Jim Demres, August 12th, 2015
LW: Today is August 12th, 2015. This is the interview of Jim Demres by Lily Wilson. We are in Royal Oak, Michigan. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Jim, can you start by telling me where and when you were born?
JD: I was born at Harper Hospital in Detroit Michigan on June 21st, 1955.
LW: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
JD: On the east side of Detroit. Street name, or no?
JD: 9345 Courville, which is right at I-94 and Whittier. Kind of far east side. Next city over is Harper Woods, shows you how far over we were.
LW: What did your parents do for a living?
JD: My mother, she called herself a “domestic engineer,” but she was a good homemaker. My dad was a fireman for thirty-nine and a half years, and also installed custom drapery on the side, as most firemen can have a second job with their schedule. He worked for Rabauds Drapery in Grosse Pointe doing custom installation drapery on his day off. His full-time job was the Detroit Fire Department.
LW: What address was his station at?
JD: See, every three to four years, you tend to move around, but the main station that he worked at for the longest time was at Lakepointe and Wittier, which was about eight blocks from our home. I got a picture of the engine house I can offer to you, but most of the fire stations didn’t go by address; they went by cross streets. This was at Lakepointe and Whittier.
LW: And that was also on the east side?
JD: That was on the east side, too.
LW: Very near your house.
JD: But it’s not out of the question, he probably worked at fourteen to twenty different stations depending on where they needed staff at that time. He’d move all over the city, depending on where they needed him to go.
LW: In July of 1967, how old were you?
JD: I would’ve been 12 years old.
LW: What do you remember about your dad working that summer?
JD: Well, ’67 was the year of the riots in the city of Detroit. Probably not the most memorable, but the worst part about ’67 was the fact that they worked long shifts, had very few days off, and my mother was worried because he was gone so much. At that point he was stationed at the—here’s another cross street—at Manistique and Warren, which was a little closer to downtown Detroit, but it had a big enough area where they housed halftracks and jeeps and other artillery that they used in the riots. That’s where all the firemen were stationed. That was one of the main outposts on that side of the city. About 1967, it was a summer of a lot of worry for my mother, sitting on the front porch, early curfews, lot of noises, lot of restrictions on purchasing gas, specifically going to the gas station with a can. You couldn’t get a can of gas for your lawn mower. You literally had to bring your lawn mower to the gas station and put gas in it because they found that people were buying gallons of gas and making Molotov cocktails to throw at the firemen and the policemen that were trying to bring some order back to the city. There was a lot of unrest. A lot of people were angry, and there was certainly more racial tension, you can imagine, going on at the time, with the ‘n’ word being used by a lot of people. If there wasn’t unrest in our community before ’67 summer, there was then. A lot of it was being blamed—and the reason, I believe, the riots got started in the first place was just the racial tension. It came to a big head and then one day it exploded. So ’67, that summer, it was not like any other summer. My mother, it was probably the worst summer of her life, waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for—we had a scanner at that time, too. Quite archaic to today’s standards, but she listened to every fire call that came in and we watched the news. It was a lot of scary stuff. I wish I had better adjectives, but I know my mother was not happy and my dad—a lot of the firemen and policemen were not familiar with that type of job, to have to put out fires and then look out for gunshots and other things being thrown at them while they’re trying to put out fires.
LW: What did your dad tell you about, either then or when you got older? What did your dad tell you about working during that time?
JD: Well, the riots, you had your life to fear for, more than just flames and smoke. That was the biggest fear as a fireman, not be burned and not to suffocate. But on the fire trucks, he said his biggest fear was being shot, because there were bullets flying everywhere. He had a guy from the National Guard and there were guys from the army, they’d ride in the truck with him with rifles, semi-automatic rifles. They were ready to shoot. There were some times they were going through and they had to actually shoot some warning shots to get some of the vandals off the streets, and some of the people that were trying to stop the fire department from doing their job putting out the fires because they were having more fun, I guess, watching the city burn down than it was… I guess the people they were fighting were trying to make a statement about how unhappy they were with the racial tensions. A lot of this is, I guess, influenced by what I read.
But back to my dad. My dad was very tired. There were stretches he’d work for 36 hours without a break. I guess the only comforting thing was we went over to the Manistique and Warren one to visit over there, and the one guy that had—I mentioned earlier about a Browning Automatic Rifle, a BAR—this guy had a rifle and even though I watched episodes of Combat and [unintelligible], I never saw a rifle like this, but he says, “Don’t worry. Nothing’s going to happen to your dad as long as I’m here.” It brought my mother some comfort that he was on the truck with him. Just being shot, I guess, getting off the truck, being out in the open, and having people through fire bombs, shoot at them, sticks, stones, rocks, whatever they could find—just to interrupt whoever was trying to bring back any law and order or put out fires in the city. They would resist any of those efforts by whatever way they could. When I say “they” I mean the ones that were shooting back at the police, the ones that were throwing bricks back at the fire department.
LW: Some fire department employees have told us that they carried guns, that the firefighters actually carried guns—
JD: Yeah, my dad had a Browning automatic. He had a handgun that he carried on his own, with him.
LW: During ’67?
JD: Yes, he bought it specifically, in fact, I don’t know how he bought it, but he bought it right around that time with a shotgun. He owned a shotgun and he owned a—the brand name is Browning, but it’s a small handgun. He carried that with him while he was there, just for his own. We didn’t find out about that until years later, that dad had a gun.
LW: Okay. So he did carry a gun. Was he only at the Warren and Manistique Station during July of ’67? Or was that his—
JD: Occasionally he’d be stationed there during times that the riots weren’t going on. It wasn’t uncommon for firemen to work in different places, to be pulled from one station to another. That was not an uncommon practice. He was over there several times. He rotated from different fire stations, depending on where they needed people. As you move up through the ranks, certainly as a sergeant, lieutenant, or a battalion chief, you tend to move around even more.
LW: So it wasn’t uncommon for him to be at that particular station, but was it more central to riot activity?
JD: Yeah, because Warren and Mack were good direct routes to the downtown area; that’s why they chose Manistique and Warren. And it had an enormous play field across the street—play ground, baseball diamonds that they used for all the artillery and all the jeeps and everything else that was there, police cars. It was like a giant parking lot. It was a war zone, but it was a parking lot at the same time.
LW: What did your dad look like when he came home, in addition to being tired?
JD: Tired, dirty. You can imagine, fire stations were built to have the four or five guys that work there shower. When you had like eighty to a hundred guys working around the clock, there wasn’t a lot of time to shower. When you were told you could go home, generally you grabbed your hat and got in the car and took off, so he found himself coming home tired, some days full of soot, some days hair disheveled, although he was very thin on top. You could see he was tired, his eyes were tired, the way he carried himself was tired, and the only thing nice was that he was out of danger when he came home and he was able to stay home for usually no more than twelve hours, then you’re back on the job again, during the riots. Most firemen get twenty-four on, twenty-four off, but they were only off for twelve hours and had to go back.
LW: Okay. What was your dad’s name?
JD: George John Demres.
LW: When was he born?
JD: December 26th—let me check the date, because I always get him confused, so bear with me—we can come back to that if you want as I’m zipping through my calendar. I want to say it’s 1932, but I don’t know why I have that date stuck in my mind. Oh, 1929. December 26th, 1929.
LW: When did he die?
JD: September 20th, 2000.
LW: And how long did he work? You said 39 years?
JD: Thirty-nine and a half years. He retired as a battalion chief. The ranking pretty much went from firefighter to sergeant to lieutenant to chief to battalion chief to commander. So he was just one step below commander. That’s pretty good because my mother’s dad was also a fireman and he retired as a battalion chief, too. We have a lot of firemen in the family. But anyway, that was a good ranking to retire with and he felt it was good pension to retire with.
LW: Is there anything else you can remember about July of ’67 that you want to share?
JD: Well, you could hear the explosions. In later years, you could hear the hydroplanes on the Detroit River, but at that time we could actually hear “pop”s and “boom”s of bombs going off and things blowing up. At one time we thought we could even hear gunshots, as hard as it is to believe. It was amazing how much less traffic there was everywhere, how much the news was covering, how close the community came together. My grandmother and all her friends were coming down because they knew my dad was a fireman, and they brought the community a little closer together on “What’s going on? What’s going on? We don’t see it on the news. What’s George have to say about all this?” So he had a good story on what was happening. I recall just sitting on the porch an awful lot. My mother was so protective. She wanted us to sit on the porch. We couldn’t even go down on the sidewalk, for gosh sakes, because she would afraid somebody would drive by. As over-cautious as she was, I think it was all her being nervous about my dad being down in the middle of that. I think the firemen and the policemen, both, had a lot at stake. When we got through it, we took a lot of pictures, and if you need any of those pictures, let me know, about him and the fire department, whatever it is. You’re welcome.
LW: Thanks for remembering about your dad. We appreciate it.