Bill Plummer wanted to ride in a yellow car for the simple reason that the last car he owned was yellow: a 1979 Chevrolet Malibu Classic.
He missed driving that Malibu, just as he missed his Chevy Nova, Ford Falcon and the other vehicles he once had in his life. Bill hasn’t driven since 1987, when a man threw acid in his face and blinded him. He hasn’t seen anything in 28 years.
But he remembered yellow.
Phil Williams’s car wasn’t yellow. His 1949 MG YT, an open-topped four-seater, is painted in what is officially called Old English White. But it had something else going for it.
“Nineteen forty-nine?” said Bill as he was led toward Phil’s car. “That’s the year I was born.”
It was Saturday morning, and Bill, a D.C. resident, was at Fairfax County’s Burke Lake Park for the Braille Rallye, an annual event sponsored by the MG Car Club, Washington, D.C. Centre and the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind. About a dozen fetching British sports cars, from Phil’s stately MG YT to cheery 1970s-era MGBs, were parked in a row near Shelter A.
A car rally is like a scavenger hunt. Driver-navigator teams are given directions — “Right out of parking lot; left at T; left at second stoplight” — and must follow them precisely while never exceeding the speed limit. The course’s creator notes its exact mileage, along with the exact time it should take to complete it. The winner is the team that finishes the course closest to the predicted time.
Every time-speed-distance rally is like this. The Braille Rallye has its own refinement: The instructions that sat on Bill’s lap consisted of raised dots pressed on both sides of two sheets of thick paper.
“My Braille’s rusty,” Bill said as Phil, of Manassas, Va, inched the car toward the starting line.
After the acid attack, Bill was in the hospital for a month. (His attacker served 13 years in prison.) It had taken Bill a decade to become proficient at Braille, but it was never what you’d call easy. And for the past 10 years, he hasn’t used it much, preferring to listen to printed material on tapes.
But the Braille Rallye wasn’t just about winning. It was about being out on a lovely summer morning in a cool car — even if you had no idea what the cool car looked like.
“I remember the ’49 Ford,” Bill said.
That was a bulbous car. The MG was sleeker, with a long hood, swooping fenders and running boards.
Bill ran his hands along the cream-colored upholstery. “Are these seats leather or are they vinyl?” he asked. “They feel like vinyl.” (They are vinyl and leather.)
Phil and Bill got lost almost immediately, with Phil having to make decisions before Bill had deciphered the Braille. “I usually read it on a flat table,” Bill said.
Phil had a bail-out envelope with directions back to the park, but opening it would disqualify them. They decided to soldier on.
They passed white-steepled churches, McMansions, meadows dotted with horse equipment, yard sale signs. They drove through twee downtown Clifton, Va. — twice.
“I can feel it straining hard,” Bill said as the 50-horsepower MG labored up a sun-dappled hill.
When the MG stopped at a red light and the fumes from the engine wafted back, Bill said, “It smells like a lawn mower when you’re mowing your yard.”
When Phil worried that a BMW driver coming up fast behind them might rear-end the MG because he was texting, Bill said: “That’s crazy. Trying to drive a car and text at the same time?”
About an hour and a half after they’d set out, Phil and Bill returned to the park, the last car back.
Other cities, including Los Angeles and Spokane, Wash., have Braille rallies, but Washington’s was the first, started 53 years ago. The youngest navigator this year was 8. Some of the adult participants have been doing it since they were kids, when they attended a summer camp run by the Columbia Lighthouse for the Blind.
Access to transportation is a big issue for the visually impaired. So is access to work. Only 38 percent of visually impaired adults are employed. After he was blinded, Bill earned a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of the District of Columbia. “I didn’t have nothing but time on my hands,” he said. “The sad part is, after getting my degree, I didn’t get a job.”
I sat across from Bill at the catered barbecue lunch and awards ceremony. He and Phil weren’t among the winners. The team of navigator Jeannette Gerrard and driver Steve Boyce took first place in the Senior Braille category.
When another name was announced, Bill wondered whether he knew that person and asked me to describe him.
“He has a mustache,” I said. “Like you.”
“I expect my mustache is all gray now,” Bill said. “When I last could see it, there weren’t but two specks of gray in it.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.