The Sounds and Smells of Sixty Years

Everybody knows that change is probably the only constant in life, but I think we don’t fully understand what that means until after we are fifty. At least, that is how it has been with me.

As readers of the Kernel Books know, I grew up on a farm in Tennessee in the 1920’s and ‘30’s, and it seems to me that almost nothing today is the way it was then. Since I have been blind all of my life, I am not talking about how things look but how they smell, taste, sound, and feel.

Start with smell. The world smells different today from what it did then. Nowadays I spend much of my time indoors, breathing conditioned air, whether heated or cooled. But that wasn’t how it was when I was a boy.

Since we didn’t have electricity, we couldn’t have had air conditioning even if we could have afforded it. So in the summer the windows were open, and usually so were the doors. The air was rich with odors-the smells of growing things, of the barnyard, of the dust and gasoline from an occasional passing car, and of creeks. These were the smells of summer, but there were also the smells of winter-wood, burning in a fireplace, the smell of the unheated portions of the house, and the smell of the country in winter.

And it was not just the smells of that time but also the sounds-the mixture of stillness, bird songs, distant cattle, and the aliveness of the land. Today, whether indoors or out, one thing is always present-the sound of motors. There are automobiles, office machines, fluorescent lights, power tools, lawn mowers, vacuum cleaners, kitchen appliances, air conditioners, and heating units. When I was a boy, I might go a whole week without hearing a motor-but not today. In the world of the ‘90’s, there is never a minute without a motor. Sometimes it is an avalanche of noise, and sometimes only a vibration in the background-but it is always there-always a motor.

And I mustn’t omit taste and touch. At first thought, it might seem that there would be no difference between then and now, but there is. It isn’t necessarily that I can’t touch most of the things today that I touched in the 1930’s. It is just that I don’t. And as to taste, it may simply be my imagination or my aging taste buds, but it certainly doesn’t seem that way. Food is prepared differently, and the ingredients take a different path from origin to table.

But what does all of that have to do with blindness? After all, that is what this book is about. Certainly blindness and blind people are not treated today the way they were sixty years ago. The blind of that generation had almost no chance to get a job, and very little chance to get an education.

In my case (many of you know this story as well as I do, so you can judge for yourselves whether it fits our purpose in the Kernel Books), I was allowed to go to college, but I wasn’t permitted to take the course of study I wanted. I attended elementary and high school at the Tennessee School for the Blind in Nashville, graduating in 1945. One day in the spring of my senior year, a state rehabilitation counselor came to talk to me about what I wanted to do and be.

I remember it well. We sat in what was called the parlor-a room, incidentally, which deserved the name. The School was housed in an old southern mansion, and the parlor, which was used as a general reception area, was the very essence of elegance.

The counselor and I sat on the elaborately carved sofa, and he asked me to tell him two or three areas of study that I might like to pursue when I went to college. I told him that I didn’t need to pick two or three, that I wanted to be a lawyer.

He said that he wouldn’t say that a blind person couldn’t be a lawyer but that he thought it wasn’t realistic. I would not be able to see the faces of the jury, he said, and would not be able to do the paperwork and the travelling. I argued, but I was only a teen-ager-and I didn’t have any money.

Ultimately he told me (with big words and gently, but with absolute finality) that I could either go to college and study law and pay for it myself, or I could go and prepare to be something else and be assisted by the rehabilitation agency. Since I was a teen-ager and didn’t have any money, I went and was something else.

Of course, I now know that he was wrong. I am personally acquainted with hundreds of successfully practicing blind lawyers, and most of them are not noticeably more competent than I am. But I would not want to create the wrong impression. This man was not trying to do me harm. Quite the contrary. He truly believed that what he was doing was in my best interest. He was trying to help me. He was acting in the spirit of the times and doing the best he knew.

Today it wouldn’t happen that way. Many things have made the difference, but principal among them is the National Federation of the Blind. Established in 1940 by a handful of blind men and women from seven states, the Federation has conducted a never-ending campaign to educate the public and stimulate the blind. I joined the organization in 1949, and it changed my life.

Today the Federation is the strongest and most constructive force in the affairs of the blind of this country, but its work is by no means finished. The job that still has to be done is not so much a matter of legislation or government assistance as of handling the interactions of daily life. We have come a long way in public acceptance, but sometimes the attitudes of sixty years ago are still with us.

Let me illustrate by what at first may seem to be trivial examples. (Again, some of you are familiar with the details surrounding the story I am about to tell, so you can judge whether it meets our test of suitability for the Kernel Books.) Over fifty years ago, when I was a boy on the farm in Tennessee, I often found time heavy on my hands during the summer months when I was not in school. To relieve the tedium, I would sometimes ride with a truck driver, who collected milk from the local farmers to take to a nearby cheese factory.

The days were hot, and when we could afford it, we sometimes bought a bottle of Coca-Cola. (Incidentally, it cost five cents.) I didn’t have much money, but now and again I had a little, and I wanted to pay my share. One day I said to the driver (a young fellow about twenty), "I’ll buy a coke for each of us."

"Okay," he said, "stay here. I’ll go in and get it."

"No," I said. "I’ll go with you."

He was obviously uncomfortable and didn’t want me to do it. Finally he said, "I can’t do that. How would it look if people saw a blind person buying me a coke?"

I was a teen-ager, not yet accustomed to the ways of diplomacy. So I told him in blunt terms that I would either buy the coke publicly or I wouldn’t buy it at all. After greed and pride had fought their battle, he decided not to have it, and we drove on-after which I was not welcome in the truck.

But that was more than fifty years ago. It couldn’t happen today. Or could it? Well, let me tell you about an incident that occurred less than six months ago. My wife and I were entering a restaurant-an upscale, classy place with plenty of glitter and lots of manners.

It so fell out that another couple and we reached the door almost simultaneously. I happened to be positioned so that it was natural for me to open the door and hold it while the other couple entered, but the man was obviously ill at ease. He insisted that he hold the door and that my wife and I go first. Since I already had my hand on the door and was holding it open and since I was not in the mood to be treated like a child or an inferior, I dug in my mental heels and stayed put. It was all done on both sides with great politeness and courtly manners, but it was done. As I continued to hold the door, the other couple preceded us into the restaurant. But the man was obviously uncomfortable, showing by his comments and demeanor that he felt it was inappropriate for a blind person to hold a door for him and behave like an equal.

Trivial? Not related to the daily lives and economic problems of the blind? Not a factor in determining whether blind people can hold jobs or make money? Don’t you believe it! These incidents (the one fifty years ago and the one this year) typify and symbolize everything that we are working to achieve.

But again I must emphasize that we are not talking about people who are trying to cause us harm. We are talking about people who, almost without exception, wish us well and want to be of help. Our job is not one of force but of giving people facts.

And key to it all is the National Federation of the Blind-blind persons coming together in local, state, and national meetings to encourage each other and inform the public. Sometimes we are tempted to believe that our progress is slow, but in reality it has been amazingly rapid. We have made more advances during the past sixty years than in all previously recorded history. And there are better days ahead.

It is true that the smells, sounds, touch, and taste of today are not what they were sixty years ago-but it is equally true that, despite occasional nostalgia, we wouldn’t want them to be. We wouldn’t because today is better-and not just in physical things but also in the patterns of opportunity and possibility. I say this despite all of the problems that face our country and our society. We who are blind look to the future with hope, and those who are sighted are helping us make that hope a reality.