MY FATHER: THE WORLD'S GREATEST LOCOMOTIVE ENGINEER AND--THE WORLD'S BEST DADDY.
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”--- a direct 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 Behymer 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’d spent years climbing off and on an engine-- years of taking orders from the call boy-- years of spending several nights every 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 spent 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, creating wet circles on his favorite brown gabardine slacks. I leaned over and put my head on his shoulder, as my hand reached 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 as he stumbled toward the ringing phone. I watched my Daddy in silence---as he reached for the telephone before announcing to no one in particular: “Excuse me, please. I have to answer this phone. It’s the call boy with my train 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—so afraid my mother would hear-- he begged me not to leave him. It was as if he, too, sensed this was our last time together. When the taxi began pulling out of the family driveway, I lowered the window to say “I love you, Daddy”-- one last time. He raised his shaking hand, trying desperately to smile--and wave. I felt his unsteadiness, noted his fragility, saw the uncontrollable tears and knew with heartbreaking-certainty: 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 steam 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 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. I thought about the embroidered message: “Old Engineers lose their steam”--and smiled. Never again would those words cause me to feel sad or resentful; Those words would never apply to the World’s Greatest Engineer and The World’s Best Daddy.
As I listened to the steam engine’s whistle fade into the distance, I spotted the strong 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 AM PROUD TO BE MY FATHER’S DAUGHTER.