Ronald Navickas, August 23rd, 2016
NOTE: The recording is broken into two tracks
JW: Good Morning. Today is August 23, 2016. My name is Julia Westblade. I am here in Detroit, MI with the Detroit Historical Society’s 1967 Project. Can you tell me your name?
RN: My name is Ronald Navickas.
JW: Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. Can you tell me where and when you were born?
RN: I was born November 3, 1936 in Pontiac, MI.
JW: Did you grow up in Pontiac?
RN: No, I did not. My family moved from Pontiac, actually from Michigan to the state of Maryland when I was very little. We spent probably the first four or five years of my life in Maryland and then at the beginning of the World War II we moved back to Michigan to Pontiac and then in 1942, I believe it was, we moved to Highland Park, MI where I attended the schools and lived until I went into the service in 1954.
JW: What brought your family back at World War II?
RN: I think it was monies. Due to the fact that we were living on a farm in Maryland and when push came to shove the demand for workers was paramount here in the area. So my mother worked out at Willow Run. She was a line inspector when they were building the B-24s. My dad was a draftsman for Lincoln at that time and living in Pontiac, she had to commute every day from Pontiac to Willow Run and my dad rode the train from Pontiac to Detroit to his job.
JW: Did your mom continue to work after the war ended?
RN: Yes she did. My mother and father divorced when I was ten years old. We were living in Highland Park at that time. She continued working. She worked for Burroughs – at that time it was Burroughs Adding Machine Company. I have no idea what my father was. I think he was working for Fischer Body but I’m not sure at that time but we had nothing in common and he had departed and end of story as far as he was concerned.
JW: What was your neighborhood like growing up in Highland Park?
RN: Very diversified. A lot of different ethnic groups, in fact, I still meet with some of the guys I went to high school and grade school with even to this day. We had a very unique city. It was independent of Detroit even though it was surrounded by Detroit we had our own water supply, our own fire, our own police. We had two hospitals, our own educational system and it was the best of both worlds living there at that time.
JW: Did you primarily, when you were growing up, did you primarily stay in your neighborhood or did you explore around the city?
RN: Well, we could explore because we had a transit system at that time, the DSR, where we could jump on a streetcar, go downtown. We did a lot of walking in Highland Park. Everybody basically knew everybody. It was a situation where we were a little enclave very much – I would say not cloistered but we were a very proud little city.
JW: So you primarily stayed in Highland Park but did you go explore with the bigger city of Detroit at all?
RN: We did. Sunday back in those days was a typical Sunday drive. We would get in a car and we would of course drive over to Belle Isle and we would have to do the routine of going across the boulevard, getting to the bridge, and going under the tunnel and having to honk the horn. That was traditional. And then of course getting out and walking around Belle Isle and seeing what was and what wasn’t. It was always families that were out at that time, something that you don’t see that much of anymore.
JW: What were your impressions of the city at that time in the 50s and early 60s?
RN: I thought it was a box of gems to be discovered. It had anything and everything that would boggle your mind. Things today that we look back and we laugh at but, I mean I remember the huge stove down on Jefferson as you went going to Belle Isle and I was always amazed by that because I could never figure out who would stand there and cook on it. Going up the State Fairgrounds, you used to have car races there years ago and so many different aspects of the city that were just beautiful to go look at.
JW: Then you said you entered the service in what year?
RN: I went into the regulars in 1954, I was originally in the reserves. I was stationed out at Selfridge. I was an air policeman out there at 17 years old. Still wet behind the ears but I went into the regulars in 1954. Left Detroit. Went to San Antonio, TX. Did four years and was a nuclear and thermonuclear weapons mechanic when I was in the Air Force. Came back out of the service in 1958 and couldn’t find a job because nobody needed a hydrogen or atomic bomb repaired so I went to work for an armored car outfit and they were located on Seldon between Cass and Second. We had started out there as a rookie driver and worked my way up to a messenger were I had my own route and my own vehicle and everything.
JW: Is that where you were working throughout the 60s?
RN: Yes, I started there in 1958. It actually was 3 months after I got out of the service. I left there in 1969 and moved to Florida where I went and married my wife.
JW: Very nice. In the early to mid 60s, did you notice any tension in the city or anything?
RN: Towards the – about 1966 – correct that, I would say 1965, I noticed that there was a lot of stress and of course I think it was created by the Detroit Police Department. At that time they had a STRESS unit and it was looked upon as though it was a special tactics type of outfit who predominantly went after minorities which I didn’t see. Of course I was never involved in it but there was a lot of – I could see ethnic slurs, I could see tension in places especially when I worked in downtown Detroit. I worked all over. I worked from Eastern Market to Western Market. I worked down in the Port Authority and all the wholesale houses for all the produce companies and I could notice that there were attitudes then that were displayed that because more and more evident as time went on but when the civil unrest I’ll put it – it wasn’t a race riot as people want to call it in my opinion, it was an upheaval. We first noticed, it was a Sunday morning, I had finished playing golf at I can’t even remember the name of the golf course now. Anyway, Glen Oaks, I believe it was at 13 Mile and Orchard Lake Road, we were coming in off the golf course and noticed a huge, huge fire and at that time we went in to actually have a drink after our round of golf and they had the television on and we saw what was going on. I immediately left there and went home to get my family. Low and behold, one of my golf partners was my wife’s uncle and what I ended up doing was taking my family from Highland Park to Northwest Detroit to get them out in what I thought was a safe area. As I drove back into Highland Park, I could see madness. People breaking windows, just looting and I didn’t care what store it was. They were just grabbing anything and everything. I got my family out to my friend’s house. I went back to the house and it was all hell broke loose. I was in the house and I could feel the building, my house start to shake, it was rumbling and then I realized it was tanks heading from one of the armories down Hamilton through Highland Park and going down the Davidson and about a half hour or so afterwards, I heard the gunfire, the 50 caliber open up and that in itself was a very, very sobering moment. I stayed at the house. I could hear gunfire. Monday morning I got up and went to go to work and in the process I was driving down Hamilton in Highland Park. I was approaching Davidson and I saw an individual standing out in the middle of the street, armed and come to find out it was either a paratrooper from the 101st or the 82nd Airborne who was questioning me where I was headed. I was in full uniform and I had my sidearm on, my weapon, and I had another weapon in the vehicle to take with me. And in the course of it, he actually warned me not to go in which I totally appreciated. And then I noticed there was a sandbags off to one side and they had a 30 caliber machine gun trained on me and that sort of made my mind up. I wasn’t going to go into town. I turned around, came back, called into the office. I told them what had just transpired and come to find out all of the armored cars that we had with our company had been not commandeered but had been requested and taken over by the Detroit Police Department and the rest of the State Police, they were using them to transport people from point A to point B for safety reasons. When I finally did make it back into work, it was almost total devastation. Places that you would never feel that would be touched by any of this were gutted. Going past tall apartment buildings and windows smashed out and curtains flapping in the air. It looked like a bombed out city and there was still sporadic gunfire. In fact the Saturday after I was making a stop. My driver had gotten out to get the deposits from the company and as he came back out, he needed some other bags or whatever, I can’t remember, he went back inside and as I was sitting there doing some paperwork, I felt the truck rock and I thought he was back to drop off more money and there was no one there and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Did it I think two more times and finally he came back out. I opened the door and I asked him had you been out knocking on the door. He said no, I was inside. Come to find out we had taken three shots to the side of the armored car which came from a burned out building and we had no idea. We couldn’t hear the reports from the rifle because they were firing from inside. It was – even that, almost a week later, there was still chaotic conditions. There were still squads of police going after idiotic snipers. It was something that no matter who relates it, it’s unbelievable.
JW: You said you took your family to a friend who lived out of the danger zone, why did you then come back? Why didn’t you stay with your family?
RN: I think it was a little bit of, I don’t think it was false bravado, but I think it was a little bit of I don’t want anybody messing with our house. Because I was allowed, and legally so, to carry a weapon, I figured that I could protect the house. I knew almost every police officer on the force in Highland Park. I had three or four of them that were very, very close friends of mine and I figured if push came to shove, I could give one of them a call if something happened. Of course, that was the days with no such thing as a cell phone and you needed a landline and if I needed help, I could be there rather than just leave it open to somebody looting it. But I guess it was just, I wanted to protect the property.
JW: So did you stay alone in the house for the rest of the week?
RN: Yes, I stayed – I went and I picked up the family, I think it was about three days later I picked them up. Brought them back and I was totally, totally blown away by what we witnessed on our ride back from the Northwest side of Detroit to Highland Park. It was one stop that we used to have that our company used to service was Star Furniture which was on Livernois just south of Puritan and it was now just a smoldering hulk. There were so many things that you wouldn’t believe. Safes that we had in stores that had been melted right down to the concrete. The only thing left was the capsule that contained the monies. There was just things that I don’t even know how to describe some of it. I won’t say it was horrific or horrendous but it was unbelievable.
JW: As you were driving out to pick up your family, how far out did the damage go out?
RN: When I went to pick them up, I would say from where we lived, at that time we lived on a little one block street called Kirwood, it was between Pilgrim and Puritan, one block west of Hamilton. To drive out Puritan, I would say, if I went across Livernois to going toward Schaffer, there were signs of looting out about that far. I don’t know anything that transpired other than that area or from me going in town because I made no attempt to go anywhere else. I do know that the curfew was on. People were having, if you needed gas you had to get outside the city to buy gas. You couldn’t buy gas in Highland Park, you couldn’t buy gas in Hamtramck. You had to go north of 8 Mile because the idiot fringe was using it to make Molotov Cocktails so they figured they would restrict the flow. Well, where are you going and where are you going to get it. As far as any type of incendiary makeup fuels and oils and whatever, but as far as the devastation that I saw, I would say it would be to Puritan up toward Shaffer and that was it in that area, but heading into town, south of Highland Park, I never saw anything happen in the city of Highland Park.
RN: Which to me was a compliment to all of the people, all of the residents, but once I crossed from Highland Park into Detroit, it was a different world, totally.
JW: Did the Highland Park police stay in Highland Park or did they go out into the city and help there?
RN: They basically were protecting in the city, I don’t know if a few of them were handed off to other agencies. My buddies all stayed in Highland Park. My one brother-in-law had just graduated the day before from the Detroit Police Academy when this started and it was unbelievable. He ended up going to Vietnam and he said it was almost the same way when he saw what was happening here in the city back during the riots. Or I shouldn’t say he went to Vietnam. He had been to Vietnam and had come back and said it was just as chaotic here as it was there. Unbelievable.
JW: So then you said you stayed in the area until 1969?
JW: So why did you move?
RN: Number of reasons. The situation that took place created a carrying a gun. I almost killed a person.
JW: We can stop for a minute if you would like.
[End of Track 1 00:21:51]
[Start of Track 2]
RN: I had been making a stop and in the course of I had ten thousand dollars on me and an inebriated person who was joking at the time created a scene and in the process I was forced to draw my weapon and I found out at that particular moment that the gun had become mightier than me. I decided at that time that a change of venue would be best. Thank God it happened because I went into partnership with a friend of mine. We decided to go into business. We ended up – he was a Detroit Cop who had had enough, too, and we both moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida where I met my wife. We got married, lived down there, moved back here it was three years later, wasn’t it? Have resided in Michigan ever since.
JW: When you came back did you move back to Highland Park?
RN: No, Highland Park was on the demise then. People had used the terminology “White Flight” for reasons that I will never know. No, my wife and I moved back to Detroit. We hadn’t two nickels to rub together at the time so we moved back to 6 Mile and actually Seymour and Gratiot Detroit’s northeast side and we lived there for a period of time and then we moved out to Sterling Heights. Lived out there for 25 years in our house and we now reside in Shelby Township.
JW: How did you find the city when you came back?
RN: Changed. Drastically changed. Polarized. I see a city even today that is polarized but to me it’s just my opinion, I see a city that is following in footstep with our country. I don’t understand it but for reasons that certain factions have, it’s divide and conquer right now as far as I can see. I see a city that is building. I see a city that is predominantly putting a lot of rouge and lipstick on but I don’t see any substance. I see a town that right now has looking here, I can look across at the Detroit Institute of Arts, a place I used to go to when I was a kid in grade school, loved it. Still do. And my wife and I used to go for the Wassail Dinners years ago and now we hardly even come into the city and not for fear but there’s really nothing here that we would want to become part of anymore. And we’re members of the Detroit Zoological Society. We used to volunteer there. So many different things that we used to be a part of in this city and now sadly to say, we just don’t want to be a part of it and we feel in the past there was some commonality to it. I would go to ball games all the time. I would be at Olympia all the time. When I was a kid I was hung up on sports. Now I don’t even want to partake in any of it and it’s because of, I find, attitudes that – and it’s always using the same terminology. “White Flight.” It’s “You people did this and you people did that.” I don’t know why. I can’t figure it out and nobody can explain it to me.
JW: What do you think would need change in the city to change that view?
RN: People’s attitudes towards each other. I see there is so much I would say individualness if there is such a word. I see people today who think more of themselves than they do of the whole. I see more selfishness. I mean, think when you sit back and look at the city of Detroit, 40s and 50s when I was grade school and high school, it was nothing to jump on a streetcar and go from here to there. To go to amusement parts, we had so many of them around the area. Today, I mean, they reopened up Belle Isle and it turned into a beautiful park. Prior to that, if you drove over to Belle Isle, you had to be careful where you drove because of the broken glass. It was just the attitudes and we some that is still there. There’s a lot of beauty in this town. Beautiful stuff, but you only see about four different factions that are benefitting from it. Why do we need another hockey arena? We had one that was torn down, this one of course is on its last legs so we’re building another one. We’re going to have a soccer arena in town. Not we. Detroit’s going to have. And if you get a chance and just a plug for the, what is it? United States Baseball League out in Utica. Grassroots place, but people feel comfortable. People feel safe there. And to cross 8 Mile Road, I don’t know. I have no idea just what my own personal thoughts are about trying to create, it wouldn’t be a Utopian situation because you’re going to always have people who begrudge others something but just the decency towards each other would be appreciated.
JW: So do you have any wisdom for the city of Detroit?
RN: Yeah, don’t relive the past. Right now all I can say is that I enjoyed my time when I was here working here. I enjoyed my time visiting and seeing all the jewels that were on display for the city and for the people of the city. And now I just see, I don’t know. I don’t know how to describe it. I’m not that knowledgeable in the English language, I’ll put it that way.
JW: Is there anything else you’d like to add or any other memories you have?
RN: Oh, memories? Geeze. I could start singing the song. No, I just, I do appreciate what you’re doing here because there’s so much of that year that should be remembered. Not for the tragedy that took place but things that took place with people actually coming together to help each other during that time. Everybody hears about the Algiers Motel incident. Everybody hears about so much negativity and there was a lot of people who bent over backwards, like in our neighborhood in Highland Park. The street I lived on, we had a diverse neighborhood. People, black, white, pink, purple, plaid. It was every group you could think of. And we all liked each other and even after the riot, or the civil unrest, let me correct that, even after that, we still liked each other. It wasn’t a situation where somebody held a grudge against you because you were of a different color. They liked you for who you were. Now that seems to have changed. If you’re of a certain color, you’re frowned upon. You are thought less of and I don’t think that’s right.
JW: Why do you call it a civil unrest rather than a riot?
RN: Well, I would say it’s a civil unrest of the simple reason that it was basically the whole city. It ignited so fast and spread so fast, I mean, when you say a riot, a riot had to me, my definition of a riot is something that happened in one locality. This was throughout the city. There were people who were just aching to get involved. I had stocks that I didn’t even recognize. I had about three or four places I had to go on Trumbull and we had no idea what was left, what customers we still had with the company. And I would have to call in to my office if a specific customer wasn’t open. Well, the day that I went out, that Saturday after the unrest, the reason, I was on the two-way radio and I was on Trumbull where I must have lost it was six customers in a row. And it wasn’t because they were closed; it was because they were no longer there. The buildings were torched, they were gone. Burned to the ground. They were still removing bodies from the basements of some of these stores where people had been looting and got trapped inside and it was something like I say. It was from here to there. It was a situation you had to experience. You had to sit there and say to yourself and say I can’t believe human beings would do this to each other and for what? And a lot of hate. A lot of hate came out of it but it was everybody. It wasn’t just one specific ethnic group. People shot for looting, I mean, it’s just. I told my wife, I still remember going into one store that was a customer, in fact, it was just around the corner from here. It was over on Third near Seldon and when I pulled up to make the pickup I noticed that the front plate glass window had been smashed out. It was boarded up. The brothers who owned the inner city market that serviced the area were being brought up on murder charges because the people who had come through, had broken the window out, jumped through the window and when they jumped through the window, the brothers were waiting inside with shotguns and blew them back out onto Third. Because of the attitude at that time, because they were protecting their property, the city didn’t see it that way. Or somebody didn’t see it that way and they were charged with murder. I’d have no idea what took place afterwards if they were found not guilty or whatever but it was a time that the city after all these years is still trying to heal. Hopefully it will.
JW: Alright, well, thank you so much for coming in to share your story.
RN: I appreciate it.
NOTE: The recording is broken into two tracks