A Well-Lived Life

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By: Kandy Persall

Ever since I can remember, Ray Tinney has been in my life. He married my sister the autumn after my first birthday, and my devotion to him began. When I was eight, a little event lifted that devotion to pure infatuation. 

It happened one Saturday morning after my friend Scarlet spent the night with me. At that time, my family lived sixteen miles outside Crosbyton, at the intersection of three farm-to-market roads. One of us (I’m sure it was Scarlet) decided we should play a joke on motoring passersby by flinging a pair of our panties over our fence just as they slowed to take the intersection. After several cars passed, one continued to slow and, to our horror, pulled into our drive. We crouched behind the fence without a contingency plan, and when the figure came through the gate, it was Ray… panties in hand. With a twinkle in his eye, he asked, “Did someone lose these?” Knowing I had no answer, he handed me the underwear and continued to the front door. Dumbfounded, Scarlet asked, “Who was that gorgeous hunk of a guy?” A little shook, but with honest sincerity, I answered, “That’s Ray. I’m going to marry him when my sister dies.”

Ray was always tall and good-looking. Even by age five, he could easily pass for a grade-school boy. While in Texas with his cousins, he was a boisterous risk-taker, constantly conniving new antics on trees and livestock. But when he and his mother moved to California, Ray turned introspective. His Mama’s friends named him Nushin‘ because when asked his name, he’d whisper “nothing” in a quiet, Texas drawl.

Ray Lee was born on November 30, 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression. His parent’s divorce when he was a preschooler added to the already tight finances in Quannah, Texas. For a fresh start, Ray and his mother, Juanelle Ward Tinney, moved to Lompoc, California. When less than 9 percent of mothers worked outside the home, Juanelle waited tables while five-year-old Ray peddled newspapers a few blocks down.

Six days a week, a man in a Plymouth coup taxied Ray to a street corner, tied a leather nail bag around the boy’s waist, and left Ray with a stack of newspapers on the sidewalk. The nail bag served as the preschooler’s cash register. Unable to count money, Ray allowed people to drop their coins inside the bag and make their change. When the papers depleted and the bag filled, Ray walked to the diner to join his Mama. The Plymouth man once told Juanelle that Ray made more than his other sales boys.

As Hitler invaded Denmark, Belgium, and France, Ray had his own troubles at hand. A band of older Chinese boys began to wait for Ray and his nail belt daily. Fortunately, Nushin’ knew how to kick his long legs into gear and could outrun the gang. 

In between deployments to Europe, Ray’s uncle stopped in California for a visit. Since Uncle Joy Ward was planning to hitchhike home to Texas anyway, Juanelle decided that Ray should join his uncle for the 1300-mile trip

Once on the South Plains, Ray was raised by his grandparents, Malcolm and Ruth Ward. Living across the field from cousins his age, Ray, Richard, and Robert bucked horses that were supposed to be tamed, rode sheep that were supposed to be sheared, and once sent a flaming arrow into a turkey’s tail feathers well before Thanksgiving. Once, when delivering a bag of flour for their grandmother, the boys’ antics spilled the entire bag onto the turn row. Fearing their grandmother’s retribution, the boys carefully scooped every bit of flour back into the bag. The sack arrived that day a bit overfilled and darkened in color. 

Life with cousins proved to be a sweet time for Ray, especially on Saturdays when Uncle Wayne would take the boys to Floydada and drop them off at the Palace Theater for a movie. A quarter went a lot further in those days, purchasing a show ticket, a bag of popcorn, and even a bowl of chili afterward at Mr. Wither’s cafe.

Upon graduation from McAdoo High in 1954, Ray joined the Marines. His brawls with his cousins must have toughened him, as he was selected to specialize in Amphibious reconnaissance. Only Marines with superior mental and physical characteristics, swimming ability, and courage were chosen for such an honor. His training included scaling cliffs, long hikes, limited rations, and underwater night maneuvers in the South China Sea. His unit’s stealth-mode operations laid the groundwork for exercises that Navy SEAL training uses today. In March of 1957, Ray became an Honorary Submariner on the USS Perch ASSP 313. Initially a 1944 World War II Submarine, the Perch once patrolled Midway and docked at Pearl Harbor. 

Handsome and muscular, Ray was no longer Nushin’. He was promoted from private to private first class, then corporal, sergeant, and finally staff sergeant. Noted for his superior strength, he was selected as a poster model for promotional materials to influence other young men into the service. The Marines photographed him running along the beach, in hand-to-hand combat, and even in a full wet suit.

Ray had a decision to make at the end of his three years of service. His commanding officer tried to persuade him to enlist for another stint, and his buddy encouraged him to pursue work with him in the CIA. But, Ray had other ideas. He wanted to be a pilot, so he threw himself into studying for his initial written flight exam. 

Ray felt that the result of this test would determine his future. Should he pass, he would become a military pilot, but if not, he would return home to Texas. Ray missed the standard by two points. Years later, he would discover that no one passes the written portion of this examination the first time. He had actually had one of the highest scores for initial testing. 

Fortunately for all of us, 23-year-old Ray returned to McAdoo to farm with his cousins. But he still wanted to fly. Ray became good friends with every farmer in the area with a single-engine plane. With his quiet demeanor, listening ear, and big smile, Ray soon had invitations to accompany these flights. Asking questions and taking mental notes, he learned what they knew and began to take lessons. 

Always the silent daredevil, Ray began flying solo without the benefit of a license. On a flight in the winter of 1958, the carburetor of his Cessna 150 began to freeze. Ray scanned the snowy fields for a landing strip as the engine sputtered and spat. The make-shift landing strip Ray chose ended up being a frozen playa lake. The minute the wheels touched down, the nose of the plane dove into the snow and ice. Old Doctor Guthrie stitched up Ray’s severed lip, beginning at the bottom of his nose.

One day as they passed a neighboring farm, Ray asked Richard, “Who is that sweetie in the denim shorts?” “Kay Burrow” was the reply. “You know her. You went to school with her. She was six years behind you in school.” Ray quipped, “I know I never went to school with anyone that looked like her!

Ray had the opportunity to meet this young woman again at First Baptist Church McAdoo. Kay was no longer wearing shorts, for she was the church’s young organist with frequent responsibilities there. Ray soon found himself to be a regular as well. In March 1959, he made the most critical decision when he welcomed Jesus into his heart and was baptized. The following fall, after a whirlwind summer courtship, he and Kay were married in the fall of 1960 in the parlor of First Baptist Church Shawnee, OK. 

Finally, after a few years of marriage, Ray decided to “get legal” in the skies. In the mid-60s, Ray flew himself to Pampa to test for his private pilot’s license and passed with flying colors. I had the joy of going up with him several times in a single-engine prop plane. I suppose Ray gave me my first experience seeing checkerboard farmland from the air. What struck me most was how his 6’1″ 225-pound frame could fit into such a tiny space. The muscle he bulked in the military never left him, and it was most evident in his broad shoulders and upper body strength. 

One Sunday evening in 1968, amid a routine crop dusting, the nose of his Cessna 195 suddenly dropped. Although the hinged ailerons (ay-ler-rons) on either wing responded, Ray couldn’t restore the plane’s lift and quickly lost altitude. Ray checked the airspeed from within the cockpit and noticed that he was clocking 110 miles per hour – straight for the ground. Realizing the inevitability of a crash, he tilted the plane so the left wing would take the initial shock of the collision. It crumbled underneath him like a paper bag moments before the rest of the aircraft made a final impact. 

Flipping and skidding, the aircraft dug into the cotton field several feet before stopping. Only his prayers cut into the hissing of escaping liquids. Unfortunately, this quiet didn’t last long.

As Ray hung upside down by his shoulder straps, he could smell the toxic parathion drenching the cabin. Knowing an explosion was imminent, he tried to free himself unsuccessfully from the harness. Within seconds, the plane burst into flame as the sparks from the electrical system ignited the aircraft fuel and poisonous insecticide. 

Suspended upside-down in a burning crop-duster, Ray rolled his head back and used the cockpit wall to push his helmet over his eyes. By now, the flames engulfed the cockpit, and Ray’s hands and chest were in such agony that unfastening the hot metal buckle proved impossible. “Jesus, save me!” he cried.

As the prayer left his lips, he felt his thumbs urging again at the two shoulder harnesses holding him in the plane. The nylon straps, which had melted onto his stomach, burned away from the buckle, and Ray dropped to the cockpit’s ceiling. Climbing out of the burning aircraft, he crawled away from the plane. Later, men surveying the crash site would ponder how he escaped. Nowhere in the frame of the wreckage was an opening large enough for him to crawl through

Rolling himself in the dirt of the nearby field, Ray put out the fire on his clothes. Covered in the deadly parathion, Ray turned to watch the Cessna continue to rage. As he thanked God for his escape, Ray noticed a “radiant light glowing amidst the fire.” The Lord allowed his eyes to see evidence of the Help he had prayed for. The Light hovered there until men arrived from a nearby field. 

Ray sustained deep 2nd and 3rd-degree burns over 50% of his body, compounded by the toxic parathion that coated him. Despite dermabrasion and extensive skin grafting, Ray miraculously returned home after just 31 days in Lubbock’s regional burn unit.

In time, life returned to normal for Ray. He taught his son Danny how to hunt, fish, and raise livestock for FFA. Danny remembers how his dad taught him to break a stock steer with a rope and a tractor. Ray found time to accompany his son to livestock events, one of which Danny brought home “best of the show.”

Ray farmed in the Wake community and enjoyed typical West Texas activities, like fishing and hunting. An expert marksman, Ray was labeled by several men in the area as “Mr. Sportsfield” for his love of quail, dove, duck, and goose hunting. 

Never one for sloth, Ray added water locating, gem polishing, and bee-keeping to his enlarging circle of interests. Instead of planes, adventurous Ray found a new interest in motorcycles. For years, Ray, Kay, and Danny all owned their own Yamahas. They often rode in local canyons, finding special joy in going off-road. When they weren’t on their cycles, Ray dug for Indian artifacts among the canyon creek beds. One year, he entered his impressive display of flint arrowheads at the South Plains Fair and won a blue ribbon.

Ray was the perfect game player. Playing to laugh rather than to win, Ray made sure every opponent came away from the game with self-esteem and a smile. My daughter Hilary remembers how he liked to tease Kay with comments like, “Mama! That wasn’t a kind thing to do!” whenever Kay jumped him in Chinese checkers. Of course, there was nothing Asian about these checkers, for Ray renamed it “Bogity, Bogidy.” According to the number on the roll, Ray verbalized every move. “Bogidy, bogidy… bogidy… bogidy…” After gaming with Uncle Ray, Hilary knew he would sneak them to the freezer for cherry bombs and banana fudge pops. Ray always had a sweet tooth. 

For years, Ray planted a handful of fruit trees everywhere he lived. As he learned more about different varieties and techniques, Ray was particularly interested in grafting. Through statewide grafting seminars, he became an expert at grafting his trees for multiple flavors and combinations. But he needed his own orchard.

In 1993, Ray and Kay bought the one-screen, 400-car Capada Drive-In outside Floydada. By this time, Ray worked for the City of Floydada and had more regular hours than farming afforded. He took down the screen, the ticket booth, and most fencing to leave plenty of room to plant pecan and fruit trees in his free time. He modified the former concession stand to double as a barn and storage unit. Over 30 trees were in full bloom on the estate within a few years. No wonder his mother-in-law dubbed Ray “Johnny Appleseed!”

One of the first times our daughter Hannah took her new husband Steve to Floydada, Ray took Steve with him to fell a tree for a church member. With a borrowed bucket truck from the City, Ray and Steve raised the mechanism as high as the bucket would extend. 

Since both Steve and Ray exceeded 200 pounds, Steve expressed concern about the 250 lb limit on the bucket. Ray told his new nephew, “Oh, it’ll be alright. Just don’t tell Mama.” Once the bucket topped its height, Ray climbed out of the bucket into the tree. Unharnessed, he asked Steve to pass him the chainsaw and proceeded to cut and drop limbs. Anytime Steve questioned his safety, Ray met him with the same reply, “It’ll be alright. Just don’t tell Mama.” Even botany couldn’t take the risk-taker out of Ray.

Top-notch Marine, avid pilot, water diviner. Beekeeper, gem cutter, expert marksman. Archeologist, horticulturist, fisherman. All of these and more were what Ray did. But if you had the gift of knowing who Ray was, you knew a man who was: quiet, patient, sympathetic, kind, inoffensive, steady, competent, peaceful, agreeable, and compassionate. He was a good listener, an enjoyable companion, and a fun game player. Ray was easy to get along with, good under pressure, and always sought the most peaceable outcome. He was an honorable father, a loving husband, a devoted family member, and a loyal friend. He was a Jesus follower and a real-deal Christian who lived out God’s Word rather than arguing about it. Ray Tinney was a clear light showing brightly in our very dark world. 

And I, for one, am going to miss him.