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Silence haunts Kent State memorial


Last update: May 31, 2005

Where is it?" one woman asked as a group of conference participants and I moved through a parking lot at Kent State University in Northeast Ohio during the Memorial Day weekend.

We were looking for markers in the twilight, memorials to the May 4, 1970, confrontation between the National Guard and Kent State students protesting the Vietnam War.

Four Kent State students were killed in the escalating riots and emotions of that day. Throughout the parking lot, spaces were blocked off by concrete posts and marked with plaques of the names of the student at the location where he or she had been shot.

Amidst the cars, it was difficult to spot the memorials. Some had candles and flowers decorating the simple granite stones engraved with the names -- Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, William Schroeder.

"Is there something else?" I asked. None of us knew what to expect as we had followed a sign that said "May 4 memorials" pointing us toward a hillside parking lot.

Like a scavenger hunt, we scoured the area for something more like an explanation. The events for all of us were shrouded in a fog of time and childhood memories and vague recollections.

We found another marker, this one dedicated by the B'nai B'rith organization and Kent State faculty. A steel sculpture on a rise outside one academic building had become an impromptu memorial, its horizontal, vertical and diagonal planes etched with chalk-like entreaties: "No one is free if no one may speak his mind." "There is never a good time for war." "Imagine Peace." "Make Love, Not War." "I return here today in body. I remain here in spirit forever. Love all races and diverse pops. War must stay away."

A bullet hole pierced the metal. I touched it, trying to glimpse meaning through the tiny, mute peephole. I only caught a fragment of events and was left to recreate a fuller picture.

"The truth is what you believe it to be," said another anonymous author.

We didn't know what the truth was of that day.

The site was marked more by silences, absences, erasure. The memorial site left us with more questions than answers. I came away feeling unsatisfied, ignorant, unsettled.

I was jerked out of my nightmare in the early morning hours, gulping huge chunks of air as I choked out the seemingly real horror of the three young people I had just witnessed fall to their deaths in mute protest. Another body lay covered on the ground. Four young people. Four bodies. I knew I had to go back to the memorial site again, to reread its clues, to find the significance to me of those students' deaths.

In the dawning of the day, the parking lot was empty. The memorial spaces were clearly lit by the beacons atop each cement post. I was looking for the field of daffodils, 58,175 in all, that had been planted for each soldier killed in the Vietnam War. Their glorious spring beauty, unfortunately, had already been spent.

Hidden behind some trees was the formal memorial that had been commissioned to commemorate the May 4 events. Like pebbles in a pond, four dark granite disks were placed into a patio of lighter stones. They pointed to four granite walls, radiating in increasing widths and heights across the hilltop and into the horizon.

Like waves, the protests and deaths of the Kent State students had rippled across national consciousness and decades later lapped at my feet.

The only words inscribed in the monument were "Inquire. Learn. Reflect." These imperatives had called me out of a mental slumber to remember. For every memorial, there are other silenced voices that haunt the flip side of history.



2005 News-Journal Corporation. www.news-journalonline.com. Do not republish or distribute without permission.