The wind had stopped whistling and rattling the aluminium frame windows. As it dropped, six Indian mynahs had come to roost on the television aerials on the roofs outside.
The evening was suddenly still — like the old man who lay on one of the single beds in the room, his curly grey chest hair crinkling over the top of his singlet, his dishevelled white hair a halo around his head.
It had taken two hours to find that old man, two hours of bombast, self-opiniation, irascibility, histrionics, anger (or was it pseudo-anger?), egomania, pedantry, and intolerance. Two hours in which he had moved chameleon-like through his life: from farmboy, to butler, teacher, brilliant physicist, television name, stand-up comedian and mad professor, without really stepping out of his life role: professional sage and entertainer. It was a good act.
But suddenly he was there, an ordinary man with an ordinary man’s doubts.
His super-charged facade had dropped. Julius Sumner Miller, professor, from Torrance, California, is really a sombre, almost sad, old man, albeit a fascinating one, who, when he is not propounding, is still a consummate observer.
“Now look what’s happening,” he said, quietly. “It’s coming sundown and darkness will soon be here. See those birds on the aerial, on the antenna there. They will gather. There may be a hundred on those rods. Yeah. And I enjoy watching them because pretty soon, as darkness consumes I will see them do something which I am sure you never saw them do.
“And here’s what they will do. They will huff up to lodge quiet air in their feathers and quiet air is a good thermal insulator so it retains their body heat.”
The mynahs suddenly flapped away into the gloom as a bigger bird landed. “….and there’s a currawong there. That bigger one. He sings with quite a force. So you see what it all is, Mister Waugh. I don’t think much of anything. I don’t think much of anything. Indeed I don’t believe we shall ever he able to uncover the real nature, with a small ‘n’ of Nature, with a capital ‘N’… everything in the Great Scheme… everything in tied together and we shall likely never know the entanglement because it’s too, too, too tightly woven.”
Until that moment he had given the impression that he had all the answers. In his professional wiseman role he doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Anyone who does not understand him or has the temerity to question him is either too young to know or too stupid, or both, as two BBC executives learnt to their cost after he had told them he was burn in 1909 in “Billerica, Massachusetts, USA.”
Where is that? they asked.
” … Gentlemen that is the worst question you could ask me,” he claims he replied. “The very worst question. It’s next to Lexington and Concord where we put the British to rout that’s being being the third chapter in a book I’m writing called How to Alienate Friends and Disaffectionate People.”
Turning directly to me and staring threateningly from under bushy eyebrows, he went on, “You may be a chapter in there Mr Waugh.”
Julius Miller may be retired, famous and wealthy now – he was in Australia to do a commercial for a chocolate manufacturer – but life has not always been easy for him.
He was the last of nine children of a migrant small-farmer and one of only two in the family to get a tertiary education.
“I’m a little old farmboy,” he said proudly, almost like a politician proclaiming he is still one of the people.
“I still have manure on my boots.
“… Feel that mister,” he shouted, when I apparently looked sceptical as he flexed his strongly muscled arm. “Feel that!”
I did. It was as firm as a 20-year-old’s.
“Now feel my head. Soft, you see, soft.
“My momma was from Lithuania and my poppa from Latvia: absolute peasants. My father was a farmer of small scale, as in New England, and my mother, a fair creature, commanded 12 languages.
“She didn’t learn to read English until her 60th year and then complained that it was too difficult. She was reading The Life of the Hohenzollerns [sic] by Emil Ludwig. I couldn’t read it and I was at university. Not only that, she complained the English was irrational.”
From the beginning the interview with the Professor was difficult.
I had knocked on his door at the Sebel Town House, and after being introduced to his wife of 46 years, Alice – who went right back to reading her book – I was attacked by Professor Miller for the suit I was wearing.
He was lying on his bed in a shirt and trousers.
“You look fettered and constrained,” he said. “Take off your vest and coat. I think you are constrained by the modern demands of dress.
“Do you think I would be constrained by modern demands of dress, Mr Waugh?”
“… so don’t put any constraints, or fetters or shackles on me, Mr Waugh,” he went on, “because I become rather irreverent and rather acidic in my tongue.
“You see a man must be free. I don’t believe in fettering and shackling a man. If he is incompetent, get rid of him. Have nothing more to do with him.”
That brought him to the subject of Australian unemployment and the fact that he had been collecting situation vacant columns from the newspapers while here.
Noting that there were “thousands” of jobs vacant and “great unemployment,” he said the obvious reason – to him at least – was: “The young men and women who are now seeking employment have not been schooled with the same old-fashioned rigour I was and therefore they’re ill-equipped to do the job.
“They’ve been made into parasites by the education system. But we’d better escape this discussion of education mister because you see my violence will increase and I could chew you up and spit you out as blood and bones.”
The phone rang, stopping his train of thought, and he turned to answer it. In the hiatus I asked Mrs Miller how she put with the constant barrage of super-charged energy.
She smiled quietly. “I close my ears, I read,” she said pointing to her book and then turning to the professor who was on the phone joyfully arranging a Chinese dinner – his favourite meal – “You’ve got a television program to do tonight. You can’t keep track of anything!”
Alice Miller met her future husband on January 9, 1928, fifty-two years ago, when he was working at his first job after graduating from high school as a labourer for a hay, grain, lime and cement merchant.
“I ran into her and she looked good to me and I said ‘Would you like to go to the movies with me,’ and that was it. That affection grew.”
The couple went together for six and a half years during the Depression while she studied the violin and worked as a housemaid and he went to university.
“We used to walk four miles to Chinatown in Boston to get a full meal for 35c.” he said. “There was a delicatessen in the slums of Boston where we got a pastrami sandwich and cup of coffee for 15c and you could eat all you wanted at the counter.”
When Alice eventually married him he had two degrees, in philosophy and physics, but no job.
“My classmates went home to live with their parents on the dole. Alice and I got married and worked as a maid and butler in a wealthy doctor’s household where for two and a half years we got $30 a month.
“In those two and a half years – shining the silver, wiping off the cars, shining the shoes in the morning and serving dinner and drinks – I wrote 700 letters for jobs.
Being a man-servant obviously did not really suit the Miller temperament.
“The lady of the family was decent but the doctor…”
“They were a little older than we were. I was a servant although on intellectual grounds I knew my physics as well as he knew his medicine. It was a master of the house and butler relationship.”
Professor Miller then described some of the differences he had with his master — Miller seemed to win all the battles – and then noted he had never bowed or scraped to anyone since.
“Oh, mark you,” he said “I hold in respect those who deserve it from me. I was not really under the thumb. I did that which was required by the nature of the job.
“It has been my philosophy of life to do best what I’m doing and if I cannot do it I withdraw because I would be a fraud to do otherwise. It would be like committing sin by silence when one should be heard.”
Eventually he did get a job at a Connecticut boys’ school — Alice and he split up for the year – before moving on to a Negro university in New Orleans and then back into the mainstream of physics with a fellowship at the University of Idaho.
Professor Miller described the major influences on his life as his “momma and poppa, his teachers, Alice and the beauty of learning.”
As a child I was interested in everything,” he said. “Why the sky is blue. Why the sunset is red. How a worm crawls back into the earth when he is ploughed up in a furrow. Why a brook gurgles.
“As a matter of fact in my later years I published a paper in physics entitled, Old Questions Stated. Anew, and one of them was ‘Why does a brook gurgle’?’
“I had many scientific answers but the best answer I got was from a nun, a professor of physics. She said,’I think a brook gurgles for my special pleasure.’ That was the best answer I got because I knew all the other answers were wrong.”
He got up to close the window as a number of papers blew off his table.
“You see I’m not worried about that,” he said. “The wind was doing its thing. You wouldn’texpect me to put a shutter on the wind.”
Alice looked up from her book. “You would be concerned if your papers blew out the window,” she said with some asperity.
“Yeah, that might trouble me,” he grinned like a small boy caught doing something wrong.
It was time for the education question, while he was still out of step.
Describing his own teaching career he said he was glad he had been retired by the State of California in 1974 “because the academic scene ain’t what it used to be.
“If at the beginning of the school year I started with a class of 40, four would take the final exam. The rest I either drove out, or they decided to quit on their own because I would show no compassion unless they performed.”
“The young are going to inherit the republic (his word for the Western World),” he said. “They do not know the old-fashioned ingredients of what is right, proper and dignified.
“Our social structure has been in decay for sometime. The home is no more what it used to be. It doesn’t control the children. It doesn’t demand any responsibility from them, or if it does, the boys and girls go their own way without regard for the views of their parents. The children of today are not morally responsible.
“There’s a solution and a very immediate one: return to the old-fashioned vigour of my school days. That’s what’s needed most.
“Otherwise we will almost certainly see a new dark age. All the signs are there.”
But all was not darkness in the professor’s sad conclusion. He does know of at least one school where education is being conducted on the right lines: the USAF Academy in Colorado where he runs a number of classes.
“This may be the last sanctuary of intellectual and academic rigour,” he said, “because the boys in the classes are being schooled with a firmness quite uncommon. They are also being well-schooled in their profession to fly planes.”
Still talking about the imminent collapse of Western civilisation, he said he believed the Americans should have paid someone to assassinate the Iranian groups holding American hostages as soon as they were taken.
“They could have been poisoned or gassed to death and the hostages rescued,” he said. “They have got to be rescued … and now we have got the infamy of Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union is laughing at us.”
Two nights later I heard about the debacle in Iran codenamed by the US military: Operation Blue Light. I wondered if any of Professor Miller’s well-schooled boys from Colorado had died in the desert there.