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A Depression waif finds first love

REVIEW, TIDINGS PHOTO: CLIFF NEWELL - Bill Baker has been many things in his life of 92 years, and with his new memoir Leaving Lila he is now an author.

When Bill Baker reached the age of 18, he must have asked himself, “Will my life ever be any good?”

Up to that point, the Lake Oswego man had been like a character who had wandered out of a Charles Dickens novel and into real life.

He had been given up by his mother, languished in an orphanage in which his cruel caretaker was nicknamed “Genghis Khan,” and when he could no longer stand the severe beatings, he took his Boy Scout knapsack and ran away to a life of hunger and homelessness in Depression America. He was forced to resort to petty crime merely to survive.

That knapsack was his one possession. He clung to it for many years.

“It was a tough life,” Baker said. “Those were tough times. I ran away and lived on the streets in various towns. I took odd jobs. I broke into places because I was hungry.”

Finally, something good came into his life, and Baker has written about it in his newly published memoir, “Leaving Lila.” Baker’s story is heart-rending, moving, angry, outrageous, funny, sexy and romantic, and at the conclusion his difficulties in life only seem to be beginning. The book’s message seems to be “Nice guys survive.” That Baker survived and became a fine human is stunning to his longtime friend, Rosemary Lapham Berleman.

“This book really told me who Bill was,” Berleman said. “My childhood was paradise. He was a little boy who experienced life from the very bottom. It was a terrible time. His life was full of want and deprivation, and he turned out to be such a good person. I can’t figure it out.”

Oliver Twist and David Copperfield had nothing on Bill Baker when it came to experiencing a childhood of hard knocks. He tells his story with “elegant writing,” as his poet friend Gary Snyder says.

The turning point in this non-wonderful life was Lila. A lovely illustration of her adorns the cover of Baker’s book. Lila bears a striking resemblance to actress Debra Winger, and if she looked anything like that in real life, it is no wonder she stirred the lonely heart of a wandering young man.

The first meeting between Lila and Bill took place because her car broke down.

“I sort of fixed it,” Baker said. “It turned out she was lonesome for her husband. She was my first love. It was very touching. She was a lovely person. I loved her.”

Lila was a grown woman with children, but she quickly became friends with the 18-year-old boy. Then their friendship turned to romance, and they became lovers. They went on road trips and Lila asked Baker about his life. Because of that, the memoir is told in flashback form. All the bad memories poured into the sympathetic ears of his lover.

“I never knew my dad,” Baker said. “I think he and my mom knew each other for about a half hour.”

As soon as humanly possible, his unwed mom plopped her son onto the doorstep of an orphanage run by the Episcopal Church (“a quasi-reform school”) in Virginia called the Boys Home. Baker tried to run away twice and was dragged back. His biggest hope was to get adopted, and he would be trotted out in his Sunday best in an orphan parade on Sundays. He was never adopted.

“I was the ugliest kid in the orphanage,” Baker explained.

But actually Baker was nearly adopted by a family who would have even given him a pony. The only thing preventing this transaction was permission from his mother. The orphanage staff hustled and really tried to find Baker’s mother so she could sign the necessary papers. But they could never find her. Later, it turned out she was in South America.

Baker went from one crushing disappointment to the next when he ran away from the orphanage and somehow found his mother. Her response was to sic the cops on him and accuse him of stealing.

Could things get any worse? Yes. At age 15, Baker was observed laughing at a funny story told by a friend, and somehow the fact of Baker actually enjoying himself made “Genghis Khan” go ape. He grabbed a big thick Army belt and started whaling on the hapless boy. Such harsh punishment was supposed to be out of bounds for the orphans of the Boys Home, but that wasn’t figuring on “Genghis Khan.”

“He was a guy of great natural evil,” Baker said. “He took after me with the big belt.”

Before he could be beaten to a pulp, Baker grabbed his knapsack and escaped from the maddened caretaker. On his third escape attempt from the Boys Home, Baker finally made good.

His life remained horrible. It was just different. But then he met Lila.

Sadly, after six months, their romance ended. Lila went back to her husband, and Baker got his draft notice. His presence was required for World War II. He was not optimistic about his fate. Whatever the future held, Baker knew it was time to move on.

As the book ends, the Army induction officer noticed that Baker had set aside his knapsack.

“He asked me, ‘Do you want this knapsack?’” Baker said. “I told him, ‘It’s of no importance.’”

“Leaving Lila” is published by Galaxy 44 Publishing. It can be purchased on Amazon.com or by going to the website galax44publishingllc.mysimplestore.com.

Contact Cliff Newell at 503-636-1281 ext. 105 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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