JIM CREES: And then there was the time…

Following a column last week, filled with remembrances of milk chutes and other architectural wonders, quite a few folks said they simply couldn’t believe all that stuff about neighborhood moms grabbing random kids to help them out in whatever way.

Thinking about it, I guess to an “outsider” some of the tales seem unbelievable but for anyone growing up in that time and/or place, it’s all too real.

During the 1950s and 60s, neighborhoods in Detroit (and just about any other place) were jam-packed with kids. And, truth be known, kids were not only a blessing (“Be fruitful and multiply…”) but they were also a cheap form of labor.

In my day, I was not only used by other moms to slip through the milk chute and open the back door, but I also lugged groceries blocks out of my way by a mom who commandeered my services, shoveled tons of snow for women who asked my mom for my help (unpaid, of course), ran errands, watched kids, took care of pets and was drafted to carry out an incredible range of work and service generally brokered by my mom with the collusion of every other mom in our neighborhood.

While some may think this use of kids as a virtual neighborhood employment service was odd, there were much odder things about growing up in Detroit.

First, kids were all over the place. There were hordes of kids in the neighborhood. Almost every house had kids… certainly every other house. There were always groups of kids outside planning… something. We hung around together and recognized other groups — kinda like gangs, but far, Far, FAR more benign!

There were the Berkshire Girls, the Devonshire Guys, the Haverhill Kids, and the different school “gangs.”

During summer vacation and even on off-days at any other time of year (including winter) we were tossed out of the house and generally left to our own devices. If we were caught indoors it meant we were up to no good.

Go figure.

We hung around outside a lot, and did a lot of stupid things. REALLY stupid things.

I remember at the time Detroit DPW crews were spraying against Dutch Elm disease. (It didn’t help. All the elm trees in our neighborhood died.) When we knew they would be spraying, we would hurry up to Outer Drive, wait on one side of the street, (there was a median between the streams of traffic), and when the spray truck drove by spewing massive clouds of pesticide we’d see who could hold their breath and run through the mist to the other side of the road.

We would just be dripping with the stuff. Literally.

Oh, Rachel Carson!!! Where were you when we needed you?

We used to race across the Edsel Ford Freeway — all four lanes. The test of manhood was running down the embankment, across four lanes of freeway traffic, and up the other side without stopping.

Stupid. Simply stupid.

At the end of Courville Street there was an pedestrian bridge over the freeway (behind the Dairy Queen.) On hot days we’d climb the fence and hide under the overpass ‘cause it was nice, shaded and cool there. The cops would always roust us and threaten to tell our parents (which could have been fatal!)

Folks don’t believe it.

People don’t believe I learned to swim in the Denby High School swimming pool — and all the boys swam buck naked.

Guys swam in Denby’s pool nude. I don’t know why, but it’s a fact. (No! There wasn’t a mixed class!)

We had quite a few famous people living in our extended neighborhood Sonny Bono, Wally Cox, Julie Harris, Wayne Dyer, and I think Tom Selleck went to Denby (although he graduated from high school in California.)

I went to Finney High School. It was a newer high school and was a bit thin in the famous people

There were some sports people living in our neighborhood. This was before every sports celebrity was a millionaire.

Ray Oyler, shortstop for the Tigers, lived on Whittier — across from St. Matthew’s school (kinda kitty corner from the rectory.)

I delivered the Detroit News to Oyler, and I mowed his lawn.

I mowed Oyler’s lawn the day after the Tiger’s returned home following the 1968 World Series seventh game win in St. Louis. I went to his door to collect my pay.

Ray was not in a good mood.

Despite being a great glove, Oyler was a horrible batter. (Detroiters my age remember the saying about Ray Oyler “0 for August!”) Tigers manager Mayo Smith famously moved outfielder Mickey Stanley to play shortstop weeks before the Tigers actually played all seven games of the 1968 World Series.

Stanley was a good hitter and had a good glove as well.

Oyler did put in an appearance in the Series, but not in his position. He didn’t have an official “at bat” but he did take the field a few times. I think he bunted once. It was pretty embarrassing, (but a good call by Smith nevertheless.)

After this Oyler left the Tigers for some team in Seattle.

Collecting my lawn mowing fee from Ray that day was not very pleasant. I think he was, as my dad would say, “in his cups.”

There were better days growing up in Detroit!


Posted by Jim Crees

Jim is the editor in chief of the Pioneer, Herald Review and Lake County Star. He can be reached by phone at (231) 592-8360 or by e-mail at jcrees@pioneergroup.com.

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