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.

Seventh Daze

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.