Burn, baby! Burn!
1967 was also the Summer of Hate. America’s presence in the Vietnam grew to a staggering 475,000 troops and in the states, peace rallies and political protests increased exponentially. There was a spreading discontent with the war in Vietnam. Another war burned angrily, literally, in the city streets across the country. Race riots, looting and urban violence erupted in Boston, Cincinnati and Newark. The issues of civil rights, class conflict, police brutality and the rise of black power mixed together into a maelstrom of disorder and violence.
In July, the worst riot occurred over five days in Detroit, Michigan. In the poorest black neighborhood of the city, white police raided an unlicensed after hours bar where a community party celebrated the safe return of two black servicemen from their tours of duty in ‘Nam. All 82 patrons were arrested. The baton-wielding cops called their male prisoners “niggers” and “boys”. The excessive police force agitated a gathering crowd. A bottle crashed through the back window of a police car, and then bricks through storefront windows and widespread looting began. Chaos ensued as arson-fed fires raged through 100 square blocks. The police and firemen were quickly overwhelmed. Governor Romney declared an emergency proclamation that included a curfew, and a prohibition on sales of alcohol, arms and ammunition and flammable liquids… in that order. Eight thousand National Guard was called in, followed by federal troops and armored tanks. Forty-three people were killed, over a thousand injured and seventy-two hundred arrested. Two thousand buildings were destroyed.
I was a naïve white boy and quiet observer. I could only cringe watching the nightly news. Images of burning buildings, looting and cops brandishing shotguns flashed across the television screen. I saw it in black and white. It was all about black and white. At the time, I couldn’t grasp what was going on, but knew everyone was really angry.
As summer waned, we braced ourselves for another awkward introduction into a new school. Unlike my brothers and sisters, I would be attending a public school. There was no room at Holy Spirit School in South Philly for another seventh grader.
Sans dark blue pants, white shirt and tie, I wore a stylish multi-colored paisley shirt, jeans and sneakers when I walked into Thomas Junior High School. (Oh, yeah, and pants too.) It was a quick five-minute bus ride from the Naval Shipyard up Broad Street, right on Oregon Avenue, then down to Ninth and Johnston Streets. Along the way I exchanged raised brows and dimpled smiles with friendly girls from the base. My new school was an imposing four-story brick building. The back half was an elementary school that shared an asphalt-covered schoolyard surrounded by a black wrought iron fence.
There were a number of celebrities of note among the distinguished alumni of Thomas Jr. High. They included Bobby Darin, Fabian, Eddie Fischer and John J. Liney Jr., comic strip cartoonist. Joe Niagara, another graduate was a disc jockey who I listened to on WIBG AM radio when I was there in ‘67.
It was an easier transition going into seventh grade because it was a hodgepodge of pubescent elementary school graduates. Everyone was new, in his or her own way. There were scattered allegiances representing the various schools, various religions and ethnic groups. Packs of menacing cocky boys leered at flush-faced giggling girls as they passed by, clinging protectively to each other, arm in arm.
Of great interest, discussion and appreciation among the boys was the obvious mammary bloomage going on. These seventh grade South Philly girls displayed an impressive cornucopia of strawberries, lemons, oranges and swollen cantaloupe.
I was a late bloomer, so it was an awkward time for me. I languished in a physical purgatory as the expected onslaught of hormones passed me by that year. A lot of the boys were mutating into large, grunting, hairy Neanderthals. In gym class, playing basketball, which I hated, I really felt like a runt. Some of the boys’ legs were super hairy, I thought they were wearing wooly chaps.
I was so skinny my gym teacher thought I had an eating disorder or a condition of some sort. The school nutritionist interrogated me about my health and diet habits. I was measured, weighed and inspected. My mom filled out a medical history form and wrote a note stating that I ate like a horse and was normal as far as she was concerned. Although the latter was debatable, I did eat like a horse. Unless there were onions or celery in it, I would eat anything. Notably, I could plow through a row of Oreo’s and finish-off a large glass of milk in astonishing time. I was also tested by a physical therapist. After doing 15 pull-ups, 25 push-ups and 50 sit-ups without breaking a sweat, I was declared fit. I was just a short, hairless, scrawny catholic kid fascinated by fruit and had a fast metabolism or a voracious tapeworm.