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A visit to the Millers

The Miller house on Union Street. When I was a youngster, I thought it was a mansion. Phil Roberts 2011 photo.

Grandpa’s shed, always a mysterious place to me. The carport was added by my late Uncle Jake. Phil Roberts 2011 photo.
This photo of a photo is how I remember my grandparents. Phil Roberts 2011 photo.
My aunt, Doris Schnetzer, holds a photo of her late husband Jake. Phil Roberts 2011 photo.

I well remember my childhood visits to Grandma and Grandpa Miller’s house at 1017 Union Street in Hannibal, Mo. We spent some days with my mother’s parents during our two or three visits each year.

There were times they’d visit us, too. They’d take the train from Hannibal to Galesburg, and we’d pick them up there and bring them the rest of the way.

To look at it their house today, it’s just an old white house on a terrace in an aging neighborhood. But back then, to my young eyes, it was a stately mansion sitting proudly atop a hill.

My brother and I would swing for hours in the swing on the screened-in front porch. We didn’t have one of those at home. Grandpa, Benjamin Thomas Miller, a retired railroad man, would get on us mildly when we’d get too aggressive while swinging and bump the railing behind the swing.

I’d play with my diecast metal toy cars, made by Tootsietoy, on the hilly terrain. Sometimes my brother and I, my dad and I, or all three of us, would play catch in the back yard.

Grandpa Ben had a huge shed in the back yard. It had a dirt floor and was dark and musty smelling. Grandpa was a saver, and I always wanted to explore his shed, seeing what treasures I could find in it. But when he went inside to get something and I’d follow, he’d never let me stray too far. I always wondered why.

Sometimes during our Union Street stays, I’d visit Nellie Fisher, the widow woman who lived next door to my grandparents on the downhill side. She was a nice old lady and, I guess, lonely.

Sometimes, when I was in my early teens, she’d invite me inside for tea. We’d sit in her living room drinking hot tea and chatting, and I felt like a grownup. The only time I remember drinking hot tea at home was when I was sick.

My brother and I would also play with some neighbor kids, the Bozarths, who lived two doors down from our grandparents, next to Mrs. Fisher. Keith was about my age, and I had a crush on his older sister, Linda. I think they had an older brother, and there was a younger brother Bruce’s age. It was on Bozarth’s front steps that I learned from Linda how to play rock school, something I later taught my daughter Andrea’s children.

I’d also play with “Skippy” Webster when in Hannibal. He was a tall kid who lived across the alley from the Millers and was so skinny he had to hold his jeans up with suspenders.

As I recall, Skippy; his mother, the former Kathryn Saunders; and his father Charlie; lived with Kathryn’s mother or grandmother.

Skippy was an only child and had some really neat toys. But we’d have to be fairly quiet around his place during the day because his dad, who became somewhat a legend in later years around Hannibal, was a policeman who worked nights and slept days.

One of the fun things about a visit to Union Street was going shopping with my Aunt Doris, who was unmarried for most of her life and lived with her parents.

We’d sometimes take Doris’s folding grocery cart — the Millers never owned a car to my knowledge — and head down Union Street to shop at two stores, Hy-Klas Market and Booth’s Dairy Store. Oddly enough, they sat side by side. Doris would buy some items at each business.

The stores were just a stone’s throw from a single-bay firehouse on the corner at the foot of Union Street. It housed one open-air, 1920s pumper that I think seldom left the station. On warm summer nights when we’d drive by, several firefighters would be sitting outside the station in wooden chairs, hiked up in front and leaning against the brick building, chatting.

My grandma, Minnie Francis Miller, loved plants and flowers and her house and its yard were full of them. Her house also was full of what-nots. She always wore flower-print dresses and often an apron.

Grandma was friendly and kind and smiled a lot. She wasn’t loud or demonstrative despite have raised half a dozen kids, often alone, because her husband was gone a lot with this job on the railroad.

I remember one story from my grandmother’s childhood. She said she had to walk through some woods to get to school. Her family was poor, and she didn’t have shoes.

Once in a while her bare feet would come down on a snake as she went to school, and she’d just step a little higher and faster.

My grandfather was a tall man with thick, white hair, a sense of humor — he liked to tease — a big belly and thick glasses. He wore longsleeve denim shirts year-round and held his trousers up with suspenders. He always carried a pocketknife in his pants pocket and always had a pencil or two in the pocket of his shirt.

Thanks to cataract surgery, Grandpa’s eyes were quite sensitive to light. So he often wore clip-on sunglasses, even in the house. And his straw hat had a green eyeshade in the front part of the brim.

By the time I remember Grandpa Ben, he was getting up in years and not too steady on his feet anymore. Once they joked how he had fallen in his sitting room because, when he had gotten out of his rocker and tried to walk, he’d forgotten his legs had been crossed and his feet got tangled up.

Grandpa’s mind was sharp, and he’d sometimes share stories about his years of working on the railroad, where he’d started as a teenage waterboy on a section gang and ended up a passenger train conductor. I wish I could remember more stories, but only two come to mind.

One is about a train Grandpa was on going up a steep hill when two of the cars became uncoupled, sending the back half of the train back down the hill, out of control. I can’t remember whether or not it derailed.

The other story was about a real hot day on a passenger train. When the train pulled into a station, one of the passengers, a man, saw a bucket of water on the dock. He was so hot, he stuck his head into it, and died instantly.

Grandpa had one thing in life that really bothered him — that was dogs running loose in the neighborhood. Hannibal apparently didn’t have a leash law in the ’60s, and Grandpa Ben was tired of big dogs leaving piles of poop in his yard.

The dogs wouldn’t depart when Grandpa yelled at them, and he was in no shape to chase them. So he gathered some good-sized rocks on his front porch railing by the screen door. And he would throw one occassionally to get a pooping dog’s attention.

It was a good plan until one of his rocks hit a car passing by, and the angry driver stopped. The rock-throwing also stopped.

Breakfast was always a big affair at the Miller house, supposedly because Grandma, who had diabetes, had to eat well. There were always fried eggs, bacon, toast, oatmeal and cold cereal on the table.

Grandpa sat at the head of the table, and it was his job — exclusively — to operate the toaster. He took that task very seriously, and none of us ever challenged him on it.

Grandpa Ben liked to play with words. He’d say things like, “we have an abundance of superfluency here.”

He also taught me about the “swattermock,” something I passed onto my grandchildren. The basement of the Miller house had been dug out after the house was built and was a dark, dank, musty place. I’d only be permitted down the narrow, winding basement stairs on laundry day to watch the action.

The basement had a large, open sump hole, and Grandpa was afraid I’d fall into it and drown. So he’d tell me, and presumably other children, that a monster — a swattermock — lived in the water-filled hole, so I’d best stay clear of it, or the swattermock would get me. His plan worked. I never fell into the water with the swattermock.

One thing my grandfather taught me that I will always remember is a nursery rhyme he had learned as a child. I tried to get my grandchildren to memorize it, too.

It goes like this:

Ery, ory, ickery, Ann
Phillisan, phallisan, nickwish, John
English navy, quevy, quavy
Stickum, stankum, buck.

I have in recent times found numerous variations of this rhyme — one uses the word Nicholas instead of nickwish — on page 95 of the public domain book, “The Counting-out Rhymes of Children, Their Antiquity, Origin, and Wide Distribution, a Study in Folk-Lore,” by Henry Carrington Bolton, D. Appleton and Co., New York, 1888. The book has been digitalized by Google.

The only bad part of a visit to the Millers was trying to sleep there on a hot summer night. Their house wasn’t air conditioned, and they had few fans.

There were two bedrooms. Grandma and Grandpa slept in the back bedroom. Mom and Dad got the front bedroom off the sitting room, where Bruce and I slept on a hideabed. Doris slept on a sofa in the formal living room.

The Millers went to bed early — always before the town’s sirens wailed at 10 p.m., signaling curfew time for juveniles. And I spent a lot of time tossing and turning in sheets made wet with sweat.

I’d often hear the Miller’s mantle clock in the dining room, which chimed every 15 minutes, for an hour or more before I’d drift off to sleep.

Using the bathroom there at night was awkward, too. Holding just a toilet and a clawfoot tub and no sink, the small room apparently was added off Grandma and Grandpa’s bedroom after the house had been built. One had to tiptoe past their bed on creaky floors to use the toilet.

Here are some other memories of the Millers.

I remember using their phone before it had a dial. All of the calls were completed by the operator. Once, I was permitted to call my Aunt Louise, whose number was 3868. I picked up the receiver and a woman operator said, “Number pulleeese.” I said 3-8-6-8 and was soon speaking to my aunt. I don’t remember the Miller’s number in the pre-dial days, but my Grandma Roberts’s number was 27W. When the community went to dial phones, Aunt Louise’s number became Academy 1 (or AC1) 3868. Grandma Roberts’ became AC1-0027. Eventually Academy 1 was referred to merely as 221.

It was at the Miller house that I first saw my dad cry. It was probably in the early ’60s and Dad had received a call notifying him that his boss, Keith Hunter, had died of a heart attack. Hunter was a tough boss but Dad learned a lot from him and respected him.

I believe it was after lunch that the family was gathered in the kitchen and dining room but I noticed that my dad was missing. I found him in the sitting room lying face down on the sofa, sobbing. I didn’t know what to do, so I quietly walked away. That made a lasting impression on me.

Weekday afternoon TV was a big deal at the Miller house. Grandma had some soap operas she followed religously and both Grandma and Grandpa Miller watched a program called “Divorce Court.”

According to the Internet, the program debuted in 1957 and lasted 12 seasons. If you phoned while Grandma was watching one of her programs, you were out of luck. She wouldn’t answer.

Copyright 2011 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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A fascination with trains

My grandfather the railroad conductor, Ben T. Miller. Photo from the Phil Roberts Collection.

My grandfather the railroad conductor, Ben T. Miller. Photo from the Phil Roberts Collection.

CB&Q Railroad’s (Burlington Route) Mark Twain Zephyr "Injun Joe," as photographed in July 1957 in Macon, Mo. Photo from the Phil Roberts Collection.

CB&Q Railroad’s (Burlington Route) Mark Twain Zephyr “Injun Joe,” as photographed in July 1957 in Macon, Mo. Photo from the Phil Roberts Collection.

I’ve always been more than a little interested in trains.

Maybe that’s because the railroad is in my blood. My grandfather on my mother’s side, Benjamin T. Miller (1882-1963), spent much of his life working for the railroad.

As his obituary in the Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post puts it, “He began working for the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad in 1899 at age 17 as a water boy on a section gang working out of Peruque (Mo.). He was promoted to brakeman on September 21, 1906, making his first run on No. 3 out of Hannibal to Quincy; on October 14, 1914 he was made extra freight conductor and on January 3, 1931 was promoted to passenger conductor, a position he held until his retirement on June 6, 1947, his 65th birthday. For the last four years of his career he was conductor on the Mark Twain and Rocket Zephyr between St. Louis and Burlington.”

I remember only two of my Grandpa Ben’s railroad stories. One was about a train he was on that was going uphill when it broke in two at the center, sending the back half downhill as runaway cars.

The other was about a passenger train that made a stop at a depot on a very hot day. One passenger, a man, got off and spied a bucket of water on the loading dock. He bent over, put his head in it to cool off and died instantly.

Maybe I like trains because of my once- or twice-a-year visits when I was a kid to my Uncle Ralph’s barber shop in Hannibal. Ralph, Ben’s son, rented space in a small building across the street from the train station.

The building that housed the shop, long gone now, probably because it flooded regularly, was a small green stucco structure with white-painted trim. It was scrunched between the banks of Bear Creek and several sets of tracks that went to the train station.

The building was maybe 20 feet wide. A cafe or beauty shop — the tenant changed regularly — occupied the side of the building next to the creek, and the barber shop was right next to the tracks. My dad took my brother Bruce and me to Uncle Ralph’s barber shop whenever we were in town.

All three of us would get haircuts to help Uncle Ralph’s finances. He’d probably been a busy barber when the railroad was booming, but that was no longer the case when we’d visit him in the 1960s. Most of his customers by then were retirees. He’d cut their hair as long as they were alive, then he’d give them a final trim at the funeral home when they died. Ralph always tried to give our haircuts to us free, but dad always made him take the money.

I remember the interior of the shop well. Waiting customers sat in sturdy wooden chairs with their backs to the wall nearest the tracks. Looking straight ahead there were two ancient black, white and chrome barber chairs, but there was never a second barber. Only Ralph, who had barely enough business to survive himself.

Each barber chair had a strap hanging on it for sharpening the straightedge razor Ralph used on sideburns and the back of the neck. Behind Ralph was a long counter holding a variety of clippers, combs and bottles of hair tonic, all reflecting in a long mirror.

In the ceiling were schoolhouse-type lights, never turned on because they weren’t needed during the day, and original Hunter ceiling fans still in working order. An old Regulator clock hung on a wall with a calendar.

Toward the back of the building, next to the line of chairs that waiting customers occupied, was an antique rolltop desk that eventually became a victim of a flood. A short flight of steps led down to a back door and a lean-to against the back of the building. It was in there that with Ralph’s permission hobos, who had perhaps been riding the rails, spent the night after he had slipped them a few bucks for food.

What I remember most, though, about Uncle Ralph’s shop was the nearly constant train traffic by it as the diesel engines and freight cars pulled slowly into or out of the station. First you’d hear the ding-ding-ding of the bell out front, warning motorists of the train’s approach. I’m sure there were no crossing gates.

Then as the engines pulled alongside the shop, the wall near them, the floor and the chairs vibrated. It was noisy, too, making conversation difficult.

The constant trains were old hat to our uncle the barber. But for a couple of kids from Iowa who lived quite a distance from any train tracks, it was an eerie, magical feeling, knowing that each train that passed was not more than 4 feet or so from our backs, separated only by the wall of the building. We’d sit for a moment in the chairs and vibrate with them, then we’d hurry to the picture windows at the front of the shop to watch.

Copyright 2009 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

 
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Posted by on September 18, 2009 in Uncategorized

 

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