The Nomadic Lives of Bob and Shirley Downing

     This little essay is probably written for my own benefit as much as anybody’s, since as I get older, many events of the early years seem to fade from memory. So, for the sake of my memory and posterity, I would like to give a brief Readers’ Digest account of where we have been for the last 50 years just in case you are wondering. Our current home is the thirtieth (30th) residence in which Shirley and I have lived since we married 50 years ago. We probably qualify for some sort of “nomad” designation and some sort of federal aid from our government, but I’ve never applied because there’s too much paperwork anyway. In our defense, in the last twenty years of so, we have settled down rather dramatically. In fact, most of our moves were in the first thirty years of marriage. In those first thirty years we moved 27 times, but in the last 19 years, we are have made three moves. We’re practically domesticated!
     Shirley and I married on August 18, 1961, and spent a lovely honeymoon in the world famous resort town of Noel, Missouri. The most notable thing...well, second most notable thing I remember about our honeymoon was while we were in the middle of a lake on a paddleboat. I decided to take a dive in the water. I came up to the surface, but my glasses didn’t. I wouldn’t say I’m blind without my glasses; it’s just that all I can see is light and dark and shapes, that’s it. Anyway, Shirley led me around by the hand for the rest of the honeymoon, but I drove home from Missouri. In those days it would have been scandalous for the husband not to drive, so in my 1954 Mercury with the front bench seat, Shirley sat really close to me while I drove (not all bad) and watched the traffic and told me when I could pass a car and what lane I was in. We had no trouble staying awake on the drive back to Baytown.
     We moved into our first apartment at 309 North Jones, Baytown. One apartment in a four-plex, it had no air conditioning and was small. $55.00 a month. The main memory here was Shirley dropping her wedding ring down the sink drain. After about fifteen minutes of nightmare, I was able to pull the water trap off underneath the sink, and there the ring was, nice and safe.
     In February, 1962, we moved to 505 Aron, Baytown, because it was a real house and only $10.00 more per month. My macho cousins, David Philips (wife Karen) and Vernon Downing (wife Virginia) were constant visitors. David, Vernon, and I called ourselves the “BVDs” (Get it?…Bob, Vernon, David.) We all loved softball and played on our church team. I was a better catcher than pitcher, but Vernon had four different pitches he could control. David tried to pitch and could do so with a blazing fastball…until he got rattled. After that, no one was safe anywhere around the plate, batter, catcher, or umpire. I was into long distance, short wave radio back then and used to listen to Radio Moscow and many of the short wave broadcasts that most countries used to broadcast. One day I was in the attic of the house installing a short wave antenna for better reception when Vernon came by to visit. He crawled up in the attic and stood there chatting. I turned my back to do something and at that instant heard a crash and a loud thud. Vernon had stepped between the ceiling joists and went through the sheetrock winding up on his back on the floor below. He got up like a wounded bull and said he was OK, and that was that. We moved out of that house in July 1963, with the hole still in the ceiling. Before you think poorly of me, I made a deal with the landlord and left a barbeque grill I had built there in compensation for the ceiling.
     We then moved to 704 East Gulf where, after living there for a month, I joined the United States Air Force. Don’t ask me why, I just did. A few months later the military draft was reinstated, and, who knows?…maybe if I had not joined I would have been drafted and wound up in Viet Nam. I honor those guys who went to the Asian Theater; as it turned out I would be involved in a different kind of struggle. From August, 1963, to December, 1963, my address was 3726th BMTS, Flt 982, San Antonio, Texas, while Shirley’s was Route 1, Box 336, Baytown, with my parents, although if the truth were known, she spent a lot of time at her parents’ home, also. Basic training was…um…unique. After basic I was sent to Detachment 3, 3345th Technical School, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. Apparently the Air Force had determined I had some sort of aptitude for languages, so at Indiana U. I studied Russian. From December, 1963 to September, 1964, I took 30 college credit hours of Russian. The Air Force had a separate building of classrooms with our own native Russian teachers. It was very intense and after the first six weeks, we were not allowed to speak English in the building. One of our teachers was a former Russian colonel who had led his troops against the Tzar in Moscow during the 1917 Russian Revolution. Once a fierce communist, he said he saw the light after he was captured in 1945 by the Germans and then freed by the Americans. He immigrated to the United States instead of return to the USSR because his family had all been killed by the Germans in the war. He hammered us with the Russian language, but when we got tired of it, someone would ask him about the war, and he would launch into a long story of an experience he had survived. His stories were fascinating, and at the same time gave us weary students a language break. During this time, Shirley and I made our home at 1513 South Walnut, Bloomington, Indiana, in an upstairs apartment of a family residence. A bedroom with a kitchen, plus a bath across the hall, that was it. We stayed there three months, and in March, 1964, moved to Route 10, Unit 4, which was half of a duplex located about three miles out of Bloomington in a beautiful location not far from a lake. There was much more privacy. I was glad I was able to see the spectacle of the Indianapolis 500 that year, and I was sorry that while we were there I sold my rare Gibson Les Paul gold solid body guitar to someone in our church because we needed the money. Today that guitar is worth a fortune. Shirley got her first experience at waitressing in Bloomington at the Howard Johnson Restaurant. Fact is, we would have starved without her work; she made more money than I did.
     In February, 1964, we transferred to Goodfellow Air Force Base, San Angelo, Texas, to an apartment at 903 South Abe Street…again an upstairs apartment in a residence. It was here that I learned why I had learned Russian and was introduced to the Security Service branch of the USAF. I was sworn to secrecy and threatened with dire consequences should I blab something sensitive to anyone. What I remember about Goodfellow was that we had interminable hours of slide shows and movies about what the Bad Guys were doing and how we were combating communism. These things were so boring it was a form of torture, so what the brilliant teachers did was about every 45 minutes to an hour a picture of a nude woman would flash on the screen for about five seconds. This was done intermittently with the theory that the airmen would be waiting expectantly for the next photo and therefore stay awake and pay attention. The first time it happened and I realized what was going on, I know I started praying because I was sure that we were about to get lightning struck any second. I was so innocent…and, yes, I closed my eyes every...well, most of the time. After my security indoctrination had completed, I sat at Goodfellow for nearly three months awaiting orders, and all I did during that time was play racketball for eight hours per day. I was lean and mean and did not lose very often.
     Finally, in February, 1965, I received my orders and headed for the 6912th Security Squadron, West Berlin, Germany. There I would be doing what I was trained to do while involved in a non-shooting war, more commonly referred to as the Cold War. We were on the front lines what with Berlin being situated 120 miles inside Communist East Germany, and the Russians did not like us being there. It was sort of a macho “I dare you!” game with us and the Russians played with real guns. Occasionally, we had hot activity, but normally it was sort of a dull, stressful tedium. For a glorified description, read my blog “Assignment, Berlin.” With Shirley in Texas, I stayed in the barracks until she arrived in August, 1965, and we moved into an apartment situated out in the city at 4 Massmann Street, Steglitz. We practically became Germans, and Shirley learned enough German to go to the markets and buy food. We made friends with our German neighbors (who defended Hitler, by the way) and enjoyed adjusting to this new culture. Berlin, even during this Cold War period, was an exciting city, and to us small town kids was a treasure trove of new adventures.
     In May of 1966 the big event happened; Shirley discovered she was pregnant. Small apartments do that to you. By this time we had been married for five years, and we were ready to become parents. It was an exciting time for us as we planned for the future while trying to stay financially afloat in the present. Shirley had a job at the military commissary, and again, her income was vital. In October, 1966, with Shirley five months pregnant, we managed to take a few days and visit Paris. It was a memorable time, but we walked seemingly many miles as we wandered the city (couldn’t afford a taxi or bus.) Shirley handled it like a trooper, though, and one of my favorite photos is of her standing in from of the Notre Dame Cathedral. Because of her pregnancy and military rules, Shirley had to return to the states before the end of her seventh month, so in December, 1966, she flew back home and I moved back into the barracks. On February 28, 1967, four days before I was to return from Berlin, our son was born. On March 4, 1967, I walked into my parents-in-law’s home and saw my wife and, for the first time, Robert L. Downing, III. I remember it like it was yesterday.
     After a month’s military leave, Shirley and I with our new son transferred to Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio. We moved into a small home at 118 Tampa Avenue. It was close to the base and quiet, however, since the grass is always greener elsewhere, three months later we moved to 122 Tampa Ave because the house was a little bigger. You have to remember that at that time everything we owned would fit into the trunk of a car, with the exception of a new washer and dryer we had purchased (new baby, cloth diapers,) so a move was not too complicated. Since I was nearing the end of my enlistment, it was during this period that the Air Force offered me a healthy bonus to reenlist, plus promised that for at least a year I would be attending Syracuse University in New York for advanced Russian studies. I accepted the offer, although we did not tell anyone at home.
     Just as we were about to drop the reenlistment bomb on the home folk, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War broke out, and rumors of the United States and Russia being pulled into the conflict raged like wildfire. People were stocking up on supplies and fearing atomic Armageddon. Churches fanned the flames, and revelations and visions of impending rapture and the Lord’s return to Earth abounded. To make a long story short, the whole affair spooked Shirley and I a bit, and we decided if anything was going to happen, we wanted to be at home when it did. I walked into my squadron office and canceled my reenlistment.
     So on August 4, 1967, I was released from active duty and we went back to Baytown, Texas. I had no job and very little money, but at least we were home. With the help of my father-in-law, we were able to buy a new 12’ by 60’ mobile home and place it on my parents’ property on Cedar Bayou-Crosby Road. We lived there for three years until August, 1970. During this time I worked at Sears in appliance sales and went to college on the Viet Nam Era GI Bill, which paid my tuition and books. I graduated in August, 1970, and at that time entered the Sears Executive Management Program. It was a special program for future top executives that was limited to 40 applicants from across the nation. The training was in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Tulsa store, believe it or not, was the most profitable and largest store in the Sears chain. We moved into 2007 East 49th Street North, Tulsa, Oklahoma in August of 1970 and remained until I finished my training in March, 1971. In Tulsa we learned what a real conservative church was like. I heard a minister preach that to have daisies in your yard was a sin because they were associated with the hippie movement in San Franscisco (that den of iniquity.) The Sears training was excellent, however, in preparing one for management.
     Once we finished our management training, Sears was like the military…we waited to see where we would be assigned. Fortunately, my former manager in Baytown had kept tabs on me and requested that I be assigned back in Baytown. Shirley and I happily accepted an assignment back at my old Baytown store. We also decided to buy a house upon returning to Baytown, and, in March, 1971, we moved into our brand new home at 3105 New Meadow. To us, it was beautiful…three bedroom, two bath, double garage, central heat and air. We were concerned that it was pretty expensive ($18,000) and the payments were really high ($158.00,) but we figured we could make it. I bought it with my VA benefits financing and paid $1.00 down.
     The next couple of years were busy, what with my learning the management ropes of Sears. In the latter months of 1971, Shirley’s parents moved to Casper, Wyoming to pastor a church and start a new life. We visited them for the first time in the summer of 1972, not realizing that we were touring our future home. In May of 1973, I was offered a higher management position with Sears in the Pasadena, Texas store. It was a substantial jump for a relatively new manager and I was happy with the opportunity. Bear in mind that at this period of the seventies, Sears was the Cadillac of retailers, by far the largest in gross sales and profit. Walmart and Kmart were incidental little entities that were seldom mentioned in management meetings. Sears was in the process of building the tallest building in the world in Chicago to put an exclamation point on their position in the retail industry. To be a top manager with Sears was a feather in your cap.
     In May of 1973 we sold our home on New Meadow and moved to Pasadena, after a brief stop at 1301 Beaumont, Apt 35, Baytown, since we had to get out of our house in a hurry and it took us a while to find a spot in Pasadena. In October, 1973, we moved to 2210 View Avenue, Pasadena, just a mile or so from the large Sears store on Southmore. Three months earlier, in July, we had gone to Wyoming again to visit in-laws, and it was at this time that they first threw out the idea of our moving to Wyoming. It had some appeal, but we dismissed it at the time. But we agreed that Wyoming was beautiful in so many ways. By this time more family members had migrated to Wyoming, particularly Shirley’s brother and wife, plus an uncle and aunt.
     I worked through the year of 1973 and into 1974 at Sears, Pasadena, but the draw of Wyoming became stronger and stronger. In March my father-in-law called me with an offer of employment. He and my brother-in-law were operating a couple of companies and needed a little more help. By June of 1974 we had made our decision, and I resigned Sears, we packed our belongings (now we needed a U-Haul truck) and headed for Casper, Wyoming. When we told my mom and dad goodbye for the last time with our U-Haul parked in their driveway and their only grandson seated in the truck, my dad cried, and I was shocked. I think the impact of our moving did not hit me until that moment. But we drove away.
     We made the long trek to Casper (in the U-Haul, a three day affair) and moved into 1544 Cody Avenue, a small 640 square foot rental in July, 1974. We were there one month when I came home from work one day and there was a “For Sale” sign in the front yard with a “Sold” sticker on it. I called my landlord, and sure enough, he had sold the house and we had to vacate the premises, the sooner the better. So in August, 1974, we moved to the next street over in Fort Casper Subdivision to 1501 Kit Carson, just across the street from my brother- and sister-in-law. This house was just as small, but at least it had a garage. In May, 1975, we were in the position to buy a house again, and we moved into 2120 Glendale. It was a “bi-level” home, very popular in the west where you enter the home on a middle level and then walk up a half flight of stairs to the upper level or down a half flight of stairs to the basement. The basement is only four feet into the ground which allows windows to be on the lower level also. The lower level came in varying degrees of finish. Our home was fairly basic, with two bedrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen and bath upstairs and a family room occupying about half of the lower level and the rest unfinished.
     These were good years. Bobby (son) was growing and we got into dirt motorcycles. I bought him a Honda 50 dirt bike and me a Yamaha 400. In front of our home was open country clear to Casper Mountain and we spent many an hour riding dirt trails up and down the hills. We both loved jumping the bikes over small embankments. My brother-in-law and I got into hunting during this time, bought Remington 700BDL 7mm rifles, and went after deer and antelope. To read of one of our experiences, read my blog “Hunting in a Jeep.” The winters were fun, also, as we learned to downhill ski and spent many Saturdays zipping down the slopes at Hogadon Ski Resort on Casper Mountain. The most notable thing I remember about 2120 Glendale, however, was the day I came home, walked up the stairs, and Shirley told me she was pregnant. Our son was nearly 10 years old and we had been wanting another child, but nothing seemed to work. In October, 1977, our daughter, Kimberly came to us and all was complete.
     By December, 1978, I had migrated to real estate sales as a Realtor, and we purchased a home at 421 South Beverly, a larger four bedroom, two bath, double garage model. We moved in just in time for Christmas. The next couple of years were enjoyable, with good real estate sales. We bought a motor home and traveled in a caravan with my in-laws to various scenic spots in Wyoming. But by Spring, 1981, an energy crisis had hit Wyoming, which lives and breathes according to the price of oil. The real estate market went to pot, and our finances suffered. When the in-laws moved out of the church parsonage into their new home, I asked if we could rent the parsonage, and in December, 1981, we moved into 1127 East 12th, and rented our home on Beverly. Christmas, 1981, was the most depressing Christmas I ever experienced, and I can remember sitting in from of the Christmas tree on East 12th that year in that cramped little living room with tears in my eyes. It was the first time in my life I ever had migraine headaches or had been unemployed for any length of time, and in a few months we would lose our home on Beverly. In December, 1982, my dad had his first major heart attack in Texas, and we had to fly to Baytown to be with him for a week. By that time I had gone to work for Max Honda and RV in Casper and things were starting to look up a bit.
     In February on 1983, we vacated the parsonage thankfully and moved into 904 Bonnie Brae, a very comfortable three bedroom, two bath home. We were still renting, but at least the home was presentable. My work at Max’s was going well and sales were good. I was able to buy a wholesale car from Max’s occasionally for extra money. I felt myself getting older as Bobby began driving, and we bought him a car, a Pinto station wagon (I’m so embarrassed.) Fortunately he didn’t have it too long and we were able to get him into a Toyota sport coupe. We were doing well enough that we did not want to continue renting so we began looking for another home.
     In February, 1984, we moved into 909 Stafford in Eastgate III, Casper, a very nice subdivision. We took over payments from these people with hardly anything down, but the payments were over $900 per month, and this was 1984. But we made it. The home was very nice with a place for our Winnebago motorhome. What I remember most about this home were the basketball games played by my son and myself in the driveway and the day he drove away to go to college at the University of Houston. The day he left I cried and I was depressed for a week. The house seemed vacant and I missed my boy. Of course, we stayed in touch and he came home on a regular basis, but it was a tough adjustment. By now I had fallen in love with British roadsters and MGBs, and drove several different models for several years. I liked them well enough that when we moved back to Texas later, I had one stuffed inside our U-Haul truck.
     In February, 1986, we found someone crazy enough to assume the $900 payments on the home on Stafford and bought a less expensive home on 31 Riverbend Road in River West Subdivision, strangely enough, situated along the North Platte River. It was a tri-level home. Than meant that you walked in on the middle level where the living room, dining room, and kitchen were, but went up a half flight of stairs to the three bedrooms and bath or a half flight down stairs to the family room, bedroom, and another bath. We were close to the beautiful North Platte River, and occasionally the family would take a float trip around River Bend. That was usually during the summer when Bobby was home from college. By now I had become the Sales Manager for Max Honda and RV, and things were going pretty well. We used our motorhome for weekend trips, and my brother-in-law, Buddy, and I still enjoyed fishing the North Platte River for rainbow and brown trout.
     But in July, 1988, after deciding we needed a larger home, we sold the Riverbend home and bought another on the east side of Casper at 4014 Somerset. It was by far the nicest and largest home we had owned, and is to this day our favorite place we have lived. It was in a nice location with a view of Casper Mountain and had plenty of room. By this time I was really in to MGBs and occasionally owned two at a time. There was just something about the little British rag tops that I liked. Of course, in Casper, with its normally sunny days and mild temperatures, it was an ideal place to own a convertible, anyway. In our three years on Somerset we experienced high times and low times. My father-in-law passed away in 1989, Shirley and I gained a new daughter-in-law, and finally on December 31,1990, my own father died. We were in Texas at the time visiting as we usually did over the Christmas Holidays, and the morning we were to leave for Wyoming, he suffered a fatal heart attack.
     After we returned to Casper Shirley and I began to consider our situation. Several friends we had known in Casper had moved away. With the passing of my father-in-law, who had been the pastor of our local church, the experiences with our new pastors had not been very satisfactory. The first pastor we chose lasted about 18 months and abruptly resigned, and the replacement pastor had created a lot of uncertainty with the members to the point that some were leaving. Coupled with this was the fact that our son and daughter-in-law were settling into the Baytown area, and, also, my mother was in an uncertain position with the family home, since we kids did not want her to live alone. To make a long story short, we worked out a deal with my mother to purchase the family home from her, allowing us to live there with her so that she would not have to move to a strange place.

     So in July, 1991, we pulled stakes from Casper, Wyoming, in the clear mountain west after seventeen years and came back to Baytown, our ancestral home, more or less. It was good to be home and with family, but I’ll have to confess that to this day I have twinges of remorse for Wyoming. When we moved into the old homestead at 405 West Archer, it was not in good shape. Dad had been in weakened health for a few years, and it needed a lot of repair. Over the next fifteen years every room was remodeled and central heat and air installed, but as it is with old houses, there was always something that needed to be fixed. But we made it into a nice, comfortable home. The old house saw its fourth generation of Downings with our two grandchildren, and provided a home for my mother until she went into a rest home in 2001. She passed away in 2004.
     By 2009, Shirley and I were contemplating retirement. Baytown had changed dramatically from our early years and we decided that when the time came for retirement, we would consider selling the old home and moving elsewhere. I had been through a stressful period of heart surgery and cancer, and the consensus was I needed to get away from the yard work and maintenance required by the old homestead. We thought of many places (Hawaii) but in the end, family ties were too strong, and we decided we would consider the Northwest Houston area around Spring….coincidentally around our kids and grandkids.
     By the spring of 2009, the U.S. economy was already going south, but we decided to try to sell the old house anyway, if for no other reason than to see if there was a market for a rural home. We put a sign in the yard and the old home sold in a week. The people walked through the house, around the yard, and said, "We'll take it." There was no bargaining on the price.  We were stunned. The next few weeks were a whirlwind of activity as we retired from our jobs, mine as a teacher and Shirley’s as a hospital unit coordinator. In May of 2009, we moved from our home of eighteen years, the home that Downings had lived in for 55 years, and moved to the Spring area of Houston. Because we had to scramble out of Baytown in such a hurry, we decided to lease for a year and then buy. We figured after living in our new area for about a year we would be more familiar with the surroundings and more knowledgeable about where we wanted to settle. And such was the case as we then moved to a home in Oak Creek Village, an established subdivision between FM1960 and Cypresswood Drive in Spring. We have settled into a new church (read my blog “The Ideal Church,”) and have enjoyed being closer to our kids and grandkids. We are much closer also to my mother-in-law and two of Shirley’s sisters and a brother. So the family has sort of migrated to this area.
     Whether this will be our last house remains to be seen. Packing and moving is not nearly as exciting as it was twenty five years ago. But at the same time, a new move is a new adventure!