Friday, November 9, 1962, was sunny and mild—a perfect day for skipping school. (Of course, even bad days were a fine time to ditch classes at Wilson Junior High.) I was 14 and had already failed seventh grade. I had plenty of friends in southwest Detroit, and Wilson had lots of kids just like me. It took only a minute to find my friend Ron, and we took off walking from Detroit to Dearborn to see the Ford Rotunda.
I was free. No one seemed to care, and even my parents reluctantly accepted that school wasn’t for me. On the few occasions when police stopped to ask us why we weren’t in school we’d say it was a teachers’ conference in a community they didn’t patrol, and they didn’t ask anything more.
That Friday, on top of the Miller Road and Rotunda Drive Bridge, we stopped to look at the vast Ford Rouge Plant below—a living, breathing metropolis before our eyes. Smoke billowed from the foundry as molten metal poured forth to create the fundamental pieces for new cars. Trains snaked in and out of buildings, hauling rolls of steel and assembled engines. And out from other buildings, hundreds of colorful new cars and olive drab Jeeps drove off to waiting railroad cars as thousands of workers, looking like so many ants, poured in and out at shift change.
We walked another mile and arrived at the Ford Rotunda, featured at the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair and subsequently dismantled and reconstructed in Dearborn. While workers recoated the roof we stepped inside the wonderland. A theater was showing movies of how Henry Ford invented automobile mass production. A city of the future had miniature moving cars flying from one place to another; a talking robot answered questions; and shiny automobiles, trucks, and tractors covered the floor. In the center of the Rotunda, in a showroom displaying colorful floor-to-ceiling drapes, beautiful women stood beside luxury cars, answering questions.
After climbing into cars and pretending we were driving, we got bored and walked to Montgomery Ward’s, up the street. But just as we stepped into the sporting goods section we heard sirens. We raced outside and saw fire trucks of every sort, along with police cars, speeding to the Rotunda.
Not wanting to miss anything, we ran there, too.
The roof was engulfed in flames, and there were ladder trucks, and firemen with long hoses struggling to contain the fire. We tried to get past the security men.
“Stay back!” one of them hollered. “The walls might collapse!”
Frustrated that we couldn’t get closer to the excitement, we decided to harass the security guards by pelting them with rocks. The inevitable result was our arrest by Dearborn police. That evening, Ron and I were released to our parents.
The next day, we returned to our neighborhood hangout on Vernor Highway. The word was already out to all our friends that we had been arrested at the Ford Rotunda.
“You guys burned the Rotunda down!” one friend said, laughing.
“No, we didn’t,” I replied. “We just stoned a security guard.”
“Bullshit!” another said. “You guys burned it down!”
Everyone was smiling and proud of us. We were heroes of the moment.
It made sense—Ron and I had done a lot, and I already had a reputation for burning garages. So we figured, why argue when everyone is having such a great time? Besides, respect feels really good.
Edwin Sutherland, the father of criminology, said, “Criminal behavior is learned—culturally transmitted—during interaction within intimate groups in a process of communication that includes the techniques, motives, rationalizations and attitudes that support an excess of definitions favorable to the violation of the law over definitions favorable to the law.”
There's a fancy name for this: “differential association theory.” Just one of many criminological theories that explain deviant behavior.