Paul Carver Baker, January 16, 1968

My mother and my godmother Veda walked into the house on a cold January night 36 years ago. Another aunt on my mom’s side, Lucy, was also there.

They had been taking turns keeping watch with Mom at the hospital for almost two weeks, after an aortic aneurysm dropped my dad like a bale of old newspapers at the bottom of the stairs.

Extra, extra, read all about it.

In a coma after a risky and then-experimental aortic bypass, he had shown signs of awakening. But then the hospital called with that dreaded “please send someone as soon as possible to be with Mrs. Baker” call.

And so the women on both sides of the family gathered. Lucy went to the hospital. Pop’s maiden-aunt sister stayed with me.

“He’s gone,” Veda said.

Extra, extra

I was standing at the sink with Nibby. The news broke over us like a wave.

Her brother was gone, my father was gone, a husband was gone, a brother-in-law was gone, a longtime friend was gone. Gone.

A clump of grief formed in the kitchen, and we all got stuck in it for a long, long time. Some time later, I came back to myself and realized I had been wiping my tears, and theirs, with a dirty dishcloth.

It’s a very odd sensation, chuckling sadly while crying, but we all agreed that Pop would think… would have thought it was the funniest thing ever.

Read all about it.

“This train terminates at the next station. All change, please.”

He was 56. Mom was 52. I was 10.

There’s very little that was his that is now mine except my hair, and some odds and ends.

Things that I have from my father, besides the hair:

A couple of pocketknives.

An old and rather smelly leather jacket (it may actually be my mom’s, they had matching ones)

A bunch of words that he made up that I still use, like “speg tiggles” and “peener Bristol” and “Murpheola.”

Several old Pogo books. “Poot!” “Pootly-poot!” I hear his voice in my head when I read Albert Alligator’s lines. “Pup dawg!!”

An old Latin primer. He wrote all over it – it’s childish, but recognizably his handwriting.

His World War II photo album from his short stint in the Signal Corps double-secret radar training group, with wry captions written in green ink on the back about his Army buddies – strangely enough, most were a bunch of journalists attached to the news section. He had gotten into the radar section at random, but he may have expressed an interest in tinkering with radios.

A photo of Pop guarding the maintainance hut with a big starred A-ward on his puffed out chest and his helmet at a jaunty “go-ta-hell-Sarge” angle.

Photos of the spittin’ frog fountains at his tent at Camp Swampy, Florida (actually, a state park called Camp Murphy). Photos of the camp football team. As the “old man” in the unit, he coached instead of playing -his best playing days were in the early Thirties. He looks tall, fit, and handsome.

His official “flag in the background, to be printed with the obituary” Army photo – hand colored to show his red hair.

A photo of thin, ill men doing calisthenics at the Army hospital where he was sent after catching all the tropical diseases a Minnesota boy can catch and not quite die. He is somewhere in there; it’s a large group. His heart was damaged by rheumatic fever/yellow fever/malaria/all of the above and he got a medical discharge from the service, and that was the end of WWII for him.

He never went to college on the GI bill – he must have thought he was too old to go play around with the college boys. But he collected Popular Mechanics for the rest of his life, and never threw out his old radar technical manuals. He would have been one of those guys tinkering around with a home-built computer just to make it go blinky-blinky and print out “hello world.” Pretty good for an Old Guy, if he’d gotten to be one.

He would have thought it was the neatest thing ever to be able to compose text on the fly, edit on the fly, change fonts on the fly, cut with no scissors and paste with no glue. And now that I think of it, he would TOTALLY get the point behind “Lorem Ipsum.”. And probably recognize at least part of the quotations.

The story that he had actually seen my mother years before they met, at the train station in Kansas City when he was on his way to basic training and thought he’d end up dead in a ditch in Europe somewhere. She was leaving her first husband (he was another redhead) with my two sisters in tow (yep, redheads in braids) and Pop always swore that he saw them and thought “If I survive this damn war I’d sure like to have some little redheaded girls just like them.” And he kept looking at my mom when he met, because he knew he’d seen her somewhere before. They compared notes and memories of old train journeys and then he remembered. She thinks she remembers a tall redheaded man in uniform hovering around looking a bit sorry for himself.

The story that when he finally met my mom for real 6 years later in Colorado Springs, he couldn’t remember her name to call her up for a date the next day, and thought for sure it was something like “Murpheola Stocknottle.” She knew perfectly well that he’d forgotten her name and number, and she knew where he lived, but she wasn’t about to make it too easy for him. Girls and women waited to be called, you know.

So she stalked him by hanging out at the lunch counter near his bus stop until he finally walked in the door. He performed great gymnastic feats of conversation to get her to tell him her name again so he could write it down.

He called her Murph ever after. She called him Duggan.

It was the hair. There’s no real Irish or Scottish connection on either side, but when you’re redheaded, you’re Scotch-Irish by default.

I still call her Murph, and so does my dear husband. When DH called my mom to break the big engagement news, he used the nearly the same words Pop had used to propose to her nearly 50 years ago. He inquired about the opening in the son-in-law department, and wished to apply for the job with the family firm.

Pop had written to her from a trip home to Minnesota about his suddenly having an opening in the fiance department and wondered if she’d like to apply on his return.

She loves it when DH calls her Murph. She loves being called Murph. Because it’s Pop’s name for her.

Mom has his old love letters (he was on the road a lot when they were courting). They are a stitch. You need speg tiggles to read them, though. He wrote reeely small.

We both have memories of the day of his funeral. I posted this story on ASC a few years back:

When my dad died in 1968 (now there’s an opener for the funniest thing
you ever saw), we made the arrangements with a funeral home
recommended by my uncle. The owner of the company came to drive one of
the limos to take my sisters and my mom to the funeral as a favor to my
uncle. This guy’s name was Homer Jenkins. He was very dignified,
though my uncle told us he came from pretty humble beginnings in
southern Utah – meaning, very conservative, old fashioned, and with a
unique “Utah Dixie” accent.”

Meanwhile, our incredibly nosy neighbor across the street was beside
herself with curiousity. We weren’t on cordial terms with her, and so
she’d had to content herself with twitching her curtains every time
someone new came over in the dark days during my dad’s illness and
after he died. We’d gotten rid of the party line a couple years
before, so she couldn’t find out what was going on by listening in any
more. She was this horrible old besom named Mrs. Grundell.

The day of the funeral arrived, and she could contain herself no
longer. I was staying home, but went out on the front porch with my
godmother to watch as my family walked out to get into the limos. That
was when Mrs. Grundell burst onto her front porch and started flapping
a tea towel at Mr. Jenkins and screeching in this real strong southern
Utah accent:

“Homah! Homah Jen-kins! Haah, Homah! It’s me! Agnes Grondell! You
buried my (family member of some kind)! Haah! Haah! Haah’re YEW?”

Just picture Ruth Buzzi screeching in a weird quasi-Southern accent,
that was her.

Mr Jenkins murmured apologies to my mother and continued to guide her
smoothly to the curb. My adult sisters and I stood gobsmacked on the
front lawn. Suddenly, my oldest sister hollered in the same screechy

“Haah! Haah there Missus Grun-dayell!! Haaah’re YEW? We’re just off to
bury Pop! Yep, he’s a goner! Bahhh! Guh-BAAAH, Missus Grundell!”
Second sister chimed in, same schtick. Mr Jenkins didn’t know where to
look. Then I started hollering about being a little red-headed orphin
chile and they were all off to bury my daddy. It was literally the
Chorus of the Three Weird Sisters. Then we all got very quiet and
looked guiltily at Mom, as the rest of the family looked on in horror.

Mom drew herself up and looked very fiercely at the rest of us and
hollered “Haah!! Haah there, Missus Grun-dayell!! Howdy! I’m the
Widder Baker, off to bury my dead husband. Y’all have a nice day now,
y’hear? Baaah!! Guh-baaaah, Missus Grun-dayell!”

And we all waved like mad and laughed and cried hysterically, so that
my uncle and Homer had to practically herd everyone into the cars, all
giggling uncontrollably. Then they rolled down the windows and waved
some more. The rest of the cousins, aunts and uncles joined discreetly
in. Mrs. Grundell crept back into her house, and we never heard
another word from her again. Homer said later he’d never had a happier
crowd to take to a funeral. Everyone agreed that Pop would have loved
the absurdity, because he couldn’t stand the Grundells.

Now it’s family tradition – whenever one of us gets ready to leave at
the end of a visit, the rest of us start bellowing “guh-BAAAAAH!
guh-BAAAAAAAAAH!” That’s probably one reason the Grundells moved out a
couple years later. 😉

Names have been restored to their original glory, because the point of this very long post is, after all, being immortalized in print… and now online. We still call a dandelion digger a “grundeller” because of the way Mr. Grundell used to stab his weeds to death all summer. I think that’s one of Pop’s words too.

There are a few other old curiousities – like a few pages of ads and social news from a Minnesota paper my dad’s grandfather owned, that included some “joke” personals aimed at his father, C. R. C. Baker, who was but a lad of 12 in 188* when it was published. And then when I was Googling about, up pops a history website with a mention of one of the papers my grandfather owned (they moved a lot and owned several papers). It’s an excerpt from a much older article:

Chapter 12, Elgin Village and Township

“The Elgin Monitor was established Nov. 23, 1904, with Ross Hargrave as editor. The office was then located in the old postoffice building on Park street, across from the Northwestern depot. Mr. Hargrave conducted the paper for four months, when is was purchased by C. R. C. Baker, who took possession April 1, 1905. Mr. Baker continued as editor and published for 18 months, or until Sept. 7, 1906, when he sold out to Vincent Holton, the present proprietor. The paper was then moved to the First State Bank building, where it remained until October, 1915, when it was moved to its present location in the O’Donnel building, on Park street. Mr. Holton’s policy has been to conduct a newsy paper in the interest of the people of the village and the surrounding community, and his efforts have met with due appreciation. The Monitor has a circulation of 650, the subscriptions being payable in advance. In politics it is independent. “

I have an old photo of C.R.C’s old newsroom, with him grinning at the camera good-humoredly while seated at a fabulously disordered roll top desk. I never knew him, he looks like a fun Old Guy. I don’t know if it’s the same paper or one of the other ones he owned over the years.

I even have letters written to Pop’s mother from dozens of family members and friends – apparently she was a tartar. She got into a dispute with her church choir director and it was quite the dustup – it reads exactly like a flame email. Except it’s even more badly spelled, and full of good old-fashioned “Madame, kindly oblige me by making good on your threat to quit” invective.

And there are even older letters from other relatives that were kept for some reason – one from a Civil War era soldier mentions seeing Lincoln – yes, that Lincoln. The oldest one dates to about 1805, I think – and was either just signed by the postmaster in the corner, or stamped with a rubber stamp.

(I should transcribe them and get them up… they’re probably in need of conservation, too but I don’t know where to start)

Pop appears to have taken after his dad, except for not being a newspaperman. Which is a good thing, because based on the tart rejoinders people wrote to my grandmother in the letters that she saved for some crazy reason, she was not only a tartar, but a bossy old noseyparker.

Maybe Pop’s love for misspelled words and wacky syntax stems from hours spent setting type and re-setting type and editing copy and re-setting type. I’m sure his “first job” was working at the newspaper.

Speaking of independent – well, Pop was pretty independent politically. I think the only people he’d vote for would be Pat Paulsen the first time he ran, and Pat Paulsen again when he ran a few years ago).

He liked his politics funny. But he was totally broken up over Kennedy’s assasination, I remember. And he really got into anything space related after that. Sadly, he missed the moon landing and the Christmas 1968 Apollo 8 mission – that was our first Christmas without him.

He would have thought the Mars Spirit mission was the greatest thing ever, after the moon landings.

But I’m not sorry he missed Challenger and Columbia

And 9/11 would have been the very, very worst thing ever. So I’m glad he missed that. I can’t even link to anything about that. Sorry.

Anyway, the one thing that I don’t have and haven’t had for most of my life… is Pop.

And so now he’s “on the Internet.” Maybe later I can add the Camp Swampy photos – they’re pretty funny and the captions are hilarious. I could probably get his pictures up so anyone in the entire world could find them.

He would have thought that was the funniest, greatest, neatest thing ever.

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2 thoughts on “Paul Carver Baker, January 16, 1968

  1. Reading this brought back all the visions and feelings of this event in our lives. Actually, it was a “sucky” time period. We had lost a neephew in a car accident the prior June, my sisters husband had just been sent to Viet Nam and Pop just left us. I had my own emotions to deal with being a single mother of a 4 year old. Less than three weeks later, we lost my sisters husband in Viet Nam. All of the men in our family – taken in a six month time period. Now, that really sucks!
    I have a deep love and admiration for the youngest “red head” in the family to put down her feelings for the rest of the world to see. Yes – it is somewhat difficult to read but also had a very healing effect.
    To the little girl with the red hair, freckles, glasses and weird sense of humor …. Pop would be very proud of his daughter!! He is truly smiling down on all of his red headed girls.

  2. Whew – yep, 1968 was a hell of a year. Whenever I hear music from that year (a local radio station does “flashbacks” for specific years on Saturdyas, it comes up pretty frequently) it always puts me on edge.

    There was so much going on in the country then that was bad or hard or scary, and then we had our own bad-hard-scary to deal with. Remember? even the boy goldfish died. That sucked. 😉