Dave Gregal's family coped with his blindness by not giving in to it. A strong Yugoslavian, Catholic family living in the mining country of Pennsylvania, they seldom discussed the handicap of their fifth child. No special allowances were made. Everyone had to pitch in -- everyone.
In retrospect, Gregal, now 40, says "That was the best thing that could have happened to me."
A compliance officer for the Department of Labor (for which he was named Outstanding Handicapped Federal Employe for 1970 and 1978), Gregal, with his husky build, has more of the aura of a construction worker than that of a bureaucrat. The word "handicapped" seems a misnomer for a man who fixes cars as a hobby, does his own carpentry work on his North Cleveland Park home and loves to ride a motorcycle through an open field.
It was his strong hands, Gregal remembers, that were needed and valued by his family. His father was a coal miner and everyone helped on the family farm.
As a child, Gregal could discriminate between light and dark. (Two years ago his "better eye" was punctured in a household accident and he coincidentally lost the minimum light perception in the other.)
He recalls being told by his mother to bring a dozen eggs to a convent several miles from home. Pedaling an old bicycle down country roads he listened for the occasional car so he could pull over to the shoulder. "I arrived," he says, "with four eggs intact."
Gregal's parents were "suspicious" of state institutions and schools and kept him at home until he was 8. By the time he entered first grade in the local elementary school, a full two years older than other students, he could fend off the taunts of others. In typical grade-school fashion, his physical advantage evened the score.
"Once I could find them, I could beat them," says Gregal with one of his quick smiles. "Then they didn't tease me."
Dave Gregal who has never mastered Braille, learned completely by lecture. "In high school I carried around a big, old reel-to-reel tape recorder and in college (Penn State) I had a reader."
Being unable to read was not much of a disadvantage in his rural environment, says Gregal. "The primary reading materials in my parents' house were the Croatian newspaper, the telephone book and the Bible."
Gregal learned about cars from his older brothers and practiced on some of the junked wrecks that always seem to litter the Pennsylvania countryside. Through the years Gregal has owned more than 30 cars and now has five, plus a motorcycle. Depending on touch and hearing to diagnose problems, he reconditions and sells old cars as a hobby.
"One thing I hate being is uncontrollably dependent," says Gregal. "A car is a small thing to get in my way."
More than one observer watching Gregal work on an engine in total darkness has felt compelled to shine a flashlight under the hood. His reaction: "I consider that a compliment."
As a young boy, Gregal's imagination jumped rapidly from cars to other mechancial inventions, some of which he didn't know already existed. At age 13 he made a crude respirator from a garden hose and a discarded pump "to test a theory that I could live under water." He took the contraption to a quarry three miles from his home and tried it out 15 feet under water.
"Luckily, I knew enough to put the exhaust downwind," says Gregal with typical understatement. The respirator worked and even today one of Gregal's older brothers, when showing friends the sights of the Altoona area, says, "And that quarry is where my brother Dave lived under water."
Gregal and his wife, Alice, still use the rural tradition of barter and often trade on his mechanical ability. What they can't do themselves or trade for, they learn.
When a friend had new insulation installed, he remarked casually to Gregal that the contractor had "thoughtfully left" the remainder. Suspicious, Gregal tapped carefully around the siding of the house. Because of the variation in sound, he diagnosed the contractor's "thoughtfulness" as an incomplete job.
"If you feel angry when you've been cheated," says Alice Gregal, "you can imagine how Dave would feel."
Dave Gregal met his match in his wife, a tall, thin redhead of inexhaustible energy. Six years his junior, she shares his determination. After a 3 1/2-year courtship, Dave showed no inclination to marry. Alice accelerated their wedding date when she simply stopped the car on Memorial Bridge and proposed. They've been married nine years and have a son, Davey, 3. Another child is due any time.
Because of the addition to their family, the Gregals planned an enlargement of their North Cleveland Park home. After getting an estimate of $2,000 to tear down the existing two-story attachment, they decided to do it themselves. The crew included Dave, Alice (eight months' pregnant), several skilled -- and some inept -- friends, all working in 95-degree August heat. Gregal directed the bone-wrenching work.
By the end of the day, both stories were down, the foundation decimated and the yard cleaned. "Had Dave not been blind," says Alice, "he would have been an architect or an engineer."
"Daddy can fix anything," adds son Davey.
Not everyone shares Davey's view. Gregal used to be discomfited by strangers' misguided attempts to assist him: the people who try to help him across the street by holding his elbow near his earlobe, or the ones who deliver left-handed compliments like, "Gee, you do that almost as well as I do."
"At first I got mad, says Gregal, "but then I rose above it and could laugh and say 'Here it goes again.'"
It is also sometimes difficult for Alice, as the sighted partner, to deal with well-meaning people. While serving Dave in a restaurant, a solicitous waiter said in a booming voice, "Your fork is on your left, sir."
"Thank you," Alice said stiffly, "but he's eaten before."
Several years ago Dave and Alice took a pottery class together, a craft in which both proved uncharacteristically inept, though of the two Dave was the superior student. The teacher, a sort of female Mr. Peepers, never knew quite what to do with Dave and just addressed Alice.
"Is he enjoying the class?" she would ask in Gregal's presence, as if he were not blind, but deaf. Finally, at the end of the course they managed to produce one misshapen cup between them with a handle that Dave had fashioned.
"Isn't that nice?" cooed Mrs. Peepers. "He can specialize in handles!"
Despite that teacher's advice, Gregal has avoided specialization. His unusual skills have allowed him to enjoy options not available to most blind people. His spatial perceptions are so well-developed that he can be talked through parallel-parking a car. His latest project is developing an inexpensive audio compass which would allow him to pilot a boat in open water and keep it on course. It's near completion and he wants to test it in the Chesapeake Bay.
Fifteen years ago Dave Gregal came to Washington armed with the optimism of the Great Society and $30. By most standards, he's "made it." Although many of his contemporaries have become complacent, Gregal's nature is restless. He's always looking for another challenge.
"I hate complacency," he says, "those who think they've made it. The fun is in the going, not the getting. I may not always be happy, but I'll never be bored."