“Uncle” Donn Jaekle – November 14th, 2009

I met with Donn a week or so ago at The Boonville Lodge, an old haunt of his where he likes to have a couple of beers a few times a week in the late afternoon. As I sipped my coffee, he was brought a beer and we began to talk…
Donn was born at St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco in January 1928, meaning he will turn 82 in a couple of months’ time. He had a younger brother by a couple of years, Larry, and a sister, Joan who was five years older. Donn was 2 ½ months premature when he was born – “I couldn’t wait to get out and see what it was all about. A lot of good that did – I spent the next three months in an incubator! Unlike my brother who was a month overdue and weighed ten and a half pounds – my poor Mom.” Donn has a German heritage on his paternal side, his forefathers coming to the west coast in the early 1900’s. His grandfather settled in Mill Valley north of San Francisco where he became the captain of the ferryboat between Sausalito and S.F. – “it was the biggest passenger ferry in the world at that time, before the bridges were built across the S.F. Bay. He also had his pilot’s license enabling him to work as the guide for the big ships coming into the harbor.” Donn’s father, Donnelle, was an architect and he met his mother, Amy Frazier (of English/Scottish descent), in Petaluma. They initially lived in the Avenues in S.F. but soon moved back to Mill Valley and started a family.
However, Donn’s parents split up when he was just five years old and his father was given custody of the two boys; his sister going with their mother. At the age of 7 Donn was sent to a military academy school, a boarding school, in San Francisco for a couple of years – “we were midget army guys” – and then St. Catherine’s Boarding school in Benicia up the Sacramento River until he was in 7th grade. “I spent little time with any family for most of my childhood although I would still see my mother and sister sometimes. I was not close to my brother; I couldn’t stand the little prick… The school was in a rural area and we had nuns for teachers. They were horny. When we had our weekly bath on Saturdays they would scrub us and they sure took a long time washing between your legs.”
During the War, Donn’s father, whose still had his architect job in S.F., moved to work for the government in Cupertino, outside San Jose, as a draftsman and so Donn saw even less of him. He attended Jordan Junior High and High school in Palo Alto but as soon as he was 17 he quit and signed up for the Merchant Marines, entering boot camp in Sheep’s Head Bay, Brooklyn, New York. “I remember very clearly when President Roosevelt died in 1945. Everyone was very sad and people were crying in the streets. It really upset me too – he was a great President. Truman was next and he was o.k. but no Roosevelt.”
Donn signed up for three years, serving mainly in the Pacific. “I got married in those years, Marylyn Monroe was taken so I turned to my high school sweetheart. We then had a baby boy we named Kim. A couple of years later when I was a way on duty she sent me a ‘Dear John’ letter at Christmas to say she had fallen in love with my buddy from school and our relationship was over. She was pregnant and had a second child – a daughter. I had been home on leave but I wasn’t sure if the baby was mine or not. I have never seen her and don’t even know her name. I was bitter and may be I never really got over it as I never married again.”… Following his time in the merchant marines, the draft was still in effect so with his sea experience he signed on for the Navy rather than risk being drafted by the Army. “My final tour in the merchant marines was to Alaska for 5 months so when that was over I went out and blew $700 in just a few days following our return to S.F. We drank a lot, had a hell of a good time, and then I signed up for 3 years in the Navy (adding 2 more later). The Navy was fine and I officially graduated from High School in that time before I got out in 1953 when I was 25 years old. I still wear a hat every day that is a Greek fisherman’s hat and I used to have a 28’ cruiser on the Sacramento Delta – I have salt water running in my veins.”
Using the G.I. Bill, Donn attended San Jose State to study Commercial Art and Advertising. “I had treated high school as a place to play and never felt I had any purpose. In college it was different and I was good at what I studied. I’d always liked drawing and had done a lot of cartoon work when I was on the ships – people seemed to like my stuff.” Donn showed me some of his work from sixty years ago and he certainly was a very talented cartoonist.
However, there was no work in this field so Donn left after a couple of years and in 1955 went into the Construction business, greatly helped by his naval experience where he’d been in the Seabees – the Naval Construction Battalion. “I had been initially in the Navy Transportation Division but there was no future there so I’d transferred to the Seabees and was there for most of my five years. After 38 months at sea in the Merchant Marines, I was grateful to be anywhere rather than aboard ship or the cook.”
Around this time, Donn was at his home one day when there was a knock at his door. He answered and a young man of about 17 stood there. Donn assumed he was collecting for something and said he couldn’t help at this time and closed the door. They man knocked again and asked if he was talking to Donn Jaekle. Donn asked who wanted to know and the guy replied. ‘You are my father.’ “I had not seen him since he was two years old. We got along fine and I still see him sometimes. I was the Best Man at his second wedding and he now lives in Sacramento. I have five grandkids but I’ve never seen any of them. I have never felt like I had a family. I was never raised that way with my parents breaking up and being sent to boarding school. My friends have always been my ‘family’.”
Donn’s first civilian job was in San Jose as a Grader operator and he joined the Operating Engineers Union but as he moved up the ladder and became first an Estimator and ultimately a Project Manager, there was a conflict and he had to leave the Union. “I was in the construction business for 17 years, bought a house in Cupertino, had many friends, and had a good life but over time there was too much pressure and bullshit in the job and I quit when I was 44 in 1972.”
Donn’s mother had moved to Cloverdale a few years earlier and so Donn sold his house and moved up to be with her. He had been up this way many times over the years to visit her and fix anything she needed doing, plus he’d landscaped her land and built her patio and decks and had enjoyed taking her on drives through Anderson Valley. He moved into a travel trailer on her property and began to look for a job and may be some property. “I arranged to meet with a realtor in Covelo to look at a place – 22 acres on the Eel River. We arranged to meet at The Rock Inn at 9am or so and when I walked in it was packed and the pool tables were busy. It was a crazy place. We went to look at the property and nearby there was a bunch of Indians raising hell at the side of the road. We parked and were looking around when some Indians drove up, got out of their vehicle and then pushed the realtor’s car over the cliff and it rolled down the hill. ‘Not again,’ he said. They had done it before a few times apparently. We got a ride back into town from a logger and the realtor seemed surprised when I told him I wasn’t interested in the property. I never went back to Covelo again.”
Donn stayed on his mother’s property for a year or so before in 1974 he bought a parcel on the new sub-division – on Kramer Lane near the top of Holmes Ranch Road between Philo and Navarro. “I actually moved into the Valley a mere 35 years ago meaning I’m not an old-timer! I planned to have livestock on the land and wanted to do something with horses – I was a good horseback rider. I put my trailer on the land and found a job with Masonite on one of their road crews – watering haul roads at night and grading and paving the logging roads during the day. We worked for a long time on the road from the Demonstration Forest turn-off all the way over to Ukiah. However, I could never seem to get ahead and make enough money. I just couldn’t afford the payments on the property and lost it to foreclosure in about 1979.”
During these years Donn had spent most of his time in Navarro, the Deep End, and made many friends down that end of the Valley. “I didn’t know many folks in the Boonville area and for a social scene I’d go to the Floodgate which was both a store and a bar – it would be full of loggers by 2pm most days. It has an adjoining saw shop and the guys would come out of the woods and get their saws worked on or pick up parts. Naturally they would have to have a beer or two…or more. I lived just down the road and enjoyed hanging out there. I was a good friend with Steve Muchowski and we’d sometimes sit outside with a six-pack when it closed. People would ask us what we were doing there and we’d tell them we were waiting for the bus – of course there was no bus.”
In 1980, following the foreclosure, he moved his trailer to the Trailer Court behind Lemons’ Market in Philo and got work at the Philo Café in town, first as a dishwasher then as a cook. “I had been in The Lodge a few times but it was full of drunken loggers, a crazy scene. People like Skippy and Mickey Bloyd in front of the bar charging head first at each other. Skippy wore a hard hat, Mickey didn’t. Every time I went in there it seemed like there was a fight. Guys would come out of the woods and spend all evening there, and handing over their paychecks to the bar when they were paid. I did my laundry at Jack’s in Philo and would stop in Boonville for a drink but more often than not it was to the Boonville Hotel at first but over time I got to make friends at The Lodge and drank there. At one point I tended bar for a time. They were a good crowd of rough-and-tumble loggers. There were fights but it was logger-fighting – plenty of blood but they’d buy each other a drink afterwards!”
In 1987 Donn moved into a trailer on Hutsell Lane opposite Hwy 253 on Hwy 128 at the south end of Boonville. He’s been there ever since. Over the years Donn moved on from the cafe and worked various maintenance jobs, fencing contracts, and even at The Anderson Valley Brewery for a couple of years from 2000-01 as the gardener and groundskeeper. “I liked that job – making something out of Mother Nature’s gifts – but I did not like taking orders from that son-of-a-bitch (Brewery owner Ken Allen). He always made me wait around until way past my finishing time to talk to me. Then he’d have a drink or two and finally ‘condescend’ to meet up. I was an employee but in the end, he claimed I was a contractor in charge of the crew and therefore self-employed. I was kind of dumb, I thought we were all employees and had not realized that, with him now calling me a contractor, the taxes and workman’s comp etc, should have been deducted. The I.R.S. caught up with me later and I’m still paying them back – 15% of my social security – so I get $928 a month to live on. I have no money, no savings. Ken Allen treated me very badly, not just with the money, the way he treated me on a daily basis. Obviously I’m not the only one over then years. The dirty rotten bastard, I hate his guts and would have been in prison now if I’d done to him what I wanted to do. I told him what that was too. There are damn few people I have hated in my life – he’s at the top.”
I asked Donn how he got the name ‘Uncle.’ “I had a boss in the construction industry whose kids I would sometimes baby-sit and the family called me Uncle Donn. It just stuck. Then when I moved here some friends came up to visit me and asked people where they might find ‘Uncle Donn.’ Soon this got round and people started calling me by that name. When my friends came back a few months later they said, ‘you’ve sure been busy around here – everyone calls you ‘Uncle’!”
These days Donn goes into The Lodge a few afternoons a week, and often on Saturday and Sunday for a beer or two. His favorite hangout is the Redwood Drive-In where he goes most mornings for coffee and sits with several other guys who have been doing this for years. “I like to meet my friends and see what is going on. Guys like Mouse, my old boss in the woods, Donald and Manchard Pardini, Leo Howard, Fritz Kuny, Bill Holcomb sometimes, Emil Rossi – he comes in for his maple donut and nobody else can have it unless he hasn’t shown by 1.30pm… I love the people here in the Valley – they’re a great bunch that would do anything to help if necessary, rare in most places I’ve lived. It’s still like the good old days in some ways around here. Of course there are a few people around who are assholes but that’s the same anywhere you live.”
“I have a roommate who helps with jobs around the property and a couple also live in the trailer and help with half the rent, the phone, and the television payments… My health is pretty good apart from the screwed up cataract operation I had this year. They messed up one of my eyes. I am not sick very often. I like Dr. Power at the local Health Center although I don’t like the other one – Dr. Apfel. Hey, I did not sign a contract that said I had to like everybody, although I do like most… I have not traveled much – I like it here. I’m a stubborn old bastard, I guess. I’m here in the Valley to stay at this point. I don’t know why I’d leave – I don’t even like to go over the hill to Ukiah. My mother passed away in 1985 and I never re-married. There’s not a gal on Earth that doesn’t have her head on backwards and have the ability to take things out of context. I do o.k. though. I can get serviced anytime I want without having to get married. Of course, I may fall asleep during it.”
I asked Uncle Donn for his responses to a few of the local issues that confront Valley folks these days. The wineries? – “The Valley has changed so much from the logging, sheep, apple days of the past. Now its vines everywhere – the range of hills up on the east side of Boonville used to appear to be all white there was so many sheep up there. Those I’ve met in the winery business are the biggest bunch of snobs I’ve ever been around. I don’t like the trend towards the wine industry at all. It’s not the wineries so much as the people who own and manage them. They don’t mix with the Valley people although they try to kid you that they do. Just ask around here. They do help in some ways but only if they get something for themselves or are doing it so that they are praised for it”… The A.V.A. Newspaper? – “It’s a good gossip column. I like it more now there are these interviews and we get to know more about people we may have known for years. Of course I like to read the Sheriff’s log too”… KZYX & Z public radio? – “I like it. It’s too politically correct of course and some of the programming does not belong on our local radio but they do a good news report and I like the classical music.”… Law and Order in the Valley? – “Deputy Squires does a good job. He does not get too involved with the public and can make good decisions as a result. I was arrested once by Deputy Miller because basically I had been a poor witness for him in a case several years earlier and he’d always said ‘I’m gonna get you.’ He did, for D.U.I., but then it was dropped.”

To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions to Donn many of which are from a list originally devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert”, Bernard Pivot, and featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton”…
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Getting up and joining friends for coffee in the morning. It keeps you on your toes.”

What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? – “Living with someone – my wife – who leaves clothes on the floor after a shower… The cost of leaving is a real turn-off too.”

What sound or noise do you love? – “A cat purring – that’s a wonderful sound of contentment.”

What sound or noise do you hate? – “People talking in Mexican in front of me when I’m the only non-Mexican there. I have many Mexican friends and I used to work with a crew of Mexican guys. I learnt Spanish – all the curse words first. I lost a tooth when I got it wrong one day! Round here they speak something different, much more guttural and profane. I always thought it bad how they would tell me they did not like it here in this country and were only here to get money – that is wrong surely.”

What is your favorite curse word? – “Chinga.”

Is there a film/song/book that has greatly influenced you in some way? – “I found a book on the old Mexican civilization called ‘Aztec’. It was really interesting and I read it every few years – it was a historical novel. I sometimes think I know more about their history than they do when I talk to some Mexicans around here.”

What is your favorite hobby? – I used to love gardening until the landlord said I couldn’t use the water for that unless I paid more. I also read a lot but my eyes are not much good these days.”

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? – “I wouldn’t change anything I’ve done but cattle ranching was a dream of mine that never materialized.”

What profession would you not like to do? – “There is a bunch of those – pumping out septic tanks comes to mind first.”

What was the happiest day or event in your life? – “The day my wife sent me a letter, when I was away in the merchant marines, saying we had a newborn baby – our son.”

What was the saddest? – “I don’t know but may be it was the deep, deep sorrow I felt when Roosevelt died. I shall never forget it. The whole country was in mourning.”

What is your favorite thing about yourself – physically/mentally/spiritually? – “That I get along with most people. If you asked what my least favorite thing was it would be my temper – oh, boy can I be bad; but it soon goes away.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? – “It would be fine if he said, ‘Welcome Uncle Donn – you don’t have to go to that place down below with your family’… I’d be lonely in heaven – I haven’t been a bad guy but I haven’t been a real good guy either.”

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Published in: on November 25, 2009 at 5:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

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