Jerkwater [jurk-waw-ter, -wot-er] 1. a branch-line train, so called because its small boiler had to be refilled often, requiring train crews to “jerk” or draw water from streams. 2. of or associated with small, remote, and insignificant rural settlements: She’s from some jerkwater town.
Unlike most rivers, the flow of the Cuyahoga River is neither north nor south – it is both. The switch to the north is best observed where it meets the Little Cuyahoga tributary at mile 42 of its total 88.4 miles, on the west side of the bottom of its jaunty u-shaped path. Just 30 miles west of its headwaters, it meets Lake Erie, where it becomes the Cleveland harbor, an area that is consistently dredged to a depth of 27 feet, to allow for freight barges. This crooked river, or “Cuyahoga”, a term derived from several Native American languages, formed during the last glacial retreat, 10,000-12,000 years ago, and its direction changed when the Wisconsin glacier receded 7,000 years ago, forever altering the drainage patterns of the area.
I was born in an era when rivers still burned, but by the time I was old enough to explore the banks of the Cuyahoga, urban environmentalism had already taken hold in Ohio and was spreading across the country via the Clean Water Act of 1972. My earliest visions of this river were not tainted by its fires – images that catapulted this river into infamy when it appeared on Time Magazine’s cover in 1968, but rather, the visions were fixated on a large sandstone tea table rock, known as Standing Rock, that sat squarely in the middle of the river, just a short bike ride through the town’s cemetery from my childhood home.
Tea table rocks are formed by eroding layers of softer rock wrapped around harder composite rock. In this case, waters of what would eventually become known as the Cuyahoga River gradually revealed the Pennsylvanian-age Sharon sandstone that remains. Geologists have traced this rock found in northeast Ohio from the Canadian Shield, making it a part of the initial North American region that became permanently uplifted above sea level. Ancient rock, indeed.
Standing Rock measures 20 feet across and 20 feet high, making it an ideal backdrop for folklore tales of Native Americans who battled the likes of legendary Captain Samuel Brady, a frontier scout of the area. These heroic tales of bloodshed illuminated the summers of my childhood, spent just a few miles down the road from the bloodshed of a newer kind. With each passing summer, my ride through the cemetery to the river grew larger than life, spurred on by imagined flying arrows whizzing past me as I fled to the river, preparing for the scramble to the top of Standing Rock, where I declared myself to be victorious – over whom, I’m not exactly sure.
The community of Kent, like many small towns of America, found itself to be anachronistic sentinel anchored in a river of eroding morals in the late 1960s. Situated upstream from the heavy industrial towns of Akron and Cleveland, it lacked their gritty sophistication, but it also missed out on the Norman Rockwellistic charm of neighboring small towns that dotted the snowbelt of Northeast Ohio. The white silos of the Williams Brothers flour mill, reminiscent of a time when the city of Kent was known as the village of Franklin Mills, towered over the two-story buildings located in the heart of downtown. The street names of Water, River, Lock, and Portage pay homage to the river that powered the mills of the 19th century in this area.
Stuck somewhere between rural and quaint, Kent was just the right blend of comfort for parents of hopeful college bound children who visited Kent State University, the largest employer of the city. It seemed an unlikely place of adhesion for the counterculture ideals that were spreading throughout the United States in the late 1960s.
However, campuses across the nation became fertile ground for anti-war sentiments as the Viet Nam war escalated and draft numbers were called in. Sparked by President Nixon’s announcement on April 30, 1970 to invade Cambodia, protests grew in frequency and intensity. On May 1, Kent State students buried the U.S. Constitution in a symbolic act, claiming it had been murdered. Over the next few days, mobs of students rioted downtown, breaking store windows and setting fire to the Army ROTC building on campus. Nine hundred National Guardsmen were called in to maintain order.
News traveled slowly in a pre-internet, pre-cell phone world. For almost a full hour in the early afternoon of May 4, 1970, the sunlight that stretched down Main Street heading west past the string of used car lots, past the drive-up hamburger stand where young waitresses waited on traveling salesmen in long-hooded Detroit cars, into the neighborhood where my mother had just put me down for a nap, carried with it no sense of tragedy.
A dream sequence memory of hearing ice cream truck chimes wakes me from a nap and I climb out of my crib, through a sliding glass door cracked open, searching for the truck decorated with images of sweet treats and a smiling man inside the awning-framed window.
The chimes give way to the scream of a panicked mother discovering an empty crib, the vibration of approaching helicopters circling from a distance and getting closer with each minute. Found in a neighbor’s yard and whisked back into the house, the hunt for ice cream cut short. Plopped in front of a black and white rabbit-eared tv and given a Fisher-Price toy to play with, I paid no mind to my mother as she spoke with neighbors in tones that varied from hushed to hysteria.
The doors locked up tight, the sidewalks emptied, and finally the streets emptied too, as the city entered lockdown mode and officials blocked traffic from crossing the municipal limits. The evening edition of the Akron Beacon Journal headline read “4 Dead, 11 Wounded in New KSU Trouble”. My father walked 4 miles from the edge of town to get home that evening. He never said much about the incident other than it was a very long walk.