When does a child first have memories? When do you begin to hold onto faces, images and remember what happened in your life? My first memories are of the house on Jefferson St. in DeSoto, Missouri. Like all small children, I only remember bits and pieces of life there, but it was the town Mom and Dad grew up in and where their parents still lived. I was probably two and three when these first dim memories took place.
Once, I picked up hundreds of caterpillars outside and put them in my pockets. Then I went inside and took my nap like a good boy, only to have Mom come in and find caterpillars crawling all over me and the couch. She was surprised, but took a picture of it before waking me up and having me catch all of my friends and take them back outside.
I do remember Mom accidentally starting a fire in the stove once. She put it out with flour but the flames and excitement scared me. Other memories are of catching tadpoles with the neighbor kid, who lived next door and had an above-ground pool.
We had an old swing set with a wasps nest up in the top of it, and each time I used it I would get stung. I have a memory of Lottie falling off of the swing and another of a time when I started crying as I watched a wasp fly down and land on my leg.
Through blurry eyes I watched it sting me. Then Mom took me inside and made some kind of baking soda concoction and dabbed it on the sting. I wonder now why Dad didn’t kill those wasps, but things were different back then. They didn’t have wasp and hornet spray at Wal-Mart. As a matter of fact, they didn’t even have Wal-Mart.
I remember images of Mom, bits and pieces of Lottie, and a lot about Uncle John. He, Dad and I went frog gigging and fishing a lot. I remember wading in Joachim Creek at night, up to my chin in cold creek water, and feeling scared. But I didn’t want Dad or Uncle John to know it. Uncle John would take me by himself sometimes, too. We would take our fish or frogs or squirrels to Grandma Jetton’s trailer in DeSoto and she would cook up our game. I never understood then why Uncle John would always make me take a shower to get all of the ticks and chiggers off. At that age, I hated baths.
Grandma Jetton walked everywhere. She didn’t have a driver’s license and I thought it was odd because she was the only grownup I knew who didn’t drive. I used to walk to the store with her and help her carry back the groceries.
Once, Dad caught a wild rabbit and we kept it on the back porch. I would check on it each morning and one morning it was gone. Dad told me he must have escaped. Dad drove a school bus then and I used to ride with him sometimes, but I can’t remember that. For some reason, I do remember him washing the bus.
Lottie was born there, in DeSoto, and while I don’t remember this next story, Mom and Dad have told it many times. Evidently I was used to being the center of attention and once Lottie came along, all of that changed. One day, when all of the grandparents were over and nobody was paying attention to me, I went into the kitchen and grabbed a sleeve of saltine crackers and brought them in for everyone to see. I then put them on the floor and started jumping on them and smashing them to bits. Dad said I definitely got some attention that day, but not the kind I was probably wanting at the time.
ARTESIA, NEW MEXICO – 1971
Dad’s next job was at First Baptist Church Lee May in St. Louis, but I don’t ever remember living there. The place I remember was Artesia, New Mexico. Bob Hildreth was the pastor of the First Baptist Church and Dad was the minister of music and youth. We lived in a brick house next to the church. As a small kid, the church seemed huge to me. I caught chicken pox while we lived at that house, and they itched terribly. Because I was contagious, Mom wouldn’t let me go to the store with her, which I loved to do. Going to the store was a fun day for us kids, but not for Mom, as having kids has taught me. I was disappointed, but she brought me back a little plastic golf set and a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup! We didn’t get stuff like that often, and even though I hated having chicken pox, I loved those presents.
I had one friend in Artesia. I would spend the night at his house, but he was scared to stay overnight at mine. One time he did, but Dad had to take him home because he got scared. I thought he was a sissy. Back then, I wanted to be an astronaut. I remember watching the astronauts on TV and then going outside while Dad pointed to the moon and told me that’s where they were. He said I could be an astronaut someday, but I had to make good grades. I decided then and there that I would try to make good grades, because that’s what I wanted to be.
Ruth Ann was born there, and I remember when they brought her home from the hospital. The youth group had made her a special quilt that had each of their names woven into it. I think she still has the quilt today. I made my first snowman after one of those big New Mexico snows. I spent all day rolling up the big snowballs for the body, but I couldn’t lift them. When Dad got home, he helped me place them on top of each other and put the face on. I was so proud of that snowman, but it melted fast. Snow never lasted long in New Mexico.
I participated in my first Easter egg hunt and didn’t even find one egg. Each time I was about to grab one, the bigger kids would get it, but they set one out for me to find at the end. I always remember that, and to this day I am the best at finding eggs. I usually always find the most and love both hiding and finding them.
I remember when Dad was teaching me to ride a bike and I crashed into the fence. He would push me and run beside me as long as he could. He put the training wheels back on after that incident.
My Beagle Sam
The backyard at the Artesia house had a tall brick wall around it and we had a beagle named Sam. I loved Sam and spent a lot of time with him in the backyard. We had some big pecan trees back there and Sam learned how to crack the shells and eat the nuts. Dad and I had caught some turtles on our trips to Missouri, and they lived in the backyard as well. They couldn’t get out because of the fence. But if the gate was open, those turtles would head for the opening. I always wondered how they could tell that the gate was open.
I helped Sam dig holes and I started climbing the pecan trees. Mom said I climbed about forty feet up one time and couldn’t get down. She had to have Dad come and get me down. He climbed up, but he wouldn’t help me because he said I had to learn how to get down by myself if I wanted to climb trees. Dad told me where to put my feet until I made it down and after that I never got stuck again.
Sam used to pull Mom’s clothes off of the clothes line. Dryers were another thing people didn’t have or couldn’t afford to use much. If it was warm, people hung their clothes out on the line. Well, Sam had this thing about pulling them off and dragging them through the dirt and this made Mom MAD! She used to get her broom and chase Sam around the yard, which I thought was funny. I recall talking to him about it a lot, but he never listened to me, so we had to tie him up when clothes were
hanging on the line.
I got my first of many stitches in Artesia. We were over at the preacher’s house, and I was running through the kitchen. Someone had left a big butcher knife laying on the counter with the blade hanging over the edge. I ran right into it, cutting the bottom of my chin. They took me to the doctor, and he sewed me up. I remember him telling Dad how tough I was.
The church also had a little children’s church room, and I used to preach, lead the songs, and boss the other kids around. Evidently I was a one man show, and the only thing I couldn’t do was play the piano. I wanted to be a song leader like Dad, and I sang all the time. I only remember the singing, but Dad insists that I bossed the other kids around.
The thing I hated about Artesia were the vinegaroons. They were like scorpions but smelled like vinegar when you stepped on them. They had claws but not a stinger and Dad collected them for a science teacher in Missouri. I was really scared of them and thought they could kill me. One night, Dad sent me out to see if I could find some, but he wouldn’t let me put my shoes on. I was so scared. I shined the flashlight in each step I took and fortunately I didn’t step on one. I was so very glad to get back in the house.
Stealing My Tithes
Each Sunday, Dad would give me a nickel or dime for my offering in Sunday school. I started throwing the envelope away and keeping the money for myself instead of giving it as an offering. I don’t know how Dad found it, but one day he showed me my ripped up envelop and asked if I had given my offering. I didn’t lie about it, and after Dad explained that I was stealing from God, I never did it again. I just couldn’t figure out how he ever found out that I’d been taking that money.
Hit by Golf Club
In New Mexico, Dad played a lot of golf. I used to go with him, and one time he got a hole in one and threw his club up in the air because he was so happy. It fell down on me, but I was okay. He also threw his club a couple of times when he got mad, but they never hit anybody. He used to let me hit the ball some, but I never took to the game.
Grandma Jetton and Uncle John came to visit us once, and we went to Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands. Those were fun places to go, and Grandma Jetton was always fun to be with. She never got excited or moved very fast, but we always enjoyed her visits.
When Dad was growing up, like all boys he had a temper, but evidently grandma spoiled him and never disciplined him about it. He would throw a fit, get his way, and nothing more would happen. One time he punched a hole in the wall with his fist, but Grandma Jetton covered it up with a calendar so Grandpa Jetton wouldn’t know what Dad had done.
When Mom and Dad were dating, he wanted to take her home after a church event one night, and Grandpa Lewis said no. Dad was so mad he hit the church wall and punched a hole in it. Brother Elmore had a long talk with him about it and I’m sure this caused Grandpa and Grandma Lewis a lot of worries.
When we lived in Artesia, Dad had another outburst that cured him once and for all of hitting walls. He was playing basketball and missed a layup, which made him mad. Dad punched the mat on the wall behind the goal and hurt his hand pretty bad.
Later that night, his hand was throbbing and he woke Mom up and asked, “Can you do anything for this pain?” Mom was tired and pregnant with Ruth, so she had absolutely no sympathy for him. She told him anyone stupid enough to hit a wall deserved to hurt. The next day, Dad went to the doctor and found out that nothing was broken but the doctor told him it was the worst sprained wrist he had ever seen. He told Dad it was going to hurt for a while. I guess that taught Dad a lesson because it was the last time he ever hit anything.