Good afternoon to all. Today, in the Saturday Surprise column I’ve a special treat. Some time back, I posted the first part of this story, then guide dog school and on top of that our move happened and I lost track. So, today, I’m posting the story in its complete form.
Normally, I’ve a wordcount I try and go by but since I run the show, my rules are at times meant to be broken.
Anyhow, I hope you enjoy this great tale by Tony.
Straight in the Eye
Anthony R. Candela
“My God, honey. Hang on!” I could barely hear my wife’s terror-stricken screams through the din of engine noise. She rode, nearly hysterical, in a jeep about 30 feet behind me. The driver, a man of African descent whose mischievous smile glinted in the late afternoon sun, was having an enormous amount of fun — mostly at the expense of the cherry-blonde white woman who sat next to him.
She had reason to worry. The view she had from behind was of her husband, riding precariously on a very small motorcycle, sandwiched between a crazy driver in front and a scruffy man, eyes bulging with fright, barely perched behind. Her husband held onto the driver with one hand, the other busy pressing a dirty rag to his right eye. His feet dangled in the air for lack of foot pegs. There they were, three grown men hurdling down the main street of Puerto Plata, a small resort town in the Dominican Republic.
Puerto Plata lies in the northern part of the Dominican. At the time, not too many Americans went there, preferring instead to spend their Caribbean vacations in Puerto Rico, the Virgins, or other islands to the south. My wife selected it because of the low rates offered by the resort. We were on the ”shoulder”, as they say in the travel industry. Soon it would be winter, and prices would go up all over the Caribbean.
Although not overly publicized in travel literature, the omnipresence of begging children in the streets of Puerto Plata probably turned off many American tourists. “Why are you going there,” my friends in New York asked us. We knew many Dominicans who live in New York who constantly sent money back home to help out impoverished relatives left behind. There was a certain loyalty to their country. Many of our Dominican friends made frequent trips back home to spend time in a place they truly missed. “We think it’s a nice-sounding resort and we can afford it,” we answered.
We knew the Dominican might be slightly adventurous, but the fact that lots of Europeans could be seen around the resort informed us that perhaps prejudice kept Americans from embracing such a beautiful place. Thus, it was no surprise to find that we white ‘Americanos’ were regarded with both deference and disdain by the Afro-Dominicans who comprised most of the service personnel, shop keepers, and children we encountered. We said to each other, “If we avoid acting like ugly Americans, we’ll be just fine.”
The Dominican Republic shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, its neighbor to the west. When Columbus and his brother settled there in the 1490s, they commenced a process that led to the current population of the island consisting of a mixture of white Europeans, black Africans, and although almost extinguished by European-borne disease and near-genocide, native Americans. Over the centuries, the island has been variously controlled by the Spanish, the French, and the Spanish again, and, through a number of dictatorial and quasi-democratic regimes, the Dominicans and Haitians themselves. Today, the DR has a stable government, but wrestles with poverty and class distinctions that seem to have evolved along racial lines. Guarding its border with an even more impoverished country to their West is just one way Dominicans try to prevent themselves from becoming even poorer than they already are. Another is tourism.
It was the fall of 1996. I’d just had an accident, but couldn’t tell exactly how badly I had been hurt. As we sped down the street, making sharp lefts and rights in response to shouts from the jeep driver, all I could think of were two things: First, I hope these people don’t take advantage of the sorry tourists they hold in the palms of their hands. We certainly were vulnerable. They had given me a vague idea of where we were going, but should I believe them?
My other thought, incongruous as it might seem, was a testament to the prominence that sports held in my life, a fascination also held by many Dominicans. The final game of the World Series was scheduled for later that day. The Dominicans are rabid baseball fans and there was no doubt when we planned the trip that we would be able to watch the games from our hotel. Unfortunately, at the moment, hanging on for dear life while careening around corners of unknown streets in an unfamiliar town, it sure looked like my plans to nestle in my hotel room with my wife, a pitcher of piña coladas, a tray of tapas, and the television were about to be dashed.
My wife, an avid horseback rider, managed to convince me to go with her on one of those resort beach rides advertised in travel literature around the world. This didn’t happen without protest. “You know I’m afraid of riding in places where they don’t speak English,” I whined. “I can’t control a horse as well as you can. I’m afraid I’ll end up off a cliff or something.”
My wife was a skillful rider. She had taken lessons, even daring to try her hand at competitive dressage. “Don’t worry,” she chided, patting my head to assuage the fears of the little boy she saw before her. “The itinerary calls for a leisurely ride along the beach. There will be nothing to crash into or fall off of.”
I played my last card. “What about the game?” The Yankees stood ready to win their fourth game against the Atlanta Braves and with it, the World Series. As a native New Yorker and lifelong fan, it would have been the first time I’d seen the Bronx Bombers win a series in more than twenty years. My wife, while appreciative of the moment in baseball history on which the Yankees were poised, couldn’t dislodge herself from her first love, the Mets. She continually reminded me about the last time (1986) the Mets won a Series, chiding that it was less than half as long ago as the Yankees.
Dragging me to my feet, she pronounced, “We’ll be back in plenty of time to see them kick butt.” (If she had known that four years later the Yankees would beat the Mets in a World Series, she might not have been so generous!)
Everything would have been fine if the horseback riding guide hadn’t been in such a hurry to get to his own tapas, piña coladas, and perhaps, the World Series too. We arrived at the paddock and were greeted by three horses and a disheveled man who acted as though he were in a hurry. “Aquí.” (“Here.”), he practically ordered. “Vamonos.”
“He must be our guide,” deduced my wife. “He doesn’t seem very friendly.”
Indeed, compared to the embracing manner in which most of the people at the resort had treated us, this man, who spoke no English or wasn’t willing to let on if he did, acted coolly. Unlike even the least skillful English speakers at the resort, he made no attempt to converse with us. He looked unkempt and didn’t seem to care to make us comfortable. Not that my wife needed it, but the guide didn’t even offer her , a petite woman of 5 feet, 4 inches, a step-stool to assist with mounting.
Mildly alarmed, my wife instructed, “Ask him where everybody is.”
“He says there’s only the two of us.
Don’t these rides usually have a dozen riders?”
Recovering, she said gleefully, “Then, let’s go. We’ll get the royal treatment.”
“Or the bum’s rush,” I answered apprehensively.
It was time for me to come clean about something else. I have a bit of trouble – well, a lot of trouble — with my eyesight and worry about things like failing to see the edge of a cliff or overhanging branches, or my horse seeing a rattlesnake or something else I can’t see that might make him run amuck. I knew my Spanish wasn’t good enough to explain the nuances of my vision, so I didn’t try to tell the guide that I could see some things, just not everything. So instead, I just said, “Soy ciego.” (I am blind.)
First, he nodded. Then, as comprehension sunk in, he reacted exactly the way I thought he might. The guide shook his head, saying with a mixture of conviction and fear, “No es possible.”
I decided that there was no way I could successfully convince this man that, with some acceptance and just a bit of extra help, someone with poor eyesight can do a lot of things. Since he seemed more interested in getting the ride over with than anything else, I gave both of us an easy way out. I explained in broken Spanish that my wife would take care of me. This seemed to satisfy him and he relented.
Taking my hand, the guide led me to a horse, placed my foot in the left stirrup, and, overdoing it, tried to lift me into the saddle. If this had occurred in the States, I would have been upset. My expectation would have been for something more sophisticated like, “How can I be of service?” But, since he had capitulated without too much of a fight, I let it go.
Gently removing the guide’s hands from my rump, I nimbly hoisted myself onto the horse, swinging my right leg in an exaggerated arc, trying to disprove the guide’s image of my helplessness. I had another agenda. I wanted to debunk a myth, promulgated mainly by women, that men’s legs and groins are usually too stiff to gracefully swing onto a horse. My wife and I had joked about this whenever she wanted to convince me that women athletes were just as good as men.
I landed in the saddle with only minor pain to my nether regions. Smiling to the guide, I hoped I’d fooled him into thinking I knew what I was doing. When I heard a stifled chuckle waft from my wife’s direction, I knew I hadn’t fooled her.
The other thing I would have expected in the States was for the guide to hand me a helmet. Since I couldn’t remember the Spanish word for helmet, I also let this pass. This turned out to be a big mistake.
We began our trek. My wife took the lead position. The guide strategically placed my horse behind hers and he followed. I began to relax. Nestled between two experienced riders, what could happen to me?
The guide held a stick with a piece of cloth attached to its upper end. Presumably, he had created this make-shift sign to make our cavalcade more visible to unsuspecting bipeds. He called out directions in Spanish, apparently expecting the horses to respond. Supposing I should take an active role in the ride, I acted as occasional translator and commentator. “This is going to work just fine,” I called to my wife. “I’ll know which direction we’re supposed to turn in plenty of time to react.”
“Great!” she replied. “This will be easy. All we’re going to do is ride out on the beach, turn around, and come right back.”
The ride turned out to be more interesting than I thought. As the horses, probably bored with a route they traveled several times a day, sluggishly tip-toed through the sand, I noticed that our path took us close to the water’s edge. The scenery got really interesting when I began to discern that the bodies lying on the beach were, for the most part, all nude. Dark-skinned Dominicans lay in clusters, interspersed with light-skinned Europeans, including a group of blonde Scandinavians, who appeared completely unafraid of sunburn. My wife called back, “This doesn’t seem right. These horses are dropping dung on the same beach where these people are lying.”
I thought, “We are indeed in the third-world.”
In what seemed all too short a period of time, we reached a point, known only to the guide and the horses, when it was time to turn around and head back to the corral. “Excuse me,” he called in Spanish. Hearing the guide’s voice, my wife looked over her shoulder and, seeing his hand-signal, turned her horse around. After just enough hesitation to cause me a moment’s panic, my horse followed suit.
Suddenly, the guide began shouting. The horses, familiar with the drill, increased speed and moved to the right, away from the water. We accelerated. I grew tense. “Why are we going so fast?”
“It’s getting close to five o’clock. I bet he wants to be done by then,” my wife called back. Clamping my thighs tighter to the saddle, I tried to calm myself, thinking, “At least this will guarantee we’ll be back in time for the game.”
We rode for a few minutes, my attention waning as I got used to the pace and feel of the horse bouncing under me. The path ahead was dappled in shadow, mixed with bright patches, suggesting that trees were nearby. We’d moved so far away from the water’s edge that there were no people to stare at, no waves to listen to, and nothing to keep me from drifting off into my own thoughts.
Then, for no apparent reason, my wife called out to me. “What did she say?” I wondered, pondering the single syllable that reached my ears. It took a while – at least a full second — and then my brain deciphered the utterance. The word was “Duck!”
At the exact same moment, my sunglasses took the full blow of something hard. I heard the crack of plastic, and felt my head jerk back. It occurred to me that, whatever had just happened, it certainly was interesting that it ended almost immediately after it began. Strangely, the hardness of the blow was also accompanied by a softness that made it feel almost benign.
Time can sometimes stand still when the body is under attack. I thought, “Good thing whatever I hit was soft.” Next, I reasoned, in order to be able to ride faster, we’d moved far away from the people lying on the beach, wandering too close to the trees. Indeed, that’s exactly what had happened. A straggling branch, hanging from one of the palm trees we had encroached upon had gotten the better of me.
Miraculously, the horse stopped dead in his tracks the instant he felt the impact above. Had he kept going, I might have been swept off his back, landing in a clump in front of my guide riding close behind. As it was, the damage was limited to the point of impact. I thought, “At least I don’t have to spend the next six months in traction, or worse.”
My face felt naked and the world around me had turned glaringly bright, the sunglasses having been swept away from my head. Suddenly, my attention was focused. Blood streamed down my cheek and my right eye felt as if it were on fire.
I got off my horse just as the guide scrambled from his and ran up to me. My wife, also at my side, saw the blood, and screamed, “Oh my God. What happened?”
“I should have ducked faster,” I quipped. “I didn’t understand what you said.”
Realizing that first aid was in order, I asked the guide for his rag. “It’s filthy!” my wife exclaimed. “What do you plan to do with it?”
Holding it up, I said, “I’m going down to the water, soak this thing in salt water, and plaster it on my face. Let’s go,” I ordered.
We trudged down to the water’s edge, my wife guiding me around beach blankets, a growing spate of onlookers, and straight into the water. Contrary to what most people might think, the cool salt water didn’t hurt. The lens from my sunglasses had missed the eye itself, piercing the skin at the corner. It felt swollen and misshapen. Ignoring my wife’s protests that the dirty rag might cause an infection, I hoped the cool rag would soak up the blood, stop the bleeding, and tone down the swelling.
Turning to step out of the water, the dripping rag pressed hard against my eye, I noticed a crowd had gathered. Hearing only Spanish, I assumed they were concerned Dominicans, locals who had come to the scene to problem-solve. We couldn’t go to the hospital, someone communicated to me. “The police must be involved if one goes to an emergency room. That is trouble. Go on the motorcycle. They will take you to a clinic.”
I was placed bodily onto a bike. Instructions were shouted. Just before we took off, I heard my wife yell, “What about me?” I attempted to get off the bike and go to her. The guide, having already jammed himself behind me, held me down and said, “No problema. Your wife will ride in the jeep.”
The bumpy ride seemed interminable. My legs ached holding them away from the hot muffler below. My right arm cramped trying to hold the wet rag against my eye. My energy sagged each time we made a hard right or left turn. I had no idea where we were going; I only hoped we would get there soon and unscathed.
Fortunately, I’d had a lot of experience riding motorcycles as a youth. My brother and I owned small bikes similar to the one we rode down the streets of Puerto Plata. I thought I even recognized the high whining sound of a Suzuki engine beneath me. I instinctively knew when to lean and when to keep my torso straight. Unfortunately, the guide riding behind me had no such talent. Each time the bike did anything at all, he clamped his arms tighter around me and seemed to struggle to keep from falling off the back of the bike. “I wonder if you can ride a horse any better,” I thought to myself.
After what was probably only a 15 minute sortie, we arrived at what appeared to be a professional office building. My wife hurried to my side, helping me to dismount the bike while the guide, the jeep driver, and my crazy biker rattled off a plan. Then, our benefactors hurried us down a flight of steps, through a short maze, and into the clinic.
We entered a small waiting room. Thankfully, the place seemed clean. A smell of antiseptic permeated the air and no grime came up on my fingers when I touch the furniture. “This seems to be just what they said it would be,” I whispered. “Don’t worry. It feels like the walk-in clinic that we use back home.”
The room was empty except for a grouchy receptionist who had just begun closing up the office for the evening. Probably to avoid trouble with the police, our escorts made their getaway, leaving the guide with us.
“Who will pay,” the receptionist asked in Spanish. I motioned in the direction of the guide. He immediately protested, pointing back in our direction. I’ve never been much for bargaining. Fixed prices give me comfort. My wife, on the other hand, was great at it. A few minutes later, yelling and pointing, she managed to cower the guide into offering his company’s credit card to the receptionist.
As if on cue, the doctor finally appeared. Satisfied the business was going to be taken care of, he led me to the back room. I told my wife not to worry; my confidence in the Dominican medical system had just been bolstered. Its obsession with money was familiar and this, in turn, was somehow reassuring.
The doctor guided me to a low cot. “I’m going to look at your eye,” he announced in Spanish. After a minute’s inspection, he said, “You have a severe cut, nothing more.” I thought to myself that, even if he was wrong and I had a broken bone or two, he would at least cleanse the wound and sew me up. That would give me time to get to a better doctor.
The doctor rummaged in his cabinet for what seemed like an inordinate amount of time. When he finally returned to my side, he carried what sounded like a tray containing scalpels, and an assortment of non-metallic items. His nurse had joined us. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t have the proper sutures.” He continued, “Don’t worry. These will be fine.” In my best Spanish, I asked him what this would mean. He repeated his assurance that everything would be all right and proceeded to wash my face, taking care to be gentle around the site of my injury. I felt better.
The nurse administered analgesic and the doctor began to stitch. My wife called, “Are you OK?” Sensing that she might be conjuring images of back room quackery or, even worse, a Frankenstein novel, I answered, “I’m fine. He seems to know what he’s doing.”
I closed my eyes, feeling my body relax as if I’d been administered anesthesia. I could hear the doctor’s breathing in my ear and feel only the slightest sense of needle pricks as he stitched. I’d received stitches before and this felt familiar. Giving in to the moment, I determined to make the best of what didn’t appear to be such a bad situation after all.
Finishing, the doctor washed his hands and asked the nurse to escort me to the waiting room. He suggested I have the resort physician look at my eye in the morning. Inspecting his bandaging, he patted my shoulder, pronounced his work good, and affectionately pushed us out the door.
Feeling a bit groggy, the thought of getting back to the hotel buoyed me. As we rode in the cab, the guide kept his head down, not daring to look at my wife’s angry face. He paid the tab, clearly making a big show of it for her benefit. I was too tired to express my anger, but felt vindicated by my wife’s spewing enough bile for both of us.
Secretly, we chuckled at the distress we knew the guide was feeling. Although we would discuss it later and decide to let the matter drop, we knew that if we reported the incident to anyone in officialdom, the hapless man would probably lose his job. Ironically, it was entirely possible that both he and I had the same goal: to get the ride done so we could get to our piña coladas and ball game.
The resort doctor told us the stitching was as good as it was going to get. There would be no sense in removing it for finer threads. He suggested the cooler climes of New York would reduce the chance of infection and that I should seek plastic surgery if the injury healed badly.
Happily, we did manage to get back to the hotel in time to catch the last half of the Yankee game. It was especially sweet to be waited on by a doting wife, and, as planned, to imbibe piña coladas and munch room-service treats. We conducted a post-mortem on the day’s events.
“I knew something was wrong when there were no helmets,” my wife concluded. “If this was in the States,” she continued, “there would have been more safety precautions.”
“Well,” I shrugged, “let this be a lesson to us. As soon as we get home, I’m buying a helmet.” If these rides continued to be this interesting, I thought, recalling the nude bodies on the beach, I might invest in a riding outfit. “And, for heaven’s sake,” I protested, “please yell louder the next time you want me to duck!”
We fell into a reverie. The rum flowed through our veins, engulfing us in the kind of glow that often follows a traumatic event survived. Exhaustion would have overcome us after such a rough afternoon except for one thing: The Yankees had won the 1996 World Series. It was time to celebrate!
More About Author Anthony R. Candela
Anthony R. Candela is semi-retired from a professional career in the field of blindness and visual impairment spanning more than 40 years and also a “retired” athlete (wrestler and long distance runner). He loves movies, sports, reading, writing, and music, including dabbling in guitar. He is interested in enhancing the success of blind persons who wish to work in the computer science field.
Mr. Candela has published two books, a memoir and a science fiction novella. In his memoir, Stand Up Or Sit Out: Memories and Musings of a Blind Wrestler, Runner, and All-around Regular Guy, he traverses a lifetime of challenges. Some of these are accidents of birth like his poor eyesight and slow trek to blindness and some are of his own making like choosing to compete as a scholar-athlete. Infused with lots of New Yorkana, a touch of California, and a few related historical references, this memoir conveys that in any environment, life does not always follow a prescribed course. Moreover, as humans, all of us are imperfect. This includes people with disabilities who are often thought of as transcendent beings, but who should also be regarded as “all-around regular guys”.
In his dystopian novella, Vision Dreams: A Parable, Mr. Candela, a self-described “Trekor” and “secular humanist”, show the extremes to which societies and individuals will go if sufficiently frightened (especially if science and technology permit it), in order to achieve, if not happiness, then at least relief from tyranny.
Over the years, Mr. Candela has published short pieces in various organizational newsletters and magazines as well as several professional articles in peer-reviewed journals including the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness.
Most recently, Mr. Candela has worked as an Outreach Coordinator for Bookshare (adapted books for people with reading barriers) and on leadership development and employment projects with American Foundation for the Blind. My professional career has included leadership positions with the Dept. of Veterans Affairs and California Dept. of Rehabilitation and various leadership and technical positions with the American Foundation for the Blind, Lighthouse International, and the New York State Commission for the Blind. He is proud to have served on several Boards of Directors and Advisory Councils over the years. In 2020, he received the Steven Garff Marriott Award for lifetime achievement from the American Foundation for the Blind.
Anthony’s writing and marketing goal in his own words is…
To express my memories, musings, and dreams as reflected through life experiences and to talk about my books which do likewise about the past and future.
Contact Anthony at:
Purchase his books at: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Anthony+Candela&i=stripbooks