St. Petersburg Times: Special report

Intro

E-mail the writer:
Bill Duryea

Day One:
Deciding to go
Page 1 | Page 2
Page 3 | Page 4
Page 5

Day two:
The way there
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Page 3 | Page 4
Page 5

Day three:
When you arrive
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Page 3 | Page 4
Page 5

 
Walking to Paris: Story by Bill Duryea,  Photographs by Bill Serne  of the Times

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Jim is surrounded by his modes of transportation: a portable wheelchair, a motorized scooter and two sets of legs -- the French legs by the fireplace and the locally made pair on the floor. Next to the legs are the soft liners Jim wears over his stumps

Not long after his second daughter was born, Jim rolled his scooter up to his computer and began a search for that answer. He had an idea what he was looking for before he logged on.

It did not involve moving back to the cobblestone streets of his old neighborhood. Though he still wanted desperately to live in Paris, he didn't want to do it alone, and Ivonne was not eager to leave Orlando.

Neither did the dream involve his plane, which after more than two years had yet to be retrofitted with the hand controls he needed to fly it.

It didn't even really involve walking.

"I want to go sailing again really bad," he said.

The years he had spent sailing the Caribbean with his first wife had been some of the best of his life, Jim often said. But he and Joyce had returned to St. Petersburg without accomplishing their ultimate goal -- to sail the Atlantic and live in ports around the Mediterranean.

He wanted to fulfill that dream. To do so he needed a boat, a special kind of boat. He contacted a broker who specialized in catamarans. The broker put him in contact with a manufacturer in South Africa. In early May, Jim flew to Durban, prepared to spend $300,000 and wait nine months for the 44-foot boat to be constructed.

Ivonne did not begrudge him this dream. She understood Jim's fear of failure, his perfectionism and his dissatisfaction with suburban life.

"He needs something bigger," she said. "This is something he's wanted for a long time. Basically, it's his last hurrah."

* * *

Though he had never worn his legs outside his house -- not even into the back yard, not even to the end of the driveway to get the mail -- Jim had no choice but to bring a pair of legs with him to South Africa. If he intended to learn whether the boat's design could be modified to accommodate him, then Jim knew he would have to climb on board. That wasn't going to happen in a wheelchair.

He did not bring the French legs. He left those resting in a corner by the fireplace in Orlando. He brought the shorter legs, the ones without knees.

They broke on the first day. The pin in the right leg wouldn't stay locked into the socket, so he rigged up a duct-tape harness that he slung over his shoulder to keep the leg on.

One afternoon he went to the boat yard to see the work on another catamaran. Jim ended up pitching in to laminate one of the bulkheads.

"I felt useful in a way I hadn't since the accident," he said. "I forgot all about the legs."

Another day he went sailing with the owner of the factory. It wasn't easy getting into the cockpit (he'd need to install rails in several locations), but Jim took the helm. For a while he steered the 44-foot boat through the azure waters of the Indian Ocean.

When I saw Jim back in Orlando, I could tell by his demeanor that something had changed while he was away. The boat (which he was thinking of naming Sea Legs) was months from being done, but he seemed less gloomy.

He was still apprehensive about using the tall French legs, but he walked in the short ones for several hours that day. He even wore them out to dinner with his family -- a first. Overall, Jim seemed calmer. By his standards, almost at peace.

"At the center (in Paris), I thought that once I could walk, that would be it," Jim said to me. "But I realized, what's the point of walking if you have nowhere to walk to? And no reason to walk there?

Jim had discovered a fundamental truth about walking and about his life, something more essential to his happiness than whether the United States has universal health care.

"If you are a dreamer it makes it easier to handle a disaster like this," he said.

* * *

Jim called me a couple of weeks ago to say he was taking his family to Paris.

"I'm taking the French legs," he said. "I've been getting better and better on them."

This was about as buoyant as I had heard Jim sound. He had recently received some distressing news: his bone spurs were coming back. But even the prospect of another surgery couldn't dampen his enthusiasm. Jim had made the transition from the short, straight legs to the bendable French legs and that was clearly a good sign.

I didn't accompany Jim to Paris this trip, but our photographer Bill Serne did. Bill sent back the photograph you see here. I had that photo in front of me when I called Jim in Paris last week.

Walking in Paris was tougher than Jim expected. Jim had grown used to walking on the parquet floor at home, but he found that everything in Paris slopes just enough to make him feel off balance. Curbs, steps, gravel -- every block was an obstacle course.

In the picture, Jim's eyes are on his feet and I knew that meant he was struggling a little bit; Pierre Laplume had always admonished him to look forward, not down.

"I was terrified," Jim said. "I was really afraid of falling."

Shortly after the photo was taken, he caught his foot entering a restaurant and crashed to the floor. A waiter helped him up and Jim walked to the table.

Lunch was good.

He was in Paris.

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In early July, Jim returned to Paris with his family. He vowed he would walk there in the French legs. Ivonne, carrying their daughter Marcelle, encouraged Jim as he crossed the Champ de Mars.

* * *


The series

DAY ONE: DECIDING TO GO

After losing his legs in a violent accident, Jim Miller vows to walk again. He begins an odyssey he never imagined.

DAY TWO: THE WAY THERE

Jim has much-needed surgery and slowly reconnects with his family. But conflicts within himself and with others stall his efforts to walk.

DAY THREE: WHEN YOU ARRIVE

After a lonely but productive time in France, Jim returns home and discovers what he needs to move forward in his life.

Times staff writer Bill Duryea can be reached at (727) 893-8457 or duryea@sptimes.com.