They were carted around York city, stopping to play four- to five-song sets in different neighborhoods for York Recreation Commission's battle of the bands.
Exactly one year earlier, police had fired a warning shot to break up a group of youths gathered at Penn Park before the 10 p.m. youth curfew. The incident sparked racial unrest, which culminated in an Aug. 5 riot.
When The Cossacks pulled up at the corner of Penn and College avenues, Debes said he was "scared to death."
It was their third gig.
Debes nervously clutched his electric bass and hit the opening notes of Booker T. & The MG's "Tic-Tac-Toe."
During the song, residents started to gather in a large group. The Cossacks played on.
After the band broke into its second song, Debes started to relax.
"(The crowd was) actually enjoying the performance," he said. No fighting broke out. No one hassled the bands.
When The Cossacks were asked to participate in the battle of the bands, their parents wondered if it was safe to play downtown. But the new band was eager to book gigs and joined the lineup anyway.
They watched a broken community unite as they took the stage. People clapped and sang along to James Brown, The Temptations and Jimi Hendrix covers.
"In the midst of all the violence that was going on at the time and what was to later happen in York, there was a common bond we struck that day through music," said Debes, who is now the music industry program coordinator at York College.
But just six days after the battle of the bands, race riots exploded in York again.
Buildings burned. Tanks patrolled. Bullets flew. Blood flowed. Residents hid.
York police officer Henry C. Schaad and Lillie Belle Allen, who was visiting her sister in York, were killed.
Even though Debes heard news about the riots, he said he "wasn't tuned in socially."
"I didn't have an appreciation for (the situation) until I was an adult, until I could look back and reflect," he said.
He gives the Recreation Commission a lot of credit for seeing the need for music during troubled times.
More than three decades after the riots, York County District Attorney's Office opened an investigation into the riot murders.
On Oct. 19, 2002, Robert N. Messersmith and Gregory H. Neff were convicted of second-degree murder in Allen's killing and sentenced to prison. Seven co-defendants in the Allen case were also sentenced to jail time for their roles in the killing. Former Mayor Charlie Robertson was acquitted.
On March 13, 2003, Stephen D. Freeland and Leon "Smickel" Wright were convicted of second-degree murder in Schaad's death and sentenced to jail time. Michael Wright also pleaded guilty to his involvement in the Schaad shooting and was sentenced to jail.When he looks back at the summer of 1969, Debes still has fond memories of playing in his band. He said that many people might feel it was a terrible time, but that York has grown as a community.
"We've healed the wounds," he said.
Hear Cathie Lutz tell her story:
I didn't personally experience the riots, but my husband (Edwin) did. He was a state police officer at the time.
There was a period of time - 10 days - that I did not have an opportunity to see or talk to my husband. At the time, we lived in Colony Park and the (police) barracks was on Roosevelt Avenue. (During the riots) they slept there and took their breaks.
When my husband came home (the day he found out he would be on call during the riots), he started dismantling his uniform. He said, "we were told that we can't wear anything other than our basic uniform." He also took his deer-hunting rifle with him to work that day. It was really kind of a shock to see that.
He never had to shoot anybody. Right after he left, he said he'd try to get in touch if he could. Four or five other wives came to my house and we made coffee and we sat and we talked. We worried, of course. We started to keep ourselves busy after day two. None of us really wanted to be alone.
We started doing this little craft thing, like crepe paper flowers. We all made bouquets of riot flowers we called them. We heard what was going on in the news and watching some television.
It was a very frightening thing not knowing if your husband was going to be coming home. About every two days, there would be a phone call from the barracks. (After he returned, my husband) said there was a lot of tension and a lot of people were getting spooked by the tension more so than any incidents that were going on.
He knew Officer (Henry C.) Schaad (who was shot July 18 and died Aug. 1). It was very difficult for all of them when one of their own died. It was just a very sad situation. I think all the wives (who) were married to police officers . . . all felt tension and apprehension. We tried to just make the best of it and keep a positive outlook on the situation and we got through it.
- Cathie Lutz, 65, West Manchester Township
Locked inside the classroom
Hear Michelle Harris tell her story:
I remember what most people did about the tanks going through the city and the curfew, but the thing that I remember most is I was attending York High (now William Penn Senior High School) and we had to be locked into our classrooms because we didn't know what was going on outside or if people would get into the school.
It was a very scary time and I really didn't want to attend school, so I ended up playing hooky. But everything finally cleared up, and we were able to continue our education.
- Michelle Harris, 53, York
Shooting in the streets
At the time of the riots, I lived in York Springs, however my husband worked (in York). On a Friday night . . . four or five of the second shift guys . . . would go to the thing they would call, at that time, "the soul kitchen" on Philadelphia Street. One of their friends, of course, was black.
They were inside and they put in their orders and the black gentleman said, "hey, let's leave." He said he would be in trouble for bringing (his white co-workers) into there. Our black friend went to go to his home the next day (after) he worked and the people that lived in the neighborhood were shooting at anyone they didn't know.
They had to blow their horns to get through and (my friend) did that. I think they recognized his car and because he had been in the soul kitchen with his white friends, I think that is why his car was shot at.
- Gloria Dove, 64, Dover
Tanks rolling into town
Hear Karen Arnold tell her story:
I was a teenager living in the 300 block of East Princess Street. I remember my parents insisted that we keep the blinds and shades pulled so we would not see out. I remember peeking out of the blinds and seeing army tanks rolling down East Princess Street. It was a very scary time for me.
- Karen Arnold, 56, West Manchester Township
Time to make the donuts
Hear Don Simmons tell his story:
During the '60s when the riots were going on, I lived in York on Linden Avenue and I worked at the Dixie Creme Donut Shop at 158 W. Market St. and had to be at work at 4 in the morning.
A couple mornings, I'd be going down Market Street with National Guard tanks rolling alongside me. One morning, I went in Penn Street to turn onto Market (Street) and down on South Penn Street there was a car upside down on the street burning and we had to go in the back door to get into the donut shop.
It was very eerie.
- Don Simmons, Dover
Holding arms out of cars
Hear Maria Frey tell her story:
I lived in the city during the race riots. My son's babysitter lived on Cottage Hill Road and to get home, we had to go over the Newberry Street railroad tracks. I'm white and to get by there, we had to make sure we held our arms out the window so we wouldn't get shot at. I think it's an appalling thing that happened.
- Maria Frey, 63, York
Hear Dolly Fink Sutton tell her story:
(During the riots) we lived in the 200 block of Jefferson Avenue. The big armored trucks were on the streets. National guardsmen were carrying guns. We were not allowed to go out of the house. We had two bicycles stolen off our property. Somebody knocked on our door one night and my 8-year-old son answered and (the man) knocked him in the face and took off. What a bloody mess.
- Dolly Fink Sutton, Dover Township