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JIM

I closed my eyes and ran my fingers over the strip of paper my friend Jim had given me. I pretended to be blind and tried to visualize in my mind the raised dots on the paper as the letters of my name. Jim had written, in Braille, the names of his close friends while attending the school for the blind at Gary, South Dakota. I quickly realized that it would take a lot of practice to learn to read Braille. Jim said, "Morrie if you had to, you could learn." I was one of Jim's friends who could remember when he could see. He lost one eye when he was seven years old and I thought his black eye patch was neat. I didn't know that the sight in his other eye was already failing, and when he was nine, Jim's world went dark.

Jim would have been in the fifth grade had he remained sighted. He came back periodically and visited us at school to update us on his progress. In the summer he was just one of the boys, and although we couldn't ignore his handicap, we included him in most of our activities.

One game we invented was " See if Jim can find his way back" . We would take Jim to an out of the way location and drop him off. With the aid of his white cane, and his remaining senses, Jim would attempt to find us where we said we would be waiting. Jim got so good at finding his way around the small town of Miller, South Dakota that it took the fun and challenge out of the game. One evening my dad said to me, "Morrie, today I had to pull your friend Jim out of a ditch that Pete Nelson dug to locate a sewer leak. I asked, "Is he O.K.?" Dad said, "Yes, he's fine, but he walked right between the sawhorses in broad daylight." Then Dad said, "Morrie, if you ever think life is treating you unfair, just remember your friend Jim." I watched Jim build bridges over life's sewer ditches during a lifelong friendship.

One-day Jim's cousins and a neighbor decided to rob a small church of the money collected that Sunday. They posted Jim outside and told him to let them know if any one came around, and of course they got caught. Jim would tell about it years later and say, "Can you imagine any criminals being dumb enough to use a blind man for a lookout?"

One of our favorite pastimes in high school was to put Jim behind the wheel of a car and cruise Main Street. It took a person on the floor running the clutch, brake, and foot feed and another crouched down low, peeking over the dash, to steer the car. We would usually make about two passes before someone would call the town's only cop, and then we would deny the whole thing and act like whoever called had to be nuts.

I knew Jim was smart when he memorized the town's telephone book. He would have me give him the name and number then tell me to ask him what it was in an hour or so. After he had it down pat, he remembered it for life. Jim liked to play cards and had a long winning streak going. I mentioned this to Jim, and he told me he would continue to win as long as they let him deal. He said, "If they are so dumb as to not know I can read the Braille on their cards, why should I tell them?"

I was impressed when Jim entered Law School at the University of South Dakota. He told me, "You didn't think I was going to make and sell brooms all my life, did you?" The State paid people to read to Jim and my brother, Merlyn, was one of his readers. I think my brother almost changed his major from business to law. It was a nice little boost financially, but I'm sure some of the money went for a cool brew for Jim and the boys.

Jim graduated and passed the bar. He opened up a law office in Miller, South Dakota and ran for States Attorney and won the position by a landslide. While all this was going on, I was putting in my first hitch in the Navy, but Jim and I kept in touch, and when I finally came home on leave we celebrated for two weeks. Jim was a Democrat to the bone, and for years, while I was in the Navy, he sent me absentee ballots and told me how to vote -- he thought.

Jim married the world's worst housekeeper, but she was a good mother and they loved their family. Jim did get on her case about the condition of the house, trying to explain why a blind man needed things in order so he didn't fall over every thing. She never did get the message. He told me one time she didn't help him coordinate his clothes and he went to work looking like the town clown. I found it a little hard to like this lady.

After I retired from the Navy and returned to South Dakota our friendship picked up where we left off. Jim had taken a political job with the State and was living at the state capital. Jim told me when the Republicans got in office he thought he might lose his job, but when he told them he could make more money in the state of South Dakota as a blind man than he could as a lawyer, they decided to let him stay.

My daughter, Michelle, and I were living in Miller, South Dakota, about a hundred miles from Jim. If he didn't come to visit on the weekends, we usually went to see him. Michelle played with his children, and over time I realized that two of his children had inherited the same problem that caused Jim to lose his sight. The University of Minnesota researched the family but did not find the source. Jim's twin sister, Jane, lived in fear that she might lose her vision and said she never would have been able to handle it like her brother. I told her I didn't know anyone that could.

One morning when Jim knew I was coming to see him he said, "I want you to check and see if those bales are still in the ditch three miles north of town." When I got to Jim's office and told him the bales were still in the ditch he grabbed the phone and told the party on the other end that he had been out driving around and noticed the bales had not been removed. He told him that when the State gave permission to take that hay, the bales had to be removed by a certain date. Jim said he would give him a week and then take action.
After Jim hung up the phone he said, "The guy knows I'm blind, so we just gave him something to think about."

Jim spent a lot of his retirement years going to elementary schools and teaching young children about overcoming blindness and how a handicapped person can live a productive life.

Thank you, Jim.  I'm glad I knew you.