FIFTEEN years ago -- May 4, 1970 -- when I was 16 and not yet finished with a rural Ohio boyhood, the National Guardsmen fired on a group of students at Kent State University, wounding 13, killing 4. The effect on me was sudden radicalization. Prior to that spring I had worried that the Vietnam war would end too soon. My father had played a part in righting the wrongs of his day, rumbling victoriously through Europe with George Patton. What he never told me and what I never thought to ask, was how the Germans came to embrace what Hitler stood for. The important lesson was that America wins because America is right. Vietnam would be my chance to fight for what's right, I figured.
That notion was undermined during the winter of 1969-70, when the My Lai massacre hit the press. That's when Dad and I started arguing. ``Women and children are just as deadly as men over there,'' he said. Yes, one was always hearing stories of toddlers with grenades.
I countered with what I had read: that there actually was no resistance, had been no United States casualties, and that American troops were responsible for atrocities. It was as though my father hadn't read the same articles, as though he did not hear their messages.
At the end of April 1970, President Nixon moved to fulfill his promise to wind down the war by, of all things, widening it to Cambodia, sparking campus protests across the country. At Kent State Jeff Miller and Allison Krause, both killed by guardsmen, had been protesting. Bill Schroeder and Sandy Scheuer were killed because they were on the campus where they were enrolled: Both fell about 385 feet from the National Guard's position. Of the four, Jeff Miller was the closest to the guardsmen: Even he was 265 feet away. Armed with tear gas and M-1 rifles with fixed bayonets, the National Guard claimed it was in danger of being overrun by students, though photos showed otherwise. A grand jury indicted 25 people, all professors and students.
The killings brought forth such vilification of the victims that one would think it was the students who had shot unarmed people. ``How dare they!'' wrote one indignant housewife to the Kent paper. ``I stand behind the action of the National Guard! . . . Hooray!''
Memorial services were picketed. ``The Kent State four should have been more,'' was a favorite chant. Ten days later, when two students were killed on the Jackson State campus in Mississippi by policemen firing into a dorm, I was convinced that a revolution had begun. There was no doubt about which side I was on. Anyone in authority was the enemy. And I began to dress and behave in the way I thought would offend them most.
Like most rebels of my generation, I'm now rather conservative. The only thing left from my radical days is a copy of ``Das Kapital,'' still uncomprehended, sitting on the bookshelf. I love my father again and can laugh at the absurdity of my youth: When my greatest material possession was a record collection, I advocated the redistribution of a nation's wealth. The 15 springs since Kent State have put a bittersweet spin on the words ``Trust no one over 30.''
Yet as I write, I feel more than a little of the old rage. Someone other than the people who were shot should have been held responsible for the shootings. And regardless of what President Reagan's speech writers say, I do not think it is time to be proud of what we did in Vietnam. If we can't remember that we're capable of such injustice, we're in danger of committing it again.