Updated: May 4, 2020
It Was A Different Time
Looking back, I guess I would be considered a River Rat. By that I mean the Detroit River was always a part of my youth in some way or another. My friends and I fished in it, boated on it, skied over it, swam in it, skated on it, fell through the ice of it and visited the islands of it. It was easy to traverse it and enter another country. As a teen, we lived only a block from some of the canals that led out to the Detroit River. When I lived on Kitchener, the River and its canals bordered our playgrounds. The water in those canals flowed in from the River at one end and slowly merged back out into it.
As a young boy, I was not allowed to go near those canals. They were fenced and presumably for a very good reason. But my young grade school friends and I were daring (and not too smart), so it wasn’t uncommon for us to climb the fence to run the banks of the canal and skip stones in it. On occasion we would throw a line and a hook with a worm fastened from a long stick fashioned into a makeshift pole; and we’d fish for whatever might come up. We got mostly catfish and suckers and some times they were pretty good size. We never kept them because they were ugly as could be; and they swallowed our hooks deep into them. So we cut the lines and tossed them back in.
One day a young boy named Jimmy Fasse decided to play along the canal. Jimmy fell off the bank, slid into the canal and drowned. It turns out the drop off was quite steep and apparently couldn’t manage his way back ashore. He was just a young boy. I remember how serious it was; all the parents talked in hushed tones and cried. The police came and questioned all of us about when was the last time we saw him, how was he acting. But the story is as simple as I am telling it – Jimmy Fasse fell in and drowned.
For a time after that, we no longer hopped the fence. I think we all felt mortal and a bit frightened by the canals at that point. It only kept us off the water for a little while though.
The canal that Jimmy Fasse drowned in was a U-shaped waterway. It was fed by the Detroit River at its mouth on the east and wound its way back into the River. There were homes built along the canal-bounded island on a gated street known as “Keelson Drive.” To young boys growing up near the River, gates didn’t really mean anything if they weren’t properly locked or attended. The Keelson gates were often left unlocked by some resident leaving or coming. We had heard rumors that a motorcycle gang had invaded a house on the island and totally trashed it. So we had to see for ourselves.
It was a long walk (or so it seemed) just to the gate. From there we walked in the dirt and gravel rocks along Keelson Drive, which back then was an unpaved, one-lane, packed-gravel drive. There were houses set back from the drive, but we couldn’t see them from the road. They were “mansions” as far as we were concerned, because each large house also boasted a covered boat-well built right up to the rear entrance of the house. One could literally walk from the back door of your house into the enclosed well and step onto your boat. We thought that was “the berries.” The road wasn’t busy, but we knew we looked liked trespassers. Were wore mass produced shorts and white t-shirts and scuffed Red Ball Jets tennis shoes.
We got to what seemed like the end of the road where the landscape changed from manicured lawns and planted wild flowers to really wild flowers and weeds. Grasshoppers leapt in front of us in the heat, as we walked through the waist high weeds. Cockleburs stuck to our socks and scraped our legs. But we had come too far to be deterred now. We saw the house.
I remember it looked eerily abandoned, even from far away. It was a dark grey, brick-and-stone structure and the front porch door stood open. Broken windows gaped at us like unseeing eyes. I have to admit to being a little frightened to go in. We pushed forward anyway – three of us guys (and I can’t recall to this day who was with me.) When we got inside it was dusty and hot. There was dirt everywhere. I couldn’t tell if the floors were wood, concrete, or carpeted, even. They were covered with dirt, wet newspapers, bags, and food debris. It was impossible to tell the color of the walls. They could have been grey by design, but they looked concrete-grey and were covered with dirt, spray paint, smears of food and what looked like human waste.
Every room appeared that way and smelled that way. And every window on the ground floor was broken. Now I was afraid. I wasn’t afraid of the house. But rather I was frightened that somebody was mean enough, cruel enough, and wild enough to do something like this. I could almost feel the evil of the people who had done this to someone’s home. There was a brief discussion about going upstairs. When I thought about penetrating deeper into that soulless place, about walking through the trash and detritus that was strewn on every step, I was glad we all just turned and walked out onto the front porch.
We got out there just as a security guard pulled up in a car. At first, we thought he was the police. That was the first time I recall seeing a guard in uniform. He had a gun, so maybe that is why I thought he was a cop. We were already “rounded up” so he just walked up to us and asked, “What are you kids doing here?” It was one of those questions called “rhetorical.” I learned that rhetorical meant a question to which no answer was expected, but was posed merely to make a point. Well, there was no good answer to what we were doing there, and he wasn’t really expecting one.
He told us to get in the car. Now for some reason, that didn’t sit too well with me. And I was having none of that. I told him to call the police if he had to, but I wasn’t getting in his car. My buddies were telling me to shut up and just get in the car. None of us wanted to be brought home by the police either. But to me, that seemed better than getting in this guy’s car. Finally, he relented and told us to walk alongside his car and he would escort us off Keelson Island. And that is how we left. We all walked quietly, as his car wheels crunched the stone road. We were stumbling deep inside our own thoughts about a scary house, and evil people, and a guard who carried a gun. We barely said a word to each other.
Interestingly, my thoughts about that place, from that point forward, were not about being caught by the guard, and not about the mess of that house, and not about the evil that must be in some people to do such a thing. Rather, I thought to myself, Someday I want to be able to afford a house on a canal with my own boat well.
Today, that road is still an isolated and private road, well paved and lined with condos and beautiful homes. And, although they do not have boat wells, they do have boat docks. Interestingly, as beautiful as these homes are, they still must be accessed through a rough and dangerous neighborhood of burned out shells of our former homes, in the City of Detroit. The area is being reclaimed. So far, although some work is being done, it is still just a claim.
Back in the fifties, when I was still barely a teen, if you walked to the end of Kitchener, Algonquin, or Navahoe streets you would come to Avondale Street. If you crossed Avondale going towards the river, you accessed Maheras playground. We just called it Algonquin Park. The Detroit Parks and Recreation Department maintained it. The southern boundary of that playground was the Detroit River. There was a fence just before you got to the River, but that is one that I do not recall ever climbing. I don’t know if it protected the entire shoreline of the water there, or just a smaller piece of enclosed property. There was something barren and foreboding about this stretch of shoreline.
The park was nicknamed “The Dumps.” Sixty years later I learned that the entire area where we grew up was dedicated to horse and automobile racing (yes, the first gasoline powered cars were raced, including Henry Ford himself driving one.) As the area was developed for residential use, the grandstands, structures and roads of the racecourses were torn down and the concrete was “dumped” along the shoreline of Maheras Field, forming a concrete seawall, or so the story goes.
As a younger boy of about twelve or thirteen, I was asked to play on a pretty good hardball baseball team and they practiced at Algonquin Park. I remember asking myself why anyone would practice there. Every practice, I had to walk through open fields of brambles and was chased by bees, garter snakes and grasshoppers all the way to the ball diamonds. I would go running to practice with my three fingered mitt strapped through my belt and it would flop against my leg as I ran. I always got there all sweaty and red faced, with brambles stuck in my socks. I later found out that everyone but me was getting a ride to the field. Because I lived only technically a few blocks away, it was thought I could just walk it. It was a long and tedious walk and I only played ball for them one summer. As hot as it could get, and as close as I was to the River, it never occurred to me in those early days, to just jump in and get refreshed. No, then as now, the River was wide, deep and had a fast current. It was still pretty scary to me.
There was another park about a mile away. It was officially called the Alfred Brush-Ford Park, but we always referred to it as Lakewood Park. If you drove south to the end of Lakewood Street, it tailed into the entry drive to Lakewood Park. It too had a canal running along its eastern boundary and out to the River, which was its southern boundary. That was where the St. Martin Dad’s Club had its fishing derby, and was rumored to be where a “secret” Nike nuclear missile base was located. The Defense Department has published a directory of the former Nike sites in Michigan. Neither Lakewood Park or Maheras Park is among them.
Lakewood had no baseball or football fields. It had no basketball courts that I recall, but others recall a net near the parking lot. To me it was just a park. It was tree-lined and grassy. And one could park their car in the lot, stake out a piece of grass, throw down a blanket and have a picnic. You could also bait a hook and toss your line into the canal, or walk a ways to the River, and add a larger sinker and toss your line into the River. But for me, Lakewood Park was where, as a teen, I would make out passionately with one of my dearest girlfriends and then later with another girl – but with the other girl I was just “practicing” another form of kissing.
The Detroit River has a current - a pretty good one actually. It runs about 3.5 miles an hour and seems faster along the shore and in the deep trenches of the shipping channel. There are stories about undertows and deep swirling holes along the shore. The Army Corps of Engineers had dumped tons of concrete chunks along the miles of shore to keep it from eroding.
Don’t ask what possessed us – remember that we were just bone-stupid as kids. But it was great fun, and part of the rites of passage, that we would jump into the River from the shore of Lakewood Park. By the time we bobbed to the surface, we could be anywhere from 30-50 feet downstream and moving right along at three miles an hour like a piece of driftwood. The trick was to get close enough to the big rocks to grab one as you moved by, and haul yourself out of the water. Then you would run back, soaked through your jeans, and do it again. As I think back on those moments, I realize how really stupid I was – I had never learned to swim! The big River never claimed any of us rats, but it came close at times.
In 1960-61 our family moved to 224 Phillip. No one said it out loud, but we moved away from what was a rapidly deteriorating and very unsafe neighborhood. We were part of the white flight that characterized that era in Detroit. My friends and I were regularly getting mugged, on our way to and from school, by roving gangs of the “new” teens. It was no longer fun to sit out on the porch at night as those gangs would beat, threaten and harass. Homes and cars all around us were being broken into regularly. Property values plummeted. This once attractive, quiet and restive area had lost its appeal and therefore its value.
Fifty years later people, who were not even born yet, would say the property value deteriorated because the white folks left. They have it backwards. It happens to fit an inaccurate, but contemporary, social agenda. Be that as it may, when it came to fleeing the area to somewhere safer, my dad and mom had a dilemma.
Several members of the Saad family were scattered around the St. Martin neighborhood. Dad only had a limited amount of money and his income would only allow us to move about 2 miles away and stay in the Parish. I found out just recently, that many of my friends did exactly the same thing. They had limited financial resources, were bound to the Church community, and so they moved sometimes only eight or ten blocks away from the encroaching danger. Within ten years, there was no safe place in the western blocks of that neighborhood from the violent, hatred of the new tenants entering the area. You either moved, kept your property up and hoped for the best, or hunkered down.
For us, 224 Phillip was that place we fled to, from 497 Kitchener at Essex. We moved from an upper flat to a "tidy" single family, three bedroom, one bath, 2-story brick house that accommodated the six of us quite well. I later learned that many of my friends thought it was a big house.
My brothers, Dave and Jim shared a full-sized bed, and I had my own twin bed in that same room. Our younger sister Pat had a room of her own, and mom and dad had theirs. The “boys’ room” faced Phillip and had two windows from which we could see the trees and tops of the houses across the street without getting out of bed. It was cool. From the window, we could see just five houses away to the homes at the end of our street that backed onto the canals. There was a covered, screened-in porch just below our bedroom window. On hot summer nights, we would quietly open our windows and sneak out onto the overhanging porch-roof and sit outdoors, when we were supposed to be in bed. If we ever got locked out of the house, it wasn’t too difficult to climb the porch column, pull yourself onto that porch roof and climb in through an unlocked bedroom window.
One year, we got a shared Christmas present. It might actually have been Dave’s, but we (or Dave) shared it. It was one of those Red Rider BB Guns. You know the kind from “The Christmas Story” where the one brother always warns the other that if he isn’t careful, he is going to shoot out someone’s eye. Well, we had one. It was the kind of lever action that pumped compressed air into a chamber. It had a small chute into which you would pour standard sized BBs. When the pump was primed, it fired a BB at a very good speed and relatively straight.
As kids we could pick out a fluttering leaf on a tree across the street and aiming for it, fire a BB and hit it. By the time a BB got across the street and hit a neighbor’s window, it has lost enough energy that it wouldn’t break or chip the window. But it still made a mighty “tack” sound when it hit the glass. I am sure we drove the neighbors crazy trying to figure out what that sound was on their upstairs windows. Although we were only five houses off the corner, we couldn’t quite get a BB all the way to those houses on Scripps.
Our house had a small yard in the front because the houses were close to the street. And we had a slightly bigger, but still small yard in the back. The house and the one car detached garage took up most of the space of that city lot. We had an old rotary style push-mower and it was usually my job to push-mow those small lawns. I am sure I griped about it, because at the time it was presumed I was the only one “big enough” to push the mower.
The driveway from the front of the house to the back was very narrow. It wasn’t uncommon for me, in later years, when I was a teen driving my folks’ car, to scrape a mirror or bumper on the brick because my depth perception wasn’t that good yet. The garage door was manually operated and lifting it was not spring assisted. The concrete floor was broken but not dirty in there.
In later years, I once took apart the rods, lifters and tappets of my 1960 Ford Fairlane in that garage. At the time, I knew nothing about working on cars. But I was curious and fearless. These are two great qualities for a young guy with a Ford (Fuel Oil and Repair Daily) that regularly needed fuel and oil, and that knocked loudly of loosely fitting tappets. My dad wasn’t particularly handy with car repairs either but he did give me some good advice. He suggested that I lay out all the parts on the garage floor in the order they came out of the engine. Then I could put them back in reverse order. Actually that was great advice. Unfortunately, I ran out of floor space before I was through taking things apart, so I began doubling up on the rows.
By the time I was through installing new gaskets, and cleaning and gapping and tightening all the parts back in place, I had a small brown paper bag of nuts, bolts, small springs and screws left over. That old Ford ran better and more quietly than ever. I drove it that way for another year and traded up the car with the bag of “extra” stuff included.
That old garage door sure took a beating over the years. As kids, my brothers and I would shoot a tennis ball (and sometimes a rubber ball, and sometimes a hockey puck) off the driveway at each other with hockey sticks. Well, not exactly at each other. We would don whatever hockey gear we could muster up, maybe some rolled up newspapers for shin protectors, a jockstrap and a cup (maybe) and one of us would play goalie with the garage door as a backstop. Of course a “goal” getting by us would rattle the puck off the wood panels in the door. Eventually the 18 by 18 inch panels would weaken and their fit into the frame would become a little looser. Over time, we had to nail those back in place and they lost a bit of their “cosmetic” appeal. We considered ourselves pretty lucky though. I don’t recall ever breaking one of the window panels just a few rows up. My folks were sure tolerant of the fact we had no understanding of the importance of maintaining the quality of things they invested in.
As we grew into our later teen years, mom and dad didn’t want us running off with “the guys” and smoking and drinking. So they outfitted the garage with some overstuffed chairs, a couch, a stereo record player and a radio. We guys would hang there and drink (in our later teens) and their parents would come get the guys and drive them home afterwards. It wasn’t unusual for the guys to call home and tell their parents, “Mr. and Mrs. Saad said it is OK if we sleep over.” Usually their folks were fine with it. The next morning mom and dad would have a big breakfast for the whole crew. It was a different era. Now days, my folks would have been tossed in jail for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Interestingly, none of those guys I hung with ever went on to be troublemakers.
Another one of the benefits of living there was that the house was only about five houses from Scripps Street. And Scripps houses all backed onto a canal. Many of my classmates and acquaintances from school lived on Phillip or its adjacent streets Manistique, Marlborough, Chalmers, and Ashland. Most of us, it turned out, were very good athletes although at the time I fancied myself only pretty good. Street football with the guys in front of my house was a regular event. But one thing we all had in common was a love of the water.
There was a tiny sweet shop (party store) atop a bridge at Korte (pronounced KorTee) and Alter roads only a couple blocks from my house. The bridge ran over the Fox Creek. The Byerly family ran the place that some just called The Bridge Store. And although it may have had a name, the guys I hung with just called the place Byerly’s.
Young folks learning to drive a stick shift would inevitably have their dad take them to the Korte bridge where the parent would have them start up the hill toward Alter Road, put on the breaks and then engage the clutch while on the incline. It isn’t an easy task and lots of young folks ended up sliding backwards down the hill. That was great if there was no one behind you. Not so much fun for the young driver, the dad, or the guys in the cars behind.
You could go to Byerly’s and get a pop from the pop machine (being from Michigan, we called soda pop “pop”, not soda.) You would put your quarter in the slot of the icebox and then pull your bottle top through a track to the lock bracket. Your quarter released the bracket so you could pull your glass pop bottle out and open it in the gadget on the side of the pop machine. Then you could take your Faygo Red Pop, or Nehi Orange or chocolate pop and walk to the top of the Korte hill, which was a bridge over Fox Creek.
Fox Creek ran parallel to Alter road and out into the Detroit River. My buddies and I would lean over the bridge, spit into the water and just talk while we drank our pops, ate our chips, chewed on a licorice stick or Chuckles, or finished off a Mr. Goodbar or a PayDay. Every now and then a small motorboat would glide slowly by, about ten feet below us ,and we would quietly nod to the driver or whisper a quiet and respectful “Hi” as he passed on his way to fish the river. No one ever dared to spit on a boater gliding by below us.
Alter Road, alongside the Creek to the east, was the boundary road between Detroit and the City of Grosse Point Park (GPP). Well this creek was a passageway for the Detroit-side homes with very small boat wells, or small docks along Alter Road, to get out to the Detroit River. Fox Creek was just that. It was a creek, barely qualifying as a canal. It was not very deep and it was not very wide. It was just deep enough to let a small motorboat or rowboat glide through without catching the propeller in the mud. It was barely wide enough for two boats to pass each other in opposite directions without them both getting dangerously close to the sides.
So one hot, muggy summer day, while drinking a pop with my buddies, we were talking about how neat it would be to just dive off the bridge into the creek and cool off. OK, here is the stupid part. No one had ever done it before, as far as any of us could recall. Hint: there must have been a reason!
It was a dare I thought I could handle; so I passed my pop and t-shirt to one of the guys, and in my shorts and bare feet, climbed over the edge of the bridge and stood on a small brick ledge. I decided I better do a really flat dive, in case the water was shallow. Having never dived from any elevation before, I had no idea what I was doing. So I leaped out into space; executed a shallow dive into about three or four feet of water.
I discovered a few things that day and I remembered something. I discovered the water level of that creek was very shallow and being ten feet above allows you to get up a pretty good head of steam before you hit the water. And I discovered that boat motors leaked oil and fuel into that creek regularly, and it smelled like it, tasted like it and burned your eyes too!
And only after my dive did I remember the creek was a dumping grounds for empty soda bottles, and any other junk that people could think to throw out of their cars and into the canal as they drove over the bridge. I scraped up my chest and stomach mightily. One of my buddies had a mother who was a nurse and I was bleeding a bit, and caked with the clay-like mud from the bottom of the canal. So we jogged over there, where she cleaned me off, then covered my cuts in iodine. (Another thing I learned was that hydrogen peroxide bubbles and looks scary in your cuts, but it doesn’t burn too much; mercurochrome doesn’t burn, but Mrs. Sheridan used hospital grade iodine – THAT BURNS!) As stupid as that event was, I felt pretty good about the whole thing. I had chalked up another accomplishment in the rites of passage and survived it. And my buddies were all chattering about “Mickey’s Dive off Byerly’s Bridge”.
One of my high school friends had a boat. It wasn’t his dad’s. It was his. His parents bought it for him and gave it to him. We used it to water ski in the Detroit River in the quiet shallows of Peche Island. Neither of us really had any ski lessons, but we managed to stay up behind the boat pretty well. So one day, we went out Fox Creek into the River. On this particular trip we had decided to do a little fishing and run the boat up and down the River a bit.
Now the Detroit River, at Alter Road, is fed its water from Lake St. Clair, and Lake Huron upstream of that. It discharges into Lake Erie to the far south. On even a good day, the River is choppy right at its Lake St. Clair mouth. Another neat fact about the 28-mile long River is that it is also a connector, on the St. Lawrence Seaway, to the Soo Locks in Northern Michigan. Back then, the massive freighters plied the waters upstream and downstream about every fifteen minutes or so in 30 feet of water with a faster current in the trough.
My buddy was adventurous and we were teens and we knew we were indestructible. We decided to try fishing the shipping channel, where we had heard there were huge “channel cats” to be taken from the water. We floated around for a while in a nice drift through the channel, before we saw, off in the distance, an approaching freighter. It was time to move out of its way.
There we were, just about to flee the deepest part of the River you can get, when the steering wheel from the outboard motor jammed up. We could only go in circles. And those circles were right in the heart of the shipping channel. No matter what we tried, we couldn’t get out of that rotation and out of the channel. The water was way too choppy now to turn off the motor again, and just drift and hope to float out of harm’s way. The drift would have kept us in the channel anyway.
Pretty soon, we could see this freighter coming closer upstream from Belle Isle and bearing down on us. The skipper must have seen us as well, because momentarily, he was pulling that chain on the ship’s horn over and over – I think he was warning us to get out of his way. But that wasn’t happening. And a freighter, even under “full stop” engines, takes about a mile to stop. I was sure we were goners and so was my friend.
We both had that sick look on our faces. The channel was too far to swim to shore and the chop was too heavy. And the closest shore was Canada. That freighter’s wake would wash us under for sure if we tried to swim for it – and did I mention that I couldn’t swim? And cutting the engine was out of the question. We did not want to be adrift in the channel.
Suddenly it occurred to me to follow the wire leads from the motor to the steering wheel to see if I could find the source of the problem. There, wrapped snuggly around the steering cables was the line of a spare fishing pole, and both line and pole had locked themselves up tight against the cable rendering the steering wheel immobile. We found our pocketknives, sawed furiously at the line, and freed it up.
By the time we got the steering cable free, the bow of the ship was almost on us. I had never seen anything so big coming at me before. It was terrifying to look up and see nothing but steel hull. We literally scooted to the side of the bow as the ship passed and had to run flat out to avoid the push of the ten-foot wake that would surely have capsized us. I could hear the deep thundering of the engines through the ship’s hull, and could feel them pounding in my chest as we cleared the ship.
I could hear the heavy sound of tons of water being pushed by the freighter. I could hear the roar of the ships warning horn. I could see people aboard leaning over to see if they had plowed us under. But we were spared that watery catastrophe. My buddy headed straight for shore and we tied his boat up back at his dock. We never told our parents about that incident and I never went out on his boat again. I learned a few things that day. I have an analytic mind. I operate well under pressure. And I should learn how to swim.
As you leave Fox Creek and enter the River, if you head left, upstream, and out into Lake St. Clair, you immediately pass the City of Grosse Point Park (GPP) municipal park on the left – a gated, private park for GPP residents. The park had manicured picnic grounds, dockage for sailboats, and a large swimming pool. In the wintertime, the boat marina froze over and became an attended skating rink for the residents who had passes to enter.
It was great fun to ice skate down our canals at dusk, out onto the frozen river, and make it to the Park just at dark. We would scale the seawall and sneak into the park and skate with the girls who lived in GPP. They knew we were “those boys from Detroit” and they loved defying their parents’ rule to not “hang around with those boys.” We’d skate, hold hands and taunt those GPP boys who were so jealous of their girls skating with us.
We got in a few scrapes back in those days. But the GPP cop who responded was almost always the brother of a good high school friend of mine, who made sure we never got even as far as the police station. When the park closed, we would try to hook up a date with the girls and then skate back onto the River under moonlit skies, down our canals and back home. It was a good life.
The skate home from Grosse Pointe Park, or anywhere else, could be really quick, even though it was quite a ways – especially if the ice was fresh and smooth. But if it was crusty from fresh melt and a re-freeze, or snow covered, then the skate could take a while. It was worth it every time. We were always quiet as we skated home. We would remember the events of the night, the girls, maybe a scuffle, and enjoy the calmness of being alone on the ice. The only sounds were those of our skates etching our signatures into the ice. We were no longer flotsam and jetsam. We were one with the damsel of the river. Winter was merely another time when we could impress upon her, that we were her River Rats. And she could carry us on her back without drowning us.
Eventually we learned to skate pretty well because my friends and I were all hockey players – or so we fancied ourselves. We’d literally run home from school, change into long johns, wrap our shins in magazines or rolled newspapers, pull on our jeans, grab our winter gloves, our skates and our broken, taped up hockey sticks and head for the canals. Someone always had a puck and we would pick up sides, just like we did in baseball, only with a hockey stick. We’d play until it got too dark to see the puck anymore, longer under a full moon to light light the area, or until someone’s brother or sister came to fetch us for dinner. Seems we all ate about the same time.
We often skated when we worried the ice wasn’t quite strong enough. To make sure it was OK, we’d often throw chunks of concrete onto the ice and see if they’d sink or skid. If it looked like the ice was hard enough, one of us would gingerly skate onto the ice to see if it would hold our weight (sometimes it was my brother Dave who got the duty). Often we could see the sides of the frozen canal push water up onto the opposite break-wall when we got onto the ice, and knew it was pretty dicey.
As spring weather approached, the ice would, of course, begin it’s annual melt. Sometimes when we got to the ice, there would be a thin layer of water from ice-melt on the canal. We knew, after years of skating though, that the inch or so of surface water meant nothing, given the 15-20 inches of ice underneath. You could probably drive a car onto the ice without it breaking – at least for a few more weeks.
We’d rarely let a little water stop us from skating. Consequently, I think every one of us, at some time or another, fell through the ice into six or eight feet of water, and we got pretty good at helping each other get back onto the ice. If we got soaked, our time of skating was done. It didn’t take long for you to get chilled to the bone. We weren’t very familiar with lady hypothermia, but we flirted with her regularly.
Often when we skated, we would hear the ice rumble as pressure formed a fissure somewhere along the frozen ribbon. We learned, over time, that the fissure froze almost as instantaneously as it occurred. So after a while, we’d stop scurrying to the sides to hang onto the break wall when we’d hear the “Boom” and “Crackle” of ice splitting and re-freezing. In fact, at times, we could actually see the ice crack and re-freeze right down the canal, between our legs, while we were skating on it. “Holy Crap!”, or “Oh, man, did you see that!” was a common expression.
We got to be very good skaters and pretty good hockey players, but none of us had ever taken a lesson. In fact, I doubted any if us even knew all the rules of hockey at the time. There was no “icing”; and there was no “off sides”. We learned lift shots and slap shots; we learned puck handling and we could “juke” around another guy pretty well and still maintain control of the puck. We played no-checking and no-slap shots at another player or the goalie. But that safety rule didn’t always get paid much attention. It wasn’t uncommon for us to have a shot bounce off our shins. We knew we survived getting a broken bone because of the wrapped magazines, but it still hurt like the dickens to take one there.
Later in those years, someone always seemed to have shin pads for the goalie to wear, and a baseball catcher’s chest protector. We failed to have headgear or face masks though. Eventually, we all got a crack at being goalie. It was great fun to dive and scramble to keep the puck out of the “net.,” which was nothing more than two bricks or chunks of broken concrete spread about six feet apart on the ice. There was a lot of natural talent among my friends, and we developed a lot of eye hand coordination, but surely, we had no refined or trained skills. Several of the guys went on to play organized hockey on very good teams.
The waters of those river canals were a source of great fun for us – summer and winter.
Ashland is a street that runs north from the canal at Scripps and continues about five long blocks before it crosses Jefferson Avenue and north from there. Just before the stop sign at Jefferson, there is a small hill that crosses over the Fox Creek canal where it turns under Ashland. We referred to the hill as “the Ashland bump.” On the left side of Ashland, at the southwest corner was a small hospital/nursing home. My uncle Alex was in there for a while, after they cut off his foot due to diabetes.
The challenge, when I was in high school, was to take your car (usually your mom or dad’s car) and run up a good head of speed from Freud Street to the hill. The goal was to hit the bump as fast as it took for the car to leave the street at the peak of the hill. That would get you some “hang time” in the air before coming back down. There was one other goal. You had to come back down onto the street with both feet on the brakes to keep from sliding out onto Jefferson Avenue, which was a three-lane street eastbound, with a center left turn lane! There were a few times, as driver or passenger, we skidded out into moving traffic. God we were stupid kids! But it turns out that driving over the Ashland bump was a rite of passage for generations.
I even have a T-shirt that brings immediate smiles of recognition when someone who lived in that neighborhood sees it. The front of the shirt reads “I survived the Ashland Bump!” And the back reads “It’s a Detroit Thing!” That shirt has been proudly worn in cities all over the country and occasionally gets a wave or a thumbs up by someone who grew up in the area.
That house at 224 Phillip, had a milk chute. That was a contraption in the side of the house, next to the side door, by the driveway. The chute was about 15 inches square. There was a metal door on the outside of the box with a latch that didn’t lock. The inside of the box had a door that you accessed from inside the house. That door had a latch lock. It was flimsy, but enough to keep someone from reaching in and unlocking the side door from the inside. The Twin Pines milk deliveryman would come daily down the street and check the box. If you had empty milk bottles in the box, he would replace them with full ones. You could leave him a note if you wanted cottage cheese, or butterfat milk, or some such other dairy product from his truck. You could also leave your money in the box to pay his bill. As I said, it was a different time.
The house had a coal-fired furnace. It was equipped with a coal chute door as well too. The coal deliveryman would come to the house and load a wheelbarrow with coal from his dump truck and dump it down the chute into a room in the basement known, simply enough, as the coal room. If he could get the truck in the drive, the deliveryman would just unload it down a chute from his truck into the coal chute door. He would repeat that process until the allotted amount of coal was delivered. Being the oldest boy, it was my job was to make sure the coal was evenly disbursed as it fell into the room. When the room was full we would close the outside door to the coal chute. It was a dirty room and a dirty job. I am guessing I got a small amount of coal dust in me at some point.
Coal was then shoveled from the coal room into a bin. The bin had a small conveyor that would carry the coal into the furnace as needed. Not only was it my job to keep the hopper full, but I also had to sweep around the furnace until there wasn’t a lick of coal dust left on the floor. As the coal cooled into “clinkers”, it was my job to empty them from the furnace and sweep up after. I am sure my brothers both had their turn filling that hopper, shoveling and sweeping too.
Years later, when I was on the Detroit Police Department, I learned that there was a theft ring that operated all over the city by “boosting” a young child into unlocked milk chutes. Then the kid would unlock the side door so the adults could burglarize the house. The police formed a detail of men assigned to try to catch these guys. An old time cruiser (Big Four) officer told me these officers were known as the “booster squad”. The police unit name lasted far longer than the homes with milk chutes. Years later the young officers assigned to the booster squad, tailing burglars, would not know the origin of their unit name. They thought the name referred to boosting the manpower on the streets. By then, milk chutes and coal chutes had gone the way of the horse and buggy, but the name of the units stayed.
A few years ago, I had occasion to drive into that old neighborhood, with my young sons, to show them where their dad grew up. My old house on Phillip is still standing but it is an ugly eyesore. Many, many of my boyhood friends’ beautiful homes are now decrepit, unmaintained structures, or they were scrubbed away entirely and are now vacant lots, or they are still burned out hulks – the victim of arson fires perpetrated by a slimy wave of residents that took our place. In a handful of places a newer home stands in solitude, or a gated community attests to the fact that it isn't quite safe enough, yet.
The people who now lived in my former house and occupied my front porch, stared at me in hatred. As we drove by, we were yelled at from the people on my porch “What you doing here? You don’t belong here. Get the "F" out of here!” These were rats of their own kind and had no way of knowing I was a River Rat, and had lived in that house before they were born. I doubt these vermin ever swam in the River, bought a Faygo Red Pop from Byerly’s, dove off the Korte bridge, survived the Ashland Bump over Fox Creek, skated on the beautiful canals, fished peacefully from their banks, or were moved to awe at the quiet calm of water slipping by.
As I said, It was a different time.