Another Broken Link: A Tribute to Bonnie Downing

     In one of my recent essays, I bemoaned the fact that one of the reasons I did not like growing older (among many) was seeing the number of members of the generation that came before me rapidly diminish, and that the deep resource of their experiences and wisdom was disappearing as well. Somehow my parents and older uncles and aunts always seemed to have the right answer coupled with the wisdom of Solomon, and I have drawn on the resource of their lives many times over the years.
     But that rich resource of life is rapidly vanishing. My father had fourteen brothers and sisters, and only one, whom I will talk about momentarily, remains alive today. My mother’s family, which in looking at her siblings was a relatively younger lot, has in the last few years begun to see the dwindling of their flock as time takes its toll.
     The fallen soldier for this essay is Bonnie Laverne Williams Downing…”Aunt Bonnie” to me. She was the wife of Dad’s last surviving brother, Thurl E. Downing. Her story is very similar to my own mother’s story. Both were born into modest families in small towns, and both married poor Oklahoma farm boys who happened to be brothers. Both couples lived in the same Houston area and over a nearly 65 year period managed to create homes, enjoy measures of success, raise children and grandchildren, and create legacies that hangs heavily over the descendents of these two marriages.
     Bonnie was born in 1926. She and her family moved to Baytown, Texas, in 1940, where she met a young man and gave him her heart on October 10, 1941. She was fifteen years old and he was twenty one. Her age at marriage sounds shocking in today’s society, but during the Great Depression of the twenties and thirties, young people by necessity grew up faster than now. Many even in their early teens left home and attempted to earn their living because there was no work at home with the family. Today we have twenty-five year olds who have the maturity of twelve year olds because they’ve never had to want for anything. (But that’s another story, and I digress.)
     What with marrying brothers, Aunt Bonnie became good friends with my mother, Ethel, who was married to R.L. Downing. My mom and dad had married only a couple of years before Thurl and Bonnie, and all soon became close friends. In late 1942, Aunt Bonnie and Uncle Thurl had their first child, Carletta, and Mom was there to help Aunt Bonnie adjust to motherhood. She was the ripe old age of sixteen. Aunt Bonnie was able to return the motherhood favor in May, 1943, when I was born. Mother had a few problems after I was born, not the least which was a high blood pressure condition which she would live with for the rest of her life. But Aunt Bonnie was there for her on a daily basis, and, in fact, was the first to point out to my mother a peculiar characteristic of her young infant son.
     My mother told me this story many times, and it goes like this: Bonnie came to her one day and said, “Ethel, have you ever noticed what your baby does when he’s sleeping?”
     Mom said, “Well, no, not really. What is it?”
     Bonnie said, “Most babies when they get ready to turn over just sort of roll over to one side or another and they’re happy. Bobby uses his hands to flip himself up and then spins his body around to get to his new position. He shakes the whole bed!”
     I have a confession to make: I still do that. During many a restless night I have awakened for some reason and found my wife gone, only to discover she was in the living room recliner or on the sofa asleep. She has said on my restless nights it was like she was sleeping on a trampoline. We have solved the problem with a bed that doesn’t transmit movement, but I’m still a spinner to this day.
     In the early years the two Downing families lived on the same street, and as far as us kids were concerned, we practically weren’t sure which house was ours; we felt comfortable in either one. The rules were the same in either house, and we kids knew that respect, courtesy, and good behavior were expected in either home. Though our fathers played critical roles in our upbringing, in those days it was the mother who set the tone for the home. Like my mother, Aunt Bonnie established a legacy of honesty, character, and integrity in dealing with her husband, children, and relatives. Our homes offered to us kids foundations of solid rock where we knew where we stood and offered us places on which to build.
     We, the offspring of T.E. and Bonnie Downing, Robert L. and Ethel Downing, Lawrence and Blanche Downing, and Orville and Reba Downing and the other siblings of that generation, are bound with a responsibility to pass to our children the redeeming qualities which were taught to us…and which are so lacking in many families today. Our children need to know they have a tradition and a legacy that must be treasured and practiced.
     On August 28, 2009, in a simple, elegant ceremony very similar to my own mother’s service on December 24, 2004, we laid Bonnie Laverne Williams Downing to rest in a small country cemetery. Surrounded by a loving family and friends we bade farewell to a stalwart of faith and love. She had survived the Great Depression, World War II, sixty-seven years of marriage, five children, fourteen grandchildren, nineteen great-grandchildren, seven great-great-grandchildren, and eighty three years of life. One more link to the past had been broken.
     Finally, she could rest.

Hunting In A Jeep

    One of the most enjoyable parts of our family living in Wyoming was my being introduced to the world of hunting. I have always enjoyed fishing, which I inherited from my dad and many of his relatives. I can remember as a child our family would go to Oklahoma to visit Dad’s kin, and sometime during the visit we would all go to Grand Lake of the Cherokees in Northeast Oklahoma and fish for an entire day. No big boats and no sophisticated hardware, just a few cane poles and simple rods and reels. All the Downings would catch a mess of perch or catfish, and the evening would be spent at a big fish fry at Earl’s and Beulah’s house. After everyone had eaten to excess, the menfolk would gather on the front porch and the women in the living room, and they would all chatter like a bunch of magpies until the wee hours of the morning. I was a quiet kid, believe it or not, and I would sit in the shadows and listen to the grownups talk about their experiences when they were kids during the Great Depression or World War II. I would give a lot of money to have a recording of some of those sessions.
     In Wyoming, however, I had the opportunity to experience hunting, and, looking back, it is my opinion that Wyoming is one of the few hunting states where “pure” hunting is still practiced. Here in Texas, hunting is a major business, what with all the land being private land. The landowners can hold your privilege of hunting for ransom and charge you an arm and a leg for the honor of walking onto their property to shoot a deer the size of a large German Shepherd. Rich landowners can cater to rich hunters by growing their own exotic crop of captured animals, and “hunters” can blast away at these poor creatures which have no avenues of escape. Hunters use deer stands to wait in ambush for their prey, having trained their prey to come to the endangered spot by year round feeding machines. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.
     Wyoming is different. Around seventy five percent of Wyoming is federal and state land. Being government property, it is open to all. Much of it is leased to private ranchers for grazing, but the ranchers cannot deny access to hunters. For the seventeen years I lived in Wyoming, I never paid anyone for the privilege of hunting. A hunter had to register with the rancher and promise not to shoot any cows or sheep (which sometimes happened anyway), but it was open country for hunting. Wyoming was a hunter’s paradise. Licenses were inexpensive, though regulated. The Game and Fish Commission did a good job of monitoring animal populations, and hunting permits were issued based on population levels needed to maintain healthy herds. The actual process of hunting was man against animal, and the animal was in its natural habitat. Tracking, stalking, reading signs, anticipating an animal’s moves were all part of realizing a successful hunt in Wyoming. One didn’t sit in a deer stand nibbling on a donut and sipping coffee while waiting for the granddaddy of all bucks to come along.
     During this time, I was privileged to work with my brother-in-law, Buddy Creel. Now that he is an important insurance mogul, he is Jim or James Creel, but to his close family, he’s just Buddy. Has been since he was born, I think. Anyway, Buddy and I worked together to operate a service station and a taxicab venture, among other things. Having a need for a good work vehicle, and with an eye toward hunting and fishing the area, we bought a 1955 Jeep Willys four wheel drive pickup. (See photos) Just like Wyoming offered “pure” hunting, this Jeep was the “pure” pickup truck. It was the antithesis of every pickup on the road today. Nowadays, if your pickup doesn’t have GPS, satellite radio, MP3 connections, leather, four doors, twenty inch rims, blinding chrome trim, tinted windows, and a lift kit, it ain’t much. Our Jeep was a six cylinder, three speed on the floor, no power anything, and a beast to drive. The only thing electronic was a CB radio, which was the cutting edge of technology in those days. I guess it had springs, but you would have never known from the ride. You felt a direct communion between the road and your….um…where you sit. To turn a corner required some advance planning and good arm muscles, and when it came time to stop, you were glad you had been doing your leg presses. Getting up to sixty miles per hour was a challenge because the gearing was so low and also because the Jeep had what is called a worm and roller gear on the steering linkage, which means that in straightaway driving there was about a half a steering wheel area of play in the steering. You were constantly whipping left to right to maintain a straight forward direction.
     The saving grace of that old Jeep was, however, it would go straight up if you asked it to. When you put that thing in four wheel drive, all four wheels went to work. It had a two speed rear axle, and when in “low range” and in low gear, the only thing that would stop it was gravity. Buddy and I attempted hills many times which were impossibly steep, and that old Jeep would just sit there and dig until we gave up and went elsewhere. We had the obligatory gun rack and packed our artillery wherever we went. Looking back, we had no key to lock the doors and never worried about walking away from the Jeep, even with our rifles in the rack.  Can you imagine doing that these days in Texas?  We found an old camper that would fit in the bed that popped up and folded out into a couple of beds, so we were ready for huntin’ and campin’.  To give you an idea of the…um…interesting experiences one can have while hunting in an old Jeep, let me relate the following story to you. 
       One October as the elk season finally arrived, Buddy and I decided to take the Jeep up to the Big Horn Mountain Range west of Buffalo, Wyoming, to begin our search for a prize elk. Elk were the crème de la crème in hunting circles where I lived. Moose were OK, but hunting licenses were almost impossible to get even for Wyoming residents. Mountain sheep were trophies for horn hunters, but Buddy and I were “pure” hunters; what we shot, we ate. We did not kill for sport.  We did not go in for "recreational" shooting of varmints, be they chipmunks, prairie dogs, or coyotes. We were true to our ancestral hunters.  On that crispy morning we headed out on Interstate 25 north from Casper to Buffalo and then headed west on Highway 16, rising in altitude from 5,000 feet to over 10,000 feet. It was an arduous climb for the Jeep, but given time, we finally arrived at our destination, far up into the mountains at the near end of a barely recognizable trail.
     Snow had already come to the high country and hung heavily on the trees and covered the undergrowth. The evening of our first night was cold and still, and in the camper with no heat (we’re MEN!) our breath left its foggy print. We awaited the dawn with anticipation. When it finally arrived, we traipsed around a bit but saw nothing and decided, since the grass is always greener somewhere else, to go down the road a piece. Consider this also; we had no maps. We had a Wyoming map, and we could tell roughly where we were, but up in the high country we were sort of flying by the seat of our pants. So we drove along a bit, scanning the area for any movement. In a few minutes we came to a stream. It was a beautiful waterway, rushing down hill with noticeable rocky rapids and about 25 feet across. I looked at the water and asked Buddy, “Well, Bud, what do you think…can we make it?”
     To which he replied, “Oh, yeah, it’s not deep…let’s go for it!”
     I gunned the Jeep, we hit the water, and the whole front end of the Jeep disappeared under the water! We were so shocked I guess it saved us, because I sort of froze with my foot on the accelerator…and that Jeep plowed through that water and up the other side like a land based submarine. We felt pretty good...for about fifty feet, and then the Jeep died. Well, we got out and surveyed the situation and could see no damage until we looked under the front of the Jeep. There was gas dripping from under the engine. Buddy slid underneath and took a look. To understand the problem, you have to know a little about old motors. In those days, many vehicles had an exterior fuel filter on the side (in this case bottom) of the engine. This filter consisted of a glass bowl with a filter inside through which fuel flowed. This glass bowl was held on with a metal clip, so you could pop the bowl off to replace the filter when needed. Unfortunately, this glass bowl happened to be right above the front differential of this 4WD Jeep, and, when the Jeep plowed through the creek, we must have hit a submerged rock, pushing the differential up against the bowl and knocking it off. So where’s the bowl? We began to retrace our tracks all the way back to the water’s edge. There, about ten feet out in the icy water we could see a glint of reflected light. Buddy waded out and picked up our missing bowl. When the differential hit the glass bowl it had knocked a chip out of the bottom to the point that the bottom of the glass was a hair thickness…but it wasn’t broken through. We put the bowl back on the filter clip, and, as best as I remember, reinforced it with some tape, and off we went.
     To make a long story short and to stay with the subject of the Jeep, I will say that our hunt was unsuccessful, and later that day we decided to head back to Casper. If you look at a map of Wyoming and the Big Horn area, you will see that Highway 16 west of Buffalo meanders south and west toward Tensleep, Wyoming. Buddy and we decided that, rather than go back east on 16 and south on IH 25, we would take a back road south behind the mountain range through Mayoworth, Wyoming, and reduce our distance to home. It was still, even with that, 90 or so miles. We headed south along this country road from Highway 16, and in a very short while it began to get a little rugged…OK, it got a lot rugged. We realized that sooner or later we were going to have to cross the mountain ridge to our east, and, sure enough, suddenly our narrow, rocky, barely single lane road started heading at what appeared to be a 45 degree angle up the side of the mountain. It wasn’t quite that bad, but I can tell you that on my side (driver’s) the cliff went straight up and on Buddy’s side, just outside his door it went straight down…way down.
     But we didn’t fear….the old Jeep was chugging along, the four wheel drive was grabbing, and the engine was hardly working, what with the gearing…..until it stopped. I began to crank on the engine. No success…it would not fire. Being shadetree mechanics both of us, we knew about fuel, oxygen, heat, etc. After awhile I took the fuel line off the side of the carburetor, and Buddy cranked the engine. Not a drop of fuel came out. After much deliberation, we decided that the hill we were climbing was so steep that the fuel pump was not strong enough to pull the fuel from the rear tank up to the engine. What to do? With an American ingenuity that helped the Colonies defeat the British and the United States to win two World Wars, we found an empty milk carton in the camper and a bit of hose. We siphoned some fuel out of the gas tank into the milk carton and then disconnected the fuel line at the engine and ran a hose from the milk carton to the carburetor. Buddy cranked the Jeep, and it started right up! I rode on the front fender of the Jeep holding the milk carton while Buddy drove to the top of the mountain and partly down the other side. Once we were tipped in the downhill direction, we hooked the fuel line back up, and we were rolling again!
     In a few hours we were nestled back in our home, snug as a bug. We were disappointed we did not have a successful hunt, but we had lots of fun. Looking back, I would not repeat this experience now for all the gold in China (exaggeration). The trouble with getting older is that risks become too risky. But this memory I will treasure forever. And, Buddy, I still miss you, man.

The Ideal Church

     The idea that there exists somewhere a Supreme Being who has had some sort of hand in the evolution of humanity has led to the creation of countless religions. What we refer to as religion is simply man’s search for a communion with this Supreme Being. In our ignorance of who or where the Supreme Being is, humans have imagined Him in practically every conceivable object, from the sun, the wind, the trees, other animals, to even other humans. Regardless of where we see a god, persons of like belief have assembled together to honor their concept of god, to worship their god, and hopefully receive a sign that would indicate their god is pleased with their behavior.
     Whether you call your assembly area for the honoring of your god a church, a sanctuary, a cathedral, a synagogue, a temple, or a mosque, it is a place where the believers can assemble with like-minded souls and follow whatever practices their group has prescribed as prerequisite for the communication into the spirit world.
     I will tell you right up front that I am not an expert on church organization or various church ideologies. I have, however, been a church goer for over sixty years, and through simple observance I have seen how much influence a church can have on an individual’s life. And, having said that, I realized that for many professing church members, a church is like a spare tire in an automobile; you only use it in an emergency, and it really has no influence at all in their daily lives.
     To those who believe in God (with a capital “G”) and have a sincere desire to live proper lives pleasing to their Creator, a church becomes more than a spare tire; it becomes the engine that powers life itself. To identify myself, starting with the broadest paintbrush possible, I would classify myself as a Christian, which throws me into a group of about two billion people. Going further, I am a Protestant, which trims the total down to a billion or so. Then, within the Protestant ranks, I would be classified as a Pentecostal, which dramatically drops the total of like believers to maybe fifty million, and then we can split hairs even further into Apostolic Pentecostals (five million?) and finally to my team, the United Pentecostal Church, International.
     Having read the word “Pentecostal,” some of you have already quit reading because you are convinced it’s a fringe religious group known primarily for its wild church services, etc. Others of you have already decided that whatever I have to say is to be taken with a grain of salt because “Pentecostalism” is a radical movement within itself, but hopefully there might be a couple of you with enough curiosity to read on and see what this sinner saved by grace has to say. My observations (perhaps I should say, recommendations) for church are applicable to every form of church, and not just Pentecostal.
     A church is first and foremost a spiritual organization. Its primary concern is the spiritual well being of its members. Even Jesus, when He was on earth, and though He fed the five thousand, healed the sick, and raised the dead, was more concerned with his followers’ spiritual souls than their health. And just as Jesus did, the church can offer help, aid, and comfort to the needy, but these worthy actions are not its primary calling. The primary concern of a church should be the nurturing, caring, and development of the spiritual soul of each individual. Many churches have become well organized, well funded, well intentioned aid stations for the unfortunate…and, though these activities are admirable, they have neglected what Christ commissioned believers to do.
     Almost as predominant in many churches today is the emphasis on self-help…what I refer to as motivational inspiration. Churches today offer classes in personal development, self image improvement, check book management, financial budgeting, marriage counseling, child development, ad nauseum, and offer little instruction in Bible salvation, Bible history, or contemporary Christian living. A church must have a heart to be sensitive to the spirit and leading of God in spiritual matters. A church member needs to be able to know that he/she can go to the church and feel a spiritual communion with the Almighty.
     In religious organizations, the leader of the group may be called the pastor, priest, rabbi, bishop, father, or several other nomenclatures. Protestants usually use the title "pastor." The best analogy to a pastor and church would probably be a shepherd and sheep. The pastor is to lead his flock, protect it from danger, and nurture it to spiritual maturity. The pastor is expected to know and understand his congregation and to offer spiritual guidance and assistance whenever needed. His “Prime Directive,” to quote a Star Trek term, is to prepare his church members to be ready for the life to come. His job is not to motivate, though he does that; his job is not to encourage self help, though he can do that also. His job is to interpret the Bible and seek the divine guidance of God as he guides, encourages, and pushes his people in their relationships with the Creator. He preaches and sets a standard for what he believes to be truth based on the Bible and does not deviate or dilute. As a good shepherd, he is not afraid to sound a warning when he feels the flock is in danger. He does not always preach what people want to hear; he preaches what they need to hear. Somehow in his spirituality he is able to sense what guidance or encouragement a person needs and can somehow say it at just the right time. Though he may have other activities and duties associated with cooperating with other pastors and ministers in the organization of affiliated churches, his primary area of concern is always his church. In the Pentecostal organizations, a pastorship of a church is more than just an election of a person to a position by church members; it is considered a fulfillment of the will of God when a minister is chosen to be pastor after prayerful consideration from the congregation. He should not take that position lightly.
     In our age of easy world travel and instant communication, pastors are being lured to carry their brand of gospel to the far corners of the globe to the detriment of their home churches. Honors and accolades await the pastor who travels to distant places, and, once back home in the confines of the his own church, his attention wanders back to those mighty meetings afar off where hundreds, even thousands, hung on his every word. His own sheep, for whom he has been divinely placed as pastor, begin to dwindle in importance. Even in the New Testament, there were teachers, pastor, prophets, and apostles. Each group had its own responsibilities and fulfilled a particular task in the spreading of the Gospel and the evolution of the church. Each group had distinctive characteristics, and their activities did not overlap.
     Of course, the life blood of a church dwells in the members themselves. Though the pastor can set the tenor and tone of a church, it’s the members who draw strength from each other in a common worship and belief. Though members may come from diverse backgrounds and cultures, their common spiritual experience will make all of them spiritual brothers and sisters to the extent that race, education, economic level, and previous history will have no bearing in relationships with fellow members. All will be equally valued and nurtured. New members and visitors are welcomed with true friendship and concern, and spiritual assistance is readily available to the new convert as he/she begins a new walk with God. Devout church members have a deep respect for their pastor and church leaders, and understand that the leadership has a concern for their spiritual well being. The church member is sensitive to guidance from the pastor and maintains a personal daily relationship with God through prayer and study.
     Due to our living in various areas over the years, my wife and I have been members of many churches. Not all churches we visited have reflected the characteristics I described above. When we moved to our current retirement location, we had the opportunity and privilege to visit and become members of a church in which its pastor and members reflect the highest levels of spirituality. We felt at home the moment we walked into the church and the words we have heard from the pulpit in sermon seemed directed just for us. It has been a wonderful experience, and both my wife and I have been spiritually strengthened. Some changes in the United Pentecostal Church over the past years have not been for the good (Read my blogs “The Rise and Fall of Christian Music,” "The Epiphany," "Praise....or Worship?" and "America...and Decline?"), but this church has renewed my faith.  In this age of contemporary Christianity, myopic music, part time preachers, and slothful saints, it is still possible to find places where His Spirit can still be felt and followed.  Interested? .

The Benefits (?) of Ungraded Schools

     Educational systems, and private schools in particular, have toyed with the idea of nongraded schools for years. Such schools do not issue the standard form of report card but rely instead on achieving a satisfactory overall performance based on a consensus of the teachers, parents, and students. Barbra Nelson Pavan, noted educational scholar, in her article “The Benefits of Nongraded Schools” written for Educational Leadership magazine, gives scholarly evidence that nongraded schools, when regulated in the proper fashion, do, in fact, work. Research for the past twenty-five years, she states, has consistently indicated better student achievement in every facet of education. Every measurement of progress in which nongraded students were put up against traditionally graded students reflected the fact that the nongraded students fared better. Minorities, boys, underachievers, and low socioeconomic students all did better in a nongraded environment. According to Pavan, nongraded schools work for everyone, anytime, anywhere.
     Although much water has flowed under the bridge since I was a student in a public school, I can still remember the emphasis that was placed on grades and the high expectations brought to bear on me by my parents and teachers primarily because I had somehow been accused of being a “bright” student. Had I been offered the opportunity to attend a school which was nongraded, I would have thought I had died and gone to heaven. Somehow the concept of no grading brings to mind the idea of easy, relaxed classes and maybe not too much homework.
     The reason schools don’t toss out the old graded system and get with the new ungraded program lies in our basic human instinct which causes the human animal, along with every other creature on the face of the earth, to desire to establish some sort of pecking order in any social interaction. High grades in school are the scholastic equivalent of the biggest sticks in the jungle, and they allow us to determine who’s going to be occupying the top rung of the ladder.
     Now that I am a grizzled old parent and grandparent, the proposal of ungraded schooling for a child of mine stirs up instant alarm within me. How in the world am I going to tell how my child or grandchild is doing in school? Perhaps even more to the point, how can I make sure that my children, (naturally) very gifted, are properly rewarded with better grades than the neighbors’ kids who are obviously spoiled brats but yet somehow manage to make good grades.   When a child brings home a report cart, it is not just a report of his/her performance in school, it is a reflection of our parenting skills as well.  Good grades cause the concerned parent to swell with righteous pride because of a job well done; whereas, poor grades initiate the dreaded soul searching and questioning of  "where have I gone wrong?"
      Students, though attempting to maintain a casual demeanor, eagerly compare their grades with their compadres and judge their performances by their peers.  The aforementioned  pecking order is quickly established and the eternal brand of "smart" or "dumb" (excuse me, perhaps the more politically correct term "intellectually challenged" would be more appropriate) is slapped on the forehead of every student.  But students do not usually use multi-syllabic words, so "dumb" would be the word on the street.
     Politicians, ever sensitive to the good of the people (or at least their reelection chances) ride the graded bandwagon with the enthusiasm of the Gold Rush 49'ers of 1849 California.  With cries of "accountability," "responsibility," and "public duty," these protectors of the common good encourage local tests, state tests, federal tests, standardized tests, teacher tests, administrative tests and just-in-case tests so that the results can be put on graphs and compared to surrounding groups, states, or nations.  If the results are good, credit is quickly grabbed and crowed from the housetops.  If grades are less than satisfactory, blame is placed on the previous political party in power.  If there were no grades, the education system would have no political use.  Who wants that?
     In a purely scientific environment, the nongraded school may survive, fed by educational theorists who analyze every tidbit of scholastic minutiae and live in a dreamworld of happy thoughts and blissful vignets. But, take it from an old used car salesman, when you get down to where the rubber meets the road, the concept will never get off the ground because of nervous parents, competitive students, and ever-vigilant politicians.

Robert L Downing 1917-1990

     August 7, 2017, would have been my father’s 100th birthday. Not many days go by that I don’t think of him and wish that he were still around so I would have someone to go to when I need advice. That’s a major problem that I’ve encountered as I go deeper into my senior era…the lack of senior resources that one can draw on when counseling is needed. As parents pass away and the young become the “new” old, the weight of responsibility seems to bear down even more heavily than before. We are thrust into the “twilight of our years,” and yet somehow I don’t feel as wise as I reckoned my parents were when they were the age I am now. Even now, I can easily give respect and responsibility to someone younger than I. When I retired from teaching, I think I was the oldest person in the school, and I’ve had younger pastors at church for years. I have no problem with someone in authority who is younger than I, but when someone asks me for guidance, I sometimes wonder, “Why are they asking me? Surely there must be someone more knowledgeable on the subject than I.” I appreciate their questions but somehow feel unqualified to answer.
     Dad was one of those people who in my mind always knew what to do in any situation. He had a master’s degree in “living.” Born the fourteenth child of fifteen children to Levi and Ida Lillian Downing of Granite, Oklahoma, he grew up like many children during the Depression with a formal education being secondary to working in the cotton field and helping to support the family. He always had a gift for math, and when the time came that he had to drop out of school in the seventh grade to help with the family full time, his teacher went to his parents and begged them to let him stay in school. He dropped out anyway.
     Working as a laborer, then as a carpenter, he went to an Indian Pow-wow (a gathering of Indian tribes…common in Oklahoma then and in some areas even today) and met the love of his life, Ethel Mai New. They married in 1938. In 1939 the financial struggle of Levi and Ida Lillian Downing came to a climax, and they lost their farm. Hearing that there was work in Houston, R.L.(as my dad was called), Ethel, his parents, and several brothers moved to the Gulf Coast. On December 7, 1941, the U.S. entered World War II, and dad suddenly found himself learning to drive a Sherman tank in the U.S. Army, after which he was shipped to the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska, where the land was so boggy tanks could not be used.  (It was the Army...go figure.) In 1943, they had a beautiful baby boy (namely, me), and with mother having some health problems, Dad was given a discharge and allowed to come home. Within a year, mother’s health improved, but finances didn’t, so dad went back to the Aleutians, this time as a contract carpenter.
Dad returned after less than a year and finances were much better. Seeing that construction was still booming in the Houston area, Dad formed Downing Roofing Company, made up primarily of his brothers and local laborers. The company was a success, and afforded the family a modest level of comfort.
     I’ve always said that I was thankful that I was the oldest of the four children born to R.L. and Ethel Downing. The reason is I was able to see my parents when they were in their prime of life. Dad was always a good softball player, and Mom enjoyed her tennis. Many evenings I spent on the sidelines as Dad played the position of catcher on a softball team. He was a good “glove,” a good hitter, had an arm like a rocket, and could run like a deer. Maybe that’s why my favorite position became catcher when I began to play ball. I enjoyed pitching, but I was only average, at best.
     My sisters don’t remember this, but the Downings lived life pretty hard in those early years. The Downing brothers and wives would come to our house and play cards and dominoes all night. The smoke would be so thick you couldn’t see across the room, and the beer flowed freely. I had an aunt who was a really serious domino player, and, since I was just a kid doing the noisy things kids do while she tried to play dominoes, she would sneak me a coffee cup full of beer to try to get me to settle down. I don’t think it worked. (I told Mom this story years later, and she nearly fainted!) I still remember some of the old country and western songs that would be blaring out from the phonograph as everyone laid down their dominoes. But all that changed one Sunday morning.
     Dad’s brother, Orville, and his wife, Reba, had begun attending a Pentecostal church in early 1949 (which stopped their smoking and drinking) and began to pester Dad and Mom about attending. After dozens of “not this week,” for some reason Dad and Mom said yes and went to church. It was a defining moment in their lives. Within a matter of weeks they had received the Holy Spirit and changed their lifestyle. Their lives became centered around the church, and it changed the way we children were raised. Our home became a foundation on which we could build our lives. We learned principles of honesty, integrity, Christian living, and parental guidance. Dad was the head of the house, but he treated Mom with love and respect, and we were all considered when a household decision had to be made. We kids grew up knowing that Mom and Dad would be there when we needed them for support.
     Dad had a major heart attack in 1982, and retired from Downing Roofing Company. He spent his time gardening and visiting grandkids. He had eight quiet years of relative relaxation after a lifetime of hard work. He deserved it.
     In December, 1990, my family was living in Casper, Wyoming. For Christmas we traveled to Mom and Dad’s home in Baytown, Texas, for a two week visit over the holidays. We were to leave to return to Wyoming on the morning of December 31, a Monday morning. Sunday night we had all gone to church and enjoyed a wonderful service. As is the habit of many Pentecostals, we decided to go somewhere to eat after service. We went to a local IHOP and visited, ate, and enjoyed everyone’s company once more before we were to leave the next morning at 7:00.
     At 4:00 a.m. there was a pounding on our bedroom door. My wife and I ran into the living room and found Mom with Dad, who was slumped over in his favorite rocker. We called for an ambulance, but in ten minutes, it was over. Dad was gone. The next few days were a blur as we went through the mourning, funeral, and future planning. Little did we know that this event would set in motion the events which would culminate in my family moving back to Texas. But that’s another story.  Also another story is the fact (belief?) that I had a conversation with Dad early one morning on the back deck of our home...eighteen years after his death ( See my blog "The Visit.")
     We hear a lot about legacies and influences on our lives. We are a product, to an extent, of our environment. But even more than our environment, it is our attitude that determines the avenues we take in life. I was very grateful that I was able to experience both a healthy, nurturing environment and a positive attitude from my parents. Their inner strength and ability to calm whatever storm life sent us gave me a pattern from which to govern my own life.

Lonely, But Not Alone

     The Seaboard World Airways Boeing 707 whined expectantly at the edge of a long ribbon of concrete stretching into the distance. The night air was chilly and damp, normal in the month of January in the coastal region of Charleston, South Carolina. The year was 1965. Jammed inside the silver fuselage were over 250 military personnel and dependents, most of whom had waited nearly a full day to board the aircraft bound for Frankfort, West Germany. From front to back there were no sectional dividers, and from my vantage point near the back of the plane, the rows of seats seemed to stretch to infinity in front of me.
     With the blessing of the control tower, the 707 surged to life with a mighty roar, and we were pressed against our seats as the silver bird strained to gain speed and break the bonds of gravity. Many of the small children, not familiar with the routine of flying, began to cry, and every mother went into “assurance mode” to attempt to quiet the youngsters. Moderate success.
     In the darkness of the night, the lights of Charleston sparkled like diamonds as we gained altitude, but as we banked to the northeast and out over the Atlantic, the vision outside our windows became a black screen. As we approached our 35,000 foot cruising altitude, the smokers fired up their instruments (smoking was allowed back then on planes) and succeeded in turning the aircraft’s atmosphere into a hazy cloud. Though I tried to rest, the smoke, the crying children, and the occasional turbulence created a fitful nearly nine hours of flight, culminating in our landing at Frankfort around 7:00 a.m. the next morning.
     As soon as we walked off the plane, the first thing we had to endure was an hour lecture about “culture shock,” but, as tired as we were, nothing our new culture had to offer could have shocked us. My plane into West Berlin was not scheduled to leave until the next morning, so I went to a sleeping barracks to try to finally rest.
     But in the stillness of the darkened room, I couldn’t sleep. I felt more alone that I ever had in my life. Thousands of miles away from my wife, family, and friends, my two year tour of duty seemed to stretch a lifetime in front of me. As I lay on the cot staring at the ceiling, I questioned every decision I had made which had put me in this far away location. I felt isolated and not a little defenseless.
     Loneliness can occur, however, when one is surrounded by thousands of people. We are told that depression, lethargy, and other emotional ailments can be the result of our feelings of loneliness and isolation. We sometimes fear to share our innermost feelings with others because long term relationships seem more difficult to establish in our helter-skelter world. Our friends of today can become our adversaries of tomorrow.
     In the midst of this uncertainty, we can be reminded of the beauty of a close relationship with our Creator. In a world of confusion, He offers a foundation of permanence. His protection and closeness follow us wherever we go. In the darkness of a transient barracks, I breathed a prayer and felt His comforting presence. Jesus said it best in Matthew 28:20:

“Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the earth.”

Magic Moments

     The air was frigid and sharp. At 10 degrees below zero, a deep breath taken would cause a burning in the chest, and as I pushed through the twenty-four inches of powdery snow, I found myself taking short, shallow gasps of air to avoid the icy chill in my lungs. Dawn was still a few minutes away, and in the hazy shadows I saw fleeting ghosts silently vanish even as I strained my eyes to see if they were the images of my elusive quarry. I walked silently, my Remington 700BLD 7mm magnum resting comfortably across my left arm and my right hand on the stock with one nervous finger close to the trigger. Looking to my right, far down the steep bluff lay the Snake River, heavily shrouded in an icy morning mist. The river moved slowly, delayed by ice floes, as if not anxious to wend itself through this most scenic area of the Jackson Hole Valley of Western Wyoming.
     The trees of the dense forest were heavily muffled by the thick coating of snow, and the silence was incredible. Standing still and listening intently, I could hear my own heart as it beat the steady cadence of life. I followed the trail of elk further, until I reached a crest in a rise of the land where I was able to see a stunning panorama. Before me lay the entire mountain range within the Grand Teton National Park. The mountain range lies in a north/south direction, and at that very moment the morning sun had just begun to illuminate the very top of Grand Teton Peak. In the shadowy darkness below the peak lay the Snake River, pushing its way south toward the town of Jackson.
     I was struck by the sharp contrast between the sunlit peak and the dark valley below. I laid my rifle down, found a fallen tree, and sat down to watch the sunrise as it dropped its curtain of light from the mountain peak to the valley and river below. Nearly an hour later, I resumed my hunt, but not before I had experienced one of the true magic moments of my life. The beauty and peace of that morning I will remember forever.
     Hopefully, we have all experienced “magic moments” in our lives…those moments, those instances, those times when everything was absolutely perfect. So also can these experiences be in our spiritual walk with God. The time of our last great blessing, the moment of wonderful healing, the thrilling moment when we received the baptism of the Holy Spirit…each is a magic moment in our relationship with our Creator. The memory of His touch should be cherished and can give us strength in those moments of weakened faith. As the days begin to slip by, we can remember with joy and gladness the every growing number of magic moments He has given us. The Psalmist David wrote beautifully in Psalms 63: 6-7:

“When I remember Thee upon my bed, and meditate on Thee in the night watches…
Because Thou hast been my help, therefore in the shadow of thy wings will I rejoice.”

The Plight of Education

     I was privileged to be a professional classroom teacher for fifteen years. I can say without fear of controversy that it was the most fulfilling, frustrating, rewarding, disappointing, exciting, boring, challenging, easiest job I ever had. That’s quite a mouth full if you consider my profile and notice I have had a more than a few jobs.
     I got into education quite by chance. My family moved from Casper, Wyoming, back to our home town of Baytown, Texas, in 1991 after the passing of my father. For several years prior to that time, I had been in auto sales as the general sales manager of a Honda dealership. After nearly twelve years, I was pretty well exhausted from the stress of the auto industry and its instability. Dealers live from one monthly statement of profits to the next, and the carnage becomes very evident very fast when business starts to slip. At one dealership after the best sales year the store had ever had, I was honored in January as being the greatest thing since sliced bread to happen to the dealership….and in March I was fired because… “Well, February was pretty slow, and you ARE the sales manager!”
     After one particularly dreadful day of attempting to sell a car, I was absentmindedly reading the Houston Chronicle employment ads (which most car salesmen read daily), and an advertisement popped out at me:

“Ever thought about a teaching career?
Do you have a college degree?
Call the Pasadena ISD for information!”

     Having a college degree and possessing the incentive that only desperation can produce, I called the PISD office. And the rest, as they say, is history, as it launched my teaching career which continued until I reached the magic age of retirement and….well, that’s another story.
     The rest of this treatise will be a few observations I have made about the educational process. The conclusions I have drawn are not based on any scientific empirical study, but simply the result of my reactions and thoughts while experiencing various events and actions. These events and actions usually swirled around what I term (depending on my attitude at the time) the “Unholy Troika” or the “Holy Trinity.” That is to say, schools generally require an uneasy cooperation between administrators, teachers, and parents. These groups are the three legs of the stool, so to speak, and as such, a meaningful effort toward success is required from all three “legs” for the school itself to see any progress in the product it produces…namely, successful students. Let’s look at each of these groups with a jaundiced, albeit opinionated, eye of practicality.

     Let me put it to you at bluntly as I can. There are many, many adults today who have proven they are biologically capable of creating a child, but, having done so, do not have a clue as to how to be parents. In the defense of parents today, however, I must also add that theirs is not the first generation to lose their parenting skills. The decline of parenting skills began in the early sixties when noted child psychologist, Benjamin Spock, wrote his infamous child rearing guidebook advocating a hands off approach to child discipline and letting a child “express him/herself.” Spock had perfect timing, since his book correlated with the Vietnam War and the reactions against it and the ensuing drug use explosion that occurred either because of or in spite of the war. An acceptance of drugs which began as a California phenomenon quickly spread as more young people sought “expression.”
     These young people invariably grew older, and as they begin to create a new generation, their philosophy of less controlled parenting begat a new group of young people who were even less inclined to establish boundaries of control than their free-thinking parents. At that time we began to see another phenomenon, parents who not only would not condemn their children in the event of anti-social conduct, they would actively defend their children’s right to break generally accepted levels of behavior. The upshot of all this is that no longer can a school administrator or teacher depend on the support of a parent when a situation calls for the discipline of a child. The parent has become the defense attorney for the child, challenging any form of discipline from the school. It makes no difference to the parent whether the child was guilty of breaking a school rule or committing a moral or legal violation.
     Case in point: A few years ago our school had a book sale to raise money for some project. Students were shopping the many books lying about the room and paying for them as they left. One third grade girl who had her backpack proceeded to surreptitiously stuff books in her backpack to the tune of $200.00 in value. As she walked out of the room, she was stopped. She denied having any books in her backpack, and it was obvious that she was attempting to get the books without paying. She was taken to the office, and her father was called. He arrived in a few minutes and met with the principal and his daughter. The principal explained the problem. The father offered to pay for the books to settle the situation. The principal, however, said that there needed to be some sort of disciplinary action for the attempted theft. The father at that time became very upset and could not understand why the principal wanted to discipline his daughter for theft when he, after all, had offered to pay for the books. Did this child learn that thievery was wrong? No, she learned she could get away with it.
     It is not always a careless parent. Sometimes because both parents work or a single parent works extra hours to stay afloat financially, children are shunted from babysitter to caretaker while the parents are away. Often the extra working was not always defensible. In our school we had students who qualified for free breakfast and lunch, yet their parents dropped them off each morning while driving new, expensive vehicles. Parents are now expecting teachers to teach their children basic interactive behavior. Once when I called a parent and explained the behavior problems her child was having, the parent said simply, “Well, he’s your problem during the day!”
     I know this all sounds like a blanket condemnation of parents, but it isn’t meant to be. There are still parents who value their children’s proper behavior and successful education. But I will defend the proposition that the percentage of parents who embrace parenthood will all its responsibilities is rapidly declining. And this conclusion applies to any ethnicity or economic level. I taught at one school which was predominantly upper middle class and another in which 90 percent of the students qualified for free breakfasts and lunches. The observations remain the same.

     Administrators in any other profession would be called managers, but “administrator” has a bit more clout to it, and more than anything else in education, sometimes image is more important than substance. In education, administrators can be divided into two groups; those who are based actually within the school buildings, such as principals and assistants, and those who are based in some remote office building and operate with titles such as “director” or “superintendent.” The actual chain of command is very military-like with your lower officers (principals, etc.) being actually in combat on the front lines and your upper echelon officers (directors and superintendents) being far behind the front lines and not as sensitive to the needs at the front.
     Principals (I will refer to in-school administrators as “front line” administrators) are caught between two loyalties: a desire to serve the upper echelon with its daily stream of policy changes, orders, directives, budget changes, and instructions, and a desire to keep the troops (teachers) happy and make sure that his/her area of concern on the front line of education is well organized and reaching its objective. However, because the front line administrator usually operates with one eye toward promotion within a group of competitive administrators, his/her peer/adversaries are surreptitiously observed for any signs of unfair advantage or unusual successes. Seeking any kind of education advantage (and assuming the budget allows it) the front line administrator is an easy target for the one group of people in education who could teach grizzled, old, high-powered, used car salesmen a thing or two about sales. I’m talking about those who are called educational specialists or educational marketers. These are people who have cooked up an instructional strategy which seems to work, created material and a marketing strategy for the idea, and then hustled with the admirable skills of a snake oil salesman every front line administrator in a thousand mile radius. Armed with glowing testimonials about the amazing results of using their product, they waylay unsuspecting front line administrators with images of skyrocketing school results on mandated tests, and the administrators take the bait like a trout takes a fly…with the same results. “Bold new concepts of teaching” come down the pike every year, and each August administrators announce a new “initiative” that guarantees fantastic results. It is very akin to the fashion industry…last year’s bright idea is now passé, and this year’s idea is now in fashion. And just like in fashion, it is an incredible waste of time and money.
     Speaking of money, the educational industry is no different from any other major corporation which operates on an annual budget. Given a selected amount of funds to make it through year, woe be it to any administrator to show financial creativity and finish the year under budget. “Use it or lose it” is the modus operandi when it comes to school finances. You would think that upper echelon administrators would remember an economic fact that has been present since the first cave man traded a big rock for a small diamond…consumers respond to financial incentives. Example: should a front line manager spend less than his budget for the year, he should receive a commensurate financial reward. The concept, unfortunately, of financial incentives for superior performance is still embryonic in education.      Lastly, in regard to administrators, I will refer back to a term I mentioned when I first started discussing administration…image. Case in point: The district from which I retired (and I loved my district) painted a dark, bleak picture of our financial situation for the approaching year of 2009-2010. It cut staff, reduced teacher numbers, and promised the worst may be yet to come. All the while the upper echelon administrative staff ballooned ever larger in number with assistants to every conceivable director and assistants to every assistant. The district spent thousands of dollars creating more and more sophisticated computer programs. In every classroom in the district, the goal was to have a computer video projector and “smart” board (an interactive blackboard) at the costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars. New, spacious schools were built which rival luxury hotels in decorum and style. All these things were wonderful….but they were not necessary for high student achievement and especially not necessary during a time of economic downturn when the district was actually laying off staff. But the fancy gingerbread was good for image.

     Ah, yes, teachers! The troops who are on the front lines of educational combat! Caught between an ever-growing (at least perceived) enemy (society) and ever-more-demanding commanders (administrators,) teachers are being pressured to the point that today only one in five teachers lasts more than five years in the profession. Educated, idealistic, and dreaming of a classroom of happy, learning children supported by loving parents and assisted by nurturing administrators, the new teacher is jarred to reality with the effects of a cold shower by undisciplined children, defensive parents, and distracted administrators. Society has trained our children for failure. Television and movies have made a mockery of any family or social values; video games encourage violence and disrespect for authority; broken homes, remarriages, cohabitations, and separations destroy the foundation of family bonding so critical to a young person. The internet, an incredible educational resource, can become, without parental guidance, a limitless resource of antisocial behavior.
     Students enter school with no stable foundation, and the teacher becomes the surrogate parent with the responsibility to teach, not just reading, writing, and arithmetic, but social behavior and interactions. Teachers are challenged with keeping students focused on learning for an entire eight hour day when many students have difficulty staying focused on anything more than ten minutes. Teachers have been forced to become song and dance entertainers to hold the students’ attention.      And yet, somehow through all the distractions, skillful teachers pull it off and are able to drag their reticent, resisting students through the year’s educational objectives and prepare them for the year ahead. Teaching is not, although it may seem that I described it so, an impossible task. It does, however, require a level of commitment that is not found in many professions. And therein lies the problem for the future. Teachers during their early formative years, just like any other social group, experience many of the negative effects of society that I described above. Many are entering the profession with an eye on a steady income and three months off in the summer and are lacking the increasingly high level of dedication required to be successful in the classroom. I offer myself as an example, only because I am representative of most teachers who entered the profession fifteen or more years ago. In those early years, my eight hour work day usually stretched to 11-12 hours, plus research for lessons on weekends. I was constantly taking instructional classes to improve my teaching skills. I did not mind the investment in time because I wanted to be a skilled, professional teacher.
     Many new teachers of today resent being required to do any extracurricular training or activity. When forced (in their minds) to do so, their resentment spills over into a lack of improvement in their teaching skills. Because they were undisciplined in their own childhoods, they have difficulty maintaining discipline in their classrooms and disciplining themselves to stay focused on the educational objectives and administrative requirements. Following a simple teacher dress code becomes a perceived violation of personal civil rights. With less success in the classroom, their frustrations grow, and before long, they are gone.
     But just when even a dedicated teacher is ready to throw in the towel and call it quits, something happens that makes you decide to stay on a little longer. Three months ago, in May as the school year was winding down, I received two phone calls from former students. The students lived in different cities and did not know each other, but both had the same message. I had been their teacher years ago, and I was the best teacher they had ever had (perhaps a biased opinion from a very limited number of my former students.) Both invited me to come to their high school graduation ceremonies and sit with their families. I remembered the students clearly, and also I remembered their parents were loving, involved, and supportive of our school and me. I was truly touched, and it left me with a another warm memory.  Though conflicted with internal discord and external influences, the education profession will survive primarily due to the efforts of men and women who have paid the price for success and committed for the long term. Perhaps in the future society will recoil from an era of disastrous social upheaval and provide for our children the stability and social bonding they so desperately need. I was privileged to teach in a district which I felt held the needs of the children in high regard. Its administrators were honorable and dedicated, and my fellow teachers were the finest in the land. The memories from my teaching career will never fade. It was my finest hour.

The Lost Art of Making A Bed

     All right, we may as well get this settled right off the bat….when it comes to the skillful art of making a proper bed, I AM an expert. I was trained under combat conditions by the Armed Forces of the United States. While you were home nibbling on Blue Bell ice cream, I was in some far corner of the world learning how to make a bed so tight that a quarter tossed on the covers would bounce like a ping pong ball on concrete. My military bed was such a work of art that many nights I slept on the floor rather than destroy my masterpiece (especially before an inspection.)  The photo, however, shows my military bunk in a somewhat state.
     But, friends, I have become alarmed at the havoc being wrecked on the art of bed making by those who should know better but are doing so in the name of “style.” No longer is a bed the summation of two sheets, a bedspread, and a pillow or two. We now have “comforters” and “throws” and all kinds of fluffy stuff on top and all around the sides of a perfectly good bed. The inefficiency of these actions boggles the mind.
     The following example is simply another testimony to the superiority of men over women, and as such…. but I digress…back to the example. What happens when a woman hops up in the morning and the bed needs to be made? That’s right! EVERYTHING comes off the bed, and all components of the bed...sheets, blankets, bedspread, miscellaneous coverings, pillows, etc. are reassembled with the meticulousness of a brain surgeon.  A man, however, with an efficiency that is truly instinctive, grabs the bedspread, jerks it up over everything, and smoothes it out. So what if one of the sheets is crammed down by your ankles! You can pull it up when you crawl in the sack the next night. So what if a pillowcase is missing?  It'll show up on wash day.  And what about those pillows? If you have a woman in your home, you probably have more pillows in your house than in the average sized Holiday Inn…and most of them are on the bed.
     Winters are even worse, because then we have quilts, blankets, and heavier coverings. The refined modern bed maker nowadays applies the blanket over the previously mentioned sheets, but one MUST fold the top sheet over the edge of the blanket exposing four inches of sheet prior to placing fluffed-up pillows in their assigned positions and installing the bedspread. Balderdash! Fling that blanket on top of those sheets and get on with the bedspread! Time is money!
     I haven’t even mentioned a woman’s resistance to storing items under the bed. It's like they prefer dust bunnies or some such pestilence.  The way I feel about it is if you're not supposed to stuff shoes, socks, magazines, sandwiches, water bottles, and iPads under the bed, then let’s get rid of the bed frames and throw the mattresses on the floor!
     I submit to you that the simple act of making a bed has become a grotesque aberration of the pure act it once was. It’s time for us men to take the art of bed making back to the basics. Gentlemen, go to your nearest army surplus store, buy two G.I. blankets and TAKE CHARGE!

Caribbean Holiday

Wednesday, July 8, 2009
       3:30 am came very early, and we were up preparing for our journey to the airport. Left the house about 4:15, and by 5:00 we were standing in line at the security check in. We made it through that ordeal, losing only a can of hairspray that Shirley had forgotten in the bag (too big). We settled into the airplane shortly before 6:00 and in a few minutes we were on our way to the U.S. Virgin Islands, our first trip to this part of the world.  Flying first to Miami, Florida, we slept fitfully, since we had a crying kid just behind us. The flight went smoothly, however, until we landed. We hit the runway with a bone-jarring thud that would seem to have blown all the tires, but somehow, thankfully, they held, and we taxied up to the terminal. But it was a really hard landing.   Since we didn’t leave Miami until around noon, we had a bit of early lunch. Bobby, Shanna, and the grandkids (traveling with us) and we waited patiently until our boarding time. Time does not travel quickly in an airport when waiting for a flight.. But finally, we loaded aboard for our final leg to the islands, and off we were shortly after noon. The flight was smooth, and there wasn’t much to see as we were high above the clouds. As we began our descent, the water came in to view, and then the small islands began to appear. It looked like we were going to land in the water when right at the last second the runway appeared and we experienced another hard landing. How the aircraft tires stand up under that kind of instant shock is amazing.
    Upon disembarking, we actually had to walk down aircraft steps to the ground to walk to the terminal which was open and not air conditioned. It reminded me of Maui’s Kahului Airport, except it was not as nice. We called the car rental place which sent us a driver and van to pick us up. The Dodge Caravan arrived, and Shirley and I, plus four more people and all our luggage piled into the van. It was dragging the ground.  We drove out of the airport (on the left hand side of the road) and headed to the rental office, which was down narrow streets, up hills, and through narrow alleys to a small office hanging on the side of a hill with a few Jeeps and Suzuki Aerios parked around. Our car is a compact Suzuki, pretty banged up and missing a hubcap. Our next challenge is to find Bobby and Shanna, who picked up a Ford Taurus at the airport.
     By this time, St. Thomas is not appealing to me at all. The population is mostly black, and the place looks like Houston’s Fifth Ward…crowded, well used, not clean, narrow streets, and way too many threatening-looking people with hoodies in 90 degree weather to suit me. Bobby and Shanna have been here before, so they took the lead with us following. The plan is to go to a store they are familiar with to stock up with some supplies, then head to the east end of the island, where we have to go aboard a ferry to get to St. John. We get to this place that looks like a miniature Sam’s, where everything’s displayed on pallets. The prices for things are astronomical….near twice mainland prices, but fortunately we came pretty well provisioned.  While we were there, I went back to the car, because I haven’t been feeling too well. While I was sitting there (parked close to the front door of the store), a young guy drove up, unloaded a table and a big box of CDs and a player, parked his car, came back and began playing this loud calypso music. I guess he was there to sell CDs. Even though the people speak English here, it is very hard to understand, and this music was with a heavy beat and loud singing. I suddenly caught a few of the words and they were “Lord, prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy…etc .” I listened more closely and realized he was actually playing songs that we sing, but, boy, it was a different way than how we sing them. He didn’t look very Pentecostal, but, well, maybe this is the Caribbean.
    We finally got on the road, and about 5:00pm we arrived at the loading dock for the ferry, where we found out that there was one ferry out of three running, and we had hours to wait….turned out to be four hours. So waited we did, fitfully, discussing all kinds of ways we would fix this situation if we ran this place. Even when the ferry arrived, it took too long to load because the ferry only loads from one end. So their strategy is to have the arrivers back their vehicles into their spots so that they can drive straight out when they reach their destinations. Took forever to load, especially with the big trucks.  In the meantime, we had to call our landlord to tell her we had been delayed. She didn’t appear very happy about that. She gave us directions to the house and said she would not be there because she lived on the other side of the island. We occupied our time looking at the really clear water of the bay, and the grandkids played in the sand.  Finally, we boarded the ferry about 9:15 and made a dark journey across the waters to St. John, unloading about 10:00. Following her directions through the dark, narrow (I mean narrow) streets, we actually drove straight to the house with nary a wrong turn. It’s an amazing feat for a woman to give directions that can actually be followed.
    The house is a two unit affair perched high up the side of a hill with a million-dollar view of Great Cruz Bay, the ocean, and outlying islands. We have the lower level, a single bedroom affair that is comfortable in the seafaring style you would expect in this area with large shuttered windows to catch the sea breezes and A/C as an afterthought, though it did work well. A deck overlooks the scenery and is very nice.  Fresh water, we found out, is not available on St John, as least through a public utility. All water comes from rainwater captured in cisterns. It is used for every purpose except drinking. Drinking water has to be purchased. The sign about the toilet said it all:
“In this land of sea and sun
We don’t flush for number one!”
In Bobby and Shanna’s room, the sign said,
“Yellow is mellow…brown goes down!”
    So we caught the hint to conserve water as much as we can. Not to mention electricity: Electricity costs 50 cents per kilowatt/hour. To think I complained to Reliant last week about our rate of 16.6 cents and was able to get it lowered to 12.2 cents.   Anyway, we were able to get the car unloaded and sort of settled in by 11:00 pm or so. We both took showers and collapsed in bed. End of day one.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

     We awoke this morning (not early) to a beautiful Caribbean morning and a breath-taking view from our deck of Great Cruz Bay. Sprinkled with gorgeous yachts and sailboats sitting in clear azure blue water, it’s the location of the Westin Inn and Resort, the high dollar place to be on St. John. Chocolate Hole, the peninsula across the bay, is dotted with bungalows and classic homes up its steep sides. Some of these roads are unbelievably steep. Our landlord suggested we rent a four wheel drive, and I couldn’t figure out why. I now realize it was not for mud, but simply for more traction. Our front wheel drive Suzuki will sometimes break traction if I give it too much gas while trying to get up some of these hills, especially the slope from our place to Bobby and Shanna’s.
     That was another weird thing. Neither of our families knew where the other was staying on the island, other than somewhere on the east end. All the addresses on line are just P.O. boxes, and you have to call your landlord once you get on the island for directions. The reason is that many of the roads have no names, and they’re really not roads. We would call them driveways. Anyway, we were unloading last night, and suddenly our kids drove by, and it turns out that we’re about 150 feet apart. They’re just a little further up the steep hill. So that was a pleasant surprise.  We, thankfully, both have phones in our places, too, because a cell phone call around here runs $2.00 per minute for us. Apparently land line phone service is the only thing that is reasonably priced in this area. So we had a leisurely breakfast of exquisite Caribbean cuisine (Wheat Chex and Pop Tarts and coffee) on the veranda whilst admiring the panorama before us. The sea breezes felt a little warm, but refreshing. We have AC, of course, but in the spirit of the location, we flung open our shuttered windows and will try to be like the natives during the day. At night, I draw the line…I have to be cool. The breezes made the rooms comfortable during the day.
    Bobby called about 11:00 and suggested we head to the beach (where else?) so we loaded up our cars and headed to Hawksnest Bay on the northside of the island. Looking on the map, it appears WAY up on the map from us. Turns out it’s about five miles away. We begin to realize that St. John Island is only nine miles long and three miles wide.  Driving along Southside Road, through Cruz Bay (the village, not the bay) and on to Northside Road, one sees the sights and sounds of the Caribbean. Tropical foliage, coconuts a-hanging, always a sea view, calypso music when passing any refreshment establishment, natives speaking an unintelligible form of English, and people driving on the wrong side of the road. Yes, they drive on the left side of the road, but their cars have their steering wheels like ours. It feels strange to have to hug the road on the left, especially when you are going around a bend to the left that you can’t see around and you meet someone coming and they sail by you on the right. Fortunately I have an alarm in my car that lets me know if I am drifting to the right….Shirley.
     Hawksnest Bay, one of the coves on the north side of the island, is a postcard perfect representation of the Caribbean…beautiful sand, calm, clear water, gentle breeze, bright sun. We unload, set up camp on the beach, and hit the water. The water is warmer than Hawaiian water, and you can just walk in and relax. The snorkel gear gets broken out, and we discover the beauties of underwater coral and fish. I had a new set of better quality snorkeling gear I had bought before we left, and the breathing tube leaked like a sieve. Fortunately, I had my old stuff as backup, so I used my old tube with the new goggles and flippers.
For the next nearly six hours, we snorkeled, swam, snacked, napped, and relaxed. It was plumb enjoyable. By then, we were exhausted and ready to head back to the homestead, stopping first at the local grocery store to pick up some supplies….like milk at $8.00 a gallon! We also bought drinking water.  We all assembled at Bobby and Shanna’s, where Bobby grilled some burgers and we ate like it was our last meal…we were all starving. Afterward, we were all in an exhausted stupor, so Shirley and I traversed down the hill to our place. Tired, but happy, we were soon asleep. Just another day in Paradise.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Up for another beautiful morning. The gorgeous deck view was still there and the sea breezes freshened the room (after we shut down the AC.) We relaxed for a while, waiting for the folks up the street to wake up. Shirley played her video games and I spent a little time on the computer writing this journal.  Today, the consensus was that we head to Trunk Bay on the north side inside the Virgin Islands National Park. That’s not noteworthy, since two thirds of the island lie within the park. Trunk Bay was supposed to be the premier snorkeling site on the island.  We got there about noon, taking our time stopping at a couple of overlooks to get a panorama of the beach. The beach is formed as most are in the islands. A strip of glistening sand bordered at both ends by an outcropping of rock jutting out into the bay a distance of from 50 to 200 yards. Each beach therefore is roughly in the shape of a somewhat flat “U”, with the bottom of the “U” being sand and the two stems being rock outcroppings. Across the water we can see the British Virgin Islands. The water is majestically clear and relatively calm. We hit the beach with our snorkeling gear and view, again, beautiful coral and fish. Trunk Bay has an underwater guided tour that identifies the fish and coral types, which was sort of neat. Snorkeling is work, and my legs are starting to talk back to me already, but I have been so inactive since my glorious retirement that the exertion actually feels good. Nothing like snorkeling for an hour then having a good old peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It tastes like t-bone steak. And a cold, icy Coke is heavenly.
     The day rapidly slides by, and by 5:30 we are again starting to run out of gas. By the time we pack up, drive to the villas, unload, shower and gather for supper it is after 7:30. Tonight we have Mexican food, and Shirley and Shanna outdo themselves making a supper better that what you could buy in a top Mexican restaurant.  Between eating, visiting, and gaming is it quickly time to head to our home villa for the evening. It is dark and we elderly folk have to walk carefully. There’s not a level spot anywhere, and our steps are steep, rough-cut stone. Shirley and I don’t take a step anywhere without hanging on to each other. All these slopes and angles are hard on a bunch of flatlanders.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

    Another good night’s sleep. The villa either has a good bed or we are always exhausted, not sure which. This morning we decide, before the day’s activities begin, that Shirley and I will go check out our next villa into which we move tomorrow. We drove down hill to the village of Cruz Bay, a conglomeration of calypso dudes and dudettes with beaded hair and colorful clothing, new age hippie types, grizzled old retirees (like us), and smarmy, suspicious looking sorts standing on the corners.  We located Hillcrest Villas which, strangely enough, was located at the crest of a very steep hill. EVERY road has a steep hill around here. The “road” we will be located on is about as wide as a driveway…supposedly two lane (there is a yellow stripe), but since islanders are somewhat relaxed when it comes to parking, you have to wait till a car passes before you can proceed.   Well, we located the villa, chatted with the landlord, and headed back to our current home. Today we went to Honeymoon Beach on Caneel Bay, most of which is owned by the Caneel Bay Luxury Resort and therefore off limits for commoners like us. There is a sliver of beach which has been reserved for the poor folk, and that’s where we went. It was only 1,219 steps to the beach. I counted them on the way back. Way too many for us people with a lot of experience. Fortunately, one of the drivers of a golf-cart-looking pickup belonging to the resort was driving by, had mercy on Shirley who was limping along heroically, and took her to the beach.
     Now here was a beach that rivaled those in Hawaii. VERY clear water with an abundance of fish life and coral. I guess because it was a little difficult to get to it was lightly populated with just the charter boats anchored offshore to give their pay-to-snorkel passengers a chance to do their thing.   Shirley got into the snorkeling act also. She’s always been a little skittish about putting her head below the surface of water, but she and I swam out and snorkeled in waters up to twenty feet deep and she did fine. Even after we returned to the shore, she kept her snorkeling gear and stayed in the shallow water observing the fish life. We had a fair sized stingray that would sail along the beach about every 30 minutes, and she was able to follow it. I was proud of her. She’s pretty red from the three days swimming, but so far, no pain or blistering.  Same routine as yesterday…snorkel, eat, rest, nap, snorkel, eat…etc. It’s a hard life, but someone’s got to do it. We took our time on the pilgrimage back to the car. Tonight it was turkey and rice as our entrees. Another day in Paradise. Tomorrow we pack up for our next adventure.
Sunday, July 12, 2009
     It was a sad day today....we never went into the water. Everyone decided to do a bit of touring around the island. We had to vacate our villa by 10:00 am, so we packed up our belongings and went up the street to B and S's. About 11:30 we took off in our caravan (both cars, since we can't all fit in one), and traveled further along the north road, past the beaches we have frequented these last three days. You just have to see this "highway" to believe it. There are no shoulders, and the vegetation is jungle thick right up to the road's edge. At times, I bet the road is not sixteen feet wide for both lanes. And steep up and down stretches with switchbacks you can't believe. (You'll have to see the video.) The winning section of the road though was when the highway DIVIDED, and we drove down a lane not much wider that our car through vegetation that blocked the sky. It was like traveling through a tunnel. And all this is the MAIN east-west road.  But when we saw the water, it was gorgeous. Every beach was photo perfect white sand and glistening water. We stopped at a couple of abandoned sugar mill locations and saw the crumbling remains of a slavery culture. In the 1700s and 1800s slaves were used to gather sugar cane for making rum and sweetener. Hard, cruel, conditions. St. John was used as a place to “break in” fresh African slaves. Rather sobering, actually.
     We tried to find a place to stop and have a picnic, but Sunday is the day all the locals go to the beaches, and they were packed. We finally went back to B&S's and had lunch. By this time it was 3:00 and time for us to check into our new digs, so we headed to Hillcrest Villas. Hillcrest is not too far from downtown (!), and still has a scenic view, just not as high up the hill. In fact, it’s sort of like a Super Eight with a kitchenette. A Super Eight with a kitchenette and a gorgeous view out the window…for $1100.00 per week ($1700.00 during peak season.) However, it did come with a liquor bar. We told her yesterday that the alcoholic beverages were not necessary, so she said, “OK, I’ll just leave the rum in there!” Apparently around here, rum is their ice tea, which probably explains a lot. Not quite as deluxe as the old place; we don't have a private veranda. But it's OK. BUT...we have no house phone, so it’s cell or nothing.   We rested a bit after checking in, and then right back to B&S's for supper. Grilled steaks and baked potatoes. We're not starving. Tomorrow...BIG DAY...we've chartered a sailboat for a full day of sailing and snorkeling. And it will be just us and the crew. It's gonna be soooo exciting!

Monday, July 13, 2009
     Because everything around here is incredibly small and crowded, Bobby took his family to the dock, then came back and got us. We went back to the dock and there was no parking anywhere....except one little handicap parking spot right by the gate. The smartest thing I've done on this trip is bring Shirley's handicap parking tag along. It has saved us in more than one tight parking place. We slipped in and headed to our day's sail.   Our captain's name is Hahn with his lone assistant, Fuego. They are what you would expect, lean, brown, independent. We were riding on a 26 foot catamaran. We motor out of the harbor about 10:30 (he has a 15 hp auxiliary engine), but within 5 minutes, the sails are up and we are skimming through the water at an amazing clip. We sailed the north side of the island, arriving at Leinster Bay in about 90 minutes. In Leinster Bay is Waterlemon Cay (island). We drop anchor there and all we snorkelers proceed to jump ship. We snorkeled completely around the island, observing an underwater wonderland that was amazing. Hundreds of starfish, colorful reef fish, and every kind of coral imaginable. I bought an underwater camera yesterday, so hopefully I can capture some of the beauty. Only problem came when we rounded the far side of the island and headed back to the boat, the outgoing current was strong enough that it was a real chore to get back to the boat. We were all bushed by the time we boarded. But that was when the excitement really started. I came out of the water first, then the rest with Bobby being last. Just as he was almost to the boat he suddenly looked up out of the water and yelled, "There's a big fish, maybe a shark!" I'm not kidding, ten seconds later he was in the boat! Everyone rushed to the side where he pointed, and, sure enough, what looks like about a four foot shark is swimming away from the boat. Captain Hahn says, "Well, I don't know, it could have been a remora. It's the fish that swims along side larger fish. They can get that big." I don't know about that...I saw it myself as it was leaving, and it had the big top fin and the two large side fins sticking out and the big tail fin. Anyway, it was exciting.
    We had lunch prepared by our captain (sandwiches), and then set sail for our next stop, Cinnamon Bay, a beautiful place of high volcanic bluffs descending into the water. We snorkeled along the underwater cliffs observing, again, the beauty. I saw my largest fish there; they were jackfish, about four feet long and scaly. They are a sport fish to be caught. We pulled out of there about 3:30 and about 4:45 we slid up to the sandy beach of our home port after admiring the many beautiful coves, beaches and islands that make St. John special along the way. It was a lovely time.  We went to our respective homes, showered, and then back to B&S's for spaghetti.
     Sigh....what a day.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

     Well, Shirley's redness has turned brown, so she's doing OK. Bobby did some checking on the internet today, and he's pretty well convinced his "shark" was just a big remora. But it was big enough to make you do a double take anyway. Today we went back to Trunk Bay, a good snorkeling spot. The water was crystal clear, turning to green in the near distance and a dark blue in the deeper water. Lots of little sea creatures and beautiful coral, mixed in with a lot of dead coral. This is a popular spot, and people are not usually kind to coral. Just can’t keep their hands and flippers of it. It was kind of a windy day; when you were coming out of the water, the wind had a little edge to it. Hard to imagine being chilly at 87 degrees, but a breeze can do that. To be honest, Shirley and I have been having so much fun, we're about out of gas. About 1:30 I suggested we head back to the villa and take a shower and nap. Did so. When we were driving to B&S's about 5:15 I took a video of the twisty road…no one would believe it otherwise. Upon our arriving, they told about sighting an octopus and an eel after we left. Just my luck. Oh, well. The nap felt good. Hot dogs and chili tonight, and everyone played some kind of card game. We left about 8:00 to come back and start packing. We’re looking forward to our fully-adjustable, super comfortable home bed...we may be in it for a couple of days once we get back. Just as a side note, while watching TV, I saw where the average selling price of a home on St. John is $1.2 million.
     Our return saga begins tomorrow. I'm sure we'll be calling Kim once we get back to civilization.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
     Well, the trip went smoothly. We left a little early, just in case, and naturally we drove to the dock and within ten minutes we were on board the ferry to St. Thomas. We were the next to last one to board, however, and the only reason we got on was our car was small enough to fit. A Toyota Highlander and a pickup were bumped because they were too long.    There appeared to be two ferries running, so hopefully when Bobby and Shanna are ready to board, they won’t have to wait too long. We drove to Charlotte Amalie, and after wandering around a bit, I'll have to revise my somewhat negative view of St. Thomas. The roads are pretty decent, especially closer to Charlotte Amalie, and of course the beach scenery is beautiful. We parked next to the vendor's tents Bobby told us about and wandered around all the folks hawking their wares. We bought the usual t-shirts and coffee cups.
     We had lunch at a restaurant along the road there...The Green House. Pretty good food for a fairly reasonable price. We took our car to the rental place about 12:15 and after paperwork was done, they took us to the airport. Shanna had mentioned using the porters there if we were in a hurry. We weren't, but I used one anyway, and it was worth the $10.00 tip. He guided us through check in, through the customs declaration and inspection (where they asked us if we were carrying any diseases!), and was very helpful all the way up to the security check. With Shirley's knee brace, she naturally was tapped for additional metal detecting, but everything went OK.
     The plane took off about 4:00 and we had a good run and smooth landing in Miami. I finished reading Angels and Demons. That was an entertaining book. It was almost believable until he jumped out of the helicopter and "parachuted" with only the windshield cover as a parachute. But it was a good yarn. We had almost a three hour layover, so we had supper (sandwiches) in the airport. About 9:30 we headed for Houston and landed right at 11:00. My favorite daughter was there, and we arrived home about midnight, tired, but happy from a good trip. I have about 140 photos plus about 8 minutes of video, so the trip has been documented.

     After being in relatively close quarters for a week, our house felt huge. It was good to take a good shower without too much concern for water conservation, and the bed felt like heaven itself. So much for a week in paradise. I am so thankful for my family. Lots of families can’t live together in close proximity and get along. We made it for a week with nary a strain.
     Overall, it was the consensus of both Shirley and I that the Virgin Islands were beautiful, and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there which was enhanced even more with Bobby and his family along. However, the Virgin Islands are not quite up to the standards of the Hawai’ian Islands. The USVI waters are a little warmer and perhaps just as clear, but the coral and fish life are more vibrant on Maui. In the USVI, there are spectacular beaches and beautiful mountain/ocean scenery, but the local culture is not one with which I am comfortable. The natives eye you with a certain predatory air. Beyond the beaches, facilities are somewhat limited, such as there are few family dining areas and few other activities available. A person goes to the USVI to sit on the beach, which is an honorable goal, but in Hawai’i the choices are much more expansive. Having said all that, it was still a wonderful, enjoyable, relaxing vacation.