St. Petersburg Times: Special report

Intro

E-mail the writer:
Bill Duryea

Day One:
Deciding to go
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Day two:
The way there
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Day three:
When you arrive
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Walking to Paris: Story by Bill Duryea,  Photographs by Bill Serne  of the Times

I first wrote to Jim Miller a little more than nine months after his accident. I remembered reading news stories about the man who'd lost his legs and wanted to know how he was faring. I don't know what kind of answer I expected, but it was not the one I got.

"I certainly could just produce a simple response, and perhaps give a noncontroversial interview that would interest but not disturb your readers," Jim wrote back. "But the event has stirred up larger areas of concern for me. . . . The consequences of a profit-driven health care system have been disastrous for me." I was intrigued, though he didn't offer any more details.

He also sent me an essay titled "Risk" that he had written after his accident. (I learned later that it had been published in a magazine for airplane enthusiasts.) I took the essay as his way of introducing himself.

In the essay he wrote about the death of his first wife in a traffic accident, a day he described as "the worst of his life." He wrote about how being a pilot, and Ivonne, helped him through his grief.

Then he explained briefly the circumstances of his own accident and how flying helped him recover from that, too. "I am grateful to be alive," he wrote, "and to be able to fly again. ... I have a lot of legwork to do before I can fly solo, but I do fly regularly."

About his physical recovery, he wrote: "I am up on 'stubbies' -- prosthetic legs that are simple sockets with very short fittings and small crude feet attached. Sort of like training wheels. I cannot tell you how much joy I take from just staggering around on these things!"

The last part of the essay was a retelling of a trans-Atlantic flight he had made some years before with Ivonne and his stepson, Adrian.

Approaching Greenland for refueling in the middle of the night, Jim's Cessna descended through a thick layer of ice crystals. Static electricity made the sound of frying bacon in his headset. Jim looked out the cockpit window and saw blue flames flicking like small lightning bolts from every sharp edge of the plane's fuselage. He was enthralled by the combination of beauty and danger.

"When I begin to feel sorry for myself," he wrote, "I remember this and the scores of other marvels my life has been blessed with. I have made peace with risk this night. I have taken unto myself the responsibility to protect those I love and I have found that I cannot truly do that without protecting them from wonder at the same time. No risk is no life."

Here was a man, I thought, who had lived a rich life and could articulate his passions in an engaging way. I proposed that we meet for lunch. He was already at the table when I arrived. I noticed he was not wearing the "stubbies" he had mentioned in the essay. He was sitting in a motorized scooter, and because he was wearing shorts, it was impossible not to see the jagged scars of his stumps.

Jim explained that he had tried to wear prosthetic legs, but they were too painful. Contrary to his upbeat tone in the essay, Jim's recovery was stalled. Nine months after the accident he was no closer to walking than when he had left the hospital.

It seemed to me that Jim was struggling with the difference between his life as it now existed and the life he had once enjoyed. The essay was Jim's best version of his new life, an act of optimism one would expect from a man who wanted to believe that his life was not over. Jim was adamant about pushing forward, despite the resistance he felt from the medical establishment. He agreed to let me follow his recovery.

* * *

During that lunch and a series of others over the coming weeks, I got to know the rest of Jim's story.

Before the accident Jim had stood 5 feet 10, which is what his driver's license still read even though he had renewed it since then. In photographs taken before the accident, Jim is almost always in shorts and his legs have the lean, muscled look of a hiker.

He had been in almost constant motion since he was a young man in the 1960s, burning to escape the middle-class strictures of Columbus, Ohio. In the Navy (which he joined in 1964 out of respect for his father and as an alternative to college), Jim got his first taste of Europe while sailing the Mediterranean.

He returned to Ohio State University for a second stab at a degree, but was drawn instead into politics, protesting for racial equality and against the United States' involvement in Vietnam. He met and married Joyce, an art student. They drove to Florida in a Volkswagen van with a gold ox painted on the side.

Jim and Joyce worked for a custom yacht builder in Tampa. Later, they ran their own sailmaking shop. They lived in a converted school bus. In their spare time, they built a 46-foot sailboat. Once it was done, they sailed the Caribbean for more than a decade. Jim had many skills, but none held enough appeal for him that he would be willing to sacrifice the freedom of travel for a cubicle and a regular paycheck.

When they grew weary of life aboard a boat, they returned to St. Petersburg, where, for a time, Jim and Joyce renovated and resold properties. This work had little to do with Jim's engineering and English studies at Ohio State or the undergraduate sociology degree he had earned in 1981 at the University of South Florida, but it suited Jim's talent for working with his hands. They did well enough that they could afford a $200,000 sprawling waterfront house in St. Petersburg with its own pool and dock.

Their lives took an interesting turn in the early 1990s. Jim and Joyce met Ivonne Delamora while taking a Berlitz Spanish class. Ivonne was their instructor.

Ivonne was slender and dark-haired with dramatic, wide-set eyes. Born in Mexico, she was in some ways the opposite of Joyce, who had grown up in a tiny farm town. The three became close. They traveled abroad together, using Ivonne's aptitude for languages.

Then came Joyce's death in 1993. She and Jim had been married for 24 years. Jim was devastated, but Ivonne helped him maintain some sense of continuity in his life. They married in January 1995. Ivonne was 33 and Jim was 52.

With about $400,000 from the insurance settlement Jim received after Joyce's death, they moved to France, a place Ivonne and Jim had become attached to after several trips they had taken with Joyce before she died.

Paris exerted a powerful influence on Jim. It wasn't just the culture that appealed to him, but the profound differences he saw in what Americans and the French value. Instead of anonymous suburban sprawl, Jim discovered small, self-contained neighborhoods that nourished residents' sense of community. Here was a city that did not worship wealth. Here was a city in which ideas had currency.

He would gladly have stayed there for the rest of his life, but his marriage was not as strong as the bond he felt with Paris. In March 1998, he and Ivonne had a daughter, Giselle. They had hoped a child might cement their marriage, which had been in trouble from the start. It did not. By September, they had separated. Jim was back in St. Petersburg and Ivonne returned with her children to Orlando, her hometown.

This began a difficult time for Jim. He was estranged from his family and he was not working. By the time of the accident, he was struggling with depression. Except for Giselle, he felt no attachment to Florida. The accident and his immobility had only compounded those problems.

By the time we had that first lunch, Jim had turned 58. His mussed brown hair was flecked with gray; ditto his push-broom mustache. His wide mouth and flared nostrils gave him a look of perpetual intensity. When he smiled, which wasn't often, he was at his most handsome.

photo
The Arc de Triomphe was a perfect backdrop for this snapshot of Jim Miller, Ivonne Delamora and her son, Adrian, on a trip to Paris in 1992. Jim was smitten by the city. Several years later, he and Ivonne would be married and living in Paris.

He was not shy about his opinions. He delivered them with the righteous drama of a prosecutor's closing argument. People often felt slightly awed at the breadth of his authority -- sociology, aerodynamics, electrical engineering, race car engines. Though he was not easy to agree with (every attribute of France was by definition a failing of the United States), he was difficult to ignore.

He reserved most of his anger, though, for the American health care system. He believed that because he did not have health insurance, he had been given short shrift by a system that pandered to its wealthiest patients, though he had no hard evidence to support this. He was particularly scornful of the doctors he felt were steering him toward life in a wheelchair.

I didn't understand completely why Jim was not walking yet, and it was far from clear whether the responsibility lay with the health care system or the man. Still, I understood that recovery was more rigorous and complex than I had imagined.

After all, Jim didn't have to endure this. At his age, he could have chosen to remain in a wheelchair for the rest of his life and no one would have thought twice about it.

Early on I asked Jim why he was putting himself through this ordeal.

"I know what I'm missing," he said. "That's why I'm willing to do anything to get back into the real world that I love."

That meant a return to Paris.

To return to Paris, Jim believed, he needed to walk.

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