Time has a funny way of playing tricks on perception.
Fifty years ago this week, Ohio National Guardsmen killed four Kent State University students and wounded nine others during a tragic protest incident. Thirty-eight years ago, when I was a junior at Morehead State University, a somewhat similar protest broke out on a smaller scale. When students waved flags and chanted “Kent State, Kent State,” I thought it was rather odd because that sad KSU incident from May 4, 1970 seemed far in the past from my perspective at the time.
Now, when I think back to that incident during my college years 38 years ago, 1982 often doesn’t seem so long ago.
It is strange how at one point in life an incident from 12 years past seemed long ago, and now at another point in life, 38 years ago sometimes seems like just the other day.
And, each time I hear Neil Young’s song “Four Dead In Ohio,” the words remind of both those incidents, and they leave me with many other perceptions.
It all unfolded on a spring night in 1982. My roommate and I were in our dorm room on the fourth floor of Alumni Tower at Morehead when a bright light flashed through one of our windows. Up until that moment, it was a boring night, but that was about to change.
Curious, we dashed to the window to see where the light came from. When we looked outside, there were two cop cars parked in front of a bridge that led to the main entrance of our dorm, and one of the cops was shining a spotlight around.
‘What the heck?’ we wondered, as we noticed a few of other dormmates poking their heads out their windows.
Before long, the spotlight flashed across the side of our dorm again, slowly searching each floor, window by window. We looked out again and noticed that a lot more students in our dorm were becoming curious.
Then more cop cars starting showing up, and the lights kept flashing across our windows, and more and more students became curious. At one point there must have been close to a dozen cops cars outside our dorm — campus cops, Morehead police, and state troopers — and as more cops showed up, more students became involved.
By then probably two hours had passed since we first noticed the light outside our window, and students from our dorm had spilled out onto the long dorm bridge to confront the cops, and students from nearby dorms started to congregate outside their dorms.
As the crowd grew, I had the urge join them and tried to coax my roommate into going outside with me. But he was finishing up his college career, doing his student teaching in nearby Mount Sterling, and did not want any part of anything that might get him trouble. As the events continued to unfold, I could not resist the temptation and decided to make my way outside to the bridge to see what in the world the commotion was all about.
By that time students were everywhere and still coming, and the congregation of officers kept growing, too. Before long the male students (at that time there were no coed dorms at Morehead) started chanting “We want the girls, we want the girls.” And before long the girls started pouring out of their dorms, on the other side of the officers, leaving the officers surrounded by hundreds of students.
By that time students were chanting their chants, waving flags, and taunting the officers. I was near the front of the bridge by then, not far from the cops, when some guy near me shouted a derogatory comment about “pigs.” A couple officers came charging after him, waving something similar to a billy club. The boy took off toward the dorm, and the cops stormed after him.
A few minutes later the same cops emerged from the dorm dragging a boy with them. But it was not the same boy that had shouted the derogatory words. The students picked up on that fact, and then things really started to heat up. The chants grew louder, more students kept joining the protest, and before long the students decided they were going to march across campus to the university president’s residence.
It was all rather exciting, and I decided to join the march. I didn’t get far.
For some reason, the group I was following started across the street, past the cops (we thought) then up a hill between the girls’ dorms. I was taking it all in, not paying much attention to anything but the moment. But as we neared the top of the hill I looked up. And as far as I could see to my right and left, there was a line of officers of some sort, with riot shields, battle helmets and such, looking like they were ready for war.
That was enough for me. About as quick as the eyes can relay a message to the brain, I did an about-face and raced straight back to my dorm.
When the dust settled I learned that six students had been arrested for their role in the incident. I also heard that some students made it to the president’s residence. What they did there, or what they expected to accomplish, I have no idea. But it did make for a memorable night.
Back then, I thought the protest was all fun and games. Now I realize it could have escalated into something really serious. Father Time has a way of doing that to how we perceive things.
Jeff Gilliland is the editor of The Times-Gazette. He can be reached at [email protected] or 937-402-2522.