206 Hafer St. 1949-54

     The R.L.Downing family moved from  James Street to 206 Hafer, Baytown, Texas, sometime in 1948. Here was a place where we kids could grow…a 100 x 100 lot, two real bedrooms and even a garage.  In time Dad would add another bedroom, a larger garage, and even a full sized, walk-in playhouse in the back yard.  Across the back yard fence was the most beautiful dog I had ever seen, a collie named Dolly.  She was a dead ringer for Lassie and must have loved kids, because when I went outside to play she would come to the fence and howl until I came over to pet her.   Across and down the street from us lived the T.E. Downings with my cousins Carletta, Linda, and Ronnie, and next to them lived Dad’s nephew and family, the Echolses.  A few blocks away lived Garland and Lillian Railsback (Dad's niece) and their two sons, Fred and Ted, and daughter Connie.  Next to us lived my new best friend or worst enemy, depending on the day of the week, Richard Cheney, and his bigger brother George.  Richard was a year older than I and early on picked on me unmercifully.  One day, however, he went too far, and I sort of snapped.  All I remember is Dad pulling me off of him, and I was screaming.  He never bothered me after that, and we became good friends.
    Although Mom and Dad continued to visit the Williams family from James Street occasionally, I lost track of my good friend Vernon, but made many new friends in our new neighborhood. Where James Street was a busy street with small homes and crowded lots,  Hafer Street was quiet, the yards much larger, and the kids could roam around without too much concern for traffic. I soon learned that the place was crawling with kids, and since we were only three blocks from Alamo Elementary, I was soon introduced to a whole army of little people who migrated from yard to yard in the course of play like antelope on the high plains. This was back in the days when neighbors actually talked to each other, and it wasn’t long before my parents knew all the neighbors in a 3-4 block radius of home and I knew all the kids. This was in the pre-television, pre-air conditioning (!) era, so people had their windows and doors open, and there was a lot of outside activity. You could tell what was going on in the house three lots away, and if you wanted to get involved, you just walked over and joined in. Neighbors welcomed neighbors. When Mom and Dad moved into 206 Hafer Street, they were given a “house warming,” which was a sort of party where neighbors and friends came by to visit and offer congratulations on the new home. Visitors would bring some sort of small gift or goodie to eat, and a happy time was had by all.
     Dad’s family was a pretty close-knit family. By this time he had several brothers and nephews who had migrated from Oklahoma to the Baytown area.  Many worked at one time or another at Downing Roofing Company, Dad’s business, until they decided roofing was not for them (boiling hot asphalt and hot summer days do not mix well), and they were able to land other jobs.  The company prospered, and Dad was generous with his relatives.  Many of them owe their early successes to being able to come to Baytown, get a job with Downing Roofing Company, and start a financial base on which to build later.
    My sisters don’t remember this, but the Downings lived life pretty hard in those early years. The Downing brothers and wives would come to our house and play cards and dominoes all night. The smoke would be so thick you couldn’t see across the room, and the beer flowed freely.  I had an aunt who was a really serious domino player, and, since I was just a kid doing the noisy things kids do while she tried to play dominoes, she would sneak me a coffee cup full of beer to try to get me to settle down. I don’t think it worked. (I told Mom this story years later, and she nearly fainted!)  I still remember some of the old country and western songs that would be blaring out from the phonograph as everyone laid down their dominoes.  But all that changed one Sunday morning.
     Dad’s brother, Orville, and his wife, Reba, had begun attending a Pentecostal church in early 1949 (which stopped their smoking and drinking) and began to pester Dad and Mom about attending.  It took a year or so, but after dozens of “not this week,” for some reason Dad and Mom said yes and went to church.  It was a defining moment in their lives. Within a matter of weeks they had received the Holy Spirit and changed their lifestyle.  Their lives became centered around the church, and it changed the way we children were raised.  Our home became a foundation on which we could build our lives as we learned principles of honesty, integrity, Christian living, and parental guidance.  Dad was the head of the house, but he treated Mom with love and respect, and we were all considered when a household decision had to be made.  We kids grew up knowing that Mom and Dad would be there when we needed them for support.
     Dad’s business success allowed him to become what today’s vernacular would probably call a “techno-geek." He loved electronics, although such hardware was in its embryonic state of development. We were the first family in our neighborhood to have a television, a voice recorder, and an air conditioner.  I used to tell this story to my students at school and they would stare at me like I was a real living dinosaur, but it’s true…when we got our television there was ONE station in the Houston area…KLEE-TV, Channel 2.  The television was an RCA Victor, round tube model (black and white, of course) in a sort of cabinet console which allowed the TV to fold back out of sight when not in use.  It became a phonograph player when the TV was not on.  We're talking cutting edge technology in 1948.  Once we got the television, we had neighbors and relatives from far and near who "just happened to be in the neighborhood” around when the Lone Ranger came on.  The Downing clan, especially, came by on Friday night for Friday Night Wrestling.  We kept the television until about 1951 after Dad and Mom had started attending church on a regular basis and gotten away from some of their vices…including televison. During all the years we kids were at home, my parents never owned another television.
     The voice recorder was another electronic marvel my dad enjoyed.  In those days music was played on disks (records) which spun at 78 RPM (revolutions per minute).  An arm with a needle rested on the grooves of the disk and sensed the variations of the grooves which produced sound.  Record players worked due to the simple scientific correlation between vibration and sound.  The needle would vibrate and the player would electronically magnify this sound…voila!...music!  Each disk played only one song and was very fragile…easily broken or scratched.  The voice recorder allowed the owner to make his own records.  Sound was picked up by a microphone and magnified, which caused a needle to vibrate, which in turn scraped some grooves into a disk.  Once completed, you had your own home-produced phonograph record, and people listened and marveled, “How can that thing do that?" On Christmas Eve, 1948, Dad had a bunch of his family over for a party, and he broke out the voice recorder and recorded family singing, joke telling, and Christmas greetings.  I still have that recording to this day; however, I have put those voices and memories on a CD for long term safe keeping.  It is a memory frozen on a disk….of 64 years ago.  I feel old even thinking about it.  Actually, I think the only reason Dad bought the voice recorder was to record the Grand Old Opry. Every Saturday night over some Houston radio station, the Grand Old Opry would come into our home, and everyone stopped to listen.  Dad would place the recorder’s microphone in front of the radio speaker and record the whole program, and then they would listen to it again a couple of times before the next week’s broadcast. Even though I am now highly educated and sophisticated (choke), I still feel a twinge when I hear an old Hank Williams (“I’m Walkin’ The Floor Over You”) or Red Foley (“She Ain’t So Bad To Look At If You Can’t See Her Face!”) song.  Somehow it connects me with my early childhood memories.  I mean, those songs are classics!
     When I was about nine years old, I experienced two trips to the hospital.  My first experience is described in my blog "Alamo Elementary," but the second revolved around the fact that we neighborhood boys loved to play cowboys and Indians.  Every self-respecting boy had a set of cowboy six-shooters at home with a cowboy hat and also a few feathers in case he was called on to be an Indian.  For some reason, the bows and arrows were usually created on the spot when the need arose.  There were trees in the neighborhood called chinaberry trees which had nice, neat, straight limbs which were easily cut off and made into arrows and, using a little string, could be pulled into a very useful bow.  On this particular day, being chosen to be an Indian, I had dutifully made my bow and a quiver of arrows.  We played our game for awhile and then both cowboys and Indians sat down for a little breather.  While sitting there, I decided to see how far I could shoot an arrow.  I notched the arrow on the bow and pulled it back as far as I could.  Unfortunately, I did not notice that I had pulled the arrow backward past the face of the bow to the point that the arrow was aimed at my right thumb holding the bow.  I let fly, and the arrow entered my thumb just above the thumbnail, sinking in until it was poking the skin of the thumb on the other side…and then the point broke off, and the whole tip slipped under my nail.  You could see it through the nail.
     To say I yelled would be an understatement.  Compared to my first hospital visit, this time Mom really DID think I was dying.  She looked at my bleeding thumb and rushed me to the car. The emergency personnel took me into some kind of surgical room, covered my eyes, and using a local anesthetic removed the offending arrow point.  Because it was underneath the nail, they had to cut an incision underneath the thumb and remove the point that way.  I came home with a big bandage and a mildly irritated mother, but, boy, did I have a story to tell at school the next day!
     A third event happened about this time that probably qualified Mom and Dad for some sort of emergency room discount.  My sister, Judy, fell on (as best as I can remember) a broken fruit jar and cut a gash in her cheek.  Another mad dash to the hospital, and she came home with several stitches under her eye.  There was a lot of concern about a possible scar, and for a few years there was a slight trace, but in time the evidence disappeared.
     In the late forties and early fifties, there was one threat which struck fear into every parent’s heart…the disease of polio.  Polio characteristically struck children, and its cause was not known, but the idea floated around in the south that heat, humidity, and over-exertion could possibly cause polio.  Polio crippled the muscles in a body to the point that the patient would be forced to live in an “iron lung,” a massive metal tube in which the patient was placed, exposing only the head.  The “iron lung” used vacuum to compress and expand the patient’s chest and breathe for him/her.  It was an awful existence, and thousands of children suffered.  In the summer, it was not uncommon to see a neighborhood appear practically deserted as parents kept children inside during the heat of the day.  Dad and Mom considered their next electronic marvel… a window air conditioner...to be the solution to this prevailing health threat, and so we were the first in the neighborhood with air conditioning.
     In the summer, the air conditioner attracted neighbors and relatives almost as much as the television, and visitors would walk into the living room and act like they had just landed on the moon as they marveled at the refrigerator-like climate.  There was only one way to run the AC…as high and as cold as it would get.  We could have hung meat in our living room.  In fact, in a few months Mom and Dad began to complain that it was getting harder and harder to get up any desire to go outside and, once outside, the heat seemed to adversely affect you even more than before.  The event that spelled the death knell for our air conditioner, however, was the announcement that Doctor Jonas Salk had perfected a polio vaccine that would immunize anyone from the dreaded disease.  Cities and towns across the nation handed out the vaccine to millions of people, beginning with children, and practically overnight, the fear of polio disappeared.  We kids could run outside in the heat of summer and get stinky sweaty without fear, and with that concern gone, Mom and Dad sold the air conditioner, and we went back to a ceiling fan used at night to draw in air through the windows.  We never missed the air conditioning.  Nothing else was air conditioned, anyway…none of the cars and none of the stores.  Most of us would not survive today without air conditioning.
     During most of the productive years of his life, my dad was a “Mercury man."  That meant he drove Mercury automobiles.  I think that’s where I developed my love for cars, and to this day, I am partial to Mercurys.  There was a lot of product loyalty in those days, and the first car I can remember my parents owning was a 1948 Mercury and then a 1949 model.  Two years later, Dad bought a 1951 Mercury, and it was exactly like the Mercury lead sled that actor James Dean drove at the time of his death.  It was a black two door with no air conditioning.  Dad bought it because it was the first Mercury with an automatic transmission, and some of my more educated relatives would look inside the car down by the brake pedal and say, “Man, that thang ain’t got no clutch!"  Cutting edge technology again.
     It may have been cutting edge technology, but the car was a slug when it came to performance.  The automatic transmission was a two-speed automatic, and you could outrun it on a bicycle off the line.  Our family took a trip in it to California in July, 1951, and it was so hot we blistered our skin while sitting inside the car as we traveled.  Mom said, “Never again!"  Dad was unhappy enough with the car that when the all-new 1952 Mercurys came out, Dad was first in line.  He went back to a manual transmission.  Air conditioning was still in the distant future.  It's funny how you remember some details, but what I remember most about the '52 Merc was the window crank.  The car was a two door hardtop, and my place to travel was in the back seat behind Dad as he drove.  To roll down my back window took 20 complete cranks of the handle.  I never could figure out why it took so long to lower the window.  The car was gray on the bottom with a black top, but Dad didn’t like the black top, so he had it painted a navy blue.  After a few months, he decided he didn’t like that either, so he had it painted bright red.  Here's another strange memory…I rode with Dad as he brought the car home from the body shop where it had just been painted red.  As Dad pulled in the driveway, our neighbor across the street saw the red roof and yelled, “Hey! R.L., your car’s on fire!"  Dad laughed.   A few months later he went back to a black roof.  It was in this car that I learned to drive.  Well, sort of.  We would come home from church on Sunday or Wednesday night, and, once we got to within about two blocks of the house, Dad would let me sit on his lap and “drive” the car the last two blocks and into the drive way.  I could not wait for church to get over in the evening so we could head home, although there was one detour we all enjoyed. On South Main in Baytown was a place called the San Jacinto Creamery, where they prepared milk and dairy products.  But they also had ice cream and the best malts on Earth.  On a hot summer evening, those malts really hit the spot.
     On one hot summer evening, we had all retired for the night, and had long since come and gone. The telephone rang, Dad answered it, and the neighbor across the street whispered excitedly, “R.L.! There’s someone trying to break into your front door!"  Dad hung up the phone and slipped to the closet and got his hunting rifle and eased to a front window.  The house had a front porch with a kitchen window on one end so that a person inside the home could see the entire porch.  The window was open, of course, (hot summer night) and as Dad looked outside, sure enough, there was a tall, slim person seemingly attempting to open to door handle.  As Dad watched, the man straightened up and appeared to be looking at the top of the door.  Dad laid his rifle on the window sill and quietly lifted the bolt and pulled it back to put a shell in the breech.  As he did, the rifle made a distinctive clicking sound…and the person on the porch hollered, “Uncle R.L.! Don’t shoot!”
     Dad jumped up from his spot, and, carrying the rifle, ran to the front door and flung it open.  There stood Jimmy Sutherland, one of Dad’s nephews from California.  He was in his Army dress uniform and had come by to visit.  He said he had sent Dad a letter saying he was coming, but Dad hadn’t gotten it, and the reason he appeared to be looking at the top of the door was he was trying to read the house number.  Just as all this transpired, up rolled the police, who saw Dad with a rifle and politely asked him to drop it.  The neighbor, after calling Dad, had called the cops.  After a quick explanation, the cops left and Jimmy came inside.  Jimmy came back for several visits after that, but for the rest of his life Dad told the story of how he had nearly shot his nephew.  I videoed Dad a few weeks before his death telling this story for the umpteenth time to my uncle Leroy Wilson.  I wish I had videoed more of his stories.