While we were living at the pig house, Dad accepted the minister of music and education position at Red Star Baptist Church, where Cy Smith was the pastor. It was in Cape, and for quite a while we made the thirty minute drive to and from church for both services each Sunday. Of course, Dad always wanted to arrive at least thirty minutes early, so we spent a lot of time waiting for church to start until, finally, we found a house in Cape that was about eight blocks from the church.
The house was on Green Acres Street. It was a subdivision on the north side of town, out by the river. I was in sixth grade there and Mrs. Maddox was my teacher. My reading really took off that year. I’ve told you how my second grade teacher, Mrs. Henderson, encouraged me to start reading, but by sixth grade I really jumped into it. During one quarter, I read thirty-one books and was awarded an “A+” in reading. It was the only “A+” I ever received.
By this time, grades and school work were not a priority for me. I started getting mostly “C’s” and “B’s” in my classes. Dad had a rule that “D’s” were not allowed and he would ground me if I got any. So I focused on keeping everything above a “C” and spent the rest of my time thinking about sports.
I played all of the sports during recess, and took the President’s Challenge Physical Fitness test. I finished in the top group in most of the events, but did the best at the longer run-ning events. On nice days, I would run a mile to school trying to beat my time from the day before. Then I would race every-body in a practice 330-yard dash once I got there. I would al-ways win the 330-yard dash.
My best friends at that time were Joe Windeknecht, Lamont Robinson, Gary Farra, John Lohr and Craig Clemmons. When the weather was bad, I rode the bus to school and the bus driver and I became good friends. We both liked the TV show “Buck Rodgers and the 25th Century.”
Mom used to take us kids out to Deever’s strawberry farm where we would help her pick strawberries. I picked a bunch for myself and then set up a stand in our yard where I resold them to the folks driving buy. I picked and sold a lot of strawberries that year, but nothing made me more money in less time than mowing grass.
Lottie and Ruth Ann sold Girl Scout cookies when we lived there, and somehow they ended up with a lot of extra boxes that they needed to sell. I spent a lot of my mowing money buying cookies from them one summer. I still love Thin Mints!
Brother Cy was a really neat guy and a good preacher. Red Star was one of the fastest growing churches in Cape during those days and they had an activities center that Mike Green ran. I used to spend a lot of time playing basketball and skating there in the gym. We had my sixth grade birthday party there, but only a few kids came. Mom said it was because we didn’t send invitations. We played tackle football on skates once and nobody even got hurt. They had a very active Royal Ambassador (RA) program there and we did several campouts and other fun activities. Mr. Hill, Mr. Garland and a couple of other men helped run the program. I learned a lot and won a few badges.
I had a few “girlfriends” that year but the one that helped me realize that race was a major issue for a lot of people was Virginia. She was a beautiful black girl. I noticed that my interest in her seemed to make a lot of our friends uneasy. Now, Lamont was black and Gary was black, but they were boys. For some reason, having a black girlfriend was a big deal. Of course, in the sixth grade you didn’t date, but we exchanged leather bracelets with our names on them. Like all elementary school crushes it ended quickly, but I will never forget how my friends reacted.
I spent a lot of time playing with Lottie, Ruth and Courts when we lived on Green Acres. Courts and I dug holes in the front yard, put our army men in them and threw rocks to see who would have the most soldiers standing at the end. We also set them up in the basement sometimes and rolled batteries at them to see who won. Playing with army men and playing war was something we did for hours.
We lived five blocks from the Mississippi River, and I spent a lot of time fishing for catfish. We had several “secret” fishing spots, from Cape Rock all the way down to Main Street. We caught a lot of catfish and gar and got really muddy. I also spent a lot of time laying on the sand bars and climbing on the rocks along the water. The Mississippi was a really fun river to fish and play in for a boy.
There were a lot of neighborhood kids we ran around with and I used to ride my ten-speed bike all over town. Cape was a lot smaller back then, and nothing was more than three miles away. I continued to mow grass for money. I started with four lawns one summer but, with Dad’s coaching, that number expanded to over twenty-five lawns by the time we moved to Charleston.
Most jobs paid five to ten dollars for each mowing and I would carry my gas can and push my lawnmower down the street, sometimes with fifty or sixty dollars tucked into my tube socks. I thought I was rich, and for a thirteen-year-old kid back then, I was. Minimum wage was just above two dollars an hour, and I could mow most of my yards in thirty to forty-five minutes.
Candy was one cent apiece, sodas were a quarter, a box of Pop Tarts was fifty cents, gas was just fifty-two cents a gallon, and I think the rent on our house was only three-hundred dollars a month.
Lottie got in a fight once at school and a girl knocked her tooth out. I remember watching the fight at school that day. When we got home, Dad asked me why I didn’t step in, stop it and help Lottie. I reminded him that he had always told me I could not hit a girl so I didn’t know what to do since she was fighting a girl. Lottie tended to have more disagreements and fights than me. I usually got along with everyone and made friends quickly, but Lottie was more stubborn and didn’t back down.
My first experience crappie fishing came when we lived in Cape. Jim Duckworth was a friend of Dad’s at church and his dad lived in southern Illinois. We took many trips with Mr. Duckworth to visit his dad and to help out on his farm, plus we went fishing at Horseshoe Lake a lot.
Horseshoe Lake had a lot of trees growing in it because it was so shallow. We would get in a johnboat with no motor and quietly paddle around these trees using long fishing poles with small jigs on them that looked like small minnows to the crap-pie. All we had to do was drop the jig down three or four feet and pull it back up. I was not as good at this as Dad or Mr. Duckworth, but we did catch a lot of crappie on those trips.
One time, another boat was close to us and a young boy was sitting in the middle of it, fishing just like me. All of a sudden, the man in the back of his boat let out a howl and started cussing a blue streak. He was yelling at the boy, and we thought he might kill that kid. It took us a bit to figure out what the problem was, but it turns out the boy had hooked his dad’s ear.
Just thinking about this story has me laughing uncontrollably. That kid was crying and saying over and over, “I’m sorry, Dad, I’m sorry, Dad,” while his dad was cussing at him. All the while, that hook was still stuck in his ear. There was another fisherman in the boat and he was trying to get the hook out and kept repeating, “How did he get this in there?” which only made the father madder. It’s sad, but also funny. Dad looked at me and said, “You better not ever do that to me.” Of course, I was already imagining myself in that boy’s shoes and I knew that was someplace I never wanted to be.
Those were fun trips and Mr. Duckworth always brought soda and snacks along, which I liked. Occasionally we would see a water moccasin and Mr. Duckworth hated those. He would go crazy every time we saw one and tell me to be careful because they would try and get into the boat. I wasn’t scared of snakes and didn’t really believe him until one day when a big one did try to get in our boat. Mr. Duckworth went crazy beating that poor snake off with a paddle and we were safe.
Most times we came back with a whole cooler filled with crappie. Mr. Duckworth was a funny guy, and I always enjoyed spending time with him. The best part of those trips, however, were the fish fries when we got home. Dad and Mr. Duckworth would filet all of the fish and Mom and Mr. Duckworth’s wife, Virtus, would fry them up. We all looked forward to those big fish fries.
Girls are Confusing
There was a girl at church named Chris Rawls who I had a huge crush on. I thought she was beautiful. Her mom sang in the choir and was divorced from Chris’s dad. She also decorated cakes and, just to get a chance to see Chris, I once took a seven week cake decorating class from her mother. I enjoyed the class and Mom took photos of some of my cakes, but the class didn’t do the trick with Chris.
She never warmed up to my advances, and maybe it was because of this that my crush on her lasted for well over a year, which is an eternity at that age. Finally, after all of that time of trying to get her to like me, with no success, I decided that I really didn’t care, and moved on. That was all it took. She suddenly decided that she liked me and now she had a crush on me!
That was one of my first lessons about girls. It was confusing and hard to understand, but I learned that sometimes acting like you don’t like them is all it takes.
Like most fledgling teenagers, I was starting to develop my own personality. I was very confident and was not afraid to take charge of any situation. I was the leader in our RA and junior high youth group. I was a fast runner and decent at most sports, plus I loved to sing and was assigned several solos in the church choir. Overall, I thought I was pretty cool.
Getting Right with God
I rededicated my life to Christ at Red Star church. Delton Dees was preaching a revival and I started thinking about my actions
and how I had not been living for Jesus in a lot of situations. During one service, I questioned whether I had really been saved as a boy. I decided it was time to go forward and make sure that I was going to go to heaven. After talking to the preacher about my concerns, he told me that he thought that I was saved and didn’t need to be re-baptized, but he agreed that it was a good idea for me to renew my commitment to Jesus.
Sometime after that, my friend Mark Garland was struggling to make the same decision during the invitation at a Sunday night service. I remember encouraging him to go forward and be saved. As sad as it might sound, during my entire childhood he was the only person I ever actively helped lead to Christ. I shared my faith with others and I was very active in church, but he was the only one—until I reached adulthood—that I feel I played a part in saving.
This happened right after I rededicated my life to Christ. I think that when we’re close to the Lord we care more and think more about other people and their relationship with Him. When we lose sight of that connection and become tangled up in the cares of the world, we don’t wonder or worry as much about whether our family or friends are going to heaven. But when we get our lives on the right path, things change. We want to make sure that those we love and care about are on the same path. That’s why the devil works so hard to keep us busy and distracted.
Lottie as a Tattoo Artist
This story will give you a better idea of how tough and strong-willed Lottie was as a child. We were sitting in the front row of the church before the service started one Sunday morning and I was relentlessly pestering her. She got mad, but I just kept messing with her. When she finally had enough, she jammed her pencil deep into my right leg.
It only hurt a little but I let on like I was going to die before I ran to show Dad the wound she’d inflicted and the blood on my pants. Over the years, Lottie had repeatedly gotten me in trouble by telling Dad that I’d hurt her. Finally, I had a chance to get her back. Dad never seemed to care if she hit me, but this time there’d been a stabbing and there was blood to prove it. My plan worked and after church she was in big trouble.
After all these years, I still have a grey lead spot on my right leg just above my kneecap. It’s Lottie’s handmade tattoo. I used to remind her often about how she tried to kill me with lead poisoning, and how I stubbornly survived. We may have pestered each other a lot, but Lottie was always one girl I wanted on my team. She was—and still is—tough, determined and a hard worker. We fought our share of battles, but I couldn’t have had a better sister to grow up with.
Another Good Friend
Lamont Robinson was my best friend in Cape. He moved to a house up the street from mine. He and I would take turns eat-ing breakfast at each other’s house. All my life, I’ve been an early riser, and I made pancakes and French toast a lot back then. When I was little, this gave me a chance to make break-fast for Lottie, Ruth and Courts before Mom got up. Then, when I was in high school, I had to get up and run every morning be-fore school. So getting up with Lamont and having breakfast was no big deal for me.
Lamont’s dad was a preacher at a black church in town, but he smoked. That was weird for me because I was taught that smoking was bad for you. Just like Uncle Tom, Lamont’s dad always scared me a little. Lamont was really good at basketball and football. He was much better than me and ended up being the starting running back for Cape Central and was a starting player on the basketball team as well. The only thing he couldn’t do better than me was run long distance.
Life changed a lot for me when I entered seventh grade. That’s when I started paying more attention to girls and whether kids were popular or unpopular. That age is an important time in a child’s life, but explaining it to them, as a grown-up, is hard.
That was when I started questioning the things that my mom and dad had taught me and I began to put more weight on being accepted by my peers. Seeking acceptance or popularity is probably the number one reason why many kids raised in Christian homes stray from God’s path during these formative years.
Picking the Trombone
In seventh grade, I played in the school band for the first time. Dad was an outstanding Baritone player and had received a band scholarship to go to college. He wanted me to be in the band and was excited about me signing up. I wanted to be in the band, too, but I wanted to play the drums.
At the beginning of the year, the band teacher made each of us take a quick test to determine our talent level. After having me listen to some sounds and tap out some beats, the band teacher said, “You have an extremely good ear. I think you would be perfect for the trombone.” Dad had already suggested that I take up the trombone and, lo and behold, the band teacher told me that was what I would be good at. I swelled up with pride as she told me how difficult it was to play the trombone and how rare it was to have a musical ear like mine.
I quickly changed my mind and decided to play the trombone, never considering until later in life that Dad and Mom may have had a little talk with her. It was certainly convenient that Uncle Gary had a free trombone for me to use. Using a free instrument was a big consideration then, since we still didn’t have much money.
We didn’t have organized sports teams in seventh grade, but I tried hard in all athletic activities during gym and recess. I really liked the P.E. coach and was very anxious to hear what he told Dad about my athletic skills when it came time for evaluation. After the parent-teacher conferences, Dad told me that the coach said I was a good kid with lots of enthusiasm. I asked Dad, “But what did he say about my abilities?” Dad repeated it slower, “He said you had a lot of enthusiasm.”
Being told you have enthusiasm is not terribly exciting when what you really want to hear is how good you are at something. Growing up, I was often commended for my enthusiasm and it never failed to disappoint me. As I grew older, I learned that enthusiasm deserves a lot more credit than I ever gave it. It’s the trait that has been most responsible for my successes and its importance lies in that it can complement and amplify any skill or talent that a person possesses. Enthusiasm is versatile and contagious, and most organizations want people who have it.
Mom gave me a plaque with this poem about enthusiasm on it:
ENTHUSIASM – That certain something that makes us great- that pulls us out of the mediocre and commonplace – that builds into us power. It glows and shines – it lights up our faces.
ENTHUSIASM – The key note that makes us sing and makes men sing with us.
ENTHUSIASM – The maker of friends – the maker of smiles- the producer of confidence. It cries to the world, “I’ve got what it takes.” It tells all men that our job is a swell job – that the house we work for suits us – the goods we have are the best.
ENTHUSIASM – The inspiration that makes us “Wake up and live.” It puts spring in our step – spring in our hearts – a twinkle in our eyes and gives us confidence in ourselves and our fellow men.
ENTHUSIASM – It changes a dead-pan salesman to a producer – a pessimist to an optimist – a loafer to a go-getter.
ENTHUSIASM – If we have it, we should thank God for it. If we don’t have it, then we should get down on our knees and pray for it.
Upon the plains of hesitation, bleached the bones of countless millions who, on the threshold of victory, sat down to wait, and waiting they died.
Author – Dale Carnegie
Starting to Run
My whole focus in sports was to play football. That’s what Dad and I were planning on throughout my childhood. That year, in the Presidential Fitness Test, I didn’t do as well as the other boys in sprints and pull-ups. Now, with all of the kids from the different elementary schools competing together, it was much harder to be at the top of my class in all of the events. But, once again, I came in among the top in the 330-yard dash. The only guy to beat me was Brian Robinson, and I’ll talk more about him later.
I really didn’t hang out with the popular crowd in junior high school. Well, I did and I didn’t. They tolerated me, and I hung around with them, but I was not totally accepted by them. I wasn’t rich, so my clothes were not as nice as theirs, which is a big deal in the seventh grade. I didn’t have any girlfriends like many of guys. I did normal things for a young boy, like playing in the band, mowing grass, and fishing in the Mississippi River. Gym was my favorite class, but I still couldn’t touch the net in basketball and I had a funny habit of timing myself running everywhere I needed to go.
Since none of those things made me popular, the last thing I wanted any of my friends to know was that I got free lunches. The cafeteria workers had a list of all of the free lunch kids who didn’t have to pay, and as I went through the line I had to tell them my name so that they could check it off. Each day, I would wait until all of the other kids had gone through the line and then I would go up and get my lunch. The rich kids really looked down on those who received free lunches.
I had twelve regular lawn mowing jobs the summer before I started eighth grade. I would mow most of the yards once a week, and Dad would check to make sure I kept them mowed. I also got a job working at Furniture Fair. My mom’s friend Susie Hill worked there and helped me get the job. The store had someone selling popcorn out front each Saturday as a way to draw customers in to look at the furniture. This job allowed me to make money during the winter when I couldn’t mow lawns. While I enjoyed the job, I noticed that I had to work the whole day to earn as much money as I could make in one hour mowing grass.
They paid me ten dollars to sell popcorn in front of the store on Saturdays. I rode my bike or ran the three miles down to the store on Saturday mornings. For lunch, I would go to Save a Lot and buy a box of Pop Tarts. I loved Pop Tarts and Mom never bought them. I would usually take an extra box home for the week and not share much with my siblings. The big task I had at the end of each day was to count all of the money for the store. Mom and Dad had to practice with me before I started so I would know how to make change and add everything up. They liked me at that store and one Christmas I got a five dollar bill as a bonus for being an honest employee. That was nice of them.
I was grounded for the second time while we lived on Green Acres. I had just joined the youth group and we all went over to Scott Reynolds’s house to watch a football game one Sunday afternoon. Mom and Dad and the entire youth group were invited. When it came time to leave the Reynolds’s after the game, I asked Dad if he would let me stay longer. He said okay, but that I had to be home by 5:30. Well, 5:30 came and I couldn’t get anyone to take me home since Scott lived way across town and nobody was up for the trip. Scott told me to wait and he would take me to church, which started at 6:00. I got to church at 5:54. After church, Dad asked me what time I got home. I said, “5:54.” His steely response: “You were twenty-four minutes late.”
I told him how I had tried to get a ride and why I was late, but it didn’t seem to matter. He said I should have started walking or called to let him know. I felt like I had a good excuse, but he let me know that it was just that: an excuse. In all fairness, he gave me a choice in my punishment. I could take twenty-four licks or be grounded for twenty-four days. I asked if the licks would all be at the same time, and he said, “Yes.” I wisely chose the twenty-four day grounding, but have often wondered what would have happened if I’d chosen to take those licks.
Just as when I was a small boy, made to sit on the church pew and be good until it was time to go home, or the time I was grounded for a month, I knew I would be doing absolutely nothing for the next twenty-four days. I couldn’t do anything, except attend church events. I learned a lesson though, that when Dad said, “Be on time,” I had better be just that. I learned this same lesson two more times as I grew older, but for the most part I knew and understood what Dad expected. It must also be stated that Dad was always on time. He was never late himself. As a matter of fact he was, as a rule, about fifteen minutes early wherever he went.
In Cape, Lottie “jumped” back into gymnastics. Since we could not afford gymnastics lessons for her, our family cleaned the building where she took lessons and she was able to attend classes for free. I used to hate cleaning that building, but now I see that it was a good opportunity for Mom, Dad and Lottie. She was a very good gymnast and won medals at meets in St. Louis as well as in other far off places. I went to more of these meets than I wanted to. I really didn’t like gymnastics. Dad always watched, coached and pushed her to be the best. She was strong and could do pull-ups and headstand push-ups against the wall.
We also cleaned the Activities Building at Red Star church. We did it as a family. I helped Dad sweep, mop and buff the floors. Mom and the girls cleaned the bathrooms. Dad also cleaned the roller skates. Working together, it didn’t take us long to clean everything and Dad had a lot of experience as a janitor so he knew how to get the work done efficiently.
Dad had a rule that my sisters could not date until they were sixteen. On the way home from one of our rare dinners at Bonanza Restaurant, Mom and Dad were discussing this dating issue. Mom thought that fifteen was old enough to date, but Dad was holding firm at sixteen. At about this time, Lottie jumped in and said that she didn’t care one bit because she didn’t ever want to date a boy.
As soon as we were home, Dad jumped on that and had her write up a contract that said she didn’t want to date any boys until she was at least sixteen. He signed it, Lottie signed it and all of us kids signed the contract as witnesses. Lottie was probably about ten at the time, but that contract was binding. She didn’t get to date any boys until she was sixteen.
I don’t know if Dad still has that contract or not. Back then we didn’t know that Dad had gotten so upset when Grandpa Lewis wouldn’t let Mom date him until she was sixteen. Things change when you become a father.
Another big event at that time was the death of Inky. I haven’t said much about Inky, but I loved that dog. Inky was the perfect dog for a growing boy. Our dog Penny, when you kids were growing up, reminded me a lot of Inky. Inky liked me the most because I was the one to feed and take care of her. I spent many hours playing and talking to Inky. She had a lot of puppies over the years, which was fun for me to see and learn about. She was never one to jump all over you, but she always liked to be nearby and liked to be petted. She was a great little mutt and even thinking about her now causes me to miss her.
It happened like this. Dad got a radial alarm saw for Christmas, so we decided to build Inky a doghouse. She had one when we lived in Petersburg but, since then, she had been sleeping out in the cold. We bought the wood and built her house down in the basement. It was a very nice doghouse and looked very cozy. We couldn’t wait for Inky to try it out, but there was only one problem: once built, it wouldn’t fit through the door. We had to take it apart to get it outside and after all that trouble Inky didn’t even use it.
The whole reason we built a doghouse was to give Inky a place to go to get out of the cold. When it was really cold, we let her sleep in the basement. The doghouse was meant to eliminate this practice, since her fleas got into the carpet when she slept inside. They would jump up on us when we walked on the carpet and their bites hurt. Mom had to spray and call an exterminator to kill those fleas. After the doghouse was built, Inky was left outside when it was cold, and it wasn’t our fault if she didn’t want to use her doghouse.
I was gone when Inky died. Lottie went out to feed her that morning and found her dead in the road. Dad said she must have had a heart attack because there was no evidence that she had been hit by a car (just like Penny). Dad buried Inky in the backyard, and Lottie, Ruth and Courts all cried. Mom and Dad didn’t tell me what had happened until I got home, and I surprised them by going on like nothing had happened. I was trying to be like Mr. Spock from “Star Trek” and not show any emotion.
Another summer came, and once again I mowed grass. I had almost twenty lawns now. I was rolling in the dough. Back then, many homeowners struggled to find someone depend-able to cut their yard all year long. I usually picked up several new customers around July when other boys, who didn’t have a Dad like mine, got lazy and quit mowing their own yards. Dad would make me go door to door in the spring, especially to properties with tall grass, and ask them if they needed someone to cut their grass. I usually only got one or two new customers from those visits, but those people would inevitably tell others and word of mouth really increased my business. I just wish I would have saved more of the money I made then.
Dad told me I should buy some stock with my money and recommended Farm and Home Savings when they went public. I bought $450 worth of stock, which turned out to be a good move. The stock went up and, when I sold it, I doubled my money. Dad always tried to get me to save my money and invest it, but I didn’t listen like I should have. My average yard paid around ten dollars and some days I would make over sixty dollars. I spent a lot of that money without telling him.
I loved video games. This was when a lot of new games, like Space Invaders, Pac Man and Centipede, were coming out. I would spend twenty dollars a lot faster than it took to make it. I also bought a good share of sodas and candy. It’s hard for me to imagine how I wasted all of that money.
Thanks to Dad’s instruction, I tithed ten percent of every-thing I made. That is a habit I have since continued, and it has provided me with many great blessings. Dad taught me the lessons of tithing when I was young and continued to explain it to me as I grew older. When I got married, he told me how God had blessed us financially because of tithing.
A few times over the years, people had given Dad cars just when we needed one. I remember a few years when there was no money for Christmas and someone would give Dad money. We never had insurance, but our family was never seriously sick, which kept healthcare bills down. He also said that we had very little serious car trouble. Sickness and car trouble are two things that cost a lot of money, and God spared us those.
I, too, have found tithing to be a financial blessing. Malachi 8 verse 11 talks about how God blesses those who tithe. It takes faith, but a little money goes a long way when you honor God with his tithe, and remember that money will fly away like a bird if you don’t.