The Braille MonitorMarch, 2001 Edition
by Stephen O. Benson
From the Editor: When I was a child, we often spent summer afternoons and evenings playing croquet. I don't believe I ever won, because I couldn't see the wickets, but I always played. At the beginning of the game the girls would compare footwear to see who was wearing the lightest colored shoes and white socks. That person was designated to stand with her feet on the outsides of each wicket as I played up to it. If I couldn't see that in the available light, someone would tap the top of the wicket with her mallet to give me a fix on its position.
Dr. Fred Schroeder tells of his student who solved the problem of always being It while playing tag by placing pebbles in a milk jug. He established the rule that whoever was It had to shake the jug, thereby proclaiming his or her location. The blind child might not always know who It was, but he always thereafter knew where It was and could dodge away as well as anyone else.
Such stories illustrate the creativity children can bring to their play when they are intent on being part of the gang and have friends willing to help make their participation possible. Steve Benson was another youngster who was determined to hold his own in his circle of friends. Steve is currently President of the NFB of Illinois and a member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind. Forty plus years ago he was a scrappy kid determined to hold his own with his friends. This is what he says:
My friend Tom had a Cocker Spaniel named Sparky, who had four very stubby legs and was overweight. I don't remember how old Sparky was at the time of this story, but I was about eleven or twelve years old. One day I got it into my head that I could run faster than Sparky. I made the challenge, and Tom accepted it on Sparky's behalf.
One fine summer day Tom, Nick, Sparky, and I went to the alley behind our houses to fulfill the challenge. The course was half a city block in length. Tom decided that, in order to make the race fair, I should have a head start of half the track's length. Nick held Sparky at one end of the block, and Tom stood at the other end. Nick counted down, and, when he said go, he turned Sparky loose as Tom was calling the dog. Though I ran as fast as I could, Sparky bounded past me at about the three-quarter mark on the designated track. The incident elicited great hilarity and a lot of teasing fun.
My peers and I were always running, racing, trying to improve our speed. On very windy days we ran into the wind; in winter we ran in the snow with heavy boots on just to stretch and strengthen our legs and to increase our lung capacity. For many years I was the fastest kid on the block, at least in our age group. When another kid named Steve moved on to the block, the inevitable challenges were made and accepted. He proved to be slightly faster than I was, and that motivated me to work a little harder to beat him. I don't remember whether I ever did; I know I tried.
My peers and I were competitive, no matter what we were doing. Some of the competition was good-natured fun; some of it was take-no-prisoners serious. On hot summer days we parked on my shaded back porch and played Monopoly from 8:00 in the morning till 9:00 at night. We adopted our own rules so that the game would move along faster. Indescribable fortunes were won and lost, and a few of the boys became pretty bitter about losing. The rest of us knew that in the next game the scenario could be completely different, so there was no point in getting upset. In my Monopoly days I had enough vision to see the lines on the game board but not enough to read the Community Chest and Chance cards. After hearing them read a few times, I memorized the information I needed to play.
But running: now that was something I could do without assistance. The half-block-long alley behind our houses was often the site for races among two to six runners. Fences bordered both sides of the course, and I could line myself up with them and keep straight. The alley was made of city paving bricks from building line to building line. The aprons of the alley were asphalt, so there was a distinct difference in surface texture. The breaks in textures marked the starting and finish lines.
I never had the opportunity to run on a cinder, crushed-limestone, wood, or clay track. Alleys, sidewalks, or streets were the courses generally used. On those occasions when we ran on grass at a park or picnic ground, the sight lines were different, not as distinct. For races of any length beyond about ten yards, the course had to be arranged so that I could run with confidence, for I simply couldn't see well enough to observe the entire track or what lay on either side. I often walked a course before attempting to run it.
I learned that some alternative techniques were useful for running as well as for other athletic events. They were simple and cost little or nothing. For example, in track a person was sometimes stationed at the finish line to clap continuously, but the best alternative technique was to have two people blowing whistles of different pitches, one on either side of the course. When the signal was given to Go, I ran, aiming to split the whistlers. If the whistles were the same pitch, the sounds blended; and it was difficult, over a longer course especially, to run straight, homing in properly.
As I said, I never ran on a regulation track, nor did I participate in an organized track program. However, in the summer of 1961 I worked as a volunteer counselor in a summer day camp for blind kids. A surplus of counselors allowed some of us, blind and sighted high school and college students, to organize a physical fitness program. It served two purposes: we provided a ready reserve of counselors to fill gaps due to absences, and we acquired strength and some new alternative skills.
One of the adult instructors at the summer day camp was a baseball, track, and swimming coach at a Chicago high school. We persuaded him to spend some time with us when the little kids were involved in activities that didn't require his attention. Under his supervision we did a variety of exercises and ran quarter-mile warm-ups and wind sprints on a measured, forty-yard course. As I said, I had never been involved in an organized track program, so this was new and probably as close as I'd ever get to such an activity. The coach taught us the correct starting stance, when to come up, and how to stride properly in a dash. In my first attempt at a timed dash I covered the distance in 5.4 seconds. By the end of five weeks of work I had cut my time down to 4.6 seconds. I should mention that we wore gym shoes, not track shoes, and we ran on a grass course. I remember feeling a little frustrated because I couldn't seem to get my time under 4.6 seconds. I felt no strain as I leaped down the course toward the whistle-blowing finish line markers. I felt as though I was flying. It was exhilarating and very satisfying.
As I reflect on a time when running was more important to me than it is today, I realize that I used my very limited vision as well as possible; I also realize that I relied more heavily on alternative techniques of blindness than I would have admitted. I simply could not have competed on anything like an equal basis without them.
It is crucial that blind people who engage the world around us devise techniques that work, but they should also rely on the experience of other blind people for information and suggestions. One shouldn't have to reinvent the wheel. Heavy reliance on mechanical devices or on instruction from manuals robs a blind person of the opportunity to be creative and realize the satisfaction of meeting and resolving a challenge. I endured bumps, cuts, and bruises in my athletic-competition days, but I would do it all again if given the chance, and I hope I would have the good fortune and the sense to play and compete with the same kind of creative, adventurous people as I did the first time around.