Friday, December 09, 2011

Remembering Milton

Milton T. Burton, a frequent commentator here, died on December 1st at age 64. He was my oldest friend. Milton had been in declining health for some time, a combination of kidney failure and heart problems being the particular causes of death. He entered the hospital in late October. A stroke left him with diminished mental capacity, from which he never recovered.

Our friendship dates back about 27 years, the best I recall. I can imagine no better friend. Family can let you down, but a loyal friend like Milton is a rare gift indeed. Scarcely a day passed that we did not talk, or at least email one another. Milton was the one who usually called me. Perhaps this was because I knew I did not have to call, for I knew before long I would be hearing from him. Milton kept odd hours. If we received a call at home late at night, my wife and I knew it had to be Milton. If I heard from him at work before 10:00 AM in the morning, then I knew he had not yet gone to bed for the night. I have never met anyone so broadly well-read and informed as Milton. He was a true intellectual, as well as a scholar. The two are not at all the same thing, and are rarely found in tandem, in my experience. Milton could pontificate with the best of them—at length—but he rarely called to do so. More often than not, he wanted my opinion about some recent event, situation or news story. I admit that I always found this to be immensely gratifying—the fact that someone so very much smarter than I would be interested in my opinion.

So much could be said about Milton, yet I find myself grasping for words. Describing him to others has always been something of a problem, for I never met anyone even remotely like him…ever. My long-time office manager used to ask why all my friends were so eccentric. She would usually say this right after Milton had called or stopped by. He delighted in phoning our business and having the receptionist buzz my office and inquire if I wanted to speak to the Rev. Buford T. Sheets. This was one of his many alter-egos, and he had a lot of fun with this character, who--as everyone should know--was the senior pastor of the Greater Gum Springs Apostolic Church of the Final Thunder.

Milton could appear gruff and curmudgeonly. Those of us who knew him well also realized that this was part of the character he wished to portray, something of an act, if you will, that shielded the sensitive and tender-hearted soul underneath. Milton suffered some tough knocks in life, and he was naturally sympathetic to the foibles of others who struggled along in life. It might be said, however, that Milton was a man who did not suffer fools gladly, as the old saying goes. He had a keen ear for cant, hypocrisy and pretense, and was always at the ready to engage in a bit of verbal combat wherever he thought it needful…a bit too ready, some might say. He could be particularly scathing when it came to televangelists, Southern Baptists and Republican “bidnessmen.” Oh how he would have relished the full-flowering of the GOP presidential race this year, with Cain and Perry and Gingrich!

The news story in the local paper contained an interview with Milton’s oldest son, who described his father’s career as “meandering.” Well yes, I suppose that is one way of putting it. At one time, Milton’s mother set him up in a grocery store business in our little town. Later, he taught history a semester or two at our local junior college. For a while, he served as the liaison for our state senator. All of these endeavors ended more or less disastrously—some spectacularly so--with long stretches of nothing much in between.

At long last, about 7 years ago, Milton hit on a profession suited to him. With a computer and internet connection in place, he began experimenting with short stories. He would forward many of them on to me (and other friends) for input. At first, the humor was a little broad, but Milton soon hit his stride and found his voice. He chose the crime novel genre, specifically what might be called Texas Noir. The Rogue’s Game, set in 1947 Texas, was released in 2005 to very favorable reviews. The Sweet and the Dead followed in 2006. A change in publishers led to a gap in releases, but the Nights of the Red Moon was finally released in 2010. This was the best of his novels, in my opinion. A collection of his short stories, Texas Noir, was released as a Kindle ebook in the summer of 2011. I do not own, nor ever plan to own a Kindle, but I have read all the stories as they were being developed, and they are quite good. His fourth novel, The Devil’s Odds: A Mystery, will be released this coming February. There may even be a fifth novel in the pipeline, to be released in 2013.

Milton grew up in a rural area, about 5 miles north of where I have lived since 1977. Around here, his story was usually seen as just a chapter in the larger context of interconnected webs of extended family connections. He may have been eccentric, but he was our eccentric. He belonged to this particular place. This acceptance--even protectiveness—of even the most unconventional is the mark of a true community, where people stay put for a few generations, whether it be a neighborhood in Queens, or in the rural South.

Milton’s maternal family—the side that mattered—were not among the oldest families here, only arriving from north Alabama shortly following the Civil War. He idolized his grandfather, who acquired a 400-acre place around the turn of the last century. He and Milton’s grandmother, also from a north Alabama family, lived in an impressive Queen Anne farmhouse perched a small rise in a grove of magnolias. For that day, they were considered--if not wealthy--then certainly well-fixed. The family was a bit different from most of their neighbors. For starters, they were members of the Primitive Baptist Church. For those outside the South, just know that they are nothing like any Baptist church of your acquaintance. The closest congregation was about 15 miles away, so the family did not move in the typical Baptist/Methodist social circles of the area. Also, the grandmother drank whiskey—not secretly, but openly. In that time and place, this was seldom seen among respectable women (my wife’s great-grandmother being another exception.) Two daughters were born to the couple, Milton’s mother, Allene, being the oldest.

Milton’s mother received an excellent education for that day, obtaining a master’s degree from Stephen F. Austin University. She endured a brief and unsuccessful marriage, with Milton being the only offspring. Allene once told my wife that she enjoyed the company of men, as long as she did not have to be married to them. She and Milton lived with her parents in the old home place. Allene was a formidable woman, severe and a bit feared by her high school students. She always dressed in drab colors, I am told, wearing brown pumps and usually a dress gathered at the waist. She pulled her hair back into a tight bun, almost a caricature of an old-time schoolmarm. But like Milton, she had a soft spot for the misfit or for the one she knew were not destined for academic excellence. By the late 1950s, she started driving convertible Thunderbirds, which were just as likely to have a bale of hay behind the seat as not. One of the last things Milton told me before his stroke was that his mother considered pursuing her doctorate, her intended field of study being the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska. She was not attracted to Orthodoxy, of course, just fascinated by the culture and story.

My first meeting with Milton is indelibly imprinted in my memory. It was about 1984, I believe. I had business about some land surveying with Milton’s mother, and was delivering some papers to her door. Milton had married his college sweetheart, a Catholic girl of French-Canadian descent whose family had inexplicably landed in East Texas. Milton brought her back to the family home, where they moved in with his mother. This became an increasingly volatile arrangement. In quick succession, Milton became the father of a son, then a daughter, then triplets—all sons. Allene abandoned the family home, bought a trailer house and parked it down the hill from the farmhouse, stuffed a pillow in the window of the front door, which she slammed shut on the world. By this time, the farm itself was gone, reduced to a few acres around the two houses, a small barn and chicken coop, and a row of rusting Thunderbirds.

My meeting with Allene went well. I was told by some that I would not be asked in. (I was.) I found her to be a straight-forward woman who liked to take care of business—much like my own mother. Our visit went well.

At the time, I was in my late 20s, married, with a small son. At that stage of my life, I recall being much preoccupied with the making of lots of money. My life was about to change directions a bit, with things far more interesting than making money. On this particular bitterly cold January day, I was not about to linger too long outside talking with Mrs. Burton. Before I could leave, however, I heard my name being called, and looked up towards the farmhouse. I saw Milton trotting down the hill, in a short-sleeve shirt, wearing a pair of old slacks that had been ripped-off about the knee, wearing a pair of Allene’s blue fuzzy house shoes.

Milton invited me up to the house for a cup of coffee, and of course, I readily accepted. We walked up the trail past the Thunderbird graveyard to the front porch of the house, high off the ground. What I found inside, behind the front door with the etched glass, was something straight out of a Southern Gothic novel. The layout of the house was straight-forward enough. From the left front parlor, a wide hallway cut through the length of the house. Another front parlor was located right of the hall, with a double fireplace connected to the dining room behind. Sliding doors separated this parlor from the formal dining room, and the small galley kitchen behind. A large bedroom was located left of the hallway, opposite of the dining room. A couple of smaller bedrooms were immediately behind, with a tiny bathroom squeezed-in next to the back porch.

The ceilings were about 12 ft. high. Ornate wallpaper had once covered the walls, but this had been ripped off, with just the bare boards now exposed, except in places where it was still hanging on. The house was full of Victorian-era antiques which had, unfortunately, suffered greatly at the hands of the Burton children. Milton’s wife worked at the hospital in the city, while he stayed at home and rode herd over their offspring. You might say he was a bit lax in his child-raising, but it all worked out in the end. Today they are as an intelligent and personable a set of siblings as you will find. I do recall him saying that he got them started dipping snuff early, because he was afraid they would set the house on fire sneaking underneath to smoke cigarettes.

I believe an old organ sat in the front left parlor. A Victorian settee and pair of arm chairs occupied the front right parlor. A coffee table in the center of the room contained what appeared to be a punch bowl, or large fruit bowl—except that it was filled to overflowing with cigarette butts. In the dining room, Milton pointed out a small framed sketch of the Arc de Triomphe that his mother brought home from Paris in the 1930s. After most everything had slipped away, I know that Milton managed to hang on to this memento until the end. Milton apologized for the condition of the house, blaming it on the kids and maintaining that he had a “military mind.” By this time, I had already deduced otherwise.

The small, cramped kitchen was piled high with dirty dishes. I believe the coffee was already on. He pulled a cup out of the sink, turned it up, looked at it, then put it back. He repeated this with another cup. The third cup he pulled out of the sink was apparently clean enough, and so he poured me a cup of coffee. Before leaving the kitchen, he leaned down to light his cigarette on the gas burner of the stove.

Milton continued his tour of the house. He seemed most proud of a 1840 Austrian armoire in the main bedroom, a wedding gift from his mother. This piece now sits in the hallway of our home. As money became desperate in coming years, he sold off the antiques, one by one. Milton called up one day and offered the armoire to us. I would have just given him the money, but it was a point of pride with him that we take the furniture. The hallway narrowed towards the back of the house, making room for a steep stairway to the attic, hidden behind a doorway. He led me up the stairs to the attic, but we did little more than poke our heads above the floorboards. Milton’s grandfather had an old maid sister who had lived in the house. For many years, Milton believed that the place was haunted by the spirit of his Great Aunt Geneva, and that the eeriness was centered on her old trunk in the attic. One day he climbed the stairs, pulled the trunk down, loaded it into the back of one of the Thunderbirds and dumped it in a bar ditch of a back country road, having never looked inside. According to Milton, the hauntings ceased from that date.

We parted company with mutual assurances that we would be back in touch with the other. And we were. I cannot believe what an innocent I was at the time. I found myself fascinated with my new found friend.

In time, Milton’s wife left for town, with the near-grown children in tow. Allene moved into an apartment in town, and before long, Milton joined her, having lost the house itself. To my knowledge, Milton never agonized over the course his life had taken, being content with a good read, some coffee and nicotine. One of the last things I was able to do for Milton was to sneak some Copenhagen in to him in the hospital. The first time he asked, I agreed but hoped he would forget about it. He did not. He called me the next day about it, and so I bought a can of snuff for the first time in my life. Milton thought he had pulled one over on the nurses, but they knew he had it all along. We all have our particular addictions and weaknesses. He knew mine and he did not try to deny his own--alcohol and pain medications. Over 20 years ago, however, Milton gave up drinking all on his own, never looking back.

The great tragedy of his life had to be the loss of one of the triplets in a 1987 traffic accident. As might be expected, Milton had failed to reserve a place for himself in the family plot of their community cemetery. And so, Milton’s body has been cremated, and his ashes will be interred tomorrow at the foot of this son’s grave. Afterwards, friends and family will gather at our house for a meal.

In recent years, Milton came back around to the Primitive Baptist Church of his youth. He was a thorough-going Calvinist, a theological construct that has always baffled me. Of course, as Milton would say—“I was predestined not to understand.” But we never argued religion, as we each respected the other too much for that. Milton was intrigued by my becoming Orthodox, and would often question me about the beliefs and practices of same. In our discussions, he would invariably remark on how this was just like the Primitive Baptist Church! Like I say, I never argued religion with him, but the only similarity between the Orthodox and the Primitive Baptists is the scarcity of their numbers in this region. But Milton was indeed something of a biblical scholar, particularly in the Old Testament.

A few years after meeting Milton, I would gain another great friend. His eccentricities run in a different direction, but he is no less colorful. I think about what my life would have been like if I had never met either of these great, good friends—or if I had never met my wonderful wife, for that matter. For better or for worse, I am largely the man I am now because of their influences. Only by my ongoing friendship with them did I awake from my stupor and really begin to engage the wider world. I know that for some, my own life is now cast within the context of eccentricity. For that I say, “thank you, Milton” and May Your Memory Be Eternal.


Sophocles said...


I cannot tell you how much this warmed my soul. Thank you. My good Lord, I so enjoyed seeing the posts of Milton, especially when Owen had his old site. Wit and charm with power.

I am so sorry for your loss but in another way, having read your piece, maybe I shouldn't be.

Memory Eternal to Milton.

Fr Joseph Huneycutt said...

Now I mourn that I am not your friend! A beautiful piece -- THANKS!

May God rest his soul.

Anonymous said...

So sorry for your loss, John.

Dn. David said...

May his memory be eternal. What a beautiful reflection.

Lotar said...

I'm so sorry, I always enjoyed Milton back in the ol' Ochlophobist glory days. Your recollections of him are strikingly beautiful. May his memory be eternal.

Clint said...

Memory Eternal, Milton! I enjoyed our few interactions on this blog in the comments. I am sad to hear of his passing, but touched by your recollections.

elizabeth said...

Memory Eternal! I remember him from the blog world, comments on your blog; once he even commented on mine, admiring my photos. A very kind man. So wonderful to read about him; I am so glad you have been given such a friendship; how hard it is to lose him. I am sorry for the pain of this separation... Memory Eternal!

Bill M said...

What a moving tribute. Friendship - the true kind - is hard to come by, and so the loss of one is deep. God be with you in your sorrow...

Theron said...

Memory Eternal, Milton! John thank you for sharing this, and Milton's own blog will be missed by this reader.

John said...

I am very sorry about Milton's passing. I just guessed he was older than 64. Do you know where his family was from in north Alabama. I am in NW Alabama.

Anna said...

Memory Eternal! Condolences for your loss.

s-p said...

John, I'm deeply touched by your memoir and sorrowful to read that Milton has passed. I haven't been reading blogs the last few months, I regret missing this. Memory eternal. He is someone I would have enjoyed meeting.

aaronandbrighid said...

I just now saw this, John--a fine tribute. As you know, I never got along with Milton, but I certainly pray he may rest in peace. Perhaps if we had met in person things might have been different.