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Neil Young’s guitar growls and stomps with old testimony buzz and smoke in the bare trees.
One of the most instantly recognized riffs in rock music, his Farm Aid performance (October 2, 2010) is equal part righteous thunder and baying in the wind, equal part anger and weary lament. He begins, his calloused fingers scraping steel strings and ends in a howling fade. And in between, he wrenches just enough melody and methodic rhythm from the dissonance, lingering finally, with droning feedback as if there were more to say.
Go play it for yourself. Loudly.
On May 4, 1970, the Ohio National Guard shot into a crowd of students at Kent State University, injuring nine and killing four in 13 seconds. Some were protesting the escalating war in Vietnam, some were not. As if it mattered. Two of the dead were 19. Two were 20.
I was in kindergarten when it happened and I have no contemporary memories of the event, the mood of division alive then, or the cultural aftermath. At least fifteen books have interpreted it. I’ve seen it variously described as the day the war in Vietnam came home to the US, the day the 60s died, and the beginning of the glidepath into Watergate and Nixon’s essential ignominy.
Neil Young saw the epochal photos in Life Magazine, and according to band-mate Graham Nash, walked into the woods with his guitar and returned in an hour with the song, “Ohio”.
What if you knew her and found her dead on the ground?
A memorial of sorts must have bubbled up in my early-morning procrastination routine and I reeled into the Youtube performance and from there into the archival photos and commentary on Kent State University’s website. Wary of uncritical internet consumption, I thought at least the official university source would be reliable for a little historical self-education. But truthfully, a simple Google search brings the same photos to one’s desktop from all corners. Photos that command one’s attention from across decades, autonomous truths despite complicated and murky backstories.
The photos show a Midwest spring. Oaks are early enough in their greening that they look bare in black and white. Other broadleaf trees are spare with the fuzz of pale young leaves and flowers. The dissonance of soldiers and guns. The students, fashionable for the time, are some in jackets and others in t-shirts and short sleeves, collectively living the Midwesterner’s daily spring quandary – to dress for the cool morning or the warm afternoon. And that sunlight. Harsh and bright. The trailing shadows, precise and dark. Light shining off the tear gas and smoke occluding the university buildings. May 4, 1970, was blue-sky cold that morning. You can tell.
I shut my office door to sit with the arresting familiarity. The University in May is the happiest place in the world, abuzz with soon-to-be and hopeful graduates taking their photos against iconic backdrops, soft grass, the flowers. The smell of a newly warm afternoon. I could walk out my door right now, into the sun, among it all. There but by the grace of God, it could’ve been my campus, my students (possessive pronoun chosen deliberately).
A few days earlier, a Texas family was shot over a baby trying to sleep.
And then a mall in Allen Texas, and then a bus stop in Brownsville. Horrific photos circulating on the internet. And the anger and weariness, and sadness. And the division. And the cynicism.
Earlier today, Steve Inskeep (on NPR’s Morning Edition) hosted a blandly nice discussion of what to do if you find yourself in a mass shooting.
Some naive part of me wants to believe that some one of these events will so shock the conscience that we’ll look back on it as a historic turning point. Not even so much for specific policy (although that would be welcome), but for simple introspection to spark imagination for what loving one’s neighbor means in practice. I wanted it for Sandy Hook, for Uvalde, for January 6, for the Pulse Nightclub, for other events that are known widely by a short-hand phrase. I expected it would be easier when depravity and misery coalesce around a discrete point in time.
But what when violence is slow-moving and cumulative and the people are a world away? Pakistan suffered catastrophic flooding last year, killing 1700 people and affecting millions – an ongoing humanitarian disaster. One hundred and thirty people died from flooding and landslides in Rwanda last week. Both events were linked to the climate crisis. Did news of it even emerge before the news cycle rolled on?
I understand the impulse to walk off into the woods. Is it too late to emerge with bracing clarity – to wrench meaning from chaos? The lyrics to “Ohio” are ten-lines spare but Neil asks twice: “How can you run when you know?”
It’s haunting me this week, and challenging my faith.