Lila worked as a teller. The bank was less than a block from the Main Green of the university, and since students had been told to leave town, they were lined up out the door of the bank and down the sidewalk .  The line was continuous from opening to closing.

From 9 AM to 3 PM, three tellers did nothing but cash checks and close accounts…  and breathe teargas.  Since the doors were open all day, there was no way to avoid it. Lila came home with red, stinging eyes that barely opened and a nose that burned for days. I’ve never seen her so fried.

ohio-university-closed-in-aftermath-of-kent-state-shootingsBy nightfall, we were living in a ghost town.

“Never Forget,” John says.

I won’t.

I still get nostalgic for the smell of tear gas in the springtime. But, 40 years later, I cringe when I hear “Power to the People” or “Give Peace a chance.” Nice sentiments in those songs, but I heard them sung too many times by too many naive kids.

[Another personal note: I was just as worried about being drafted as the next guy. I didn’t breathe easy until Dec. 1, 1969, when I won the most important lottery of my young life: my March birthday came up Number 258 in the Draft Lottery. One of the guys in my dorm was Number 7. He packed up that night and left town. I never knew what happened to him.]

6 Replies to “Kent State: “Never Forget””

  1. I just have to share this email from Bro Mark. I haven’t been to a doctor recently, so he can’t have secret information that I’m suffering from an incurable ailment (except for old age). That means he must want something. Anyway:

    I suppose I should save things like this for later, when you are dead, before I recount these stories…but then why should I be the only one who is uncomfortable?

    Every morning I look at the newspapers online and then I wander over to your post and see what you have added. I of course look forward to reading about the new things you are getting into down there whether it be on a bike or off it.

    Today was a special treat for me with your posting of the Kent State “never forget” story. So much so that I sent an email to someone with your link so they could see it as well. Here is the email that I sent…

    Subject: And this is why I have been trying to be like my older brother all my life…
    Growing up with a brother who is 9 years older certainly put some “knowledge” distance between us, but growing up I was fortunate enough to realize that he was the real deal.

    Other kids had comic book figures or sports figures they idolized, I had him. He was the living encyclopedia that everyone else was out buying and thumbing through to try and catch up with the 60’s.

    He didn’t have a regular job, he was a newspaper photographer and he had a police scanner in his car. He would come in and say something like, “car accident with injuries at the intersection of 75 and 25 want to go?”

    Like kids who might have been asked if they wanted to take a ride in a rocket ship, we of course clambered into the 1959 red Buick Station wagon and raced to the scene of the accident.

    We would sit in the car along the side of the road and listen to the scanner and try and get a look at the accident. The scanner wasn’t really a scanner at all. It was a police radio that you had to manually dial the frequencies for the fire, police and sheriff department. I can remember he had marked with a black magic marker the points on the dial where the different departments were and you still had to carefully tune in the frequency to listen.

    He knew all the “10-codes” so he could narrate what we could not understand. “10-97” He would say, “they’re on the scene…” Knowing the “10-codes” was the same as understanding the Rosetta Stone as far as we were concerned.

    He could interrupt everything they said in code that we weren’t suppose know and tell us what was going on.

    Sometimes we were lucky enough to find ourselves locked in the basement with him in the darkroom and we could watch the accident re-appear again before our eyes. It was magical and mystical and we had both front row seats and backstage passes.

    The posting this morning is just a sample of what we would hear over the phone when he would call home while he was at Ohio University, or when we would go there over Thanksgiving break….

    “Never Forget”

    * * * *
    Thanks, Mark. Despite all your kind words, I’m still sure you are trying to kill me so you can attain Oldest Brother status.

  2. Mark,

    I couldn’t have said it better myself. My dad is like the real-world version of the movie “Yes Man”.

    Matt and I were the kids in the neighborhood who had a dad with three antennas on the back of the Mazda 626 that everyone HAD to know about.

    We’d drive around listening to what was going on in the city with dad translating the 10-codes for us.

    I still call him to this day when I see something big going on that involves police/fire people, expecting him to be able to fill in the what/why/who.

    My guess is that newspapers are not only failing because of their inability to monetize their Internet businesses, but because people like dad aren’t made anymore.

  3. I bet he has a scanner on his bicycle. I was always glad to give Ken the accidents, and he always wanted them. Not that I could have ever beaten him to them, even if I’d been a lawyer.

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