Friday, May 4, 2012

A Paper Boy Remembers the Kent State Shootings

When I was a kid delivering newspapers the tool of the trade was a pair of wire cutters.  The newspapers were delivered by truck to a drop point.  That’s where you’d go to pick up your bundle of papers.  The newspapers were always covered with a plain brown wrapping paper and bound tightly with a thick-gauge wire.  A ten-year old sometimes needed to grasp the wire cutters with two hands to snap the wire loose. 

It’s hard for most young people today to appreciate the role we paper boys played in that bygone era.  The one thing that was true then as now is that people want to know what’s going on and be kept up to date as quickly as possible.

For that reason, most big cities had at least a morning newspaper and an afternoon paper to fill the information void until the evening news came on at 6 p.m.  Because television stations used film cameras and did not have satellite technology, most TV news was delivered from an announcer at a desk with wire copy.  In between, radio stations carried five minutes of headlines on the hour. 

To actually see the news, your options were the evening news for film of the previous day’s stories, or black and white photos from newspapers.  The most current imagery in the news were those grainy photos that, depending on the importance of the story, could have been taken just hours before.  As paper boys, we’d see the images shortly after they came off press but before most people would read their newspapers.  This is important to more fully appreciate what is now an iconic photo associated with the Kent State shootings.

It was hot and the papers had baked for a little while in the sun.  You could always smell the newsprint on days like this.  I clasped my wire cutters with two hands and with a crack, the wire broke apart.  I tore the brown paper away from the bundle of freshly printed Pittsburgh Press newspapers and there it was above the fold, telling me something big had happened.  Not just breaking news.  Something bigger.

The image was of a college student lying face down on what appeared to be a public parking lot.  His arms were folded at his side in such a way that it was clear he didn’t break his fall and hadn’t moved since.  It was sunny.   A female appeared to be in a semi-kneeling position with a look of panic and horror combined, if such a thing is possible.  I don’t remember the newspaper’s headline or caption to the photo but I do know it was all Kent State.

The date of the shootings was May 4, 1970.  We would learn later that the dead student’s name was Jeffrey Miller, and that girl in the photo wasn’t a student at Kent State, but rather a 14-year old runaway named Mary Ann Vecchio.  John Filo, the photographer, would win a Pulitzer Prize for capturing this moment in time and in the end, bringing the story home to the rest of the world.

Much has been written, analyzed and debated about the Kent State shootings, where an anti-war rally was policed by the Ohio National Guard.  According to news coverage of the tragedy, the whole climactic event lasted less than a minute, where National Guard soldiers opened fire on a mass of protestors, killing four and wounding nine.  There remains some debate on what prompted the actual shooting, but the event was the culmination of tensions that had been building and erupting with greater intensity over several days that followed President Richard Nixon’s announcement of the escalation of activities in Viet Nam.

As a ten-year old paper boy, I didn’t appreciate all of this at that time.  All I remember is that picture that jumped out at me when I pulled away the brown paper from my bundle – a picture that stuck with me as I started to fold each newspaper for delivery.  A powerful photo that I remember so vividly I can recall it with my eyes closed 42 years later.

As I delivered the papers, I felt that I was bringing important news to people on that day, not just coupons and crossword puzzles.  I’m not sure if it was the first time but it’s the only memory I have of feeling that when delivering the newspaper, my work had relevance.

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