Was it his service during three wars and the need to learn about various electrical systems on ships that made Vincent Lawrence Miller’s mind so sharp—and kept it that way—all these years later?
Or was it his time as a Boy Scout leader, when he took to heart the motto, “Be Prepared?” He’s always outfitted with various pocket knives, nail clippers and pens with different tip sizes—and he knows how to use them.
At 94, Miller, whose family calls him Vince, continues to keep his hands and mind active. As a resident of Paramount Senior Living at Fredericksburg, he’s carved out several niches for himself, including being known for his wooden whittlings, his competitiveness in weekly trivia tests and his ability to complete expert-level Sudoku number puzzles in ink.
“Is there any other way?” he quipped, reaching into his shirt pocket and clicking a fine-tipped pen for emphasis.
The other critical element of his daily grooming is a black Navy hat that denotes his service in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. He’s most proud of the yellow capital letters, front and center, that designate him as a senior chief petty officer, retired.
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“Our mother was very proud of him and all he accomplished,” said Bobbe Spicer, his half-sister who is 23 years younger. “When Vince entered the war, she had to sign for him and I remember her saying that was very hard for her. He was her baby.”
Miller was 16 in 1943 and a senior in high school in Bridgeport, Conn., when he joined the service. He purposely picked the Navy because he liked the appeal of a ship with warm bunks and three square meals a day.
“I didn’t want to be digging foxholes and freezing to death here and there,” he said.
Because he was underage, he was sent to boot camp and then training schools where he learned skills that lasted a lifetime. He focused on electrical work and interior communications such as intercoms, public address systems and magnetic tapes. He even worked on machines that recorded planes landing on aircraft carriers so pilots could review the tapes and correct their mistakes.
“They did a fine job of keeping your mind going,” he said, smiling when asked if that’s why he’s still sharp. “You might say that, considering my young age.”
Miller recalls more about assignments during the waning months of World War II than during the later portions of his 23 years of service. He spent time on aircraft carriers and ships with landing craft infantry rockets. Although members of the Viet Cong were known to drop grenades on ships at all hours of the night during the Vietnam War, Miller never got close enough to the action to be in harm’s way.
Asked if he was glad or disappointed by that, he said: “A little bit of both.”
Then, he shrugged his shoulders and added: “It was service. You didn’t give it a thought. I served and it kept me away from home a lot, but oh what fun when I was at home.”
He credits his “supportive wife of 70 years,” Glenna Peasley Miller, for taking care of things at home, including their three sons and one daughter. The couple visited 46 states in their motor home after both retired. She worked for the Fairfax County Police Department and after military service, he did electrical projects as a civilian at Walter Reed Hospital, various Army bases and the Pentagon.
She died five years ago and while she was in a facility, Miller faithfully visited her every day, his sister said. The veteran then lived with his son in Fairfax until he broke his hip and shoulder and moved to the assisted-living facility in Spotsylvania County.
He brought as many woodworking tools with him as Paramount would allow. For liability reasons, the facility had to draw the line at power tools, said Gail Ford, activities manager.
But Miller kept his cache of chisels and elf-size hammers, homemade knives and a diamond hone sharpener to keep the whittling tools on point. Spicer’s husband, Bill, cuts standard 2x4s into manageable chunks and devised a portable vice that holds each block in place.
The rest is up to Miller. He has even more chisels than pens, and the sharp tools are stored in green bags that once held Crown Royal. The whiskey is such a part of his routine that his son made sure his “prescription” for 1.5 ounces a day was written into his medical records.
He has a drink each evening, mixed with root beer, lemon juice and five ice cubes.
When he’s in the building, Miller is either carving a coyote howling at the moon or, as he did before Christmas, completing orders for work boots. Small enough to fit in the palm of a person’s hand, the boots look like they belong to the elf whose hammer he uses. They’re detailed down to the tiny nail holes along each side and tread on the bottom.
He can spend up to 60 hours on one boot.
He gives away some of the carvings—like a coyote he made for the nurse who took such good care of his wife. Others he sells for $60 to $100 each.
And if that doesn’t keep him busy enough, he sets his mind on winning ribbons in the weekly trivia games. Whether it’s filling in the missing word in a name—think Hans Christian Anderson or Camilla Parker Bowles—or identifying what product goes with a particular brand, Miller regularly scores high on the games. And of course, he writes his answers in a flowing cursive script.
“We give out ribbons to those who have the best score, and he is working for the ribbons. I’m sure he’s won lots of them,” said Ford, who also admires his ability to set and meet deadlines. “He has purposes and he completes his purposes every day.”
In addition, he comes to regular resident meetings—not to complain, but to point out the good job that staff members do.
“He’s such a sweet man,” Ford said. “Everybody loves Vincent. He just sparkles.”
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425