Jake Baker was drafted in the mid 1950s and served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
My Uncle Jake was kind of grumpy and grouchy. Definitely not the warm-and-fuzzy type.
As a little kid, I was scared of him. Never had any reason to be, but Uncle Jake had enough hard edges to make me wary.
My first memory of him dates back to age 3 or 4. He was dissatisfied about something, and everyone in our family knew it. I remember making a conscious decision that day to stay out of eyesight and earshot.
In retrospect, he had reason to be grumpy that day. He was a 30-year-old man who wanted to go watch the races in Daytona, and his family was giving him grief, predicting bad things would happen and telling him it was “too dangerous,” a popular and often-reached conclusion in our family. Thankfully, he ignored them and went to the races.
I never really outgrew the feeling of not wanting to get cross wires with Uncle Jake, but those days of feeling scared of him disappeared almost as quickly as they came.
In the spring of 1965, my daddy had surgery for a stomach ulcer and was out of commission for several weeks. Uncle Jake, who had a civil service job at Moody Air Force Base, came down to our farm in Clyattville—on the Georgia-Florida border—and used our little Farmall tractor to plow a garden plot for us.
I rode with him on the tractor and generally made myself a nuisance that evening. He slept in my room that night, and I fell out of bed for some reason. Uncle Jake simply reached over, picked me up off the floor and plopped me back into bed without a word.
Gordon Solie and Watergate
Uncle Jake was as much a no-nonsense guy as there could be. He loved NASCAR, the Atlanta Falcons and pro wrestling, especially when Gordon Solie was the play-by-play announcer on TV in the 1970s. In the summer of 1974, he rewarded my cousins and me for our hard work in the tobacco field every day by letting us watch the Watergate hearings on TV every night. They were repeats!
Gadgets and gimmicks, especially those hawked on TV, fascinated him and made him an impulse-buyer. My wife and I have a turkey roaster that he bought on a whim and gave to use when he realized he had no earthly use for it.
There wasn’t much soft about Uncle Jake but Christmas always brought a twinkle to his eyes and a lightness to his personality.
My immediate family spent every Christmas eve night with Uncle Jake and my Granny (and Grandpa before he died) until I married in 1984. He would always want to watch me open my presents on Christmas morning before the rest of the family arrived, all the way up until the year I graduated from college.
Not exactly the love of his life
Jake never married or had children, but he played a role in raising me and my cousins, all of whom worked for him on his farm every summer when we were kids and teenagers. I remember midway through one summer when my cousin and I found a gift-wrapped box in Uncle Jake’s car. We were convinced he had found love and we were on the verge of getting a new aunt.
All summer, we kept waiting for the big announcement. It finally came at the supper table one night. “There’s a graduation gift out there in the car for you,” he told my cousin. “(So and so) gave it to me at the beginning of summer to give to you and I forgot about it.”
We didn’t get a new aunt but my cousin got a nice something or other to take with him to college later that fall.
Jake wasn’t all that crazy about people, but he sure loved farming. He gave up the government job at Moody shortly after my grandfather was killed in a wreck on November 1, 1967, and took up farming full time. I took a video (Watch it here) of him a couple of years ago running the tobacco combine through the field. At age 83, he was still climbing up and down that machinery like a young man.
No doubt, the lessons I learned and the experiences I gained on the farm with him and his younger brother, my Uncle Bug Baker, influenced my novel, Plowed Fields, which was published a few months ago.
The greatest gift
The greatest gift he gave me, however, occurred in my junior year at the University of Georgia. We were at Granny’s house for a Sunday dinner, and Uncle Jake started asking me about my job prospects. I was a journalism major and short on confidence about my skills and prospects. I told him about an internship I wanted and immediately followed it up with a self-deprecating, self-pitying remark about my chances of getting it.
“I wouldn’t think that way,” he told me in his gruff way. “You’ve got just as much a chance of getting it as anybody else.”
Funny enough, I heard him loud and clear. I never really answered him, but the thought took hold. And I got that internship the following summer.
If I have any regrets, it’s that I never told Uncle Jake that story.
We learned today that Uncle Jake had passed away. As much as anyone can die on their own terms, I think he did. He took care of himself and was still doing what he loved best, farming, when he passed away. Not bad for a man just a few weeks shy of his 86th birthday.
I’m sad but even happier that he made the grand exit on those terms. He would not have wanted it any other way.
I decided to share these thoughts because, truth is, there probably won’t be too many tributes to my uncle. Oh, he was well loved by his family, especially his sisters and his brother who passed away in 2009. But Uncle Jake was gruff and ornery and liked things his way, and all of that combined can make for a solitary life.
I’m going to celebrate his life this evening by playing Go Rest High On That Mountain by Vince Gill. Uncle Jake probably would have preferred a different song, and I know he loved the flat fields and pine woods of South Georgia far better than mountains. But I’ll find solace in that song, and grieving after all is for the living, not the dead.
I chose the name Plowed Fields for my blog not only because it is the name of my fist novel, but because it also pays homage to my farming roots.