Terry Wiles is an 18-year-old British youth with a great shock of curly black hair, an infectious grin and a cocky air.
He's into Dracula and horror movies -- one of his prizes is a poster of Christopher Lee with a stake through his heart -- and he's writing detective stories. Of the Sam Spade variety, he says.
He can tie boy scout knots with his toes, and he drinks hot coffee by elevating the cup to his lips with his teeth.
He's what you might call a self-starter.
In fact, he does that with his toes too, curling them around the lever on the ingenious electronic chair-car-elevator invented and built by his father.
It is a functional facsimile of the arms and legs Terry Wiles was born lacking.
His only appendages were the misshapen feet that came to be associated with the 5,000 to 8,000 grotesquely deformed babies born worldwide to mothers who had taken the drug thalidomide during the early weeks of their pregnancies.
Terry Wiles was not a beautiful baby. He was blind in one eye and was not expected to live. His mother, unmarried, was unable to cope with his deformities.
For the first decade of his life he was left to the well-meaning caretakership of a hospital founded by a rich, eccentric woman under the auspices of the Edwardian group she called "The Guild of Brave Poor Things."
By the time the Wileses came into Terry's life, "brave, poor thing" was not too far off the mark.
The story of those early days is told in a book, "On Giant's Shoulders," written by a London Times reporter whose case studies of the "thalidomide families" brought about an eventual financial settlement between the drug company and the nearly 500 victims in Britain.
A 90-minute BBC-made film about the Wileses will be shown in March on the Public Broadcasting Service's "Great Performances" program (on WETA here March 21).
Beyond the show -- in which Terry Wiles plays himself -- the story continues, the saga of how he and his adoptive parents, each bitterly burdened with personal problems and disabilities, were able, together, to make a triumphantly successful family. And how, from this greatest medical catastrophe of the 20th century, the Wileses were able to create devices -- for the spirit as well as for the body -- that hold promise for the handicapped.
The family -- Terry, Leonard, Hazel and Hazel's 13-year-old granddaughter Sara -- were in Washington yesterday giving demonstrations to specialists of the "gadgets" Leonard Wiles dreamed up, planned, jerry-built and hand-tooled, often out of discarded parts, to free Terry, in some measure, from the confines of his disablement.
To free him, as Hazel Wiles put it, "from the sea of legs."
"We'd like somebody to take them up, really," said Terry of his father's innovations.
Terry's "car" is transistorized and runs on two automobile batteries with motors on the wheels. It can raise him to the eye-level of a standing person or lower him to the floor so he can get off. It can also stop at any level in between.
Its lights are operated by his shoulders. He has feeding implements that permit him ease and grace at the table. (Even without, he is adept. He did not spill a drop of his coffee, even though it was too hot.)
At home there is a Swedish-made automated "loo" again, promoting independence and dignity.
Leonard Wiles has already built a chair for a 5-year-old Viennese child who is now doing so well, "his mother wrote she was gaining weight because she didn't need to lift him anymore," Hazel Wiles put in.
The hospital for the "poor, brave little things" forced aching, crippled bodies into prostheses designed more to soothe the sensibilities of the outside world than to foster either comfort or independence in the wearers.
For years the Wileses fenced, jousted and warred with the British educational, hospital and governmental bureaucracies over whether or not Terry had to wear his arftificial limbs in order to go to school, whether or not he could be issued a powered wheelchair, whether or not he was intellectually able or medically able, or whether the floor was right or he could overcome this or that red tape, obstruction, affront. . . .
It is no surprise that there is bitterness.
"If I really said what I felt," said the 69-year-old Leonard Wiles, "they'd have me in the Tower of London when I went back -- if they let me back at all."
And from Terry: "Politics!I don't give a damn about politics!" If you want something done, "you go to the press."
British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was minister of education during much of the Wileses' struggle, is not a family favorite. "Well, I'd better not say what I really think," growled Leonard Wiles.
Prince Charles is another story. The senior Wiles was invited about two years ago to participate in an exhibition of "British Geniuses" and Terry came along to demonstrate the car.
As 49-year-old Hazel Wiles tells it, fairly bursting with pride in both husband and son, "Prince Charles came through and spent a few minutes with each inventor. When he got to Terry, though, he spent about 15 minutes, just chatting. His people were wild about his schedule . . ."
The force that brought the Wileses together was the thalidomide disaster of the early 1960s. The drug, a sleeping pill-tranquilizer, was at first considered to be so safe that it was available without prescription. Because of the efforts of Food and Drug Administration physician Frances Kelsey, it was never approved in the U.S.
Terry Wiles is gifted with a terrific personality. "Captivating" is an understatement, although that is certainly its effect.
He "captivated" his adoptive parents, who initially, had no intention of adopting this deformed, hostile and illegitimate creature, whose coloring bespoke a mixed ethnic heritage. They came to the hospital only because his mother had a friend.
They had their own problems. Hazel's own two children -- she'd been married three times before -- had been taken away because she was deemed unfit. Leonard's skills and job opportunities were limited by a lack of education and physical infirmities stemming from old war wounds.
Terry also "captivates" girls at the technical college he attends in England. "Like bees to honey," his father reports, glowing. Terry's future may indeed include marriage and parenthood.
One thing is certain. There would never be an abortion. "Murder," he snapped, when the subject was mentioned. "If the fetus is deformed, so what? We're human too."
He has now captivated a cadre of willing and affectionate public-relations people handling the Wileses' U.S. tour for the sponsor, Exxon. (They'll hit the White House today, then on to California, Disneyland, Vegas.)
And yesterday the family was occupied for hours at a luncheon at the Kennedy Center where specialists in aids for the handicapped, a wheelchair manufacturer and government officials watched and listened.
Along with having aspirations as a writer -- he types and writes with his toes -- Terry Wiles wants to help handicapped children, lecturing, visiting, any way he can. He will tell them, he says, 'Don't give up. Live. Carry on."