Interview with blind veterans Will, Jim and Michael by Robert Henry

13 November 2013 11:35

In an inspirational interview, Will, Jim and Michael share their experiences of losing their sight and how Blind Veterans UK have helped them

Jim had been reluctant to come to the centre for about as long as he'd known of it. He had been invited many times down the years but had been put off by the idea - misconstrued though it was - that they only made baskets and rag-rugs there. Trained as a wood and metal work teacher, he "had taught boys to make baskets 60 years ago," and quite expressly, "wasn't interested in that."
To his surprise (and delight), however, Jim was to discover that Blind Veterans UK was much more than baskets and rag-rugs, as he'd feared, and found he enjoyed just about everything the centre had going. Though, notably, willow-weaving and needlework did not form part of the centre's list of activities that week.
A spirited and kindly gentleman, Jim lost his sight in one of those sadly less than rare occurrences, which the able sighted soul can hardly imagine possible. He had been driving through the Columbia Ice Fields parkway - a particularly breath-taking section of the Rocky Mountains - with his wife when he became alarmed by a blur on the windscreen: "I said to my wife 'what's that on the windscreen,' and she said: 'there's nothing on the windscreen.'
Before setting off on this journey - the second leg of a long-planned tour of the entire Rocky Mountain range: a trip his late wife, Joyce, had been pining to take since childhood; Jim had become concerned at what he supposed was some dust in his eye. He first became aware of the problem when he was doing some wood-turning in his garage and so took the matter to his doctor.
Rather bemusedly, the physician confessed that he couldn't see anything in Jim's eye and so sent him on to an optician: setting in motion a train of errors that become almost satirical in the telling, at least when Jim is the author.
The optician thought she could see something but wasn't sure what it might be so she referred Jim on to a specialist who couldn't shed any more light on the problem other than to observe: "I think I see signs of possible damage."
In any case, the specialist assured him he was safe to undertake the second part of his Rocky Mountain expedition, even to buy a new car. "Of course what he said was all wrong!" as Jim emphatically, but not unforgivingly puts it: "You see, in those days, I don't think they knew what it was called - macular degeneration is what it's called."
In the very moment he became distracted by the blur on his windscreen Jim looked across the car at his wife "and couldn't see her." He was in his own words: "Struck blind in a split second. In one split second. I felt like Saul on the road to Damascus!" A vivid analogy to which Jim's reaction to his ordeal - a genuinely awe-inspiring miracle of human resilience, finds its perfect complement:
"I just had to keep driving while she said keep over to the left a bit, keep in a bit somebody's coming. Not much traffic in Canada - just had to keep going. You're right out in the middle of nowhere." Never was the adage 'grace under fire' so apt.
Though, perhaps we shouldn't be so shocked by Jim's seemingly superhuman escape, even while we marvel at his resolve. Among his peers at the new members' introductory week in Brighton, Michael Callaghan, a former RAF pilot, offers some perspective on how the sightless manage to achieve the notionally impossible. Discussing his own battle with blindness Michael confesses how he considers himself: "lucky really, because as a pilot you rely on your peripheral vision very much so when I lost Like Jim, Michael suffers from macular degeneration: a condition which leads to the loss of central vision (usually gradually) but generally does not affect peripheral sight.  A polite, considered gentleman Michael qualified as a fast jet pilot in his early twenties but left the service not long afterward to pursue a career in research and academia: a decision about which he occasionally entertains a touch of wistful regret.
Although, in truth, flying has remained a part of his life ever since: even through sight loss.  In fact, less than two years ago, and in spite of the fact he has been registered blind since 2000, his daughter arranged for Michael to fly a Cessnar 172 above Northampton: "I flew it all around and then came in to land with it." Which he managed, he attests, with relative ease, thanks to his peripheral vision, as:  "to some extent it's like riding a bicycle. You don't forget the basics." The only problem being that he "can't read the instruments," so couldn't: "fly for any length of time in cloud," for example, or a jet, for that matter, because, as he rather understatedly puts it: "I'd just kill myself."
Still, for all their accomplishments, both Michael and Jim acknowledge how the loss of sight engenders hardships that each individual must learn to cope with in their own manner. To Jim, the most difficult things are: "being disheartened" and not "being able to see people's faces when you're talking to them." Recalling the emotions he endured in those first horrifying moments of blindness, in the Rockies, he recounts how his first reaction was: "astonishment. The second was: how appalling! I shall never see my wife again or see my granddaughters grow up and get married. And the third one was: I'll not be damn well beaten!"
Michael, too, speaks of the grief he endured in those early days of sight loss which led him, out of frustration and depression, to get rid of all his "lovely photography equipment:" a story I'll hear him repeat a number of times in the course of the week, attesting to the regret he still feels about a rather rash move he made when at his lowest ebb. Before he had begun to appreciate what he was still capable central vision it wasn't such a shock that it might have been to other people."

Curiously, photography is an interest that all the new members share and occupied a fair proportion of the conversations I observed them have in the introductory week. Will, the youngest of the new members, is a particularly ardent photographer and has spent a life-time pursuing the interest. First, as a photo composition technician on Fleet Street and later as a collections officer for Hampshire County Council Museum's office: where he was responsible for military and camera collections in Winchester.
For Will, the most devastating effect of blindness was that it forced him to retire at 52 and in the process siphoned off what to him, the vocational sort, represented an integral part of his identity: "You lose your identity because people ask you what you do and your identity is usually attached to your job so that all becomes a bit awkward."
However, Will too, like the others, after early difficulties, frustrations, even depression, found ways to cope with his condition and sees Blind Veterans UK as the next step in that journey towards greater freedom and independence. Though mindful of the pun, he claims that Blind Veterans has 'opened his eyes' to what he can actually do now: "There's lots more I can actually do;" and describes his time at the centre as like: "winning the gadget show;" with all the electronic aids and such the centre provides for the members to enable them to complete everyday tasks like cooking and cleaning, or as aids for reading or computer usage.
Michael speaks in similar terms about Blind Veterans and describes it as "an eye-opener" that has "revived his enthusiasm in a sense." Like Jim and Will, aside from finding great merit in the practical training the centre provides, particularly in I.T., Michael found great sustenance in the social side of the charity which enables members to meet fellow sufferers, engage in recreational pursuits like bowls, archery or art and craft work, and hear about their approaches and solutions to blindness: Which, as all agree and Blind Veterans UK would gladly second, is perhaps the most helpful function the centre aims to provide.
If you know someone who Served in the Armed Forces, for National Service perhaps, who is suffering with sight loss including age-related sight loss request free support from Blind Veterans UK. Call 0800 389 7979.