Saturday, September 20

Thursday: traveling, leaving Seeing Eye, and more

Greetings. Well, we're up to Thursday. This was an interesting day on a number of levels, not the least of which was that I woke up in the northeast and went to sleep back in my Austin apartment. It started when my alarm went off at 4:25 that morning, and then when the night instructor called for my wake up call 5 minutes later. As I told her, though I was already up, the wake up call was a precaution to make sure I was up and moving. Over the next hour, I fed my dog, took her out for one final park, got dressed, put my luggage outside my room, at which it was delivered by someone else to the front of the building, and I went upstairs to the common lounge to break bread one last time with my fellow retrain students. That last meeting of students was neat, with a good amount of laughter and good conversation as we all realized that this was truly the last time we would eat at the same table. There was the typical continental breakfast items, along with a wonderful banana-chocolate bread thing. And then 5:30 was approaching. At 5:30 each morning, the wake up call goes out over the dorm room loudspeakers for the morning park. Some days, music was played to get us up, such as "The Coffee Song" by Frank Sinatra, or other selections. This day proved to have a sturring good-bye song for all the retrains. I didn't recognize it, but other people did and some of them started singing along. That was a weird reminder of the coming day, hearing the people singing good-bye as my dog and I walked down the stairs and went by our room one last time to collect my carry-on items.

I then walked with my dog down to the front hall that runs from the dining room to the dormatory area, which has lots of offices on the sides and passes by the front door. We walked part way down the hall and then stopped. At this point, I began silently quoting the lyrics to the popular Michael W. Smith song, "Friends," to which the chorus goes:

And friends are friends forever,
If the Lord's the Lord of them,
And a friend will not say never,
'Cause the welcome will not end,
And it's hard to let you go,
In the Father's hands we know,
That a lifetime's not to long,
To live as friends.

Interesting note on this song: though it was never a "radio hit" for the Christian artist, it has been enormously popular among fans and non-fans alike over the past 20 some odd years.

Anyway, that was enough to close the Seeing Eye stay chapter for me and seemed more fitting, especially in light of my new friends I met during training, than the song that was played at 5:30. Upon further reflection, though I was certainly sad to leave, I did not experience the great separation and longing feeling that I went through when I left with my first guide. This time was more of the ending of one part and the beginning of another, and I suppose that's how it should be.

Then we were walking back toward the main stairs, and we met Ralph who was coming down the stairs. He saw us coming and asked, "Ready?" And I answered, "Yes, let's go."

Ralph drove me and another student, the one I went to Foster Fields with and the one I had often trained with during freelance training, to the airport. That drive was neat in some ways and nondescript in others. Sure, it was a drive to the airport, but it officially closed the period of training and signaled the soon-to-be-taken flight home. Soon after we started, I thanked Ralph for driving us. It seemed fitting that he would drive us there and get us settled. Kind of like a good friend or even family member driving you to the airport. This wasn't the case for some of the retrains, who had to have instructor's assistants drive them because their regular instructors were tied up with training, or were helping other people get home. So I considered it neat that Ralph carved time out to see us off.

I don't remember quite how it started, but we began talking about Loui Braille and his 200th birthday coming in January. Ralph then proceeded to explain how Loui had a brother named Fernando, and later that Loui's real name was Louis Braille, and that he was Spanish and not French. I commented that this was interesting information, and that it was too bad that my MP3 player wasn't recording the information for documenting purposes. I thens said that I would have to ask the Texas state Braille consultant if she had ever heard of Fernando and Louis Braille.

We got to the airport and then things got interesting. Ralph helped me get through security and find my gate, and then he said he had to go back and help the other student. Since the other guy was going back to Canada, and Ralph had to help him get where he needed to be. He said he was disappointed that he had to leave me so soon, but he did give me some final words of encouragement. At that point, I was grateful that I had said my "thank you's" back in the pizza place the previous Monday. Anyway, Ralph wished me luck, told me to keep in touch and call him with updates, said good-bye to my dog, and then left. Shortly after that they started boarding for my Continental flight.

I usually pre-board, for convenience. However, though the airline was made aware of my travels and though the people at the check-in desk knew I was traveling, and though I was seated where they could easily see me, they forgot. So, when they got to the boarding of rows 15-25, I decided I had to do something, figuring that they weren't going to come for me. I'm all for getting help when needed, but I also think it necessary to be independent when needed as well. Otherwise, you spend more time waiting on people to do things which they may or may not remember that they've been asked to do. Ralph had advised me to remove my dog's harness before boarding, to ease her stress level and ease the process of getting her situated in the row of seats. Remember, when the harness is removed, the dog isn't working and are in essence just a normal dog. I should say here that I've noticed that my dog will pull to the left or right when she's on heel with just the leash, or she will stop for an obsticle, but she's not "officially" guiding me. I noticed these behaviors when walking through the halls in the dorm area of The Seeing Eye when she was being heeled.

Anyway, I get up, gather my things and the harness, get her leash and start walking toward where I hear people walking down the jetway. I quietly told the dog, "Okay, I know you're not in harness but behave," to which she did. Thankfully we didn't have to walk far before an airline person came up to me and asked if I wanted to board, to which I said I did. She then asked why I had not preboarded, to which I said, "Well, I wanted to but you forgot about me." She apologized. I'm not sure if word was passed along to other Continental people about this early incident, but I was treated much better after this and they made sure that I was accommodated and taken care of.

As it turne dout, everyone boarded, luggage was loaded, carry-ons were stowed, but we just sat there at the gate. I don't think the gate door was even closed or the aircraft door. We sat there for awhile, and suddenly the 7:30 departure time came and went. Around 8, the pilot came on and said that he wasn't comfortable in flying the plane due to some seemingly simple maintenance issue, and that our flight would be re-routed to another gate close by. He said that everyone would de-plane and our luggage would be moved from the first to the second plane, and then we could board after the jet was serviced, which apparently would be 10-15 minutes later. So shortly after 8, we all de-planed and went over to the next gate. During the waiting process when we were on the initial 7:30 departure time plane, another man came and sat in the row I was in. I was assured that though I was near the bulkhead (which many think has more room but often it doesn't), and that there wouldn't be anyone in my row, this man was reseated from his first class seat. The reason for this would become clear later during the flight. So this nice gentleman assisted me off the plane and to the next gate two gates down. We found seats in the waiting area and he went off to get breakfast for both of us. After he came back and I was digging into the cheese Danish he had gotten me and enjoying my Diet Coke, who should appear but Ralph. He said that he had gotten the other student on his flight okay and had happened to glance up at the monitors to see if my flight got off fine. Which of course it didn't, so he thought he would swing by and see how I was doing. I was glad that he did since I wasn't sure if I would be leaving at all, or in fact if I would be calling The Seeing Eye and having to ask them for another night's stay while waiting for my flight. Thankfully this didn't happen, but he assured me that they would have taken care of me. This is but another example of The Seeing Eye's care for their students and graduates, and the lengths they will go to assured someone's comfort and state of mind, both in and out of training.

We soon got ready to board, and Ralph left, for the second time, and said, "Bye Wayne, and this time, try to stay on the plane." I joked with the Continental assistant that they really loved me here, and repeated Ralphs parting words. We all boarded, got settled, and shortly after that, thankfully shut all the doors and started taxiing down the runway. There was a bit of a delay before we actually took off, but once we were in the air, I breathed a sigh of relief, as I'm sure a number of people on that flight did. We actually left New Jersey and were headed back to good old Austin. As an interesting note, our flying time was cut by around 45 minutes from the original scheduled 4:20 to around 3:30. I was glad for this.

The flight went fine and my dog did great. Toward the end of the flight, she was anxious and looking around nervously when we went through some turbulance getting close to Austin, but the rest of the time she sacked out on the floor in our row.

I learned soon into the flight that the reason that the gentleman in our row was in our row was because, even though he had a first-class seat, he was late and lost his seat. So he was re-assigned to our row. Though he was initially upset about this, he first stated that he was comforted by petting and talking to my dog. Remember, the dog wasn't wearing her harness so he was allowed to do this. Anyway, I say that this was the case initially. As we went into hours number 2 and 3, he got more and more angry at Continental and simply couldn't understand why they gave his seat away. He even asked me if I knew, which of course I did, but decided not to belabor the point. I just shook my head and offered some generic words like, "Yeah, it's rough."

I had some interesting talks with this man, starting with the question of if I wanted my sight back. I assured him several times that, "No, I don't. I've been blind for 20 some odd years. I know how to be blind; I don't know how to be sighted." He persisted, sayign that research was being done and I could get my sight back. I answered by saying that despite what many people think, not all of the research will help every blind person get their sight back. I finally said, "Look, if I were given a choice between $10 million and my sight, I'd go for the $10 million." He understood this, I think mainly because he freely said that he was "wealthy." Apparently my philosophy about the whole sight thing and my general attitude and mannerisms impressed him, because he later said that he wanted to do something for me. I thought about this a long time and eventually said that if he really wanted to do something, that he could make a donation to The Seeign Eye. I later gave him their phone number and encouraged him to get more information. I don't know if he will end up donating or not, but when you come across someone who "wants to do something foryou," and they've obviously got money, what's the harm in doing a little education and fund raising?

I ended up losing track of him when we left the plane and made it into the Austin airport, but we had exchanged cell numbers so I figure that he'll get in touch at some point. The rest of the time, of going through the Austin airport and reserving a ride with SuperShuttle was pretty routine, with one exception. When I went up to the Super Shuttle desk and was making my reservation, one of the men behind the counter looked over and said, "Ah, Mr. Merritt, I see you've got a dog now?" To which I answered that I did. It's neat being recognized by the local people, which I guess I shouldn't be surprised since I travel through that airport a lot during the year and am a frequent passenger with Super Shuttle. My van left soon after that and I made it back to my apartment fine.

I'll write later about the next portion of the day, and the following few days. I think this entry is plenty long enough as it is. Until then.

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