The Day Kennedy Died...November 22, 1963

    In August of 1963 I entered the United States Air Force. Looking back and knowing what I know now, I should have joined during a more favorable season of the year. Basic training in any branch of the service is grueling enough, but in San Antonio during the summer the blistering heat makes even resting uncomfortable. I can remember waking up more than one morning during basic to find my cot wet with my sweat from the insufferable nights.
      But like most green troops, I survived the ordeal and came home a little leaner and with much shorter hair to my bride of two years. I had been assigned to attend Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana, to study Russian, for what reason I had not yet determined. All I knew at the time was that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (Russia, in general) was our cold war adversary, and I was going to be involved in the game somewhere.
     Arriving home in mid-November, Shirley and I began preparing for our journey northward to Indiana. We divided our time between our parents’ homes as we packed and planned. It was the first time we would be putting any distance between us and home (Baytown), and while it was exciting, it was also a little disconcerting. We both have very strong family ties.
     On Friday, November 22, 1963, we were visiting my parents at their rural property north of Baytown. It was around noon, and Shirley was helping my mother prepare a bit of lunch. Dad was at work at Downing Roofing Company, and I was in his barn tinkering around with something…I think it was his tractor…or maybe mower.
     About 12:45, Shirley suddenly ran into the barn, and yelled, “Bob! The president’s been shot!” We both ran back to the house and huddled up close to the radio. Yes, it was the radio. As far as I know, my mother and dad never owned a television. We listened intently as the events of the day played out, and by evening we knew the basic details of the tragedy which had taken place in Dallas. Being in the military, even as a raw recruit, I listened closely as the announcement went forth for any military personnel on leave and away from their bases of assignment to stand ready for any orders to return to their units. But no such order ever was issued.
     Before the sudden events of the day, I had been only loosely following the movements of President Kennedy. It has been forgotten now, but the reason for his political swing through the southern states and Texas was an attempt to shore up his sagging popularity in the South. Some of his New England liberal stances had not gone over well in the Bible Belt, and so his trip was a push to reveal his personal charm to the southern populace and blunt some of the political criticism.
     The next few days consisted of flurries of news bulletins and on the scene descriptions of the honoring and eventual burial of President Kennedy. On the day of the state funeral, we listened as the then-famous Walter Cronkite in his quiet, melodic voice described the funeral procession down Pennsylvania Avenue, and, as his voice broke with emotion, we, too, felt lumps in our throats and tears in our eyes. Needless to say, the entire nation stopped to view the proceedings on their black and white televisions…with the exception of those to whom television was a bane and who therefore were at the same time affixed to their radios. It would be years later before I actually saw the movies of Kennedy’s trip to Dallas and the ensuing days of mourning and funeral. “Life” magazine, the photo documentary magazine of the day, became a required purchase for everyone with its issue published a few days after the funeral. I had my copy for 45 years before selling it on eBay.
     Though all of us felt the tragedy of losing our president, when Vice-President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as our next president aboard Air Force One, we in Texas felt a little bit of relief in knowing that the nation was in good hands with a fellow Texan at the helm. Little did we know that President Johnson within 18 months would begin a major buildup of troops in Viet Nam creating a war which would last more than ten years and cost more than 60,000 U.S. casualties. The eventual result was it cost President Johnson his chance for a second term in office and created a civil turmoil in the United States which lingers to this day.
     A few months after Kennedy’s death, Shirley and I were in Bloomington, Indiana, at a park enjoying a beautiful summer day. A car rolled by our camp site and the occupants, noticing our Texas plates on our car, yelled, “President killers, go home!” For a while Texas was judged harshly in the eyes of the nation.
     A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the book storage building in Dallas and stand at the very window where Lee Harvey Oswald pulled the trigger and took the life of President Kennedy. It was a very sobering and thoughtful moment as I looked out on the street and plaza and imagined that day when the big Lincoln convertible slowly made its way past the crowds. The first controversy concerning Oswald was how he could fire three rounds at the president in seven seconds…with the conclusion being that there had to be another shooter. But anyone who has fired a rifle will tell you that three shots in seven seconds are easily managed, even with a bolt action rifle like Oswald had. Though there have been many conspiracy theories in the last fifty years, the evidence is still conclusive that Oswald acted alone. One macabre thing I saw the day I visited Dealey Plaza…a hawker across the street was selling photos of the Kennedy autopsy for $10.00. Only in Texas……
     I have read several articles in the last few days discussing how our country would be today if Kennedy had lived. It’s all conjecture, of course, but I think that Kennedy, being from the somewhat more liberal northeast, would have probably been a little less quick on the trigger than Johnson and perhaps the eventual outcome in Vietnam may have been different. He had weathered the Cuban Missile Crisis without bloodshed and had experience in dealing with the communists.  However, it was Kennedy who first ordered a military response to North Vietnam’s gunboat attacks on our destroyers the Gulf of Tonkin, so the Kennedy/Johnson comparison can go on indefinitely.
     What Kennedy had more than any other president, was personal charm.  Brandishing a boyish appearance complete with tousled hair and armed with an attractive wife, a successful family, and a military resume as a World War II hero, he embodied the new America…young, handsome, and capable. The “Age of Camelot” as his presidency has come to be called may never be repeated.  Fifty-three years...it doesn't seem possible.

            Interesting Facts Concerning the John Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln Assassinations

  (1)  Lincoln was elected in 1860: Kennedy was elected in 1960.
  (2)  There are seven letters in each last name.
  (3)  Both presidents were slain on Friday in the presence of their wives.
  (4)  Both were directly concerned with Civil Rights.
  (5)  Both presidents had the legality of their elections contested.
  (6)  Kennedy's secretary, a person named Lincoln, warned him not to go to Dallas.
  (7)  Lincoln's secretary, a person named Kennedy, warned him not to go to the theater.
  (8)  Both of their successors to the presidency were named Johnson.
  (9)  The successors, Andrew Johnson and Lyndon Johnson, both have thirteen letters in their names.
(10)  Both Johnsons were Southern Democrats who served in the U.S. Senate.
(11)  Andrew Johnson was born in 1808; Lyndon Johnson was born in 1908.
(12)  The assassins, Booth and Oswald, were both southerners who favored unpopular causes.
(13)  Oswald shot Kennedy from a warehouse and hid in a theater.
(14)  Booth shot Lincoln from a theater and hid in a warehouse.
(15)  Both Booth and Oswald were killed before their trials could be arranged.
(16)  Lincoln and Kennedy were both carried in their funerals on the same horse drawn caisson.
(17)  Booth and Oswald were born 100 years apart.
(18)  The names, Lee Harvey Oswald and John Wilkes Booth, have eighteen letters.

The Rise and Fall of Christian Music

    Any person with religious inclinations and ideals who attends nearly any kind of church is familiar with the music of the church known academically as hymnology. It would be hard for the modern church attendee to grasp the idea that there was a time when hymn singing was not an integral part of the church service and, in fact, in some groups actually forbidden. The study of hymnology to a degree parallels the evolution of man, not in the naturalistic sense, but in the spiritual. It represents a fascinating insight into the relationship that man has felt between himself and the Eternal God. 
     The Book of Psalms was probably the first collection of writings which eventually became known as hymns. It is believed to have been written during and after the Babylonian Exile and was probably used both in public and private worship. The importance of hymns can be verified in the scriptures as we read of Jesus and his disciples singing a hymn before the Last Supper. Paul in his writings gives evidence of the significance of Christian song when he tells the church to “…sing with grace in your hearts toward the Lord.”
     Hymns were evident in England long before the Renaissance. The Normans introduced carol singing during the Early English Period of the thirteenth century. During the Middle English Period, the hymns that were circulated dealt mainly with Christ, Christmas, or the Virgin Mary. It was during the fifteenth century, however, that singing as an art form came into focus. The humanitarian influences of the time were quickly put into verse and song by the gifted religious leaders of the time. The evolution of the modern hymn was energized with the birth of Protestantism, although congregational singing was apparent long before either John Calvin or Martin Luther. It took a man named John Hus to give the progression of the hymn a great leap forward. Hus was the first to promote the idea of group singing and gave his followers the first ever published book of hymns. His first recorded hymn book is dated 1505. Thus the modern hymn book had its humble beginnings more than 500 years ago.
     Martin Luther loved the old German folk songs and began to use the old metric form of music, creating verses which promoted the doctrines and inspirations of the new faith. Luther believed that a church service should have “…plenty of hearty singing.” Calvin, on the other hand, considered folk singing frivolous and believed that no words could be more fittingly sung in praise than the songs taken directly from the scriptures. He believed that hymns should be based on two factors: simplicity, because the people were simple, and modesty, because they were worshiping a sovereign God. In the 1740s an evangelical movement swept through the Church of England and became known as Methodism. The new Methodism movement enthusiastically endorsed congregational singing. It was led by the father of Methodist hymnology, John Wesley, although the same credit is sometimes given to his brother, Charles Wesley. In their lifetimes, the Wesleys published over 6,500 hymns, many of which are still church musical staples today. 
     To some scholars, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the golden age in the development of congregational singing. The early 1900s saw, in the United States and later in other areas of the world, a new evangelistic movement called Pentecostalism spreading like wildfire. The movement was marked by several distinct characteristics, but most evident to the observer was enthusiastic congregational singing. Though the hymns that were sung were, even at that time, old and well worn, they were sung with a conviction and depth of worship that had not been previously evident. The believers at the time would have told you that the enthusiasm was there because of a new experience and a new relationship they had established with their God. 
     By 1950, every congregation has a person assigned to select the songs of praise for each service. Hymnals were available for everyone to use, and each member was expected and encouraged to participate in the congregational singing. The music instrumentation was minimal: a piano or guitar as a base, and perhaps additionally an organ. The purpose of the music was to encourage congregational worship through congregational participation. In many smaller congregations, musical talent was limited, but in the simplicity of singing, a congregational member could become part of the whole church body and draw spiritual strength from his/her community of believers and a communion with God. The act of singing became a musical prayer of thanksgiving, worship, and honor. 
     In the mid 1970s, however, the focus of congregational singing began to blur. Musicians had become much more sophisticated and skilled in other instruments besides the basic piano, organ, and guitar, and, with the explosion of the Communications Age, musical influences outside of Christendom began to influence those who affected the music of the church. Taking advantage of the revolution of electronics and sound systems, massive musical concerts of every genre from bluegrass to hard rock drew thousands of enthusiastic spectators with many concerts being held outdoors to accommodate the throngs of attendees. Church musical directors observed with unfeigned envy the success of these spectacles and began to integrate the concert template into the regular church service. Congregational music began to morph from an exercise in spiritual bonding with fellow worshippers to a spectator sport. 
     Skillful presentation, rather that audience participation, became the objective of the musicians. Songs were presented as demonstrations of skill rather than a call to the congregation to participate. Praise was encouraged, but preferably it would be in enthusiastic reaction to the skillful presentation of the singers rather than the spontaneous worship a congregation might experience in musical prayer. Ignoring Calvin’s suggestion that congregational music needed to be simple and modest in execution, musicians created music which was increasingly more sophisticated: arrhythmic, atonal, and freely scripted (non rhyming.) The musically unsophisticated congregational member was not able to follow or understand the music that was being presented. 
     The result of this approach to church music has been the withdrawal of a majority of the members of any congregation from participation during the musical portion of a worship service. During this "worship" period of a church service, outstanding musicians and singers present songs of incredible difficulty with great skill. As these musicians perform albeit with great enthusiasm, one will generally observe less than fifteen percent of the congregation reacting to the music. There will be handclapping and some praise, but in general the church members are detached and nonresponding. The spiritual uniting of the members of the church with their leaders and their God is nowhere to be seen, and, as a result, a major purpose of church attendance is unrealized. 
     Is presentational music the death knell of Christian music?...or for that matter, the church? Probably not…but it is a step in the wrong direction. The purpose of the ministry, of music, and of every department of the church is to encourage an active relationship between each individual congregational member and his/her God. Though there is praise in presentational music, it is akin to watching a movie. It may be presented in high definition and 3-D and be magnificently presented, but it’s not real…it’s only an image viewed from the comfort of a seat. With no unifying spirit of communion, it does not encourage participation, and is, in the final analysis, detrimental to the overall progress of the church. 
     There was a time when church members stood and made audible prayer requests during a service. There was a time when church members stood and freely gave their testimonies of praise and worship during a service. There was a time when church members were encouraged to come to the rostrum and sing in the choir during song service, regardless of skill. And there was at time when church members came to church and sang the familiar songs of Zion in musical praise to their Creator.
     But no more. Pity.

A Tale of Nails

       Since I have now arrived at the septuagenarian stage of my life, it has for awhile seemed abundantly clear to me that I have experienced about all of life there is to experience. I mean, if you haven’t done something by the time you reach seventy years of age, it probably ain’t going to happen, and dreaming about it will not get it done. Even if the opportunity arose that you could indulge in a new experience, your body has become so creaky, and the mind so mushy that the very attempt to experience something new makes one just want to take a nap. The comfort zone becomes so narrow that any deviation is met with alarm.
      Let me say before I go any further that during my entire life I have always been considered a masculine sort of guy. Even as a mere youth, I enjoyed playing in dirt, picking on girls, climbing trees, and making obnoxious noises. As I progressed into adulthood, I enjoyed cars, fishing, hunting, sports, and even girls. But I also enjoyed being dirty, greasy, sweaty, and sort of generally unkempt. I mean, dirt under the fingernails or scruffy hair never really bothered me that much.
     Now that I am the picture of refinement with impeccable speech and decorum, I can proudly say (somewhat secretly) that I haven’t abandoned my roots. I am still distracted by a sporty, stylish car that passes me. I had a boss in the car business who used to describe a good looking car by saying, “It just stands up and says hello to you!” After years of appraising trade-in vehicles for dealerships, to this day when I look at a car, a number always pops into my head as to its value. Girls…i.e. women…are a different kettle of fish. When you’ve got the best, who needs the rest? End of story. However, I still enjoy spending time with the guys as we make remarkably visionary statements about every subject known to man. Lastly, I have always been an active participant in various sports, although at the current time a bum hip is limiting my physical stresses.
     That last fact I mentioned (hip) has had other consequences. Being a man’s man who considers beauty shops a sort of no-man’s land and a real old time barber shop one of the last bastions of real manhood, I have always been a person who looked with amused disdain upon men who had their hair styled, while with pride I took care of my own hair and trimmed my own nails, both hand and feet. The hip problem, however, has made it difficult for me to even put on my socks, much less to trim my toenails.
     My wife came to the rescue for me, however, this last Fathers’ Day when she presented me with a gift certificate for a massage and a pedicure. The massage I can take or leave, but the idea of a pedicure made alarm bells go off in my head. To walk into the very heart of enemy territory…especially a guy of my…um…maturity, made me equate this gift as akin to getting a gift certificate for a root canal. I could imagine the outcry of the women as this bull entered their china closet. However, since my wife has shown very limited enthusiasm for helping me with the nail trimming, I decided that I would go to the pedicure shop (whatever you call it), plug in my iPod, keep my head down, and endure the humiliation.
     Last Thursday, at 10:00 sharp I walked nervously through the doors of Vintage Nails. I was greeted by this fellow, very stylishly coiffured and dressed, with a big beaming smile, who said, “Welcome to Vintage Nails! How can we help?”  I asked, “Do you do pedicures for old guys?” To which he laughed and replied, “Of course, one moment, please,” and he disappeared.  I nearly bolted for the door.
     But then this charming, beautiful Vietnamese lady walked out, and it was love at fir…..no, wait that’s a different story. Anyway, the lady invited me back into her room (parlor? lair?), and I followed like an obedient puppy. I was placed in a chair with more buttons than the seat in an F-16, and she without asking removed my shoes and socks…and pulled UP my pants legs to my knees. “You come here often?” she asked, and I replied, “No, as a matter of fact, this is my first time…in fact it’s my first time for a pedicure in my life.” She jumped up and squealed sometime in Vietnamese, and suddenly all these women were coming out of the back room, squealing, laughing, and pointing at me. Each one looked at me and asked, “First time?” I started to run, but she was holding my feet down in some water and wouldn’t let me get up. Trapped!…so I meekly replied, “Yes, ma’am.” My Vietnamese captor exclaimed, “I take good care of you!” So I just mumbled, “Please be gentle.”
     Anyway, she put something in the water (probably Ajax with Ammonia) and allowed my feet to soak for about ten minutes while she talked. The water was warm, the chair was really comfortable, she was easy on the eyes, and suddenly I felt my fears beginning to lessen. I learned she was 47 years old (looked 35), had escaped Viet Nam in a boat 25 years ago, made her way to the United States, taught herself English, married a successful businessman, and was a living example of the American dream. After the soaking, she began to massage my feet, and trim, clip, cut, buff, and otherwise beautify my poor toenails. I glanced at her feet (she was wearing sandals,) and her feet and nails were perfect. I asked her, “Can you make my feet like yours?” She laughed and replied, “Not today, but you come back, and I will.”
     After she had taken care of the nails, she spread some kind of lotion over my feet and legs up to my knees that smelled like oranges, but creamy with like grains of sand in it. She began to massage my feet and calves, and whatever anxieties I had about the session began to fade like the end of a black and white movie. It felt….good. Just so my Friday breakfast buddies will be reminded once more…because they did ask me…I did not yell, “Green light!” at that moment. (Whatever that means…) It was about this time that I made a friend for life. She said something complimentary to me (I forget what) and I replied with “Cam on ban,” which is “thank you” in Vietnamese. God bless Google Translate. You would have thought she had just met her long lost father. In my experiences I have found that in dealing with people whose primary language is not English, learning just a few of their home language words can establish almost instant friendships.
     Anyway, once we got rid of the sandy orange lotion, she wrapped my legs and feet in hot towels, all the time massaging, and then, after removing the towels and applying some kind of smooth lotion, she massaged my legs again with some smoothly rounded, palm-sized rocks which had been heated. Back home sixty years ago my ancestors would have said, “It wuz plumb fittin’!”
     Somewhere along this time, she asked me if I would like a manicure to go with the pedicure, and honestly, at that juncture I would have agreed to about anything. With the manicure, just about everything which I described that occurred with my feet occurred to my hands and arms. I admit it…it was heavenly! At the end, I bade Ty (her name) farewell with the promise that, “Yes, I shall return.”
     The only mistake I made during this whole pedicure/manicure episode was…I told a few people. Well, maybe more than a few, since I posted it on Facebook, so I know that at least my 21 friends are aware of it. But I fear that my manly, masculine, macho image has been damaged forever. I want to set my friends’ fears at rest, however. I may not drive around with a set of horns on the front of my car anymore, or I may have forgotten a few batting averages or names of NFL players. The Rockets or Astros or Texans may not interest me as much as before. I may not go fishing or hunting as much as before. I may not know or care as much about guns or fear Obama as much as you do. I may not talk about my wife in disparaging terms as much as you do (and you know who you are…). BUT I am still a man and am willing and anxious to do man stuff as often as possible.
     Well...except Thursday mornings….that’s my pedicure time.

Principles and Politics

    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 the mistake of unsuccessfully hiding their weapons and retributions 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 Barack Obama 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 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 principle. Consider the hypothetical situation of an elected official who has sworn to his constituents “No new taxes!” and then has to 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? 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 reflect the general pulse 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 and Democratic majority in Congress, the Republicans have adopted the knee-jerk reflex of “No!” to anything President Obama remotely suggests. Knowing that the 2014 elections are on the horizon and seeing the light at the end of the Obama presidential term in 2016, Republicans are digging in their heels and throwing out every possible stumbling block to any potential political success for the Democrats, and as a result the country founders with high unemployment, porous borders, a shaky economy, crumbling infrastructure, and rising crime. Please understand…I am not a Democrat and am not a fan of President Obama. He and the Democrats have done their fair share of uncompromising destruction. Although blessed with a friendly House and Democratic president, the Democratic Party has disdained the Republicans and refused to reach across the aisle and offer an olive branch of peace and compromise. As a result, many of the Democratic goals so loftily presented at the beginning of the Obama administration have never gotten off the ground.
    During the George W. Bush presidency, the tables were turned, and it was the Democrats who were stumbling blocks, and any legislation which may have benefited President Bush or the Republican Party was soundly squashed…in the name of “principle,” and Bush, being loyal to Republican “principles” was not anxious to cooperate with the Democratic Congress.
    The last president to publicly reach across the aisle to the benefit of the nation was probably Bill Clinton. Faced with a Republican Congress after the midterm elections, he cooperated with Republican leaders, cajoled Democratic legislators, and helped to create an economy which rebounded and gave the United States its last balanced budget that it probably will ever see. The fiscal success was due to both Republicans and Democrats, still guided by their principles, considering the welfare of the country and compromising to reach an agreement. President George H.W. Bush faced a similar predicament years earlier. Although he had famously made the statement “No new taxes!” during the presidential campaign, after entering office and understanding the financial situation of the nation, Bush signed a fiscal bill which raised taxes and helped balance the federal budget. It cost him political points with those who had uncompromising principles and the “destroy to save” philosophy, but it was better for the country.
    There is a place for uncompromising principles. In my spiritual life, I have principles of behavior and a biblical belief which I am not willing to change; however, my personal spiritual principles are my own. In the political arena, assuming that there exists a true democracy, the politician does not serve to promulgate his/her own principles. A politician works to promote and protect his constituents, and every decision should be based on that ideal. What our country needs are legislators who cannot be bought, who do not vote with an eye toward reelection, who do not make impossible-to-fulfill promises, who seek to improve the general welfare of their citizens, and who are willing to work for the general good of the United States of America.  They are a vanishing breed.

Confessions of a Car Junkie

(This first paragraph is a close reprint from my “The 1954 Mercury” post )  Many men (well, maybe most) have some sort of weakness which, should a temptation approach them that appeals to their innate psychological Achilles tendon, causes them to turn into weak-kneed bowls of jelly totally unable to offer any resistance.  To some it may be the evil vices of booze, or smoking, or gambling…maybe even the irresistible attraction of the opposite gender.  But for me and a generation of kids who grew up in my era of youth, namely the fifties and sixties, it was the magnetic attraction of the American automobile.  It’s possible that I inherited my addiction from my dad who loved cars and was a “Mercury man” for nearly thirty years, but whatever the source, by the time I turned twelve I knew the engine size, horsepower, weight, length, width, height, and color choices for every automobile manufactured for the current year by the Big Three (Ford Motor Company, General Motors, and Chrysler Corporation.)  Back in those days, most new model cars were introduced to the public around the first of every October.  Shiny new models were well kept secrets, delivered to dealers while under heavy canvas hidden from prying eyes until the Holy Day of Revelation.  On the Blessed Day there would be hundreds of people at the showrooms to see the latest offerings from the manufacturers.   I have seen police at local dealerships directing traffic because of the demand to see the new models of various cars.  Most dads took their sons to football games; my dad took me to every new car showing in Baytown.  I was there the day the first 1958 Edsel was uncovered at the dealership on Commerce Street and heard a couple hundred people gasp at its radical styling.  On the day the 1964 Ford Mustang debuted, I had to park blocks away from the dealership and had to wait several minutes before I could even get inside the dealership due to the crowd of gawkers.  I had stacks of brochures and studied them thoroughly.  I knew more about the cars than the salespeople did.
     The 1950s were the golden age of the American automobile.  Unrestricted by oil limitations, gas prices, EPA mileage requirements, or federal guidelines, and blessed with highly imaginative stylists with carte blanche to design the dream car for the masses, the American automotive industry created some of the most distinctive, outlandish, and memorable automobiles in the history of transportation.  Each major brand of automobile boasted a distinctive profile (’59 Cadillac fins!) that made each model recognizable from any reasonable distance and generated an owner loyalty to the marques which is distinctly absent in today’s market.  Automobile manufacturers of today, encumbered by EPA mileage requirements, high energy prices, safety regulations, international competition, and globalization of the markets are forced to create generic cars, predictable in design, uninspiring in appeal, and indistinguishable  from competitive brands.  Ninety percent of automobiles on the road today would be unidentifiable if viewed from a shadow profile. 
     Please note that up until this point I haven’t mentioned quality of product.  Whereas the fifties set of wheels glittered with miles of shiny chrome, glass, and rainbows of colors, the standard warranty was 90 days or 3,000 miles, and extended warranties were unheard of.  When an automobile hit 70,000-80,000 miles, it was usually time for a major engine overhaul, and brakes and tires were worn out in well under 25,000 miles.  The American auto industry had not yet discovered the value of building a quality product; their specialty was building a car which would blind you with its styling and make you not even care about the expensive upkeep.  Today’s cars, however bland and styling deficient they may be, far outshine their ancestors in durability and safety.  Unfortunately for today’s manufacturers, the first reaction to practically anything comes from a visual impression, and the cars of today just don’t get the blood churning like their predecessors.  If I were in the market for a new car today, I would look at a Cadillac, for the simple reason that the knife-edge styling of the new Caddys contrasts pleasantly with the rounded bars of soap profiles of all its competitors.  Even the so-called SUVs so prevalent today have degenerated into an indistinguishable pile of mediocrity with each manufacturer unashamedly copying their perceived competitors’ products.  The creative, bar-raising, boundary-busting automotive model is nowhere in sight.  I do have high hopes for the Tesla, the new all-electric luxury vehicle created by an individual (wealthy) genius unrestricted by the closed culture of the automotive giants.
     However I may moan and groan about the state of the modern automobile, it hasn’t stopped me from buying them.  Since I drove my first 1954 Mercury off the lot in 1959, I have been privileged to own 134 different vehicles…a total of 33 different brands, foreign and domestic.  Granted, I have slowed down recently to about a car or two per year, but back in the earlier days, I apparently was seeking the Holy Grail of automobiledom and therefore had a tendency to look longingly at different models on a somewhat regular basis.
    I have always liked two-seater sports cars, preferably with convertible tops.  I’ve never been much of a truck person.  I read recently that of all the trucks sold in the United States today, over 60% of them are never used as trucks for hauling. Truck manufacturers have done a masterful job of relating truck ownership to manhood, so “drivin’ mah one-ton dooley” satisfies the macho male ego more than anything else.  I realize that some trucks are used for work, but otherwise, why someone would drive a bulbous, wallowing, thirsty, bouncy, non-stylish vehicle around is beyond me.  I was hooked on sports cars after I bought my first one…a 1961 Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce.  It was a red, high-revving Italian job with double overhead cams and Weber carbs back when most American iron was just discovering overhead valves.  It could turn on a dime and give you a nickel change.  I taped a microphone back near the rear wheel, turned on the recorder, and went screaming around corners while going up through the gears and listening to the tires screech.  Afterward, I played that tape over and over at home.  Cheap thrills.  In later times came eight MGs, a couple of Triumphs, and even a Fiat  X1/9 (the only car I would not drive anywhere without my tool box.)
     One of the coolest cars I ever owned was a 1981 Gazelle, a 1929 Mercedes SSK fiberglass kit car built on a Ford chassis.  I didn’t build it…it was professionally built and beautiful.  Used to have girls follow me in their cars wanting to go for a ride.  Since I wasn’t in the mood for any marital stress, I eventually sold the Gazelle.  One of the quickest cars I ever owned was a 1968 American Motors AMX, a two-seat sports car built by AMC for a few years.  Small, light, with a 390 V8 and four-speed, it would scream through the gears.  It wasn’t much on stopping though…this was before disc brakes came along.   
      One of the prettiest cars I ever bought was a new 1979 Chevy Monte Carlo…one of the first models with glass T-tops.  It was a beautiful car, but even in Wyoming in summer the glass roof let in way too much heat.  Looked good with the glass roof off, though.  
    I got interested in Saabs for a few years and owned four.  Saabs are built by weird Swedish engineers and are a little quirky.  (The company ceased to exist in 2012.)  The ignition key was in the middle of the console between the front seats.  But a Saab drove and handled like a sports car, and it was one of the first manufacturers to offer turbocharged engines.  They were very quick for the time.  However, they were a little problem-prone.  Son Bobby drove one from Wyoming to the University of Houston and had car trouble driving south, while he was in Houston going to school, and on his way back north to Wyoming.  It was so expensive to fix, I once flew down to Houston, fixed the car myself, and flew back to Wyoming…all cheaper than it would have cost us at a Saab dealer in Houston.  When he got back home, I bought him a new Honda…end of car troubles.
   I’ve owned some cars that I thought were ahead of their times…a 1968 Renault 10 and a 1980 Nissan 310GX.  Small but comfortable, both cars consistently obtained 40-45 mpg…but nobody cared because gas was $0.30 per gallon.  Then I’ve also owned vehicles that were at the end of their lifetimes, namely six Jeep Wagoneers.  Not the baby ones you see today, but the large, Suburban-style, full time four wheel drive behemoths that were the workhorses of Wyoming.  It was impossible to stick one in the snow.  They went everywhere. 
One car I have never owned has always interested me.  Recently, having entered my declining years of senility and common sense, I had an opportunity to trade my 97 Mustang GT convertible for a car I’ve always admired from a distance.  It’s not new by any stretch…it’s a 1996 Chevrolet Corvette.  In auto sales parlance it would be described as “honest.”  Very clean, very original, no body work, good leather, 89,000 miles, removable roof panel, and runs like nothing I’ve had since the AMX.  I hunt for reasons to take it for a drive. 
    Some future day I’m sure that I will hang up my keys and reserve the Senior Citizen bus for my travels.  But until then, I’ll still be collecting auto brochures and reading car magazines.  Want to buy a good Vette?  What have you got to trade?
   



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 Justin Timberlake concert.

Reflections on a New Decade

                                         Seventy  (May 5, 2013)
   By Bob Downing                                                

Three score and ten” the Scriptures do say
Are the days of our years; we then “fly away.” *
An endless time…through the eyes of the young…
Becomes hauntingly brief when life’s song is near sung.

The horizons once faced are now memories long past.
The victories and triumphs so cherished did not last.
The failures, the heartaches, the losses, and schemes
Of a life poorly spent bring nights’ tortured dreams.

The curtains of our minds in the dark of the night
Draw open to reveal a troubling sight…
Unlimited youth with its promise and fun
Has vanished away like the dew in the sun.

The desires, the passions, the zest for the day
Are like snowflakes that fall and soon melt away.
The finish, once distant, looms alarmingly near
And the memories of life become ever so dear.

The goals, once assumed, are now elusively caught,
And the emotion of love becomes merely a thought. 
Deeds once accomplished with hardly a strain
Are now deeds but dreamed and seldom without pain.

But continue we must, and through effort and strength
The days of our lives may be increased in length.*
With happiness and love and good deeds to lend
Three score and ten” could be when we begin.

*Psalm 90:10


                       “Nothing Rhymes with ‘Sixty’”  (May 5, 2003)

By Bob Downing

Nothing rhymes with sixty, as one turns the annual page.
Nothing rhymes with sixty; it’s an awkward, frustrating age!
Too young to be old; too old to be young
Concerned your life’s song has already been sung.

The memories of the past grow longer…yet fade,
While the future once dreamed seems fainter in life’s shade.
Helpless and hapless, trapped in time’s ceaseless tide,
Then saved from the gloom by, “Hey, Papaw! Come outside!”

The message becomes clear.  It’s not the future or past,
But the present is where our legacy is cast.
Children and grandchildren, the caress of a wife,
The closeness of a family…therein lies life.

With His hand to guide us as we travel along
Everything rhymes with sixty…if you play the right song!



                   Muses and Meditations upon Reaching the
              Fiftieth Rung on the Ladder of Life   (May 5, 1993) 

By Bob Downing

Methinks it be not super nifty
When one turns the magic fifty.
Forsooth, it seems both bod’ and mind
Hath nature ravaged, most unkind!

Unbeknownst, time took its toll,
And now, though willing in heart and soul,
I call to my feet, “I’m in a running mood!”
They answer back, “Forget it, Dude!
The only thing we want to feel
Is a cushioned footstool under the heel!”

Durst I not know?  I anguish and weep
That now I choose an afternoon’s sleep
Instead of football, baseball, or track.
And incentive to work?  I totally lack!

“To be or not to be!” The question rages.
The answer ballyhooed down through the ages.
But as for me, my response is thrifty,
“Don’t ask me, Bub, I just turned fifty!”

_____________________________________________________________

September 26, 1983...Fifteen Minutes from Apocalypse

    Post-World War II history documents the rise of two major world powers, complete opposites in political philosophy and ambition.  After 1945, the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or the Soviet Union, or commonly, Russia), once nervous allies in the battle against Nazi Germany, quickly became fierce competitors on the world stage for global influence.  The struggle became war-like in intensity, albeit without the usual firing of weapons, although there were many skirmishes along the way involving firepower.  The struggle became known as the Cold War, since actual combat between the two great adversaries seldom occurred.  Yet the underlying punching, counter-punching, feinting, and intrigue continued worldwide on a daily basis.  Although there was no combat, armies were in place, aircraft were loaded and ready for takeoff, and ships were armed and ready to fire.  Additionally, within a few short years after 1945, thousands of nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were aimed toward each combatant by the other nation…all in the name of defense.  All that was needed was the command to attack.
     In a twisted sort of logic, this mutual military standoff brought a measure of stability. There was a general philosophy referred to as "mutually assured destruction" (MAD) which preached the logic that, with the guaranteed assurance that both countries would be totally destroyed in the case of nuclear conflict, neither country’s leader would ever consider giving the “attack” command, and thus, to save one’s own country, one would not attack the other. This stable philosophy worked well except whenever one side perceived, either factually or otherwise, that the other side was gaining some sort of advantage which might tip the balance of power one way or the other. The results were the production of more weapons and more men in uniform.
     When we review nuclear near-catastrophes during the Cold War Era, we normally think of the Cuban Missile Crisis of the 1960’s. However, it was in 1983 that the world teetered most precariously on the edge of nuclear holocaust. The fact that most of the events took place inside the Soviet Union has resulted in there being very little known about the events leading up to September 26, 1983. Much of the following information has been made available only since the fall of the Soviet Union and the declassification of CIA documents relating to the event.
     In January 1981, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president, and within two months, having run for election on a platform of “Peace through Strength,” he began his plan to strengthen the U.S. military. According to recent declassified CIA documents, in March 1981 Reagan authorized an expansive psychological program (PSYOP) for the military to “operate and exercise near maritime approaches to the USSR where U.S. warships have never gone before.” The operations continued into 1983 in what CIA documents called a “full court press,” using a basketball analogy.  In public, Reagan heightened his anti-Soviet rhetoric saying the Soviets “reserved the right to commit any crime, to lie, and to cheat” to promote world revolution.
     As early as May 1981 at a secret KGB conference in Moscow, Soviet KGB head Yuri Andropov announced his view that the United States under Reagan's leadership had abandoned the concept of MAD and was actively pursuing a strategy of first strike against the USSR. As a result, Andropov formed a new collaboration between the KGB and the GRU (USSR military intelligence). This new arm, called RYAN, an acronym for Raketno Yadernoye Napadenia (Nuclear Rocket Attack), required agents to be sent worldwide to monitor U.S. military activities and report any signs of an impending attack.
     On November 10, 1982, Leonid Breshnev died, and Yuri Andropov became General Secretary of the Communist Party. Andropov was a career KGB agent and one of the most virulent anti-western, anti-U.S. leaders in the USSR. He did not trust the outside world and was extremely suspicious of Reagan. Reagan’s continued military buildup reinforced Andropov’s conviction that the United States was planning a first strike against the USSR.
     The tension was noticeably ramped up when in the spring of 1983, Reagan announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, soon to be called Star Wars.) Reagan himself had stated his revulsion for the general concept of MAD because it relied on trusting an enemy whom he knew in his heart he could not trust. The Soviets were thunderstruck, and four days later, Andropov publicly announced that the United States was actively planning a nuclear strike against the USSR and warned of the consequences.
     Early in the morning of September 1, 1983, Korean Air Lines Flight 007, left Anchorage, Alaska, en route to Tokyo and, for unknown reasons, flew over the Kamchatka Peninsula, USSR territory. Soviet MiGs were scrambled but had difficulty locating the Boeing 747 because Arctic storms had knocked out part of the Soviet radar system. KAL007 passed over the Sea of Okhotsk and over Sakhalin Island where it was finally intercepted by Soviet MiGs. Major Gennady Osipovich, pilot of the lead intercepting plane, identified the aircraft as having “blinking lights.” Interestingly, he stated later in his report that he “knew it was a Boeing aircraft because it had two rows of lights and it was a civilian aircraft.” Asked why he did not relay this information to the ground, he said simply, “They didn’t ask, and it didn’t matter. It would have been easy to convert a civilian aircraft to a military one” Osipovich fired two proximity-fused missiles, one of which exploded fifty meters from the tail, damaging the hydraulic system and penetrating the fuselage.   KAL007 began a 12 minute slow, no doubt terrifying, descent, eventually crashing in the Sea of Japan.
     The shootdown of KAL007 brought worldwide condemnation to the Soviets, who made the mistake of stonewalling the event for four days. The Soviets finally claimed it was a military provocation, although the real reason for their quick trigger was probably because shortly before the KAL flight had passed over the region, a U.S. reconnaissance plane had flown over the same area, and the Soviets had been unsuccessful in intercepting it. To make matters worse, the Soviets had been planning a missile launch in the same general area for that same day and were already on high alert.
     And then...on September 26, 1983, the United States attacked.  Just after midnight, Colonel Stanislov Petrov was sitting in the central defense bunker where the Soviet Union monitored its nuclear early warning satellites high above the United States. One of the alarms suddenly sounded and the red button on his console flashed “Start.” There was a report of one, then two, then three, then four, then five ICBM’s being launched from their positions in the United States toward the USSR. In an interview in 1999, Petrov reported, “For fifteen seconds, we were frozen. We could not believe our eyes.” At that point they were required to notify the warning system headquarters which would then have alerted Soviet Secretary Yuri Andropov. Petrov knew how Andropov would respond. Already highly suspicious of U.S. intentions, he would give the order to counterattack. In fifteen minutes from that time, the world would be destroyed.
     Petrov made his decision concerning forwarding the information based on what he had been taught by his own military training. The concept of MAD had been thoroughly instilled in the military staff, with the expectation that any nuclear confrontation would be a total response with all weapons.  He observed, “When people start a war, they don’t use only five missiles.” Additionally, Soviet ground-based radar showed no signs of missiles on the horizon. He stated, “I had a funny feeling in my gut. I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made the decision (not to forward the information), and that was it.” In the end, the alleged missile launches were traced to a computer glitch. If Petrov had made the call, the world today would probably be far different from what it is.
     Interestingly, years before this event, in 1966, to be exact, I was witness to a similar alarm. In my case, the tables were turned. I was at my post in West Berlin when radar reports came in of waves of aircraft flying toward our location. Coming from deep in the Soviet Union, the blips were identified as aircraft flying in formation headed straight for our border. Alarms sounded, messages were sent to headquarters in West Germany, and decisions were being feverishly made to contact Washington. The planes reached us, hit the border…and disappeared from our radar screens. Within a few minutes came the answer…the radar system had somehow picked up some sort of signal “echoing” and multiplied the blips. False alarm, much to our relief.
     On October 10, 1983, Reagan sat through a movie “The Day After,” a dramatic account of nuclear war graphically depicting the destruction of American cities.  In his memoirs he stated it left him “very depressed.” “I wonder,” he wrote in his memoirs, “how much reasoning can take place in six minutes in response to a blip on a screen?” The beginning of 1984 saw a softening of the Reagan rhetoric, and a Soviet official stated that it was “not necessary to over-dramatize a situation.” The U.S. and the USSR reopened talks concerning opening more diplomatic consulates and de-escalating the points of contention between the two countries.
     And the world breathed a sigh of relief.


Guns, the CHL, and the Second Amendment

     For most of my adult life I have owned some sort of weapon…i.e... a rifle or a pistol. Not that I ever felt a need security-wise for one; it was more a matter of “well, you never know…,” or perhaps it was just a sort of neat thing to possess. About the only time I ever had a use for a weapon (at least during my non-military years) was when we lived in Wyoming and did a lot of hunting. My brother-in-law, Buddy, and I bought Remington BDL 7mm magnum rifles with scopes and used them for several years in our quests for deer, antelope, and elk. Additionally, for all the years we traveled in our campers and motorhomes, I always carried next to my seat a twelve gauge shotgun with a pistol grip and shortened to a comfy length. Not sure why, I just seemed to feel safer with it there because “well, you never know.”
     Along the way, I have collected a few pistols, small calibers like .22s and .25s, primarily from my parents and other opportunities which presented themselves. Having moved to Texas in the early nineties, the opportunity to shoot, recreationally or otherwise, has not presented itself very often because, in the final analysis, I’m not a dedicated gun aficionado and do not look for reasons to whip out a weapon, flash it, fire it, or brandish it. I know, I know, I’m in Texas now, and I need to become a little more ornery and trigger-happy.
     Not only am I in Texas, but I am also now in Houston, which presents a somewhat different kettle of fish. During the seventeen years we lived in Baytown, I never felt an uneasy sense of an imminent threat, but now that we are living in Northwest Houston, we are surrounded by over four million people, and, if you watch the ten o’clock news, it appears that a good percentage of them are attempting to break into various neighborhood homes anytime during the day or night. We are fortunate to be living in a fairly quiet neighborhood, but it seems that once one pulls out of our neighborhood onto FM1960, it’s every man for himself. Every time some of those quality citizens rumble up next to me at a traffic light in their $2,000 car with the $4,000 set of 24” custom wheels and a hammering stereo blasting, it make me want to click off my safety on my….I mean, if I was packing, that’s what I would feel like doing.
     So, to cut to the chase, for the last year or so, I have been considering applying for a Texas Concealed Handgun License. I have been encouraged along the way by a pack of guys with whom I have breakfast every Friday at 9:00 a.m. sharp at a certain respectable establishment noted for good breakfasts. When Shirley and I moved to Spring we began attending Bethel Tabernacle, and these men are all (amazingly) respected members of the church. In a short time, they all have become very valued friends, and as I told them a few weeks ago, I feel like I have known them for years and have every confidence in their character, spirituality, and loyalty. I like them because they are quick-witted with a sharp sense of humor and can dish out the verbal good-natured jabs as well as take them. They are my kind of people.
     They are also….well, let me put it this way, when I am with them for breakfast, I feel VERY safe. They are hunters and gun aficionados to the max, and at an early age (I think) they memorized the entire Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and can smell a threat to their right to bear arms from a very great distance. I, too, am a fan of the Second Amendment; however, I have learned that even such phrases as “But, you know, something needs to be done” can raise a red flag in their eyes, so I limit my comments concerning the issue to such intelligent responses as “Ain’t it the truth!” and “Yep, he’s gonna try to take 'em!” Anyway, they encouraged me to get my license.
     The first problem was I didn’t have a heavy enough weapon to do my shooting with. One must qualify with at least a .32 caliber, and my heaviest was a .25 semi-automatic. Apparently you can’t qualify with a sawed-off 12 gauge. (Tears up the targets.) My good friend, who shall remain nameless…we’ll just call him Jerry, graciously offered to let me use his Sig Sauer 9mm Model P226 semi-automatic, to which I just as graciously accepted. He even threw in a box of shells. At the same time all this was transpiring, my daughter, Kim, had also expressed an interest in obtaining her CHL, so with her reserving for us a Saturday date for classes at a local gun establishment, we decided to go to Gander Mountain and take a few practice shots in preparation for the upcoming qualifying and testing.
     That was where I began to realize that this endeavor was not going to be particularly inexpensive. At this point in our nation’s history, those who fear for their gun rights are creating a run on the market, and weapons are selling for twice their suggested retail prices, and ammunition is hard to find. Personally, I think the flames of the whole buying panic are being fanned by the gun manufacturers and dealers themselves to generate incredible profits. No government official has yet mentioned gun confiscation, yet even the mention of the word “registration” can drive the prices of guns up another ten percent. Somebody is making a lot of money out of this artificial hysteria.
     Be that as it may, Kim and I, after sitting through an obligatory gun safety video (Do not play with loaded weapons!), finally got our chance at the firing range (at $25/hour.) Not being familiar with the 9mm, I will admit (don’t tell Jerry) that I loaded the shells in backwards on my first attempt, but quickly realized my mistake when the clip wouldn’t go into the grip. Hopefully, no one noticed. We only had 50 rounds of ammo between us, so we shot carefully. I’ll say this…that Sig Sauer P226 9mm is a sweet shootin’ pistol. I had also brought two of my other pistols to fire, and Kim had brought her Beretta. We fired them when we ran out of 9mm shells. My little .25 would not load, however, and I asked the monitor for assistance. When he looked at my Czechoslovakian Z Aut 6.35mm Pistole, he said, “Wow! That is a rare gun!” Which it is.  Manufactured in Brno in 1950, the pistol is about half the size of my hand and was very popular during the Cold War as an assassination weapon of choice. The trouble with the gun is it may be small, but you can’t hide the noise…it is deafening when fired. He couldn’t get it to fire, either, but a few days later I gave it to my friend, Jerry, to examine, and within 24 hours he had it looking and working like new.
     So on a recent Saturday, Kim and I were at Tactical Firearms in Katy, Texas, bright and early at 8:00 a.m. to begin our classes. As we walked into their showroom, there sat some sort of monster machine gun on display and ready to fire…at $140.00 per 30 minutes plus a dollar a shell (40 shell minimum.) Let’s see, what do they say about big boys’ toys? There were about 50 people in our class, and therein lay the first surprise. I expected a room full of red necks drooling chewing tobacco and wearing hunting vests; in actuality, there was a substantial percentage of women and even men who looked like they might have had the intelligence to read. All in all, it was a cross section of Middle America. I wondered how many were there out of an instinct for self-preservation or simply a love for firearms.
     The instructor was a cool guy. He came into the classroom carrying a rifle of some kind (my ignorance is showing again,) and proceeded to tell us this was his 320th weapon to buy, and in his home he had 190,000 rounds of ammunition. “Am I paranoid?” he asked. I kept my answer to myself. Apparently in his eyes, any crime committed within a 20 mile radius of his home was justification to buy another weapon. I just hope his home never catches on fire…if it happens at night, it will be July 4th fireworks in the neighborhood. Knowledgeable, however, the instructor was about gun safety, gun law, and my rights as a gun owner.
     Right off the bat, it was time to go fire our weapons for qualifying. In Texas for a CHL, a candidate must fire fifty rounds at three targets and score at least 175 out of 250 possible points. The process was very regulated and well monitored. The last time I was on a firing range was in Berlin in 1967, at which time I received my “Expert Marksman” ribbon. 46 years later, I didn’t do too badly as I scored 247 out of 250. What really impressed me, though, was Kim made the very same score. Must be hereditary. The firing took nearly two hours, primarily because there were 50 of us candidates and only fifteen alleys to fire in, so we fired…and waited. Afterward, we sat through about three hours of instruction; however, that three hours of instruction took nearly 6 hours as we took breaks, lunch, etc. We also had a representative from an organization called Texas Law Shield who gave us a combination lesson/sales pitch concerning the use of deadly force in Texas. At the conclusion he offered an insurance package which offered to us a bank of lawyers skilled in gun laws who would step in to defend us in the event we had to use deadly force to protect our properties. It was reasonably priced, so I bought it. So now, be VERY careful when you step on my property.
     The last event was the Official State Test for Concealed Handgun License. Fifty questions and not too hard. My kudos again to the instructor who had practically given us every question and answer in advance. Kim and I both made perfect scores. It’s hard to be humble when you’re….never mind. We finally made in back home about 5:30…a full Saturday shot, but hopefully a goal accomplished. A couple of days later, I went on line and initiated my application for my CHL to the Texas Department of Public Safety. Since I am a senior it only cost me $70 (!). Kim’s will be $140. I had to pay in advance also for my fingerprinting…another $10.
     The following Monday I went to a local fingerprinting office and was officially verified as being clean as a whistle and not an escaped convict from Georgia. The next day I sent my fingerprint verification, my CHL class attendance verification, and my registration checklist to Austin so they can reaffirm that I’m on the up and up. Apparently, I can expect my real license to arrive in about four weeks. So we wait.
     Hopefully this whole effort of obtaining my CHL will be an exercise in futility, in the sense that I hope and pray I will never have to raise a gun in anger or defense. But I also realize that we are no longer living in the 1950’s when homes were seldom locked and cars were parked with the windows down. Random violence is evident not just in the big cities, but even in the village hamlets scattered across our nation…witness Sandy Hook. Violence is no longer a geographical phenomenon, it is a reflection of a nation and a world besotted with movie violence, video violence, and television violence. Those who argue in favor of these forms of media say they simply reflect the trends of society. I am convinced that it is the opposite…the media influence society, and, regrettably, society establishes its standard of behavior from the media. A child will witness 58,000 killings via movies, television, and video games by the time he/she reaches 18 years of age. If a moment of anger or conflict is suddenly thrust upon that child, the first impulse will be to violence. In today’s world, parents face a formidable task in teaching their children…as the scriptures say…”in the way they should go.”