This week marked the 45th anniversary of the Kent State killings, when four college students were gunned down for protesting the War in Vietnam.
A photo, forever burned into memory, electrified the nation. A distraught young woman, her mouth open in a silent scream of terror, knelt over the dead body of a college student from Long Island, 20-year old Jeffrey Miller who was shot and killed by Ohio National Guardsmen. It could have been me.
My mother, a diminutive, chunky Italian women became radicalized by the killings of “ those kids” at Kent State, as she called them. I was one year older than Jeffrey Miller, and in my junior year of college at a State University in upstate New York. I was active in local anti-war rallies, demonstrations and marches on Washington. My mother looked at the photos of Jeffrey Miller on TV and in the newspapers, and all she saw was me.
She knew I stood face to face with a National Guardsman’s bayonet during one of those “Moratorium” marches. She knew I was tear-gassed. Each time I embarked upon a new crusade, my mother warned me to “be careful”, gnawing what was left of her finger-nails.
My mother was no stranger to hardship and struggle. Born during the polio epidemic of 1915, she was paralyzed on one side of her body. She was carted off to a “Crippled Children’s Home,” (the actual name of the place), where, as a young child, she saw children her own age living in an iron-lung, fighting for each breath. She considered herself fortunate that only her right arm was paralyzed.
Kept out of public swimming pools in NYC and summer camps in the Catskills because she was a “Polio Kid,” my mother developed a determination to overcome all odds, and a natural empathy with outsiders. She found her public champion and life-long hero in fellow-polio battler Franklin D. Roosevelt, who, as Mario Cuomo eloquently said, “lifted himself out of his wheelchair while lifting a nation from its knees.”
Kent State radicalized her, despite the growing conservatism of most suburban Italians, and the Catholic Church’s unconscionable support for the war. Every college student, demonstrating against the war, was her child. Every act of protest, was an act of courage. She saw herself defying the odds; she saw her son defying a war which she did not want to see him fight.
Each Christmastime at our modest split-level suburban home on Noble Street in North Babylon, New York, it was my job to put up the Christmas lights. I enjoyed the task because I enjoyed the season. But that year, Christmas 1970, as the war in Vietnam raged on, I decided to use our lights to make a political statement in our conservative, working-class neighborhood.
I shaped the Christmas lights into a huge Peace Sign, taking up the entire height and width of the big Bow Window at the front of our house. My father, more politically conservative than my mother and a WWII Veteran, was not comfortable with my Holiday handiwork, but my Mother, with visions of Kent State still dancing in her head, defended it proudly as a symbol of peace, during a season of peace.
A few nights before Christmas, my mother’s brother Angelo “Eddie” Desimone, a big bruiser of a man with the largest hands I had ever seen, came for a visit. As soon as he pulled up in front of our house, he spotted “Stephen’s Peace Sign.” He entered the house and before saying hello to my mother, demanded to know why she allowed such a “Communist” sign to deface our house. Uncle Eddie towered over my mother. When he was younger he had knocked out half the patrons of a bar in a brawl. He was menacing. He was ranting about “communists” like me, bringing America down.
My mother was wearing a housedress and a flour-covered apron with her paralyzed right arm hanging limply by her side. She was at least a full-foot shorter than her brother. She raised her voice to match my uncle’s, and told him that it was a “peace” sign. Without yielding an inch, she argued that her youngest son was no communist but a lover of peace, and that if he didn’t like it, he could leave. My uncle left.
Uncle Eddie had committed the original sin with my mother: he attacked the character of her son. He knew Margaret Julia Villano would not back down. Yet, what he could never understand, was how much Kent State had radicalized my mother, and how she now considered all students protesting the war to be her children.