By Frank Lopez
Little did I know that the following chain of events would have such a profound and lasting effect on my attitude about myself and those around me. This incident enabled me to realize how differently we, as imperfect human beings, often perceive ourselves with all our biases and subjectivity. For the first time, I was given a glimpse of how someone else could easily misconstrue the person that I knew to be me.
It was during my senior year in high school when I suddenly found myself lying on the ground stunned, wondering what in the hell happened. With a ringing in my head, I could feel jagged bits of asphalt in my elbows as I tried to catch my breath. I couldn’t believe just a few minutes earlier, I was carefree, cutting across the high school parking lot with my best friend Jerry. He and I had decided to go to a high school football game. It was early fall of 1968. We were 17 and filled with the rebellious spirit of the time. We left the football game early after deciding to go out to eat, and I remember having to do double-time. It was all I could do to keep up with his six foot three inch frame.
Despite the fact that he had been blind since birth, Jerry had developed tremendous mobility skills. He did not rely on a cane. Instead, he worked large horseshoe taps on the heels of his engineer boots. This served as a form of radar for him. As he walked along, the click of his heels gave off a distinct sound that allowed him to tell how far away an object was. Jerry’s hearing was so finely tuned that when I first met him, I thought he had some sight; however, one day I heard the jingle of a chain link fence and the clack of his heels as he tried to maintain his balance after running into it. Because of this, we used to laugh about how sound didn’t bounce off chain link very well. Not having his extraordinary hearing, I was prone to ricochet off a few walls now and then. Because we were high school seniors, the last thing we wanted our fellow students to see was a white cane in our hands.
Just before we found ourselves lying on the ground, we had been discussing how ludicrous it was that the State of California required us to take a driver’s education class as well as a mobility class on how to use a cane!
Unfortunately, this did not give us a clue as to why we were both suddenly lying on the ground, breathless and numb with pain. It seemed that there was a harassing voice calling to us in the distance, “Both of you, up… now!” I had no idea who it was other than that they must have been in a car. I could hear their engine running as well as smell their heavy, hydrocarbon and spewing exhaust. I tried to get up off the ground, but I still hadn’t been able to catch my breath. I assumed that the same had happened to Jerry to catch my breath. I could hear faint moans along side of me. Suddenly, I felt a sharp jab to the left side of my rib cage. A voice said, “What are you two on?” Hearing another voice asking Jerry if he had been drinking, I tried to respond, but I still couldn’t catch my breath.
Finally, with a burst of air, I sucked in a breath and yelled out, “We’re bind!”The man standing over me replied, “You’re blind drunk!”
Though this entire incident occurred in only a few moments, time seemed to last an eternity. I eventually came to the realization that they were two of LAPD’s Finest, after hearing the squawk box resonate from the patrol car and feeling the night stick in my ribs. By now, Jerry and I were both standing, a bit groggy and simultaneously asking, “What the hell did we hit?” I heard a click of Jerry’s taps and something rattled. He said, “Damn…we ran into this chain strung across the apron of the parking lot!”In a sarcastic tone, I replied, “I guess you can classify chains with chain link fences!”
By now, LA’s Finest were testing us for drugs by shining flashlights in our uncooperative eyes. My guess is that they wanted to get a pupil response which they did not get. I can remember one of the officers yelling out, “This one’s really gone.” I couldn’t help but laugh. It sounded more like I was dead than blind! One of the officers appeared to be much younger and more brazen than the other, and maybe he felt that he had something to prove. Consequently, he liked using his nightstick. He slapped me callously on the shoulder with it and said, “Walk toe-to-toe until I tell you to turn around.” Next he said, “Follow my finger without moving your head.”
I told him, “Officer, I’m blind!”With a quick snap, he replied, “You’re blind drunk!” All of this time, Jerry had been relatively quiet which was unlike him. The only thing I could figure is that he must have hit much harder than I did. Finally, I heard the younger officer crack him with his night stick.Jerry yelled out, “Stop it you S.O.B.! Can’t you see that we’re blind?”
Eventually, it came down to proving that we were blind. This was a unique situation for us because we tried to prove just the opposite for most of our lives. As teenagers, it as important to us to be part of our peer group as much as possible. Here we are, proving otherwise; however, we could take no more. Jerry reached into the orbits of his eye sockets and plucked out his artificial eyes from them and yelled, “Is this proof enough for you?!”
Immediately, the younger officer faded to one side and gave up his dinner. I never heard two more apologetic officers in my life after that. It seemed as though they had come and gone but left an indelible impression on Jerry and me. Later, we laughed nervously about it and I remember Jerry saying, “I would have given anything to see the look on the faces of those cops!”
On the whole, this incident had made me realize that it was highly likely that I would have to prove something to someone for the rest of my life. It might just be proving something to myself, or to my boss or to teachers. I realized that there are demands made on all of us, and not everyone has eyes they can pluck from their sockets.
I decided then and there never to use my visual limitations as an excuse for what I could not do. I learned not to judge people on face value but to try and remember to give them the benefit of the doubt whenever possible. Furthermore, I decided it would be advantageous to carry an American Foundation for the Blind identification card, and “Don’t leave home without it!”
Frank Lopez lives in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin and teaches high school auto shop.