The beginning of a new year should be a time to outline a vision for the coming days, but when I see 2020 written down, the first thing that comes to mind is my spectacularly poor eyesight.
Let’s face it. Doesn’t the year 2020 make you think of 20/20, supposedly the description of ideal vision? We’re entering a year that sounds more like something you’d hear during a visit to the optometrist than the vision of whole new worlds of opportunities just over the next hill.
The fact that I can see a written 2020 at all is probably thanks to my first-grade teacher, Fern Bairey. I assume she was the one who noticed that I couldn’t see the blackboard in her classroom. I got my first set of eyeglasses shortly after entering her classroom in Reliance. Until then, I didn’t know a kid was supposed to see the shapes of tree leaves and the tassels on the ears of corn in the fields.
I had a cowlick and a round face, so when I got my eyeglasses, I looked like Ralphie, the kid in “A Christmas Story.’’ Classmates made fun of me, naturally. It was only years later that I saw a billboard with a glasses-wearing kid who looked like first-grade me. The slogan said, “Don’t laugh. Now he can see.’’ I wish I’d seen that back in Reliance.
I’ve worn glasses since Miss Bairey’s class. My optometrists told me years ago my vision was, “lousy and likely to get worse.’’ It did. Last time I checked, my vision was about 20/200 in one eye and 20/400 in the other. I got my first pair of contact lenses when I entered college, and I’ve worn those ever since, although I generally switched back to glasses when I had to work around wheat chaff or corral dust during college summers on the farm.
One of my craziest experiences with contact lenses came at the end of my senior year in college when I was considering a career in the U.S. Air Force. Along with a whole bunch of other young men who had been told they could write their own ticket if they enlisted for a four-year-hitch, I went through the physical exam process in Sioux Falls, at the Post Office building, I think it was. The impatient Air Force guy hustled us through the line so quickly that when he barked at me to “put your eyes to the scope and read the letters,’’ I did it without mentioning my contact lenses. Imagine my surprise when they rated me 20/30 and good to go for training as a navigator.
As is often the case, the loud, impatient guy whose yelling helped create the problem wasn’t the one who had to listen as I explained that my vision really was 20/400, that it probably hadn’t been anywhere close to 20/30 even when I left the Mitchell hospital in January of 1944 and that the mix-up, if truth be told, happened because the mean guy didn’t give me a chance to tell him about my contacts.
The episode kind of soured me on a career in the Air Force writing news releases for home-town newspapers about the activities of their service members. (The first time I talked with the on-campus Air Force recruiter in the spring of 1966, he asked me my major. When I said journalism, he told me there was “more than a good chance’’ that if I enlisted after graduation, I’d spent my military career at a base somewhere in Texas writing those home-town news blurbs. That didn’t sound so bad to me, although Texas?) After the contact lens incident, I never got the impression that the Air Force was sorry to see me miss out on the chance to don a uniform with “the blue from the skies and a pretty girl’s eyes and a touch of Old Glory’s hue,’’ as the song goes.
In the interests of full disclosure: The Air Force sent me to a psychiatrist because, when asked, I said I sometimes had difficulty sleeping. They’d probably have been money ahead if they’d sent me to an optometrist.