Elizabeth, May 4, 1970 and me

Unless it’s a birthday or an important anniversary of some sort, May 4th probably comes and goes like any other day in your life, but for anyone who went to my University, it is our Pearl Harbor. I attended Kent State University, and in my sophomore year 1970, my fellow students and I found ourselves thrust into the pages of history in a matter of a few days and thirteen seconds of gunfire. Before May 4th, if we traveled anywhere outside of the Cleveland/Akron area and people asked where we went to college and we responded “Kent State”, most often they would question: “Penn State?”.  And after May 4th, the question became: “Really? Were you there then?”. It happened late in the school year, when the long Northeastern Ohio winter was finally gone and spring was crawling towards summer. It became a horrific ending to what had been an incredibly wonderful and magical year in my life at age twenty.

In fall of 1969 the school year began with Nixon’s Draft Lottery, the only big contest I’ve ever won. I drew number 33, and my draft board would be calling up thirty numbers per month, beginning the following January. Even though I had a deferment, this roulette game did not sit well with any of us boys of draftable age. War was hanging heavily all around us and death counts of soldiers and innocents were being tallied with the same nonchalance that we watch gasoline prices escalate today. Being born so soon after the end of WW II, my childhood was peppered with pictures about trench and jungle warfare.  The thought of reliving it firsthand had frightened me more than my scariest horror movie nightmare.  The daily footage from Vietnam, played out each night on our TV sets in living color, only fed my fears and fanned the flames for any reasonably intelligent person to see how wrong any war was, let alone this senseless one. Despite all this, I still was not terribly politically engaged at this point in my life.

One year of dormitory life had been way more than enough for me.  This year I was living in a brand new apartment complex called College Towers, two seven-story buildings just off campus with in ground pools and full gyms, wall-to-wall carpeting and air conditioning, yet close enough to walk to campus. I was sharing a one bedroom with an old friend from West Buttfok High School. In my sophomore year of college I was living with more comforts than at my parents’ house. I even got a cat named Sarah to satisfy my passion for pets and make it feel more like home. I had found a comfortable niche in the theatre department, getting roles in some good productions and assembling a circle of friends that I enjoyed spending time with. In the middle of fall term I began seeing Elizabeth, the first and only woman in my life and I fell in love with her and fell in love even harder with love itself.

Elizabeth was jokingly the “older woman”, one year my senior. She sang like an angel – a lovely soprano voice and would often burst into song for no apparent reason, like an unbelievable character in a musical comedy. She was playfully witty and had perfect comic timing both onstage and off. Her naturally blonde hair that she wore in a short-cropped pageboy, she coaxed a few shades lighter. Pink and pretty with big, round, blue eyes, her lips were almost always either parted in a toothy smile or opened to let out a hearty, giggly laugh that was truly infectious. She was not very tall, but womanly round and was self-described as rubenesque. Without being corny, I would describe Elizabeth as a doll.

We went from seeing each other to being with each other nearly 24/7 in a matter of weeks. We were rarely apart.  She had an apartment literally across the road from mine in an older complex with two roommates, so we spent nights after rehearsals (we were both always either in rehearsal or doing a show) at my place. My roommate often worked late nights giving us time alone. Most evenings we camped out on my College Tower living room floor. We did manage to have the apartment totally to ourselves on that fateful night when we finally “did it”. I’d had this romanticized vision of my first time being as close to movie perfection as possible, and that called for a bed with clean white sheets and it did happen as I’d always imagined. Elizabeth was a patient and tender partner. I had absolutely no idea how to make love to anyone except myself, but she put me at ease and somehow made it all possible. I can’t image that I was a very good lover, but I certainly enjoyed trying to improve techniques with her.  We went at it every chance we got.

Christmas break I went home to West Buttfok, and she to Youngstown. We were apart for nearly three weeks, and we called and sent each other cards and missed each other like crazy. I drove to see her one night at her house, and we ended up going to a movie and then necking in the car afterwards because we couldn’t do anything with her parents there. It took this very special young woman to finally make me feel a man. We both of us were ready to get back to Kent and continue our life together.

Once back for winter term, I began directing a production of Moliere’s Tartuffe in The Cellar Theatre, a small student stage and Elizabeth played the ingenue role. She also did costumes, which was a huge undertaking for this period play, as we were very limited in what we could borrow from the university and only had a teeny budget that needed to be used for sets, publicity, and the like. Elizabeth and I spent hours, often into the early morning, sitting at sewing machines long after rehearsals were over trying to make the impossible possible. The program also gives her credit for wigs and makeup – she was involved to the max. After the first dress rehearsal, as I gave my notes, I concluded with: “And Elizabeth, you look like a big blue jellybean”. Everyone laughed hysterically, especially me for recognizing my own particularly brilliant wit. Everyone except Elizabeth, who ran out the back of the theatre in tears. It took an hour to calm her down.

In early spring we planned a weekend in West Buttfok to “meet the parents” and I was hesitant because I didn’t know what to expect from my mother and father. I knew Elizabeth was a natural at impressing other people’s parents. I had seen her work her charms on our friends’ parents and no one could help but love her. However, these were my parents. It had taken me twenty years and still I could barely deal with them, let alone turn them loose on unsuspecting prey, especially my beloved Elizabeth. Only about a week before our scheduled trip, she gave me the news that her period was late – very late. Maybe it was just the anticipation of our upcoming weekend, she’d hoped. Maybe it was just the fact that we were not using any sort of contraception. Oh my God, I was scared shitless. Elizabeth took it all in stride. I was in love with her, for sure, but having a baby was totally not on my to-do list.

My parents came Friday afternoon to pick us up. Sitting in the backseat of my Dad’s boat of a Pontiac, I rehearsed how I might break the news to them that they were going to be grandparents. We didn’t know for sure that she was pregnant, yet already I was experiencing morning sickness and I wanted to puke. Of course, just as I’d hoped, my folks were totally delighted by sweet Elizabeth, even before she began clearing the dinner dishes and started filling the kitchen sink to wash them without saying a word. My mother was mesmerized and I was shocked that she had allowed her to take over her kitchen without a word of protest.

The next morning, as Elizabeth came out of the bedroom she’d slept in, to give me a kiss, she whispered “Congratulations! You’re not a father”. The remainder of our visit was sheer joy for me. We ended our stay by going to the Cleveland Art Museum. It has always had an incredibly wonderful collection. In a small room we paused before a huge painting by David entitled “Cupid and Psyche”. We stood in front of the larger than life-sized recumbent nudes, taking it in with our mouths gaping. It looked as though the two of us had posed for it and Elizabeth was the first to say it aloud. It is a vivid, personal moment the two of us shared that I can still summon all these years later.

So we come to May – Friday, May 1st. The evening before, Nixon had admitted that “we” had begun bombing raids into Cambodia. It ignited like wild-fire and I remember seeing banners hung in dorm windows and people in small groups throughout the sprawling campus, gathered around impromptu speakers debating the spread of the government’s useless war. This was a state university with 20,000 students who were cutting their teeth on the issues of the day in a truly chaotic and super scary world. It is almost surprising that only about 500 rallied at noon on the Common in protest. I didn’t go, nor anyone from my immediate group of friends. Everyone sensed that this was not going to blow over with a few signs and a demonstration.

That night there was some trouble downtown, an area with a concentration of bars. Some windows were broken, the cops called in and bars were closed early. This caused concern among even the most apolitical. Drinking 3.2% beer was a popular pastime and curtailing students by denying them access to their beer did not help ease any tensions, so the original small crowd grew in numbers and the police used tear gas for the first time that night.

The following day, there were meetings galore all over Kent with Campus Admin, police and city officials and finally the National Guard was called in. I remember we stayed close to home that day, just going between my apartment and Elizabeth’s. We listened to stories from somebody who talked to somebody who knew somebody… I was becoming uneasy and didn’t know quite what we should be doing. We were all growing angry, watching our government, that most of us did not trust anyway, slowly take over our perfect little world in our insignificant university. For the first time I heard my circle of friends change the topic of conversation from Broadway and musical comedy to global issues and their own personal beliefs about politics and war. Being in College Towers, probably two of the tallest buildings in Kent, I remember hearing helicopters in the distance that evening. We learned late that night the ROTC buildings were burning and students were hindering firefighters from putting out the fires. We knew this would not be good for any of us. It turned out that some friends we had been in shows with were right there and had tasted the tear gas themselves.

Sunday the Governor held a press conference railing about the unrest and the damage that had been done to the state’s University. A curfew was put in place by the mayor.

We had planned, before the weekend’s turmoil, to go to a student production that evening in a theatre in one of the churches off campus. There was a group of about eight of us going. I think we all were ready for a distraction from the tension which only grew worse by the hour. If memory serves me, the curtain time was moved up to comply with the curfew. I have no recollection of what the play was that we saw. I only remember the walk back home. It was dark, probably after 9:00 p.m. and the group of us was traveling up East Main Street towards campus. Knowing us, we might have been singing something, practicing harmonies, or just laughing and joking our way home. Out of the darkness above, the frightening thunder of a helicopter overhead stopped us, as a piercing beam of intense light shone down onto us. The noise was deafening, the copter blades hovering so close we could almost feel the moving air they displaced above. A booming, megaphoned voice cut through the chopping noise calling us from above “Students, you are considered a mob. Disperse at once and return to your dormitories”.

The temperature instantly shot from apprehensive and disturbing to sheer terror. Without uttering a word, our panicked harshly spotlighted faces questioned one another as to what we should do. Elizabeth let out a shouting kind of scream and ran across the street and immediately I followed her lead. A couple of others crossed to our side as well. The helicopter turned off its light and our hearts began to resume their regular rhythm as it flew off ahead, towards campus.

We quickly continued our walk home, keeping the distance of the street between us. All the while we shouted back and forth to each other “Do you believe this shit?” What are we supposed to do now?” “This is fucking crazy!” We went back to my apartment and all of us began planning possible scenarios to follow. Some who had cars on campus might have even left for home that night. Neither Elizabeth nor I had a vehicle, although we had concerned parents who could be at our door in an hour or two’s time to get us out of there if need be. I was staying put. Monday was the beginning of a new week and I was going to plan on life as I knew it continuing just like always.

I don’t know what we argued about, but I doubt it had been either the war or campus strife. All I do know is that Elizabeth and I were not speaking on Monday, May 4th when we got up. Later in the morning, we continued the argument and she left in anger with a door slam. I was getting dressed to walk to the Common where an art student in one of my classes was going to take some photographs of me for his portfolio. We were to meet up at 1:00 p.m.  As I left my apartment and started walking to the elevator, I saw Elizabeth’s horrified face running towards me. “Jimmie, DON’T GO OUT THERE! They just shot some students”.  The two of us hugged, holding onto each other out of fear, not passion.

She was getting a ride from someone to go back to Youngstown. I should try to find a ride to Cleveland. Elizabeth and I kissed goodbye and in moments, doors started opening up in the long hallway as students collected outside their apartments. News of the shootings was just reaching our building. Neighbors, who before were only faces to me, suddenly became fellow victims of the disaster. I ran back to my apartment to try to call someone to arrange a ride, but the phone lines were overloaded and I couldn’t get a dial tone. And then I heard once again, the chopping monster helicopter blades flying over College Towers, so close now, they almost didn’t need the loud-speaker. This time they were shouting “All students report to your permanent address at once. Repeat. All students to your permanent addresses”. I remember stumbling into the kitchen, grabbing black plastic trash bags from the counter. I had no idea what I was doing. I only knew I had to get the hell out of Kent before more people got shot. We hadn’t heard for sure yet if anyone had been killed. The fear level was palpable. We all had our apartment doors wide open and people were calling out city and town names where they needed to go, or where they were willing to take others. Into one plastic bag I shoved some text books and clean clothes –  in another dirty laundry and toiletries. I scooped up my frightened kitty, Sarah and was out of my apartment and down in the lobby in minutes. Chaos reigned. I never saw so many students move so very fast in all directions at one time. But there was also a strange order to our evacuation. I stood in my lobby calling out names of neighboring west side suburbs of Cleveland, desperate for a ride, a garbage bag stuffed under each arm and poor Sarah clawing at my neck and chest, terrified – nearly as terrified as me.

I had to settle for a ride to downtown Cleveland. I don’t remember who the person was that gave me a ride, but prior to the moment I threw my trash bags into his car, he had been a stranger, and after our ride I never saw him again. There were others in his car, again no faces or names register. We were all operating in a great fog of confusion and fear and disbelief and we wanted out and some sense of safety. What I do recall, quite vividly, was driving down West Main Street and seeing military jeeps and soldiers in helmets on our pretty front campus lawn and guns with bayonets pointed at the caravan of our cars slowly exiting the small, verdant “Tree City” that was Kent, Ohio.  It was like living a nightmare or being stuck in a very bad movie. Once out of town, the car ride with my fellow refugees is a total blank. It took hours before I was safe in Mom and Dad’s house. I had never been happier to be living in their home before or after that horrific day.

By midweek they announced the term was ended. The University would most probably reopen for summer session. On that Friday, I asked my father to drive me to Kent. I wanted to go back to my apartment and pack up my things. I became very bitter; the shootings of May 4th had ended a great happiness in my life. I was having this incredible year and all of it revolved around Kent, but now this ugly black cloud had descended over everything, killing it all for me. Selfishly I made the tragedy not about the four dead students or the nine wounded, but all about me and my personal contentment.

In order to get onto campus, I had to go through a security check and actually sign in with the police or the military, I can’t remember which. There was still a strict curfew in place. My father dropped me off at the check point and was coming back on Sunday to take me and my things back to West Buttfok. As I left Kent the end of that weekend, the remnants of my life stuffed into the trunk of the car, it was hard to believe only one week had passed, yet my whole world had been radically transformed.

My relationship with Elizabeth didn’t make it through the summer. I cannot blame that on May 4th, but it certainly contributed some to its demise. I was so angry and depressed that summer of 1970, I seriously considered not going back to Kent. In fact, I didn’t want to go back to school at all. Had it not been for Vietnam and my deferment, I certainly would have taken a break from life altogether. The carpet had been pulled out from under my feet and I’d landed hard on my skinny young ass.

6 thoughts on “Elizabeth, May 4, 1970 and me

  1. Matt. First, this is the first you have mentioned Elizabeth. Second, why did she call you Jimmie? And third, thank you for reminding me to remember the whole Kent State mess so many years later. I had almost forgotten your connection to that awful/necessary point in our history. And last, have you spent time wondering how life would have been different if she had said Congratulations you’re a pappy? We would have never met at the Tin Soldier, that’s for sure! Thanks for this great post. Missing you even more. ~slp

  2. As fate would have it, a friend of mine and fellow student at the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago (we met there in 1973) was a Kent State graduate (theater department, I know, small world, right?) She only spoke of the tragedy once in the time that I knew her (we’ve lost touch with each other), but, as you described it, the fear, confusion, and sadness of the whole experience was as she had relayed it to me. Powerful stuff; it should not be forgotten. Thank you for sharing your memories of this turbulent time in our history.

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