Photo of Marc Maurer


Concerning Books, Lawn Mowers, and Bus Rides

by Marc Maurer

From the Editor: The following story appeared in Wall-to-Wall Thanksgiving, the latest in the NFB's Kernel Book series. It begins with Dr. Jernigan's introductory note:

Marc Maurer is President of the National Federation of the Blind. As regular Kernel Book readers know, he has been blind since birth. In this story he reflects upon his own experience growing up as a blind child—from how he felt at age six when he came home from the hospital totally blind after surgery intended to restore his eyesight not only failed but also caused him to lose the tiny amount of vision he had—to his determined effort to be a fully contributing member of the family. Here is what he has to say:

When I was growing up, it seemed to me that my parents were always telling me what to do. Now that I am an adult with children of my own, I am very frequently required to remind my children to do the things they know they must. Sometimes they pay attention, but sometimes they don't.

The growing-up years are the time for learning how to behave, for experimentation, and for seeking maturity. During this period parents are faced with many decisions—decisions that won't wait: What discipline should be imposed? How much freedom can the children manage? What experiences should they have? How much direction can effectively be given? And what is the proper balance between encouraging independence and maintaining sufficient control to guard against disaster? Too much protection can stifle initiative, and too little can lead to ruin. This basic set of considerations is as important for sighted parents raising blind children as it is for those raising sighted children.

I was born blind. However, I had a tiny amount of residual vision. Nobody ever told me that I was blind, so I didn't realize it until I was five.

My parents loved me, and they wanted very much for me to be a normal, healthy child. When I was six, they took me to an eye doctor for a new kind of operation, but it didn't work. Worse than that, as a result of it, I became totally blind.

For several weeks I was moody and despondent. Late one hot summer night I was sitting on my father's lap on the front porch swing. He struck a match. The sudden flare startled me, and I jumped. I had been able to see the light of the flame. All of us wondered what it meant, and my father hoped fervently that I would be able to regain the use of my eyes. But this was not to be. I would remain blind, and we must decide how to manage. None of us knew what to do, but my parents were determined that my blindness should limit me as little as possible.

During the next summer (between my first and second grade school years), my mother taught me to read Braille. Reading was part of the accepted pattern in our family, and my mother expected me to read as much as she expected every other child in our family to read. But there wasn't much Braille material available. During the winter, while I was attending the school for the blind, Braille books were fairly easy to come by. But during the summer, the three months that I spent at home with my family, Braille was scarce.

One year somebody put my name on a list to receive the Braille edition of My Weekly Reader. It came in a big brown envelope about a foot across and fifteen inches high. The magazine was about twenty-five pages long, and I looked forward to getting it.

In 1960 Dr. Kenneth Jernigan established a library for the blind in Iowa, my home state. My father read about the library in the paper, and he asked me if I would like to sign up to borrow Braille books. I told him that I most certainly would. The next time my father drove through Des Moines, he stopped at the library to enroll me as a borrower. Soon afterward the first of the books arrived in the mail.

The packages I received contained three or four volumes. Braille books can be long. Gone With the Wind is ten volumes, but Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol is only one. Each volume I got from the library was about twelve inches square and about three inches thick. They came to me wrapped in heavy brown paper tied with string.

I very carefully untied the string and folded the paper— both must be saved for reuse in shipping the books back to the library. Books for the blind travel through the mail postage-free. Inside the front cover of each volume was a mailing label containing the address of the library. The label was to be pasted on the package to return it to the library. Storing the books, caring for them, and seeing that they were packaged to be mailed back were my responsibility.

When the books were ready for shipment, sometimes my mother would take them to the post office for me in the car. However, this was not always convenient. Sometimes I would load the bundles onto my red wagon and haul them to the post office. The people in the post office never seemed very glad to see me. They appeared to me to be stern and official. I was glad to get out of there, but I wanted more books, so I was willing to face the officialdom of the postal service.

Because the books arrived by mail, planning was required to insure that there was always a supply on hand. I could get two (or sometimes three) books at a time. If I read them all and sent them back, I would have no books until the new shipment arrived. Consequently, I worked out a revolving book loan system with the library.

In the summers in the middle of Iowa, there were certain activities for entertainment. I could sometimes go swimming, but the pool was more than a mile and a half walk from my house. Occasionally there were picnics, but not often. There were television and radio, and sometimes there were rambles in the park or the woods.

However, in those days I did not believe a blind person could travel through the park or the woods alone. My excursions on the nature trails were restricted to times when a friend or a brother could go with me. My parents bought me a bicycle built for two, which I could ride if I found somebody to take the front seat.

Then there were the projects to make a little money. We collected empty soda bottles because you could get two cents apiece for them if they weren't chipped. One summer my brothers and I started a lawn-mowing business. The local newspaper agreed to help kids try to find summer employment by publishing ads for them at no charge. We accepted.

My father told me that I could use the lawn mower as long as I maintained it in good repair, bought the gas and oil for it, and kept our own yard mowed. We got about half a dozen regular customers, who wanted their lawns mowed every two weeks.

When they called, we would gas up the lawn mower and take it to cut the grass. We liked to do it in the mornings—because it was cooler. But we would work any time. We wanted the cash that the mowing produced.

My brother was small enough that he couldn't push the mower very well, but he could guide it. I pushed, and he steered. When the mowing had been completed, we both raked the grass clippings and bagged them for the trash collector. We charged four dollars for small lawns and five for large ones.

It may not sound like much to those who have become accustomed to today's inflated allowances and pay for teen-agers, but we could earn twenty dollars in a day if we were lucky. And that seemed like a lot. To me it still does.

All of us in the Maurer family did housework. After the inside chores each of us was assigned yard work for an hour. Once we were directed to tuck-point the foundation of our home. When the mortar between the bricks gets old and loose, it must be scraped out and replaced with new concrete. Of course, not all of the mortar deteriorates. If it did, the foundation would collapse.

The tuck-pointing process repairs surface damage. It is a tedious and messy job. Each morning for several weeks we mixed a batch of mortar and applied it to the foundation, replacing damaged concrete in the joints between all of the exposed bricks.

Even with all of the activities I have described, I had a lot of free time in the summers. I filled it reading. The library was my friend, but it was a mysterious friend—one that I had never met. I wanted to know more about it.

I asked my mother if I could visit the library in Des Moines, forty miles from our home in Boone; and she agreed. Two of my brothers and I decided that we would take the Greyhound Bus to get there, and I began saving pennies for the trip. The bus ticket cost $3.30 for adults and $1.65 for children. I qualified for the adult fare, but my younger brothers could get the cheaper rate.

It took me quite a while to get the money together. This particular trip was planned before I had come upon the lawn-mowing business. My father might give me fifty cents a week for my allowance, and there might be some other money from the collection of the soda bottles, but that was about it.

After saving for weeks, we had the money; and we headed for the local bus station—a counter at Eddie's newspaper shop. But when we got there, Eddie told us there had been a fare increase. The spare change we had saved for emergencies had to go. We spent all our money on bus tickets.

The bus ride from Boone to Des Moines took about an hour. When we arrived at the Des Moines bus station, we discovered that it was only a short walk to the library for the blind. I was delighted with all of the books and with the friendliness of the staff members there. They said I could browse to my heart's content and pick out anything I wanted. After a while I found a good book, and I started to read. One of the staff members brought me a chair and asked if I needed anything else. I said that I did not, and I just kept reading.

After a time my brothers got bored with the library. They are sighted, and they cannot read Braille. I was the oldest (thirteen or fourteen at the time), so I was in charge. My brothers asked me if they could visit the state capitol building, and I told them they could. They disappeared and were gone for hours. I didn't care at all; I had the books. Perhaps it is just as well that my mother didn't know about the nature of my supervision that day.

Late in the afternoon my brothers returned; and we headed back to the bus station. All of us were quite hungry. We had neglected to bring lunch, and we didn't have any money to buy any. We had spent all we had on the bus tickets. But the ride home was cheerful, and I carried a book with me to read on the bus.

It was the first trip away from home that I ever planned. I wished that I had thought about the lunch. But despite this mistake, I was satisfied. I had seen the library, and I had a book. Not only that: I had the prospect of hundreds and thousands more.

My parents required me to work, gave me independence, and taught me to read. They let me know in a thousand ways that I was a cherished member of the family. They insisted that I make contributions, and they made it perfectly clear that the standard of behavior and the quality of work required would be no less for me than for the other children in the family. As I look back from the perspective of manhood and with children of my own, this is the way it should have been.

In the National Federation of the Blind we are committed to help blind children get the best education their minds can take. Building the right future demands education, a spirit of self-reliance, and the balance to know when to guide and when to keep hands off.

For those of us who have reached adulthood, the pattern of life is established. However, for the children the dreams for the future can be as broad as our imagination and our commitment permit. We believe in our children, and whenever we can find a way to do it, we will put a book into their hands.