Colleen and I were more or less total innocents concerning Ohio. Yes, I had been to a baseball All-Star game in Cleveland fifty years ago, but that’s all, folks. So we had big plans: two nights south of Cincinnati, two nights in Shawnee State Park outside Portsmouth, where my old grad-school office mate lives, and six nights in Stowe in a little trailer park near Cuyahoga National Park and the Erie Canal Tow Trail. In those ten nights, we would catch a ball game, see the William Howard Taft National Historical Site, Harriet Beecher Stowe House, U.S. Grant’s Birthplace and School, the Temper Mound, the Serpent Mound, Hopewell Culture National Historic Park, Malabar Farm, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, William McKinley Birthplace, James A. Garfield National Historic Site, Hiram and Oberlin colleges (just to show Dr. J. as he approaches college readiness). In addition, we were going to pop over to West Virginia to see a grave of William Bethel Lively (my third great grandfather—father to Sophia who married Irishman John Grant in the early 1840s) near Charleston, and to say we had been to West Virginia. Yes, we had great plans.
|Marker for Murdered Student: Kent State|
We had pretty much stayed on schedule for the first three weeks of the Caravan. And we had had it, I think. First of all, we really liked Brown County State Park and Bloomington. I finally got some focused bike riding in, and Bloomington reminded us of Austin, and I guess we were in need of a little liberal university alternative culture, so we stayed two nights instead of one. Second, since we had just been to St. Louis and since we were on our way to Cleveland, I was feeling I was seeing enough of large cities. So after a rainy night at East Fork State Park outside of Cincinnati (scratch the ball game), we hit the road to see my friend and former office mate Carl Yost, an English Professor at Shawnee State University in Portsmouth.
Then a series of funny things happened to us on the road. First, we couldn’t find a place to park the caravan at Grant’s birthplace. We came down the hill on Ohio 232 and didn’t see a spot, turned left, which is west, on US 52 and drove for several miles without luck, found a space to turn the huge mother around, drove by the birthplace again. This time, we still could not find a place to park, so we just headed on, going east on 52, which follows the Ohio River. As luck would have it, we arrived in Ripley and, low and behold, there was a great parking space—really, four great parking spaces in a row—on Main Street. I had never heard of Ripley, did not plan to stop in Ripley, but we stopped and discovered the town was celebrating something, I forget what, complete with the usual foods and vendors—you know funnel cakes and syruped popcorn, random things carved from wood, and more paintings by nice people than all of us could ever find wall space for. Once Captain Crunch discovered we really didn’t want to purchase any knives, guns, or plastic junk, he could settle down and enjoy a portable trailer-sized aquarium filled with Ohio River fish of various sorts that were caught by electrocuting the bunch of them. We were assured that the fish would be returned to the river, basically unharmed. I don’t know, but the whole enterprise seemed to me like a kidnapping: taser a bunch of folks, stick em in cage; when they wake up, let people gawk at them (“Look, son, this one has striped clothes; and that one has funny whiskers; did you notice the lips on that one?”); then under the cover of night haul em to some dead end street somewhere and let em out. Oh, no, nobody was harmed at all.) Still, I’d never seen so many types of catfish.
One of the interesting facts about Ripley is that it was a stop on the Underground Railroad, and home to John Rankin. By what we could tell, we could not get the caravan near the house, so his house was another missed opportunity. But in a cute bakery, where we all got something sweet—I got a slice of apple pie and coffee—I did purchase a couple of postcards of his house overlooking the Ohio. Rankin was a Southern Presbyterian who had to move north once he began speaking about the evils of slavery. Eventually, he built his home high above the Ohio River where he could hang a lantern signaling passage as safe. No telling how many slaves he aided. Perhaps it’s apocryphal, perhaps not, but the story goes that Rankin told Calvin Stowe the story of a woman who escaped over the frozen Ohio carrying her baby in her arms. Stowe’s wife, Harriet Beecher Stowe, heard the story and the woman became Eliza in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
After a little more time riding along the Ohio, which, if you don’t know, is an amazingly beautiful river, we made it to Shawnee State Park outside Portsmouth. At some point Knightsmama or I will write our blooper reel and include a story about a GPS malfunction that almost got us stuck on the wrong road and the wrong side of a washed out bridge, but for now you will have to wait. Brown County State Park had been hilly, and Shawnee State Park was hilly, and so I began worrying about brakes, maybe more than I needed to, but perhaps one cannot worry too much about brakes.
At Shawnee and Portsmouth, we met with my friend and his family a couple of times. We discovered Tim Horton’s, which will both haunt and comfort us for several weeks; Captain Crunch met some kids that he basically lived with for two days; I rode my bike; Knightsmama and I visited the local brew pub. In other words, we enjoyed ourselves so much that we added two days to our stay at Shawnee, just hanging. And one of those days, we drove to West Virginia for another misadventure that will end up on the blopper reel if we ever discover the humor of a full day of driving on mountainous toll roads to the wrong cemetery and encountering the winner of the Least Helpful Librarian Award. Still we do get to say, we made it to West Virginia. By the way, downtown Charleston, West Virginia, is a treat.
So what all this leads up to is to say that we found what I thought was a lovely, but low key family owned campground in Brimfield, Cherokee Campground (complete with totem pole) and stayed in the Cleveland area only four nights. One morning, Knightsmama and I acted like the adults we sometimes are and got an oil change and had our brakes worked on in both the truck and in the trailer. The rest of our days were filled with The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for me (a tour of a submarine and the Cleveland Museum of Art for the rest of the family), and two afternoons riding bikes on the Cuyahoga Tow Trail. There was so much that we had not done, but I think back in Portsmouth we had hit a different rhythm. We did not try to stop at Serpent’s mound or Malabar Farms or any colleges for Dr. J. or any presidential sites for Captain Crunch. We had figured out that we could not see it all. We had to focus on the places and activities that were most important, and, of course, there are a lot of ways to define that.
On the morning following the fourth night, before we packed up to head to Detroit, Knightsmama and I left the boys still sleeping in the caravan and headed into Kent just a few miles away for the one pilgrimage we had to make, the campus of Kent State University. I am willing to entertain the idea that visiting Kent State is an unusual move for a family exploration of the United States. However, on a fundamental level, this campus is one of the pieces of earth where the armies of hope and the armies of fear battled it out. As it seems happens so very often, at this site on May 4, 1970, the armies of fear won. The Ohio National Guard fired upon students who were protesting first, President Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia, and second, Ohio’s, Kent’s, and the University’s reaction to their protests. After approximately four days of protests and a mere 13 seconds of gun fire, four students lay dead in a parking lot, 9 students were wounded, and a nation watched in shock. I am aware that there are always many sides to a story; I am aware that students had started fires and damaging businesses in downtown Kent—now a very cute little town—which borders the campus. But I am also aware that whether one is standing in the middle of an incident or is strolling the ground forty-three years later, one has to ask, “What is this all about?” Not whose property is being damaged, not whose authority is being threatened, not who has insulted whom. In the long run, the Kent State shootings were about the state killing its own citizens—students, at that—because those citizens would not cease to speak the truth to power. Quibble, if you must, over the manners and behaviors of the protestors. But the state never, never, needs to shoot its citizens. When it feels it must, the war is already over. Sooner or later, it will turn into Iran or Syria. Or Bull Run, the Alamo, or Concord.
So early one morning, before anyone else was out and about on campus, Knightsmama and I strolled around Taylor Hall and the Prentice Hall parking lot, where finally in 1999, granite markers and raised lighting were placed where the four students who died were shot. We took photos from many angles of the four granite casket-like structures that look through the trees down upon the University Commons. None of them, I think, do the scene justice. You could think they were at peace, in repose beneath the stand of trees. You could think they were sentinels looking down upon campus making certain students are never threatened again. You could think that no matter how much the powers-that-be wish for it, the past is never fully buried. We read the series of markers that dscribe out and explain how and where the students and troops moved. These markers, reminding me of the many Civil War battlefields I have visited, ground one in the anger, fear and tragedy that worked itself out that day. Once you wind yourself around Taylor Hall and pass the bell tower where the soldiers stood, and look three hundred feet away at the parking lot where the four students who died were standing (others who were wounded stood closer), you come to the marker that quotes the report of President’s Commission on Campus Unrest that concluded, “the indiscriminate firing of rifles into a crowd of students and the deaths that followed were unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable.”
Being the age I am, I could not help but hear Neil Young’s “Ohio,” the entire time I walked around campus. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/ We’re finally on our own, /This summer I hear the drumming, / Four dead in Ohio.” But I should have also been reciting the names of Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, William Schroeder, Sandra Scheuer.
Soundtrack Double Feature: The Pretenders: "My City Was Gone."
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, "Ohio"