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Miller Quarles raises his arms in triumph and allows a smile to steal across his wolfish face. The 85-year-old has just mopped up the sun-pummeled hard court with an opponent 20 years his junior.
It was a friendly tennis match played in a leafy subdivision largely for the benefit of a reporter. Still, Quarles's determination was palpable. He grunted on serves, chased down shots on stiff but surprisingly muscular legs and thwacked the hell out of the ball. On some strokes, like a deft backhand that required a deep knee bend, Quarles emitted a painful groan. He jogged -- never just walked -- to retrieve balls hit out of play.
All in all, he cut the striking figure of a very old man in excellent shape, making one wonder whether 85 is really that old.
But then again, Quarles is far from an average octogenarian -- or "oxygenarian," as the wags in his crowd would have it. He's obsessive about exercise, eats with near monkish asceticism and swallows a small pharmacy's worth of vitamins and supplements -- more than 60 tablets -- every day.
A roaring health kick is the easy answer for why Quarles is so willing, and able, to throw himself body and soul into a casual game of tennis. But it doesn't get to the core of the matter. More important is his almost superhuman competitiveness. And on this hot summer's morning his opponent was not some good-natured, sixtysomething man. His opponent was death.
For the past decade, Quarles has made headlines as the man who put a bounty on the Grim Reaper's head. He had a standing offer of $100,000 to any scientist who could find the proverbial fountain of youth by the year 2000, and has invested liberally in biotech start-ups that focus on life-extension research.
Researchers say an era is dawning when people will routinely live to be 200. Investigations into embryonic stem cells, the human genome and cloning suggest ways to turn back the clock on aging. For Quarles, the fountain of youth is so tantalizingly close he can practically taste it.
And yet he's not getting any younger. He has good reason to believe he will not live to see the benefits of the advances he has championed.
As he gulps water at courtside after the match, his thoughts turn to his usual tennis partner, Purl Vickers, a man whose crisp ground strokes and successful battles against cancer have earned Quarles's abiding respect. Together they have won the city doubles championship for their age group for two years running. ("Partly because there are only one or two guys old enough to get out on the courts at 85," Quarles quips, with a hint of truth.)
On this morning, however, Vickers is laid out at home with chest pains.
"Poor Purl," Quarles says. "He's almost one of my best friends. I used to have nothing but a spin serve. He taught me that harder serve."
Someone who claims to be finding the "fountain of youth" might be branded immediately as "some sort of nut" and should be humored but certainly not taken seriously. I'm sure that I, Miller Quarles, a man of science, would have felt that way had I first heard of this claim in my younger days. -- Miller Quarles
In his lifetime, Quarles has watched cars replace horse-drawn buggies, and missions to space evolve from the first clumsy flights on a North Carolina beach. Words like Internet, cell phone and fax would have sounded like gibberish mere decades ago. Average life expectancy has shot up from 47 in 1900 to 76 today.
Yet he also has witnessed the horrors that have left ominous stains: world wars, the atomic bomb, a mushrooming population, large-scale environmental degradation and the emergence of new epidemics like AIDS.
Quarles acknowledges the dark side, but is far more dazzled by the innovations. He says the promise borne by the positive changes has whetted his appetite for eternal life.
"The driving thing is that the world is so exciting now. They're finding new things all the time," he says, luxuriating over syllables as if they were a favorite dessert. "Mars has some canyons that are ten miles deep -- they've already figured that -- and I want to go see one of those damn canyons."
The man searching for the fountain of youth spent most of his adult years plumbing the earth for another coveted commodity: oil. Quarles became an expert at mapping the earth's interior and turning the mute lines on geophysical charts into gushing profits for his employers.
For years he zipped across Texas and Oklahoma in his own little airplane to head crews in pursuit of black gold.
His path to success was largely of his own making. His father was a newspaper linotype operator and union organizer whose work would take the family from Georgia to Arizona and eventually San Diego. As a kid, Quarles had the focus and drive that would define him as an adult.