Sunday, May 4, 2014

Letters to Jeff

How Much Do You Know?
When you signed my high school yearbook, Jeff, you wrote that I would “go far.”  I don’t know how far I got.  A candid assessment is that I have on occasion gone far and other times have stumbled. Now and then it seems as if I have gone far but wonder if maybe I have traveled in the wrong direction and there is no easy way to get back to where I made the wrong turn.  However, I have had chances to go far. Chances to laugh, work, and fall in love. You, on the other hand, did not get much of a chance to go anywhere.  
How much do you know, Jeff?  Can you see us?  Can you read this? My best sense is that you cannot see us and will never read this because you were shot dead on May 4, 1970.  But what do we, the living, know?  We know what is, not what could be. So much has changed since you died that no one then would have predicted.
In 2001, terrorists hijacked planes and then deliberately crashed them into skyscrapers in New York.  Nearly three thousand people perished. The terrorists claimed, in essence, that they were doing this for God.
 In 2008, a black man won the United States presidential election. He, Barack Hussein Obama, received 53% of the popular vote. He carried twenty eight states including Virginia and North Carolina. 
Who, then, would have predicted this?
Do you remember the transistor radios we would put to our ears and take to the beach? They were like appendages. We’d nod with the radios and try to look cool.  Now nearly everyone who is older than ten owns something that is about the same size as those transistor radios.  Except they are not transistor radios, they are mini computers that can function as telephones, cameras, maps, newspapers, clocks, and encyclopedia. You can stand outside in the middle of nowhere, push a few buttons on these radio looking computers and find out the weather in Pittsburgh, the news from Baghdad, restaurants within a twenty five mile radius, or the current score in the Jet game including who has the ball, the down and distance, and how much time, to the second, is left in the game. No wires are necessary to make a phone call on these devices. You can be standing in the middle of Central Park and take a phone call. When someone calls, you can even identify the caller before answering. The phone number or name of the caller will appear on the mini computer’s screen. Sometimes the caller’s picture appears.   If you are busy or don’t want to speak to the person who’s phoning, you can ignore the call without worrying about missing information.  The caller can talk into the computer and leave a message that you can retrieve at your convenience.  
It’s the Jetsons Jeff.  Technology has advanced in ways you could not believe. You never need directions when you are driving anywhere.  Tell a machine that is on your dashboard where you want to go and a voice from what seems like a robot instructs you to make a left or right.   You don’t even have to flush the toilet when you use a public restroom anymore. You finish up, walk away, and the toilet senses your absence and flushes itself.  
We the living have no idea about what is possible until we are presented with evidence of realities that were previously inconceivable.  So you are dead since 1970, but maybe you can read what we write to you as long as we make the effort to do so.  Forty years from now it could be that the living take for granted the ability to communicate with the dead.  Our great grandchildren will consider us primitive for not being wise enough to know that we could.  I don’t know what you know Jeff, or what you can read or what you can see, but I am going to write to you anyway.  In case you can access this, I want you to know what you missed, what was taken from you.  I want you to know the truth about that day and what has happened since. 

And even if I knew that you could never access this and there was no hope of we the living communicating with our dead ancestors, I would still write to you.
There’s a fellow I work with who, once he takes a stand on an issue, has no interest in learning anything that undermines that position.  In fact, if you provide contradictory information he becomes irritated as opposed to grateful.  It’s as if truth is an impediment; as if when confronted with reality he wants to hiss: “Can’t you see, I’m trying to make a point here and you are making it difficult.”   I suspect that there are more people like my colleague than I’d like there to be and the aging process does nothing to reduce the number of converts to his tribe. 
But, there are still those who genuinely seek the truth and those who willingly acknowledge that what they think they know may be inaccurate.
Even if you never can read this, Jeff, maybe others will.  Maybe someday even the grandchildren of the Guardsmen will want to know what happened that day.

Six 0
We are all over 60 now. We are the establishment. 
Elaine organized a reunion in August 2009 and, as you would predict, she made it a success. It was an odd anniversary year to get together, our 42nd, but her idea was to throw us all a 60th birthday party. We were all either just past 60 or near there.  It was a coincidence that I’d be going to Kent State on the morning afterwards.
The reunion was fun like the ones we’ve had previously.  There was a very big crowd for our twentieth in 1987, and then smaller turnouts for the reunions that followed.  These things can be very heady.  A few hugs and conversations after you get there it’s as if time itself has vanished.  You can find yourself talking to some kid you knew in third grade as if you are intimates even if you barely had a conversation with him when you were in high school. 
 You would enjoy seeing everyone.  Gary’s an accountant now, Elaine a vice president in the garment district. Kenny is a dean of students at a college upstate on the Hudson. John is an engineer working most recently in Australia.   Kathy is a doctor and living in Texas.  Youngs became a successful actor.  He changed his name, but it’s Youngs right there in the movies.  He had a lead role in a movie about Vietnam that won the Academy Award for best picture.  I don’t know if you saw Hair on Broadway before you died, but they made a film out of it years later and Youngs had the lead.  
Some of us were barely recognizable at our 60th and others looked much as we had.  For the first reunions the committee prepared nametags with our ‘67 yearbook pictures on them.  This time there were no photos, just  names on the tags.  I needed to keep asking Elaine who was who. But you would be amazed at how well preserved Gene and Diane are.  Take away a few wrinkles that you need to stand close to notice and they look like they did in 1967.
Gary has two children. So does Diane and Kenny.  Gary’s a grandfather.   Eileen has four grandchildren.  John’s son lives in Taiwan.
At each reunion, there’s a list that the committee puts together of those who are gone and, of course, it gets longer each time we get together.  Besides you, Bill is gone.  So’s Reif.  Eric died in Vietnam.  Phil passed right before this last reunion. Only a week before.  He’d already sent Elaine his money.  Died young and suddenly at 60.  Of course you died suddenly at 20. Phil at least had 40 more laps around the track. And besides, in Phil’s case twenty eight soldiers did not take aim and then shoot him through the mouth.


You Belong Here
            My intention was to drive directly to Ohio on the Sunday after the reunion. I wanted to spend a week where you died with the majority of time on the 8th floor of the library. That’s where they keep a special collection about the shootings.  They call it simply the May 4th collection.  There is also a May 4th reading room on the first floor of the library, and as of 2010 a May 4th visitor center in Taylor Hall. I imagine you remember Taylor Hall if you remember anything from that day. But it was the May 4th collection on the 8th floor of the library where I’d be for most of the week after the reunion.
 I had spoken to the reference librarians before making the trip. They told me that school would be on intersession when I arrived, but I could review materials during certain hours.  The special collections librarians are very careful about people going through the files. You have to place your briefcase and outerwear away from the tables where you are reading. You can only use pencil not ink when you are taking notes.  They provide plastic gloves and require researchers to wear them when looking through photos.  
It was the last week in August.  I’d been told that at the end of the week orientation for freshmen would begin.  As I drove in I couldn’t miss a very large sign that had been placed on the library tower as, apparently, a welcoming message for the new students.   You may remember the tower. The new library hadn’t opened yet when you were shot, but you may recall the construction of the tower and the new student center being built right next to it. You can’t miss the tower now. It is the first thing you would see if you were driving into the main campus from the perimeter road. 
On this bright Monday morning in August 2009, there were three giant pictures of smiling students hung vertically on the library tower.  Under the top photo the word “You” was printed in large letters. Beneath the second photo the word “belong” appeared.  Below the third large photo--the word, “here.”  “You belong here,” was the reassuring message. Nobody driving into the campus could miss it. The photos and sign would be what mom, dad, siblings, and anxious freshmen would see when they arrived for orientation.
The first day when I saw the sign looming in front of me I just smiled.  I was reminded of my own college orientation and thought of the excitement freshmen might sense driving up to the campus and seeing the sign. You Belong Here.  But sometime during the course of the week, the message on the tower changed meaning for me. By Thursday and Friday after I’d spent the previous days poring through the May 4th collection, those words stared back at me as I drove in. I’d walk to the library from my parked car and each time I looked up I couldn’t miss the sign.  It felt as if those words were searing into my consciousness and by the time I left Kent on Friday night I did not want to see that sign anymore. The words were echoing in my head. 
Gary’s an accountant. Elaine’s a vice president. Kenny is a dean of students.  And you’re dead. 
You belong here.


  1. Hi Zeke
    Letters to Jeff had an impact on me. I can't imagine the effect the Kent State shootings had on you with the loss of a friend. Don't remember the last time I cried, but for years I teared up listening to David Crosbys Almost Cut My Hair. Though relevant, it was released months before the shooting (google search) . For years I thought it was about Kent State. My heart was in the right place but my musical knowledge was off. Just listened to and paid attention to Neal Young's Ohio lyrics which you made reference to. I wish the whole country could read your blog. And listen to the songs. Thanks for sharing. Gene

  2. I know that Jeff can see all he wants to. I believe that there has to be a better place after this. Why would we take our first breath if not to know that our last will bring us to a better place. I was on most of the reunion committees and of course the 20th in 1987 was outstanding. Only 13 students had perished all tragic at such an early age.Our list has grown and with each one added I close my eyes and see them walking the halls of Plainview High School. We were a big class but a close class. Everyone knew each other even if by name only. But with each passing of a classmate it touches us all, deep inside cause we are one step closer to that list. Your letters to Jeff are heartfelt and a pleasure to read and reflect on life then and now.

  3. Your blog on Jeff is beautiful, but it made me so very sad. My last memory of Jeff is seeing him fast asleep on my lawn at about 5am on the morning after our senior prom. His date was Lois Fornaro, but we all went together basically as a group of good friends. We had a blast at the prom, and then ended up much later at my parents' house for brunch. I remember my mother seeing him asleep outside and laughing hysterically. Although her memory has gotten hazy, she still remembers that moment.
    Life is unfair, I know, but this unfair and unnecessary tragedy still gets to me. I have never stopped asking, "Why?"

    May 13, 2014 at 8:57 PM

  4. Wow, you write with power

  5. Thank you for such a beautiful sentiment.....

  6. Thank you for such a beautiful sentiment...