Forty years ago this month my son Jeff was shot and killed on the campus of his college. He and three of his classmates were murdered by the National Guard at an anti-war protest at Kent State.
During a 13-second fusillade of rifle fire not only were Jeff, Allison Krause, Sandy Scheuer and Bill Schroeder killed but nine more of their Kent State fellow students were also wounded.
The students who had gathered there that day — all unarmed — held a large range of opinions about the seemingly endless war in Vietnam.
Some of them, including Jeff, objected intensely to the increasing escalation of a war that had begun when they were barely in their teens. In fact, Jeff had written a poem about the war entitled, “Where Does It End?” in February of 1966, shortly before he turned 16.
Others in the crowd had mixed feelings.
Some were just onlookers, such as you would find at any gathering. Some, like Sandy, were on their way to their next class.
And so, May 4, 1970, became one of the blackest days in the history of our country.
It was the day I not only lost my child but also lost my innocence.
I could no longer take on faith what I had been taught all my life about my “constitutional rights,” the rights that supposedly made our country different from so many others.
The decade that followed was filled for me with grief, anger, disillusionment and lawsuits. At the end of our legal battles, we were pressured by the judge and by our lawyers into accepting a settlement in which the parents of the dead students discovered that their sons and daughters’ lives were worth a mere $15,000 each.
It was never about the money for me. I wanted an admission of culpability, and more than that, I wanted an assurance that no mother would ever again have to bury a child for simply exercising the freedom of speech. But all we got was a watered down statement that better ways must be found, etc., etc.
I also discovered what I perhaps should have known already: that so many of my compatriots did not feel as I did. They believed that the students who were killed or wounded got what they deserved and, as I heard far too often, the National Guard “should have killed more of them.”
And now it’s 2010 — 40 years later — and those wounded students are well into middle age, almost senior citizens.
But Jeff remains in my memory forever as that bright, funny, passionate 20 year old.
I have spent these 40 years watching my son, Russ, Jeff’s big brother, grow older. I’ve valued (perhaps more than I would have if Jeff had not died) the close, satisfying relationship we share.
I’ve had the great joy of seeing my grandchildren, Jeff (yes, another Jeff Miller) and Jamie evolve from cute little children into a couple of the most admirable adults I know.
I’ve danced at both their weddings and have been made happy by their happiness.
But, once in a while, I wonder about my son Jeff’s future that had so needlessly been cut short.
What would he have been like now at age 60? What sort of career would he have had? Would he have married?
And what about those other grandchildren that my husband and I might have enjoyed?
Now, as I watch the news on TV each night, I deplore the increasing ugliness of politics, and I’m afraid. I know too well what can happen when hatred takes over.
Please, let us lower the volume and be civil toward each other.
For Jeff’s sake. And for all of ours.
Elaine Holstein, a retired school secretary and social worker, lives in New York City with her husband, Arthur, and has, on occasion, written articles and spoken to students on the subject of the Kent State shootings. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright Elaine Holstein