A Real Riot, part 1

September 4, 2008

Life with its infinite randomness can be affected by the simplest of twists or turns. One choice leads you to one end and another leads somewhere else completely. Instinct is probably your greatest ally and to ignore it is to dismiss a built-in protection system but I wasn’t thinking that on the way to Tiger Stadium in Detroit in 1967.

My Uncle Ron had gotten called to duty, a chauffeur and sidekick for his 16 year-old nephew, and we were off to the ballpark. I’m not sure if he really wanted to go or not but he cared about me and knew that I was without an operational father (I’d asked my dad (father #2) to go many times and been rebuffed) so he stepped up to the plate, so to speak, and we were road buddies for the day.

I loved Tiger Stadium for all its quirks and intimacy and we had a great day at the game, he knocking down the brew and me putting away hot dogs and coke. Other than somebody won and somebody lost I don’t have much recollection of the game details but I’ll never forget the ride home.

We couldn’t see it from where we sat, down the third base line, but there was smoke that could be seen rising up over the stadium skyline depending on your location. I’d find out later that the announcers in the booth had a very good sight line and commented on it frequently throughout the broadcast. It was serious but we didn’t see it until we pulled out and headed down the road and then it appeared; dark, billowing clouds of smoke pouring out of an area of the city just to the immediate north of us.

“Looks like a big fire”, said my Uncle, “maybe we should go over there and see what’s going on.” I hadn’t seen this ambulance chasing side of him before and I figured he’d rather end our play date than go looking for more adventure but here he was wanting to make a little detour to watch the fire crews douse a big one.

I’m not sure what my radar was picking up but it must not have been good because I begged off and urged him to drive home and forget about the smoke plumes that only got larger and larger as we drove on. He let me have my way on this one but with a tiny caveat; we stop at a tavern closer to home and see what the fire was doing on the bar television.

Actually, this was his clever way of getting another beer or two and while I was tired and wanted to go home, that was the deal so there we were in the bar and, sure enough, there was the televised smoke but it turned out to be just a bit more than that as the images of overturned cars, fights, looting and arson came across the screen, reporters doing their best to stay out of the fray.

We had quite fortunately sidestepped the very beginning 12th Street volleys of anger, that hot summer of rioting in Detroit and there would be plenty more to come as it spread right down Woodward Avenue and into Pontiac and surrounding areas; racial unrest that I failed to understand at the time but knew well enough to keep a safe distance from.

There was something coming apart at the seams in the city but for as close as we came to being part of the news, on this day it was still only something on a bar television…

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