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Contrarian Bravely Barges Through Barriers

By Fred Dickey

Monday, November 5, 2012

When the Grim Reaper ultimately decides to come for Jim Miller, he’d better bring his scythe. Mr. G will probably win in the end, but he’ll emerge from the fray bleeding from a dozen cuts and with an ear chewed off. He’ll discover that Miller fights like a man half his age, which would calculate to 40.

Looks can deceive, especially Miller’s. He’s small and moves cautiously. He speaks slowly and sometimes hesitantly, but bluntly. He lives quietly in a bungalow in the central San Diego neighborhood of South Park with his second wife of almost a half-century. He has a married son in Rancho Bernardo.

Stay with me, this gets more interesting.

Miller can dig in his heels deeper than a child in a vaccination line. Whatever he’s told to do, whatever he’s expected to do, if that’s not what he wants to do, you’re in for a long wait or a big argument.

Miller is a contrarian, someone willing to face a stiff wind and shout “no” into the echoes of “yes.” Contrarians are normally dismissed as naysayers by the crowd, and usually have scars to show for it. However, they sometimes are hailed as prophets or John Wayne individualists. What is Miller? You’ll have to sort that out.

Take cycling, for instance. Miller decided this year that he wanted to ride by himself in Bike the Bay, an annual waterfront excursion in August from the San Diego Convention Center to Imperial Beach and back. It’s 25 miles of biking nirvana that attract throngs of cycling devotees.

In itself, that’s laudable for a man of 81. But when you consider that Miller is also legally blind, well, this story is beginning to warm up. Imagine, if you can, a blind octogenarian on a bicycle pedaling across the San Diego-Coronado Bridge and along the Silver Strand. Right. I can’t either.

It takes a guy who’s worth a second look to try such a crazy thing and pull it off.

Miller has suffered for 10 years from macular degeneration. He can see large objects up to 50 to 100 feet away but can’t tell a person from a tree unless there is movement. As I talk to him from two feet away, he can see that I’m there but can’t make out my face.

There is a club in San Diego called the Blind Stokers where blind cyclists can ride the rear of a tandem bike with a sighted person in front. But Miller had resigned his membership earlier in the year. He wanted to do it his way.

Miller may not have been born “different” back in ’31, but he quickly grew into the role. His youth was spent in Pasadena during the Great Depression, supported by a divorced mother at a time when that carried a stigma. His mother never remarried. “She put sex and all that stuff behind her,” he says.

When he was 14, he pulled off the astonishing feat of building his own automobile from odd parts. He assembled it with a Ford Model T chassis and engine, a Chevy transmission and a car body rescued from an old lady’s rabbit hutch, and … well, the thing actually ran. In retrospect, it marked Miller as a mechanic genius or something pretty close.

And that might have been his problem.

The first public indication of Miller as a contrarian was when he dropped out of school at 15, and then joined the postwar Navy at 17. He got out of boot camp and was made a fireman apprentice, but left the service four years later with the same rating.

He summarizes his Navy experience succinctly: “That didn’t work out very well.” His main problem, and Miller remembers it keenly, was that his chief petty officer saw the advantage of keeping the young seaman under his thumb and thus making the chief’s life easier and looking good in the bargain.

Back to the Bike the Bay adventure. Miller made his way down to the convention center by city bus on his own, then pedalled the entire 25 miles. He did it by attaching himself to one group of cyclists after another. When he lost one group, he’d find another to tag along with.

What in his makeup propels him to pursue such a ride? “I’ve never hesitated to tackle what was worth doing,” he says. “There’s a word that says what I have. It starts with a T, but I can’t think of it at the moment.” He also has his own religious and political systems of belief. No surprise there.

He talks emotionally about a former neighbor named Karen Neal, a nurse with whom he had a close platonic friendship and who helped him with depression, which he has battled for decades. His voice becomes low and uneven.

“She was my best friend. She kept me straight, helped when I got down and kept me going. People would say to me, ‘You can’t do this or that,’ and she would say, ‘You can do it.’ ”

Now his voice gets shaky. “She passed away June 13 of brain cancer. She was 60 years old.”

Two years ago, he accompanied a group of disabled people on a 16-day raft trip down the Colorado River. His favorite activity in winter is to head to the mountains for downhill skiing. (I would not make that up.)

I pack up my recorder and start to leave. It’s then that he remembers the T word. It’s tenacity.

All of this leads to the question of what makes Jim Miller run — and bike and ski and do any other crazy thing he takes a mind to achieving.

It’s not easy to figure out another human being; in fact, to try implies a certain arrogance, I guess. But, still we try. In Miller’s case, I believe he is a gifted man who was burdened with a lack of education, had too stiff a spine to curry favor and was too inflexible to grin and nod to less skilled men.

He worked for decades as a master machinist for Convair. It was his misfortune to live and work in a society congealing around corporate structure and higher education, and as it did so, space grew tight for a guy like him. He could drive a boss to distraction, no doubt, but in the end, he couldn’t beat The Man.

Miller, though, is not an aberration in our history. In another day, he would have packed up a wagon and crossed the Cumberland Gap, daring the Cherokees to do their damnedest.

Or he would have brought his toolbox to San Diego and helped T.C. Ryan build an airplane for a daredevil young pilot from Minnesota. His skill with tools would have been his degree.

A man named Bolitho once said, “Man was born to wander, but cursed to stay and dig.” Miller was a helluva digger in his time, but his eye was always on the crest of a far hill. He had more to give than he was allowed to offer.

Yet he never quit, he never bowed. And when he takes that bike out of the garage and cautiously makes his way to the starting line, he’s telling the world that Jim Miller’s not done yet.

Today, he spends time practicing Braille and reading inch by inch with powerful magnifiers. He writes down his thoughts, listens to music and visits softer dreams: “I’d like to go up to Big Bear and live next to the lake, because my friend Karen’s gone now. The winters I could ski, and living next to the lake, I could take my kayak — that’s what Karen liked to do — and pull it onto the lake, and just go.”

Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at

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