Originally published April 30, 2000
This is not what you want to hear.
If you expect to read this story and understand what happened on May 4, 1970, you will be disappointed.
If you look here for an answer, you will not find one. The answer to Kent State was lost 30 years ago in the sting of tear gas and the noise of rifles. For all the trying, it has never been found. Not in the thousands of pages of government documents; not in the nearly 20 books published on the topic; not in courtrooms or classrooms or candlelight vigils; not in the minds of people who have devoted a generation to its pursuit.
The answer, in fact, has become a question. And that question is more important than anything else:
Does this still matter?
And so we find ourselves on a late winter afternoon in the living room of an old man who has never before told his story publicly, and we wonder why.
Why he has never told it before. Why it matters now.
Maybe this will be the one. Maybe Harold Rice will be the one, finally, who produces the key that turns the tumblers that unlock the truth behind all the lingering sadness and frustration of that day.
In 1970, the deaths of four Kent State college kids seemed like a product of America's problems; in 2000, it seems more like a reflection of an era that made the world both better and worse. Still struggling to find its permanent resting place in American history, Kent State has emerged as perhaps the perfect symbol of the era it helped define: ambiguous, violent and unresolved.
Harold Rice, 75 years old, white hair still thick and wavy as it was that breezy spring morning, will choke once, maybe twice, as he tells this story, his voice sometimes falling to a whisper, pushing down a feeling he has been holding inside for 30 years.
"So sad," he says, requiring no other words.
He has protected the truth, or at least his little piece of the truth, carefully over the decades. Others have protected their pieces as well, though in different ways. Some have made it a mission -- a moral imperative -- to never let anyone forget. Countless others lie in between these extremes of silence and outrage.
They are all preserving a memory. They all have words to write history.
Rice, a burly man sitting in a big black recliner in his Kent living room, folds and unfolds thick fingers, one studded with a Mason's ring, as he talks.
He has been asked many times to speak. And he admits this is hard for him. Admits that he has told the others who asked to "pound salt." Admits that the only time in his life as a Kent State cop that he ever disobeyed a superior was when he refused to talk to one of the ghost writers working on James Michener's book, Kent State: What Happened and Why. And he admits that this time, when the question came, he decided to say yes. Because he is 75 now, and because it has been on his mind.
Harold Rice was at the center of several key events that weekend. He was the one who ordered the other cops to break out the lights above them at the ROTC building on the night of Saturday, May 2, because, illuminated, they were sitting ducks for the rock throwers. He was the man in the back of the jeep who, just before noon on May 4, pleaded through a bullhorn for the crowd to disperse, wishing even now that they had listened to him. He was the man who, half an hour later, collared and disarmed Terry Norman, the only civilian known to be carrying a gun that day; Norman, a 21-year-old FBI informant, would become a key figure in endless conspiracy theories.
He was also the father of a Kent State student, and he worried that his boy might be somewhere in the crowd.
That Saturday night, Rice was hit in the groin with a rock while standing outside the ROTC building, shortly before it was set afire by a crowd of students gathered there to protest the bombing of Cambodia and the presence of Guard troops on campus. He was taken to the hospital, barely able to walk, and was told to stay home. But on the morning of May 4 -- his birthday -- he heard on his police scanner that big trouble was brewing on campus, so he put on his uniform and had one of his sons drive him there from his house on Woodside Drive.
Because he could scarcely manage a hobble, he was the one chosen to sit in the back of the Guard jeep with the bullhorn and recite the Riot Act. The jeep made a pass on Blanket Hill, where the student protesters and curious onlookers had gathered. Rice, who had been a campus cop for about two years, recognized many of them. He wondered if his son, David, was in there somewhere.
The jeep was pelted with rocks as it made a first pass, then it turned and made another pass. Rice was more insistent the second time, but the crowd did not disperse. The jeep was ordered back to the command post, behind Blanket Hill. As he passed the line of young guardsmen holding their ground, Rice says he could see in their eyes that they were afraid. When he got out of the jeep, he turned to his partner and said, "Somebody is going to get killed."
Moments later, it happened.
Rice started to make his way back up the hill when a group of students came fleeing his way, chasing a lanky young man in a beige jacket.
"Stop him! Stop him!" one of them yelled. "He's got a gun! He's got a gun!"
Rice recognized the man -- Terry Norman, a "station chaser" who liked to hang around the police department. He grabbed him and said, "Terry? You've got a gun?"
Norman said he did, and handed it to Rice. That gun, and the question of whether it had been fired, has been a point of intense debate over the years.
Rice would not return home for a week, remaining on campus to help restore order. Later, he learned that his son had, indeed, been on the hill, one of hundreds of onlookers. But when David heard the tone of his father's voice through that bullhorn, he knew what to do.
"He knew that the old man meant business," Rice recalls. "He said, 'Dad, I could tell by the sound of your voice, when the sound of your voice changed, I knew to get the hell out. So I ran.' "
The pain and regret of that day have remained deeply hidden within Harold Rice. He admits that, talking about it publicly for the first time, he feels more at peace. But he has been coping with it ever since.
"There's a feeling you can't tell," he says quietly. "There's something inside. . . . I always swore that I would always help others through any turmoil and crisis that they might have. After that incident there, and seeing the suffering.
"Matter of fact, this one young boy that was killed, the one that was in the ROTC (William Schroeder), I knew him. I knew who he was, I knew his background; matter of fact, I had talked to him about it. And I swore if I could help somebody in any turmoil, I would help. Subconsciously, I have (made that pledge), and I've fulfilled that."
He has saved lives since then. He has tried to keep order in other, less volatile settings. He has tried to be a good person.
But through it all, he has wondered. Through it all, he has had questions.
Here is where we would like to be able to answer those questions, the questions that have lingered for so long now, the questions that seemingly should have been answered long ago, in courtrooms, in depositions, in the thousands of pages of investigative reports, in the books and the articles, in definitive flourishes of ink, before this day blurs into history.
Here is where we would like to be able to describe what happened that day, May 4, 1970, at 12:24 p.m., at a malignant swell of grass known as Blanket Hill. But this is like taking sides with the wind. There is no objective description, no account that isn't colored by circumstance. There is only a cloud of perceptions and elapsed time, only the products of hypothesis and analysis and the testimonies of witnesses who agree on so little that it almost seems as if there were a different reality for each set of eyes.
The shots were fired in broad daylight. This is what makes this moment so confusing, so confounding, so terribly galling in its ambiguity. There were witnesses, hundreds of them, milling about the hill that day. It was the zenith of a clear day on a prominent patch of campus. There is television and 8 mm film footage and there is an audiotape that hummed in a dorm window before and during the shootings and there are photos taken only a matter of yards from the pagoda, where a line of National Guardsmen turned and fired, a steady barrage from M-1s and pistols for 13 seconds, and we know this length of time because it is on the audiotape.
And then there is wild divergence. Who fired the first shot? Was the Guard provoked? Who is to blame? Three trials, thousands of official reports and independent investigations and hundreds of witness testimonies. Students indicted; guardsmen tried on criminal and civil charges. And no convictions on either side.
"I sincerely believe the guardsmen told the truth (during the trials)," says Charles Fassinger, a lieutenant colonel in charge of the Guard troops on the hill. "But people standing side by side didn't see the same thing."
It began as a rally, hasty and disorganized, as much in protest against the National Guard's presence on campus as anything else. Students and onlookers gathered in curiosity. In the photographs, moments before the shooting, and even after the shooting began but before realization of the truth about the bullets had dawned, there are smiling faces, students giddy with the warmth of spring and the defiance of authority.
Many of them had laughed and taunted as the guardsmen marched, from the Commons, from the Victory Bell where the rally had begun, onto the practice football field that no longer exists. It was a bright day. Many had no intention of going to class.
It had been an odd and contentious weekend, with the trashing of stores in downtown Kent on Friday night, with the burning of the ROTC building on Saturday. No one seemed to know when it would end, when the Guard would leave. Information was disseminated through rumor. Communication between various authorities was halted and sparse. No one in charge bothered to clarify what was permitted and what wasn't. Only a small portion of students heard announcements on the college radio stations that the Guard would not permit the rally, which had been scheduled since Friday. Some professors had encouraged their students to attend, to form their own views.
There is a faction that insists that they saw guardsmen huddle on the practice football field, that they planned it there -- to turn and shoot when they reached the top of the hill. That is only a theory; there is no proof. The guardsmen, those who don't decline to speak altogether, deny it.
One truth: The guardsmen marched back up toward the hill, marched toward the pagoda. Students and guardsmen had been tossing the same tear-gas canisters back and forth at each other. "Like a tennis match," someone said, and we know this because it is on the audiotape. Like a tennis match. Like a game.
A group of students was throwing rocks, and there are accounts of students throwing larger projectiles. In the end, this became one of the guardsmen's most relied-upon lines of defense. But how close were the students? How much of a threat did they pose? Was that justification, was it reason enough to cloak the guardsmen in a sense of imminent danger?
One witness says five or six students were "close enough to touch" the guardsmen. Other accounts, including one based on a student's 8 mm film, have placed the closest student 60 to 75 feet away -- the distance from a pitcher's mound to home plate.
"Guardsmen were being pelted," one witness said. National Guard Gen. Robert Canterbury would testify during a federal investigation that guardsmen on the right flank were "in serious danger of bodily harm and death" as they crested Blanket Hill. The film, while indicating a surge just before the shooting, still places the students far from the guardsmen.
"I was about a hundred yards away," says Dean Kahler, who admits to throwing rocks out of frustration. "And I had tear gas in my eyes. I think I hit students when I threw rocks."
The guardsmen reached the top of the hill. They stopped. They turned. "Whirled," one witness said.
And then the bullets.
Blanks. They're firing blanks. Walk, someone said. Don't bother to run. They couldn't fire bullets into a crowd like that. They couldn't. . . "And I remember thinking, 'Why would you carry a gun if all you had were blanks?" says Carol Mirman, an art student who was on the verge of graduation and had trailed the Guard back up the hill. "I ran."
Seventy-five yards away, Alan Canfora dived behind a tree; a bullet caught his wrist. A hundred yards away, Dean Kahler fell to the grass; a bullet lodged in his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down. A hundred sixty-five yards away, as bullets rained on the Prentice Hall parking lot, Robert Stamps was shot in the right buttock.
Four dead: Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, William Schroeder. Nine others wounded.
Students dived behind cars. Students huddled against each other for cover. A professor, Jerry M. Lewis, dived behind a bush.
Here is a photograph, Photo 48 in a dense, investigatory document called the Scranton Commission Report: a guardsman, face covered in a gas mask, a pistol extended in his left hand, the acrid smoke of the bullets clouding behind him. The guardsman is Sgt. Myron Pryor. And Myron Pryor testified in court that he never gave an order to fire, that any photos or witness accounts of him raising, then lowering his pistol, as a signal to begin a barrage of shots, are merely the product of false perception.
It began immediately, the trail of rumors, of unfounded and erroneous reports. The Record-Courier in Portage County reported in its early editions that two guardsmen and one student had been killed. One townsperson heard that Communists dressed in National Guard uniforms had shot the students.
There was talk of a sniper. This became the guardsmen's initial theory, that a sniper on a rooftop had fired that first shot. Audiotape analysis suggests the first shot may not have come from the Guard, but this has been widely disputed. And the guardsmen did not shoot toward the top of a building, where a sniper might have been. Later, most guardsmen recanted on the sniper theory.
So who fired the first shot? We don't know. We can't say.
So was the Guard provoked? We don't know. We can't say.
So who is to blame? We don't know. We can't say.
So here is a startlingly symmetric bullet hole in a metal sculpture in the line of fire, and here is Dean Kahler in a wheelchair, and here are symbols and here are memorials and here are candlelight vigils. And yet there is a hole in the center, a jagged and unsightly wound that waits for closure that never comes.
People say there is nothing more to say. But to those wounded, those scarred, there is more to say. It's just there is no one who will say it. No one who will admit it. And as the moment fades, as history swallows it and the principal characters evolve into old age, so does the hope that anyone will ever say it.
"The whole thing's over with," Kahler says. "Nobody's going to get in trouble. I would just like somebody to come through and tell us the truth."
"Do you think that will happen?" he is asked.
Kahler does not even pause to contemplate the question.
"No," he says.
But we need answers. We need to know why things happen.
So some of us will stare into a void and try to see what isn't there.
Oh, there are dozens of descriptions of the same events -- all slightly dissimilar, none radically divergent -- and they are accompanied by an equal number of speculative theories that try to explain the motives that put those events in motion. Thirty years after the fact, it should come as no surprise that the 13 seconds of gunfire on May 4 are still buried within a labyrinth of conspiracies; when a problem has no obvious solution, people create their own.
As a general rule, the hypotheses for the Kent State shootings can be split into two genres: The "narrow conspiracy," (the National Guard made the decision to fire when they huddled on the practice football field), and the "broad conspiracy" (the events were a calculated strike by government officials intended to quell the anti-war movement on college campuses and/or illustrate Gov. James A. Rhodes' willingness to crack down on the unruly youth of Ohio).
The appeal of the broad conspiracy is its magnitude; it paints President Richard Nixon as the sinister puppet master, it turns the four dead students into political martyrs, and it validates the assertion that the shootings represent the cultural war waging between the idealistic youth and the conservative establishment.
But the logic hole in the broad conspiracy is as unmistakable as the bullet hole in the metal sculpture outside Taylor Hall: Nixon's 1970 phone logs indicate that he made no calls to Ohio until after the shooting, and even if he had wanted this to happen, a politically motivated assassination of college students in Kent would have required the cooperation of a wildly complex, highly implausible chain of command.
There's not much hard evidence that substantiates the narrow conspiracy, either. However, it certainly has more support, mostly because of the sequence of events: Members of the Guard did talk on the practice field, and several of them did turn -- in unison -- after marching to the top of Blanket Hill.
"The decision to shoot was made on the practice football field when the guards(men) huddled together. There is no doubt in my mind," Robert Stamps says. "That's why they fired back down on the parking lot and not around Taylor Hall, where most of the students were. They were firing at the students who had harassed them 15 minutes earlier. . . they deliberately conspired to take the lives of people who weren't endangering theirs."
Part of this debate is semantic -- at what point would this qualify as a "conspiracy"? The central issue seems to be the motivations of the shooters: Did they fire out of fear for their lives, did they fire out of spite, or did they fire on command? William A. Gordon spent 19 years examining these questions and wrote two books on the subject, including one titled Four Dead in Ohio: Was There a Conspiracy at Kent State?
So was there a conspiracy?
"Not really," says Gordon, an Akron native who now resides in California. "The one common thread behind all these theories is that nobody thinks it was an accident. They all seem to think it was deliberate. My take -- from looking at the trial evidence -- is that there was no conspiracy among the enlisted men, but that they were probably given an order to fire from one of the officers on the scene. I don't think there would have been enough time for those guys to come to an agreement among themselves, and it was probably too noisy, anyway."
Of course, the trouble with Gordon's theory is painfully obvious: Every officer involved with the incident has emphatically denied giving such a command. And even if Gordon is right, it's virtually unthinkable that anyone would step forward and accept the blame three decades later.
It's not just that the critical pieces to the Kent State puzzle don't fit; it's almost as if they don't exist.
Case in point: Terry Norman.
Terry Norman is a conspiracy junkie's dream. Harold Rice describes him as a police station groupie who liked to hang out with cops; Gordon refers to him as "an odd duck." As a 21-year-old law enforcement student that spring, Norman worked as an informant and a photographer for the Kent police and for an organization he described as "people of higher offices," which later proved to be the FBI. On May 4, he came to campus with a .38 caliber handgun that he allegedly brandished at students in the moments following the shootings.
"I was up near the top of the hill after the shooting, and there were a bunch of people yelling," recalls Alan Frank, an 18-year-old freshman at the time of the shooting. "I turned around, and there was this guy in a light brown corduroy jacket fanning the crowd with a sub-nosed .38, and then some people chased him down the hill. And that man was definitely Terry Norman."
For years, fringe conspiracy theorists have speculated that Norman fired the first shot on May 4 and started the 13-second shooting spree. There is no proof that this was the case. But there is a multitude of troublesome questions about Norman's involvement, particularly regarding his weapon.
Harold Rice, the Kent State cop who disarmed Norman, took the pistol, smelled it for freshly burned gunpowder and looked at the bullets in the chamber. He did not believe it had been used.
But in the confusion of that moment, with an angry crowd forming around them, he immediately gave the pistol to Thomas Kelley, another campus policeman, while Rice spirited Norman off to the police station.
As the FBI became involved in the ensuing days, the gun was taken into evidence. Initial agency reports stated that Norman's gun had not been fired, but the bureau's own ballistic tests indicate otherwise; the .38 had indeed been used since its last cleaning. (Of course, that doesn't mean it was necessarily fired on May 4.)
Rice today says he regrets not keeping the weapon himself, so there would be no question about its safekeeping as evidence.
What's just as compelling as Norman's gun is his personal involvement with the FBI. Here again, the bureau's initial statement differs from the ultimate reality. Their stance was that Norman did not work for the government; later, the FBI admitted they had paid Norman $125 for providing information on what they described as a white racist group. This mysterious relationship prompts some theorists to perceive Norman as a provocateur; he's often a central figure for those who advocate the broad conspiracy. The suggestion is that he was a catalyst who manufactured a reason for the guardsman to act.
So what was Norman's role in all this?
For all practical purposes, that question is doomed to remain rhetorical. Terry Norman did not respond to multiple phone messages requesting an interview for this story and hasn't talked with the Akron Beacon Journal since May 5, 1970. Records indicate that he has been associated with 10 different residences over the last eight years; he currently resides in North Carolina, but an IRS lien indicates that he lived in Fairlawn as recently as 1995.
In 1990, Glenn Frank, the now-deceased father of the aforementioned Alan Frank and a faculty marshal who helped maintain order after the shootings, taped a telephone conversation with a man believed to be Norman living in San Diego. (Glenn Frank was conducting his own independent investigation of the shootings.) The person who picked up the receiver identified himself as Terry Norman but denied any connection to Kent State.
"I think you must have the wrong person," Norman said.
And we wonder who they were, these radicals, these rioters.
They were called the cancer. They were the catalyst for the implosion of American society, agitators with disregard for the tenets of humanity, who would poison our water with LSD and set off bombs in our post offices and facilitate chaos. Long-hairs. Hippies. Revolutionaries. They brought this on.
And as we suggest these sentiments, Carolyn Knox, once known as Candy Erickson, once married to radical student leader Rick Erickson, commences with a hysterical laugh.
LSD in the water? This is a joke. This is a manifestation of the absurdist propaganda of Abbie Hoffman. Reality was a less threatening notion. Reality in Kent was a sporadic and somewhat disorganized group of young idealists who dreamed of ending the war in Vietnam, who gathered under a maple tree in the yard of a sprawling house on Ash Street and resolved for a revolution in thought, to shock their nation into expanding its freedoms.
"We were just so weird-looking that it scared people," Knox says. "Sometimes these days I get caught. I see kids walking down the street and I can't tell the boys from the girls. Same hair, same clothes. And I think, that's just what it was like when straight people were looking at us."
Thirty years later, and the members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the supposed radicals and subversives, have become the straight people they once frightened, the school teachers and professors and buttoned-up businessmen. They have children and grandchildren. Many are still politically aware.
They will gather for a reunion in conjunction with this May 4, a notion that will strike certain people as inappropriate. They still get blamed for what happened 30 years ago, if not through their direct actions, then through their escalation of the conflict within the system.
"It was a sad tragedy that four innocent Kent State students had to lose their lives because of a group of radicals," read a Beacon Journal letter to the editor from April 12 of this year.
James Michener's book explores their role explicitly and paints them with a rather disturbing palette that still lingers. "Really obnoxious" is how SDS member Colin Neiburger was characterized.
"Could we have done a better job of public relations for ourselves?" he says today. "No question about it."
On April 8, 1969, Neiburger was one of six people arrested during a rally at the university administration building. He was accused of punching a police officer for 15 consecutive minutes, a charge he has always considered ridiculous. Eight days later, when Neiburger's hearing was held in the Music and Speech Building, about 100 SDS sympathizers and 200 counterdemonstrators clashed outside. The SDS faction ultimately rushed the building, either bursting through a broken window or flooding through an open door, depending on whom you believe.
They were locked inside, but some of them managed to escape; 58 were arrested. Neiburger, Rick Erickson and two others were charged with inciting a riot, were sentenced that October, and went to jail for six months. SDS's charter on campus was revoked.
The prominent members of SDS were put under surveillance, license plate numbers copied down and background checks run. Some say that their phones were tapped, that they were blackballed by landlords and unable to rent an apartment, that they were even besieged with parking tickets. FBI and State Highway Patrol documents back up the claims of surveillance; they're peppered with descriptions of "long-hairs" entering apartments or driving through town, as if they had committed a crime merely by tearing their Levis in the wrong places.
They talked openly of revolution. They cursed with what was then considered jarring regularity. They rejected monogamy. They quoted Communists. They invited "outside agitators" to campus to stir up feeling.
"This thing about 'outside agitators,' " Neiburger says. "These are deceiving terms. But once you put a word to someone, the person becomes less than human."
They were responding, they say, to the violence that choked the air around them, to the deaths of their friends in a seemingly futile war, to the revocation of their innocence.
"There was too much joy, too much revolution, too much change," Knox says. "It had to be stopped. You know (the guardsmen) weren't aiming at the kids who were killed. They were aiming at people like me and Rick."
Less than a week before the shootings, Neiburger and Erickson were released from jail. They all say they left town as soon as the trouble began. There is no direct proof, only unsubstantiated reports, that any outside agitators or any of the remnants of SDS propagated the events of the May 4 weekend.
And yet Candy Knox, hitchhiking in California, heard the news crackling from a San Francisco radio station and felt a heaviness, a trauma. As if it were somehow her fault.
"We became fully adult in that moment," she says. "We did what we had to do. It broke everything. It broke everybody. But if we hadn't done what we did, we'd still be living with the same injustices."
Our messages go out.
"Would you talk about Kent State?"
They do not get returned.
One man, Larry Shafer, is polite but very firm: "I do not want to talk about it anymore." Another responds in sarcastic sing-song before hanging up abruptly: "Life is good. I want to stay upbeat. Bye-bye."
They are former members of the Ohio National Guard, men called into the middle of something they were never given a chance to understand and whose aftermath has been -- for them in very particular ways -- as murky and stinging as tear gas.
Many of them never speak about Kent State. Sure, they gave clipped quotes of relief when the trials ended. Acquitted on criminal charges. Acquitted in a civil trial. Settling its appeal out of court. Never an admission of guilt. Never a reason to have to believe they were guilty.
In the past 15 years, the tone of the annual commemorations at Kent State University has changed. Healing has been the theme. Victims' families join hands. Former students hold candles with professors. Parents bring their children to try to teach them the lesson of history.
But the guardsmen are almost never there.
"We were absolutely excluded. We were never invited," says Charles Fassinger, the former lieutenant colonel who was in charge of the men who fired their guns. "It would seem that to heal you need both parties at the table."
Fassinger, one of many Guard defendants in the trials, has emerged as a sort of unofficial spokesman. He has been discouraged in this by his superiors, but says, "I felt somebody had to tell the Guard's side."
And so he does, knowing full well that the media probably never will embrace the Guard, knowing the story he tells is no different than the story he has always told, knowing as he always has known that he is sad for what happened, but not ashamed for having been there.
Although public opinion favored the National Guard at the time of the shootings, the guardsmen who fired their M-1 rifles were criticized, first and perhaps most notably by the President's Commission on Campus Unrest, which wrote in late 1970 that "the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable." Journalists and scholars have tended to follow that reasoning.
Many of the younger guardsmen had signed on to avoid going to Vietnam, and probably identified more with the students than anyone else. Harold Rice acknowledges that guardsmen who fired in the midst of confusion, some believing they had heard an order, might even be victims themselves.
Victims. The assertion seems almost shocking, applied to men who fired their rifles into a crowd. But the word, like so much of the rest of this story, carries widely different shades of meaning.
Ten years ago, during the 20th anniversary ritual of remembering, Fassinger found himself sitting across a table from Dean Kahler, who was paralyzed that day.
"He would say what he saw; I would say what I saw," Fassinger recalls. "In fact, both of us were in tears by the time it was over."
Fassinger has moved on. He lived in Sagamore Hills until 1991, when he and his wife moved to Florida. His life has changed; it moves forward, but every May, at least briefly, it circles back. And he remembers now what he told the troops as they assembled for dismissal from the Kent campus 30 springs ago.
"What I said is, 'We all believe we did the right thing. Only history will tell us if what we did is right or wrong.' "
And history doesn't appear to have decided yet.
The Kent State shootings are almost like the Vietnam War," John Filo tells us. "Nobody has ever come forward and said, 'You know, that was a really bad mistake.' There's never been a formal apology. It's always like, 'Well. . . things happen.' "
Filo is one of the few people who -- in a way that defines the meaning of tragically ironic -- benefited from the Kent State shootings. The Guard's bullets made him a journalistic celebrity, but it's the kind of fame that's impossible to enjoy. Working the scene as a collegiate photographer, he captured the single most memorable image of the bloodshed: the emotive portrait of 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling above the corpse of Jeffrey Miller. The photo won Filo a Pulitzer Prize, but it also marginalized his career; Filo now works for CBS broadcasting, but he'll always be The Man Who Took That Kent State Photo. He will never escape the living history of May 4, 1970.
"You deal with it," Filo says. "Sometimes you get angry, but you deal with it. No matter what you've accomplished, your whole existence is trapped in that visual chunk of amber. . . but I think it's the duty of the survivors to keep this memory alive, and I'll always be glad to talk about it. I'd like to put it behind me, but only if I could get a written guarantee that this will never happen again."
Given the chaos of the moment, it seems almost appropriate that Filo's photo of Vecchio -- the shot that won all the awards and became the symbol of campus tragedy -- was the product of pure chance. Filo describes it as a "grab shot" (in other words, he simply stumbled across the drama and snapped the shutter of his camera). The picture he "really worked for" was of a long-haired revolutionary waving a black flag in the face of authority. Filo thought that particular shot was an iconic representation of student protest in America; 30 years later, it has come to illustrate the dichotomy between embracing the past and getting on with the present.
The revolutionary waving the flag that day was Alan Canfora. Minutes after Filo took his picture, Canfora took his bullet. And for three decades, he's never let anyone forget it.
The 51-year-old with the auburn ponytail has, more than any of the nine people wounded that day, fostered his anger into a long-burning passion. He's not the only one who speaks out, but he is the most dogged of the bunch.
"Jeff Miller was a friend of mine. He can't speak for himself anymore," Canfora explains. "Someone has to do it."
The son of a politician, Canfora is prone to making noise. The lifelong Barberton resident helped lead protests when, in 1977, Kent State announced it was building a gym annex on the site of the practice football field where the guardsmen paused shortly before the shootings. He has continued to pop up alongside every new wellspring of news or controversy. In addition to his job as deputy director of the Summit County Board of Elections, he spends as much as 40 hours a week maintaining two Web sites (www.alancanfora.com and www.may4.org) and responding to questions from students, journalists and anyone else who asks. In his eyes, he is committed to truth and justice. He was shot by agents of his own government and still wants to know why.
In the eyes of some, though, he is a pest with a case of arrested development. People say they can't understand why he doesn't just get on with his life. They have accused him of trying to profit from a wound whose scar is barely visible on his right wrist.
And so it came to pass that, for perhaps the first time in his life, Canfora initially threatened not to grant an interview to the Beacon Journal, a paper in which he has appeared more than 100 times. He finally agreed, but not before airing -- with characteristic passion -- the reason for his hesitation.
Four years ago, when plans for a movie about him and his family were announced, he was the subject of a scathing column by former Beacon Journal writer Regina Brett. She suggested the movie be called "Get a Life." She wrote that he has lost all perspective, and that his life is tragic because he has been unable to let go of the past. The deluge of phone calls and letters in response to the column mostly supported her opinion.
"It was very goddamned dirty, what she did," Canfora says. "A hatchet job. . . Most people who know me appreciate the work that I've done."
Brett maintains her position. "I sometimes feel he's used this in ways that tarnished it for everybody else," she says.
Clearly, there will always be people who think the students got precisely what they deserved that afternoon in May. Dean Kahler, who was shot in the back and will never walk again, says he still gets criticized by those who think it was his fault for being there.
These debates will go on. Robert Stamps applauds Canfora for his efforts. So does Jerry M. Lewis, the professor who dived behind a bush in 1970 and has taken his share of hits for keeping the story visible. The notion of who's right, however, is not as significant as the fact that Kent State still can inspire such bitter differences.
Without answers to light the way of truth, opinions crash violently against one another. The people who were there fear it will be forgotten, while the people who weren't suggest there's a difference between "honoring" and "exploiting."
But for most of the kids just now arriving at Kent State, the real question is why they're supposed to care so much about a historical footnote they can't relate to at all.
"It's always in the newspaper. Documentaries are always being made about it. Some instructors even require you to write a paper about it," says Deborah Johnson, a 19-year-old nursing student. "If people want to keep this alive, that's fine. It makes them feel better, and I feel sorry for anyone who got shot. But why drag it on for 30 years, you know? People come, people go."
And they will continue to come and go, in the long procession of human understanding. For now, the questions remain alive. They continue to be asked and people continue to debate their answers.
And it comes down to this:
It doesn't matter what people think about Kent State. It matters that they think about it.
As long as people think about Kent State, it matters.
History's echoes are funny; some grow louder while others fade. For a number of reasons, this 30th anniversary is receiving more attention than any other.
But people come and people go. And the middle-aged men and women who are now running the universities and directing the media, people who share the background of the students shot that day, will move on. And some other generation will choose its battles and people will fall and people will mourn and they will argue and remember and forget.
And an old man will play with his grandchildren in Kent, Ohio, and wonder how these things happen and why, and he may resolve in his own way what the answers are.
And for him, that will be enough.