Have you ever woke up in the morning, looked out your bedroom window, and been amazed at the grandeur of nature surrounding you? I do not mean while you were on vacation, or maybe a camping trip somewhere. I mean every, single day.
Once upon a time I had three friends – Tom, Dave and Bill Miller – who could do just that. They lived below the gift shop/concession stand at The 7 Caves and large, wide windows in their bedrooms overlooked the Rocky Fork Creek gorge. My good buddy Tom passed away 16 years ago at the age of 40, and this week I received word that Dave had passed away at the age of 54.
It was hard to believe, and still doesn’t feel quite possible, because it doesn’t seem like very long ago that we were all hanging out together, having the time of our lives at The 7 Caves.
In fact, when Dave and I last talked when he stopped by The Times-Gazette to say hi a few months ago, we discussed how neat it would be if we could all go back to The Caves and hang out just one more time.
I first met the Miller boys and their parents, Chet and Cherry, during my second year of college at the old Southern State Community College south campus. Chet, who is also gone now, was president of the college in those days. The family lived on the north campus in Wilmington at the time, but for some reason Tom attended the south campus. We struck up a conversation, became friends, and before long I was helping the Millers move into The Caves.
A couple years later they gave me a summer job at The Caves, then kept me on into the fall, even though they didn’t really need me, until I finally landed a job in October of 1983 as a sports editor at this newspaper.
It was not long after I met Tom that I met the next oldest brother, Dave, and we quickly became friends, too. Bill, the one I’m closest to now, was just a youngster of about 14 at the time, but still he tagged along with us, as well as other friends, as we explored all the nooks and crannies and wonders of The 7 Caves.
Dave was slightly limited by health issues he’d had since childhood, but that didn’t slow him down. He hiked the trails, crawled through caves, fished, and did anything else the rest of us did. In a matter of months pretty much all the Miller boys came to know all the other people I ran around with, and not long after that they were just like one of the rest of us.
It’s kind of hard to describe Dave if you did not know him. He kept to himself a little more than the other boys, and kept his room nearly immaculate, but he was far from unsocial. Each time I made my way to The Caves – and that was often – he greeted me with a warm smile, a firm handshake, and was quick to ask how my family or those closest to me were doing.
He was kind, sincere, quick-witted at times, and would have given you the shirt off his back if you asked.
He collected a few things, but mostly what I remember is his baseball card collection that included a nearly perfectly-kept, complete set of the 1976 Big Red Machine cards.
During the many years I covered sports as a newspaper reporter, especially at basketball tournament time, my travels took me east down U.S. Route 50 toward The 7 Caves. Often I’d pick up one of the older Miller boys, sometimes both of them. In later years I’d sometimes make plans to pick Tom up for a game, but as his many years without kidneys began to catch up with him, he often didn’t feel like making the trip by the time I arrived to pick him up. But rather than send me off on my own when I’d been expecting company, Dave would often take Tom’s place.
One of those times Dave and I were on our way to Athens on Route 50. We were moving uphill at a pretty good clip and when we rounded a curve there was a large herd of deer in the road, stretched out for 100 or more yards. By the time we saw them we were already in their midst, so seeing no other option, I yelled at Dave to hang on. We zigged and zagged and swerved a little more, but somehow we never hit a single one of what must have been at least two dozen deer.
I could tell many more stories about midnight cave walks, Dave’s pool ball trick, and the like, but the point is this: Even though the Millers eventually moved from The Caves and Dave and I were not all that close in recent years, we were still good friends. When we saw each other it was like stepping back in time for a bit to a place of youth and innocence that we both knew we were lucky to share.
I will miss you Dave Miller. I already do.
Reach Jeff Gilliland at 937-402-2522 or on Twitter @13gillilandj.