The Concert

     We entered the large auditorium well before the time the special events were to begin, but the musicians were already preparing for the evening’s activities.  The dimly lit stage was prepared as one would expect…heavy dark curtains accented with blue backlighting.  Electronic gear was everywhere, dominated by the sound system featuring speakers with blue lighting accents and the capacity to split an eardrum at 200 yards.  In anticipation of the coming live music presentation, a soundtrack was playing featuring the popular music of the day, replete with canned enthusiastic roars from some appreciative audience from a concert gone past.  In a few minutes, the musicians themselves began firing up their basses, keyboards, and drums in anticipation of the night’s work, and the singers began to assemble and review the procedures for their performances.                                              
      By zero hour, most ticket holders had taken their seats, and the musicians had found their places, At the stroke of the appointed time, the master of ceremonies blasted the audience with a confusing blend of a welcome to the show and a call to arms…all at maximum decibels.  According to him, this was not an evening to sit back and enjoy the show but a time to jump, shout, yell, clap, and show unbridled enthusiasm for the message about to be delivered.                                                                                             For the next 40 minutes, our ears were assaulted with a cacophony of deafening thunder blended with various unintelligible voices, accompanied by the master of ceremonies constantly bantering the audience to get more actively involved.  These were the “warm-up” performers…those whose job is to get the audience into a festive mood before the headline performer comes on stage.  The music ranged from hard rock, to heavy metal, to blues, to soul, to ghetto rap, with the crowning achievement occurring when a young African-American, dressed stylishly casual and wearing either shades or highly reflective glasses, began rapping in both Spanish and English. By the time the young rapper had wrapped up, the crowd had been deemed properly primed for the main event.  And up to the microphone the main attraction strode…a minister.                                                                  
     What I have described up to this point is not what you may have imagined the event was.  I have not recently gone to any concerts featuring the great musical groups of the day.  The event which I described above was an officially sanctioned church conference sponsored by the United Pentecostal Church, International.  I purposely chose not to identify the location of the “conference” nor the main participants because it is not my intention to throw rocks at or embarrass (if that’s possible) any particular persons or churches.  What I have described above is probably representative of hundreds of assemblies, services, and conferences which are becoming highly prevalent in modern society and in our churches, and so what I am reacting to is a movement, a direction, which I see the UPCI heading.           Pentecostals for decades have followed the biblical mantra for the church of “be ye separate.”  I will be the first to admit that we have in the past sometimes taken that philosophy to the extreme, and alienated people unnecessarily with our separatist, “holier than thou” attitude.  However, I am willing to argue the point that the pendulum has now swung far to the opposite side, and we as a church have now adopted the strategy of “to save them, you’ve got to be like them.”  It does not mesh with the message that we thankfully still hear from our pulpits.  Our ministers hammer away with the message that when a person is saved, he/she becomes separate from the world and a “new creature in Christ.”  However, to entice the unsuspecting souls into our church, we show them that we can be just as cosmopolitan as they in our choices of music, just as disrespectfully casual as they in our choices of church clothing, and just as worldly as they in our level of conversation.                                  
    Today, when listening to allegedly Christian music via radio, television, CD, or, regretfully, churches, someone with the ability to filter out the words and listen only to the music would be unable to distinguish the sound…and the spirit… from any other rock, country, popular, alternative music source available, and yet, music itself projects an attitude and can be a stimulus for physical action.  Accomplished musicians know this and use this tool to excite an audience…and the spirit of God can be a million miles away from the action.  But the people are moving around, and that’s what the objective is…get them moving.  There is a growing group of churches and musicians who confuse this musical stimulus as “worship.”                                                                                        
    There was a time when a church…or as we pompously like to say occasionally, “the house of God” …was more than a simple building but was considered a place of respect and shown such through our entrance of its doors with a quiet, reverent attitude and in our manner of dress.  We spoke quietly and entered prayerfully, while dressing modestly in our most dignified and reverential clothing.  The building, after all, was “the house of God,” a place of spiritual refreshing and encouragement.  Today ministers and saints take great pride in casual, “down to earth” attire.  Ministers preach from the pulpit and musicians strut across the rostrum in jeans, tee shirts, and sneakers, all in an effort to “make the church more accessible to the masses.”  Yet, our manner of dress reflects our level of respect for ourselves and for others, including the church.                                                                      
    Want to know what the latest NFL or MLB scores are?  Want to know how the local Little League team is doing?  Most frighteningly…want to know what the latest Hollywood blockbuster movie (probably R-rated) is like?  Just hang around the vestibule of one of our churches just before church time and you’ll probably get your answers.  You will hear very little discussion of the upcoming church service.  Churches have learned the lingo of the lost…and through their embrace of conversations not relative to salvation, have given church visitors the message that a church membership does not require a change of spiritual heart…nor speech.                                    
   Sadly, this “be like them” strategy is promulgated by the very people who preach against it…the pastors, and it is done so with the most selfish of reasons…simply to build church numbers.  Pastoral competition is alive and well in the 21st century, and the top dog is the guy with the biggest church.  As it has been since the beginning, we equate success with numbers.  The next morning after the above-mentioned service, I happen to be at a table enjoying breakfast when I overheard two pastors talking at the next table from me.  These two men are probably considered “bright stars” in the UPCI realms, having started churches fairly recently and shown a tremendous level of success (numbers, again.)  What caught my ear was what one said to the other, “Everything we do in our outreach is geared for the ages 17-25.  It’s the group you can have the greatest success with.”  In two sentences, the pastor explained the entire strategy for church growth which appears to be nearly universally adopted by UPCI churches.  It explains the music, dress, and attitude of new converts. It also explains why mature, older, devoutly Pentecostal adults leave church services unfulfilled and frustrated, having received no spiritual food for the soul, and perhaps also why older members have a tendency to drift from church to church, seeking a level of worship which is on a somewhat higher plane than a Taylor Swift concert.

Election 2024


     In the latter years of the Vietnam Conflict, the United States military unofficially adopted a controversial tactical strategy in a desperate attempt to halt the encroachments of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese troops into the villages of South Vietnam as they slowly but surely advanced toward the capital city of Saigon and capture of the entire country.  The United States in the late ‘60s had begun massive sweeps of the countryside outside Saigon using grandiose nomenclatures like “Operation Thunder” with the noble intent of clearing areas and villages of the dreaded Viet Cong and restoring order and peace to the allegedly loyal citizens of the target areas. By clearing areas of the enemy, the objective was to slowly recapture the countryside and save South Vietnam from a communist takeover.

    The United States soon learned that the task was comparable to holding back the tide with a mop.  Moving into a village, the US military would find a quaint, idyllic Vietnamese citizenry busy with all the duties of a township with nary a sign of the enemy…especially confusing when just a few hours earlier military intelligence had indicated that the place was a beehive of enemy activity.  Compounding the difficulty was trying to identify the enemy at all…many Viet Cong troops dressed in the standard clothing of the country villager and became part of the village populace simply by hiding any trace of weaponry.  The US military would search a village, and occasionally the enemy would make a mistake in unsuccessfully hiding their weapons.  Retribution quickly followed, but, more times than not, the US military was frustrated in its lack of engagement with the enemy.  This frustration led to a logical conclusion:  if military intelligence had positive proof that a village was a haven for the enemy, and there seemed to be no evidence that the local citizens were being cooperative in identifying the enemy, the village was put to the torch and burned to the ground.  This military policy was bluntly explained one evening on national news when a military official was asked about the burning of a village, and he replied, “In order to save the village, we had to destroy it.”

     Much has been written in recent years of the general frustration of the United States citizenry with its government.  Though we pride ourselves with our democratic process and look with disdain at other not-freely-elected governments around the globe, we are still disappointed at the seeming inability of the U.S. government to face the issues confronting our country today and come up with solutions to our problems.  It is not a problem which has surfaced only since Joe Biden became president; it has extended backward through several previous administrations, and the prognosis for the future is not encouraging.  In the richest country in the world, we have one of the highest percentages in the world of children who nightly go to bed hungry, of citizens who cannot afford proper health care, and of elderly who have no place to go for security.

     Democracy, by its very name is…well…democratic.  While it is a form of government founded upon the concept of rule by the majority, it is also founded upon the principle that any governmental decision will be made with the general welfare of the population in mind.  Democracy by its very modus operandi requires compromise, and every law and every decision is an amalgamation of the corporate minds which joined together to make the decision.  The problem with democracy is that it occasionally clashes with individual principles.  Consider the hypothetical situation of an elected official who has sworn to his constituents, “No new taxes!” (Remember George H. W. Bush?) and then must consider a proposed bill which would take care of a serious problem in the country…but the final version of the bill as drawn up by his associates contains a tax increase.  Although it will ease a problem in the country, does he vote to pass the law and in doing so override his principles, or does he stand firm, waving his flag of unbent principle, and let the country suffer the consequences?  George Bush chose to compromise in the interests of the country…and lost the next presidential election to Jimmy Carter. In today’s political climate, we have many politicians who have adopted the strategy of “destroying the village in order to save it.”  Rather than reach a political compromise on an issue which would help ease the concern of the populace, many lawmakers would rather see the country suffer than renege on an unwise commitment or pledge made in the heat of political campaigning…a commitment or pledge which should have never been made in the first place.

    Unfortunately for our country, both major political parties have adopted the “destroy to save” philosophy, and it depends upon who is in power as to what role each party plays.  With the current Democratic president, the Republicans have adopted the knee-jerk reflex of “No!” to anything President Biden remotely suggests.  Conversely, when a Republican occupies the White House, Democrats dig in their heels and throw out every possible stumbling block to any potential political success for the Republicans…and the country founders.  Please understand…I am an independent and not an admirer of either political party. Their agendas are tailored to the interests of their parties and not the United States. Fortunately for America, there are in each party the pragmatic administrators who occasionally put together legislation in the interest of the country.

    If you ask any politician in the country about democracy, the instant response is “Democracy is the greatest form of government on the face of the planet.”  However, if you ask what the definition of democracy is, the response will be divided into two camps.  These two camps represent two versions of the same delusion.

    The believers of the first version of democracy can quote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution from memory.  They are for government which is mostly kept at a distance, allowing the individual to soar like eagles to unlimited success with the least amount of restriction.  Everyone in this democracy contributes a fair share to the government for basic services such as national defense, but a person’s well-being is a personal responsibility.  In this democracy, every person is born healthy and disease free with a marketable talent which allows for the achievement of success.  Working hard and not abusing the rights of others, these believers live fruitful lives, leaving legacies of great influence.  The difficulty with this form of democracy is that it does not know how to handle those individuals who do not fit into the mold.  Forgive me for mentioning the Bible, but even Jesus said, “The poor you have with you always.”  In this form of democracy, if one is “poor” it is assumed to be because he/she has not exerted adequate effort to reach the inborn potential which is in every person.  To offer alms to the poor is to deter their work initiative.   

    Along with the poor are the physically challenged be it through injury, birth, or disease.  Knowledgeable people have proposed that, to cut our health costs in this nation, committees should determine how expensive extending the life of a disabled person would be, and if the cost is prohibitive, health care should be withheld.  I guess it would be the natural thing to do.  After all, in nature, there are many examples of infant creatures that are abandoned to die by their mothers for the good of the healthy ones.  A person’s health would be a personal responsibility and dependent upon the person’s ability to pay for services.  What I find fascinating about this group is that most believers are aggressively pro-life when it comes to the abortion issue, arguing about the sanctity of the unborn child, etc.  However, if that child is born with a defect, well, we hope mom has good insurance.  If the child is born to poor parents, it’s the parents’ fault…but the child suffers because the government will not offer any helping hand (hurts the budget, you know.)

    Lastly, those in this form of democracy have not learned the lessons of human greed.  One never has enough money, power, or prestige, and without restrictions or governmental regulations big businesses will stretch ethical boundaries far beyond the breaking point.  Competition, which is a concept hallowed in the annals of capitalism, is not restricted to obtaining the largest share of the market but also eliminating as many competitors as possible on the way to the top. Therefore the “pursuit of happiness” mentioned in the declaration may in fact require the deterrence of happiness in someone else.  But, hey, that’s competition.

     At the other end of the spectrum (other side of the aisle, as it were) is the second group of democratic proponents.  Interestingly enough, they, too, are familiar with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but at that point the similarities end.  Because the citizenry is united under the government’s guidance, a newborn child becomes in effect a ward of the state.  Every citizen has the right to the pursuit of happiness, but if another citizen cannot…or chooses not…to make that pursuit, it is the responsibility of all others to “carry those who cannot walk.”  An incredible fact of this group, however, is that the government’s concern for you only begins at birth.  Should a child be undesired prior to birth, an abortion is acceptable with no consequence; however, if that fetus can somehow survive to birth, the child is offered cradle to grave security.

    This group has a great distain for the natural competitiveness of man.  It is convinced of the innate greed of corporate America and therefore attempts to control business activities and restrict success, or at least force it to be spread around to more recipients.  The result is excessive restrictions causing hesitancy among businesses to invest and take risks.  Additionally, should some citizens exceed the “normal” levels of success, they should be taxed more heavily because they have more to spend.

     It is in the concept of “liberty” where the two groups most contrast.  The second group interprets liberty to mean unbridled freedom.  When the constitution mentions freedom of speech, it means you can say anything you wish, no matter how offensive and no matter the consequences.  There is no decorum or standard of behavior because there is total freedom.  Freedom to choose is interpreted to mean the rights of one may infringe upon the rights of others.  Although a majority of the group may have an opinion on a particular matter, one objection can stop the discussion.  As an example, polls concerning prayer in schools have always shown a tremendous majority in favor, but due to the efforts of a scattered few, there now is no prayer.  It is due to the efforts of this group that we can now enjoy pornography in our homes and obnoxious behavior in our stores and schools.  There is another word for unbridled, unlimited freedom…anarchy. 

     As we enter the election process of 2024, we see the usual polarization of the two major parties into the two camps described above.  Most of the candidates offered to the electorate subscribe to one or the other of the two positions, and that is the tragedy of any election because both positions are disastrous for our country.  Forgive me for being biblical again, but many times in the scriptures, the word “moderation” pops up when discussing actions or behaviors.  It is not just a biblical philosophy but one that has been expounded by many, and it is a philosophy which works in government and politics, also.  The essential element to democracy which has become anathema to many in the political spectrum these days is moderation…a “give and take” in the halls of government which allows for solutions to national issues to be reached.  In truth, the government must be friendly to business to encourage investment while at the same time monitoring corporate policies and operations.  A businessman will borrow money to expand his business, knowing that he will be able to repay the loan with increased sales and profits.  At times, a government may also borrow money to invest in people or infrastructure, but it should only be done when there is a good chance of a return on the investment and a repayment of the loan. It must offer help and assistance to those less fortunate while making it clear that an effort must be made to stand on one’s own feet.  It must value life from conception to burial, and make it clear there are standards of speech and behavior which respect the privacy of others.  The interesting note here is that these positions are reflected by a majority of the citizens of the United States.  Is there a candidate who subscribes to these basic principles?  If so, he/she will probably be vilified for lacking “principles.” Unfortunately, it seems that both those in power and those who are aspiring to power embrace only the two extreme positions.  The prognosis for the future does not bode well. The United States needs a healer, not a divider.


A Tribute to My Mother...Ethel Mai (new) Downing

R.L., Ethel, and Bobby Downing, 1943
     March 7, 2023, marks the 106th anniversary of the birth of my mother, Ethel Mai (New) Downing.  Although it has been nineteen years since she left us, I still think of her often, especially when I observe the condition of the office of motherhood as practiced by the general populace. From what I see, a conclusion can be drawn as to the cause of the many social ills being suffered by this generation. The major contributing factor to the degeneration of the family unit is the woeful lack of mothers of the stature of my mother.  In most cases today, the office and responsibilities of motherhood have been relegated to the back burner by the contemporary feminist, and though having produced through biological process a child, the duties required to nurture that child to adulthood are neglected.  Careers, personal satisfaction, and feminist peer pressure command greater attention and emphasis than mundane motherhood.

    Born on March 7, 1917, into a large family (five sisters and three brothers) of modest means, she lived most of her early life in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Although the family struggled during the Great Depression following the market crash of 1929, her father managed to work during the entire financial crisis as an engineer for the local railroad.  However, the pressures of providing for his large family caused him to begin drinking, and he eventually became an alcoholic who took his frustrations out on his family. Mother told me that when her dad would come home in one of his moods, she would hide her brothers and sisters in her bedroom until he fell asleep on the couch.  One of her brothers (my uncle) told me that Mother was the only one of the children who would stand up to their father and would not allow him to roar at her siblings.  He told me that eventually a grudging respect between father and stubborn child grew to the point that he would not press my mom to "bring out those kids so I can see them."   To complicate matters her mother contracted breast cancer, and in those years before proper treatment and surgeries, she became bed-ridden for the last two years of her life.
     In 1938, Mother married a poor farm boy from Mangum, Oklahoma. Robert L. Downing came from an even larger family than Mother's and at the age of 13 had to quit school in order to help earn money to support his parents and fourteen siblings. They were both 21 years old when they married. Within a year or so, the new couple moved to Baytown, Texas, where it was said jobs were in abundance. In the next fifty years together, they managed to carve out a living, create a home, and see four children born into their family. When her first child was born (her first and favorite one...namely, me), she quit her job and became a full-time professional mother and home manager. Throughout this period, Mother remained loyal to her husband, cared for her children, and established a home where there were standards of behavior and conduct. Meals were home prepared, and dining in a restaurant was usually reserved for Sunday after church.  We children never worried about food, clothing, shelter, accidents, or love because mom was always there.  Dad was there, too, and played an equally important role.  Although he brought home the bacon, Mom cooked it.  Honesty and integrity were just two of many high expectations in our relationships with one another and our acquaintances.
     Mother was a bit of a disciplinarian and expected...demanded...that her children behave properly both at home and away.  She did not flinch from the observed need to give one of her kids a swat (after a warning) to remind the child (probably one of my sisters) that she was being pushed to the limit.  She was sort of the first line of defense when it came to discipline, however.  If the situation really went south, that was when she called for backup (Dad) to establish order.  I knew I was in deep trouble when I saw Dad removing his belt or, if he was outside, reaching into his pocket for his pocketknife and cutting off a low-lying branch of a tree and stripping it of its leaves.  Bleeding heart liberals today would yell "child brutality!" at such actions, but the discipline worked...I behaved...and I never doubted my dad and mom loved me. Usually with just a few minutes of the perceived torture, we were all happily engaged in whatever activity going at the time.
     I do remember, however, one time when I was a little older...around twelve or so, I did something to deserve a swat from Mom.  Sure enough, she popped me with whatever...and I laughed and said, "That didn't hurt!"  To which she replied, "Let's wait till Dad gets home."  I knew I had just committed a cardinal sin and was about to reap my judgement which I did a few hours later when Dad got home.  After that, I grimaced whenever Mom disciplined me whether it hurt or not.
      In 1950, Mother and Dad were introduced to Pentecost and in a matter of weeks were baptized, received the Holy Ghost, and began their long, faithful walk toward their eventual spiritual home. Mother, along with Dad, created a home built on spiritual values and passed those values to their children, not just in word but in deed. Mother's legacy lives within her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Easter Sunday, 1950
There's an old song that laments,

"If I could only hear my mother pray again.
If I could only hear her tender voice as then.
How glad that I would be!
It would mean so much to me!
If I could hear my mother pray again."

      In 1990, Dad passed away, and Mother's loyalty to his memory never wavered, and after 52 years of marriage, she never really recovered from his loss. She would live with his ever-present memory for another 14 years.On Christmas Eve, December 24, 2004, the family laid Mom to rest in a simple, elegant ceremony at a small farming community cemetery in her home state of Oklahoma. She had survived the Great Depression, World War II, and 87 years of life. I was reminded of the admonition of Paul to the Philippians in his epistle to the Church:

"Finally, my brethren, rejoice in the Lord."

     Though she has been sorely missed, she lived a full life, faithful to her husband, her children, and her God. And today I can rejoice in the Lord…because Ethel Mai (New) Downing was my mother.

The Bear Facts

     After my parents-in-law moved to Wyoming in 1971, it seemed only fitting and proper that Shirley and I visit them the following summer of 1972.  Having never visited the Cowboy State and after listening to the glowing descriptions phoned back to us by my in-laws, we decided to see for ourselves this natural wonderland…never dreaming it would soon become our home for seventeen years. Wyoming conjures up images of rugged, hardy pioneers settling the wild, untamed west, and since we couldn’t ride in a covered wagon to the new land, we decided the next best option would be to travel by car and camp along the way, thus going more or less back to the basics which would allow us to really tune in with nature when the opportunity arose.

   I had just purchased a 1971 Chevrolet Kingswood Estate station wagon, a behemoth of a vehicle powered by a 454 V8 that I learned on the trip would average 10.5 miles per gallon…and that was at a steady cruising speed before we hit the mountains.  But it laughed at mountains, took the steepest incline without a complaint, and had room for all our camping gear.  We bought an 8’x10’ standard tent, bedrolls, lantern, cooking utensils, hatchet, propane stove…you name it.  By the time we pulled out of Baytown, we were self-sufficient and probably could have lived out of our car for a couple of weeks without ever approaching civilization.

   The first day we drove all the way to Clayton, New Mexico, and our first opportunity
to break out all the camping gear was that evening at Clayton Lake State Park (See 
photo).  It wasn’t the most scenic place we would camp on our trip, but being the first night, it was memorable.  At least everything went smoothly.  The second day we traveled into Colorado and turned west toward Durango, where we camped near Silverton just past Molas Pass next to a ski resort that was closed for the summer.  When we awoke the next morning there was a trace of snow on our tent and the portable heater we brought felt really good. Packing up, we drove north and then east along Highway 50 out of Montrose, stopping at a scenic camping area along the Arkansas River not far from Canyon City.  On our fourth day, we viewed the Royal Gorge Bridge and then headed north into Wyoming to a joyful reunion with the family late that evening in Casper, Wyoming.

   We visited for several days, exploring the surrounding scenic beauty, but eventually we continued our traveling.  Being as close as we were to Yellowstone National Park, it seemed only natural that we take in the entire ambiance of Wyoming and tour our nation’s first national park.  We traveled west from Casper on Highway 26, and about 285 miles later found ourselves at the South Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.  Actually, we had taken a short detour to Jackson Hole to marvel at this quaint western town and then retraced out steps to the entrance to Yellowstone.

   There’s something exciting about entering Yellowstone. The incredible scenery with snowcapped mountains and the promise of viewing wildlife in their natural habitats, along with the official looking park rangers, all contribute to a feeling that something invigorating is about to happen.  As we passed the ranger check station, we paid our park entrance fee and received all the park information, which along with all the obligatory maps and notations of scenic beauty, included a warning about feeding the wildlife.  The opportunity to feed animals had not entered our minds, and we didn’t really think much about it.  There was something in the brochure about keeping your food put away when camping, but we gave it only a passing glance.  Our son, Bobby, who was five years old at the time, was all eyes, however, as he scanned the sides of the road for any kind of unusual wild animal.

 The day was quickly slipping away, and upon locating a campground just north of the park entrance, we ducked in, found a spot, and set up camp for the night.  By this time, we were pretty efficient in our camping techniques and within a few minutes the tent was up, cots and bedrolls ready, and supper was being prepared.  To be honest, I have forgotten what we had for supper, but our normal evening meal when camping was sandwiches, or some kind of soup or chili. As the sun set and darkness fell, the evening became cool as it usually does in the mountains, and we stirred up a lovely campfire and enjoyed cups of coffee.  By this time, Bobby was running out of gas and decided he was ready to hit the sack, so he crawled into his bedroll and was soon sound asleep.

   In time the fire began to die out and Shirley and I decided to find our own bedrolls.  You must remember that our tent was 8’ by 10’…with three beds packed inside there was not a lot of space.  It was…um…cozy, but comfortable.  Shirley, of course, cannot go to sleep without reading two to three books, whereas I go lights out when my head hits the pillow.  So, the last thing I remembered was Shirley reading by lantern light as I drifted into a lovely sleep…until I woke up to someone banging me on the shoulder and saying in an excited whisper, “There’s something out there!”   With my usual alertness, I rose and said, “Huh?” and Shirley repeated, “Something’s out by the picnic table!”

   The “door” of the tent was drawn shut, but I cracked the fold of the tent just enough to peer out toward the picnic table…and saw it.  The bear was black, about ten feet tall with yellow, vicious eyes, three-inch claws and fangs hanging out of his drooling mouth.  Okay, okay…that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but at first glance, that’s how it appeared.  The second thing I saw was our food box and ice chest sitting on the picnic table, and suddenly like a revelation, the warning from the Yellowstone brochure flashed like a large neon sign in my mind.  “Make sure all food is placed in a secure area for the night!”  In the ensuing few minutes the bear ate every scrap of food we had.  The fact that it was wrapped in baggies or whatever made no difference.  He used his claws to unzip every bag as cleanly as a teenage boy going through a refrigerator after school.  The most amazing thing I saw was when he got to the Tupperware container of cold milk.  This is the absolute, honest, saw-it-with-my-own-eyes truth…he put the half gallon container under his…er..arm (front leg?) and with the other paw used a claw to grasp the top and pop it off as smoothly as you ever saw in your life.  Then with both hands (paws?) he raised the container to his lips and glub, glub, glub…drank the entire half gallon of milk.  When he finished, he set the Tupperware container down, wiped his mouth, and continued to dig in the ice chest.  If you don’t believe this story, I still have the Tupperware container with two claw punctures in the lid for your inspection.

    During all this activity, we were sitting in our tent protected by a very thin sheet of canvas and trying to plan an escape.  The table, our tent, and our car formed sort of a triangle, and we decided that our best escape would be to make a break for the car while the bear was occupied.  At this point, silence was golden, and we were barely breathing.  It was also then that I learned I had been too cheap in buying Bobby’s sleeping bag.  Our two bags were heavy cloth and well insulated, but Bobby’s was made out of some kind of polyester and vinyl.  When we tried to pull him out of his sleeping bag it sounded like we were crushing tin cans.  We feared the noise would attract the bear, not to mention that at that same moment we realized there was coffee, sugar, and cream in the tent, and everybody knows that a bear can smell sugar at a distance of about three miles!

    Then I realized…I have my gun!  If I have to, I’ll….no, it wasn’t a very big caliber and will just enrage him.  I decided to take another look at the bear…and he’s gone!  Or at least he’s not at the table.  Suddenly there were more shuffling sounds outside and they’re closer to us!  I heard in the silence of the tent, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…” and realized that my wife had repented of all her sins and rededicated her life to God four times over, so she was ahead of me since I was only on my third repentance.  We continued to sit in panicked silence for what seemed an eternity.  Suddenly with a loud scraping sound, the tent shuddered, and the bear brushed the sidewall of the tent nearest my head.  The lantern rocked from its hanging position (long since turned off), and I don’t know if we screamed, yelled, or passed out silently, but we froze in horror, expecting the bear to rip open the wall at any moment.

    We sat…and sat…and sat.  Afraid to speak or even breathe.  Slowly I peeked out the door again and saw no bear.  Only darkness and silence.  We probably sat as statues for the good part of thirty minutes.  And then we heard the crash of a trash can…but it was away from us!  Without a word we grabbed Bobby, ripped open the tent door, and ran for the safety of the car, piling in and slamming the doors.  Only then did we begin to breathe but still shaking from our frightening experience.  I’m not sure if we slept in the car, but we spent the rest of the night there anyway.

   When the morning came, we surveyed the damage, and, other than the fact that we were foodless, we were in good shape.  I picked up the now-empty Tupperware container and decided to keep it as a memento of a frightful time.  Other campers mentioned that they had heard that there was a bear in camp last night, to which we agreed that, yes indeed there was.  We spent the day touring Yellowstone, but we did no more camping.  I don’t mind telling you, the thought of a repeat performance of that night did not appeal to any of us.  We drove back to Casper to visit with the folks again, and we camped one night in Nebraska on the way home (far from the threat of bears).  But since that last camping night in Nebraska, my family has never spent another night in a tent.  Shirley made it clear that the only camping she would ever do in the future would be with a solid wall between her and nature. In all the years we lived in Wyoming, we always camped in a trailer or motorhome.  One encounter with a bear was enough for us.


Paradise Revisited: Noel, Missouri

    Looking back on my childhood, I draw the conclusion that my three sisters and I grew up in an almost Norman Rockwellian atmosphere.  Not in the sense that we lived in an area where the geography or the scenery was postcard perfect, but in the sense of the aura of peace and tranquility that a painting by Norman Rockwell inevitably presents.  In the eyes of Norman Rockwell the view was always comfortable, quiet, serene, and safe, and he had an uncanny skill in capturing the essence of the best of the human spirit.

    Throughout his adult life, my father worked hard to provide for his family.  The tradition of the husband provider and the wife home keeper was embedded in the culture of the time, and my father was successful in providing his family a comfortable home.  My mother took her home duties seriously, and none of us ever missed a home cooked meal or went to school wearing torn clothes.

    Though my father worked hard practically fifty weeks out of the year, he determinedly set aside at least two weeks every summer for our family to take a Vacation.  I capitalize that word because to us kids it was more than just a trip; we were to travel to our version of Paradise on Earth…namely, Noel, Missouri.  We had discovered this haven of happiness when Dad decided about 1950 to go back to his roots…at least as far as he could go.  Though Dad was born in western Oklahoma, many of his older brothers and sisters had been born in southwestern Missouri and northwestern Arkansas.  He had learned that many of his uncles and aunts still lived in that region of the Ozark Mountains, so, about 1950, we took our first vacation to the area to see how many old relatives he could find.  He knew that his grandfather Thomas Findlay Downing had been a circuit riding preacher who traveled from town to town in the area on horseback preaching the gospel and saving sinners.  Reverend Downing had also hauled logs on wagons pulled by horses to earn a little more money to keep body and spirit together and eventually established a church just outside Southwest City, Missouri, where he pastored for several years.  Years later, Dad ran across an old character in Pineville, Missouri, who remembered Preacher Downing and stated that he had admired Preacher Downing because “he was the only preacher who would walk into a bar through the front door…all the rest of the preachers snuck in the back.”  Apparently, the ministerial expectations were somewhat more relaxed back then.

    Anyway, on this summer day in 1950, we cruised into Noel, Missouri, in our black 1949 Mercury.  Noel was then, and is probably now, a sleepy town of about 800 inhabitants.  Its main claim to fame is Elk River, which passes through Noel on its way to Lake of the Cherokees in Oklahoma.  In this far northwestern edge of the Ozarks, the rivers are fed by clears springs, and the water, moving with a current that can be slow to near-rapids, is cool and clear.  Because a dam had been built across the river just downstream from Noel back in the twenties to generate electricity, the river had backed up and deepened so that the waters through Noel were fairly deep.  In fact, the two mile or so stretch through Noel is called Shadow Lake.  In the thirties and forties, the Noel townspeople begin to exploit this natural treasure, and, by the time we arrived there in the summer of 1950, Noel was a beehive of activity.  (See photo) To add to the scenic nature, there were majestic bluffs which overhung the river, and when several roads were cut through these bluffs, tourists came from far and near to drive their cars underneath these hanging bluffs and marvel at the engineering feats.

    We drove through the little town, and we kids got more excited by the minute as we saw swimmers, boaters, and other kids running and screaming like wild banshees.  It had taken us nearly two days to get there from Baytown, so my sister and I were ready to take off like rockets.  But Dad insisted we find a place of lodging to unpack and unwind, so we drove along U.S. Highway 71 looking for a place to light.  We drove along the river for about a mile until we came to a place that would become a part of our lives for probably as long as any of us children live:  Green Valley Courts.


    Now, I realize that the name is not very impressive.  Today, to impress someone with your vacation plans, you must mention Disneyworld, Hawaii, St. John, Fiji, or some other exotic spot.  But things were not quite the same 60+ years ago.  When we kids rolled into the driveway of Green Valley Courts, it was as if we had died and gone straight to heaven. The courts themselves were individual log cabins, each with a swing.  There was an actual modest valley, shaded with oaks and other tall trees, through which passed the most gorgeous stream or creek, whatever you wanted to call it, we had ever seen.  Before we even went to register, our whole family bailed out of the car, and rushed down to the stream (our name for it) and stuck, first our hands, and then our feet into the water.  The water was coming from a spring barely three miles away and was icy cold, rushing rapidly over smooth, round rocks with a burbling sound that was sublimely soothing.  Many times in our visits we would put a watermelon in the water overnight and it would be wonderfully cold by the next morning.  On this first visit, Dad barely had time to register and unpack before we were all back down to the water’s edge.  For the next two weeks, Dad would drag us away from “our stream” while we visited his relatives, but we counted the minutes until we were back to adopted home.  In the years to follow, Dad would throw out suggestions for some other place for our vacation, but we always wound up in Noel.  In 1959, Dad and Mom decided to go to Virginia instead (more relatives.)  We drove three hard days and finally stopped in Bristol, Virginia (barely into Virginia), but we kids had moaned and groaned so much, that Dad finally asked us, “What do you want to do?”  In unison, we yelled, “Noel!”  We turned around and went back to Noel. 

     Needless to say, over the years we’ve had many memorable times in Noel, but in 1957, and event took place that at the time didn’t seem like much, but it is actually the basis on which this little essay is established.  It was June of 1957, and as usual we were all in the stream’s water having a glorious time.  Just about a hundred feet upstream from where we played was a bridge over which ran the road to Southwest City.  On this particular day Dad and I wandered upstream to where we were beneath the concrete bridge.  The stream with its bed of smooth, round rocks was a perfect resource for rock throwing, and we were constantly bouncing rocks off the water’s surface or at some target.  For some reason, I picked up a rock and scraped the concrete support of the bridge.  I found I could write as if I were holding a pencil!

     My mother always had a mantra she believed in: “Fools’ names and fools’ faces always appear in public places!”   For some reason both Dad and I forgot Mom’s observation and we scraped our names and the date on the side of the bridge.  “Bobby Downing 6/27/57” “R L Downing 6/27/57” In a few minutes we lost interest and returned downstream to the rest of the family and enjoyed the rest of the day.  In time we forgot about our actions.  I was 14 years old and Dad was 39.

  Starting in 1950 and for nearly 30 years, Noel was a summer gathering place for our family.  Eventually I had three sisters to compete with, and believe it or not, my wife and I spent our honeymoon at Green Valley Courts in 1961.  In time our children came along and both of them have made pilgrimages to Noel.  Although Green Valley Courts disappeared in the seventies after being converted to small apartments, we continued to visit Noel, although we had to stay in “less satisfactory” accommodation…i.e., no stream to play in.

   In the mid-seventies, my family moved to Wyoming and lived there seventeen years.  My dad died in the nineties, during which time Noel took a turn for the worse because Tyson Foods built a huge chicken processing plant in Noel which ruined the river and attracted transients and illegals from miles afar to work for minimum wage in the chicken plant.  Noel was no longer the haven of peace as before.  The last time I visited Noel, three years ago, there were heavily shrouded, masked women walking the sidewalks, cafes advertising "Genuine African Cuisine!" and suspicious sorts wearing hoodies in ninety-degree weather watching your moves.  We have our memories, but Noel is no more.

   In 2007, my wife and I visited Branson, Missouri, which, of course, anyone over the age of sixty is required to visit sooner or later.  After our visit, however, we scheduled ourselves to travel to Grove, Oklahoma, to visit my sister Kathy and her husband.  To travel from Branson to Grove is a westerly trip, and, as luck would have it, we were to travel to within about ten miles of Noel.  A pang of nostalgia struck me as I got closer to Noel, and, finally, at the last minute, I made a turn and drove the familiar road along the river to Noel.  In fifty years, the road had changed little, except it was no longer U.S. Highway 71, but a county highway.  Highway 71 had long since been rerouted to bypass Noel, which destroyed the tourism business.  Eventually we drove into Noel, and whatever glamour was there earlier had long been washed away.  Noel was a ghost of its lively past.  After being depressed for ten minutes or so, we decided to drive on to Grove. As we were leaving, I suddenly realized that we were going to pass the site of the old Green Valley Courts, and then I remembered the bridge.

     After we drove over the bridge, I pulled the car off the road and stopped.  I’m sure Shirley thought I had lost my mind when I told her what I was going to do.  I took my camera and tried to find a path down to the stream.  By this time the stream was barely visible through the bushes, grass, and shrubbery.  I also thought about water moccasins because they are plentiful in that area of the hills.  Gingerly I climbed down the embankment to the water, and, finding no place to walk along the edge, I put my nice, white sneakers into the water and waded out.  The water was just as cold and clear as I remembered.  I was a little upstream of the bridge, so I waded down toward the concrete embankment, keeping a sharp eye for land or water varmints.  I reached the bridge and, walking underneath, looked up.

    Fifty years later, the names were still clearly visible (see photo.)  I placed my hand on the letters and suddenly my eyes filled with tears.  For a moment I longed to return to those innocent days of youth, and my heart ached to see my mom and dad.  Only one other time in my life have I ever felt as lonely as I felt under that bridge that day. It almost felt like judgment day when I realized that the words on the bridge were written when I was only fourteen and my future was ahead of me, and now I was sixty-four and the majority of my life had passed, ever so quickly it seemed.  I made a quick summary of my life’s accomplishments, and the list seemed so embarrassingly short.  Looking further down the stream, the little area where we children and parents used to play and laugh was choked with vines and weeds, but in my mind, I saw it as it once was.  I was reminded of the scripture, ” For what is your life?  It is but a vapour that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.”

    Eventually, after taking a few photos, I came to the realization that I have been very fortunate.  My childhood was the stuff of dreams…. not wealth and riches, but rather a home with caring parents and loving sisters.  We have gone our separate ways and now have our own families and dreams.  I have been blessed with a wonderful wife, children, grandchildren, and even in-laws.  We have created our own special places and memories. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in his story The Great Gatsby, “You can’t go home again.”  In 2012 I returned to the bridge; my name and my dad's name were still there...fifty-five years after the event.  I have had a good life.