SINCE THE SKY BLEW OFF
Originally appeared in
Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine
He was only a kid, seven, maybe eight years old. We never did get his name. He arrived at dusk, and when no one answered his cries, he finally fell into a restless sleep in the dust and half-dead weeds along the front perimeter. Well before the sun was up, I shot him through the head. His body quivered a bit and then his mouth became a fountain of blood, but it didn't last long. In less than three minutes, long enough for a smoke, his nerves stopped firing and he was still.
Under brilliant starlight, Tony and I buried his body. You might wonder why we bothered, but those were Mather's orders. Mather was obsessed with germs, and he had every reason to be. We knew about other parts of the country, where whole camps had been wiped out by typhus, diphtheria, all the diseases that had gone completely out of control since the sky blew off. To be honest, we were scared shitless about germs, and we had every reason to be. The kid was light and bony, more skeleton than meat. Underfed, I guess, like most roamers. Wearing gloves and masks, we carried him downhill, away from the hatchery, and put him ten feet under, as deep as we could dig in the two hours we had before the sun came up. Then we burned our clothes and bathed in rubbing alcohol and Lysol we'd come across on our last trip to the A&P warehouse. When we were done, we walked naked back inside the compound, pulling the razor wire tight behind us.
Right off, Mather had been uneasy about the kid. Not that we hadn't seen our share of roamers since coming north to Vermont a year ago, after the Great Fire leveled Boston and half of eastern Massachusetts. We'd seen them, all right, and mostly we'd let them pass on by. The only ones we'd disposed of were the ones that got too close or started acting too weird or hung around too long, like stray dogs begging for handouts. Creepy behavior like that set off alarm bells inside Mather's head.
I especially remember one old guy, batty as hell, his face covered with pus, his bald scalp peeling, his tongue swollen and hanging out of his mouth like a steer at an old-time Kansas City slaughterhouse. Howled at the gate like something out of a nightmare until we took care of him. I remember a teenage girl, too. She'd probably been pretty once, but the sun had left her skin runny and raw and made her hair fall out. She was delirious, talking nonsense about salvation, redemption, apocalypse, all that other Bible crap, like so many of the roamers we'd seen since New York.
The kid was different. I didn't see it right away, but Mather did, thank heavens. That sixth sense of his is what's kept us alive so long.
The kid arrived as the sun was going down. Since the sky blew off, every sunset has been spectacular, nothing any artist or photographer could ever hope to capture. This one was no exception. Pinks layered over blues and oranges and yellows, some soft strokes, some bold ones splashed up there with a powerful hand. Back when I was in parochial school, I remember thinking the walls of heaven must look that beautiful.
I was pulling guard duty and I spotted him when he was a half mile down the hill that leads up to the compound. He was all bundled up in canvas, canvas that was ripped and tattered like a sail that'd spent a week in a hurricane. It didn't occur to me then, but somebody must have told him that canvas was about the best protection you could have when you were outside. Somebody older, wiser.
"He's reason to be alarmed," Mather announced after watching him through binoculars he'd customized with a pair of Polaroid sunglasses we'd looted from a Manhattan drugstore back in the beginning.
"We'll dispose of him," I answered. It was an automatic response by then, as natural and routine as guard duty or sleeping during the day.
"Naturally. But I'm not confident that will be the end of it."
"I don't get it."
Mather's face tightened, the way it always does when one of us is acting thick. "Look at him," he ordered.
I took his binoculars and got a good fix on the kid. He was on his ass, resting, looking our way and trying to figure if it was worth the effort to make the climb. Maybe trying to decide if he was going to get shot at.
"Zero in on his face."
"Tell me how old he is."
"Seven, eight," I said. "Somewhere in there. You never know with roamers."
"No, but one can determine outside limits. Will you accept twelve as his?"
"Very good. Now when was the last time we saw a twelve-year-old kid? A twelve-year-old kid alone, to be precise."
I thought for a moment. I honestly couldn't remember.
"You can't remember, can you?"
"No, can't say as I do."
"Of course not. To my recollection, there never has been a twelve-year-old kid scouting our camp. Not alone. There have been twelve-year-old kids. Always in the company of grownups. And grownups--"
"--are something we can't take chances on."
"Precisely. Whoever he's with, they can't be far away."
"You want a disposal operation."
"I don't think we have a choice."
"You don't think they'll come looking for him?"
"Precisely what I'd like to prevent. We don't need another typhus scare."
"Or the rot."
"Or the rot."
"Or anything that's going to jeopardize these pregnancies."
My eyes were still trained on the kid. He was on his feet again, stumbling our way. Apparently, he'd decided to take the risk coming up the hill. Maybe he was hungry. Or sick. Or sent to spy. With roamers, you never knew.
"He's in pretty tough shape," I said as I watched him stumble, fall, and get on his feet again, like a drunk at closing hour at one of those midtown Manhattan bars we used to frequent in the old days. Except booze wasn't this kid's problem. It was the sun -- one-hundred-and-thirty scorching, cloudless, breezeless degrees of it.
"I suggest," Mather said, "that we dispose of him tonight. Tomorrow night, you and Pete will take care of his family."
"Precisely," I said. Mather grinned. He always got a big kick out of it, any time one of us used one of his words like that.
At noon the day we buried the kid, we saw smoke, a single pencil-thin curl that rose into the sky like jet exhaust, except there weren't any jets any more. It was coming from the rubble that used to be Bradford Village, one of the suburbs of Burlington. Mather called a huddle.
"They're cooking," he said. "Lord knows what."
"Maybe they caught some fish," said Tony. Since Robbie and Sloane got ambushed -- it happened when we were escaping the Great Fire -- Tony, Pete, Charles, Mather, and I were the only males in our camp.
"Assuming there are any left," Mather said. "And except for our hatchery, I doubt there are."
"How big do you figure their camp is?" Pete asked.
"Could be three or three hundred," Mather said. "Smoke's no clue."
"Better be closer to three," I said, and I meant it.
"I have every confidence in you," Mather replied, "whatever it is."
"We'll go well armed," I said.
Pete suddenly had that mongrel look on his face, a strange cross between outrage and guilt, but he didn't say anything. Pete was our resident tech whiz -- he'd designed the hatchery, come up with the ventilation scheme that kept the temps down inside, even managed to hook up running water and plumbing. A smart guy, but soft around the edges. He'd told me more than once that killing still turned his stomach, no matter how many times he saw it or did it. It was a peculiar attitude to have after all the crap we'd been through.
"Remember, we can't afford any unnecessary expenditure of ammunition," Mather reminded us.
"We'll be careful," I said.
"Single shots if we can."
"Now I think you boys ought to get some sleep," Mather said. "You've got a busy night ahead of you."
We left at dusk, Pete and I. Those gorgeous pinks and yellows were draining from the sky, leaving behind a cold, inky night loaded with stars. Night was always the best time to be on the move, whether it was a disposal operation or a raid on one of the few warehouses or stores that had anything left worth raiding. At night, you didn't have to worry about whether the ultraviolet was going to burn the skin off your back or make you go blind or cook your brains or fry your sperm. Didn't have to take your chances bundled in a hundred layers of clothes and sunscreen coating your body like axle grease.
I was packing a .357 Magnum and a pocket full of hollow-nosed bullets. There was a funny story behind that gun. Found it beneath a crucifix on the altar of a burned-out Catholic church in Manchester, New Hampshire, when we were making our way north from Boston. What it was doing there, who had left it, we never did figure out. Perhaps the good father gave his final sermon, then put it to his head and squeezed off a round. We didn't find a body, but maybe one of his parishioners had dragged it away for burial when that Mass was over.
Pete was carrying a shotgun, one of the pumper-action Ted Williams models we'd scavenged out of a Sears Roebuck store somewhere along the line.
We had only about a hundred shells of buckshot left, but Mather had insisted we take every last one of them. He'd been trying to soft-pedal his gut feelings, but you could see he was deeply concerned. The fact that he ordered us to take those shells was proof enough of that. Truth was, his feelings were telling him that these roamers were going to be unusual. That disposing of them might be a greater logistical problem than we'd had to deal with in a long, long time, maybe ever.
That night, Tony and Mather stayed behind with the women and Eric, eleven months old, our only offspring. We had five women at the time, and three of them were with child. Mather was very stubborn when it came to the women, what they could do and not do. We'd had half a dozen pregnancies already, and all but one had ended in miscarriage. Mather said we couldn't afford to take any more chances. We had to have more children if his grand scheme was ever to be realized. That was this year's motto: More Children. He was ready to do anything it took to make sure he got them.
Mather was correct on the offspring issue, of course. He'd been correct on every issue since he took charge two years ago when the sky blew off, the crops started wilting, and the world's population started dying by the hundreds of millions.
It was summer, the summer of my twenty-seventh year, and it had been the most glorious summer of my life. We were living in New York, then, all of us, living in style and with more than our fair share of creature comforts in an upper West Side neighborhood that only recently had been gentrified. We were the brie-chablis crowd, the folks with the MBA's and the designer bathrooms who spent weekends on Cape Cod and February vacations in Aspen. There wasn't a one of us who wasn't making fifty grand then, minimum, not a one of us who wasn't employed with one of Wall Street's or Madison Avenue's most reputable firms.
Was it the Soviets, us, or some third party? I don't know if anyone anywhere ever really learned the answer to that question, not at the beginning, when the only effects were those amazing technicolor sunsets and that crazy shift in the jet-stream, or, later on, when political institutions and economies were disintegrating faster than global temperatures and the seas were rising. In the early days, when the presses still ran and the six o'clock news was still being broadcast, there was all sorts of talk that it had been the test of some new thermonuclear weapon -- more frightening and more secret than the Bomb, which had every true-blooded Yuppie doing flips back then.
I have to believe the guy upstairs has a pretty mean streak of irony because that wasn't it by a long shot. There was no big bang, no escalation of crisis, no state of alert, no Warsaw Pact troops marching across Germany, no Colonel Khadafy dropping a surprise on Israel -- just a sky the color of fresh blood the evening of July twenty-sixth.
Maybe it was the test of a new killer technology related to the so-called Star Wars program that the late President Reagan had announced a decade before. Maybe it was the test of something the Soviets had up their sleeves that our intelligence never picked up.
Maybe the Martians landed in a Kansas cornfield and decided to zap ninety-five percent of the human race, just for kicks.
Whatever it was, it silently and quickly burned off half the upper atmosphere, leaving plants to die, food chains to be disrupted and destroyed.
We didn't know how bad it had really been until it turned winter, and winter brought no dirty snow on Fifth Avenue, no frost on Macy's windows, no skating in Central Park, no temperatures lower than the sixties, not even in January or February.
By spring, the hospitals and doctors were overloaded with skin-cancer cases and people whose vision was fading away to darkness.
By summer, the effects of the failed wheat and corn crops were filtering down, and grocery stores experienced their first shortages.
By fall, there was rioting and looting, and the cities began to burn. Police and the National Guard controlled some of it, at first, but then the panic set in. When it did, the authorities put down their weapons and ran.
By the next winter, starvation was coast-to-coast and the typhus had gone wild.
It was, of course, Mather's idea to leave New York. Right from the start, everything had been Mather's idea. We got out of the city in June, before the real panic hit, and we headed up the Connecticut coast. There was still gas left, although there were shortages and growing lines at the stations, so we drove, charging up a storm on our American Express and Visa cards as we went.
Mostly, we traveled by night, holing up during the daylight hours in cheap motels. When we did have to go outside, no matter how briefly, Mather made sure we wore sunglasses and painted ourselves with sunscreen, protection factor fifteen. Eventually there was a run on sunscreen and finally supplies dried up, but Mather had been smart enough to buy cases of it before John Q. Public fully realized what was going on. He'd done the same thing with penicillin and guns, so we were okay on those fronts, too.
We were in Boston when the fabric of American society began to dissolve, slowly but completely, like a cube of sugar in water. It was September, the hottest September ever recorded by the National Weather Service, and no one any longer had any doubt what was happening.
Mather had decided to put down roots, at least until we could figure out what the long-term plan would be. After disposing of a gang of winos, we'd made our home in an abandoned subway tunnel near Park Street Station, which is almost directly under City Hall. From a defensive perspective, the tunnel was a dream -- only one entrance, which we kept clear with occasional firefights. From the survival point of view, it gave us decent access to stores and warehouses, particularly those mammoth ones along the waterfront, which were still stocked weeks after everything else ran out. The day the looting began in earnest, we grabbed enough canned juices and beef stew and hams for at least a year, according to Mather's calculations.
It was a sickening scene we found when the Great Fire finally forced us to the surface. Bodies strewn everywhere, smoldering or just plain rotting, every one of them guaranteed to be harboring enough disease to wipe us out a thousand times over. Immediately Mather decided to head north, where, he said, we would have the best chance of establishing a camp. We passed other bands as we walked, and we had some skirmishes, losing two of our original group in the process.
Now the big threat was roamers.
Why they didn't establish camps like the rest of us was a mystery not even Mather pretended to be able to solve. His best guess was that it had something to do with intelligence, or lack thereof, and I imagine he was right. You needed brains to build a camp, defend it, find a way to eat -- in our case, a small but successful fish hatchery, supplemented by freeze-dried and canned stuff we'd managed to hoard. It took brains to beat the sun, escape the heat, and it took brains to keep the germs at bay.
From where roamers stood, it was plain easier to loot, pillage, whatever it took.
Which made every camp a target.
Pete followed me down the hill. Neither of us spoke -- I guess there wasn't much of anything to say. The moon was three-quarters full and between that and the usual stunning array of stars we had no trouble keeping up a good clip. I wanted to get in and out quickly; I had some business back with Lisa, who'd been my girlfriend in the West Side days, and who Mather had decided was still an acceptable mate for me. He hadn't assigned Pete a woman, but he had occasional privileges, which he was always pleased to exercise. They were eerie, the nights since the sky blew off. Sound seemed to carry twenty times farther than it had before. Noises were louder, exaggerated. A few nocturnal animals still survived, owls and raccoons among them, and their voices seemed to come from a hundred directions at once, or no direction at all. It was like Mother Nature had gone ventriloquist. Crickets, which had done quite well, put out sound like steady radio static.
But it wasn't only noise that made the nights strange -- temperatures had been thrown all out of whack, too. Most nights, like tonight, you were lucky if the mercury dipped into the nineties. The only relief was an occasional evening breeze.
A mile from our camp, we entered the outskirts of Bradford Village. If you closed your eyes, you could picture it as it might have been before the sky blew off: a charming little blue-collar village, where neighbor knew neighbor and treated him with proper Yankee respect, a place where the machinery of life hummed quietly along in a more-or-less well-greased fashion. You could imagine being born in that village, growing up there, raising a family, walking your children down the aisle, bouncing your grandchildren on your knee, going to your grave a reasonably satisfied man.
Some had been torched and some had self-combusted, but most of the houses still stood -- a curious mixture of white Colonials and shingled Capes and ticko-tacko pre-fab ranches that had been all the rage during the prosperous, inflationless fifties. There was no glass in any of the windows now. The paint was peeling, the front walks and sidewalks cracked and crumbling. And the cars that were parked in the driveways were beginning to rust; every tire was flat, and roamers had busted the windshields. The trees that once had shaded back yard barbecues now were blighted, their leafless branches waving in the wind like the thin fingers of a skeleton.
You could go on and on, but it only made you sick.
On the other side of Bradford, we smelled it: the unmistakable aroma of a campfire. It was coming from across the Quannapowitt River, and as we got closer, we could see flickering shapes. They were just beyond the bank of the river, roughly three hundred yards away, a band of people huddled in a circle on flat ground next to a burned-out but still standing barn. We couldn't make out the faces, but it looked as if there were a dozen of them, no more.
I was relieved. Unless some of their number were off somewhere in the shadows, this was going to be a milk run. It looked as if Mather's fears might turn out to be pointless.
I pulled Pete close to me and whispered: "Piece of cake."
"Why's that?" he asked.
"Because of that barn."
"What good's the barn?"
"Barn's got a loft."
"What good's the loft?"
"Gives us a clear view of the entire camp. We ought to be able to finish the operation from a sitting position."
Pete started to say something, but I motioned him quiet. From there on in, stealth was going to be important. Spook them now, and they might attack -- or worse, scatter. We'd have a devil of a time tracking them down, and some would probably slip away, and then there'd be hell to pay with Mather. I didn't need that just then, and I imagined Pete didn't, either.
You didn't need a historian to see that the Quannapowitt in the old days had been a healthy, full-fledged river -- upstream a mile you could see the remains of a dozen mills. Since the sky blew off, the Quannapowitt had shrunk to a trickle, six inches deep at its deepest with no more power to drive a loom than water from a faucet. We waded across. The river wasn't cool, no rivers were any more, but it still felt refreshing around the ankles.
Getting to the barn was easy: Crouching low, we simply followed a waist-high stone wall that ran up to it from the river. We let ourselves in a back door, then climbed on cat's feet into the loft.
I wasn't prepared for what we saw when we looked down.
What I was prepared for, I suppose, was the usual band of roamers: a group of men and women, middle-aged or younger, with one kid, possibly two. That was the description of all the bands we'd seen, and it made sense they were like that. Sun and disease had taken their toll, a toll few of the very young or very old were able to pay.
There were no grown men in this group -- no able-bodied grown men, that is, only a wizened old character who looked to be eighty or more sitting closest to the fire. Close to him were the women: six in number, twenties and thirties in age. They were sitting, too. Huddled at their feet in the dirt were a half dozen children, most younger than the kid who'd made it to our perimeter.
If the empty cans were any clue, they'd recently finished dinner, but there hadn't been much to eat. Now not much was happening. When they spoke, it was in low voices we couldn't catch. I could make out only two faces from the shadows -- the old man's and one of the women's. Except for the wrinkles, they wore identical expressions: that peculiar hybrid of fright and exhaustion and malnutrition I'd seen on roamers before.
Something else, too, a look I'd never seen on roamers. I hesitate to call it innocence.
Mather later theorized that they had been in hiding somewhere, and had recently been forced out somehow -- maybe when their food ran low, maybe at the hands of some belligerent roamers. He was pretty sure there had been more men with them originally. He imagined they'd been killed, but there was no way of knowing.
At the moment, the origin of the roamers wasn't the issue. The point was Pete's reaction.
"I can't do it, Russ," he whispered. "There's been too much already."
I looked at him, his profile expanding and shrinking in the campfire's glow. I looked at him long and hard, but I can't say that I was surprised. Mather and I had had a private talk about him just before leaving.
"Don't stare at me like that," he said, "like I'm a criminal. I've been thinking about it for weeks. Mather's crazy on this. Paranoid. Can't you see it? There's no need for this, Russ. No need."
"What do you suggest then?" I said, calmly.
Below us, an infant started to cry. The night took that cry, twisted and deformed it, made it ghostlike and disembodied. Both of us were silent for a moment.
"What's your idea?" I repeated.
"That we button up and go back home. Forget them."
"And what about when Mather sees smoke tomorrow morning?"
"There wouldn't have to be any smoke," he said after a moment. "We could tell them to move on. They could be over the border in New York State by daybreak. It can be our little secret, Russ. You and me. Mather need never know."
It went on like that for maybe ten minutes, back and forth, back and forth.
Finally, I gave in.
"You win," I said.
"You don't mean it."
"I do," I whispered. "Now, listen. It's your idea. Why don't you be the one to tell them."
"Thanks," he said. "Really, thanks. And, listen: Mather will never know."
Pete started for the stairs. "Don't you think you ought to leave
your shotgun here?" I asked. "Wouldn't want to create the wrong
"Sure. Right." He handed his weapon to me and headed down the loft.
"Any hesitation," Mather had said during our private chat, "and you have my full and complete authorization."
I waited until Pete had reached the campfire. Then I shot him through the back. The noise was startling, but before anyone down there could react much, I emptied the shotgun in their direction eight times. In fifteen seconds, it was over. On my way out of the barn, I was lucky -- I found a five-gallon can of gas, and it was full. I poured the gas over the bodies, stepped back, and tossed a coal from the campfire. It went up with a roar.
Standing at a safe distance, I lit up a cigarette. We were running low on tobacco, but this was one of those times that called for a smoke. I suddenly had an old-fashioned thirst for an ice-cold beer, but there wasn't any beer any more. What there was was hooch, which Mather had discovered you could make from canned peaches, dandelions, anything that had sugar in it, even bark from certain trees. It wasn't the smoothest stuff, but you could still get a decent buzz from it. I'd have a glass when I got home.
Whistling some old top-forty tune, I headed back. Mather would be pleased with the outcome of the operation. In the distance, the fire lit up the night. It would die down when it reached the river. A gentle late-night breeze was blowing up.
As I walked, it began to dry the thin sweat that was covering my forehead.
Copyright © 1985 G. Wayne Miller
Published in the mid-December issue of Alfred Hitchcok's Mystery Magazine, vol. 30, no. 13.
MARY M. MILLER, 1919-2005
More than two years ago, I stood here eulogizing my
father. I spoke about how he was a wonderful man who
worked uncomplainingly, was a good father, and who
devoted his life to my mother and his three children.
He was all of that -- but he was very different from
my mother. He was more easily explained.
My mother was an extraordinarily complicated person,
and many of the people here understand what I mean. I
suspect her early life played a role.
Mother never went on at great length to me about her
background, but this is what I have gleaned. She was
born many years ago -- she never wanted to disclose
her age, so I'll simply say she was closer to 90 than
80 -- to parents who had immigrated in the early 1900s
to Boston, the neighborhood of Charlestown
specifically, from county Waterford, Ireland, home of
a crystal manufacturer whose products she could only
afford much later in life, and then only in limited
By any standard, Mothers's early life was harsh.
The Maragheys had no money, a plight that was
compounded when my grandfather died, leaving Mom and
her brother to a mother then forced to take a night
job as a cleaner to support her children. My mother
and uncle received their Christmas gifts from Globe
Santa. Coal heated their small flat, and I remember
Mom saying there were nights when the fire went out
and they huddled under blankets to keep warm there in
the shadow of Bunker Hill.
And then Mother contracted tuberculosis, at about the
age of ten. She was sent to a sanatorium and for a
year or more, she was an orphan, left to the care of
strangers. She recovered and went home -- to a
stepfather, about whom I know very little. Mother
graduated from high school first in her class but
never went to college, as she surely would have today.
It was the Great Depression, and working-class women
were rarely encouraged to seek greater advancement.
Instead, at the time she met my father, she was a
secretary at the John Hancock Life Insurance Co. Had
she come of age today, I bet she would have become an
executive, perhaps a CEO.
Instead, she became a suburban mother -- what today we
would call a soccer mom.
My sisters have their own recollections, but one of my
favorites is of her helping me learn the Russian
alphabet, with its many strange Cyrillic letters, as a
high school freshman. I remember even earlier, as a
third- or fourth-grader when we sat in the living room
of our old house reading the dictionary, with the
intent of studying a page a day until we were done the
whole book. I don't recall that we ever finished, but
I remember aardvark, abalone, and so forth. I'm
guessing those hours spent with a Webster's are the
reason my writing colleagues at The Providence Journal
still sometimes ask me to spell words and correct
grammar. The written word was sacred for my mother.
Thanks, Mom: I have made a living out of it.
Mother taught the virtues of honesty, sincerity,
sobriety, conviction, justice, hard work, higher
education -- and of chicken soup when you had a cold.
She loved Masterpiece Theater and the BSO and the
Museum of Fine Arts, but also yard sales, which was
one of her many contradictions. Until she stopped
driving, she drove like Jeff Gordon, which I always
admired. She liked the color purple. She liked her
cats -- although to be honest, I didn't much, and
always harbored fantasies of putting one in the
microwave. Mother made great casseroles and roast-beef
dinners and, once upon a time, magnificent apple pies
and currant jam. She always made breakfast and packed
a good lunch. She liked talk radio, the late David
Brudnoy especially. She had strong political opinions,
mostly conservative -- so where did I come from? She
valued reading -- all manner of books and the Boston
Globe, which she, like my father, read cover to cover
every day. Professionally, I guess Mom and Dad were my
Mother also loved her grandchildren: one, Greg, who is
MaryLynne's; two, Nate and Matthew, who are Lynda's;
and three, Rachel, Katy and Cal, who are mine. They're
all here today to commerorate the woman they called
Ironically, Seany wound up at the same nursing home
where my father went. The last time I saw her before
her hospitalization this month, I visted with Rachel
and her incredible baby, Isabella, the first Miller
Mother was delighted. I remember her smile. In her
closing days, she could still appreciate beauty and
As a younger woman, Mother was a strict
disciplinarian. She was always blunt: this was not a
woman with a poker face or a future at a United
Nations peace table. Her waters ran deep. One waded
through then at one's peril.
But she had many dear friends -- two of the best of
whom, Kelly and Jerry, visited her daily for the three
weeks after her stroke, and another two, Don and
Blanche, who could not be here today. Although Mother
never had much money, she was always generous in her
contributions to charities, and the biggest of those
was the Catholic Church.
I have no scientific basis on which to state this, but
I bet, with the exception of clergy, she attended Mass
more frequently than any Catholic here today. Her
devotion grew, of course, from the old-world Irish
traditions in which her immigrant parents were raised.
As society changed and the church did, too, she
maintained that devotion. By the end, she had her
quarrels with her religion -- she would have liked
women priests, for example -- and she was ashamed of
certain events that have happened, but she still kept
to the basic tenets of Roman Catholic Christianity.
She believed in her Lord.
One thing, however, troubled her deeply -- I don't
think torment is too strong a word -- as long as I can
remember. She feared of her fate in the afterlife:
despite her devotion, despite what logic might have
told her, she just could not shake the old images of
fire and brimstone. Her deathbed was not the time to
ask where she stood on the matter in the final hours
of her life, so I can't tell you where she finally
believed she was headed.
But I can say that if you seek guidance in signs, as I
sometimes do, it is no coincidence that she died on
Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection, rebirth, and
the promise of the new spring -- a day of hope and
beauty like her great-granddaughter Isabella, that
I believe Mother has gone to the good place, where
even now she is enjoying the tranquility that
sometimes escaped her in this life.
Be peaceful, Mom, we love you.
Delivered at the funeral of Mary M. Miller, Wednesday, March 30, 2005, St. Joseph Church in Wakefield, Mass.
ROGER L. MILLER, 1913-2002
One of my earliest memories of my father is of a winter evening long ago when I snuck out of my bed and peered down from
the window of our home up there at the other end of town. My father was outside in what was called the Good Yard. The
family garden was in the Good Yard, but my father wasn't gardening, of course, on that frigid night. He was standing with a
hose, carefully resurfacing the skating rink he created each fall from the ground where the tomatoes and squash and zinnias had
grown. That rink -- surely no bigger than about 15 by 15, but an arena to a boy of five or six -- is where I learned to skate.
With my father's encouragement and guidance, and on very wobbly ankles, I would circle that rink, hour after hour. My father
loved skating, and he was the finest skater I ever saw, a strong and graceful spirit on ice, but he was never impatient with his
rookie son, who in due time came to love skating as much as he. Looking down from my bedroom window that wintry night, I
could hardly wait for morning.
I remembered that night one day last week when, sitting by my father's bedside, I contemplated how I would answer a
stranger who might ask who Roger Linwood Miller was. The simplest answer is that he was a smart, ingenious, loving,
handsome, practical and sometimes dryly funny husband, parent, son, friend and neighbor. He achieved precious little in the
view of this materialist world, but in another realm -- the lasting one, the one where character counts and where people are
remembered for what they were and not what they were worth -- he was rich beyond compare. He was the kind of quiet rock
on which families and communities are built. He was a common man of uncommon character. He was my dad. I loved him, and
I will miss him terribly.
As I contemplated how I would answer this stranger who might ask about Dad, I realized that there was another word that I
could use. The word is teacher. So much of who I am, and who I still strive to be, I learned from this modest and unassuming
person who gave much and asked for little. And that is true for all of his children, and his grandchildren, and his friends, the
people here with him this morning.
I learned, for example, that being good and decent and kind is its own reward, and that working hard is a virtue. I learned to be
honest. I learned to be grateful. I learned the meaning of dignity and loyalty. I learned to respect my elders and to compliment
someone on a job well done. I learned about patience, and manners, and what it takes to be a gentleman and a man gentle of
spirit. I learned that anger and guilt and bitterness are destructive forces, both for those who inflict them and those who feel their
fury. I learned to forgive. Out there on warm summer Good Yard days I learned how to plant flowers, and how to trim shrubs,
and how to recognize the call of a chickadee -- a bird my father loved, and which evidently loved him, as he was able to feed
them from the palm of his hand. I learned to love newspapers, which he read religiously, and through which I have earned a
living and have helped support my own family for almost a quarter of a century. I learned the joy of banging nails and sawing
wood and giving shape to things that are born in the imagination. I learned how to drive, and how to change the oil on a car,
and how to bait a hook and, although my mother never knew, how to handle a pocket knife. I learned how to skate, on the
Good Yard rink. I learned how to be a good husband and dad, like him.
And I learned a few favorite sayings from my father. One was: the right tool for the right job. Another was: time and tide wait
for no man. A third was: when you are late, you will always get stuck behind the slowest driver on the road. We call that
Rogerís Law, and boy, is it ever true! And a fourth was one that he somehow managed to remember as he lay dying. This was
just a few days ago. I had been away from his hospital bedside for a while, and when I returned, I asked how he was. If ever
there was a dumb question, there it was. My father had been drifting in and out of consciousness but when he heard that, he
opened his eyes, lifted his head from his pillow, and said -- with a wink, I like to believe: I can't complain. What good would it
do, anyway? I laughed myself almost silly at that, and my father, without complaint, closed his eyes again.
Those who know me best may observe, correctly, that I have not taken all of my father's lessons to heart. But not even a great
teacher achieves universal success, and sometimes a sound education takes time.
Even now, I am still learning.
And my father, until the end, was still teaching. Not intentionally, perhaps, but a lesson, perhaps his most important, was still
As his family gathered to say goodbye, I realized that I had never emphatically told my father how much he meant to me, and
what a good and decent person he was, and how I loved him. So I finally told him those things, and I held his hand and I
smoothed his brow, gestures of affection that I had never extended to him before, either. And while he lacked the strength to
grip my hand, he told me that he loved me, too.
And what my father was teaching us -- as always, in his modest and often unspoken way - was that we must say and do these
things for the ones we love not just once, and not just at the end, but always. We love you, Dad.
Delivered at the funeral of Roger L. Miller, Friday, December 13, 2002, St. Joseph Church in Wakefield, Mass.
Remarks at University of Rhode Island
Forum on Genetic Technology & Public Policy in the New Millennium
October 15, 2002
Good evening. I am delighted to be part of this discussion tonight, and I would like to thank the University of Rhode Island for inviting me. Also, the Providence Journal - but since Joel Rawson is my boss how could I have said no?!
Last Friday, I spent several hours in a laboratory in Boston. The lab, run by a Harvard professor at the Mass. General Hospital, is exploring a number of new medical treatments, including ones involving gene therapy. Life-saving protocols already in clinical use have been pioneered in this lab, and I expect that more will follow. It is one of several labs in New England where I have been hanging around over the last few months. I have written a handful of pieces for The Journal, and over the next many months will write more.
I had arrived early in Boston for animal rounds, in which the week's experiments on pigs and baboons are reviewed by the scientist and his staff of fellows, post-docs and senior investigators. With time to kill, I went to the lab library. I was thinking about tonight's forum, and what I would say about the role and responsibilities of journalists in this new world we have all entered. Unlike Sheryl and Boyce, I am a newcomer to the genetics revolution. But I share their enthusiasm at having a front-row seat to history.
From the lab window, I could see jets taking off and landing at Logan Airport. I thought of the Wright Brothers and the other pioneers of flight and how the risks they took and the innovations they made revolutionized their world. My eye moved to the titles of the periodicals on the library shelves: Immunology Today, Gene Therapy, and Xenotransplantation, to name a few. And this thought, hopefully not a trite one, occurred to me: The Wright Brothers transported people. Scientists today are on the verge of being able to DESIGN people -- and if not design them, then certainly change them in ways that can -- or should -- make their lives better and longer. Mankind has never been closer to playing God.
So what are the responsibilities of journalists covering this field?
They are what they've always been, regardless of topic: fairness, balance, accuracy, clarity, and so forth. But this is not just any topic. At the risk of inferring that some issues deserve a higher standard of journalistic excellence than others, I believe that nothing in the news today is more important than the genetics revolution and biotechnology in general. Few topics will potentially affect more people. Few are as complex and prone to controversy. Few have the potential to confuse or misinform the public if the journalism is sloppy.
And so, we have an unusual obligation.
Merely keeping on top of the field is daunting, as the list of publications in that Boston lab demonstrates. They are but a handful among the thousands of journals, Web sites, list servs, press releases and the like that we could encounter. And every day brings new developments.
Separating proven fact from possible fiction is also a critical responsibility. Remember cold fusion? Today's intimacy of capitalism with genetics -- of IPOs with DNA -- has brought a new element, even to respected academic labs like the one in Boston. Hype always finds a home when billions of dollars are at stake. Often lost in the reporting of stem-cell research, for example, is the fact that embryonic stem cells can grow uncontrollably into teratomas, or cancer. And adult stem cells are notoriously difficult to isolate and direct, another fact that is sometimes overlooked.
So education is critical. Many mainstream readers and viewers -- not to mention mass-media writers and editors -- are only now learning the differences between adult stems and embryonic stems, between therapeutic cloning and reproductive cloning -- never mind the implications of research.
Which leads to the deeper questions, the moral, religious, cultural and ethical ones -- those raised by people like Christopher Reeve, who sat here two weeks ago in his wheelchair and asked us to ponder the origin of human life. For him, a man who might walk again if certain genetic work succeeds, it is not simply acceptable but morally imperative to use unfertilized eggs to grow stem cells. For others, such an action is tantamount to murder. And this is but the beginning of the controversy. Imagine when the first scientist doesn't merely clone a baby, but custom-builds one by manipulating the germline. Imagine such a power in the hands of a dictator.
And so, another of our responsibilities as journalists -- perhaps the most important one -- is facilitating a public discourse that will lead to a sound public policy.
Let me close with a few words about what I hope to achieve.
With few daily stories to write, I have the luxury of taking the long view. These past few months, I have managed to worm my way into places where I technically don't belong in order to claim a front-row seat to history. I have that seat, but now comes the real challenge: getting inside the heads of the scientists. Who are these people? How did they grow up? How do they spend a Sunday morning? A Friday night? What's the one lesson they would teach their children? What future do they imagine for their grandchildren? Does the Nobel Prize motivate them? Does money? The love of research? The desire to heal? Would they be the subject of one of their own experiments? Would they clone themselves?
This is what most excites me: the people behind the science. By telling the stories of the researchers, I hope to bring the research to a wide and general audience.
An Essay About a Boy
We avoid the woods in summer. We don't like bugs, the ticks and mosquitoes especially, and anyway, we're drawn to the beach at Wallum Lake, which is just up the road. But early October finds us eager for the first killing frost. It came this year at the customary time, when the sugar maples are at their peak and the oaks are only beginning to turn. The temperature at dawn read 29 or 30 degrees, depending on the angle the thermometer was viewed. I figured if any of my city friends asked, I'd say 29.
By late afternoon, it had warmed to almost 50. The sky was cloudless and the breeze had shifted to the south. I put on my boots and vest and helped Cal, who is almost three, on with his. Our vests have large pockets, very important for walks in the woods. We went through the backyard and onto the cart path that ascends Wolf Hill, a fanciful name in the nineties, even for a rural town like ours. Cal's first priority was equipping himself with a stick. He found one about two feet long, and another slightly larger, which he gave me. ``Little boys need big sticks,'' he observed. I wholeheartedly agreed.
Many years ago, when a farmhouse graced the top of Wolf Hill, the path could accommodate vehicles; one, a bus, ended its last journey up there and its rotting remains continue to be a source of wonderment to all who happen upon it. Every year the mountain laurel and pine claim more of the path, and this year was no exception, but there was still plenty of room -- more than sufficient, I informed Cal, for another good flying- saucer run this winter. Cal insisted on taking the lead and, unlike our last walk, in April, he refused assistance getting past deadfalls. He went under, or around, and then stopped to reveal the appropriate route to me. ``Dad, come on over here,'' he said at one point, ``that's a safe place to get by.''
We climbed, past the inevitable stone walls, still remarkably intact, if mostly overgrown. The air seemed fresher as we continued, the light through the foliage stronger, and soon enough we'd reached the peak. Only a cellar hole is left of the farmhouse, destroyed some thirty years ago in a fire of suspicious origin. Rusting machinery, barrels and bedframes are strewn about, and the woods are slowly claiming them, too. We marveled together at a sight as strange as grape vines entwined around a bedframe, and I tried explaining how a house not unlike our own had been reduced to ruin, but I don't believe I succeeded, nor did I really try. I steered Cal's attention to the only grass on Wolf Hill, a small, sunlit remnant of lawn. We picked wildflowers, the last of the season. I did not know the species. They had thirteen petals and came in two shades: lavendar and white. The frost had not touched them. Cal was more interested in mushrooms. He'd been keen on mushrooms since our last swim at Wallum Lake, when he found ones as big as my hand that had materialized overnight beneath a picnic bench. He also gathered acorns, which he proposed to feed to squirrels, a word he still had difficulty pronouncing.
From the cellar hole, we descended to the quarry. I cautioned Cal not to run, but he explained that he was not -- this was skipping. I wanted to carry him or at least hold his hand; instead, I took a breath and was silent on the matter. The quarry has not been worked since the 1800s, but if you look around town, you will see many foundations made of its imperfect granite. Our own front steps, I am sure, came from here. Water has long filled where men once labored, of course, and a century's worth of sediment covers the bottom, making it impossible to gauge true depth (although we have tried, with our sticks). When Cal is a little older, I will tell him -- as I did his sisters -- spooky stories of the goings-on here when the moon is full. For now, we concern ourselves with water. It had not rained in over a week, and the stream that empties the quarry was dry. Our April walk was during a nor'easter, and we got soaked playing in the waterfall, but it was gone now, too. Cal was worried it would never return, but I reassured him it would, with the next steady downpour.
The shadows were lengthening and the temperature was edging down. An inventory of our pockets disclosed sticks, pebbles, acorns, flowers, mushrooms and a bright yellow leaf, which Cal had selected for his mom. We left the quarry and made our way back to the cart path through a stand of towering Balsam firs, unlike any other on Wolf Hill. When the girls were small, long before Cal was born, we found this place. It resembles a den, and the forest floor is softly carpeted and often dotted with toadstools -- certainly a spot, I allowed, where elves dance under the starry sky. Honest? Rachel and Katy were wide-eyed. There was only one way to know for sure, I said: Some fine summer night, we would have to camp out here, being careful to stay awake until midnight. We never did. Rachel is in high school now, and Katy, four years younger, is sneaking looks at Seventeen. Cal listened with great interest at the prospect of seeing elves. He was tired, and as I carried him home, I promised we'd camp out next summer, bugs and all. I intend to ask Rachel and Katy if they'd care to join us.
Copyright © 1997 G. Wayne Miller
Contents Copyright © 1997-2012 G. Wayne Miller