Thinking Back when I was Young

By Michael Lopez
Michael grew up in Pojoaque Pueblo, about 18 miles north of Santa Fe.  He now lives in Amarilla where he is a regional director for the Boy Scouts of Ameerica.  Here he writes about his uncle, the colorful and well-known tribal governor from the days when our country had individuals.

Although it has been almost two years since his death, my Uncle Jake haunts me very often. Now I’m not talking about sheets with the eyes cut out, or some image making the “ooooh” sound that gives people the chills. This is the kind of haunting that really scares people. This is a haunting that stays with a person but will never be turned into this season’s scariest movie. I’m talking about living up to one’s potential.

My Uncle Jake always encouraged me to do something good with my life, as he had lived many lives himself. Uncle Jake was a Vietnam veteran turned homeless drug addict who made tomato soup from fast food restaurant catsup and pepper packages. He was a martyr, a politician, and he was the greatest man I ever knew. From him I received my first pair of moccasins on a cold October evening. He was the person I always tried to impress with my accomplishments.

Uncle Jake was a very particular kind of person. Five feet and about seven inches separated the top of his head from the ground. He wore a pot belly that got in the way whenever I tried to hug him. He probably had the messiest curly hair anyone had ever seen. Uncle Jake would show his smile through his beard. Sinus problems often plagued him, and he had a nervous twitch that always caused his left arm and shoulder to twitch the way a person with Parkinson’s disease twitches. It was really a rough looking thing that would command a person’s attention upon introduction. Since I was used to it, the twitch never bothered me, but I remember it scared a friend of mine. Kyle was my college roommate. One weekend I brought him home with me to Pojoaque. While we were sitting around the table where Uncle Jake always did business, Kyle kept twitching every time my Uncle Jake twitched. It was a subtle thing, but my Uncle Jake picked up on it. So he turned to Kyle and explained, “I have a nervous twitch.” Kyle sat silently, not really responding. Then Uncle Jake joked, “Don’t let it scare you. I don’t let it scare me.”

Before the night’s end, Uncle Jake held true to fashion and once again showed that his generosity was only shadowed by his heart. I almost began to dislike it. Uncle Jake bought us dinner, gave Kyle a piece of pottery and money to me. Whether or not I needed money, Uncle Jake always gave it to me. I mean the man wouldn’t let you buy your own candy bar. The generosity he showed almost bothered me because I wanted my Uncle Jake to know that I was self sufficient. I would go by his house to visit and it would happen every time.
“Mike,” he would say in his friendly voice, “can I talk to you in the other room?” That was Uncle Jake’s thing: talking to people in the other room. So we would walk along the white walls and over the carpeted hallway of the adobe house into his bedroom. This is where it would happen.

“Mike do you need anything?” he would ask.

I always tried different responses, but none of them could get him to stop giving me money. Not that he was a millionaire or anything, but he would give me what he had in his pocket, even if it was just five dollars.

“I’m fine, Uncle Jake. My mom gave me some money,” or “I’ve got money, Uncle Jake,” or “My scholarship money comes in today, Uncle Jake.” I was lucky to have someone love me so much.

When I was about fourteen years old, my uncle Jake called and asked me what I was doing that night.

“Nothing,” I responded.

“Mike,” he said, “I was wondering.” It always took Uncle Jake a little bit of time to get a sentence out as he twitched and grunted between parts of his sentence. “I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind coming over for a while and staying with Grandpa while I go to the office to finish up some things.”

“Sure,” I said, and with that we made arrangements for him to pick me up and take me to his house. At the end of the night he took me home and tried to give me twenty bucks, but I refused it because all I did was make Grandpa a cup of coffee and watch television while he slept. Besides, he was my grandpa. This may have been the end of the night, but it was the beginning of a chapter in my life.

Uncle Jake gave me a red 1989 Mazda B2200 truck with a white camper shell. This was my first vehicle. A lot of my life’s firsts were the result of Uncle Jake’s efforts.

“Mike,” he said, “I think I’m going to go ahead and give you the truck.”

“Really? Wow, Uncle Jake. Thank you very much,” I exclaimed excitedly. Then I asked, “Are you sure?”

“Sure, Mike, I’m very proud of you and you always help out with Dad. You deserve it. Besides, you put new tires on it when you got a flat.” Uncle Jake had been lending me the truck to go to work for several weeks now, and as a display of gratitude I put new tires on the truck.

As I had done so many times in those years, I explained to Uncle Jake that I was the one who should be saying thank you because I got to spend that time with Grandpa“Uncle Jake, you don’t need to thank me for that because I’m thankful that you trusted me enough to take care of Grandpa. I’m grateful for the time I spent with him.”

I graduated from the Santa Fe Indian School about a month later and went to work for Bill Richardson in Washington D.C. as an intern, no doubt something my Uncle Jake set up. I remember the sweaty July morning he called and asked, “Would you be interested in going to Washington D.C. to be an intern?” I remember being really excited. Going to Washington to work in a political environment was one of the many things Uncle Jake did as a way of grooming me. It was a step towards being a person who would “be involved with service” as he explained. By “service” he didn’t mean, “Do you want fries with that, sir?” He meant being a public servant.

“I see you being that person, Mike,” he would often tell me.

About two months after my return from Washington, I found out that I was going to become a father. Thanksgiving rolled around, and this was turning out to be a day to remember. After eating Thanksgiving dinner with my girlfriend’s family, which was the first time I had ever done such a thing, I was taking my brother back home to my parents. We were cruising along when he asked, “Can I drive?”

After only a moment of thought, I decided to let him drive. So here we go again cruising along; my thirteen-year-old brother Fermin and me. He was so small and skinny, but he is my little brother. I don’t even think he could see over the steering wheel.

When it came time to turn off from the Nambe Pueblo road onto a dirt back road, I could see that he was not going to make the turn. So I reached over to pull the emergency brake and all at once we hit the left side of the concrete base of an iron cattle guard that separated the concrete road from the dirt road. After that it gets kind of foggy.

When I woke up, I was sitting almost in Fermin.’s lap. My left knee was throbbing and resting against the smashed stereo. I wonder if a boxer who has been knocked out feels like I felt. My vision was blurry, and I could see stars. As my vision came into focus, I noticed that the windshield was shattered and strands of hair were hanging between the squares. I don’t remember getting out of the truck, as I was still very dazed from attacking the windshield with my face.

In a shaky voice and tears in his eyes, F.M. said, “I wrecked your truck.” Not that I ever had, but I wonder if he thought I was going to beat on him for it. This is when I noticed the white shirt I was wearing was now red. There were cars driving by and F.M. was trying to get someone to help us, but no one would stop. Eventually, I gained enough equilibrium to start the truck and drive back to Lenora’s house.

A couple of days later, Uncle Jake came to see me there. Those days are still a haze but I remember him being upset about the truck and the news that I was to become a parent. He said that things can happen “… even when people have the best intentions.” Before he left, I remember him saying with disappointment in his voice, “Well, what’s done is done.”