On the Road: Tin Soldiers and Nixon’s Coming

Students on Court Street, spring 1970. From the archives of Ohio University's Alden Library.
Military on College Green, Ohio University, Spring 1970. From the Archives of OU’s Alden Library.

By Annette Hinkle

I took a trip back in time last weekend. In truth, it was only a couple hours by air, but it covered far more distance than the literal 650 miles that lay between Long Island and my alma mater.

I had gone back to the heartland for homecoming weekend at Ohio University (which for the record is not Ohio State), and many of my friends were doing the same. We’re at that age and a lot of my peers have kids attending OU now. With my daughter, Sophie, in her junior year in high school, I reasoned why not start the process early by reconnecting with my old pals while simultaneously initiating her with a nostalgic, if not entirely wholesome, visit to my alma mater?

In truth, Ohio University is in a lovely setting in Athens, Ohio. Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the fall colors were just coming into their own when we arrived on campus, which is stunning. I was amazed at the changes that had taken place since my last visit there — air conditioned dorms, campus wide high-speed internet, and a spectacular new five-story student union with a soaring atrium are just a few of the additions. In 2007 when the building opened, visitors came from miles around just to ride its string of escalators, because, believe it or not, there are still people living in rural America who have never encountered such a device.

In this bastion of liberal thinking at the edge of Appalachia, the students I met were engaged, empowered and determined to change the world. With the encouragement and full fledged support of the University, they are creating their own vision at the school, speaking to issues they are passionate about through organizations and clubs they design themselves, whether it’s women’s issues, international students, the LGBT community, or raising money for poverty stricken former coal-mining areas nearby.

All this was a far cry from the OU of my day, I assured my daughter as I launched into the time tested “when I was a kid” speech. Back in the dark ages of the ‘80s, the local phone company was so bad that you’d often pick up the receiver of your dorm room phone to make a call only to find there were already people having a conversation on the line. And researching a term paper at the library was virtually impossible because most of the articles had been razor-bladed out of the books and magazines by students too cheap or lazy to spend a nickel on the copy machine.

But those days are gone and one of our stops was at the College Book Store for some merch procurement, which I never had the luxury of doing in my day. Sophie’s a sucker for college-themed attire and related tchokes and since this was my alma mater, I figured she has a right to it, even if she ultimately goes somewhere else. As we shopped, I was pleasantly surprised to hear piped in music from my own 1980s slam-dancing-Talking-Heads-worshipping era. Probably a well-considered plan by the manager to get sentimental parents to spend a lot of time and money buying stuff for their kids.

It certainly worked on us. When we finally got her out of there decked in green and white, we headed over to the campus library where there was a homecoming display of university archival material and tables filled with photos, documents and yearbooks dating as far back as 1910. With The Cure still fresh in my mind, I challenged Sophie to find my picture in the yearbook. I’d never actually seen the photo and don’t own the yearbook, but I was certain it would be ridiculous, because right before the photo was taken, a friend dared me to make my hair as tall as Duran Duran’s, so I did. When she found me in the yearbook, I was as stupid looking as I imagined and Sophie was so thrilled she snapped an iPhone shot of me in the ‘80s.

By then, I had moved on to another part of the archives, and realized that as tough as I liked to think we had it in the ‘80s, more than a decade earlier, Ohio University was a much different and far more contentious place than it was in my day.

I had come across he images of the generation before me — and with Ken Burns Vietnam War film foremost in my mind, I looked through photos taken at OU in the spring of 1970 — pictures of the college green packed with sign waving students and professor led teach-ins. There were also dramatic pictures of National Guardsmen confronting students and tear-gas filled streets. My brother-in-law, who graduated from OU in 1971, had come down with my sister to spend the day with us and he told me about the protests and sit-ins he took part in. He even recognized a couple people in the old photos.

The protests began that spring when it was revealed that the Nixon administration, after making promises to end the war, had instead secretly expanded it into Cambodia. The revelation triggered angry reaction across the country — particularly on college campuses where the draft was a real and present danger. I had always heard that it was Ohio University, and not Kent State, where many expected trouble since it was considered the more radical of the two schools.

Students on Court Street, spring 1970. From the archives of Ohio University’s Alden Library.

In my sophomore year at OU, I took a history class on the Vietnam War. This was less than a decade after the war had ended, and I remember our professor suggesting that perhaps this war wasn’t quite yet history-worthy, as there were many who felt it was too soon to go there. But go there we did, and one particularly powerful speaker who spoke to our class was Athens resident Dean Kahler. He was the Kent State student shot in the back by the Ohio National Guard on May 4, 1970 and left paralyzed. From his wheelchair, Kahler told us he was a farm boy who had never been to an anti-war demonstration and wanted to see what it was all about that day, but found himself trapped against a chain link fence as the guard opened fire.

Oddly enough, Gerald Casale, the future bassist and singer of DEVO, was also

there that day, as was The Pretenders Chrissie Hynde, who was a Kent State student at the time — both were members of bands that would come to define my college experience a decade later.

But as my brother-in-law recalled, it was 11 days after the killings at Kent State when the Ohio National Guard came to Athens to quell the increasingly contentious protests on campus. The president of the university closed the school for the remainder of the year and students were told to pack up and go home a full month before the end of the year. OU was one of 448 campuses that closed early that spring. For his part, my brother-in-law said he decided to head home early after some friends started talking about amassing weapons.

Time is a strange animal, and as I looked around the peaceful scene at OU today, I marveled at how different things are from those times. In addition to the resources, the relationship between students and administration has vastly changed for the better. But one thing that struck me about the 1970s was how so many young protesters were mobilized and united in response to a government lie — a lie that everyone understood as such.

If only Washington’s lies were as simple to interpret in today’s media-fractured world. But at least you can now get Starbucks coffee on campus.