Blake Jaskowiak and his wife, Judith, rolled up to a protest outside Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen’s Eden Prairie office to the sound of cheers and applause. Blake was in his wheelchair, Judith walking by his side, and the assembled crowd lined the sidewalk holding up signs for the passing cars that read “Families belong together” and “No cages for kids.”
Blake was the reason they were here. The day before, Judith sent a message to Indivisible MN03, a group of grassroots activists from Congressional District 3, which encompasses the western Minneapolis suburbs.
The email read that he was a 90-year-old World War II veteran, and he wanted to do something about the separation of children from their parents at the United States-Mexico border. Indivisible leadership forwarded the message to volunteers. Before anyone knew it, more than 50 people were standing outside Paulsen’s office.
The hope was to spur Paulsen, who had done little except call the situation “heartbreaking,” into action. By the time the protest had assembled, President Donald Trump had backpedaled in the face of withering criticism, signing an order reversing his policy. But the protesters still cheered, the cars passing by still honked.
Blake held his own sign, criticizing Trump as a “draft dodger” and a “liar.” This is the culmination of his long, strange relationship with his country.
Blake grew up in St. Cloud, a budding high school athlete. Both of his older brothers were serving. At 17, he wanted to play professional baseball. Then his brother was killed in Iwo Jima. The entire trajectory of his life changed.
To his parents’ grief, he abandoned his plans and enlisted in the Marine Corps. He doesn’t deny he was motivated by revenge, but there was something else too. He loved his country, and he felt it was in danger. It was his duty to protect it.
He survived months of drill sergeants “being as mean as they could to make you as mean as they could” in hopes he’d take that meanness out on the enemy. They shipped him off to China as the last of the Japanese forces were heading home. It didn’t take long after that for communist fighters to circle the periphery of their camps, shooting mortars over their compound at night. Not to hit them -- just to keep them awake. Awake and scared.
He’s asked himself many times whether or not he really was scared. Perhaps he was, he thinks, when the bullets started to fly. But he’s looked down the barrels of 50 caliber machine guns and felt nothing but steel in his heart, and a desire to get the damnable thing over with. He was there to fight, and he did.
He returned home alive and intact, and he proceeded to pick up the pieces of the life he left. He entertained professional baseball for awhile, even signed a contract with the New York Giants. But he’d lost the passion to power that dream somewhere between enlisting and coming home. He contented himself to play in local leagues and finish college instead.
Both he and his wife became math teachers and taught at Bloomington Kennedy High School. He loved teaching. Every year, he would give his students the same little speech:
“I’m friendly, but I’m not your friend. I respect you, and I expect the same thing in return.”
Working with kids turned out to be his calling. Every time summer break rolled around, he’d get two weeks in before he wanted to go back. As time went on, he raised a family of his own. He now has 20 grandchildren.
He doesn’t remember when his country started to feel less and less like his country. He was outraged when Trump was elected president – a man he thought held little substance, a man he calls a “self-admitted sexual pervert” and “a bankruptcy champion.” He used to enjoy debating with his Republican friends. Not anymore.
“He’s an empty suit,” he says. “And to think people can gang up and line up behind this guy.”
All of that was before the “Zero Tolerance Policy,” before the separation of families, before the imprisonment of children, before the recordings of crying kids who should be in kindergarten, not behind a chain link fence.
Blake couldn’t wrap his head around it. He spent his life working with kids. If he ever did anything remotely similar to one of his students, he would have been locked up. He asked his conservative Catholic neighbor what he thought of the whole thing, and he couldn’t get an answer out of him. Just a deafening quiet.
The America he stood for, fought for, almost died for -- the America his brother did die for -- didn’t seem to exist anymore. If this had been happening when he was 17, he never would have enlisted. There are days when he looks at his Marine Corps hat and thinks about throwing it away.
He was wearing his hat at the protest, shaking hands with fellow volunteers and receiving their thanks for his initiative. He says he’s old enough now to have seen a few things. He’s charted the curve of history. And this moment -- under a president he never expected with policies he never could have imagined -- this feels truly alien to him.
“Where did my country go?” he asks. “How did it leave me?”