The White Cane

by Guy M. Masters

From the Editor: What impact do we have on other people? Often we never know. One of the things blind people who travel independently learn to live with is the fact that people watch us. We can be minding our own business, doing what needs to be done, but just the fact that we are doing that can have effects we never know about.

When Bruce Gardner was a student, he met a man at a party one night, and the experience made a difference in the way that man viewed both blind people and sighted. Guy Masters wrote the following article about the experience and its impact more than twenty years ago. As far as we can tell, it was not published at the time, but Bruce Gardner came across a copy of it a few months ago and passed it along. Here it is:

It was a cold January day, and the snow was falling lightly. From the large window on the fourth floor of the library I looked out across a snow-covered campus. Students bundled up in ski jackets and heavy winter coats hurried carefully on the icy sidewalks to classes and study areas. A chill ran through me and I shivered suddenly as the cold penetrated through the window. The crowd of students thinned as the bell rang for classes to begin. As I scanned the scene, I was entranced by the peaceful and silent spell cast by winter--it felt good to take a break from my studies.

Suddenly my attention was drawn to a lone figure hesitantly making his way down one of the sidewalks. He was noticeably slower than the other students bustling by him. He was dressed warmly--his brown corduroy jacket was buttoned full-length, and a knitted scarf hung loosely about his neck. His blue backpack, bulging from the books it contained, was placed squarely on his back, leaving his gloved hands free. In his right hand he firmly held a white cane, which he extended directly in front of him. As he walked forward he moved the cane in a pattern from side to side, tapping it gently and searchingly. But then, for some reason, he stopped. The white probe tapped forward in several directions. Obviously something was wrong. The snow and ice were making it impossible for the young man to determine by his usual method where the sidewalk was.

My heart went out to him as he intensely searched for some familiar sound--a clue to the right way. Several students passed him on either side, but none seemed aware of the dilemma he faced. He moved forward slowly, now approaching the middle of the intersecting point of two large pathways. I was relieved, for he appeared to be regaining his bearings.

Now more confident, my friend began to walk forward again, but because of the undiscernible path, he had drifted off course by just a few steps. He was heading directly off the pathway. My heart jumped--"Watch out for that pole!" I almost yelled out in the silence of the library. I wanted to bang on the window, but he would not have heard me--I was too far away. I pounded my fist on the window sill. "Somebody down there grab him! Can't you see he needs help?" I cried out within myself. He was headed straight for the lamp post.

Then the cane hit the post, and immediately he halted. He moved the cane to the other side and tapped the lamp post there. He paused and thought briefly. "The cane, of course!" I thought, and let out a sigh of relief. As if he knew exactly where he was, he backed up, took three steps to the left, and turned ninety degrees. He was standing directly in the center of the proper path. I continued to watch. Fully oriented and self-assured, he proceeded down the sidewalk again. The cane was swinging rhythmically as if beating time to his steps. He knew exactly where he was and where he was going. When he was just about out of my view, he stopped again. Reaching to his scarf, he tightened it more securely about his neck, then steadily continued on. He disappeared among the other students, as though nothing unusual had occurred.

For several minutes after the young man disappeared, I stayed by the window and reflected. I remembered the first time I had met a blind person, exactly a year ago while attending a birthday party for a friend. I had been advised beforehand that a blind fellow had also been invited. During the evening of the party I had difficulty determining who the individual was. Then I met Bruce, the supposed blind person. He was teaching a group of us the dance steps to the West Coast Swing, Latin Hustle, and several other dances. I was particularly impressed by his grooming--his clothes were meticulously pressed and coordinated. Bruce was tall and very handsome.

I watched Bruce carefully as the evening progressed, intrigued by his confidence and composure. When the party was over, Bruce needed a ride to his home across town, and I immediately volunteered. I was eager to talk with him alone. As we left, Bruce stepped into the kitchen and picked up a white cane, which had been placed in a corner for most of the evening.

We left the apartment, and I had to quicken my step just to keep pace with Bruce. Once alone, I turned to him and bluntly asked, "Why do you carry that cane around?" He turned toward me and said, "Because I'm blind." In unbelief I retorted, "Come on! How can you do what you were doing in there and still tell me that?" He smiled at my questions, but he could tell that I was serious. He explained that most people who are visually handicapped are not 100 percent without sight. Some can differentiate light and darkness and even discern forms to varying degrees. "We develop sight by other means and by concentrating on other senses," he explained. I was fascinated by Bruce. The more we talked, the more I began to see things from his viewpoint. He radiated confidence, joy of life, and extreme faith. It was as if, in developing his other senses, he had also developed the ability to communicate spirit to spirit.

As we proceeded toward his home, Bruce told me more about himself, his lifestyle, and his ambitions. I asked another question, "Bruce, what is the biggest problem you face being blind?" He thought momentarily. "The biggest problems are the misconceptions that people have about the handicapped. Most don't realize that a handicapped individual is a normal person. Inside, we're just like anyone else." The clarity with which he perceived my previous misconceptions was disarming.

Excitement grew within me as we talked. I had never really understood handicapped people before. Lacking understanding, I had always conveniently avoided getting too close--I felt awkward, not knowing how to cope with circumstances that might arise. I had never taken the opportunity to get too near. But my perspective was changing suddenly.

I turned my VW into the driveway of Bruce's home and rolled to a stop. I turned to Bruce, looked at him for a moment, and said softly, "This has been an interesting evening for me, Bruce." I couldn't find better words to express my feelings. I wanted to hug him. Spontaneously we grasped hands in a firm and communicating handshake. "We'll see you later," he said.

Bruce opened the car door, got out, and walked up the driveway toward his home. He reached the large white front doors, reached for the handle, and opened the door slightly. Pausing for an instant, he turned and looked toward me. I flashed my high beam lights, and Bruce waved goodbye. He pushed the door open and disappeared inside. The large door closed gently behind him.

For a moment I sat in silence. My heart was full. I blinked forcefully several times to fight back the tears. I had made a true friend--a courageous brother.

I backed my car out of the driveway and started toward my home. "How can he be so happy?" I questioned myself. Bruce had seemed to be more confident and happy than many other people I knew. But how could this be with his handicap? I searched for answers to these questions.

If he was so positive and composed even with his handicap, certainly I had reason to be more so. But I was learning from him; he was helping me to see with proper perspective. I kept going over Bruce's words in my mind: "A handicapped individual is a normal person--we're just like anyone else...."

I was now back at my book-covered desk in the library, thinking again of the young man I had watched from the library window. He too had carried a white cane--the cane that Bruce had taught me was a symbol of courage, of endurance, of independence, and of faith. Just as I use my eyes to see the physical world around me, my friends had also learned to perceive the same things by using different means. But they had helped me see that knowledge, confidence, and understanding do not come by sight alone; they are the products of persistence, determination, awareness, sensitivity, and reliance upon the Lord. I had learned that the most obvious things can often be the most difficult to see.