CBS News Special Report: We interrupt the Detroit Tigers baseball game to bring you this news bulletin.
The news rarely interrupted TV programs, and when it did, something bad had happened. That’s how he’d learned of the Cuban Missile Crisis; the sinking of the Navy submarine Thresher; the construction of the Berlin Wall; the murder of three civil rights workers, Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, in Mississippi; and the death of his hero, John Kennedy, in Dallas.
Matt adjusted the aluminum foil on the TV’s rabbit-ear antenna and smacked the television with an open hand, bringing Walter Cronkite of CBS News into black-and-white focus. Four years earlier, he’d done the same when JFK was assassinated.
This story’s dateline was Detroit, not Dallas. Cronkite described the carnage of Detroit torn apart. What Matt saw made him want to smack the TV again and knock the images once again out of focus. He resisted the urge, moved closer, and turned up the volume.
Three days ago, ten white policemen had raided a black-run blind pig on Twelfth Street and Claremont. A liquor bottle was thrown, a cop was hit, and all hell broke loose. For five days Detroit burned.
CBS News showed footage of black people in a smoking downtown. White cops in white helmets stood on the sidewalks and watched. The crowd was celebrating; some looked frightened, some were crying, and some were walking down the street carrying new televisions with the price tags waving in the breeze. Liquor stores were looted first, then everything else. It was part Mardi Gras and part French Revolution. Willie Horton and Gates Brown, still dressed in their Detroit Tigers baseball uniforms, pleaded with the rioters. The crowd turned their backs on their now impotent and irrelevant heroes. It was their game and their show.
Cronkite said, “The death toll is now thirty and expected to go much higher. President Johnson is sending in the Eighty-Second Airborne Division.” He looked into the camera with the same grim expression he’d had four years earlier and said, “And that’s the way it is, Monday, July 24, 1967.”
Thank God I don’t have to go there, Matt thought. Then he felt ashamed for not thinking about the men, women, and children who, because of genetics, geography, and bad luck, were forced to live through it. It wasn’t fair.
He recalled his relationship with black players on the Michigan State University football team. Five black players had carried the 1966 National Championship team. Four were first-round draft picks. He was third string. Gene Washington, Jimmy Ray, George Webster, Clinton Jones, and Bubba Smith had fans, both black and white, standing on their feet, cheering. When the games were over, the team got tanked and celebrated at “zebra parties.” Everyone got along. Black and white players bonded after the 10–10 tie with Notre Dame. Notre Dame, not Michigan State, played for the tie. State coach Duffy Daugherty had the country laughing with the quote “A tie is like kissing your sister.”
Now the quote was “Burn, baby, burn.”
And, baby, Detroit is burning, he thought.
In a matter of weeks, he was going to be a medical student in that same inner city. If he was going to endure the experience, he would need to understand why black people and white people wanted to kill each other. Thank God he had a few weeks. The city had to cool before he could safely venture down there.
He jumped when the piercing bell of the telephone sounded.
“Mr. Drummond, this is the dean’s office. We need as many medical students as we can muster to come down and help. You know what’s going on down here?”
“Yes, it’s on television.”
“We need help.”
“I’m a first-year medical student. I have no experience. I could hurt the patients. I’m not ready.”
“You won’t be able to hurt these patients.”
“There are forty bodies in the Wayne County morgue. The coroner needs help. It’s a war zone. The autopsies are backed up. Be at the morgue at seven tomorrow morning.”
“But I have plans.”
“Mr. Drummond, remember you are on the waiting list for medical school. If you help at the morgue, we can guarantee you a position in the class that enters this fall. If you don’t show up, brush up on your Spanish; you can always get into a Spanish-speaking medical school.”
“I’m coming down.”
Matt set the receiver down.
He drove to the Shell station and got a map of Detroit. The morgue was located at 400 East Lafayette. It was near Greektown, which was a pretty safe area. He traced the least dangerous route. He’d get up early. He hoped rioters and looters slept in. Snipers only worked at night.
The Big Ben alarm sounded. Awake and showered, Matt boiled water and stirred in Brim instant coffee. He didn’t want to eat. He had seen only one dead person before. It was a friend’s grandfather, and he was old and looked pretty good in the casket.
Matt needed a critical-worker pass that would allow him to enter the urban combat zone. Evidently he was vital to the running of the hospital, even though, as an almost-first-year medical student, he was useless.
His car did not have air conditioning but burned oil and overheated. He kept two pints of oil and three gallons of water in the trunk. He kept the window rolled down. He smelled something burning. At first he thought it was his car, but then realized the faint smell of charcoal and tear gas came from the city.
The temperature gauge nudged toward hot. He could go about thirty miles before the temperature gauge would hit the red zone, and he would put water in the radiator and wait for the wreck to cool down.
Matt descended into the destruction. Buildings were reduced to piles of crumbled brick. Scaly, burned, skeletal wooden frames jutted out of the rubble. Commercial signs—Standard Oil, Check Cashing, the Algiers Hotel—gave evidence of a thriving community that had been. White and black business owners had painted “Soul Brother” on their establishments, hoping to be spared. “Soul Brother” didn’t spare any “soul brothers,” black or white. It was an equal-opportunity riot. Bullet holes pocked the ruins.
Three jeeps with white stars on the fenders slammed to a halt, blocking him. He hit his brakes, which sometimes held. He stopped a little too close to the lead jeep. The soldiers jumped out.
The National Guard looked like kids dressed up as Halloween soldiers. Young white kids, in the National Guard to escape the draft and a government-paid trip to Vietnam hell, wore helmets on their heads that were too large and looked like inverted salad bowls. They looked frightened and crazy-excited. They had live ammunition. He saw a tank. He saw several rifles pointed at him. The bright morning sun reflected off the bayonets.
A soldier approached. “Who are you and what are you doing here?”
Matt was frightened. His heart raced. He tried to remain calm.
“I’m Matt Drummond. I’m a first-year medical student. I’m going to the morgue to help.”
He handed him his driver’s license.
“I don’t need your license. I need your papers, the ones that identify you as a critical worker. Let’s see your papers.”
“I don’t have them. I’m to pick them up at the morgue.”
“Out of the car.”
The guardsman shouted and pointed to the ground.
“Out of the goddamn car. Get down and put your hands behind your head.”
“This is ridiculous.”
Two national guardsmen and a Detroit cop knocked him to the ground. He was clubbed on his back. He fell to his knees.
“Let’s see your papers.”
“I don’t have them.”
They knocked him down again, four men this time. He was pressed to the ground.
“Call the school, please,” Matt pleaded.
His back hurt.
“Take him to the station.”
“You guys have put forty people in the morgue. They need me to help.”
“How would you like to be forty-one, asshole?” The cop shoved him. Drummond could have taken the cop with a left hook and a guardsman with a right cross, but they had the guns and tanks.
The cop was smeared in black soot; he had cuts and scratches on a tired don’t-fool-with-me face. He was at his limit, and he had a gun.
A police captain noticed the scuffle. He walked over, his hand on his holstered sidearm.
“What’s going on here?”
“This guy says he’s a medical student and he’s supposed to work in the morgue, but he doesn’t have a critical-worker pass.”
“Did somebody call the med school?”
“The pay phones are working. Put the kid in my cruiser, and I’ll drive him to the morgue. No white kid would come down here unless he had to.”
“But he doesn’t have a pass.”
“This police force is full of dumb Krauts and Polacks. We need some blacks to bring in some common street sense.”
“We have blacks on the force,” a police sergeant said.
“Yeah, we have a force of five thousand policemen, and only two hundred fifty are black. Half of the population is black. No wonder they don’t trust us.”
The police captain shook his head.
“What about my car?” Drummond asked.
“Leave that piece of shit here. Maybe somebody will burn it. Put it out of its misery.”
Drummond got in the back of the cruiser. They drove to the morgue and parked in front. The morgue was a heavy brick building with ancient Egyptian motifs.
They were met by the morgue attendant who said he would check the list of medical students. He left Matt and the police captain.
“You better not be lying.”
“I’m not. What started all this?”
“A bunch of blacks were celebrating in a blind pig.”
“What were they celebrating?”
“Two men returned from Vietnam. They were celebrating their safe return. Then the big four came and broke it up because it was after hours. One of the partiers threw a full bottle of bourbon, hit a cop. The billy clubs went flying, it spilled out into the street, and here we are.”
The morgue assistant returned. “He checks out.”
The police captain left without saying anything.
“Boy,” the attendant said. “You got some cuts and bruises. But you’re alive. Let it go. The cops aren’t in a good mood. They just got over the blue flu. I’ll take you to those that weren’t so lucky.”
“The cops killed people?”
“Some were snipers; most were killed by the National Guard spraying buildings with their fifty-caliber machine guns. We’ve got a little girl in there. It will all be sorted out. Follow me.”
As he walked with the attendant, Matt noticed a smell. It was getting stronger. It wasn’t overpowering but was a dry smell, part horse stable and part rancid chemical fertilizer. But it was everywhere. It enveloped you like a swarm of insects—no-see-ums—from which there was no escape.
“That’s the death smell. You can’t get rid of it. Do you own a dog?”
“That smell is a magnet for dogs. Mine won’t leave me alone until I shower and change my clothes.”
They walked. The morgue attendant stopped in front of two large wooden doors. Egyptian hieroglyphics were carved into the massive, floor-length doors.
“The Egyptians studied death, and so do we.”
He pulled the doors open.
“Here we are.”
It was like the curtains opening to start a play.
In a cavernous room, forty stretchers were arranged in five rows of eight. Bodies were zipped in white rubberized canvas bags. There were clotted bloodstains outside of several of the bags. Some had red handprints on them.
Drummond hesitated. He didn’t want to go in. This was not for him. A woman pushed him into the cathedral-like room.
He turned toward the woman.
“I’m a medical student volunteer, like you. Let’s get going. I want to help with the autopsies.”
The attendant said, “You won’t get near any bodies. Those will be very sophisticated, top-secret forensic autopsies. The Feds will come down. You two have to wash and sterilize the surgical instruments and the gurneys.”
Good, Drummond thought. He didn’t want anything to do with bodies, not yet.
The closest they got to the bodies was washing the steel surfaces of the autopsy stretchers. Blood and other secretions left a smear of what had once been a human being. Some outlines Matt recognized as men, some as women, and there was one that was small and curled in a fetal position; he hoped it was a petite woman and not a child.
He was given a metal scrub brush and an aluminum pail filled with a harsh chemical cleaner that burned his eyes. He went to the stretcher with the small silhouette and started to scrub. First in slow, circular motions, then faster and faster. His eyes burned and tears poured down his cheeks. It must be the cleaning solution, he thought. He kept scrubbing the stretcher. The wooden handle broke. He grabbed the metal bristles with his bare hand. His hands were bleeding. But he kept scrubbing. He could still see the tiny shadow. It wouldn’t come off. He scrubbed harder. The metal bristles made a scratching sound. He scrubbed harder, and the metallic sound became louder.
The female medical student screamed, “Stop. You’re hurting yourself.”
“I’ve got to clean this mess. I can still see the shadow.”
“It’s gone. The stretcher’s clean. It’s nothing but scratch marks.”
“No, it’s still there, I can see it.”
The coroner appeared and said, “Boy, you’re done for the day. Go home and make yourself a drink, straight up, no water, no ice. A painkiller.”
“But I have to make this go away.”
“You’re done. You can’t do anything now. It’s over for them and you.”