The Observer did not really know Dr. Raymond Miller. But we knew of him, from a variety of ways. First, we knew his wife, Clarice. She was Mrs. Miller to us, one of the favorite teachers at Pulaski Heights Junior High School many moons ago, offering school-day mothering to barely-teen-aged girls in conflict with their own.
Dr. Miller died last week of cancer. We learned a lot about him at his funeral. He was born in Cotton Plant 68 years ago to a farmer, graduated from Cotton Plant Vo-Tech, got an agriculture scholarship to Arkansas AM&N, and then decided he wanted to be a doctor. That cost him the scholarship, but he worked in the school cafeteria to get through. He got a degree in biology and went to UAMS. He first met Hoyte Pyle across a cadaver, and the two became close friends. Good enough friends that after graduation and with a few years practice under their belts, Raymond Phillip Miller and Hoyte Remus Pyle decided to go into practice together, with two other internists. Theirs was the first integrated medical practice in Little Rock. Miller “was my mentor,” Pyle said.
Back in 1974, in the summer after The Observer graduated from college, The Observer’s father decided to have a little nap while floating on his back in the swimming pool of his apartment complex. It was the kind of little nap that washes over you in hot August, when you’ve been sitting in the sun after enjoying an afternoon of libations, which was something The Observer’s father did on a regular basis. This time, however, The Observer’s father, in full doze, sank like a rock to the bottom of the pool, under the influence and underwater, and lay there until one of the sponges poolside noticed him. An ambulance was called and he was hauled off to St. Vincent, where, by some miracle, he was returned to life. (The ambulance company had a hard time believing it when we called later searching for his dentures. “Excuse me for asking,” the lady said, “but why do you need them? Isn’t he dead?”)
So the ER got him back, but not totally out of the woods. His lungs were still swimming and he needed a pulmonologist. His doctor, Drew Agar, came out to us in the hallway and said he wanted to call Raymond Miller in. “Now Alice, he’s black,” Dr. Agar said, searching my mother’s face for a reaction. My mother, the Women’s Emergency Committee vet, the mother who let her children plaster the glass panes around our front door with anti-war stickers, who listened to “Hair” and who was never happier in her life than watching Nixon go down — bothered by a black doctor? We all had a laugh. Of course we didn’t mind. Good, Dr. Agar said. Because he’s the best.
The Observer’s great-aunt, a lady getting beyond on in years, had a special treat for us last week when we stopped by to visit: a grocery bag full of 15-year-old newspaper clippings she’d found stuffed in the back of a closet. She’d told us about it on the phone — how interesting it was that many of the same things in the news then were still making headlines today. Among the clips she pulled out of the bag: a picture of a triumphant George Bush I and wife Barbara, dressed in desert camo, standing up in a Jeep surrounded by soldiers fresh from their victory over Iraqi forces. (Out of respect for the lady’s age, we bit our tongue rather than point out the rather obvious, and unfortunate, ways that Bush’s son’s Iraq war is different.) There were also several stories documenting the rise in the rate of Arkansas high school graduates who needed remedial classes when they got to college. Our favorite, though, was a column by our own fearless leader, Max Brantley, from his days at the Arkansas Gazette, comparing our governor — then a still unannounced candidate for president making the rounds of politically important northeastern states — to a supermarket tomato: Pretty and red on the outside, rendered all but tasteless on the long trip from vine to produce bin. Plus ça change …
The Observer’s car-to-office walk takes us past the Second Street courtyard of the Main Library, which is surrounded by a rose-covered black iron fence. In spring, there’s nothing prettier — it’s a veritable wall of light pink blooms you can hardly even see through. One recent day, though, as we slogged through the thick 100-degree air on our way home, we saw that a single vine had wilted loose of the fence and was sprawled prostrate across the sidewalk. We knew how it felt.