With the gazillion hurricanes (that’s just a rough estimate) which have plagued this 2020 tropical storm season, I am remembering 1989 here in North Carolina. Actually, the most deadly hurricane ever to strike here was Hazel in October of 1954. But thirty-five years later in September of 1989 Hurricane Hugo terrorized both North and South Carolina and gave me a blind date I shall never forget.
When the breath of Hurricane Hugo began blowing toward South Carolina, we in North Carolina began holding ours. As an English professor, I was intrigued by his name since he was the only literary-named hurricane, bearing the moniker of the great author (often called "The French Dickens") Victor Hugo who created Les Miserables, just as his windy namesake created millions of les miserables from Saint Croix to Charleston.
On September 22, 1989, the day Hugo blew ashore, I was to fly to Trenton to give a keynote address at the New Jersey Library for the Blind. I was lucky that Hugo veered west and spared Raleigh, allowing my flight to leave without delay. Foolishly, I was a bit apprehensive about addressing this sightless audience. In actuality, I discovered, the blind make an ideal group for a lecture since their sense of hearing is so sharply tuned, and there can be no visual distractions. For the first time in my lecturing career, the auditorium and audience were literally that -- “a place of hearing” for “those who came to hear."
Scattered throughout my audience were seeing-eye dogs and monitors who accompanied some of the blind patrons. As I launched into my Dickens, Dallas, and Dynasty talk, crediting Dickens with the invention of the soap opera, my eye was caught by a middle aged gentleman in the second row who was not only blind but deaf as well. His guide was a woman who held the palm of his right hand in her left. As I spoke, she quickly tapped with her fingers into his palm, translating my words into tactile signals and telegraphing my talk with astounding speed.
As hard as I try, my mind cannot stretch enough to imagine what it must be like to be without both sight and sound. The profoundness of such silence seems impenetrable. And yet there was this man enveloped by a darkness both audio and visual whose Saturday September schedule included a professor's lecture on Charles Dickens.
What so moved me was his reaction to my talk. As you probably remember, my talk on Dickens contains large doses of humor. When I injected my first humorous aside, the man's face broke into such an appreciative grin. Having neither seen nor heard me, he was able to share this light moment.
That moment reminded me of an experience when I was a teaching assistant at UCLA. One of my students was a promising young actress (whose father had won two Oscars for set design). She invited me to attend a performance of The Miracle Worker in which she starred as Annie Sullivan, Helen Keller's famous teacher.
Most of the cast was impressive, but the child who played Helen was ill-prepared to say the least. At her first entrance as the blind-and-deaf young girl, she rather diminished her credibility by catching sight of her proud parents in the front row and giving them a quick wave and giggle.
Nor did she improve much in the climactic scene when Annie spells out "W-A-T-E-R" for the thousandth time on Helen's palm, and she finally perceives the connection to the cold liquid pouring from the pump on her hand. The little actress could not begin to manage the proper expression of sudden recognition and awe. But when I glanced around the audience I was shocked. Some were actually weeping. Even with a woefully miscast Helen, the power of Annie Sullivan's triumph moved them to tears.
That power now returned to me as I stood before the remarkable man in the second row. He made me all the more grateful that the hurricane had not forced me to cancel. Even Hugo's horrific destruction of communications from the Caribbean to the Carolinas seemed weak -- when compared to the power in the simple act of communication from my professor's lips, through the skilled fingers of the interpreter, and into the receptive mind's eye of a deaf and blind Dickensian.