Sometimes, I suffer from a serious case of the "Stupids." When I was 16, the year when NASA engineers were preparing a lunar rover for the next moon landing, I had enough remaining vision to legally obtain my own Texas Drivers License. Although I knew I was going blind and could no longer see at night, my day vision was still reasonably intact. There were some caveats. Seeing clearly in shadows cast by buildings and trees might prove problematic. Getting stuck in traffic at dusk could be dangerous. However, I was under the influence of too few birthdays, too much testosterone, and the deep-seated need to push my right foot to the floor and go fast.
Perhaps it was a bit of serendipity that my parents owned three cars and that I was the oldest of five children. My dad's car looked good in a corporate parking lot. My mom's car was a van, handy for ferrying kids and groceries. The third car was my father's toy. An old toy. An old, rusty, 1955 Volkswagen Bug toy. He let me borrow it.
Our Bug was distinctive. In the grand familial tradition of doing things on the cheap, my father hand-painted the Volkswagen exterior using an old brush, and buckets of bright orange Rustoleum paint. The very visible brush strokes resembled the furrows left by a gap-toothed comb dragged through really oily hair. This was not a car you could lose in a parking lot. Even if you tried.
The inside of the Bug was decrepit. All gauges were dead. The speedometer, odometer, and gas gauge never twitched. There was no radio. You could watch the road pass by beneath you through the holes in the floor. The rearview mirror was about the size of a business card and the rear window could be totally obscured by a deflated football. The seats were stuffed with straw, not foam. My first car wasn't pretty, and it wasn't elegant, but it worked. I could putter my way to high school and try to look cool. It was my first mobile device.
I drove the orange Bug every chance I got, always careful to get home before dark. I was very aware that my time as a driver would be limited by the progression of my eye disease. Cognizant of my future, I thoroughly enjoyed those special moments in time.
At 17 and still driving, I was preparing to leave town and move into a university dorm. I remember being outside my parent's home, standing next to the Orange Bug, when my Dad walked up to me and asked, "So, what do you think of the car?"
Thoughtless came easy at that age. I responded like a little snot, "It's junk."
My Dad paused, looked a little hurt, and then quietly said, "I was going to send it with you to college."
Sometimes, we forget just how lucky we are.
Within a few years, the day came to hang up my car keys for good. I learned to drive a white cane. I took classes in Braille, abacus, and "Cooking without looking." Higher education became more challenging. Library research materials were sometimes limited to dusty old Braille encyclopedias. Textbooks used to come on audio tapes that might, or might not, be ready before the start of a semester. Class preparation was often on hold until you could find someone willing to read critical material, often mispronounced and painfully slow. We made it work, and we were thankful, but it was all we had.
Today, information accessibility fits into my shirt pocket. My iPhone has replaced everything except my guide dog. My Braille note taker has been retired. I no longer try to keep track of loose cassettes. Even my recent Mac mini remains silent for weeks at a time. My iPhone is my primary computer, book reader, news source, word processor, audio editor, email and messaging station, AppleVis portal, social media hub, phone, and more. Earlier this month, I performed with my violin in a small concert for the first time in more than 45 years. My iPhone played the music I needed to learn, recorded my practice sessions, directed me to the recital hall, and provided me with a very convenient violin tuner. I can do almost anything with this device!
Even so, I still whine about my iPhone. I often forget the lesson of the Orange Bug. I gripe about how music or the voice synthesizer can unexpectedly start up without a gesture or a keystroke. I grumble when a particular text editing feature does not work as documented. And, I grit my teeth when the unforeseen happens. I really need to keep reminding myself about all that has been done, and how much effort is still going into making the iPhone and other Apple products even more accessible. We have come a very long way.
Despite my teenage thanklessness, the 1955 Volkswagen really was exceptional. So is my iPhone. And, so was my father. Even though I should have more carefully considered my answer on our driveway so many years ago, my Dad still sent me to college with the Orange Bug. To my Dad, I would have loved another chance to say, "Thank you. This is great!" Lesson learned. And, to those who made my iPhone so accessible, I'd like to say the same.
*** G. Morgan Watkins enjoyed a long working relationship with both The University of Texas at Austin and Guide Dogs for the Blind. He is now happily retired, pondering how lucky he was to have finished the first draft of this remembrance on Father's Day. Morgan has written nine other blogs for AppleVis, including “Socially Inept: Trying to make friends with Facebook”, “Second Career: Putting retired iPhones back to work” and “Dancing In Sand: Ferrite Audio Editing on the iPhone”. He deeply appreciates your comments and feedback.