by Stuart Sweeney
Jake’s brother Sam, his cousin Lucas, and five of his close friends — including my son — recently came together at the Boysels’ house to reminisce. In their words, Jake was “a funny, long-haired, easy-to-have-fun-with, easy-to-make-friends-with person with a big heart. He was good at everything, but always found time for fun. He was always laughing, always about anything and everything, and he’d all of a sudden find ways to make other people laugh. If he wasn’t laughing, he was making someone else laugh. If you were sad, he’d always find ways to cheer you up. It was not an option to be sad around Jake. He was like a brother to all of us.” Indeed, Jake was always in the thick of it whenever laughter, fun, and creativity were afoot. Where was Jake? Look toward the laughter.
Many of the stories Jake’s friends recalled revolved around the Boysels’ yard. Stretching up a long hillside, the lush gardens — including tall stands of bamboo, fruit trees, and myriad flowers and vines — evoke Neverland. Sam described the two brothers as young kids, tearing around the garden playing “The Game” — which, judging from other stories of the boys’ athletic adventures, must have been a close relative of Calvinball: If you fall behind, change the rules.
“I remember having lemon fights in the backyard!” one of Jake’s friends interjected. Peeking out of the Boysels’ garden hillside stands a fort topped with a lemon catapult. Everyone remembered playing with Jake in the fort and launching volleys of lemons down the hill.
Jake was also remembered for his animals. In class recently, the teacher asked about how many and what kind of animals students had at home. Jake’s classmate recalled, “I thought I would have the most pets, and then Jake was like, ‘Well, I have 11 chickens, and um, a dog, a cat, and two lizards.’ I was like, ‘Lucky guy.’”
“I remember we all had to draw the feet of everything in our family and Jake had a whole bunch of chicken feet,” one girl recalled. It also seemed a fairly frequent event that Jake and his buddies would end up accidentally locked in the chicken coop. All those animals certainly seemed to seed Jake’s imagination and quirky humor. “I remember when we went into the coop the first time, and he was like, ‘These are my citizens, and up there is the evil chicken, the queen chicken; she has the whole chicken coop to herself.’”
Jake’s early take on his chicken citizens later grew into a fascination with making up his own pretend civilizations, complete with a monetary system; in one case, he even worked out his own language. One of the larger running civilization projects occurred at school. “I remember he always tried to build his civilization at the very, very furthest corner of the playground. And when he succeeded, sometimes he would have guards. He hired everyone, but he told people he didn’t want to be near his civilization to be guards way over there. The money was these little berries that came off a bush. He called it the money bush.”
Jake loved to learn and would launch himself completely into school projects. While studying Egypt last year, he decided to make a mummy complete with a sarcophagus. He researched the real dimensions of burial chambers, and then, ever resourceful, set to work with the materials he had at hand. He designed and built the sarcophagus out of wood, and then carefully embalmed a chicken, curing it in salt, rubbing it in oils, and wrapping it in cheesecloth. His friends were impressed, but totally grossed out: “I sat next to it in class and it did not smell good.”
Jake had a knack for making others convulse with laughter. He had natural comedic timing in writing, speaking, and acting. Ordinary conversations became hilarious when he’d throw a funny twist on a situation with a single insight. Like a sage, he divined humor from the stuff of everyday life. Being with him meant laughing so hard and for so long that it was impossible to sit or stand. In a recent poem that was otherwise serious, Jake started a new stanza with, “I once made a bowl of macaroni; it was a disaster.” All his friends remember him wearing an orange and white hat akin to that of the Cat in the Hat, which he sometimes wore with a rainbow-colored wig. He once told his brother that he thought Quizno’s double BLT sandwiches were great, but wished some restaurant would start offering a BBB — a bacon, bread, and bacon sandwich. Jake wished for a world full of more bacon.
Younger kids — including his nine-year-old cousin Lucas — also loved to be around him. He was inclusive sometimes to the frustration of his friends. His unwritten rule was that younger siblings should be included — the more the merrier. Some even sent him fan mail.
This past summer was a great one for Jake. He traveled to Costa Rica with his family, went on a special birthday camping trip with just his mom, started to play water polo, took a beginning fencing class, and did both sessions of UCSB’s Campus Point Junior Lifeguards (JG) program. He was just coming into his own as an athlete, crossing the critical junction of believing he could compete with the best. Everyone fondly remembered the critical leg of a close paddling race when he dug deep and gave it everything he had.
His forts and civilizations came to the beach, too, though on a reduced scale. “I remember me and him started this fort during free time; he would draw a circle in the sand, put down a bunch of sticks, and say, ‘This is my fort,’” his friend recalled. At the end of the JG session, he was given the Ring Leader award by the instructors. He graciously accepted it with a smirk on his face, and gave the audience a deep, theatrical bow.
Jake has left us now, and he is so, so sorely missed. “These are sad times,” was the sentiment echoed by those who gathered to honor Jake last week. We do have our memories, and we still feel his laughter beyond the grave. The world was a much better place when there was still the potential that he might rise up to lead us into a new civilization, having vanquished the evil queen chicken with the orange and white hat as his crown, a rack of bacon as his miter, and his money growing on shrubs. We would have stood before him with his other loyal chicken subjects. What a great world it would have been.