My Return Home from Vietnam
When I returned from Vietnam in 1969, I made three decisions. One was going to Woodstock instead of the “New York City Soul Festival”, another was getting out of the navy when my enlistment expired, and yet another was moving back to Detroit.
Upon arriving in Detroit, there were other decisions to make, enrolling in college and enlisting in the naval reserves to keep my pay grade and time in service just in case I decided to re-enlist regular navy again. I actually prepared for and thought seriously about enrolling in medical school, but was talked out of it. All good, I probably would have made a poor doctor anyway. So, being interested in art, I enrolled in the Arts and Crafts Art School and later transferred to Wayne State University under the GI Bill.
I enrolled initially for a BA in fine arts and with a couple of friends, opened a small storefront art gallery on Woodward Avenue, called “The Gallery of IMO” and became the only artist selling his paintings out of the three members. Bill Riser, one of the other artists, introduced me to his brother Paul, who did musical arrangements for Motown.
The early seventies were a unique period in time. One was because of the Black renaissance and the other because of the fantastic opportunities offered to freelance photographers back then. Photographic posters had become the new craze, and record companies were constantly looking for new talent. Professional commercial photographers seldom worked weekend, leaving great money-making opportunities for us nonprofessionals. I made five hundred dollars for a two hour job photographing the Detroit Fourth of July fireworks for the Detroit Free Press newspaper. I made a thousand dollars photographing Mercedes cars for the auto show display. And about two thousand dollars over time on poster contracts. It was then that I decided to switch my major to commercial photography. Bought my first Hasselblad camera and two lenses.
I was doing very well freelancing and selling artwork on the GI bill and living with my mom, but I also needed a car and without a steady source of income, that would be impossible.
During this time, I had printed and triple-matted several of my best photographs put them in my portfolio and commenced the job search, not really knowing much about the procedure other than showing my work. My portfolio must have weighed in at about forty pounds and wasn’t the best thing to handles on crowded public transportation like the Detroit DSR buses.
After a week or two of lugging my portfolio from one business to another without much success, a friend recommended the J. L. Hudson department store that had it’s own photography studio as part of it’s advertising department.
The Hudson store opened in 1891 and was eventually moved to Gratiot Avenue and Farmer Street, and encompassed an entire block, filling the space between Woodward Avenue and Farmer, Gratiot and Grand River Avenue. The store was a 25-story structure that was the world’s tallest department store until 1961. At one point, Hudson’s claimed it was also the second-largest store in the country in terms of square feet (two million), after Macy’s Herald Square in New York City. Hudson’s had it’s own cafeteria and even an infirmary. The Hudson’s photographic studio was located on the 19th floor.
So, without even making an appointment, I walked into the store, took the employee elevator up to the 19th floor (customer elevators only went to the 14th floor) and luckily caught the manager, Mr. Syzdek during his lunch break. It was obviously an uneasy first meeting, but Mr. Syzdek was so impressed with my photographs and the way they were matted that he hired me on the spot.
So, I became the FIRST Black photographer in the history of the J. L. Hudson’s department store history. A fact that even garnered a mention in the newspapers and didn’t escape the notice of the NAACP.
Being single, my coworkers thought I’d be a good match for another Hudson employee. Portia was one of the young African American elevator operators. She was tall, thin and very pretty. So we started dating regularly right away. Portia wanted to be a model and we were a pretty good match… but Portia had one big problem. She liked to smoke marijuana, a lot of marijuana.
This presented me with two problems. Besides weed being illegal in Detroit, it was also illegal in the military. Also, I never smoked the stuff myself. However, having perfected the art of rolling homemade cigarettes, I became pretty good at rolling joints. So good, that my talent was often requested at the parties we attended. At a Tina Turner “after-hours party”, I spent all night rolling joints. There was so much weed at that party that I was getting a buzz just from the secondhand smoke and all the time praying that the reserve unit wouldn’t schedule a urine test.
People who say smoking weed isn’t harmful should meet a person like Portia. Her brain was almost toast. It was a good thing she operated the employee elevators and tot the customer ones. One day I got on the elevator and expected she’d take me up to the nineteenth floor where I worked. The doors shut and the elevator started moving upward very slowly, then very fast and eventually came to an abrupt stop. The doors opened and posted on a pole just to the left was a sign that read “21st Floor, Executive Offices”.
When Hudson’s wanted to run an ad for African American newly weds, they use Portia and I as the models. The full page ad ran in the Sunday paper and on Monday, my phone rang off the hook with friends congratulating me.
We went out to dinner one night at a local steak house. After getting our seats, I excused myself for a restroom break. As I exited the bathroom, I saw a guy sitting at our table having what seemed to be a romantic conversation with my Portia. Not wanting to cause a scene, I hesitated long enough for the guy to get up and leave. When I got to the table, Portia broke out in hysterical laughter. “What’s up?”, I said, trying to control my anger. “That guy just told me he was Fred Durrette, a photographer, and wanted me to pose for him in his apartment studio”.
Portia and I eventually dissolved our relationship as it just wasn’t enjoyable. I was always concerned about being arrested with the nickel bag of grass I was taking to her house or even being busted by some undercover narc when trying to purchase it. Either way, it would end my military career.
Fredric Durrette served one tour in Vietnam, retired as E8 in the navy submarine service after 23 years. Major hobbies are collecting old stuff from the 20s and restoring old racing bicycles. Worked as a commercial photographer at JL Hudsons in Detroit and continue photography as a hobby. Love Sade, sixties soul, seventies rock, and all jazz. Attended Woodstock in 69!