Jim Demres, August 12th, 2015
Barney Automatic Rifle
Detroit Fire Department
Manistique and Warren Fire Station—Detroit—Michigan
Michigan National Guard
LW: Today is August 12, 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: Born at Harper Hospital in Detroit Michigan on June 21, 1955.
LW: And 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 Eastside. The next city over is Harper Woods just tells you how far east over we were.
LW: Okay. And what did your parents do for a living?
JD: My mother was—she called herself a domestic engineer but she was a good homemaker. My dad was a fireman for 39-and-a-half years. And also installed custom drapery on the side as most fireman can have a second job with their schedule. He worked for Rabauds R-A-B-A-U-D-S Drapery in Grosse Pointe doing custom installation of drapery on his day off. But his fulltime job was the Detroit Fire Department.
LW: And what address was his station at?
JD: No, see every three to four years you move around. But the main station that he worked at for the longest time was at Lakepoint and Whittier 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. And this was at Lakepoint and Whittier.
LW: Okay. Lakepoint and Whittier.
JD: Yeah, Lakepoint 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 14 to 20 different stations depending on where they needed staff at the time. He’d move all over the city depending on where they needed him to go.
LW: So in July of 1967 how old were you?
JD: I would have been 12 years old.
LW: And what do you remember about your dad working that summer?
JD: Well, ’67 was the year of the riots in the city of Detroit. And probably—call it the most memorable but the worst part about '67 was they worked long shifts they had few days off and my mother was worried because he was gone so much. But at that point he was stationed at, there’s another cross street, Manistique and Warren. M-A-N-I-S-T-I-Q-U-E. Manistique and Warren which was a little further, a little closer to downtown Detroit but it had a big enough area where they housed half-tracks and jeeps and other artillery that they used during the riots. That’s where all the firemen were stationed that was one of the main outposts on that side of the city. But that’s where—you ask about 1967—it was a summer of a lot of worry for my mother, sitting on the front porch, early curfews, a lot of noises, a lot of restrictions and purchasing gas specifically going to the gas station with a can. You couldn’t get a can of gas for your lawnmower. You literally had to bring your lawn mower to the gas station to put gas in it because they found that people were getting gallons of gas an making Molotov Cocktails to throw at the firemen and the policemen that were trying to bring some order back to the city. But there was a lot of unrest. A lot of people were angry and there was certainly more racial tension than you could imagine going on at the time with the n-word being used by a lot of people. So if there wasn’t unrest in our community before ’67 summer, there was then. And a lot of it was being blamed on the reason I believe the riots got started in the first place, it was just the racial tension and it came to a big head and one day it exploded. So ’67 for me, ’67 that summer it was not like any other summer. My mother was—probably the worst summer of her life was waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for the—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’d watch the news and 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 a job to have to put out fires and then lookout for gunshots and other things being thrown at them while they’re trying to put out fires.
LW: So what did your dad tell you then about—either then or when you got older what did your dad tell you about working during that time?
JD: Well the riots it was—you had your life to fear for more than just flames and smoke because that was their biggest fear as a fireman was to not be burnt or not to suffocate. But on the fire trucks he said his biggest fear was being shot because there was bullets flying everywhere. He had a guy from the National Guard and there was guys from the Army and they’d ride right on the truck with them with rifles, semi-automatic rifles, they were ready to shoot. And there were some times when they were going through and they had actually to shoot some warning shots to get some of the vandals off the streets and some of the people who were trying to stop the fire department from doing their job of putting out the fires because they were having more fun I guess watching the city burn down than it was—I guess the people that they were fighting were trying to make a statement about how unhappy they were about the racial tensions. And a lot of this is I guess influenced by what I’ve read. But back to my dad, my dad was very tired. There were stretches he’d work for 36 hours without a break and I guess the only comforting thing was we went over to Manistique and Warren once and visited over there. And the one guy that had a—I mentioned earlier about a Barney Automatic Rifle, a B-A-R—this guy had a rifle that, even though I’d watched episodes of Combat and The Gallant Men, 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.” So it brought my mother some comfort that he was on the truck with them. But just being shot I guess, just being shot, getting off the truck being out in the open and having people throw firebombs, shoot at them, sticks, stones, rocks, whatever they could find just to interrupt anyone who 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. And 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: My dad had a Browning Automatic. He had a handgun he carried, for 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—he had a shotgun. He owned a shotgun and he owned a--the brand name is Browning but it’s a small handgun and he carried that with him while he was there just for his own—we didn’t find out about that ‘til years later that dad had a gun.
LW: Okay. Okay, so he did carry a gun. Now 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. [dog barks] 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. So he was over there several times. He rotated from different fire stations depending on where they needed people. And as you move up through the ranks, as you move up through the ranks, certainly as a sergeant, lieutenant or a battalion chief, you tend to move around even more.
LW: Okay. So it wasn’t uncommon then for him to be at that particular station but was it more central to riot activity?
JD: Yeah. Warren and Mack were good streets, were good direct routes to the downtown area.
JD: That’s why they chose Manistique and Warren. And it had an enormous play field across the street from the playground, baseball diamonds that they used for all the artillery and all the jeeps and everything else was there, police cars, it was like a giant parking lot, it looked like a warzone 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 made to have four or five guys that work there shower. When you had like 80 to 100 guys working around the clock there wasn’t a lot of time to shower. When you were told that 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. But you could see that he was tired—his eyes were tired, the way he carried himself was tired and the only thing nice was the fact that he was out of danger when he came home and he was able to stay home for usually no more than 12 hours then you’re back on the job again—during the riots. Most firemen they get 24 on 24 off but they were only off for 12 hours and they had to go back.
LW: Okay. What was your dad’s name?
JD: George John—same last name, Demres.
LW: And when was he born?
JD: December 26, 1929.
LW: And when did he die?
JD: September 20, 2000.
LW: And how long did he work—you said 39 years?
JD: 39-and-a-half years, yup. He retired as a battalion chief. The ranking pretty much went to firefighter, to sergeant, to lieutenant, to chief to battalion chief to commander. So he was just one step below commander.
LW: I see.
JD: That’s pretty good. Becuse my mother’s dad was also a fireman and he retired as a battalion chief too. So we have a lot of firemen in the family. Anyway, but that was a good ranking to retire with and he thought it was a good pension to retire with.
LW: Is there anything else that you can remember about July of ’67 that you want to share?
JD: Well, you could hear the explosions. In later years we could hear the hydroplanes on the Detroit River. But at that time we could actually hear pops and booms of bombs going off and things blowing up. One time we even thought we could hear gunshots as hard as that 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. You know, my grandmother and all the friends were coming down because they knew my dad was a fireman and it brought the community a little closer together. “What’s going on? What’s going on? We don’t see it all on the news. What’s George have to say about all this?”
JD: So he had a good pick on—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 to the sidewalk for gosh sakes because she was afraid somebody would drive by. But as over cautious as she was I think it was all because she was very nervous about my dad being down in the middle of all of that. Because I think the firemen and the policemen both had a lot at stake.
LW: Well, thank you.
JD: You’re welcome.
LW: Thanks for remembering about your dad. Appreciate it.