I really started to read in earnest as my sight began to fail when I was twelve. I had learned how to read a few years earlier, as any kid would, but this became more of a secretive, obsessional delusion, a pondering over words that left me groping and gasping, wandering through the corridors of etymology and wondering about the consequences of language. These activities were strangely both unhealthful and unlawful for me at the time.
In fact, reading was forbidden. My eyes were just too sensitive to tolerate any light. I had spent the previous summer in a perpetual squint, unsuccessfully trying to lure potential playmates into innocently sandy pleasures under the board walk in Long Beach, Long Island, cool and protected from the blinding sun.
Two large brown doleful eyes : irritated, itching incessantly with a dry rasp. In the mornings, they were caked with a congealing discharge and had to be bathed with boric acid solution. My left eye was constantly at half-mast, its lid drooping like a punctured parachute. Often, when I was awake, my vision would be blurred by bitter, seeping fluids.
Any aversion to so fundamental a quality as light might suggest a metaphysical dimension "Optics", the medical term for "sight", derives from the Greek word for "eye" and is the root of the word "optimism". We associate the light with everything positive in our world, with knowledge, happiness and nature's bounty. Indeed, although my condition was medical, it had spiritual origins of which I was unaware.
Afflicted by a rare condition known as vernal catarrh, a growth on the inner eyelids encroaching on the cornea, I was limited to radio, and eagerly anticipated each spooky episode of Lamont Cranston in The Shadows, or The Lone Ranger, the western adventures of the masked man on his white stallion who posed as an outlaw but always did the right thing. I could listen to early monologists like Jean Shepherd or even occasionnally Lord Buckley, or tune in to Symphony Sid, who played jazz until dawn. There was a special license in this activity which was out of parental control and exclusively in mine. Except for the radio and the cooling, tranquil dimness, I had only the slow passage of moments. Living without shadows, behind venetian blinds which were taped into place so that even a breeze could not disturb them, and unable to see invited access to an interior space usually unfamiliar to twelve-year-old boys. One way to reach that space was through reading, which had been placed out of bounds for me because, of course, it required light and strained my eyes.
Disabilities can cause their curious compensations, but my case was a story of disobedience as well. I had announced that quality of troublesome prankishness at the age of four, when I threw my grandmother's hat out of the window.
My father's mother, Manya a small, scowling woman who limped with a cane suffered from an advanced case of diabetes which would end her life shortly. She had every right to be peevish and irritable. Her illness and consequent frailty provoked me, and by sending her hat with its artificial roses and veil cascading down to West End Avenue on a blustery afternoon, I was voting for health, my own at least. I admit the incident left me with a certain reputation for wildness in my family, and it did nothing for my health.
My bedroom prison was a place of safety, as every bedroom is a sanctuary of sorts. Reading, mostly at night when everyone else was asleep, defied the injunction of my mother and the ophthalmic surgeon who every few months decided he had to curtail the growth approaching my cornea. This operation which Dr. Chamlin minimized as a "procedure", was the most frightening aspect of my childhood. Strapped on an operating table, I had to watch a needle delivering the anesthesia penetrate my inner eyelid, gradually piercing deeper, burrowing and slicing, while releasing its liquid. Years later, I saw a similar tableau of horror flash by in the opening moments of Un Chien andalou, a short fim by Buñuel in which, early in the film, an eye is sliced by a razor blade, its contents pouring out like an outsized tear.
All I would feel during the procedure was the dry scratching of the scalpel as the growth was being removed. A meticulous spider was trapped in my skull, engaged in a sort of paraplegic Kafkian crowl to freedom through the portal of my eye. Although the surgery lasted less than ten minutes, it seemed endless. Dr. Chamlin was a very short man ressembling the actor James Cagney. Imperious, almost Napoleonic, radiating authority and control, he ordered me into my dark room after his seventh attempt at shaving my inner eyelid.
Copyright © John Tytell