It has been a busy year for WWII veteran Chuck “Fireball” Baker. On his 100th birthday, Chuck completed his first tandem skydive, which he vowed to repeat every birthday. He also took a flight in an autogiro airplane—a cross between a helicopter and an airplane. And he is featured in a short documentary made by Hormel Foods.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Chuck to record his life history for the Museum’s Oral History Program. Chuck has lived in the same Los Altos home since 1957. His company built cabinets that were installed in new homes around the Peninsula. The Los Altos Town Crier wrote numerous articles about Chuck’s exploits, which can be found in the paper’s archives.
Hormel, under their production company, Hormel Films, shot a video of Chuck and some of his military buddies, all longtime consumers of the company’s product, Spam. Chuck and his friends meet weekly at the Bell Tower Restaurant in Los Altos for breakfast, sharing their love of Spam and a friendship that is often found among service members. In honor of these men, the restaurant created a menu item called “Chuck’s Special,” an order of Spam and eggs. In the film, Hormel documents one of these weekly breakfasts.
Hormel also filmed Chuck performing a loop in a military airplane, grinning from ear to ear. Even at 101 years of age, he is eager to fly and enjoy aerial acrobatics, which is not the kind of flying he did during WWII. As a Captain in the Air Force, he piloted a B-17 bomber that flew 35 missions over Europe. Although he saw many of his fellow airmen shot from the sky, after every mission Chuck’s plane returned safely to base.
I found Chuck to be very humble about his military exploits. I could imagine his bravery and self confidence as he strapped on his parachute and climbed into his bomber before every mission. Hormel briefly touched on his role in the military in addition to the importance that Spam played in providing a source of meat in the diet of service men worldwide.
I joined the Oral History Program at the Los Altos History Museum at the urging of Gary Hedden, who is now President of the Museum’s Board. I have always enjoyed reading about historical events, and recording a person’s history seemed a very worthwhile undertaking—our community’s stories should not be lost. Knowing the right questions to ask makes it easier for a person to talk about their past, and they often tell stories they hadn’t thought about for years. It’s important to listen well and not interrupt their train of thought in order to hear the whole story. Through oral histories, we add the human elements to the recorded historical events of Los Altos.
Now, a little about myself. I was born in South Bend, Indiana in 1936 along with my twin brother, Ivan. I attended Indiana University in Bloomington, married, raised three children, served in the National Guard, and worked at our family wholesale distribution company, which kept me in South Bend for 48 years. Eventually I moved to Colorado, then California. A second career in real estate seemed interesting, but interfered with my retirement—my art projects and volunteer work kept me busy. After living briefly in Hawaii, I returned to California where I met and married my wife Paula. We live in Los Altos.
I have enjoyed interviewing four remarkably interesting gentlemen this past year and look forward to recording more oral histories in the future. Chuck’s nickname, “Fireball Baker,” is a story I intend to ask him about, and will share at another time.
Contributed by Eric Greenhut, Oral History Committee volunteer
Chuck Baker featured in Hormel Video below