It was a long time ago.
It was a time when politics were upside down, when elites were rarely mentioned and a backlash had already occurred when Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968. It was a time when college campuses were battlegrounds, when the angriest voices were found there and on urban streets and had faces and names, decades before anger became increasingly anonymous and cowardice prevailed on the Internet.
I didn’t wear dungarees — jeans — a long time ago. And I surely didn’t wear bell-bottoms. I wore khaki pants and button-down shirts and penny loafers. I had that collegiate look. But my hair was long, and I tried marijuana and hashish for the first time that October 1969, my sophomore year at the University of Cincinnati. I was a still a teenager.
The fall of 1969 was my second year spent away from home (Long Island, N.Y.). I was full of political piss and vinegar my sophomore year. I was a sports writer my first year at UC, 1968-69, at the student newspaper, The News Record. I wanted to be a sports writer. I was a sports writer in high school. My heroes had been Red Smith, Jimmy Cannon and Dick Young.
But that had changed by my second year.
As 1968 had drawn to a close, an explosive, politically infused year — perhaps the single most tumultuous year in the second half of 20th-century America — I had become more taken with politics than sports. As 1968 ended, sports had shrunk to insignificance in my world.
My heroes now were William F. Buckley Jr., Russell Kirk and — God forgive me, please — Spiro Agnew. I was a political conservative smitten with the work of Buckley and his National Review. By spring 1969, still my freshman year, I gravitated from sports to news and opinion at The News Record.
I was different. More to the point, I wanted to be different. I didn’t march, didn’t demonstrate because conservatives — unlike today — didn’t demonstrate. They wrote, they debated. A long time ago, I found the New Left insufferable.
They were as bullying toward Democrats as Tea Partiers are today of moderate Republicans. And just as shrill (although smarter).
So I wrote columns for The News Record defending the Vietnam War (we believed in the domino theory), about how communists should not be allowed to teach. I had become much wiser my sophomore year. I was now 20 years old.
UC was alive politically. Its student body was engaged, its faculty both tolerant and challenging. It was exciting, even for a student conservative.
ROTC cadets rarely wore their uniforms on campus. Easy Rider was at the Esquire Theatre, Alice’s Restaurant was at a theater downtown. You could listen to live music at Jim Tarbell’s Ludlow Garage for $1.99 admission. There were some anomalies — The News Record still carried a photo called “Girl of the Week,” featuring a very pretty coed, and UC still had a “Miss University of Cincinnati Pageant.”
There was a Vietnam Moratorium in October 1969, and a New Leftist who ran for student body president in spring 1969, Jim Finger, had as his campaign slogan, “Give UC the Finger.” There was talk of what was next in the antiwar movement.
And then Kent State happened. May 4, 1970.
That changed everything.
For the antiwar movement. And for me. Four dead students can do that.
It would take the verve out of the antiwar movement. For me, I was initially given to believe the students asked for it — I was convinced that thousands of them had surrounded the handful of National Guardsmen there on Blanket Hill and were closing in on the guardsmen when they opened fire out of self-defense.
Of course, it didn’t happen that way. The guardsmen just got pissed. Just like most of the country. They had tired of demonstrations, long hair, hippies, radicals, kids.
At UC, following the shootings, students occupied the Van Wormer Administration building and Beecher Hall (now University Pavilion). More than 100 members of the UC community were arrested in a demonstration downtown following President Nixon’s announcement of the Cambodian incursion on April 30, 1970, which initially prompted the countrywide campus demonstrations.
UC remained open for just a week after the shootings. Then it closed for 10 days. It opened for one day and closed again for the academic year.
The ’60s had ended with a loud bang. I spent a few days of absolute quiet at Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Bardstown, Ky., during that 10-day break. A retreat in every sense of the word.
The following school year, 1971, I went to Kent State with a fellow News Record staffer to do a story on Kent State one year later. I learned more about the four students killed. I knew they were my age, but now felt it as I stood in that parking lot where they died and saw in my mind’s eye that photo of a still body of Jeffrey Miller, face down, a pool of blood collected on the pavement by his head.
I also spent several nights that school year — 1971 — doing ride-alongs with Cincinnati police officers as they patrolled impoverished Over-the- Rhine and the West End. My stories were about policing in inner-city Cincinnati. Along the way, I learned there really was another America.
So I changed. Slowly. But it happened. Before I graduated from UC in 1973.
I still wear khaki pants and button-down shirts. I still have a pair of Bass Weejuns. But I also wear jeans these days, even occasionally when I teach journalism at UC.
I ask my students of 2010 to be open and curious, questioning and creative. As best you can.
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