Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero | Chapter 22 of 34

Author: Michael Hingson | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 8968 Views | Add a Review

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13

SHAKE OFF THE DUST

Interdependence is and ought to be as much
the ideal of man as self-sufficiency.

MAHATMA GANDHI

Many of the key moments of my life have revolved around airplanes.

The most obvious example is the hijacked 767 that destroyed my building ten years ago. But there have been others, and these airplane encounters always seem to propel me in a brand-new direction.

I grew up beneath the wings of jets roaring in and out of Edwards Air Force Base, where my father worked. The base sprawled out across Rosamond Lakebed, a former bombing and gunnery range chosen for its big, flat surface and the cloudless weather perfect for flying. During the early 1940s, the military began flight-testing the country’s first jet fighter aircraft, the Bell XP-59A Airacomet. Later, the rocket-powered Bell X-1 was the first in a series of experimental airplanes designed to test the boundaries of flight, and on October 14, 1947, fearless test pilot Chuck Yeager became the first man ever to break the sound barrier, in the X-1. This dustbowl in the high desert was the center of aviation research and advanced flying. Test pilot Scott Crossfield called this jet playground “an Indianapolis without rules.”

By the time my family moved to Palmdale, about an hour’s drive away, the test pilots were riding these rocket planes over 100,000 feet in the air and exceeding Mach 3, or about 2,000 miles per hour. Fighter jets such as the F-100 Super Sabre and the F-102 Delta Dagger streaked and boomed through the skies. At the very same time, I was riding through the streets of Palmdale on my bicycle, testing my own speed and sound boundaries under the shadow of their wings. I grew curious about the science of flight and how engineers used the laws of the universe to blast these pilots up into the edge of space.

I didn’t get to ride in an airplane until I was fourteen, on my way back from Guide Dogs for the Blind with Squire. Somehow he wedged his big golden retriever body under the seat in front of me and spent the next hour cozy and asleep, his head on my feet. As the plane lifted off, I remember thinking, Now I can do most anything I want to do. I felt free and alive. Having a guide dog for the first time was like breaking the sound barrier, and I knew my life would never be the same.

After college, I flew all over the country for business, and airplanes became as familiar as trains or taxicabs. I loved flying, until a plane tried to kill me. I was booked on American Airlines Flight 191 from Chicago to Los Angeles on May 25, 1979. But I finished my work a day early and exchanged my ticket for an earlier flight. The next day I was in a Los Angeles cab when I heard the report. Flight 191 had crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 271 people on board, plus two on the ground. The left engine had fallen off the plane, and the aircraft had rolled over before crashing in a huge fireball in an open field less than a mile from Chicago O’Hare International Airport. The accident is now considered one of the ten worst airplane crashes in history. I should have been aboard.

After that, I began to look at life a little differently. My family became more precious. I took my faith more seriously and pondered my purpose in life.

A little over a year later, I was thrown off of an airplane. In the early ’80s, some airlines had begun harassing blind passengers, segregating them in bulkhead seats, taking away their white canes and stowing them in overhead bins, and forcing them to demonstrate their capacity to buckle and unbuckle seat belts. Blind people felt uncomfortable and in some cases were ejected from planes for refusing bulkhead seats.

In September 1980, I was refused boarding on a plane to San Francisco because the bulkhead seats were already taken. I waited for the next flight out and tried to board. Again, I was ordered to sit in a bulkhead seat. I refused. After discussions with the flight attendants, the captain, and the supervisor of ground personnel, I was forcibly ejected from the plane. My left arm was bent behind my back, my thumb was injured, and my watch was broken off my wrist. It was humiliating.

Most of the time, I prefer to defuse uncomfortable situations with humor, engaging people and trying to help keep every interaction positive. For example, airport security personnel often don’t know what to do with a guide dog and cause unnecessary delays by putting us through extra security checks. I have a choice to make. I can seethe with anger at the injustice, but if I went that route, I’d be angry most of the time. The truth is, I face discrimination every day. But persistent anger isn’t productive, and it isn’t fair to people who just don’t know any better. So I choose engagement. When security puts us through the wringer, I make light of it: “Go ahead and frisk Roselle. She loves it. Frisk her more!”

But that day on the airplane, my approach didn’t work. They were treating me like I was weak and helpless, and it was time to take a stand, just like my parents did when I got kicked off the school bus. Most people have no clue how blind people survive and function every day in the light-dependent world. When you are blind, most everything is risky. The world isn’t set up with us in mind. But we can and do cope. We use work-arounds, technology, creativity, persistence, and intelligence to overcome the barriers put in our way.

Later, I discovered the airline that ejected me had no blind seating regulation and that a blind person with a guide dog was allowed to sit in any seat on the aircraft. I was asked to testify about my experience at a public symposium with representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration and Delta Airlines.

Twenty years later, I was at work in the World Trade Center when four planes were hijacked and used to attack our country on September 11, 2001. The country has never been the same. Neither have I. There is grief and loss. There is also an opportunity for change and a chance to move forward. But to do that, we need to work together. That’s how the terrorists succeeded, with nineteen people functioning as a cohesive unit and demonstrating teamwork by planning, coordinating, and working together in secret to carry out the deadly attack.

To fight back, we must work together or suffer from our lack of unity and compassion for others, especially those who might look or act different from us. A wise man once said that all of us have disabilities; it’s just that most of them are invisible.

I am often asked if I believe that blind and other disabled persons are better off today than in the past. In some ways, I believe that we are. For example, Braille is easier and cheaper to produce now. Technology offers new ways to access information, travel more independently than ever, and, in general, live life with less difficulty than before.

But on the other hand, are blind people more socially integrated into society than we were fifty, twenty, or even ten years ago? I think not. I will know that I am truly integrated into society when people are interested in me because of something I accomplish rather than some routine task that appears daunting just because I am blind. I will know that I’m a real first-class citizen when I can walk into restaurants with friends and the servers ask me for my order rather than asking my sighted colleagues, “What does he want?” I will know that I have arrived when I can go to meetings or conventions where all the materials given to sighted people are automatically available to me in Braille or another accessible form. True and full integration is not easy. It starts with desire, continues with education, and comes full circle grounded in trust.

On that fateful day ten years ago, I trusted Roselle. And Roselle trusted me. We survived through trust and teamwork.

Recently I flew to Amsterdam to speak at a guide dog school. The event planners splurged and booked me first class. When I boarded, I relaxed down into the comfortable, padded recliner. I leaned back and put up my feet. My new guide dog, Africa, was curled up under the seat in front. But when I reclined, she lifted her head. I knew what she wanted. I patted my knees. “Africa, come!” Quick as a flash she unfolded her long legs and emerged, then hopped up in my lap. All sixty-five pounds. I stroked her head. So much wisdom.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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