Spring of ’70

War protesters.
College protesters during the Vietnam War. Photo by Wystan (of Flickr). Used by permission.

Spring of ’70

By Claude Clayton Smith

All hell broke loose in Iowa City after the National Guard killed four students at  Kent State University. A few weeks earlier we’d been hunting morel mushrooms on Vance Bourjaily’s farm. Now it was just before Mother’s Day, a warm and sunny May day late in the semester. Several thousand students were loitering on the wide grassy area between the Pentacrest and North Clinton Street, the ground so littered with blankets, beer cans, and bongs that you could hardly find a spot on which to squat.

Frisbees were flying everywhere.

Frisbees were flying everywhere. Strains of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” wafted by on breezes laced with sweet-smelling pot. The mood was festive despite the tensions dividing the nation, simply because the weather was so grand and glorious. The spring had turned unseasonably warm, and suddenly girls were in shorts and granny dresses, their long hair tied back with colorful headbands. Some wore blue jeans with peasant blouses or tie-dyed tee shirts, their breasts as unfettered as the breeze. Bare-chested guys sat on the lawn in shit-kicking boots and old jeans with wide belts and wide bottoms. Others wore bright tank tops like my grandfather’s undershirts. Shoes and sandals had been shed in favor of bare feet.

Final exams were approaching but everyone was boycotting classes to protest the war.

Final exams were approaching but everyone was boycotting classes to protest the war. Picket lines surrounded the classroom buildings. I’d just come up from my office in the OAT (the Old Armory Temporary) beside the Iowa River – where I’d been meeting with my freshmen who still wanted their tuition’s worth. The OAT was old all right, having been built right after World War II, and equally as temporary, because it would burn to the ground before the day was out.

Moments later we moved into the street. The festive mood had turned ugly and confrontational. We were blocking traffic in Iowa City to end the war in Vietnam. It seemed entirely logical. The only vehicle we let through was a florist’s van in honor of Mother’s Day. “Flower power to all you mothers!” we yelled, and the van driver yelled back, “Right on!”

It might have gone up in flames as a matter of principle. Or it might have been sacrificed as a burnt offering to the great god of war.

That night everyone congregated at the Iowa River to watch the OAT burn. I don’t think anyone to this day knows how that fire started. The OAT was a firetrap and deserved to be burned, which was why I kept nothing of value in my office. It might have gone up in flames as a matter of principle. Or it might have been sacrificed as a burnt offering to the great god of war. The timing was uncanny, as the OAT lit up the night sky with orange flames as bright as an Iowa sunset.

“Right on!” everyone yelled. And the OAT burned right on down.

But not everyone enjoyed those flames. Several of my colleagues in the Writers’ Workshop watched their dissertations go up in smoke. A professor from the English Department, addressing us by bullhorn, was choking back tears. In the morning it was clear that, fearing further violence and destruction, campus officials had had enough, declaring the semester over, although final exams were yet to be taken. They announced a variety of policies for those worried about their grades, then sent us home to our parents.

Who didn’t want us either.