Don’t bat an eye

Turn your head, cough, and look at the huge black dot.

“Blind as a bat” would be a politically incorrect, as well as inaccurate, way to describe me and my crummy eyesight. First, the phrase is mean and hurtful to those folks who truly have irreparable vision issues. Second, it’s not even true. Bats can see very well, thank you.

Unlike the bats, my genetic pool doomed me to join nearly half of my fellow Americans with a condition known as myopia—which is nearsightedness, unless you want to pay an eye doctor to use the fancier word.

When I was a kid, it became apparent that the world more than six inches away from my face was a fuzzy blur. My second-grade teacher, kindly Miss Ager, asked if I’d like to sit closer to the blackboard. I was glad to learn that the big mass of black was an actual something. The words on the blackboard, sadly, were just white blurs.

So off I went to see the local optometrist, Dr. Jack, who stuck some glasses on my face and asked me to look out the window and see if I could read the numbers on the car license plates across the street. I was overjoyed to learn that the different colored blurs were actually cars, and, believe it or not, I could read the license plates.

A few years later, in a moment of dubious good sense, I decided to play high school football. I couldn’t wear my glasses while playing football and the coaches were afraid I’d tackle a referee or a cheerleader (which would have been a lot more fun than tackling some sweaty, stinky quarterback).

The head coach, who was known as “Gum” behind his back because he tended to run his mouth, put an elaborate bird-cage-looking device on a helmet for me so I could wear my glasses. I looked pretty terrifying with these steel bars on my helmet. The other players would be intimidated for about three seconds. Then they’d realize if they ran toward me, I’d cringe in fear and curl up in the fetal position. My football career ended quickly and Coach Gum was left with one mean-looking helmet but nobody to wear it.

Not too long later, Uncle Sam decided to classify me as I-A. In those days, being classified I-A meant you should go ahead and pack your bags and learn how to salute. If I were drafted, I knew I’d be sent to a place where people would shoot at me, so I quickly enlisted in a branch of the service where you’re much less likely to be a target. Anyway, I was certain that my lousy eyesight would make me ineligible for the armed forces. At my induction physical, I went through the usual stuff: poking, prodding, and turning my head and coughing.

Then came the eye exam. I was ecstatic. This is where they’d cut me free, I figured. No way they’d want a guy who can’t see. The doctor was using a slide projector to show the usual eye chart—the one with the big “E” and lines of letters and numbers. “Read the lowest line you can read from the chart on the wall,” the doctor said.

“To be honest, doctor,” I said, “I know there’s a big ‘E’ at the top of the chart but I really can’t see it.” The doctor then projected the picture of a huge black dot that covered about half of the wall.

“Can you see the huge black dot on the wall?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Congratulations,” the doctor said, “you just passed the eye exam.”

Somehow, I survived the military. When that phase of my life was over, I moved on to the next adventure in trying to see: contact lenses. This was in the earlier years of contact lens use, long before those wimpy, flexible extended-wear soft lenses that you can wear with no pain.

Mine were hard plastic lenses. They felt like you were putting sand in your eye, then sticking a hot dime on the sand and twisting it. You could spot someone who was trying to get used to contacts. Their eyes bugged out like a Looney Tunes character who’d just been hit with an anvil. New lens wearers looked like Marty Feldman. (Think of “Igor” in the movie “Young Frankenstein.”)

This story does have a happy ending. After wearing glasses or contact lenses since the Truman administration, I can now see perfectly. When doing cataract surgery, today’s ophthalmologists can correct sight almost perfectly with a lens implant.

I could probably see that huge black dot from the next county now.