Braille Monitor July 2004
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When Blindness Mattered
by Daniel B. Frye
From the Editor: Dan Frye is a longtime Federationist now living and working in New Zealand. He discovered the NFB as a student living in South Carolina. The following story about Dan's boyhood evokes the hot South Carolina summer and the struggle of a young blind boy to live a normal life. In recognition that even in the summertime the livin' is not necessarily easy for a blind child, here is Dan's story:
My sister Debbie and I were sent to live with our paternal grandparents in the Low Country of South Carolina following the death of our father in July of 1980. Our mother had succumbed to critical injuries two years earlier after a serious car accident. Our flight from Texas to South Carolina during the early hours of that summer morning represents my first vivid memory of travel on an airplane. To this day the sunrise I saw during that flight remains the most spectacular phenomenon I have ever seen: a brilliant orange-red ball of flames sitting alone on what appeared to be an infinite field of deepest, coldest blue sky. We were served French toast and given a packet of Eastern Airlines playing cards. After a few hours we landed in South Carolina to start our new lives in the country.
We lived with our grandparents in their two-bedroom house on an acre of farm land in the Cedar Creek community, some ten miles outside of Nichols, a small town of about 10,000 people. In addition to the house my grandparents owned an old tobacco barn; a wash house, where laundry was done; a pump house for the well; and a chicken coop to mark the property line at the back of the farm. They had a garden in which they grew everything imaginable, including peanuts and the largest watermelons I have ever seen. The front of the house had a conventional raised porch with gray rotting planks of wood, a large evergreen tree that offered abundant shade across the circular dirt driveway, and a set of black and red rusting lawn chairs that kept the shade tree company year round. Our place was about a quarter of the way down the wandering four-mile dirt road that ran in front of our property. Only several years after I left my grandparents' custody was the road assigned a name by local officials in order for the Cedar Creek community to become part of the 911 emergency system.
The Cedar Creek Baptist Church and Mr. Stanley's country store sat at the two ends of the dirt road, and both places were frequently a destination for my little sister and me, since getting lost was virtually impossible if you faithfully followed the side of the road until it ended. Despite the considerably longer distance from our house, Mr. Stanley's store was our favorite destination. We would buy two bottles of Pepsi-Cola and two Moon Pies for a dollar. We'd temper the stifling heat and forget the clouds of gnats that perpetually inhabited South Carolina's Low Country by drinking our Pepsis and dipping our toes in the creek at the side of the dirt road half way home from the store.
The aroma of simple home cooking, animals at pasture, and the diverse scents of nature were prominent among my first impressions of our new neighborhood. On the first Sunday morning of our permanent residence with our grandparents, for instance, my grandmother took my sister and me out to the chicken coop to be unwitting witnesses to the summary execution of that day's dinner. She exhibited a calm, matter-of-fact attitude as she efficiently wrung the necks of two birds and then undertook the smelly and distasteful process of removing their feathers. Later, though, more pleasant odors of frying chicken and weekly baking wafted through the house and onto the front porch, which attracted my attention and diverted my mind from the recent violent encounter to which the Sunday birds had been subjected.
Across the yard a large pile of rotting potatoes lay, easily identifiable from a distance by smell, waiting to be carted across the road by the two newest members of the household and dropped into the adjacent woods to be returned to nature. In the garden we would seek cleansing refuge from that task by inhaling the natural scent of freshly tilled ground and ripening strawberries. Finally, I particularly remember the distinctive sulfuric taste and smell of the water that came from the well and that could be mitigated only by chilling in the refrigerator for several hours. Suffice it to say, we had been installed in an entirely new world, quite different from the suburban childhood we had spent in the outskirts of Austin, Texas.
After about a week our status as visiting grandchildren changed, and our routine began to reflect our new position as part of the family. Unfortunately for me, this development made it abundantly clear that my grandparents, being part of the broader society, had limited expectations about the abilities of a blind child. When the family rose at 6:00 to harvest butterbeans from the garden, avoiding the heat of midday, I was expressly told that I could not join in the chore. I protested mightily but was led to believe that I was slow and would inhibit productivity. Instead, I was told to sit under the evergreen and shell beans as they were brought to me, an enviable duty for one who disliked physical exertion. Nevertheless, I knew it was an unfair privilege, and I felt dispirited at the assignment.
Similarly, I was prohibited from performing most domestic chores, with the exception of rinsing dishes and scrubbing the bathroom. My sister, on the other hand, was asked to assume work responsibilities for both of us. The sibling resentment that this unfair treatment created became palpable, and my ten-year-old sister did not fully understand or believe that I did not enjoy the privileges I was receiving. During these times I spent alone, either in guilty proximity to our window air-conditioning unit in the house or out under the evergreen tree, I first realized that blindness mattered.
The disparate treatment that we received from our grandparents was not limited to the performance of household and farming tasks only; it also had recreational implications. My grandfather established the tradition of taking each of his grandchildren fishing for a day. The two would leave at four in the morning, carry the boat down to the river, and fish until late afternoon. They would share a lunch of Vienna sausages, crackers, and water. Most of all, though, they shared time together. Debbie had her turn; so did everybody else. I frequently inquired when it would be my turn and was always promised that we would manage the trip sometime.
Ultimately, when Debbie and my grandfather were making their second trip, my grandmother confided that he didn't want to be responsible for a blind person on the water. In retrospect I am not persuaded that I ever really yearned to spend a day on a smelly boat with a limited diet and the prospect of getting my hands dirty, but at the time it seemed a special opportunity denied. At that moment blindness mattered.
In September, my grandmother took me aside and explained that I would be going to the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind in Spartanburg, some 300 miles north of home. Oh, how I cried. I argued that I didn't want to leave Debbie alone so soon after coming to a new home. I explained that my parents had enrolled me in public schools since the third grade and that I had been coping well. I swore that I'd be a good boy if they'd just let me stay at home. Despite these petitions the decision was made, and we drove to the red hills of the upper state, where I resumed my education. Again, with the objective counsel of time and distance, I can see that this arrangement had advantages for me, but they were not the advantages that my grandparents perceived, and ultimately it was clear that blindness mattered.
Finally I remember telling my grandmother that I wanted to be a lawyer since my father had told me that being a policeman wasn't practical if you couldn't drive a car. I told her that Dad, a policeman himself, had told me that I'd have to work really hard and save lots of money in order to go to college. She lovingly but firmly doused these dreams with cold water, suggesting that I'd better plan to make brooms or, if I were lucky, hope to be a preacher in the Baptist church, where you could find jobs without formal theological training. My grandfather's pessimism about my academic aspirations was more brusquely conveyed when he observed with exasperation that all I did was read "those damn Braille books"--an ironic complaint since I wasn't allowed to use my hands for harvesting, fishing, or other meaningful contributions towards the well-being of the family. By summer's end, I was certain that blindness mattered.
One of the unanticipated advantages of going to the school for the blind was my immediate exposure to the work of the National Federation of the Blind. South Carolina affiliate leaders established the nation's first junior chapter of the NFB on the campus at Cedar Springs, and I quickly took an interest in the chapter and also in the activities and philosophy of our national movement. I cannot fully convey the self-confidence and emotional security I absorbed from reading the empowering banquet speeches of Dr. Kenneth Jernigan given to me by organization leaders. I benefited immeasurably from the indulgent mentoring of older blind men and women who cared enough to devote time to affirming my dreams. I began to seek permission to stay away from home on the weekends and ultimately managed to emancipate myself from my grandparents' custody. The NFB had given me the gift of belief in myself and the promise that hard work could yield unlimited personal accomplishment.
Upon reflection, I feel a measure of pride that I was gradually able to persuade my grandmother of my capacity to help the family. When my sister and grandfather went on yet another fishing trip, incidentally an activity that Debbie never really enjoyed, my grandmother asked me to help her pick butterbeans in the garden. She was pleasantly surprised that I could effectively empty the bushes, even finding beans among the leaves that she had missed because of relying on her vision. I never minded aching muscles or being drenched in perspiration. I wished only that my grandmother had possessed the courage to allow me to help in these basic ways with my grandfather present, but that was probably a more complicated request than simply sorting out the truth about blindness.
Emboldened by the philosophy and programs of the NFB, I learned that my early conclusion that blindness matters was correct. More important, however, is the fact that our collective efforts are helping to make certain that blindness matters less and less in the larger scheme of things.
Today I am employed as the National Advocate for the Association of Blind Citizens of New Zealand (ABC NZ), where I am professionally charged with making sure that blindness doesn't matter quite so much. Occasionally I recollect that first remembered flight and believe that the freedom I felt seeing that amazing sunrise and limitless sky has largely come to fruition in my life. I have no doubt, though, that blindness will always, to some extent, influence my experiences and color my perceptions. I have learned that, for those of us who cannot see, blindness is an integral part of our character as human beings. I have come to understand that blindness will always matter but that what matters most is the way we come to understand blindness.
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