(MIS-) REMEMBERING KENT STATE

Sanford “Sandy” Wilbur

May 2019

   It’s been 49 years since members of the Ohio National Guard turned their guns on Kent State college students who were protesting the expansion of the Viet Nam War into Cambodia. In what has been estimated as less than 15 seconds, almost 70 rounds of ammunition were fired. Four students died; another nine were wounded. People merely passing by, and others watching the active protesters from a distance, were among the casualties. It wasn’t the first time in our nation’s history that protest had been greeted with violence, but we hadn’t yet become immune to weekly massacres on our television sets. The coverage of Kent State was horrifying.

   Half a century of life, I find, has blurred my remembrances of the timing of things. I “remembered” Kent State as occurring shortly after Sally and I left college in 1963. Actually, it was seven years later. I think that so much was happening in the Sixties – the Viet Nam War, certainly, but also major cultural changes – that it all just coalesced in my mind into one big Event.

   Since I was in college in the Sixties, it seems like I should have been involved in Viet Nam War and civil rights protests, free love, and drugs. Actually, all that seemed to begin in the year I graduated. Viewing life from a wildlife refuge in rural Idaho, the college campuses depicted on the news in 1963 and 1964 were as alien to me as Prohibition or the Roaring Twenties. It seemed impossible that the Humboldt State College I was seeing - with sex, drugs, rock and roll, women’s lib, civil disobedience, and protest - was the school I had graduated from just a few months earlier. The scenes of other campuses we saw on television were unreal. There was nothing there that I could relate to.

   I still can’t understand what happened. I don’t think there was a long incubation period for all the unrest that I missed. I was active all over campus in the years before graduation, so I don’t think it was a case of being isolated down in the Wildlife Department from all the social activity up on The Hill. I think it was amazingly spontaneous. Yes, the Viet Nam War was an issue on campus when I was there, but not because there was a big concern at that point about it being an unjust war fought against innocent civilians. That developed later. My feelings and those of most of my classmates, I’m sure, were very personal and egocentric. We were in turmoil because most of us ran a high risk of being drafted to fight in that war. Although my generation was required to register with Selective Service - and we knew philosophically that we might be drafted - we had lived through many years of “peace.” The likelihood of being called to service had always been extremely low, particularly if one was in college. Now, here we were on the verge of graduation - many of us newly married - ready to begin our real move into adulthood, and Uncle Sam was about to put our lives on hold (if not actively jeopardizing them) for a war in a country we had hardly heard of. “Just” or “unjust” war be damned; we were irate, worried, and scared for ourselves.

   World Wars I and II have always been portrayed as glorious events, and there seems no doubt that the apparent mass patriotism of those days really existed [and is not just a re-write of history to justify or solace ourselves]. I’ve occasionally wondered what I would have felt and done had I been faced with one of those wars in the same way I was faced with Viet Nam. I don’t think I ever believed that there were any “just wars,” or that anything was ever really solved by going to war, but would I have felt such anti-war sentiments in the face of another Hitler? I don’t know. I just know that at the time of Viet Nam, I did not want to fight anybody and I definitely didn’t want to spend any time in the Military for any reason. Everything I knew about the Armed Services then [or now, for that matter] suggested that their methods were to de-individualize and then dehumanize their recruits. They want people who will follow orders without question. Not only did I not want to be in that environment, I seriously doubted that I could survive in it. After many years of searching for who I really was, I had finally found a comfortable individuality, and I couldn’t see myself buckling under to regimentation of the military sort. Had I been drafted, I think it is quite possible that I would have escaped to Canada to avoid serving.

   I never had to make that drastic choice. My Selective Service registration was in Oakland, which had advantages over registration in a small community. In the big cities, more of the quota was likely to be filled by volunteers than it would be in a smaller pool. Also, in a lottery, your number would be less likely to be picked in a big city than in a small town. My number never came up, so I never had to get an academic deferral that would have forced me to serve later. When our son was born, my rating automatically dropped out of the “1A” category, and my chances of being selected went down dramatically.

   I have never been sorry that I wasn’t called on To Serve. I feel bad for all those who died, lost limbs, or came home with PTSD. I feel bad that so many came home to an atmosphere that cast them as villains in the unwinnable war. I’m still glad it wasn’t my war.


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 © Sanford Wilbur 2019