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More Stories - The Way We Were

Printed by permission from Recipe du Jour's great newsletter:

Giants in the Earth
By Walter Mills

In those days, as the Bible tells it, there were giants in the earth.  Sometimes it seems that only a generation or two ago there were giants walking about in the guise of ordinary men and women, my grandfather being one of them.  Recently I found a framed picture of him among a group of photographs we had packed away when we moved from San Francisco.  It shows a serious-faced man with strong but delicate features.  The style of dress is dated, but not unattractive, a high-buttoned suit, stiff collar, carefully knotted tie.  His receding hair is combed straight back.  He looks to be in his mid thirties, which would make the year around 1911.  At that time he was captain of the Anton Dorn, and he may have been preparing one of his expeditions to the South Seas.

Another photograph shows him as an old man with a two-year-old on his shoulder, a pudgy, fair-haired child that is myself.  He looks lean and fit, his white shirt rolled up at the sleeve to reveal muscular forearms.  On the day of his death, at age seventy-six, he had planted another fruit tree in the hard coral soil of south Florida, using pick and shovel to make a hole, toting a hundred lb. sack of fertilizer on his shoulder, at which point he lay down beneath a nearby orange tree to take a nap from which he did not awaken.  When my older sister, just six at the time, went out to call him in for lunch, she reported back to my mother that Grandpa was asleep out in the grove and there was an angel above him in the tree.  This is the story as told to me by my mother, a woman of rigorous honesty.

Angels notwithstanding, he was no saint.  He did not like church, and made up sacrilegious ditties to irritate my Sunday school teaching grandmother.  He would stay home and prepare the huge Sunday feast while the rest of the family sat in familiar pews in the big white Baptist church in downtown Homestead.  He smoked a pipe and took a drink, though not to excess.  None of which explains why I see him striding out of a mythic landscape, through the mists of a greener, more heroic age.

Families, like nations, have myths that bind them one to another.  The legends and tales of our founders -- Washington and the cherry tree, Davy Crockett and the grizzly, Lincoln walking miles to return a widow's pennies -- are meant to hold up a standard of behavior to those who come after.  My own family's founder tales tell us where we have come from and what is expected of us.  These are the ones I know of, and as far as I know they are true.

At the age of ten my grandfather, John Mills, went to work on a barge on the Oclawaha river of central Florida. His family had moved from north Florida to the Lake Okeechobee region in the 1880s and settled in a low-lying section of land that turned swampy and mosquito infested in the rainy season.  His father fell ill with malaria and John, though still a child, sent his pay home each week to help support the family.

When his father's health did not improve John came home from the river to move the family home to higher ground.  He cut and trimmed logs which he placed beneath the house, and, leading a team of mules, pulled the house out of the swamp and up into the hills.  There the family health improved in the clean air and they planted an orange grove for income.

Within a few years his mother died, and when the orange crop froze in a bad winter his father moved the family south to the sleepy hamlet of Miami, a town of dirt streets and a few wooden buildings.  John's sister opened a boarding house and John roomed there with his brothers, educating himself at night through correspondence courses, finally earning his captain's papers by mail.

He signed on to the research vessel Anton Dorn, a yacht owned by the Carnegie Institute, first as its chief engineer, later as captain.  To this day something of the mystery adheres to the names of those remote islands that he and the Carnegie scientists explored -- Fiji, Samoa, Tahiti, the Christmas and Easter islands-- though they have become vacation destinations reached in a day or two by airliner.  To my grandfather they were carefully planned and provisioned voyages that could last several years.

On one such trip they overstayed their return date by an entire year and newspapers reported him killed by headhunters in Samoa.  I have seen the photograph of grandfather with the headhunters, and they appear to be getting along.

Another photograph shows the Anton Dorn under weigh drawing a skiff behind her.  She is a lovely wooden steamer, with clean lines and a rakish air -- a modest vessel for such memorable journeys, trim and compact.  She is, like her captain, from another age, a time of unassuming heroism and assumed competence.  I wonder, tapping at my computer terminal in the gray light of a tamed and rule-bound world, could I ever be the hero to my grandchildren that he is to me.


(The above column originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times and is copyright © 2004 by Walter Mills. All rights reserved worldwide. To contact Walt, see http://americanimpressionist.wordpress.com/  .) 

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