If you have read “The Nomadic Lives of Bob and Shirley Downing” you have already discovered that my family has a tendency to pull up stakes. Sometimes of necessity and sometimes of desire, curiosity, or simply wanderlust, for many years we traveled with our saddlebags half packed at all times. Granted, as we have become older we have sort of lost the momentum or even desire for greener pastures, but I can blame heredity for some of the early shuffling in our marriage.
My parents, Robert (R.L.) and Ethel Downing, married in 1938. Forgive me for occasionally referring to my earlier blogs, but I have described in earlier writings about their youths and the struggles they encountered in the embryonic years of their marriage. They met in a very unusual circumstance…at an Indian PowWow in
. To this current day, the various Indian tribes which inhabit the state of Oklahoma have annual meetings of their tribes to conduct business and enjoy various traditions and festivities. These are respectfully called powwows. My dad was always very proud of his Cherokee lineage, pointing out at the slightest encouragement the fact that his great-great-grandfather served as Chief of the Cherokee Nation in the 1800s, which to this day is an independent governing agency within the state of Oklahoma . My sister, Kathyrn, has gone to extensive lengths to secure her citizenship within the nation and, as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation reaps some of the rights and benefits of citizenship. I have applied for my “Indian card,” but the Cherokee Nation government works at the same glacial speed of every government agency ever created. “Government” and “efficiency” are not synonyms. Oh, well, maybe someday I’ll retire to my very own teepee in a corner of the reservation. Oklahoma
Anyway, during a particular powwow on a warm summer evening, a young farm boy from Lone Wolf, Oklahoma went with his brother to see the festivities, while at the very same time a young girl from Shawnee, Oklahoma, arrived with her sister at the same powwow. During the festivities the visitors were invited to dance with the tribe members during one of the ceremonies, and in the process, R.L. Downing and Ethel New, both 20 years old, bumped into each other. Their conversation lasted but a few minutes, and R.L. went his way. A few minutes later, Ethel spotted R.L. again. This time she pointed him out to her sister and said, “Sis, see that boy over there? Some day I’m going to marry him.” And she did.
The next five years for R.L. and Ethel were busy building a marriage and a business while adjusting to a wartime
. They moved to America , and Dad and Mom (foregoing the R.L. and Ethel,) like many young couples, moved frequently as Dad followed the work. Mom told often of the time they moved to Brazosport, and, from the time they rented a house to the time they were able to occupy it, a tremendous flood occurred, and consequently they had to move in their furniture and belongings using a boat. In 1943, a momentous event took place which changed their lives and plans…I was born. Baytown, Texas
Needless to say, I don’t really remember that event or the two or three years thereafter. Dad had founded Downing Roofing Company with his brother, only to be drafted into the U.S. Army. He spent parts of two years in the
Aleutian Islands, being trained as a tank driver and serving as a carpenter (typical Army.) He served into 1946 even after the war ended. During this period occurred, as far as I can tell, my very first memory. Dad had settled at , toward the end of his hitch, and Mom would, every three or four weeks, drive to Fort Sill, Oklahoma to see him. In those days, military men and their families were highly regarded, and Mom told stories of her car breaking down, running out of gas, or getting stranded for the night, and in each case a kind family or person would come to her rescue and get her on her way. Dad told about hitchhiking from Fort Sill to Fort Sill wearing his uniform. He said every time he was dropped off at some destination by one car, he never waited more than a minute to be picked up by another. Everyone appreciated and took care of their military boys. Times have changed. Baytown
Anyway, my memory is thusly: One night Mom and I were traveling in the car heading for
and came up to a group of flashing police lights. There, across the highway, was a semi truck lying on its side. The police, the flashing lights, and the sight of the overturned truck seared an image into my memory, and to this day I can see that truck. I was three years old. Oklahoma
A short time after this, I can remember my first residence. Once Dad was discharged, they settled into a shotgun house on
East James Street, in . It was called a “shotgun” house because it was narrow and long, and, if you fired a shotgun through the front door, the shot would go through every room in the house and out the back door. I am not making this up. The house was about fifteen feet wide sitting on a 25 foot wide lot and about 40 feet deep. From the front to the back, there was a living room, bedroom, bath, and kitchen. There was parking in the back, but no garage. The house was old in 1946, and it is still in the same location today. I slept on a small bunk in Mom and Dad’s bedroom, and in one of my more exciting memories, I can remember awakening one morning, looking up, and seeing a rat peering down at me from a hole in the ceiling. I yelled for mother, and she ran in with a broom and stuck the handle up through the hole and jiggled it around and the rodent retired. Baytown
|Me, Vernon, Jan|
Next to the old house was a tiny Mom and Pop grocery store on the corner. Mom would send me around to the store to get bread and milk occasionally. When you walked in the store, there was one aisle about three feet wide and ten feet long surrounded by counters, and an old guy behind the counter who would ask, “What’cha need, Bobby Lynn?” On the other side of our house was another shotgun house where lived my best friend, Vernon Williams, with his older sister Jan and mom and dad, Ruth and Vernon Williams. We played many hours in the two tiny front yards. Just to show you how socially deprived (by today’s standards) we were, one of our most enjoyable times was when
’s Mom, Ruth, would get a big mouthful of bubble gum and blow bubbles. She could blow the biggest bubbles we had ever seen in our young lives. Now THAT’S entertainment! I have a photo of Vernon and me playing in the mud in our front yard. We were wearing only our white briefs. Things were pretty casual back then. Vernon was a big guy who later played football for Vernon . He died several years ago. Lee High School
During this time, Mom and Dad were still struggling, and in lieu of spending money for toys, Dad used his carpentry skills and built me wooden cars, trucks, bats, wooden horses, you name it. He was a skillful carver with a knife. I’d pay a lot of money for one of those lost toys today.
Recreational activity was pretty limited in those days, but two things stand out in my memory. On
West Texas Avenue in there was a W.O.W. Hall (Woodmen of the World) which about every Saturday night held a big dance and party. I can remember sitting in a chair as a wallflower watching my mom and dad trip the light fantastic to the sound of a Hank Williams tune. While the dancing was going on, someone would sprinkle some kind of wax on the wooden floor to make it slicker, the better to slide gracefully around on, I guess. The second memory involved an ice house on Baytown North Main Street which sold two items: block ice and cold beer. We would pull up in Dad’s Mercury with the suicide doors, and Dad would enjoy a few cold beers. Strangely, I never saw my dad drunk, and I never saw my mom take a drink at all. One night we as pulled away from the ice house and Dad turned into the traffic, the right rear door of the Mercury swung open. I, being a little kid, was standing behind the front seat (no seatbelts in those days) and fell toward the open door, but somehow caught myself (or someone caught me, I can’t remember) before I planted myself on the pavement. Even before my parents joined the church, God had his hand on them (and me.)
I was also introduced to the educational process at this time when Mom enrolled me in a small, neighborhood kindergarten school in Old Baytown (the name new folks called the old part of
.) Most kids did not go to kindergarten back then, but Mom knew that I was special (or maybe needed some more help.) The thing I remember about kindergarten was that it was a morning deal, ending about . Mom would drop me off and come back at to pick me up the same as the parents of all the kids. The building was close to the street, and, at , the teacher would say, “Class dismissed…goodbye!” and kick us out the door. There was no place to wait, so we kids would play in the street until we saw our parents' cars coming. The parent would ease slowly up to the group of kids, and the appropriate child would hop in and they would drive away…and we would occupy the street again until the next car arrived. How we all survived is beyond me. Baytown
My biggest memory on
East James Street was about July 11, 1947, when Mom and Dad brought my sister, Judy, home from the hospital. I’m not sure who took care of me during the hospital visit, but when we all reassembled on James Street, suddenly there was this new little kid. In time, Dad decided that two adults and two little kids in one room was a bit much, so about year later, we moved to roomier pastures, namely 206 Hafer Street. (See my blog, “206 Hafer, 1949-54”)