Sometime that fall, we moved to Carter Street. For me, it was no big deal because eighth graders all went to the same school, but Lottie, Ruth and Courts had to change schools. The Carter Street house was really big and nice. It was up in the woods on a dead-end street in the richer area of town. It had a huge yard with tons of trees, which I had to mow and rake. We really liked it there and a lot happened in the year-and-a-half that we lived in that house. Up behind the house there were about twenty or thirty acres of woods, right in the middle of town. There was also a big pond, and we played a lot in those woods.
When we moved in, we painted the whole house and re-placed the roof. We seemed to do this to each of our houses. Dad would talk with the owner and get the rent reduced in exchange for doing the work. This was a really big roof, and to make it even worse the dumpster where the old shingles went was several hundred feet from the house so I had to pick up all of the old shingles from a pile, load them in a wheelbarrow then take them down and throw them into the dumpster.
During this roofing job, Dad got heat stroke. He got so hot that he had to get down off of the roof and get into a cold bathtub. He drank a lot of water and looked tired. I didn’t know anything about heat stroke, and he looked fine to me so I was teasing him and telling him, “Be tough, it’s only in your mind.” I felt tough because I didn’t have to get down and take a break.
Mitch Callis moved in with us at that house. It was my first time having a big brother, and I did not like it a bit. He was bigger and smarter than me, and I couldn’t push him around like I could Lottie, Ruth and Courts. He helped me get dressed up for church one night in a vest and a big gold chain. I thought, “I’m really looking cool like the older guys now.” We both looked like a couple of Bee Gees. I wish I had a picture of that!
Out behind the house, at the edge of the woods, we had two big rabbit hutches that we raised rabbits in. I fed them and kept them watered and when they were big enough we ate them. Just like when I was a little kid in Texas, using the irrigation pipes to catch rabbits, Dad would break their neck, and we would skin them out. Mom would fry them up and we would enjoy fresh rabbit. Lottie loved the rabbits and couldn’t stand that we killed them. She would cry every time we killed one and refused to eat them.
This was also where Mom almost killed the whole family when we were coming home from DeSoto one night. Dad was tired so Mom was driving. The next thing I knew, our big Oldsmobile 98 was spinning around in the median on interstate 55. Fortunately we didn’t cross into the other lane and the car stopped in the tall grass, facing in the wrong direction.
Dad didn’t wake up until it was all over and the whole scene was like when Chevy Chase fell asleep in the movie “Vacation.” Dad sat up, looked around and said, “Where are we?” Mom was all shaken up so I said, “We almost had a wreck and Mom spun the car around in this grass.” Dad told Mom to move over so he could drive while she kept repeating, “I just couldn’t keep my eyes open.” Dad reminded her that we all could have been killed, and it was a very tense and quiet ride home.
Dad never bought fireworks for the Fourth of July. He also didn’t want me buying them, and always said it was a waste of money. For a young boy, there was nothing more tempting, more inviting or more fun than shooting off fireworks. Mom liked “snakes” and sparklers so we did get to light those up a few times, but I wanted the good stuff. Firecrackers, bottle rockets and roman candles were a lot more fun than sparklers.
In Cape, Kinder Fireworks put up several big tents around town and they always ran a lot of ads on the radio. They had a contest where they would give away a big fireworks package to the seventh caller whenever they told you to call in. I listened to the radio for days and called in tons of times, but never got through. Finally, one day, I was the seventh caller and won the prize.
Mom drove me down to pick up the big package, and I was in heaven. All I wanted to do was shoot off those fireworks, but Dad wouldn’t let me shoot them in town. We were planning on going to DeSoto at about that time and he told me that when we got to Uncle John and Aunt Karen’s house in the country, I could shoot them off.
We got to their house and I immediately began preparing for my big fireworks show. I let the other kids set off the sparklers and a few other small items while I prepared for my big extravaganza! I thought I was such a big shot that night. Lottie, Ruth and Courts were not allowed to light anything so I ran down to my launching area with my flashlight and set something off, then ran back as fast as possible before heading down to light another one.
The show lasted for quite a while and I went to bed a tired but very satisfied boy that night. Now that I’m older, I agree with Dad that buying fireworks is a big waste of money. I love to go to the community shows and see them, but firecrackers and bottle rockets are not the temptation for me that they used to be.
In eighth grade, I started noticing girls even more, so money and clothes started mattering a lot more. We also had football, basketball and track teams to try out for. Heading into the fall semester, Dad and I were very excited about me playing foot-ball. I took my physical, got my training uniform and made the team.
Dad gave me some good advice that worked. He said, “Win every drill, hit as hard as you can, and always seem motivated.” I did all of those things, and it impressed the coach. I wasn’t that big or fast, but I was motivated. I decided to try out for linebacker. Dad said that was a good position for me and all of my efforts paid off when I was picked as a starting linebacker.
Dad never missed a practice or a game. He was at all of them. He knew all of my coaches. He coached me and always gave me advice after each practice and game. I loved football and I had a great time that year. I also soon realized that it made you more popular to be a starter. We always got to wear our jerseys to school on game day, which the girls liked.
I was an average linebacker and made tackles, but it became obvious that I was not improving. I wasn’t as good as I needed to be at reading the offence to know if it was a pass or run. Dad gave me advice on how to read the offence, but I could never do it fast enough. I made some good hits that year, but also got my block knocked off a couple of times. I really enjoyed the kickoffs and had fun hitting guys on those.
Dad was proud of me and after all of the years we had spent talking about playing football, I was starting on a real football team. Dad told me to start lifting weights after that season was over. So coach, and a few of us hardcore players, lifted weights after school all year until track season started.
Dad was a relentless coach when it came to sports. He believed in working as hard as it took to be the best. He always pushed me in running, but he also pushed Lottie in gymnastics. Lottie was small, strong and very good at gymnastics, but when we lived on Carter Street she got scared to do her back handsprings. She had done them before but for some reason she was hesitating.
Dad kept her up one night until 3 a.m. trying to do back handsprings with Mom spotting her. Lottie was crying and bawling the whole time, but Dad wouldn’t let her stop until she could do a back handspring all by herself without Mom’s help. She finally did one, Mom told her good job, and she went to bed. She wasn’t happy about it at the time but she also wasn’t afraid to do back handsprings after that.
My First Track Season
I went out for track and decided to run the long distance races. I will always remember my first race that year. I ran the half-mile and the mile. I finished second in the mile and fourth in the half-mile. Brian Robinson beat me in the mile. He easily won that race. Brian started out in front and we never saw him again. I was with the rest of the pack and on the back stretch of the last lap, I started running hard and finished second. I didn’t have speed as much as endurance, so I didn’t do as well in the half-mile.
That’s the way things went for me all year. Dad came to almost all of the track practices and meets. He really wanted me to beat Brian, but I never did. Still, I always managed to pass somebody on the back stretch of the last lap and come in second. Brian and I both broke the conference record that year. He ran a 5:01 and I ran a 5:14, both good times for an eighth grader. Brian still holds the conference record.
I really enjoyed running, but any kid likes what he is successful at. By the end of the season, everyone knew the two Cape runners would place first and second in the mile and we were becoming “big” stars in the conference. My football coach and track coach were one and the same, so he and Dad became friends. I kept lifting that summer to get ready for football next fall, but running started to become more important to me.
Trying to be Popular
That year in school I hung around with the popular kids. Some of them still didn’t think I fit in with them, but I was friendly with everybody so they didn’t kick me out. Another thing that helped me was that I always joked around and kept everyone laughing.
At that age, kids started having parties and inviting all of their friends over to their houses. I always got invited and Dad sometimes let me go, but I was always scared to ask him for permission.
At the end of eighth grade, two of the popular boys gave me some insight into the whole popularity game. John Lohr, whose dad was the Southeast Missouri State University (SEMO) football coach and who’d never been particularly friendly to me, said, “Rod, you’re pretty good at football, I didn’t know you could play like that.” And Billy Eckert wrote in my yearbook: “Hey guy, sorry I was so mean to you this year. I hope our friendship is still there. See ya at football practice.” What this meant was that they acted stuck up to me sometimes. Lots of popular people did. I just kept hanging around them and acting like I didn’t notice. I tried very hard to do, say, and wear the things that would make me popular. Sometimes, kids like John and Billy would soften a little when they realized I had some redeeming qualities. It’s funny how kids at that age want so badly to be popular. It undoubtedly causes many of us to do things we know we should not do.
Ditching the Dress Clothes
When I started eighth grade, Dad said I had to wear dress clothes to school. I hated that rule. It would not have been so bad if I would have had nice dress clothes, but we didn’t have a lot of money, and I only had hand-me-downs from other people that I thought looked terrible on me. I used to run to school each morning and change into regular clothes after my workouts. Then, before I got home, I would change back or try to make sure that Dad wouldn’t be home when I got there.
Fortunately, Dad never came to school to pick me up, so he never knew that I didn’t wear those clothes to school. I understand now why he wanted me to wear them. He thought I would look sharp and gain respect from my teachers and peers, and he was right. Later, when I was at high school in Charleston, Jerry McDowell always wore suits and ties to school and looked nice. He was respected by everyone. The difference was that his clothes were new and nice while mine were given to us by someone in church who had grown out of them, or just didn’t want them anymore. That usually meant they were painfully out of style, too.
My First Date
Another event that happened during that year was my date with Susan. I can’t remember her last name. It was at a school dance. I didn’t tell Mom and Dad that I had invited a girl to the dance so I waited for Susan at the door while all of the other kid’s parents drove to pick up their dates. When she arrived I took her into the dance. She didn’t have a corsage like the other girls, which started a very awkward and embarrassing night. I had no clue what to do or what was expected of me. Susan and I never went out again, and Mom and Dad never knew of her. I should have told them. I bet Dad would have given me some good advice and driven to pick her up like the other kids. I don’t know why I didn’t.
I still played in the band, but didn’t like it one bit. I didn’t like the new director and, despite the first director’s praise of my “musical ear,” I was not very good. I never practiced and had fallen from the number one chair to number three. I was into sports by then and didn’t care for band anymore, but Dad wouldn’t let me quit. He said I shouldn’t quit anything.
The only good thing about band was the cute flag twirler in the eleventh grade who asked me out on a date. I doubled with Billy Eckert and another eleventh grader. It was really something to go out with an eleventh grader. The girls had their own car and they picked us boys up.
Mom and Dad were out of town so they didn’t know about that date either. We saw a movie and went to dinner. After dinner, they took us parking and I kissed my date before we went home. She had to explain kissing to me, which was embarrassing, but we had fun. I never went out with her again, although I liked her a lot. Soon after our date, her brother was cleaning his dad’s gun one day and it went off. She was killed by the bullet. It was sad for the whole school, especially for her little brother. I didn’t get to go to the funeral, and it seemed so sad that someone so young and vibrant and healthy was just gone.
Getting Ready for Ninth Grade
By the time summer rolled around, I was running hill sprints, throwing the football, and lifting regularly to get ready for football season. Dad made me throw a football through a tire a hundred times each day, and sprint up our hill ten times each day, but the hill on Carter Street was not as big as the hill on Green Acres.
Now that I lived in a new area, Dad made me go door to door again, and this expanded my grass mowing business. I picked up several new lawns on top of all of all of my old customers. I would push my lawn mower about two miles to my old neighborhood or put it in the trunk and get a ride if Mom or Dad were going that way. I had about twenty-five lawns that year, plus there was a property management company that called me when their rental properties needed mowing. They had over two-hundred homes, which usually added one or two yards a week to my list.
I still timed myself running to church, the store, and school. I would time how long it took me to run somewhere and then each time I ran that route again I would time myself to see if I got faster. I loved running and always tried to be faster and in better shape.
At that time, I also worked with Gary Hill. He lived down the street, and I was his helper/gofer. He was such a funny guy, and I really looked up to him. As a teenager, I still looked up to Dad but was starting to do what all kids do. I thought I knew more than him, and there were a lot of things that I didn’t want to talk to him about.
Gary was a fix-it guy and he did plumbing, electrical or any handyman job that needed doing. I enjoyed helping him a lot, and I would ask him about things I wouldn’t ask Dad about. He also taught in the church youth group. He gave me good advice, and I often think that if I had stayed in Cape, Gary would have kept me out of trouble. Gary was the one who famously said of my family: “When the Jettons come over, they don’t eat until their full, they just eat until it’s all gone.” We still laugh about that one today, but it was true. Our big family could put the hurt on a table of food!
My freshmen year of high school, I went out for football again but, during the summer before, the high school track coach had told me that if I went out for cross country I would be able to get a varsity letter. It didn’t matter much to me because all I wanted to do still was play football. In our school, the eighth and ninth graders were in their own division and the tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders played varsity. To get a varsity letter as a freshman was a big deal.
As practice started that summer, my lack of speed was hurting me more than ever. Starting as a linebacker was not looking like it was in the cards for me, but the coaches talked about moving me to the offensive line. I was not able to win the hitting drills as I had before, but I still won the sprints at the end of practice.
Dad came to all of the practices and told me to try harder. He said I was a sissy and that I just didn’t want to hit. I didn’t agree, but it was discouraging not to be as good as I was the year before. The high school cross country coach talked to my football coach and said, “This kid needs to run, not play football.” He said that anyone who could break the conference record in the mile needed to be running cross country.
At one of the practices, my dad, my football coach and I all talked about it. Coach said I had a future in running, and Dad agreed that I might even be able to get a college scholarship. I didn’t know what to do. I loved running and it wasn’t looking like I would be a starter that year for the football team. Plus I would be on the varsity cross country team. After a lot of thinking, and with Dad’s encouragement, I switched over to running.
Later on, when I was in college, Dad told me that was the hardest thing he ever had to tell me. He really wanted me to play football. He made some good points, though, about me switching to running and helped talk me into it. I’m very thankful that he sacrificed his own ambitions for me and sat me down for that talk. Running helped me pay for college and taught me a lot about perseverance.
As I moved over to cross country, I planned to try to beat Brian. Cross country is a three-mile race, so I thought I had a better chance because the longer the race, the better I seemed to finish. Brian and I were friends, but I still wanted to be the best freshman on the team. Since we ran with the varsity team, we were competing against tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders who were very fast. I trained hard with the team that year and Coach Patrick made us take longer runs than I had ever run before. I still remember my first nine-miler. I didn’t know people could run that far, but it wasn’t long before I was running ten, twelve, and even fifteen-milers on the weekends.
Unfortunately for Brian, he had his appendices taken out that year and missed the season. I ended up being the top freshman and running fifth on the team; a very important position. I was a consistent runner and never blew a race that year. Sometimes the juniors and seniors who liked to party would have a bad day, and I would beat them and be third or fourth on the team.
Overall, I had a great freshman year and finished in the top fifteen at a few meets. It is difficult for a freshman to do that, so Coach Patrick was really glad I joined the team. Our races were on Saturdays, and every Friday night I would jog down to the track and run a mile as hard as I could. I was trying to break 5:00, but I never did. I ran 5:04, 5:01, and 5:03, but I couldn’t seem to get it under 5:00.
Learning to deal with the pain of long distance running was not easy that first year. About halfway through most races, my lungs were burning, my legs were aching, and as I would go up a big hill I would sometimes think to myself, “I could just fall down and act like I turned my ankle, stop running and rest.” Learning how to deal with the constant pain of pushing your body to the limit, takes practice. Thanks to Dad’s training, and my memory of feeding Arnold, I never gave up and ran consistent times all through the season.
Even though I switched to running, Dad continued to push me to be the best. Once cross country season was over, he would wake me up every morning at about 6 a.m. to run. Some mornings I would be so tired that I would go down to the end of the road and lay down for twenty or thirty minutes. Then I would get up, do jumping jacks to start sweating, and go back home to take a shower.
Why did I do that? I was already awake; there was nothing to be gained by laying at the end of the driveway in the cold. It was just complete laziness. I shouldn’t have done it because I needlessly wasted a lot of time and didn’t get any extra sleep, but as I grew older that taught me a valuable lesson. As I became a more serious runner, I never let that happen again. For most of my high school and college life, I ran twice a day during the week, once at 6 a.m. and then again at 3:30. Coach Dixon taught me that being a champion took two workouts a day.
At about that time, Dad resigned from Red Star church. He said that the Lord was calling him to pastor a church. He also had his fourth hernia operation. The doctors told him that if this one broke he would be in bad shape. He is not supposed to lift heavy things, but he still does.
I remember that operation because the green Chevy truck burned up while he was recuperating from the surgery. Mom got us kids into the truck to go somewhere one afternoon and as we backed out of the driveway a stream of flames was trailing from underneath the truck. Mom stopped, and we all piled out of the passenger side door because the driver’s side door didn’t work. I popped the hood and was almost burned as the flames jumped into the air.
By this time, Dad was watching from the porch but couldn’t move very fast because of the surgery. He told me to throw dirt on it. I grabbed two handfuls, but without a dump truck I wasn’t going to get enough dirt to put that inferno out. Then he said, “Get away before it blows up!” We called the fire department, and they came and put it out, but the engine and cab were all burnt up. That was a sad day for Dad. He watched his truck burn completely up and there was not a thing he could do about it because of his hernia surgery. To top it all off, he was newly unemployed.
While Dad was waiting for a church to call him, he and Mom made extra money painting houses. Soon he was called to lead the youth at Elmo Baptist Church in Scott City, where Jimmy Broughs was the pastor. Dad stayed at the Scott City church for a short time before he was called to Southside Baptist Church in Charleston, Missouri.
Right before we moved from the Cape house, Mom had a miscarriage. We didn’t talk about it much, but Dad explained that it was God’s will. At the time, I remember agreeing with God, because I didn’t think we needed another sibling so young around the house. Mrs. Garland was with Mom when it hap-pened. She was weak for a few days but had no serious health issues. That was Mom’s second miscarriage. She had one after Lottie was born and before she had Ruth.
I was still in the school band, but hated it even more. By that time, I had fallen to the number ten trombone chair. I ran in the off season to get ready for track, but not a lot. Brian Robinson and I went out for wrestling, but I ended up not liking wrestling. During the first practice, the coach had us wrestle for three minutes, and Brian easily beat me. He was short and weighed just over a hundred pounds. I was a lot bigger than him and couldn’t believe how easily he’d beaten me. I could see that I was not quick enough to be a wrestler and I decided I would just stick with running. Brian went on to be a great wrestler. He finished first in the state two years in a row.