It was a rainy Sunday morning in April of 1961 when the winds changed the shape of Iowa Braille. I was eight years old, a second grader living in Roy Waldhelm's dormitory on the second floor, east wing, of what later came to be called Rice Hall.
As I recall, it was just before noon that Sunday when the rain, wind, and hail intensified to unbelievable proportions. For what reason I do not know, we were not directed to take shelter in the underground tunnels which connected the buildings as was the practice later. Instead, we were just milling around in the halls, hoping that things would calm down, when the wind rose to an incredible crescendo and I began to pray, somewhat more fervently than I had earlier that morning, that we would live through this storm.
Suddenly there was a tremendous crash. In a panic, I threw my hands up over my ears in a vain attempt to deny the terrible reality unfolding around me and then dropped to my knees, expecting the worst. But, much to my surprise, when the noise abated and I brought my hands away from my ears, I was not dead, and my home work was still due.
Mr. Waldhelm was busily scurrying around saying things like "Good Lord!", and "Oh, my God!", and "What's going on?", and other familiar phrases characteristic of his speech pattern, as though one of US was responsible for the apparent chaos. He ran to the north end of the building and began looking out at the old main building area. Then we began to learn the extent of the damage.
The scene was a calamity of uprooted trees, scattered bricks, roofing, and other rubble. The driveway between Main and Rice Hall was blocked with large pieces of the roof of the main building. A small building called Jordan Hall, which stood at the southwest corner of the main building and which contained staff apartments, was partially demolished. Orchestra Hall, which stood across the oval drive west of the main building just south of the old laundry building, was also partially demolished. The band and orchestra used to practice in the upper floor of Orchestra Hall. But, when the roof collapsed and the upper walls caved in, it crashed through the wooden floor of the upper story and filled the basement with rubble, and, presumably, a jumble of broken band instruments.
Miraculously, the cottage, an old building southeast of Rice Hall where the smaller children lived, Palmer Hall, north of the main building where the girls lived, and Rice Hall itself were not damaged. Even the senior boys dormitory, which was housed at the time in the second and third floors of the south wing of the main building, sustained no damage. Only a handful of staff were on duty. Apparently all students had safely returned from Church, and no one was hurt.
After the storm subsided, we walked through the tunnel from Rice to the main building for the noon meal. The meals were always served family- style in the main dining room. It was customary for us to file in and stand silently behind our chairs before the meal. Our housekeeper would tap a gong which signified the beginning of the prayer period. At morning and evening meals, we always stood for a moment of silence before the meal. But, at the noon meal after the gong sounded, one of the senior students would lead us in one stanza of a randomly selected hymn. However, on this occasion, our housekeeper, Mabel Windsor said, " I think we should all stand in a moment of silent prayer and thank the good Lord that all of us have survived what has happened here today." We happily obliged, knowing full well that she was absolutely right.
In the coming days, the campus was abuzz with chainsaws and jackhammers. Jordan Hall was torn down completely. Orchestra Hall was reduced to a one story building to house the maintenance shop. The roof was restored to the old main building and, in due time, all was set aright at Iowa Braille. But, somewhere in my collection of personal effects, is a piece of slate from the old roof of the main building--to remind me of the day when we were shown, so unequivocally, that we are here by the grace of God. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. And the gift of life is the most precious gift of all. We and the lion's share of the Iowa Braille campus survived to greet another Monday morning.
It was a Saturday afternoon in the winter of 1960. I was a first- grader, living in the cottage located southeast of Rice Hall. The kindergarten and first grade boys lived on the east end of the second floor of the cottage, while the girls lived on the west end. Ester Pierce, an elderly woman from northeast Iowa, was our main house mother. She was a large-framed person who spoke in a loud voice and always seemed somewhat disconcerting to me. I have to admit that, somehow, I was never able to transfer any significant portion of my affection for a maternal figure to Miss Pierce, even though I did feel a desperate need to do so. The reason for this inability surely lay in some fundamental difference between our personalities that represented some unfathomable gap which, despite our best mutual efforts, could not be bridged. Still, Ester pierce treated us well, by institutional standards, and tried to make life interesting and enjoyable for us as we attempted to cope with the sense of loss and the sadness we all felt from not being with our parents.
There were probably about twenty boys under Ester's care. Often, on Saturday afternoon or on a week day after school, she would gather us all together in a line, two by two, with totally blind and partially sighted kids paired off, to make the trek down to Bowman's Grocery Store on the corner of C Avenue and Eleventh Street. Once there, we could spend a nickel, or maybe even a dime, of the money our parents left for us to buy some small treat.
On this particular Saturday, Miss Pierce had us gathered together outside in front of the cottage, preparing for our trip to the store. We were standing on the sidewalk in front of the north-facing east door of the cottage. There was a patch of ice next to the sidewalk on which we nimble-bodied youngsters used to ice skate.
Some of the kids were multiply handicapped and required more of Ester's attention to make sure their wraps were secured. As she moved from child to child, fussing with their wraps and making sure everyone was ready for the trip, she stepped on the ice and slipped. I heard a cracking sound followed by a sudden change in Miss Pierce's affect. The normally boisterous, bossy assertions suddenly became groans of pain. A whirl of confusion overtook me. I couldn't quite figure out what had happened.
She got to her feet and walked into the building, groaning all the while. We stood there at a complete loss, not knowing what had happened or what to do next. But, apparently, we weren't going to the store.
I don't really remember how we came to understand that Miss Pierce had broken her arm; but I do recall a deep sense of tragedy in the realization that a great figure of authority had suddenly fallen in defeat. I felt insecure and frightened. It was somehow deeply disturbing to think that one as powerful as our house mother could be rendered so helpless by such a simple event. But, there it was, the undeniable truth that no one is invincible.
After a week or so, Miss Pierce returned with a cast on her arm. It was reassuring to see her still alive, still functioning. It was even somehow educational to learn about broken bones and casts, to touch the hard plaster and to come to terms with the frailty of the human body. It was still more reassuring to learn that broken bones heal and that life itself is resilient.
During our time at Iowa Braille, most of us experienced a broad range of emotion, the highs and the lows that make life the truly rich and rewarding experience it generally is. But one emotion that was a constant under-lying thread through the whole thing was the ever-present sense of loneliness and home-sickness. The fact was that none of us really wanted to be there. We would much rather have been home with our parents and families like "normal" kids.
I personally went home every other weekend to visit my family in Ottumwa. Each visit started with the exuberant elation of Friday night, and ended with the grief and utter despair of Sunday night; a bi-weekly trauma revisited over and over. The emotional impact that periodic practice has had on me (and surely the others as well) is inestimable.
Whatever else may be fairly said about it, it did build the backdrop which paved the way for ecstasy at vacation time. We always went home for extended stays at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and at the end of the school year in late May. The night before a vacation was so incredibly exciting that it was impossible for some of us to sleep. Somewhere in the winter or spring of 1963, my group invented the custom of staying up all night the night before a vacation. We did not copyright the practice though and have every reason to suspect that others adopted it as well.
The first adventure of this kind, that I can recall, was on May 31, 1963, the last day of school. We planned the escapade weeks in advance. We checked money out of our accounts and went to Bowman's Grocery. We wouldn't buy anything though and would save the money so that, just before our all- night adventure, we would have plenty of cash to buy lots of junk food to keep us stimulated. The educational value of this practice as it applies to personal planning and forward-thinking is apparent to the casual observer, of course.
We went to bed as usual that Thursday night around eight o'clock, but we didn't go to sleep. We kept ourselves amused by listening to the charismatic preachers on KXEL/AM Radio 1540, the big fifty-thousand watt monster in Waterloo. By eleven, we couldn't stand it any longer and got up.
In our excitement, we were apparently talking a bit loudly though. We had just broken open the barbecued chips when our relief house parent, Elsie Bolton, opened the door and asked us what we thought we were doing. We responded that we thought we were eating potato chips. She allowed that the answer, while technically correct, was inappropriate and that we should get back in bed right this minute. Of course, we complied; but after she left the room, whispered assurances confirmed that she hadn't taken the chips! Lesson number one: stealth.
After a couple of hours, we cautiously got up and peeked out into the hall. One of Elsie Bolton's distinguishing characteristics was that she wore soft- soled shoes. She would always sneak up on you and catch you doing something you weren't supposed to be doing, and it was really quite irritating! But, snoring? Well, that was another matter. She did, just enough for us to determine that she was fast asleep and that the dorm was ours.
We sneaked down to the snack bar which was located in the south corner of the basement of Rice Hall (although it wasn't yet called that). We socialized there in the snack bar for quite some time; and then, at some point, we decided that we wanted to explore other parts of the building. We left the snack bar and started up the stairs, when suddenly the door at the top of the stairs opened and the night watchman came through! In a complete panic, we dashed back down the stairs; but, amazingly, he did not see us. We hurriedly returned to the snack bar. There was a huge metal trashcan just inside the door of the snack bar, and one of us ran right into that trashcan! A huge, booming sound filled the room and reverberated down the hallway. We all thought the chips were down once again and anxiously awaited our death. But, it never came. Lesson number two: map out the night watchman's route. More educational benefit.
It was a wonderful night, the excited anticipation of the summer ahead coursing in our vains. We stayed up the entire time. Just when we thought the silent darkness of night would go on forever, the birds began to chirp, and the promise of a new, exciting day broke over the horizon. I think that is the first time I ever saw the marvelous, magical transition from night into day. Lesson number three: the darkest hour is just before the dawn, but good things come to those who wait. Even more educational benefit.
Apparently our energy was contagious. At dawn, the senior boys who
graduating from high school that day rose early and made their way to
belfry in the attic of the main building. A church bell hung there.
never did know the history of the church bell or the purpose it once
But, on that fine, sunny morning in May of 1963, the bell tolled many
loudly and clearly announcing that summer was at hand and that we
This is an account of a game, both how it was played and what it signified in the lives of its devotees. As the name implies, foundation baseball was based on our national sport. Although we were all blind, or nearly so, we enjoyed a fantasy as much as the next kid, and as I recall, most foundation baseball games were played with the players using the names of their favorite teams and players.
But the game was more than just a pastime, it was something we'd created. It was, to the best of my knowledge, totally conceived at the Iowa school for the blind, and I don't know of its being played anywhere else. The game was, in a sense, our answer to the outside world. I say "outside" because it was outside, outside the boundaries of the school. It was full of sighted folks like those we saw at church who treated us condescendingly and were so amazed by all the wonderful things we could do. Well foundation baseball was wonderful, but perhaps not in the way they would have imagined. Foundation baseball was made up and refereed by kids. It was a game for blind kids, not run by some benevolent organization, but managed and refereed by the blind kids who played it. It was all ours.
"So what is all this about a foundation?" you ask. A better name would have been stairwell baseball, although stairwells are right down there with the foundation, and thus the name. The boys dorm, now called Rice Hall, has two stairwells on the south. They are, I suppose, about eight to ten feet deep, with the shallow one on the west. I'm including the railing in the depth, although there is no railing where one enters the stairwell of course. The stairs go down to basement doors opening onto what was the shop, on the west, and the snack bar on the east. To go into the snack bar through the stairwell, or foundation as I'll refer to it, you walked eastward down the steps, and the door was then on your left. There is about four feet between the bottom step and the opposit wall, the wall your facing when you get to the bottom of the stairs. In fact, there is enough room so that a person can swing a ball bat as long as they're careful. Now that I think of it, its a wonder someone didn't really get hurt at that game. Oh we got the occasional fat lip or bloody nose, but nothing drastic.
The game was played with just two players. The one batting did so on his knees batting toward the steps. The player on defense sat on the steps with his feet on the floor of the well. The ball used was some sort of utility ball. It didn't matter particularly what ball was used. The best ones were like a socker ball except they had a harder covering. If you got one of those plastic jobs, like a hard balloon that you see kids playing with, it was going to be a high scoring game. A harder, heavier, ball wouldn't carry as far and made for a better game all in all.
The defense pitched the ball by rolling it off the steps toward the batter. The good pitchers knew how to roll the ball so it came as fast as possible without actually becoming airborne. The best was John. He could deliver the ball the fastest, although he had a good change-up too, so you never knew what you were going to get, and that's baseball for you. The pitcher always pitched with the left hand, or at least from the left side. There's not a lot of room down in those foundations, and the batter was always batting right handed, so it would have been almost impossible to pitch from the right, or from the batter's left.
The batter did his best to bat the ball from the floor, up the stairs and out. If you hit it out but it went over the railing, that was a fowl. We could tell by where the ball landed if it was fair or fowl. If it landed approximately straight out from the stairs it was a home run. Base hits were scored depending upon what step it got up to before returning to the batter. If the ball was caught by the pitcher or stopped before it got back to the batter it was an out.
The game was hell on bats! The bats in our dorm looked like pencils, because they'd been sharpened on the cement at the bottom of the stairwells. If you weren't careful, you'd get slivers off them. Usually the bat was scooted along the cement in order to give the ball as much loft as possible.
One other important feature of the game was that the pitcher had to say "wind-up, pitch", and pitch the ball on the word "pitch". John's came out sounding like "wanna-pitch". He said it real fast, so you were prepared to swing quick, and then he'd fool you with a change-up and you'd do nothing more than take a few more shavings off the bat. John got more strikeouts than anyone else. I also suspect he got cracked on the fingers and toes more than any one else too.
The pitcher learned very quickly to keep his feet tucked in. Those feet were uncomfortably close to the batter, or more to the point, uncomfortably close to the bat. The batter tried his best to be careful, because he knew his turn to pitch was coming up, and he'd best not tick off the pitcher, soon to be the batter. So the game was, to a large extent, self policing. Another hazard of the game was to the pitcher's hands. He had better pull them back after releasing the ball, or risk getting hit on the fingers. That was a pretty common thing, and we all expected it sooner or later. As I've mentioned, there were few if any serious injuries from the game amazingly enough.
The basic idea was to pitch the ball with as much finesse as you could manage rolling a ball down steps toward the batter. In the cramped space of the foundation, the batter attempted to hit as best he could without killing his opponent. There were some surprisingly good hits, sending the ball sailing out of the foundation, and landing 20 or so feet away. That doesn't sound like much as baseball goes, but it was great for a guy swinging a bat in a cramped space where he had to always be mindful of the friend sitting a couple of feet in front of his bat.
I don't know of any particular dramatic scenes from the game, but it was truely an I B S S S original.
Jim has given a good description of foundation baseball. We tried to encourage batters to sit as far from the pitcher as possible, to give the batter more room to swing the bat and to spare the pitcher from broken shins or fingers. Dave Wohlers and Roger Erpelding came up with a variation on baseball. The pitcher pitched the ball in the air, about 1 to 2 feet above the floor, or where ever the batter desired. This was a hitters game and the idea was to pitch accurately so the batter could hit the ball, and not to try to pitch poorly, striking out the batter. Of course, there were many more homers hit, as the ball was higher off the floor and the pitcher was not trying to fool the batter. It was an interesting variation, but I liked the regular game, better. One spent much time running after the ball. It was sort of like playing give away as compared to checkers.
We had games for other seasons, too. Football was played by 2 players, actually, using a football. The offensive player stood on the top step, and would either run or pass. The defensive player could stand wherever he liked, as long as he didn't interfere with the offensive play being initiated. The offensive player had to announce his intention so the defense could react, appropriately. If the offense ran the ball, the player would head down the steps towards the floor. We didn't run too much because not many yards could be gained and we didn't want to hurt the defensive player, as the foundations were mostly concrete which could be rather hard on heads and limbs. When passing, we would hurl the ball forward, at the railing, and the defensive player would try to determine how many yards was gained on the pass, based upon how hard the ball hit the railing. The offensive could add yardage to his passes, by stepping back from the top step, each long stride adding ten yards. An interception occurred when the ball sailed over the railing or if the defensive player caught the ball. It was fun trying to intercept the ball, by leaping as high as one could, in front of the railing, trying to anticipate when the ball would hit the rail. I think the area the passer had to hit was about 3 by 3 feet. If the defense blocked the ball without catching it, or if the ball was thrown too low, missing the railing, the pass was incomplete. I don't remember any provisions for penalties. Larry and Gary had the ability to keep time in their heads, while playing, and could always tell us how much time was left in the game.
We also had basketball. we used the balls Jim mentioned, in discussing baseball, and 2 players usually, played this game. The positions of the offense and defense were the same as in football and a basket was made by hitting the railing, the same as completing a pass in football. If the ball was thrown too low, missing the railing, or if the defense blocked or caught the ball, the attempt was no good. If the ball went over the railing, it was a foul on the offense. Free throws were thrown from just in front of the bottom step. We had no 3-point goal as 3-pointers were unheard of, then.
If it was too cold to be outside, I remember Larry had invented a football game, using Braille cards. He had cards to represent just about everything and it was a good pastime.
He was very musical and very humurous. everyone knows that he sang in a barbershop chorus in Cedar Rapids and played a keyboard. I was surprised that he even took u; a trumpet at a convention at IBSSS a long time ago.
He learned to fly and bought a small plane with 2 other houseparents. One bought the other two shares (including Skeet's) and flew away.
He tried to invent thinks, but none was a big winner. As I recall it, one of his inventions was to make it safer when trucks backed up from loading docks. Now trucks and other vehicles have reverse beepers as standard equipment. He said that the prospective collabortor on his invention told him to go back and be a dormitory housefather.
One time he bought a used Cadillac just for the heck of it, but found that it was a gas guzzler.
He even tried running a small motel in, I think, McGregor, Iowa, during the summer.
One time I asked him, "Where's Billy Hunerdosse?" Reply: "I don't know. I'm not a Billy Hunerdosse keeper."
During one period he would spell and pronounce people's names backwards, getting the idea from a product called Serutan (which is "natures" spelled backward). So Creig Slayton was Gierc Notyaols. I was Dlanor Nekco.
I helped him put clean laundry into the bins. He liked to change the numbers. Twenty-four was forty-twen.
One time he bought a cheap pool table for the dorm. It was so cheap that it was warped and we had to remember where the warps were. He ended up doing really expert things such as putting spins on the Q ball so that after it hit another ball it would stop right there or would proceed to a selected place so that it would be near the next ball that he wanted to put into a pocket.
He would become very good at anything he tried. He would go skating with us at the Vinton roller rink. He could dance on skates and skate backwards.
I remember M, (as we called him), also. He retired at the end of my junior year. I was privilleged to have him as a houseparent for several years. Things had changed quite a bit during his time.
He always turned words around, and often we would have these conversations it totally screwed up language. It would be fun to go back and forth with him in that way.
He always had this rubber band and called it "my squitor", and if he thought you should be moving faster than you were, or he just wanted to have some fun, you would receive a "squitorbite" from it.
One time, a pole from the high jump had come down and opened a huge gash right below my eye, and causing me to have several stitches. It swelled up something fierce. One morning we were standing there talking and he did something with his hands and produced a lot of heat from them. He held them up to the swelling and it gave some comfort to it. As you can imagine, it caused me a great amount of pain for a while. The heat felt good. The warmth was very sootheing.
He gave a song to three of us, (Monte Ness, Denise Klahn, and myself), and we recorded it on an album we made. We uptempled it and made a pretty good upbeat version of it. Later, Denise would rerecord it in a style more as he had envisioned it.
Another memory was that every Friday night after school he would pop popcorn for us.
Anyway, these are just a few of my memories of him. I hope he is in a much happier place now.
Mr. Powers was a good house parent who cared about us. During mail call, he would say our names backward. When he wanted your attention, he could whistle loud enough to hurt your ears. He had a special spot for those who were learning disabled.
Skeet will be remember by his way of really having fun with all of us kids and Staff. I remember a lot of us would say, when Skeet was coming into the dining room, "Here comes pow wow pete.", and I don't know how Skeet got that name.
I remember his dad was just like him. The memories of Skeet and his dad were so much fun, because we never knew what was going to come out of Skeet's mouth or Skeet's Dad's mouth, LOL.
Evy and Skeet were a lot of fun. No matter how long we were gone from Iowa Braills, Skeet and Evy would remember us all. One time my class from Cedar Rapids came to Iowa Braille in 1973 and Evy was the first one to see me and give me a big hug, and Evy was so happy to see me, As I was too see her. I missed everyone from Iowa Braille. It was so nice to see my friends. It is my second family to me Skeet I saw later in my class' visit to the school.
The School reunion 2002 Aug 9,10,11 was a great time to see Skeet and Evy. I walked up to skeet and Evy, and you know all the health problems Evy was having at that time. Skeet had told me a few months before that Evy was having a hard time remembering people and things. So on Aug 10, 2002, coming in to the gym for our Dinner were Skeet and Evy. Evy said to me, "Peggy it so nice to see you!". I was just about in tears, because I was so happy Evy remembered me after all those years
I was so happy that Skeet drove to Cedar Rapids to play for nursing homes. One was behind the Target store on Blairs Ferry Road Northeast. Skeet did this many times, along with so many other musical things he did.
I remember when I was little at the Iowa Braille School, Skeet was our house father and Skeet was in the Barber Shop Chorus, and they would come and sing in the gym with their red and white suits and hats that matched the suits. To this day my husband Rich and I go to the Harmony Hawks in the spring every year. I like talking to people, and I was talking to some of the Harmony Hawks, and they knew Skeet Powers, and what neat stories they would share with me about how wonderful Skeet was in his singing and playing.
The first time I met skeet was in the fall of 1960. A second grader, I had just moved to Roy Waldhelm's dorm in the east side of Rice Hall, known at that time quite simply as the boys' dorm. We were fooling around, just outside the east door, and one of us noticed the push button that was mounted on the side of the building, next to the entrance. Not knowing what it was for, quite naturally, we had to press it to find out. Little did we know, it rang a buzzer in Skeet's apartment, over on the other side of the building. It brought Skeet on the run, none too happy about the fact that some little twitlets were incessantly ringing his buzzer. He seemed kind of frightening to me. He was intense, and gave you the impression that he was not to be messed with.
The second time I met him, was a few weeks later, when I needed a haircut. He was the barber at the school. He cut hair for over 70 boys. I don't know how he ever did it. He was just full of energy, and had lots of great ideas. I always thought it was cool that the school barber would be so interested in barber shop music. But he sure was. I remember, much later, when I was actually in his dorm in the late 60's, I sneaked home from class one day, to get a piece of homework I had forgotten. Skeet never even knew I was there. He was in the room across from his apartment, totally absorbed, slaving over a hot piano, meticulously working out intricate harmonies for his barbershop arrangements. I remember, in the mid 60's, he organized some guys into a barbershop singing group,a couple of the guys actually having the last name Barber. The group was originally called the Three Blind Mice, then later mercifully renamed to the Bell Tones. I still have a recording of Skeet introducing the group, followed by a performance of some of the songs he helped them arrange and sing.
Skeet had a really rye sense of humor, which I enjoyed, once I came to understand him a bit better. He always liked to rearrange the letters in a persons name. I was Snimmie Joebarger. But, I never got up the nerve to call him Peet Skours, like I really wanted too. So, I settled for the more acceptable, but slightly suggestive Pister Mours, which fortunately never pissed him off. Oh yes, and he was capable of that very loud, very shrill whistle, which he used to get attention. Usually, it was followed by some pronouncement in that high-pitched, but very intense voice, which always meant that Skeet meant business, and that you had better fall in line. And, We always did. One day, we were standing in line, waiting to march off to lunch, like the compliant little blind soldiers most of us were, when Skeet launched into one of his famous, and not infrequent rants about the importance of education. He was right of course. Later, we would learn how true that was. But, we weren't always, well, make that, never really were, a receptive audience. I'm sure it came from the heart, signifying the degree to which Skeet himself wished that he had a better education. He was actually possessed of a remarkable degree of natural creativity and intelligence and, I think, thought, probably quite rightly so, that, while he enjoyed what he did for a living, he could have done so much more, if only he, Skeet, had the education to make it possible. And, he didn't want us to miss that boat. Bless him for that. I think he really did have our best interests at heart, and knew that, as blind people, we would have extra challenges, which would make self-discipline, and the development of skills and knowledge of even greater importance.
But, on this glorious day, in the spring of 1968, I really wasn't in the mood to hear about it. I heaved a very loud, massively exaggerated, totally obvious sigh of boredom. It was so dramatic, that guys all up and down the line started twittering with laughter about it. I was so pleased with the degree that my compatriots had enjoyed my rude and arrogant outburst, that I felt a self-satisfied grin stretching across my face. But, at that point, Skeet had really had enough. He seemed to be the only one there in the hall that day who was not amused. My first clue was when He grabbed me by the collar and lifted me completely off the floor. "it's real funny, isn't it Jim," he yelled , jerking me around, and banging me against the wall. "it's real funny, isn't it," he repeated. Frankly, I was so confused by the shaking and banging, that I wasn't really quite sure what he had said. But, whatever it was, I figured I had better agree with it. So, I said, yes, and I even added extra emphasis for his benefit. Yes? It's real funny? In retrospect, It probably wasn't the best thing to say, but it seemed right at the time. I guess I'd say that it was a real testament to Skeet's sense of propriety and self-restraint that I didn't die on that auspicious day. And no, for those of you who might be thinking it, I did not feel abused, or seriously threatened. I certainly had not been injured. But, I did learn that there was really just so much crap the big people are willing to put up with from me, and that being a smart mouthed showoff maybe wasn't such a good idea after all. So, I did survive, and with a valuable lesson learned. And, as the day wore on, it became apparent that Skeet, while he meant business, didn't hold a grudge. Skeet told me later how much he actually enjoyed my generation, even with all the trouble we gave him, because he loved our creativity, our energy and our drive. Despite the run ins we all surely had, and having definitely hated his guts at one time or another, I think we all remember him fondly, and feel fortunate to have call him our friend in the end.
The last time I saw him, he was in the bowling alley at the school, with several of his old boys gathered around him, myself included, all of us doing our level best to make sure he knew how much we now appreciate having known him, and the contribution he made to our lives. Not only do we have lots of amusing stories to remember, and tell one another over and over, education, taken seriously, was important after all. And those of us who have done well economically know the pivital role it played, and have Skeet to thank for relentlessly pointing it out to us. I know for certain that Skeet found it deeply gratifying, in his last years, to know that, despite how it may have appeared in those earlier, trying times, we did listen after all.
So long, my friend. Go gentle in to that good night, and rest in much deserved peace.
Back in the early 1990's, both in 1990 and 1991, I went to summer school at what was back then called IBSSS, the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School. I came across my old shirt the other day, and it brought back a flood of memories. The year was 1990, and I attended summer school for the first time. I visited the campus in the fall of 1989; so I was familiar with its layout. I was 12.5 years old in the summer of 1990, and I was excited to go. At the time, we were living in the town of Onawa, mensioned in my previous email. We just moved into a nice two-story house, and things were off to a good start. That Saturday night, we packed my things into a large suitcase, and I put some tapes and a tape recorder in a dufflebag. Early on Sunday Morning, Mom, our family friend, Byron, who died in 2007, my little brother, Shawn, and I got dressed, and we hit the road for Vinton. The sun was shining, and it was hot out. Along the way, we stopped at a roadside restaurant, and Mom ordered us a pizza, which she ended up taking back to the manager and talking to him discretely about a little problem. There was a mouse dropping in the pizza. The manager thanked Mom for being discrete, and he gave us a free meal in place of the contaminated pizza. We made it to IBSSS around 2 that afternoon, and we went through the normal check list. The nurses checked my head for lice, and they ran down a health check, asking my mother questions. When everything was done, we were told to go to the second floor, to Rice 2 East, where the dorm parents were waiting. The dorm parent at the time was Jean Redlinger, and we got along with her just fine.
I was led to my room, and Mom helped me put things away. Then, we talked awhile out in the lounge, and Mom, Byron, and Shawn hugged me and told me "good-bye," and they hit the road for Onawa. I was somewhat sad to see them leave, but I was excited to be at the Braille school. I had a blast the two weeks I was there. My Industrial Art teacher, Mr. Mark Wilberg, was a hoot. In 1990, I took an extensive computer-learning class with Mr. Michael Hibbs and Mrs. Collene Stertz, who had long since passed away. God bless her and hold her dear. The one thing I remember about Iowa Braille was the old Apple and Apple 2 computers they had. Each was fitted with the Bex program, which allowed them to speak. The Bex program, to me, sounded like a Greek robot. Everything it said was one-note, and you had to train your ears to pick up on what it was saying, and even so, half of what it said, you just couldn't understand. One day, Mr. Hibbs took the top off a computer and let us feel its guts. I thought that was cool. Another time, he took an old computer disc apart and let us look at that. Back then, when computer discs were still in use, they were 6-inch floppies, which held less info than the later discs, which were 3.5 inches in size. The one thing I remember about the Bex program is that you had two different discs to work with. One was the Bex program itself. Back then, the programs were too cumbersome to fit in a hard drive, which didn't have as much memory as our modern-day stuff. So you had two discs to work with. One was the Bex program, which you inserted into a slot. Half-way through the boot-up process, you had to remove the disc, which a teacher had labeled in Braille, "Bex," and you had to turn it over and place it back in the drive, Braille side down. Then, you had to insert your own 6-inch floppy to store your own writing or other info on. It was a pain in the neck; those things were so slow, and they took up space.
Mr. Klein was the jim teacher, and we swam a lot. He was awesome! I'll never forget him. Somebody else I thought was cool was Mrs. Robertson. However, when I went back to the school in the summer of 1991, she sort-of got on my nerves, because she would sing that song, "Feed Jake" to me whenever she saw me, and my nickname is Jake. It got on my nerves in a good way, though. I knew she didn't mean anything bad. She was just having fun. So I would play along with her.
In 1990, my friend, Phillip Tracy was a couple doors down from my room, and we would hang out in either his or my room in the evenings. Phil loves severe weather, and when he heard that a storm was headed our way, he would come to my room with his boombox tape player, and he would set it up by the window to tape the storm.
I got my IBSSS summer camp shirt sometime that first week; the shirt is awesome. It says:
"HOT TIMES AND COOL KIDS AT THE IOWA BRAILLE AND SIGHT SAVING SCHOOL SUMMER CAMP."
On Friday, when Mom, Shawn, and Byron picked me up, I had a lot to tell them. I had a wonderful time at the summer school program, and I couldn't wait for the next summer.
In the fall of 1995, I became a full-time student at what we now know as the Iowa Braille School; in the mid-nineties, they dropped the "Sight Saving" part, and shortened the name to IBS, and started referring to it as "Iowa Braille" for an even shorter version. Mr. Wilberg still taught industrial art, and he also taught career ed and social skills. I got on the work experience program, and from late September to late December, I emptied wastepaper baskets on the first, second, and third floors. My job coach was Lanna Luze, and she was impressed by my progress. When I started school, I was placed in Palmer 1 West, and my dorm parents were Shirley Hummel and John Hamling. I'll never forget them. My room mate was John Patterson, quite a comical kid, who loved to make you laugh. He had an Adam Sandler tape that had me slumped over with laughter.
Toward the middle of September, Mom and Shawn moved from our apartment in Whiting, Iowa, to the Hummel Appartments in Vinton, and we met some cool people. I can't give you any names, because I don't have permission, but the woman, husband, and four kids who lived on the second floor of the neighboring apartment building were nice people. I became a close friend, and one night, I spent the night at their place.
In January of 1996, I began answering the phones at Iowa Braille as part of my work experience, and I did that until late May, when school was let out. Summer was great; in the latter part of July, I went under the knife to correct a problem with the dividing bone between mhy nostrils; the ceptum was bent at the end, and I was having problems with breathing. So I went to Berghan Mercy Hospital, in Omaha, where they attempted to streighten the bone. At the time, we were living in Onawa, and were renting a trailor my brother and sister-in-law owned. I got a staph infection in my nose, and was hospitalized for about a week. In late August, I returned to Iowa Braille. Things were somewhat different that year; we moved over to Rice 2 West, and my room was the second door on the right as you headed north from the fire escape. We didn't have room mates, which I liked in a way. I had my own space and room to move; however, I missed late nights of talking with a friend about things, no matter what. If I had a family situation, such as a death in the family, my room mate was there to comfort me.
About a week before my sister, Fern gave birth to my niece, Abbigail, my cousin, Tonya had her second son, Chad. I returned to the Braille School feeling happy, because I was able to spend the weekend with Chad, Tonya, and Tonya's mother, my now deceased cousin, Sarah, who Shawn and I referred to as Aunt Sarah, because she was older than us two boys, and she felt more like an aunt to us. While sitting in my room and doing my homework, John Hamling stuck his head in the door and said, "Congratulations, Jake, you're a new uncle. Your mother called and told me to tell you that your sister had her baby." I couldn't get to sleep that night; I lied there in bed, thinking about Fern and the baby, and the next morning, I had to drag myself out of bed. I was extremely tired.
I started working in the Braille School kitchen on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, doing the breakfast dishes. That large garbage disposal sort-of gave me the willies. A number of scary thoughts ran through my head, but I didn't tell anybody, because I didn't know how they would take it. I imagined myself slipping on a wet spot and placing my hand out to brace myself, but instead, running it streight down that monster garbage disposal. The thing was always running, and it sort-of scared me. I was constantly checking things to make sure no silverware could get down inside that thing. I could only imagine what would happen if a fork or something fell in that devil. Somebody could get hurt seriously. Those things have been known to fling utensils like arrows from bows.
In October, I spent the weekend with our old friends in Vinton while Mom and Byron went to Indiana to get Fern and Abby so they could spend time with us. That following Friday, when I got off the bus, I was surprised to see my sister-in-law, Carlah. Usually, my brother, Erny would be working at that time, and Carlah would be home with the four kids. But here she was, picking me up from the River Boat Inn in Sioux City. When I got in the car, I noticed a carseat in the back. I asked Carlah if Fern and the baby had come back, because at the time, I only thought that Mom went out there to visit them. I didn't know they would be heading back. "No," Carlah said. "I bought that for my sister, who just had her baby." "Oh." I said. That was true; Carlah's sister did indeed have her baby. But half-way home, I heard a little grunt coming from the front seat. "Liar," I said, and Fern and Carlah both cracked up laughing. Fern and Abbigail stayed with us until New Year's, when somebody from English, Indiana, came and took Fern back home.
From January of 1997 to late May, I worked at Benco Manufacturing, in Belle Plaine, Iowa, putting oil intake lines together. My job was to place aluminum o rings on the tubes and send them down the line to somebody who put them in an oven to bake. In late March, I took two weeks off work to go on a school trip to Washington, D.C. It was a "Close Up" trip, on which we did a lot of things. Every day, we went from one thing to another. Sometimes, we would see several sights in one day. We went to the Vietnam wall, the U.S. Capital building, the White House, the Post Office Pavillion, and many more places. It was so much fun that I hated to leave. The weekend before we left, I stayed at the Lion And The Lamb Bed And Breakfast, in Vinton. The Lion And The Lamb was, and still is ran by Rick and Rachel Waterberry. At that time, their two daughters were small. One was just a baby of about a year, and the other was three or four.
While in Washington, D.C., we stayed at the Savoy Hotel, in Georgetown. I enjoyed it. The place was awesome, and there was marble everywhere. On the last night of our trip, we had a dance in the ball room, and we had a blast. While in Washington, D.C., the Spice Girls came out with their first hit, "Wannabe." That one still goes through my head when I think about the trip. I can hear them singing, "If you wanna be my lover, you have got to give."
While I was gone, my aunt, Donna passed away. She was going through a tough time with diabetes, and she got gangrine in her leg. I didn't find out until I returned home and Mom told me. School was let out in late May; about a week or two prior, Fern and Abby came back, and the lead singer of Restless Heart had himself a solo career, and he released his big hit, "She Don't Love You." When school started in August, we were sad to learn that Shirley and John were both retiring. I met a new kid who became a good friend. He was a special needs student. He was six years old, and he couldn't speak. He was a sweet little boy. I would keep him entertained on the way to the Braille School by singing to him and talking to him.
I started working at Pizza Hut in Vinton in September; my job was to put pizza boxes together and put their cardboard inserts in place. In 1998, I started working at the University of Northern Iowa, but that one was short, because I started passing out. I've been dealing with a heart-and-bloodpressure condition since I was about thirteen, and I was taking medication for it. So I left Iowa Braille to be closer to my specialists and get taken care of. But I'll never forget the students and the teachers who made my time at Iowa Braille a fun and memorable experience. I still keep in touch with Phil; he is doing great. As for the others, I would like to get in touch with them, but I don't know how. Cathy, Rachelle, Stacy, Tosha, Breaun, Shawn, Mark, Mike, Jamorris, Sarah, and all the rest made me feel at home.
Happy new year to all, and I hope 2010 is the bomb for you.
The year 2009 was Louis Braille's 200th birthday. In honor of that, the U.S. mint issued the Louis Braille commemorative silver dollar. The project was sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind, and half the proceeds from sales of the dollar went to the NFB to promote Braille literacy. Also, people submitted stories describing how Braille had influenced their lives. One hundred of these were gathered into a booklet, and that was presented to President Barack Obama. I was fortunate enough to have my letter included in the booklet.
Here is the story I wrote. Note that the original was written in MS Word, .doc, format.
I recently attended a reunion at the Iowa school for the blind, formally known as the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School. It was Saturday night, and we were going to have a sing along/jam session, and I was a prime participant. At the same time the superintendent took a group of students up in the attic of the main building, and they even got to go up into the bell tower. Since I had committed to the music, I skipped that tour. As it turns out, it was an opportunity I was glad to miss.
While waiting for the music to start, I struck up a conversation with my old second grade teacher. She told me that she had changed me from a barely functional print user to being a Braille user. She also mentioned that, at that point, I did about 2 years of work in one year. That was a good thing, since I had started attending the school in first grade after having gone to kindergarten in the public school in my home town. As a result of my late arrival, they put me in the special first class, which mostly consisted of low performing, and even mentally handicapped students.
I used Braille all the way through school from the second grade on. In my junior year I switched back to the public school. I used readers for the print material, and took Braille notes with the slate and stylus. I was elected to the National Honor Society that year also.
I then went on to college where I got a double major in mathematics and physics. Once again, I used readers for the print material and took notes with the slate and stylus. I graduated magna cum laude in 1975.
I got a job working in data processing for the state of Iowa in Des Moines. My main focus was their online drivers license programs. I also developed a system for the Prisoner Employment program which used prisoners to enter data which was then transferred to the stateís data processing complex in Des Moines.
I joined IBM in 1978, and worked as a software engineer with IBM for 30 years. For much of that time I worked with IBMís AIX operating system on the serviceability tools. All that time I used Braille whenever I could, although, especially for the first part of my career, Braille equipment was in short supply. I did make considerable use of Braille printers. I retired from IBM in 2008.
So what does any of this have to do with that missed opportunity to take a tour of the old attic, and why am I not sorry? I am very grateful that I had the chance to thank my second grade teacher, Mrs. Geiselhart, for switching me from print to Braille. Iíve seen so many children with limited vision struggling along using print. You see, if you can use print, it is easier to believe you are not blind, even though you're struggling, and your studies are suffering as a result. I have observed that, at least at the Iowa school, most of the good students were Braille users. For the sake of the future of our low vision students, I would like to see the stigma of Braille and blindness removed so that more children are taught Braille, and have the opportunity for success that I have had, thanks to a good teacherís ability to put my interests ahead of the stereotype of blindness.