My father, Roy Neil Miller, was eccentric. He created his own reality. But he loved us kids. I was the firstborn and a tomboy. My brother was fifteen months younger than I. He wasn’t interested, so Dad taught me how to fish, although I never got the hang of fly-fishing. On the Blackfoot River near Missoula, Montana, when I was eight to ten, I caught a lot of gooseberry bushes. I didn’t catch many fish, but I ate plenty of berries.
I was the trout measurer. They had to be six inches long. My father had a good eye, but sometimes he put some in his creel that weren’t quite long enough. If they were a tad small, I stretched them to make the limit in case someone from the DNR came around checking. One summer we camped on the river outside Missoula, Montana, while we waited for an apartment in grad student housing. My mother fried the little trout almost every morning for breakfast. You could eat them bones, tail and all. They were delicious. At night my dad heated stones in the campfire and brought them into the tent in a bucket to keep us warm at night.
There were bears aplenty in the area. Dad said that if we saw one, we should take shelter in the car. But he was at school most days with the car. There was a rock formation near our campsite that formed a natural walled in area. Mom said we should go there if we ever had to escape a bear. Mostly, the bears left the campers alone because everybody took precautions.
We kept food in a large aluminum suitcase Dad hung from a tree. One night a bear decided he wanted what was inside. He made a great deal of noise and woke us and the other few campers nearby. The bear severed the rope, and the suitcase crashed to the ground. But the bear couldn’t get inside the suitcase. He batted it around for a while and then gave up. For years my father showed people the claw and teeth marks on the suitcase. He considered it a badge of honor to his survival skills that the bear didn’t get our food.
My father earned two master’s degrees from the University of Montana, one in English and one in education. Second semester of my fifth-grade year, Dad became the school superintendent of the tiny school in Ismay, Montana. There were eight kids in my classroom, fourth through eighth grade. I was the only one in my class.
It was there in eastern Montana that my father became a rockhound. He taught me to hunt agates. I got pretty good at spotting a likely rock at a distance. I opened and closed the cattle gates, and, undaunted by prairie dog holes, he drove his Packard across the badlands, following two ruts of what looked like a little-used road. It turned out once to be a cowpath that diverged in two different directions. So he drove across the scrub grass with no guidance, always knowing where we were going. Serenaded by grasshoppers that hummed of drought, we walked in sun-baked gulches where dinosaur bones jutted from layers of ancient rock. In the dry washes he constantly told me to be wary of rattlers. They were everywhere. I found petrified wood whose crystal rings measured hundreds of million years of frozen time. I pounced on rough stones and imagined that when Dad sliced them with his diamond saw, there would lace and moss hiding inside the translucent quartz.
We cooked dinner on a campfire and slept under northern lights with curtains the colors of jasper, aventurine, tiger eye, and carnelian fluttered above us. I still have a piece of agate jewelry that came from a stone I may have found. It’s a pin with an oval-shaped agate. In it, a black tree is silhouetted against brown and gold striations that look like the colors of the badlands: a lasting souvenir of memory.
Dad got the school in Ismay to buy a telescope. On cold winter nights when the sky was so clear it seemed the stars were close enough to touch, he set it up on the hill beside the school building. He showed the solar system to all who came, kids and adults. I saw the rings of Saturn and the faint lines on Mars. Jupiter was a mysterious ball of swirls with a barely visible red spot. Instead of a misty streak across the sky, I saw the Milky Way’s stars and nebulae. I knew I was looking into the past beyond the age of agates and dinosaurs, and I wondered if there were others out there looking at us. My father always thought there would be others.
When my father was around 24, he was in the Air Force, stationed at Lackland AFB in Texas. He told us how he was asked to pilot a C-47 carrying desperately needed iron lungs to a hospital somewhere along the gulf. He volunteered, along with a crew, and they flew through a terrible tropical storm. One of the machines broke loose and dinged the side of the plane, but they made it safely, and half a dozen people survived the illness.
I received the polio vaccine because of my father. He often told about his experience delivering the iron lung machines. When we lived in Ismay, he contacted the state health department and had them come and administer the new Salk vaccine to everybody who wanted it.
My dad wasn’t perfect. In fact, he was a bit odd. But he was a decent person who did the best he could for his family. He died in 1999 after speaking to a local VFW group. Mom said he talked about his experiences as a pilot in WWII. My brothers and I didn’t know until after he died that he was in Air Force intelligence and flew missions over Germany taking photos of different areas.
I made the digital scrapbook page in his honor. The photo is one I took in 1994 when he was standing in the doorway of a garage he’d bought and had moved to the house he and Mom bought in Iron River, MI.