You at the Victory Bell-May 4th, 30 years Later
By Ralph Solonitz
I thought about the commemoration weeks before, trying to decide how or even if I was going to deal with that day and its memories.
The journey to Kent would have no expectations from me. I would just show up and experience it. Whatever happens, happens. The drive down was an easy one, as I live in Cleveland Ohio.I arrived at the alumni center on campus at 10 o-clock in the morning. The parking lot was already full, but luckily a space was created on the lawn under a small tree. I was welcomed and asked to register. I pinned a nametag on my jacket, grabbed some literature and looked at my watch. I had just enough time to walk over to the 10:30 press conference being held at the student center, wherever that was; somehow I knew Id find it.
I needed to see, hear and talk to the survivors of May 4th. 1970. For me this was a time for more healing. I had the 1990 20th anniversary behind me. What did another 10 years bring?
I was given a media pass and entered the large room. It was already full and busy with the sounds of reporters. Some testing equipment, others discussing their hectic schedules, on cell phones, with notebooks and behind cameras. I sized up the room, took a position behind the video cameras, got my notepad out and prepared for an entrance. Behind the long table draped in white cloth, chairs were waiting to be filled. University President, Carol Cartwright arrived first, and within a few moments all guests were seated. She welcomed us and we waited for the first question.
Answers were given, I wrote, took photos as opportunities presented themselves, and observed the faces of those seated. "Less bad and more good, Memorial visits became a place of comfort from year to year" spoke Jeffrey Millers brother, Russell. Alan Canfora believed the administration had come to terms with the event. Thomas Grace shared that this event teaches students and us to "always pay attention!" Robby Stamps said, "public citizens need to be politically alert". "The spirit of community was expanding, and how ironic that it should begin at the place that was instrumental in the tragedy," said Joe Lewis. It took him 15 years to return. The lesson for Dean Kahler? "Words of hate divide. Political rhetoric is harmful and issues need to be dealt with! Problems were not solved in 1970". I looked at their faces. These were my fellow students. They were kids. I was a kid. What did they do with their feelings all this time?
I was numb for the first 20 years. I hadnt dealt with my childhood, Born in Munich, the son of holocaust survivors. Only in 1990 did I come back here to make some sense of it all. A resolution? I hear words like "without truth, healing cant begin". Russell Miller asks" why havent we heard from the National Guard? Whats with their conspiracy of silence? And what of Governor Rhodes? He never owned up to the blood on his hands! "We did nothing wrong. Find the truth," said Dean Kahler. "Who said shoot?" asked Joe Lewis.
No one ever took responsibility, even under sworn testimony. Maybe one day in conversation someone will talk, the truth works its way upward. It may take years. We now know who collaborated with the nazis. Not everyone is capable of feeling shame, but the world finds out. "Talk to the survivors, they will share their truths. One by one our stories are told. The media didnt experience it. Rumors will always cloud the truth" Says Alan Canfora. "Talk to the survivors!" he says again.
affirmation that what you feel is real, and its okay. Larry and his buddy were sharing their experiences, where they stood, how they ran, how they watched Jeffrey miller, their friend die.
I shared that I had come to Taylor Hall for photojournalism lab work, only missing the shootings by minutes. I reached into my briefcase and showed them the photos of that day. I remember taking them. A record of the events. How a bullet could pierce a steel sculpture, then pass through a 3-foot wide tree to kill a student. My photos are in the Kent May 4th. Archives" I didnt have to tell them. They knew better than I did, but somehow a photo is proof. I felt lucky to be here 30 years later to even think about that sad, sad day. The 3 of us arrived at markers in the parking lot where lives ended.
Stones were available courtesy of" Hillel" a Campus Jewish student group. An explanation next to the stones. The why and where this tradition came from, I already knew.
We asked each other questions, reflected on that time, and began to smile as each one of us began to recall something funny, something lovely about our days at Kent. I thought about the inappropriate humor, and the scene reminded me of the laughter at condolence visits. Both feelings can exist. Love and joy. Grief and loss. Within seconds of each other. Within seconds.
I took inventory of my feelings again. I need to check in with myself every once in a while. My mission for the day? Just show up. Observe. No expectations. And dont forget to feel. I was doing okay. We exchanged phone numbers, said our good-byes, and split up to go our separate ways. I said stay in touch and meant it. A bond had been made many years ago.
56,000 daffodils had bloomed the previous week. The spent flowers symbolize those Americans killed during the Vietnam era. I remember them in bloom in 1990. An amazingly beautiful sight.
It was 11:30, and time for the Victory bell ringing. The start of todays memorial program. I recognized a local Cleveland news reporter. His station asked me for an interview a day earlier. I said hello, introduced myself, and waited for a reply.
He said nothing, and I asked what he thought of the press conference earlier? Still no replys I just turned and walked away thinking that I really didnt have anything to say to him,and couldnt explain my feeling of disgust. He was at work, I wasnt. Goodbye I thought, and what I mumbled to myself I cant say on paper today. If the media wants to know they can interview a survivor. That would make for a better visual or more dramatic soundbite.
What was left to ask anyway? What could you ask the mother, father, sister, brother or loved one? How have you resolved your loss? Is their closure for you now? Are you over it now? Stupid questions, that make for impossible answers. I was getting angry. Where was the healing I had been looking for?
I approached Alan Canfora, reached for his hand and introduced myself. He admired my 1990 pin and asked if he could buy one. I took one out of my pocket and gave it to him. I made it up special. "Its free, " I said. He pinned it to his 30th.memorial T-shirt, and we smiled. Thats what it was like in 1970 and again now. "Brothers for the cause".
The victory bell clanged 15 times in memory of the dead. 4 killed, 9 wounded here in Kent, and twice for the black students killed during an anti-war, anti-racism protest May.14th. 1970 at Jackson State.
I got in touch with the passion I felt so long ago. I understood what motivated the May 4th. Task Force. A student organization created to ensure the free expression of ideas. I even understood their need to include a 3-minute recording from Mumia Abu-Jamal.
I met a few more fellow graduates. Jim Russell reminded me of the graphic design classes we shared. "What ever happened to the tall blond?"Jim asked me. I didnt remember. I was still trying to place Jim. He told me he was the only one hit with buckshot. I didnt know someone fired a shotgun? I met Ken Lyman . We talked and walked for hours, sharing where we lived, whom we both knew, where he stood and how he dove for cover when the bullets flew.
I didnt think I knew anyone shot or shot at that day. Now I did. It got even more personal than I realized. I left that day feeling a little less lonely. Less isolated. I understood how we shared the same questions. Why? Who gave the order to fire? I left Kent that day feeling more like I belonged. I got a chance to hear my favorite musician, Country Joe McDonald sing his "Fixin to die rag" and participate in the "give me an F chorus. The Hand shaking and hugs will have to do for now as I head back north to Cleveland. Just an hours drive away I leave the time warp of May 4th.1970, and God willing Ill see my classmates again well meet at the Victory Bell. Okay?
Artwork above by Ralph Solonitz.
You can also link to Ralph's collection in the Kent State
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