The Nomadic Lives of Bob and Shirley Downing

     This little essay is probably written for my own benefit as much as anybody’s, since as I get older, many events of the early years seem to fade from memory. So, for the sake of my memory and posterity, I would like to give a brief Readers’ Digest account of where we have been for the last 61 years just in case you are wondering. Our current home is the thirty-first (31st) residence in which Shirley and I have lived since we married 61 years ago. We probably qualify for some sort of “nomad” designation and some sort of federal aid from our government, but I’ve never applied because there’s too much paperwork anyway. In our defense, in the last twenty years of so, we have settled down rather dramatically. In fact, most of our moves were in the first thirty years of marriage. In those first thirty years we moved 27 times, but in the last 31 years, we have made four moves. We’re practically domesticated!
     Shirley and I married on August 18, 1961, and spent a lovely honeymoon in the world famous resort town of Noel, Missouri. The most notable thing...well, second most notable thing I remember about our honeymoon was while we were in the middle of a lake on a paddleboat. I decided to take a dive in the water. I came up to the surface, but my glasses didn’t. I wouldn’t say I’m blind without my glasses; it’s just that all I can see is light and dark and shapes, that’s it. Anyway, Shirley led me around by the hand for the rest of the honeymoon, but I drove home from Missouri. In those days it would have been scandalous for the husband not to drive, so in my 1954 Mercury with the front bench seat, Shirley sat really close to me while I drove (not all bad) and watched the traffic and told me when I could pass a car and what lane I was in. We had no trouble staying awake on the drive back to Baytown.
     We moved into our first apartment at 309 North Jones, Baytown. One apartment in a four-plex, it had no air conditioning and was small. $55.00 a month. The main memory here was Shirley dropping her wedding ring down the sink drain. After about fifteen minutes of nightmare, I was able to pull the water trap off underneath the sink, and there the ring was, nice and safe.
     In February, 1962, we moved to 505 Aron, Baytown, because it was a real house and only $10.00 more per month. My macho cousins, David Philips (wife Karen) and Vernon Downing (wife Virginia) were constant visitors. David, Vernon, and I called ourselves the “BVDs” (Get it?…Bob, Vernon, David.) We all loved softball and played on our church team. I was a better catcher than pitcher, but Vernon had four different pitches he could control. David tried to pitch and could do so with a blazing fastball…until he got rattled. After that, no one was safe anywhere around the plate, batter, catcher, or umpire. I was into long distance, short wave radio back then and used to listen to Radio Moscow and many of the short wave broadcasts that most countries used to broadcast. One day I was in the attic of the house installing a short wave antenna for better reception when Vernon came by to visit. He crawled up in the attic and stood there chatting. I turned my back to do something and at that instant heard a crash and a loud thud. Vernon had stepped between the ceiling joists and went through the sheetrock winding up on his back on the floor below. He got up like a wounded bull and said he was OK, and that was that. We moved out of that house in July 1963, with the hole still in the ceiling. Before you think poorly of me, I made a deal with the landlord and left a barbeque grill I had built there in compensation for the ceiling.
     We then moved to 704 East Gulf where, after living there for a month, I joined the United States Air Force. Don’t ask me why, I just did. A few months later the military draft was reinstated, and, who knows?…maybe if I had not joined I would have been drafted and wound up in Viet Nam. I honor those guys who went to the Asian Theater; as it turned out I would be involved in a different kind of struggle. From August, 1963, to December, 1963, my address was 3726th BMTS, Flt 982, San Antonio, Texas, while Shirley’s was Route 1, Box 336, Baytown, with my parents, although if the truth were known, she spent a lot of time at her parents’ home, also. 
     Basic training was…um…unique. After basic I was sent to Detachment 3, 3345th Technical School, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. Apparently, the Air Force had determined I had some sort of aptitude for languages, so at Indiana U. I studied Russian. From December 1963 to September 1964, I took 30 college credit hours of Russian. The Air Force had a separate building of classrooms with our own native Russian teachers. It was very intense and after the first six weeks, we were not allowed to speak English in the building. One of our teachers was a former Russian colonel who had led his troops against the Tzar in Moscow during the 1917 Russian Revolution. Once a fierce communist, he said he saw the light after he was captured in 1945 by the Germans and then freed by the Americans. He immigrated to the United States instead of return to the USSR because his family had all been killed by the Germans in the war. He hammered us with the Russian language, but when we got tired of it, someone would ask him about the war, and he would launch into a long story of an experience he had survived. His stories were fascinating, and at the same time gave us weary students a language break.       During this time, Shirley and I made our home at 1513 South Walnut, Bloomington, Indiana, in an upstairs apartment of a family residence. A bedroom with a kitchen, plus a bath across the hall, that was it. We stayed there three months, and in March 1964, moved to Route 10, Unit 4, which was half of a duplex located about three miles out of Bloomington in a beautiful location not far from a lake. There was much more privacy. I was glad I was able to see the spectacle of the Indianapolis 500 that year, and I was sorry that while we were there, I sold my rare Gibson Les Paul gold solid body guitar to someone in our church because we needed the money. Today that guitar is worth a fortune. Shirley got her first experience at waitressing in Bloomington at the Howard Johnson Restaurant. Fact is, we would have starved without her work; she made more money than I did.
     In February 1964, we transferred to Goodfellow Air Force Base, San Angelo, Texas, to an apartment at 903 South Abe Street…again an upstairs apartment in a residence. It was here that I learned why I had learned Russian and was introduced to the Security Service branch of the USAF. I was sworn to secrecy and threatened with dire consequences should I blab something sensitive to anyone. What I remember about Goodfellow was that we had interminable hours of slide shows and movies about what the Bad Guys were doing and how we were combating communism. These things were so boring it was a form of torture, so what the brilliant teachers did was about every 45 minutes to an hour a picture of a nude woman would flash on the screen for about five seconds. This was done intermittently with the theory that the airmen would be waiting expectantly for the next photo and therefore stay awake and pay attention. The first time it happened and I realized what was going on, I know I started praying because I was sure that we were about to get lightning struck any second. I was so innocent…and, yes, I closed my eyes every...well, most of the time. After my security indoctrination had completed, I sat at Goodfellow for nearly three months awaiting orders, and all I did during that time was play racketball for eight hours per day. I was lean and mean and did not lose very often.
     Finally, in February, 1965, I received my orders and headed for the 6912th Security Squadron, West Berlin, Germany. There I would be doing what I was trained to do while involved in a non-shooting war, more commonly referred to as the Cold War. We were on the front lines what with Berlin being situated 120 miles inside Communist East Germany, and the Russians did not like us being there. It was sort of a macho “I dare you!” game with us and the Russians played with real guns. Occasionally, we had hot activity, but normally it was sort of a dull, stressful tedium. For a glorified description, read my blog “Assignment, Berlin” and the following blog, "Return to Berlin." With Shirley in Texas, I stayed in the barracks until she arrived in August 1965, and we moved into an apartment situated out in the city at 4 Massmann Street, Steglitz. We practically became Germans, and Shirley learned enough German to go to the markets and buy food. We made friends with our German neighbors (who defended Hitler, by the way) and enjoyed adjusting to this new culture. Berlin, even during this Cold War period, was an exciting city, and to us small town kids was a treasure trove of new adventures.
     In May of 1966 the big event happened; Shirley discovered she was pregnant. Small apartments do that to you. By this time we had been married for five years, and we were ready to become parents. It was an exciting time for us as we planned for the future while trying to stay financially afloat in the present. Shirley had a job at the military commissary, and again, her income was vital. In October, 1966, with Shirley five months pregnant, we managed to take a few days and visit Paris. It was a memorable time, but we walked seemingly many miles as we wandered the city (couldn’t afford a taxi or bus.) Shirley handled it like a trooper, though, and one of my favorite photos is of her standing in from of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Because of her pregnancy and military rules, Shirley had to return
to the states before the end of her seventh month, so in December 1966, she flew back home, and I moved back into the barracks. On February 28, 1967, four days before I was to return from Berlin, our son was born. On March 4, 1967, I walked into my parents-in-law’s home and saw my wife and, for the first time, Robert L. Downing, III. I remember it like it was yesterday.
     After a month’s military leave, Shirley and I with our new son transferred to Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio. We moved into a small home at 118 Tampa Avenue. It was close to the base and quiet, however, since the grass is always greener elsewhere, three months later we moved to 122 Tampa Ave because the house was a little bigger. You have to remember that at that time everything we owned would fit into the trunk of a car, with the exception of a new washer and dryer we had purchased (new baby, cloth diapers,) so a move was not too complicated. Since I was nearing the end of my enlistment, it was during this period that the Air Force offered me a healthy bonus to reenlist, plus promised that for at least a year I would be attending Syracuse University in New York for advanced Russian studies. I accepted the offer, although we did not tell anyone at home.
     Just as we were about to drop the reenlistment bomb on the home folk, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War broke out, and rumors of the United States and Russia being pulled into the conflict raged like wildfire. People were stocking up on supplies and fearing atomic Armageddon. Churches fanned the flames, and revelations and visions of impending rapture and the Lord’s return to Earth abounded. To make a long story short, the whole affair spooked Shirley and I a bit, and we decided if anything was going to happen, we wanted to be at home when it did. I walked into my squadron office and canceled my reenlistment.
     So on August 4, 1967, I was released from active duty and we went back to Baytown, Texas. I had no job and very little money, but at least we were home. With the help of my father-in-law, we were able to buy a new 12’ by 60’ mobile home and place it on my parents’ property on Cedar Bayou-Crosby Road. We lived there for three years until August, 1970. During this time I worked at Sears in appliance sales and went to college on the Viet Nam Era GI Bill, which paid my tuition and books. I graduated in August, 1970, and at that time entered the Sears Executive Management Program. It was a special program for future top executives that was limited to 40 applicants from across the nation. The training was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Tulsa store, believe it or not, was the most profitable and largest store in the Sears chain. We moved into 2007 East 49th Street North, Tulsa, Oklahoma in August of 1970 and remained until I finished my training in March, 1971. In Tulsa we learned what a real conservative church was like. I heard a minister preach that to have daisies in your yard was a sin because they were associated with the hippie movement in San Franscisco (that den of iniquity.) The Sears training was excellent, however, in preparing one for management.
     Once we finished our management training, Sears was like the military…we waited to see where we would be assigned. Fortunately, my former manager in Baytown had kept tabs on me and requested that I be assigned back in Baytown. Shirley and I happily accepted an assignment back at my old Baytown store. We also decided to buy a house upon returning to Baytown, and, in March, 1971, we moved into our brand new home at 3105 New Meadow. To us, it was beautiful…three bedroom, two bath, double garage, central heat and air. We were concerned that it was pretty expensive ($18,000) and the payments were really high ($158.00,) but we figured we could make it. I bought it with my VA benefits financing and paid $1.00 down.
     The next couple of years were busy, what with my learning the management ropes of Sears. In the latter months of 1971, Shirley’s parents moved to Casper, Wyoming to pastor a church and start a new life. We visited them for the first time in the summer of 1972, not realizing that we were touring our future home. In May of 1973, I was offered a higher management position with Sears in the Pasadena, Texas store. It was a substantial jump for a relatively new manager and I was happy with the opportunity. Bear in mind that at this period of the seventies, Sears was the Cadillac of retailers, by far the largest in gross sales and profit. Walmart and Kmart were incidental little entities that were seldom mentioned in management meetings. Sears was in the process of building the tallest building in the world in Chicago to put an exclamation point on their position in the retail industry. To be a top manager with Sears was a feather in your cap.
     In May of 1973 we sold our home on New Meadow and moved to Pasadena, after a brief stop at 1301 Beaumont, Apt 35, Baytown, since we had to get out of our house in a hurry and it took us a while to find a spot in Pasadena. In October, 1973, we moved to 2210 View Avenue, Pasadena, just a mile or so from the large Sears store on Southmore. Three months earlier, in July, we had gone to Wyoming again to visit in-laws, and it was at this time that they first threw out the idea of our moving to Wyoming. It had some appeal, but we dismissed it at the time. But we agreed that Wyoming was beautiful in so many ways. By this time more family members had migrated to Wyoming, particularly Shirley’s brother and wife, plus an uncle and aunt.
     I worked through the year of 1973 and into 1974 at Sears, Pasadena, but the draw of Wyoming became stronger and stronger. In March my father-in-law called me with an offer of employment. He and my brother-in-law were operating a couple of companies and needed a little more help. By June of 1974 we had made our decision, and I resigned Sears, we packed our belongings (now we needed a U-Haul truck) and headed for Casper, Wyoming. When we told my mom and dad goodbye for the last time with our U-Haul parked in their driveway and their only grandson seated in the truck, my dad cried, and I was shocked. I think the impact of our moving did not hit me until that moment. But we drove away.
     We made the long trek to Casper (in the U-Haul, a three day affair) and moved into 1544 Cody Avenue, a small 640 square foot rental in July, 1974. We were there one month when I came home from work one day and there was a “For Sale” sign in the front yard with a “Sold” sticker on it. I called my landlord, and sure enough, he had sold the house and we had to vacate the premises, the sooner the better. So in August, 1974, we moved to the next street over in Fort Casper Subdivision to 1501 Kit Carson, just across the street from my brother- and sister-in-law. This house was just as small, but at least it had a garage. In May, 1975, we were in the position to buy a house again, and we moved into 2120 Glendale. It was a “bi-level” home, very popular in the west where you enter the home on a middle level and then walk up a half flight of stairs to the upper level or down a half flight of stairs to the basement. The basement is only four feet into the ground which allows windows to be on the lower level also. The lower level came in varying degrees of finish. Our home was fairly basic, with two bedrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen and bath upstairs and a family room occupying about half of the lower level and the rest unfinished.
     These were good years. Bobby (son) was growing and we got into dirt motorcycles. I bought him a Honda 50 dirt bike and me a Yamaha 400. In front of our home was open country clear to Casper Mountain and we spent many an hour riding dirt trails up and down the hills. We both loved jumping the bikes over small embankments. My brother-in-law and I got into hunting during this time, bought Remington 700BDL 7mm rifles, and went after deer and antelope. To read of one of our experiences, read my blog “Hunting in a Jeep.” The winters were fun, also, as we learned to downhill ski and spent many Saturdays zipping down the slopes at Hogadon Ski Resort on Casper Mountain. The most notable thing I remember about 2120 Glendale, however, was the day I came home, walked up the stairs, and Shirley told me she was pregnant. Our son was nearly 10 years old and we had been wanting another child, but nothing seemed to work. In October, 1977, our daughter, Kimberly came to us and all was complete.
     By December, 1978, I had migrated to real estate sales as a Realtor, and we purchased a home at 421 South Beverly, a larger four bedroom, two bath, double garage model. We moved in just in time for Christmas. The next couple of years were enjoyable, with good real estate sales. We bought a motor home and traveled in a caravan with my in-laws to various scenic spots in Wyoming. But by Spring, 1981, an energy crisis had hit Wyoming, which lives and breathes according to the price of oil. The real estate market went to pot, and our finances suffered. When the in-laws moved out of the church parsonage into their new home, I asked if we could rent the parsonage, and in December, 1981, we moved into 1127 East 12th, and rented our home on Beverly. Christmas, 1981, was the most depressing Christmas I ever experienced, and I can remember sitting in from of the Christmas tree on East 12th that year in that cramped little living room with tears in my eyes. It was the first time in my life I ever had migraine headaches or had been unemployed for any length of time, and in a few months we would lose our home on Beverly. In December, 1982, my dad had his first major heart attack in Texas, and we had to fly to Baytown to be with him for a week. By that time I had gone to work for Max Honda and RV in Casper and things were starting to look up a bit.
     In February on 1983, we vacated the parsonage thankfully and moved into 904 Bonnie Brae, a very comfortable three bedroom, two bath home. We were still renting, but at least the home was presentable. My work at Max’s was going well and sales were good. I was able to buy a wholesale car from Max’s occasionally for extra money. I felt myself getting older as Bobby began driving, and we bought him a car, a Pinto station wagon (I’m so embarrassed.) Fortunately he didn’t have it too long and we were able to get him into a Toyota sport coupe. We were doing well enough that we did not want to continue renting so we began looking for another home.
     In February, 1984, we moved into 909 Stafford in Eastgate III, Casper, a very nice subdivision. We took over payments from these people with hardly anything down, but the payments were over $900 per month, and this was 1984. But we made it. The home was very nice with a place for our Winnebago motorhome. What I remember most about this home were the basketball games played by my son and myself in the driveway and the day he drove away to go to college at the University of Houston. The day he left I cried and I was depressed for a week. The house seemed vacant and I missed my boy. Of course, we stayed in touch and he came home on a regular basis, but it was a tough adjustment. By now I had fallen in love with British roadsters and MGBs, and drove several different models for several years. I liked them well enough that when we moved back to Texas later, I had one stuffed inside our U-Haul truck.
     In February, 1986, we found someone crazy enough to assume the $900 payments on the home on Stafford and bought a less expensive home on 31 Riverbend Road in River West Subdivision, strangely enough, situated along the North Platte River. It was a tri-level home. Than meant that you walked in on the middle level where the living room, dining room, and kitchen were, but went up a half flight of stairs to the three bedrooms and bath or a half flight down stairs to the family room, bedroom, and another bath. We were close to the beautiful North Platte River, and occasionally the family would take a float trip around River Bend. That was usually during the summer when Bobby was home from college. By now I had become the Sales Manager for Max Honda and RV, and things were going pretty well. We used our motorhome for weekend trips, and my brother-in-law, Buddy, and I still enjoyed fishing the North Platte River for rainbow and brown trout.
     But in July, 1988, after deciding we needed a larger home, we sold the Riverbend home and bought another on the east side of Casper at 4014 Somerset. It was by far the nicest and largest home we had owned, and is to this day our favorite place we have lived. It was in a nice location with a view of Casper Mountain and had plenty of room. By this time I was really in to MGBs and occasionally owned two at a time. There was just something about the little British rag tops that I liked. Of course, in Casper, with its normally sunny days and mild temperatures, it was an ideal place to own a convertible, anyway. In our three years on Somerset we experienced high times and low times. My father-in-law passed away in 1989, Shirley and I gained a new daughter-in-law, and finally on December 31,1990, my own father died. We were in Texas at the time visiting as we usually did over the Christmas Holidays, and the morning we were to leave for Wyoming, he suffered a fatal heart attack.
     After we returned to Casper Shirley and I began to consider our situation. Several friends we had known in Casper had moved away. With the passing of my father-in-law, who had been the pastor of our local church, the experiences with our new pastors had not been very satisfactory. The first pastor we chose lasted about 18 months and abruptly resigned, and the replacement pastor had created a lot of uncertainty with the members to the point that some were leaving. Coupled with this was the fact that our son and daughter-in-law were settling into the Baytown area, and, also, my mother was in an uncertain position with the family home, since we kids did not want her to live alone. To make a long story short, we worked out a deal with my mother to purchase the family home from her, allowing us to live there with her so that she would not have to move to a strange place.

     So in July, 1991, we pulled stakes from Casper, Wyoming, in the clear mountain west after seventeen years and came back to Baytown, our ancestral home, more or less. It was good to be home and with family, but I’ll have to confess that to this day I have twinges of remorse for Wyoming. When we moved into the old homestead at 405 West Archer, it was not in good shape. Dad had been in weakened health for a few years, and it needed a lot of repair. Over the next fifteen years every room was remodeled and central heat and air installed, but as it is with old houses, there was always something that needed to be fixed. But we made it into a nice, comfortable home. The old house saw its fourth generation of Downings with our two grandchildren, and provided a home for my mother until she went into a rest home in 2001. She passed away in 2004.
     By 2009, Shirley and I were contemplating retirement. Baytown had changed dramatically from our early years and we decided that when the time came for retirement, we would consider selling the old home and moving elsewhere. I had been through a stressful period of heart surgery and cancer, and the consensus was I needed to get away from the yard work and maintenance required by the old homestead. We thought of many places (Hawaii) but in the end, family ties were too strong, and we decided we would consider the Northwest Houston area around Spring….coincidentally around our kids and grandkids.
     By the spring of 2009, the U.S. economy was already going south, but we decided to try to sell the old house anyway, if for no other reason than to see if there was a market for a rural home. We put a sign in the yard and the old home sold in a week. The people walked through the house, around the yard, and said, "We'll take it." There was no bargaining on the price.  We were stunned. The next few weeks were a whirlwind of activity as we retired from our jobs, mine as a teacher and Shirley’s as a hospital unit coordinator. In May of 2009, we moved from our home of eighteen years, the home that Downings had lived in for 55 years, and moved to the Spring area of Houston. Because we had to scramble out of Baytown in such a hurry, we decided to lease for a year and then buy. We figured after living in our new area for about a year we would be more familiar with the surroundings and more knowledgeable about where we wanted to settle.  We moved into a beautiful patio home in an area called Huntwick Park.  The home was gorgeous...until I got the first electricity bill of over $600.00.  Built with tall, single-pane windows, twelve-foot ceilings and little regard for utility expense, the home quickly lost its appeal to us.  Our landlord offered to sell us the home, but with its near-zero energy efficiency, we had no interest.  In March of 2010, we purchased a home on Gladebrook Drive in Oak Creek Village, an established subdivision between FM1960 and Cypresswood Drive in Spring. We settled into a new church (read my blog “The Ideal Church,”) and enjoyed being closer to our kids and grandkids. We were much closer also to my mother-in-law and two of Shirley’s sisters and a brother. So the family had sort of migrated to this area.
    The following ten years saw Shirley and I adjusting to retirement.  Behind our home was an elementary school at which I part-time tutored for six years.  I continued my part-time employment with Harris County Department of Education as a GED teacher, even to the present day.  We upgraded our Gladebrook home with new appliances, new AC, and flooring.  It was a comfortable home in a convenient location.
     By 2021, Shirley and I were beginning to feel the effects of our age, and the frequent treks up and down the stairs began to require more effort that we preferred.  The idea of a single-level home began to increase in attraction.  By coincidence, at the same time the real estate market in Houston was going crazy with a high demand for replacement homes to the point that large investment firms were offering cash prices for used homes.  On a whim, I contacted one of the firms, which gave a cursory inspection of our home and then offered us a much higher price than I ever expected. In two days, we sold our house and did not have to lift a finger.  I had dreaded the process of getting a home ready for sale...painting, repairs, touch-up, etc. 

    Buying another home was more challenging, however, due to buyer demand, and we made offers on three homes before we were successful.  We are now in a single level much more contemporary and energy-efficient home than Gladebrook on Willow Spur Court in an area called Willow Dell in Tomball, Texas. We love the convenience (and less stress) of a single level home.  The location is convenient for us because we are closer to our new church we have been attending for about a year, and we are still within a few minutes of Shirley's two sisters and brother, not to mention our own children.  Will this finally be our last home? Stay tuned.

Artists...and Other Odd Creatures

      Considering myself to be the only real normal, sane person on Earth, I accept the fact that I have a tendency (as every other person on the planet has if he/she were to honestly admit) to compare everyone I come in contact with to what I engender in my mind as being “normal.” There was a time in America when “normal” really meant “normal”, but I’m here to defend the proposition that in today’s world “abnormal” is probably more “normal” than “normal” is. You older folk probably remember those “normal” times when husbands worked, wives stayed home, kids behaved, boys got haircuts, girls didn’t, all our cars were American made, and at school students said a prayer over the intercom before lunch. We have now entered the Age of Enlightenment, however, and officially there is no more “abnormal.” Some folks may be “challenged” a bit, but through the lenses of the rose colored glasses we see everyone as “normal.” It is truly a wonderful world!
     Or not! I have been privileged from time to time in my extended lifetime to occasionally escape my All-American, apple pie, down home, flag waving roots and hobnob with the upper crust, the elusive elite, the more aristocratic bourgeoisie, if you will. Many times it was a very humbling experience which engendered from me a great deal of awe and respect for those people who honestly deserved to be amongst the elite. I am thinking in particular of a lecture I heard from a very prominent scientist describing his anthropological exploits and conclusions concerning evolution after thirty years of study. Although I did not agree with some of his conclusions, the depth of his knowledge concerning anthropology and science left me feeling educationally inadequate.
     Whatever success we mere mortals may enjoy on this earth pales, however, when compared to the crème de la crème of society…the artist. Particularly, the painter or musician, and, even more particularly, the painter…the person who can take buckets of basic color and create a Mona Lisa, a Rembrandt, or a Monet. Painters engender more envy from me than any other type of artist. We who claim some measure of musical talent can listen to Van Cliburn, Chet Atkins, or Jimmy Hendrix, and think to ourselves, “Man, with just a little practice, I could do that.” But when we look at the works of Monet, Rembrandt, or, yes, even Anniedeen Creel (my mom-in-law,) or even MORE amazingly, Brooke Downing (granddaughter,) we can only ask, “How do they DO that?” For the non-artist, artistry with a brush is an unattainable dream. I am convinced you either have it, or you don’t.
     So when my mother-in-law, the aforementioned A. Creel, who had recently joined the Watercolor Art Society of Houston after years of making a name for herself as a premier watercolorist in the American Northwest, asked Shirley and me to give her a lift to the society’s monthly meeting, I happily volunteered. After all, it’s not often we common folk get to brush elbows with the elite, and even though we are not artists ourselves, we could claim to be relatives of a true artist and in doing so claim a measure of respectability whilst nibbling on an hor d’oeuvre during the presentations. My mother-in-law had won a ribbon in her first shot at competition in Houston, so we knew that instant respectability would be ours.
     The show and presentation was to be held at the society’s showroom and workplace on West Alabama in the nouveau artsy district of Houston. It is the main nesting area of the avant garte artist, and within its undefined borders dwells every imaginable species which would come under the general brand of “artist,” from true professional to rank amateur. From the evidence at hand, it appears the amateur artists far outnumber the professionals, and the job status for most would be “in between and not looking.” The show was to begin at 6:00 p.m. on a Friday evening (a wonderful time to be traveling Houston freeways…weekend traffic and all.) As luck would have it, the weather was miserable and raining. Mixing the rain, darkness, and traffic together does not a pleasant drive make, but make it we did, from our humble abode in Spring to The Woodlands to pick up Mother-in-law and then the forty mile trek to West Alabama and the show.
     The society’s center of activity is in a free standing building, nicely finished with a showroom downstairs and a workshop/classroom up. Considering the fact that Houston has over four million inhabitants, the size of the building and number of members of the society is relatively small, but then again, we are talking elite, so that’s part of the definition of elite, being relatively few in number. Entering the building, we found the activity bustling around the hor d’oeuvres, which consisted of the obligatory mini-sandwiches, cheese, crackers, chips, dips, cookies, and drinks….primarily wine. One cannot be an artist unless one can hold an hor d’oeuvre in one hand, a dash of wine in the other, and be able to gaze intently at a painting while nodding one’s head up and down slowly, as if communicating with the spirit of the painting’s creator. My mother-in-law would not touch an alcoholic beverage if someone put a gun to her head, so apparently she had some sort of “religiously exempt” card which allowed her to walk by the wine. I didn’t have any wine either because it makes me sleepy, and then when I sleep, I sleep like a baby, but when I awake I have a headache. WAIT A MINUTE! What I meant to say was if I did drink some I bet that’s what would happen.
     In the showroom were approximately seventy-five paintings of every imaginable subject, and, to the eyes of an amateur as myself, each one brought the same response…”How do they DO that?” Regardless of the impression you may get in this essay about my feelings toward artists, what I really feel is envy. Their skill in creating an image and invoking an emotional response is incredible. But I must confess, what I enjoyed doing most of the evening was watching not the paintings, but the people. Artists, by the very nature of their craft, are an individualistic lot. Every painting reflects its creator in style and substance, and, once the artist’s general style is recognized, his/her paintings can be spotted in any crowd instantly. This individualism extends to every facet of the artist’s persona, and that’s what makes artist-watching a very entertaining sport.
     Take for instance one of the first guys to stroll into the showroom about . Tall guy, slim, fifties maybe, kind of craggily handsome in a rugged sort of way, he wore a French beret tilted jauntily over his right ear, a suede jacket, and a wool scarf wrapped around his neck. He wore these items the entire time of the show, nearly two hours, and the room was probably a toasty 74-75 degrees. If you had to draw a caricature of a French artist, his image is what you would come up with. I expected him to say, “Wiz plezhaire I am een ze room!” He was expansive when he talked, throwing his arms and hands around to emphasize his remarks. I think he imagined he cut quite a dashing figure.
     Following him came the nouveau riche woman, wearing a full length heavy fur coat, hair that was not styled at Walmart, and diamonds glistening around the neck. She was very friendly in a condescending way that rich people are friendly to poor folks, but she did eventually take off the fur coat and mingle with the commoners.
     In complete contrast to the fur coat lady was a fellow who from his actions was a familiar face around the society. He spoke to several members and chatted amicably with many of the artists. I’m sure he was a wonderful guy, but beyond his talent, whatever it is in the art world, he never learned how to dress. Unless you were close enough to hear his interaction and note his acceptance by others, you would have guessed he was homeless and had been wearing his clothes for a few days. Pudgy, wrinkled, non-matching, non-coordinating, sloppy dressing and unconcerned, he flitted about the room totally comfortable within his aura and unconcerned that he rather contrasted with the relative prim neatness of his peers. He reflected the unique characteristic of many of the gifted elite, the ability to focus one’s energy and attention on one’s most obvious talent and totally disregard anything else. Social interaction and personal appearance are optional concerns as long as the painting is complete.
     This leads to the second sloppy guy I saw at the meeting, and I am convinced he was a gate crasher. This fellow walked in, looked around, and instantly headed for the snack tables. He was coiffured in sneakers, ragged jeans, tee shirt, a full length well-worn dress topcoat, and baseball cap…and all of it needed cleaning. He could have used a haircut and shave, too. Anyway, he sailed through the hor d’oeuve line and filled a plate, and proceeded to walk around the showroom, looking intently at the paintings. He covered all seventy-five paintings in less than one minute, by which time his plate was empty also. Throwing his plate in the trashcan, he marched out the door, never to be seen again. For him, it was a cheap supper. He was a good actor, though; at least he went through the showroom and looked at the paintings. The artists probably thought that he was Pudgy’s (previous guy) brother.
     Intermingled through the audience were several examples of the successful, relatively young elite, those who frequent art shows to see and be seen. Impeccably dressed, carrying the obligatory dash of wine, they wandered from painting to painting offering insightful observations like, “That’s nice!” Some of the young women were wearing hats that probably cost more than my suits. I could not help thinking, “I bet there’s not a man in the room who knows how to change the oil in a car, or a woman (mother-in-law and wife excluded) who knows how to bake a cake from scratch.” The elite live on a different planet. Again, I am not being critical, just objective.
     On a positive note, there were also the People Who Get Things Done. They are the ones who make meetings, jobs, and activities succeed and are the backbone of every organization. In this case they were several ladies in the thirties and forties age bracket, neatly dressed, personable, who charmed visitors, passed on information, and kept things progressing to a scheduled conclusion. People Who Get Things Done always make you feel welcome and treat you as an old friend.
     Toward the end of the meeting, the awards, ribbons, and even money were passed out to the winners, along with the comments of the judge who...well...judged the paintings. The judge was supposed to be at the meeting but did not show up, and listening to her comments as read by the master of ceremonies, it’s just as well. Her comments reflected a grasp of watercolor about as deep as mine. Her comments were shallow, not detailed or descriptive, and indicated she disregarded technique, complexity, and style of the artists and just chose the paintings she liked personally. We agreed (Shirley, Mother-in-law, and myself) that the winning choices were not the best in the room and (naturally) that Mother-in-law’s painting should have been higher than fourth place.
     Just when I had finished reinforcing my opinion that all artists are…um…different, a couple walked up to Mother-in-law and introduce themselves as the Baileys. Very friendly couple, the woman especially was very chatty while the man introduced himself but sort of stood quietly. I recognized the name from a couple of beautiful paintings of calla lilies that were hanging, and I thought to myself that the lady was a very talented artist. Mr. Bailey, however, appeared amazingly…normal. He was neatly dressed in slacks, shirt, and jacket, shaven, and hair neatly combed. If fact, his hair was combed in the same style as mine!  Instantly I liked him, and decided we were both blessed with being married to very talented women (I hope SHE reads this.) I decided that this guy could probably change the oil in his car if needed. Finally, a fellow normal person!
     But the shocker came a few seconds later! It turned out that he was the painter in the family, not his wife! He had painted the calla lilies at the prodding of his wife, and I can tell you, although they did not win ribbons, they should have...and I’m not a flower painting person. So the upshot of all this is I’ve had to revise my opinion of gifted people a little and give grudging credence to the proposition that it is possible to be gifted, elite, and, yes, normal. Kelly Bailey has demonstrated that it is possible, and has encouraged me to believe someday I may ascend from the normal class into the gifted elite. But when I reach that lofty social position, I promise that I will remain friendly with my old, normal friends and occasionally borrow money from them to maintain a relationship.
     It was a rainy, treacherous drive back to The Woodlands, but we safely deposited Mother-in-law at her apartment and splashed our way back to our own home. I was relieved when we passed through our gate. One hundred miles of rain, darkness, freeway, and traffic can create tension. But it was an enjoyable evening.

Watch Night

     For a person who is religion-challenged, religion-resistant, agnostic, or atheistic, this little essay will probably have no interest to you, because I am going to discuss a subject, or an event if you will, which affects many persons who do have an affinity toward spiritual concepts and who do have an interest in somehow having a connection with their Creator, whoever or however they may imagine he may be. Of course, when a new year makes its entrance, it’s not just those of a religious persuasion who become reflective toward the year past and anticipatory of the new year, but it’s we down home, Southern Gospel, fundamentalist, Bible-thumping Christian believers (and more specifically, Pentecostals) who believe that the only way to welcome in a new year is with a Watch Night service.
     Now I am aware that there are many religious organizations which observe the New Year entrance while conducting a church service right up to the midnight hour of New Year’s Eve, and I give honor to each one, but since I wave the Pentecostal flag whenever possible, it is a Watch Night service in a Pentecostal church that I wish to describe. Since our retirement Shirley (wife) and I have been attending Bethel Tabernacle, Houston, Texas, pastored by Rev. David Fauss and his father, Rev. O.R. Fauss. We had moved to the Spring, Texas, area after retirement to be closer to our children and other beloved (I had to say that) relatives. “Bethel,” as the church is affectionately called by its members, is an incredible church led by incredible people. However, the incredibility of Bethel Tabernacle is not the subject of this essay. I can only tell you that if you would like to know more about “Bethel,” read my blog entitled “The Ideal Church.”
     Anyway, a few weeks ago, Pastor David Fauss announced that Bethel Tabernacle would be scheduling its eightieth…that’s 80th... New Year’s Eve Watch Night service, and that it would be a special time of reflection and recommitment. He mentioned several things we would be doing that night in service, but when he mentioned the service would last from 8:00 pm until after midnight, after which time we would be having breakfast and relaxing…well, I didn’t hear very much after that. I don’t know about you, but I have been in some intensely powerful church services, but once the clock on the service passes two and a half or three hours, my brain begins to become a little numb as well as some other parts of me. Shirley and I, being lifelong Pentecostals, have attended many Watch Night services, but generally, these past services got cranked up around 10:00 p.m. so that the participants still had a pretty good head of steam when we saw the New Year come in. I can’t remember a service that ever started even at 9:00, so when Pastor Fauss announced the 8:00 starting time, I was floored. However, looking back, I should not have been. We have now been attending Bethel for seven months, and one thing (among many) I have learned is that Pastor David Fauss does not hurry through a service. One might even say…..well, even I won’t say it. But I will throw this consideration out for your thoughts. Could it be that it is the fact that our pastor does not rush through a service which contributes to the powerful spiritual effects that we in the congregation experience? Perhaps it is because our pastor attempts to sense the leading of God in a service and pass that inspiration to us that has made Bethel the church that it is. It is my belief that is the case.
     But regardless of that fact, I thought to myself, it’s still four hours! Over the next couple of weeks I very gently brought up the subject of the four hour service with several valued friends and acquaintances who shall remain unnamed for their protection. To a person, almost, each declared that four hours was just way too long, and of course, on top of that, New Year’s Eve is not the best time to be out and about in Houston. Many made the decision to just lie low at home New Year’s Eve and pass on the Watch Night service. Shirley and I discussed it, and I must admit we did not look forward to the long ordeal and had just about decided to stay home.
     But, you know, Shirley and I had a serious problem…God had abundantly blessed us in the year 2009. In December of 2008 I was still receiving chemotherapy treatments from M. D. Anderson Cancer Clinic and recovering from open heart surgery at the same time. Although we had anticipated retirement from our jobs, the uncertainty of the medical problems and finances made retirement seem less likely. We were living in a sixty year old home in Baytown, Texas, and the real estate market seemed to be crumbling, and we knew that we would need to sell the old home in order to retire and make our move to Spring. The economy looked awful, and gloom and doom was prophesied by every economist and most politicians.
     In January of 2009, however, my tests at M.D. Anderson came back clean as a whistle, and I was cancer-free! I was feeling stronger by the day and my heart was solid as a rock. I returned to work after missing twenty six weeks and quickly got back into my teaching routine. Things were looking up, but we were still concerned about selling the old house. We had decided that we would like to sell the house in the summer after we retired so we could be patient and take however long it would take to sell it. Many houses in Baytown were sitting for months, and, with our home being rural property out of the city limits we weren’t sure how long it would take. In early April, however, I talked to a Realtor friend of mine who suggested that, in light of the length of time it might take the house to sell coupled with our anxiousness to move, why not just stick a “for sale” sign in the front yard right away and see what interest there may be. In doing so, we would get a jump on our time frame for moving and maybe get out of town by Fall.
     So on April 6, 2009, I put up a “For Sale By Owner” sign in my front yard. No ad in a paper, no nothing but a sign and a phone number. I am not exaggerating when I say that my phone started ringing within thirty minutes. The next day we showed the home and a family said they wanted the home, but had no money to leave for a deposit. I gently suggested they go get some money and come back. We showed the home twice more in the next two days, but on Friday another family came back for the second time, and wrote a check for a hefty deposit. No haggling on the price, just “We’ll take it!” That same afternoon, the first people came back and said they had their money, but it was too late. It had taken us five days to get a contract on our home, and by April 26, the deal was closed and done. By May 15, we had moved to a beautiful home in Spring, Texas, and for the last three weeks of school I had to drive from Spring to Pasadena each day…but I didn’t complain. Also by May 15 I had been checked by M.D. Anderson again and was still cancer free, I was feeling great, and our house had been sold. Everything was going BETTER than planned. Because we were able to sell our home for what I thought was a good price, I was able to use some of the extra money to buy more retirement time through the Texas Teacher Retirement System, so in June when my retirement began, our monthly annuity from TRS was higher than we had expected. I could go on about how things have worked out for Shirley and myself as we closed out 2009, but I would only bore you. As of June, 2010, I have been checked by M.D. Anderson five times and passed with flying colors to the point now that I will only be going back for checkups every six months. 2009 turned out to be just the opposite of 2008.
     So then we had to consider the Watch Night service. I have thanked God many, many time over the past year for what has transpired in our lives. But for the Watch Night service, Pastor Fauss had announced that we in the congregation would be given the opportunity to offer testimonies of praise if we desired and felt that God had been especially kind to us. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that it was imperative for me for my own sake that I publicly honor and thank my God for extending his merciful hand to my family during this year. I mentioned it to Shirley, and she indicated that she had been feeling the same way, so, come 7:45 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, we were on FM1960 headed east toward Bethel Tabernacle. Traffic was already buzzing on FM1960 (what’s new?), but I was still cautious since I knew the partiers were already getting geared up.
     Sure enough, we were speeding up from a green light when I heard a pop! to my left and a crack! on our windshield that sounded like a boulder hitting the glass. We both ducked but continued driving. We saw no cracks in the windshield, only some scrapes on the lower part. Whatever hit the glass must have been a glancing blow. For an instant, we considered heading back to the house. We made it the rest of the way to church without incident. Arriving at Bethel, we were a little concerned about the sparse attendance at the 8:00 starting time, but actually, within about 30 minutes, there was the equivalent of a healthy Sunday night crowd. To be honest, I was surprised. But I shouldn’t be, it seems that many Pentecostals enjoy being stylishly late. If we had started at 11:00, some would have drug in at 11:30.
     Anyway the service began with our choir (flashing their snazzy new robes) singing some hip, contemporary, noisy music designed to get the youth up and hopping. I really do not want to be negative…it’s just that, as an…um…older person who appreciates good music skillfully presented with emotion and sincerity, the frothy, rhythmic, spiritual Pablum of the youthful set doesn’t do much for me. (See my blog “The Rise and Fall of Christian Music.”) But many youth do like the music, so…well…God bless ‘em. After about an hour of contemporary cacophony during which time I kept my eyes closed and tried to think happy and hopefully spiritual thoughts, Pastor Fauss gave the congregation the opportunity to testify, and I, along with several others, walked to the front. My testimony was not long nor was it eloquent, but I said what I wanted to say and I was satisfied. I had spoken publicly of the blessings of God in my family and I felt complete. After a few more testimonies, Pastor Fauss let the choir have another go at singing.
     Oh, but this time, the choir SANG! Sister Misty Hargrave started singing the first verse of “What a Day That Will Be,” and let me tell you, this young lady has a voice that will cut through concrete, and, when she is given a song to sing that has quality, sincerity, and feeling, she can belt it out like she means what she’s singing about. She is not a performer, as many of our singers try to be, but she delivers the message of a song very powerfully. Anyway, she had me out of my seat and helped set the tone for the rest of the service. The choir then moved into “Won’t We Have A Time,” an ancient Pentecostal chorus and concluded with “I’ll Fly Away,” another Pentecostal anthem from years gone by. All we oldsters in the audience enjoyed this choir session thoroughly, although I could tell that the musicians were not comfortable with the old rhythms of the classic songs. Apparently 4/4 musical timing is a difficult thing to get a grip on for the younger set.
     To cap off a good time of music, there happened to be a Reverend Needham (spelling?) visiting the service, and apparently he was well know by Pastor Fauss and the congregation. Our pastor asked him to come to the platform to greet the congregation and also to sing “Wait’ll You See My Brand New Home!” a Teddy Huffam classic from the seventies. He proceeded to enlist the choir to give him backup, and they responded like they had been singing with him for years. Maybe they had, I don’t know. But it was foot stomping, hand clapping good. He was almost as good as Misty Hargrave, but then Sister Hargrave’s song had much more depth of meaning while Reverend Needham’s song was more invigorating. He had the congregation jumping, though.
     After all had settled down a bit, a few more of the congregation were given the opportunity to testify. I have always regretted the lack of opportunities for testimony in contemporary churches. Ministers, I think, feel they somehow lose control by giving the opportunity to speak to an unknown entity, or maybe it throws off their schedules. Whatever the reason, to hear simple testimonies of God’s effects in the lives of ordinary people can be very uplifting and inspirational.
     After the testimonies had ended, Pastor David’s father, Reverend O.R. Fauss, 83 years old and frail, pulled his electric cart to the front of the congregation and spoke eloquently of his love and appreciation for the people of Bethel Tabernacle. I was impressed with the respect and attention given to this towering champion of the Gospel. I will state flat out that Reverend O.R. Fauss was the best camp meeting preacher I ever heard, and when I see or hear him, I remember those glorious Rocky Mountain District Camp Meetings of the late seventies.
     The time then came for Pastor Fauss to deliver his New Year’s Eve Sermon. By this time it was approaching 11:00 p.m., but somehow the evening has slipped by swiftly and enjoyably. He took his text from Genesis 31:13, when God states to Jacob, “I am the God of Bethel.” He entitled his sermon “Three Nickels and a Dream.” Leading up to Bethel’s eightieth anniversary celebrations in March of this new year, Pastor Fauss told of the experiences and sacrifices that his grandfather, Reverend O.F. Fauss endured to begin the church in Houston eighty years ago, and how his grandfather had arrived in Houston with only fifteen cents (three nickels) and a dream of founding a church. Whatever I told you about the sermon would sound shallow compared to the power and emotion with which it was delivered, but the message that our church has a legacy and, yes, even a tradition to uphold and continue was brought to us ever so forcefully. One cannot sit through a sermon like that and not be moved to a deeper dedication to God.
     After a time of prayer and supplication, the process of communion was initiated. A communion service is always a time to reflect inwardly to one’s own soul and rededicate oneself to a closer relationship with the Creator. Considering the large crowd of people, the communion portion of the service was efficiently and smoothly completed, and, about three minutes after the magic moment…i.e. the stroke of midnight and the coming of 2010, our service ended. Everyone was invited to our fellowship hall where an amazingly tasty breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits, gravy, milk, coffee, and some kind of chocolaty toast was served. It tasted good! Pentecostals sometime gripe about how long services go, but when it comes to eating, nobody gets in a hurry, and it was after 1:00 a.m. before things started to sort of taper off. Even then, just outside the back door of the church, they were blasting off enough fireworks to sound like an invading army, but, as they say, a good time was had by all. Shirley and I enjoyed having breakfast and visiting with our new friends we have made since coming to Bethel Tabernacle. Our months at Bethel have been the happiest church experience we have had in a long time. We have been spiritually blessed and renewed.
     Man! If things continue like this, I’m going to be forced to come back NEXT New Year’s Eve! But, please, not 7:00!