Catching Up with Vic Miller

By K.K. Snyder

Despite rumors circulating last summer about his death, Albany native and author O. Victor Miller is very much alive – still writing, still fly fishing and still living life on the edge.

            Miller, 65, retired from Darton College in 1999 and set sail on Kestyll, a 44-foot cutter-rigged sloop, which was his home for seven years.

“People always want to know if I just bought a boat without knowing how to sail, and I did. But my friend, Mike Pace, an experienced sailor, found me a boat and taught me enough to shipwreck it,” said Miller, who grew up on the Flint River in the family’s Radium Springs Road saltbox he still owns with Sister Miller Musgrove.

            “When a divorce lawyer took my house, I needed something mobile to live in. It escalated from a houseboat to a yacht, something that could take me around the world and was big enough so I wouldn’t bump my head every time I went below. It was a big heavy boat; it was tough and it was capable of going almost anywhere I wanted to go.”

             So he purchased the yacht and after a few instructional trips with Pace, Miller set sail on his own. When he wasn’t cruising in the Caribbean, Miller anchored near Kuna Yala, Pamana, where he lived among the Kuna Indians.

“That trip intensified a philosophical direction; it helped me simplify the meaning of things, something I’ve been trying to do for most of my life,” said Miller, whom the Kunas esteem for granting the chiefs’ request that he kill two maverick crocodiles crawling into the village and eating the dogs. Miller’s concern, as usual, was for the children, fearing they might be next on the menu. His heroics were rewarded with a necklace of teeth and circular bone from a 12-foot crocodile.

When tourists came through the village, Miller was cast as a croc slayer in another role. Often the Kuna would paddle a canoe of tourists out to the anchored Kestyll and point up to Miller, usually hanging in his hammock on deck, reading a book, and more often than not sans clothing.

“Thees ees Veektor. He keels the crocodiles and all the childrens knows him,” the Indian would say regarding their exhibit. Miller says the dictum will do for his epitaph.

While sailing, Miller also spent time in Columbia and other areas of Central and South America. The last leg of his jaunt was spent anchored off a remote fishing village on the coast Mexico about an hour south of Tulum in the Riviera Maya region. While he was away, however, Southwest Georgia was never far from his mind and Miller crossed the ocean half a dozen times to make trips home when his father was dying and when his youngest daughter, Maisy, married, or out of simple homesickness.

So when his helmsman ran the Kestyll onto a reef in the middle of the night in December 2006, while en route to deliver Disney movies to an orphanage on the Rio Dulce in Guatemala, Miller had to take a new direction.

“When you shipwreck your yacht, lose all your toys and get thrown in a third world jail, a homeboy wants to go home,” said Miller.  

“When those breakers were crashing against Kestyll in the middle of the night grinding her into the reef, I could feel every thud taking my breath,” said Miller of the night he spent alone protecting his floundered boat against piracy after he sent his crew ashore with rescuers.

But before he could head home, he had to await release from a Belize jail where he was held for a week for coming ashore with undeclared firearms.

With Miller in jail, pirates, presumably with the sanction of local police, swooped in to strip Kestyll, even sawing off the mast and gouging brass fittings from the teak.

In the meantime, working with the U.S. Embassy in Belize and making frantic phone calls to elected officials, family members and friends fretted for seven days that they’d never see Miller again, but he was eventually released after paying a whopping fine for the gun charge. While locked up, Miller smuggled email addresses and messages out with a jail visitor, alerting loved ones to his situation. Not only was he jailed, his two Boykin Spaniels, Rufus and Bailey, were being held in a shelter until their owner’s fate was determined.

Tidbits of that story likely led to the varied rumors last summer that Miller was dead. Calls eventually found their way to family and close friends, who, even though they’d spoken to him recently and were sure he was alive and well, had a brief scare. After a few jocular calls “from the beyond,” he finally assured everyone that while the rumors of his death were true, they were premature.

As Miller told a Kentucky cousin offering condolences on the boat, he doesn’t have many friends who were likely to let him sit around “pissing and moaning” about his loss. Nearly everybody he knows has gone bust at least once and started over.

“Yep,” the cousin agreed. “After a while you just gotta get up off the couch and try to drag something home.”

            Today, while Miller still spends his time writing, hunting, fly fishing and traveling, he has taken up some new interests. Concerned with the economy and environment, Miller – whose carbon footprint is minimal to begin with, as he lives modestly in an Airstream trailer and drives only when absolutely necessary – still searching for an ecological self-sufficiency, decided on traditional gardening.

The garden, planted on the Worth County farm of his longtime friend Dr. Norman Crowe, is not your typical backyard garden. Miller, with a keen interest in Native Americans, opted to implement the “milpa” or “three sisters” method of planting in mounds, with squash providing low cover and beans growing up the stalks of maize.

Three sisters is regarded as one of the greatest agricultural innovations in history. Combined, the three vegetables create a whole food source and replenish rather than deplete the soil, said Miller. He plants in the Native American tradition of mounds in a circle defining the four cardinal directions.

“When you hand-work crops that have evolved with humans for thousands of years, you redefine simplicity and value. Native Americans in Mexico and throughout Central and South America still farm the three sisters milpa the same way they have for 6,000 years,” said Miller.

            To keep the garden as authentically pre-Columbian as possible, Miller combines heirloom seed such as Trail of Tears Beans and other varieties planted by American Indians. In addition to the traditional Indian crops, Miller is harvesting potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, peas and a multitude of other vegetables. He spends hours each day watering, weeding and reveling in the solitude that gardening provides, avoiding non-organic insecticides, herbicides and fertilizers.

            At this stage in his life, Miller renews his strong connection to Southwest Georgia and is catching up with lifelong friends and former students, hunting and fishing in many of his old haunts. He does not, however, stay still long and hasn’t ruled out a return to Mexico, this time by land with the Airstream in tow, perhaps reviving fulfilling earlier plans of living among the Mayan people and learning more of their language and culture.

For now, however, Miller continues to write nearly every day, polishing his latest article for publication in Gray’s Sporting Journal or Southwest Georgia Living or tweaking the novel he’s nurtured for a decade or so. He spends the hotter months fishing trout streams in North Carolina and Tennessee and learning flora and fauna, honing his naturalism.

            Miller tries to enjoy life in the moment without looking too far ahead or worrying about the “what ifs.” If he doesn’t find pleasure in a task or activity, he finds something else to do. “If it ain’t fun, don’t do it; you can’t learn from tedium,” he says.

When he thinks the fish are biting – or even when he doesn’t – he puts all else aside and sets out with fly rod and kayak. Whether he comes home with or without fish, the experience is the gift of another good day, a goal he set following heart surgery 20 years ago.

“It’s not so much getting back in tune with nature or regaining harmony with natural forces as realizing that everything we do is harmonious or discordant. In a transcendental sense, we are the music.”

(Published in The Albany Journal – Summer 2008)