by Ted Lietz
In 1967, the “summer of love,” I was a sixteen-year-old-middle-class-White-boy-hippie-wannabe. Long hair, loud music, unshakeable opinions. I’d try to start arguments with my father, but it wasn’t easy. Dad was fine with my hair. Actually liked some of my music. Agreed with me on every important issue.
And I had to admit, if only to myself, that while I talked a good game, Dad acted. He’d resigned from the VFW in protest over the Vietnam war. And at the Detroit public high school where he taught, my father put himself physically on the line for his students.
In those days, nearly all city police were White, and most students at Dad’s school were Black. Outside the school, usually for any reason and often no reason at all, cops would push students. Insult them. Make them line up against a wall, hoping for a response to justify a beating.
Dad and Mr. Bryant, a Black teacher, would team up. Sometimes, they could talk the cops into leaving the students alone. If that didn’t work, Dad would make a show of writing down badge numbers while Mr. Bryant, calling students by name, encouraged them not to take the bait. More than once, the two teachers found themselves facing a wall, side-by-side with their students.
They were friends outside of school, too. Mr. Bryant and his family were the first Black people to live in our neighborhood. Dad and I had helped him move in. But some neighbors scowled whenever they saw the Bryants, and a few had made threats. I didn’t know it at the time, but whenever Mr. Bryant left home he put a handgun in his car’s glovebox.
All three of us were baseball fans. One day in July, we went to a Detroit Tigers doubleheader. As the national pastime played out, we gorged ourselves on peanuts in the shell. Too many, even for a growing boy like me. By the time the game was over, the adults looked queasy, too.
On our way to the car, we saw a plume of smoke rising not far from where we stood. The city had kept a lid on information. None of us knew we were near ground-zero of what some would call a riot, others an insurrection.
Postgame traffic was slow. Dad suggested a shortcut and Mr. Bryant, who was driving, thought it worth a try. But police barriers blocked some of the streets Dad wanted to take, and soon we were in part of town I hadn’t seen before. Smoke billowed from broken store windows and debris was everywhere. As we passed a gutted hardware store, Mr. Bryant didn’t see the nails strewn in the street that flattened a tire.
Dad was tightening the last lug nut on the spare as Mr. Bryant, sitting sideways in the passenger seat, reached into the glovebox. “No idea where we are, but I have city map in here,” he said.
A dozen Black kids around my age, holding baseball bats and crowbars, surrounded us.
Mr. Bryant, one hand still inside the glovebox, said, “None of us have done you any harm. We’re about to be on our way.”
Brandishing a baseball bat, one kid said to Mr. Bryant, “We don’t want you. But you stay right there.”
The kid moved toward Dad and me, gripping the bat as if anticipating a fat pitch. Mr. Bryant took a small handgun from the glovebox. “I won’t ask you again,” he said. “Let us be.”
The kid with the bat moved closer. Mr. Bryant fired a shot into the air, and the group scattered. Still holding the gun, he walked around toward the driver’s seat as Dad tossed the flat into the trunk.
In the distance, a Detroit Police car, lights flashing, was headed in our direction. Dad said, “Give me the gun.”
“Suppose they search us and find that gun with round missing. If the gun is on me, I could be arrested. But I’ll probably make it in and out of jail in one piece. How do you like your chances?”
Mr. Bryant scowled, but he gave the gun to Dad, who put it in his pocket.
A White cop holding a nightstick demanded Dad and Mr. Bryant’s driver’s licenses, and ordered us to put our hands on the roof of the car. When he came back from his cruiser a few minutes later, the cop said we could take our hands off the car and returned the licenses. To Dad, he said, “You should be more careful, the company you keep.”
Then the cop seemed to notice the bulge the gun made Dad’s pocket.
I didn’t want my father in jail. I distracted the cop the only way I could think of, with an epithet I knew would infuriate him: “Pig!”
The cop twisted my arm behind me and slammed my head into the hood of the car. Dad and Mr. Bryant, arms extended and hands palms-up, took a step toward us. Reaching toward his gun, the cop ordered them to put their hands back on the roof.
As the men complied, the cop said, “I’m a pig, huh?” Twisting his nightstick into my back, he said, “I have hairy little fuckers like you for breakfast. You hear me?”
Dad shouted to me, “Augie, No!”
“Yes, you made yourself clear. Officer. I apologize.”
The cop let me up and shoved me toward Dad. “Responsible parents teach their kids respect.”
Dad’s face turned beet-red. I thought he was about to say something that could only make matters worse. Mr. Bryant, probably thinking the same thing, stepped hard on my father’s foot. Dad winced, but remained silent.
When the cop left, we drove away. After a few minutes of silence, Dad asked Mr. Bryant to pull over.
My father walked to curb and vomited.
Then Mr. Bryant.
And then me.
For a moment we stared at the gutter, watching the river of undigested peanuts we’d created.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
© Ted Lietz 2021. All rights reserved.