You have the heart and the lungs and then God only knows what else is down there--the stomach, of course, and the gizzard and those things, so I was glad to hear this great authority reading aloud from a textbook on gastroenterology.
"Freanamundo is indicated contrarily when the blastopheme count is either abbreviated or exalted, save that in individuals of Urtomaniglammic disposition the reverse is commonly seen, although" zub, zub, zub.
This enlightenment--I may have a word or two wrong--is owed to a morning session at Recording for the Blind Inc., a volunteer outfit at 4000 Albemarle St. NW.
"You mean blind people want to know that?" I inquired. You'd think they have problems enough without fetching in some cassettes on gastroenterology.
"Certainly," said Judy Wasserman, who has only one n in her name but who is reassuringly authoritative even so. "Blind students study all sorts of things, including medicine, and when they need books they can't find, we get the book and record it and send it along to them. Over the years we have accumulated 60,000 titles. Headquarters are in New York and our group in Washington is one of 28 where the records are made."
One treads gingerly, of course, when asking about people with physical burdens like blindness, but I did find out there are blind psychiatrists, for example, though no blind brain surgeons.
"Some blind students have difficulty with Braille," Wasserman said, "and of course a lot of technical books are not available, and that's our job, to provide tapes of books needed by students who cannot read. There are other reasons besides blindness, dyslexia, for instance. We produce tapes of 400 books a month nationally.
"We have eight booths. The man inside that one is Dr. Leon Bernstein, a retired respiration physiologist and biophysicist. The man outside the booth is Harold Pfeffer, retired examiner in chemistry for the Patent Office. You might like to sit in. Pfeffer has a copy of 'Gastroenterology' and follows along as Bernstein reads from it inside the booth. If there is stumbling over a word, or the sound level is not right, or any of a number of other things goes wrong, then Pfeffer stops Bernstein and the tape is corrected. It's time-consuming. In an hour, you may get 10 pages on tape."
All of which is wonderful, of course, and like so many wonderful things, tedious almost beyond belief.
You have to know the subject before you can read the book; it amounts to that. There may be something profound here. I have long suspected you have to know the answer before you ask the question, otherwise the question does not occur.
Naturally, you can be ignorant and ask a question, and a good book may answer it. I wouldn't want to carry the insight too far, that you have to know the answer before you can learn. All the same, you will notice that one gross obstacle in the teaching of English appears to be that until you love the best, the Bible and Shakespeare, you can't even teach minor things like Fitzgerald well.
To get back to the blind, and to the people who volunteer for the donkey-work of making texts available to them, you will see that it wouldn't be so bad if all the blind students wanted "Don Quixote" or "The Frogs," or "archy and mehitabel." If that's what they wanted, you could spend your hours reading to them on tape, confident that you were holding the torch of majesty, as it were, and passing it to dark kingdoms.
But surely it is hard to be noble when you're reading for them about gastroenterology, old-age pension schemes, phonetic alphabets, correct spelling, understanding sexuality, and a thing called answers to objections, which was the menu on the day I dropped in.
And this may be the place to say I had rather hear a book on gastroenterology, a subject one might learn something about, than "understanding our sexuality," which is easy enough to understand without a book. And control is not much helped by a book, one may suspect.
It was nice to talk with Wasserman, who schedules the 160 volunteers for their various books and times and booths, and to talk with several of the readers and monitors. It seemed to me there was a good bit of smoking going on, and I remarked that they seemed to accept sinners down there.
"We're all sinners here," said a contented-looking warm literate volunteer.
The volunteers are not paid anything. They arrange their own baby sitters or parking places or whatever else they have to arrange, on their own. They do not expect praise, any more than anyone does who is already sure of his motives and his value.
The hours go by and many of the volunteers are not young. No matter. While time and lungs last, they show up to make their tapes for a blind kid who without them might never know about the gizzard.
Watching them at work, with their endless interruptions for the sake of accuracy, I saw that this is an America far removed from that other America (of which one hears so much) in which nobody gives a damn. The volunteers give many damns. They do not need to know who the blind kid is. They do not need reassurance he will turn out great. All they know is that their own subjects (gastroenterology, Lord save us all) are useful and critical, and if a student wants to learn about it, then by Jupiter they will get the tapes up as soon as they can read the text, not even waiting till the entire text is finished.
This work, clearly, shows the bonds of community in America, which still keep us a society of humans, not a herd of beasts. There are Americans, far more than these volunteers though not different from them, who do not need any big campaigns on behalf of faith, and who seem to know in their bones that it is right to spend a lot of time doing something for beneficiaries who will never even know who helped them.
The Albemarle Street center has a budget of $70,000 a year. There was a dinner last night to raise about a third of the sum. People sometimes send a buck in the mail to help out. But money is not a great problem, since all the real work is done free by people who (by doing this drudgery to help blind students) thereby remove the warts from their own souls, somewhat.
"We are lucky in our volunteers," Wasserman said. "Doctors, computer engineers, lawyers. We have lots of people who can read Swahili. We have a bacteriologist who comes on his lunch hour. We have mothers with children, but they make time all the same. And Mark Allen, who handles all this at night. We have . . ." In a nutshell, they have the big tough gorgeous heart of a nation to maintain in steady beat.
"This is a radiograph," Dr. Bernstein reads on, in his little glass booth, referring to an X-ray photograph in his tummy text. He is going to explain the picture for the blind student who has requested the book, and who will never see the picture. Great skill is required here.
"Harold," says Bernstein to his monitor, dutifully following along in his own copy, "I think I better stop and see what the heck this is."
It didn't look like much to me.
"A lot of times the pictures add nothing whatever," Bernstein said.
Still, as I said, they do sometimes relieve the grayness of the type, which is why they were invented.