© Robert Warren aka Roberto Warren 2004
Well, I guess this is a little something about my life. I don't want to call it an autobiography, because to me that seems a little egotistical, like, what happened in my life is so important that I think people would find it just SO interesting. As far as I'm concerned, everyone's life is a story in itself.
To me, and hopefully to you, this is more of just some memories dedicated to all the folks that have come my way in the last 51 years. There are some pretty good stories in there, or at least, I hope you think so. There were definitely some good - and not so good -people. Anyway, like I said, this book is dedicated to all those people.
The other thing is that considering what some folks tend to say about African Americans growing up and how they live, I want to refute some of that. Sure, there is drama, as there is in the lives of everyone, but there are also happy endings, no matter how rocky the road.
I challenge the media to show some of those happy endings on the news sometimes. Ratings be damned.
Family and Paradise Valley - 1951
There are three addresses I remember distinctly from my very early childhood. 445 Napoleon, 430 Napoleon, and the intersection of Helen and Agnes streets, all in Detroit's Paradise Valley.
A little history on Paradise Valley. Actually, it will only take one line. Paradise Valley is where most of the black people lived in Detroit in the early days like in 1951, when I was born. Basically, it was about a five mile wide by 3 mile high strip in the lower southeast corner of Detroit, bordered on the south by the Detroit River. It was bordered on the west by Woodward Avenue, which is Detroit's main drag, and on the other side of Woodward, I guess it was about 99% white. Weird, because on Napoleon street we lived 2 ½ blocks from Woodward, and I never even knew there was a whole other world on the other side of Woodward. Of course, when you're a little kid, what do you know about anything outside your immediate neighborhood?
Anyway, that's where we all lived. When I was born, however, my biological mother, Dollye, lived with her grandparents, William and Flory McDonald, on the west side of Detroit. I believe it was out toward Ecorse, about 20 miles southwest of Paradise Valley, which is one of the many industrial suburbs on the west side of Detroit, spawned by the auto and steel industries - River Rouge is another. Many of the African Americans that came up from the South to work in the auto plants settled in that area.
Nowadays, that area is one of the most industrially polluted areas in the Detroit area. From anywhere in that part of the city, you can see the industrial fires burning off pollutants into the atmosphere, and the entire area smells of burnt pollutants and acetone. Toeards the end of her life, Lois lived in a senior citizen complex within sight of those fires, and I swear living in that area caused a downturn in her health.
Granted, I said Paradise Valley was where all the black people in Detroit lived at the time, and for the most part, that is true, but there were pockets of us in other parts of the city. In fact, while I was an infant, we lived in a few different places, first, there was 89 King, which I will mention again later, as well as Helen and Agnes over by Belle Isle, (I'll get to that later, "The Island" will get it's own chapter), then my mother and I moved back to 445 Napoleon, then across the street to 430 Napoleon, and then around the corner from 445 Napoleon to 2463 Beaubien, which was actually in the same building as 445 Napoleon, just around the corner. All these moves happened in a span of about 4 years from the time I was born, until I was four. I guess the only reason we moved so much is because I was being raised by a single mother, living with various aunts, uncles, and relatives until she could get on her feet. It's never easy for single mothers, and that includes the early 1950's
OK, I'll get this straight right now, because it was always a point of controversy in my family, and it still kind of bugs me that it was, but I'll deal with it anyway:
Lois was not technically my mother she was my step-grandmother. My birth mother was Dollye, who was 18 when she had me, but Lois raised me from the day I was born. From what I was told she took me from the hospital, and was my mother from that day forward... There was a lot of controversy about whether or not she took me against Dollye's wishes, or whether or not Dollye was just too young and unprepared as a child to raise one herself, etc.
Dollye had allowed me to visit with Lois and Bob, my grandfather for a period of three weeks. When Dollye went to pick me up from them, Lois and Bob had decided I should stay with them and would not return me to Dollye, because they both loved me a great deal. Dollye knew this, plus it was hard for her to say no to her father.
While Dollye was pregnant with me, she was actually almost contracted off in a marriage to a migrant worker guy from the South. Everyone was trying to decide what her future was to be, with her being 18 and all. A Black single mother in Detroit in 1950. So there arose the possibility, via a woman named Flotilla, (I don't remember Flotilla's last name, and I always thought a Flotilla was what a Battleship Group was called in the Navy) that she would marry this guy. After all, a lot of Blacks were coming up from the South at that time to work in the auto plants. They actually made good money, too working on the line. So, this guy would have a pretty young wife, a baby, a good job, all waiting for him. Who knows what might have happened? I probably would have grown up in Ecorse or River Rouge, which are towns that came into existence mainly because of the auto plants, and they now sit in the shadow of steel mills and petroleum factories. Fortunantely, Lois saved me from all that. Out of the mouth of controversy, and possibilities of being with people that didn't love me (except Dollye) into the loving arms of a woman that loved me from day one.
It's all good...
I'm here today, writing this book, and it was all because of her. Lois,
I love you for that.
My mother (Lois) was born in Kentucky, on August 30, 1908. Her mother, Corinne, whose name my mother never said with anything close to affection just abandoned her as an infant. My mother ended up being raised by her grandfather, whom she called Sandy, and his wife. My mother loved sandy very much. He was the epitome of a strong, kind patriarchal man. Seemed to me that he was the kind of guy that any child would get close to as "Grandpa".
She moved from Kentucky to Detroit when she was a young girl, where she spent her early teens. Part of That time was spent in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, which is where I believe she met Aunt Ruth and Uncle Willie
Seemed like my mother always had a prp\opensity for show business, which she displayed at a young age.(For that matter, so did Dollye, who had an operatic voice that had her on track to be one of the first African Americans, and females, to get a scholarship to Julliard. She could have been another Marian Anderson)
Lois showed me some pictures of her as a teenager in Pennsylvania when they were doing a theatre thing, dressed up in 19th century costume. She was way into it. Had the pose down and everything. Yeah, she was kind of a ham, but I guess when you had the propensity for showbiz, you have to be kind of a ham.
Later on in her teens, she moved back to Detroit. One thing about my mother, she was always kind of a hipster. She actually went out on a date with Jack Johnson when she was in her teens.
She was working as a candy girl at the Wilson Theatre, now known as Detroit's Music Hall. In fact she was working at the Wilson theatre the night it opened. Anyway, one night Jack Johnson and his entourage came into the theatre. It was a real big deal. Mind you, my mother was a fine young African-American/Cherokee girl in the 1920's, and history has it that Jack Johnson was kind of a ladies man. Anyways, I guess he ended up asking her out. She said that they were "ridin' around in that Stutz-Bearcat with the horn goin' ah-OOO-gah! Everybody was lookin' goin, 'There goes jack and some more of his ladies'" However, like I said, I guess Jack was a bit of a ladies man, and my mother was not playing any of that. The date-with all the other girls-was as far as it went. But hey, Jack Johnson! The man that could kick anybody's butt back then! Quite a thrill for a young teenage girl.
Allow me to jump forward in time I figure since we're talking about my mother and boxers, I have to mention this now. She also dated Joe Louis briefly. How do I know? Well, aside from the fact that she told me of course, she had a picture of him naked while he was taking a shower! Yeah my mother was cool. I wonder what ever happened to that picture?
Anyways, in the 1930's when she was about 25, and still fine as hell, she moved to New York City. Like I said, she had a propensity for showbiz. I guess she was always into singing, but while in new York, she started hanging out with some jazz cats, and got heavily into jazz singing. Did some theatre, too, but I think singing was her main love I hadn't come along yet. She had tons of clippings from various productions she had been in from many of the New York theatres, and she told me stories of how she had sat in with many heavies of the day. She even sang at The Cotton Club, and knew Cab Callow. I can only imagine what it was like for her being a pretty, single young black woman in New York City in the '30's hanging out with the showfolk. She even knew who Dutch Schultz was, the notorious mobster from the time, because they used to come in the Cotton Club all the time don't think she dated him though.
She got her heart broken for the first time for real in New York, too. She fell in love with this guy named James right before the war. Guess she was head over heels for this guy. But I think he was kind of a dog There was one instance when he had cheated on her pretty badly, and tried to play it off, and she ended up telling him, "Don't go to sleep, nigger ", meaning that if he went to sleep well lets just say she was pretty hurt and angry.
She stayed with this guy right up through the war though. When James got shipped out, it was just like something out of a movie. Grand Central Station, Christmas Carols in the background, the conductor going "All Abooooard!", because his train was leaving, the last embrace form her man in his army uniform, and he tells her, "Run away, baby, and don't look back!" And she does, with tears streaming down her face, and he hops on the train bound for the European Front wow.
Happily, James didn't get killed in the war. He sent her plenty of what they called "V-Messages", or something similar, which were actually little vinyl records with spoken messages from loved ones on them. She played one for me once. It ran at 78 rpm, even though it was the size of a 45. It went something like, "I miss you a whole lot, baby, I'll be glad when this war is over". I'm sure a lot of them went like that.
While James was overseas, my mother was working in the garment district near the Empire State Building. She said that one day, while they were working on their Necchi sewing machines, there was this big BOOM! An Army B-25 had crashed into the Empire State Building. Quite by mistake, of course.
Unfortunately, I don't think things worked out too well when James got back. My mother ended up moving back to Detroit after the war. Probably because some of her old friends were here, and James opened up a bar on 165th and Broadway. I visited him there in 1975.
At 430 Napoleon we lived with Aunt Ruth and Uncle Willie. They weren't really blood aunt and uncle, but when you are a child with an extended family of adults around you, they all become your aunts and uncles. My mother and them all grew up together, and they knew each other as kids back in the 20's and 30's. They were and remained lifelong friends up through their deaths. And they all helped Lois raise me. As they say, it takes a village to raise a child, and they and everybody in the "Village of Napoleon Street' were part of that village. I know one thing, I got spanked by all of them, and I more than likely deserved it, but that's part of the raising of a child, event though nowadays the rules have changed a bit.
Aunt Ruth was a big woman. She worked as a custodian for the Detroit Public Schools, a job she held her entire life. She was Light-skinned, as they say amongst black people, and Uncle Willie was a little, stocky, dark-skinned guy with bug eyes. Worked at Ford. In the plant. As did most of the men in Paradise Valley. A "Geechee Nigger" they used to call him in fun, in fact Ruth used to call him that when they weren't having much fun, or maybe after they'd had a little too much fun, fueled by Carling Black label and Old Taylor.
Supposedly, Ruth wanted to raise me herself, but Lois was having none of it. I was her baby, and that was it. And they all respected that. Even though I think that was a bitter pill between them for the rest of their lives. Uncle Willie? I really don't think he had much to say about it. I think Ruth was the boss in that relationship, until Uncle Willie got pissed anyway, the it would be 'honey" this and "honey' that, usually after "motherfucker" this and 'son of a bitch' that. There was some speculation years later as to where my foul mouth came from anyway
Charles Redd was a star basketball player at Detroit's Northern High School in 1950. He had a dimple in his chin, like Kirk Douglas, and all the girls loved him because of that according to Dollye anyway. Hey, in High School, the girls always love the star athletes. Guess she did, too. But she said that everybody thought she was stupid even though she was lead soprano in the Northern High School choir. (Even Charles' family didn't like Dollye, because she was of a different "class" - fancy that, class divisions within African American society) Guess it was a High School thing the popular culture is lead by the athletes.
So Dollye said that she went to a dance once and all the athletes and the "chosen babes" were there, and she and Charles caught eyes, and that was it. Teenage love. What followed that? Me. Wonder if everybody thought she was stupid then, she got the number one draft pick.
Dollye and Charles got engaged. I guess that Charles's family wanted me, but my Mother, Lois, didn't trust them, or Charles. Clairvoyant that she was, because Charles ended up marrying a college graduate, (while engaged to Dollye, and after joining the Airborne and moving to Kentucky - the "military thing" again) as dictated by his parents. Supposedly, he had a hard time saying NO. To anybody, especially his parents. Dollye found out about this on a Labor Day.
Along came Jack. He and Dollye married in January of 1952. (The government was exploding lots of big bombs in the Pacific during this time) The knight in shining armor. Or an U.S. Air Force uniform. If you want a template for a good man, this is it Dollye had had me, and Jack wanted to marry her. Upstanding man. Kind of like "Officer and a Gentleman". He just took up the gauntlet.
By Jack, Dollye had Roger, Ann, (born in Detroit, New York respectively) Kathy, Barbara, (DC) Karen, (born in Minnesota) and David. (South Dakota) Military families do move around.
I never really knew any of them that well, because I was with my mother, Lois, and they were, by that time, overseas in Spain, and Turkey at Incirlick Air Force Base, surrounded by B-52's and nuclear missiles, and Russians.
This is a Cold War Air Force family for you
When Barbara was born, in Washington, DC, (as was Kathy) they nicknamed her "Sputnik" guess why? The first satellite launched into space ever was by the Russians, it was called "Sputnik". It caused such a furor; you would not believe not that Barbara did, cause a furor, that is. but I guess she looked like a little satellite with antennae when she was born. Two little beady eyes with ears
David was born autistic at Ellsworth AFB in South Dakota. Back then they called everything retarded. If you didn't fit the ideal 50's mold, you were retarded.
Retarded. What the hell is "retarded" anyway? The adults in the family said that Kathy, the third born after me, was supposed to be retarded. Third born? Shit, wonder what that made me anyways..
In fact, all of "Dollye's Kids" were supposedly a "little off". Like they said Dollye was "stupid" in high school.
Let's define retarded:
Roger, who was raised in California with Ann was a reporter for the Sacramento Bee, Public Relations Manager for Sports Illustrated, and is now working for ESPN. He also has an absolutely gorgeous daughter, Allison.
Barbara had a successful career in the Army after getting her black belt in karate, and in the Army she met Robert Rickman, whom she later married. They now have two boys.
One wants to join the military, the other is into the performing arts.Fancy that!
A lot of that career military runs in our family, too. It's either The Arts, or the military for us.
Dollye said Barbara wanted to be career Army, but her husband, Robert didn't want her to. Barbara did indeed want to stay in the military. She loved it and she still does.. But the real reason she left was not just because her husband wanted her to, but because her sons, Chris and Brian needed and deserved a full time mother.
Something to take into consideration with women in the military that
are also mothers.
Karen was an upstanding member of the Illinois National Guard
Kathy was reading by the time she was 4. She worked for 18 years in the Anchorage, Alaska library system, and now owns her own home
So much for 50's labels...especially those imposed on African Americans.
David, who was born autistic, lived on a diet of M&M's and rice, and used to run away from home at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois all the time until he was five, when Dollye had him institutionalized in Battle Creek in 1966. He lived in various institutions and care centers until he was 37, when he died in 1997.
However, once again, let's define "retarded" or autustic. When he was 4 and 5 years old he used to do things that would let the family know he knew a lot more than people thought.
One instance was when his toy fire engine had been moved to a closet - the same closet where his candy was kept - so while Dollye was sleeping, he would climb into the closet to get the candy, while holding the bell on the fire engine to keep from waking Dollye.
So he never really spoke...I know some people that would be a really good idea for
When David came along I was 11. It was 1962, right before Dollye and Jack went to Incirlick. They stayed with my mother and me at our house at 89 King Street on the north end for awhile, before they shipped out to Turkey. Guess they wanted me to go with them, but my mother wanted me to stay in Detroit, and continue with the life that had been established for me there, school and all.
David and I slept together in a big sunlit ling room that faced the backyard of the house at 89 King in the North End. He was 1, and I was 11. I used to cross the room in the middle of the night, pinch his toes (I know, I was a little bastard) and make him yell and then jump back in the bed. All the parents would come running. I thought that was hilarious.
Those were really the only sounds he made his entire life. David never spoke. Ever.
He would smile. That was about it. And it was only a melancholy, wistful smile. He never frowned. He always walked on his tiptoes. He had what they called P.I.C.A. behavior. Where he would drink anything. That runs in the family also. But he would drink ANYTHING. Paint, Pine Sol, gasoline, you name it. Therefore, the people in the institutions he was in had to make sure there was never anything liquid and harmful around David.
Once he drank a gallon of windshield washer fluid. This was in 1993. I had consented to be his "Regional family Consenter" or some other Social services thing, because I was his closest of kin within 5,000 miles. I got a call from the halfway house he was in, telling me what had happened.
They were on a field trip, and the attendant had gotten out of the van, (you know, one of those vans with all the "REE-tards" in it?) to get some cigarettes. Well, while the attendant was pout of the van, P.I.C.A. David grabbed a gallon of windshield washer fluid and chugged it. Next thing I know, I'm getting a call that David is in Grace Hospital near death. I call Dollye who is in Alaska, (mind you, this is 1993 now, I'll get to that later) and Lois, who by this time is 82 years old, and tell them, but the responsibility in this situation is really mine.
Anyways, I go to the hospital, and here is David, with hoses coming out of everywhere, his eyes, half closed, and he had this David smile on his face. I said to him, "Dude, you gotta be pretty drunk, eh?' Because I guess the doctors had to give him IV's of grain alcohol to counteract the poisonous effects of the alcohol in the washer fluid or something. Like I said, runs in the family. Hey, by this time, I was half drunk, too. Here he was, near death did he really even know? There really is some question as to what autistic people know, right? But he had that David grin on his face, and all I could do is shake my head. All I could do is talk to him, and crack jokes and all that. Especially about how hung over he would be if he lived through this thing.
Some people would say that you are never getting through, to autistic people, but I knew I was I just knew it. I could tell. Because David would do the David grin even more, or kick his leg, or something which let me know that he felt me.
Try making real eye contact with a "retarded" person
The next day I jumped way into the shit of the "caregivers", because I wanted to know why he had been left alone when they knew he had this P.I.C.A. thing going, and there was a bottle of windshield washer fluid within his reach. And you know? They were REALLY co-operative! With State Investigations pending. They were "conducting investigations" and "taking corrective actions", and so on.
But I really couldn't get too far down on them, you know? Because the people at the halfway house really loved David. They had taken care of him for ten years at this particular one, and they were just as upset if even moreso than I, because they lived with David EVERYDAY they were his family. The last time I had lived with him, had been thirty years earlier. Which says a LOT. People who give up their lives to care for the disabled are true Angels not losers who couldn't make it in the "real world".
As I said earlier, with our family, it was either the military or the arts, Dollye and Jack and the kids lived all over the world. Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey, Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, and at Chanute Air Force Base in Illinois. In fact for awhile, I lived with them at Chanute.
The first time I went down was in the summer of 1965, but the part I remember the best was the summer of 1967, right after the riots in Detroit.
Base housing is a trip. It's like living in the projects in the ghetto. Not that it is run-down or anything like that, but the buildings look just like the projects on the South Side of Chicago, or those in The Bronx, Brooklyn, or Detroit. All the buildings are no more than two stories, probably so a B-52 or something wouldn't run into them, real non-descript. Basically, someplace where a family lives while the husband (or wife) is stationed there. I guess if you were a bachelor or bachelorette, you live in the barracks on base. On top of that, not all family housing is necessarily on the base proper. Some housing at some bases is on the outside of the base perimeter, but it still falls under base jurisdiction I don't really remember how it worked in the case of a crime I'm thinking that if there was an incident outside the base, the local police would respond and turn it over to the AP's. (Air Police)
Since I'm talking about a crime
Jack and I were on base once. He took me over to the Crash/Fire Training Area to shoot Starlings (birds, not airplanes) with a CO2 pellet gun. By the way, I would never do that now, this was a long time ago. Besides, as you will see, I never ended up shooting any Starlings anyways.
The Crash/Fire area was where they trained crash crews to put out fires in case a plane made a crash landing and caught fire. It was out in an open field on the far eastern corner of the base. In the field sat the carcasses of a few burnt-out planes. The field itself was burnt black by previous training exercises. Kind of reminded you of being in a lava field in Hawaii. The whole place smelled of jet fuel. Basically what they would do is soak these plane carcasses down with JP fuel and set them alight. Then the crash crews would have to put them out. From our house, we could see the smoke billowing all the time. Anyways, for some reason Starlings used to hang out there a lot. Why I don't know. There was really nothing alive there. So here come Jack and I with the pellet gun I was 16 at the time.
The gun itself was pretty cool. Just short of being a .22, it was a single shot model with a scope on it. You'd fire your pellet, then you'd have to break it open, like an old shotgun, insert another pellet, then close it. It was actually the first time I had ever even done anything like that, so it was quite an experience for me to do that. Especially being able to pick a target out via the scope, and then actually hit it. Well, almost anyway.
After taking a futile shots at incredibly agile starlings that were really good at evasive maneuvers, we decided we would go for some stationary targets. All over the blackened field, you could see beer cans left behind by partying airmen half-buried in the jet-fuel-soaked soil. They were like little white rectangular dots sticking up in a sea of black. We decided to shoot at them. Bad idea.
I took aim at one of the cans, had to be about 50 yards away, and fired. Right after firing, I looked up, and saw two airmen about 50 yards beyond my target just past the treeline where we had parked. Jack and I thought nothing of it at the time. I cracked open the rifle, inserted another pellet, and snapped the barrel home. Right on my thumb! I basically ripped my thumb open serious laceration. Imagine putting your thumb in the mouth of a barracuda or something. It was kind of like that. It hurt like HELL!
At that point Jack decided to get me back to the house, because I was bleeding all over the place. As we were walking up to the car, (a '59 ford Fairlane) two AP's with their white helmets come rolling up like gangbusters in a jeep. We got the "What are you doing here what kind of gun is that", etc. Turns out that the one pellet I fired at that one can ricocheted off the can and went whizzing by the ear of one of the two airmen I saw in the distance, ZZZZzzzziing! Who of course went and told the AP's. I can hear it now. "Somebody's shooting at people over in the crash/fire area!" They ended up carting us off to APHQ. However, after some nifty explaining, they ended up sending us home, and I ended up with a big thumb something akin to the way a thumb throbs when it gets hit with a hammer in a cartoon.
Racing In Rantoul
At this particular time, I was REALLY into slot cars. In the 60's there were three types. 1/24 scale, 1/32 scale, and 1/87 scale cars. As you can probably guess, the numerical designation stood for how big the cars were in comparison to their real counterparts. For instance, the '67 Camaro I had was 1/87 the size of a real Camaro, or, one inch on the slot car equaled 87, 32, or 24 inches on the real car. They were made by companies such as Strombecker, Cox, and Aurora. All my cars were made by Aurora, because I was totally into 1/87 scale cars. However, I did have a really fast 1/32 scale Cox Chevy Cheetah, because my good friend Louie Smith had a 1/32 scale track, and he had this REALLY fast Ferrari Formula One Car, so I bought the Cheetah just for him but anyway.
Jack took me to a slot car track in Rantoul. The first commercial slot car track I had ever been to. The place had two tracks, one for 1/24 and 1/32 scale cars, and one for 1/87 (or HO) scale cars. As well, they sold all kinds of cars, parts, models, and so forth.
The tracks were huge. The biggest I had ever seen. I had an HO track set up at home, two lanes, that took up an entire room. The HO track at this place had to be four times as big, and it had EIGHT lanes, and the 1/24-1/32 scale track was even bigger!
Basically the way it worked was you could a pay certain amount of money, and then race either cars you could rent right at the track, or race your own cars. I had a cool fishing tackle box that held all my cars, parts, extra motors, tires, oil, screwdrivers, etc. Of course I had the obligatory STP and other racing decals on the outside of the box. My "stable" consisted of a red 1967 Camaro, a baby blue 1942 Willys roadster, The "Black Beauty" (The Green Hornet and Kato's car), and a dump truck, a '65 Mustang, along with some other slower cars that I mainly used for parts.
By the way, as I tell this story, bear in mind that this was Central Illinois, 1967, and Jack and I were the only two black people in this place.
Anyways, comes the first race. I didn't do too well. I flew off the track several times, and in slot car racing, when you flew off the track, it usually meant off the track, over the edge, onto the floor or into a wall, on into somebody's head! However, for the second race, I got it together. I was running my '67 Camaro. I had put "silicones" on all four wheels, which were basically wider, softer tires, and if you put a drop of oil on the rear tires, it softened them even more, and they became like glue, which gave you tons of traction.
I proceeded to outrun everybody soon I was lapping the entire field with ease. Third race the same, fourth race the same. People were beginning to pack up and leave.
At this point, I thought I would run my Cheetah (the 1/32 scale car I had) on the big track.
We put our cars on the track for the start, and since mine was the only 1/32 scale car among all the 1/24 scale cars, it looked like a little sportscar among a bunch of SUV's. The race started, and after a couple of spins and a couple of off-track-into-the-wall-or-sombody's-head excursions, I started to get the hang of it. After awhile, I was also wiping everybody out on this track. Nobody could beat me. Just think a young black kid comes down from Detroit and basically destroys the best Illinois has to offer on their home track first time out.
We went back a couple of times after that, and the same thing happened, but even worse. I began to develop a reputation. In retrospect, it was probably safer to race my cars at home after that
I made friends with two really cool girls that summer in Rantoul. I can't remember their names, so I'll call them Angie and Lisa. They were the daughters of a couple of the other non-comms (non-commissioned officers, staff sergeants, etc) that lived in our section of the base housing. We ended up becoming really tight. We would run around in bare feet all summer. We all wore ankle bracelets. We would hang out at Angie or Lisa's house and listen to records all the time. The Beatles, Tom Jones, Petula Clark... In particular, I remember the song "Little Red Book"... On rainy days, we'd all sit in the house, looking out the window, waiting for the next sunny day to come so we could run around outside in our bare feet and ankle bracelets again.
One day, I went over to Lisa's house to see if she was there. It was a really beautiful summer morning. Cloudless blue sky, birds chirping, the air smelled so fresh and clean I was looking forward to another day of hanging out with my two friends. Her father answered the door. He was a staff sergeant, just like Jack. He says to me, "I don't want you coming over here to see my daughter anymore why don't you go play with some of the little white boys down the street." That was the first time I'd ever met the guy too.
I was crushed. I couldn't understand why he did that. I went home and told Dollye. She said it was because Angie and Lisa were two young white girls, and of course, I was black, and aside from the sex thing, which never entered our minds, it probably looked bad for the white daughters of white non-comms to be hanging out with me. People do talk, you know. This was central Illinois, 1966. The sex thing had never entered our minds. Obviously it entered the adults' minds. Maybe kids would be better off without adults around screwing everything up. Forget the fact that we were just three teenagers having good, clean fun. I never saw them again after that, but I never forgot them, or Lisa's father, again.
David and the Slot Cars
Since I had brought my slot cars with me, I had also brought a large section of my track with me, and set it up in Jack and Dollye's bedroom off to the side by the big window that looked out into "M" Street. Jack got a couple of sawhorses and a big piece of plywood, and I put together a big 10' x 5' Indianapolis-style oval. However, racing on the oval could be very tricky with David around.
At the time, David was four years old. He seemed fascinated by the motion. When he would stand by the table watching the cars zip by, the table was right at his eye level, so all I would see would be his head from the eyes up. Every time a car zipped by, his eyes would follow it; zip, zip, zip! Then he would start to raise his arm, at which point I would say, "DAVID! Don't touch the cars!" However, after awhile, David couldn't help himself, and he would do a lightning grab of one of the cars as it passed. It was like something out of a 50's monster movie ("The Amazing Colossal Man") or something where the giant monster grabs the passing vehicle, passengers screaming, falling out of the windows, etc. This was where I got really mad, "DAVID! Put the car down!" at which point he would drop the car and run out of the room on his tiptoes with his fingers in his ears. So much for autistic people being deaf
As I said before, Paradise Valley was it's own little community within the City of Detroit. My "world" as a child was only about three blocks square. Napoleon Street, Vernor Highway, Woodward Ave., John R., Brush, and Beaubien Streets, Adelaide, Alfred, St. Antoine they about measured the extent of my personal travels in my early childhood. I guess in reality your world as a child is really small, but it seems really BIG, because you are so small at the time. A simple thing like a card table can seem huge, because it's table surface is at your eye level.
Needless to say, everybody in this village knew everybody, and when the adults would get together on hot summer days and have barbecues, everybody from the entire village would be there. From as far as 3 blocks away! And of course, all the kids were there We'd play Tag, Monkey In The Middle, Hopscotch, Blind Man's Bluff, Hide and Seek, Kickball, Baseball, Army, Bottlecaps, (games we invented, no computer games, needless to say) ride our bikes, and generally just rip and run around all day, and the adults had nothing to worry about, because they all knew that everyone was watching out for everyone else.
My best buddies were Frank Jr., Rocky and Eddie. We were always together. I had another best friend, Charles Wright, but he lived in the Brewster Projects across the street, and I guess because the projects was it's own community, it seemed like it was a hundred miles away. In reality, Beaubien Street was only about 60 feet wide, but like I said, when you're a little kid, it might as well be Woodward Avenue.
Rocky, Eddie, Frank Jr. and I had all kinds of adventures. Sometimes we would fight, but we were such good friends that we'd always be hanging out again within a few hours. Through them, I learned the importance of my mother having mercurochrome, iodine, and hydrogen peroxide. I had so many skinned knees, elbows, and broken bones, it's a miracle I even survived the era! Jumping off porches playing "Army" or reliving some action sequence we had seen in a movie, taking headers off the handlebars of moving bicycles, getting hit by cars, bailing out of swings that were even with the top bar of the swing, implaing myself on clotheslines! Like Bill Cosby said once, it's almost like kids are trying to kill themselves!
Once, Eddie and Frank Jr. tried to kill a baby bird that had a broken wing. We found it out in the sunflower field. I got really upset, and ran into our house crying. A few seconds later, I came out of the house and after Eddie with a hatchet. Luckily, some of the neighbors grabbed me before anything happened. Besides, Eddie and Frank Jr. were running like jackrabbits, laughing their asses off.
Another time, we found a kitten under a pile of boards next to the house over on Brush St, across from the Barlum Cleaners, the house that had the pear tree behind it. I tried to pick up the kitten, because I wanted to take it home. The kitten was scared to death (can you blame it?), it sunk its teeth into my thumb. I immediately dropped it, and it ran back under the boards. Good old Rocky and Eddie proceeded to bombard the boards with bricks. I think the kitten got away though. My mother grabbed me before I could go after Rocky and Eddie. She immediately took me to receiving Hospital for a tetanus shot.
I think that Rocky and Eddie knew how I was about animals, and so they probably got a big kick out of doing stuff like that, knowing how upset I would get. Funny thing though, whenever we would catch grasshoppers over in the sunflower field and pull their legs off, or make them "spit tobacco", that wouldn't upset me at all.
One summer day, a bunch of the adults from the village took all us kids to Walled Lake Amusement Park. A place none of us had ever heard of Mind you, this is the 1950's Walled Lake is about 50 miles from the area of Paradise Valley, and back then there were no freeways. I think they just got on Grand River Avenue - a street none of us kids had heard of - and just drove forever. I don't think there were any black people living around Walled Lake then. In fact, there was talk that any "negroes" as they called us back then that were caught west of Woodward could be arrested and thrown in jail. Perhaps some leftovers from the race riots of 1943.
The Park was one of the most amazing places we had ever seen, coming from the village of Paradise Valley. A total Fantasyland. We might as well have been in Switzerland or something. It was the first time I had ever seen a roller coaster! Also the first time I rode one. Of course, Me, Eddie, Frank Jr., and Rocky rode together. Later on we went into the House of Mirrors. This was a real house of mirrors, with real mirrors, not just panes of glass. Pretty soon, we were completely lost amongst the mirrors. It seemed like we were in there for an hour, and we were beginning to panic! Pretty soon, though, Frank Jr. saw Rocky, Preston, and Eddie going out of the exit, so he yelled, "Hey! Wait for me!" and ran after them. The only problem was, he saw them in a mirror I'll never forget the sight of his bald head bouncing off that mirror, the sound it made, (kind of like hitting an empty 50-gallon oil drum with a huge rubber mallet), him falling to the ground, and the look of shock and dismay on his face!
Then there was Larry Hawkins. His father, Mr. Hawkins was the caretaker of the building. Everybody called him "Hawk". He was an ex-convict, but seemed like a nice man. They lived in the basement apartment on the 445 Napoleon side of the building. I used to fight with Larry all the time, I don't know why. Once, after I had jumped off of a second-story porch playing Army (what else?) and broken my wrist, I got into a fight with Larry. He kept picking on me, and kept picking on me until I finally hauled off and went upside his head with the cast I had on my arm from breaking my wrist, which was like a portable brick. The fight ended right there. A couple of minutes later, we were playing Kickball together in the alley.
Also, because Larry was the caretaker's son, we had access to the coal bin of the building. We could go out the back door of their basement apartment, which led to the coal bin which was like some kind of dungeon out of a Vincent Price movie. The door would creak open, you had to step down three steps, and it was pitch black! You had to walk into the pitch blackness to find the string to pull to turn the lights on! THAT was scary! Instead of having their back door lead directly outside, they had to go through the coal bin, then to another door, which led outside, if they had to empty their garbage in the big cement receptacle out back.
We used to have a blast in that coal bin. Once we pulled open the manhole cover that the coal man used to open to dump the coal into the bin, and we were jumping into the hole, landing on top of the pile of coal below that evening, though, my mother wasn't too happy when I went up to our apartment covered black with coal dust in my brand new clamdiggers she had just bought from Hudson's or Crowley's.
Cheryl and Gwen lived across the alley in a gray frame house that still stands today, as does the 445 Napoleon building. They were sisters, Gwen being the oldest. I used to fight with them all the time too, although the fights were different. That's the way it always is when you fight with girls. We didn't fight all the time, though. In fact, my first experience with sex with a human was with Cheryl, the younger sister, in the back of a '53 Chevy that was parked out by the sunflower field around the corner from the courtyard of the building. We were both 8 years old. She kept telling me that this is what she saw her mama do, and I should "do it this way".
By the way, the FIRST sex I had was with the Barlum Cleaners. That's right, a building. When I was about four years old. Larry Hawkins and I found a hole in the side of the building, so we dropped our pants and proceeded to have group sex with the building. Officer Hooks, the local beat cop, who was also a numbers runner, saw us and took us both home, because, as I told my mother, we were doing "The Pussy" to the cleaners
I went to three schools while we lived in Paradise Valley. Stephen Foster School, which was a Detroit Public School, and is now Detroit Police SWAT Headquarters, which was right across the street from the sunflower field, was one. I also went to St. Mary's, a Catholic school, in what is now known as Greektown, and Sacred Heart, another Catholic school, which has the distinction of being the first black Catholic parish in Detroit, over by Hastings Street. The steeple of it's church was recently blown off by a tornado.
I was at Stephen Foster for Kindergarten and Grades 4 through 6, at St. Mary's for Second Grade, and Sacred Heart for Third Grade. I kind of think that I ended up back at Stephen Foster because my mother couldn't afford the tuition at the Catholic schools, being a single mother in the early 50's and all. It's always hard for single mothers.
Upon going back to Stephen Foster, I met Charles Wright. He lived over in the Brewster Projects which, like I said, were literally right across the street, but they were a whole different area of Paradise Valley. They were "The Projects". Charles and I became really good friends right away. We'd always do our homework together. I was either at his house, or he would be at my house. He had about eight brothers and sisters, and his family adopted me as one of their own. As was the way in the village of Paradise Valley. His father even built me a bike. It was my first bicycle. He charged my mother $8 for it. Balloon tires, coaster brake, big wide handlebars Charles had one too. We used to ride all over the place, even though he had asthma. He kept his inhaler with him all the time.
I almost killed myself on that bike several times, but one exceptional incident I had was when we had been racing around the block, Napoleon to Brush, Brush to Winder, Winder to Beaubien, and Beaubien back to Napoleon, and I got to the blind corner at Napoleon and Beaubien.
The apartment building that was 445 Napoleon was what made the corner blind. I was going way fast, and as I turned into the corned, a car pulled up, forcing me wide, after I had already leaned into the turn. Well it forced me wide right into the hood of a parked 1957 Pontiac. After the sudden stop, I ended up laid out across the hood of this car with a hole in my leg created by the Pontiac "Running Indian" hood ornament. The scar is still there.
Once we rode over to Eastern Market. By the smelly Rickel Malt plant. We used to go there all the time and ride around on non-market days, because there were a lot of cool ramps we could ride up and down on.
On the way over, we bought a whole bunch of "wine candies", better known as Jolly Ranchers today. They had just come on the market. We bought them over at Mr. Eddie's candy store by the playground. The front of Mr. Eddie's store kind of looked like the front of Fred Sanford's house on "Sanford and Son". Back then "wine candies", known today as "Jolly Ranchers", were a penny apiece. Between the two of us we must have had a hundred of them. We were eating them all day.
While we were riding around Eastern Market, we had an experience with a slaughterhouse or at least what we thought was a slaughterhouse.
We were outside this meat packing plant - it had that telltale smell - and we could her cows mooing. Then we heard this big WHUMP noise. Next thing we knew, this big mass of greenish mangled meat was sliding down this chute into a barrel filled with the same kind of stuff. It was pretty nasty.
After riding home, I had to go to the bathroom. Number Two. Lo and behold, it all came out GREEN! Just like the stuff we saw at the meat packing plant, but it was probably more because we were eating "wine candies" all day.
In case anybody wants to know, the green "Jolly Ranchers" were the first. You heard it from me.
Another time, Charles and I had the privelege of running the Bell & Howell movie projector in the school auditorium, thanks to Mr. Grogan, our 6th grade teacher. It was a pretty big deal. I think we got to do it because we were two of the top students. (I was double-promoted from 4th to 6th grade)
After we figured out how to thread the film, we turned the lights out in the auditorium, and started the projector. While the lights were out, we figured it would be fun to crawl down the length of the auditorium, on the floor, under the seats, and grab the girls' feet from under their chairs while they were watching the movie. Just like in the movie "The Tingler". It was hilarious. Mr. Grogan didn't think it was too funny though.
He also didn't think it was too funny when Sheila Lucas told him I called her a bitch. Of course, I never called Sheila a bitch. Supposedly, she liked me. All the kids used to tease me, going, "Micheal-and-Shiela! Micheal-and-Shiela!" I could have cared less about her. Or any girls for that matter. Anyways, she told Mr. Grogan this lie, and I got "The Paddle". "The Paddle" was basically a two by four that had been specially cut to give Mr. Grogan a handle. It was about three feet long. Anyways, he bent me over a desk and let me have it. I swear to God, I thought he broke my leg.
The high points of my summer were getting out of school, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, and going back to school. Getting out was a high point because, well, I was looking forward to a summer of running around like the maniac kid that I was. Going back was a high point, because frankly, I liked school. But the three summer holidays were the best. My mother would even take me to Hudson's or Crowley's downtown via the John R-Oakland bus and by me a new outfit just for these holidays, because they were so special in our village.
It would always be a sunny day. Usually, the adults that lived in our building at 445 Napoleon would have been up all night preparing the day's feast, and partying, and if they weren't up all night, they would be up at daybreak, because to cook ribs properly, you need to let them cook a long time. I would wake up to the sweet summer smell of barbecue coming in my bedroom window, because our apartment was situated right on the U-shaped courtyard where the big barbecue pit was located. I would bolt out of bed, get dressed, and run out the back door, taking a short cut to the ground by jumping over the railing outside the back door we lived on the first floor by the way. A two-foot drop if you're and adult, a four-foot drop if you're a 7 year old kid. If I didn't find Rocky or Eddie outside, I'd run over to their houses. My mother always bought me Stride-Rite Shoes, so I could always run fast. Rocky, who was half-Filipino and half-Black, actually lived outside our section of the "village" bordered by Brush, Beaubien, Vernor Highway, and Stephen Foster School which was the school most of us went to, of course He lived way up on Alfred between Brush and John R a whopping four blocks away! A whole other section of the village of Paradise Valley! However, Eddie lived closer. Right across the street from 445 Napoleon, at 430 Napoleon, which, like I said was one of the places my mother and I lived when I was a small child.
Anyways, around about noon, things would be getting into full swing. Little Napoleon Street would be crowded with the cars of all the adults that were over. Uncle Honey's '54 Chevy, York's Imperial, Don's Edsel they'd be parked all the way down the brick-paved street, and back in to the alley that led to the courtyard where the barbecue pit was. The sun would be up, the air would be filled with the smell of sunflowers, lilacs, barbecue, Uncle Gene's cigars, Black Label beer, and Old Taylor whiskey. Radios would be blaring Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Brook Benton and Dinah Washington, "Under the board-walk Booard-walk!"
The first batch of food would usually be done around 1 o'clock. The usual menu would consist of barbecued ribs, chicken, hot dogs, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, and mustard and turnip greens. All with Wonder or Silvercup bread. That was standard. Sometimes you would get additions of sweet potatoes, sweet potato pie, poke salet (kind of like greens, I have no idea why they called it poke salet, I think it was from down south somewhere as were most of the people in Paradise Valley), Pork Chops, barbecued of course, and plenty of other things people felt like contributing. However the standard fare was barbecued ribs. In fact, we all called spare ribs "barbecue" Kind of like calling refrigerators "Frigidaires". "Let me get another piece 'o that barbecue!"
After the food was done, the adults would relax and start partying. Not that they weren't partying before the food was done, but when there were no more ribs to cook, they could just leave the done meat on the grill in the big blue oval pot, soaked with homemade sauce. Yep, homemade sauce. I don't even think Open Pit existed back then. At least not in Paradise Valley. In fact the ribs REALLY tasted good after sitting in the pot for an hour or so. The adults would talk, argue, play cards, dance, (usually doing some variant of an early version of "The Bop", which is a lot similar to "The Hustle" that folks do today, only you danced with a partner instead of a group). Needless to say, this partying would continue long into the night, if not all night. Way long after the kids were called in for bed.
Dapper Uncle Al from Washington, D.C. would be there, along with Aunt Ruth and Uncle Willie, Uncle Honey, York and Don, who were both 25 years old and seemed really old, Uncle Gene and his cigars Gene Hunter, that is. Let me explain that. There were two uncle Genes. Gene Hunter, my mother's friend, and Gene Polk. Then there would be Aunt Mary, who lived in our building with her son Preston, who was about my age. She wasn't really an aunt, but like I said, for us kids in the village, all the adults were aunts and uncles. There would also be Big Mama and her boyfriend Boo Boo. A couple of things about them. One was that you could usually expect them to start arguing first, even though they loved each other to death, and the other was that when they were around, you could always expect to be listening to B.B. King. Big Mama loved B.B. King
Some of us were lucky enough to be able to stay out after the streetlights came on. We'd be out in front of the building under the watchful eye of the adults, trying to out-Hula-Hoop each other. There were others, though, that had to go in early, like the ones that lived three blocks away.
Oftentimes, the younger guys like York and Don would leave as evening fell and head for the Flame Show Bar, The 666 Lounge, The Arcadia, The Graystone Ballroom, or some of the other party places the young adults went. We used to hear their stories all the time, "Man, I was at The Flame last night, and !"
Sometimes, as the adults were partying, thing would get a little out of hand. Big Mama and Boo Boo were notorious. Once, Big Mama went upside Boo Boo's head with a big iron skillet. Sounded like a church bell it was way funny.
Another time, she threw a meat cleaver at him
Drinkin' and fightin'. Sometimes lovers do that. Hank Williams said so.
One time wasn't very funny at all.
One night my mother and Hawk ended up being the last of the partyers, which left them alone. I was asleep in the living room. All of a sudden, I heard my mother calling me. I woke up, and saw that Hawk had her cornered in the corner of the room, trying to rip her clothes off. He was so big, like 6'4" 250, that I couldn't even see her on the other side of him. I jumped out of bed and grabbed my baseball bat. Mind you, I was only 7 or 8, but I could still hit a pretty good softball!
I started wailing on his head from behind with the bat. Years later, my mother told me that every time I hit Hawk, he would flinch. I was hitting him with all my might. I had every intention of cracking his head open. However, I think he was so drunk and so enraged that he wasn't really feeling things like he was supposed to.
I think he had been imprisoned for murder.
Finally, he let my mother go, and came after me. I took off running through the apartment and out the back door. I hopped the railing, just like I did on barbecue days. All I had on was my underwear, and in one hand, I still had the baseball bat.
Anyways, I went out the door, over the railing, through the courtyard, along the side of the building to the front entrance, in the front door of the building, and in the front door of the apartment my mother was holding for me. No sooner than she slammed the door shut, Hawk hit the door like a freight train BOOM!
I guess he apologized the next day, having been drunk and all. You can bet that the entire community ostracized him, because everybody knew everybody, and my mother did have protectors, being single and all. Uncle Gene Hunter was one of them.
After Bob, my mother's husband died, my mother never really wanted another man in her life. She went through a lot with Bob. He was a really heavy drinker. Not that he was abusive or anything like that, he just was really irresponsible about his drinking. He was a good man. He taught me about the Tooth Fairy. Unfortunately, he would work all week, and then when he got paid on Friday, she wouldn't see him until Sunday night, with no money. We couldn't even buy a bottle of milk when the Twin Pines truck came by. He would come in and say, "Hi Hon", sheepishly, and she would be so pissed, she would be ready to kill him. At the time, we were living in a little flat on Concord Street, near Belle Isle, in the shadow of what was then the U.S. Royal tire plant, which was just a couple of blocks from the house on Agnes. I guess this was an attempt to live on our own, because at the house on Agnes, we were living with my mother's parents. We eventually left the place on Concord, and moved to 430 Napoleon, then 445 Napoleon again with Aunt Ruth and Uncle Willie.
Bob was a true "irresponsible artist". (former military) He was the first black man to learn the art of Oriental rug weaving. He was taught by a group of rug-making masters that worked through the J.L. Hudson Company, Detroit's big department store chain. As I said earlier, with our blood family, it was either the military or the arts. With Bob, it was both. He served in the Navy in WWII, and became a rug weaver after the war. We had a couple of the rugs he'd created in our house. My mother told me in later years that those rugs would be worth thousands of dollars someday. Unfortunately, Bob eventually drank himself to death. One day, when we had just moved from Helen and Agnes to 445 Napoleon, I was outside playing, and Bob's boss drove up with him in the car. (Bob's boss was a white man by the way, it was 1955) He was out cold. He had blood running out of his ears and nose. They drove Bob to Burton Memorial Hospital, where I was born, and which was one of the only places black people could go back then, and he was DOA from a massive cerebral hemorrhage. Too many Lucky Strikes, too much Old Taylor and Carling Black Label. Every time I hear Claude Debussy's "Clair De Lune", I think of that day. My mother said that was one of Bob's favorite pieces of music.
Enter Uncle Gene. All during the time Bob was doing his thing, Uncle Gene was on the scene, helping my mother get by. Uncle Gene was married, so I guess that made my mother the "other woman" to his family. However, he and my mother really cared for each other, and he really cared for me. He was always there. He would give me money, whip my butt when I needed it, he was that male figure that a male only child needed, even though he couldn't be there all the time, of course, because of his own family.
Oddly enough, I never met any of his family ever.
He and my mother's relationship lasted for the duration of their lives. When I became an adult, Uncle Gene and I would have drinks together, he would loan me his car when I first started driving, (a '71 Mercury) he was also a good man.
Whenever he and my mother wanted to have quality time alone, they would make sure I was asleep, and then they would go to a hotel up on Brush and Mack by Harper Hospital to steal a few moments. They didn't have to worry about my safety, because Big Mama lived right next door, and Aunt Ruth and Uncle Willie lived at the other end of the building's back porch. Uncle Gene and my mother never had sex in our house. I didn't even know this until I was an adult in my 40's. The hotel still stands today.
Uncle Gene had a stroke in 1976, when I was 25. He didn't die, but he lost some of his faculties and co-ordination. One summer day he came over to our apartment. We had moved to the north end by then. He and my mother sat in the sun together at a little TV table for hours. He couldn't talk very well. The left side of his face was drooping. She would give him snacks and little sips of water, because sometimes he would drop the glass. They were right by the door that led to our front porch by the lace curtains. I could see then that they loved each other very much, and aside from me, Uncle gene was the only man she had ever loved after Bob died.
Uncle Gene died in 1979.
There were 11 movie theatres within two miles of Napoleon Street. The Roxy, The Colonial, and The Fine Arts were two blocks directly west, over on Woodward. We looked at those as our "neighborhood" theatres. I'd get out of St. Patrick's Catholic church on Sunday, walk home with my mother, get my two dollars or so, enough for admission, a hot dog, popcorn and a pop, and walk the two blocks over on Adelaide to Woodward past the playground and the courtyard of Carmel Hall.
I'm not sure if Carmel Hall was a senior citizens residence or not. I know all I ever saw as old white people around there. There was a seven-foot brick wall that was laid out in a long S-shape that surrounded their courtyard. You could see these giant sunflowers peeking over the top of the wall. We'd always try to jump up and look over the wall, but with the wall at seven feet, it was kind of difficult. We knew we'd better not mess around there too much anyway. So, we'd finally get to Woodward, and the Roxy, Colonial and Fine Arts would be right there. You could usually count on these three theatres to have three movies, with one of them always being a western, usually with Randolph Scott.
Further downtown, you had The Fox, The Palms, The Adams, The United Artists, The Michigan, The Madison, The Broadway Capitol, which later became The Grand Circus, The Family, and the little Tel-Ex which was right next to the Flaming Embers restaurant off of Grand Circus Park, which is the park the Grand Circus Theatre was named after. It usually only showed newsreels, because TV still wasn't real prevalent then. Those were all the "downtown" theatres. Even though "downtown" was only a mile and a half away. A nice adventurous walk on a Saturday afternoon, or a Sunday afternoon after church.
Admission to the Fine Arts was fifteen cents. It was (and still is, but is closed) on Peterboro and Woodward. It was a real small theatre. There is a picture from the famous Detroit race riot of 1943 (yes, there was another one besides 1967) of a crowd of whites overturning a car right out in front of the Fine Arts. That was only 10 years before my mother started taking me to that theatre.
There is a big red church right next to the Fine Arts that has these windows that are recessed into the building about two feet. We would usually climb up on the ledge below the windows, and then climb into the first window recess. Then, because the windows were so close together, we could step from window to window, along the front of the building. I'm sure the proprietors of the church would have rather had us use the sidewalk while we were on our way to the Fine Arts, but those recesses were so intriguing! We'd usually do this window bit on the way to, and on the way home from The Fine Arts.
Admission to the Roxy was thirty-five cents. The Roxy was right at the corner of Alfred and Woodward. They tore it down in the 70's. Actually, Alfred dead-ended at Woodward westbound, and The Roxy was right across the street on the western side of Woodward, a few doors down from Greenfield's Restaurant, which was a real posh, mostly white restaurant back then. Supposedly, at the beginning of the riot of 1943, whites from the west side of Woodward, (remember, that was the boundary of Paradise Valley) were dragging blacks out of The Roxy and beating them.
The Roxy was science-fiction headquarters. I really think it was the theatre all the kids went to the most. Many of the science-fiction movies we saw, we saw at The Roxy. We saw all the early Godzilla movies there, starting with "Godzilla, King Of The Monsters", along with "Rodan", "Mothra", and "Ghidra, The Three-Headed Monster". We saw all the "Atomic Radiation Causes Something To Grow Big, Small, Or Otherwise Get Deformed" movies there, also, like "The Incredible Shrinking Man", "The Giant Gila Monster", and "Tarantula". There were also movies with one word in the title, like "It", and "Them". Then all the "Attack" movies. "Attack of the Crab Monsters", Attack of the Puppet People", "Attack of the 50ft Woman". They also had "The Blob", with Stephen McQueen (Steve McQueen's first movie) there several times, and we saw it every time. After awhile it was relegated from movie #1 to movie #2 in support of the main feature along with a Randolph Scott movie. We would seriously get ourselves freaked out. After seeing Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" there, we literally ran from every bird bigger than a sparrow that we saw when walking home.
Another movie type was "Somebody Goes Into Space And Comes Back A Monster", like "First Man Into Space". Basically what happens is an astronaut goes into space, hits a cloud of cosmic dust, his spacecraft breaks apart, and he comes back to earth a bloodthirsty monster. This movie employed the old tactic of the extreme surprise close-up of the monster's face. However, you'd always get a sound warning, like an "eeeeeeeeeiiiiiyowww" in the music before he jumped out of the bushes or something. Just enough time for you to cover your eyes even though we were still peeking through your fingers.
Of course, The Roxy's partner in crime was right down the street. One block. The Colonial. The Colonial was at Woodward and Adelaide. Basically the same setup as The Roxy Adelaide dead-ended, and The Colonial was right there. It happened to be in the same building Preston's doctor was in, because I went there with him and Aunt Mary once.
If it was Science Fiction or Horror, and it wasn't at The Roxy, it would be at The Colonial. Also for thirty-five cents. Usually, we'd alternate between the two week to week, between going to the big downtown shows, which I'll get to later.
"The Mysterians", a Japanese movie about aliens invading earth and stealing women, was at The Colonial. Fantastic space battle special effects in that one for 1958. Then you had "Caltiki, The Immortal Monster", kind of like "The Blob", only in Latin America, as was "The Black Scorpion", wherein a volcano unearths giant scorpions that attack Mexico City, and Richard Denning has to protect fine-ass Mara Corday.
Then there was "The She-Creature"; a scientist is pissed at his wife so he turns her into a monster. "Frankenstein's Daughter", a scientist is pissed at a young tart that won't go to bed with him so her turns her into a monster. "The Tingler", Vincent Price is pissed at his cheating wife so he kills her to get the monster out of her back. Then the classic "House On Haunted Hill" where Vincent Price is pissed at his cheating wife because she is trying to kill him, so he makes her fall into a vat of acid.
Believe it or not, though, The Roxy and The Colonial occasionally showed more than science fiction and horror movies.
Steve Reeves was one of our heroes. Not George Reeves, of Superman fame, and there is no relation, but Steve Reeves, the Mr. America that became 1959's "Hercules", and also starred in "Hercules Unchained".
These were the perfect little boy movies. Never mind the fact that everybody in the movie was white, who cared about that? The Greek god Hercules, (Reeves, Mr. America) who has the strength of 2,000 men granted by the Gods is this big hero that always gets to save the beautiful Italian babes running around in skimpy togas from various monsters. Hey, this is the kind of stuff that teaches real manly values! We'd always fight to see who was going to be Hercules in our games after the movies. "I'm Hercules! No! I'M Hercules!" Actually, back then, in the vernacular of Paradise Valley, we'd say "HerKAlees"
In fact, many of the movies we saw spawned games played outdoors immediately after seeing the movie. After seeing "The Left-Handed Gun", in which a young Paul Newman played Billy The Kid, everybody wanted to be Paul Newman, and nobody wanted to be one of his sidekicks, or Pat Garrett, the sheriff that eventually shot him. After seeing "The Time Machine", we always fought over who was going to be the hero, Rod Taylor, and which ones of us were going to be the Morlocks. And of course, after "The Blob", we all wanted to be Steve McQueen. In fact, sometimes I still think I'm Steve McQueen.
As much fun as we had going to The Roxy, Colonial and Fine Arts, though, going to the theatres downtown was REALLY special. We always had to dress up. These were the BIG shows. The Fox and the Michigan seated 5,000 people each. The Broadway Capitol and The United Artists each sat 3,000. The architecture made you feel like you were in some kind of fantasyland! Lots of aisles, corridors and marble stairways with red carpets to run around on and piss the ushers off "HEY YOU KIDS!"
Of course that was only if we were alone. If you went with your parents, you had to behave. Not that I was ever bored when Lois took me to the show with her. I loved going to the movies with my mother. I was her main date. We saw lots of great movies together, "The Sundowners" with Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr we saw at the Fox, as well as "The Enemy Below", also with Robert Mitchum as a WWII Destroyer Captain hunting U-boat commander Curt Jurgens. At the Michigan we saw "Lady and the Tramp", and "The Long Hot Summer", as well as "Picnic" with William Holden and Kim Novak. To this day, every time I see the movie "Picnic", I think of when I went to the Michigan with my mother. It's that way with "Rebel Without A Cause", too. The James Dean classic. I saw that with my mother at the Family Theatre, which was the furthest downtown of the theatres, being 2 blocks from the Detroit riverfront. The Family Theatre was right on the main Detroit downtown square, Campus Martius, down the street from Hudson's Department Store. Leaving the movie to go home at night, we could cross the street and get on the John-R Oakland bus and ride straight home with no problems
Even going to the bathroom at these theatres was an event. There were always couches and easy chairs in them. The men's bathroom always had a porter, or shoe-shine man. Always Black. The ladies bathrooms were even more decorated, with vanity mirrors and chaise lounges, in case one of them got "The Vapors".
The motif of The Fox was (and still is, it's been restored and is going stronger than ever) Far Eastern. Being there was like being in a Siamese palace. In fact, they called them "movie palaces" and you could see why. Upon walking in, you were in a lobby that was at least 5 stories high, and the smell of fresh buttered popcorn was in the air. Every thing was gold. There were statues and gargoyles, elaborate chandeliers and red marble columns all over the place. At the opposite end of this lobby was a big marble staircase that led to the Mezzanine. Directly above the doors as you walked in were the organ pipes of the lobby organ that was usually playing some kind of show tune, like "Singin' In The Rain" or something, while the moviegoers mingled in the lobby.
After getting your popcorn and hot dog or whatever, you walked into the auditorium, which was cavernous, to say the least. You could feel the sense of space when you stepped through the door leading from the lobby to the auditorium. The ceiling was designed to look like a Bedouin tent that had been pitched in the night that was being held up by the spears of the riders. The sky actually had twinkling stars in it! If you got bored with the movie, you could always just sit back, look at the sky and dream Sometimes, at the Fox, before the movie started, they would have an Organ Prelude. The Fox had a 10,000 pipe theatre organ that would rise out of the stage, all lit up in gold! It was on tracks, so after it rose out of the stage, it would move forward toward the audience, all while the organist was playing it! Then, after he finished his number, the organ would be lowered into the orchestra pit, and the movie would begin.
In 1962, we moved back to 89 King Street, because the house was part of the family. Owned by some of Jack's relatives.
The first time I drove a car was when I was 11. It was November 1962. Right after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was York's car, a 1958 Buick. We got on Brush Street, which, back in those days, ran all the way north to 8 Mile probably, a straight shot. Past Harper Hospital, through Highland Park, which, back then, was a really beautiful city, right in the middle of Detroit. Past 6 and 7 Mile Roads, and finally ending at 8 Mile which was the border of Detroit.
Needless to say, at 11 years old in 1962, I had no idea anything north of the sunflower field behind our apartment building even existed, let alone Highland Park, 6 Mile, 7 Mile, and 8 Mile. I learned all that as I grew older.
Our ride in the Buick terminated at none other than 89 King Street, the same place Dollye lived for awhile when I was born, which was roughly ten miles north of the village of Paradise Valley. Probably much to York's relief after all, I was only 11. However, that was a real uncle-like thing for him to do. Again, part of the Whole-Village-To-Raise-A-Child thing. My mother had a lot of real good friends, that was one of her best qualities; she was loved by a lot of people, male and female. Most of them would do anything for her. Even let me drive their car. However, I'm sure he was having his doubts the first time I hit the brakes, because back then, power brakes were REAL power brakes. Just touch them, those drum brakes would grab, and you were almost going through the windshield! So naturally, when he said, "step on the brakes", a couple of heads got bumped pretty good. I got the hang of it though, because we made it to King Street in one piece.
It was a whole different world! We might as well have been in another city! Huge houses that looked like mansions compared to our little apartment in Paradise Valley! Tree-lined streets, an A&P supermarket was right around the corner, it was like something out of a movie!
King Street was still roughly four miles South of Highland Park. And where we lived on King Street was actually one and a half blocks closer to Woodward than our apartment in the Valley was. We lived right between John-R and Woodward. Which would be convenient for my mother going to work, because she could just walk up to Woodward and catch the Rosa Parks-style bus downtown., get off at Vernor Highway - which wasn't really a highway, they just called it that - and then just walk over to Commerce High School, where she worked as a custodian. Before, when we lived in our apartment, we only lived a block north of Vernor, so she could walk to work everyday. I guess since I was getting older, and I would be in school, she would be working, and I was old enough to be a latchkey child and come home alone and do my homework or whatever, and by that time she would be home. In fact, we had been doing it that way since I was about 6 years old anyways. My mother taught me to take care of myself.
This new arrangement was more difficult for her, having to catch the bus and all, but I guess that's what mothers do. Inconvenience themselves for the sake of their children good mothers anyways. After all, we were getting this huge house!
As it turns out, I guess my dear mother had seen the writing on the wall as far as raising a child in Paradise Valley went. It was 1962, and things just were not as nice as they were before. She was worried about my safety, and hers. I think she also wanted better living conditions also. Not that our little apartment was all that bad, but when the offer came to move into the house at 89 King Street, it was an offer she couldn't refuse. The house was actually owned by some relatives of my mother's deceased husband, Bob, and Dollye's - Whit and Arnold. I guess they, along with their son (my half-cousin) Sonny, were going to be moving to California, and they wanted someone to stay in the house, and my mother and I were those people.
The address was 89 King. It was a three-story house with four full bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor, and a complete apartment on the third floor. The smallest of the four bedrooms was twice as big as any of the rooms in our apartment. On the main floor, there was a library with leaded glass enclosed bookshelves and mahogany wood paneling, a giant living room with fireplace and a grand piano, a giant dining room, and a giant kitchen, along with a bathroom situated between the dining room and the kitchen.
The basement was completely finished in wood paneling, with a bar and beige and red checkerboard tiles on the floor. It also featured a bathroom, as well as a laundry room, bedroom, and a couple of storage rooms. (One of which Damon and Robert Le Blanc and I would later use for our club room - more about that later)
Attached to the back of the house were full-length porches on the first and second floors that ran along the length of the back of the house. The first-floor porch was perfect for running out onto the porch via the French doors that opened off of the dining room, and jumping over the rail, just like I used to do at our apartment in the Village of Paradise Valley. Only it was a straight shot out the French door, I didn't have to make a right.
As I said, the house at 89 King had a grand piano in the living room. Did I try and learn to play it? NO. This period of time was when I started getting into building plastic models. I think I had most of the U.S. Navy and Air Force on top of that piano, along with scores of vehicles of various types, ranging from automobiles to tanks.
It was actually Uncle Arnold that got me started on this, because he used to build them. Uncle Arnold was Whit's husband, the lady that owned the house to begin with. I used to watch him build his, I think I helped him with a couple, and then I started. I remember he built this really cool model of a WWII era British tank. Detailed it out and everything. He stayed in the house with my mother and I for awhile. He took the big master bedroom directly above the living room. I think he and Whit split up, which was another reason she and Sonny moved to California.
When I started building my own models, I was going for broke. Most of the time, I could build one in one day, because I never really got into painting all the parts. I would paint high water lines around the keels of the ships, and that was about it. My mother was going broke too. These models usually cost between $2 and $5 for the larger-scale Revell and Monogram models, and then I'd build these things in one day, and then want another one and what did she do? Sacrifice so I could have what I wanted. Sometimes I'd have to wait, but she would usually come through for me. I guess it was better having me sitting at home building models than running around in the streets. That was one thing I never did when I was young, run the streets.
I think I had every aircraft in the U.S. military inventory, in various sizes, ranging from 1939 to what was then 1963, with names like Wildcat, Hellcat, Avenger, Dauntless, Helldiver, Catalina, Mustang, Thunderbolt, Lightning, Mustang, Zero, Stuka, Crusader, Black Widow, Crusader, Voodoo, Thunderchief, Starfighter, Super Sabre, Delta Dagger, Delta Dart, Snark, X-1, X-1A, X-2, X-15, Panther, Stratofortress, Flying Fortress, Mitchell, Avenger, Liberator, and many others. In addition, I had many of the ships in U.S, inventory from that same period, and I had the battleships USS Missouri and Iowa, the Arizona, the German battleships Bismarck, Graf Spee, Tirpitz, Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. The British H.M.S. Hood (which the Bismarck sank with one shot in May, 1941- so much for British arrogance), the sleek destroyer U.S.S. Fletcher, the carriers, Forrestal, Lexington, Enterprise, (WWII and the modern-day nuclear powered one) and Hornet, the PT 109, John F. Kennedy's boat in WWII, as well as various cars and other models. The top of the piano was literally covered by my collection, then, when I ran out of room on the piano, the collection spread to the mantle over the fireplace
No missiles, mind you, remember, we hadn't been to the moon yet!
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