That nice old man who makes the wonderful pea soup for his neighbors and recently discovered a talent for folk art has seen things, terrible things.
"About 2 in the morning, we hit the beach," remembers 93-year-old Jake Joseph, a World War II Army sergeant who waited in a floating "matchbox" patrol boat for his unit's turn to storm the beaches of Normandy as part of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.
"Boat No. 22 hit a big bomb and 180 people got blown up, just like that," Jake says. "Our boat was No. 23."
Horror was everywhere on that beach -- from the blood-tinged waves to the human limbs flung into trees by exploding mines and mortars.
"A guy was yelling, 'Give me my leg!' I bent down to help him and he was full of blood. I almost passed out," Jake says of the soldier who would die on that sand along with thousands of others. "The beach was loaded with them."
He can tell stories of carnage and death, courage and bravery, but Jake, who lives in a condo in Prospect Heights, would rather focus on the much more whimsical activities he's doing now -- making works of art out of the empty plastic medicine bottles of his wife, Beatrice.
"It took 170 pill bottles and 175 inhalation tubes to build this log cabin," Jake says of the 24-by-26-inch house he made by gluing together Beatrice's old, orange pill bottles and topping off the structure with a roof made from inch-long transparent plastic tubes. He used dozens more of her bottles to make an 11-room bird house that is covered in stones and weighs 44 pounds, a 2-foot-tall lighthouse and a replica of the barn and silo from the farm where he grew up.
"He didn't know what to do with himself when I was sick, so he did that," explains Beatrice, 89, whose chuckle, a bit raspy now, is one of those infectious laughs that makes everyone else in the room laugh, too. Her diabetes provides her husband with his stash of plastic medicine bottles. She takes at least 20 pills and uses two of those small inhalation tubes a day.
Jake doesn't draw up plans or follow a pattern for his bottle buildings. He just builds them whenever he gets the urge for a month or two until they are finished. Growing up in the Depression on a 40-acre farm without indoor plumbing or electricity in the small northern Indiana town of Knox, Jake learned how to make do with whatever his family had.
"We never bought anything. We didn't even know there were stores," recalls Jake, who grew up eating the vegetables, eggs, milk and meat from their farm. He knew about giant retailers in Chicago such as Sears, Wards and Spiegel only because he used pages from their catalogs as toilet paper in the family outhouse.
He was working as a dishwasher and manning the soda fountain at Chicago's grand Sherman House Hotel (now the site of the State of Illinois building) when he joined the Army to fight World War II. His commander asked if anybody was a cook.
"Nobody said anything, so I held up my hand," says Jake, who learned how to cook in the Army and became a chef and restaurateur when he came home after the war.
He opened his first "hamburger joint" with 19-cent burgers and nickel cups of coffee in 1949. A friend fixed him up with Beatrice Abraham, who was working payroll in the steel mills of her hometown of Gary, Ind., and the couple married in 1950.
"She had money. That's why I married her," Jake says with a chuckle, setting off his wife's laugh. They have a son, Jeff, who now lives in Evanston, and a daughter, Debbie, who now lives in Barrington, and two grandchildren. Jake worked as a chef at the Sherman Hotel before opening several of his own restaurants and pizza places throughout the city and suburbs. He still cooks, and is preparing a meal for his neighbors across the hall. He shows off slabs of ribs with his own special sauce, his pea soup, homemade coleslaw, homemade pumpkin pie with pecans, and slices of sweet potatoes, each topped with pineapple and a cherry.
"They're great neighbors," says Mary Stiller, 54, who lives in the condo across the hall. She calls Jake's medicine bottle creations "awesome."
Doing most of the carpentry work at his restaurants, Jake made a wooden dollhouse for his daughter, a few pieces of furniture, and a host of napkin and paper-towel holders during the years. He says he once made a fancy, large, wooden birdhouse that sold for $500 at a shop in Long Grove.
"I'd like to sell these," he says of his pill bottle creations, adding that he still has a stockpile of bottles in the garage. But money is not his motivation. He tells how Beatrice helped him with the pill-bottle barn. She'd place pieces of candy near the chickens to look like eggs, Jake would gobble them up, and she'd replace them.
"I'm happy," he says, before nodding to his wife. "She is always happy."
The health woes, the war memories, those long hours running restaurants, the fancy meals at home, the pill-bottle artwork, the laughs are all just a part of who they are.
"We had a very good life," a smiling Beatrice says from her seat on the couch. "And this is part of it, so we take it."