Sometimes history just smacks me in the eye. And sometimes it tells me that I may have been part of something big and dangerous, but I got off easily.
May 4, 1970, was a gorgeous spring day in Athens, Ohio. I was a part-time graduate student at Ohio University. That afternoon I was on the main campus, sitting under a tree with other students who were on strike protesting America’s bombing of Cambodia, which President Nixon had approved only a couple of days before.
On the night of May 3, we conducted a peaceful candlelight walk around Athens’ downtown. At various stops, leaders, several of them clergy persons, spoke about our purpose, our non-violent protest against the war.
On that May 4 afternoon, several Buddhists walked among the protesters spooning servings of curried potatoes and rice out of a big pot, so that everyone who wanted some could eat.
I was wearing a dress I’d made — pink, orange and white cotton designed like a kimono. I wore it every day during the protests, washed it every night and ironed it every morning. I was protesting in style.
While we were sitting there eating our rice and potatoes, someone came by and told us four students at Kent State had been shot. Kent, Ohio is about a 3-hour drive south of Athens.
The group sitting on the commons was electrified. Who had done the shooting? Why were the students shot? What was going to happen to us?
Students coming from classes heard the news and rushed to their rooms or apartments to find out what was going on.
I was living in an off-campus apartment house, a high-rise building that housed students as well as local residents.
My roommate Suzanne, who had not been protesting, left the apartment to stay with her boyfriend at his place.
As the afternoon went by, friends came by to share gossip or rumors or news and stayed to eat and sing. We heard that the Ohio National Guard had been deployed around the main campus, and students were confronting them.
My friend John Kramer and I decided we needed to go see the action. John knew a back way across the tracks and up the hill to campus, so we went that way.
When we got out of the wooded area behind the English building and onto the main quad, we heard students roaring. We walked toward the street and saw the National Guardsmen standing at attention every few feet with bayonets fixed on their rifles. A group of students kept approaching them, taunting them, daring them to shoot or bayonet someone.
I moved toward the students to hear what they were saying better, and John pulled me back. Just as he did, we walked into a cloud of tear gas and started to cough and weep. For a few minutes, however we turned, we met tear gas or pepper gas.
I hadn’t thought to bring a handkerchief, so John took off his shirt and gave it to me to use as a bandana. When I asked him what he would use to protect himself, he just said no one would bother a fat white boy, and if things got too bad, he’d share the shirt with me.
Then we heard sirens. “Those are the state police,” John said. “We need to get out of here.”
He took my hand, and we ran back toward the lower part of town. Half a dozen friends were at the apartment, so we told them what we’d seen, and then we sat out on our small balcony, visiting and singing until the early morning.
We slept where we could, and as it got light, another friend wakened us to a crisis in a nearby building. According to rumor, an African American girl had found refuge in a white fraternity when things had started to get out of control late in the evening.
We heard she had been raped by the white boys; then some young black men had taken her out of the fraternity and were hiding her in the high rise just across the way from us. The men armed themselves to protect her and themselves from retaliation.
When we looked over the balcony, many police were moving from car to car, nearing the apartment building, rifles at the ready.
Others were telling people to go inside, but all the balconies we could see were full of people — including kids and young children — watching the action, waiting for the guns to start blazing.
The phone rang, and it was my sister Patricia, who lived in Athens with her family. She said my mother had called because she and my father had seen the story on TV, and they were worried about my safety.
I called Massachusetts to reassure them, and my mother said she would send me money to get a plane ticket. She wanted me to get out of there as quickly as possible.
By that time, the university had canceled classes for the rest of the year, but I didn’t tell her that because I had another idea for the plane ticket money.
And I wanted to know what was happening outside my building. In fact, when I got off the phone, the police were pulling back, and as we watched, several young black men left the building and put down their arms. The girl had not been raped, and the men offered no resistance to the police.
It was another beautiful day in the neighborhood, and school was done.
John and our friend Peter Poppleton and I celebrated the end of the year with a road trip to Concord, Mass., via Syracuse, New York, where we visited with some of my relatives, and Lee, Mass., where my parents were not happy to see me traveling with two young men, though they were both planning to be priests.
But we had a wonderful time in Concord where some of Peter’s relatives still lived.
Forty-nine years later, that picture of the Kent State girl crying over the dead boy’s body is still heart-wrenching. How could we do that to peaceful protesters? How could we send people the same age as the protesters to kill them?
I was struck by how much information is on the web about Kent State. I now can see why my parents were afraid for my safety.
I don’t remember being afraid of what might happen to us. After all, I’d made a special dress for protesting, and no one, not townspeople or other students, had been mean to us.
Earlier in the year, when students were protesting about something else, I got caught in a crowd running from the state police. I continued to walk because I wasn’t part of the action.
A state policeman came up behind me and put his baton in the hollow of my back. But I was aware that he did not actually push me with the baton. I could feel the space between the baton and my back. And he just said to me, “Keep moving.”
How could I be afraid of such a man?
Judith Zaccaria is the Winfield News Manager for the CourierTraveler.