A Christmas Tradition

Bob Downing (King Herod) Casper, WY, 1985

     There was an aura of excited expectancy inside the church as the time approached 6:00 p.m. on the mid-December evening.  Choir members were nervously walking about in their robes visiting with friends or muttering their lines under their breaths. The video/soundtrack operator was praying out loud and with a certain degree of panic as he was having difficulty getting the video/soundtrack display to properly cooperate. Members and a good representation of visitors were entering the auditorium, looking for familiar pews or friends. Last minute lighting arrangements were checked and rechecked.  At the last minute, everyone began took their seats, children shushed, lights dimmed, and the pastor rose to greet the congregation. The Christmas Cantata to celebrate the Christmas Season was about to begin.
      Past Christmas Cantatas have been in the record books for a while now, and shortly after each conclusion we began to concentrate on more challenging matters such as increasing our intake of high calorie goodies.  Thankfully, it was too early to begin to think about the upcoming back to work schedule and the inevitable bills for all our Christmas purchases which began to roll in as we entered into January. Though replete with activities, expenses, and exhaustive endeavors, Christmas is still a favorite time of year when we have the opportunity to reconnect with relatives and friends, and, being so close to the end of the calendar year, we also have the occasion to review the year just past and reflect on our successes and challenges.
     In the world of Christianity, of course, it is a special time of year, equaled only perhaps by the Easter season. Although historical evidence offers clues that Jesus Christ was probably not born in December or the winter season, it is still a time, however arbitrary, that we celebrate the coming of the Savior to Earth and all the ramifications that the event means to believing Christians throughout the ages.
     With the importance of the Christmas season weighing heavily upon the organized churches, the need for some sort of special pageantry during this time of celebration became evident at a very early date. For centuries, churches have celebrated the birth of the Christchild with music, singing, and worship. Many of the greatest classical compositions from the 17th and 18th century, written by composers whose works have survived the test of time, were created to celebrate the birth of Christ. These earliest compositions, written during a period when music was created primarily for the elite and privileged, tended to be very formal, very complicated, and very restrictive…in as far as the listener was expected to enjoy the music in a quiet, hushed matter. Completion of a musical presentation was met with polite applause, and discreet congratulations were offered to the composer who was usually in attendance.
     This tradition of a musical "cantata" (a composition of a dramatic presentation along with vocal solos, choruses, and music to tell a story) to celebrate the Christmas season continues, at least in some diminishing circles, to the present day. The complexity of the presentation is generally in direct proportion to the size of the church doing the presenting, although the word “size” may refer to the quantitative number of church members or the qualitative number of skilled musicians and singers within a church body. What that means, translated into English, is that a church, though large in number, may not have the reservoir of musical talent required to present a cantata at the skill level that its member number may indicate. The opposite is true: a small church can offer a presentation far beyond its expected performance if it is blessed with a great talent pool.
     The concept of the relatively formal Christmas cantata reigned supreme in the religious world far into the 20th century. With our Pentecostal music backgrounds, Shirley and I have been involved in Christmas cantatas for over sixty years. The church we attended as youths, Peace Tabernacle in Baytown, Texas, was a relatively small church with an average attendance of around 140, but it was a church rich with musical talent. That talent was put to good use during the Christmas season, when we delved into the preparation of yet another cantata. There was always an almost perceptible groan in the audience when it would be announced around the first of November of each year that “cantata practice” would begin. We realized we had a lot of work ahead of us, but somehow as the practices slipped by the music became more meaningful and enjoyable, and the night of our presentation was always one of spiritual uplifting and fulfillment. Led by a woman who was an accomplished pianist, organist, singer, and artist, our little choir was challenged to be the best we could be. Miss Anniedeen Bateman, our leader, had perfect musical pitch and could hear our sour notes at fifty paces and made us sing it till we got it right. Anniedeen started the beloved tradition of “Anniedeen Beans,” which meant that every year after the very last practice before our big presentation, all the participants of the cantata went to Miss Anniedeen’s home and enjoyed chili and beans with French bread. That was enough to make all the work worthwhile. Little did Shirley and I know that many years later that same Miss Anniedeen Bateman would become our stepmother and step-mother-in-law respectively, although as events transpired, we both have sort of forgotten the “step” part.
     The general format of the Christmas cantata, consisting of organ, piano, choir, soloists, director, and narrator continued until the early 1970s. Presentations continued to be offered within a context of quiet, reverential dignity. But as we moved into the latter 1970s there was a “restyling” of the traditional Christmas cantata. Before you jump to the conclusion that I’m about to yell, “It’s an abomination!” please be aware that is not the case: many changes which have occurred I welcome.
     In the latter 1970s the traditional formality of the cantata began to fade. Narrators became more conversational in their deliveries; actors/singers played the parts of the main characters of the Christmas story, and the music and solos became less operatic and more appealing to the average person. That’s not to say that the music was less difficult; it simply had a broader base of appeal. Along with the change in voices and narration came a dramatic change in music. The long-held tradition of organ and piano (especially in the southern United States) gave way to other musical voices such as strings, brass, and percussion. The greatest invention to come down the pike for many smaller churches with limited musical resources was the soundtrack. Although the 8-track tape and reel-to-reel tape player had been around for some time, it was not until the cassette tape with its ease of operation came on the scene that soundtracks for practically everything were instantly available. And now with the advent of computers, CDs and DVDs (both disks now becoming obsolete) the possibilities for soundtrack presentation are limitless. For those musically uninitiated, a soundtrack offers background music for a singer or choir to follow. Suddenly, a church which didn’t even have a pianist could put on a presentation with a full orchestra if desired. There was some resistance to such electronic gadgetry from those who felt like some of the spiritual spontaneity was lost by being “controlled” by artificial music. I think in some extreme situations that was a good argument, but for a presentation like a cantata, the negative effect is minimal. I will be the first to admit, though, that, given an option, I will always prefer live, human-created music. In years past, I have seen Shirley agonize and practice on her piano for days learning a thick booklet of Christmas cantata music. There is a presence, an immediacy, evident in a live performance which does not come through a loudspeaker.
      By the mid 70s, we were attending a small church in Casper, Wyoming, where my father-in-law was pastor. By this time Miss Anniedeen Bateman had become Mrs. Anniedeen Creel and my mother-in-law. The first time we used a soundtrack I brought my stereo amplifier, cassette player, and speakers from home and we set everything up in the church. For the first time, we had electronic music for our cantata and were on the cutting edge of technology. It did not become the modus operandi for our Christmas musicals, however, because we were blessed with some very accomplished musicians in our church, so the soundtrack became an option each year but rarely used.
     It was in the latter 1970s that The Greatest Christmas Cantata of All Time was produced. Okay, that’s obviously an opinion on my part, but it’s the ONLY Christmas cantata Shirley and I listen each year, and I have already listened to it twice this season (2023). The cantata “Noel, Jesus is Born!” composed by Lanny Wolfe and Don March is a timeless classic combining traditional and contemporary compositions, powerful solos, a touch of dramatics, and thought-provoking narration. The harmony of the melodies is haunting in its beauty, and it is impossible to sit through a presentation of this musical and not feel a touch of the Christmas spirit. (Note:  It is now available on YouTube...just search Noel Jesus is Born.)  Perhaps I feel a sentimental attachment to this cantata because our church in Casper, Wyoming, performed it two years in succession, and when I hear the music, I hear my loved ones and friends sing the parts they brought to life nearly forty-five years ago. I was privileged to play the part of King Herod.  Some of those loved ones and friends have gone on to their rewards, but I still hear and see them when I listen to “Noel!". Our little group took a difficult cantata and did it well.
     Over the years Christmas performances have become more complex, at least in non-Pentecostal churches. In many Pentecostal churches, however, the opposite has occurred.  Recognizing the effort required to master a musical instrument or the vocal practice needed to master a difficult vocal presentation, we now have instrumentalists who never progress beyond striking the basic chords of a musical piece and singers who all sing soprano and never bother with alto, tenor, or bass. Apparently, decisions have been made in many churches that too much effort is required for a complicated Christmas presentation.  Throughout the years I have sung bass, tenor, solos, duets, and trios. I have been King Herod, a wise man, a shepherd, an inn keeper, or simply the program narrator.  (I even directed a choir once in Oklahoma...they were REALLY desperate.) Every year most choir members dread the beginning of practice knowing that they will be sacrificing time and effort, and every year the general feeling is that it will never "come together.” But somehow, through perhaps God’s grace, it always does “come together” and we are able to celebrate Christmas. Such has been the case every year. Every year the choir practices for weeks on end until the final nerve-racking formal night, and suddenly things just seem to fall into place. The presentation comes across powerfully, and the singers are beautifully harmonious. The Christmas cantata is not just about Christmas…it IS Christmas.  May the Christmas cantata live on.  

Old Time Religion, Revisited

     Anyone who has bothered to read any of my essays concerning contemporary Christian (using that term very loosely) music knows how I feel concerning that very sensitive subject. Not desiring to flog a dead horse nor rehash wild accusations, I wish to move on and rejoice when one of those increasingly rare moments occurs when singers, souls, spirits, minds, music, melodies, and songs happen to blend into a spiritual oneness which creates an atmosphere of simple yet elegant, spontaneous, joyous, heartfelt, sincere, and meaningful worship of our Creator.
     In our church, we members address one another as “brother” or “sister,” so as I meander through this story, fellow members to whom I refer will be named as such. If this is strange, weird, offensive, or unusual to you, please forgive our trespasses and just count it as a charmingly antiquated method of communication. Be aware, however, that the custom is traceable back to the Bible and the days of the apostles and the belief that the church is the family of God on Earth.
     Three months or so ago, Sister Audrey Thomas, a devout member of our church, approached Shirley and me about participating in a singing group which would be emphasizing the classic gospel songs of yore (You know, those songs that apparently no one under the age of forty knows.) Sister Audrey was getting a group together at the invitation of a fellow church in Edna, Texas, a small community about 100 miles southwest of Houston down US Highway 59. The folks from that area visited our church a few months ago and enjoyed such a good reception that the invitation to reciprocate was extended. The strange thing is, Shirley and I don’t remember their visit at all, and we’ll usually sing an old song at the drop of a hat, so we concluded that we must have been out of town when the blessed event took place.
     Anyway, it was our time to be the singers, and Sister Audrey was on a mission. We began to meet on Wednesday evenings an hour before church time in the fellowship hall of our church and practice the songs that Shirley and I had been singing and playing musically for fifty plus years. Shirley was our pianist and I strummed my guitar, so, at least in the beginning, we furnished the music while the other volunteers learned the songs. They needed Shirley, because she is apparently the only pianist (other than my mother-in-law) in a twenty mile radius of the church who can play a gospel song out of a songbook. (Now, for those who didn’t know this, there was a time when people in church actually sang gospel songs out of real, honest-to-goodness song books, provided free by the church. You just picked them up, turned to the correct page, and sang right out loud. It was awesome!) However, since we come as a package, they had to put up with my guitar playing also.
     When we first began practicing, it was in the dead of summer, and the fellowship hall was blazing hot when we practiced. Coupled with that was the fact that our volunteer singers were volunteering at a very slow pace. The first few sessions were a little discouraging, and I confided to Shirley that I wondered if this gig would ever get off the ground. We plowed through twenty or more songs during a practice, but with few voices and stifling heat, by the time we finished, we were almost too tired for church. But the songs were the old songs we had cut our teeth on as children, and I will debate with anyone that the simplest of these old songs has more depth, spirit, and meaning and any of these new “Christian” creations with their non-rhythmic, non-rhyming melodies with seventeen chord changes. Oops, there I go. Sorry. Anyway, even with the heat and limited numbers of singers, the old songs carried a message that inspired worship.
     But we continued to practice, and things picked up when Brother Trini Hernandez began attending on a regular basis. Sister Audrey had anointed Brother Trini as the lead singer, and it was a good choice. Trini had managed his own band and played the local bars for over thirty years until God miraculously changed his life several years ago. A big, burly guy equipped with a quick smile and a ready laugh, his positive attitude is contagious and his testimony inspiring. He is one of those people whom you instantly like upon meeting. He has that instinctive ability to sing well and project a spirit of worship while doing so.
     Sister Audrey, of course, was still the ringleader of this band of carolers, and when Brother Trini did not sing a song in the way she wanted, she was quick to make him stop and start over. More than once she asked us to stop the music and let Trini sing without music or other singers so she could make sure he sang it right. Trini would graciously smile…and sing the song to her approval. I suggested that when Trini made a mistake that we all stop, point at Trini, and yell, “That’s wrong!,” but Sister Audrey thought that was a little extreme. Anyway, we had a good laugh, and everyone kept a good spirit.
     As we drew closer to our date with destiny, more people began to join our little ensemble, and by the time we left for Edna, we had a good sized group of singers, three guitars, a bass guitar, a saxophone, and a set of drums. When I first saw the drums a couple of practices before we left, my heart sank. I am convinced that the decline of Christian music began when a music director somewhere said, “Hey, man, let’s put some drums up there and see what happens!” I have since learned that drums can be very beneficial to certain church music if played with the idea of complementing the other instruments, but unfortunately the guy with the sticks usually tries to dominate the musical sound, and the effect is devastating to the spiritual impact of the music. Let me just say that when the time came for our presentation in Edna, our drummer (whose name I forget) was very complementary.
     On a recent Saturday, our date with infamy finally came. We assembled at the church, loaded our gear into two large vans, and prepared to move out. We had to take all our instruments and sound gear with us because the meeting was to be at a civic center in Edna. Apparently the church would have a keyboard for Shirley, but the rest of the instrumentation was up to us. We had been unsure of the starting time and length of the service, but Sister Audrey told us the starting time would be at 6:00 p.m….and we were leaving at 2:00 p.m. for a two hour trip. I had understood that there would be several singing groups there, but it turned out that we were the main attraction. Fortunately, we had practiced at least 25 songs. As we were loading up, Sister Audrey put a chest of ice water in our van…and then told us we couldn’t drink any of it because “it was for emergencies.” Right after that, she told us that we could talk amongst ourselves only for the first thirty minutes of travel. After that we had to pray the rest of the way. Though anxious to be responsive to the spirit, we decided that if we prayed for the additional hour and a half it would take us to get to Edna, and then have two additional hours once we got there to pray, we would be so spiritual that we would not even need to have a singing service, and we could go back home. So that we would have some worship in our tanks to use during the service, we sort of coasted and meditated on the way to Edna. Besides, Brother Trini kept laughing.
     Arriving in Edna, we drove to the address given us…and there was nothing there. It took us awhile, but we finally discovered that our address was “north” and not “south.” The civic center turned out to be very nice, spacious, and ideal for our use. Chairs had been set out, and there was a nice keyboard. Shirley prefers a piano, but this was a good quality keyboard, and, after finally getting all the slides and settings right, it sounded fine. There were approximately 100 people in attendance, along with the local pastor and his wife, Reverend and Sister Yancey, and the UPC District Presbyter, Brother Kite and his wife.
     A touching thing occurred while we were in the process of warming up. Shirley was breaking in the keyboard, and I was limbering up my fingers on my guitar. Sister Yancey came up to me with tears in her eyes, and said when I played my guitar it sounded just like her late father when he played his guitar. She wanted to know if it was all right to take a video of me playing. Of course I said that would be fine. She then called her sister on her phone and told her to “watch this,” and then held the phone up to video my playing. Brother Yancey mentioned in his testimony later how his wife appreciated my guitar playing. Don’t get me wrong…I am not the greatest guitarist in these parts; I have a simple style of playing which produces a sort of steel guitar sound. Apparently her father was on the same skill level I am. I was glad I was able to bring back some memories for her.
     At 6:00 the music started, and to make a long story short, we barely took a breath for nearly three and a half hours. We sang them all…

(1) He’s All I Need
(2) I Will Bless Thee, Oh Lord
(3) Turn Your Eyes upon Jesus
(4) Peace in the Midst of the Storm
(5) Jesus is the Sweetest Name I Know
(6) I Have Decided to Follow Jesus
(7) Let’s Talk about Jesus
(8) Come and Dine
(9) I Feel Like Travelling On
(10) We Have Come into This Place
(11) Heavenly Sunlight
(12) What A Day That Will Be
(13) Because He Lives

     The above list is about half of the songs we sung and played. And let me tell you, the spirit and worship began with the first song and did not end until the last one. We sang and played for an hour and a half before we stopped for a moment. Presbyter Kite spoke for about fifteen minutes and preached liked they used to preach. Not once during the entire three and a half hours did we hear someone say, “Let’s give Him a handclap of praise!” Didn’t have to…the praise was coming anyway. I can remember that when we were growing up, it would have been considered out of order to give applause to anything or anyone. Spontaneous handclapping was common during worship, but "applause" was nonexistent. When we Pentecostals went to the Music Hall for a gospel concert, we did not applaud the singers, because it was considered secular. Shirley and I never heard applause in a church until we moved back from Wyoming in 1991. By that time some Pentecostals had been watching the mega-churches on television and apparently thought applauding everything that moved was cool, and our churches adopted the practice. Successful mega-churches which have only a message of self-empowerment have had a far greater influence on Pentecostal assemblies in the areas of music, management, and praise than we would ever care to admit. God help us if we adopt the message. Forgive me…I digressed again.
     Into the second hour of the service, we began to have personal testimonies along with greetings from Pastor Yancey. There had been a couple of prayer requests, and finally a prayer line was formed, and everyone, including us musicians, went through the prayer line to receive healing or blessing. The singing continued, and the enthusiasm never seemed to wane. We musicians played until our fingers ached, but we enjoyed every minute. The simplicity of the worship, the enthusiasm of the singers and musicians, and the power of the spirit approached those days of the Rocky Mountain Camp Meeting of years past. I was amazed that when I took time to look at the crowd, everyone appeared to be singing (with no books)…because the songs were simple, powerful, and meaningful.
     By near 9:30, the service had run its course, and after a final word from Brother Yancey, we were dismissed. Naturally, the time honored tradition of eating came next, and we were taken to another hall where yummy baked potatoes, salad, desserts, and refreshments were in abundance. We ate and talked far more than we should have, but the food was good and the fellowship better. I enjoyed chatting with Brother James Thomas. I did not realize he was a roofer. Since my dad was a roofing contractor in Baytown for 40 years, I grew up on roofs and still feel a certain kinship to roofers. Finally around 10:30 we reloaded the vans and headed home. As we were leaving, we asked Sister Audrey if we could have some of the water now that she had forbidden earlier. She laughed. With all the food and the two hour drive back home, as a safety precaution (!) we stopped at Buc-Ees on the way back to get some decent coffee to sustain us along the way. I noticed several people got other items to sustain them on the way home, even though we had just enjoyed a big meal. In the interest of decorum, I won’t say who got what, but nobody starved on the way home, that’s for sure. We rolled into the church parking lot about 12:30 a.m. We were tired, but we had enjoyed a great evening. Shirley and I felt closer to more good members of Bethel Tabernacle, and once more we were thankful to be a part of a great church family.

Back in the Saddle

     When we decided to purchase our current home, there were several factors of the neighborhood which appealed to us besides the features of the home itself. We are less than 300 feet away from a pool, tennis courts, nature trails, and picnic area, and after extensive checking on my part, the neighborhood seemed to be relatively quiet. Oak Creek Village advertises itself as having the lowest crime statistics of any neighborhood along FM 1960, which may be a dubious claim, but sometimes you have to go with the information at hand, so here we are.
     Another item which appealed to me particularly was the fact that directly behind our back fence is an elementary school. That may or may not seem advantageous, but to me, having a school behind us meant no noisy neighbors evenings, weekends, holidays, or summers, and though my wife accuses me of deafness on a regular basis, I have an acute sensitivity to rowdy neighbors. What you do in your own yard is your business, but be quiet about it. Secondly, being a retired teacher, I decided that here was a chance to perhaps do a little substitute teaching occasionally and in doing so collect a little more spending money to finance my lavish lifestyle of three meals a day and driving a 1993 Ford Ranger.
     So in the spring of this year, I did some further checking on Pat Reynolds Elementary, my neighborhood school across the fence, and found out that it was a very successful school. Of course, nowadays in Texas “successful” means proficiency on the state mandated TAKS tests. Forget about active PTAs, PTOs, science/math/chess clubs, art and music programs, after school activities, or community contributions…the media, parents, Realtors, politicians, and home buyers all ask the same question…”How did the school do on TAKS?” I personally like the TAKS tests as a measure of progress, but the tests have been politicized and publicized to the point that their importance is grossly exaggerated and do not represent the success of a school. But that’s another story. The point is, Reynolds had a good track record on TAKS. My next step was to get my foot in the door and start the process of application to the Spring ISD. As it happened, Reynolds had a science and art open house in May, so I attended with the idea of looking over the school and getting a feel for the staff.
     As I walked through the school that evening with the halls gaily decorated with science posters, project reports, and some really impressive artwork and abuzz with parents and children, it reminded me a lot of my old school, Williams Elementary in Pasadena. Both schools are old, established schools which had gone through a recent major facelift. Reynolds had the most recent modernization, apparently a year or so ago, and is in beautiful shape. I chatted with a few of the teachers, all who seemed energetic and appeared anxious to introduce me to their principal once they found out I was a retired teacher. Eventually I met Mrs. Carolyn Mays, a most gracious lady with a kind, dignified demeanor, who seemed most encouraging when I mentioned that I would like to visit with her about the possibility of substituting. With the school year ending, we agreed to meet in the summer and discuss our options for the fall. I went home that evening feeling very positive about my future relationship with Pat Reynolds Elementary. By the time Mrs. Mays and I met again in June, I had already sent my substitute teacher’s application to Spring ISD.
     When we met again, Carolyn (I will respectfully use her first name) and I hit it off immediately. We have both been down the road a ways (although I am MUCH further down the road than she), and we found common ground concerning teaching philosophy and student concerns. With my experience in teaching science and math, it was agreed that I could make a contribution to the school’s success, and I made it clear I had no interest in substituting anywhere else but Reynolds. The next step was to get my application completed and be up and running by the time school started August 23.
     Sure enough, I received my first substitute assignment in early August. One of the teachers in the fourth grade had given birth in June and would be out the first five weeks of school. I would be her long term sub for the duration. I excitedly looked forward to getting back in the (education) saddle. The week before school started, Reynolds had an open house to allow kids to meet their teachers, see their new rooms, and in general get back into the spirit of school. Kellie Rosebush, the young lady for whom I was substituting, was in the classroom and I was introduced as the person taking her place for the first five weeks.
     Anytime a visitation like a school open house takes place, there’s a certain “sizing up” on the parts of parents, teachers, and students. I’m sure some of the students and parents wondered who the old guy in the room was, but as for me, I was pretty impressed with the kids and parents. At least, compared to my old school, these kids were relatively decently dressed and didn’t look like junior members of the Crips Gang. The parents were respectful and inquisitive, and, all in all, I felt really positive about how the classes would be once we got rolling.
     The first glitch came the Sunday night before the Monday morning that school was to start. Carolyn called to tell me that my application background check still was not completed, and I would have to hold off coming in until all was approved. I haven’t gotten a traffic ticket since 1974, so I concluded that the Spring ISD Personnel Department apparently had waited until the very last minute to act and now couldn’t complete the job before H-hour. No use whining or crying however, so I waited….three days. It was the fourth day of school before I was able to walk into the classroom.
     Teachers will tell you that the first few days of school are critical in establishing classroom rules and procedures. In those early days teachers establish ground rules and students learn what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior. It is the worst possible time to have a substitute teacher. When I walked in, all the kids saw was the big “Substitute” sign stamped on my forehead (not literally), and to them it was a green light to see how far they could go and how far the boundary could be stretched. Children today do not instinctively show respect for authority or adults. They are trained by clueless parents, irresponsible television and video, and even other children that the way to get what you want is to take it by whatever means necessary. Of course, these characteristics are not universal among the youth, but, where I used to say that most of the problems of a classroom were caused by less than ten percent of the students, I think now that percentage is pushing 30-40%. It is a high enough percentage that, without restraint of some sort, pandemonium can reign in a classroom with very little provocation. A teacher will now spend 10-25% of the time NOT teaching, but regaining order, parenting, disciplining, or counseling. It is a tragic waste of time. The students come to school without being taught any social skills at all by their parents. Politicians are quick to nail teachers to the cross for poorly performing students, but poorly performing students learn to perform poorly at home before they ever walk into a school. There should be an accountability measure for parents as well.
     The first few days in the classroom were, simply put, torture. If I could have somehow walked away without causing Carolyn grief, I would have done so. I lie awake at night trying to figure out a management plan that would bring order to the classroom. One policy at the fourth grade level was to take the class to the restroom as a group, waiting quietly (oh, right!) in the hall while three or four students went into the restrooms. It was like pushing on a balloon…you press in one spot and another area would swell out. The front of the line would begin to chatter and I would walk toward them and the back of the line would start up. Going to the back would fire up the front. We would stomp back to the classroom and I would preach fire and brimstone for 20 minutes. A few minutes of relative quiet would ensue, but the next time we went into the hall, the cycle began again. After three days, I said enough is enough. I told them we were not going to the restroom as a group anymore. If a student needed to go to the restroom, he/she raised a hand to let me know. If I was not in a teaching moment and we were doing independent practice, I allowed one at a time to go. It worked, and, correct or not, it was the first step in establishing order, and our hallway behavior to and from activities began to improve. And my blood pressure at the end of the day went down about 30 points.
     Inside the classroom during those early days, structure was hard to maintain. Part of the problem was the seating arrangement…you know…buddies sitting next to buddies creating pockets of conversation. By the second week I had learned the students better and rearranged both classes, sitting the students in their most hated arrangement…alternating boy and girl, while spreading the talking problems around the room. It made a decided difference. Not perfect, mind you, but at this point I was grasping at straws. Within another week, I was more familiar with the students and rearranged again. There was another slight but perceptible improvement.
     Changing the subject a bit, one of the features of Reynolds that struck me was the extensive playground. In Pasadena, the district is so gun-shy about playground accidents that most playground equipment has been taken out. Probably another reason for that fact is that in Pasadena there is no organized “recess” period. All physical activities are coordinated through the physical education departments. The district’s argument for this is that the state requires 135 minutes of organized, structured physical activity per week, and as such there is no time for “recess.” In Spring ISD, there are P.E. activities scheduled, but every elementary class has 25 minutes of recess daily. The recess is monitored by teachers, but it is not structured. The kids can run and play as they like within safety guidelines. As a result, Reynolds has a beautiful playground with more than two dozen swings, plus slides, monkey bars, climbing gear, and miscellaneous paraphernalia. I suspect the students get more physical activity during “recess” than they do during P.E. if sweaty faces are any indication.
     I sat inside a science and math classroom for five weeks and never saw a text book. I am sure that Spring ISD has instructional plans for covering all the pertinent TEKS objectives, but I never saw them. Kellie Rosebush had very efficiently laid out my instructional plans for the entire five weeks, so, realistically speaking, I didn’t need to see anything else. Whatever the instructional plans, they must work, considering the success of Reynolds on last year’s tests. But with no textbooks, we went through tons of copy paper. I couldn’t help but think back to my Williams days when copy paper was treated like currency to be used sparingly.
     I was flipping through Kellie’s emails one day (she graciously allowed me access to her emails so I could keep up with school and grade level news), and saw an email stating that there was an unused “smart board” in the school that anyone could have for his/her class if desired. I almost jumped and ran for it, until I realized I was going to be out of there in a few days. I received the first Promethean smart board at Williams about five years ago, and it changed the way I taught. It is the most efficient way possible to blend video, power point, pictures, graphs, and activities into a lesson…and save the whole package for the next time you need it. By now, there is probably a smart board in every classroom in Pasadena ISD which has always been a very technologically advanced district. Of course, that also explains why PISD has been running in the red with their budget.
     Though Williams Elementary had a very high percentage of “free and reduced lunch” students, it is primarily a Hispanic school. At Reynolds, I met my first truly culturally diverse classes and came away with a simple observation: It is not the cultural background, but the developmental environment in which a child grows which many times determines the success of a child. I had three or four students whom I considered serious behavioral problems. Anger, rebellion, and disrespect were shown by them on a daily basis. The third week of my assignment, I received student profiles and made a point to read the background information for my problem children. After reading their profiles, I wanted to go hug each one and tell them everything was going to be OK. It is readily apparent that the traditional nuclear family of dad, mom, and children is nearly extinct, and the children of these contemporary dysfunctional arrangements suffer the consequences. I made a point to talk to each one…not about their profiles, but just to let them know I liked them and wanted them to do well. Believe it or not, one of those kids whom I had ground on so hard about behavior came up to me the day I left, hugged me, and said he was going to miss me. Man! Just when you’re ready to hate them, they do something like that and melt your heart!
     The fourth grade team at Reynolds consists of five members: four “regular” (English) classes taught by Nicole Baldwin, Edwin Bigsby, Beth Chippendale, and Kellie Rosebush, and one bi-lingual class taught by Elma Ayala. They are a very experienced and professional team. Each was very helpful and supportive to me, and I appreciated their cooperation. When I left they presented me with a thank you card and a lovely token of their appreciation. I was very touched by their gesture of friendship and decided that when I become district superintendent of the Spring ISD, they will be given choice, high paying jobs. Alas, I fear that prospect is dim, however.
     By the fourth week of my sentence…er, assignment, things started to level out a bit. I knew the students by name and began to get a feel for their personalities and learned to sometimes nip a problem in the bud before it began to blossom. Don’t get me wrong, it was not peaches and cream, but it was becoming manageable. The frustrating part was when things got a little rowdy, I could growl a little bit and they would settle down…for about five minutes. And then it would start all over again. I think administrators and to an extent even teachers do not realize that one of the greatest skills inborn into every child is the ability to figure out how to work, even beat, the system. To some children, you mention “silent lunch” and they clam up, but to others “silent lunch,” “wall time,” and “I’m gonna call your mama!” doesn’t constitute even the slightest threat. Therein lays the challenge: creating consequences which will get the attention of the intransigent student. I am not in favor of corporal punishment, but I am ready to defend the proposition that in many instances, teachers and administrators have few options in dealing with difficult students.
     Carolyn Mays and the new Assistant Principal, Ms Grace Leal, along with the staff of Reynolds Elementary have every reason to be proud of their school. Taking a group of playful, carefree, resistant-to-learning, distracted students up to the next level of success is sort of like trying to herd a bevy of cats. But somehow, through it all, a group of dedicated, professional teachers and administrators manages to pull it off. And just when you're ready to sit back and congratulate yourself on a job well done, a new school year starts it all over again. Welcome to the education profession.


     Having been about seven months since I last visited the Toyota Center in downtown Houston, I reflected as I traveled to the venerable sports arena last evening on the heavy hitters who were speakers during the all day motivational seminar I enjoyed on my previous visit. With personalities such as General Colin Powell, Evangelist (excuse me)… Republican Sarah Palin, Ex-NY Mayor Rudi Giuliani. Ex-Razorback Coach Lou Holtz, and motivational icon Zig Zigler, the place on that particular day had been a magnet for all business mogul wannabes, albeit with a small section marked off for us souls who were far past our prime and simply attended because we wanted to hear some good stories.
     This time the purpose was far different. My family was en route to the center to hear music, and since our beloved daughter-in-law was going to be on stage during one of the performances, we felt a paternal obligation to be there and yell, “That’s my daughter-in-law!” She was part of a group of singers (Bethel Praise Choir) from our church, Bethel Tabernacle, which had been selected to participate in the “How Sweet The Sound” musical celebration sponsored by Verizon Wireless. This musical celebration of gospel choirs is in its third year of sponsorship by the giant communications company, and the process begins when regional choirs submit videos of performances and are judged on presentation, skill, and musical abilities. Those eight groups who are fortunate to make it to the Toyota Center are the crème de la crème and the winner of the Toyota Center sing-off goes to Washington for the national finals in November of this year. Not to mention that there’s generous prizes involved: just making it to the Toyota Center puts $3,000 in the pockets of the choir, and the night’s winner can walk away with as much as $15,000 plus a free ride to Washington for the finals.
     Up until this point, the choir contestants could pick their own songs, but for the Toyota Center concert, each choir was allegedly assigned a new song to practice, learn, and present. We have found out since that, while our group was assigned a song, other groups were allowed to sing songs of their own choosing. The reason for this inequity remains a matter of conjecture. The groups were divided into small choirs and large choirs, and, since our group is a fairly small ensemble, it was assigned to the small choir category. The song for them to learn was “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” which is, according to Wikipedia, a “Negro spiritual that originates from before the American Civil War…thus it is what scholars call a slave song, a label that describes their origins among the enslaved and contains coded messages of hope and resistance.”
     I love these songs. When I taught United States History in school and our time line reached the pre-Civil War Era, I usually spent a day in class teaching my kids to sing a few of these old songs that projected such powerful messages of longing and hope. More than once, my students thought I was nuts when they saw tears in my eyes as they innocently sang of travails and struggles they knew nothing about.
     The Sunday before the concert, the Praise Choir gave a dry run presentation to our church, and the effect was incredible. Without a sound of music, a cappella, our singers projected through beautiful harmony a powerful message of spiritual encouragement. The church responded in kind, and a wave of worship swept through the building. Our lead singer, Misty Hargrave, offered a perfect balance of power and spirit with minimum theatrics. Hopes were high as the big day of the concert approached.
     Arriving at the Toyota Center parking garage and paying the modest(!) $20 parking fee, we walked the short distance to the center. The center, home to the Houston Rockets, seats around 14,000, I think, and is heavily used for every imaginable venue. As I walked toward the entrance I began to observe more about what “How Sweet The Sound” was all about. In the first place, the crowd was predominantly African-American, and once we were inside and I was able to pick up a copy of the program I realized who Verizon’s target market for this musical experience was. The celebrities, judges, masters of ceremonies, and a majority of choir participants were African-American.
     Now, before you get the wrong idea, please understand that I feel when it comes to spiritual, powerful, moving presentations of gospel music, no one can touch the depth of soul and heart like the African-American singer. So my conclusions after observing our entrance into the Toyota Center was that we were going to hear some really outstanding choir music, and that it was going to be a very enjoyable night.
     The dual Masters of Ceremonies were Donald Lawrence and Cece Winans, both heavy hitters in the African-American gospel music realm. I’m sure Donald Lawrence deserved the accolades he received, but, I’m sorry, someone needs to show him how to dress. I know this betrays my age, but in the sixties super skinny pant legs and narrow lapels on a suit were in…but not now. And glittery sneakers? Somehow the image was not memorable. Cece Winans, on the contrary, was dressed to the teeth. Slinky floor length gown, beautifully coiffured, she seemed to me to be sort of the Janet Jackson of the gospel set…lots of image and flash with a medium dash of skill. The prompt cards gave her a little trouble. Fortunately the idle chatter between the two hosts was minimal, and the choirs were the main attraction.
     As luck would have it, the Bethel Praise Choir was the first group out of the chute. As the lights, dimmed everyone in our section, which constituted a considerable number of Bethel Tabernaclers, collectively held our breaths as Shelaine Fauss-Everhardt, choir leader, gave the first wave of her arms.
     All I can tell you is the Bethel Praise Choir absolutely nailed it. Before they were halfway through, the crowd of ten thousand plus was on its feet, and, when Misty Hargrave really got into it, there was a wave of praise which swept the center. The judges were swaying along with our choir members, and when they finished with their last “Mary!” the crowd erupted. It was totally thrilling. The judges gushed praise to Shelaine and Misty with not a single word of suggestion or criticism. It was a proud moment for our choir and for our church.
     There were three other contestants in the small choir category. “Heaven Bound,” a Seventh Day Adventist group, sang the way you would expect Adventists to sing…beautifully…but without an ounce of spirit or conviction. The “Bible Days City Voices” and the “Bethel Temple Pentecostal Church Mass Choir” (too long a name) were traditional all-African-American groups which sang as many such groups do…tremendous spirit and worship but only middling in skill. In every instance, the judges were complimentary, but offered some point of suggestion or criticism that they felt would improve the presentation. To make a long story short, once all groups had finished, we felt that our group had won, hands down, no contest.
     In the large choir category, let me say simply that the Royalwood Sanctuary Choir from Pastor Macey’s United Pentecostal Church blew the doors off the other three contestants’ carriages. By the time they finished singing “God Blocked It!” half the audience was shouting, Sister Macey, their choir director was dancing around, and the judges were waving and bouncing also. It was an amazing demonstration of singing with spirit and a confirmation that the singers were singing the way they did because they knew, and had experienced, what they were singing about.
     The time finally came for the awards to be presented, and Bethel Tabernacle held its collective breath for the second time. It was not surprising when Royalwood Sanctuary Choir won the large choir category and the ticket to Washington for the finals (not to mention $15,000.) By this time we had seen clips of last year’s performances at the finals, and I had decided it was highly unlikely that a small choir group would go to Washington since all the groups there seemed to have been of the large variety. But we were stunned…shocked…and dismayed when the small choir award went to the Adventist’s “Heaven Bound” group, the group with the funereal presentation, the group that one judge said he wished they had sung the song with more spirit and connected with the audience.
     As we were leaving the Toyota Center, still in shock and mumbling to ourselves, we overheard two different people just in our area and not connected to our group say they "thought that other group…the Bethel group, was much better.” We let them know we agreed. Being somewhat analytical in nature, I tried to determine why the obvious verdict had not been reached and for what purpose would a decision contrary to the obvious be made, and I have come to one or two scenarios:
     “How Sweet The Sound” is a marketing strategy by Verizon Wireless to reach a particular audience. The brochure, the presentation, the style of delivery all point to a market segment which Verizon feels is an untapped source of future income. It must have been particularly galling to the marketing director for Verizon who was introduced to the crowd to see Royalwood, which is not a group which represents the target market for Verizon, blow away the competition to the point of no contest. But once it became evident that Royalwood was the hands down winner, I can also see a decision being made by Mr. Verizon…or the judges (that’s the second scenario)…that they’re not going to allow TWO non-representative and non-targeted groups walk away with all the prize money. So the best small choir was slighted and the money went to probably the second best group, minimal spirituality notwithstanding.
     However disappointed we were in the outcome, our pride in our little band of singers swelled to probably excessive levels. They represented our church with honor, and their singing brought a worshipful spirit into the Toyota Center that was unmatched. In the final analysis, powerful singing does not come from culture or latent talent, but rather it comes from a deep personal experience with our Creator. And to think, we get to hear the Bethel Praise Choir just about every service!

George Creel...Good Memories

     George Dennis Creel passed from this life at the far too young age of 61. He was one of my closest friends from the early days of my youth. My parents in 1950 became part of the church where George and his considerably sized family had attended since its founding in the early forties. I was seven years old when my family began attending church, and George quickly became a companion and a confidante. There were several young boys in the church at that time, but two, George and Ronny Guidroz, the pastor’s son, seemed to share the same interests and activities as I. We spent many Sunday afternoons at one of our parents’ homes between Sunday School in the morning and evangelistic service Sunday night.

This photo was taken in February, 1956, and shows five of my friends from Peace Tabernacle. They are (left to right) Jerry Kemplay, Jerry Smith, David Smith, George Creel, and Ronny Guidroz.

     In 1959, Ronny’s father resigned from the church and the Guidroz family moved away. Ronny and I would be reunited a few years later as brothers in law, but for a while, George and I spent even more time together. As a teenager, I drove a 1954 Mercury which at the time was an average decent car. George was on a little tighter budget, but managed to buy a 1950 Ford in dire need of paint…but it was a convertible. George sanded and painted the car himself, cleaned up the convertible top, and afterward for most of the time we prowled Texas Avenue in Baytown, Texas, we rode in George’s Ford because, well, it was a convertible, and it looked pretty good and sounded good. George’s Ford didn’t sound as good as my Mercury (sound was VERY important back then) because he only had one glass packed muffler while I had dual exhausts with dual glass packs. I could turn onto North Main from Texas Avenue, and for about three blocks where the street was pretty narrow and the buildings close together, I could give my old Mercury a little gas, the glass packs would roar, and the display windows of the stores would vibrate. If you don’t understand the sanity of this…well, it’s a guy thing…a sort of human version of the Lion King roaring from the top of a mountain. But the fact was…given a choice of driving a car that sounded REALLY good or riding in a top-down convertible…we chose to ride in George’s car.
     Just to show you how brave (lonely? chicken? nervous?) George and I were back in those days, one warm, summer night we were cruising Texas Avenue in George’s car with the top down, feeling sorry for ourselves because we didn’t have any girls with us. Just at that moment, we passed the Brunson movie theater which apparently had ended a show because everyone was leaving. I said to George, “Hey, George, pull up and let’s see if we can pick up a couple of girls!” So George pulled up to the curb in from of the theater and we looked expectantly at the crowd exiting the building. I saw a couple of girls who seemed to be single and I waved to them, and they smiled…and started walking toward our car! The closer they got, the higher our level of panic went. When they got within about ten feet…we took off. I just hope we didn’t destroy the girls’ self esteem for the rest of their lives and they are suffering to this day from feelings of rejection. It’s a wonder George and I ever got married, but fortunately as time went by our relationships with fair maidens improved. In 1961 Shirley and I married, and a little later George did the same. In 1963 I went into the Air Force, and Shirley and I traveled for the next four years. George went into the Navy, and we had difficulty maintaining contact for a few years. You have to remember, this was before email, Facebook, and cell phones. Long distance phone calls were expensive, and letter writing was the only practical means of contact. We would occasionally cross trails at a family reunion, and there we would try to catch up on family news.
     Shirley and I moved to Casper, Wyoming, in 1974, and happily, in the early 80s I think, George, wife Dee, and children moved to Casper, also. It was a happy reunion and our families enjoyed many good times together thereafter. During this time our two families entered the Motorhome Era. Because Wyoming offers so many scenes of natural beauty, recreational vehicles are very popular, and Shirley and I had purchased a motorhome for family camping. George and family did the same. George’s motorhome was a Winnebago which had been converted to a Caterpillar diesel engine with an Allison transmission. His motorhome would fly down the road, but the only problem was, the transmission did not have a “Park” position. On most big trucks, apparently, the vehicle is secured with an emergency brake that locks the driveshaft someway to keep the vehicle from moving rather than using a “Park” on the transmission. George’s Winnebago had the emergency brake lock on the driveshaft…but it didn’t work too well. So George, when they stopped for the night, would put chocks behind the wheels to keep the motorhome from rolling. One night we were sitting at a scenic camp ground up in the Wyoming hills. I was parked across from George’s motorhome in the adjacent camping spot. George’s camping spot was on a slight incline, but behind his motorhome the land dropped off quickly into a deep ravine. George, however, had carefully put out his wheel chocks, so all seemed OK. As the evening wore on into darkness, his family, Shirley, and our kids began playing some sort of game in the motorhome. For some reason, I was in our motorhome…probably taking a nap.
     Anyway, some time later, I heard some yelling and then a crash. I ran out of our motorhome and George’s Winnebago was down the incline several feel, but, fortunately, resting up against a tree. There was a single tree that had been between George’s motorhome and disaster, and thankfully, the Winnebago and rolled up against it with a thud and stopped. Shirley said that as soon as the motorhome began moving, George knew what had happened and nearly ran over everyone trying to get to the brake pedal. Other than a couple of mild heart attacks and minor damage to the motorhome bumper, everything was fine. We had several other camping trips with George’s family, and enjoyed every one, even though none of the others was as exciting as that trip.
     In the early 80s the economy suffered in Wyoming, and George’s family moved to Dallas where there was work. Shirley and I visited George and Dee on several trips to Texas, making an overnight stop at their home on the way to Baytown. After we moved back to Baytown, we visited them in Dallas occasionally, but it was at the Creel reunions during the Christmas holidays where we were most able to catch up on family news. The last time we saw George, the disease which would take his life was already taking its toll, but he was being ably cared for by Dee, family, and friends. Their church family offered tremendous support, and at George’s passing the family was surrounded by caring friends. George’s passing was another lost link to the days of youth, but my memories of George as a youthful buddy, close friend and companion will live on.

Animal Farm 1954-1961

     By the spring of 1953, with the arrival of Dad and Mom’s third child and my second sister, Kathryn, the decision was made to find a larger place for our growing family. The home on Hafer, though comfortable, was cramped, and Dad longed for some breathing room and a return to his farming roots. So they began looking at rural property outside of the city limits. To us city kids, driving through the countryside outside of Baytown seemed a whole new world, what with all the vacant land, barbed wire fencing, cows, horses, and space.
     The first time we looked at 6134 Cedar Bayou-Crosby Road (sometime over the last fifty years the name has been changed to Crosby-Cedar Bayou Road), it was not a very impressive looking place. Situated on a dusty, shell road five miles north of Baytown, it was a model of Early Americana. I say this through the eyes of an adult, because it was, even in 1953, an old house…wood framed, wood shingle roof, three tiny bedrooms, and no bathroom…it had an outhouse. However, the present owner was in the process of adding two bedrooms and a bath to the house, so by the time we moved in the outhouse was gone. I remember being a little disappointed in that. Included on the six acres of property were a barn, chicken house, and a small garage or storage building. The barn was probably the best building on the place…a two story, sturdy, pole barn with loft and cattle feeding area, plus a granary (place where your stored your grain.) The chicken house was fully furnished for chickens…i.e., there were roosting areas, feeding and watering areas, and a fenced outside area for casual afternoon strolls. If you were a chicken, it was pretty nice. The storage building was basically a single garage, and eventually became the place where we stored our boat.
     The yard area occupied about an acre of the property with the remaining five acres being pastureland. All of it was properly fenced in and ready for cows or roaming kids. I have said that the place was not impressive as viewed by an adult, but for us kids it was a grand new adventure. Miles of space to run and explore, a really cool barn, a chicken house, and tons of trees to climb…I mean, what more could a kid want? (Remember, this is pre-television and electronic stuff.) The only glitch that happened during the looking stage was on one of our early visits while the family was wandering around the house looking around. My little sister, Kathy, being a few steps in from of me suddenly stumbled to her knees. That was not uncommon, since she was only eighteen months old or so, but this time she let out a wail. I couldn’t figure out what the problem was and picked her up. When I picked her up, I noticed her right leg did not straighten out and, looking down, saw a roofing nail imbedded in her knee just under the kneecap. Without thinking, I grabbed the nail, which was driven into her knee completely up to the nail’s head, and gave it a pull, jerking it out. She REALLY let out a yell then, and I ran with her back to Mom and Dad and told them what happened. We hopped in the car, rushed to a doctor’s office, and she was given a tetanus shot and bandage. A few hours later, she was back to her normal self. After a couple more home visits, the farm deal was done. Dad and Mom paid $9,500 for the whole spread.
     In the ensuing days, another tradition of years past occurred. As I said, the house was old and needed work, plus the new addition that the previous owner had begun was unfinished. The walls were sheetrocked but not textured or painted, and the exterior of the new area was not painted. The new area had roof decking but no roof. So on a couple of Saturdays before we officially moved in, Downings from far and wide came and in a matter of two or three workdays the wood shingle roof on the old area was removed, new decking was applied with a new shingle roof over the whole house, walls were knocked out inside the house resulting in three bedrooms and a much larger kitchen/living area, the bathroom was finished, and the outside of the house received new siding and paint. The women brought enough food to feed a small army. It was not a happy time for me because I was tortured. Well, at least I thought I was, since I was put to work pulling nails out of old lumber. There were so many cool things to get into, but I was anchored in front of a pile of old lumber and given a hammer. Looking back, that’s what I would have done to my ten year old son to keep him out of trouble while everyone tried to work, but I didn’t like it then. Anyway, in a couple of weeks the old house was transformed into a very presentable home, and it wasn’t long before we said goodbye to Hafer Street and moved into our new home. It was the Spring of 1954, and school was still in session, so for a couple of months, Mom drove me to my old school, Alamo Elementary, to avoid a mid-year school transfer.
     Strangely enough, I have found no photos of this eventful period of my family’s life. The photo adjacent to this paragraph was taken in 1954, after the house had been refurbished, but before Dad built the double garage close to where the family’s 1952 Mercury is located in the photo. As far as I know, there are no photos of our old home in the original condition that Mom and Dad bought it. Probably just as well.
     Once settled into our new home, we began the exploration. The barn became one of my favorite places. On the second floor Dad kept bales of hay…not the big round 1,000 pounders you see today, but the square traditional sized 60 pounders that were easy to stack. Dad would have them all stacked in a corner of the second level, but I discovered that I could take the stack down to a single level and then build a wall of hay along two sides. What I created was a hay “room,” which I could access by pulling out one bale of hay, crawling inside, and then replacing the bale of hay. My “room” had a small opening looking out over the pasture, and I would sometimes after school crawl into my private room, look out over the pasture, and daydream. For a while there, dad couldn’t figure out why his stack of hay seemed to be growing, because once I restacked it to make my room, the stack took up more space. When he discovered what I was doing, he didn’t seem to mind, but as we fed the cattle that Dad had begun to buy, my room would occasionally disappear. But with each new load of hay, I rebuilt my Secret Garden.
     With the chicken house, visions of fresh eggs and fried chicken soon abounded, and before long we had a fully operational egg farm. In the beginning, it befell me that one of my duties was to gather the eggs. Mom would sell the eggs to people in our church, and it was not uncommon to gather 50 to 100 eggs in a day. Boy, I hated that job! The reason was we had some really grouchy hens and mean roosters. Going into the chicken house, I had to walk through the fenced-in outside yard, and those roosters considered me an intruder. They would come running toward me squawking, jumping, and flapping their wings as I beat it for the chicken house. Once inside, there were rows of nests for the old biddies to lay their eggs. They would be sitting on their nests, droopy-eyed and half asleep, and my job was to ease my hand underneath them and snatch the eggs without disturbing their beauty sleeps. Inevitably, about every second hen would be startled awake (cold hand?), let out a squawk, and give me a hard peck on my arm. I would come out of the chicken house fuming and ready to engage in chicken abuse. Even grouchier were the hens which were “setting.” They had eight to ten eggs underneath them that they sat on for however many weeks it was until they hatched. They did not want you even coming into the chicken house. They would growl and squawk the whole time I was gathering eggs from the other hens…but they wouldn’t leave their nests. Once they had their chicks, they were pretty friendly, maybe because they knew I also brought chicken feed to them. It was always fascinating to watch a mother hen and her chicks when they were outside the chicken house. The little chicks would be scurrying around in all directions, but if the mother hen sensed any kind of danger, like a hawk overhead, she would give a particular squawk, and the little chicks would come running to mama. She would stand up, spread her wings, and the little chicks would run under mother, Then mama would settle down, cover her brood with her wings, and not a chick would be visible.

Dad and "Sweetie Face"
      There were also visions of fresh beef on the table, and Dad began buying a few calves. In those days you could buy a young calf for $5.00, so the goal was to raise those cows and occasionally get one butchered to stock our freezer. What with fresh eggs, chickens, beef, and Dad having a green thumb when it came to vegetable gardening, we were going to be eating well, to say the least. The only problem was my sisters. To me a cow was a cow, but to my sisters, each cow was a member of the family. Each one was properly named (”Sweetie Face”) and treated according to its personality. Cows had to be brushed occasionally and properly fed. Those cows soon learned who buttered their bread, and they would follow Judy and Kathy around like little puppies. They could lead their pets around by just walking in front of them, whereas what cows were assigned to me, I think they knew I was looking at them as future rib eye steaks. Consequently, they were never very cooperative with me, and I never was able to complete the “bonding.” The upshot of all this however was the first time Dad mentioned taking one of our cows to the packing plant, and when the girls realized what “packing plant” meant, there was a shocked moment and then howls of protest. (We’re NOT going to EAT Sweetie Face!!) Needless to say, the entire time we lived on the farm, we never butchered a cow.      Hogs were a different story. I guess because it’s hard to call a hog “cute” For a year or so, Dad decided to raise hogs and built a hog area out next to the chicken fence. He bought three or four grown hogs and fed them, and before long we had bunches of little piglets running around. Okay, a six week old piglet is cute, but it goes downhill pretty quickly after that. Hogs live like…well, hogs, and their hog pen soon turned into a muddy, stinky hole, a breeding ground for mosquitoes and foul odors. They’re good food disposals, however, and my job was to take food leftovers from our table plus whatever scraps of other stuff Mom had and feed it to the hogs. They could hear me coming and would begin banging on the wooden fence to be first in line for their gourmet dinner. I held my nose as I dumped the slop over into the trough. Gross. In time, their poor manners and foul smells made Dad and Mom decide to get out of the hog business. Dad had the adult hogs sent to the packing plant, but about a half dozen piglets, all about 20 pounds, he butchered himself. I remember the day that we had some of our favorite relatives, Leroy and Louella Wilson (Mom’s sister and brother-in-law) with their two daughters, Karen and Linda, over to visit. Dad had taken the little piglets and butchered them, but he had only skinned them and cut them in half, right down the back bone. They were then put on a spit and roasted over an open fire in our back yard. Mom and Aunt Louella whipped up all the fixin’s to go with roasted pork, and we all enjoyed a feast of roast pig. To this day I can remember my half of pork and eating till I nearly exploded. And there was nary a squeal of protest from my super sensitive sisters.
     This doesn’t involve animals but it does involve food. Three or four years after we had become farmers, Dad decided we would become REAL farmers. He had already purchased a Farmal Cub tractor, but he decided that he wanted to grow corn. He bought a corn seed planter attachment for the tractor, and, choosing the south three acres of our land, proceeded to plow it up and prepare it for planting corn. With the planting attachment on the tractor and a load of corn seed, he headed down the prepared rows, and the planter worked amazingly well, digging a small trench in the furrows, dropping a couple of seed about every 12 inches, and neatly covering up the seeds in one fell swoop. It even added a shot of fertilizer as it dropped the seeds. We waited for nature to take its course. Three acres may not sound like much, but that’s over 200 feet wide and 600 feet long, and we discovered you can grow a LOT of corn on three acres. Once the corn reached maturity, however, I learned that farming was not for me. Naturally, all the corn produced has to be gathered, and we had to gather it by hand. Dad drove his pickup to the first rows, and he and I began yanking the ears off the stalks and throwing them into the bed of the truck. It was hot, sweaty, monotonous, torturous work. It was even worse than pulling nails on those work days. It took us all day to pick all the corn and we were worn out. But sure enough, that evening the Wilsons had come visiting again, and the women cooked dozens of ears of corn. We must have had other food, but all I remember is that Uncle Leroy, Dad, and I got into a corn eating contest, and we ate until we were nearly comatose. I don’t remember who won, but each of us ate over a dozen ears of corn. Best corn I ever ate in my life.
     Getting back to the chickens, eventually Mom and Dad tired of hassling with the chickens and eggs. By the time this decision was made, we were down to 80-100 chickens. My parents decided (and since my sisters had not adopted the chickens) that we would butcher the chickens and pack them all in the freezer and eat well for the coming months. I was around 13 years old at the time, and my cousin, David Phillips from Dallas, was spending the summer with me. The job that fell to us was the worst job of them all…we were to kill the chickens by cutting off their heads with hatchets and then dip the carcasses in a washtub of steaming water. The steaming water loosened the feathers, after which we were to remove all the feathers and take the naked chickens to Mother and Dad who would do the cleaning and butchering.
     So out by the chicken yard David and I built a fire upon which we placed a number 2 washtub with water. In time the water began to boil, and we were ready to begin our work. Each of us had a hatchet, and with a foot on the chicken’s heads, we aimed carefully, and with one fell swoop the heads came off. The birds would flap furiously for a few seconds, and then we would place the poor creature in the boiling water for about a minute. Taking the now-boiling chicken out of the water, we attempted to remove the feathers without burning our fingers. It was hot, tedious work, and we were miserable.
     Until David accidentally dropped his chicken after cutting off its head. To our amazement, the chicken ran off and rushed wildly from here to there for about 30 seconds and a good 75 feet from the fire. Thus the expression was born…”Running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” We thought that was the coolest thing we had ever seen. Sure enough, David, with his evil mind, (I’m going to blame this on David since he’s not here to defend himself…I really can’t remember who thought of it) said, “I bet I can make my chicken run farther than yours!” The challenge had been made, so on the next two chickens, we said, “Ready, set, chop!” We cut our chicken’s heads off, turned them loose, and watched them run around like…well, you know. After that, we started keeping score, and until we were nearly finished, we had a ball. Work turned into fun! But then, just as we let a couple of birds make their runs, Mother came out the door just as my bird ran underneath our house! Mother was absolutely horrified at what we were doing, and when she saw the chicken run under the house, she insisted we go in after it. The trouble was, underneath our house was a dank, dark, scary place that we had heard abounded with spiders, scorpions, and snakes. We moaned, groaned, and whined, but to no avail. Under the house we crawled to reach our poor, lifeless chicken. After that, the air had sort of been let out of our balloon, and we completed the chicken de-feathering without any racing incidents.
     Before you draw the conclusion that I am intrinsically cruel to animals, please remember that these stories took place in the context of the fifties. Now that I am older, more educated, and much (well, a little) wiser, I would never condone such activities today. Also, although it seems each time I mentioned work in this essay I was whining about the alleged torture, it was not as bad as I may have described. After all, to a young person, if it ain’t fun, it’s torture. The amazing fact is we youth were able to occupy ourselves without a single electronic device. We spent our time outside and did not faint in the heat. We ate real butter and fried chicken and didn’t gain a pound. And finally, speaking charitably, we were at least creative in our search for amusement. All I can tell you is that, looking back, I have priceless memories of my youth.

In Memory of Pastor V.A. Guidroz

     In 1938, my mother and dad, R.L. and Ethel Downing, were married and in 1939 moved to Baytown to seek work. For the next eleven years, my dad worked to establish his business, Downing Roofing Company, while Mother established a stable home life for her children. Mother attended a Baptist church, carrying me along, but Dad, as many men in that era, was too busy trying to make a living to be concerned with church. Dad had opened his home and company to his many relatives who migrated from Oklahoma. In the late forties the Downing family worked hard, lived hard, and played hard.
     In about 1949, one of his brothers, O.E. Downing and his wife, Reba, suddenly changed their lifestyle after joining Peace Tabernacle, a Pentecostal church pastored by Reverend V.A. Guidroz. It must have been a dramatic change, because they began to pester Mom and Dad to attend church with them. For months, Mom and Dad refused, but sometime in 1950, my Uncle O.E. caught Mom and Dad in a weak moment and they agreed to visit Peace Tabernacle. To make a long story short, since this essay is not about my parents but about the Guidrozes, let me say that in a matter of weeks my mom and dad had been baptized in Jesus Name and received the Holy Ghost, and the homelife of the Downing family changed forever.
     Please understand that as I offer my impressions of the Guidroz family in the following words, they are created at least in the beginning through the eyes of a young boy. When we began attending Peace Tabernacle, I was seven years old. The pastor’s son sat down next to me in one of our early services and said, “I’m Ronny, and I’m six!" To which I replied, “I’m Bobby, and I’m seven!" We young boys liked to establish the pecking order as soon as possible. Glory Guidroz was the teacher of the Primary Sunday School Class, and to this day I can remember getting my fifth star in a row on her attendance chart and she declaring, “Bobby is now a member of our class!" I had found a home.
     Upon meeting Brother Guidroz, he seemed larger than life. He was a big man who was obviously in charge and did most of the talking. I was still a little unsure on the concept of “pastor." He was quick with a laugh, and seemed to enjoy talking to us kids. I thought it was so cool that he was missing a joint or two on one of his fingers. His influence on my mom and dad governed the way we lived, where we went, and what we wore, and Mom and Dad followed unquestioningly. Brother Guidroz loved to fish, but was a salt water fisherman, and my dad and mom did not eat anything that came out of the ocean. Dad and I fished rivers, lakes, and streams and had a bay-worthy boat, but it never tasted salt water. So I have no Guidroz fish stories.
     In fact, one of the strange things I had to get accustomed to once I started visiting the Guidroz home was something called “gumbo.”  The Downings were basically steak and potatoes, chicken and potatoes, ham and beans type of people, and when the first bowl of gumbo was placed in front of me, I had no idea what I was supposed to do with it. It looked like soup, but it wasn’t, and there were strange things floating around on the surface. I had been introduced to shrimp gumbo. It was like a whole new world had been opened up. To this day, my section of the Downing family loves gumbo.  Sister Guidroz, unlike her husband, was not larger than life, but rather seemed like a matronly grandmother (remember I was seven at the time, so anyone over 35 was antique.) Her place was the second pew on the left hand side (facing the pulpit) at the left end of the bench next to the wall. In those early years Ronny and I sat in front of her on the first pew. As soon as my family got to church, I would find Ronny, and we would play outside until church started. Running and jumping in the heat of a Texas summer until the very last second, we would slip into church, sit down in our places, and my shirt would be wringing wet with sweat. Sister Guidroz would lean forward, pat me on my soggy shirt and whisper, “Bobby, Bobby! What are we going to do with you!”
     When my family started attending Peace Tabernacle, the building which was Peace Tabernacle at 1102 North Main was pretty well complete. It was built in the standard format of construction of that era with a wood frame and outside asbestos siding. There were two story sections in front and in the rear that had been added to the single level auditorium area. A large attic fan pulled air through the open windows (no screens) in a usually unsuccessful attempt to cool the interior in the summers. We hot, sweaty sorts always tried to sit next to an open window to catch the air being pulled into the building by the fan. Didn't help much, but it was something. Speaking of the Downing family at that time, there was just Mom, Dad, my sister Judy, and I, and yet there seemed to be Guidrozes everywhere. Sons and daughters seemed to be in every classroom, and I quickly learned that a family is sometimes more than four people! Ronny's younger brother, Lowell, and older sister, Wanda, were about the only two I could relate to because the rest of the kids (in my seven year old mind) were old as the hills. Buddy, Ronny’s oldest brother, seemed a grown man to me, also. So Ronny and I created our own little world. Though he was a year my junior, he influenced my life more than he will know.     But that’s another story.
     In those early days, the Guidrozes lived on Lobit street, not too far from the church. One of the exciting things about going to the Guidrozes house with Ronny on a Sunday afternoon was I got to ride in their big Chrysler limousine. One daughter, Gracie, was wheelchair bound all her life, and the Guidrozes had this stretched Chrysler limousine with huge back doors and fold down middle seats. When Gracie came to church, they would fold down the middle seats, and Gracie and her wheelchair would be lifted through the big doors into the middle of the car where she rode to church. The thing I remember about that Chrysler was the smell. It had power windows, but they were hydraulically powered, and once the windows were raised or lowered a few times there was the slight smell of hydraulic fluid…not offensive, just distinctive. Over those years, I think I remember that the Guidrozes had at least two of these Chryslers. When I was older and able to drive, I was privileged to be the driver. The second feature I remember was that the Chrysler had Fluid Drive, which meant that it was a manual transmission, but by doing it just right, you could shift gears without pushing in the clutch. Very hi-tech in those days. In time, the Guidrozes moved to a larger home on North Eighth, where Ronny and I spent many nights talking about all the things that concerns young boys. On August 17, 1961, I spent my last night with the Guidroz family and my best friend. Actually, by then he was only my best male friend, because the next night I got married.
     Brother Guidroz was a legendary minister and teacher, and there are others who can probably more accurately tell of his accomplishments as a minister. To me, his most powerful skill was the ability to draw the lost soul to the altar at the end of his sermons. There was a time when I hated him for that skill. As I began to reach my early teens, I began to feel the drawing of the Spirit on my life.  AlthoughI had heard his “altar calls” many times, suddenly they began to feel directed to me, and as I resisted, I began to dread the ends of services. I can remember sitting on the back bench counting down the verses of whatever invitational song was being sung trying to make it to the point where he invited everyone to the altar…so I could escape to the restroom and hide. I held out for a long time until one service while I was hanging tough, I saw my good friend Ronny walking toward me with tears in his eyes, and I knew what he was going to do…and at that point I even hated my best friend. Ronny told me I needed to go pray, and I started to resist, but instead I began walking toward the altar. I didn’t receive the Holy Ghost that night, but it was a start, and I remember it as if it happened yesterday. A few days later, Brother Guidroz baptized me, and eventually, on June 4, 1958, about , standing on a sawdust-covered floor at the Texas Youth Camp, I received my personal Pentecost.
     In the ensuing years, Brother Guidroz’s influence on my life was second only to my parents. He preached a straight line, and my behavior and activities in school and at home were governed by the guidelines that my pastor preached to his church. Though he has been gone for many years, I see how events in the world have transpired, and I can’t help but think to myself occasionally, “Brother Guidroz was right.” In 1959, the responsibilities of Texas District Superintendent became too great for him to be able to pastor a church in the full-time manner he preferred, and, honoring the greater need of the district, he resigned the church which had never known another pastor but him. On that Sunday morning, as the clock approached , he spoke of the need for us members to not dwell on the past but look to the future. Offering prayers and encouragement, he asked us to turn around and face the clock at the back of the church. As we watched the second hand and minute hand approach high noon, he said what had passed was history. We could remember the past, but we needed to look to the future and have faith that though we may not understand, God would work it all out. At straight up , the auditorium went silent. We heard a click of the door at the back of the rostrum. There were a few sobs. We eventually turned to face the pulpit…and it was empty.
     Nearly sixty years later, we are still honoring the pastorship of Brother V.A. Guidroz. Several Peace Tabernacle reunions have been held over the years, and we who lived those early days still feel a bond of common experience. We have enjoyed a special relationship because we enjoyed a special pastor.