by Ronald Brown
From the Editor: Ron Brown is the owner of two businesses and has been married to his lovely wife Jean for twenty-seven years. Together they are the proud parents of two girls and the grandparents of six grandchildren. He also serves as the second vice president of the National Federation of the Blind and as the president of the National Federation of the Blind of Indiana. But saying who Ron is doesn't begin to explain the journey he has traveled to come to love the life he has or the events which came close to keeping him from living, loving, giving, and prospering. Here is his story:
When I started my senior year of high school, I didn't need a crystal ball to chart my future. As the oldest son in a black family, my responsibility was clear: After my father, I was the man of the house, and my responsibilities included watching out for my brothers and sisters, who ranged in age from three to twenty.
I had a plan for my life—or at least as serious a plan as a young man in high school can have. When I graduated, I would learn a trade, and that trade would be refrigeration and cooling. I would apprentice under my uncle, because a man who knew cooling systems could command a good hourly wage. With my personality and motivation it was likely I'd one day start my own business.
These were the things I thought of in my more serious moments, when becoming an adult was just one school year away. But for all the deep thoughts about family, career, and my future, I was still a kid and felt the joy of running and shouting and whooping it up with my fellow students. I liked the girls, and they liked me. Within the limits of my family's income, I was a fancy dresser and cut a pretty good figure if I do say so myself.
Shortly after the start of senior year my friends and I were headed home after a basketball game, when on an impulse we decided to take a shortcut. Instead of walking on three streets, we decided to cut through a field. With all the vigor and excitement of young men out of school, we ran through that field, laughing and yelling as young men will do. I remember hearing a friend yell, looking off to my left at him, and seeing a flash as though someone was taking my picture using a flash bulb. Then I felt a pain in my face I had never felt before; it felt like a thousand bees were stinging me. Then I heard a loud pop, realized what had happened, and began yelling "I've been shot! I've been shot!"
I continued to run but soon fell to the ground. My friends grabbed me and helped me to the home of a neighbor who had come out of the house when he heard my screams. My mother was contacted, I was taken to the hospital, and I went immediately into surgery. After surgery my memory was vague, but gradually I remembered running through the field, whooping and hollering, with not a care in the world. As my memory returned, so did my new reality: I was totally blind, and nothing the doctors could do would change that. One bad decision—cutting through a stranger's field—meant I would never see again. Where was the future that was to be mine? Who would do what I so obviously could not?
My family believed in Jesus Christ, we attended church, we played by the rules (or at least as much as imperfect human beings can). Why me? Why would the God I loved let this happen? Was I being tested or punished? Was this the hand of God, or was it really as simple as a bad choice, a stupid decision, and the consequences that came from them?
No one was ever charged in the crime that took my sight. The man who put that gun outside his window and fired that shot was not aiming at anyone in particular. He said there had been damage to his property, he was frightened by the noise, and he was just trying to scare off the kids. What damage were we doing? We were just running home from school. Where was the justice in this?
Being confined to that hospital bed with those thoughts running through my mind was torture. I was grateful when at last they said I could go home, but in many ways home wasn't any better. The flashy, independent young man who was just that close to learning a trade, getting a job, and becoming the head of the house had now changed places; and never was this more apparent than when I would ask for something, and my three-year-old sister would bring it to me. The baby in my family was now more capable than I, so how could I ever provide for anyone? The future that had so certainly seemed to be mine was gone as totally as my vision, so I did the only thing I knew how to do: I sat, fretted, and grieved.
After a few weeks of patiently watching me feel sorry for myself, my mother took things in hand and said I'd have to return to school and finish my senior year. I asked her how a blind kid could go back to school. I couldn't read; I couldn't write; I couldn't get around; and what would I do with an education anyway? She said she didn't have all the answers, but she had one or two, and that's where we'd start. She said that she had learned of a school across town that had a program for the blind—a resource room they called it—where I could go for special help. I objected, saying I had never been to that school and had no idea how I'd get around. Her response was to pick up the phone and call my friend Maurice. "Maurice, do you still have that cane with the tuxedo you wore to last year's prom? Good, now bring it over here for Ron."
"What do I want with a black cane?" I asked.
My mother's response came without a trace of doubt: "Ron, you are outgoing, you know how to make friends, and you know how to ask questions. When you go to that new school, you carry that cane so that people will know you need help, and when you need to find something, you call out, and people will help you."
There was no use arguing that I didn't want to carry a cane, that I didn't know how to use it, that it would make me look different, or even that there was no reason for me to go to school. When my mother said I could do it, this was more than an observation, more than a command: it was a statement of belief—belief of a kind that I had always had in myself—until the day I became blind. The questions I had about how I could go to school or what difference it would make were nothing compared with the fact that my mother still believed I was capable of meeting a challenge and that inside I was still me. I had always known that tough guys don't whine; tough guys don't make it by saying "I can't," but it was my mother who reminded me that none of this had been changed by the flash from the gun that took my vision.
So off to school I went, me and that little black cane. Pencil grip, diagonal technique, two-touch technique, slide or tap, proper cane arc: all terms used in describing how to use a cane—I had never heard of them. But day by day I asked my questions, made myself some friends, and trusted that my mother was right.
The superintendent of the school said my success would depend on doing three things: learning Braille, learning to touch type, and continuing to do the work in my regular classes. I met all of his requirements, and, what do you know, I graduated on time. I had started my senior year fully sighted and finished it totally blind, but my mother had been right in telling me that I still was the same person I had been, that I still had a future, and that I could still have a good life.
After graduating, I attended the Elkart Rehabilitation Center, where I worked more on Braille, actually learned to use a cane, took college preparation courses, and perfected other blindness skills. College was something I had never considered before, but even at eighteen I could see that this would create future opportunities for me and that one day I might once again feel in control of that future.
I entered Ball State University in 1975, and it was there that I first met former President Maurer and other members of the National Federation of the Blind. They wanted to help the blind students at Ball State start a student division. We didn't know much about the Federation or the things it believed, but we were interested because we had heard they had some good parties and that this would be a way for us to meet a lot of girls. They told us we should start a fundraiser, so we bought some candy to sell. We weren't very organized about it, though, and, being hungry college students, we ended up eating it and paying for the candy ourselves. As I experienced some success in college, my independent nature began to reassert itself, my type-A personality once again pushed me forward, and one thing was for sure: I had myself a goal and a challenge.
In 1979 I returned home after graduating with a degree in health science and counseling. I immediately started looking for work. I wrote letters applying for anything available that I thought I could do. I sent more than one hundred of them and in response got a hundred rejections—sorry, the job is filled; sorry but you don't have the requisite job experience; thank you for your interest, we'll keep your application on file. So here was the age-old problem: how could I get job experience without a job, and how could I get a job without experience? Finally I decided the only way I was going to get out of the house and get my foot in the door was to volunteer my services. It wouldn't be paid experience, but job experience it would be. I began by teaching daily living skills at the Trade Winds Rehabilitation Center, and soon I was teaching six courses. The volunteer work paid off, and I was hired. That first job paid me $9,000 a year, and I really thought I was doing something.
Being restless and wanting to get away from home, I moved to DC with the hope I would find a job there. Another move found me in Texas, but again the expected job did not materialize. When I came back to Indiana in 1983, I was tired of looking for jobs and wanted to start my own business. Folks suggested I begin by getting into the Business Enterprise Program for the Blind. At that time there was no formal training program in the state, so my food-service education consisted of job-shadowing two blind vending operators. I worked at one place for a week and at a second for two weeks. Then the agency gave me the key to my own facility, and I learned what people mean when they say "baptism by fire." I survived the experience and learned to run a business but would never encourage anyone to go into a job with so little training.
It seemed that ten years had made all the difference. I had done a good job learning the skills of blindness; had adopted many of the beliefs about blindness held by an organization I was increasingly helping to grow; had met the love of my life, Jean; and had a job. Not only was I now able to assume my role as the head of the family, but soon Jean and I would start one of our own. I was doing all right, but this was the external Ron Brown; inside I still felt unsettled. I repeatedly kicked myself for running across that field and still couldn't figure out why God had allowed my sight to be taken from me. These were feelings I kept to myself, and sometimes it even seemed I had reconciled myself to the Ron Brown who was, rather than the Ron Brown who might have been.
In 1990 a second tragedy descended on my family. This time it fell on my brother Preston. We always called him Moochie, though for the life of me I can't remember how he got that nickname. He had grown up and moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and, while out driving one evening with my cousin Alvin, their car ran out of gas. They walked to the nearest filling station, bought some gasoline in a jar, and, on their way back to the car, were stopped by a gang who demanded to know what they were doing in their neighborhood. The explanation about running out of gas was less important to the gang members than their territory, and they started to fight my cousin Alvin. When it was clear that Alvin was in trouble, Moochie put down the gas and entered the fight. When the gang members turned their attention to him, Alvin was able to run, but once Moochie was down, knocked unconscious by the sticks and bats they carried, the gang doused him with gasoline and set him afire. The blaze roused him, and as he ran through the streets begging someone to help put out the flames, the gang members followed and threatened to hurt anyone who tried to help him. Finally a pregnant woman threw herself on Moochie and extinguished the flames, but he had burns on more than 90 percent of his body, and he would not survive.
I was crushed by the death of my brother, a fun-loving and generous soul who never tried to pick a fight or bully anyone. His murder was unjust, unprovoked, and couldn't have happened to one of God's kinder or gentler souls. I was devastated, heartbroken, and consumed by anger. I started a campaign. I got friends to write to the prosecutor, to the judge, and to the local newspapers. My message was harsh, but it said exactly what I felt: these were not boys but men and should be tried as men; these young men were animals—no—demons; they deserved to die; however the state executed them would be kinder than they had been to my brother; if they didn't get the death penalty, they should get terms long enough to ensure that they would never again walk the streets. I carried on this campaign for months, for years. I felt hate inside and could not reconcile myself to such an unjust world. When someone would be bold enough to suggest that there might be room for mercy and understanding, I shut them down, blocked them out. I didn't want to hear that, certainly didn't feel it. I was busy being consumed by the desire to see that those boys paid for what they had done. Decisions had consequences. Hadn't that been true in my case? I had made a stupid decision to cross a man's field, had gotten myself shot, and wasn't I now living a lesser life because of that foolish act? Mercy? What mercy had they shown my brother? What mercy had anyone shown me? Not a bit so far as I could tell. For once our family deserved justice—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Maybe I couldn't get back the use of my eyes, but I would do everything I could to see that those gang members felt the teeth of the law!
Gradually the hate I focused on writing letters and making phone calls wore me down. The legal process continued at its own glacial pace. The young men who murdered my brother were charged, tried, and sentenced. I was outraged that some of them got as little as two years, but there was no longer anything to be done. Instead of looking outside for something I could do in response to my pain and anger, I had to look inward and come up with how to quench this fire that burned hot within me, a fire that was making me angry, cynical, and bitter. Gradually I began to understand that my desire to see those boys pay for what they did wasn't just because they had done something so abominably terrible to my brother. I wanted them to pay in the same way I was paying—paying every day for the rest of my life. I wanted them to pay in a way that the man who had blinded me had not. I was deprived of the freedom to see; they should be deprived of their freedom. Forgive them: how could I forgive them when . . . when . . . and soon it hit me: why should I forgive them, when I couldn't forgive myself. My pain was more than the righteous anger at those young thugs: I was angry at the person closest to me, that young high school senior who had tried to take a shortcut, to take the easier way home, and who was having to pay the consequences of his imprudent act. Why should they get off with mercy when mercy was the last thing shown to me?
But the realization that I was not only mad at them but mad at myself made me think hard about life, about choices, about my professed belief in Jesus Christ and the power of love, and about the need that all of us have for mercy. Slowly I began to realize that I had been given a second chance: a chance for an education I could never have hoped to get before blindness, a chance at a business opportunity that was becoming lucrative, a chance to start and nurture a family with my bride, and a chance to help people throughout the country.
On this long road to peace and freedom from my imprisonment by anger and resentment, I have come to believe that in some of our life experiences we suffer, that through our suffering we become enlightened, that when we become enlightened we learn the truth, and that the truth can set us free. Little by little, I stopped saying, "God, why me," and found myself thinking, "With all I have to give, God, why not me?" Maybe my job on this earth is to turn tragedy into triumph, to turn what was once adversity into something that will inspire others to take back control of their lives; I found my thoughts turning to what I had rather than to what I was missing.
Those boys had nothing to say about where they were born or that they were expected to defend their turf. They made a terrible decision that day, but I have come to believe that everybody deserves a second chance in this life, just as I was given a second chance. I have forgiven those boys—now long since men—and I have forgiven myself. Running through that field had consequences, but with the help of God, the support of my mother and my family, and the support of the National Federation of the Blind, I am a happy man. I have a purpose: to be the best husband I can be, to be the best father I can be, to be the best grandfather I can be, and to build and strengthen an organization that has made a tremendous difference in my life—my wonderful life. What more can a man ask and what more can his creator give?