There are landscapes inside us. Introverts know it. Artists see them. When you’re blind these lands are persistent and strange: where you’ve been and where you might go become fanciful. I see the meadow where a little girl played a flute for me when I was four years old. We were in Finland. I was the blind kid who saw only colors and shapes. The meadow was the girl’s music; music was sky. I whirled around birches in buttercup light. Whenever I hear a penny whistle I think of yellow air and a yellow girl. Many of my blind friends report the same thing: the spaces before us and the spaces behind are rich and alive within. We navigate by memory and creativity.
Going forward, walking blind in the world requires something more than memory or imagination. This ought to be self evident but it wasn’t always so with me. Why this should be the case is almost silly but so much is foolhardy in our lives and why should blind life be any different? Here’s the shorthand. I didn’t want to be blind. I didn’t like being the kid who was judged unfit to play with other children or attend public school. It’s hard to imagine as I write these words at the age of sixty what the world of my childhood was really like. In the 1950’s and ’60’s disabled people were not routinely a part of civic life. Sometimes those days feel like a long time ago and sometimes they don’t. Even today fitting in is hard for disabled people wherever they may live. Each disabled person works in her or his own way to change the world by insisting on social acceptance. Fifty years ago the fight was much harder.
As a boy I had a lot of time alone. Other kids wouldn’t play with me because I was essentially the victim of parental instruction: “don’t play with the blind kid, he might get hurt.” Nonetheless, some children were nice to me. They’d come to my house and hang out. When I was around seven years old my neighborhood pals Gary and Sally, who were both the same age, figured out I was excellent at “hide and seek”. They’d search high and low for me, often failing at the task. The visually impaired kid didn’t mind hiding in the dank, abandoned bomb shelter under Sally’s basement. Once I crawled inside a ruined upright piano, pulling the top lid down over me. What was so bad about cramped darkness?
I may have had a blind identity but I was tough and sometimes I was a rascal. When bullies made fun of me I’d really work them over. One day for instance, on the playground behind the school a huge kid named Grimes went after me. Nobody knew what Grimes’ full name was. He was just “Mean Grimes”. Rumor was he was mean because his father made him work all day digging a cellar under their house–it was just Grimes down there with a shovel and a flashlight. When he came out he was mad as a hornet and everyone tried like hell to stay away from him.
The first thing you should know about Grimes was that he smelled like wet earth. He spent so much time under his house that he stank like a wet construction site and because his parents didn’t care how he looked or smelled, he was essentially a moving mound of dirt. Back in those days no one paid much attention to things like that. Nowadays the school would probably send somebody to Grimes’ house to talk to his parents but not back then. I used to sit next to a kid who smelled like manure and he had hay sticking out of his socks. That’s the way it was. And sure, maybe because I was blind I noticed the smells and sounds more than other people. I can’t say.
Oh but poor Grimes! Now that I think about it I can see he was more miserable than I was. My only real problem was I couldn’t see. But I had some friends and a great family. My dad didn’t make me dig a basement. In fact my dad would read to me every night from smart, funny books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. He’d even do the different voices. My dad could do a very scary “Injun Joe”. Now, all these years later I suspect that Grimes parents might not have been able to read. Hindsight has its advantages. I can feel sorry for Grimes.
But anyway, he did go after me on that playground by the abandoned swings. I recall thinking it was strange no one else was around. But of course that’s the way it always is with bullies— they know how to pick their spots.
“Hey Blindo!” Grimes said. He leaned close and his breath smelled like Juicy Fruit gum. (To this day I can’t stand the smell of Juicy Fruit.)
“Hey Grimes,” I said. “To what do I owe this inestimable pleasure?” (I was always using words like “inestimable” even in the second grade. Let’s be honest: rascals love lingo.)
Grimes grabbed my coat. He said something that I can’t repeat and spit a wad of Juicy Fruit in my face.
“I’m going to make you eat this dirt!” he said.
(Grimes always carried mud in his pockets so he could force kids to eat it whenever he found the right victim.)
We were on a playground in Durham, New Hampshire. The year was 1962. I had thick glasses and I was smaller than my classmates. Grimes was as big as a barn.
“You will eat this,” he said.
“It looks good,” I said. “Hey Grimes, have you ever eaten an acorn?”
Grimes held his dirt carefully before him like a little pillow.
“An acorn?” he said.
“Yeah, they’re just like peanuts, really good, that’s why squirrels like them. You want one?”
“Sure,” he said. He held out his other hand and I dropped a neatly shelled acorn into his palm.
“Go on Grimes, its yummy!”
Grimes ate it. Then he turned red, and I mean red, not beet red or fire engine red—he was red as an unkind boy with his mouth swollen shut. Acorns are among the bitterest things on earth. And of course I only knew this because I’d tried one. As I said, I was a solitary kid. I spent a lot of time in the woods. Those were the days when kids could still go to the woods.
Grimes was incapacitated. I don’t think he ever bothered me after that.
I still recall the thrill of my discovery. That language could render a nemesis harmless was rousing.
I didn’t do a little dance. I didn’t brag about the matter. But I was a more powerful boy after that.
Other kids could tell I was different, not just because I couldn’t see but because I could talk. I was fast. I loved words. I laughed a lot. Kids are smart: they can tell who has the power of invention within their group.
I became a kind of “Pied Piper” in our neighborhood. I talked kids into doing all kinds of stuff. My cousin who was only a year younger than me rode his bicycle blindfolded and he was pretty good at it until he rammed a tree. He got up quickly and dusted himself off and tried it again. And one day we even got Grimes to try it. I asked him how tough he thought he was and he said “plenty” and we put the blindfold on him and yelled “go!”
He wobbled uncertainly, his front tire wildly skewing and for a moment it looked like he’d fall but then he straightened and pedaled with a beautiful sense of urgency as if by going fast he would defeat any unseen obstacles in his way. For a while he was amazing. We cheered. We saw that there was a remarkable improbability to the whole thing. The biggest bully in town was riding a bicycle while pretending to be blind. He was pedaling hard. I wondered if he was trying to ride right out of his customary life—I didn’t know of course but it was a good guess.
Grimes rode in big looping figure eights. He was absurdly upright. His elbows stuck out and because the bicycle was too small his knees pointed out and the whole thing looked precarious but he went on and he never hit anything though he came close to an enormous rose bush and he barely cleared a bird bath. He rattled over the grass and displayed an ungainly superiority for we could all see that he was afraid of nothing.
And that’s of course how Grimes and I became friends. Appearances to the contrary, we saw we were equally brave and we taught each other how to have some fun. One day Grimes convinced me that I could climb the tallest tree in our vicinity and I did and by God I felt richly alive up there where the leaves were all so close and you could hear the wind.
Disability is like all other features of life, it has a thousand ironies. I could be rascally and assertive as a kid but I had a huge problem, a family problem. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
When I got to college and read Leo Tolstoy’s famous quote I nodded vigorously. My problem was my family’s rule book.
The rule book was essentially my mother’s invention. She was a classic American Yankee—a native of rural New Hampshire. When she was only eight her father left her alone on the family farm for three days. He gave her a pistol and said if anyone came, she should shoot first and ask questions later. She grew up fierce, independent, and wildly impatient. She didn’t suffer fools and hated all authority figures. I don’t recall her ever taking no for an answer. Where blindness was concerned this was a blessing and a curse.
The up side was my mother was an advocate. If her boy was blind, so what? He would do whatever other kids did and he’d go to public school and not a school for the blind. She had a vision of inclusion.
The down side was troubling. It was her trouble, and I had to live with it. In short my mother thought I should be allowed in public, a radical idea at the time. But she also thought I should try, whenever possible, to pass as a sighted person. Post World War II America was not comfortable with disability to say the least. The prevailing opinion was that disabled people were profoundly unfortunate—disability was ruinous. Polio commanded the public’s attention. Life magazine displayed photos of children in iron lungs. Blindness was also believed to be a dreadful calamity.
The blessing? I was to be “out” in the world.
The curse? My mother’s example carried the expectation I’d never admit I was blind.
In grade school I had a little desk at the front of the class, situated close to the blackboard so I might see what the teacher wrote with her squeaky chalk. In fact I could rarely make out what was written.
Essentially, the blind part of me was starved. I wasn’t offered Braille or lessons in how to safely travel on the streets.
Back to the blessing. I’ll call it furtive recklessness. I walked across the hand rail of a high bridge, heel to toe, just to prove it could be done, showing sighted kids I was afraid of nothing. And I learned to plunge into brilliant sunlight without knowing what was before me.
People grow in strange ways. In my case I learned both confidence and shame. Blindness was defeat in the Yankee rule book. I’m sure there was a chapter in there called “If You Don’t Say the Word It Will Go Away”.
Of course this isn’t true. But if you pretend it’s so you can learn to live poorly.
Nowadays I know there’s more than one way to be blind. My pal Leo has no peripheral vision. He sees as if through his own periscope. He’s the commander of a private submarine–the USN Leo—and though his sighted options are limited, they’re still fair. He sometimes drives his car in a gated community in Arizona largely because he can still do it. And though he’s looking through a tube, the day is glossy and brilliant as a an old Kodachrome. Leo will tell you that while blindness is not always a preferred experience it’s often more interesting than sighted people suppose. For some of us the colors are beyond compare.
Another friend–Karen–runs daily through a field in Nebraska though she sees only light. But the light is so gold, so dappled and evanescent that her description makes you want to cry. The average sighted person can learn from her how daylight spins between brown and yellow tonic, the drafts she drinks between the clock and the sun. Just run beside her.
Sight is an immoderate thing, never static. It is, perhaps, the dearest sense. The flickering light of a fire, shadows on a hearthstone; the laughing element of sun on water; early morning eastern skies; the cold and steady light at mid ocean–many blind people know these things. These days more blind people see something of the world than is commonly understood.
We understand more about blindness today than we did in 1962. The days of my boyhood represent the era of calamity. If America understood blindness at all, it was by way of “The Miracle Worker”—the movie about Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan staring Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft. No one who watched that film would have imagined blindness as ordinary, unremarkable, and potentially beautiful.
“Don’t tell ‘em you can’t see,” said my mother. “Just go on out there…”