It started on 12th and Clairmount.

My great-uncle Jimmy died yesterday in Indiana, only two days short of the Mayan apocalypse. He was 99.

He was my maternal grandma’s brother, and the second-to-last surviving member of that generation on either side of the family. (My great-aunt Eleanor, still cranking along at 100, is the last. The genes in my family rival Laxton’s Superb trees for hardiness.)

I didn’t know him nearly as well as my mother did, and I hadn’t seen him in quite a few years. My knowledge of him comes back in bits and threads:

– He had the puckish Irish gleam in his eye. My mother once told me about the time she visited him in Detroit as a young girl, and he introduced her to his colleagues as his “child bride.”

– He also had the Irish taste for a bit of strong drink, though — unlike others in his branch of the family — he kept it under control.

– He shows up in a wonderful family snapshot taken at my maternal grandparents’ home in Connecticut in 1974. No idea what inspired this, but I imagine it made everyone laugh then, and it makes me smile now:

Nice day for fish-grasping, eh what?

Finally, Great-Uncle Jimmy was a policeman in Detroit, which gave him a front-row seat to a tumultuous moment in American history.

According to family lore, he had to miss my parents’ wedding in July 1967 because he was on riot duty — along with the state police, the National Guard and, eventually, an airborne infantry division of the U.S. Army.

The chronology doesn’t exactly add up: The wedding was July 22, and the riots began in the early hours of July 23. Perhaps there was some inkling that they were coming, and he was held back as a precaution. Or maybe I misunderstood the story, and Great-Uncle Jimmy made it to the wedding but was called back soon afterward.

I never got — or more accurately, never took — the opportunity to ask him about the experience. But I’ve wondered sometimes what it was like for a fundamentally decent, good-humored man to find himself in the midst of an inferno like that.

Everything on this blog comes back to music at some point, so here’s something suitable from John Lee Hooker.

It’s not a eulogy for my great-uncle’s long, full life … just a depiction of a few eventful days of it, from a common man’s point of view:

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