The Peter Pan syndrome, a disorder applied to men who don’t want to grow up, is a fairly common affliction. But I had the opposite problem.
When I was a child there was nothing I wanted more than to be an adult. They got to stay up as late as they wanted and had other freedoms I envied.
In the summer of 1967 I got my wish, albeit in a rather grotesque way. As a boy growing up in Detroit, the brutality of the riot matured me, unexpectedly and inescapably, into someone not quite an adult, but one who was certainly no longer a child.
Sure, I got to stay up late, but only because an odd mixture of fascination and fretfulness about what was happening made me so agitated that sleep was difficult. Because of the riot, the adult world, I realized almost gleefully, was chastened. Like children, they had to abide by certain rules. Curfews were strictly enforced, and the freedom to go anywhere they pleased was curtailed. If they strayed, there were plenty of policemen and National Guardsmen to keep them in line.
Despite my desire to shed the manacles of childhood, I nevertheless took a childlike delight in the excitement that the disturbance brought to Detroit. An unwelcome spotlight shone on what was then the nation’s fifth-largest city. I saw footage and heard descriptions of my city on the national news. The riot even made the cover of Time magazine, to which my parents subscribed. I’ve kept that Aug. 4, 1967, issue to this day, just as I’ve held on to the front page of The Detroit News from 14 months later, when Detroit was in the national eye for quite a different reason: The Detroit Tigers had won the World Series.
Locally, the riot was all one heard about. Each afternoon when the paper arrived on our doorstep, the front page was emblazoned with coverage, with extra-bold headlines and photographs of a city crowned with a nimbus of black smoke. Local newscasts carried stories of people directly affected by the riot. Still lodged in my memory was a segment on the morning news about a woman who drove to work with a gun in her hand, and I remember thinking as I saw her, gripping a pistol in one hand while driving, how difficult it must have been for her to steer.
But what really stirred my interest was the sight of Jeeps filled with National Guardsmen and federal paratroopers driving through my neighborhood. There were tanks, too. Many were bivouacked at the State Fairgrounds, not too far from where I lived, just north of Highland Park.
My neighbors down the street opened their built-in pool to the guardsmen, and I was mesmerized by the parade of sweat-drenched and probably very frightened young men coming down my street, grateful at being able to cool off on a sweltering July day, made more torrid yet by raging tempers and fires.
Helicopters always fascinated me, and the whirr of choppers circling my neighborhood gave me a jolt of excitement. They were looking for snipers and looters, but I loved searching the sky, wondering if the men up there could see me in my yard.
To me, the riot brought a sense of adventure to what had been a lazy, largely uneventful summer. The buzz of attending my first game at Tiger Stadium the previous month, when the Tigers beat the Washington Senators, was starting to diminish.
But this new adventure came fraught with disturbing ramifications. A lexicon entered my vocabulary, one that a child shouldn’t have to learn. But there was no escaping such words as snipers, arsonists, and looters. Of all these transgressions, the one I couldn’t understand was looting. When I saw television clips of adults taking anything they could carry from stores — in front of children, yet — I couldn’t process it. I was taught that it was unequivocally wrong to take something that wasn’t yours.
My immediate neighborhood was spared from looting and flames, but nearby I saw evidence of rioting, although on a smaller scale than what happened on 12th Street or Grand River. During the day, my parents tried to conduct life as normally as possible, shopping and going about family business. I was fascinated by the views I took in from the window of our ’66 Pontiac Catalina. There was sporadic looting and arson in Highland Park, where I went to school, and some storefronts were boarded up. I wondered if school would be in session in the fall, because no one seemed to know how long the rioting would last.
Up on Livernois and Seven Mile, which still carried the moniker “The Avenue of Fashion,” glass was broken on some of the tony shops’ windows. On West Eight Mile, I remember seeing “Soul Brother” spray-painted on some storefronts. When I asked my parents why that was done, they explained that black-owned businesses did that in the hope that arsonists would spare torching the place. But some stores were burned anyway.
I forget whose idea it was (possibly mine) that we boys in the neighborhood play a new game called Riot. We gathered up our arsenal of toy guns and our imaginations flowered, fueled by what we saw around us. Some of us clambered on garage roofs and porches and pretended to be snipers, while others impersonated guardsmen.
Many people were terrified. An old woman down the street who didn’t drive and who stayed glued to her radio (she didn’t own a TV) was petrified, asking us kids how close the rioters were. She was afraid to leave her house, even in the daytime. I felt sorry for an adult who should have to live in fear. What had been oddly enthralling seemed suddenly sad and somber.
Then there was a photo of a little boy, perhaps 3 or 4, his face etched with concern, standing in the rubble of what had been his home. It had run in Time, as well as in other publications. I remember feeling pity for him.
The TV news was getting grimmer, too. The city’s young, liberal mayor, Jerome Cavanagh, was visibly astonished, his normally cherubic face stunned by gravity and disbelief. A drawn-looking Gov. George Romney appeared frequently on the news, too. His stern visage seemed chiseled in stone.
Today, I recall playing Riot with a vague sense of horror. I didn’t think it was wrong at the time, but then I didn’t tell my parents about it, either. I suppose it was because I felt a twinge of guilt about having fun against the real-life backdrop of suffering. But I was only 10; how could I resist not getting excited at seeing helicopters, soldiers, and tanks? Besides, I was merely imitating the behavior of adults.
But like a sugar high, the rush wore off quickly. It became painfully apparent during that wild week in late July that the adult world wasn’t all freedom and insouciance. But I had stepped into it, and there was no going back.
It was the last time I can recall feeling like a kid.
Bulanda is the managing editor of Hour Detroit.