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Uncle Jake and His Debts

October 4, 2007

Just down the road from McGraw’s Lumber Company, near the bridge over Deep Creek, Uncle Jake lived in a log house he built with his own hands. He had no birth certificate, but, judging by the looks of him, he was as old as dirt. Whenever there was speculation about Uncle Jake’s age, the conclusion was that he was at least too old to buy green bananas.

Uncle Jake’s teeth were an unsightly shade of dark yellow. There were amber tobacco stains on the margins. They were spotted black with decay. Several teeth were missing, but those that remained were tricolor.

When a man is old, he is said to be long in the tooth. Uncle Jake was even older than that. He was so old that his teeth were small stubs worn away by years of use and neglect.

Except when eating or drinking, Uncle Jake always had a King Edward cigar in his mouth. When it was actually burning, the smoke hung just underneath the brim of his tattered straw hat protecting his freckled bald head. More often, Uncle Jake would just be chewing on the butt of a King Edward with his stubby teeth. When he grinned, he gritted his peg teeth to hold the cigar in place.

He was surprisingly strong for his stocky build and his advanced age.

His customary attire was a long-sleeved shirt, khaki work pants, white socks, and old dress shoes with the toes cut out. His feet hurt all the time.

Uncle Jake worked in the shop at McGraw’s lumberyard. When it came to millwork, he was a master craftsman. He had only a third-grade education. He quit school to work at a sawmill when he was eight years old. It was there that he developed a reverence for the feel and the smell of lumber.

The day Uncle Jake came to the lumberyard to ask for a job, McGraw gave him a sketch of a mantelpiece. Uncle Jake worked most of a day on the project. He included fluted sidepieces, scrollwork, and dental work on the face board. The mantel was good; good enough for McGraw to give him the job.

Shortly after hiring him, McGraw found out Uncle Jake could not read. The discovery came quite by accident. McGraw had the daily newspaper spread out on the sales counter.

Pointing to a comic strip, he said, “Jake, read this.”

Uncle Jake answered, “You’ll have to read it to me. I can’t make it out.”

McGraw asked, “Why didn’t you tell me you couldn’t read? You read the drawing of the mantelpiece. You read the work orders I send you.”

Uncle Jake could read lumber dimensions and diagrams, but he could not read words. He explained, ” I can read writin’. But I can’t read readin’.”

Uncle Jake was always in debt. He worked hard all week, and on Saturday afternoon, spent nearly all of his wages making down payments on things he did not need.

One summer day McGraw asked Uncle Jake where he could buy two floor fans to cool the Deep Creek Church on Sundays.

Uncle Jake said, “You can get ‘em from me.”

When McGraw went down to Jake’s log house that day after work, Uncle Jake took McGraw to a barn out back that was under lock and key. Uncle Jake opened the door revealing a storehouse of furniture and appliances, most with the price tags still on them, all bought on credit.

“Why do you have all this stuff, Jake?”

“Bought it all on sale. Never know when you might need something. You can have those two fans if you’ll take up the payments.”

McGraw knew how to collect debts. “If you sell a man a load of lumber and don’t collect for it, you’ve just given it away.”

McGraw was known to call on debtors before breakfast. “Sometimes you have to make ‘em mad before they’ll pay you. But that’s still better than having to call the law on ‘em.”

On the other hand, McGraw was annoyed when creditors that came to the lumberyard looking for Uncle Jake. They were so numerous Jake couldn’t get his work done.

One day Uncle Jake was in the lumberyard office drinking a Coca-Cola when the conversation turned to a then current television program, “The Millionaire.” The program was a series of stories about people who had received a million dollars tax free from an anonymous benefactor. The popular show depicted the different ways people responded to instant wealth.

Someone asked, “Uncle Jake, what would you do if somebody gave you a million dollars?”

Uncle Jake took a sip of his Coca-Cola, puffed his cigar, and said, “I’d pay my bills as far as it would go, and tell the others they would just have to wait.”

Jake’s debts multiplied. Creditor’s visits increased, like flies swarming around roadkill. Jake was such a good worker that McGraw didn’t want to lose him to a better paying job.

Finally, in a desperate attempt to keep Jake’s creditors away, McGraw made an offer. “Jake, I’ll pay you completely out of debt if you give me your word of honor that you’ll never buy anything else on credit.”

Uncle Jake refused the offer, “I ain’t gonna do that! All a poor man’s got is his credit!”

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, October 2007

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