On Memorial Day I go to the cemetery and place a flag and a few roses from our garden on the grave of Harlan Miller. I was his pastor, and the church was his only family for the last few decades of his life. Here is what I wrote about Harlan several years ago and post again on this Memorial Day.
Harlan Miller, Mr. Miller to most, was something of a hermit. Raised on a farm in the early 20th century, self-educated in the classics and the modern world up to but not much past the 19th century, he was badly wounded in North Africa during WWII. After three years in Army hospitals, he learned to survive on a tiny pension and SSD while doing a few odd jobs here and there. Whatever family he had died somewhere along the way, with the exception of one distant cousin. The church became his family but in a way that kept intimacy at arms length. His weekly dime or quarter, or maybe penny, filled the offering plate to over flowing. Now and then he’d make a gift to someone of a special tea he liked, or maybe gladiola bulbs from his yard. One year the youth group fixed up his shack for the winter, but it wasn’t quite enough to fill all the cracks. He never missed an adult bible study if he could help it, and would occasionally offer his well educated 19th century wisdom as a guide for our lives newly arrived in the 21st century. He was lovingly tended in his final months by a retired Seattle Fire Department EMT who had moved to our town, and I think he liked it even as he complained about his keeper. After his death we found his daily diary going all the way back to high school, all written in Latin. Only the war years were missing. Nothing exciting, just the record of an orderly, simple, impoverished life.He left everything to the church. It wasn’t much but those who knew and loved him each took a little something. I have a roughly carved hooded monk holding a prayer book. The folded American flag normally given to the nearest of kin rests on a bookshelf in the rector’s office.
He lived in the wrong century, but he was somehow a link to the dogged tenacity of those who came to settle here; not a link to those who made it and for whom streets and buildings are named, but to those who worked and lived hard lives that saw little reward. Empires are built on such as these and without them no greatness is possible. Who will remember Harlan Miller? Who remembers any of the millions and millions of Harlan Millers? Will a president point up to the gallery during the State of the Union and introduce Harlan Miller? “He farmed, he learned what he could, he served his country, he got shot, he survived, he lived a long time and died in poverty; let’s all give a hand for Harlan Miller.”
I believe that God remembered Harlan and laid out a feast to welcome him home. His shack and land was deeded over to Habitat for Humanity. The day the shack was torn down people with metal detectors searched the back yard for the fortune he was said to have buried. No one found a thing. A brand new house has been built on that property. I helped lay the sub-flooring. Some family, maybe not so very different from Harlan Miller, lives there with, perhaps, a little better chance and a little more opportunity. May God bless and prosper them.