On Monday afternoon, at the foot of the Tillie Miller Bridge just before the road curls skyward out of town over the Carrabelle River, the community joined in an unveiling ceremony for a highway sign.
County Commissioner William Massey, who was just 9-years-old when his uncle was killed 48 years ago, held one end of the sign that bore the name SP4 Robert Clifford Millender Memorial Highway, and in smaller letters at the bottom that this stretch of road was so designated by the 2017 Legislature of Florida.
On the other end was Tourist Development Council Director Curt Blair, and the two men tried their best to steady the sign on an easel as if it were a landscape painting at auction. The crowd grieved quietly, and clapped politely, as they together reflected in their hearts the living portrait behind this standard sized and constructed Florida Department of Transportation sign, now stamped in large reflective letters that passing motorists might notice for a moment or two before they head west to Apalachicola.
If one of the kids in the backseat Googled it, they would learn that in March 1969, a month after he arrived for his tour of duty, the life of Army infantryman Cliff Millender was ended at 21 by shrapnel from a land mine, during the Vietnam War.
His kin were all there for the ceremony, the Millender and Mock families whose blood was shed on the nation’s behalf. Cliff’s older brother Gordon was there, and sister Shirley, who had hoped her younger brother wouldn’t have to go to war, until Uncle Sam decided the question, with no time for even a letter before she got the dreaded word.
Cliff’s parents were not, his mom Estelle having died from a stroke while preparing to visit her son in Japan, where he lay in a coma after a month of several largely futile surgeries. Nor his dad Jessie, whose life ended a little more than a year after the deaths of his wife and son.
The ceremony, which opened with the modest rumble of a Patriot Guard motorcycle procession, was carried by Cliff’s younger brother Larry, whose tender words rippled past the ears of the audience like a father’s hand through a child’s hair.
“This means a lot to us, the Millender family,” he said, sharing remembrance of when he and his twin brother Garry, just freshman at Carrabelle High School, got the news.
“It changed our life, it changed our family, It destroyed our family,” Larry said. “It truly uprooted our family in a huge way, in a big way.”
With his younger sister, Nita Molsbee at this side, the other four siblings in the audience save eldest daughter Josephine, who lives in North Carolina, he offered a thank you as big as the lettering that read Cliff on the two cakes, one vanilla and one chocolate, served following the ceremony.
“I’m grateful today. I appreciate everybody who came out today,” said Larry, praising Blair, now largely retired from a bustling Tallahassee lobbyist career, for his work on the family’s behalf. “I think of the loss we went though and that we would come to a day it would be worth it.”
Pastor of a non-denominational Christian church in Tallahassee, he reminded the audience of about 125 that the occasion makes us mindful of the sacrifices made for our freedom, and for the blessings bestowed on America.
Larry prayed for “wisdom, discretion, insight and guidance” to be bestowed upon the nation’s leaders as they make rules to govern us.
“We’re grateful for all of you today,” he said.
He introduced his son, named after Cliff, who was born four years after the uncle he never met was gone. He and his wife Angela were there, and their son Dakota, and daughters Sydney and Aiyana.
His great-uncle was part of “an army that had died for our country,” said Dakota. “I also feel bad about the others who died serving that army.”
The Millenders homeschool their children, and teach them respect for the country, opening with the pledge in the privacy of their own home.
In 2007 Cliff lifted Angie on his shoulders as she took a rubbing of his uncle’s name off the Wall in Washington.
“I grew up with pictures of my uncle Cliff, I grew up with the memories,” said the young Millender namesake, who shares a love of cars that reflects that of his uncle, who used to drive a 1966 Chevelle Supersport 396, a risk taker.
Jimmy Mosconis, in his brief remarks about Vietnam, mentioned that it was the fresh recruits who often were killed, before their months in the war taught them to eat dirt quickly.
“A lot of the young guys got killed early on,” he said.
Mosconis directed the audience’s attention to the display filled with testimonies of Cliff’s life, and of his military service punctuated by the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart.
“Today is Robert C. Millender’s day. Period. Period,” said Mosconis.
Harry Gray, who was valedictorian in the Carrabelle High School Class of ’68, when Molsbee was salutatorian, came up from Tampa for the ceremony.
Gray, who had hiked the ball as Cliff’s center when he quarterbacked the Blue Devils, was chief of a helicopter crew in Vietnam, at the same time Cliff was there. While over there, Gray had learned of the death of Lt. Johnny P. Stephens, who was an assistant football coach in Carrabelle in fall 1967 when Cliff played, but no one told Gray at the time about Cliff’s death.
“Cliff was a risk taker, Cliff was also a leader,” Gray said, in an interview afterwards. “With only two weeks in a war zone, he was still acting like the Carrabelle High School quarterback. He was trained to lead, he was trained to achieve.”
Carrabelle Mayor Brenda La Paz opened the ceremony with an introduction of the many dignitaries and guests on hand.
Kayleigh Hardy sang an unembellished, moving version of the National Anthem.
State Senator Bill Montford, who got the job done in Tallahassee along with State Rep Halsey Beshears after Massey first came to them and to Blair after he had seen such signs in South Florida, spoke first.
“God has blessed this country in ways we don’t pause enough to recognize,” he said. “God has given us a gift, regardless of where we live, we live in America. We can continue to live in the greatest country in the world.
“Cliff Millender gave all and we’re here today to recognize him and to honor his family,” Montford said.
Beshears spoke briefly, “ Hope this is a happy day for you,” he told the family. “It’s such a great honor for Cliff. I’m happy for the family and I’m happy we got this done,”
Jay Mears from the Patriot Guard presented Larry with a plaque, for “a true American hero.” Paul Shelton, from Knoxville, Tennessee, who served in the same platoon with Cliff, and was there the morning he got wounded.
“It’s not just a band of brothers. It’s more than that. When one of us passes, it hurts us all,” said Shelton, noting that there are 25 left alive in the Dirty Dog Delta company.