When the Blizzard Blows
by Marc Maurer, President, National Federation of the Blind
If a musician wants to become a virtuoso, it is necessary to practice. If an athlete wants to be a star, practice, practice, and more practice will be required. It seems to me that the simple but important things are often overlooked. When I think back, it seems to me that these simple things are often the most notable. I like the winter months—especially when there is snow. The cold is stimulating, and the bite of the wind offers a challenge that requires preparation. One of the pleasures of the winter is stepping from a windy thoroughfare, after a long trudge through the snow, into a warm and steamy cafe for a cup of coffee. The gloves and hat come off, and the hands are grateful for the warm cup.
In 1976 I was a student attending law school in Indianapolis. I had begun college in 1970 and been married in 1973. Although I had been able to find some employment during the summer months, jobs (as is often the case with blind people) were hard to come by. My wife Patricia and I lived in a one-bedroom basement apartment on the west side of town four or five miles from the law school. My wife, who is also blind, had been able to find employment (after a long, long search) as a typist for Blue Cross. Her checks paid the rent and bought some groceries, but there wasn’t a lot of money left over at the end of the month. Our outings were infrequent and strictly rationed. Once we went to Wendy’s for burgers. I remember eating two triples. I was very full but not the least bit sorry. Another time we went to dinner at Long John Silver’s for fish and chips.
Each morning during the week, I would walk about a quarter of a mile from our apartment to the bus stop. After about a twenty-minute ride, the bus would drop me near the law school. Classes began about nine o’clock in the morning. Sometimes they continued (with intermittent breaks) until late afternoon. But I was often finished with my formal work shortly after lunch. Then, there would be study in the library, or reading and writing back in the apartment. At about two o’clock one afternoon, my classes had come to an end. I had heard on the radio that morning that there might be snow, and as I walked to the bus stop, I reflected that the weatherman had been right. There was already almost half a foot of it on the ground, and the stinging wet flakes were pouring from the sky—a veritable blizzard. The wind whipped the snow into my face and down my collar.
When I reached the bus stop, I discovered to my surprise that there were two other people waiting for the same bus. At that particular stop I was almost always alone. Today, however, a woman was waiting with her three-year-old grandson. Oh, but the wind was cold. Nevertheless, we talked about what a pleasant thing it would be to get inside out of the storm. After a time the bus arrived. I climbed aboard, put my money in the fare box, and took my seat a couple of places behind the driver. The woman climbed aboard also with her little grandson. She explained to the driver that she was planning to travel the other way (east not west) but that it wasn’t very far to the end of the line so she would ride out with us and come back. The driver said that this would be all right, but she would have to pay two fares—one for going out and the other for coming back. The grandmother explained that she didn’t have that much money with her. So the driver told her that she must get off the bus, walk one block over to the street on which buses returned toward town, and wait. With great reluctance and a little sadness, the woman and the child left the bus, and started away from the bus stop.
Within a block I was wondering why I hadn’t done anything to help. I wanted the grandmother and the little boy to be warm. I could have made it come true. But I sat without moving until the opportunity had passed. I looked in my pocket to see how much money I had with me, and I found two or three dollars. That would have been more than enough to cover the cost. I could have paid the fare myself, but I didn’t. I let the driver put the woman and the child off the bus into the storm.
The recollection of that little boy and his grandmother are with me still. For almost twenty years I have been sorry that I did nothing to help. These two people symbolize for me the need to be prepared and to plan ahead to seize opportunities when they come. I could have made a difference to them that day, but I wasn’t prepared to think in those terms. If I want the world to be a generous place in which to live, I must begin with generosity in my own life. If I want (as indeed I do) strength of character, courage, gentleness, and the ability to face adversity, I must plan ahead to find ways to build these characteristics both in myself and in those I meet. Part of behaving well is the habit of thinking and acting in a certain way. All of this comes to mind when I remember a certain blizzard while I was waiting on a street corner for a bus.
When I was in Indiana, it was very unusual for a blind person to be attending law school. I was able to be there because my friends in the National Federation of the Blind had worked and planned in the years before I joined the organization to make it possible. I needed books and a way to write that my professors could understand. I needed to know the techniques and skills that can be used by the blind to accomplish those things that would ordinarily be done with sight. I needed a background in traveling with a white cane. I needed the capacity to read and write in Braille.
I needed to know how to manage the ordinary activities of getting along on a daily basis—how to rent an apartment, how to acquire the use of a truck and a driver to move my belongings, how to manage a checking account, how to be sure that my neckties matched my other clothes, and how to locate people who would be willing to serve as readers—both for incidental matters like the mail and for those heavy law books. The National Federation of the Blind had helped me with all of this and had also assisted in finding the money to pay the tuition and other school fees. But this is only a part of what the National Federation of the Blind provided. Far more important than all the other matters were the encouragement and support I received from my friends and colleagues in the Federation. What they said was, “You can do it; don’t give up; keep trying; you’ll make it!”
The law degree that is hanging on my wall would not be there if it had not been for the National Federation of the Blind. The planning and preparation which are responsible for that degree continue for thousands of other blind people throughout the nation. Do we want blind people to be independent and live successful lives? Of course we do. What must be done to create a climate of opportunity and to foster the kind of training which is needed? We must plan to build our programs with these objectives in mind. We want blind people to be a part of our society.
We want to help build our country so that we can be proud of what we have in America. That is why we have the National Federation of the Blind, and that is why I wish I had helped the woman on the bus. Today I would certainly do it. Twenty years ago I didn’t. Our road to freedom is a long one with many twists.
The article above is reprinted from the NFB Kernel book by the same title, When the Blizzard Blows.