Monday, July 28, 2008

Hair Peace

It is the spring of 1970 in this picture. I was twelve years old. Technically still a child, I sported short pigtails and a clean-cut look. My nose often lost in a book, I didn't pay much attention to what was going on around me, but the atmosphere in the U.S. then was charged. Neil Young would write a song about that time, a song with the refrain: Four dead in Ohio, and James Michener would write a book called Kent State.

My family had a front row seat for that terrifying sequence of events. My dad taught architecture at Kent State University, on the fourth floor of Taylor Hall, where picture windows provide a bird's-eye view of the KSU campus, including the lawn where thirteen students were shot--four dead--on May 4, 1970.

That Monday night of the shootings, at the dinner table, my dad had tears in his eyes. He was visibly trembling. We children, my two brothers and I, recoiled when he got this upset; his voice was so strident, his jaw jutting forward, the cords on his neck thick.

"It's horrific! Unconscionable! In my opinion, Governor Rhodes should be put on trial for murder. The State shouldn't have been involved in the first place! What was White thinking? It was a University matter, not a State one! And do you know what Rhodes called the students?"

It was a rhetorical question. Mom knew what Rhodes had said. We all knew. It had been repeated over and over on the news all evening, coverage of the shootings, black-and-white images of milling crowds of kids. National Guardsmen. Thin-haired men wearing suits and tortoiseshell glasses. Burning buildings. Tear gas. People screaming, running, weeping. Fallen bodies. Mom commiserated in glum silence. We kids stared at our dinner plates.

"Brown shirts! Vigilantes! That's what he called them. They were nothing of the sort. They were just unarmed students and innocent bystanders. How could they do such a thing? They shot indiscriminately into the crowd! One of my architecture students, John Cleary, was hit in the chest. They still don't know if he'll live, and if he does, if he'll ever recover. He wasn't demonstrating--he was on his way to class. The cars in the faculty lot were riddled with bulletholes!"

Dad swept his arm over our barely touched food like a gun looking for a target. Until that moment, Dad had always talked shop--about the Dean of Architecture, course schedules and faculty projects. I had pictured him as "the establishment," as we kids often referred to adults back then, the bread-earner, the upholder of authority. I'd known, in an abstract way, that he objected to the Vietnam War. But that night, perhaps because of the intensity of emotion, the helplessness in his eyes, I came to see that ignorance and thoughtlessness, especially of those in power, was potentially fatal, and that, even though my dad was a war veteran, he firmly believed in peace.

After the senseless violence of Kent State slammed so unexpectedly into our peaceful home, I too became convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that war and killing has no place in this world. Over the next couple of years, during my internal transformation from a naive child to an outspoken teen, I also underwent an external one. By the time I was fourteen, I had hippie hair and wire-rimmed granny glasses--the fashion statement of peace lovers.