This weekend, I traveled from Austin to Indianapolis to spend some time with one of my best friends, Haley, who has just moved to Indy. On my airport journey, I encountered a few spectacular human beings, one of which I will proceed to tell y’all about below.
Upon arriving at the airport & parking in long-term parking, I hop on the shuttle to catch a ride to the departure gates in order to catch my 2:30 Allegiant Airlines flight to IND. Once I get to the main terminal gates, I stumble upon a sign indicating that all Allegiant Airlines flights are located at the South Terminal. Now, I vaguely remember having read something this summer about a “South” terminal opening up. So, I wheel my roller bag behind me and trudge back to the shuttle stop.
Fortunately, another shuttle bus is approaching just as I get to the station. The driver exits the bus & begins assisting people with loading their baggage onto the bus. I stupidly ask, “How do I get to the South Terminal?” to which the driver replies “by getting on this bus & and getting off at the South Terminal.” Face palm. Really Megan? Can we not think before we speak aloud?
So I hop on the bus, take in my surroundings, and notice there are only two open seats. One of the availabilities is between two small children eating some kind of melted chocolate. Naturally wanting to avoid that hot mess, I plop down between two men, both of who look relatively young. The one on my right sits with his sunglasses on scrolling through Facebook. The man on my left also sits with his sunglasses on, sans phone.
As we leave the main terminal, we head towards the highway. Turns out, to get to the south terminal from the main terminal, you literally have to take the shuttle, get on the highway, & go around the entire airport to the back (this took 15+ minutes. And the road was super bumpy. Ugh).
About seven or so minutes into the ride, the guy on my left asks aloud, “Which way are we going?” Now, initially, this stumbles me. We were clearly getting on the highway to head around the side of the airport. “Well,” I start to reply. I look over at him to gauge if he was being serious or if he was being funny & sarcastic. It’s at that moment that I notice he has a retractable sight-aid cane in his hand (I know that these are called “white canes” because I Googled it). You know, the kind that people who are blind tap back and forth on the ground in front of them to aid their walking & avoid obstacles.
After pondering his question momentarily, I realize that he is blind. He literally does not know where we are going.
For whatever reason, once I realize that he’s blind, my entire core fills with second hand anxiety. How does he know where he’s going? How is it that he is able to just trust a random stranger to drive him to the right place, and not even know what that driver looks like? How is he going to get to wherever he is going?
I glance beside the man, and it appears the person on his left is not a travel companion, but another stranger. This blind man is literally traveling alone. ALONE! I finally remember that he has asked me a question, so I tell him that we are heading around the east side of the airport to the south side of the airport. He cracks a joke about how he didn’t realize once he got to the airport that he’d have to keep driving to actualllllly get to his gate.
We start chatting, as do most people on the shuttle, and mostly everyone shares that they too are catching the Allegiant flight to Indianapolis. None of us have flown with Allegiant before, and we are all going to Indiana for various reasons (me to see Haley, two guys to see their girlfriends in Bloomington (puke, go Boilermakers!!), and the blind man is going on business).
We arrive at the terminal. The man begins to extend his retractable metal cane. At this point, everyone on the shuttle has realized that the man on my left is blind. Once we stop, everyone stays seated. No movement from anyone.
The blind man says, “Let me know when to go.” No one replies.
So I say, “All right boss, you’re up.”
He smiles, and the driver leads him towards the door of the shuttle.
I let a few people go ahead of me, and once I exit the shuttle, I notice the man and his cane attempting to navigate from the shuttle to the terminal doors. No one is helping him. At this, I shout, “take a right. You’re almost there. There’s a sliding door up ahead.”
He continues to swing his walking tool to make sure the path in front of him is clear. I walk in front of him at this point, dragging my rolley suitcase behind me, hoping that he will hear the noise & follow the sound. I feel uncomfortable about his solo journey on which no one is helping him. Why is no one rushing to help him? Also, why is he traveling along? He is wearing a baseball cap & sunglasses, so I imagine he can’t be more than 30. He’s young. Where are his friends?
Once we get inside, I take in my surroundings. On my right is the security maze (you know, the line to get through security that zig zags back and forth). Straight ahead is the Allegiant bag drop. I look around, and notice that the man is still standing there alone. It is fairly obvious that he is blind (considering the cane and all), and I am severely bothered by the fact that no airport personnel are approaching him to help him navigate. There’s a few people just standing there staring at him. It’s like nobody knows what to do, which is completely bizarre to me.
I walk over to him. “Hey, me again, shuttle girl,” I awkwardly say. “Bag drop is straight ahead and security is on your right. Do you need to check a bag?”
He smiles and shakes his head. “Nope. Security is on the right?” he asks to be sure.
I move around him & tell him that he can follow me. Luckily, there are literally zero people in line for security (probably because it was about 1:30, and our flight had been delayed to 5:30 at this point and also the south terminal has like one gate!!), so I go up to the front of the line as he follows me slowly. I ask the TSA agent if she wouldn’t mind opening the little line rope barriers to let him through so he doesn’t have to maze around.
She scans his boarding pass, and tells him that his license expired two days ago but that he can still use it for travel purposes for up to a year. He laughs and makes a comment that I can’t hear, but the TSA agent laughs in return.
At this point, I’m wondering three things. 1) How is it that an expired license can be used for flight travel? That’s kind of cool but terrifying. And 2) How did I not know that blind people get licenses too? Why do I know literally nothing about what life is like as a blind person? 3) Is there a nicer way to speak about someone who is blind, other than call him or her a blind person? If so, why don’t I have a clue what it is?
Anyways, the blind man continues on through security ahead of me, and several TSA agents are (finally) assisting him in taking off his shoes & get his belongings on the belt and through the machine to be scanned.
He goes way ahead of me, and after I make it through security, I find a seat & start munching on some m&m’s. At this point, I still can’t stop thinking about the blind man! How on earth does he have the guts to travel alone, let alone travel alone for work? Doesn’t he get scared? I have the overwhelming feeling to tell everyone to help him & be nice to him.
Finally, a few hours later at around 6:30, we start boarding the aircraft. Naturally, I’m in zone 5, the last zone to load. Just my luck. And, I notice that my boarding pass says my seat is 19E. A middle seat. Awesome.
We load the aircraft, and I wait in the line with the rest of the peasants. I get to my row, and notice that the blind man is seated already in 19D. I am filled with relief! I have no idea if he knows anyone on this flight. I mean, could you imagine going through an airport not being able to see anyone or anything? I am hopeful that he will recognize me from the shuttle. And then I stupidly come to the realization that he won’t recognize me. He has no idea what I look like.
I then start to hope that my voice was memorable to him. Do I have a memorable or distinguishable voice? I have no idea. But probably not.
“Hey, we meet again,” I say as I approach row 19. “It’s the girl from the shuttle. I’m in the middle seat beside you.”
He smiles and says hello, and fumbles with unbuckling his seatbelt as he stands up. I get situated and he sits back down. At this point, I notice a few people staring, probably wondering why he is bumping in to things and reaching out around him. He doesn’t have his walking cane out, so everyone around him probably is assuming he is a regular guy.
I start up a conversation, and we end up chatting until after take off and until the plane has reached cruising altitude.
I learn that his name is Perez, and he’s a 44-year-old contractor for the Air Force. He lives in Austin, and travels for work pretty regularly. He’s been married a few times, doesn’t have any kids, but has 16 nieces and nephews. He loves the Patriots and Tom Brady, and tells me that my husband must be a great guy if he is a New England fan.
Oh, and he hasn’t always been blind. He used to have perfect vision.
He was ran over by a car and lost his vision at age 17. He actually died and had to be resuscitated.
And as for the person who hit him? It was a hit and run. He was riding his bicycle in a cycling group. He was on mile 53 when the car, driving into the sun, hit him.
Perez says that going blind is the best thing that has ever happened to him. He says it’s taught him to be a better son, a better brother, a better friend. He says that he’s learned so much more about this world than he would have with his sight. According to him, his life is far better than some people who have all of their organs, and for that he is grateful. In his opinion, everything happens for a reason, and you have to take the blessings that you’re given and go with it.
We joke about football & I ask him 20 questions too many, I’m sure. But he takes it all in stride, and seems more than happy to answer my questions. I ask him what the hardest challenge was about recovering from the accident that left him without his sight. I ask him about how he travels alone without his sight. I ask him if he knows Braille or if he wants to learn Braille or if he speaks any other languages (he doesn’t know Braille, but says learning Braille would take too much time. He prefers audiobooks).
On his lap sits a black rectangular shaped device that looks like a giant cassette player. The buttons are large with Braille dots under them, though he pushes the buttons from memory. I ask him what he’s listening to, and he says he’s listening to a book, of course. He tells me he reads about two books a week. At this I gawk in jealousy.
I share with him that right now, my students are reading “All The Light We Cannot See,” a story about WWII that involves a blind protagonist who, like him, wasn’t always blind, but used to be able to see. He says he’s heard of it and has wanted to read it, and that he will definitely check it out.
I notice that the row directly behind us is completely open, so I ask him if he wouldn’t mind letting me out of our row so I can snag the window seat to edit some posts on my blog (if you’ve ever flown Allegiant (or Spirit or Frontier), you know the seats are incredibly small. I didn’t have room to get out my laptop, hence the need to move).
“Why would I mind?” he asks.
I realize that I have totally made an assumption. I assumed that because he is blind, asking him to move (like I would normally ask a non-blind person) would burden him. “Well, I say. I don’t know. Probably because my husband always has to go to the bathroom 10 times during our flights, which means I always have to end up moving, and I know what a hassle that can be, especially when you have your stuff in your lap.”
He laughs and tells me it’s no problem. We’ve discovered that we will be on the same flight back to Austin on Monday. “I won’t see you,” he laughs, “Obviously. But say hello if you see me!”
I sat down in my new window seat feeling like my eyes had been opened for the first time (pun intended, for sure). Have you ever met someone so kind and so positive that you can’t help but feel that way, too? Here I was, pouting about my flight being delayed 4 hours. There are people in the world (like Perez) who have it far worse than I do (not according to Perez, though. He likes his life as it is.).
So, instead of counting our struggles, we should really, truly count our blessings.
And be more like Perez.