As a young kid you don’t really know much about the people you hang out with. You just know things like they are in your class, they make you laugh, they make you cry, they have cool shoes…etc. Of course in a small town you know where people live, who their parents are and the names of their siblings. You know what they eat for lunch and where their school locker is at and whether or not they are going to be eligible that week to play sports. You know that kind of stuff. You may even know what their parents do for a living. Usually though, there are some pretty unique and remarkable details about their life you have no clue about because at the time they just didn’t matter. What mattered was they were your friend and you played dodge ball with them or raced them on the swings to see who could pump the highest and jump the farthest.
That’s what I discovered recently. The unique and quite remarkable details of a former classmate’s life. I found out this weekend that my classmate Ian “Chee” Miller spent his first year of life as a BABY in a walled tent outside of Chicken on a gold claim. Yes, you heard me. A tent. In the interior of Alaska where temperatures drop to temperatures nobody really wants to be in but they have to because they live in Tok or some such place. His parents found the ad for a mining claim in “Mother Earth” magazine while they were living in Washington State and decided to just go for it. He lived on this claim until he was old enough to go to school and then they moved to Tok. I didn’t know that. I just knew Chee was taller than me, he tormented me like most boys do in school, he had siblings and he had the best diabolical laugh in the class which he would do as he rubbed his hands together and waggled his eyebrows. That’s when I would sing the Mon-Chee-Chee song to him. I was good at tormenting too.
As Chee and I caught up over the past week thanks to the networking of Facebook, he sent me a picture that captured my heart. A picture taken in Hatcher Pass of a windsock. It was a picture he took on a memorial flight to honor his older brother James Jarrett Miller who had passed away. It was so special and so “Alaska” that I asked Chee if it would be okay to share his picture. To share his story. To share his brother. He graciously said yes and it was an honor to hear the details and the memories of my former Tok classmate.
I asked him, “When you think of your brother, what one word comes to mind.” He of course struggled to find that one word like most of us would. But I think if you really sit and think about someone you love and miss you can maybe find that one thing that maybe best defined them. For Chee, it was the word “fearless”. Because Jarrett approached everything in life without fear. It was true in his paragliding stunts as well as his everyday life.
Some of you may not be familiar with James Jarrett Miller so I will give you a little background. He was also known as “Fan Man”. An extreme parachutist and paraglider. To me he was just Chee’s older brother. He gained infamy for his various stunts such as flying into the Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe fight at Caesar’s Palace, crashing a Bronco’s and Raider’s game in L.A., skydiving into the middle of a world cup soccer match in England, and my personal favorite, using a powered paraglider to land on top of Buckingham palace. Chee however had to disagree with me. He said his most memorable stunt was Jarrett paragliding into the Evander Holyfield heavy weight fight. But his favorite stunt was watching Jarrett fly across the ocean off Mount Roberts to Douglas Island. No one had ever done it before and now they do it annually.
Although Chee didn’t really grow up with Jarrett (Jarrett was 13 years older and left for college while Chee was still young.) his brother always visited and Chee always anticipated those visits. He was excited to see him and excited to hear about all of his adventures. Wouldn’t we all be? Jarrett had moved to a town right by Las Vegas and had met a guy who was into paragliding. Jarrett, being an extreme guy took to it. He already loved sky diving so it made perfect sense to fall in love with paragliding. In fact, Jarrett loved flying of any sort. He said when he was a child he dreamed of being able to fly all the time. The sports crashing later on in Jarrett’s life became his way of expressing his wild side. When Chee asked Jarrett about landing in the ring at Caesar’s Palace Jarrett loved the fact that he stopped the two toughest guys in the world from fighting even just for a minute. He loved breaking the rules and ruffling feathers.
When I asked Chee about the significance of the windsock he puts up every year to remember Jarrett, what he shared was full of brotherly wisdom. He said that the wind is super important when paragliding. You must take off and land into the wind. This is due to lift and speed. Chee said they would just throw grass or something into the air to see which way the wind was blowing. This was an important lesson he had forgotten once. He crashed hard and got hurt and after that Jarrett always asked Chee, “Do you know which way the wind is blowing?” It became sort of a joke between them. Whenever they were unsure of something they would ask that question and laugh. But under the laughter they both knew how important it really was to be in the know. To really know which way the wind was blowing.
Finally I asked Chee what was so special about Hatcher’s Pass. Why he was drawn there to remember his brother every year. He said they practiced paragliding there a lot. Jarrett loved flying there. The beauty of it and the fact that the wind was almost always perfect. The altitude was great but it was a more advanced place to fly. You had to have some experience to fly there so he thinks for Jarrett, it was not only a challenge but it was dangerous. That fed to his extremist attitude. Chee even remembers watching a man fall to his death there. It was living on the edge for Jarrett to fly Hatcher’s Pass. It was rugged. It was raw. That’s what drew him there, and that is why Chee goes every year and sets up a windsock to remember. To remember which way the wind is blowing.
James Jarrett Miller passed away in 2002. He lived an adventurous life. He lived an extreme life. He lived a fast life. But that was second. He was first a son and he was first a brother. He was first a little boy who simply dreamed of flying. And he did. Here’s to the children and the brothers of the north…Here’s to Growing Up Alaska.
Special thanks to Chee Miller for sharing his memories and this photo of Hatcher’s Pass.
– Niki Breeser Tschirgi