The Reluctant Hippie
3 May, 1970
A car backfired outside my tiny Kent State apartment on the edge of campus. The familiar combustion of unburned fuel exploding out of a tailpipe meant only one thing in our family: Daddy had arrived in his 1953 Chevy pickup.
I peeked out the front curtain for confirmation. Oh, no. No. Not him. Not now. Papa Joe slid out of the cab of his rusty blue truck. In his mid-forties—tall, thin, wiry, and a little bow-legged. He could have passed for a grizzled wrangler in an old black-and-white Western movie with his plaid flannel shirt, handlebar mustache, and his nose crooked to the left, no stranger to dispute. He hesitated by his truck, squinting in the dusk, the streetlamp busted. Probably not sure which apartment was mine. He’d only been here once, and that was before Danny moved in.
Papa Joe finally found the right flat and banged on my front door. “Annie, open up.” My women’s lib group met every Sunday evening at eight, just a half hour from now. And the ferocity of his knock told me that whatever Papa had on his mind was going to take a lot longer than that. I considered not answering.
I opened the door and nodded him in. “What are you doing here?”
He remained stationary on the front stoop, staring at me. “You look different,” he said.
Well duh, pay attention, dude. He rarely noticed me anymore. Ever since I went away to college last year, and he went goo-goo eyes over that widow down the street.
I whizzed through the standard checklist: hair, eyes, lipstick. My left hand swiped across my chin for ketchup. Good thing that Danny had stormed away a few hours earlier, probably out getting wasted with his radical buddies who helped him break windows and burn down the ROTC building over the weekend.
“I’ve been watching the news,” he said. Then Papa Joe brushed past me and headed for the sofa. He plopped down as though he’d just come home from a tough day at work. Probably thought paying the rent for this place gave him that right. The naked bulb hanging in the middle of the ceiling flickered, casting intermittent light and shadows on the faded blue paint peeling off the walls. “What the hell’s been going on up here? They said agitators and the Panthers were coming. And that there were going to be huge student protests and riots on campus tomorrow.”
His eyes scrutinized the room as he spoke, judging me. Maybe it was the men’s underwear sitting atop a pile of dirty laundry in the corner. Or perhaps the women’s lib rally signs by the front door that I’d planned on taking to the meeting: Equal Pay for Equal Work, I’m a Second-Class Citizen, and Uppity Women Unite. Or could have been the scent of marijuana that I’d gotten used to and rarely noticed anymore.
Papa riled himself up, just like he did whenever he watched the news too much. “Walter Cronkite showed live pictures and videos on TV. It looked like those damn hippies were burning down the whole school.” Scratching sounds emanated from inside the walls, those same raspy scrapes we’d been hearing sporadically for a few weeks. Danny said it was a rat or a mouse, but I’d never seen it. I coughed or cleared my throat whenever I heard the rodent so that Papa wouldn’t notice.
I should never have opened the door. “I’d like to chat, Papa. But I’m on my way to an important meeting with my women’s group. You should’ve called first.”
Papa Joe nodded toward the sign leaning against the wall by the front door. “Was it something I did to make you feel like a second-class citizen?”
“Women have been treated as second-class citizens forever. Men have—” I paused. The smirk on Papa’s face and the “huh” he grunted made it clear that I was wasting my time. “Never mind. I’ve got to go.”
“Has college turned you into one of those man-haters? How’s going to a meeting on Sunday night going to change whatever you think society’s problem is with women?” The tone of his voice condescending, demeaning.
“Look, Papa, we’ll have to talk another time.”
Just then the front door popped open and Danny rushed in, mumbling something while shaking his head. His long, wild black hair flopped from side to side. “Can you believe that fucking printer is holding us hostage for more bread?” he said to nobody in particular. Danny whisked by us without acknowledging me or my father, whom he’d never met. The skunky aroma of pot followed him into the bedroom.
Danny charged back into the front room as quickly as he’d whooshed by us moments earlier. I asked him if the printer would still be able to produce the flyers in time. “I got what I need to take care of him,” he said.
“What? You going to burn down his building too?” Papa Joe said.
I cringed, knowing Danny to be a sucker for goading, and he delighted in antagonizing old-establishment types.
Danny gawked at me and threw his thumb back toward Papa like a hitchhiker flagging down a ride. “Who the fuck is that guy?”
Both men stepped toward each other. Papa Joe scowled at Danny, egging on the scrawny, pothead hippie type he’d grown to despise while watching the news. Danny matched his glare, the feisty little anarchist who’d never done more harm to another living creature than swat a fly or step on a roach, but tolerated the violence fomented during some of the anti-Vietnam war protests. Papa a half-head taller, tough and leathered. But Danny didn’t scare easy, propelled by his foul, aggressive mood.
The only two men in the world that I’d ever loved, and here they squared off ready to rip each other apart. Not the way I envisioned introducing the love of my life to my father. I subconsciously ticked off the traits they had in common: tender, zealous, thoughtful, passionate, impetuous, loving, and both would sacrifice anything to make me happy. Unfortunately, both too proud to back down.
I stepped between them, facing Danny with my back to Papa. “He’s my father. Now you go take care of your business.”
“Whatever,” Danny said. “I gotta split.”
I longed to go with him. Admired his dedication to the antiwar cause, his work important, every bit as essential as my women’s work, maybe even more so. Oh, to be brave like him, campaigning for peace, the end of the war. But the rallies could get pretty rowdy, and my cowardice took over, as it always did, reluctant to step into Danny’s passionate, turbulent world—too scared, too craven. But I couldn’t leave Papa Joe, not now, not like this. At least that’s what I told myself.
Danny wrapped his arms around my shoulders and kissed me, a bit longer than usual, no doubt just to irritate Papa Joe. An instant later he was gone.
“Him?” Papa said, pointing toward the closing door, shaking his head. “That’s your boyfriend?”
“You’ve got to go too, Papa. Please don’t worry about me; classes will be back to normal tomorrow.”
“Hazel and I think you should come home for a week or so, just till this all blows over.”
I bristled, but tried not to let it show. Just the mention of her name infuriated me. “I’m leaving now. Go home.”
Papa Joe grabbed my wrist and yanked me to a halt. “Please, just come home with me.” I tried to pull away, but his grip tightened. “I know what’s best for you,” he said.
“You don’t know anything about my life here. You’re just a truck driver.”
He loosened his clutch at once and stepped back. The color in his face evaporated, and his mouth hung open like he wanted to say something, but no words were spoken. Shit. Can’t believe I said that. “Papa, I’m sorry. You know I didn’t mean that.”
Didn’t know I was even capable of saying such things to him. What kind of daughter would do that? The words weren’t even true. Of course they weren’t.
Papa Joe pivoted and pounded out the front door. I raced behind and tried to stop him, but he never looked back. I ached to go with him. Sit in the front seat of the cab and lay my head on his shoulders, like I did when I was a little kid. Even to ride in the bed of the pickup would be okay, a fitting punishment. But I couldn’t allow myself to go with him. I’d already moved on from my childhood. Couldn’t turn back now.
He climbed into his old truck and slammed the door. His tires spun and screeched, then Papa Joe disappeared into a cyclone of dust and smoke.
I slogged back into the flat. Should have gone with him. He might have been right about tomorrow. Maybe things would be more dangerous than Danny had made out. Should have gone home with Papa. Safe in Pittsburgh. Hope he’d forgive me.
I’d left Annie and her father at the apartment and headed straight for the printer. Never seen her so cranky. I’d probably feel guilty the next day for being such a shithead to her and her father. But, at that moment, not even a few extra joints could’ve relaxed me.
Half hour past midnight when I finally boxed up all our flyers and dashed away from the print shop. I flipped off the headlights of my VW bug and weaved through the quiet residential neighborhoods on the east side of town. Had to be sure I wasn’t followed, even though I was late for our final pre-rally meeting. Never thought of myself as important enough to warrant a tail, but SDS headquarters in New York warned us that the FBI had us on their radar. Probably already tapped our home phones. I wanted to call Annie right then to make amends, tell her I love her, but I didn’t dare.
We’d rotated our meeting sites for the past week, and tonight it was in the basement of Bobby’s grandma’s house. He assured us that she was out of town visiting her sister. I parked across the street from the Dillard Lane address he gave me, a near-impossible-to-find road barely wide enough for one-way bug traffic. Dark and misty outside, void of streetlamps, and no moon in sight.
All the lights in the neighborhood were off, and I crept along slowly to get acclimated, trying to recall Bobby’s directions. Couldn’t see the ground where I was taking my next step, and the darn crickets wouldn’t shut up. Then a dog barked—one of those long, slow, wolf like howls. I’d just stepped into The Hound of the Baskervilles, and something was going to jump out of the bushes and snatch me at any moment. I fumbled my way along a clothesline in the side yard, skirted a crumbling brick BBQ in the back, and plunged down a set of steep concrete steps into Grandma’s basement.
I rapped on the door with the secret knock we’d adopted from an old low-budget horror movie we saw on Sinister Seymour’s Friday Fright Night. The door creaked open a crack and I slithered in, happy to be out of the creepy night air. I inhaled the aroma of weed they’d started smoking without me. Then took a quick head count: Bobby, Mark, and the Russo twins, Johnny and Joey.
“It’s late. Let’s get down to business,” I said. “I got all the flyers in my car. Two thousand—should be plenty.
Johnny lowered his head and took a long, leisurely drag, then passed the ganja to his brother. “Hey, man, what’s the deal with that asshole holding us hostage for more dough?”
“It’s all worked out now; we’re cool. He just wanted enough to cover the cost of his windows that got busted on Friday night.”
“That’s bullshit. We’ll pay him a visit when this is all over with.”
“Shut up, Johnny,” I said louder than I’d intended. The room sobered up at once. “Now let’s remember what we’re doing here. We’re not thugs. We’ve got a lot of people that believe in us, and we can’t fuck up this rally tomorrow.”
They all nodded in agreement, even the Russos. We scrutinized the checklist of everything that needed to be arranged for the noon protest rally, down to the tiniest detail. Signs, flyers, bullhorns, bell-ringers, wet rags, first-aid kits, a huge draft-card-burning banner, water balloons, eleven thirty a.m. bomb threat call to the TV station, fake press passes, series of leaks to the local newspaper, logs, kindling, walkie-talkies, speakers, line monitors, stamped note cards, cigarette lighters, music, and on and on and on. Each person responsible for their share of the agenda. But when we got to Molotov cocktails, cherry bombs, and bags of rocks, we started arguing again.
“I want to remind you all: this is a peaceful demonstration,” I said. “Maybe sabotage a few jeeps or trucks if we get a chance. But no violence.”
“What about ‘fighting fire with fire’ and ‘a tooth for a tooth’ kind of thinking?” Johnny said.
Mark deadpanned. “It’s not a tooth. It’s an eye for an eye.”
“Who the fuck cares if it’s a tooth or an eye. We gotta fight back. Otherwise, what are we here for?”
“We’re here to stop the war. We gotta help those boys dying every day in ’Nam. And we need to send a message to the governor that he has no right to deny us our freedom of speech,” I said.
I’d been preaching the peace all along. But, deep inside, I wasn’t really convinced. I’d puked at the sight of our blood splattered on the Pentagon steps after they pounded us with their rifle butts. I cried when they cracked Rennie’s skull open in Chicago. DC was even worse. I was there at all of them. And so were the TV cameras. Nothing advanced our cause more than bloody footage streaming on the seven o’clock news of those pigs beating the shit out of us.
Mark said. “They’ve got bigger and better weapons than we do. We throw a rock; they gas us. We toss a cherry popper, and they club us with their nightsticks. We heave Molotov cocktails, and they blow our heads off.”
“They ain’t shooting at us,” Joey scoffed. “They probably don’t even have real bullets in those rifles.”
“You’re an idiot.”
Mark was right, of course. But still, part of me yearned for Johnny and Joey to bring a truckload of Molotov cocktails, cherry bombs, and whatever else they could muster up. I just couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud.
Bobby leapt to his feet and roared, “No fucking bombs.”
Just then a light shone from the top of the interior stairs into the house, and an old white-haired lady took a few steps down. “Bobby? Is that you?”
Johnny flicked his joint to the ground and dove behind a sofa. The rest of us froze.
“Grammy? You told me you were going to your sister’s house,” Bobby said, then turned to us and shrugged, as if to assure us that she really had told him that.
“I thought I recognized your voice. What the hell are you boys doing down there?” she said.
“Me and my friends were just having a little meeting—didn’t think you were home. Hope you don’t mind.”
“Well, I don’t know what you’ve got yourself involved in here. But I’m disappointed in you, Bobby.” Then she painted a smug little smile on her face. “I already called the police.”
Joey jumped out of his chair. “What the fuck.”
“I peeked down a few minutes ago when I heard all the ruckus,” Grammy said. “Told the cops that a bunch of hippies busted into my house and were arguing about bombs.”
“How long ago was that?” I asked.
“They said they’d be right over.”
“We’re leaving now,” I said.
“You boys best skedaddle, all the way out of town for all I care. And don’t come back!”
We all grabbed our stuff and darted to the bottom of the outside steps. I gave them a few last-second instructions. “The big Canelli catering truck will be in the upper parking lot by the Prentice Hall dorm. He’s one of us. Load everything you’re responsible for into the truck before nine a.m., latest.”
We turned off the lights and cracked the door going out onto the garden. Sirens ripped through the peace of the night, no more than a few blocks away. Bobby gave us tips for the best escape routes. The light in the next-door neighbor’s back room flipped on, and that damn hound dog started yapping again.
We scattered and ran.
Danny never came home, and I couldn’t sleep all night worrying about him. Probably crashed on some buddy’s sofa. Or maybe the cops got wind of his meeting and tossed him in jail. That might be the safest place to be today if what Papa said was true. Danny would hate it, but part of me wished he was locked up.
When I left my apartment Monday morning, the campus looked like a military base. Jeeps, soldiers, and big Army trucks zipped about as if on their own home turf. Helicopters swooped low, scaring the shit out of students and faculty walking to class.
I attended morning courses as I would have on any other day. In Biology and English, the topic of conversation remained the same as it had been for days: Vietnam, Nixon, Cambodia, the ROTC building, and the governor’s summoning of the National Guard.
In my last class of the morning, the prof insisted on teaching us geometry. But my mind wandered. I couldn’t shake the reruns of the argument with Papa Joe and my hurtful words. I should have been kinder to him; he’d driven all the way from Pittsburgh to help me.
I wondered what Danny was doing. I doodled a picture of Nixon hanging upside down from an oak tree, a noose cinched tight around his left ankle and miniature toy soldiers spewing from his mouth. The violence of the weekend and planning the rally had stressed Danny. But it wasn’t like him to not come home all night.
A National Guardsman marched into the class and surveyed the room. I recognized that kid right off. Billy Walker. Out of time and out of place, but it was him, no doubt. I slid my hand over the Nixon etching. The professor stopped talking and everyone went silent, not sure what to do.
The trooper strutted to the lectern. Billy stood tall, lifted his chin, tightened his jaw, and threw out his chest, a lame attempt to establish his authority. But he couldn’t sell the script, young, scruffy, pimply-faced, and jittery. “The governor has declared martial law on campus until further notice,” he stammered, reading from notes he’d pulled from his pocket. “You can attend class, go to and from class, but nowhere else on campus. After your last class, you are required to go back to your dorm room or leave the campus.”
Then he flashed that goofy grin I’d seen before. The kind of grin that you remembered whether you wanted to or not. Billy had struggled in our English class, and I’d tutored him before exams. We even had lunch together from time to time on Blanket Hill. Then he dropped out of school last year and I never saw him again. I wondered whatever possessed him to join the National Guard.
A student from the left center of the room called out. “What about the noon rally by the Victory Bell on the Commons?”
Billy bristled. “Strictly forbidden. All those in attendance will be arrested and imprisoned.” He wobbled out of the room without taking another question; never looked my way.
I decided at that very moment to go check out the rally.
Got the call Friday to show up and help squelch a few hot-headed students that were creating a stir. They promised me it’d only be a few days and that I’d be back to my job by Tuesday. Easy peasy.
Today was the first time I’d been on this campus since I dropped out last year. It hadn’t taken me long to figure out that college wasn’t for me. My grades were pretty shitty, and I didn’t have much interest. So, I quit school and got a good job at Akron Tool & Die. Everything went along swell until they set up that draft lottery with the ping-pong balls on TV last December. Turned out that I had a bad birthday, October 18. Number five in line to be exported into the jungle on the other side of the world with a bull’s-eye on my back.
The way I saw it, I had three choices. Go back to school—but they probably wouldn’t even take me now. Go die in Vietnam. Ha. Or keep my job at the tool-and-die shop and join the National Guard. Two weeks of training in the summer and one weekend a month on the range. That sounded like the right ticket to me. So now, instead of shooting at brown people I’ve never seen before, I’m marching along with a big ol’ heavy rifle, hoping that the lieutenant don’t make me shoot at my old friends.
We assembled at the far end of the ten or so acres of grassy Commons area aside the burned-out ROTC building. I strained to hear the captain as he called out our assignments. “Billy Walker?”
“Aye sir,” I said.
The captain pointed to his left. “Join Lt Baker over there.”
Those crazy students ranted and screamed and clanged the shit out of that old Victory Bell. Must have been two or three thousand of ‘em. My ears clogged up from all the racket, just like they did when I sat in the third row of that Led Zeppelin concert in Cincinnati last year, couldn’t hear a damn thing for days.
The captain signaled, and a jeep dashed toward the demonstrators. A soldier inside stood up and bellowed into a bullhorn, “You are in violation of martial law. Disperse immediately.” The trooper repeated the dispersal order over and over. I caught the aroma of smoke floating in the soft breeze, but I couldn’t see where it was coming from. A shaggy-haired hippie in a tie-dye T-shirt bounced around on a temporary wooden platform by the Victory Bell hollering through a megaphone, riling up the crowd. After each warning, the protesters, even the people in the outer areas, replied in unison, “Fuck you, fuck you.” The retorts so loud and so clear that I’m sure they could have been heard all the way on the other side of town. I think all we succeeded in doing was jacking them up.
I stood tall on the stage, towering above our friends, and crossed my forearms high overhead. Mark and Bobby acknowledged the signal and charged down the hill toward the bell, each carrying a long wooden pole raised aloft with a Draft Card Burning banner attached between the posts. Johnny and Joey had lit and stoked the kindling before that idiot came out in the jeep, the logs now ablaze, flames mushrooming into the clear sky.
The raucous crowd exceeded all expectations. The big payoff, after all the stress and work of putting this together. Well worth it. Their energy bolted through my body, adrenaline whooshed in my arteries. Mark and Bobby arrived to the inferno, and, as if on cue, the multitude opened up so that the bonfire was on full display to the National Guardsmen. Then the protesters started chucking the yellow notecards we’d given them upon arrival into the fire. First a few, then ten, twenty, thirty at a time. Many tossed their real draft card into the flame. Most of us, like me, had burned our actual draft cards long ago. The Guard wouldn’t know the difference.
The fire crackled a pleasing tune, and sparks flickered to the heavens. A woman in a loose-fitting peasant dress ripped off her bra and heaved it into the blaze. Another followed the lead, and another and another. I thought of Annie. Had she decided to come today, I could have well envisioned her racing forward to be first in line for the bra burning.
We stood, mouths ajar, shielding our eyes from the smoke, getting a sense of how dangerous this riot might really be. Our middle-aged lieutenant snarled. “I hate those fucking hippies.” I didn’t share his animosity, but I still had to do whatever he said. He growled out a few orders, and we secured gas masks, fixed bayonets, and strapped up our helmets. Then we marched right at them, thirty-five of us in all. Two other columns of twenty flanked the core group of demonstrators as best they could, one on each side. A few guys hung back in reserve with the captain. I started shaking, nervous as hell on account of being so outnumbered.
As we got close, I could see the passion on their faces and the antagonism in their eyes, not more than a few yards away from us. The group of angry protesters swelled, clenched fists bouncing up and down toward the sky, some sitting atop a strong set of shoulders, hurling obscenities and slogans, the entire crowd full of energy. The kind of energy that makes excitement ferment in your veins and spread into your innards, whether you were one of them or not. The more those demonstrators swarmed all around us, sandwiching our bodies between and among theirs, the more I started squirming, feeling claustrophobic.
The captain must have anticipated our apprehension and fear. He had pepped us up that morning, told us that the 145th Infantry was the toughest regiment in the state. I wasn’t so sure about that. I didn’t feel so tough. I just wanted to be elsewhere, home, anywhere. Damn the consequences—a month in the slammer sounded like paradise compared to marching through this bunch.
The captain told us that our advantage was tear gas and our M-1 Garand rifles. That may have been true for some of the guys, but not for me. First time I fired that M-1 last month, it knocked me on my ass and nearly shattered my eardrums. Next time was just two days ago on the range. I remembered my earmuffs but still didn’t hit the target, not once.
It didn’t take long before the chaotic protest turned to pure mayhem. They hurled rocks and dirt clods and all sorts of crap at us. Bottles shattered against our rifles and helmets, and I squinted to keep the glass shards from piercing my eyes. I got hit by a sandwich that had broken apart in midair. A soggy tomato splattered on my left cheek, and mayonnaise and mustard oozed down my neck and soaked into the skin under my shirt. I even saw a pair of shoes and a clear plastic baggie full of real shit flying through the air. The captain had warned us to keep looking straight ahead and not engage. But I had to admit that my head was swiveling in self-defense mode. We remained poised as best we could. I could put up with the softer stuff, but some of them rocks looked pretty darn big. I was happy for the helmet and mask.
They jeered in harmony, “Pigs, off campus.” One of them clapped that bell nonstop at an irregular cadence. A trooper a row in front of me and a little to the left caught a rock or wrench in the face that smashed his teeth and upper mouth. His gas mask began filling up with his own blood, his breathing labored. The guy next to him took a knee to help. The lieutenant shouted, “Front row. Gas ’em. Gas ’em now.” Good thing. We was losing that battle.
The students continued to chant and cuss and rant and taunt us. We heaved canisters of tear gas into the crowd. But the protesters were ready. Each time a canister landed, a demonstrator, holding a wet cloth over his nose and mouth, picked up the smoking jug and chucked it back at us. A guardsman behind me yelped, and I looked back. He was down. I don’t know what hit him, but he rolled on the ground hugging his left leg and whining. Some girl in a brown leather Indian dress ran up and kicked him in the groin, and then she kicked him in the face. I stepped toward her, waggled my rifle, and spooked her off with my bayonet.
The students laughed, snickering and mocking us. After I shooed off the girl in the Indian dress, some guy and his girlfriend ran hand-in-hand right up to me, twirled around, bent over, and mooned me. I felt like kicking them in their bare asses, but I had orders not to retaliate unless physically threatened. The hefty guy beside the mooners let out a long, loud, drawn-out farting sound. Everyone in the vicinity broke out in uproarious laughter and flipped me off in unison, as though they’d practiced the maneuver ahead of time. Reminded me of when the girls in the back of English class used to giggle and laugh when I screwed up; made me feel like a moron. I guess they thought that exercise of civil disobedience was comical, and the students seemed to be having great fun.
But our lieutenant responded quickly. We each carried two canisters and six tear gas grenades in our packs. He commanded, “Second row, canisters only. Let ’em fly.” And then the third row and the fourth. The two flanking units followed suit. I tossed my canister right into the middle of the group that had just given me the bird. Over the next ten minutes a steady stream of tear gas jugs sailed into the flock of demonstrators. The air so thick that all I could see were fuzzy images of people melding together in front of us.
The protesters no longer returned the canisters. They couldn’t keep up; they really didn’t have much of a chance. The students coughed and gagged. Many fell to their knees; some sprawled out onto the grass, faces buried into their shirts.
Then I saw a girl I recognized from my college days squirming on the ground, heaving, just a few yards away. She was the brainy kid in that English class I hated. Annie. She’d been real friendly to me; used to help me out with the tests. I was sure it was her. She wore that same deep-purple sweater with an Uppity Women Unite button pinned to the front and a big white peace sign stitched on the back that she always wore to class. The type of sweater that was near impossible to forget.
I rushed up to her, ripped off my gas mask, and offered it to her.
“I can’t breathe,” she cried.
“Put this over your mouth. It’ll help.”
Just then, a shaggy-haired guy in bell bottoms and a tie-dye T-shirt, the hippie with the megaphone on stage, put his arm around her and spit on my mask. “Fuck off, asshole,” he yelled. He pressed a wet rag to her mouth and nose.
Someone grabbed my left arm and jerked me back. “Get back in formation, Walker!” Lt Baker glared at me and then at the name patch stitched above my pocket, like he was reminding me that he wouldn’t be forgetting my name when it came time for my punishment for aiding the enemy.
Annie screamed behind me. I recognized her voice. “Why’d you do that to me, Billy? Why?” I peeked back. She was crying.
I was desperate to tell her how sorry I was and that I just wanted to help her. But I didn’t dare, not with Lt Baker at my side.
Then Annie and the tie-dye man disappeared into the masses. The students ran away, shrieking and screaming and delivering a steady stream of profanity. A few banged the Victory Bell as they raced past.
The lieutenant bawled, “Run ’em down.”
We gave chase, up the hill and between three buildings atop the bluff overlooking the Commons.
My unit crested the precipice between Taylor Hall in the middle and Johnson Hall to the right, Blanket Hill directly in the path before us. The very spot where I used to eat my lunch every day and toss Frisbees with my buddies. The students on the hill seemed to be following their normal routine, relaxing, talking, and eating their sandwiches and Fritos. But when they saw us, they squealed and scampered off. We must have been quite a sight to them with our alien-like masks and big rifles with bayonets pointing out of the end, sprinting right at them. We would have scared the shit out of me too if I had of been one of them. I just hoped the lieutenant wouldn’t make us gas those kids too.
Lt Baker ordered us to a practice football field atop the bluff with fences on two sides about a hundred yards away from Taylor Hall. Protesters continued roving about between us and the buildings, chanting and heaving obscenities our way, but they’d lost their cohesion.
We milled about the field for a half hour or so in relative calm. Gave me time to think, and my mind drifted back to Annie. She stood up for me when the English teacher harangued me for my bad grammar and poor spelling, the only one. She jumped up right in the middle of his rant and delivered her own tirade accusing him of being mean and nasty. Then she grabbed me by the forearm, and we stomped out of class.
I probably deserved the lecture, but I think I fell in love with her at that very moment. I mustered up the nerve to call and ask her out a few days later, but someone else answered the phone and said she wasn’t home. I didn’t have the courage to leave my name or call her back. Just as well. She would have never settled for someone like me. So, I contented myself with the few lunches we had together on Blanket Hill.
Lt Baker barked and we were on the go again. We marched for a good ten minutes, then came to a halt by the pagoda at the corner of Taylor Hall. He instructed us to ready arms. I lined up and scanned the horizon through my scope. The sights on that M-1 were like a high-powered telescope, so strong that I could see the pimples on their faces and the color of their eyes. There were very few students closer to us than about a hundred yards away.
Then I saw her again, Annie, in the purple sweater. She walked along by herself as though she was looking for somebody, waving her arm and hollering something I couldn’t hear.
From a distance I spotted Papa Joe near the sculpture in front of Taylor Hall, no more than ten yards from a group of soldiers with their rifles at the ready. But why? This could be my chance to make amends. But what was he doing here? He should have been back home in Pittsburgh. He was out of place, a squiggly cutout loaded into the wrong puzzle box.
Papa Joe glanced at the guardsmen, then turned his back to them. He cupped his right hand over his brow as if shielding his eyes from the sun. He rotated his head, ten degrees at a time, searching the crowd of students, taking a step toward them. He showed no fear of the guardsmen, the protesters, the gas, or the rifles. He was looking for someone. Looking for me, Annie, his only daughter. I wanted to run into his arms, bury my head into his shoulders, and flee that awful scene. My Papa Joe had come to rescue me.
I called out, “Papa, Papa. Papa Joe.” I ran toward my father, dodging, swerving, and bouncing off the shoulders of students swarming about, still chanting. I kept my eyes on Papa Joe and waved and ran faster. I shouted his name over and over.
One of the students screamed in a high-pitched, shrill voice, “Duck down. Those fuckers are gonna shoot at us.”
I figured we were just going to fire off a couple of warning shots and scare the kids into leaving. I didn’t hear any orders from Lt Baker, but some of the guys fired their rifles, and so I aimed my M-1 into the sky and shot off a full clip, eight rounds. I figured that was a target I couldn’t miss.
I got closer and closer to Papa Joe, no more than a hundred feet away. Then gunshots reverberated across the lawn and parking lot in front of Taylor Hall in rapid succession, like a machine-gunner spraying an entire battlefield. Pop, pop, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. I immediately fell to the ground and buried my head in my sleeve. I heard students squeal and cry out, then chanced a one-eyed peek over the crook of my elbow. Kids scattered, terror pasted onto their faces. I glanced left and saw a squad of Guardsmen by the pagoda, most of their rifles aimed at the sky but some leveled toward the frantic students. Flames flashed from the barrels of their weapons. Pop, pop, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop. Sharp, sizzling, hissing sounds pierced the air. The stench of gunpowder wafted in the breeze.
I crawled over a hilly patch of grass and stopped at the body of a boy crumbled on the turf. I thought at once that he was dead. But I’d never in my life seen a corpse, so possibly I was wrong. Perhaps he hit his head and fell unconscious, maybe in shock, perhaps just playing possum. I didn’t want to believe. Our government would never murder its own citizens. Would they?
I rose to my knees and looked down at his Indians baseball cap and then at the blood trickling out from beneath it. My eyes traced its flow in a small meander down to the black pavement. Everything flowed out of his body and disappeared into a curbside drain: blood, dreams, naïveté, hope, and that poor boy’s life. Acid boiled in my stomach and rose into my throat, but nothing came out.
I forced my attention back to the sculpture, but Papa Joe was gone. I panicked and ran. I screamed louder. “Papa, Papa Joe, Papa Joe!”
I heard someone call out my name, sounded like Danny. I stopped and looked around. I knew it was him, that throaty baritone. My Danny. I ran down a grassy slope in the direction of his voice, waving my arm.
Pop, pop, pop-pop-pop-pop-pop-POP-POP-POP. A sharp, prickly burn torpedoed through my left collarbone and shoulder. I lost my footing and tumbled across the sky. Bodies twirled and long, scraggly hair danced against the blue backdrop, sideways and upside down. I got dizzy and saw black, and my face plowed into a brambly bush.
I yanked another clip out of my pack, but Baker screeched, “Cease fire, cease fire,” before I could reload. The shooting stopped a mere fifteen seconds or so after it had started.
Screams and wails of fleeing students replaced the roar of the M-1s. Some guy staggered and careened forward like a drunk just kicked out of a saloon, then collapsed to the ground. A girl sobbed hysterically over someone lying prone in the parking lot. Fire erupted out of a trash can at the edge of the pavement, and the foul odor of sulfur and vinegar permeated the air. And then I saw her again, Annie, her purple sweater cockeyed on her shoulders, sprawled out motionless on a grassy slope, her upper body buried in the bushes.
What had we done? What was I a part of? For a brief moment I lost command of myself, physically. I wanted to cry but couldn’t. My legs quivered and my arms numbed up. The rifle slipped out of my hands onto the ground. Control of my limbs returned. I cursed and then kicked that M-1 away. The weapon ricocheted off the pagoda and settled by a small sapling. I knew I’d get in trouble for that, but it was unloaded, and I didn’t give a shit. There was nothing they could possibly do to me now that would be any worse than what they’d already done to me. I’d joined the Guard to avoid going to Vietnam. But in the end, they delivered Vietnam to me and parked it on my doorstep.
Images we’d all seen on TV from last year’s My Lai massacre flashed through my mind, rotating one after another: dead bodies strung out in the mud outside a burning dwelling, two terrorized Vietnamese women huddled by a tree, one clutching a toddler in her left arm, a young girl hiding behind the dress of the older woman. Seconds later, all four of their bodies slumped across one another on the ground, blood bubbling out of holes in their chests created by the bullets of M-1 Garand rifles.
Baker hollered, “Hup to. Double time.” Everyone marched without hesitation, heading back toward the practice football field. Positioned last in the formation, my knees locked, and I couldn’t move. I just kept gawking at the bodies. The unit continued on without me, but they didn’t seem to notice or miss me.
I walked forward a few steps, started jogging, and then broke into a full-speed sprint in the direction of Annie.
I lay face-down, enmeshed within a spiny, bristly bush, the branches and burrs scraping against my nose and forehead. My skin icy, clammy, yet I couldn’t stop sweating. My left shoulder felt like it’d been blown apart. Blood crept down my chest. I sensed something or somebody pricking, stabbing me with sharp sewing needles from my scapula all the way to the base of my neck. I tried to assess the damage, but I was jammed too far into the bush to turn my head, my right arm trapped under my ribs.
I didn’t feel like I was going to die. But I wasn’t sure.
I crawled backward out of the bush, slow and awkward. I cried for help, but my words came out fragile, mingling into the pandemonium. I struggled and sat up on my knees, my torso and head raised high, wincing, my brows furrowed tight. Sirens wailed from every direction. Two ambulances barreled into the parking lot, jolting to a halt beside another EMS already parked. A medic tended to a man sprawled out, motionless, limbs crooked. I called out, “Help, help.” He didn’t hear me. I tried to rise and move closer, but felt the drag in my step and collapsed back to my knees. I gathered all the strength I could muster and shouted to nobody in particular, to anybody, “Help, please help me!”
No one answered or even looked my way. Whimpering, still on my knees, I dropped forward to the palms of my hands. My left elbow buckled to the ground, and my collarbone cracked as though it’d been yanked out of place.
I kept screaming, but it was different now. Tilted, askew, my head drooped, and I froze in place, panting. Woozy, my breathing slowed. Disoriented and alone. The shrieks and yelps of the crowd faded into the background. All I could hear was someone groaning—soft, shallow sobs. Tears trickled down my cheeks. And then I realized that the lamentations were my own.
I started contemplating my own death. So much left undone, I exhorted myself to remain upbeat, positive. But I couldn’t pretend to be without fear. Detached from all the turmoil that surrounded me. Not indifferent, just disengaged.
Jarred from my trance, I looked up at Papa Joe. He knelt at my side and without hesitation yanked a handkerchief from his pocket and applied it firmly to my wounded shoulder. I jerked away, like I’d been shot all over again. But Papa persisted and my stomach heaved. He pressed harder, his breathing heavy and frantic. I blanched and clenched my eyes, blubbering unevenly.
Danny rushed to my other side and tipped in close, disheveled, hair even wilder than usual. “Oh baby, what did those pigs do to you?”
Danny snatched a few fresh rags out of the satchel slung over his shoulder and looked at Papa, as if asking permission to help. Their faces no more than a few inches apart. Papa Joe hesitated a moment, then nodded. He tossed his blood-soaked hankie aside and accepted the new cloth from Danny.
They settled me onto my back, leaning me against Danny’s thighs and belly. The cool breeze felt good on my face. The sky so blue, I’m not sure that I’d noticed that before. Danny and Papa continued the pressure, but my shoulder had gone numb. I struggled to keep my eyes open and instinctively parted my lips to suck in more air.
A man I couldn’t see commanded in an unfamiliar voice, “Step back. We’ll take it from here.”
“She’s been shot in the left shoulder,” Danny said. He and Papa didn’t let up until the young medic with curly red hair nudged in and took over.
He compressed firmly with his own new linens while his partner, older and completely bald, leaned in close and carefully examined my entire body, starting with my head and working his way down. He pushed and poked different body parts, all the while checking my face for a reaction. Baldy said to Curly Red, “We’ve got to get her some blood. Let’s move her into the rig.”
I pictured the boy on the hill wearing the Indians baseball cap, the blood, his life, draining out of his skull. Was that now me? I couldn’t help but think so. I gasped for air, short, shallow breaths, then looked toward Papa Joe for the answer. But unflinching, he revealed nothing.
“She’s O negative,” Papa said.
Baldy nodded. The two paramedics rolled me atop a black stretcher and loaded me into the ambulance. Curly Red motioned Papa Joe and Danny to chairs on the left side. Warm, stagnant air replaced the cool breeze, a sweat-box sauna inside. The antiseptic hospital aroma triggered even more nausea. They placed me flat on my back, the ceiling lights spinning faster and faster, and I got dizzier and dizzier. I started shivering uncontrollably despite the temperature. Papa reached to pull a blanket over me, but Baldy snapped, “Stay out of our way or get out.”
Curly Red signaled the driver, hopped in, and closed the back doors. The sirens roared, and we lurched into motion.
The paramedics huddled around me. Curly Red slapped an oxygen mask over my mouth and nose, hooked me up to an IV, and took all my vitals. The red plasma rushed from the IV bag, through the tube, and into my arm. Baldy jabbed and dug his fingers into every part of my shoulder and neck. He directed me to wiggle my toes and fingers and asked a string of questions. Difficult to answer.
My mind drifted, mouth dry, lightheaded and queasy, like a marijuana high. My temples contracted to the rhythm of the pulsating blood. I tried to speak, maybe ask a question. Then I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. The words too hard to find.
Baldy picked up a phone and spoke in a soft but urgent voice, “How much longer?” I couldn’t hear the reply. Then he said, “Cut that in half. Her heart rate’s low and BP’s falling fast.”
I started hyperventilating, panicking, afraid of what was happening to me. Was this how it felt to die? Baldy placed a damp cloth on my forehead; refreshing and soothing, and that calmed me. “Just a few more minutes,” he said.
Then Baldy sat beside me and switched on a radio, like he was confessing that there was nothing more he could do for me. Morgue-like Mozart Requiem music echoed off the walls of our tiny shared cavern. After a few minutes, a voice interrupted the music with a news alert and described the violence that had just taken place at the university. “Anyone who burns buildings or throws rocks at soldiers deserves to be shot.” Then he introduced his guest, a Youngstown city councilman, who said, “They should have killed them all.” Richard Nixon’s familiar voice followed. He blamed outside agitators and student war protesters. The president said, “We can’t have these bums blowing up our campuses.”
Papa Joe called out, facing the radio as though it could hear him, “My daughter is no bum.”
Curly Red lowered his head and said, “Turn it off.” He threw another blanket over me and pulled it up to my chin. “I get enough of that shit at Sunday dinners with my parents and in-laws.”
We came to a stop, and the back doors of the ambulance jerked open. The driver stood by one door, a National Guardsman by the other. Two orderlies rushed up with a gurney. They gently slid me onto the cart while Baldy and Curly Red worked to transfer the IV, monitors, and wires without entanglement.
The soldier inched his way toward my side while they labored. I looked up at him, my vision blurry, and the sun in my eyes. “Billy? Billy Walker?”
Fury seethed within me at once. I wanted Danny to drag him around campus by the hair and force him to look into the eyes of every corpse, every wounded body, and every bystander. Make him beg forgiveness for all the lives they ruined today.
Billy placed his hand on the gurney rail by my side. “I came to see how you were doing.”
I tried to swat his hand away, but my arm fell limp. “Why’d you shoot me?”
Billy just stood there in that appalling uniform with a scared, dim-witted look on his face. He shook his head, distressed, back and forth, his eyes pleading. “No, I didn’t do it. I fired into the sky.”
“I thought you were my friend,” I said, my voice halfway between a gravely whisper and a hysterical shout, rumbling, cracking, and uneven.
Billy blinked repeatedly, his mouth ajar, and as my words struck him he actually took a small step away from me. “Annie, please. I’m still your friend.”
“Are you out of your fucking mind? You’re one of them. Murderers!”
His dog-faced, droopy eyes begged forgiveness.
“Sorry, Billy. You don’t get to feel okay about this.”
Billy sniveled and wiped his nose with his shirtsleeve. “I ain’t even close to being okay. I don’t know if I’ll ever be okay.”
Baldy barked, “Get her out of here.” The orderlies rolled me into the hospital, Danny and Papa Joe in tow, Billy fading into the background.
A short time later they pushed me down a long brightly lit corridor, through double swinging doors, and into a sterile operating room. Four people in masks and green scrubs awaited my arrival. Not so scared as before. I even started feeling a little sorry for Billy.
I lay flat, in a half-sedated state, gazing up into a huge disk-shaped light fixture hanging from the ceiling, radiant as the center of the universe, like the sun during our blistering hot demonstration of last week. An unseasonably warm day, the sun shone bright at its highest point in the sky. The Kent Stater dubbed it the “Fly a Kite for Peace Protest.” Helicopters circled over the campus, dipping and climbing, the melodic whirring and whooshing replaying over and again, rays of sunshine reflecting off their windshields and into our eyes. We ran to and fro, hundreds of us, unwinding the spools, releasing more line, our kites climbing heavenward, their tails bobbing and fluttering in the gusty breeze. We tried to entangle our kites into the blades of the evil warbirds and send them crashing to the ground.
Of course, nobody ever expected or even desired to actually snag one of the choppers. It was just fun, crazy college kid stuff.
That had been my one and only antiwar protest experience before today. I’d been too coy, too frightened, to really step forward and take a chance. Too much of a coward to risk everything for what I truly believed.
But not anymore. No more playing it safe. Not for me. Oh sure, I may get shot again, beaten with a nightstick, or have my head bashed in by their rifle butts. Good chance. But I’ll never again be collateral damage on the periphery. If they want to find me at the next antiwar protest, I’ll be easy to spot on the front line in my purple peace sweater.