The Tragedy of February 20, 1970

There are five children in this photograph, a still gleaned from a 1969 8mm home movie.  I am the tallest, and am standing on the far left.  My brother John Kennedy Miller, known at that time as “Jay,” stands next to me.  My younger brother Allen Michael Miller is in the middle, and my sister Brenda is fourth in line.  The fifth child, Diane Wood, is my cousin; she has taken her first baby steps.  The elderly gentleman arranging all of us in a row is my grandfather, Charles L. Bragg.

This was 1969, just before Christmas.  A few months later, there would be no more smiles.

February 20, 1970.  I was on my way home from first grade classes at Clarksville Elementary School (or as I derisively refer to it, #2 of the 12 elementary schools I attended from 1968 to 1981).  The bus dropped me off in front of my grandparents’ house on Kenwood Avenue in Slingerlands, where I and my brothers and sister lived while my mother was in the process of getting her life back together and getting involved with the bum who would eventually become my stepfather.

I walked in the unlocked house, and no one was there.  I called out for my grandfather, for my younger brothers Jay and Allen, for my younger sister Brenda.  No one was home.

No one’s home?  Good for me, I get to watch Batman on Channel 6 at 4:00 and no one can disturb me.  I was tired of seeing the first part of each cliffhanger episode and missing the second part because someone in the house wanted to watch something else.

But just as the episode was about to air, something odd happened.  Family members came over to the house – lots of them, my aunts and other relatives – and all of them seemed very upset over something.  My grandmother came home early from her state worker job, and she was visibly upset, to the point of tears.  Something was up.  I was told to turn off the television and go upstairs to my bedroom until further notice.  Oh man, I thought.  I was going to miss Batman again.

I did as was told, but instead of going upstairs and to my room, I listened from the hallway at the top of the stairs.

“How fast was he going?”

“I don’t know.”

“Has anyone gotten a hold of Paula yet?”

“I’m trying now.”

“What about Charlie, how much does he know?”

“I sent him upstairs.  We’ll tell him later.  The less he knows about it right now, the  better.”

It was February 20, 1970, a chilly Friday afternoon.  For some reason, my grandfather needed to go somewhere that day, so he packed my younger siblings into his car and he drove off.  I was at school at the time, but because Jay, Brenda and Allen were too young to stay at home unattended, Grandpa took them with him.

My grandfather was a maintenance worker for the New York Central and PennCentral Railroads, working in the 1960’s at the Selkirk railyards.  I remember stories about how, because he was working in Selkirk while his children – my mother and three aunts – were still living on Boston’s South Shore, they received free railroad passes from Boston to Albany so they could visit him as often as they wanted.

By 1970, however, my relatives had moved away from the South Shore, and were living in a small house in Slingerlands.

At this point, I am only able to reconstruct what happened due to family recollections and newspaper reports of the time.

At some point in the afternoon of February 20, 1970, my grandfather – who I think was driving a big gleaming Ford Galaxie 500 at the time, was driving on US Route 20 in the Town of Nassau when he missed a turn, skidded along Route 20, and smashed head-on into a tree.

Grandpa survived the crash with only a scratch on his forehead.  My siblings were not so lucky.

Jay was in the back seat at the time of impact; he went flying from the back seat and landed face-first into the dashboard radio.  For a very long time, he would have the circular imprint of the volume dial and radio station push-button controls on his cheek.  He would survive.

Brenda was in the back seat at the time of impact; the impact jostled her out of her seat and she landed on her back.  She underwent treatment for a back injury.  She would survive.

Allen was in the front seat.  The impact and speed of the crash – and the fact that he wasn’t wearing a seat belt – caused him to fly through the windshield.  The Times-Union, reporting the accident in their newspaper, listed his condition as critical, and that he and Brenda were taken to Albany Medical Center.  The Troy Record noted that the Nassau Rescue Squad took both Allen and Brenda to Albany Med, and that another company towed what was left of the car away.

Allen spent the next five months at a hospital, never moving, never opening his eyes, never waking up.  The family prayed.  God wasn’t listening. Less than six months after the accident, Allen Michael Miller breathed his last on August 2, 1970.

It was determined at the time that my grandfather, who never met a bottle of Cutty Sark he didn’t like, was driving with ability impaired that day.  Let’s not sugar-coat it.  He drove drunk and he killed my brother doing it.  But in 1970, seat belts weren’t mandatory.  My grandfather’s car didn’t have shoulder belts, and if he had a few nips here and there before getting behind the wheel, what was that, a misdemeanor?  Was there any sort of field sobriety test back then, a blood alcohol content meter, anything like that?  Or was public drunkenness in 1970 confined to comic appearances on television by Foster Brooks and Otis Campbell?  No way to know.  I pursued a FOIL request to the State Police (who would have patrolled US 20 at that time) turned up nothing.  No records were saved by the Town of Nassau, the Village of Nassau, the fire department, the Nassau Rescue Squad – nothing.

Of course, searching for records from a 40-year-old accident are about as difficult as assembling a jigsaw puzzle with all the pieces facing down.  As I researched what happened to my brother after that horrible 1970 car crash, I contacted the Albany County Bureau of Vital Statistics, hoping to acquire a copy of his death certificate.

Unfortunately, not being Allen’s father – or his son – or the executor of his estate – I would need to wait ten more years, until February 20, 2020 – before the 50-year statute of limitations ran out on the release of death certificates.  They told me I should contact the hospital where he was staying and ask them to ask the Bureau of Vital Statistics for the death certificate.

“Well, I’ve already asked Albany Medical Center for the information, but they need a death certificate to release that info to me.”

“Did you say Albany Medical Center, Mr. Miller?”


“That’s not the hospital we have on record.”

And at that moment, I found out something very sad.  While Allen was at Albany Med from the time of the accident – February 20, 1970, where he remained in an unconscious, vegetative state for five months – he was later transferred, on July 15, 1970, to St. Margaret’s Center for Children.  A short trip up Holland Avenue, with a right turn at Hackett Boulevard.

After speaking with a records access officer at St. Margaret’s, she explained to me what happened during that time.  St. Margaret’s in 1970 was essentially a comfort and nursing center for infants and children in their final days of life, essentially palliative care; it also helped place the babies produced by “wayward mothers” – the records access officer’s words – in foster care.  Allen stayed at St. Margaret’s, never regaining consciousness, until he finally passed away two and a half weeks later.  There was no talk of euthanasia or dying with dignity in 1970 – you went when God called you, not a day sooner.

Today, St. Margaret’s is part of the Center for Disability Services, an organization dedicated to providing care and support for the handicapped, the disabled and the developmentally challenged.  I wish the best for the hospital and its goals.

But I still need some answers.

Those answers came from one of the funeral directors at Applebee’s Funeral Home on Kenwood Avenue in Delmar.  According to their records, Allen Miller’s funeral service took place on August 5, 1970 with calling hours from 6pm to 9pm, and a prayer service at 8pm.  Allen was buried at St. Agnes Cemetery – in, as he confirmed, a little white coffin.  The funeral cost $437.72 at that time.  From there, Allen was transported to his final resting place, St. Agnes Cemetery.

The accident, the funeral and the wake – and the after-effects – wrecked my family.  It was one of the last times my biological father would be seen with my mother’s side of the family, as he drove from Massachusetts to attend the funeral and the burial.  He had very few kind words to say about what happened.  Very few words at all.  And then he went back to Massachusetts and I wouldn’t see him again for at least another decade.

In a twisted version of “protecting the perpetrator,” we were never allowed to bring up the accident in Grandpa’s presence; it was considered too painful and Grandpa didn’t need to be reminded of this terrible accident. I remember such an incident a few months after the funeral, when I asked about Allen, that one of my aunts actually spanked me – to the point of near-welts on my rear end – and told me never to mention that name in front of Grandpa ever again.

Seat belts were in cars in 1970, but they were more lap belts than anything else – and their use were optional at that time, rather than required.  Even the baby car seats used in that era barely protected a baby from anything weaker than driving over a pothole.

My mother was forever traumatized.  She could never get the image of a little white coffin out of her memory.  And many years later, when my 18-month-old cousin Tabitha Deming was killed in a horrible accident, an accident that forcefully reunited the family once more, my mother could not attend the funeral – she told me she didn’t want to see another little white coffin ever again.  My mother took this pain with her until she passed away in 2006 – nearly 36 years to the day after Allen’s passing.

In the mid-1980’s, my grandparents moved out of the Slingerlands home and bought a small house in Cobleskill.  In 1987, my grandfather passed away after a long battle with emphysema.  On the way back from his funeral, I visited the Cobleskill house and went into the attic, looking for something, anything, to remember my familial past.

Then I found it.  A collection of 8mm home movies, all stuffed in a box.  I grabbed the box and walked out of the house with it, putting it in a car for the trip back home – with the promise that I would duplicate all the films to VHS tape and give copies to any family member who wanted one.  Among the film clips in the box were vacation photos, Christmas pictures, scenes from my aunt Isabel’s wedding, a parade in Delmar with all the fire trucks from the Delmar-Elsmere-Slingerlands area – and a few short fragments of film, with my grandfather proudly staring at his five grandchildren.

It’s one of the only fragments of proof that our family was together.

Allen currently rests at St. Agnes Cemetery in Albany.  It’s hard to find his grave; at the time, the family did not have money to put a marker or a gravestone on the site.  40 years later, I still need to avail the services of the cemetery caretaker to help find his grave; and even then, I’m not sure if I’m visiting his plot or someone else’s.

My goal for 2010 is to eventually put a simple marker on Allen’s grave, in an effort to finally, after 40 years, bring closure.

Wish me luck.

UPDATE: on December 8, 2010, the marker was installed.  Read here for more information.