Monday, December 11, 2017

Remembering my father, Roger Linwood Miller

Author's Note: I wrote this five years ago, on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of my father's death. Like his memory, it has withstood the test of time. I have slightly updated it for today, December 18, 2018, the 16th anniversary (plus one week!) of his death. Read the original here.
Roger L. Miller as a boy, early 1920s.
My Dad and Airplanes
by G. Wayne Miller

I live near an airport. Depending on wind direction and other variables, planes sometimes pass directly over my house as they climb into the sky. If I’m outside, I always look up, marveling at the wonder of flight. I’ve witnessed many amazing developments -- the end of the Cold War, the advent of the digital world, for example -- but except perhaps for space travel, which of course is rooted at Kitty Hawk, none can compare.

I also always think of my father, Roger L. Miller, who died 15 years ago today.

Dad was a boy on May 20, 1927, when Charles Lindbergh took off in a single-engine plane from a field near New York City. Thirty-three-and-a-half hours later, he landed in Paris. That boy from a small Massachusetts town who became my father was astounded, like people all over the world. Lindbergh’s pioneering Atlantic crossing inspired him to get into aviation, and he wanted to do big things, maybe captain a plane or even head an airline. But the Great Depression, which forced him from college, diminished that dream. He drove a school bus to pay for trade school, where he became an airplane mechanic, which was his job as a wartime Navy enlisted man and during his entire civilian career. On this modest salary, he and my mother raised a family, sacrificing material things they surely desired.

My father was a smart and gentle man, not prone to harsh judgment, fond of a joke, a lover of newspapers and gardening and birds, chickadees especially. He was robust until a stroke in his 80s sent him to a nursing home, but I never heard him complain during those final, decrepit years. The last time I saw him conscious, he was reading his beloved Boston Globe, his old reading glasses uneven on his nose, from a hospital bed. The morning sun was shining through the window and for a moment, I held the unrealistic hope that he would make it through this latest distress. He died four days later, quietly, I am told. I was not there.

Like others who have lost loved ones, there are conversations I never had with my Dad that I probably should have. But near the end, we did say we loved each other, which was rare (he was, after all, a Yankee). I smoothed his brow and kissed him goodbye.

So on this 15th anniversary, I have no deep regrets. But I do have two impossible wishes.

My first is that Dad could have heard my eulogy, which I began writing that morning by his hospital bed. It spoke of quiet wisdom he imparted to his children, and of the respect and affection family and others held for him. In his modest way, he would have liked to hear it, I bet, for such praise was scarce when he was alive. But that is not how the story goes. We die and leave only memories, a strictly one-way experience. 

My second wish would be to tell Dad how his only son has fared in the last 15 years. I know he would have empathy for some bad times I went through and be proud that I made it. He would be happy that I found a woman I love, Yolanda, my wife now for three years and my best friend for more than a decade: someone, like him, who loves gardening and birds. He would be pleased that my three wonderful children, Rachel, Katy and Cal, are making their way in the world; and that he now has three great-granddaughters, Bella, Vivvie and Liv, wonderful girls all. In his humble way, he would be honored to know how frequently I, my sister Mary Lynne and my children remember and miss him. He would be saddened to learn that my other sister, his younger daughter, Lynda, died in 2015. But that is not how the story goes, either. We send thoughts to the dead, but the experience is one-way. We treasure photographs, but they do not speak.

Lately, I have been poring through boxes of black-and-white prints handed down from Dad’s side of my family. I am lucky to have them, more so that they were taken in the pre-digital age -- for I can touch them, as the people captured in them surely themselves did so long ago. I can imagine what they might say, if in fact they could speak.

Some of the scenes are unfamiliar to me: sailboats on a bay, a stream in winter, a couple posing on a hill, the woman dressed in fur-trimmed coat. But I recognize the house, which my grandfather, for whom I am named, built with his farmer’s hands; the coal stove that still heated the kitchen when I visited as a child; the birdhouses and flower gardens, which my sweet grandmother lovingly tended. I recognize my father, my uncle and my aunts, just children then in the 1920s. I peer at Dad in these portraits (he seems always to be smiling!), and the resemblance to photos of me at that age is startling, though I suppose it should not be.

A plane will fly over my house today, I am certain. When it does, I will go outside and think of young Dad, amazed that someone had taken the controls of an airplane in America and stepped out in France. A boy with a smile, his life all ahead of him.

Friday, November 3, 2017

We could use more Franks

I never met anyone like the late Frank Beazley, nor am ever likely to meet anyone like him again. My time with him -- culminating but not ending with "The Growing Seasons," my 12-part 2006 Providence Journal series, republished below -- was a precious blessing. I think of him often still. He was a great man and I was honored to be his friend.

Despite a cruel upbringing followed by a tragic accident that broke his body and could have ruined his soul, he instead became an extraordinarily inspiring, uplifting and selfless champion of those without power or voice. Also, a celebrated artist, devoted gardener and man of fine humor. In these times of dark, narcissistic so-called "leaders" in Washington who are determined to divide, break and dehumanize, and sit idly as the planet screams in death agony, we could use more Franks.

Read, or re-read, "The Growing Season," the story of Frank.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The last word

At 10:20 a.m. yesterday, Halloween, one of my favorite holidays, I wrote the last of the 134,393 words of my 17th book, Transformers, sequel (and prequel) to Toy Wars. It opens in 1903 with Hasbro founders Henry and Hillel Hassenfeld immigrating to America to escape religious persecution in their native Poland. They were penniless teenage refugees then. From their new home, they later saved hundreds (if not thousands) of fellow Jews from suffering and death, and their descendants and their company have carried on that tradition of giving back, to people of all faiths.

After writing that last word, I drove to visit Henry's and Hillel's final resting place, in a cemetery near my home. As is custom, I left a stone, on Henry's grave, next to his brother. Then I visited the nearby graves of Merrill, Henry's son; Sylvia, Merrill's wife; and Stephen, their first son. Alan, protagonist of both Toy Wars and Transformers, often visits, too. It was a crisp, sunny morning following a ferocious storm and I cleared some branches that had fallen. I felt at ease.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

"No more essential ingredient than a free, strong and independent press"

Happy Independence Day! As we celebrate the birth of our nation, on July 4, 1776, in Philadelphia, let us thank the Founders for their courage and wisdom in an act and a subsequent constitution unlike any previously seen that has guided a diverse people into 2017. 

Let’s thank the many good women and men who over the centuries have given selflessly – and, those lost in war, their very selves – to their fellow citizens, often without great financial reward or recognition: the teachers, healthcare professionals, social workers, clergy, police, veterans, patriots of all stripes, and many more. The list is long; the final result, a nation still united and still, despite inevitable flaws and divisions, a remarkable example of democracy.

I would ask also that we reflect on the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791, specifically the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. That Madison, et al, placed it first was no accident. The first casualty of any repressive regime is the loss of the freedom to say and publish what people will. King George III ruled just such a regime.

The Bill of Rights

In Washington and beyond today, we are witnessing an ugly attack against press freedom. It is not explicitly stated in such terms, at least not frequently, but the message of “fake news” and of members of the press being “the enemy of the people” and the dog-whistle suggestions that harming a journalist would be heroic are unambiguous evidence of that attack.

I have been a professional journalist my entire adult life, through seven presidents: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. And I remember well presidents before that career: Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy. Every one of them, to varying degrees, faced the scrutiny of the press. And while they may have disliked or hated it, with the exception of 45, they all understood (as presidents before them did) why Madison, et al, made press freedom the first of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights. Through the colonial press, they had long experience with tyranny.

The New York Times and Washington Post, among other practitioners of the First Amendment, are among those publications that have been singularly targeted in this year’s attacks against the press. Just as the Founders would have wished – if you know any of the history of the colonial press, starting with journalist Benjamin Franklin, you can be sure of it –the journalists at these contemporary publications have not been intimidated. They have continued on their constitutionally enshrined mission despite the sort of hate, threats, scorn and ignorance directed against not only the press, but other pillars of our society, science among them.

We live in perilous times.

On Sunday, The Times’ Jim Rutenberg wrote a thoughtful essay on this subject. Whatever your politics, it is well worth reading. In his column, Rutenberg quoted Franklin and several presidents on the press; they are worth reading too, as we celebrate our independence, an independence supported by the press of a long-ago era.

Here are a few of them:

“Power can be very addictive, and it can be corrosive. And it’s important for the media to call to account people who abuse their power, whether it be here or elsewhere.”
-- George W. Bush, 2017

“There is no more essential ingredient than a free, strong and independent press to our continued success in what the founding fathers called our ‘noble experiment’ in self-government.”
-- Ronald Reagan, 1983

“The freedom of speech may be taken away — and, dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter.”
-- George Washington, 1783

“There is nothing so fretting and vexatious, nothing so justly terrible to tyrants, and their tools and abettors, as a free press.”
-- Samuel Adams, 1768

 “Whoever would overthrow the liberty of a nation must begin by subduing the freeness of speech.”
-- Benjamin Franklin, 1722

Happy Independence Day! And as always, please subscribe to a newspaper.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

'The truth, is we need to do a better job'

"Childhood trauma has its effects on intellectual, social and emotional well-being of a child. The truth is we need to do a better job attending to the complex needs of these vulnerable children: families, agencies, social workers teachers, psychologists, politicians etc. Let us consider this quote from Pablo Casals: 'to the whole world you might be one person, but to one person you might just be the whole world.' " -- Mary Beth Berube

Left to right:Dave and Rob Berube, John Kostrzewa, Mary Beth Berube, me. 

I have been blessed in my decades as a journalist and writer to meet some of the most courageous and noble people who live among us. The Berubes are three of them. We all were honored today at the 29th annual Metcalf Media Awards from Rhode Island for Community and Justice, a wonderful organization dedicated to "fighting bias, bigotry and racism and promoting understanding together." My three-part Providence Journal series on the Berubes, "Saving Rob," about a dysfunctional and sometimes criminally harmful social-service agency, published last summer, won in the Print Daily category. John Kostrzewa edited the series, and our new executive editor, Alan Rosenberg, took time from a busy day to join us. And I was surprised and delighted that my Story in the Public Square partner, Pell Center director Jim Ludes, and Kristine Hendrickson, Associate Vice President for University Relations/Chief Communications Officer at Salve Regina University, came, too.

Below are Mary Beth's remarks, and after those, mine, followed by a list of the other winners. Congratulations to them!

Mary Beth Berube:

We are very excited to be here to honor Wayne for winning the Metcalf Award for his three-part series Saving Rob. Rob is our son and we are very grateful to Mr. Miller for writing such a sensitive piece detailing his life as a child in state care.

It was a courageous yet difficult decision on Rob’s part to expose himself so publicly. But he wanted to do it in order to help others and draw attention to the dreadful conditions some children are forced to endure. The article could not have been written without Rob’s consent and Wayne had a calm caring manner about him which put Rob at ease. Believe me, this is no easy feat! It was really was quite remarkable how much Rob was willing to share with this stranger.  Rob was very open and shared some very personal memories and painful experiences which Wayne weaved into creating a heartfelt compelling story.  Our family was very fortunate to have such a gifted writer chronicle our personal journey of adopting a child from state care and the hurdles we faced. Wayne got to the heart of all the  struggles,  fits and starts  to the point where we can now look back because it’s all in writing ( thanks Wayne) and think…Wow…THIS  family has persevered out of love for this amazing child.

I think the article succeeded in raising awareness to the constellation of challenges the kids in state care face. Childhood trauma has its effects on intellectual, social and emotional well-being of a child.  The truth is we need to do a better job attending to the complex needs of these vulnerable children:
families, agencies ,  social workers teachers, psychologists, politicians etc.  Let us consider this quote from Pablo Casals “to the whole world you might be one person, but to one person you might just be the whole world.”

This morning we honor this ONE person, Wayne Miller, for his wonderful accomplishment.  May This praise of Wayne’s work give us pause to think of the many children out there who are still in desperate need of saving or at least encountering that ONE person who just might be their whole world at a moment in time.

Congratulations Wayne. We are truly blessed to have met you. Thank you.

G. Wayne Miller:

Thank you, Alisha [Pina, a colleague, friend and great person who is dedicated to social justice]. And thank you, Rhode Island for Community & Justice, for this award. I am humbled and honored.

I especially want to thank Rob, Mary Beth and Dave, who took the chance that someone they had never met -- someone who was just a byline – an enemy of the people, as some have called us! -- would tell their story honestly and with respect.

They took this chance not because they sought personal gain. They took it because they believed their story -- which in essence is the story of many others who have suffered at the hands of an often-inept and sometimes criminally harmful system – might focus attention on a shameful problem that needs fixing. If we can’t take better care of our children, what kind of society are we, really? That is the message of “Saving Rob.”

Like others who have taken that chance with me over the years, Rob, Mary Beth and Dave became my heroes. I stand in admiration of them, not only -- and not primarily -- because they opened their lives to me and, through my newspaper, the public.

I stand in admiration for their nobility, their courage, their persistence, their faith and their very big hearts. They believe in giving back. In a world that can be dark and dispiriting, they shine and inspire.

I am lucky to know them. We all are.

Finally, let me thank The Providence Journal, which allows me and my colleagues to invest time in social-justice journalism – and it does take time, a lot of time, to do it right. Thanks, John Kostrzewa, for your superb editorial guidance – on this and many other stories over the years.  And let me congratulate our new executive editor, Alan Rosenberg, who – if you’ll pardon an Ocean State metaphor -- will be captaining a ship launched in 1829 into the future.

The other winners. Here, here!

Vanessa Toledo-Vickers - Community Award
“Invest in Your Strengths”
Academy for Career Exploration and Latino Public Radio RI
Presenter:  Tim Hebert

Casey Nilsson - Print Monthly Award
“They’ve All Come To Look For America”
Rhode Island Monthly
Presenter:  Cheryl Ah-Sasah

RIPR Newsroom - Broadcast Radio Award
“Speaking Across Differences”
Rhode Island Public Radio
Presenter:  TBA

Jim Vincent - Print Biweekly Award
"Effect of Elections”
The Jim Vincent Show - Providence PEG and CW28
Presenter:  Jordan Seaberry

Elisabeth Harrison, John Bender, Chuck Hinman - Advocacy Award
“St. George’s Loophole”
Part 1    Part 2    Part 3    Part 4
Rhode Island Public Radio
Presenter:  Peg Langhammer

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"Are you feeling lucky today?"

I had a tooth extracted today. Doesn’t matter why; suffice it to say that Miller teeth have been less than Hollywood-perfect since cave days. It was way back there in my mouth and I didn’t need it, anyway.

My dentist is a fine practitioner, but when his first question to me was “Are you feeling lucky today?” my heart sank.

I thought: Sure, playing Marathon Man ALWAYS makes me feel lucky, but of course I just said, “Yes I am. Why?”

Well, he said, HE needed luck to complete a swift procedure, given the particulars, which I totally did not understand and did not want to.

So that was the good luck. What was the bad, I asked?

He launched into something about how bad luck would force him into digging around down there if the damn thing cracked, or one root came out but the other didn’t, or if I was some genetic freak and the roots of this particular tooth went through my jaw into my spinal cord and up into my brain.

OK, I imagined that last part.

Still, “digging around down there” -- these are NOT words you ever want to hear in association with your mouth. So my mind went spinning off to some other universe where people do not need teeth to enjoy a good meal.

When it returned, my dentist asked me to inch back on the chair farther than seemed possible without falling off. That was so my head could be adjusted downward at such an angle that I could almost see the floor.

Access, I thought, correctly. My dentist did the usual turn this way and that thing repeatedly, until he found what I assumed was a suitable approach.

Then he said, and I quote: “Hmm, no leverage.”

Leverage is another word you never want to hear associated with your mouth, especially when the man saying it is holding a Cow Horn dental extractor in his hand. I believe leverage was the last word Dustin Hoffman heard before Laurence Olivier got down to it.

And, yes, Cow Horn is the technical name for the specific pliers used for this procedure. I know, because I managed to ask. I’m insatiably curious that way. I wish I weren’t.

Of course, I also had to ask how it got that name – you can see I was stalling big-time here – and my dentist said, well, it looks like a cow’s horn. And it did, a tiny one, but then my mind, which had returned from that universe where they do not have such things, thought of cows, which brought me to bulls, which have man-killing horns, as Spanish matadors can attest.

Feeling chatty now, I remarked that the Cow Horn must have an ancient lineage, given that for centuries, all dentists really could do was pull – ahem, extract – teeth. My dentist was not interested in history at that moment. He had the Cow Horn in his hand, and no leverage.

Stalling only works so long, by the way, in a dentist chair. My guy locked onto my tooth with his Cow Horn and began to wiggle back and forth, slowly at first. That’s when I began to wish he HAD found leverage.

The Cow Horn
He asked if I could feel it. Dumb question, I thought.

Which is when I wished I had opted for sedation, not Novocain. My thinking had been that I wouldn’t feel groggy the rest of the day without sedation and I could get some actual work done, not write a silly essay. Stupid thinking, Wayne.

“Are YOU feeling lucky today?” my dentist then asked his assistant.

I am not making this up.

The assistant didn’t answer. I interpreted this to mean she was NOT feeling lucky, and my mind completed another round trip to that universe, which I think I will name the Happy Place. Maybe they only eat plain yogurt and cream cheese there, but I’m OK with that.

Back and forth with the Cow Horn, the dentist went. I was booking another trip to The Happy Place when he said, AGAIN, “luck.” Actually, he exclaimed: "Luck!"

And he’d had it. Really. The tooth was out. Total time elapsed? Maybe five minutes.

As I said, I have a fine dentist. He’s of Irish descent, and surely has a four-leaf clover.

Also, an Irish sense of humor.