THE AXE AND THE LAW BOOK

by Marc Maurer

Abraham Lincoln wielded and axe, and he also became a

lawyer. Although Marc Maurer has never been elected President of

the United States, he has followed Lincoln's footsteps with the

axe and the lawbook. Living in different centuries, both Lincoln

and Maurer had hardships to overcome--and both succeeded when

they might have despaired and given up.

No, Marc Maurer has never been elected President of the

United States--but he has been elected President of the National

Federation of the Blind, a position he holds today. And the

lives of countless blind people are better as a result. Here is

how he tells the story of his development.

Many of the toys I was given as a child were mechanical. Toy

cars and trucks often contained mechanisms attached to the wheels

that made a noise when the vehicle was pushed across the floor. I

wanted to know what was inside, and I took them apart. But this

was not all. Alarm clocks, mechanical ice-cream dippers, egg

beaters, door knob assemblies, electric motors, our family lawn

mower, the vacuum cleaner, and anything else I hadn't been

forbidden to touch--I took them all apart.

Then came the question of putting them together again. Those

who have taken an alarm clock to pieces know how difficult this

can be. The spring shoots out, and the pieces go everywhere. Even

if you can find all the parts, it is hard to tell which tiny

wheel or spring goes where.

The first time that I dismantled a piece of machinery which

was not working and reassembled it so that it functioned

properly, I was delighted. I began to examine everything with the

idea that I might "fix it."

Although I was then--as I am now--blind, I became the fixer

for our family. My father was the principal fixer, but he was a

traveling salesman, and he was often away from home. If an

electrical cord needed a new plug, if a curtain rod needed

hanging, if a hinge on a door had become loosened, if the washers

in a faucet needed to be replaced--I was the one to be called

upon to put it right.

I even got to work on our second car, a nineteen fifty-four

Plymouth. My Dad forbade me to monkey with the internal

mechanisms of the new car. He drove that one for work, and he did

not want me fiddling with it. He would let me change the tires if

they were flat or put the new license plates on. He would even

let me look at the engine if I wanted to. I just couldn't do

anything to it.

My father had many tools, and he shared them with me and

taught me to use them. But he had very little experience with

blindness, and he did not know how blind people use power

machinery. He gave me an electric drill, and he let me use his

disk sander, but he did not encourage me to use the power saws.

He thought that using them was beyond the capabilities of a blind

boy, and I agreed with him.

In 1969, I met Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, who was then serving as

President of the National Federation of the Blind. I was a

student in Dr. Jernigan's program for training blind adults. In

that program there was no prohibition against blind students

using power tools.

There were hand tools, of course, but there were the big

ones, too--a table saw, a planer, a radial arm saw, a joiner, a

wood lathe, a metal lathe, a vertical mill, a drill press, and

more. And best of all, I was not prohibited from using them. I

was expected to make them function. I was expected to learn how

to use the machines and to demonstrate my knowledge by building

something. During the time that I was in the program I hoisted an

engine out of a car, tore it to pieces, and rebuilt it.

One cold winter day we traveled to a wooded area. I took one

end of a two-man cross cut saw, and before the day was through we

had cut down a tree more than three feet thick. It was exciting

and fun.

Although I was a student in Dr. Jernigan's program, I knew

that the time was approaching for me to go to college. The fun

that I had had manipulating tools made me wonder whether I should

study engineering.

Dr. Jernigan encouraged me not to be limited by a single

perspective. How mechanical things fit together can be

interesting, he told me, but there are other fascinating ideas as

well. How do organizations accomplish their goals? How do

governments achieve their objectives? What is it that makes

people persuasive? What are the characteristics that cause an

individual to be a leader? How is opportunity created? What are

the driving forces behind social change? How are the decisions

reached within society to select one direction over another? Not

only did Dr. Jernigan pose these challenging questions, but he

also introduced me to a startling new idea.

I, as a blind person, could--if I possessed the ability and

the willingness to work--help to decide the answers. If I could

learn how social structures worked, and if I could discover how

change was created, I might be able to help contribute to the

building of a nation.

Before I became a part of the National Federation of the

Blind, I believed that I might be able to replace a broken leaf

spring or to balance a flywheel. But I never imagined that I

would be able to participate in determining broader questions.

With the help of my friends in the National Federation of

the Blind, I enrolled at the University of Notre Dame. After

graduating with honor from Notre Dame, I entered law school. For

many centuries the law has been among the honored professions.

In law school I learned that the law, the courts, and the

judicial system are not mysterious or unknowable--not beyond the

mental capacity of a blind student--not an unattainable goal. The

law is a tool to be used to achieve a stable and a civilized

society. It changes to meet the demands of that society. In the

hands of a skillful artisan the law can be used to bring about

the most worthwhile results. And it possesses a great deal of

power.

Early in my legal career I learned that a seventy-six year

old woman had (four years earlier) been declared criminally

insane. Agnes had been placed behind bars in the mental hospital

for criminals. When I questioned the doctor about her case, he

told me that Agnes was perfectly sane. I asked for permission to

interview her in the hospital, and she asked me to represent her

in the courts.

Agnes had been good friends with her neighbor Clara--a woman

somewhat younger than she. To Agnes' amazement, Clara stole

Agnes' husband. There was a fight, and Agnes was hauled off by

the police. Clara told the arresting officer that Agnes was

having strange hallucinations, and she repeated her testimony in

the court. Agnes was adjudged to be insane.

Unless something could be done to change the circumstances,

Agnes would live out the remainder of her life in the mental

hospital. I prepared a petition of habeas corpus and presented it

to the court. The prosecuting attorney refused to consider an

adjudication without court proceedings. The matter came on for

hearing, and I prepared witnesses to present evidence. The doctor

repeated under oath what he had told me in our private

conversation. Medical evidence indicated that Agnes was sane.

After the evidence had been presented it was time for

argument to the court. Locking a person who is sane in a hospital

for the criminally insane is the same as putting that person in

jail. Our law states unequivocally that no person may be put

permanently in jail unless that person has been convicted of a

crime. Even if a conviction has occurred, a judge must decide how

long the sentence will be.

Agnes had already been in the hospital for four years and

she was facing the real possibility of life behind bars. I asked

the court to release this seventy-six year old lady. The judge

gave the order that we wanted.

Although I have handled many different kinds of cases in my

career, most of the legal practice that I do today involves

individuals who are blind, or corporations established to assist

the blind. The diversity of experience I have had in the courts

has helped to give me perspective and understanding in the things

I do today.

As I think about the tools that I have used in my lifetime

(both those that are mechanical and those that are not), I am

astonished and pleased to note that the learning never stops. In

1993 my son David joined the Cub Scouts. A new pack was being

formed at the church we attend. Despite my inexperience (I had

never been a Scout), I was asked to serve as an assistant leader.

As a part of my responsibility, I participated in the 1994 fall

Camporee.

In this event the scouts go out into the woods, set up

tents, build fires, cook their meals, and practice outdoor

skills: recognizing and following tracks, tying different kinds

of knots, building shelters with the materials at hand in the

forest, learning to load a backpack, and chopping wood. The wood

chopping exercise demands precision. A wooden match stick is

placed on the chopping block with its striking end up. The Scout

is expected to split the match with a hatchet. Extra points are

given (they say) if the match lights as you cut it.

I was the leader, so I was not asked to perform this feat. I

was glad not to be expected to perform in public. Even though I

have a great respect and a great appreciation for good tools, I

had never used a hatchet or an axe.

I thought about why this was so. I remember quite well the

story of the tin woodman from the Wizard of Oz. He made a number

of mistakes with his axe. One at a time he cut off each of his

legs and each of his arms. They had to be replaced with tin. Then

he slipped once more and cut his body so that it had to be

replaced as well.

I came to understand that using an axe was a dangerous thing

to do. Although I would probably not have said so, I thought it

was too dangerous and too impractical for a blind person.

Consequently, I never tried. All of this is what I thought on

that camping trip. How often we create our own limitations and

restrict our activities because we don't believe there is any

possibility of doing otherwise.

Later in the fall of 1994 I borrowed a hatchet and, working

with my son David, chopped out a stump in the yard of one of my

neighbors. I have always liked physical work with tools. Perhaps

this is because I spend most of my working days in an office,

meeting with people and managing documents.

The fireplace in my house needs wood to make the evenings

pleasant. Each fire requires kindling. I suppose it is possible

to buy it, but my son and I have begun making it ourselves. He

uses the hatchet he got for Christmas, and I use an axe. Neither

one of us is very good at it yet. But we enjoy being with each

other; we enjoy the outdoors; and we enjoy the physical exertion.

We also feel good about learning a new skill. We hope to become

competent at using the tools that helped to clear the forests

from our nation to give us the productive farm land that has fed

this country for so many years, and we like to have kindling for

the fire.

We keep the tin woodman in mind. We don't want to have

artificial legs, so we play it safe. But we don't let the worries

about safety keep us from using the tools.

In the National Federation of the Blind we offer hope and

encouragement to blind people who believe that the possibility

for having a full life is ended by blindness. We know that blind

people can perform most jobs that are done by the sighted. We

know that blindness is not the thing that will stop a blind

person but that negative attitudes about blindness are. I learned

this when I joined the organization in 1969, and I have had this

learning reinforced from time to time throughout the years.

In the fall of 1994 with an axe in my hand, I learned it

again. I may never spend a significant amount of my time using

an axe, but it isn't because I'm blind. I thought that it

couldn't be done--that my muscles might do many things, but they

would never feel the bite of the axe blade in the wood. Because

the Federation taught me to explore what I thought I could not

do, and because my son wanted to go camping, I have learned to

swing an axe.