Today is my little brother, Marty Mills’ 60th birthday. To celebrate this special event, I share this story of how my little brother came to be, as well as a tale about one of Marty and my many adventures together.
In late October of 1960, Vice President Nixon, coming off what my Republican father said was a great debate performance against John Kennedy, traveled across the country by train, hopefully sealing his victory with visits to scores of smaller American cities and towns, communities where, my dad said, “the true heart of America beats.”
I don’t think I had ever seen Dad that excited before. Mom, who tended not to like anything divisive like politics, seemed light hearted too.
One of Nixon’s stops was in Centralia, Illinois, thirty miles northwest of our home, and my parents unexpectedly decided they would go and hear his speech.
That morning, as my siblings, Marshall and Karen, and I began our walk to school, Mom came out to snap Dad’s picture before they left for Centralia. Before they left, I had mentioned going with them.
“I think they’d let me out of school for such an important historical event,” I told my mother.
Oddly, she looked over at my dad, who explained that this would be one of the few times he and my mother would be able to spend time alone, and that they were looking forward to it.
“We’ll bring you something back,” he promised.
I all but ran home from school when it ended that day, asking Mom about the trip as I came pushing through the door.
Mom seemed surprised, caught off guard by my excitement.
“Oh, we didn’t stay for very long. Nixon spoke from a platform at the back of a train and you could hardly hear him from where we were standing.”
I for one, was completely disappointed, especially when I realized they hadn’t brought back anything for us kids. Mom and Dad, however, seemed especially satisfied from the adventure, Mom humming, out of tune as usual, some unrecognizable song as she made supper for us that evening.
The excitement from the election campaign seemed to create a rare period of closeness among our family members, oddly lingering past the 1960 presidential election. Our moody Dad was less irritable, and kinder to our mother. On one of these occasions, our mother was in the bathroom, gently shaving the back of our dad’s neck. The air was heavy with steam, and Dad kept wiping the mirror clean with his hand.
My siblings and I hung around the door to hear them talk. It was pleasant and reassuring to listen to them chatter, laughing about some “boo-boo” that had been made.
Roughly nine months after Nixon’s visit to Centralia, my mother had her final child, our beloved little baby brother, Marty, whom we instantly nicknamed Boo Boo. Little Marty and I would have some great adventures together, but the following event was perhaps the most memorable one.
One Sunday afternoon I decided to take Boo, who was five at the time, to an interesting geological formation I had often heard about called the rock house. I had not had my driver’s license long, so I basically sneaked out of the house, my little brother in tow.
We quickly loaded up in one of the ancient beat-up work cars dad had brought home from Holman Motor Company where he worked, and with all four windows rolled down to help relieve the oppressive summer heat, away we drove.
After a thirty minute or so ride, the directions I’d been given took us down a narrow one-lane dirt road that I was unfamiliar with, a road so ancient from human and vehicle travel—foot, horses, wagons, cars, trucks, and tractors—that it was sunk deep into the ground, almost like a tunnel.
On either side were heavily wooded banks and behind them woolly looking untended fields and thick woods.
Twice we came to narrow bridges that had been all but washed away, and each time I managed to get the car across, my tongue wetting my lips as the car crept across the rickety bridges like an old man.
Finally, we came to a bridge that was completely gone, its planks cast aside and dirt covered, on the left side of the road.
I stopped the car and turned off the ignition. The muffler of the car had a hole in it, causing a loud racket while the car was traveling, a noise that blocked out other sounds. Once the car engine went silent, however, an unearthly chorus of cicada song greeted us.
“We’ll walk from here,” I told Boo Boo. How well I remember that sweet little trusting face.
We began walking in what I hoped was the direction of the rock house, the hot, still air so steamy, it looked like thin fog in the immediate distance.
“This is going to be great,” I told Boo, “a real cave.”
We never found the rock house. I was constantly pulling fat ticks from Boo’s little legs. Still, I had plunged on like some lost luckless Conquistador, making a path through the tall course grass and low brush for my little brother.
Boo and I could not have been wetter with sweat then if we had both fallen into the ocean.
Little Boo’s legs went out on him just as I decided to turn back. Even though I was able to hoist Marty up on my shoulders, I was not in much better shape. Earlier in our exploration, a sulking limb had slapped me sharply in the face, and after three hours of wandering, my legs, too, were worn out from walking through brushy woods and through fields of tall grass and weeds, the wild vines pulling at my legs like hungry hands.
It did not help that it was, in the words of my Grandma Ruby, “Hotter that Billy Hell.”
By the time we got back to car, I was exhausted and dehydrated from carrying my little brother, almost dropping little Boo Boo when I went to put him down.
Boo pointed at the car, his eyes as big as plates.
The two back tires were completely flat.
There was only one spare, a tire so bald of tread, it shined as if polished. I replaced one flat in the sweltering heat, the task leaving me ever more drenched in sweat.
Most worrisome to me, however, was how our moody dad would react.
The nearest house of someone I knew, Mabel Knauss’s daughter, Phyllis Sager, was a good mile away. I sucked down some water from a thermos I had placed in the car before Boo and I had left the house and gave the rest to Boo. He drank it down like a thirsty little animal. Then I somehow lifted my little brother back onto my shoulders and we started the long walk to the Sager house.
Phyllis took me to Mabel’s, and from there I called home. Thankfully, Mom answered, but when she told Dad about the double flats, he began to holler so loudly in the background, I had to pull the phone away from my ear. Poor Mabel Knauss left the room.
It has been many years since my parents went to see Richard Nixon at Centralia, Illinois, and then came home early, a bit longer ago than the day Boo Boo and I went to find the rock house and ended up having other kinds of adventures instead. On this, Boo’s 60th birthday, I can say that whatever one’s feeling are about Richard Nixon, I for one am truly grateful that he came to southern Illinois in late October of 1960.
Happy birthday little brother.