Thursday, June 3, 2010

Remembering "Uncle Hank"

Henry Miller was born August 31, 1913, while the Miller family lived in Chicago. Before he was old enough to enter school, the family moved to Watertown, South Dakota, where Hank probably began school. However, it’s likely that his most formative years were growing up in the Scottsbluff area.

Pete and Dora lived at several location in “the valley,” and that’s where they lived as son Hank became a teenager. Although we don’t know, he may well have endured the kind of anxiety that many youngsters have when they’re uprooted from family and friends. Although the distance from the Scottsbluff to Whitney is not that far – in the late 1920s it was a formidable distance. Too, there were numerous aunts, uncles and cousins in Scottsbluff. Most likely, this was not a move that pleased Hank

By the time Pete and Dora settled north of Whitney, Hank was about 14 years old. By all accounts, he was a gregarious and fun-loving youngster. His brother Fred – who was about 10 years younger than Hank – remembers a time when a group of Whitney fellows were having a card party at Claude Stewart’s house, next to where the old Post Office was at the main intersection in Whitney. Among the group were Ralph Grant, Claude Stewart, Al Schmechel and his father-in-law, as well as Hank. It seems the group ran out of beer and “…they elected Hank to run to Crawford to get a case of beer.” On the trip back, so the story goes, Hank swerved to miss a mule by the road, and his car tipped over onto its side. Not injured, Hank sent word on to Whitney with a passing motorist. When the fellows arrived to help, Hank was sitting on top of the car drinking the beer.

Hank didn’t date girls much, according to his brother Fred. However, at some poinet in the early 1930s, he and Clarence Connell became acquainted with the three Field sisters, whose father was a railroad section foreman at Horn, north of Crawford. Clarence ended up marrying Mary Field, and – much to the surprise of many – Hank began dating Leora Field. Brother Fred recalls that Hank and Leora were planning to get married, when a horrible accident changed everything.

It was one day in about 1936 when Leonard “Red” Schmell approached Hank and asked him if he’d tighten the rods in Schmell's old Chevrolet. Hank agreed, and they headed to the grain elevator, where there was a hoist.

This was an air hoist that was used to help off-load wheat from trucks. The vehicles would drive in and the front wheels would set up on a platform, and a little air compressor would raise the truck and dump the wheat.. They put Schmell’s car on the hoist so Hank could get under the car and complete the work.

“He was just about done with it, and he crawled down under there, and that hoist came down on him – broke his back,” remembers Fred Miller.

Hank Miller would never walk again. He was 22 years old. He called off the wedding.

For some years, Hank was able to get around a bit on crutches, but he essentially spent the rest of his life in bed or in a wheel chair. For 20 years after the accident, Hank lived with his parents. With their passing, he lived for some time with his brother John and family in Chadron, before moving to the nursing home in Chadron. That is where he lived for the final years of his life.

Surely there were moments of anguish and despair, but Hank didn’t wear those emotions on his sleeve. He would often get out and about to family picnics and other gatherings and displayed a quiet but wry sense of humor.

Hank also found a place as a “fix-it” handyman at the nursing home. Since his days as a teenager, he had been interested in radios. His friendship with Bob Galloway, another Whitney resident who was an amateur radio operator, would lead to a life-long interest in shortwave radio listening.

Hank Miller died in Chadron, Nebraska on March 12, 1984. Like both his mother and father, he was 71 years old when he died.