James Littlejohn still pictures things in his mind. He can see the snow in winter and how bright it was in the sun. He can see his mother, Barbara Battle, and how she always looked like a teen-age girl, just a kid. He can see those days in the fall with the leaves turning and all the colors caught on the breeze, tumbling through the blue of the sky. Sometimes he can even see himself running through the leaves, kicking them up in a bright storm of reds and browns and yellows.
In one picture, he is running away from everything, all alone. He is running for the end zone with a football tucked in tight against his body and all his friends frozen in the field behind him, shouting his nickname, "Button," over and over again. What is strange about the picture is that James Littlejohn is not seeing with his own eyes as he runs. He is seeing everything from some great distance above him, as a bird sees, and his vision is absolute. He is watching the world and his place in it, and nothing is more beautiful.
The blindness did not come all of a sudden. When he was still in elementary school, cataracts clouded his vision and left him feeling dizzy. He told his friends it was like trying to see through a smoke screen. His father was blind, and the doctors said his problems were hereditary. Later, a series of surgeries on his retinas were unsuccessful in stopping what he suspected was coming all along. Then it happened that he just could not see anymore except when he closed his eyes and let himself. What he saw then was like a dream he had once. When he came out of the dream, everything went dark again.
James Littlejohn, who is 16, wants to be a state champion wrestler before he graduates from Magruder High School in Rockville two years from now. His coach, Paul Hassler, worked him hard through part of the 1985 season, but Littlejohn had to drop off the squad when finding rides home after practice became a problem. This year, he came out weighing only 94 pounds but built solid and low to the ground. His coach, who sometimes calls him a "sweet little old kid," and "our baby," said Littlejohn is blessed with extraordinary quickness and strength. Only a sophomore, he wrestles on the varsity and has won eight of 12 matches.
"The toughest part as a coach was for us to learn how to teach him to wrestle, what the moves were," Hassler said. "Because he's blind, there is no showing him how things are done. Everything has been touch and putting your hand here and putting it there. We've had to teach him the moves without him ever having seen them."
The only concession allowed Littlejohn during competition is a so-called "touch start" after each break. Rather than square off in the center of the ring standing a few feet apart, Littlejohn and his opponent square off hand-on-hand. Hassler said it puts Littlejohn's opponents at a disadvantage because "they can never tell what's going to happen. Little James comes out there as strong as someone 112 pounds and starts throwing all this weight around. He's very muscular and intelligent and tough. The only thing he doesn't have is his sight."
Littlejohn said he tries to shut out everything when he's on the mat, including the sounds around him. He said he concentrates totally on touch and anticipating his opponent's moves. His biggest problem so far has been stopping what Hassler calls the "head-and-arm move" because he cannot anticipate when it might be coming. Opponents pinned him three times already this season using that one move. Littlejohn said it happens so quickly, all he feels is pain.
"He doesn't take losing very well," Hassler said. "He won't accept it because he only wants to move ahead. The kid's been through a lot."
Littlejohn once said that if he had to tell what he remembered of his first 16 years, it would be mostly funny and hard. The funny part goes way back to his days playing football after school and the way he could skip and dance through the defense. No one could catch him, he was so light on his feet. Putting a handle on him, everybody said, was like trying to pick up beads of mercury on a kitchen cabinet. More than anything he thinks about those days now, how it was being free to maneuver through the defense, making moves, knowing the freedom of vision. He can still play football, but it isn't the same.
"When I used to go deep," he said, "I could juke a guy out and get into the open. Now to do anything, I have to hold on to somebody's shirt. I miss the aloneness of how it was. I used to like being all by myself in the wide open clear, just running away from everybody. I can't do that anymore."
Most of the hard part begins after he lost his vision and figured he had lost his friends, too. The only time he ever left his room at home was to go to the bathroom or to get something to eat. When his best buddy, Jimmy Allen, came by, trying to get him to play football or double-up on a bike and go riding, he said he didn't feel like it and turned Jimmy away. He was mad at everybody and everything. He kept destroying his walking cane. He could sit there in front of the television and listen to Andy Griffith and Opie and Barney, and he could see them in his head, only he couldn't see them. Nothing made sense anymore.
He remembers going into Washington one day with his orientation and mobility instructor, and running into a woman waving her Bible on the street corner, shouting at everyone who came her way. "She was one of those church people who look at you and feel sorry for you," he said. She thought Littlejohn was retarded and said she would pray for him. "All I wanted to do was get away and be left alone," he said. "People like that get me wondering. I didn't like how it made me feel. I wanted to disappear."
After a while, he decided he had to make something of himself, he had to get out more often and be around people. He met Jason Stradone, a boy who had been blind since birth, and they became friends. Littlejohn taught him about football. It was hard but funny teaching football to someone who had no idea what a field looked like striped every five yards, and referees in those zebra shirts, and the goal posts sticking up out of the end zone. He and Jason listened to old movies together and walked arm-in-arm around the house. Littlejohn said they could always talk and get along because they understood each other. Jason later moved to Richmond, but not a day goes by when James Littlejohn forgets to think about all they did together.
"We had us some times," Littlejohn said. "We really did."
"At Redland (junior high school), James presented a special challenge for his teachers," Nancy Powell, the Magruder principal, said. "He went through a tough period of anger and depression but he worked out of it and became a joy to deal with. Here at Magruder, he originally started in a special education program but is now taking college prep courses.
"At the beginning of the year, some of our teachers were terrified when they learned that they had a blind student to work with. Now they're thrilled. He's made such great advances. He'll tell you, he's just one of the guys. But we all think he's the neatest little kid in the world."
James Littlejohn works in the front office most every afternoon, as an aide answering the switchboard. Nancy Powell said she cannot figure out how he knows which button on the dial board to push when the phone rings. Blind, how can he know which one of the lights is flashing? Students and faculty often are amazed to see him do it. Powell said visitors always ask her, "Is that kid really blind?"
"You can't help but love him," Hassler said. "He's ours, he belongs to us. And we're always so elated when he wins out there on the mat. We're constantly thinking about him and what he's doing. We never let him sit alone. When we run sprints down the hall after practice, he runs, too. He grabs somebody's shirt and runs as hard as he can, never knowing what might be in front of him. He's a fearless little guy."
They cheer him when he wrestles and wins. They cheer him when he loses. He once received a standing ovation and later said he didn't know what to make of it. Another time, he went with the team to eat dinner at a restaurant after a meet, and the waitress said she didn't for a minute believe he was blind. He was sitting there with all the guys. The lady waved her hand in front of his face. "He's blind," everybody said.
"He's not blind," the waitress said. "This kid ain't blind."
"Get out of here," Littlejohn said. "I can't see. Can't you see that?"
He says it is not courage or fearlessness that drives him. "I don't think about those things," Littlejohn said. "They're just words. I do what I want to do. If it's sports I want to do, I do it. I do it because I like it. Nothing stops me."