Some days when I think about disability I feel the need to hold my head. Of course this isn’t a new thing—I’ve been clutching my noggin since early childhood. If you’re like me and you were disabled as a kid you know all about early despond. And if you’re especially like me you learned to use humor to your advantage starting early. I remember when I was about six years old a bully approached me on the playground. His name was Grimes. Nobody knew what Grimes’ full name was. He was just “Mean Grimes”. People said 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 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 see he was more miserable than I was. My only 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 father 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 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 waggled 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 and we could all see 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 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.
And then there are the days I want to hold my head. Disability is not always funny. If you’re a disabled student in college you know a good deal about the structural oppression in higher education. If you’re trying to get a job you know how little disabled employees are valued.
But you climbed a tree with Grimes. Don’t forget it.