’13 Seconds’ provides in-depth look at May 4

Jaclyn Youhana

Attend Kent State University for four years, and a student can hear enough about May 4, 1970, to make her feel like she stood in Prentice Hall parking lot and watched her peers get shot 35 years ago.

Philip Caputo’s recently released book, 13 Seconds: A Look Back at the Kent State Shootings, tells a story real enough to make the Kent State reader hope for a different outcome.

As Caputo details, for example, Allison Krause’s actions leading up to her death, the reader hopes she gets away: Perhaps Krause will bend down to tie her shoe, and the bullet will zing over her head, close but no cigar. Maybe the guard she had started a conversation with the previous afternoon will jump in front of her bodyguard-style and save the day.

Caputo unfolds his story in such a way that the reader experiences an odd brand of I-knew-that-was-gonna-happen surprise when Krause is killed.

Caputo covered the May 4 events as a general assignment reporter for the Chicago Tribune. The paper sent him to tiny Kent because he had just covered Vietnam-related riots at the University of Illinois. The shootings occurred as Caputo was en route to Ohio. He returned to Kent last year to check out the small city 34 years after the “massacre,” deemed so by Caputo.

For those who know a lot about May 4 history, 13 Seconds will offer little pertinent information. It’s the tiny details that make Caputo’s work worth a read:

n When students and non-students rioted around Kent the night of May 3, campus police didn’t really help out. City police, too, did little to stop the riots, and students were virtually permitted to loot the city and destroy businesses.

n A rumor circulated around the city that the water would be spiked with LSD.

n Krause had a knack for talking to strangers: “Once, while working for a summer job at a hospital for the insane, she coaxed a patient to talk who hadn’t spoken a word for 15 years,” Caputo wrote.

n William Schroeder was in the ROTC.

n Jeffrey Miller called his mom to ask if it was OK that he protest that afternoon.

n Sandra Scheuer was merely passing through the parking lot on the way to class when she was killed — that much is common knowledge. But she had “strict moral principles and opinions. She could be quick to censure what she considered bad behavior.” Caputo makes it sound as if Scheuer might have been opposed to the protests.

While these details certainly add insight to May 4 and the preceding days, the book tells the readers few brand-new details; it’s a perfect book to read if the reader doesn’t know anything about the shootings or simply wants an easy-to-understand — and short — overview of what happened. The book is only four chapters, and one is spent on a bizarre, but accurate, comparison to the Boston Massacre: townspeople angry that the British troops had been sent to keep the peace.

Caputo wraps up his book asking the question that most anyone who studies May 4 asks: “Did the four dead die for something or for no reason?”

He quotes then managing editor and current editor of the Stater Mike Klesta as saying, yeah, it’s important to remember, and a number of good things have come out of the massacre. But it’s sad that May 4 is this university’s claim to fame. Others’ comments share, for the most part, similar viewpoints.

As a piece of literature, 13 Seconds is well written and a beautiful example of pull-the-reader-in storytelling. As a piece of history, it’s easy to understand, but short. As an added bonus, 13 Seconds includes the Emmy Award-winning documentary, Kent State: The Day the War Came Home, making the package all the more worth its $21.95 cover price.

Contact news editor Jaclyn Youhana at [email protected].