by Buckley Jensen
Fifty six years ago on the 24th of August, Monticello suffered the most horrific, painfully haunting event of its 124 year history. In a single second, an enormous explosion leveled the Lariat Café, killing 16 people, severely injurng more than 50 others and changing the lives of all who witnessed it forever. It made headlines across the nation and around the world.
This writer was a 12-year-old boy, fleet of foot and at the scene within minutes. I paid for that experience with a lifetime of memories so vivid that for years I awoke from horrible dreams drenched in sweat. I would drag myself from bed to check all the pilot lights in the house. I was terrified of the invisible, horrible power of gas. I knew what it could do.
The Rex and Beverly Miller family, from Garden City, KS, had visited Mesa Verde that day, 56 years ago and were on their way west when they decided to stop for supper in Monticello. Their daughter Jackie, age eight, and their son Gerald, age six, were with them.
As they ate in the crowded restaurant, an explosion blew every brick in the building outward, lifted the entire roof above the treetops, and threw people through windshields in the parking lot and others out onto the highway.
Then, with a thunderous roar, the roof came crashing down and pinned people under tons of debris. What haunted me most over the years were the screams and cries I heard coming from under that roof. Luckily, the building did not catch fire or the death toll would have been much higher.
Six-year-old Gerald Miller regained consciousness in St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, CO. He asked the nurses where his mom and dad were. He was told by people he didn’t know that his mother, father and sister had all been killed in the explosion in Monticello.
Relatives came from Kansas and took Gerald home. An Aunt and an Uncle raised him. But for some reason his new mother and father made known to little Gerald that the tragedy that took his family was not something to be discussed.
Gerald grew up, married, had his own family and has become a successful banker. He calls his foster parents mother and dad, but for more than half a century, he has thought of the event in Monticello that destroyed his family.
On August 14, 2012, Gerry Miller and his wife drove to Monticello for the first time with the hope that revisiting the area might bring some kind of closure. They canvassed the town looking for information and people who would be willing to share their memories of the event. They wanted to see the exact spot where the Lariat had stood.
They went to the San Juan Record. They got a copy of the article I wrote on September 7, 2006. They went out to the Bargain Barn and talked to my wife. They told Marcia of their desire to talk to someone who had been an eyewitness. I had left my cell phone in the truck at work and Marcia could not reach me while the Miller’s were at the Barn, but she told me about them when I saw her at 6p.m.
I called them immediately. They were already on their way to Moab, but said they would be happy to come back to Monticello if I would talk to them.
It is difficult to articulate the rush of emotion and memory that accompanied our time together. To think that this man who sat beside me had been under that roof that night so long ago as a little boy nearly reduced me to tears. I try to imagine the impact the tragedy has had on his life. In a word, our visit evoked emotions, long pent up in me, and for which I have no words to adequately express.
We met at the library, where we had the privacy of the meeting room. We were asked to leave at closing time. We talked more standing on the highway next to our cars and then in the Temple parking lot.
As the sun set, I bid the Millers farewell and promised that if I ever get to Garden City, I would look them up. They have a standing invitation to visit the Jensens anytime they come this way. I kidded them a little about what I could show them in San Juan after living their entire lives in Kansas with all that flatlander “scenery.”
We exchanged hugs. I had a hard time keeping a couple of errant tears from showing up as they drove off. Thanks Gerry and Bev.
It is a powerful healing experience to talk to those who have triumphed over unspeakable tragedies in their lives. There have been times in my life when I have met strangers whom I felt like I had known long before I met them. My visit with the Millers was that kind of an experience.
Our visit did as much for me as I hope it did for them.
I have tried to imagine the book that could be written, if the details of all the lives that were shattered here in Monticello a half century ago could be written.