Like most people who didn’t know he was terminally ill, I was shocked to read of the death of Bob Miller. The picture that ran in the Patriot’s obit section on March 31 showed the face of the Miller we knew: big, tough, direct, strong, someone you wouldn’t want to mess with.
I’d known him from the Boot Camp fitness program he ran at the Downey Y, in which I briefly took part, and from a number of short conversations we had at the end of the day. His locker was in the same row as mine. The first time I noticed him, he was oiling down his powerfully muscled torso with some kind of cream to treat the autoimmune disease that covered his body with angry red splotches. His head was shaved. He looked in pain all over, but stoic, as though he’d learned to live with it. I took him for a combat veteran. I’m not sure how it came about, but somehow he implied, or I inferred—falsely, as it turned out—that he’d been a Navy SEAL. Or maybe it was the basis for his training program. He had the look of someone who’d been through some very bad scenes.
He was an imposing figure with a heavy, authoritative voice. As a former Marine, I knew the type. But I sensed other qualities in him too. He wasn’t a hearty laughter, but he had a wry appreciation for the ridiculous. He was careful not to push his students beyond their limits. When I said to him, “Don’t yell at me, Bob, I had my fill of that in real boot camp,” he backed off in a way no one would notice while pushing me just as hard as the others. His encouragement was subtle, and quiet, and made you want to work harder.
The only time I socialized with him was for drinks at the Elephant Bar with some other people from his class at the Y, both male and female. He wasn’t conspicuously ill at ease. He was in fact good-natured. But you could see he really wasn’t in his element. It didn’t surprise me—that’s characteristic of full-time athletes and people who for one reason or another live by a Spartan code.
I caught glimpses of his private life, which seemed lonely, even stark. He mentioned sleeping on an Army cot in a sparse room. He mentioned his love of drawing. One night he asked me how to expedite the process of getting a passport. He’d met a ballerina somewhere. He was going to buy a new suit and fly to Rome to see her. It was the closest someone like him would ever confess to being in love. A couple of months later I saw him dressing at his locker and asked him how it went. The look on his face told me it had gone badly. There was no need to talk about it further.
When he left the Y to begin training football players at Downey High, I sometimes thought of looking him up. I felt a kinship with him, a male bond, if you will, hard to define in today’s society in which men, particularly white men, are held in bad odor by the chattering class. The metrosexual appears the cool new prototype, “woke” the latest descriptive adjective of the gender-sensitive male who’s as open to girl talk as he is to locker room braggadocio. I get
tired of the female complaint until I see us guys as predictable jerks—talking over women on dinner dates, not listening to them the way they listen to us, subtly bullying them. It’s complex, this sexual tension that goes back to the beginning of time. The big difference in our post-industrial world is that male identity is harder to come by. This isn’t something you’d talk over with Bob, but personally I felt comfortable around him.
As it turns out, so did hundreds of others. When I read of his death, I decided to go to his funeral, to pay my respects, to voice a silent regret over losing touch, to find out what felled this powerful figure (turns out it was, as a friend mentioned, bone and prostate cancer). I hoped at least a few people would show up.
The First Baptist Church of Downey was crowded front to back with mourners, friends, family, a wide variety of people whose lives he’d touched. City Councilman Rick Rodriguez officiated, telling the congregation that the entire City Council offered up a moment of silence over news of Robert “Bob” John Miller Jr.’s death. A room at the Chamber of Commerce had been named for him. Members of his family spoke, tearfully and movingly. Most people there, I discovered later, knew him from his role as a physical trainer.
This, to me, was remarkable. Bob trained people about to enter the military, or who just want to be physically fit. Around town I’ve noticed that a lot of people who do this stuff seem to enjoy being yelled at—the whole atmosphere at 24 Hour Fitness seems characterized by grim martyrdom; no pain, no gain.
“Imagine life conceived as a business of beautiful muscular organization,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald in “The Crack-Up.” “An arising, an effort, a good break, a sweat, a bath, a meal, a love, a sleep—imagine it achieved; then imagine trying to apply that standard to the horribly complicated mess of living…”
In the course of the funeral ceremony, we saw childhood and family photos, and as time went by, through boyhood, young adulthood, marriage and beyond, how Bob found his persona by building up his body. All this military deportment, including the way he dressed, was acquired to play a role. It troubled me a bit that he’d never been a real soldier.
But no one seemed to mind—even Rodriguez, who is a proud military father. On balance, I didn’t mind either. What Bob seemed to offer everyone was a definition we all seem to be losing in a society whose rules, even the good ones, are in radical flux. He took control, but he offered us a modicum of self-control that seemed a lot more immediate and satisfying for the endless uncertainty that characterizes our lives. And he did it with warmth and gentleness.
“We grieve, but in our hearts is love,” said the pastor, Greg Welch. That was a perfect description of knowing Bob Miller.