May 4th always sticks in my mind as the day everything changed.
In 1970, I was just shy of 15 years old. In 1970, the coolest thing you could do in high school was cut class to go to an antiwar demonstration.
Not being a huge fan of geometry, I cut class a lot.
Back in those days there were lots of demonstrations. And almost everyone went, not necessarily to protest the Vietnam War, although that was pretty much a given.
People went because they hated the war, hated Nixon, hated Republicans, hated rules and restrictions, or because they loved good music, being with their friends, meeting guys or girls.
For the record, I knew my politics inside out, hated the war, hated Dick Nixon, wanted to be with my friends,and definitely hated geometry.
Where else would I be in 1970, except at a demonstration?
The latest in a long line of Nixon announcements, this one set off demonstrations and riots at hundreds of colleges and universities. Eight million students went on strike. At Iowa State University - where my father taught and my family lived- thousands of students, blockaded the campus streets. Most of my friends had older brothers and sisters at ISU, and of course, we went along to help. Who needs geometry when you can make history?
A few hundred miles away, a similar demonstration was taking place at Kent State, in Ohio.
It would end up being the famous one. You can google it for the details - there were several days of mayhem and riots, as well as arson (a National Guard Armoury was burnt -the arsonist never caught), there were threats and ultimatums from both police and students, and then there was tear gas. And bullets.
Years later, long after the smoke cleared and four students lay dead, there was an vague investigation. The National Guard said they feared for their lives, but eventually were ordered to state for the record that they "regretted their actions". There were rumors of a sniper on top of the building who fired the first shot. There was much discussion of how it came to be that the National Guard was firing on American citizens, and whether the university had any right to ban either students free speech or their right to assemble.
Neil Young wrote a song that became famous, nine other students recouperated from their wounds that day, and over the years, a memorial was held every year on that date. Getting the university to put up an actual memorial took even longer, but in the end, a simple memorial was erected over the exact spot where each student died.
That same day, May 4, 1970, when I was dropped off by my friends, after a long hot afternoon sitting in the middle of a four lane highway, in the middle of Iowa State's demonstration, I saw the evening news: nine wounded and four dead in Ohio. And at that exact moment, at the age of 14-almost-15, I saw everything in absolute clarity.
I have never looked at the government, the military, or the police the same way again. To me, they will never be completely "Officer Friendly", or the good guys that saved the world in World War II, or the people you can always trust in an emergency. They remain "the guys with the guns", people that may or may not be on my side, irregardless of the fact that I'm an American citizen.
It truly does amaze me - after 39 years of a crime-free life (except those few-and-far-between speeding tickets) - that I still feel that small, almost imperceptible, tug of discomfort during any contact with police officers or military personnel. Even more amazing is that I can track that feeling to its exact source -May 4, 1970.
I guess it just never occurred to me that they would shoot students. Or that it would stay with me for so long.