Gerry Jacques sits in the wooden love seat, rocking back and forth, cane in his right hand, watching the world go by.

At 86, he looks pretty good — a thick shock of white hair, greenish brown eyes, and hardly a wrinkle in his expressive face.

“I sit here all the time,” he said. “They say, ‘This is Gerry’s chair.’ When other people want it, I let them have it.”

I met Jacques on Tuesday outside Durbin Apartments, a senior living complex off Kimball Street in Waterville.

It was sunny, but a chilly wind blew across the parking lot overlooking Summer Street where he sits in the brown “sway rocker.” He said the Amish people in Unity built it and they built it right, unlike a lot of mass made furniture.

“It’s been two years out here and it’s still good,” he said.

Jacques knows a lot about construction, having done it all his life after serving several years in the U. S. Navy, first as a boatswain’s mate, helping to maintain the ship.

“We went all through the Mediterranean and a lot around Cuba and I can’t remember where else,” he said.

The second time he entered the Navy, after coming back to Waterville and working at Hollingsworth & Whitney and then Pratt & Whitney in Connecticut, he was in the Navy Seabees, doing construction work.

But that was not where he learned how to build things.

“I did it when I was a little kid, 7 years old. I tied forms. I did that for Kennebec Builders. I was skinny and I could get around the forms — they were only 8 inches. The grownups would do the work at the top. I got 25 cents for about 10 hours’ work. They didn’t pay big wages then.”

Age 7 was memorable year because that is when his mother died of “dropsy,” an old term for what now would be called swelling of the soft tissues due to having an accumulation of excess water in the body.

“I had three sisters and I had four brothers and one died. My father had to bury my mother. He walked to work every day and he worked seven days a week and never took a vacation. He was an electrician and he worked at Hollingsworth & Whitney in Winslow.”

Waterville, he said, didn’t have as many houses then as it does now.

“There was a cow pasture where Violette and Mathews Avenue are. There were no houses there. The cows used to go all the way to Yeaton Street, almost onto Oakland Road, which is now Kennedy Memorial Drive. After my mother died, we took care of ourselves. We had chores to do. My father gave us chores. We had a big garden and we planted the garden and harvested it. My father gave a lot away to people that didn’t have anything.”

After leaving the Navy, Jacques returned to Waterville.

“I built houses in Winslow and then Florida, and I hated Florida so bad — I hated that place. In the wintertime it gets cold and in the summertime you had to sit in the house because it was too hot. I like Maine, and it’s got four seasons.”

He moved back to Waterville and continued working in construction, but he had to retire early at 55 after he got badly injured. He was working on a house in Winslow with his brother and the staging broke and they fell 2.5 stories.

“I was 49. I fell off a roof and broke my back and I broke my pelvis and crushed by left leg. I was in the hospital from Nov. 1 — I remember that because it just snowed that day — until March. They told me you’ll never walk again. I walk, but I have a hard time. I worked after that, but I did, like, gratis jobs.”

Jacques has three kids, all grown up, including a son who is an electrician in Tennessee who calls him every day at 6 a.m. and visits for a week every summer. Jacques has only one older brother still living.

He says he likes living at Durbin Apartments, a brick building that years ago was South Grammar School which he attended as a child. He never imagined he’d one day live there. He lives alone and that is not the ideal situation, but he likes to keep to himself.

“I don’t make friends with nobody,” he said. “I just don’t want to. You wind up being a slave to ’em, and I don’t need that. I watch TV a little. I go to bed early and I get up early, about three o’clock in the morning.”

He lives life on his own terms.

“I went down to the doctor’s and they said I have to go back in two weeks. They told me I had diabetes and I don’t, and then they told me I had cancer of the stomach and blood. About six years ago they kept me coming back and coming back and coming back. Sometimes I just don’t care no more, like I pray at night I go to sleep and don’t wake up.”

I ask Jacques what he thinks about as he sits in the rocker outside his former school building.

“I don’t think of nothing. I just relax and that’s it.”

 

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter 31 years. Her columns appear here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected] For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.


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