TAPPING THE CHARCOAL

by Kenneth Jernigan

When you come right down to it, most people give more attention to food and things related to eating than to almost anything else. At least, that's the way it is with me. My wife Mary Ellen and I live in a big house, and the biggest room in it is the dining room. We like to entertain, and I like to cook on the charcoal grill.

My wife is sighted, and I am blind; but that hasn't changed the fact that our roles in the food department are what once would have been called "traditional." She generally takes responsibility for organizing the kitchen and doing most of the cooking, and I handle the barbecuing and related outside chores. I also have a number of specialty dishes that I like to prepare: a mean kettle of butter beans, a unique homemade salad dressing, and an occasional stew or soup.

As to setting the table, she probably does more of it than I do, but either of us will take care of it as needed. The point is that we do a lot of cooking and have a great many guests and that blindness (except for a few specialized techniques we have devised) makes relatively little difference in how we function.

But you might think otherwise if you heard some of the conversations that occur. Not long ago, for instance, a sighted friend of mine was at our home for dinner; and before we went to the table, I was putting batteries into a talking clock. I use the clock (which will tell me how many seconds have gone by) to time the burgers on the charcoal, and its batteries were dead. As will sometimes happen in such cases, the plate that covers the batteries was acting as if it didn't want to slide back into place. My friend said:

"Here, I'll do that." Saying this, he reached for the clock.

"That's okay," I said. "I'll take care of it."

Up to that point, my friend's behavior was, at the very worst, maybe a little pushy. But his next comment was more than that.

"All right," he said, "I'll let you do it. I know how independent you like to be."

What kind of response should I have made? Certainly I shouldn't have become upset or angry, and I didn't. In fact, I passed off what he said with a smile and a general flow of conversation. But I wonder how he would have felt if the circumstances had been reversed. Suppose I had gone to his home and behaved exactly as he did in mine.

He was a guest in my house, a house I had demonstrated the competence to buy and pay for. We were dealing with my clock and my batteries, a clock and batteries I had bought and paid for. The task was not difficult. The cover went on almost immediately, but even if that hadn't been the case, my friend's conduct was inappropriate.

Even though he knows me quite well and often almost embarrasses me with his praise of my ability when we are talking with mutual acquaintances, he still thought that my blindness meant that I couldn't put a simple cover-plate on a clock. Moreover, I am sure he felt that there was no impropriety in his statement about my "liking to be independent." But if I had been in his home and had reached for his clock as he did for mine, and had then said to him, "All right■you do it; I know how independent you like to be," he would have thought I was losing not only my manners but also my mind.

On another occasion that same friend (and he is a friend) was having dinner at my home, and when I started to pour the coffee, he reached for it, saying: "Here, let me pour that."

Suppose I had been in his home and he had started to pour the coffee, and further suppose that I had reached for it without so much as a by your leave. He would have felt that I was overstepping the bounds of the relationship between guest and host, and he would have thought it doubly inappropriate since I am blind.

His tone and words were those you might use in dealing with a small child, but he was in no sense trying to put me down. He is fond of me, and we're the best of friends. Incidentally, if you wonder how I pour coffee, how I know when the cup is full enough, I do it by listening and by long experience in knowing how heavy the cup feels as the liquid goes into it. It's a simple matter, just one more technique that has become automatic with time and use.

My friend's behavior (not just what he said but also the attitude behind it) illustrates to perfection the dilemma we as blind people face. Very often our friends and associates treat us as if we were children, and not very competent children at that. If we object, we appear to be proving the point of our immaturity. And if we do nothing, we permit the misconception to remain unchanged. But the situation is not static.

We are making steady progress. Day by day and step by step we are changing what it means to be blind.

The public misunderstandings with which we deal are often not grim. In fact, they can be downright funny. I think of the time when I went to a cafeteria, where you carried your tray through the line but a waitress then took it to your table. I was with a sighted associate, and both of us had put iced tea on our trays. When we got to the table and the waitress had put our trays down and was turning away, I reached out toward my plate and turned my tea glass over. It made a mess.

The waitress was very gracious about it and said she would bring me another. She did■but just as she turned around and was leaving, my sighted friend reached across my tray (probably to get salt or pepper) and hit my tea glass and turned it over. The waitress heard the splash and turned around.

In a very solicitious voice she said: "I'm sorry. I'll get you another glass."

Do you think I told her that I hadn't spilled that second glass of tea, that it was my sighted friend who had done it? Certainly not. She wouldn't have believed me and would probably have thought that I was just embarrassed.

"No," I told her, "I think I'll just drink this glass of water. I think I wasn't meant to have tea today." Still insisting that she would bring me more tea, the waitress left but I am sure that she was puzzled by our prolonged laughter. Explanations wouldn't have helped. The incident brightened our day.

I remember an evening almost twenty years ago when a sighted professor of journalism and his six-year-old son were my dinner guests. We were cooking on the charcoal, and I was explaining to the professor that you can tell when your hamburgers are done by timing them and by how hot your fire is.

I was showing him how the burgers are put into a wire rack with a handle on it, which makes them easy to turn. When they are done on one side, you simply lift the rack and turn it over.

He wanted to know how I could keep the rack straight on the grill, and I explained that I do it by touch. You can even touch a hot stove without burning yourself if you do it quickly. I illustrated by touching the top of the hot grill, hitting it lightly and then quickly taking my fingers away. The professor seemed thoroughly convinced that the technique would work. After all, he was watching me do it. But when his six-year old son decided to try it, he wasn't so sure.

"That grill's hot!" he said. "Be careful! Don't do that!

You'll burn yourself!"

The boy (such are the ways of children) was ecstatic. "Chicken!" he cried to his dad. "Chicken!" He danced to the other side of the grill and kept tapping the top of it with his fingers. I was laughing and doing the same thing, and by and by, the professor was trying it too. I then said to him, "Now, let's tap the glowing charcoal."

The boy was all for it and skipped out of his father's reach. I hoped he was mature enough not to burn himself, and he was. It wasn't long before he, his dad, and I were playing the game of quickly and lightly tapping the glowing coals.

There is no great virtue, of course, in tapping a hot grill with your fingers, but it does make the point that visual techniques are not the only ones that can be used in the activities of daily living. There are many others that work just as well. And, by the way, I doubt that my friends (the professor and his son) will ever forget the experience. Most alternative techniques are not as dramatic as tapping the charcoal, but they can be just as effective.

The real problem of blindness is not the blindness itself■not the acquisition of skills or techniques or competence. The real problem is the lack of understanding and the misconceptions which exist. It is no accident that the word blind carries with it connotations of inferiority and helplessness.

The concept undoubtedly goes back to primitive times when existence was at an extremely elemental level. Eyesight and the power to see were equated with light, and light (whether daylight or firelight) meant security and safety. Blindness was equated with darkness, and darkness meant danger and evil. The blind person could not hunt effectively or dodge a club.

In our day, society and social values have changed.

In civilized countries there is now (except perhaps in certain American cities) no great premium on dodging a club, and hunting has dwindled to the status of an occasional pastime. The blind are able to compete on terms of equality in the full current of active life. The primitive conditions of jungle and cave are gone, but the primitive attitudes still linger.

Even so, we who are blind have come farther in the last thirty or forty years than ever before in all of recorded history. This is so largely because of the work of the National Federation of the Blind, which has done more than any other single thing to help make life better for blind people. And we are only at the threshold.

For the blind of this country tomorrow is bright with promise. We believe in the future; we believe in ourselves; and we believe in the goodwill of our sighted friends and associates. We will put the batteries in our clocks; we will pour coffee for ourselves and others; and we will tap the charcoal but we will do it quickly and with a light touch.