St. Petersburg Times: Special report


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

In September, more than a month after he returned from Paris, Jim sent Ertl a letter.

"Dr. Ertle," he wrote, misspelling the name.

"My degree is in sociology, and I am a writer and a pilot. I have a son who is 12" -- this was Ivonne's son, Adrian -- "and a daughter 21/2 years old, both of whom need an active father . . . .

"I am well aware that your surgery will not, in and of itself, make me walk. I have realistic expectations, I believe, and great determination . . . .

"If I fail, so be it. But with your help I believe I can regain useful mobility, and a more useful life. I also feel we may well provide some badly needed revision to the local perception of what is possible.

"My most difficult task is to maintain faith that I will even get a chance to walk, in the face of a knowledge desert, much negativism and disinterest."

Ertl's assistant called him a week or so later with good news. The doctor thinks your case sounds promising. He wants to operate.

When? Jim asked.

Sometime in the next couple of months. The doctor's very busy, she told him.

* * *

Jim sat in his scooter in his living room and rolled back and forth as if he were pacing. He was upset that he had not gone to Ybor City for the massive Halloween street party the night before. He had thought: Who wants to stare at 80,000 belt buckles?

Without legs, Jim believed, he could not fly his plane that now sat unused at the airport. Without legs, he could not live in Paris. Without legs, he could not be attractive to women. Without legs, he could not be Jim Miller.

He asked himself, "What's become of my daring? I never used to do the sensible thing."

More and more, he felt stagnation enveloping his life.

His divorce was going slowly. He had hospital bills to pay and no salary to pay them. His lawsuit against the drivers who caused the accident wasn't moving quickly. A settlement seemed far away, and he was depending on that money to pay for the $50,000 surgery in California.

Sometimes Giselle came to stay for a day or two. Jim's transformation during these visits from a solitary and morose figure into a playful father was remarkable. He cuddled with her at nap time. "Many mumbling mice are making music at midnight in the moonlight," he would read. Giselle would make him flower bouquets from wrapping paper and yogurt containers. One day she presented him with a small stuffed animal: "Here, Daddy, someone for you to talk to."

Mostly, Jim seemed lonely. His days seemed empty of engagements and people. With the exception of Phil, the handyman who lived with Jim for a time, I almost never saw anybody at Jim's house.

On the few occasions when he encountered people in public or when people would visit him at home, he would talk manically about himself. He was so desperate for interaction he couldn't help himself. He wondered if he was boring people. Thanksgiving Day he prepared a enough food for five guests, but only two stayed for the meal.

* * *

On the first day of December, almost a year after his accident, Jim wrote a second letter to Ertl.

"To refresh your memory, I am a bilateral traumatic above the knee amputee . . . ."

He complained that he had tried to reach Ertl by phone, but had heard nothing for six weeks. When would he get the surgery, he wanted to know.

"I struggle each day to hold on to my strength and my faith that I will get my chance. We both know that with each passing day my chance gets slimmer.

"I try to hold onto the few job prospects that are available to a legless pilot. I have a 3-year-old daughter who badly needs a useful dad, and who may lose him.

"I have no comfortable retirement awaiting me, and need to work to eat.

"If you continue to put me off or ignore me until it is too late, then at least have the kindness to tell me, so that I can begin to cope with a life in a chair.

"If we fail in this, will it be because I lacked the needed courage? Bull. Will it be because all the local surgeons who wrote me off -- and wrote off your procedure . . . as 'exotic and unproven' -- were right?

"Or is this 58-year-old above-the-knee amputee too much for you to handle?"

"Your silence, your lack of even a phone call or a plan gives the impression that you have written me off. I have not given up on myself. Will you give up on me, without even a try?

"It seems that I deserve a better chance than this, and it seems that my chance is in your hands."

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