Monday, July 8, 2013

Uncle Brother and His Seeing-Eye Dog, Sam

By Celia Yeary

Morris Frank (1908-1980), was the first American to benefit from a Seeing Eye dog. He was blinded as a boy, and in 1927 his father read a story to him about a study in Switzerland that said German Shepherds could be used to help the blind. Morris was invited to go to Switzerland and receive the first seeing-eye dog, named Buddy.

But I have a personal story I'd rather tell.
We had an uncle called Brother, and sometimes we used Uncle Brother. I don’t know why we didn’t address him by his real name.

He was my daddy’s older brother. An accident blinded him when he was only nineteen. The event happened many years before my birth, so of course, I only remember him as my blind uncle. He had married and become a proud father. Something happened between his wife and him, and he found himself alone with no way to work because he could not see.

With no other recourse, he moved back to the family home, a small farm in North Texas. As a child, I clearly remember driving there from the South Plains with my family to visit Granny and Papa and our uncle.

The house never had running water, but it did have electricity for the Kelvinator “icebox” and one bulb on a cord from the ceiling in each room. My uncle knew his way around every inch of the house, the yard, the garden, the orchard, and the outhouse. He used a cane to wave in front of him as he walked. He milked the cows, drew water from the well, and fed the calves.

Everyone loved our uncle, including my family and me. My little sister and I enticed him to play with us, hold us, and tell us stories. He had one glass eye, and he’d remove it and let us hold it. We took his hands and dragged him outside to a rusted bedstead that sat under a large tree. We had fun washing his sparse hair. He’d sit patiently, holding the dishpan of soapy water between his legs, hang his head over it, and allow us to scrub and rinse as long as we wanted. Usually, we washed his glass eye, too, and asked him if the soap hurt the eye socket or the eye that didn’t work.   

“Guess the color of our dresses” was a game we played with him. He’d finger the fabric and guess pink, blue, or yellow and say the correct one much of the time. Magic! We gave him a kiss on the cheek each time he gave a correct answer

One day, the Lions Club in town approached him about the possibility of attending a boarding school in Pennsylvania in order to learn Braille and get a seeing-eye dog.

The thought never occurred to my uncle, but he accepted the opportunity with gratitude. Packing his suitcase and boarding a plane for the first time in his life did not seem to frighten him. While he attended the boarding school for the blind in Pennsylvania, he not only mastered Braille, he received a wonderful German shepherd named Sam. The year was 1946.

And now…for the rest of the story…

He met a lovely woman at the school. She attended classes to train with a new dog, for her dog had died. Blind from birth, she had never seen the world as our uncle had. With his way of telling a story, he described, oh, a cow, for example, or a field of corn. She became enthralled with the tales, and yes, she fell in love with him. In return, she played the piano and sang to him.

Back home in Texas, he wrote letters n Braille to his ladylove. On one visit to our grandparents’ home when I was about eight, I leaned on my uncle’s worktable while he punched holes in the strips of paper. Knowing he was writing to his girlfriend, I asked, “What did you tell her?” Patiently, he told me something, probably to appease me. And he showed me how to use the apparatus to write my name. I’ve never forgotten that experience.

Eventually, Uncle Brother moved to Pennsylvania, married his sweetheart, and set up a home with her and her German shepherd seeing-eye dog, Lady. The Lion’s Club helped him obtain a newsstand in the neighborhood, close enough so he could walk to work. His sweet wife walked there at noon to take his lunch and eat with him.

During my high school years, Uncle Brother and his wife flew to Texas. One day, Daddy drove them to a local farm. There, Daddy led her to a cow and helped her “see” the animal. Surprisingly, she did not display any fear. He also led her through a cornfield, so she could hear the rustle of the stalks and feel the plants and ears of corn. She talked about her experiences for hours until they returned home, especially the huge size of a cow.  

The blind couple lived happily for many years. He passed away first, and she followed soon thereafter. Now, if that’s not a love story, I don’t know what is!
I used my knowledge of a blind man in a novel I wrote some time ago titled "Wish for the Moon." The story is the coming-of-age story of sixteen year old Annie McGinnis, set in 1901. I used my memories of my grandparent's farm as a setting. I used my Uncle Brother to create the character Old Blind Jerral.
At the dawn of the Twentieth Century, sixteen-year-old Annie McGinnis wishes for a chance to see more of the world, since all she’s ever known is the family farm in North Texas. A mysterious visitor arrives who will change not only her life, but her family’s as well. To save Max Landry from a bogus charge, she follows him and the Texas Rangers back to the coal-mining town one county over where a murder occurred. The short journey sets Annie on a path of discovery—new horizons, an inner strength, and quite possibly…love.   

    Plop, swoosh. Plop, swoosh. The iron moved over the fabric, and she placed the iron in the metal holder with a clang. Turn the skirt. Plop, swoosh. Plop, swoosh.
    Annie remained quiet and so did Jerral. When she finished one garment, she carried it to her room and laid it across the bed so she could hang it up later. Then she returned to the kitchen to do another one. All the while in silence.
    Jerral spoke. “Annie girl, why aren’t you smiling today? You know you haven’t smiled for weeks, now.”
    Annie laughed. “How on earth do you know I’m not smiling? You’re just guessing.”
    “But I reckon it’s a good guess, ain’t it? Besides, I have my own ways of knowing things, and I know for certain that you’re a very unhappy young lady. And unhappy young ladies sure don’t smile.”
    She continued to iron. “And how do you know that? I haven’t said a word to you or Papa about how I feel.”
     “I’ll tell you, then. When you’re happy, you walk lightly and kind of quick like. When you’re mad, you stomp from place to place—oh, not so noticeable to most people, but I can hear the difference. When you’re sad, you walk about like you’re dragging a heavy load behind you. And you drag your left heel. Just a little, mind you, but the sound is there.”
    The thoughtful concern in Jerral’s voice brought her to tears. She sat heavily across from him and cried with her face in her hands. “Oh, Jerral, you’re right. My life is not turning out as I dreamed it would.” She paused to sniff and swipe her fingers across her eyes. “But it will get better one day. I’m sure of that.”
    “And how is that going to happen? What’s going to change around here that will make you happy and look forward to a new day? What, Annie?”
    Jerral kept his head tilted back and he moved his head from side to side, as he talked. The movements always fascinated her, because she couldn’t figure out why he did it. It was almost like he sniffed the air or could make out shapes if he moved his head, and his eyes were so odd, not looking at anything, but moving about all the same. To be blind must be devastating, she thought. Why would something like that happen to such a good person?
    “Life is strange, isn’t it, Jerral? How do you feel at your age? Do you still feel young sometimes and hopeful, or what?”
    “I only cope, and thank the Lord for another day. I take one day at a time and wait to see what tomorrow holds. By now, I know it ain’t going to be much different, but I wait just the same. But I’ll tell you something important, sweet girl.”
    “What?” she whispered.
    “Life is short, even if you live to be a real old person, it’s still only a blink in God’s eyes.”
    “Gosh, that makes you think.”

Thank you for reading about my special uncle. I loved him with all my heart. 
Celia Yeary       


  1. Thanks so much for the wonderful memories, and for the great excerpt from your novel. One of my good friends at college, Sharon, was blind and she had a guide dog, Psula. a border collie. Four of us ended up sharing an apartment senior year. I still have one of her recipes -- it came from a braille cookbook -- in my recipe notebook.

  2. I love the story about you and your Uncle Brother! I live near Morristown, NJ, where The Seeing Eye school is located. They train seeing eye dogs and whenever you drive into town, you see the trainers and the dog owners too.

  3. Margaret--Interesting that you had a friend in college who was blind. Border collies make very good guide dogs, I've read. The first ones were German Shepherds. My uncle's dog, Sam, was big and if you approached him suddenly he'd stand up and growl. I was always terrified of Sam.
    A braille cookbook. I never knew there was such a thing. I don't know how his wife cooked--but she did. I think their meals were very simple, and possibly the same thing often.
    I do appreciate your visiting the Sweethearts blog, and sharing your story about your friend.
    Thanks, and please come again.

  4. Jennifer--Interesting. I suppose it makes sense to use the town as a training ground for the dogs and masters. They must learn to cross streets, etc. I've often watched a blind student here in town. I'll see him walking along the sidewalk as if he could see everything. He not only has a dog, he has a white cane.
    Thanks for coming by--it's so good to hear from you.

  5. Celia, I love your stories about your life as well as those you write. This was a lovely post and I am so glad you shared your Uncle Brother with us.

  6. Caroline--thank you. My grandparents lived out in Salesville--and we lived there until I was four.
    Remember the similar stories of our lives?
    The old house sat empty after the last grandparent died, so my parents bought the house and 24 acres from Daddy's brothers and sister. brothers and sisters. They tore down the old house, and Mother and Daddy built a big nice brick house there, and new barn, and kept a few cows.
    They're both gone, now, too, but that place--across the road from the white church--still hold many memories.

  7. Thanks for sharing about your uncle, Celia. It's amazing how some people can adapt to what would be catastrophic to the rest of us. I guess when you have no choice, your only avenue is to rise up to what you get and make do.

    Morgan Mandel

  8. Lovely story about your Uncle Brother, Celia. He sounds like a kindly ma. I love the photo of him and the two dogs.

    Seeing eye dogs and other types of service dogs are amazing. They prove just how smart animals can be.

  9. Morgan--for all I know, my uncle might have just gone crazy for a while. He married a beautiful woman at 19,soon had a baby boy, but the old rusted screen door had broken wires that stuck out. Somehow, he opened the door, and one of those rusted wires stuck in one eye. It got infected and it spread to the other eye. He was 20 and blind. His wife would not stay with him, divorced, and took the baby to California. Uncle Brother was a calm, kind man, but he loved to talk. I always though he was rather sad. He surely went through hell for a while...but what else could he do? Nothing. So, he settled in with his parents on the farm. My daddy, his brother, always tried to see after him and love him..we all did. I don't think the others did as much.
    When his baby son was about 35, he came to Texas from California to see his father. We were there...very touching...but nothing between them, either.

  10. LYN--I have a great admiration for guide dogs and the people who train them. It's amazing and wonderful.
    What I remember also about my uncle is that he loved to tell stories. What about, I do not know, but he'd stand in the yard and talk and talk. I do know he listened to the radio and always knew what the president was doing, and if we were going to war, etc. He was smart.

  11. What a lovely tribute to your uncle. I enjoyed seeing a glimpse into your family. We had a teacher here in town who raised dogs to be trained as guide dogs. They were very costly, but her students would help raise the money for the pup and she'd take it to school where the students had a role in shaping the pup's beginning.

  12. Ciara--It's amazing how costly it is to train one dog. From the tv news program I watched a few days ago, I learned that it's a loving process, but very strict also. Sometimes an entire family would help train one dog. And of course, it's time consuming--from puppyhood to adulthood for the dog.

    A few years ago, here in town, I'd run into a beautiful young woman who had a gorgeous little girl--and the child was blind. They'd be in the grocery store, the girl with the dog, the mother near. The mother didn't hover, though, and was very gracious when someone asked about the guide dog. They only rule--you can't pet someone's guide dog.
    My uncle's guide dog Sam scared us. He wouldn't let anyone get close to Uncle Brother, unless he gave Sam a command to "be quiet," always accompanied by a pat.
    Thanks for reading.

  13. I loved this article about your Uncle Brother and how he fell in love. You know the old saying, "love at first sight", but in the case of your uncle and his lady love, it was love at first heart. It must be wonderful for a person to fall in love with your heart and spirit and not the way you look.
    I look forward to reading your book, too. I liked the premise for it. I think it will be a beautiful story.

  14. Sarah--I hadn't thought of the saying "love at first sight." I'd give anything to know how they first met and what they "saw" and especially what they heard and felt. My uncle had a soft deep voice, like my daddy, and it was Texan, and he loved to tell a story. If he had an audience, he'd stand out under a tree and talk and talk..and..he liked to talk about politics, what he's heard on the radio. Such a sweetheart, he was.
    Thank you so much for you comment. They're always thoughtful and intriguing.

  15. I loved getting to know your Uncle Brother, Celia. I love that you called him that. It is so family and so touching. Thanking you for sharing this beautiful story.

  16. Paisley--thanks for reading my post. I'm glad you enjoyed reading about my uncle.

  17. Celia, I am so sorry to be so late reading this. I am absolutely teary-eyed. What a beautiful story! I can just picture her approaching that cow, and the wonder she must have felt. What a love story indeed.

    As for the movie about Buddy, I cry when I watch that one, how she was so ill and dying and yet thwarted the idiots who wanted to disprove her talents by moving the chairs etc all around.

    Beautiful post, Celia. Dogs are such amazing animals. Every word here is inspiring!

  18. Celia, I'm late, too, but I wanted to tell you how much I love the story of Uncle Brother and his wife. I cannot imagine getting on an airplane and flying out to such an unknown as he did. What courage! And to have met someone he loved and gotten married, shared a life...what a wonderful story! And the dogs played a great part in helping them have their life together, I'm sure. What an inspiration!


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