Two days after the rioting stopped, the streets were still filled with bricks and broken glass. As tear gas and thick black smoke clung to the ghetto sky, a curfew was in place and Army and National Guard troops were everywhere.
It was April 10, 1968, and in a three-story row house near the heart of the rubble, at 304 R St. NW, a 16-year-old girl was trembling with terror. Her fear stemmed not from fires or violence, but from a secret she had kept to herself for six months. She was pregnant and amid the ashes of the Washington riots her child was about to be born.
Diane Miller lived there with her parents, five brothers and a sister. She was unmarried and a junior at Martha Washington Vocational High School. She had no way of knowing that 14 years later she would look upon those wretched days in 1968 as the start of a remarkable odyssey. For her child, who entered the world three months premature, proved to be a saving grace--a blind boy who "gave direction and meaning to my life . . . . "
The two of them live in Bethesda now and during the summer their lives revolve around Field Two at Olney Manor Park, home of the Montgomery County-Pioneer Beep Softball League for the Blind. There Greg Miller, a tall and meaty 14-year-old player known as "the Dynamo," has learned for the first time in his life to run, hit and field at a ballyard where the bases and balls emit sound. For the Millers, this past summer on the field was a season of celebration and light, many years and miles from Washington's days of rage.
"I feel like I've been around the world 10 times," Diane Miller, at 30, says now. "But I wouldn't have done it any other way because I can't imagine what life would be like without him. Sometimes I don't know who's leading who, me or him," she goes on. "He's the best thing that's ever happened to me."
The parents of Pioneer players have traveled many varied paths to Washington and Field Two. Marlene and Darrell Smith, for example, parents of 11-year-old Brian, were "All-American types, high school sweethearts in Ohio," according to Marlene Smith, who with her husband landed in Washington six years ago after Darrell was transferred from Philadelphia by General Electric.
Sylvia Stradone, mother of 11-year-old Jason, also came from Ohio, but lived, in her words, "in practically every other state" before settling in Gaithersburg 11 years ago.
But of all the Pioneer parents, Diane Miller's journey seems the most unusual. By perhaps every measurement except distance, she moved the farthest of all.
Her odyssey began in that R Street house in Washington during the riots of 1968. From a living room window, as nighttime fires across the street illuminated the house like a sunset, Diane Miller and her family had watched the destruction and the angry crowds that looted and torched the corner grocery where she often bought popsicles and penny candies.
She had seen on television the full extent of the horror -- $14 million in damage done, 851 buildings set afire. She was a religious girl from a strict Methodist family and she was filled with a kind of superstitious horror. Somewhere deep inside, she now recalls, she felt there would be punishment for her sin. It was a dark adolescent fear of supernatural vengeance lent ironic credence by the coincidence that the burial day of the people's hero, Martin Luther King Jr., was the same day she went into labor.
The father of the child worked with Miller at a cleaning company where she was employed part time after school. She talked to him about getting an abortion, but the man, older than she, assured her that "what I'm man enough to create, I'm man enough to take." She wasn't sure she believed him, and was even less sure she loved him, but she agreed that an abortion was out of the question.
Certainly, it was illegal. But that didn't bother her so much as the risk. She knew one man, a medical technician at Walter Reed Hospital, who performed abortions and she could easily have just gone to him with $50, but she had heard so many stories of gore and infection that it just didn't seem worth it.
So for six months she kept the secret and hid the swelling in her abdomen as best she could. She wore girdles and loose clothes, went to parties and dated, and hung out in the neighborhood with her friends.
Then, on April 10, as the family watched King's funeral on television, the pain in her lower abdomen started. She tried to ignore it for five hours, but eventually, unable to stand it any longer, she told her mother she had pains in her back. Miller's mother called the girl's cousin, who drove her through the refuse of the streets and National Guard checkpoints to Freedmen's Hospital at Sixth and Bryant streets NW.
A half-hour after arriving there, Miller gave birth to a 2-pound 2 1/2 ounce boy.
She called her parents that night to tell them about the birth and their reaction was as she expected. "I didn't have the happiest upbringing in the world," she said. "My mother used to beat me raw. When I called them from the hospital they called me a whore and a slut. I never cried so bad in my life." For hours she wept, Miller said, until something else came over her, a feeling of relief that bordered on liberation.
"Suddenly," she said, "I felt free. I knew I wanted to keep it, and mama and daddy told me I'd have to move out and support him on my own. I felt I could do that. My parents were really strict and all my life I'd felt starved for affection.
"Well," she said, "here was a baby all of a sudden, something of my own. I wanted to love it and keep it and didn't see any obstacles."
So the next morning Miller went downstairs in the hospital where the baby was resting in an incubator. "He was so small he could fit into the palm of my hand," she remembered. "He looked like a rat without a tail."
Her doctors told her the infant was so frail it likely wouldn't survive, but Miller made plans anyway. She named him Greg, the name of her youngest brother whom she was closest to, and for three months, while the infant struggled for life in the incubator, she prayed.
During that time, Greg gained five pounds. He grew slowly but certainly and began to kick his legs with increasing strength. He survived. And despite her parents' demands that she put the child up for adoption, Miller kept the infant and eventually moved away from home.
For about a year, she said, she went on welfare with her cousin, collecting $149 each month and living in a dingy one-room, $89-a-month apartment in Southeast Washington. She was living there when she first found out by accident that Greg, then 6 months old, was blind. She had taken him to Children's Hospital to receive medicine for a cold he was suffering. A physician on duty noticed there was a vague film over his eyes and his pupils weren't responding to light. The diagnosis was a disease known as retrolental fibroplasia, or RLF.
RLF is an eye condition that was something of a scourge of American hospitals in the 1950s and '60s. According to the National Society to Prevent Blindness, RLF is a disease that occurs almost exclusively in premature infants during the first three months of postnatal life.
The disorder was virtually unknown until the early 1940s, a period that coincided with many medical advancements in the care of premature children. Large numbers were saved with the advent of the closed incubator system and more specialized oxygen therapy.
Physicians studying RLF in those days were surprised to find that the condition occurred with higher frequency in America's largest and best hospitals. By the mid-1950s, after RLF had become the leading cause of child blindness -- responsible for 7,000 new cases of blindness between 1943 and 1953--researchers found that RLF was caused by the overuse of oxygen in the incubator in concentrations richer than air. The oxygen irreparably damaged the premature infant's retinal blood vessels before they were fully developed. It was, in short, a disease caused by medicine's efforts to save premature newborn lives.
Between 1955 and 1965, tighter restrictions were made on the use of oxygen therapy on premature infants and new cases of RLF sharply declined. But the number of infants suffering fatal respiratory ailments and brain damage increased during the same period. "Consequently," wrote ophthalmologist Arnall Patz, in a paper presented on RLF before the National Society in 1969, "the pediatrician was confronted with a dilemma" of either treating infants with insufficient oxygen -- resulting in possible death or brain damage -- or giving them excess oxygen and possible RLF.
Physicians opted to save as many premature infants as they could, and the restrictions on oxygen therapy were lifted. Since then, better methods have been developed to discern oxygen content and retinal development in premature infants.
Still, the National Society to Prevent Blindness estimates there are 150 new cases of RLF in America each year. Greg is one of 12,600 people in the U.S., most of them born since World War II, who are blind because of the disease.
Diane Miller enrolled Greg in a nursery school at the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind when he was 2 years old. In the meantime, she entered the Washington Technical Institute to study nursing and radiology through a grant by the federal government's Work Incentive Now program, which was designed to help welfare recipients develop skills and find jobs.
She got her high school diploma, spent a year and a half studying college-level courses and eventually landed a job in radiology at D.C. General Hospital. While there, she accidentally bumped into Greg's father, who was admitted to the hospital one night suffering pneumonia. Miller said she and he didn't speak much--and that it was just as well.
It was difficult at first, Miller said, to understand Greg's blindness. At Christmas time she would decorate the house and living room tree in colored lights and ask herself why, "since he can't see." She couldn't understand why Greg, when he was most depressed, would rub his eyes with hands, until she learned that it was a habit of most blind children to do so because it enabled them to see sparks and spots in their minds. In time, she said, she adapted to the world with him, methodically teaching him the textures of trees and leaves, water and ice, and household objects, and showing him how to walk and eat.
But there was something about city life -- a feeling, a pace -- that made teaching her child more difficult than it should have been. It was something that had to be escaped. People in the city, she said, "just didn't seem to be as accepting of Greg as they might have been."
"In theaters and shopping centers," she said, "black people always seemed to react with the most alarm." One day at a fast-food restaurant she watched the crowd's reaction to Greg, who was roaming about, exploring with his hands.
"He's an incredibly curious boy," she said. But that day, ". . . people sidestepped away from him like he had a disease, leprosy or something. It was as if he were a freak . . . . I just froze and tears started coming. I knew I had to get away. We just didn't need that bother."
She wanted to move to the Maryland suburbs not only because she felt life would be more comfortable there, but also because she knew the state paid tuition for students attending the Maryland School for the Blind. In D.C., Miller said, financial help would not be forthcoming unless Greg was diagnosed as a retarded child, which he is not.
In the interim, Miller took the civil service exam, scored well, and began working as a laboratory technician at the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda in 1972. Ten years later, she is an assistant supervisor of pathology and a laboratory specialist, preparing tissue specimens for microscopic examination. She lives only a block and a half away from her office in a two-story house she owns on Fairfield Drive, a quiet street of birds and sycamores in Bethesda.
A member of People's Congregational Church, Miller is as religious as ever for, as she says, "God never abandoned or punished me at all. If anything, I've been blessed." She is active in the church fellowship, a Big Sister to a Washington orphan, and at Christmas time carols with other social volunteers at local nursing homes. She plays tennis often, and in the company of friends can often be found on dance floors at local discos. Her life at 30, she says, is happy.
She never fully reconciled with her mother, who is now deceased, and she has drifted apart somewhat from the lives of her brothers and sister, but she still has Greg, "a companion, a friend, someone to love and give meaning to my life."
Since the Pioneer League's season ended in early September, Greg has returned to the Maryland School for the Blind, where he is learning how to wash his clothes and dishes, get along in the city, walk with a cane, use a computer, and read, write and subtract in Braille. On weekends he returns home, plays his organ and saxophone, sings in the church choir, starts the car for his mother and occasionally goes for a spin with her on their bicycle built for two.
Sometimes he brings troubles home with him, wondering why he can't drive a tractor-trailer or learn to drive his mother's car or fly an airplane or even dress up and go to parties with friends in the neighborhood. "All his life I've been telling him there's no such word as can't," Miller said of Greg, who dreams from week to week of becoming a minister, a disc jockey or auto mechanic. "It's not always easy to explain to him that there are limits to what he can do."
In that sense, the odyssey of Diane and Greg Miller is no different than those of Greg's friends in the Pioneer League for all of them, in their own way, are striving to master the art of coping. Next: Coping