Jeffrey Theodore "JT" Pendergrass was born September 21, 1949, in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His mother, Patty, was a waitress at a truck stop off US 41. His father, Jeff, was a long haul truck driver and was married, but not to JT's mother. The elder Jeff had a wife and family in St. Louis, Missouri, but that didn't make him any less possessive of Patty, who was nearly 20 years his junior.
Even though Jeff was away most of the time, either working or with his "other family," he insisted that Patty remain faithful to him. She tried, but after a few years, Patty gave up any pretense that Jeff was the only man in her life, except when Jeff was actually in town. When his job did bring him to Chattanooga, Jeff's suspicions and Patty's deceptions inevitably led to terrible arguments -- shouting, throwing things, and physical violence on both sides. There was one eyewitness to every one of these brawls: little JT.
By the time JT was 10 years old, his father had pretty much stopped visiting, except for an occasional drop-in around the holidays. Patty was spending most of the time she wasn't working with a succession of boyfriends, and JT was left to his own devices. He went to school more often than not, just to be in the company of other people, but he never really paid much attention to his studies. When he wasn't in school, JT would ramble around the trailer park where he and Patty lived, exploring and spying on the neighbors.
As JT became a teenager, Patty had an increasingly difficult time dealing with her sullen and belligerent son. In her attempts to discipline him, Patty sometimes said terribly cruel things to him. After one particularly brutal argument, JT waited for his mother to go to work, then packed a bag and took off. He was 16.
JT hitched a ride with a trucker named Red, who was headed west. He enjoyed life on the road, and somehow managed to convince Red to take him on as a kind of apprentice. In the three years they rode together, Red taught JT everything there was to know about driving a truck and eventually shared driving duties with him. In 1969, Red's employer gave JT his own route. Later that year, JT narrowly escaped the draft by luck of the draw, literally.
A couple of years later, as JT was driving from California to Chicago, he saw a young woman hitchhiking just outside Salt Lake City. He decided he could do with some company, so he picked her up. She said her name was Rhonda and she was going to the east coast. He told her he could only take her as far as Chicago. The trip took several days, and by the time they were passing through Springfield, they both knew they wouldn't be parting ways in Chicago.
JT decided to bring Rhonda with him back to Chattanooga where he kept an apartment, unbeknownst to his mother. The two settled into a life together, with Rhonda sometimes going on the road with JT and sometimes staying home to work. On a trip out west in 1975, they decided on the spur of the moment to get married when they passed through Las Vegas.
It turned out that married life wasn't much different from the life they had before. JT was still on the road a lot, and Rhonda was still home by herself a lot. JT had a lot of time to think while he was driving, and he couldn't help remembering how his mother had behaved when his father was away working. He started to wonder exactly what Rhonda was doing when he wasn't around.
When Rhonda announced out of the blue that she was pregnant, JT couldn't deny his doubts, and he demanded a blood test when the baby girl was born. Rhonda was furious, especially when the test results showed the child was his. JT adored daughter Jennifer, but his relationship with Rhonda was strained.
It didn't help when Rhonda told him in 1978 that she was moving back home to Oxford with their daughter and JT could come with them or not. Moving so far away from his main trucking routes meant JT would be away from home more than ever, but he went with his family anyway because he was not about to be separated from his daughter.
With her mother, Doris, around to look after the baby, Rhonda went back to work. JT hated her working at The Juke Joint because it was so sketchy, but she was bringing home good money. He was livid when he found out about the "adult films" The Juke Joint was showing late at night, and he and Rhonda had many loud arguments about her continuing to work there. She was so adamant that she wasn't going to quit that he began to wonder about her real reason for working there.
In 1982, Rhonda again announced she was pregnant, and JT was even more suspicious than ever, but the blood test showed Brian was his child. JT was thrilled to have a son, but couldn't shake the feeling that Rhonda was hiding things from him.
With two young kids at home, JT made an effort to be home more often to spend time with them. Unfortunately, that also meant spending more time with Rhonda, and ever since the second blood test, the more JT and Rhonda were together, the more they argued. JT was convinced that Rhonda was lying and cheating on him. Rhonda said JT was controlling and what he really wanted was a servant not a wife. Soon, whenever JT was home, Rhonda worked late or so she said.
One December Sunday in 1987, JT was home and taking care of the kids while Rhonda slept in after working late the night before. A man called and asked to speak to Rhonda. JT was furious that one of her lovers would call their home, especially when he was there. He woke Rhonda up and thrust the phone at her. When she hung up, she was crying. She said a young man who worked with her had died, and JT asked if she was so upset because she was sleeping with him. She called him an idiot, and in seconds, they were deep into one of the worst arguments they'd ever had. It only ended when Rhonda stormed out, claiming she was going to her mother's and wouldn't be back until it was time for him to leave again.
Things were never really the same after that, but they held their marriage together, mostly because they were too busy to realize how unhappy they were. In 1988, Rhonda bought The Juke Joint with money she said she inherited. They weren't really talking much by then, so JT didn't ask for any details and she didn't offer any.
Whatever JT thought of Rhonda as a wife, he never doubted her devotion as a mother. Or at least he didn't until he came home one day in 1990 and found the house empty. He eventually located the kids at his mother-in-law's house. Doris told him that Rhonda had gone away for the weekend with some girlfriends, but she didn't even sound like she believed it when she said it, so JT didn't think she expected him to believe it either. When Rhonda didn't turn up by Sunday night, JT asked his boss for a few days off for a family emergency. That Monday, he met with a lawyer and filed for divorce.
JT kept his distance from Rhonda after that, talking to her only when they needed to discuss something about the kids. She and her lawyer did a good job of cleaning him out in the divorce, so he had to work more than he had in recent years, but he made sure to stay in touch with his children. He tried to call them every day when he was on the road, and made sure he got back to Oxford frequently to see them.
JT has vowed he will never get married again, but he stays with his long-time girlfriend, Linda, whenever he's in Memphis.
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