Christmas Memories

     The latter part of the month of December each year is usually a special time for people of all areas of the globe, regardless of religious bent or lack thereof.  Every major religion, it seems, has a day during this period for honoring an ancient patron of their movement, and even the most cynical agnostic takes time during the holiday season to relax and reflect upon the passing of another year.  Because a new year is quickly approaching, individuals have a tendency to take stock of their lives, and the idea of “new year resolution” begins to flitter about the thought processes.  Health centers and weight loss institutions will confirm that January is the busiest month of their business year as well-meaning individuals attempt to change the course of their lives.
    December in the Downing household has always been a special time.  Being a product of down home, southern, Christian, Anglo-American influences, the Downings have always celebrated Santa, Frosty, Rudolph, and all the other traditional players in the secular Christmas tradition, but we also understood that the true reason for Christmas was found in the New Testament.  This understanding for the R.L. and Ethel Downing family was evident even before they became regular church goers, because it was part of the fundamental fabric of America.  Believe it or not, America was once a Christian nation with Christian principles interwoven throughout the social interaction of its citizens.
    This little treatise is a not another rant about how America is going to the…um..dogs…in a handbasket (whether it be true or not), but in a much lighter tone simply a remembrance on my part of the more pleasant events surrounding the Christmas season.  The R.L. and Ethel Downing family, consisting of said parents along with favorite son Bobby (me) and daughters Judy, Kathryn, and Mary, was tradition-minded down to the core when it came to Christmas, and every new season meant a big tree, decorations, and gifts.
R.L. and Bobby Downing, 1946
    Of course, in the early years of 1943-1947, basically the entire family Christmas universe swirled around me, their only child, and I confess that my memory, though fairly sharp in some areas, is a little vague during this time.  In 1947 my first sister, Judy, came along and messed up a good thing for me, since then I had to share toys.  Regardless, somewhere during these early years I received two toys which I remember to this day.  The first was a wooden truck which my dad made by hand for me.  In another of my blogs I wrote how those early years were a struggle for my parents, and store-bought toys were a rarity, so to me the home-made truck was as good as any in the store.  By the next year, however, things must have improved for my parents, because I received a red, all metal, battery powered fire chief’s car that would run around in circles with a red light flashing.  I was amazed at the technology.
    After my family moved to 206 Hafer Street (see blog, “206 Hafer”,) Christmas became a big partying affair with Downings from far and near converging on our household for Christmas celebrations.  My dad made a recording on Christmas Eve, 1948, of the Downings in party mode which I now have on CD.  Seventy-five years later, it reminds me of how far we have come since those pre-church days.  Sadly, of all the Downings whose voices are on the CD, I am the only living survivor…and that includes the children whose voices are preserved on the recording.  When I listen to the CD now, I feel a little...lonely.
     Big events in toy land, though!  I’ve mentioned before that today my dad would be termed a techno-geek because he enjoyed the latest in electronics. Consequently, I received a movie projector one Christmas on Hafer Street, along with 16mm movies of The Three Stooges, Bugs Bunny, Hopalong Cassidy, and Gene Autry.  Neighbor kids would come over and sit in awe as we watched Moe slap Curly (just like in the pitcher shows!)  Although the projector went away years ago, I only recently pulled the old 16mm cartoons out of a box and watched them crumble before my very eyes.  Celluloid movies are not lifetime movies. 
     The crowning Christmas gift of my early childhood came just before my family moved to the farm.  I received a Lionel electric train set, complete with transformer, whistle, and track.  Made of heavy cast metal, the engine was a work of art.  I would set up the track on the floor and watch for hours as the train followed its assigned path, engine chugging real smoke from the stack and whistling loudly at the crossings.  The train set saw heavy use in its first few years and then went into storage, only to be unboxed and run every few years during fits of nostalgia.  As recently as twelve years ago, I built a new track for it in my garage and renewed my memories as I watched that old train make its circle.  I showed it to my grandson, and there was not a single spark of interest.  Not a soul in the family gave it the slightest attention.  No video and no keyboard, you know.  So, after sixty-plus years of enjoyment, I put the whole set on eBay and sold it for a lot more than what my dad paid for it.  It was hard to take it to the post office and see it go away.
R.L. Downing, About 1985
        By the early fifties, we had moved to the farm (see blog “Animal Farm”) and I had two sisters.  Among us three kids, we made sure the spirit of Christmas stayed strong.  Our Christmas tree was always large and well decorated, and the old phonograph played only Christmas carols the month of December.  By now Mom and Dad were better situated financially, and we kids could always look forward to some cool Christmas presents.  Mom and Dad never overindulged us, but we received more than enough to keep us happy.  The problem that we kids had was when Mom and Dad started putting gifts under the tree sometime around December 10, we couldn’t stand it.  We agonized over what the gifts could be and shook, rattled, and rolled each one trying desperately to guess what each one was.  It was wonderful torture.  Eventually we would whine, wheedle, and cajole Mom and Dad into allowing us to open a gift before Christmas day (just one!).  We would, of course, promise that we would never ask again, and usually Mom and Dad would crack and allow us to open a gift…of their own choosing.  I think they were protecting the big gifts until Christmas, because what we would wind up opening would be something like new underwear or a pair of socks.  However, that strategy would backfire sometimes when we would show a little disappointment in our new socks and reinstitute our whine for opening another gift. 
     Our family began to grow in 1959 when my last sister, Mary, was born, and in 1961 I brought home my bride, Shirley, but the traditions continued.  The tree, the music, the celebration (both of the season and of family) continued.  Actually, it worked out pretty well for Shirley and me.  Since her family had deep Christmas family traditions also, it was now possible for she and I to enjoy Christmas twice every year by visiting and celebrating with each household.
     In the early fifties another tradition, not necessarily family, began.  After Mom and Dad became part of Peace Tabernacle, they met a very musically talented woman, Miss Anniedeen Bateman, who every Christmas season directed a church choir in presenting a Christmas "cantata" (choir arrangement) to celebrate the Christmas story.  We young people, once we hit the teen years, were expected to participate in the agonizing practices and final presentations.  We moaned and groaned, but she wouldn't take no for an answer.  Once the final performance was completed, however, we felt a certain amount of pride in our work.  For nearly fifty years, Shirley and I participated in Christmas programs, and though they required lots of work, the cantatas became part of our Christmas tradition.  In 1971, while we lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I actually directed a Christmas choir myself, but mercifully there were no accomplished music directors around to see my amateurish efforts.  Shirley's mother passed away in 1957, and eventually my father-in-law married the very same Miss Anniedeen Bateman, and my new stepmother-in-law worked us unmercifully every Christmas season in an unending series of cantatas, both in Texas and in Wyoming.  Unfortunately, our participation in Christmas programs has diminished dramatically in the last few years, primarily because the traditional Christmas programs generally have been cast aside in favor of contemporary musical gibberish designed to impress the listener with one's musical talents rather than celebrate the Christmas story.
    The mid-sixties brought changes in our schedules, as Shirley and I became military participants and even more so when we became parents.  In 1965 Shirley and I spent Christmas alone in our apartment in West Berlin, Germany, thousands of miles away from family.  In 1966 I spent Christmas totally alone in West Berlin because Shirley had gone home earlier in preparation of the birth of our son, and I volunteered for extra duty to keep my mind off the idea that I was miles away from everyone I loved.  When our son came along, we suddenly had three Christmas traditions to sustain…the Downing, the Creel, and our own little family.  Being blessed with good memories of our respective family traditions, Shirley and I followed the same pattern as we begin to establish our own Christmas experience so that by the time our daughter was born, we were flying under our own power with our own preferences for trees, our own favorite decorations, and our own children to make happy.
     The only time I ever had problems with the Christmas season was just after graduation from college when I became a manager for Sears, Roebuck and Company.  This was back in the day when Sears was the big dog in retail sales and controlled a major portion of the market.  It is difficult for workers in retail sales to get the Christmas spirit because of the shopping preparation and pandemonium which lead up to Christmas Day.  For seven years, Christmas Day was more than anything else a day of extreme relief that the season was finally over.
     We lived in Wyoming for seventeen years, but as far as I remember, we missed only one Christmas with our Creel and Downing parents.  The Creels were, of course, with us in Wyoming, but the Downings were still in Baytown, Texas.  So, every Christmas season we drove the 1400 miles one way to the old Downing homestead to continue tradition.  By this time the R.L. and Ethel Downing family had grown dramatically, what with married daughters, sons-in-law, and grandchildren.  The family gathering became a major event, but the traditions and spirit never changed.  It was always good to be home.
    Today, the torch has been passed, and my father-in-law, mother-in-law, and my parents have gone on to their rewards, and whatever Christmas tradition exists now lives within my family, and the families of my sisters.  Each of us now has a combination of children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren, in-laws, and spouses who have in turn created some sort of Christmas spirit and tradition within themselves.  Shirley and I are finding that we are spending more holidays at the homes of our children rather than our children migrating to our home.  As a result, with our home no longer the center of the action, we are finding less incentive to heavily decorate.  In Disney's "The Lion King," it is celebrated as the "cycle of life."  We have entered a new phase of life...the "fragile seniors' stage."  I can only hope that, in years to come, as my children and grandchildren approach the sunset of their years, that they, too, can look back on childhood memories replete with the warmth of family love and harmony.

Ronny and Jerry...65 Years later

     In 1950 my parents made a life changing decision when they became members of Peace Tabernacle, a United Pentecostal Church pastored by Reverend V.A. Guidroz  (See my blog “In Memory of Pastor V.A. Guidroz..)  Brother Guidroz had a large family, with children ranging in age from 5 years to beyond 20, and of course each one played a role in church activities and was vital to the operation of the church.  I was seven years of age at the time of my parents’ conversions, and my first Sunday School teacher in the Primary class was Sister Glory, who I learned later was Glory Guidroz, one of our pastor’s grown daughters.  I can remember to this day the Sunday she put the fifth star next to my name on a display board and said to me, “Well, Bobby, you’ve been here five Sundays in a row; we’re glad to have you in our class!”  I had found a home.  A couple of years later, when I graduated to the Junior class, Sister Glory gave me a small book of poetry with an inscription from her.  I still have that little book of memories.
    In one my family’s earliest services, I was sitting quietly on one of the pews just before the service began, and this skinny kid sat down next to me and said simply, “I’m Ronny, and I’m six.”  To which I replied, “I’m Bobby, and I’m seven!”  That pretty well set the pecking order, but though Ronny was my junior, he was to play a major role in my years of youth.  Truth be told, he is probably responsible for my remaining in the church to this day, for my marriage to the love of my life, and, without being too dramatic, perhaps for the good life I have enjoyed.
    I soon found out that Ronny was another of those Guidroz kids (they were everywhere,) but in time and with the benefit of now having been associated with many preachers’ kids over the years, I can look back and say unequivocally that Ronny was not your typical PK.  The description of the typical preacher’s kid will have to be reserved for another essay, and considering the fact that I married one, I would need to be careful what I said anyway.  As a rule, however, PKs live by a different set of rules.
    But Ronny, I found out, was a true friend.  I honestly cannot remember every being miffed at him, much less really angry.  He was a true disciple of his father’s ministry, and he preached the word in spirit and deed every time we got together.  Not that he preached a sermon or was patronizing, but that he lived what his father taught.  Example:  his father taught that we should let “our nays be nays and our yeas be yeas” and even words like “gosh” and “darn” should be avoided like the plague.  One time we were playing some sort of game and he said something profound. To which I replied, “Well, I’ll be doggone!”  For a second I thought I was going to be lightning struck when Ronny yelled, “Bobby! Don’t you know you can go to hell saying words like that!”  An overreaction?  Maybe.  But I can tell you this; I never said the word again, and to this day I’ve never gotten into the habit of throwing out those “marginal” words.
   Ronny and I shared many Sunday afternoons together.  Church would dismiss around 12:30, and we would go home with one of our families and spend the afternoon doing whatever young boys do, playing, talking, and eating.  We had no video games, no cell phones, no computers, nothing electronic…it was awful!  Actually, we never missed any of those things because we didn’t know what they were.  We played outside, created our own amusement, and had a great time.  Church time began again around 7:00 p.m. and we would reunite with our families.
    Many other precious memories of my association with Ronny have been described in my blog concerning Pastor Guidroz, so I won’t repeat them here, but suffice it to say, my early years were patterned by the behavior of my good friend.  If Ronny said it was OK, it was OK; if he said no, it was not.  It was probably a strange arrangement, a young kid giving another kid who was a year his senior advice concerning behavior, church affairs, and whatever, but I was new in the church, and Ronny always seemed mature far beyond his years.  Another example:  I have always been fairly athletic (well, used to be, anyway), and in junior high I began to excel in baseball, track, and to a smaller extent, football.  I could run the 100 and 220 yard dashes  (no 100 meter races back then) faster than the guys on the school track team and could hit or throw a baseball farther than anyone else (OK, another friend, James Shelby, could out throw me.)  As a result, the school athletic coaches were after me constantly to “go out” for track, or football, or baseball. 
     I never participated in school sponsored organized sports because Ronny told me that it would be detrimental to my church relationship.  It was not a threat; he (and his father) said simply that association with sports would demand my attention and draw my loyalties away from the church.  In sports activities, he said, I would be surrounded by people to whom church had no value and would hear language that was not appropriate.  Compare that philosophy to today's parental influences which push children into every after-school, non-church activity possible...and then the parents lament that their children won't stay in church.  Truthfully, my parents, though not excited about my association in sports, did not discourage me but let me make my own decision.  The influence of my friend, however, was strong, and I never participated in organized sports all the way through high school.  In our church there were other young people who did participate; some spiritually survived; some did not.  It is not for me to judge, but I made my own decision.  Sometimes when I’m watching a baseball game, I wonder, “What if…?”  but I get over it quickly.  I am content.
    Ronny’s influence really hit high gear when we discovered that girls were not so bad after all.  It’s probably hard to believe now, but there was a time when I was so shy I could hardly speak, especially to the other gender.  Ronny became my spokesman.  He would come to me and say, “Hey, Bobby, Shirley says she like you!”  To which I would reply, “Well, I like her, too.”  He would pass the message back to her, and suddenly Shirley and I were an “item.”  That is, until Ronny would come to me at some later date and say, “Shirley doesn’t want to go with you, anymore.”  After a moment of heartbreak, I would send my message of reply, “OK.”  This whole scenario happened more than once.
    In 1957, Shirley’s mother died, and a little more than a year later her father married Geraldine Lewis, a widow from Beaumont.  With her came her daughter, Jerry Ann, and within a short time both Ronny and I had something to live for and dream about: he about Jerry Ann and I about Shirley.  By that time I was driving and we foursome shared many dates together.  Even then, Ronny gave me guidance about dating such as (1) Always open the car door (passenger door, not driver door) for your date, (2) Carry a bottle of Aqua Velva in the glove compartment on a hot night in case you sweat, and (3) NEVER touch your date’s ears.  That last one I still wonder about. Besides, I was so shy it took every bit of my nerve just to touch her hand, anyway.  After every double date, Ronny and I would go to a nearby restaurant, drink a Coke, and Ronny would give me a de-briefing of my activities for the night.  Generally I would have made at least one faux paux which I dutifully promised not to repeat on the next date.
    For 99.9% of my life, there has only been one woman…Shirley. During the one major period in which Shirley and I were not communicating, Ronny set me up with the only real official date I ever had that did not include Shirley.  I picked up Carolyn Barrett in my dad’s brand new 1959 Mercury Park Lane and we headed to Galveston.  I took her to the best seafood restaurant on Seawall Boulevard, and she never ate so much as a cracker.  She looked like she wished she were somewhere else, and I was wondering what Shirley was doing.  Needless to say, in my report to Ronny, I said first date=last date.
    In 1959, Brother Guidroz resigned the pastorship of Peace Tabernacle, and my good friend moved away…not far…but away.  We stayed in touch and managed to visit somewhat regularly at the Creel house, the home of our loves.  On some occasions, I would visit Shirley and Jerry when Ronny was not around.  During this time Jerry wanted to learn to drive a car, so we three would pile into my car and head to an unpopulated area, usually out Tri-Cities Beach Road.  There Jerry would take the wheel while I sat in the middle (God bless bench seats in cars) with Shirley on the right.  Jerry would take off, screaming bloody murder as she drove shakily down the two lane road.  I would monitor her progress while Shirley and I…um…discussed politics.  Those were the days.
   Shirley and I married in 1961 with Ronny as my Best Man and Jerry as Shirley’s Maid of Honor.  It was a foregone conclusion that Ronny and Jerry were on their way to matrimony, but their schedule became clouded when it was discovered that Geraldine had developed cancer.  1962 became a year of triumph and tragedy as Ronny and Jerry married, and Geraldine succumbed to her battle with cancer.  For me, my best friend had become my (step)brother-in-law. We foursome became even closer.
   Our closeness took a hit in 1963 as I joined the United States Air Force.  Don’t ask me why, I just did.  The result was Shirley and I became somewhat nomadic for four years as we bounced between assignments in Texas, Indiana, and Germany.  Ronny had followed in his father’s footsteps and became a minister, and our paths seemed to drift farther and farther apart.  Fortunately the distance apart was only a geographic distance, and we managed to keep in touch and visit one another when the opportunity arose.  Ronny became a successful pastor and teacher, and Jerry a faithful, dutiful minister’s wife while enjoying the coming of beautiful children.  They have been a great service to churches throughout the United Pentecostal Church organization.  Shirley and I have lived in 29 different locations, but are happily retired and settled within easy distance of our kids and grandkids.
     In 2011, Shirley and I celebrated our fiftieth wedding anniversary in Hawaii.  A year later, Ronny and Jerry celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary with a grand reception at Bethel Tabernacle.  A veritable Who’s Who of the United Pentecostal Church was in attendance, and it was clear that their outpouring of love and appreciation for Ronny and Jerry (excuse me, Reverend Ronald and Sister Jerry Guidroz) was genuine.  Their children talked about their parents’ stability, and various ministers talked about their dedication. Given the opportunity, I would have talked about their friendship, and what it has meant to Shirley and me.
     Shirley and I have settled into a retirement routine involving part time jobs and lots of rest and relaxation; whereas Ronny and Jerry are constantly on the move ministering in churches across the United States.  Just hearing their travel schedule is enough to wear us out.  Regardless of our conflicting views concerning how time should be spent in one's latter years, we two couples manage to touch base occasionally to reminisce and enjoy again our time together.  In Proverbs 18:24, there is a scripture which, although describing God, also describes my brother-in-law, Ronny Guidroz…”and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.”

Cedar Bayou and the Downing Boat

The boat and I, 1956
     A few months ago, I wrote about my 2019 trip to Wyoming and the fishing trip I enjoyed with my brother-in-law, Buddy, and his son-in-law, Mitch.  I still think back with a certain bit of awe when I remember the boat that Mitch brought for us to use.  It was a brand-new Ranger Sport Fisherman with a 250 hp Mercury outboard, a 9.9 hp backup motor and an electric trolling motor connected to GPS.  What this meant was once you found the fish, a tap on the GPS would lock in your position and the trolling motor would automatically adjust to keep you in the location where the fish were.  Naturally, it was equipped with sonar and stereo, and it could hit 60 mph without even breaking a sweat.  A gleaming, sparkling, colorful, sleek fiberglass torpedo, it was a work of art.  I’m sure all these features I’ve just described are old hat to contemporary boatmen, but to a guy like me hopelessly locked in the middle of the last century, this boat was as impressive as a ride in one of the space shuttles (which of course have been retired because even THEY are obsolete.)
     I happen to be glancing through some of my old (what else?) family photos a few days ago and ran across some pictures of the boat my dad and I spent many hours in during my early youth.  Dad was always a fisherman, as were most of his brothers and sisters.  In the early fifties, when I was just a small kid, I would go with my dad and uncles as they fished along Cedar Bayou in Baytown, Texas.  They especially enjoyed fishing the rice canals thereabouts because there were some monster catfish which lurked in the rather muddy looking water.  I can remember especially a 47-pounder my Uncle Orville caught.  Hanging in his garage, it was as big as I was.  They also enjoyed fishing in some of the backwaters of the Trinity Bay portion of Galveston Bay.  Back in those days, especially because they enjoyed fishing at night, a fisherman had to be watchful for alligators in the swampy parts of the shores.  My dad told the story of one of his brothers being run over by an alligator one night as they were walking through the tall grass near the water’s edge.  Apparently alligators, when on land and suddenly spooked, will make a beeline for the water.  My dad and uncle were walking single file along the shore when my uncle slipped on some mud and fell, hitting the water with a big splash.  Up the hill a ways was a big alligator which heard the splash and headed for the water and safety.  The fact that my uncle was in the way made no difference to the alligator, and the spooked beast clamored over my uncle and disappeared into the water.  My dad and his other brothers, being kind, gentle souls, never let my uncle forget that event for the rest of his life.
    But progress is unstoppable, and Dad began thinking about a boat and the greater access to fishing areas such an item would offer.  In the mid fifties, the local Sears, Roebuck and Company store in Baytown was located at 721 West Texas.  Sears was the big dog in retailing at the time, selling everything from clothing to hardware, to sporting goods, to boats, and even to cars.  Yes, friends, I can remember when brand new Allstate automobiles were lined up on the Sears parking lot for sale.  Anyway, inside the store there was a marine section, complete with boats, motors and all the goodies.  On this particular day, Dad and I went to look at boats.  Little did I know at the time that the same area in the store where the boats were sold would , eighteen years later, be the toy department and I would be the manager.
    Think about this, in 1955 the average boat owned by the average fisherman was ten to twelve feet long with an outboard motor ranging from 15 to 22 horsepower.  The boat was made of sheet plywood cut to fit a frame of hardwood, or actual planks of wood screwed to a frame.  With lots of joints came a common problem with leaks, so most boats had a raised floor, usually a couple of inches above the hull, so that as the water leaked in the boat, the passengers did not have to traipse through the water.  As the boat was underway, a drain plug could be pulled in the back of the boat to dump the water, but one also had to remember to replace the plug when stopped. Otherwise, what goes out will come back in.
    In 1955, however, the Wolverine Boat Company came out with a great new innovation.  The Wolverine boat was made of mahogany plywood, but as the plywood was being made, it was molded over a boat frame so that the wood was formed in the shape of a hull.  It was incredibly strong, and with no seams or joints, was practically leak proof.  There was no tell tale raised floor because the boat did not leak, and it had a deep bow which took heavy waves like a knife through butter.  It was the cutting edge of boat technology; plus, it was a big boat…14 feet long!  Dad took one look and was captured.  He took home the boat on a new Sears trailer, with the biggest engine he could get…a 22 hp Evinrude.
     The boat was an open design, with a covered front deck, but had no steering wheel, so Dad had to sit in the back and steer the boat with the motor's handle.  After a few trips up and down Cedar Bayou, Dad decided he needed a steering wheel, and thus entered our neighbor across the street, Otto Purfurst.  Otto was a German in every good sense of the word.  His speech was accented, and he could not stand idleness.  He and Dad were good friends, and Otto offered to install a wheel on the boat.  Rather than put the wheel all the way to the front, he put in a center console and fabricated all the hardware for the controls himself.  It worked like a charm, but he wasn’t finished.  In those days, it was a real task to launch a boat.  Basically one would back the trailer into the water to the point that the trailer would disappear under the surface.  With luck, the boat would be buoyant enough for you to push the boat off the trailer, but it was always a lot of work.
    Otto had an idea to avoid all that hassle, and he offered to build Dad a new trailer.  His design looked like a normal trailer, but along the middle of the trailer were three rollers from old wringer washers (I’m sure you remember those!).  These were attached together by cables which ran to a lever on the front of the trailer close to the trailer hitch.  One had only to pull back on the lever, and the boat would be raised about two inches, sitting on the three rollers.  You could push the boat off the trailer with one hand.  The added bonus was one did not have to back so far into the water when dropping off or picking up.  At the front of the trailer was a winch, and, when loading the boat, one had only to hook the cable to the bow of the boat and it was an easy crank to reload.  It was a marvel of engineering at the time.  People used to watch us launch or pick up the boat and ask us where they could buy a trailer like that.

   After a few runs, Dad decided the Evinrude wasn’t enough.  Besides, Johnson Marine had just come out with the SeaHorse 25, and Dad traded engines.  Now, with the Wolverine molded plywood boat, the fancy trailer, and the big SeaHorse 25, we had the biggest, baddest boat on Cedar Bayou.  Adjusting the fuel mixture while underway, we could just touch 30 mph, and we thought we were flying.  Over the next few summers we took a lot of people from our church boating with us, not to mention Downing family members from near and far.  I remember one person especially.  Gus Locklear, one of the Locklear/Downing clan from Oklahoma, came to Baytown fairly regularly, working with Dad at the roofing company.  He loved to ski, and Dad enjoyed trying his best to throw Gus off his skis.  We would roar up and down Cedar Bayou cutting all sorts of shenanigans, but I never remember Gus falling.  He was a good skier.
    One time we were out fishing at the mouth of the bayou where it empties into the bay.  With us was a long time family friend (my memory is a little vague…I don’t think he was relative), Harold Linderman.  Harold like to catfish with a humongous weight on his line with a big hook.  This one time he pulled back and with a mighty swing aimed for the center of the bayou.  Dad felt a heavy thud of the weight and then felt the hook go deep into his neck right behind his right ear.  Stunned, he fell back into his seat while Harold turned pale and yelled.  I was transfixed.  Harold began to yell, “Oh, my god, R.L!” as Dad gained his senses and realized what had happened.  Dad told Harold to get the pliers and pull out the hook.  Harold grabbed the pliers, but his hands were shaking like he had palsy.  “Pull it out!” said Dad, and Harold got ready, then said, “R.L., I think I’m going to faint!”  “It’s got to come out…pull it!” Dad replied, and Harold clamped down on the hook, closed his eyes, and yanked.  Out the hook came.  They decided they had better go find a doctor.  As we traveled back to the dock, dad reached down occasionally and got a handful of salt water and put on his wound.  The doctor dressed the spot, and later Dad said it never even got sore.
    For fifteen years, the boat got heavy use, and space here does not allow me to describe all our experiences.  In the seventies, after Dad had experienced several heart problems, he handed the boat down to me.  I upgraded the boat a little bit, installing a windshield and moving the steering wheel to the front.  The old Johnson had become a little cranky and was a challenge to get started.  By the mid seventies wooden boats had practically disappeared, and fiberglass had taken control.  Not to mention, engine power had increased dramatically.  One of the last boat trips I enjoyed was when my brother-in-law, Buddy, and I went out into Galveston Bay and did a little fishing some time in 1973.  In 1974, facing a major move to Wyoming, I did something I regret to this day…I sold the boat.  The fellow came to look at the boat, and I started the old Johnson SeaHorse 25 up for him.  It ran beautifully, and he took the boat and went away. 
     A few months later, I happened to run into my boat buyer in a store.  He said he was happy with the boat, but once he got the boat home from our house, the motor never once started.  He finally bought a larger motor.  I think the old motor was just homesick.

Build an Ark

     “These are the times that try men’s souls!” the author famously wrote, and though these words were written back in what we would classify as the “good old days,” they seem to be especially true in our present world.  America is at a low point in its confidence in its government, its leaders, and even its citizenry.  One need only to listen to a few politicians (from our president to our local dog catcher) or cable news commentaries to quickly determine that truth has been thrown out the window in favor of unsubstantiated claims and impossible promises…all for the primary goals of winning/retaining office or advancing an agenda.  It is a general curse; both major political parties have been captured by the lunatic fringes whose mantras denounce democratic communication and compromise.  The result has been a paralyzed government unable to see to the needs of its constituents and unable to break the political logjam.
    Although we point condemning fingers at government and rant about the inability of our leaders to manage the ship of state in a responsible manner, the fact is, government is a reflection of its citizenry, and just as government has perfected the skill of dodging responsibility, we the citizens have raised the art of passing the buck to a level that probably makes our politicians green with envy.  Being no longer responsible for our actions, we label alcoholism and drug use as “illnesses” which we somehow contract.  If we accidentally shoot ourselves in the foot, we blame the bullet.  Violent actions on our highways are now described as “road rage” which of course is caused by some sort of terrible stress we happened to be suffering at the time.  Social rudeness, vulgarity, and aggression are labeled as freedoms of speech and expression, and anyone who objects to these “expressions” is branded as repressive and narrow-minded.
    If we claim to be Christian and subscribe to the fundamental doctrines as presented in the Bible, what do we do when we see our society crumbling around us?  It is not a matter of persecution…a majority of non-church goers consider Christians as nice people who make good neighbors but are hard to find on Sunday mornings.  You know, nice, but relatively harmless, and definitely not dangerous.  However, the concept of danger is an integral part of our society in this current age, and with good reason.  Our society has become increasingly violent, and the general philosophy concerning violence is to fight fire with fire.  Think about the recent shootings in...well, you name it...they seem to be occurring with increased frequency across the country.  What were the results in each event?  An uptick in the sale of weapons in the area.  We are reaching the point where we perceive any stranger as a potential threat and act accordingly.  We are vigilant wherever we go, be it a Walmart, a gas station, or a restaurant.
     In Genesis 6: 11-22 we read the story of Noah and his building of the ark.  The scriptures state that with the ark, Noah was able to save himself and his family when his world as he knew it was destroyed.  I am convinced that for us to survive in the 21st century, we, too, have to build arks.  They should not be arks made of gopherwood and pitch, but rather spiritual arks which achieve the same goal as the original ark of wood…save our families.
     It is interesting to read the account of the building of the ark because it offers a pattern for our spiritual arks today. God was very specific in the instructions for the building of the boat.  The length, width, height, materials, and design of the ark were exactly determined.  I was amazed to notice that the original word for “pitch” as used in Genesis 6:14, is also found in Leviticus, but there it is translated “atonement.”  The word “atonement” means “satisfaction given for wrong doing,” meaning a payment to correct a wrong that was done.  The New Testament states that Jesus’s blood was the atonement for our sins, meaning that his blood removed our sins.  Think about this…without the pitch (atonement) the ark never would have floated.  Pitch is a natural substance that was used for centuries in wooden boats to seal the wood from leakage.  Today we have massive churches which appear to be great arks of safety, and yet they do not accept the concept of atonement through the blood of Jesus Christ or the receiving of His spirit (Holy Ghost) as specifically described in the book of Acts of the Apostles. As a result, these modern, great arks will never float when the flood waters (which can be best described as all the negative influences which prevail in our current world) begin to rise, and the trusting souls therein will perish.
    For our spiritual arks to float, they must be sealed with spiritual pitch, and herein lies our quandary.  We try to skimp on the use of our spiritual pitch.  Somehow, I cannot imagine Noah walking through the ark and, upon seeing a wooden seam sealed with the protecting pitch, asking himself, “I wonder if the ark will still float if I remove this bit of pitch?”  Suppose in his curiosity he removed the strip of pitch, and, sure enough, water began to come into the boat.  But it was only a little bit of water, so, unconcerned, he wandered off.  Because he had some other use for the pitch, he began to remove more strips, each time letting in some additional flood water, but each time the amount of water seemed insignificant.  The problem with this scenario is as the small bits of water accumulated, the ark would have sunk further into the flood waters, and its ability to weather the heavy storms would have been sharply diminished.
    This is exactly the same dilemma we face in our churches today.  Though our churches may appear to be sealed with the “pitch” of the Holy Ghost, we who are in the ark of safety seem determined to see how many strips of pitch we can remove and stay afloat. Each small strip we remove and each worldly influence which we permit inside the church seem so insignificant at the time that we justify our actions by saying, “I don’t see any scripture against that!”  Yet with each bit of pitch removed, the integrity of the ship is compromised to the point that when a great storm arises, we may not be able to stay afloat.
    The following examples can be written off as the rambling of a man hopeless trapped in the past, so I ask you in advance to forgive me   Our church has a second level balcony in the main auditorium, and I have visited that lofty area only a couple of times.  In this particular recent service, I went to the upper deck for some reason and spent a few minutes watching the service.  My eyes wandered over the audience below and I was astounded at the number of little glowing screens scattered throughout the seating area.  There were a few adults with their iPods (I’m sure they had Bible apps!) and the usual teenagers on their cell phones, but the majority were small children playing video games, totally oblivious to the service in progress.  My mind flashed back to the days of my early childhood when I watched services although I did not understand what was going on.  I still remember how, when those worshipping saints shouted the victory, the dust would rise from the seams in the wooden floor, and I learned that, when our pastor closed his Bible, he was about finished. Years later, when as a teenager I gave my heart to God, I did so on the basis of those early experiences.  I have to wonder…at what point in a child’s development do you take away their video games and tell them from that moment on he/she needs to pay attention in church.  Additionally, when you finally pronounce that judgement upon your child, what are the chances of the child following your instruction?  I think…slim.  It's already too late.
    In another service recently, I was at the altar after the sermon praying with someone.  There were many others praying, tears were flowing, and loud praise was rising.  I happened to glance around and noticed two cute little girls, probably five or six years old bouncing around the altar area taking in the action with wide eyes and lots of excited whispering.  For a second, my teacher spirit rose up in me, and I was about to tell them to sit down and be quiet.  But I caught myself and determined, “No, they need to see this.”  Though they may not have understood what was happening, God can plant a seed of remembrance in their minds, and, who knows?  Some day in the future they may be drawn in earnest to an altar.
    In Hebrew 11:7 we read that “By faith Noah, being warned of God…moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by which he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith.”  Noah followed the instruction of God explicitly and in doing so served as a pattern for us.  If we have an ark…it is no time to be removing the pitch.

Unexpected Gifts

      If you are a card-carrying Christian (especially Pentecostal) who believes in the power of prayer, this little essay may be of interest. If you lean more toward the atheistic, agnostic, or “who cares?” approach, there are other articles on this blog which may be more appealing. However, as for me and my house (to quote scripture), we choose to believe that there is a God, whose name is Jesus Christ, who does, in fact, take a personal interest in our well being. Not that we are promised a bed of roses or instant prosperity…the scriptures do not insinuate that, but rather at the moments when we least expect it sometimes, God somehow interjects an outcome, pushes a button, touches a soul, or something and the issues which we have been agonizing over somehow vanish. Jesus talks about a father giving gifts to his children, and so it is with those Christians who have become (according to scripture) children of God. At moments when it is least expected, we receive gifts from Him, and we can only marvel about his concern, love, and help.
      I believe in God’s healing and the power of prayer (See my blog “Is Healing Outdated?”) In the last few days I have experienced a couple of events which left me shaking my head and simply muttering, “Thank you, Lord.” One event is nearly inconsequential, unless it has happened to you, whereas the second had a much greater effect on my outlook and plans. It happened like this……
      About ten days ago, right in the middle of Houston’s first real heat spell, my home air conditioner decided to begin malfunctioning. During the middle of the night, the AC would quit cooling, the house would heat up to the point we began to awaken to an uncomfortably stuffy room. I know a little about air conditioning (not much), but I determined that the evaporator upstairs was freezing up and blocking the flow of air. I shut the AC off, left the fan blower running, and in about an hour the ice had melted, and I was able to switch the AC back on and survive the night. To an AC tech, these symptoms usually point to low freon in the cooling system. Same thing happened the next night.
      Since I have a maintenance warranty (now of questionable value) on our home we have lived in for a couple of years, I contacted our friendly representative who promised to send a man out…in three days. Well, I monitored the system during the nights and we survived, and the service tech eventually showed up. He was friendly enough, and as he went up in our attic to look at the system, I went to my office to fiddle with my computer. Fifteen minutes later I hadn’t heard a sound, so I went downstairs, and he was already sitting in his truck preparing an invoice. “Everything checks out fine,” he said. I asked about the nighttime freezing up and he said simply he didn’t know but everything was OK. I asked about the freon and he said it was full, and then said, “That’ll be sixty dollars.” Well, I reluctantly paid him, and off he went.
      I decided after he left that there had to be a problem which caused the AC to freeze, and in addition when the AC was running it would not lower the inside temperature down to a comfortable level. I decided to check the attic myself. Attics in homes in Houston during summer months are really not very good places to be, but when I climbed up into ours, it was as cool as the rooms in my house. I looked at the AC system and instantly saw that some of the ducting had come unsealed and loose and a good portion of my cool air was going into my ceiling. A quick trip to Home Depot for heavy duty duct tape and an hour in the attic and all was properly sealed. I felt pretty good. That night, however, I had another freezing episode, though not as severe, and I decided I needed someone to confirm that my AC system was working properly, while at the same time I knew it wasn’t. The question was who to call? I asked around, but no one could offer a name. I knew no one in the AC business, and I have this psychological aversion to offering blank checks to unknown service techs. I have this phobia concerning any kind of service personnel, be it auto mechanic, plumber, electrician, or whatever. You never know what you’re getting.
      Finally, in desperation, I got the Yellow Pages out and decided I needed to call someone. I was due for surgery in less than a week, and I didn’t want my family to have to battle with an AC system while I was out of pocket. With a sudden impulse, I placed the Yellow pages on the kitchen table, placed my hand on the cover and prayed a simple prayer, “Lord, I really need an honest, dependable service man at this time. Help me locate such a person.” I opened the book, located the AC service companies, slid my finger down to an ad which caught my eye, and called. The lady said she would contact their tech and have him call me. Two minutes later Jeff, the AC Tech, called. I explained my problem, told him where I lived, and he said, “I’m less than a mile away. I’ll be there in five minutes.”
      Jeff arrived and was friendly, professional, and extremely informative. He suggested I watch and walked me through every test he performed, explaining each one. In thirty minutes my AC was happily humming along, this time with a new dose of freon and sparkling clean. His fee was very reasonable. I was happy as a clam. I asked him about the first technician who came, and he said the guy probably looked at my relatively new system, decided he couldn’t sell me anything major, and took off to the next more profitable customer. In closing he asked me why I had called his company. Was it the newspaper ad? Yellow Pages? A reference? I told him I had put my hand on the Yellow Pages and prayed for a good tech. He said, “Well, you did good…you got one.” I have already referred two other homeowners to his company. And if my AC sneezes again in the future, I know whom I’m calling. Was this a mighty miracle that will make news in the religious circles? Not hardly. But for me, it was a touch of His hand for which I am very grateful.
      Turning to a more significant event, in February of this year I began experiencing gradually more severe left hip pain. Before, on days that I was strenuously active, my hip would hurt, but a little Tylenol would do the trick. But with the new year, the pain no longer went away after a time of rest. Shirley had experienced a knee replacement a year or so ago, so I decided to contact her orthopedic surgeon for an examination. At first, the doctor diagnosed a pulled muscle and treated it with a cortisone shot and pain medication. For a few weeks it seemed to help, but the pain eventually returned more severe than ever. In early May, he suggested an MRI, and, upon examining the results, declared that I was in dire need of a hip replacement. The surgery was scheduled for June 7, and for nearly a month I was in such severe pain that even heavy doses of hydrocodone would not completely knock it out. I used a cane for support when I walked. During this time I was prayed for several times at church.
      The Tuesday before the Thursday surgery, I received the shocking news that my surgeon, in his fifties, tall, slim, the picture of health, with no prior problems, had unexpectedly passed away from a fatal heart attack that morning. His office was in shock. They gave me the name of another surgeon and I made an appointment to visit him the following Tuesday. That morning I entered the clinic fearing that I would have to go back to square one with new tests, etc., and my surgery would be delayed for another month, and I would have more pain to look forward to. Sure enough, the doctor wanted new tests and x-rays since my old ones were now three months old. Within an hour all the tests were completed, and we sat in his office awaiting the verdict.
      I can tell you he floored me when he said, “Mr. Downing, in my opinion you do not need hip replacement surgery. There is some wear there, but you are a long way away from a hip replacement. You are experiencing pain from an inflammation of bursitis on the surface of the pelvic bone and arthritis in the hip joint. These things we can treat with medication and therapy.” He prescribed a cortisone shot to the hip surface and a steroid shot to the joint, and was surprised that I had not been prescribed an anti-inflammation medication previously. I received the cortisone shot and began to feel better instantly…not pain-free, but better, and was scheduled for the steroid shot the next day, Wednesday. I was a little concerned about that one, because it is administered with the doctor using x-ray to guide the needle to the right spot in the joint, and it is a long needle.
      But the steroid shot was amazingly painless, albeit scary looking. As I talked with the administering doctor, I told him what had brought me to that point and that I had previously been scheduled for surgery. He looked at my hip x-rays and stated, “Well, I think I agree with Doctor Cuellar, your hip joint’s not so bad as to require surgery. At last, a corroborating witness. When I rose up off the table, I could tell the difference. He said a steroid shot takes 24-48 hours to take full effect, but I was feeling pretty good already. We went downstairs to set up a schedule for therapy, and eventually made our way back home. Wednesday night, we went to church, and I walked in cane-free and feeling pretty good. I slept like a baby that evening and the next morning I felt no pain for the first time in several weeks. My doctor made no promises and said simply that the medication and therapy should alleviate the situation. Hip replacement may be in the future, but for now, it’s on hold. I am very grateful.
      Did God protect me from a misdiagnosis from the first doctor by taking him out of the picture? I think that would be a harsh judgment and would rather be of the opinion that He just guided the events to a point which allowed me to receive the treatment I needed. Could he have touched my hip and improved it to the point that surgery was no longer needed? Sure, it’s possible, but one would have to compare the tests taken three months apart. I prefer to think it was just another unexpected gift from my Heavenly Father… given not because it was deserved, but simply a token of His love and affection.

Don Spell...In Memory

     In the spring of 2011 Bethel Tabernacle celebrated it 80th birthday with a week-long series of services and special speakers. The church Shirley and I have been attending for three years performed the usual “outreach” activities prior to the actual celebration in hopes of attracting new visitors. Personal visits to the nearby residential areas were made and a massive mail out program was executed to get the good news spread to as many people as possible. The results were the series of services was a great success, and the church enjoyed a renewed interest from the neighborhood with many new attendees coming from the nearby homes and apartments.
     One of those new members was a gentleman named Don Spell. Don was an exception to the usual rules of conversion. Perhaps because younger adults are usually more enthusiastic in the areas of outreach and visitation than older members, the spiritual harvest they gather is usually weighted toward the same age bracket as the outreach workers themselves. Don, however, did not fit the mold of the normal convert. Already eighty years old, he was a tall, slim, fragile appearing man with thin graying hair, who responded to a card which was sent to his apartment inviting him to attend the services. Though he lived in close proximity to the church, he had no vehicle and did not drive, but fortunately he had friends who brought him to the services. It turned out that his friends owned a motel and allowed Don to stay in one of the units. Apparently he had worked for them doing odd jobs for several years, and with the knowledge that Don had no living family, his friends had felt a concern for his welfare and given him a place to call home. It was an amicable arrangement.
     When Don first attended Bethel Tabernacle, he was but another face in a crowd. The church is a fairly large church, and the services were extremely well attended. As you would expect, being a birthday bash, there was much celebration, singing, and rejoicing, and the spirit of worship and praise was very moving. The guest ministers were anointed and powerful in their delivery of the Word of God, and the response to the call to commitment was incredible as dozens made their ways to the altar areas to give their lives to God. Don was one of those who responded to the call of God. He seemed a little out of place amongst the younger participants around him and a little unsure at first as to what to do. Encircled by enthusiastic Pentecostals who are usually loudly praying, the process can be a little intimidating to one who is unfamiliar with true communication with God. Someone spoke into Don’s ear and he began to pray, quietly at first, but as his level of worship begin to rise, so did his animation. I and several others were praying with him when an expression of joy seemed to cross his face, and he began to praise and worship with true zeal, and, in a short time, he gave evidence of his new relationship with God through the only method specifically mentioned in the scriptures: he began to speak in an unknown language. It was the biblical evidence that he had received the gift of the Holy Ghost as described in the New Testament. Later he was baptized by immersion in the name of Jesus Christ and thus began his new walk with his new savior.
     Within a month of Don’s conversion, he became a familiar sight at every church service. Unlike many who take a step toward God during the high emotion of a spiritual moment only to quickly fade away once the reality of day to day Christian living becomes apparent, Don had made a life-changing decision. He did not miss church. When he walked into the sanctuary before service, he was already raising his hands and praising his God. Normal distractions of church…crying children, chatting adults, people moving about…did not affect Don at all. When the service began, he was there to honor his God. He was one of the first to stand during singing, the first to raise his hands, and the first to praise and worship. From where I was sitting I could see Don, and his enthusiastic attitude and worship encouraged and blessed everyone. Although his motel friends brought him to church the first few times, eventually someone in the church, usually my good friend Jerry Stewart, made sure Don was picked up and taken home. I was privileged to take Don home one evening, and all he could talk about was the wonderful service we had just experienced. Don enjoyed his new walk with God, and we old timers who had grown up in the church were reminded of the simple joy and peace that comes in knowing your heart is right with God.
     Our church was shocked a couple of months ago when it was announced that Don had been diagnosed with an aggressive and terminal form of cancer. It seemed almost unfair that God would bless someone with his love and spirit and then allow a debilitating disease to destroy the life. However, Don took the news in stride, and the church prayed for his healing. Even as the church prayed for his health, he told Pastor David Fauss, that, although healing would be nice, the fact was that he was ready to go, and he was thankful to God that he had been given another chance to set his soul straight. A few days ago, he left this life, and at a simple graveside service, we said our final goodbyes to a man who in just a few short months touched many lives at Bethel Tabernacle.
     Don’s past life is still a mystery to us. His friends told us that several years ago Don lost his wife and child in a tragic car accident. He had no other family and was totally alone until his friends at the motel took him in to do odd jobs. There were rumors that somewhere in the past he had an acquaintance with Pentecost, but in his adult life he had not attended church. He did everything that someone with no regard for God would do, but that lifestyle came to a dramatic end when he walked into our church and gave his heart to God. His long time acquaintances told us that his speech, attitude, activities, and spirit all changed when he started going to church. Our church will miss seeing Don Spell stand up in the middle of a song, raise his hands, and begin to praise his God. He reminded us that even in this cynical, materialistic world, a simple touch of God can change a life forever. I’m glad I met Brother Don Spell.

Downing Roofing Company, 1939-1985

     To this day, whenever I pass a group of working roofers and smell the “hot tar” or asphalt being used in a tar-and-gravel roof, my mind flashes back to those many days years ago I spent on the tops of hundreds of roofs while working for my dad’s company, Downing Roofing Company. In 1939, after transplanting in 1938 to Baytown, Texas, from Mangum, Oklahoma and working as a carpenter, my dad, Robert Downing, Sr, along with a brother formed a roofing company to serve the Baytown area. For better than fifty years, I was under the impression that dad started the company with his older brother, Orville. However, the last time I visited with my Uncle Thurl, Dad’s last surviving brother, he revealed that it was actually Dad and he who started the company. My uncle worked with my dad for a year or so, but then landed a job with General Tire and Rubber Company. In those post-depression, pre-war days, a guaranteed income probably looked a lot more attractive that a speculative income from a new business, so Uncle Thurl left the fledgling company, and Dad’s older brother, Orville, joined the partnership. That partnership would last over forty years, until dad’s health forced him into retirement.
     The newspaper ad that you see on this page comes from the Baytown Sun and was published sometime around 1940. Due to the poor quality of the print, I will list the names of the caricatures (top left to bottom right): R.L. Downing, O.E. Downing, Blanche Downing, Boyd Downing, Lawrence Downing, Jack Downing, Heril Linderman, Thomas Echols, and Anderson Willis. R.L. and O.E. were the owners and managers, Blanche was the secretary and Lawrence’s wife, brothers Boyd, Lawrence, and Jack were shinglers who installed composition shingle roofs, Heril and Thomas were sons-in-law of the brothers’ daughters and worked as helpers to the shinglers. Anderson Willis was an African-American who was the foreman of the first “hot” crew that the company had. A “hot” roof was a roof installed on a flat or nearly flat roof and consisted of two layers of asphalt felt nailed to the deck, then two layers of felt applied with hot tar via a mop, and then everything covered with a layer of hot tar and rock gravel. Anderson Willis wasn’t Anderson Willis to any of us…he was “Slim.” I don’t think I ever heard his real name until I was a pretty big kid. “Slim” was a tireless roofing machine and worked for the company for more than 35 years.
     Dad and Orville worked out a system of responsibilities where on a monthly basis one brother would be “on the road” and the other with the roofing crews. “On the road” meant taking care of the front office business…dealing with customers, giving estimates, making leaky roof calls, working with building contractors, etc. Dad called it the “headache” part of the business. While on “crew” duty, he would say it was a lot less stressful because once the crews were on the jobs and working, there’s wasn’t much to worry about. Personally, I liked my dad to be “on the road” because once I reached the age of eight or nine, he would allow me to tag along with him during the summer school break, whereas I wasn’t yet allowed to get around the hot stuff and boiling tar. Many a summer day went by while I rode with Dad in his truck from customer to customer, house to house, and office to office as he conducted the business of a roofing contractor. Dad and Uncle Orville were highly principled, and many building contractors, architects, and commercial businesses would call no one but Downing Roofing Company when it came to roofing needs.
     I remember one time that Dad, to his horror, realized that he had forgotten to calculate the cost of applying insulation underneath a roof on a large school. Because of that, his bid for the total job was thousands of dollars under what it would cost their company to install. I was in the room when Dad and Uncle Orville agreed that, lose money or not, they had given their word with their bid, and they had no choice but to honor it. There was no agonizing or trying to figure out a way to get out of it…they just kept their word.
     By the time I reached twelve or thirteen, Dad began letting me earn a little money by working with the “hot” crews when he had crew duty. I never did much shingling, I guess because Dad didn’t either. He left that chore to his brothers as he spent his time with the tar and gravel gangs. When we were on site installing a roof, my job would be to keep things cleaned up since there was always remnants of asphalt felt blowing about, or rock gravel splashing here and there. I had to keep a healthy distance from the tar, since hot asphalt generally is around 400 degrees when applied, and you haven’t lived until you’ve had a spray of that stuff come your way. In 1957, while working on a bank building in Cleveland, Texas, my dad was standing on a parapet (wall) hollering something down to the crew member on the ground, when the “carrier,” the guy who carried the hot tar in buckets to the “mopper,” who applied the tar to the roof, inadvertently placed a five gallon bucket of hot tar right behind my dad. Dad stepped back off the parapet and his right foot went into the bucket of boiling tar. His shoe was bigger than the bucket and hung up at the bottom of the bucket. Dad fell, tried to kick off the bucket, splashing boiling tar all over himself, and finally pulled his foot out of his shoe, but the tar had already fried his foot and ankle to the bone. In agony, he then had to climb down two levels of ladders to get to the ground, where he was taken to the hospital. About 2:00 p.m. that day, Mom pulled me out of school and we headed to Cleveland. By the time we got there the torture was mostly over and dad was resting, albeit painfully, in a hospital room, but the way he described it sounded painful enough. Dad came home in a couple of days…the next Sunday, he hobbled into church with a heavily bandaged foot and crutches. He was determined not to miss church. We had to prop his foot up above his waist when he sat because of the pain…but he made it to church.
     My favorite part of these early years was actually not the work, but after work each day. Around 4:30 or 5:00 p.m. the crews would return to the home location at 1314 North Main. The hired hands would make their ways to their homes and the Downings would sit around the office and drink coffee and talk. These were the fifties, and Oklahoma was not too distant a memory for most of the clan. I wish I had been smart enough to record some of the conversations for posterity, but most of what I know about Downing history prior to 1940 I learned while sitting in the background in the main office of Downing Roofing Company. In the forties and early fifties, Downing Roofing Company provided jobs and incomes for a whole bevy of relatives who struggled to keep body and soul together after their parents lost their Oklahoma farm in the late thirties. My dad had seven brothers and seven sisters, and at one time or another over the years most of them had a connection with Downing Roofing Company…and that’s not counting wives, husbands, and children. Maybe that’s why the company prospered…the managing brothers were generous, God-fearing, and took care of their own.
     As I grew older, I began to assume more responsibilities and actually take a position in the work crew. Of course, it was still primarily a summer job for me, but I learned to do each of the primary tasks in a “hot” crew. The “kettle” man was the person on the ground who fired up the huge kettle which melted the tar, keeping it at just the right temperature for application. The “carrier” I’ve already mentioned, kept the “mopper” in hot tar by calling down to the kettle man, who would draw a couple of buckets (5 gallon per), haul them over to a pulley and wench them up to the carrier. The carrier would carry (!) the buckets to the mopper where he poured the two buckets into the mopper’s bigger 15 gallon bucket on wheels. The mopper would then lay out a stretch of hot tar and the final crew member, the “felt” man, would lay a roll of felt down and roll it out over the hot tar. Two layers of felt would be applied, then a new layer of tar applied and while hot, the “felt” man became the “gravel” man as he spread gravel over the tar as a final finish. Of course, to get the gravel on top of the roof for application required all hands since this was before power machines or lifts, so we either backed up the gravel-laden truck to the edge of the roof and threw the gravel up on the roof a shovel at a time, or we wenched it up a bucket at a time. All these jobs were hot and exhausting. We didn’t know what air conditioning was and ate salt tablets like they were candy. Our clothing would be white with salt by the time we got back to the office from a day’s work. But I was young, strong, and impervious to pain.
     The men I worked with were an interesting lot. You have to remember, this was the fifties and early sixties, and there were distinct boundaries between the ethnicities. The crews which installed the composition shingles were mostly white crews…not to mention usually family, but the “hot” crews would be described in today’s terms as being very diverse. Most, but not all, of the members of our “hot” crews were African-American, with an occasional Hispanic thrown in, not to mention an intermittent Locklear (a branch of the Downing clan still in Oklahoma.) The Locklears maintained the roofing tradition in Oklahoma, but if things got a little slow there, they would come down to Baytown to work for awhile, then go back home. “Slim” (Anderson Willis) was a quiet black man who was probably the best roofer I have ever seen. For around 35 years he served the company faithfully. Around 1960 or so, long before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, someone decided to build a new subdivision of homes just for blacks. That sounds scandalous now, but at that time even the idea of homes for minorities was unheard of….black people did not live in new houses. Slim happened to mention to Dad one day how he would like to have a nice home for his family. Many African-Americans were restricted to poorly kept areas of Baytown and had no access to decent living areas. Dad drove Slim out to the new subdivision and to the sales office and in a matter of days, Slim was a homeowner. I think that’s the reason Dad and Uncle Orville had several minority workers who stayed with them for many years. There was the racial separation prevalent during the times, but the workers were treated with respect, and they were paid well. In fact, Downing Roofing Company was a union shop, the employees were paid union wages, and in 40 years there was not a single grievance against the company.
     I worked with Slim often, but I never took his job because he could do it better. There were other guys, though, Harvey Smith, Ephraim Jones, Quincy Seastruck, “Old Folks,” and others whose names have slipped my mind, whom I think about from time to time and wonder where they are and if they’re still alive. Harvey was an older guy who suffered from arthritis and rarely missed a day of work, though he would be so exhausted at the end of the day he could hardly move. Ephraim was a fast-talking ball of energy. Someone dropped a heavy pulley on Quincy’s head one day and I got to see the dent in his skull. “Old Folks” was a guy who wasn’t that old, just talked and acted like it. We lived in a strange time back then. Many times, when it was time for lunch, my crew would all pile into the company truck and head to some eatery. After parking, I would go inside and have a sit-down lunch, and the blacks would go around to the outside back of the restaurant, and there through an open door, order lunch. The proprietor would fix their orders, deliver them to the back door, and they would eat their lunches while sitting on the back steps. No one complained, and during their lunchtime they would be laughing and joking because that was just the way it was.
     In about 1959, Downing Roofing Company enlarged with a new metal building with brick offices. It was just next door at 1416 North Main. Then in 1960, after driving bare-bones half-ton six cylinder, three-speed Chevy trucks for years, the company bought a fancy Chevy El Camino for the “on the road” person to drive. The Baytown Sun even came by and took a picture of it (see poor quality photo from the newspaper). It was in the new metal building that I managed to fold the forks of a motorcycle back about 35 degrees when I was horsing around and ran into a stack of roofing. I myself hit the roofing but somehow bounced off unhurt, but my bike drove funny after that. It was also in this new building where I was one day loading sixty pound rolls of roofing felt onto a truck. I would place the rolls on the truck bed and a helper would roll them to the front of the bed and stack them. I decided to show my brilliance and amazing strength by picking up the rolls of felt, throwing them the 22 foot length of the truck bed, and neatly stacking them in a row. I did that for about 15 rolls when I felt something pop in my back and I went down. Three hospital days later and piles of x-rays confirmed I had collapsed a couple of vertebras. The problem still shows up in x-rays today. Well, I was impressive for fifteen rolls anyway!
      1961 was a momentous year as Shirley and I married, and I started college with the idea of becoming an architect. Dad had always been on good terms with the main architects in Baytown at the time, Lowell Lammers and James (Bitsy) Davis, and Bitsy had encouraged me to get into architecture. I attended Lee College for a year, but in the course of events the architecture dream fizzled. I dropped out of Lee, and went to work for Downing Roofing Company full time. Somehow, it never fit, though, and I made the mistake one day of visiting an Air Force recruiter on a whim. It was a life changing event, and in August, 1963, I entered the U.S. Air Force. But that’s another story. When I told my crew members at Downing Roofing Company what I did, they proceeded to tell me every horror story they had ever experienced, heard, or, I suspect, imagined about the service. They told me never to volunteer for anything, keep my head down, and mouth shut (which, by the way, turned out to be good advice.) The last job I worked on was roofing Jimmy Carpenter’s home. He was a well-known fairly affluent barber in Baytown who was a world-traveling big game hunter whose barber shop looked like a animal museum. As we rolled that evening into the Downing Roofing Company storage lot and begin to disperse, each of my friends shook my hand and wished me well. I came home a few months later, and visited them again, but then the separation became years and I lost track of them. In the 70s and early 80s I visited occasionally, but by then many had moved on. In 1982, Dad had a debilitating heart attack and in a few months retired from the company, selling his share to Uncle Orville and his son, O.E. Jr. Some time thereafter, they closed Downing Roofing Company and moved to Austin. It was the end of an era.