Monday, July 21, 2014

Detroit's '67 riots led to discovery of fly fishing, Upper Peninsula

Fly fishermen ready for a float trip. 
      It’s ironic that the Detroit riots in July 1967 introduced me to tout fishing, Isle Royale and the Upper Peninsula.  Those things and places seemed a million miles away from the gritty, violent streets of Detroit, especially that summer.  It’s a lifetime away,  47 years to be exact, and I spent many of those years trying to run away from my Detroit heritage, and it wasn’t until I wrote a travel guide to Detroit and Ann Arbor that I re-embraced my gritty heritage.
             That summer, I was 19 and had finished my first year of college.  To help pay for it, I got what were then one of the plentiful factory jobs building box cars in a plant.  The work was hard, sweaty and dirty, but paid well.  The workforce was integrated, and I had plenty of African-American co-workers.  One developed into a friendship that was tested by the riots. He and I had the job of placing large sheets of steel on frames where a welding machine passed over them. It was hot, even during the afternoon shift, and I was filthy by the end of the night, covered with flux which was applied to the welds to cool and harden them.
             It wasn’t the kind of job to make a career out of for either of us.  He was an Air Force veteran, just returned from Southeast Asia where the Vietnam War was raging.  He had a wife to support, and me, well; I was working for beer money.  We got friendly and talked on our breaks about what we wanted to do with our lives.  I knew we probably would be friends outside of work, but he was friendly and I liked him.
        Then the riots came.  They were sparked by a Detroit police raid on an afterhours blind pig on 12th Street where gambling was going on.  The street was the central business district for the black community.  Rocks and bottles were thrown and stores looted on a Sunday night.  At night I sat on the garage roof of my parents’ house in Detroit and watched the flames from the fires that had been started.
         When we reported for work on Monday, we were told there was a curfew and that we would be put on the day shift.  I lost track of my African-American friend, and wondered if he’d quit his job.  On the day shift, there was a surly black welder on our crew, which had a white foreman from the Deep South.  The welder would put his mask down, and fall asleep on the job.  On one occasion, the foreman kicked the welder in the legs and said: “Get to work, boy.”  The welder lifted up his mask and said:  “I’m going to move in next to you and have sex with your daughter.”  It summed up race relations to me that fatal summer.
                The riot dragged on, and as it did, I watched white workers placing orders with the black guys for deer rifles, TV set and other items.  In the mornings, the parking lot looked like a modern day big box store with guys transferring items from one car to another.  Race relations may have been bad, but greed is an equal opportunity employer.
           I hung in there for a few more weeks, working days.  But then it got too much for me.  Neighbors started to flee for the suburbs and others wanted to move Up North to a cabin to avoid what they thought would be a race war in the city.  My solution was to flee to the woods.  I’d heard about Isle Royale National Park in the middle of Lake Superior, so I recruited a cousin for my first backpacking trip.  We were hapless.  I used an old Boy Scout rucksack and brought canned food, not being aware of the fancy freeze dried stuff. 
       During that first year in college, I read a Hemingway story, “The Big Two-Hearted River” in which he sees large trout holding in the river near the Upper Peninsula town of Seney. On our drive, we passed through the town, and I had to stop.  I’d never caught a trout, and that mysterious image was burned in my immature 19 year old mind.  We stopped and wandered around until I found a river that turned out to be the Fox.  There under a railroad bridge were trout, occasionally moving their tails to stay in their spots.  I imaged Hemingway getting out of a train car at that bridge and seeing the same sight I saw.  Holding trout.  Had not he been trying to forget a war in the story?  I was, too, Vietnam and the riots in Detroit. 
       As a fly fisherman, I’ve been chasing those images for more than half a century, and plan to continue until I keel over in a river.  And I’ve got the Detroit riots to thank for all of those great times. 

Click here to see what the Detroit Free Press had to say about my Detroit & Ann Arbor Explorer's Guide.

For more information on the book, please go to


No comments:

Post a Comment