Dec. 6, 2017

MY FATHER--- KNEW ME BEST AND LOVED ME MOST.

 

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; the phrase “lose their steam” was an insult to my father, R.B. (Roy) Miller.   A Locomotive Engineer, my father had a perfect record with the Cotton Belt Railroad. In fact, most of my family had a personal connection with railroads.  My great grandfather spent many years with the railroad as a carpenter and his daughter, my grandmother, worked as a secretary for forty years with the Cotton Belt. After leaving college, my brother proudly served as a roundhouse foreman at the Cotton Belt Shops until his death in 1994. The railroad put food on our table for many years. Our family had great respect for the railroad and no one was 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 anything, including money, vehicles, even tools.  My father didn’t believe in charge accounts, credit cards, 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.  As the oldest of five siblings, he had no choice but leave high school in the ninth grade to help his father, Amon Burette Miller, support the family. I remember the summer I was job hunting and my father mentioned a few of his more distasteful summer jobs like painting barns, shoveling excrement from out-houses, and butchering hogs (his least favorite).  All involved long hours but only a few dollars. 

He smiled when he talked about the day he was hired by the railroad, calling it the most memorable day in his young life. Oh, how he loved his railroad job!  Years later, when he retired, my father had a perfect attendance record. After more than forty-three years of railroad service, he had never missed one day of work.

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 enroute to the railroad yards.

During my father’s time with the railroad, Cotton Belt Locomotive Engineers were officially retired on their seventy-second birthday.  For most engineers, after years of climbing off and on an engine; years of taking orders in the early morning hours; years of spending nights away from home…. mandatory retirement was almost a time of celebration.

But, my father had a different reaction. The idea of ending his love affair with the railroad-- made him sad. Given a choice, my father would have remained an active, Cotton Belt Engineer until the day he died.  In 1982, with his seventy-second birthday a few weeks away, Daddy spent most of his time outside, aimlessly walking around the yard he loved, looking at everything but--focusing on nothing.     

A few weeks after daddy’s birthday, after his railroad retirement was officially documented, I invited him to join me for a car ride. Several blocks from home, approaching the railroad tracks, we heard the familiar bells clanging as lights began flashing, and the automatic safety barriers dropped, blocking the roadway. 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 overwhelmingly sad. 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, put my head on his shoulder, while my hand tried 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 as my wonderful father reached for the telephone, then 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 gave Daddy one last hug. Holding him close, I told him over and over how much I loved him and promised to call as soon as my plane landed.  He cried, quietly, as he held on to me like a lifeline, tears marking my coat collar. Whispering, afraid my mother would hear, he begged me not to leave him.  It was as if he, too, sensed this would be our last time together. As the taxi backed out of the family driveway I lowered the window to say yet-another “I love you, Daddy”.  Watching his unsteadiness as he struggled to return my wave, I knew for certain…..this would be our last shared moment.

Today, as I approached a railroad crossing, bells began clacking….red lights started flashing…. 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-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 its familiar sound, its steady- staccato- rhythm.  My heart pounded with childhood excitement as the antiquated train whistle blew a loud, continuous refrain.

All my life I’ve loved trains, but this train was no ordinary train; this train was special. Watching the steam engine, hearing the whistle, I remembered my father. For the first time since losing him, I felt a deep-down peace. I straightened my shoulders and stood tall, proud to remember my father’s life rather than his death.  Smiling, I pictured the embroidered message “old engineers lose their steam.”  Those words didn’t apply to my daddy--- the world’s best locomotive engineer and the greatest father.

Listening to the final strains of the steam engine’s whistle fade into the distance, I noted the remarkable similarities between this steam locomotive and my father, Roy (R.B.) Miller.  Both were classic and both would forever-be-remembered as “powerful, on-track, and full of steam!”