'Wock was strong enough and good enough to come back' A Letter from Berryville, Va.


Berryville, Va.--How does it feel when a good soul comes back from a Planet of the Blessed to visit a loved one on Earth?

It has happened twice to Kent Miller Jr. and I came to Berryville to share in it.

"Your scalp tingles, and you feel like he's right inside of you. I couldn't see anything or hear anything or smell anything, it was just a feeling. Just a sensual kind of a feeling inside that made me feel very complete and whole," remembered Mr. Miller, who said each visit woke him from a sound sleep.

"It's never happened with my mother and father, and I was pretty close to them. But Wock was strong enough and good enough to come back and it made me feel like everything was great and right with the world," he said. "It had to be Wock. I know it had to be Wock. It couldn't have been anyone else."

The man Mr. Miller calls Wock is his uncle, the late Watterson Miller; a one-time heir to the fortune of the Louisville Courier-Journal and to the legacy of its founder and his grandfather, Henry Watterson.

Watterson Miller was very much alive when I met him in the summer of 1983 and positioned only to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, having squandered or given away most of his wealth and all of his possessions except for a bed and a leaky waterfront shack filled with books.

He called himself Mack then, a self-described "garbage man" who cleaned up at a beachfront hotel in Ocean City, swam a mile out to sea and back every day when the weather was good, preached the gospel of sobriety to any smokehound who would listen, and lived a strange and solitary life on the West Ocean City fishing docks.

"He was the only really unselfish person I have ever known," said Mr. Miller.

My friendship with Wock was built on visits to his plywood shack for long talks about literature and history and the spiritual world; the friendship was kept alive with letters when I couldn't make it to the shore.

It ended with his death at age 83 on July 9, 1986, and into that void came Kent Miller Jr., the one member of Wock's family who, like me, found mystery and power in this odd old man and was moved to be near it.

Wock's ashes were tossed from a clam boat into the breaking Atlantic, where he swam for 40 years and had hoped to die so the fish and crabs would be his undertakers. A small granite stone was erected in Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville next to the grave of Henry Watterson, his famed grandfather who couldn't understand why his namesake would rather get drunk and go swimming than work in a newsroom.

I wrote Wock's obituary for The Sun and filed away notes for a book he did not want written. Perhaps because his example often shamed me, I didn't concentrate on him very much after his death, although he remains the most extraordinary character I have known in a career devoted to such people.

But whenever I was at a place in life without peace or comfort, I would be reminded of this man who was kicked out of Dartmouth in the Roaring '20s and used the opportunity to drink and womanize his way through Europe; who gave up booze the same week he gave away a beach house and a yacht to a poor family in Virginia Beach; who, in the midst of misery and sobriety, put a pistol to his head before crying out to God, amazed that help arrived in a shaft of white light that encouraged him to try prayer.

Redemption, he warned me more than once, is a gift offered to a man only so many times.

As his spirit hovered on the far horizon of my life, it drew near the heart of his nephew; twice waking Kent Miller Jr. and filling him with peace and light. Its departure would leave him empty and puzzled, desirous of finding it again.

Somehow, Mr. Miller persuaded himself that the two of us together may be able to deliver Wock's goodness to the world. We were out of touch for years when he called a few weeks ago, asking if we could get together to talk about Wock.

I met him here in Berryville, just over the West Virginia line from Charles Town, where his wife runs a little antique store. In a room carpeted with a Chinese wool rug and filled with Imari porcelain, Chippendale mirrors, carved jade and Victorian mourning pieces, remembered a man now dead nearly five years.

"You know, after someone has been gone for several years, people lose interest and forget about them," said Mr. Miller, fearing that the world will forget a dead man it barely knew when he was alive. "Every Friday the beggars would line up at his little shack, and he never refused to give a handout, from little kids all the way up. A lot of them were drunks," said Mr. Miller. "One family he helped for years and years worked on a chicken farm. They made very little salary and got all the chickens they could eat. They ate chicken seven days a week, so Wock gave them money to buy steak once in awhile."

I told him how grateful I was to be counted among the few strangers ever invited back to Wock's home and how, in my Highlandtown row house, I still had a little wooden saloon chair from the shack.

The stories filled several hours on a sunny afternoon, but they didn't satisfy Kent Miller, a polite, restless man who kept saying that a story for a national publication would accomplish something that he couldn't articulate.

"I always thought a nice article for the Reader's Digest would help," he said, gazing into empty space.

The more Mr. Miller talked, the more it was apparent to me that despite the visits from his uncle, the unique peace Wock found in hard work, prayer and poverty was unavailable to him.

Wock once told me: "When I'm a little bit depressed, I hope this is the last life and there won't be anymore. But when I'm not depressed, I think that maybe the next one will be a little bit better and maybe, if I'm exceedingly good for a life or two, maybe I'll get to a planet of the blessed and start a new life."

Curious about the lives left behind, I put in with Mr. Miller to return to Ocean City next week; to go down to the shore with a list of people who benefited from Wock and sift through their memories.

I have been on such pilgrimages before -- to Marion, Va., seeking the ghost of Sherwood Anderson; to the foot of Baltimore's Broadway looking for black and white traces of a lost childhood; and to the distant cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, ears perked for the moaning wails of long gone bluesmen.

This is the revelation of the obvious I have learned: Dead people don't keep time with their old mailing addresses.

On each of those trips I discovered among the living a better story than I had hoped for from the dead: The broke and lonely gambler in Marion, well-read, starved for company, and dying to write; the Fells Point bar owner who keeps the family saloon open in honor of her father, who established it when skipjacks docked on Thames Street; and the young Delta huckster roaming the countryside in a huge yellow Buick, looking first for surviving bluesmen to teach him a few guitar licks and second for customers to buy household goods from the trunk of his car.

What I know is this: We won't find Watterson Miller in Ocean City, but his spirit will surely accompany us there.

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun.

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