Akron’s Vietnam

2019-04-01T11:58:24+00:00February 15th, 2019|

How the war touched one Northeast Ohio neighborhood.

By Jeff Marzick

It was late in the evening on July 4, 1970. Driving home after a long day of eating hot dogs and burgers at a picnic, my family and I were slowly approaching our home on Stanton Avenue in Akron, Ohio. As we turned into the driveway, we noticed something different about the American flag that my mother had placed in the slot on our front porch earlier in the day. It appeared as though someone had placed an object on the pole. As we got closer, it became clear what that object was: a toy M16 machine gun.

The toy was mine, but I hadn’t put it there. And as an eight-year-old, I wasn’t sure what the symbol meant. But the anger emanating from the front seat told me that whoever did it would suffer the consequences. The yelling continued in the house: “Who did this?” “How could you do this?” “What were you thinking?” “If you don’t tell me who did this, I’m going to…”

Obviously, nobody was owning up.

The interrogation was directed at my older brother Kerry, who hadn’t come with us to the picnic and instead had stayed home with some friends. He denied knowing who put the M16 on the flag, but I’m convinced it was him, and I understand why. Only two months earlier, on May 4, a tragedy had occurred some twenty-five minutes from our home in South Akron. Four students were shot dead, and nine others were wounded, when Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on the campus of Kent State University. My brother was making a statement. He wanted the neighborhood—and my parents—to know how he felt.

 

In those days, when people asked where we were from, we commonly responded: “L.A.—Lower Akron.” Yeah, it was a joke, but it was a reflection of how we felt. We knew where we stood compared to more affluent sections of the city. My home on Stanton Avenue had three bedrooms, a basement, and an attic. Built in the 1920s, it was similar to the other houses on the street. Our neighborhood was working-class. Both of my parents worked full time, and we always had food on the table. Christmas was special at our house. My mother made sure we got most of what we asked for. I found out, years later, that she had jacked up the credit cards quite a bit. She was never good with money. It’s something we kids never knew about back then.

Akron was known, at the time, as the Rubber Capital of the world. They made tires there. Lots of them. I’m old enough to remember the rank smell of rubber emanating from the factories of Goodyear, General Tire, B.F. Goodrich and Firestone—all companies with their world headquarters in Akron.

Many families had connections to the rubber industry, and we weren’t any different. My father worked at Goodyear Aerospace, a subsidiary of the big tire-maker. My maternal grandfather built tires at Firestone for more than forty years. My paternal grandfather was the personal gardener for Harvey Firestone, the founder of his namesake company. You could make a decent living in those days if you lived in Akron.

But, as with so many places in Rust Belt America, things started to change in the 1960s and early 1970s. Jobs began to disappear; people started to move away; and a war was raging in a faraway place, fought by young men who grew up in the type of neighborhood I grew up in. Many of those men didn’t have a choice. The ones who did went mainly because job opportunities began to dry up. (Of course, patriotism played a role for some.) In our family, my two brothers—both older than me—were on the cusp of being sent away. To this day, I can’t imagine how they must have felt.

I was the youngest of four children. Kerry was the oldest, ten years my senior. Next was my brother Phil, who was nine years older. Then came my sister, Vicki, who was seven years older. The truth is, my mom and dad did their best to keep things from me. I guess they didn’t want me to know just how screwed up things were at the time. But I saw things. And I heard things.

I remember the riots that broke out on the near West Side of Akron, just a few miles from our home, after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. I remember watching television and seeing thousands of African-Americans standing along the railroad tracks, looking somber, as the train carrying Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s casket sped by—he, too, a victim of assassination. I also remember hearing about the Mai Lai massacre, the horrendous mass murder of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians by U.S. troops. While I didn’t understand the nuances surrounding these events, I’ll never forget them.

 

Over the years, I’ve had conversations with my brother Phil about growing up on Stanton Avenue during the Vietnam War, but never about his personal involvement or how it affected him. Recently, we had such a discussion. It turns out that Phil came much closer to serving in Vietnam than I had initially thought. It was luck, more than anything else, that prevented him from going.

“The truth is, I kept dodging bullets,” he said.

Not literally, of course. Phil was a standout athlete at Akron Garfield High School.  After a year of attending junior college in Lebanon, Tennessee, he received a full-ride scholarship at Malone College in Canton, Ohio. In those days, if you were enrolled at a four-year college, you could avoid military service based on a 2-S deferment.

“The draft had a lottery system at that time,” Phil told me. “If your name was drawn and it was lower than a hundred, there was a real good chance you would have to serve. My first number was in the high two-hundreds, if I remember correctly. But I was in college, so I was safe. Eventually, there was a lot of backlash to this system. Too many lower-class guys were fighting, and most of the well-off were able to avoid service. Deferment, based on going to school, was ended. I was still in school, but in the next drawing, my number was in the low fifties. My fate was now in doubt. It looked like I was headed over there.”

Phil again got lucky. Not long after his school deferment ended, the Vietnam War did, too. His draft lottery number? It didn’t matter. I often wonder how many thousands of young men had fretted over this same thing.

Some men from our area weren’t as fortunate as Phil. I remembered him telling me about three in particular. He spoke of going to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and finding their names on the wall. While he was fuzzy on the spelling of their names and knew them only by their nicknames, he gave me enough info that I was able to locate them on the memorial’s website: James Alan Patton, William Charles Cue, and Jerry ‘Slavic’ Bele.

All three of the men grew up in our neighborhood, not even five minutes from each other. Patton and Beley were born in 1947, Cue in 1948. All of them attended Garfield High School, just as my siblings and I had. Cue and Beley served in the Marines; Patton in the Army. And they all died in South Vietnam: Beley on Sept. 2, 1967; Patton on March 20, 1968; Cue on Aug. 2, 1968. All were ground-combat casualties. All were twenty years old at the time of their deaths. And Phil knew them all.

“Remember, I was only in the ninth grade at the time I knew them,” my brother said. “They would go to McEbright Elementary School—where we all had gone to school—and hang out at the field to play softball. Sometimes I’d play with them. They were good guys. I recollect that none of the three were what I would call college-ready guys. And even if they were, it’s possible they wouldn’t have been able to afford it anyway.”

These are the types of men who fought in that war. Three young men with their entire lives in front of them, instead made the ultimate sacrifice. Whether they enlisted or were drafted, and where they came from—lower-middle-class America vs. rich America—definitely played a part in what happened to them, just as it did for thousands of other brave young men. What if it had happened to my brothers? I wondered. How would it have changed my family members’ lives, just as it had certainly changed all of theirs?

 

Thinking back to the M16 incident, I’m reminded of what life must have been like for my oldest brother, Kerry. While Phil had participated in various protests in those years, it was Kerry who became obsessed. In his mind, there was no way he was going to serve. He thought it was a mistake—a detestable war fought for all the wrong reasons.

His fear was genuine; his first draft lottery number, as a nineteen-year-old in 1970, was, to the best of my recollection, in the low hundreds. Not good. Throughout high school, he had begun to drink and smoke marijuana at an alarming rate. He had started to speak out about the war. I remember arguments in the house; he and my father would go at it.

We would see nightly reports about the war on the major network news programs. I remember helicopters flying overhead. I remember correspondents such as Dan Rather and Morley Safer broadcasting from Vietnam in their military helmets, interviewing young men on the front lines. There was blood. We’d see stretchers of casualties. I remember Kerry seething at the carnage…calling President Nixon a dictator and other unflattering names.

This was life on Stanton Avenue in the Marzick house. I’m sure it was the same in many households in those days. The tension was building across America. Soon, a university in a small city less than half an hour from us would become the centerpiece of the anti-war movement.

 

On April 30, 1970, President Nixon announced he was ordering the invasion of Cambodia. This was seen as an escalation of the war, primarily because he had campaigned, in part, on a secret plan to end it. But the young people in America were having none of it. Kent State was about to explode.

I’ve often wondered where Kerry was on the weekend leading up to the events of May 4th, so I asked someone who would know. My cousin, Mickey Marzick, was a student at the University of Akron at the time of the Kent State shootings. The two were pretty close in those days. They partied and smoked weed together, spending hours talking about Vietnam. Mickey grew up in a neighborhood not far from ours in Akron, in an area called Firestone Park, which was working-class and sat close to the Firestone Tire and Rubber company. He eventually obtained a master’s degree in political science and a B.A. in French from Akron U, graduating in 1975. He and Kerry both hated the war.

I asked Mickey what he remembered from the weekend leading up to the shootings, as well as the whereabouts of Kerry. What many people fail to realize, he said, is that what happened at Kent State on May 4th didn’t happen in a vacuum. There was a series of events that weekend that laid the groundwork for the tragedy on the 4th.

“It started on that Friday,” Mickey said. “I was in Kent somewhere on Water Street, at one of the bars. I’m not quite sure, but I think Kerry was up there as well. I just don’t remember seeing him. I know a guy who took a cue ball from one of the pool tables out into the street. He threw the ball at the facade of what I think was an Ohio Edison building and missed his mark. He then scooped up the ball and threw it again. This time he hit his intended target: a window. All hell was breaking loose. There were ‘stop the war’ chants, and I believe there was a bonfire that someone started in the street. I know for sure the riot police were there. Once they arrived, most of us scattered because we knew they weren’t fucking around. They had massive billy clubs and riot gear.

“The next day, I remember waking up and my dad coming up to me and asking where I was the night before. I told him I was in Kent. Needless to say, he was pissed. He basically told me to ‘stay away from that shit, you hear me?’ So I never went back for the rest of the weekend. As you know, on that Saturday they [protestors] burned down the old wooden ROTC building. That’s when they [the authorities] called the National Guard, who ironically was already in the area, policing the violent Teamsters Strike just down the road. I’m not sure, but I think they declared martial law, which ended up calming things down on that Sunday at least.”

That declaration of martial law has been a point of contention over the years in conversations about that weekend. The Ohio Governor at that time, Jim Rhodes, had said that he was preparing to get a court order to declare a state of emergency. The fact is, he never did. But it was widely assumed by University and Guard officials that the authority had clearly been transferred to the Guard, rather than University leaders. Things did indeed calm down a bit on Sunday.

Of course, the calm was short-lived. On Monday the 4th, Mickey and Kerry heard the news. They were working at B.F. Goodrich at the time. “Our first reaction was pretty much, ‘Those bastards…murderers…etc.,’” Mickey said. “Look, leading up to the tragedy, the sentiment towards the war, especially in Northeast Ohio, was super polarizing. There were guys we went to high school with who were basically no longer your friends because of the war. I had an uncle who at the dinner table one time told me he would have shot me himself if he had seen me at Kent State. It had just gotten really bitter. I mean, they were willing to kill us. That’s the lesson of Kent State.”

 

Kent State had a profound effect on Kerry. He had been doing drugs and drinking in excess up to that point. And with a draft lottery number so low, he began to spiral out of control. According to Mickey, Kerry started to hang out with a different crowd. Besides smoking pot, he had started experimenting with hallucinogens.

While I knew terrible things were happening to Kerry, I never really understood the details—I was kept in the dark by my parents. But it appears Kerry checked himself into a local mental-health facility not long after the Kent State shootings. According to Mickey, Kerry did this for one reason: to avoid fighting in Vietnam.

I’ve been told different stories over the years, but this is the one that makes the most sense to me. By committing himself, he avoided induction. He was ruled unfit to serve. Unfortunately, it came at a considerable price. He was never the same afterward. Mickey speculated that while in the institution, they gave Kerry Thorazine, an anti-psychotic medication. He felt it ruined him for good. I can’t disagree.

Over the next several years, Kerry drifted in and out of our home on Stanton Avenue. He hitchhiked to California once. My mother actually had to fly there to bail him out of jail. Evidently, he had stolen a cherry pie from a local market because he had gone broke and was starving. He did end up getting married during this period. He had actually met his wife, Margot, at the mental health facility. Unfortunately, that relationship ended in divorce.

Finally, on or around October 18, 1977, Kerry took my mother’s car and some of her credit cards and headed west again. We received a phone call from the Green River, Utah, Sheriff’s Department about a week later; they said they had found Kerry’s car on the side of a road in a very remote area. For nearly five months, we didn’t hear anything from law enforcement or Kerry. We feared the worst but hoped for the best.

In late March, we finally received a phone call. A hiker had found the skeletal remains of a male body at the bottom of a steep ravine. The weather had warmed enough that the snow had begun to melt, which exposed the remains. Police also found a wallet with Kerry’s driver’s license inside. It was the news we all had feared. Kerry was dead. He never got to see his twenty-seventh birthday.

Local law enforcement ruled his death an accident. They theorized he had been hiking in the area, lost his footing, and fell to his death. I’ve always been skeptical of the findings. But I have no reason to think they lied to us. I’m just not sure it happened that way. Did he jump? Was he robbed or pushed? We’ll never know, I suppose.

I was sixteen when Kerry died. I often wonder about his life. To this day, I attribute many of his problems to his inability to cope with the fact that he might have had to fight in a war he despised. The Kent State shootings certainly contributed. Now, every May 4th, I think of him. I think of him putting that M16 on our flag. I think of him in Kent that weekend, protesting with the rest of them. It’s a sacred day for me; it always will be.

 

I no longer live in Ohio. I moved to the West Coast, in 2004, to escape the brutal winters. But Akron is my hometown. I visit family and friends there every year, and I make it a point to drive by the old house. It always looks different to me—smaller and shoddier than the house I grew up in. The neighborhood has fallen on hard times, which is sad. The memories of living there fade a little more with the passing days. But I’ll never forget how a war that was fought in a faraway place wreaked havoc on our neighborhood in ”Lower Akron.” It nearly tore our family apart. I lost a brother to Vietnam—not on the battlefield, but because of it. ■

 

 

Jeff Marzick is a freelancer writer living in Brookings, Oregon. He spent the first forty-two years of his life in Akron, Ohio.

Cover image of SP4 Doug Reitmeyer (San Jose, CA) and SP4 Mike Speegle (right) beside an Army recruiting sign in Akron, Ohio in 1971. They were cycling across the country to talk with young Americans about the modern volunteer Army. National Archives photo RG111-CCS box 45 84854 (CC BY 2.0).

 

Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation to Belt Magazine, or become a member starting at $5 per month.