Ralph Cleason Miller
Ralph Cleason Miller
Ralph and Lydia Miller in 1983.

Ralph Cleason Miller

a remembrance by Lynn Ralph Miller

My father, Ralph Miller, passed away peacefully on January 20 of this year. He was 94 years old. He was tired of growing old, of losing his mobility, of the terrible pain of being surprised by crystal clear memories of events thought buried so long ago, of having wild flights of the imagination peppered with anger. He was strong and his vital signs excellent, but he decided it was time to go. He is survived by all five of his children and a mess of grand and great grandchildren who all must now wonder how each missed the full measure of this giant man so poignantly unique in his acceptance of life’s compromises…

He and I started this magazine together back in the mid 1970’s. Once I left home and made a life for myself, we became very close. Growing up I had been too independent and contrary to be friendship material, in many ways I was just like him.

Ralph Cleason Miller
Dad on the farm in Viola circa 1920 with a pet calf.

Over these last two years, since my mother passed, whenever I visited him in Florida we talked about his memories and in great detail. He told me things I had never known, things he felt hadn’t been worth talking about, leastways not to his offspring. Some of these new stories contained admissions I sensed bothered him (especially his World War II memories). Some things were accomplishments he had been a bit too shy to talk about. Odd, because my father was certainly not shy, not in any ordinary sense. He was old-fashioned in that for him there was a code of sorts which demanded that you, as a male, would be reticent, stoic and silent in all those arenas where glory and/or shame might be the reward. Dad was bigger than life, sometimes corny and cliffset in his ways, but most of the time silent and powerful. And yet, or perhaps because of it, he could not abide by anyone holding him up as special.

Ralph Cleason Miller
Everett Sinclair Miller, gramps, always with that twinkle in his eye.

Born in 1917 in Wisconsin, he was raised on a small subsistence farm in Viola, just outside of Hayward. His father, my grandfather Everett Miller, had a small general store and the farm. I remember going fishing with gramps on a Wisconsin pond when I was 10 or 11. My memory is of a sweet-hearted front-porch whittlin’ sort of man who looked and sounded like a mid-western Robert Frost. He always had a twinkle in his eye and loved it when nature showed herself to be a comediene. Grandma died before I ever met her. All I ever knew was that a big hole existed, a loss to everyone who knew her. My father had a deeply poignant love of his mother. To my father gramps seemed a friendly enough curiosity. For me Dad was always them and they he.

Ralph Cleason Miller
An oil portrait of a local Shoshone chief done by Dad, circa 1937, in Wisconsin.

Early on my father showed his natural abilities with art and language. During the depression he thought about becoming an artist or a writer. For his entire life he read voraciously; formative years there were the classics and a logical slide to Faulkner, Steinbeck and Hemingway. When they let him down he set out for the adventurous with Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling and others. Few contemporary writers ever measured up to his standards. He had an encyclopedic mind and virtually no patience with whatever struck him as abstract, stupid or silly.

Ralph Cleason Miller
The young artist / writer, Ralph Cleason Miller, eighteen years old and determined to make a name for himself.

In 1938 he traveled all the way to Burbank, California, to answer a magazine ad calling for cartoonists. There he was amongst hundreds who were interviewed by Walt Disney. Dad was given a blank tablet and instructed to draw a ball on each page, showing the increments of it falling and bouncing. The object was to have a finished pad you could flip through to see “animation”. When, at the end of a long day of meticulous rendering and shading, he handed it in the judge said, “You’ve done an outstanding job. Everything is so realistically shaded, but we need to find artists who can do it quickly.” So Dad went searching for other work.

Being a big strong good-looking farm boy, he landed a position as bodyguard and handyman for a movie producer. During that stint he had a chance to meet Joan Crawford, Tyrone Power, Myrna Loy, William Powell, and many other screen personalities. The stories from that time should make a book. Sometime in ‘39 he joined the Marines and rapidly made his way up to First Sargent. Stationed in Pearl Harbor, he had gruesome stories he reluctantly hinted at, all but his unwavering hatred of the administration which he felt made the attack possible by telegraphing opportunity. His complaints drew attention to him and his superiors found what they thought would be a way to remove the thorn.

He was assigned to the daring, some said suicidal, battalion known as Carson’s Raiders and, amongst other engagements, was set as a leader of the beachhead at Wake Island. Most of the men in his troop were killed by Japanese sniper fire from shoreline palm trees.

He had a whole drawer full of medals he hid. His whole war time in the South Pacific had a terrible impact on him and much of what happened is lost to his individual closeted history. But he did tell me pieces: of the hundreds of men who served under him and died in combat (something he blamed himself for), of the insane incompetence of many of his superiors. After disagreements with his superiors, he saw himself transferred again, back to Hawaii, to be in charge of boot camp trainees and working as a marine branch liaison with the army, navy and air force. In that capacity he shared some office duties with a famous young officer of similar demeanor. Henry Fonda, having only recently completed the filming of Grapes of Wrath, joined the war effort in Hawaii and worked with Dad.

As the story goes, occasionally Hollywood would send over new movies for sneak preview without telling anyone the name of the films. Fonda and my father went together to one of those previews and found seats at the back of the theater. When the opening film credits appeared on the screen, saying Grapes of Wrath starring Henry Fonda, everyone in the theater stood up, turned around and applauded him. Dad said Fonda turned red, patted Dad on the shoulder and said “Ralph, here’s where I exit,” and walked out. Fonda got a transfer to the war front and Dad never saw him again.

Shortly after that Dad was assigned to be a Marine bodyguard and chauffeur for a visiting dignitary. The first lady, Mrs. Roosevelt, was visiting the island and her son had insisted that Dad be assigned to her for that time. She was talkative and inquisitive but my father was unwilling to say much. Then Eleanor Roosevelt asked “I understand you served under my son in the Philippines.” Slow to answer my father drew from her the followup “Is it safe to say you don’t think much of my son?” They spent the entire rest of the day in polite silence.

After the war ended, my father, still a marine, was stationed in Puerto Rico when he met my future mother. They had a whirlwind romance and were married. My father, having always pursued both his art and writing took the opportunity of their honeymoon to go together to Cuba. His sideline objective was to try to meet Ernest Hemingway who lived on the island at that time. To make a long story short, they met, they didn’t like each other, end of story. It’s more colorful than that but then there were so many colorful stories in his life that I have to abbreviate. Ninety-four years is a lot of living.

Ralph Cleason Miller
Mom, Dad and Lynn in 1947.

They moved from the island to Kansas City, Kansas where I was born. Within months we moved again to the french quarter of New Orleans and then back down to Puerto Rico. They had five children in five years taking the whole brood to California for rearing. My father took up the trade of building to raise his family. Aside from punching a clock for others, my father enjoyed designing and building homes for his family; two in Orange county, a remodel in Santa Barbara, two more in Oregon and finally one in Florida. All of our early growing up years I can remember my father doing three things; swinging a hammer, reading a book, and teaching Sunday school. He was not an overtly religious man. He was constantly questioning authority, authorship and meaning. He would never have admitted it but he was a shade-tree philosopher and at times a genuine crank. One of his pet peeves was “Madison Avenue.” He believed that, way back in the fifties, shiftless liars sat in Manhattan skyscrapers conniving to cheat people. He frequently warned me that these ad men would destroy our country. Maybe that’s where I picked up my ‘creative’ scepticism.

He had dreams of some day getting out of the ’rat race’ and building a sailing freighter, a ‘ketch’, to take his family back on his beloved South Pacific to leisurely haul cargo from island to island. (It was either that or a small farm where he could at least raise food for the family.) To this day I don’t know the extent to which these were ‘secret’ dreams he only shared with me. But the others must have sensed or known something, especially when he sent me to adult education courses in nautical navigation. (I don’t remember anything much about those courses – it was all ‘math’ to my teenaged brain – but I wish I had retained some of it.)

Ralph Cleason Miller
Family reunion circa 1997. Left to right; Ralph and Lydia, Danny, Doc, Melinda, Tony and Lynn.

My father taught me how to work. He was the hardest working individual I have ever met. No frills in his life. Until we were all grown, that is, and then he and my mother traveled. They visited countries on almost every continent with wonderful stories to tell of England and Turkey, of Mexico and China, of South America and Singapore. They loved to travel. And he learned to golf, I think because when he moved to Florida to retire it was what old men did, they played golf. He got real good at it and even won a gold club for a tournament hole in one.

But I know the proudest achievement of his golden years was the part he took in helping me to start this publication, the Small Farmer’s Journal. Neither of us had any publishing experience back then. He was sixty years old, I was twenty-nine. He was the writer, I was the young farmer and painter. But we had this idea that would not let hold of us. Seems it had to be almost two years of chewing over the concept. My first thought was to start small, with a newsletter, and see if it grew into something more substantial. My father had grander ideas. He loved a whole gamut of large tabloid-sized magazines from the Country Gentleman he grew up with to the Saturday Evening Post and Boys Life magazines we had around the house in my youth. Then there was Life and Look. So he insisted we go for a format, right from the beginning, that was what we could be proud of and continue. Because he was of that school that valued continuity. It was, for him, the mortar of a well-built thing. He and mom put up a little bit of money so that we could print that first issue in the same format that you see today.

Ralph Cleason Miller
Dad with Gramps and pig on the farm in Viola.

For the first dozen years or so he wrote a regular column, Rural Ramblings, which was a big hit with readers. And he helped me to unearth and reprint Ten Acres Enough, the 1864 classic which has come to mean so much to the new small farmers.

And he did love our annual auction. Whenever he was able he would travel to join us, loving to watch, listen, visit, and absorb. For him it was the Journal readership manifest in one big sprawling family reunion party.

Up until this last year, I would speak with him shortly after each new issue appeared and I knew to expect the strongest most cutting criticism. He’d say “this one just wasn’t up to your usual standard.” Or he’d say “this one was pretty good” or “it was okay.” If there was any overt enthusiasms my way with regard to this journal it came when he felt I needed to be forcefully straightened out, corrected, taken down a peg or two. There was never any gushing, not aimed my way. But I would hear from others who would tell me how incredibly proud he was of each and every journal and that this was something “his” family had accomplished.

And that is what he did. He guided the ship of our family to various shores where we were individually set down and told we could do whatever we wanted to, it was up to us.

I have taken this time and space to share these little bits about him because, if you ‘feel’ a connection to this publication you “feel’ his hand and his heart. He was the larger part of the crust of the loaf of this reader community of people who live, love, and believe in the quiet poetry and beauty of a small farmer’s time in communion with the land and good work.

Thanks Dad, I now will stick my hand in my pocket, pinch my thumb and forefinger together, close my eyes and gratefully feel the stuff of you. I Love you.

An excerpt from a Rural Ramblings of 1986

“Well – so industry may one day not need the railroads; that doesn’t affect the farmer you say? I only pray we never learn how much. In spite of the inroads made by the trucking industry, a tremendous share of farm products, farm machinery and what is needed to grow the one and run the other, moves by rail. Farmers just like anyone else would be losers at any further curtailment of this nations lines.

Back when every whistle stop in America had its milk train once or twice a day, every farmer had a market for surplus. Not any more – now that the milk runs are gone, (in many places even the tracks are gone), the trucking companies are supposed to fill the gap. Only all too often they don’t. There’s no central depot for a pickup point and the money is better on long hauls with full loads, not whistle stops. Lots of farmers lost markets and never understood why. Subsidy? No, insurance!

We need the railroads and not just for the romance of the rails. We need them as insurance, as an alternative to keep a ceiling on freight rates, we need them to get heavier loads off our highways, to cut down congestion and the wear and tear, (even subsidies are cheaper than replacing arteries pounded to tatters and potholes by those highway behemoths) and we need them to continue as an industry that provides both jobs and a connecting link for this sprawling giant of a nation. Theirs is a link not subject to the vagaries of the volatile trucking industry; tied to iron rails that don’t disappear at the whim of a contract hauler who sees a chance for a better load somewhere else.

The Santa Fe, the Chesapeake and Ohio, the Canadian National, the Southern Railway, the Great Northern – a nation, even a continent tied by iron rails. Sit in front of a grade crossing one day and relax long enough to appreciate the panorama of America passing before your eyes. Maybe I recognize it more from those early days as acting yardmaster, but I can’t sit there without mentally saluting every railroad as the cars parade past. It’s only a secondary reason to be sure, but pride, wonder and gratitude ought to replace impatience, as we number the roll of those great and numerous carriers who moved and still bear so much of the nations goods from cities, towns, villages, hamlets, and even just sidings to every part of this great nation they helped to build.

Lose the railroads? Cut up the rails and cars for scrap, make planters of the cross-ties and plow the roadbeds under? I know it has been suggested almost everywhere and has been done in places; to me that is like saying that since some can survive with artificial plastic arteries, that we all should dispense with those we were born with. If it does ever become a reality and railroads go the way of the Passenger Pigeon, or at least the Blackfooted Ferret and the Small Darter, I hope they wait until I have been permanently planted. They no longer provide the shivers brought on by the thrilling whoooo-whoooo whoo of the steam whistle, the clanging, danging peal of the hand rung bell or the chuff- chuff- whoosh of the steam engine, but the sight of a mile long string of freight cars winding across the distant landscape as I drive the breadth of the Nation still expresses the beating heart of the America I love. I need railroads, that’s who!” – Ralph Miller