[PHOTO/CAPTION: President Maurer uses a chain saw to cut wood in the workshop at the National Center for the Blind.]

Children and Chain Saws

by Marc Maurer


From the Editor: The following story was Dr. Maurer's contribution to To Touch the Untouchable Dream, the fifteenth in the NFB's Kernel Book series of paperbacks. It begins with Dr. Jernigan's introduction:


As readers of the Kernel Books know, Marc Maurer is President of the National Federation of the Blind. He is also a lawyer and the father of two sighted children. Here is what he says about some of his experiences with his children and about chain saws:


Today many blind persons are employed as teachers in public schools, colleges, and universities. The techniques used by a blind person for teaching a skill or a body of knowledge are not always the same as the ones used by the sighted. However, the fundamentals are identical. I have tried to show my sighted children, David and Dianna, how to do many, many things. But they don't do them the way I do.

Consider, for instance, pounding nails. I believe that the customary method for pounding nails is this: hold the nail between the thumb and index finger of the left hand; place it where you want it; hold the hammer in your right hand; and tap the nail gently with it. When the nail is set, get the left hand out of the way, and pound the nail home.

When I pound nails, I do all of these things, but I add an additional step. I place my finger on the head of the nail. As I am bringing the hammer down, I move my finger out of the way. When I again raise the hammer, I put my finger on the nail once more. This technique reminds me where the nail is located, and it helps to guide my right hand for each hammer stroke. If I were not quick enough in moving my finger, I would smash it with the hammer. But I always move my finger just in time.

Then, there is the chain saw. Some time ago I was talking with a former member of the Board of Directors of the National Federation of the Blind, Fred Schroeder. Fred and I are both totally blind. Although he is an accomplished teacher and a highly respected administrator of programs for the disabled, being the Commissioner of the federal Rehabilitation Services Administration, I discovered during the course of our conversation that he had never used a chain saw, and I offered to teach him how to do it.

There is a large fireplace in one of the rooms at the National Center for the Blind. Sometimes people give us firewood, but occasionally we are offered the wood only if we are prepared to cut it. We keep a chain saw for that purpose at the Center. Fred and I put on coveralls and went downstairs to look for the chain saw. We checked to see that it had plenty of gasoline, and I began to show it to Fred.

The chain saw has two handles. The one in front is mounted just forward of the engine and behind the blade. The rear handle is behind the engine, and it contains the trigger, which determines the speed of the saw. When the engine is running, the chain saw idles with a popping and clattering sound. When the trigger is pulled, the popping increases to a high-pitched snarl.

The business end of the chain saw is the bar out front, which has the chain wrapped around it. At full throttle the chain travels around the bar very rapidly and cuts the wood. We were using a saw with a twenty-four inch bar--a fairly heavy model, but not unmanageable.

I gave Fred a good many safety tips about the operation of the chain saw, and I showed him all of its parts. He examined the chain in detail--its links have little sharp pieces of steel that stick out to do the cutting. I told him that, when the saw was running, he should not touch the chain. If he did, I said, the saw would barely notice, but his finger would be gone. I showed him how to handle and control the saw, and I urged him to be aware that sometimes a chain saw can buck.

I got out a big chunk of wood and laid it on the sawbuck. Then I started the engine, and I demonstrated the operation of the chain saw by cutting a piece of wood. How does a blind person observe such demonstrations? I told Fred to put his hands on my hands so that he could feel the motions as I handled the saw. Then it was his turn.

Fred reached for the starting rope and gave it a pull. The engine kicked over and began to idle. He picked up the heavy machine and gave the engine some gas. Sawdust flew, and in a short time a piece of wood hit the ground. The chain saw had done its job, and Fred Schroeder, the totally blind chain saw operator, had handled the machine. When quiet had been restored, he said with enthusiasm, "I bet there are a lot of blind people around here who don't know how to do that. We should show them!"

When I heard those words, I knew that programs for the blind under Fred Schroeder's direction would never be the same. The lesson of the chain saw would not be lost. It would help Fred believe that limitations which he and others had thought might apply to blindness should be re-examined.

The teaching of skills is important, but the teaching of attitudes is more important. There are those who have thought that teaching encompasses only such matters as building a birdhouse, constructing a bridge, or writing a legal brief. But learning goes beyond the acquisition of skills. One who truly learns will come to know that it is important to be honest and that generosity is its own reward.

I try to teach my children the skills they must have to accomplish daily tasks, but of at least equal importance is the need for them to have proper attitudes and values. I want them to be tough-minded, able to recognize and reject nonsense, honest with themselves and with others, possessed of sufficient discipline to meet the challenge of hard work, imaginative, capable of initiative, and willing to recognize and avoid bad behavior. I know that it is my prime responsibility to teach these values, and I keep wondering how I'm doing. I have the disheartening feeling that I may not know how well I've done until it is too late. Consequently I am always on the lookout for evidence.

Last August my wife Patricia and I had our twenty-fourth wedding anniversary. A few days before the actual date of the event, it became apparent that something mysterious was underway. David and Dianna had secret whispered conversations with each other and with a family friend. When the anniversary came, they were excited. In the late afternoon they told us that we were prohibited from entering the kitchen. Our children insisted that we stay in the living room and keep out of the way.

In a short time they called us for dinner--a dinner they had planned and cooked for us. Our children had collected ten dollars between them, had persuaded a family friend to take them to the grocery store for shopping, had planned the menu, and had cooked the food. They were proud to serve it to us. The menu was fried chicken, rice, corn, black-eyed peas, biscuits, and a freshly homemade cake.

I was surprised and pleased by the event. Children have a difficult time surprising their parents on birthdays and Christmas and anniversaries. They want to give something to their parents that Mom and Dad will really like. But they don't know what it is, and sometimes the things they imagine for gifts are too costly.

My children hit upon a scheme that suited the whole family exactly. A quiet dinner at home is precisely what we wanted, and our children collected their pennies to get it. Beyond that, they asked for advice about how to cook the meal (a thing they had never done in the past), and they had the confidence to do it without other assistance. They split the cost--$4.85 was paid by each of them. In making this present, they demonstrated the ability to plan, the willingness to work, sufficient imagination to know what would be wanted, and a measure of generosity. Maybe our efforts at teaching David and Dianna are working after all.

In the National Federation of the Blind we have taught each other many things we did not know we knew. Sometimes these are simple and straightforward: such as how to sew on a button or cook a meal or run a chain saw. Sometimes they are far more complex. When we do our work well, we teach each other to have faith in ourselves and to believe in a brighter tomorrow.

We are thankful for the help from our sighted friends and neighbors, but we are anxious also to make our own contributions and to live a full life. Sometimes we learn it with a chain saw, and sometimes with a homemade anniversary cake.