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Sunday, August 22, 2010

Taking Joe Home, Part II

Margaret Miller took her husband Joe’s remains to Cascade Pass on August 14th, 2010. Why would I share this with all of you? Who are the Miller’s and why should any of you or all of you care? Read on…

It is difficult for me to put in words how honored and humbled I am to have been present for Joe’s funeral, and a couple years later, his final return to Cascade Pass. I wish to thank the Buchanan family—Kitty is Margaret and Joe’s god-daughter, and together with her husband Larry and two sons, care for Margaret in her advancing years—Margaret is 88. I also wish to thank Charles Ehlert.

I wrote the below shortly after returning from Tahoma National Cemetary in March, 2008. What I didn’t write at that time was a deliberate omission about some of Joe’s remains. You see, not all of Joe is interred at Tahoma. Joe’s wife Margaret had in mind one final mission for Joe—to lay him to rest at Cascade Pass…

March 28, 2008
Typically I wouldn't write about a funeral, but this is something that must be shared. I went to Tahoma National Cemetary today to pay respects to a true American hero: Joseph W. Miller. Joe served our country in the 1st Battalion of the 20th Engineering Combat Regiment--a combat engineering battalion that first landed at Casablanca and directly engaged Rommel at Kasserine Pass in North Africa. Many of Joe's mates died clearing mines and building the road that enabled the US and Brits to acheive victory there. Then the 20th hit Yellow Beach closely E of Licata on Sicily. Joe helped Patton reach Messina before Montgomery. Then it was on to Omaha Beach, where a landing craft directly in front of Joe's was hit by an 88 and he watched as his comrades disintegrated in front of him. Joe's unit cut through tank traps and mines, and secured one of THE roads that allowed so many Brits, Canadians and US to escape the meatgrinder of those beachheads. Joe and his mates literally built the podium on which the generals stood to celebrate the liberation of Paris. Joe secured the road at Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge. Joe's was the first unit to enter Leipzig, and later shook hands with Russians as the forces linked in Czechland.

But Joe would be quick to tell you the greatest victory of his life was helping create North Cascades National Park, and saving Big Beaver Valley from flooding/dams and chainsaws. You see, the reason I was there to pay respects to Joseph W. Miller is that above all he believed preserving our glorious wildlands was his primary mission--he was what some would denigrate as a tree-hugger. Joe was on the board of the North Cascades Conservation Council. Joe and his lovely wife Margaret worked for years volunteering with the National Park to catalog as many lifeforms and ecosystems as possible. They stood before Congress to testify in defense of, and support for the North Cascades, and were key in securing protected status as Wilderness and National Park.
Margaret and Joe spent countless hours replanting damaged meadows, notably at Cascade Pass, and fighting extractive industries hell-bent on making a buck at the expense of our national heritage.
Talk about Homeland Security!
The ceremony was carried out by a full US Army Color Guard, right down to three veterans firing M1 rifles in salute, and another veteran playing taps on a bugle. Young soldiers folded the flag and presented it to Margaret with solemn precision. Fittingly, on this March 28th, it was snowing heavily, turning those acres of graves a pristine white. It couldn't snow hard enough to conceal the tears running down my cheeks.
A true American hero, a son of the United States we all owe a debt to, a giant of a man, has passed. Thankfully, the legacy of clean water, sustainable habitat, and an intact ecosystem will carry on for millenia to come.

This was read at Joe's service, it is reminiscient of a Native American burial rite:
Do not stand at my grave and weep.
I am not here. I do not sleep.
I am the thousand winds that blow;
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain;
I am the gentle Autumn rain.
When you awake in the morning's hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft star that shines at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not here...I did not die.

August 14, 2010
Margaret Miller was intent, even adamant that she would carry Joe home—to lay him to rest at Cascade Pass. The only problem: even with the long, high road in to the trailhead, the path to Cascade Pass is about four steep, rocky miles; and Margaret is 88 years old and essentially blind. So the Buchanans (Kitty, Larry, son Ross) rigged up a dual-pole system,
and together with head NPS ranger Kelly Bush, a number of NCCC board members and others, helped Margaret embark upon the hike. I should mention that many board members of the NCCC were there to celebrate the event (as well as an American Alps Legacy Project hike) and carry dozens of native plants to Cascade Pass as part of a re-vegetation program first created by the Millers decades ago. In fact, the National Park Service greenhouse in Mablemount is named in honor of Margaret and Joe! Talk about true patriots and National Heroes!!
Polly Dyer was on hand too—so we had TWO pioneers of conservation in the United States: a 90 year old and an 88 year old ready to tackle Cascade Pass—to visit the National Park they created.
Truth be told I was uncomfortable with Margaret and Polly hiking, but they would not be denied! Polly didn’t quite make the pass, she refused any help or escort. As she noted on the trail—“I’m not quite as fast a hiker as I used to be, but then again you see how fast you are when you’re 90.” Heck, I’ll be lucky to make 90…
Margaret made it to Cascade Pass because of the support of her loving family. God bless and
keep the Buchanans!
I couldn’t believe it. Here was a woman, THE woman that literally created the National Park for ALL citizens of the United States of America, laying to rest her husband, a man who helped allow this great nation to prevail over the forces of corruption perhaps more than ANY single man in US history (and I’m not just talking about WWII battlefields).
The Buchanans had a hard time putting words to the impromptu ceremony. We had all been so focused on getting Margaret up there (including Margaret) that when the time came, it was a bit of a shock. I barely choked out a few words through my tears “Thank God Joe wasn’t laid to rest in Europe, and that he’s here on home soil…”
Margaret scattered Joe’s ashes with the high peaks and glaciers of the North Cascades—timeless sentinels overlooking millions of fortunate people, (most of whom) unwittingly depend on heroes to protect and keep our very way of life.

Getting Margaret down was no easy deal. Larry rigged up a Cleopatra-esque chair/sling arrangement that we perfected as we worked our way down. This allowed us to carry Margaret at a reasonable pace. It would getting dark, and we needed to make better time…
Then the sling broke. Margaret was up to the task, and continued hiking the last couple of miles.
So glad Phil Fenner showed up when he did, cheerfully coming off of Sahale Arm. We got down to the trailhead just as darkness fell. Wow.

Mark these words: thank God Joe wasn’t buried in some European field or beach. He still had so much more to give to our country, and give he did. The legacy of Margaret and Joe Miller is significant and worthy of the great landscape that is OUR NORTH CASCADES.

1 comment:

Bob in the Pacific Northwest Wilderness said...

Joe Miller has been an inspiration for many of us. Joe and Margaret worked hard for the authorization of volunteer restoration in National Parks. The Cascade Pass restoration inspired work at Mount Rainier that continues.

Thank you Joe, Margaret, Polly, Tom and many others.

Bob Aegerter