GREENSBURG – Ben Richardson tells the best stories about people he’s known and people I wish I’d known.
He told a story about Max Baker. “One of dad’s stories,” said Ben, “with assistance of Dion Baker, one of Max’s four sons.”
Max grew up in Westport and North Vernon, and was “a natural-born salesman,” one of those people who could “sell an icebox to an Eskimo.” He excelled in selling anything he wanted to sell.
Max was an avid reader. His sister Helen said he had read every book in the North Vernon library before finishing high school, which was probably an exaggeration but not by a lot. In about ’37, he and Phyllis Mcllwain of Westport were married. Phyllis was also an avid reader. For a date, sometimes they’d take the train to Indianapolis then walk to the state library, spend the day reading then discuss what they’d read on the way home.
Max was drafted into the United States Army in 1943, older than most draftees, but every man was needed as the war escalated. He probably could have gotten a deferment by having four children and one on the way, but patriotism was very strong in the Midwestern United States.
Max wasn’t especially athletic, couldn’t march well in formation, and wasn’t skilled with a rifle. But he probably had the highest IQ in the battalion.
During training, he sustained a broken leg. The hospitals were full so he was put in with the conscientious objectors. When he could walk, he was assigned guard duty. They gave him a broom instead of a rifle and he was treated coldly by the rest of the soldiers and officers.
He found out the others thought he was an objector. He explained that he had been put in with them due to hospital overcrowding. Things got better.
Max was shipped to England. In his spare time, he went to the hospitals where hundreds of wounded soldiers lay suffering from shell-shock, some without arms or legs, some were blind, most were bandaged in one way or another.
Max made the rounds, visiting these wounded soldiers. Many of them couldn’t write home due to their injuries. Max wrote many letters for them. The prognosis was dim for many, and their morale was even dimmer. Some wanted to die rather than return home blind, crippled or as “half-a-man.” There’s only so much a doctor can do and only so much any soldier can take.
Max visited and talked with them, wrote letters to their sweethearts and family, not giving we’d call a motivational speech.
“I’m sure none of ‘em knew that he was trying to sell ‘em on the idea of living. A good salesperson has that talent. Max didn’t have movie star looks, he was short and plain with a big nose – and one of the most beautiful and inspiring people that ever lived,” Ben said.
The soldiers felt better when Max left them. The more he visited the better they felt and the better they did. Without realizing it, Max sold them on the idea of holding on just a little longer – another day, another month – just in case they decided they still wanted to live.
Many of them began to improve. Some of the boys weren’t expected to make it, but were getting better. Doctors realized that Max, the natural born salesman, made many of these seriously wounded men want to live.
As soon as the “brass” figured this out, the Army gave Max the job visiting the wounded. There is no military description (MOS) for this job, but that was his assignment for the duration of the war and a few months after, until his discharge.
Many who came home never saw Max again, maybe never knew his name. A lot of our soldiers who had given up hope while lying wounded in the hospital came home and lived a long and productive life because of Max Baker.
He was discharged in late’45, arriving home to Westport with $750 in his pocket. He soon heard of a private library for sale in Greensburg. There was no public library in Westport and the school library was limited. Max and Phyllis had four children and Max had no job. After discussing the issue with Phyllis, Max bought that library for $650. Two or three more children came along before 1950. All of them were avid readers.