WHAT IT’S LIKE TO LIVE IN THE DARK
Like most of us, Larry Bartlett had always taken his eyes for granted. Then a German shell exploded and he learned
I AM BLIND. I have no hope of ever being able to see again, but I still remember very well what it was like to look at the world around me. Both my eyes were blown out seven years ago by the explosion of a German 88-millimetre shell in the battle of the Falaise Gap.
Thus began my life in the dark a life so different from anything I had ever known or imagined that sometimes it still frightens and annoys me. I am happy with the wife I married four years ago, but I have never known the additional pleasure of seeing her. I earn a good living for the two of us, but the jobs open to me are limited. I can find my way around with my white cane and my highly developed senses of touch and hearing, but the security of my movements depends on familiar surroundings. I bark my shins and sometimes fall if chairs, tables, benches or household gadgets are not in their accustomed places.
Most of all I miss the ability to confirm with my sight things that I can only guess at. It is true I can judge people’s meanings and moods by the tone of their voices, but often I would like to be able to look at them to discover if a lifeless voice reflects physical tiredness or boredom. I would like the satisfaction of checking with my eyes the work my hands have done.
This is not a complaint. I have learned to accept things the way they are the loss of that selfconfident feeling of independence and the fact that in many things I must be dependent on other people. But this adjustment was hard to make.
When World War II broke out I was an ordinary chap leading an ordinary life. My home was in Trail, B.C., where I was married and worked in a sheet-metal mill, enjoyed outdoor sports, took in the movies and chatted over a beer with the boys. In 1940 I joined the 6th Field Regiment of the Canadian Army, which included the 13th Battery of Winnipeg, and went overseas almost immediately. In 1944 we left England to take part in the Normandy invasion.
Blindness came to me without warning. One minute I was standing at my full six feet three with my comrades in the firing line. The next I was blown in the air by a shell explosion and landed on my face in the mud. In my ears was a terrible roaring sound and in my head the burning agony of pain.
Both my eyes were blown out, but I didn’t know it then. My mind was a torment of disconnected thoughts. Fear was uppermost fear that was pure terror. I felt I was dying. I thought the side of my face had been blown off and had horrible thoughts of what I would look like. What would my wife think?
My chum Ev. Thomas bent over me. “It’s all right, Larry,” he said. “Only scratches.” He put bandages on my face and I was vaguely aware of being lifted on a stretcher and placed alongside other casualties in a jeep.
Then I was in bed in a small hospital in Bayeux. I was tired and felt^as if I had been doped, but the violence of my feeling was gone. The reaction had not yet set in. Lying there for five days I should have had time to realize what had happened to me, but I didn’t. The shock had given my nervous system a beating. Lying there, I discovered that the side of my face was where it belonged and that knowledge encouraged me. I would not be the monster I had visualized on the battlefield. With my fears laid on that score, they began rising on another.
By degrees I got the notion that my left eye was gone a feeling that the socket was empty. Even then the possi Dili ty of blindness didn’t occur to me. Before I was flown to England a nursing sister spoke to me.
“Do you know what happened to you?” she asked. “Yes,” I replied, “I’ve lost one eye.” She let it go at that.
We landed at Swindon and were taken by truck to Bramshott. There I began to recover. For the first time a doctor examined my eyes, trimmed up the wounds and washed them.
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What It's Like to Live in the Dark
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told him. “My eyes are gone.” I knew it at last and could put it into words hut what an idea it was! It could he stated so simply, hut the meaning of the simple phrase was so hard to grasp. It meant the whole reorganization of my life a task for which my uncomplicated way of living and simple early training had left me totally unprepared.
After coming from England my family lived on a homestead in Alberta. When I was six my mother died. My father and I and my younger brother Ralph lived alone. I worked hard, plowing and tending the animals. My schooling was spasmodic and ended when I was in grade eight.
My father was a stern man and at sixteen, in a fit of rebellion at my harsh life, 1 ran away from home. From that day I was on my own. 1 worked in the Alberta and California oil fields and eventually got a job with t he Consolidated Mining and Smelling Company in 'Frail. I married, worked hard, enjoyed home life, parlies, dancing, hunting and fishing, but always there was lots of hard physical labor.
Perhaps it was the very hardness of my earlier life that, stood me in such stead now for, as I lay in bed, a new fear possessed me: What would life be like in the dark? How would I earn my living? Would I ever be able to get around by myself? My mind pushed this thought away. I had been used to going anywhere, any time, on my own. My long legs had pushed me along at hot-rod speed. Now, with my eyes gone, this part of living seemed cut off.
I didn’t have long to dwell on my sufferings at Bramshott for they soon moved me to Stoke-Mandeville, where training began for sightless living. To say I began living again would be wrong. I was angry at the trick life had played me. But I had never taken things lying down -and I didn’t now.
In the hospital at Stoke the blind fellows were wheeled into one ward, twenty-seven of us, each bringing his own background and character to a common problem. One chap cried all the time. Another refused to take an interest in anything. Another lived and talked in the past and seemed to figure that without sight life was at an end.
These attitudes served to make me and some of the other fellows more determined. The past was past. There was no use crying. That sounds fine, hut to practice it was the most difficult job of my life. 1 was self-conscious about my eyes and 1 kept worrying and wondering if I would he able to earn a living again. The thought of being limited to a small pension or confined to a county home was unbearable.
From my bed 1 could hear a chap across the room typing. It sounded good and I began yelling the odd question at him. “How’s your speed coming along?” 1 called one day.
“Slow just now,” he replied in an English voice, “but I’ll get there all right.” Later, when 1 had learned to get around, I met him one rainy day in the street. “Would you put up my collar and fix my hat?” he asked. “These stumps of mine can’t do it very well.” The man had no hands, yet he was learning to type. I’ve often wondered what became of him. If I had the chance I’d thank him. He gave me the sort of example I needed.
I said to myself right then, “Get going, Larry, you’ve still got your hands.”
Pride held me back In the daytime,
but after “lights out” I used to get out of bed and crawl around the room. 1 located the other beds, the position of doors and windows, the chairs, wash stands, estimated the size of the room, and learned what a fellow usually sees at a glance. On the first few prowls I got lost. The ward was large and I wasn’t in the habit of thinking of direction at every turn. Since then I have learned that newly blinded people often lose their bearings in homes they have lived in for twenty years.
To get back to bed the first night I had to shout for an orderly. Another discovery I made was that all the beds were the same. There wasn’t a distinguishing mark on any of them. We soon manufactured some. I chipped a piece of enamel finish off mine with the heel of my hoot. Another fellow tied a shoelace around his bedpost; another used wire.
The beds proved a problem in another way. We were taught at StokeMandeville to make our own beds. Even a simple job like that is difficult for the newly blindgetting the sheets on evenly, putting the blankets on vertically instead of crosswise, smoothing out the wrinkles. At first it took us hours. The toughest part was putting on the spread.
In the mill back in Trail typing was done by secretaries in the front office. It wasn’t a man’s job. If anyone had suggested typing for me back there, I’d probably have hit him. Now when typing was offered I grabbed it. I knew that if I were to write again this was the way to do it. The touch system didn’t demand eyes. I set to work. I wasn’t familiar with spelling and not very handy with words, hut wit h plain hard work I was typing with the best of them by the time I left Stoke.
As we became more sure of ourselves we began walking about the Stoke grounds with the nurses, locating trees, exploring paths, finding benches. It was a common sight for the villagers to see seven or eight blind fellows en route to the nearest puh in single file, each firmly clutching the shoulder of the man ahead.
The nurses taught us dancing. They led, we followed. It was all done casually and pleasantly. They laughed with us, told us jokes, discussed the day’s news. Above all, they refused to take our blindness seriously.
During this period I took my first “blind hath.” Looking hack it seems amusing, hut then it was anything but funny. The usual ten-minute plunge took an hour and a half. I’ll never forget it. I laid out my clothes carefully, the socks one beside the other, shoes placed carefully, trousers folded neatly in easy reach. Thon I started. One by one I took my toilet articles out of my Red Cross kit, first the parts of my razor, which I assembled and placed at the right side of the basin. If you’ve ever shaved in the dark you’ll know how that first shave went. With the razor in one hand and the fingers of t íe other hand guiding it across my f ice, I cut through those whiskers at a snail’s pace. Afterward I found I had missed some. Then I took out my toothbrush and at last 1 was ready to get into the bath.
Just as I stepped in I dropped the soap. It slipped under the tub and I had to get down and feel for it; all I got was dust. Next I straddled the bath and reached under it from both sides with my long arms. Finally I retrieved the soap, but the whole thing enraged me. To think that so unimportant a matter as getting shaved and bathed could get the better of me!
I finished my bath and began dressing. When I picked up the
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carefully folded trousers I grabbed them by the cuffs instead of the waist, and sent the change in my pocket rolling over the floor.
It’s hard to believe we use our sight so much without thinking about it. A sighted man will bath and dress without giving it a thought. A blind man has to think of nothing else. He must develop the knack of seeing by touch.
After three months at Stoke-Mandeville arrangements were made for me to return to Canada. I wasn’t off the sick list but 1 was glad to get home. I
went straight to Trail to see my wife, reaching there Dec. 26, 1944. I was not yet accustomed to blindness, and neither was she. More and more I knew myself to be a burden to her. She had had no experience or training in how to help me and was unable to accept my handicap.
On Feb. 12, 1945, 1 went to Toronto for training at Baker Hall. My wife went with me but stayed only a week. When she returned to Trail she wrote saying that she was leaving me. Friends asked her to think it over and she stayed on in our Trail home.
Baker Hall is a large high-ceilinged house. It was formerly the property of Lady Kemp, who turned it over to the blind vets when we came back from overseas. Her daughter Katherine furnished it, expenses were paid by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and training was given by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
The blind I met at Baker Hall were at a much more advanced stage than the fellows in hospital. Some were learning weaving and since then have made a successful living at the craft. I liked woodworking. There was some-
thing satisfying about hammering a nail straight or sawing a piece of wood without getting off line. You could get rid of a lot of energy that way. Some of the more studious finished their high-school work and even went on to university. Readers were provided by the Junior League and others. Those to whom they read concentrated hard and passed their exams. They wrote on typewriters, of course, in special rooms with special readers. A few who weren’t so good at typing dictated answers to the reader, who in turn wrote down in longhand what they said. There were parties and stag nights. Volunteer women workers danced with us, took us to church and the barbershop and helped us shop.
One night late in April 1945 a bunch of the boys were going to a dance. I didn’t have anyone to go with. Two girls were finishing the dishes. The house mother asked if one of them would go with me. There was some discussion, I remember. They were both tired and wanted to go home. I stood in the main hall and bellowed at the top of my voice: “Whichever one is coming
with me, hurry up.”
“Here I am,” a soft voice answered. She was gentle and quiet and didn’t get excited when I knocked a cup of tea over or bumped into somebody on the street. She put me at my ease from the start. “I’m Hazel Ward. Don’t be nervous with me, Larry,” she said as we left the house and when I stop to think about it I guess I never really was. She took me dancing, then another time to a show, and many other places. It wasn’t long before she was taking me out, not as the “good-scout duty” of a kind volunteer, but because she wanted to.
But, in spite of such friendships, Baker Hall had its black moments. The meals were good, the company excellent. But there were times when we felt down in the dumps. Sometimes we got drunk—«o drunk that we’d forget about blindness. But we were still blind when we woke up, and the hang-over only added to our misery. My wife’s decision to leave me had not helped. The more I tried to think it out the worse it seemed and the more depressed I got.
I used to lock myself in my room sulking. I worried and felt insecure.
I wasn’t interested in study and couldn’t see myself making a trade of weaving or one of the other skills. A man my size with a couple of shovels for hands isn’t anxious to fool around with a bobbin of thread or a ball of yarn. We were told that the handicrafts were meant to improve our sense of touch and help our hands to tell us more. When I learned this I accepted the handicrafts more easily. Today my hands are still the hands of a workman, calloused a bit on the finger tips, but they have learned a new sensitivity and by their “feel” for size and shape and texture can do a job without the help of eyesight.
The teachers applauded my progress but somehow I could not put my old fears out of my mind. One day I met Colonel E. A. Baker, the managing director at C.N.I.B. and a veteran of the First World War. He had probably heard of my fretting. “Are you getting used to it yet?” he asked.
“I worry a lot,” I told him. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to earn a living and I’m afraid of what people think about me.”
“We all have fears,” he explained. “Even after all these years I still get frightened now and then. The other day I dropped my collar button. When I couldn’t find it right away I was so agitated that I had to go downstairs, sit down and drink a cup of coffee before I was able to look for it calmly.”
I had always thought of Baker as being self-sufficient. He has held a big job for a long time and can talk intelligently on many subjects. Yet here he was admitting fears and annoyances like I had myself. I think of him often when something has me buffaloed.
When my six months’ training at Baker Hall was completed I was turned over to the C.N.I.B. for a job. The head of the employment department told me the smelting mill in Trail wanted me back. In September 1945 I went to work in Trail on a job hanging sheets of lead for cooling as they came off the rollers.
I stayed there eleven months proving to myself and the boys I could do the work. My wife had left me in the middle of March. I felt I wanted to get away where my trouble and embarrassment were not known. In July I returned to Toronto for three months’ holiday. In October I again went back to Trail and worked there till the end of March 1947 when I got my final divorce decree at New Westminster.
I had not written to Hazel Ward while I was away but we had met again that summer in Toronto on the same basis of good comradeship. She had taken me out after Red Cross duty at Baker Hall.
Now that I had my divorce I wanted to rest and get things straight in my j mind. I went to stay with my half I sister, Frieda, outside of Taber, Alta. From there 1 wrote to Hazel, asking her to marry me. Her reply did much to heal my hurts and in May I went to Toronto again and lived with Hazel’s family until we were married in July.
I can’t help regretting I have never seen Hazel. I can only imagine what she looks like. I know she is tiny in comparison with me. Her face is about half the size of mine, the length of it less than the length of my hand.
Another regret I shall always have is that our courtship was in reverse—Hazel had to call for me instead of me calling for herbut that does not take away from our happiness. Hazel seems always to know what I am thinking; often the cigarettes I have left on the dining-room table are slipped into my hand just as I feel the need of one. In the same way, she tells me, I can read her thoughts.
My new responsibilities made a job necessary and C.N.I.B. found me one with James Kearney Corp. of Canada Ltd.—an assembly job on electric switch-box parts. I was just swinging into the work when the firm decided to move to Guelph. I didn’t want to go. The C.N.I.B. then found me the job I have now, putting together parts of plumbing fixtures at Standard Sanitary and Dominion Radiator Limited. I’ve been at it for more than three years.
The men I work with are friendly and helpful. The aisles in the shop are always kept clear and I can find my way around by sound. When I get lost, as I do now and then, someone always puts me back in the right direction. A fellow worker drives me back and forth between the factory and my home.
When I knew the job was going to be steady Hazel and I bought a house with my Army gratuities and a mortgage. It has been a joy to both of us, but there have been headaches too. There was the day I was carrying out the ashes and fell on my face. I never got it done without bumping into things or losing my direction.
Another time I burned the axe when I shoveled it into the furnace with the coal. I was always missing the fire door and scattering coal around the basement. Finally we switched to oil.
In the house I always keep a pair of soft crepe-soled shoes at the door ready to put on when I come in. When I
go out I change again, but one day I put on one heavy shoe and one light one. We went down the street, neither of us noticing the error. I remarked, “I didn’t know there was grass on this side of the walk.” My wife looked down and discovered the odd shoes.
Earlier, things like that would have caused me much senseless worry, but now I can laugh at them. I have even found myself becoming overconfident. One day in Midland, Ont., I decided to run a motor boat by myself. I thought I would be guided by the voices on the shore—it didn’t work. The voices
couldn’t be heard over the sound of the motor. I cut the motor and shouted for Hazel. She rowed out and got me. It taught me a lesson —not to try things I can’t safely handle.
The Blind Institute teachers told me long ago that I had to learn my limitations—that most things would be more difficult for me than for a sighted person, and some things impossible.
But blindness doesn’t stop a man’s development. Once you accept it you can advance steadily and surely. I don’t worry as much as 1 used to. 1 know I can earn my living, bring home
wages as other men do. I can take care of things at home. I get fun out of taking breakfast up to Hazel in bed on Sunday morning and in helping her to carry out the dishes to the kitchen after a meal, or when we have friends to tea. I need financial help from no one, although I shall always be grateful to the C.N.I.B. for the directive training it gave me.
Blind or sighted, the old adage applies if you want to do something badly enough, you’ll do it. There are eighteen thousand blind Canadians who prove this every day. ir