by Mary Ann Lareau
From the Editor: Here is how this story was introduced when it appeared in the Kernel Book Celebrate: Mary Ann Lareau is an officer in the National Federation of the Blind of Massachusetts and is president of the Suburban West Chapter—one of our newest local chapters in Massachusetts. She is the mother of two daughters and is active in her community. On a daily basis she works to change what it means to be blind. In "Swabbing the Deck," she relates a simple incident that opened the heart and mind of a stern Navy captain. Here is what she has to say:
In the summer of 1980 I was the mother of two daughters, ages eleven and thirteen. I was appointed the first director of a new neighborhood playground.
Being the president of the playground board, I wanted this new park to be a success. We didn't have the funds to pay a highly trained director, so we decided to run the playground ourselves.
Since I was a Campfire Girls’ leader of three troops, I was urged to take charge of the task. We were supported by the city with a lunch program site, a few paid teen-aged staff members, a twice-a-week swimming program, some arts and craft supplies, and three trips with busses to transport the kids away from the city. The youngsters all seemed to have great fun each day.
The arts and crafts program was my primary function on a daily basis. Many of the items we produced were made from materials that you could find around the house such as milk cartons, egg cartons, coffee cans, popsicle sticks, etc. Numerous things were assembled: sit-upons, trinket boxes, drums, birdcages, and much more.
The final trip of the summer was scheduled for Battleship Cove at Fall River, Massachusetts, where there are two historic ships—the U.S.S. Massachusetts and P.T. 109. The latter vessel was made famous during World War II by the courageous feats of John F. Kennedy.
The kids were excited for the final trip of the season. Three busses were loaded with lunches, kids, parents, and staff. The usual singing and jokes amused all during the hour ride to the Cove. Upon arrival the rules for good conduct were again given just to remind the kids of what they could and could not do.
We all decided to tour the P.T. 109 and were to assemble in the mess hall at 11:30 for lunch. All parents and staff members had assigned numbers of kids for which they were responsible. I supervised four youngsters, because it was my responsibility to ensure that all went along smoothly.
My oldest daughter and I were having fun lifting my guide dog, Koko, a forty-two-pound silver shepherd, up and down the ladders of the P.T. boat. My daughter would climb the ladder; I would pass the dog up to her and then climb up after. Koko was a lot of help because some of the passages had low entrances, and sometimes there were huge, unexpected steps.
As lunchtime approached we all made our way to the mess hall. The box lunches were passed out, and all the kids were starting to eat when the captain made his first appearance. He inspected the scene and immediately came over to me.
"I need to have a word with you," he declared in a firm tone. "I must ask you to leave this ship." I was very surprised and asked, "Why?" He replied, "Because of safety considerations we do not allow blind persons aboard."
I struggled very hard to contain my initial anger but eventually informed the captain that I was the person in charge of the three busloads of children that were thoroughly enjoying their field trip to see the historic vessel so closely associated with the memories of the late President Kennedy. I made it clear that if I were being ejected from the ship, the entire group would have to join me.
Just at that moment there was a great deal of noise behind us. Spinning around rapidly, I shouted out, "Peter and John—stop it at once!" As a milk carton came whizzing by my head, I shouted to those responsible for the disturbance that they would be responsible for the cleanup of the mess hall. We were not leaving until the area was as clean as it had been upon our arrival. I asked the captain if his men could provide the boys with the necessary equipment to clean up the hall.
The captain kindly offered to have the mess cleaned up, but I insisted it was the responsibility of our youths to do so. He seemed rather impressed with this response and began conversing in a much more pleasant tone: "How did you know which youngsters were causing the problem?" I explained, "I know the kids by their rather distinctive voices, and I can generally assume which ones are causing the trouble."After the lunchroom was all cleaned up, and all the mess was taken care of, we all finished touring the ship and spent money in the gift shop. Just as we were about to depart the captain came over to say, "Blindness does not seem to be as much of a handicap as I believed it to be." "No," I replied, "but sometimes it is a nuisance."