Braille Monitor January 2005
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I Remember Alex
by David Hyde
From the Editor: Dave Hyde is a frequent contributor to these pages. He is a leader in the Wisconsin affiliate. Here is a moving profile of a blind man who refused to be conquered by the blindness system in the first half of the twentieth century, even when some of its professionals did their best to destroy him. We all owe quiet men like Alex a profound debt of gratitude. Here is his story:
More than a quarter century ago I made a promise to tell this story at a time when the protagonist had died and when, for that matter, all the characters real and imagined had gone to their rewards. I had to grow into the telling. Maybe now I can do it justice.
I first met Alex when he was about seventy years old; I was in my early twenties. He talked to people who weren't there, was afraid of people he didn't know, and lived in an adult foster home. I didn't know much more than that about him. My wife and I had just moved to Salem, Oregon, where I was working as a counselor in a correctional facility. I saw Alex at our local chapter meetings, where he told us about Braille watches, discount fares on trains and busses, and other things we already knew. One day he talked to me about something serious. I don't know why he picked me and my wife to talk to, but he did. He was in an adult foster home, which provided housing and meals. He told me that he went to the grocery store with the people who ran the home and bought beef, chicken, and other food. He was unhappy because all the residents ever ate was soup--never meat, never fresh vegetables, always soup. He wondered what had happened to the food he bought.
I went to visit his social worker, who told me that this old man was, not to put too fine a point upon it, crazy. He'd spent time in the state hospital for the mentally ill and therefore had no connection with reality. We in the local chapter insisted that the claims be investigated anyway, and they were. It turned out that those running the home were eating very well indeed while the residents were eating soup. The residents were moved to a better facility.
From then on Alex, the "crazy old man," was a family friend. He would call me the Saturday morning after his SSI check arrived and tell me we were going out to breakfast. Generally this was about 6:30 in the morning. My wife, my mother, who lived nearby; and I would get into the car and go pick up Alex. Breakfast was hotcakes at a local restaurant. He insisted on paying. Then it was on to the grocery store, where he bought coffee and tobacco for us. I finally started lying to him about the prices because I could never get him to let us take our turn buying. When in frustration I told him one afternoon that, if he insisted upon paying, we'd just stop going, he told me that he was old and was perfectly willing to sit in my living room until I changed my mind.
Over the years Alex told me his story. His name was Alex Cederov, and he had been a lieutenant in the Russian navy before the 1917 Bolshevik revolution. He joined the White Russian army, which supported the Czar. He moved to Alaska in 1922, where he became a trapper. He joined the large Russian colony there. He and his partner were in the Alaskan wilderness in 1937 when Alex was hit by a shotgun blast and blinded. They traveled by sled for about two weeks to get medical attention. By that time Alex not only was blind but had lost several fingers and toes to frostbite.
There wasn't much for blind people in Alaska in the thirties, so Alex moved to Portland, Oregon. He could live at a blind trade school there and make brooms and mattresses. The institution accepted both men and women. In the mid forties Alex noticed that some of the male staff were, as he put it, "misusing" the blind women. He complained and was told to mind his own business. He then complained to the governor of the state, who investigated and, according to Alex, found his allegations to be true. The administrator was removed, and Alex was fired.
Alex moved to Michigan in about 1949, shortly after the incident at the school. He applied for work there, and the employer checked his work record. This was the time of the McCarthy hearings in Congress designed to root out Communists in the United States. Being branded a Communist or a Communist sympathizer was the kiss of death in most professions. Alex was labeled a Communist by the institution in Oregon. Not surprisingly, he did not get the job in Michigan. The label, he felt, was a slap in the face since he had fought against the Communists in the Russian Revolution.
Alex returned to Oregon, where he went back to the blind trade school. Things didn't go well for him there, and he was eventually placed in the state's mental hospital. He always believed that the reason was his actions to protect the girls. Nonetheless he stayed there for more than twenty years. If he was not mentally ill when he entered, he certainly was when he left. He was paranoid and always believed that those people from the blind trade school were listening to him, following him, and out to get him.
Alex died in the early eighties. I promised him that one day I would tell his story. He had a profound effect upon me and helped shape my beliefs about blindness. I've stopped asking whether his story was true, mostly true, or a total fabrication. If he did everything he said he had done, he was a hero when there weren't very many of us standing up for our own rights, let alone those of others. If it was a fabrication, what a wonderful story of altruism, sacrifice, and tragedy! And occasionally, when the telephone rings early on a Saturday morning, I expect to hear Alex saying, "Davit, you come pick me up. We go to breakfast."
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