COCHECTON, NY — It all began in June 2010. I was downsizing my life to travel. De-cluttering unnecessary stuff was a pretty simple task for a military man who was experienced at traveling light for 28 years. But there remained one piece in my life that needed tending to in a more dignified manner. I had been given my father, Owen Baker’s, WWII Navy “Cracker Jack” uniform complete with hat and medals. He wanted me, a Navy man who followed in his footsteps, to cherish this sacred piece of his life. So, for the first 40 years this uniform was kept in his cruise box, hidden away in a dark closet until he passed it to me. As he opened the box, out came the uniform and the many stories that went with it. For the next 25 years it would hang in my military room to eventually become a prisoner in yet another dark hole after my retirement.
The big question to me was where these personal, prized possessions should go. I will die someday, and this old uniform could become just another article in a thrift store. Along with this uniform were images of a young, spirited 22-year-old Seaman 1st Class Owen Baker. I believe one photo depicts him while on liberty in the South Pacific. The character of this glossy-eyed sailor in all his grandeur was carried in his soul over many years and spent on his children and grandchildren until his passing in 2002.
Sometimes we are presented with mementos by those before us. Deep inside, they hope that we carry on their stories to provide their connection to a future life that they will never know. You can almost hear their plea of “please don’t forget me!” What to do with his gifts became my responsibility.
I guess he knew that I was driven most of my life to do the right thing. It’s a learned behavior in the military. With his stories and treasures in hand, I set out to find a place that would please him. Along with the uniform and glamour shots was a painting of the ship he was assigned to, the U.S.S. Sitka, a troop transport ship during WWII named after Sitka, AK. Owen was stationed aboard the U.S.S. Sitka in 1945 and 1946. Just on a hope and a prayer I picked up my iPhone and looked up Museum, Sitka, Alaska.
I was wowed by the events of the next few minutes. The phone call took only two minutes to complete; however, so much was accomplished.
The phone was answered by a young lady at the museum. I proceeded to tell her that I had this WWII Navy uniform. She interrupted me to say, “Believe it or not, we were standing here talking about how we could find a Navy uniform from WWII.” Without hesitation or mental reservation, I said, “It’s as good as in the mail.”
Call it fate, luck, or whatever you may believe. I only know that the odds were one in a million.
An unsolicited phone call made at a precise moment in a span of 65 years surely put a smile on a lot of faces. Then the big call or, as you might say, the call that was priceless to me. I was speechless when I called my mom. My words were, “Mom, I found a home for Dad.” After a 10-second explanation, we both went silent for the next couple of minutes. We both knew that he was going to live on forever for many to see, his spirit within.
That night, I laid his uniform out on the bed to spend one last night in my home. He will be looked at every day, not stowed in the dark, alone. I brushed his uniform, molded his hat and straightened his neckerchief. I know he is proud of all of us. As of this writing, my girlfriend Norma Jean Harstvedt and I are en route on the Holland America Line’s ship the Oosterdam toward Alaska to visit Dad. He is standing there at the door waiting for us to arrive. I can’t wait to take photos for the family.
We are passing his life and memories on to the Sitka Museum for their pleasure. I will have to caution them on his “sailor-like” behavior and hope that they can keep him in check. We all know what “Night at the Museum” can be like.
Upon our departure for this trip, I asked my mom, Betty Baker, if she had a memento that she would like him to carry at all times. I never guessed that she would hand me their original wedding bands to put in his hip pocket. They were pretty inspirational for the 57 years they were married until Owen’s passing. She said that keeping them with him was a token of her love for him and a reminder to behave while he is away, and that he wouldn’t be standing there all alone every night because now she would be there with him into the next century and beyond.
There are a lot of military items out there in the world that we could share with future generations. I suggest that we look again how veterans served us and what we can do to keep their actions and memories alive. Find a museum or local military affiliation, VFW, American Legion, or whatever to donate. On my last pass through Washington, DC. I took some pictures of the Vietnam Memorial to share with my niece and nephews in tribute to their father, Leslie Burr. I also took the time to etch the name of Ricky Wood, a fallen soldier in Vietnam. I took the etching to his big brother, Jimmy, with a hug and a hope that someday he will heal. We can never thanks these guys enough for their sacrifices.
I would like to thank Bob Medinger, executive director; Jacqueline Fernandez, curator of collections and exhibits; Lisa Huntsha, intern, Sitka Historical Society & Museum; Captain Charles Askey, USN; and Norma Jean for their heartfelt support in this adventure in my life. I would like to thank my mother and father for their continued example of how life should be. Thank you now and forever for your kindness and compassion.
[The author grew up on a farm in Cochecton, NY. His mother still lives there.]