340 firefighters

September 9, 201610 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, guest blog, memoir writing, Uncategorized

When Prince died in April, I asked the older adults in the memoir classes I lead to write about someone they didn’t know personally whose death made them really, really sad. Mel Washburn spent years as a dedicated firefighter before receiving his J.D. from the University of Wisconsin. I was very moved by his essay, and he generously agreed to let me share it here with Safe & Sound blog readers on the 15th anniversary of 911.

Memoir: Mourning someone I didn’t know

by Mel Washburn

Twenty years ago, the deaths of my parents left me with a hollow feeling that lasted for years. And nowadays the death of a friend makes me sad for weeks, whether we just met recently or we were friends from long ago.

But the death of a celebrity, such as Princess Diana or the pop singer Prince, hardly affects me at all. I didn’t know that celebrity. We had no personal connection of any sort. I can open the newspaper any day of the week and read the obituary of some ordinary person whose life story has more meaning for me than that of the Princess or the Prince.

NY Times, September 23, 2001

NY Times, September 23, 2001, with photos of first responders who lost their lives.

Only once has the intersection of celebrity and personal tragedy really affected me — this was the death of 340 New York firefighters in the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001.

Before they died, they were just ordinary men with ordinary jobs. When they died, however, they became celebrities. For months after their deaths, the media published their photographs, reported on their funerals, interviewed their friends and families, and talked about the circumstances of their deaths.

All through October and November and December, I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Their photographs, in particular, fascinated me. The New York Times published page after page of them in columns and rows, little one-by-three pictures of their heads and shoulders, each of them in uniform, usually wearing their uniform caps. They were young or middle-aged. Most of them were trim, but some were heavy-set. A lot of them wore the mustache that, for many firemen, is like a part of the uniform. They looked like the guys I used to work with when I was a fireman.

On September 11, the first airplane struck the towers at the time when the firemen were changing shift. Many of the men who had been going off duty put on their turnout gear and climbed onto the rigs to ride to the scene with the on-duty shift. They had no idea what they were getting into.

Fires in high-rise buildings are usually contained to one floor. If people die, it’s usually from smoke inhalation. It’s usually not firemen, who are trained and equipped to deal with heavy smoke. And high-rise buildings don’t fall down. When firemen die in a collapsing building, that building is usually two or three stories tall.

These guys didn’t expect to die on 9/11. They expected to climb a lot of stairs and rescue some civilians and maybe, at worst, fight a really nasty fire in really greasy black smoke. They didn’t think it would be easy, but they thought it wouldn’t be much different from fires they’d fought before.

Fate played a really dirty trick on those guys. To this day, I feel sad and hollow when I think of them. I’ve never felt this way about any other public event. I probably never will.

Carry on

September 7, 201611 CommentsPosted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, Dora, radio, Uncategorized

Last month I happened to catch a story on Weekend Edition and heard NPR’s Rachel Martin talking with Lisa Fenn, the author of Carry On: A Story of Resilience, Redemption, and an Unlikely Family. The two athletes Lisa Fenn profiled in her book and in a documentary for ESPN’s Outside the Lines program were present at the interview, too: Dartanyon Crockett and Leroy Sutton.

With the ESPN video.

Watch the ESPN video.

Dartanyon Crockett is competing in the Paralympics in Rio this week. He is legally blind and was one of the best wrestlers on his high school team. Leroy Sutton lost both legs in a train accident when he was 11 years old. Leroy transferred to Dartanyon’s high school and took up wrestling, too.

Soon Dartanyon was carrying his new friend Leroy to practices and wrestling meets. Lincoln-West High School had no elevators, so they took high school classes together, always sitting side by side. “Dartanyon would get up to sharpen Leroy’s pencils,” an ESPN story reported. “Leroy ensured Dartanyon could read small print.”

I’ve never been in a wrestling match (unless you count the Three-Stooges-inspired arm wrestling matches my big sister Bev always won when we were kids!) but like Dartanyon and Leroy, I’ve benefitted from cross-disability help in my life as well. After losing my sight, I trained to volunteer for hospice. A lot of the work would involve counseling and matching resources to needs. I could do that.

The agency seemed thrilled to have my Seeing Eye dog Dora and me at the weekly sessions. They introduced us to visitors proudly, practically making us the poster children for the volunteer program. Soon after graduation, everyone in my training class had been assigned a patient — except me.

When I called the agency, they admitted their reluctance. “I don’t know, Beth,” the volunteer coordinator told me over the phone. “We’re just afraid the families might see you as needier than they are.”

I kept my name on the volunteer list, and a year later the agency finally gave in. Ernie, my first hospice patient, was an uncommunicative and eccentric old coot. None of his friends or family was willing to take care of him at home, so when his cancer got bad enough he was forced to check into a nursing home.

“We usually don’t send volunteers to nursing homes,” the volunteer coordinator told me. “But the home called us asking for someone. Apparently Ernie won’t talk to them about dying. Actually, he won’t talk to them about anything.”

Other volunteers had turned down this assignment. I took it and visited Ernie three times a week. At first, I did all the talking, but after a few weeks, he finally tired of listening and spoke up.

By the end of two months together, Ernie and I had hatched a plan to rent a wheelchair so I could push him onto one of the local riverboat casinos. I’d never been gambling, and he wanted to show me how.

Hardly a Paralympics game achievement, but ever since Ernie and I hatched that plan of ours, I’ve wondered why people with disabilities don’t pair up like this more often. Ernie’s health declined quickly, and the two of us never did get a chance to try out the slot machines together. During visits, however, he let me hold his hand. When he was transferred from the nursing home to a hospital, Dora and I were given family status at the ICU. We were allowed to see Ernie as often as we wanted. Mike came with me and Dora to Ernie’s wake.

Decades later, especially recently, I’ve experienced a peculiar sort of lift from providing and receiving help from someone with a disability that’s different from mine. My new boss at my Easterseals job uses a wheelchair, and at a recent conference she helped me find an empty seat in a crowded lecture room. I picked up a folder she dropped during the presentation. Actors who used wheelchairs guided Whitney and me to our spot on stage during our debut at Victory Gardens last month, and I helped them with physical tasks on stage that were difficult to do from a chair. It feels good to help — and be helped.

But back to the athletes. Both graduated from a high school in Cleveland where fewer than 40 percent go home with a diploma. Leroy Sutton went on to college from there, and Dartanyon Crockett moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs. Coaches there recognized his natural athletic abilities and invited him to learn the Paralympics sport of judo.

He won a Bronze Medal in judo in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London and is in Brazil now to compete in this year’s games in Rio.

NBC Olympics will combine to present more than 70 hours of coverage of the Rio Paralympic Games across NBC, NBCSN, and the NBC Sports app. That’s an increase of 64 hours from the London 2012 Paralympic Games. Coverage begins tonight, Wednesday, September 7, at 7 p.m. ET.

Play-by-play commentators, analysts and reporters are all former Paralympians, and they’ll have their work cut out for them trying to describe what they’re seeing when Dartagnon takes the floor — I don’t know a thing about judo. But trust me, I’ll be listening to every word.

Mondays with Mike: Happy Mike wins!

September 5, 201612 CommentsPosted in Mike Knezovich, Mondays with Mike, Uncategorized

There was a time when people behaving badly could ruin my day and my mood, and lead me to behave in a way that would have a domino effect. Just ask Beth.

I’ll never be accused of being a Zen master, but over time, things have improved. Some of it has been a conscious effort—breathing and self-coaching. And, harnessing the negative force for the good—Nobody is going to ruin my day). A lot, I think, is simply aging and mellowing.

SummerDance cures all.

SummerDance cures all.

Still, there are days. This past weekend, Beth and I took a tandem bicycle ride. We took it on a weekend afternoon on a beautiful day. That may sound like it made sense, but we’re talking about the lakefront bicycle path, which is a lovely route along Lake Michigan. But, on busy days, it’s like this: Think of every entitled, self-absorbed, selfish and irresponsible behavior you’ve ever seen—happening in sequence, and repeating.

It’s equal opportunity with bicyclists, walkers, and parents with those enormous Humvee-size child strollers all doing their best to endanger everyone else, without having the first clue that they are.

There was the bicyclist riding at speed (on a Divvy bike) on a crowded Randolph Street sidewalk (today’s human being lesson for her: When you’re on the sidewalk, walk the damn bike).

The little family of four who rented the not-so-little bicycle for four (where they sit two-by-two and the thing occupies both lanes of the path), peddling leisurely and not so much as trying to give way other traffic.

The dog walkers with a little yip dog and a really big black mutt that leapt high into the air and toward each bike as it passed.

The distinguished elderly gentleman who liked to whip his cane in circles, a la Charlie Chaplin, every once in awhile.

The wandering, three- and four- abreast walkers who somehow don’t see the WALKING PATH, DEDICATED TO WALKERS, about 20 yards CLOSER TO THE LAKE.

And the young man, who, as he pedaled out of the part of the path that circles the Shedd Aquarium, wasn’t paying attention where close attention must be paid. He weaved into our lane and almost took out the bicyclist in front of us. He somehow stayed on two wheels as he whipsawed the bike back into his lane just in time. And as we passed, I saw the problem: He was staring at his cell phone.

Words were spoken.

After our ride, we walked to this year’s Chicago Jazz Festival at Millennium Park. Big crowds—all civilized and well behaved—maybe it’s the jazz? We drank a cold beer in the fresh air. We ran into friends who invited us to sit with them, and we saw a terrific act—the Victor Garcia Organ Septet.

Happy Mike was back!

Walking home, we were about to cross a seemingly quiet Wabash Avenue. The light was about to change our way, but I halted and saw headlights oh, about a block south of us. I stopped with Beth on my arm. The roar of the Mercedes sedan’s engine rose explosively fast and the car blew through the intersection, not catching the yellow, at what I’d put at 45-50 mph.

Next thing, we heard the squeal of tires as the cretin driver slammed on the brakes before the next block.

I spent the rest of the short walk home stuffing cranky Mike back into his box.

After that, we took a short but luxurious nap, assembled a picnic to go, grabbed the camp chairs, and it was off to SummerDance to see the Fat Babies.

There we ran into Ellen and Ulrich Sandmeyer, who operate the gem of Printers Row: Sandmeyer’s Bookstore. We talked, relaxed, took in the Summerdance tableau, and Ellen and Ulrich minded things while Beth and I took a couple turns on the dance floor.

Happy Mike won.

Must be the jazz.


Bright, light and damn near white

September 3, 20166 CommentsPosted in careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, Uncategorized

Here’s The opening paragraph from the essay Wanda Bridgeforth wrote when I assigned “I Walked Home” as a writing prompt this week.

My father grew up in the South under a caste system that clung to the old thought of blue bloods. Looks and family were of great importance — even if your family was poor as church mice. Color of skin and texture. Our family fit the mold of “Bright, light and damn near white.”

Wanda turns 95 years old next month. That's her from way back on her 90th.

Wanda will celebrate her 95th birthday next month. That’s her from way back on her 90th. Photo courtesy Darlene Schweitzer.

My memoir-writing classes are taking the month of September off, and that essay Wanda wrote for our final meeting of the 2016 summer session sent us home smiling — and thinking.

Wanda’s high school boyfriend was more of a buddy than a beau, she says. “The dating pleased both families, especially my father, because Rodney was bright, light damn near white…and HANDSOME to boot,” she wrote. “The fact that Rodney was an alcoholic was overlooked.”

Social clubs were very popular on Chicago’s South Side. Social clubs sponsored live music and dancing for 50 cents admission, and when Wanda was a teenager she danced every Friday and Saturday night until midnight.

Wanda says her date Rodney was “the essence of social propriety” when he arrived at their door to escort her out on weekend dates, and whether Rodney arrived drunk or sober, the two of them always worked out a deal. “Once at the affair, he’d go one way and I’d go the other,” she told us. “When it was over, we poured Rodney into a Jitney cab and sent him home.” More from her essay:

For the school’s fall dance I paid the whopping sum of $4.95 for a pair of ultra-thin -strap black satin slippers from OG’s Shoe Store.
Dad gave Rodney two dollars and told us to enjoy ourselves. The evening was great. I danced and Rodney drank

Wanda’s feet were sore by the time that dance was over. “The ultra-thin black satin straps were cutting into my swollen fat feet and I could hardly walk.” After gritting her teeth and hobbling a while, she gave in, asked one of the fellas she’d danced with for a pocket knife, sat on a fireplug and ceremoniously cut off every strap of her ultra-thin black satin slippers. “After I peeled a couple of the straps from my feet and removed the shoes, I flexed and rubbed my feet and walked barefoot across a dewy wet lawn and dropped the ultra-thin strap black satin slippers into a trash can,” she wrote, ending her essay with these four strong words. “And I walked home.”

Wanda’s classmate Sharon Kramer compiles essays by writers from the “Me, Myself and I” class I lead at the Chicago Cultural Center at the Beth’s Class blog. You can read this essay by Wanda in addition to essays by her fellow Wednesday writers in their entirety on that blog.

Does this harness make my butt look too … small?

August 31, 201668 CommentsPosted in blindness, guide dogs, Seeing Eye dogs, Uncategorized, Whitney

I had just tied Whitney’s latest deposit into a pick-up bag and was leaning down to re-buckle her harness when a stranger approached. “Excuse me,” She said. Her question must have been pressing. She couldn’t wait for me to stand up before asking.

What do you think?

What do you think?

”I’m not sure you notice, you know, not being able to see him and all, but do you know your dog is too skinny?” My face broke out into a huge smile. I think I even chuckled.

Once I stood up, I looked towards the sidewalk stranger’s voice and thanked her for her concern. “You know, it’s funny,” I said, explaining that the night before graduates leave for home with our new Seeing Eye dogs, a veterinarian from the Seeing eye speaks at our “Going Home” presentation and warns us that once we get out and about with our guides at home, complete strangers will stop us to tell us our dogs are too thin. “And here you are!” I said.

During that Seeing Eye lecture, the veterinarian tells us our dogs are the perfect weight,” I told the sidewalk stranger. “The vet told us Americans feed their dogs too much food, everyone gets used to seeing overweight dogs, and they end up thinking that’s the way dogs are supposed to look.”

The sidewalk stranger was unmoved. “I know they breed them special, I know that,” she said. “but there’s something wrong with yours, he’s too skinny. I have three dogs, I know dogs. Bring him to a vet. Ask them, they’ll tell you.”

I considered telling her that at our visit to the vet a month ago the doctor had confirmed that Whitney is still the perfect weight. But then I thought better of it.During that same Going Home lecture at the Seeing Eye, another Seeing Eye staff member had told us that when we’re out and about with our Seeing Eye dogs it’s normal to encounter questions — and sometimes interference — from people who do not intend to cause us difficulty. “By being polite and courteous and developing a brief explanation, you will limit the interference — educating these people will prevent more problems in the future,” he advised. .“As distracting as public interference can be, you will generally make it worse if you lose your temper.”

And so, I didn’t lose my temper, even when the sidewalk stranger confessed she’d been following me for a while. “I was walking behind you and his back legs, you can’t see him, but he’s too skinny,” she said. “The way he walks, there is something really wrong with him. You need to take him to a vet.”

Time to go. I thanked the sidewalk stranger again for her concern, an then I told her I did have something she could help me with. “Without being able to see, you know, I can’t tell where a nearby garbage can might be.” I said. “Can you throw this out for me?” And with that, I handed her the bag of poop.