I’m normal, at least in one way. When someone important to me dies, I remember where I was when I heard about it.
This mental “logbook” started without any conscious plan. I never did say, “I’m going to remember where I was this day when I learned that he or she died.” The logbook began, other than Pearl Harbor, with the death of Margaret Mitchell in Atlanta. She was hit by a car in Atlanta on August 11, 1949, the day after my 15th birthday, and she died five days later. I didn’t hear about it on the radio in my bedroom until Sunday, August 21, the day after my father’s 41st birthday, and I walked down to the living room to look at the book she had written, which was in the bookcase to the right of the fireplace.
The last death in the logbook (so far) was December 4, 2009. My always-smiling and wonderful mother-in-law died that day.
In between those two bookends of time was the death of my mother, father, my younger brother, all my grandparents, my father- and mother-in-law, uncles and aunts, JFK, RFK, John Lennon, John Wayne, John Belushi, Payne Stewart, Ricky Nelson, and Lady Di.
I remember where I was for each and all of those deaths.
But the one that occurred on December 17, 1954 was different. It wasn’t just the death I recalled, but a very lonely night in a train station, a random act of immense kindness that will always go unexplained; and then there was the ripple effect over 40 years later.
I was a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame. To go home to Minneapolis for Christmas 1954, I needed train fare, but I didn’t have it. I had $21. Why I didn’t have more I am not sure. I didn’t spend my money foolishly. I had a small allowance; what I made at the Colfax theater in South Bend helped a bit—14 hours on the weekend at $.50 an hour. I didn’t date. I didn’t smoke. I just didn’t have the cash to buy a ticket to Chicago, then Chicago to the Twin Cities.
I’d have to hitchhike. No big deal. I’d done it the Christmas before when I had overspent on a Christmas gift for my girlfriend in town. At least I knew where my money had gone that Christmas.
On December 17, a very snowy day in South Bend, I left 302 Howard Hall with my B-4 bag and said goodbye to my roommate, Bob Condello. Leaving the building, I passed Fred Miller Jr. and his roommate, Hap Meyer, standing outside their room, # 100. Fred said he was flying home later that day. I had had some classes with Fred, who was in the General Program. I guessed that was the path he needed to be able to take over Miller Brewing from his father.
Out on the snowy highway that went to Chicago, bundled up in my duffle coat, I stood next to my bag with my sign that said “Notre Dame to Mpls.” and waited. I caught a ride just before it got dark.
The driver and his wife apologized but left me off downtown. I knew that would be a big problem. There was no way I was going to get a ride at night out of a city that size. It was still snowing heavily, which made it worse.
I waited on the street until almost midnight. I was cold. I found Union Station and went inside. Once in the door, I felt better immediately and treated myself to two candy bars—a Butterfinger and a Clark bar. I fell asleep on one of the dark, hard benches.
I have no clue as to when I woke up, but staying there, though it was warm, wasn’t getting me any closer to Minneapolis. I looked in my pocket. $20 now. I looked around the empty station and had an idea.
I walked outside. I was morning and still snowing. I found a cab. Leaning in the window on the passenger side, I said, “I have $20. I’m trying to go from Notre Dame to my home in Minneapolis. With this money, can I get to the train yards where the box cars are?”
He stared straight ahead without saying a word. “Stuck downtown, are you?” he asked.
I knew he didn’t say it to be smart. There was kindness in his voice.
“Notre Dame, huh? Get in,” he said quietly.
I shoved my suitcase inside and closed the cab door behind me, feeling sick to my stomach.
“I’ll take you where you want to go, but I think you’re crazy.”
“I don’t have a choice.”
He pulled away from the curb. I still felt sick.
I watched his meter pass $20.
“I don’t have that much,” I said leaning forward in my seat. “I told you what I have.”
“I heard you before. This one is on me.” I didn’t know what to say. ‘Thank you’ seemed pretty lame. “Say, I got a paper up here. A student from your school and his father died in a plane crash. The pilot, too. All over the front page. They were on their way up to Milwaukee in a big snowstorm.”
“Who was that?” I asked absent-mindedly.
“Fred Miller and his son. Junior, I think. Did you know him?”
I fell back hard in my seat. It was a long time before I could say anything. When I did, I told the driver the story about seeing Fred as I was leaving school. “He was the last person I saw and talked to. I can’t believe it.”
I could envision Fred clearly at the door of his room…he seemed excited to be going home.
“Here’s the paper. Take it with you.” I took it. He looked ahead. “I’m going to pull in here. I know all the guys from around this part of the yard. See that old guy over there? Brown coat and black rubber boots. He’s the man. Go see him. Tell him where you’re going. He’ll fix you up.”
“Ever ridden in a boxcar?” he asked with a wrinkled smile. He turned to face me. “Probably not, huh? But you’ll be fine. Keep to yourself once you’re inside the car.” He stopped the cab. “Good luck! Oh, here’s some lunch money.”
He put a $20 bill in my hand. I looked at him and felt some tears coming. I turned away.
Later that day, after a cold ride north to Milwaukee, I bought a ticket from there to Minneapolis. The local papers were full of news of the plane crash, of course. But I didn’t need a paper.
Forty years later, my 1956 class secretary, John Manion, called me. (I was living in St.Petersburg.) He said he was trying to finally get alumnus status for Fred Jr. Could I help? One of the things John needed to do was talk to Hap Meyer who was, of course, Fred’s last roommate and the other ND student to whom I’d say goodbye on December 17, 1954. Supposedly, John said, Hap was living on a boat off the west coast of Italy. John knew I had connections in Italy.
I told John that I’d get right on it. I called a long-time friend of mine in Florence, Italy. Franco knew a banker who could and would help, I found Hap’s address, and spoke to him at length on his boat. He remembered my saying goodbye that day. I put in touch with John.
Fred Miller Jr. was undoubtedly in heaven already. But now, 40 years later, he was an alumnus, too.