May 4, 1970. A spring day for a Freshman in college at the University of North Dakota. I was 18 and enjoying being in college. Then...the reports started to come in.
A demonstration at a small college in Ohio protesting Nixon's sending troops into Cambodia. No one had ever heard of Kent State before. The National Guard had been called out. We were kind of used to that kind of report from the media by then. There had been lots of riots. President Nixon was constantly invoking the phrase "outside agitators". Maybe there were. Nobody really knew.
We heard about shots being fired. About students being killed. Students? Wow! I was a student. These were kids just like me.
I went home that night. I didn't live on campus my Freshman year. I lived at home at the local Air Force Base. I watched the news and was appalled at the black and white images of students running from tear gas and of bodies left behind.
When my father, an Air Force Master Sergeant, got home that night we got in a discussion about it which turned into an argument which turned into me getting punched and held against the wall with his hand on my throat and his fist cocked. I remember my father's rage. And I remember that the only point I was trying to make was that these were students just like me.
Well, not quite. This is where it gets a bit interesting. The next morning I left for school--with a black eye. It was Tuesday. I had AFROTC class. I was trying to get a scholarship. Not because I wanted to go to 'Nam. But because I wanted to serve and to fly.
Classes were cancelled. A crowd was gathering near the ROTC Armory. I went inside with some of my friends from ROTC. We decided that if the crowd were to storm the building then we would fight. We were ready. We weren't going to let things happen here that had happened on other campuses. A friend and I noticed something right across the street from the Armory on the flag pole just outside the Administration Building.
Someone had raised the Viet Cong flag and it was flying above the American flag. We went running out and lowered the flags. Then we quickly decided that the best thing was to put the American flag on top with the Viet Cong flag beneath it. No way was the American flag going to fly lower and we didn't want to inflame tempers by doing what our first instinct told us--which was to throw the Viet Cong flag in the trash.
I never truly understood what had so incensed my father. Maybe he was worried that I would find myself in the middle of something that I couldn't get out of. Maybe he too was confused.
I do remember that all the planes on the flightline of the base were moved away from their usual place near the highway to the other end of the runway--just in case. Dad and I used to joke though at how easily someone who had just a bit of local knowledge could get on the flightline. We even joked about doing it and putting tags on a plane that said "Boom!".
And, as the week of protests and the "spring of our discontent" rolled along we all changed. I think my relationship with my father changed even though we went back to throwing the ball in the yard and going out fishing together. But I don't think I trusted him as much. And it was the last time he ever hit me.
My American Legion baseball coach called me one night. He was the head of the base's Office of Special Investigations. He knew I was a student and was active on campus. He asked me to keep an eye out for military personnel participating in demonstrations or unrest and to let him know. I didn't want to "narc" but agreed to do that even though I really didn't. I think what he really meant was to let him know especially if there were any "black" airmen conspicuously hanging out with demonstrators.
And within a week the campus was back to normal. I was playing JV baseball that year and just trying to have fun.
But, I'll never forget that day. Four dead in Ohio. Every young man and woman in college remembers that day I think. It changed how we view the world. Four dead in Ohio. And it changed our world, too.
Finally--here's a note my wife wrote about this post that explains why my father hit me that day. Her words are far wiser and better than any I could come up with:
"...your dad was afraid because men like your dad and mine never feared anything but what they couldn't control with bravery and/or intimidation and anger. And the only way they could deal with fear was with anger and action, as had been, literally, drilled into them. What was he supposed to do to protect you or his version of the world?"