Originally published April 30, 2000
We look back to find what time has buried, and, remembering, we draw it forward.
Sharp as cut crystal, it hangs now before us - sights and smells and sounds of days in May.
As it was.
But not quite. For memory is blended with perspective as it's sifted through the march of years. And as we turn memories to words, we begin to understand.
• • •
Though I lived in Akron, I was on the Kent State campus seven days a week in the spring of 1970. I was a student then, and working part time in the Beacon Journal's art department.
On May 3, the day after the ROTC building had burned down, National Guard troops and vehicles were everywhere. Guard and police helicopters hovered overhead. After viewing the ruins of the ROTC building, I was curious to see what might be happening in the area known as ''front campus'' along Main Street.
My usual route there involved taking a shortcut through a building where Kent Hall connected to the administration building. I was somewhat surprised to find absolutely no one inside -- not even in the campus police office, which was located there. Crossing the hall, I exited the building and walked along its side. Again I was surprised -- this time at seeing a fairly large group of people gathered.
All those facing me were students, and I could see only the backs of guardsmen. They had cordoned off that cluster of buildings, but only on one side. I kept walking down the sidewalk, inside this semicircle of people, until a friend on the other side yelled out: ''Hey, Ayers! What the hell are you doing in there?''
Immediately a dozen or so guardsmen spun around and pointed their M-1 rifles with fixed bayonets at me. I remember not feeling frightened -- rather more bemused -- but to show I was no threat, I placed both hands on top of my head as if I were surrendering.
A guardsman took me by the arm and asked what I was doing there. I told him of my shortcut through the building and soon several guardsmen hurried inside to seal off the other side.
In the days that followed, the vision of those guns pointing at me would play over and over again in my head.
The next morning, I had a midterm exam in Nixson Hall. After the exam, I went to the office of the Chestnut League, a student spirit organization of which I was the chairman. It was in the Student Activities Center, just off the Commons. I did occasional cartoons for the school newspaper, the Daily Kent Stater, so I began working on one on how campus activities scheduled for the next weekend might be affected by the presence of the National Guard.
At noon I heard the Victory Bell ringing on the Commons and the tramping of guardsmen down the road. Since I was taking a photography class as a requirement of my major in graphic design, I grabbed my camera and went outside. I watched as tear gas was fired at the rally and followed as the troops moved the students off the Commons and over the hill to the other side of Taylor Hall.
As I crossed over the top of the hill, I saw guardsmen on the practice football field and students gathered in the Prentice Hall parking lot. I continued taking photographs, and through the viewfinder of my camera I saw a guardsman with a pistol fire a warning shot in the air. But there was so much noise around me, I barely heard the shot.
Tear-gas canisters and rocks were being tossed back and forth by students and guardsmen alike. Then the troops retreated a bit down the field, turned and began retracing their steps toward the Commons. I thought the confrontation had ended.
The route of the guardsmen was such that I was now between the two groups. Not wanting to get hit with a stray rock from either side and in order to visit my girlfriend in the Stater office, I went inside Taylor Hall. From what I later learned, just as the doors closed behind me, the guardsmen turned and fired through the area where I had just been standing.
I was in the Stater office when we heard screaming and yelling. One student called out, ''They just shot four kids,'' as she ran past.
The first thing I saw when I went back outside was the body of Jeff Miller on the ground, a river of blood flowing from his head. Then I saw Allison Krause being carried on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance. I had been introduced to her by a mutual friend not long before. It wasn't until the next day that I learned a classmate from several of my art classes was among the wounded.
When the campus was closed about an hour or so later, I took my film from my camera and drove directly to the Beacon Journal. On the way, the radio aired reports of the shootings and some music, including Everything Is Beautiful by Ray Stevens. In light of what I had just seen it seemed like a bad joke.
When I arrived at the Beacon Journal, I was interviewed several times by reporters and editors on what I had seen. None of my photos were used in the paper, but two were later used in the report of the President's Commission on Campus Unrest.
An editor asked if I would do some eyewitness sketches and I agreed.
Though I no longer have those original sketches, they remain a valuable memory to me because they were completed within hours of the shooting and before I had seen the photos that would come to define the image of the horror of May 4, 1970.