I first began my journey to understand Kent State as a result of a woman who confided in me regarding her husband’s wartime PTSD. She was at that time working with Alan Canfora on his life-long project to bring the Kent State Massacre back into the national spotlight. For Alan and his friends who were either maimed, wounded like him, or slaughtered, justice has yet to be served for the heinous offenses of May 4, 1970.
But today, as I perused the black and white photos from that long ago weekend, I began to notice a pattern in those photos that brought back memories from my own childhood, memories of 1970. “Justice served,” was hardly a theme from my childhood and in that sense all of the progressive left activists of that day share with me a sense of profound loss so awesome, so intimate and so astounding that we may not perceive the gigantic nature of its presence in our lives even to this day. Were it not for this one, singular pattern of commonality in those pictures from the days preceding and soon after the Massacre, I might have missed the presence of a beast that came to invade my days, my nights and my in-between times well into my adult years.
Not everyone grew up in a home that featured the emotional and psychological impacts of the Great Depression in the stark terms I had. During my childhood my father railed against it all fiercely with a ferocious loyalty to Roman Catholicism and a dedication to hard work that one would have expected would lead him to great financial reward, or at least a few plaques on a museum wall somewhere. And while his retirement, which I expect will be greatly shortened by his misspent loyalties, is certainly more comfortable than almost anyone I will know when my time to retire comes, he gave much more than he will ever receive.
But by 1966, the path he was on drove him to pull me to his chest and just wail the tears of a man overwhelmed by circumstances well outside of anyone’s ability to control, or even offer a word of solace. Unbeknownst to me he had just had to commit his wife, my mother, to another three month “vacation” at Agnew’s State Hospital, a sanitarium for the mentally ill, and much later, the criminally insane of Oracle Corporation.
This was my only recollection of significant early childhood discord and this, my older half-siblings would tell me only after I was well into my adulthood, was the third time in my lifetime that my mother would have her, “nervous breakdowns.” She had had them many times before during their childhoods, and on the two occasions prior in my lifetime, my older siblings cared for me while this man who was then clutching me for connection, disappeared back to his hometown outside of Philadelphia for three to six months at a time. So this pitiful heap of tears and despair had twice declined to continue down the path he chose in 1960-61, finally determining that leaving me, and now my younger sister, as my mother’s first husband had done to my oldest siblings, was something he would not do. As my life would later unfold and my oldest sibling’s life story would unfold, this key circumstance was a brilliant stroke of good fortune.
Until now I have done my level best to keep the potential granted to me by my father wholly intact and unexplored, buried under an avalanche of frozen gin and lime. While there are things that my father would not do, there have been feelings and experiences since that time I could not appreciate or make any sense of whatsoever until now.
The horror of the Great Depression, the world largely unknown and unexplored by my fellow Salinasian, was felt in the bone marrow of my mother, my blood and the woman for whom my heart has beat most truly. Whether I wanted it to, or not. As I would be told, again many years into my adult life, perhaps as an act of contrition more than any good judgment on anyone’s part, there were stories that arose from the plains of the Dust Bowl only to land in the relative comfort of the stinging heat of the San Joaquin Valley. Human beings become depressed when times get hard and stay that way, so depressed that they will literally do anything for a second’s relief from the combination of sadness, grief, anxiety, panic and alienation that only a group of humans can inflict on one or more of their social piriahs. In this case, the rich landowners of California’s Central Valley and the family of a young girl from Lookeba, Oklahoma, a land which to this day is disproportionately consumed with concerns of the Devil, Jesus and a god that continues to escape knowledge.
I do not know what passes through a mind so twisted with alcohol addiction and the depression that drove it to mount his daughter, a young girl not more than six or seven years in age, repeatedly, but the sense of the unfairness of it all did not escape him. He left change for candy on her dresser afterward, next to the cigarette butts he had tried to extinguish in the ashtray but had missed. The same cigarette butts that my mother would use to signal her children and husband that another break with reality was coming, another spasm of misunderstood memory was demanding to be heard. The same cigarette butts that six decades later would cause her to nearly burn down the duplex where my oldest sister had placed her, hoping against hope, that my mother would someday be able to care for herself without lapsing into psychosis. That time it wasn’t about running naked through the halls of Agnew’s State Hospital, clanging her false teeth over the iron bars of a jail cell in Reno, or even taking the California Highway Patrol on a high speed chase that ended with her snapping the axle on her sportscar at the age of sixty seven. That time it was about victimizing an innocent family living next door to a ticking time bomb of unhealed sexual victimization and injuries committed against an innocent soul by a human being smart enough to avoid detection from the authorities of his day, but sick enough to spread illness across multiple generations.
Not unlike the individuals at the top of the social order before, during and after the Great Depression who modeled a laissez-faire, devil-may-care attitude about living in community with the baboons, chimpanzees and outright reptiles concealed under the skin of alleged human beings. We are all products of our times.
The times in which I have lived, times like May 4, 1970, times like November 22, 1963, times like February 21, 1965, times like October 9, 1967 and times like April 4 and June 5, 1968, times when men kill other men and women to bring to an end the potential given to them by an allegedly loving God, I send out this message in a bottle to you because I am uniquely qualified to do so. I have known both madness and sanity, I have known trauma and its aftermaths and I have been gifted with a unique insight into how the madness of this day in 1970 is linked with all of these miserable dates of regrettable human history.
The link is, of course, Brylcreem, a petroleum product used as a topical hair dressing by men of historical moment since, at least, Elvis Presley.
This oily goo was on almost every establishment toady’s head that weekend in May, 1970 and its ubiquitous presence forms not just a satire sublime, it has foreshadowed every case of traumatic brain injury coming out of the Middle East at present, every case of PTSD that came out of Viet Nam that lead to children growing up with unresolved PTSD well into their adult years and it even slimed its way onto the head of my father to awful effect.
Brylcreem — “a little dab’ll do ya’.”
Brylcreem signaled the end of Western Civilization.