OFFICIALLY,Today is Father's Day. To honor my Father, I'm sharing a few pages from my book. These are pages that focus on MY FATHER: The World's Greatest Locomotive Engineer and Greatest Father.
For years, the framed picture of a steam engine hung on a prominent wall in my parents’ house. It featured an embroidered message: “Old Engineers Never Die, They Just Lose Their Steam.” I seldom looked at the picture; I considered the words “lose their steam” an insult to my father, R.B. (Roy) Miller. A Locomotive Engineer, my father had a perfect record with the Cotton Belt Railroad. You might say everyone in our family had a personal connection with the railroad. My great grandfather spent many years with the railroad as a carpenter and his daughter, my grandmother, worked as a secretary in the Cotton Belt Shops for forty years. Until his death in 1994, my brother, after leaving college, had proudly served as a roundhouse foreman at the Cotton Belt Shops. Each family member respected the railroad and, without fail, all were loyal to their railroad employer. I am proud to say that no one was more appreciative or more committed to the railroad than my father. I watched him begin each day with a determined “Full Steam Ahead”.
Roy Miller (R.B. to those who worked with him) followed a strict code of ethics; he refused to borrow money, tools, anything. He didn’t believe in charge accounts, never used a credit card, and never varied from a cash-only lifestyle. He was a handsome gentle-man who dressed well, displayed classic manners, and treated everyone with respect. My father grew up in Missouri during the depression years and, as the oldest of five siblings, was forced to leave high school in the ninth grade to help his father, Amon Burett Miller, support the family. Years later, when I was job hunting, my father mentioned a few distasteful jobs he had endured, like painting barns, cleaning out-houses, butchering hogs, just to earn a few dollars. He enjoyed talking about the day he was hired by the railroad, calling it the most memorable day in his young life. He loved his railroad job and demonstrated his appreciation by never missing a day of work for forty three years.
Growing up in a railroad town, Pine Bluff, Arkansas, I knew the importance of limited phone conversations. Daddy received his train orders by telephone, an important call that could come anytime, day or night. The person calling my father, relayed orders for his next train run and was known as the “call boy”. Within thirty minutes of the call boy’s orders, my father, travel grip in hand, was en route to the railroad yards.
During my father’s time with the railroad, Cotton Belt Locomotive Engineers became officially retired on their seventy-second birthday. For most engineers, who spent years climbing off and on an engine, years of taking orders from the call boy, years of spending several nights a week away from home, mandatory retirement represented a time of celebration.
My father reacted differently. The idea of ending his love affair with the railroad, made him sad. He had 43 years of perfect service as a Cotton Belt Locomotive Engineer and, if given a choice, he would have remained an active, Cotton Belt Engineer. In 1982, with his seventy-second birthday only a few weeks away, Daddy spending more time outside, aimlessly walking around the yard he loved, looking at everything but focusing on nothing.
A few weeks after daddy’s birthday, his railroad retirement officially documented, I invited daddy to join me for a car ride. Several blocks from home, as we approached the railroad tracks, familiar bells began clanging, lights started flashing, and the automatic safety barriers dropped, blocking the road. Within seconds, a long freight train roared by. I was talking, chatting about something, when I sensed my father’s silence. Turning to look at him, I felt emotionally sick. My father’s head had dropped forward as tears dripped from his chin, designing wet circles on his favorite brown gabardine slacks. I leaned over and put my head on his shoulder, my hand reaching up to catch the tears. Desperate to stop his hurt, I whispered, “Daddy, I promise everything will get better soon.”
But, nothing got better. In a few quick years, dementia, the uninvited houseguest, became my daddy’s permanent companion. For me, the ultimate heartbreak came one night when the telephone rang. As if nudged by an electric prodder, Daddy struggled out of his chair, fighting to catch his balance while stumbling toward the ringing phone. I watched in silence. Reaching for the telephone, he announced to no one in particular: “Excuse me, please. I have to answer this phone…… It’s the call boy with my orders.”
The last time we were together, Christmas, 1987, I had a nagging premonition. When it was time to leave for the airport and return to my job in Erie, Pennsylvania, I hugged Daddy. Holding him close, I told him over and over how much I loved him, promising to call him as soon as my plane landed. He quietly cried as he held on to me like a lifeline, tears marking my coat collar. Whispering, scared my mother would hear, he begged me not to leave him. It was as if he, too, sensed this was our last time together. As the taxi backed out of the family driveway, I lowered the window to say “I love you, Daddy”, one last time. He raised his shaking hand, trying to wave and I felt his unsteadiness, saw his uncoordinated movements. This would be our final shared moment.
Today, approaching a railroad crossing, bells began clacking, red lights flashed, and safety barriers dropped. Sitting in my car, I stared down the track at the approaching train. Decked out with flags, streamers, and banners, a restored locomotive came steaming, parading down the track, clickety-clack, moving toward some unnamed celebration.
Out of respect for the historic engine, I opened the car door to stand at attention. The massive steam engine roared past, its train wheels clicking out a steady, staccato rhythm. My heart pounded with childhood excitement as the antiquated train whistle blew a loud, continuous refrain. For all my life, I’ve loved trains but, more than just another passing train…this one was special. Watching the train, listening to the whistle, I remembered my father.
For the first time since his death, I felt a sense of deep-down peace. I straightened my shoulders and stood tall, proudly remembering my father’s life rather than his death. And, I thought of the embroidered message “old engineers lose their steam” and smiled. No longer did the words stir sadness or resentment inside me because, those words couldn’t apply to the world's greatest locomotive engineer.
As I listened to the engine’s whistle fade into the distance, I could clearly see the similarities between this classic steam locomotive and my father. Both were, and would forever be remembered as: powerful, on-track…..and Full of Steam!
I LOVE YOU, DADDY.
I was seventeen at the time. The reason I was inside Cohen’s Department Store, waiting for the shoe department’s only shoe salesman to finish helping a young black girl… was to find shoes for my graduation ceremony.
It’s almost impossible to forget events surrounding your one and only graduation from high school. But, what I overheard while sitting there was blatantly wrong and not easily forgotten by someone as sexually-wary…as me.
Cohen’s shoe department was rectangular in shape and very small. To utilize every inch of space, 12 customers’ chairs were divided into two sections of six chairs each. The chairs were then placed-- back to back--in the center of the department so it was easy to access the floor-to-ceiling shoe boxes lining each wall.
Sitting in the bright yellow chrome chair, I stared at various customers shopping in the men’s department directly in front of me while waiting for Mr. Reisenberg, the Jewish shoe salesman who’d worked there for as long as I could remember. He wasn’t known for his customer service skills but….shoes in my size (8 AAAA)…. were nearly impossible to find and graduation was next week.
Glancing over my shoulder, I noticed that the young black girl was trying on expensive-looking gold high-heel sandals. Apparently, she was going to a formal dance; maybe to her senior prom. Then I heard Mr. Reisenberg speak in a loud whisper: “Honey, don’t worry about the price. You meet me in the Alley at 9 tonight, in the same place-- like before—and I’ll bring the shoes with me. I may want you to give me a little more attention this time…spend more time using your mouth…but I’ll tell you all that when we get together. And, don’t wear anything under your clothes… no panties and no bra... you hear me?” I heard her giggle a little, then whisper “sure”.
In a few minutes, Mr. Reisenberg, looking old, tired, and bored, walked around the row of chairs to ask what I wanted. Suddenly, I realized I didn’t want this no-class sexual predator putting his hands anywhere-near my feet. So I stood up, turned, and walked out of the store. I never shopped at Cohen's again.
Still needing shoes, I asked my father to drive me to Little Rock where there was a much-better selection of shoes in my size. And, until right now, I've never shared my shoe incident with anyone; I didn’t want anyone to get in trouble. But, that was yesterday...and yesterday's gone..
You should know that, growing up, I knew most of the Jewish Families in my hometown because I served as a babysitter for their children. I liked and admired all of them….all except for Doff Kastor, the gay ticket-taker at the Saenger Theatre and now…Mr. Reisenberg, who gave shoes to a young black girl in exchange for back-seat sex!
After all those years, I’m now “all grown up”. I no-longer keep anyone’s secrets….including my own. These days, I adhere to a strong belief that says: “LET NO DEED GO UNPUBLISHED.”
It happened one early morning in April, 2014, shortly after Cubby and I finished a quick walk. My next step was to put Cubby-Dog in the house, jump in the car, and begin the usual rat-race to work.
Then I heard the sound…a tiny sound like that of a whimpering kitten. Standing there, trying to pinpoint its location, I knew I must investigate, discover the source. Otherwise, I’d think of nothing else all day.
I retraced my steps to the vacant lot across the street, over-grown with tall grass and neglect. Feeling my way through the growth I heard-then spotted- the tiny gray and white kitten sitting on an old woodpile. Picking it up, holding it close, I fell in love. I’d need to call the office to explain why I’d be late….but there were no scheduled meetings or deadlines. Saving this little baby had to be my number-one priority.
The curious kitty seemed quite at home as he moved in and out of the furniture, exploring various rooms. I barely got the food bowls in front of him before he’d devoured every bite. After showing him the litter box, introducing him to the other cats--- Cookie and Candy—I hurried off to work.
I named the kitten, Sugar Baby. Who knows why that name came to me but it just seemed to fit. Everything about Sugar Baby was sweet. The vet estimated he was six weeks old, neglected and starving, but predicted that love, food, and a good home would restore Sugar Baby to a happy future.
Five days later, I woke up at 2:30 am and Sugar Baby wasn’t on the bed. Since the day he joined Cubby, Cookie, Candy and me, our newest family member found his own little space-- on the bed—next to me. He clearly liked that I used a small baby blanket to keep him covered. Climbing out of bed, the little voice inside me sounded a warning--- something was wrong.
There in the living room, in his second-favorite resting spot, I found Sugar Baby… curled-up on his side, his head resting on his little white paws, his eyes closed. When he didn’t respond to my voice or to my touch, I knew the truth. I picked him up; now cold and unmoving…I cradled his precious little body in my hands. My sweet little Sugar Baby was now resting with the Angels.
My heart was broken. I dared not ask why. There was no warning; nothing indicated that this dear, precious kitten was sick or in pain or…close to dying.
It was Sunday and, for the first time in my life-- without neighbors, close friends, family, or even a pet emergency room, I must bury Sugar Baby. I found a new shoebox, lined it with a clean white hand towel, carefully placed my sweet little baby inside, and taped the lid shut. I wrote Sugar Baby’s name on the box before wrapping and taping the box as securely as possible.
Digging a hole in my side yard, I placed my kitty-baby inside. I asked God to keep him safely in his loving care until I could re-claim him. Then, crying uncontrollably at my loss, I blanketed Sugar Baby for the last time.
I don’t do well with loss, especially the loss of an innocent animal. Every loss is another hole in my heart. Clearly, the moments I’ve spent with my animals have been the most-treasured moments of my life. No one has ever loved me like my dogs, my cats, my nannie-goat, and my outside-animal “menagerie”.
Five months later, I opened my computer to find a message from a longtime friend--that also included a picture. It was a photo of a kitten, gray and white, looking back at me. The writing under the picture said someone had found six kittens abandoned in a field and had brought them to the Saline County Humane Society. All the kittens had found homes except for the one in the picture. The shelter had named the kitten… Clinton. I knew, immediately, this kitten was mine.. The sweet baby was sitting in a cage…waiting for me to bring him home.
The next day, Clinton-- quickly renamed “Sugar Babe”---came to live with me and Cubby and Candy and Cookie. He’s been with us for almost three years and…not only does he look like Sugar Baby…with white spots in all the same places……..Sugar Babe sleeps beside me, wrapped in the same blanket and in the very spot….where Sugar Baby once-slept. But, most spine-tingling of all, Sugar Babe is my only indoor-outdoor cat. When I look for him outside, I always find him in the exact place I found Sugar Baby.
“Who can explain it…Who can tell you why. Fools give you reasons…Wise Men never try.”