Dear God…It’s so Cold IV

Life in Germany was interesting but a tad bit difficult, too. The German winter seemed to come out of nowhere and I was still dressing as if I were living in Florida! By December, I was sick and getting sicker but too absorbed with my new life to really care. I was also in need of a new host-family as the Bingiessers were headed off to who knows where for who knows what. My only concern was that I would not be sent to another family in Harbach or that I would be sent out of town to attend some other school.

On the day I got my answer, I was sitting inside of the school when a guy called Jens came up to me and said, “My God, you look horrible, Chris!”

Jens was dating a girl in my class called Regina. That is how I knew him.

“Why don’t you come to town with me and we will get a hot cup of coffee.”

I felt awful but got up and walked into town with Jens. On the way, he told me that he was breaking up with Regina. I said nothing, only listened. Regina was a very pretty girl but He said he’d lost interest in her. Unbelievably, it was I Regina ran to for comfort in the coming weeks after Jens dropped her.

 

On our return to school that day the snow began to fall and I could barely muster up the happiness I felt to finally experience a genuine white winter. The walk to town and back had only made me feel much worse andI began to notice how sick I really was. While sitting in the last course of the day, art class, I was called out to speak with someone. I was almost delirious with illness by now and I slowly made my way into the corridor to see who wanted to speak with me.

“Hello, Christopher. I’m Harry Hauser,” a man said.

He was about my height and spoke perfect English.

He went on, “My wife and I heard that you are looking for another host family for a little while and we would like to offer you our home.”

“Do you live here in Grunber,?” I asked quietly.

“You are very sick. Why are you even in school?” he asked, ignoring my question.

“We have a son who is attending his 12th year here. His name is Jornn. We are more than happy to have you with us, if you’d like. You should get right home today and try to get yourself packed. My wife is very anxious to meet you. I think we will come by the Bingiesser home on Sunday afternoon for you. Well that’s if you would want to be with us. It is all up to you.”

I couldn’t say No to him and didn’t want to, either.

“I would love to be with your family. Thank you so much,” I said.

He shook my hand and said, “I think you’re going to like living with us.”

He would not be wrong about that at all!

When I got home that day, Frau Bingiesser had already heard the news about the Hauser family and then explained to me why they were leaving.

“Herr Bingiesser is not well and it seems we are going to have to take him tohospital for a little while. We should be gone for about 3 months but we’ll be back. Then you come back to us,” she explained.

I was so exhausted and so sick I could barely stand up but made my way upstairs to my bedroom. I heard everything she said but was so out of it I just couldn’t care right then.

The next day I got up and began to pack and only packed about 80% of what I owned, under the impression that I would return. How wrong I was.

Saturday went by without much to remember but Sunday came and before I knew it, the Hausers pulled up into the driveway outside. I truly can hardly remember saying goodbye to everyone but I do remember Frau Bingiesser introducing herself to Harry and Mrs. Hauser and then whispering to my ear, “You are not returning to me, Chris. They said they are taking you to Spain. Just remember everything I taught you.”

I had no idea what she was talking about but I just said, “no. I’ll come back.”

Needless to say, that would be the last time I would spend any time within the Bingiesser home.

 

I was a tad nervous leaving with the Hausers but they were both very gracious and Frau Hauser, a petite attractive blonde lady in her early forties, turned around from the front seat to smile at me every once in a while.

While sitting in the backseat of the family sports car, I heard Frau Hauser say, “This child is sick, Harry.”

Once again, I was so sick I can remember very little of that first day with the Hausers. Frau Hauser showed me to my beautiful bedroom on the 3rd floor of their home and I stayed in bed for almost two weeks while Frau Hauser nursed me back to health.

Naturally, I was suffering from pneumoniabut had no earthly idea. I thought it was just another bad cold which I would get during Florida winters, as well.

During those days when Frau Hauser took care of me I got to know more about her, her home and family. Her name was Karin and she was a housewife. Herr Hauser or Harry was a few years older than she and they bought the large and “historical property” right before their son, Jorn, was born.

The property was, in fact, very large but it was also the home of a Nazi retiree during WWII.

Once I had gotten better, I got to know the family and property much better and I was able to roam around Grunberg, where they did, in fact, live and all was well with me.

Although Harry only spoke English with me, Karin and Jorn spoke very little English at all and only spoke to me in German. Actually, my host-brother, Jorn, spoke very little to me at any time. He just looked at me with disregard and ignored me most of the day. Jorn was quite unimpressed with me and found me silly and clueless. My Madonna posters and fashion magazines were uncomplicated and childish compared to his computer knowledge and his mathematical mind. While he wore the same thing every day, I liked to mix it up. Most German kids wore the same thing every single day and they were always clean, of course, but I was an American student. We just never wore the same thing to school every day. He found me insufferable! Plus, he noticed his mother gazing at me, a virtual stranger, with motherly love and that made him furious.

Karin was, unsurprisingly, very close to me and it was she who would make me sit down after school every day to read the local newspaper to strengthen my German. There was a television in the livingroom but it was rarely turned on until Monday nights when Karin allowed me to watch a music video show geared at teens, again to learn more German or Deutsch. Karin did very little outside of the home other than shop for the two men in her life. She had studied at a culinary school so she was a magnificent cook. I could tell that she probably felt loneliness being a housewife and I became a new and fascinating reason to give her life a little bit of a kick. Before too long she was roaming around the house with her walkman at her side, swaying to the music as she did her housework. She would go out to get her hair done and spend her down time reading fashion magazines. As she cooked and prepared meals for her family and sometimes for dinner parties with their friends, I would help her, ask questions and help her serve. She was in love, let me tell you! Her whole life changed when she met me but I guess that is what bringing an exchange student into your home can do for a host-family. I became Karin’s new best friend and she became my best friend and confidant, as well. Karin even decided to go back to school to study Latin.

As I became more comfortable around the Hauser family, I began to venture out more by myself and it was not only allowed but encouraged by Harry and Karin. Of course, I was never far away as I now lived just one block from town and it did not take long for locals to know who I was. It wasn’t every day someone of color traipsed through Grunberg. They knew who I was from what they had already heard about a black student attending school but they also knew the Hauser family well.

It did not take very long for me to forget about my old life in Harbach and just before the Christmas holidays, I began taking piano lessons with a lady who lived right across the street from my new family called Frau Pietsch. Jorn, a bona fide nerd, was sick of Frau Pietsch and the piano. The computer was Jorn’s first and only love so Harry and Karin asked me if I’d like to take his place and I heartily agreed.

When I was able to call mother and daddy back in Florida, I let them know that I was with a new family and that I think I would rather be with Karin and Harry. Mother spoke with Harry who explained why I was now with them and I know it caused mother some concern but Harry eased her and told her that he really didn’t think my few months with the Bingiessers was healthy and he and Karin would like for me to stay with them for the duration of my time in Europe.

“I would also like to ask your permission to take Chris to Spain with us for the spring break,” I heard Harry say to my mother.

Frau Bingiesser was right! I’m going to Spain!!

 

Christmas came and went without much fuss but one thing did happen and I noticed something else. First, the Christmas tree was lovely but because they used live candles on the real tree, I was quite nervous. The whole thing could have gone up in flames but it seemed to concern any of them at all!

Also, one evening while Jorn, Karin and I listened to the new albums gifted to Jorn and me, I wanted to have a little fun with my new host-brother. Karin sat on the couch knitting and smoking her only cigarette of the day, something she did each evening before bed, and Jorn stood at the stereo moving to the music. I slipped up behind him and turned the volume down while his Level 42 record played. Karin and I thought it was funny. I did it a couple of times but after the third time I tried to turn the volume down on the stereo, Jorn pushed me and I flew across the living room like a rag doll, landing on the floor with a thud.

I was stunned, speechless and a little shaken. Karin dropped her knitting materials and stood up and ran over to me and yelled, “Have you lost your mind, Jorn? You could have seriously hurt this child! Get out! Get out now and wait for your father in your room! Now, Jorn!”

As Karin comforted me, Jorn made his way out of the living room, the evening ending on a very sad note. I, too, went to my bedroom. I was fine but unhappy as I realized that I may not get to really have a cordial relationship with my new host-brother.

Before going to bed that evening, I was compelled to write mother a letter to let her know what happened. Soon enough, my mother called Harry what was going on and he promised her that he would not allow anything to happen to me and the matter was handled. He promised my mother that Jorn would never lay another hand on me and Harry was right. He did tell me, though, that he could hear someone in the background saying, “Kick his tail, Chris!” I knew it was my big brother, E. T. I told Harry that E. T. meant no harm, just concerned for my safety.

The Christmas break ended and it was back to school. January was as cold as ever but I didn’t mind. Karin had taught me how to layer in cold weather and for Christmas I was given new shoes and a coat to tackle any cold weather anywhere. I was able to walk to class in the mornings if I did not want to catch a ride with Harry. It was a beautiful experience knowing how to appreciate the cold and snowy weather.

The Hauser family turned out to be a gift from God as they kept me more entertained than the Bingiessers. Harry, a teacher but also a sculptor. He would get in from school and head down to the cellar with a large glass of white wine and would weld pieces of scrap metal into works of art. It was magnificent to see the finished products. We would go into Frankfurt to art galleries that featured Harry’s work.

Harry was also a political activist so I was able to attend my first and only political rally. Harry took us to a rally, also in Frankfurt, at a local university for a rally for the SPD party, one of a few different political parties in Germany. The experience was intense and thrilling and a lot of fun.

The view from my bedroom was quite spectacular, too. I could see the rolling hills and old homes darted throughout the landscape. Just below the hill from the house sat a small lake that had frozen over and kids were playing hockey and ice skating. Karin asked me if I’d like to try ice skating. I never said No so we walked down the hill and I tried to ice skate. The kids were trying desperately to help me stay on my feet but it was not going to happen. I could not balance my ankles in those ice skates!

Harry and Karin also took me skiing but the weather had turned to blizzard and the visibility was almost zero on the mountain. Unfortunately, that was the first and last time we tried to go skiing.

Then, it was time for our trip to Spain. School was going right along and I was doing well in my courses but as much as I had learned to love the winter weather, I was aching for a little bit of sunshine. My spirits needed to be lifted and the only thing that was going to help was a little sun. I was born in Florida! I was starting to wilt and sunshine was the only prescription.

The Christmas break was for three or four weeks during the German school year. Luckily, spring break was for two weeks and I would get to spend two weeks in Spain.

Really, there was little fuss getting to Spain from Germany. All we needed were our passports and our baggage and a few snacks and we were on our way.

Jorn did not want to go with us but Harry and Karin were weary of leaving him home alone for two weeks. One evening we had gone out to dinner without Jorn and when we returned home, Karin’s cat, Tomy, was cowering in the corner of the living room, a look of sheer terror on it’s little feline face and Jorn, was standing up, hair mussed, clothes disheveled face flushed bright red. Karin ran to her cat while Harry asked Jorn what the heck was going on and I just laughed. The entire scene was so crazy and I really thought Jorn, my host-brother was nuts! Jorn would terrorize that poor cat for absolutely no reason at all!By the way, just one more commentary on Jorn. One day, after walking home from school, the house was quiet and Karin was alone. Usually, everyone is around and getting ready for dinner but this time Karin sat in the kitchen all alone, finishing up dinner.

“Where is everyone?,” I asked.

This is how Karin responded, “Oh, Chris, child, you did not hear at school, I guess. Well, Jorn walked out of one of his courses today and in the corridor in front of students and instructors held his arm out and screamed, ‘Heil Hitler!’”

I was stunned and mortified!

She went on, “Harry boxed his ears and slapped him around like nothing I have ever seen before in my life! Harry is in the cellar coolling off and Jorn is in his room for the rest of the night. He may still be expelled from the school. Harry has to wait for the Headmaster’s phone call.”

I knew that even a mention of the name Hitler was uncomfortable for many Germans so I was not surprised by Harry’s actions. I was surprised, however, by Jorn. He just didn’t think! Being smart is fine but it doesn’t make one have common sense.

The trip to Spain was amazing and it was only a two day drive. We stopped in southern France for our overnight stay and would drive into Spain the next day. I was not able to see very much of France but was able to see some parts of it before dusk set in. Spain, on the other hand, was marvelously beautiful and so were the people. Harry and Karin had purchased a two bedroom condo on the beach in a little resort town called Las Mil Palmeras. Our neighbors were from all over Europe. The neighbors to the right of us were from Poland, across the street were families from Switzerland and England. Behind us, more Germans but Swedish and Finnish families, too. It was a beautiful little town and the Mediterranean was truly spectacular. I could walk out into the ocean for a third of a mile and the water would remain just above my hips. I made friends that I still communicate with to this very day.

Spain was old, old, old but its spirit was young and so were the people. All of them, happy and full of spirit themselves. The food was as wonderful as I’d expected and I did not want to leave.

Harry took us to Alicante, the largest city in southern Spain and just walking around was exhausting but I was able to just get eye-fulls of all around me. The buildings were ancient but still stood, withered and crooked from time but holding on with strength and defiance. The people were kind and happy to see us as we walked in and out of the little shops and eateries. Of course, I got many looks and nods of approval as many of them assumed right away that I was American. The kids would run up to me to grab onto me and ask for candy or just to hear me speak American English. Some of them would just offer me a flower they had just picked from a garden. I was taken aback at first but Harry and Karin told me it was okay and I just learned to go with the flow and take in the xperiences of this beautiful culture.

Las Mil Palmeras was quiet in the mornings but would begin to awaken by noon. Harry would go to the local shops and bring back a sack of freshly baked spanish bread and we would eat brunch on the front porch of the condo. Boiled eggs, apricot jam, cream cheese and prosciutto was always on the menu and I could not get enough of it.

We would go to the beach for a long while and return home for dinner. After dinner, the whole town would head to the promenade and sit for music and flamenco dances. Some would go into one of two little discos and others would dine at some of the local restaurants. It was truly relaxing and exactly what a vacation should be for everyone. Even Jorn and I got to know one another…well, a little. We would play tennis together but that was really the extent of our bonding.

 

The two week trip to Spain didn’t last very long and before I knew it, it was back to Grunberg for the rest of school before my return to America. The year would soon be up in July. I couldn’t believe how quickly the time was going by. My German was almost perfect by now and I got along well when I was alone. There was no uncertainty in me at all and I considered Germany home. One day, while practicing piano, I decided that I should probably check on the Bingiessers. I had not spoken with them since before the Christmas holidays and I did feel bad that I had not returned to them. I asked Harry and Karin if they would like to have Sunday coffee with the Bingiessers and they agreed that would be a nice gesture.

I called the Bingiessers and Herr Bingiesser picked up the phone. He was so happy to hear from me and told me how much he missed me.

“We really miss you being here, Chris. It’s so good to hear from you!,” he said.

I was happy to hear him say this so I responded, “It’s so good to hear you, too, Herr Bingiesser. How would you like for me to come over for coffee this Sunday? I will be with Harry and Karin Hauser.”

“That would be very nice. I will tell everyone and we will see you Sunday afternoon,” he said happily.

When Sunday came, Karin, Harry and I made our way to Harbach. I was a little nervous but not sure why and Karin said she also felt uneasy. Harry told us we would be fine and then we pulled into the Bingiesser driveway. I got out of the car and walked up to the door to ring the door bell. Karin and Harry stood behind me but close to the car.

Andreas came to the door and instead of inviting us into the house, said, “Chris, what do you want?”

“We are here for coffee. I talked to Herr Bingiesser,” I said. And then I could hear Frau Bingiesser from her perch in the kitchen scream that she did not want to see me or “those Hausers, either!”

As I stood there, I then heard Herr Bingiesser begin to yell as Karin and Harry begin to uncomfortably make their way to the car and call me to them. I stood there, stunned that this was actually happening. Andreas, well aware of his mother, just said, “Chris, you all should go. Don’t come back.” And he shut the door. Karin called to me and Harry just said, “Chris, don’t worry about it. We will go.”

As we got into the car we could still hear Frau Bingiesser yelling at the top of her lungs. We drove away and that was the last time I would visit Harbach or see the Bingiessers. Karin was mortified, of course, as this has never happened to her and that kind of behaviour was unheard of in polite society. As a matter of fact, she talked about it for the rest of the day, shaking her head and saying over and over to Harry and me, “Did you see how that rude cow refused us? Has that woman lost her mind?”

As June approached, I wondered what I would get to do for my 17th birthday. I had been to Spain already and Harry and the Bingiessers had taken me all over middle and southern Germany. I had gone to Munich earlier in the year with a friend of Harry. I had already spent time with some of the local Educational Foundation students who lived in the local area, also. I wanted a party. Traveling more was unnecessary. Harry agreed that a birthday party was well-deserved because of my hard work in school and my “humble spirit”. He made up the invitations and he allowed me to pass them out to some of my classmates in school. He also told me more good news for my birthday.

“We are taking you back to Spain for a little while before you return to America. That and your party are your gifts from Karin and me.”

The birthday party was a wonderful last night with all of my friends and they made sure I would never forget them with the wonderful gifts they bought me. Harry and Karin grilled steaks and the champagne and beer flowed. I, was not a drinker so I stuck to the soda pop but my friends, responsible teenagers only drank very little. By the way, ever eaten organic beef? It will literally melt in your mouth!

Our last hoorah in Spain lasted for 3 ½ weeks and it was without Jorn. Harry and Karin allowed him to remain in Germany alone as he became 18 between the spring and summer break. He was thrilled and trust me, so was I. I had my own bedroom in Spain and now when I hung out with other teens in Spain, Jorn couldn’t frighten them away. Yes, really.

Spain was as lovely as ever and the locals remembered me, too. It was nice and we had another birthday celebration for me as Karin’s birthday was just one day after mine. Harry and Karin invited their friends in Las Mil Palmeras and they allowed me to invite some of my local friends and we had a big dinner outside, right on the street and everyone, about 30 people from various cultures around the world, broke bread together in harmony to celebrate Karin’s and my birthday.

Driving back to Germany after our summer break was bittersweet for each of us for different reasons and before too long it was time for me to leave this magnificent country and loving culture. I was sad but ready to see my mother and family. I realized that I had, naturally, accumulated much more than I came to Europe with and there was no way it would all fit into my luggage. Harry and Karin told me not to worry because they would ship it all and I would get it soon after my arrival back in the states.

July 17, 1987 I got up early, got dressed and went downstairs for breakfast. Karin and Harry were already having coffee and eating toast when Harry asked, “Chris, do you have your passport?”

I had it right on me and we were soon on our way to the Frankfurt International Airport. It seemed so strange?   Had I really already been in Germany for a year? Had I really experienced all of this in just one year? Had I done everything I was supposed to do? I learned fluent Deutsch. I kept a journal and I even kept up with the articles I was writing for the local Bristol newspaper at home in Florida. Was there anything missing? I said goodbye to my friends and my teachers. I said goodbye to Frau Pietsch and told her I’d keep up with my piano lessons. That was it. I had fulfilled my requirements as an exchange student with EF and it was time to go home.

The airport filled up quickly with many of the students I had studied with at language camp. Each one of us was going home a little different in appearance and different on the inside, too.

I said my goodbyes to Harry and Jorn but saying goodbye to Karin was a bit more difficult. She was so special to me and was my mother for 8 months and she took the part seriously. As all of the passengers began to board the plane, I hugged Karin goodbye and she would not let go of my hand. I can’t remember what I told Karin but, reluctantly, she let my hand go and she began to cry as I waved them all goodbye.

“I love you,” I yelled as I walked down the ramp to board. I was sad but happy, too, and could not wait to get back to America. My year in Germany had come to an end.

 

Back home in good old United States of America, my family was wating for me at the Tallahassee Regional Airport. I was darker from the Spanish sun and my hair was now an afro and I had put on some pounds but my family knew who I was right away, of course. I had so much to show them and tell them but I was tired and just glad to be home.

 

I wasn’t going to write about this but I will tell you about my trip to Santa Barbara, California to visit the Educational Foundation for Foreign Study headquarters.

After being home and even starting my senior year back in Liberty County High School, I got an invitation from EF to visit California one weekend to talk about my successful year in Germany. I would meet the EF staff and other scholarship students who had also just returned from a year in various countries in Europe. I was so excited because I had never been to California and I just knew that I was going to get to see Olivia Newton-John once I’d gotten there.

My mother drove me to the Tallahassee airport in September of 1987 for my trip to California. Before boarding the plane she slipped $100 bill into my pocket and told me to have a good time. “I hope you get to see Olivia or Christie Brinkley. Tell them I said Hello,” my mother said. I kissed Mrs. Adeline goodbye and I was on my way to Cali. My connecting flight was in Atlanta and the layover was not very long before the flight to LAX in Los Angeles was ready to board.

I was seated in the front of the plane in coach and next to me sat an older gentleman, Italian, quiet and polite. We watched the movie “Adventures in Babysitting” and only chatted little throughout the long flight. Once we had landed in Los Angeles, the man said we would walk to baggage claim together and I agreed. We got our bags and he and I both walked outside to wait for our rides. EF had told me that I would be picked up on time and not to worry so I didn’t. As the older gentleman and I stood outside in the breezy California night, the palmtrees swaying in the breeze we noticed a long shiny white limousine pull up in front of the line of people waiting for rides.

The white limo caused quite a stir and as it made its way down the street it began to slow as it got closer to the older gentleman and me. My heart began to race and I couldn’t imagine who could be inside that limo. Who was it? Everyone around us was having fits to find out who was in that limo! Then the limo stopped and it stopped right in front of the older man and me. Was it Olivia Newton-John, finally rescuing me to take me back to her Malibu mansion? Could it be? Was it?

The back door of the sparkling limousine slowly opened and out stepped a shiny white shoe which connected to a white pair of pants and then another white leg stepped out of the limo and there in front of us stood…could it be, was it…Kojak! It was Kojak, Telly Savalas, dressed all in white, his bald head and a bright red lollipop sitting inside his lips. He made his way right to me and as my heart beat faster, Kojak stepped onto the sidewalk and grabbed the older gentleman next to me!

“I’m sure you’re tired. Everything is ready for you back at the mansion, even the pool,” Telly Savalas told he older man.

“Have a nice night,” the older gentleman said to me and Kojak smiled and nodded at me and they were gone, the shiny white limo with the sparkling tinted windows slowly rolled away, leaving everyone standing there in fits of screams and sheer joy at their celebrity sighting.

The weekend in Santa Barbara was great but Telly Savalas was my only celebrity sighting that weekend. No Olivia and no Christie Brinkley.  I would have to tell my mother that only Kojak showed up for me.

I shared my newspaper articles with the EF staff and the other exchange students and they showed us a good time as well. I was thankful to them for allowing me the amazing experience and grateful for the scholarship.

 

That was my trip to Germany, kids. Could the weather have helped trigger something in my DNA that would later cause me to suffer from Sarcoidosis? I may never know that answer but had I known that the trip would eventually cause me to lose my sight, I have a feeling I still would have made the trip.

 

Thanks for reading. I know this entry was much longer than the rest but it was time to finish this four parter. Hope you enjoy and you will be hearing from me soon enough. Hit me up at cthomas70@live.com or Tweet me @ChrisDThomas70.

Many blessings to each one of you!

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Dear God, it’s so cold! pt III

On the way to school that first morning, images swirled in my head what it would be like for me. I had already experienced the looks and whispers of Germans since I hadfirst landed in Germany but now I would be surrounded by them, on their turf. I was nervous but excited but unsure of how I would be treated. What would the school look like? Grunberg is a small village so I was certain there wouldn’t be too many kids. All of my courses are going to be in German. How would I pass and be able to return to America a senior in high school? A hundred questions filled my mind.

 

The drive to school wasn’t very far from the Bingiesser home but far enough to have to take a bus to school from now on, Frau Bingiesser told me. We passed through quaint villages and soon we were driving down a street that lead to Theo-Koch school. On the right sat a gymnasium that appeared modern and sleek and on the left sat three large buildings, two of them four or five stories high. We parked and while Herr Bingiesser remained in the car, telling me to have a good day, Frau Bingiesser and I made our way into building 1.

The lobby was quiet and noone stirred but suddenly a man walked out from a door, a smile on his face and using a crutch to walk.

He walked up to me immediately and grabbed my hand.

“You must be Christopher. We have been waiting for you,” he said warmly.

He then turned around and yelled something to someone and right away a lady came out from the same door with a sheet of paper in her hand.

“I am Head Master here at Theo-Koch. My name is Herr Maushagen.”

As he held out his hand, the lady with the sheet of paper passed it to him and he then passed the paper to me.

“This is going to be your courses for the year,” he said.

He began speaking to Frau Bingiesser and I studied my courses. I noticed that I would not be attending the same classes every day all day the way I did in Liberty County High. The schedule was set up like the schedule I would experience in university. There were free hours in which I would have no classat all and I would even be attending school on every other Saturday. Yes, school on Saturday! I politely interrupted the adults as they spoke.

“I have to come to school on Saturdays?” I asked with a look of horror on my face.

“Yes, Christopher. Do not worry. It is only every other Saturday and it is not a full day of classes,” Herr Maushagen assured me.

With that, he said something to the lady and bid farewell to Frau Bingiesser and walked back behind the door from which he came.

Frau Bingiesser came up to me and said, “I know you will have a good day. I did not get a chance to make you lunch but I promise to have a big meal waiting for you when you get home. Can you handle that?”

I was fine, of course. I rarely ate when I attended school in America. The only thing I ate was my mother’s dinner during the evening hours.

And then she said, “You will catch the bus home but try not to miss it. Someone will make sure you get on the right one.” She walked away and I found a bench to sit down. Noone had said anything to me about where my classes were going to be and then I noticed a garbage bin next to me but it was no garbage bin. It was a bin for old or used batteries. As I stared at it I realized that I was no longer in America.

Minutes later a fellow walked up to me and said, “Hi. I am Martin. You are Chris. I will take you to your class and show you around the school.”

As Martin and I made our way to a large building that was made of cement and glass, a bell rang and a roar of screams and yells filled the quiet and serenity I had felt since getting to Theo-Koch.

“That bell is for the middle school students,” Martin said. “Our building is for grades 11 to 13.”

“Thirteen?” I asked, bewildered.

“Oh, that is right. You Americans go to university after only 12 years. Here we go to higher education only after completing 13 years.”

Actually, that first day in school was a complete and total blur. I have no idea which class I attended first but I met an American girl from Idaho by the name of Dana who had the same classes I did so that made both of us extremely happy. Also, and I will never forget, when the first bell rang that day in the senior high building, when the kids saw me standing below in the first floor common area, from the second through fourth floor windows, they began to scream and yell at me. Some of them even blew me kisses. It was crazy and I was terrified! I had no idea how I was going to get through all of this but meeting Dana was a big help and she, unlike me, had already been told by her brother what to expect at Theo-Koch. Her American family had their own student exchange program with a German family. Every other year the German family would get an American student and vice versa for the American family.

Although Dana gave me a sense of calm, Martin was still there with me to ease me into the school experience. He made sure I got to each class and by the endof the day, after much fuss over the new American student, the “black one,” it was time to go home.

Martin walked with me to the street in front of the school and waited with me for the buses to arrive. I was expecting a line of yellow school buses to pull up but that did not happen. Instead, a line of red and white old luxury buses pulled up next to us and students from every which way ran to embark.

“You have to get on fast or there will be nowhere for you to sit,” Martin explained. I said goodbye to Martin and I got onto what Martin told me was the bus to my village, Harbach. He was right, though. The seats had been taken and many kids were standing in the aisles but I had nothing to worry about as little kids in various parts of the bus were beckoning me to sit next to them. Each of them had looks of excitement and sheer joy on their faces as they each pointed to the empty spots on the seats next to them. I couldn’t choose so I just sat down in the seat nearest me.

Next to me sat a young boy named Markus. In the seat behind him sat another boy who was also called Markus. They would become my first two friends, so to speak, in Germany. They were in junior high but they would wait for me outside of my home each morning and walk with me to the bus. They spoke broken Englis but tried with great gusto for me to understand them. They made sure I had a seat on the bus so I wouldn’t have to run to get a seat and they were just very sweet. As time went by, though, and I began to acclimate to life in Germany, I would need the two Markuses less and less and they seemed to understand.

 

School became much more fun as I had freedom for the first time in school. If I wanted, I could leave campus and go for cappuccinos in town with my classmates. Grunberg itself was small but nice. Next to the school was a beautiful park with benches and trees and next to the park was the little business section of Grunberg. Local businesses made up the little section. Everything one needs in a town was right there settled onto the cobblestone streets. A bakery and butcher stood across from one another. The bookstore and optometrist, library and market nestled next to one another in a tidy row. A movie theatre was down the street and in the middle of all of this was the obligatory water fountain. Homes were dotted around the town and a train depot sat at the aedge of town, much like the Theo-Koch. It was just about perfect and I longed to live there. Clothing boutiques, the pharmacy and other little shops made up Grunberg and it just seemed so perfect. The local church was as old as Germany itself.

What I had noticed about Harbach, the small village where the Bingiessers lived, was that I had no classmates to hang out with when I wanted. The kids were younger than I, like the Markuses, or they were much older. I was alone so when I would get home from school, I would just walk around Harbach and try to learn the little village. There was very little to learn but walking around was a beautiful experience, too. It was absolutely quiet and so picturesque it almost felt as if I were walking around in a painting.

One day as I took a stroll behind the Bingiesser home and the home of our neighbors I noticed a road that led to, I’m guessing, another village. Beside the road was a meadow, dotted with daffodils and other flowers. The grass was almost neon in color and beyond the meadow was another road that led out of Harbach. Beyond that were rolling hills, just like what I noticed in Grunbert. In the middle of all of this beauty a little fawn jumped and danced by itself,unaware of me at all. It was, literally, breath-taking. The landscape wasn’t ruined by shopping plazas or the sounds of cars and buses or trucks. Life was simple and beautiful to these people and I envied them.

 

 

While life was fantastic there were some things that I did not like but never complained. I have already mentioned that I was mostly alone when it came to my social life but Frau Bingiesser was still a tad odd. Once, when I got home from school, Herr and Frau Bingiesser were gone and my host-brother, Andreas, was there to greet me. He let me know that everyone else was gone but dinner had been left for me and after he fed me, he was gone, too. I had no idea what I was going to do but I realized that this was the perfect time to get into a hot shower. I had not had a shower in months and I was aching to feel the rush of liquid on my skin. How would anyone know, I thought to myself.

The shower was wonderful, of course, and I went to bed afterward and slept like a baby until the next morning. Unfortunately, I awakened to the sound of Frau Bingiesser bursting into my bedroom ripping me a new one for daring to step foot into her tub, shower or bathroom.

“What have you done?” she cried. “Who told you it was okay to use our shower? That’s why you have a sink put into your room! I had to scrub the tub all morning! Do not use our tub, Chris!” she said with utter exasperation.

I couldn’t believe how upset she was but hearing her caused me great distress. Why was I there? Why did she want me in her home at all? Hanging out with Dana and my other classmates at school was so much fun but they all lived in surrounding villages, even other towns. I went to visit an American friend who was my roommate at language camp and he had it so good. He could shower whenever he wanted and he had friends in his town that he could hang out with and do things. All I did whenever I got home from school was walk around Harbach and then sit in the kitchen with Frau Bingiesser or in my bedroom. I was homesick and I wasn’t sure how much longer I could last in Germany. Plus, I was starting to get sick and the weather was beginning to change and I wasn’t prepared for that, either.

 

Frau Bingiesser wasn’t that thrilled with me herself. My German was getting better each day and even though I couldn’t speak it very quickly, I could understand it a lot more. I would hear Herr Bingiesser and Andreas telling her that I needed some kind of stimulation, that I didn’t do very much except stay with her. Sometimes I would go with Frau Bingiesser around Harbach to do odd jobs like housecleaning or picking tomatoes but nothing more. It wasn’t really her fault but she was the reason I was there.

The truth is, they did show me a good time the first few months I lived with them. They took me to carnivals and amusement parks. We would visit Herr Bingiesser’s mother who would slip me 5 marks even though Frau Bingiesser forbad her to do so. She would just walk by me and stick money in my pocket and put her finger up to her lips for me to stay quiet. I got to meet Herr Bingiesser’s exquisite daughter, Simone, a beautiful teenager. She was fun and cool and I just wanted to be around her all the time. And they did allow me to stay with my friend, Bobby, that one time.

Life wasn’t horrible but life in Harbach was killing me. What’s the point of leaving Bristol if I was going to experience the same kind of life in Germany?

And then, something happened. One day one of my teachers in school came up to me and said, “Chris, the Head Master received a call from your host-mother. It seems she and your father will have to make an emergency trip away for a while and they don’t want to take you out of school.”

I had no idea what she was talking about and she went on. “We are going to have to find you a family to live with so you can remain here. They don’t want you to have to go back to America without finishing your year here so we are now looking for someone to take care of you,” she said seriously.

What in the wide world of heck was she talking about, I thought to myself. I haven’t heard anything about this at all! How would Frau Mietens know about this before me?

“By the way, Chris,” she continued. “You look terrible and you don’t sound much better. You shouldn’t even be here today. You are sick.”

She was right, of course. I was sounding pretty sick and I didn’t feel that great, either. The cold weather sneaked up on me and I had not even noticed that I just wasn’t dressing properly enough for the German winter. Of course, Frau Bingiesser kept my bedroom cold and rarely let me turn on the radiator. The feather bed was very warm but having to get dressed and washed up in my sink as the temperature dropped and while the windows were left open, thanks to Frau Bingiesser, I was getting sicker and it did not even occur to me.

Standing outside in the mornings waiting for the school bus was a total nightmare and the coldweather hurt so much I had to clench my jaws to stand it. My jaws ached so much I could hardly chew food. The problem was that I was clenching my jaws all throughout the day and it just never occured to me to dress warmly enough, to dress unlike the cold weather in Florida. Unfortunately, I did not know how and noone ever taught me how to layer. All I could mutter to myself as I experienced what actual cold felt like was, “Dear god, it’s so cold!”

Could this cold weather be the very reason I suffer from an auto-immune disease?

 

In the meantime, it seemed to be a lot of fuss about which German host-family would take me in for a little while. Even my American classmate, Dana, had heard about this news. I really did not give it much thought, actually. I just hoped for a family that did not live in Harbach. As breath-taking as it was, I wanted out. I was going to miss the Bingiesser family and my little brother, Peer, and I had bonded but I was ready for something new. I prayed that I would not be sent back to America without finishing my year and soon my prayers were answered.

 

I believe this might be a good place to stop. Worry not, kids. I will conclude this part of the blog next entry. Thank you so much for continuing to read and thank you for the kind messages. I’m mad about you!

You can email me at: cthomas70@live.com. Tweet me@ChrisDThomas70.

I will see you soon!

Dear God, It’s so cold! Part II

Noone really knows the reason how sarcoidosis was triggered in my body to then cause the vision loss. I have heard all kinds of varying ideas of how sarcoidosis creeps into the lives of its victims. Chemicals, water and even cold weather could be the culprits of the auto-immune disease. My mother was the first one to tell me that she believed that I got sarcoidosis the year I lived in Germany. Could she have been right?

 

In 1985 I was only 15 years old when I won a full scholarship to Europe with the Educational Foundation for Foreign Study. I was, actually, too young but I would turn 16, literally, weeks before the flight to Frankfurt, Germany. I must say, winning the scholarship was really not that difficult. I had to have some type of creative idea that I would work on while in Europe. Some scholarship students were musicians, photographers or painters. I always wanted to be a writer so that was my platform for the year. I decided that I would write articles every few weeks for the local hometown newspaper of my experiences as an exchange student in a foreign land. EF loved the idea and so did Donna Carter and in only a few months after meeting Mrs. Carter, my father got the phone call that I was chosen as a representative for EF for the 1986-87 school year to Germany. I had no idea where they would send me but I had heard that unless I spoke a foreign language already I would most likely be going to Germany. Learning the German language is much simpler than learning, for example, French.

 

I remember a lot of people asking my father if he would really allow me to travel to Europe alone as a 16 year old kid. Many of my classmates thought I was nuts but I felt it was the right time to go. It would be my junior year of high school and I would return to Bristol my senior year. It was perfect and I could not have been happier. I had no fear and was desperate to do something daring. Luckily, my parents were just as daring and pushed each of their children to fly, to grab life by the neck and take a swing on whatever life has to offer.

 

My mother busied herself right away after finding out I would be flying to Europe in July of 1986. We had to get my passport, of course, and we went through three or four photos before she was happy with one that best looked like me at my happiest. The other photos were not the correct lighting or I wasn’t wearing the right shirt. “What if they don’t believe the photo is you, son? They could keep you in Germany and not let you come home. It can happen you know,” my mother would tell me. She was already quite the teacher to my siblings and me but she kicked the lessons up a notch before I left for Europe. She told me how important it was to never depend on anyone for anything. It did not matter to her that I would not be traveling alone to Germany. The fact that EF representatives and other scholarship students would all be my companions during the trip was of no concern to her. My mother had always taught us to be prepared for the worst, that good things can turn unfortunate in no time. “I don’t want you coming back to Bristol without completing the full year of your scholarship,” she explained. “This is a great experience but it can be difficult and I want you to be strong.”

Isn’t that just like a mother? Well, she couldn’t know exactly what would happen to me in Germany but she was absolutely right. Things did get difficult while living in Germany.

 

 

When July rolled upon me, it would soon be time to leave for Germany. My whole family escorted me to the Tallahassee Regional airport and it would be one of those rickety little puddle-jumpers to take me to Atlanta. From there I would fly to New York City’s JFK International airport and meet up with the EF representative and other scholarship students. Actually, before leaving, I could only think about one thing; flying. I had never been on an airplane before and I was a tad nervous but still excited to go just about anywhere.

As my family waved goodbye, I realized that I would not be seeing them for an entire year and I became sad. I was going to miss my mother terribly and the rest of my family, too. I had never been away from them. On the flight to Atlanta I noticed that there were only six other people in the plane and most of them were other kids who were all crying and so, I cried, as well.

 

I got to New York City, found the EF rep. and waited with her for the other students. She saw that I was tired after having to lug two huge suitcases by myself from baggage and decided to send me to the hotel to wait for the rest of them. I had never seen or experienced anything quite like NYC and it was insane. I took a shuttle van to the Queens Hilton along with a few flight attendants and a driver who was so manic in the crazy traffic I thought I might not make it to the hotel. I saw faces of so many different colors and voices with so many different sounds I experienced culture shock before even leaving the country!

 

The next morning we flew TWA into Frankfurt, Germany and quickly shuttled to a castle high atop a hill in a little town in middle
Germany, not far from where I would be living for the year. I spent three weeks in this castle, now youth hostel, with other American students for a chance to learn the language and a chance to ease into German life before handing ourselves over to our German families. EF showed us a great time and Germany was gorgeous to look at but the people were quite nice, as well. One day, while hanging out around the castle with some of the other American students, a German man, holding a young boy, walked up to me and said something to the little boy. He took his finger and rubbed it against the skin on my arm and looked at his finger, quizzically. Some of the American students were quite offended but I just smiled at him and his father said to him, “See, son. He’s real. Like you and me.”

 

By the time the three weeks ended, students were slowly leaving the castle to go off to or with their host-families. One day, while sitting in my room, someone came to me to tell me that my German host-parents were waiting outside to get me. I had met them before when they came for a short visit one weekend but this time I would be leaving with people I really did not know.

 

Their names were Herr and Frau Bingiesser. He spoke no english at all and she spoke english very well. I could also tell that while he was mostly quiet, she was a bit boisterous, even a little obnoxious. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into! In the meanwhile, I said goodbye to my American friends as they lined up outside to wish me luck and I was zoomed off, down the hill to live with the Bingiessers.

 

Frau Bingiesser asked me if I would like chicken for dinner. She told me that all week she would try to prepare American dishes for me as a tribute to my mother, whom, she said, I was certainly going to miss and, by the way, “Your jeans are too tight. You’ll never have children. I don’t know why American men wear such tight pants!” I said nothing and mentioned that chicken would be fine.

 

 

The Bingiessers lived in a small village called Harbach but the town seat was called Grunberg. Grunberg was where I would attend school and visit restaurants, bookstore, bakery and all the things you would find in town. Harbach had little more than old but beautiful homes, a post office, a little store; a little farming village, really. It also had no other children my age nor in my class but I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

Germans are notoriously clean and Frau Bingiesser kept her home as so. She cleaned incessantly and even cleaned some of the homes in the village for extra money. She had a son who was in his thirties and a little boy who was about 3 or 4 years old. I rarely saw the oldest son, Andreas, but his bedroom was next to mine so I heard him come home from work and go to work and I would see him at dinner time.

My bedroom was nice but sterile and Frau Bingiesser had, surprisingly, put a sink with mirror and lights in the corner of my bedroom because she did not want me to use the family shower. Yes, it is true. She did not want me to use the family shower. I know it’s Europe and bird baths were common at one time but there was no way I would be able to take a bath in a sink for a year. I must also not forget to mention that Frau Bingiesser had removed the lock from my bedroom door and made a habit of just walking into my room whenever she felt. She didn’t knock or warn me that she was coming into my room; she just did.

 

On the other hand, Frau Bingiesser could cook like nothing else I have ever tasted. That first week, she purchased a roasted chicken from the butcher in Grunberg with French fries and it was so good I almost licked the plate! However, she made me a homemade pizza and spaghetti with meatballs. The lady knew how to cook and she loved to feed me. I was going to gain weight that year and I was happy to do so. Each meal was always soup, salad and main course with Frau Bingiesser. She was taken aback when she noticed that I did not need her help holding a knife and fork. She, incorrectly, assumed that this would be something she would have to teach me because, “American kids are spoiled and untrained in the ways of proper eating habits,” she was so fond of saying.

 

When I first got to the Bingiesser home we thought that I would have a week to relax before classes started but one morning, while fast asleep under a goose-down comforter, Frau Bingiesser burst into my bedroom and told me that I would have to get up immediately. “Chris, the Head Master just called and he wants you in school today, not next week!,” she said, out of breath. I was not ready for this! I couldn’t face a bunch of new classmates without preparing myself first! No, no, no! Still half asleep, I got up and went to the sink to clean myself up while Herr Bingiesser went outside to start the car and Frau Bingiesser watched me get dressed telling me to, “Hurry! This wasn’t supposed to happen today but the Head Master insisted!” I could still barely speak German at this time. Okay, so the three week language camp taught me a few things but not enough to start school by myself!! I realize, however, that I was in Germany for this reason. I was there to go to school, represent my country and jump into the ways of daily German life as a teenager. I finished getting dressed, grabbed my jacket and went to school. And I have only one thing to say before I go any further: School was nuts!

 

Okay, kids. I think this is a good stopping point for this latest blog. I didn’t realize how much I needed to write about this experience so it may take a few updates. Bare with me and I hope you’re enjoying. I have left out a lot, believe it or not.

Thanks for reading and God bless, lambs!

Email: cthomas70@live.com

Twitter: ChrisDThomas70

Dear God, it’s so cold! Part 1

Anyone who has suffered from a disease certainly questions”How?” I know I wanted to know how in the wide world of heck I got sarcoidosis. It’s not even one of the “glamourous” diseases, for goodness sake! You know those diseases that are so popular people all over the world send money to organizations named in the disease’s honor and celebrities make commercials for them. Of course, I won’t complain. I’m blessed to have a disease that has really only left me blind, not physically disabled in any other part of my body, although my doctor says it could happen. Still, who ever heard of sarcoidosis and how did I get it?

 

Over the years I have heard from different people with the disease a plethora of reasons they believe they acquired the disease. I have heard everything from inhaling cleaning products like oven cleaner and ammonia to tap water and pork being the culprits of getting sarcoidosis. It is true that some where down the blood line sarcoidosis showed up in a family member and I ended up with that unlucky gene, too. That’s not difficult to understand, really. We all have various mutant strains in our long and storied blood lines just like those who go bald or those who are born with red hair in a family of brunettes. Anything is possible. But how is that disease triggered? Is there something that caused me to get sarcoidosis instead of my sister or one of my brothers? Well, there could be something to that question.

 

It has been fantastic having a doctor in the family. My older brother, Dr. Rob Thomas, has been doing some research on auto-immune diseases recently and gained some very fascinating information from a leading researcher of what can trigger auto- immune diseases. For example, because my family’s ancestors hailed from West Africa and settled in the warm southern portion of the United States, perhaps coldweather could trigger a disease like sarcoidosis in an African-American like me. The auto-immune researcher thinks various illnesses are brought on by environmental factors that include cold weather, food and more. It is also believed that chemicals can also cause certain diseases.

 

Well, let me think now…hmmm. I can certainly see how I could have gotten sarcoidosis from a chemical reaction. When I was a kid I would run behind the mosquito truck that would spray the neighborhood, remember those? I would inhale the cloud of vapor that poured from the back of the truck each summer, laughing all the while and probably causing the future demise of my vision. All of us kids did it! I could hear my daddy yelling, “You knuckleheads quit running behind that truck before you get sick!” But then, what about the cold weather? It’s not as if Florida, my home state, didn’t get cold in winter time. I can remember extremely cold days in Tampa and in north Florida, where my family moved in 1979. Bristol was very cold and once or twice it even snowed. But could that be it? Afterall, I grew up with my siblings and, still, none of them have sarcoidosis. Hmmm…but then I was the only one who lived in Europe and the winter cold there was on a completely different level. Could living in Germany have triggered a slumbering disease in me that would make its debut only 12 years later? Dr. Rob said the researcher thinks it could very well be a good reason.

 

I was only 8 or 9 years old when my father moved the family to Bristol in 1979. The small country town was like nothing any of us had ever seen before in our young lives. My mother and father knew towns like Bristol, of course, but my siblings and I had only known Jacksonville and Tampa. We knew city life. It was all concrete and skyscrapers for us; sirens, city buses and alleyways behind homes. We were in complete and total culture shock when we moved to the country. Nonetheless, we were in love with Bristol. There was grass and clay dirt roads and the smell of cow and pig manure, horses in a beautiful meadow behind the house and even farm animals right next door! We could run free and not be worried about getting hit by cars or being accosted by winos on the street. It was pure heaven. Of course, that’s when I was a pre-teen. By the time I turned 13, Bristol mortified me and had already lost its luster. I was just itching to get out, even if it was a bus back to Tampa! Bristol was just too small and it seemed to me that noone was different. Everyone sounded the same or dressed the same. I felt different and being different was frowned upon, questioned. I was beginning to suffocate and it was really only reading, music and learning about fashion that kept me sane. Actually, my mother understood me more than anyone else and encouraged me to think outside of the box. She told me that it could only do me good one day.

 

My mother worked for the Liberty County Sheriff’s Department, the first African-American, male or female, to do so in the early 1980s. We were all very proud of her but I don’t think people really understand how unusual that was during that time in a small southern town. She shattered the glass ceiling for many women and she set an amazing example to my siblings and me because of it. Of course, because of her position with the Sheriff’s office, we were able to meet a cornucopia of criminals that read like a who’s who of florida’s most interesting inmates.

“Have your brother, Eddie, bring you up here for some fresh-baked cookies,” my mother would say to us. The fresh-baked cookies would be presented to us by Vivian, a lady who stabbed her husband 37 times for pouring a beer on her during Sunday dinner. Thanks, Vivian! These cookies are delicious!

Or the gentle pedophile who would say to us, “I thought I knew ya’ll! Robert, you played the saxaphone in band and, Chris, played the trombone. Ya’ll are so talented.”

“Go fix the boys some sweet tea, would you, Mack?,” mymother would say to the man who had been alleged to have molested kids all over town.

It was quite an interesting time.

My mother would sometimes work the graveyard shift so I would try to wait for her just so I could see her when she would get home after midnight. While everyone else slept I would watch Johnny Carson and then watch the David Letterman show that followed. There were only 4 channels back then, including PBS, so that was really all I could watch during late night. Every once in a while a commercial would come across the television screen that showed 4 or 5 kids running around Sweden or Holland, smiling and pointing, eating outside at a café and just having the time of their lives. What was going on, I would think to myself? Who are they are how do they get to go to Europe? Why can’t that be me? If I didn’t get out of Bristol soon I was going to run away! I would make my way to Interstate 10, thumb a ride from a trucker and find myself in Los Angeles and Olivia Newton-John would finally fine me and invite me to live with her. It was going to happen! But going to Europe might be a smarter decision, only I would have to find a way to get there. The shiny television commercial only displayed the name of the organization but no phone number. Who in the world would I talk to in Bristol to help me get to Europe? I didn’t think any of my teachers could help, really. I didn’t want to bother my mother or daddy. They had 5 kids and wasn’t that enough for them to deal with already? I’m not sure how I decided who I would ask but one morning I would awake to get ready for school, catch the bus and make my way into the front office of Liberty County High School. It was the fall semester of 1985, my sophomore year. I was 15 years old and made an appointment with the school secretary to speak with the principal.

It was not too much longer in the school day when I was called to the front office and the headmaster of the school called me into his office. He offered me a seat and asked, “What can I do for you?”

I simply said to him, “I want to be an exchange student. How do I go about doing that?”

I wasn’t sure what kind of answer he would give me or if he could help me at all but he shocked me. He pulled open the drawer of his office desk and said to me, “Well, Mr. Thomas, I think I might be able to help you. There was a lady who visited the school a while back to see if there were any students who would be interested in becoming an exchange student.”

Say whaaaat? I was stunned as Mr. Anderson pulled from his desk a handful of business cards held together by a rubber band. My heart began to beat loudly and faster as thumbed through the pile.

“I should have her business card somewhere in here,” Mr. Anderson said.

And then he stopped looking as he held a card in his hand from a woman by the name of Donna Carter from the Educational foundation for Foreign Study/EF.

Mr. Anderson called Mrs. Carter, who lived in Tallahassee, told her about me and 10 months later, right after my 16th birthday, I was on my way to Europe.

This sounds like a good stopping point. I will be updating the blog again in the next day or two so watch out for the rest of the story, if you’d like.

Email me at cthomas70@live.com or tweet me: ChrisDThomas70.

I will see you soon and God bless, kids.

Summer 2015-Life

Yes, I know that it has been a while since you have heard from me but sometimes life just gets in the way. This trial through me and my brothers for a loop and we are still scratching our heads over this one. But we haven’t forgotten that there is something we can do to get through this: We pray, keep walking in faith and allow the Lord to continue strengthening each one of us in His word. Also, talking to friends about it has been a big help. Tina, Sonja, Kimberly, Yuki, Pamela, Charlotte and Anna have all been there for me, lending an ear when I just need to talk…Christopher’s angels, I call them. Okay, so most of the time I just talk to my brothers, Dr. Rob, E.T. and Bernard, but God gave us friends for a reason.

In July of 2014 I completed my Bachelor degree program and immediately took a break. I was thrilled to have gotten through the communications program with honors but I was exhausted. If you are going to school full time and have a family and work, too, kudos to you! I had nothing else to do except finish school and by the end of those two years I believe I was on the verge of a mini breakdown. It was really tough! I would call my friend, Charlotte, throughout the program just to pray me through a particularly difficult assignment because I was many times just overwhelmed.

That next year, June of 2015 I began an online summer internship with a public relations and marketing agency out of Nashville, Tennessee. There were 3 projects we were going to be working on for the summer but two of the projects took up most of our time and I, in fact, actually did learn a lot those three full months of the internship.
One of the clients of the agency was a yung lady who realized, to her horror, that the world offered very little to uplift young girls and teenss in a positive or spiritual way. Reading the Psalms she came across a verse that says that we are all …fearfully and wonderfully made” by God. She wrote a song calledFearfully and Wonderfully Made or FAWM and even decided to start a clothing line called God’s Princess Clothing or GPC. A clothing line that conveys the message that young girls and teens belong, not to man, but a God who will respect them, love them in every way.
Dawn, the agency manager, impressed with my writing skills, gave me the task of writing press releases on the clients behalf for everything from local events in and around Nashville to sending press releases to Nashville’s television and radio stations.

We also worked with a company called DM that monitored the Facebook traffic of celebrities of any and every type, athletes to politicians. Even popular brand names like The Gap or Nike could be monitored by DM. If the celebrity or brand name got more than a million likes on their Facebook page they would be able to make money.
My manager, Dawn, allowed me to pick a list of well-known names that I would like to tell about the client, DM, and I did. I gave Dawn a long list of names. Serena Williams and Dr. Ben Carson to Miranda Lambert and Jordan Spieth. I had to call all of the publicists of the celebrity names and try to talk them into going with DM. Most were uninterested because their celebrity clients were already making money from having their Facebook pages monitored but some of them did bite. I was able to be in on conference calls with Miranda Lambert and her people. It was exciting and informative.
Dawn was a total workaholic and taught me a lot during the internship. By the time the internship was ending, Dawn had added some rapper fellow by the name of Movado and the Black Broadcasters Association to the agency’s roster of clients. I was excited to be able to work for the BBA but time did not allow. My world was about to flip upside down and although I am always blessed with strength and faith, I was about to be kicked in the gut with a reality so harsh it was going to cause me physical harm if I did not confront it, talk about it and deal with it in a way that allowed me some time to grieve.

When one relys on prayer and faith to get them through one can forget that God is so magnificent that He can offer help to us in a variety of ways.

July 17th or 18th Ms. Adeline came for her weekly visit but it fell on a Thursday instead of her normal Wednesday visits. We had fun, as usual, and ate our lunch together while laughing and listening to music. She, of course, never failed to talk to me about the Lord and how good He has been to me. She told me how much joy she could see on my face and how my energy and disposition was awesome to her. She told me that she could remember how low energy I used to be when I first moved into this apartment. She even told me of a time that one morning she came to visit me when she was so afraid that something may have happened to me because she rang the doorbell on one of her visits but I never came to the door. She said she called my name and even banged on the door. Still, I never answered. She had to run downstairs and tell management that something was wrong because I had not come to the door. In a panic they all came running up to my apartment, unsure of what was wrong. Who could blame them, really. Death visits this apartment complex quite often. I have been in this apartment since 2009 and have already lost five neighbors and that’s just on the second floor.
When they let themselves into my apartment I was lying on my bed, fine, just sleeping so hard I could hear nothing or noone. During that time I was not sleeping very well at all. There were days when I just did not sleep. Of course, whenever mother would come to visit I’d finally fall asleep.
Ms. Adeline was so frightened that morning I think I may have aged her a few years.
Startled awake by my mother and two other people didn’t make me happy and I remember yelling at each of them. Mother didn’t understand and asked, “Chris, what’s wrong, son? You scared your mother. Is there something wrong, Chris? Are you okay?”
I couldn’t see her face but the panic and pain in her voice let me know that not only had I caused my mother pure stress, I had been mean to her, too, and I would never allow that to happen to her again.
She told me that I am totally different now. She says I seem happier and now when she comes for her weekly visit I answer the door with a smile and that’s all she really needs to see, her son with a smile on his face.

The middle part of July my mom came to visit me for the last time, at least as of now. When she left that Thursday I walked her down to the first fllor and waited with her for the transit van to pick her up. We made plans for the next week but, as of today, I haven’t had a visit from my mother. Even the phone calls that she and I would make to one another two or three times a day have now stopped. My mother is not well but in good spirits and is well-loved by all of her family.

What happens when one of your best friends just goes away? My mother still lives and breathes but I don’t get to talk to her anymore nor do I get to see her. It was my friends who explained to me that I had a real and tangible relationship with my mom, that instead of trying to be the perpetual cheerleader, grieve the loss.
Well, that’s what I have attempted to do by writing this latest blog. Writing and thinking about Ms. Adeline has really helped. I think about all the fun times we have been able to spend with one another. I think of how hilarious my mother could be whenever she thought I was sad. Mostly, I think about how truly, madly, deeply mother loved me, all of her children. And as I continue to work through these strange melange of emotions, my mother’s love is what I’ll remember most of all.

At the end of summer I was able to visit my mother for a little while and although it made me happy, the visit was bittersweet. My little brother, Bernard, came down from Tennessee with his wife, Danielle, and beautiful and spirited little girl, Skylar. They asked me to come along with them on their yearly vacation to the beach, this time in central Florida, Tampa. We stayed in a condo on Indian Rocks Beach and I desperately needed those lovely seven days on the ocean. I, like the rest of my family, except for Bernard, was born in Jacksonville but consider Tampa my hometown. I guess I can consider Bristol my hometown, as well.
While in Tampa I was able to get a visit from my friend, Tina. She took me to lunch and it was unbelievable that we had not seen one another since the early nineties. Bernard said she looked amazing and as sophisticated as Tina is she remains young-looking after all these years.
I’m not certain where I would like to end up one day but I have a feeling that Tampa will suit me just fine. Not only is Tina there but so are other friends and best of all, my Aunti Connie and Uncle Tony call Tampa home, too.
Just sitting on the balcony of the condo listening to the waves crash, feeling the warmth of the sun lifted my spirits and cleared my mind. It’s also just a great place to thank the Lord for life.

In the meantime, I am on the job search. So far, the two offers I have received have sounded right up my alley but both require that I own a personal vehicle to get myself around Tallahassee each day. Since that’s not possible these days, the job hunt continues. I will probably begin to volunteer my time for a local organization. At least it will get me out and about and allow me to continue gaining knowledge of public relations. It is exactly what Ms. Adeline would advise me to do.

Fall semester TCC pt. 2

Attending TCC immediately turned out to be fun and a much easier adventure than I had first thought. That first week of school was nerve-wracking but I managed to muster up as much confidence as I could and used the skills Mrs. Evelyn had taught me, tapping and sliding my white cane everywhere I needed to go with very few problems. I was blessed, I knew it and Ms. Adeline made sure I did not forget it.

However, as confident as my skills were getting around TCCs campus, I was still able to call up campus security to take me to different buildings or anywhere I needed to go. But, also, there were kids on campus who became fiercely loyal to my needs and there was nothing I could do about that at all.

One morning while making my way into the English department for my African-American literature class a young lady jumped up from the floor and suddenly grabbed me as I walked by. “Hi! I’m Jessica,” she said in her sweet southern drawl.

“I love helping people. I’m going to be a nurse. Would you like for me to walk you to your class? Where are you going?”

I had no time to answer her because I just couldn’t get a word in but I was able to finally say to her that my class was around the corner and that I new where I was going.

“You don’t have to help me,” I let her know but she was unmoved.

She walked me to my class and said to me, “If you ever need anything just let me know. I will do whatever you need.”

As the weeks zoomed by I got to know Jessica a little bit more. I learned that she was a nursing student who had a “beautiful little girl” who she loves immensely and lives with her boyfriend in a trailer next to her grandparents’ trailer.

I really only saw Jessica in the morning on my way to lit. class so I found her charming, sweet and harmless. One day I told her that a few days before, while walking to my Community Health class on the second floor of the science building, I almost tripped over a student who was sitting on the floor with their legs right in my pathway.

Jessica said to me, “Here, take my phone number. I want you to call me when you get ready to go to that class and I will walk with you.”

So, I did call her and Jessica did walk me to class that day. But she also screamed at six students who were sitting on the floor as we walked by.

“If any one of you see him coming by I want you to get up and get out of his way so he doesn’t fall! He almost tripped over one of you the other day and that’s not right!” she told the surely stunned kids.

“If he tells me anything about falling or tripping over anybody on this floor, I’m coming back and I’m gonna get you! Do ya’ll hear me? Come on, Chris. You’re gonna be fine from now on,” she said.

She was right, too. I never tripped over another pair of legs for the rest of the semester.

Jessica asked me to give her a call so she could introduce me to her little girl and perhaps she could take us both to the lake up the street. I would have obliged Jessica but one day as I waited for the bus Jessica asked me if she could take me home. I had a feeling that I would be waiting for a long time for the bus and I was so ready to get home so I agreed to let Jessica take me home. On the way, however, Jessica mentioned to me, “I’m so tired today. I had to get up this morning much earlier than normal. I was almost late getting my little girl to daycare and I didn’t get to go in for methodone. I go in each day before coming to TCC. I had a bad drug problem a few years ago but I’m better now,” she told me matter-of-factly.

Needless to say, I never went out with Jessica and her little girl for a picnic by the lake and disregarded any phone calls I received from her once the semester was over. Even though she was kind and getting help for herself, I really was in no position to nurture a new friendship with Jessica. I could see red flags popping up with each word that slid from her mouth from then on. Nope.

But there were others, too. I became pals with a guy named Tyler who turned out to be one of those half-naked greeters who stand at the front door of Ambercrombie and Fitch stores in the mall. He was cool but mostly he wanted to give me a play-by-play of what each girl looked like who walked by us as we waited for our class to begin. Also, I could barely understand anything he said. All he did was mumble but he, too, wanted to make sure I got to any place I needed to go. Seriously, no kidding. My niece, Temperance, saw him when I took her to class one day and immediately fell in love. I also met a girl named Bernice who yelled at everyone on the first day in African-American lit. class because noone escorted me into the classroom as I waited patiently at the door for everyone to go in before me. She just up and told me one day that her husband was cheating on her and she let him know in no uncertain terms, “I will stab you good if I find out you’ve cheated on me with one more ‘ho!’ I’ll stab and twist and I’m not kidding around.” Believe it or not, Bernice and I had never talked about her marriage before so to hear this from her was shocking and a little scarey. But she was sweet, too, and very attentive to my needs. Still, I could see more red flags.

Bernice had gotten on to everyone so bad that first day that every single day after that not only did the young men and women make sure I was escorted into the classroom first but they would line up outside the classroom door to see who would walk me to my next class! It was truly unbelievable!

I met a young man who wanted to become a minister. He told me that one summer, while visiting relatives in Alabama, he was walking home and a “truck-load of white boys chased him into the woods while they swung bats and crowbars at me.” As we walked, he told me that he is learning to forgive those kinds of people because of his faith and that becoming a minister to him means “letting go of any kind of hate but letting go of any kind of fear, too.” I don’t remember his name but I wish I did. I met another young man who was studying to become a firefighter and medic so he could “move to Colorado and ski but help people, too.” I met a young lady who was in the Coast Guard, the only white person in the African-American lit. class. She came to class very little but I was able to chat her up a few times before class started in the mornings. She wanted to take me to dinner and a drink but it never happened. I found out that she drank a lot and that was one of the reasons she rarely showed up to class. When she did show up she was not very well, apparently. I thought she sounded just fine.

One day while making my way to board the bus a young man grabbed my hand and walked me just the few more steps I had to the bus door. I told him thanks and asked him his name. “My name is Malik,” he said. All of a sudden I could hear a lady say, “Pull up your pants, boy! How are you trying to walk him to the bus when your pants are about to fall down? You are gonna make him fall and you, too!”

I could then hear the lady say, “That’s real sweet of him, though, ya’ll.”

I also met a little fellow named Robert. He, too, was visually-impaired. He was very young but ambitious and a gifted writer. He didn’t get to finish out that first year at TCC but has gone on to much greater things. He now lives in Chicago and has become a premier advocate for the rights of those blind or visually-impaired. He’s taken on the big dogs, including Netflix and many more. I expect incredible things from him in the future.

Like so many of us, I had certain preconceived notions of how young kids act these days and the image wasn’t very flattering. However, although I heard about kids fighting on campus and even a gun being found in the student parking lot, I was treated with respect and kindness and I could not be more grateful or pleased with my time at TCC.”

I know that I have one of those faces that attracts people to me but I also know that from the many stories that I heard, I am just one of those people who happens to be a good listener, too.

Believe it or not, I could go on regaling you with the many stories of that first semester at TCC but I must digress.

Now, I have to say this to all of us who would sigh and roll our eyes when were young college students and happened to have a class with a student who was clearly much older than the rest of us. Remember them? Well, I was one of those adults in a classroom full of 19 year olds and no matter how I tried, I just could not shut-up! I had an opinion for everything and even I was ready to roll my eyes at me. I want to apologize to all of those older women and men who were just being themselves because I know what that feels like now.

I did not return to TCC in the spring semester of 2012. My disabilities counselor, Stephanie, allowed me to finish up with those last three courses online. I received my AA in June and didn’t have to take one algebra course to do it! And, oh yes, I had to be blind, too. What do you know? In just a few more months I would start work on pertaining my public relations degree but I can tell you all about that another time.

Thanks for reading, lambs. Hope you like this latest post. I had a lot to say in this one.

I will have more soon. I am interning now with a Public Relations agency and they keep me pretty busy these days.

If you’d like to know anything, drop me a line: cthomas70@live.com.

You can tweet me: @ChrisDThomas70

Fall semester TCC

Throughout 2009-10 life had settled for me and living alone had become rather comfortable. I loved my apartment and felt confident being on my own for the first time in my life. I was exactly what I had trained to be the last year or so, an independent person who is blind. But I felt as if there was something missing. I wasn’t really doing anything to make my next move and I was not very certain what I could do.

Thankfully, friends like Deedra, Brenda and Jonathan and John, of course, were at my beck and call and came to my rescue whenever I needed anything that I could not get for myself. Deedra took me for pedicures and Brenda would take me back to Bristol whenever I needed to visit my mother. Jonathan and John made sure I got to the grocery store each week and they would also check on me during the week whenever they were on their way home from work.

To kick things up a notch I would call my neighbor, Sharika, who lives on the 3rd floor, to take a stroll down Tennessee street for a quick run to Burger King. She was always gung-ho for a free whopper so we would go out for fun. Sharika’s neighbor, Mackenzie, also blind, would come along, too, with his guide dog, Dieter. There we were, Sharika and I holding on to one another for dear life, as we took a walk down one of Tallahassee’s busiest streets for fast food, Dieter and Mackenzie right behind us. Passersby honked their horns and we laughed out loud as we wondered what our instructors at the Lighthouse would think of us walking down Tennessee street. It was thrilling and fun and terrifying at the same time for each one of us but it is just what I needed at the time. All was well on my own but I needed something more than walking down the street.

Naturally, we were asked not to do that again because it can be a bit dangerous. It is,, afterall, Florida State University and Tallahassee is notorious for pedestrian and vehicle accidents. So, after four or five times, Sharika, Mackenzie and I never walked to Burger King again. My dad loves hearing about this story. He just has this image of the three of us, little blind mice, huddled together with a guide dog and two white canes, on our way for whoppers and fries.

The Lighthouse soon called, though, and I began doing some public speaking on their behalf. I was asked to apply for a position on the Lighthouse Board of Directors and then was asked to speak at the Lighthouse’s yearly fundraiser called Dining in the Dark. I was happy to be doing something other than sitting around my apartment but there was still something I wanted and needed to do. I just didn’t know what that was.

One day I got a phone call from Sharika who asked me if I wanted to go with her to get pedicures at some salon and spa on Pensacola street. It had been a while since I’d been pampered so I agreed and called a cab. When we got to the salon, however, the place was packed and the wait was going to be longer than either of us wanted to wait. Someone told us that there was a nail salon in the same plaza but it was around the corner past Gold’s gym. Sharika and I made our way around the corner but once we were near the gym someone stopped us from walking into an obstruction on the sidewalk. We realized that we had to walk through the busy parking lot to get the nail salon, a dangerous proposal, but we had no choice so that is what we did. It was weird sliding and tapping our white canes through the maze of cars and bicycle racks but before we could get too far 3 muscle-bound gym rats came to our rescue and escorted Sharika and me to the nail salon in back of the shopping plaza.

As the Vietnamese girl massaged my legs and feet she made small talk and asked me if I was a student at FSU. I smiled and told her that I was not but I couldn’t tell her I did anything because, well, I didn’t really do anything. And then I had an epiphany. I became a librarian because it was something my mother wanted me to do. I worked in radio because that was something I had always discussed doing with my father. I remember having this discussion with my therapist, Robin, already; I needed to do something that is chosen by me and only me…I need to go back to school and get a degree in a career of my choice!

Going back to school at the age of 40 was terrifying but I knew it would be good for me and it would also lead to total and complete independence. I would have to do this on my own.

I prepared myself for school by first making a trip to the disabilities office of Tallahassee community College. I had not gotten my AA when I attended University of West florida because of my irrational fear of algebra. I met with a counselor by the name of Stephanie. She was heaven-sent because the meeting didn’t last long and although I had left University of West florida twenty years ago, Stephanie told me that I would be able to get my AA in two semesters. Instead of algebra, Stephanie gave me three science classes of my choice and two electives of my choice. Algebra was hard enough for me when I had vision and Stephanie decided that taking the courses blind would do me no good at all.

I would begin classes in the fall of 2011 so I called the Lighthouse and asked Mrs. Evelyn for a lesson on how to get to my classes on TCCs campus. It had grown much larger since the late nineties and I was going to need some help learning how to get to my classes before the semester began.

Mrs. Evelyn, always at the top of her game as an orientation and mobility instructor, had already mapped out where my prospective classes would be on campus. When I met her one warm day to train on getting around TCC, I had very little to learn, really. Each class could be found easily by following L-shapes and patterns. I had to use the elevator for one of the classes but even that was a very simple task for me. After a good workout, because that’s what it was, Mrs. Evelyn finished with me and escorted me to the same spot where Dial-a-Ride would drop me off and pick me up when the school term began. TCCs police department would also escort me anywhere on campus whenever I desired. Seriously, what more could I ask for from a school? They went far and beyond to make things easy for me and I could not have been more excited to return to higher education.

Finally, the day did come and let me tell you, I was so ready. Yes, I was older now and unsure how I would be treated by my very young fellow classmates but I had nothing to worry about. Before my first week was over, I had already met a plethora of characters who seemed somewhat like a dizzying group of circus folk. All of them strangely attracted to me and willing to fight for me although I was confident enough to take care of myself. That first week, as the hours crept slowly by, I met young kids who gave me some pause but were just kind human beings. All I could hear in my head was my best friend, Patrick, saying to me, “Wow, Chris. You sure can pick ‘em.”

I will introduce you to some of those characters in my next blog entry. Thanks for reading, kids!

Spinning

In almost exactly one month to the day that I began my journey to independence as a blind person, I had moved into my own apartment in Tallahassee. The Mary Tyler Moore show theme song played over and over in my head and I would pray to give God thanks everyday but, seriously, what was I to do next? Independence meant many things and moving out of my mother’s home to live on my own was just one of them. Now what?
Jonathan, always the attentive friend, would take me along with him every Friday afternoon so he could help me do my grocery shopping. I would also see him on Saturdays so I could do my laundry at his home and just not remain alone all of the time.
Most of the time I just sat in my apartment with not much to do except listen to music or television. I didn’t feel very independent at all.
I was thrilled when the Lighthouse called for me to speak at some of their events. It was nice to feel as if I were actually doing something worthwhile. However, most of the time I still just sat in my apartment and did very little.
Sometimes I would go to the grocery store alone just because. Every once in a while I would take a cab to get a pedicure with one of my neighbors. Sometimes I would call my two blind neighbors, Sharika and Mackenzie, to take a stroll down Tennessee street for a Whopper at the Burger King. There we were, three blind mice, one with a guide dog and two of us with canes. My dad thinks that’s just one of the funniest sights ever and I guess it is but it was quite thrilling, frightening and exciting. We did it a few times before someone asked us to stop before something nuts happened.
I was even asked to apply to sit on the Lighthouse board of Directors. I did and began attending meetings but even that gave me little happiness.
I began to feel unhappy and useless. All of the work I had completed to get to this point seemed pointless. It was time for me to talk to a professional.
Jeanine, one of my instructors at the Lighthouse, let me know that it wasn’t unusual to feel this way and explained to me that Division of Blind Services would provide me a therapist, free of charge. Seriously, this blind thing has its perks!

I was soon visiting a soft-spoken young lady by the name of Robin who would change my thinking and set me on yet another path forward. I didn’t see her for very long, though. There is only so much I need to divulge to anyone when prayer is an option. But Robin gave me skills to use whenever I felt like the very ground I walked, once I stepped outside my apartment door, was like walking on thin ice. The big dark city can be frightening to a person who is recently blind and all alone for the first time. Robin’s brand of therapy worked wonders for me and my life would soon take another dramatic turn.

First things fir, though. I had to lose weight. I know that my eating had gotten a bit out of hand since moving back to Florida. I had a healthy appetite but couldn’t see at all how my appetite had transformed my body. At a doctor appointment I could hear a nurse ask my mother, “What happened to your son who worked at the radio station? He was the really skinny one.” She had no idea that I was sitting right next to her.
Another doctor visit, while getting weighed, I heard a nurse tell my brother, E.T., that I was 199 lbs. Without missing a beat, I screamed, “Liar!” E.T. laughed and I realized I was in big trouble.
It’s extremely difficult to live with Ms. Adeline and not gain weight. She is thin and cute and so was I until I moved home. Some mornings I would awaken to bags of goodies on my chest. It wasn’t unusual to find king size Snickers bars in my bed. My mother would surprise me with ice cream bars in the freezer or those gigantic 4 litre bottles of soda pop from the Piggly Wiggly. She and I would make pit stops to Burger King for Whoppers or Lindys for hot wings. Honey buns and almond joy mini candies would show up on top of my dresser. For my mother, those kinds of treats would bring me joy. I admit, many of her goodies did bring me joy but they also brought my weight to a level I had never experienced and.
It also didn’t help that I lived with big brother, E.T. He is also a lover of food and we both appreciate a great meal. I, however, was eating for more than sustenance. I was eating to take away the pain I was in.
After therapy I knew it was up to me to make the correct changes. I still cooked great meals and treated myself with a goodie or two but now I ate much less. I exercised and cut out any soda pop. Before 2010 rolled around I had lost a little over forty lbs and I felt great. No longer did I have to spend days in sweats and large tshirts. No longer did it take me ten minutes to tie my shoes because bending over took my breath away so easily. No longer was I unrecognizable to those who knew me before the weight gain. Want to know something interesting about people? Although I had always been fairly thin, when I lost weight it seemed to upset a lot of people. Seriously, people were not happy to see me lose that awful weight! It didn’t seem to matter to them that I was unhealthy and felt horrible, fatigued and constantly out of breath, it didn’t matter. The barrage of of unkind remarks got to me a little but it was my very thin and wise mother who told me this and I will never forget it, “Only big people make complaints about someone being too thin. When thin people complain that you’re too thin then you should worry. Otherwise, don’t give it a second thought.”
Once I had gotten myself back to a healthier state it was time to make a return to work. I thought I could probably make a return to radio but I wasn’t sure how I would handle working as a librarian again now that I was totally blind. And then, one day while in therapy with Robin, I had an epiphany.. I worked in broadcasting because that’s what my dad and I used to talk about when I was a kid. I worked in a library because that’s what I had always talked about with my mother. It was time for me to forge my own path and choose a career that I wanted for myself and noone else. I would return to higher education and study public relations!
But wait! I am forty years old and blind and still haven’t gotten my AA because of a debilitating fear of algebra. How in the world would I manage to pass a math class now that I can’t see?
I didn’t know what would happen but, as usual, nothing works like prayer and in the fall of 2011 I was back in school, an AA only five courses away and algebra had nothing to do with any of it.

This is a great place to stop this month. I will have more for you in April, faithful readers!
Hit me up: cthomas70@live.com or tweet me, too, if you’d like @ChrisDThomas70
So long!

You’re going to make it afterall

Classes at the Lighthouse were moving steadily along and my self-confidence was getting a boost each week. Mrs. Evelyn taught me to get around certain landmarks in Bristol and she began working me in Tallahassee. I learned to get around certain sections of Governor Square mall and other places, too.
Elizabeth continued teaching me about all the various forms of technology for the blind. There are readers for identifying money and little digital devices that can read books and files. The National Library Service has a program that allows the blind or visually-impaired free access to books and magazines, all in audio format. It’s wonderful!
Jeanine’s independent living class could really go on forever with so many different things one can learn but it also had an end.

After all of the superb Lighthouse education I was ready to live on my own but that certainly wasn’t one of my goals as of yet. I was still trying to figure out how I was going to get a job in Bristol or find work somewhere in Tallahassee by continuing to use the Liberty transit. I couldn’t afford an apartment, I figured, while receiving Social Security Disability so I had resigned myself to continuing life in Bristol as a blind person. I had prayers and asked God for guidance but the last thing I ever really imagined was that I would be soon living on my own in Tallahassee.

Ms. Eva wasn’t one of my instructors at the Lighthouse but she continued to be a person I could talk to and she, once again, changed the plans I had made for myself. Her advice would take me to another level and I would soon be preparing for a move.

I had imagined what life would be like for me as a blind person but I had never imagined living alone. I thought I would have to have a job and furniture and it just wasn’t going to happen. In fact, I had never heard of Section 8 housing unless it was a place for young women who had children and were trying to get on their feet from the welfare system. I had no idea that I could be on Section 8 housing. As a matter of fact, the name left a bitter taste in my mouth. Sure, I wasn’t making much money except disability insurance now but I’m not even close to being someone on welfare!
Before classes ended at the Lighthouse, Ms. Eva sat me down and told me that I did not have to live in Bristol. It was as if she already knew what I was thinking but she also understood my fears and concern. I couldn’t say that I wasn’t ready for a move because I had been taking courses for the past year that taught me just how to do that, live life independently as a blind person. But where would I live? Would it be a seedy part of town? Could I afford it? Would it be clean? Would it be safe? I had all kinds of questions and Ms. Eva just started the application process anyway.

In the meantime, I was dealing with something called Charles Bonnet Syndrome. After losing my vision my brain began to put out these visual hallucinations that seemed to be trying to make up for my vision loss. If I gazed toward any television I would “see” these hallucinations that looked like the credits at the end of a movie. While sitting in a car my brain would put out these images that resembled homes and cars parked in a driveway with privacy hedges in front of the house. And these images didn’t stop for the entire car ride, house after house would pass by. Sometimes I would hallucinate open books and country roads and what looked like parks. When I would go to sleep at night I would lie down and get images of cars on a highway and hallucinations of magazine covers. Every once in a while I would see myself walking in slow motion in some kind of amusement park, a smile on my face as I mouthed words to noone in particular. It was sometimes too much and caused me great distress. I would get dizzy as these images would zoon by, up and down, around and around, whizzing by in high speed. It was strange!
Dr. Maitland told me it was called Charles Bonnet Syndrom, some Frenchman, and it was much like phantom limb. People who lose a leg or arm may sometimes get the sensation that their missing limb is still there when, in fact, it is gone. The brain is quite a mystery and even though I don’t get the hallucinations as much as I used to, they are still there every once in a wile but I have learned to handle them without freaking out.
Fortunately, I think because I have a pretty chill disposition I never had frightening hallucinations. I was told that some blind people can have hallucinations that cause mental harm. I heard that one lady would hallucinate starving children at her bedroom window. A friend of mine had to be put into a behavioral unit at the hospital because she kept hallucinating bugs crawling all over her bedroom and bathroom. Her family had the entire house exterminated yet she still hallucinated crawling bugs.

One day Ms. Eva called me into her office and asked me to sign about ten sheets of paper so she could turn in my application to an independent living facility called Casa Calderon. It is located in the heart of the city, surrounded by Florida State University student housing and buildings. Ms. Eva promised me that it was safe and that my family would approve. My big brother, Dr. Rob, checked it out for me during a trip from Houston and I had my friend, Wilma, check it out, too. They both agreed that the complex was safe, right off of Tennessee street and was, indeed, surrounded by Florida State.
Leaving my mother would not be easy but I had been praying for some kind of transition even though I had no idea what it would be. However, moving out of my mother’s home and living on my own seemed to be what I was meant to do and was what I needed to do, as well.
After some coaxing I was able to convince Ms. Adeline that all would be okay with the move. She had some reservations, of course, but she trusted my abilities and she trusted Ms. Eva, too. Plus, I let her know that Patrick’s mom, Ms. Marsha, said that my apartment might be a great little place for her to visit when she just wanted to get away from Bristol for a little while. That made Ms. Adeline smile because she knew it was true.
Jeanine had even planned a little outing for my classmates and me so we could all visit Casa Calderon and get a feeling as to what it was like. We walked around the building and were given a tour of the apartment. Jeanine also thought the complex was a great place to move and in March of 2009 I would move out of my mother’s home to live on my own. The independent living facility was also considered Section 8 and my Social Security Disability income amount would be more than enough for me to live as rent is income contingent.

After a year of training from the Lighthouse I was going to realize life as an independent blind person. Big brother, E.T., was out of town so it was Jonathan and John who moved all of my belongings into my apartment. I would move later with the help of Mrs. Marsha and Mr. Ronnie, Patrick’s parents. Having them move me into the apartment was quite a coup because if anyone is going to make sure the apartment is up to standard, it’s Mrs. Marsha. She checked out each room, closet and pantry to make sure all was ready for the move-in. I had no furniture yet and Patrick’s parents didn’t want to leave me alone but I told them I would be fine and I was.
My bed was delivered the next day and I went online to look for furniture and found a young Florida State opera student from Long Island, NY who told me that I could have her furniture for free after I gave her a quick story about myself and my situation.

So, there I sat in my new apartment, alone and a little overwhelmed. I was happy to be on my own but unsure of what I was going to do next. Could I really do this on my own? Was I crazy for leaving my family and the comforts of my mother’s home? And then I saw that famous image of Mary Tyler Moore tossing her hat into the air, on her own for the first time, and I thought to myself, too, I’m going to make it, afterall.

I will stop here with this latest entry. I hope it gives you some idea what transpired even though this entry is a bit disjointed this month.
Let me know how you feel, please, and I will see you in a few weeks with more.
My email: cthomas70@live.com
Twitter: @ChrisDThomas70

The Lighthouse at the end of the tunnel

By January of 2008 I was totally and completely blind. Although I was on a waiting list to attend blind school, I did have much more to do. I had received a nice chunk of change from the library and taxes but my brother, E.T., had to tell me about Social Security disability. I had no idea what that was but I began working on that so I would, at least, be able to live with some kind of cash coming in. I wasn’t sure when I would get back to work, if at all.
I went through a pretty simple process to get disability but people were telling me that I would never get it, that I would have to be almost completely broken down before the government would pay me anything. Luckily, that wasn’t the case and I began receiving social security disability by the time I went completely blind. It was quite a blessing. It wasn’t an amount even close to what I had been making as a librarian but it certainly helped and it still does help.

I got a phone call from my former co-worker, Pamela, at the local library in Bristol one day and that phone call set me on a path that has brought me to this very point.
Pamela noticed a lady in the library working with a blind gentleman. Knowing my situation, Pamela called me and asked if I would like to, perhaps, work on Braille with the lady until I was sent off to Daytona for blind school. I realized that it couldn’t hurt and I was itching to do something so I got the lady’s phone number. I didn’t know what the organization was but I called the Lighthouse, then called F.I.R.E.(Florida Institute of Rehabilitative Education.) I can’t remember the gentleman’s name who came out to visit me one very cold morning in January and within weeks of his visit I met the lady from the library.
Ms. Eva was a gentle lady who immediately turned my fears and confusion into strength and understanding. She brought me a white walking cane and a talking alarm clock and watch. Before the end of her visit I was able to move around my mother’s home without apprehension. I could pour myself a glass of milk or tea without spilling and my plans to move to Daytona Beach changed. Ms. Eva asked me many questions about my plans but seemed bewildered why I kept mentioning Daytona when she was sitting right there in front of me from an organization that could also teach me how to live life independently as a blind person.
As she explained this to me, I realized, with much glee, that not only would I not have to leave my family and go to a place where I would have to lock up everything I owned every day but I wouldn’t have to leave my home at all if that’s what I desired. Also, my brother, Dr. Rob, would not have to fly in from Houston to get me to Daytona. He was none too pleased that I would have to board a bus on my own so he had made plans to take me himself. The Lighthouse could teach me everything I needed to know and would visit me at home to do it!

After Ms. Eva’s visit my training started immediately. I think the first person I met was Mrs. Evelyn. She brought me another white cane and taught me how to use it. I would be able to walk off the front porch without feeling as if I were stepping off the edge of the earth! Ms. Evelyn, soft-spoken but very sure of herself and her abilities had me walking all over town. It was thrilling!
I would soon meet a young lady who would get me back online, able to use my computer again with the help of a screenreader called JAWS. Her name was Elizabeth and she, like me, was blind. She and her driver showed up one day and blew my mother and me away instantly. She was confident and very intelligent and took my computer apart, on her hands and knees, and fixed whatever issues it had. She was quite impressive and all my mother could say was, “Chris, I want you to be like her. It’s as if she’s not really even blind!” Being able to get back online to communicate with friends around the globe was an amazing feeling. My return to independence had already begun.

The Lighthouse had much more to offer me but I could get even more education if I were to visit the organization in Tallahassee. So, that’s what I did. Thanks to the good folks at the Liberty County transit I was able to visit the Lighthouse as much as I wanted and I did not have to pay a dime. It truly is a wonderful service and the transit and its drivers and staff are part of the reason I am where I am today. They were my confidants and my protectors, too. I always felt safe and believe me, it’s a strange feeling riding in any vehicle once you have lost your vision. It can be nauseating and terrifying and dizzying all at once.

I had to call Johnnie Slaton to let her know that I would no longer be attending school in Daytona because of the Lighthouse. I asked her why she had not told me about the Lighthouse but she didn’t answer and I would later find out that some blind people are fiercely and almost militantly independent and places like the Lighthouse, they feel, aren’t, well, tough enough. However, the Lighthouse was tough enough for me and it is what I needed at the time.

I would begin taking a Braille course at the Lighthouse and an Independing living class, as well. Braille was strange but made a lot of sense and the independent living class became my favorite. I was able to learn everything that would help me live on my own as a blind person. I had never lived on my own before and had not planned on it, either. But the class was so much fun and my teacher, Jeanine, became a great friend but, also, quite a task-master. She was fun and extremely loving but she made my classmates and me work hard. She was also my Braille teacher so I would see her twice a week and Elizabeth once a week. Elizabeth told me that I was far ahead in my computer skills so I didn’t have to see her as much and she was able to answer any questions I had over the phone. So, I was visiting the Lighthouse 2 to 3 times a week and I loved it.

Jeanine taught us to cook meals each week and clean up after ourselves, too. If there were any marks left on dishes she’d make us rewash them. She would toss salt and cinnamon on the tables and have us clean it all up without spilling onto the floor. She taught us how to cut meat and eat from a plate without shoving food all over the table. We learned how to drink from glasses filled with liquid without knocking it over. There were mopping and sweeping lessons, gardening and plugging outlets lessons. The list was long and detailed but each one of the classes at the Lighthouse brought me much closer to independence. Everyone noticed a change and the vulnerable and confused and frightened me began to slip away. I was happy and going out and about with Ms. Adeline was no longer a complete terror. My new skills gave me much confidence. Let me tell you, Ms. Adeline is hilarious and extremely attentive but I can’t tell you how many tables, chairs or walls I walked into when I was with her. Sometimes she would take me to the park and have me walk to her but never tell me how many tree roots would impede my progress as I walked to her. I almost broke my neck ten times and I was just furious with her! Many times she would just leave me standing alone in the grocery store as she made her way outside to her car. The Piggly Wiggly cashiers would have to remind her that she had left me in the store! Do you know how liberating it felt to be able to get around with a cane and learn from the Lighthouse how to advocate for myself? By the fall of 2008 I would fly to NYC alone to meet up with Sonja and Patrick for a long weekend. It was a strange feeling but I did it. On the way back Delta sat me in an area not far from my departure gate but not in the right gate. I knew what time the flight back to Tallahassee was leaving and noone had come to retrieve me as they had promised. I could hear Jeanine in my ear from all those classes so I stood up, pulled out my cane and said, with some authority, “Excuse me. I am totally blind and I think it is time to board my flight to Tallahassee. Could someone please escort me to the correct departing gate?” A young lady came to me, I told her to allow me to hold on to her elbow and she walked me to the gate. The flight attendant said, “Mr. Thomas, the plane has already boarded. I’m glad we didn’t leave you!” Can you just imagine how freaked out my family and Patrick would have been had I not shown up in Tallahassee because I had missed my flight? The Lighthouse taught me well and I will never forget them.

I was still uncertain as to what I was going to do once I had completed my training at the Lighthouse. Would I get a job or would I continue to live with Ms. Adeline, allowing her to guide me around town just as I had seen with another blind man in Blountstown. This bright and capable gentleman who happened to be one of my listeners when I worked in radio was completely blind but he lived with his aging mother. I would see them around town every once in a while. He held on to his mother for dear life as she guided him around the grocery store or post office. He had no cane and I thought for sure that would be me one day. My mother, loving and devoted to me, is fun and funny and willing to give until it hurts but I just knew there was so much more I was meant to do and I prayed every day that I would find a way to be independent again, fully. I had no idea where I would go or what I would do but I knew there was much for me to do and I just had to visit Patrick in NYC, Sonja in Denver, Erica in Chicago, Auntie Connie and Tina in Tampa! I had places to go and people to see! I could not allow blindness to hinder me from doing what I knew I was meant to do. It wasn’t too long when I realized that I no longer had urges to bang my head against the wall or the concrete walkway in front of the house. It’s true. It was so unfathomable that I couldn’t see I would have these dangerous desires to slam my head against hard objects just to see if my sight would come back.
The Lighthouse and its staff had changed my world and it would be Ms. Eva who, once again, change my ideas of what I could do as a blind person.
Who knew?

This is a great place to stop today. Thanks for reading and I will have an update for you in February.
Tweet me: @ChrisDThomas70 or email me at: cthomas70@live.com