Dad was one of those people who in my mind always knew what to do in any situation. He had a master’s degree in “living.” Born the fourteenth child of fifteen children to Levi and Ida Lillian Downing of Granite, Oklahoma, he grew up like many children during the Depression with a formal education being secondary to working in the cotton field and helping to support the family. He always had a gift for math, and when the time came that he had to drop out of school in the seventh grade to help with the family full time, his teacher went to his parents and begged them to let him stay in school. He dropped out anyway.
Working as a laborer, then as a carpenter, he went to an Indian Pow-wow (a gathering of Indian tribes…common in
then and in some areas even today) and met the love of his life, Ethel Mai New. They married in 1938. In 1939 the financial struggle of Levi and Ida Lillian Downing came to a climax, and they lost their farm. Hearing that there was work in Oklahoma , R.L.(as my dad was called), Ethel, his parents, and several brothers moved to the Houston . On Gulf Coast December 7, 1941, the entered World War II, and dad suddenly found himself learning to drive a U.S. tank in the U.S. Army, after which he was shipped to the Sherman Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska, where the land was so boggy tanks could not be used. (It was the Army...go figure.) In 1943, they had a beautiful baby boy (namely, me), and with mother having some health problems, Dad was given a discharge and allowed to come home. Within a year, mother’s health improved, but finances didn’t, so dad went back to the Aleutians, this time as a contract carpenter.
Dad returned after less than a year and finances were much better. Seeing that construction was still booming in the
area, Dad formed Downing Roofing Company, made up primarily of his brothers and local laborers. The company was a success, and afforded the family a modest level of comfort. Houston
I’ve always said that I was thankful that I was the oldest of the four children born to R.L. and Ethel Downing. The reason is I was able to see my parents when they were in their prime of life. Dad was always a good softball player, and Mom enjoyed her tennis. Many evenings I spent on the sidelines as Dad played the position of catcher on a softball team. He was a good “glove,” a good hitter, had an arm like a rocket, and could run like a deer. Maybe that’s why my favorite position became catcher when I began to play ball. I enjoyed pitching, but I was only average, at best.
My sisters don’t remember this, but the Downings lived life pretty hard in those early years. The Downing brothers and wives would come to our house and play cards and dominoes all night. The smoke would be so thick you couldn’t see across the room, and the beer flowed freely. I had an aunt who was a really serious domino player, and, since I was just a kid doing the noisy things kids do while she tried to play dominoes, she would sneak me a coffee cup full of beer to try to get me to settle down. I don’t think it worked. (I told Mom this story years later, and she nearly fainted!) I still remember some of the old country and western songs that would be blaring out from the phonograph as everyone laid down their dominoes. But all that changed one Sunday morning.
Dad’s brother, Orville, and his wife, Reba, had begun attending a Pentecostal church in early 1949 (which stopped their smoking and drinking) and began to pester Dad and Mom about attending. After dozens of “not this week,” for some reason Dad and Mom said yes and went to church. It was a defining moment in their lives. Within a matter of weeks they had received the Holy Spirit and changed their lifestyle. Their lives became centered around the church, and it changed the way we children were raised. Our home became a foundation on which we could build our lives. We learned principles of honesty, integrity, Christian living, and parental guidance. Dad was the head of the house, but he treated Mom with love and respect, and we were all considered when a household decision had to be made. We kids grew up knowing that Mom and Dad would be there when we needed them for support.
Dad had a major heart attack in 1982, and retired from Downing Roofing Company. He spent his time gardening and visiting grandkids. He had eight quiet years of relative relaxation after a lifetime of hard work. He deserved it.
In December, 1990, my family was living in
. For Christmas we traveled to Mom and Dad’s home in Casper, Wyoming , for a two week visit over the holidays. We were to leave to return to Baytown, Texas on the morning of December 31, a Monday morning. Sunday night we had all gone to church and enjoyed a wonderful service. As is the habit of many Pentecostals, we decided to go somewhere to eat after service. We went to a local IHOP and visited, ate, and enjoyed everyone’s company once more before we were to leave the next morning at . Wyoming
At there was a pounding on our bedroom door. My wife and I ran into the living room and found Mom with Dad, who was slumped over in his favorite rocker. We called for an ambulance, but in ten minutes, it was over. Dad was gone. The next few days were a blur as we went through the mourning, funeral, and future planning. Little did we know that this event would set in motion the events which would culminate in my family moving back to
. But that’s another story. Also another story is the fact (belief?) that I had a conversation with Dad early one morning on the back deck of our home...eighteen years after his death ( See my blog "The Visit.") Texas
We hear a lot about legacies and influences on our lives. We are a product, to an extent, of our environment. But even more than our environment, it is our attitude that determines the avenues we take in life. I was very grateful that I was able to experience both a healthy, nurturing environment and a positive attitude from my parents. Their inner strength and ability to calm whatever storm life sent us gave me a pattern from which to govern my own life.