By David LaBelle
Last week, I met an interesting man who found purpose and meaning for his life through an uncomplicated routine of service and acceptance.
Sixty-five-year-old Jacob Jones wakes before dawn, rolls his wheelchair out of the enclosed patio he currently calls home and boards two city buses each morning leading him to an asphalt parking lot behind Starbucks in Midtown Nashville.
Armed with a jar filled with salted peanuts bought in bulk and bags of discarded baked goods gleaned from restaurant trash bins, he wheels to his regular spot, arriving just after 6am. Soon, the still landscape comes alive. Squirrels inch down from nearby trees and flocks of birds, waiting on wires, descend for a morning meal.
“When I began four years ago, there were 6 squirrels that showed up, now there are about 60. And 500 birds turned to 10,000,” he laughs.
Jones began this routine over four years ago after literally falling off a train near Nashville. Originally from Cleveland, the cross-country traveler said he rode boxcars coast to coast. Then one fateful day, he recounts, “I got up and it was early in the morning and I went to the door to take a wiz. And sure enough the train lunged around a corner and I fell out of the door. Yeah, so I fell off the train and couldn’t get back on and had to walk 10 miles into town, once I stopped somebody and found out where I was. I have been here ever since. “
“But it is a blessing from the Lord, “ he insists.
Jones accepts donations and tips to buy food for his little friends, mostly salted peanuts, and gathers discarded bread products from nearby establishments. He buys only salted peanuts in bulk then fills the jar he carries. “That way they get the salt they need,” he beams.
“Knowing that my little birds and squirrels are waiting on me, that gets me up in the morning,” Jones says with a smile stretching across his bearded and weathered face.
Besides feeding “God’s creatures”, Jones, who claims he is a cousin of the famous retired Dallas Cowboys’ football star “Too Tall” Jones, also directs traffic, watches out for seedy characters and helps limit the mischief in nearby parking lots.
“It’s a great arrangement,” he assures. “I watch out for the cars, make sure people don’t break in or steal and they let me gather tips to feed my birds and squirrels and get bus fare back home.” He proudly wears an official badge claiming it was a gift from Vanderbilt Hospital. “It cost them one-hundred dollars to make,” he assures, “The cop shop, they made the badge.”
Since embracing a nomadic life at the young age of 15, the self-proclaimed world traveler is now mostly confined to a wheelchair. He says he only can stand and walk a few steps with the aid of a cane, after slipping on the ice two years back and breaking his leg in several places.
“After two operations, I am lucky they didn’t just cut it off and give up on it. I’m just lucky what little bit I can do. That’s a blessing,” he assures. “And it’s a good thing they haven’t chopped it off yet. I could imagine trying to walk with only one leg; it would be a hopping situation,” he laughs.
A generous friend, a widower, allows Jones to sleep in his enclosed patio in exchange for watching over his place. He says there is even a wheelchair ramp the man’s deceased wife once used.
“It’s a blessing”, Jones insists. “I even have electricity so I can use a heater in the winter and a box fan in the summer heat. Yes, it’s a blessing.” he smiles.
Jacob Jones is nothing if not thankful and appreciative. He believes, “everything is a blessing from the Lord.” And much like the creatures he feeds daily, his is a modest life dependent on the “The Lord” and the goodness of friends and strangers.
“We are all the Lord’s creatures,” he smiles.
Few of us, if any, know where our life road will lead. We have youthful dreams – professional aspirations that seldom turn out the way we imagine. Jones says his dreams started at the age of 12. “I wanted to start my own business, so at the age of 13, I started a private contracting company. But not just in any area, in Millionaire’s Row, in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Yeah, I got a lot of contracts doing the landscaping on their lots, big lots. I had been learning how to do that since the age of nine. I stayed there until I was 15 when I started traveling around the world and ended up over in Europe. I started my own photography studios at the age of 16.”
Today, Jacob has more focused and much simpler, yet profound dreams. “My dreams now are to walk closer and closer and closer to God everyday. Yeah, that’s a blessing. Because I know one day I see him again, meet him again. When death comes for me, I will meet him again. And I want to be right with Him when I am standing before Him because you don’t want to be wrong with Him. I mean the whole universe moved to obey his command when he sent me back.”
When asked what he meant about being “sent back”, Jacob, like a great narrator from a Disney movie, rewinds to the story of the day he died.
The way Jones tells it, he was on vacation while working with Gulf Oil in Houston, Texas in 1979, when a decision to sleep on the beach in Galveston after a day of fishing would alter his life forever. Because it was Spring Break and all of the motels were filled with students, he couldn’t find a room.
“It can be warm in the day but at nights sheets of ice can form,” Jones remembers. “Unfortunately, it was one of those nights and I died of exposure. The police found me and I had been dead over an hour, no heartbeat, no pulse, no respitory [sic]; I passed on. And the doctors had been there and already certified me DOA. And they took my shoe off and put a tag on my toe. So I was basically waiting on an undertaker to zip me up in a body bag and take me away from the beach. But meanwhile, during that hour I was traveling through that tunnel of light everyone talks about. And as I get closer to the end of the tunnel of light, all peace that surpasses all understanding overcame me. And I was feeling better and better the closer I got to that light at the end of the tunnel. And the light at the end of that tunnel, that’s God’s glory shining through. There was over 100,000 of us that had died that night; we were all traveling through that tunnel of light. And just as I got ready to step out of the end, God spoke to me: It’s not yet your time. And I looked up and I said, Oh God. I recognized who He was; His voice filled the entire universe. And as soon as that last word was uttered out of his mouth, I jumped. And I jumped and I was back in my body. The whole universe rushed to obey His very command. And in less than four seconds He singled me out and sent me back. And it took me 30 years of traveling around this earth to find another He had sent back, so He doesn’t do that very often.”
When he “came back,” Jones claims his body was made new, renewed. All of those pains from former injuries were gone.
That event changed not only his life, but also his outlook. “I was a drinker back in the 70’s. I gave it up. Yeah, it wasn’t good for my health and it wasn’t good for my thinking abilities either.”
Jones smiles broadly and casts his eyes toward the heavens. “I can’t complain at all; anything the Lord gives me is a blessin’. He has been watching out for me since I died. All kind of good things have happened since he sent me back. I know he’s been watching out for me.”
Jacob was the first person John met, besides his housemates, when he moved to Nashville two years ago and they have been friends ever since. John, whose wife is a divinity student, stops by at least twice each week to give Jacob the weather report, which earned him the nickname of The Weather Man. Even on his birthday, John stops to warn his friend, “I looked at Weather.com and there is red over all of Tennessee.”
“Oh, that’s not good,” Jones smiles. But once the downpour begins, he maintains his post for several hours.
The 44-year-old printmaker says he admires Jones. “Jacob has such a positive personality. Practically every single day I see him, he asks what’s going on, and as I am walking away, he always says, ‘have a blessed day.’ He has a spirit of thankfulness and gratitude, never negativity, never feeling sorry for himself for anything. You know he’s out here even if it’s about to flood. He sees what’s positive.”
John adds, “Jacob is the one in March who clued me in on what’s going on about this scammer who robs people. I went to the Vanderbilt Police and talked to them in April, and they said Jacob was their eyes and ears out back. They know who he is and appreciate what he does.” And Jones appreciates what his friend does for him. “When my wheelchair broke down, he came down and repaired it for me. And he’s letting me use his umbrella while he patches mine. Yes, it’s a blessin’.”
Like the birds and squirrels in his care, Jones is dependent on the kindness of friends and strangers.
I asked this man with the smiling eyes and an unusually calm spirit of gratitude why
he continues to rise so early and ride two buses just to feed birds and squirrels and watch over parking lots?His eyes twinkle with genuine care. “It’s a blessing,” he nods. “And we are all God’s creatures. It gives me purpose and a sense of peace on this planet. I try to be a blessing to all. “