by Marc Maurer
A professor told me, when I was a student at the University of Notre Dame, that a clich is a wise saying which has been repeated so often that the good has been washed out of it. Nevertheless, there are times when clichs should be used. This professor, for instance, was particularly fond of "dumb as an ox."
When I was growing up, I was told that time is money and that knowledge is power. But these thoughts were repeated so often that they ceased to have any meaning for me. Nobody that I could remember had ever offered to pay me for my time■or my knowledge either, for that matter. Maybe, I thought, knowledge and power are equivalent, but the knowledge I possessed didn't make me feel powerful. For time to be equal to money, or for knowledge to be equal to power, the person possessing the time and the knowledge must be able to trade them for money and influence. I didn't believe that I could expect to do that.
Although I was well enough liked in school, my teachers and my fellow students did not think that I was likely to be successful in business or the professions, and I wondered if they weren't right.
Then, I met Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who was serving as President of the National Federation of the Blind. My hopes and dreams mattered to him. If I wanted to build a future far beyond my wildest imaginings, he wanted to help me. This was true even when his opinion about what I should do was different from mine.
I kept thinking that I should get a job. Dr. Jernigan wanted me to study. He urged me to spend my time getting some high-quality book learning. But I argued against it. I thought that the book learning could wait and that what I needed was practical experience.
I asked Dr. Jernigan to help me get a job, and despite his feeling that I should use my time to improve my mind, he helped me find employment as a small engine mechanic.
Mechanics are expected to bring their own tools, but I had no money to buy them. Dr. Jernigan found the means to get me a box of wrenches, a flywheel puller, and a device called a feeler gauge, which is used to check the distances between the points in the ignition systems of engines, to test the gap of spark plugs, and to measure the tolerances in the spacing of valve lifters. With my shiny new tool box in hand, I started working at a machine shop, repairing small engines.
The machine shop repaired lawn mowers, garden tractors, rototillers, and other gasoline-driven machines in the summer, and snow-blowers and snowmobiles in the winter. My boss was a man who believed in giving a guy a chance, but he was not prepared to pay a laborer who didn't produce. One of his regular mechanics had been paralyzed from the waist down, and I was then, as I am now, totally blind.
Each mechanic was provided with a workbench and an air hose and access to the parts room. When the customers brought work for us to do, we were offered the opportunity to do it. If we succeeded in repairing a machine, we got paid. If the machine remained broken, we remained unpaid.
This system gave us the maximum incentive to do our jobs both speedily and well. However, we were not permitted to perform the work in a half-baked fashion. There was a set routine. A machine which was brought to the shop for repair must first be cleaned. After it had been scrubbed with solvent, the machine must be drained of oil and other fluids. Then the it was to be inspected for broken parts. If the customer had specified the problem, this was to be the major focus of attention.
We knew that the customer sometimes missed the real source of the difficulty. The inspection was to proceed with this in mind. Unless the customer specified otherwise, the machine was to be put into top-notch working condition. After all of the repairs had been made and the fluids replaced, the machine was to be cleaned once again in readiness for the customer.
Clean 'em; fix 'em; lubricate 'em; gas and oil 'em; test 'em; and clean 'em again. If it passed inspection, it was time to tell the customer that the machine was ready.
One morning my boss came to me with a portable gasoline-driven air compressor. He said that the other work which I was doing must be put aside. The customer was managing a construction crew, and he needed the compressor immediately. The construction foreman could not get the engine to run.
I began by preparing to clean the compressor and its engine, and I was about to check the oil when the boss interrupted. There was a whole construction crew waiting on this machine. The oil would be fine. Just get the engine running. So I skipped the usual routine.
There are three things that must come together in a gasoline engine for it to run. There must be a fuel-air mixture in the cylinder. There must be compression of the fuel-air mixture which will make it sufficiently unstable to burn, and there must be a spark to ignite the fuel.
The method I used to check the ignition systems of small engines was to remove the sparkplug from the cylinder head. With the sparkplug connected to the ignition wire, I turned the engine over. If the system was in working condition, a spark would jump across the electrodes of the sparkplug.
When I pulled the sparkplug of the compressor engine, I discovered that there was no spark. The problem had been identified. The ignition system needed repair. But this engine was unlike any that I had ever encountered. I did not know how its ignition system worked.
I found a little box on the side that I thought might have something to do with the electrical system. When I took the cover off, there were the ignition points. I had never worked on any like them. However, there was a loose wire inside the box, which seemed to be shorting the points. I broke it off and put the cover back onto the box. With the sparkplug back in place, I pulled the starting rope. The engine kicked right over and settled into the noisy rhythm that small engines make. The job had taken me about five minutes.
My boss was pleased and wanted to know what had been wrong with the engine. The construction foreman was pleased and glad to be able to go back to work. And I was pleased. I was quite well paid for five minutes effort. I had saved the construction crew a lot of waiting time. I had known about the theory of internal combustion engines, and■with a little bit of luck■I had been able to apply that theory to solve a problem. Because they needed to save time, and because I had some knowledge and a little luck, I received the money.
I never told my boss how easy it was to fix that machine. He thought I was a real smart mechanic, and I just let him keep on thinking it.
I served as a mechanic for only a short time. Then I took Dr. Jernigan's advice and went to college. He had told me that if I intended to be able to participate fully in the society in which we live, I would need a good education.
Although he was gentle about the telling, he suggested to me that the reason I had not felt very powerful with the knowledge that I possessed was that I did not have enough of it to do me much good. Seven years later, I had completed undergraduate school and obtained a law degree.
By the time I began making applications for my first law job, I had been a part of the National Federation of the Blind for eight years. With the help of my friends in the Federation, I became the principal attorney for the Senior Legal Assistance Project in Ohio. It was an interesting job involving many kinds of lawsuits in the civil courts.
One lady had employed a firm to put a roof on her house. Although the roofer said the work had been completed, it apparently remained unfinished. My job was to file a contract action seeking appropriate damages and demanding that the work be finished or the money returned. During the preparation of the case, I spent time on the client's roof with the expert witness we were planning to call at trial. Collecting and arranging evidence, preparing witnesses, writing jury instructions, researching the law, and making appearances in the courts were all part of the daily practice.
At least one fundamental principle is the same for the practice of law and the business of being a mechanic. Results matter. We who are blind must be prepared to solve problems both for ourselves and for others. If we have the chance to get the proper learning, then we can meet this challenge.
This is the message I got from the National Federation of the Blind, and it is still the message we are promoting today. If we are good at what we do, we can expect opportunities to come, and these opportunities give us the chance for a full and productive life.
My wife Patricia and I were married in 1973. She (who is also blind) had just graduated from college with an education degree and a teaching credential. Despite her education, Patricia was not always able to find employment as a teacher. Much of the time during the period that I attended law school, she supported the two of us by working as a typist for Blue Cross/Blue Shield.
Today, Patricia volunteers her time to help the National Federation of the Blind serve the thousands of blind people who come to us for advice and support. She and I also devote our time to raising our two children, David and Dianna. Blind people do not always have the chance to have families, and we feel especially blessed.
When our son David was nine years old, he wanted to join the Cub Scouts. There was a Cub Scout pack being formed at our church. When we spoke to the cubmaster who was forming the pack, he asked me if I would be able to serve as treasurer and assistant leader. I responded that I would be pleased to try but that I had never been a Scout. He told me not to worry about it. So, I joined the Scouts as an adult rather than a boy.
Just before Christmas the first year that I was serving as assistant leader and treasurer for the Cub Scouts, the cubmaster indicated that we should plan to take part in the Klondike Derby. The Klondike Derby, I was told, is an event that takes place in the out-of-doors during the winter. For a day, Scouts hike on trails and demonstrate their skill in outdoor crafts■especially those needed in the cold. Fire building, knot tying, first aid with an emphasis on emergencies that happen in cold weather, shelter building, tracking, and many more activities are a part of the Klondike Derby.
The cubmaster said that we would need a sled. I thought that we could use the plastic one that Patricia and I had purchased for our children. Then, the cubmaster told me that the sled must be made of wood. I thought that if I hunted around garage sales or thrift stores, I might be able to put my hands on a flexible flyer. They are made of wood.
But the cubmaster went on to tell us that not only must the sled itself be made of wood, but the runners of the sled must also be made of the same material. This is a real tough one, I thought. Maybe I could find an old pair of skis that nobody wanted, but I never found any. So we bought boards, and David and I began building a sled.
I had heard that if you steam wood, you can bend it. So we took a very large pot and filled it with water. Over the top of this pot, we balanced pieces of maple that were three quarters of an inch thick and four inches wide. Because these boards were eight feet long, only a small portion of them could be immediately above the kettle. However, the curve of a sled runner is a fairly short one. We decided that if we could get a forty-five degree bend in a part of the board that is a little over a foot long, this would suit our purposes admirably.
We boiled the water under the wood for over eight hours.
We had built a homemade bending frame to shape the runners. When the boards had been thoroughly boiled, we inserted the steamed end into the frame and pulled on the other end to create a curve. The plan worked.
Most of the construction of the sled occurred in the living room of our house because that is where we had the space to do the building. Despite some domestic disruption, the sled was completed on time for the Klondike. But this is not all. Our Klondike Derby sled won first prize!
We in the National Federation of the Blind want very much to help make our country the best that it can be. We want to learn, and we want to pass our knowledge on to others who need it. Our dreams for the future are big ones■both for ourselves and for our friends and neighbors. And we are willing to work hard to make our plans come true.
The clichs about blindness have often portrayed us as helpless, or worse. We believe that we have something to contribute, and we are putting our energy into making that something worthwhile. When we become lawyers, homemakers, scout leaders, mechanics, or teachers, the old clichs about the incapacity of the blind lose their force. They become as meaningless as inscriptions on sand.
This is the meaning of the National Federation of the Blind, which has made such a dramatic difference in my life and in the lives of many thousands of others. If we are to live by a clich, perhaps it should be "The Lord helps those who help themselves" or perhaps "There ain't no such thing as a free lunch."