Today is March 8, 1994 and I’ll begin writing my memories for you about our time in Cuba. The information will be based on how it was then, many years ago …"
HAMILTON – Janet Miller didn’t start out to become an author.
Sixteen years ago this month, she decided to write to her only daughter, Frances.
It was just going to be a simple thing. A letter about the time in the 1960s their family spent at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Memories captured and passed along.
Back then, Miller – who was 74 at the time – had no idea just how long the journey to finish that letter would become.
Years would pass and the letter turned into chapters. A story slowly unfolded.
This week, the boxes filled with her book arrived in Hamilton.
“I’ve always liked to write, but I never thought I was writing a book – it was just a letter she had asked me for,” Miller said. “She wanted me to write down things that I remembered.”
So she began to read her journals and looked through all the old photographs that documented that short time so many years ago.
“There were so many good memories,” Miller said. “And there were some that weren’t so good.”
"Oh God, the twig is bent young! I tried to teach you that all humans are created equal and were basically good, trustworthy, and honest. Things might happen to warp a person, but if treated fairly, each would respond in a like manner. I believe this for the most part … Too bad, but that isn’t always true. I learned my first big lesson about that at Guantanamo Bay in the early 1960s."
Miller was born in 1920 into a sheep rancher’s family in eastern Montana’s Garfield County. The nearest town to the family’s homestead was Jordan, some 50 miles away over a rugged dirt road.
She was the eldest child and her folks weren’t keen on the idea of sending her away for schooling.
“Back then, some people thought it wasn’t that necessary for a girl to have an education,” said her daughter, Frances Matlock.
But Miller had a mind of her own.
She worked in the fields cutting corn and carefully put the money she earned aside until she had $1. That’s what the mailman charged folks for a ride to town.
And then she packed up her things and went to the mail stop.
When she arrived in Jordan, the mailman dropped her off at the school superintendent’s home. And shortly thereafter, Miller was officially enrolled.
“Her family thought she’d run away at first,” Matlock said.
When Miller was 19 when she met a young construction worker named Harvey Glasspoole. Three weeks later they were married.
When Glasspoole re-enlisted in the U.S. Navy, his young wife followed from base to base.
They eventually found their way to Guantanamo Bay and whole new way of life.
"The men openly studied the female physique with an eye toward a possible sexual encounter. Both you and I, as newcomers to this culture, felt uncomfortable, as if we were being visually undressed when a man leaning on a post or in a doorway candidly looked us up and down. After returning to the United States, I missed it. Back in our country when I’d go to gas the car the attendant would simply ask, 'Fill ’er up?’ instead of a Cuban saying 'How beautiful you are. Come away with me.' "
Over the years, Miller would read through her journals, look through the photographs and remember that time that changed her family’s life forever.
And then ever so carefully she’d put those memories to paper.
A few years ago, Miller’s health took a turn for the worse. And when she moved from her Hamilton home to a place with constant care, Matlock discovered the letter her mother had started so long ago – and decided it should become a book.
She scoured hundreds of slides her family had taken during their time at Guantanamo and worked with publishers to make it happen. The book contains 275 photographs.
“The gift here is that she’s still living and able to experience sharing this book with others and to be able to hold it in her hand,” Matlock said.
Miller turned 90 this year.
"During this time I came to believe – and still do – that sometimes that which is legally wrong is morally right. Many of our decisions are based on convictions and value that are not black or white. There have been times in my life when I’ve thought, 'If pain is growth, then I don’t want to grow any more.' "
On this day, Miller is rereading her words about the day her life turned upside down.
She had been caught sending jewelry and money overseas for the Cuban nationals she’d come to know and love.
Miller lost her government job for a time after a package containing contraband was discovered. Six months later, she and her children were among the 2,000 civilians abruptly evacuated as a result of the Cuban missile crisis.
Her marriage in tatters, Miller and her children moved to the Bitterroot Valley with her parents.
Miller said the memories are bittersweet.
“They are also sad in a lonely way. I enjoyed being there and I know I’ll never see it again.“
"We hear or read about a tragic situation in the news. Then, we go about our lives and forget. Even if we do remember, say prayers, or send money, we don’t really understand unless we are personally involved. I know I can’t explain this so it can be fully understood, except in our own memories …
I hope this lengthy letter helps you understand the people each became and the historical significance of our time in Cuba.
I love you,
Ravalli Republic editor Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or at email@example.com.