Charles Barnhart’s Story
from “Inspirational Stories of the Visually Challenged (plus Resources)“
by Margaret Barnhart
Do you suppose I might hold a record for ways to meet a husband, as in lying naked on his massage table covered with sheets exactly the way he told me? This was my first ever massage. I was nervous. The fact that Charlie was a blind masseur made it somehow easier.
Having left the room while I prepared myself on the table, he returned. We began talking. His daughter had just moved out of town and he was disturbed because, since he was blind, he counted on her to drive him to various locations where he paid bills, grocery shopped, and went to church. He began to drink heavily but never missed a day of work.
Charles J. Barnhart was born August 22, 1935. It was a home delivery by a “country doctor” outside the small town of Piqua, Ohio. Charlie lived in Piqua and then Troy, Ohio (where I met him). His entire life was spent living in these two towns, although he did ride north to Sidney and south to Cincinnati. He travelled once to Iowa where his first wife was from.
At the age of three Charlie moved in with his grandmother because his mother had been killed in an automobile accident. His father survived but worked full time and was alcoholic, therefore unable to care for a child.
Charlie’s third grade class had just gone out to recess when “his lights went out.” In that moment he became totally blind. He saw neither light nor shadows. His optic nerve died that day. Grandmother decided she could not be responsible for this active, blind child as she was an older woman who had raised twelve children of her own. He remained close to her until her death.
The Miami County Children’s Home took him in and enrolled him in the School for the Deaf and Blind in Columbus, Ohio. But first he was taken to Fort Hayes Military Hospital where they determined his blindness was the result of being born with congenital syphilis. He was given penicillin around the clock for a “long time.” His body healed but his blindness could not be cured. The following quotation from Scripture is relevant here. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” John 9:3
While at school, Charlie had many adventures such as the “pickle eating contest.” Every student was given a large dill pickle to see who could eat it the fastest. Charlie was aware of the open window behind him and decided to throw his pickle out the window and be the winner. However, the window was only partially open and his hand hit the frame, causing a break in his thumb joint. It was not taken care of medically so he went through life with an out-of-joint thumb; a forever reminder of the day he cheated.
One day the blind children were taken downtown to the Lazarus Department Store that was six stories high. They were told to go to the escalator using their canes. Charlie had never heard of an escalator or an elevator. But he learned.
In school he mastered Braille and learned to travel with a white cane. He especially loved math and history. When the school was on holiday Charlie lived in the Children’s Home and you can imagine the stories he had to tell.
When in his mid-teens, Charlie would be taken to a street corner with nothing but his white cane and a backpack filled with brooms, dustpans, greeting cards and other assorted items for him to sell. He was pointed in the right direction and on his own he was expected to find the entrance to the homes.
That took courage and he did it for three years, with no cell phone. Of course he told stories about the day he walked onto a freshly poured concrete sidewalk because his cane went under the rope designed to keep people off. Then there was the day he went up to a house, rang the doorbell and met the butler. Heading out he went to the next walkway and since there was no doorbell he knocked on the door. The same man answered the door of the same house. In addition, there were the walks into telephone poles and unexpected dangers of such things as tricycles left on the sidewalk.
This was his life until he turned seventeen and decided to leave school before graduation. His father had a small trailer on his property and Charlie moved in. In the winter it was so cold that soda and beer stored under the bed would freeze. An aunt who lived nearby would always introduce him as, “This is my nephew Charles; he don’t see so good.”
The State of Ohio provided support to the disabled. The first job they prepared Charlie for was to be an x-ray developer. He didn’t like that idea because he loved to talk and didn’t want to be cooped up alone in a room developing x-rays.
Next he was trained to work at the Miami County Court House in Troy where he had a vending stand from which to sell coffee, newspapers, snacks, and other assorted items. Of course he handled money and never found anyone cheating him. He loved meeting and talking with the lawyers and judges.
Finally he found his calling. He was trained to give massages by a licensed massage therapist at the local YMCA and he worked there and independently for thirty-five years. In all of those years he knew of only one time someone cheated him, telling him a one dollar bill was a five. Since he folded the various denominations different ways he knew how much cash he had. He went to purchase something and didn’t offer the right amount. When the client he suspected came in again and handed him a bill he went to the front desk and asked what denomination it was. This was the culprit and she cried and promised never to do it again.
When Charlie was eighteen he was introduced to, and ultimately married Hilda, who had been born with Spina Bifada. She was thirty years old and using a wheel chair. Both legs had been removed by this time. She never went to school but she cooked and baked great cookies. Her sister taught her to read. She made a deal—“Marry me and I will be your eyes if you will be my wheelchair pusher.” He agreed. Charlie and Hilda had one child whom they named Robin Rose who lives in Tennessee and keeps an eye on her three children and four grandchildren. Over the years Charlie and Hilda purchased and lived in three different homes in Piqua.
Hilda’s health gradually worsened and she went through multiple surgeries. Whether she was in the hospital or in a nursing home, Charlie faithfully visited every day. When she was eventually moved permanently to a nursing home in Troy, twenty minutes south of Piqua, he found a low income third floor apartment across the street. He never missed a day trekking over to visit her, including in the midst of rain and snow storms, and he was with her the day she died. He lived alone for the next ten years, continuing to use door-to-door transportation that was available to the handicapped.
One day while living in Troy, shortly after joining a local spa, I was there to exercise and swim. Others told me about the blind man on the other side of the curtain in the dressing room. I noticed on Charlie’s sign-up sheet that he was free for an hour. I got dressed and offered to take him for a walk.
Looking down I saw a robin’s egg lying on the ground and picking it up, I laid it in Charlie’s hand. The robin embryo was still living and caused the egg to move. Charlie loved it and told me no one had ever done that for him. After that I began to get massages and continued for three years.
Sometime after I was divorced from my husband of twenty-eight years, Charlie asked me if I would like to go to a church pot-pie dinner with him. “No,” I replied. “I’m not ready.” He was quite disappointed because in church the previous week God told him to pour his booze down the sink because there would be an angel on his table.
Two weeks later I was ready for a date and I introduced him to lamb at a Greek restaurant. We began dating and forever after he called me “Angel.” Always in the back of my mind were my mother’s words, “You aren’t going to marry a blind man are you?” This came when I was a freshman in college at Capital University in Bexley, Ohio. I had three dates with a musician who had been blind since birth because he was given too much oxygen when born prematurely. I never asked about her motivation but that relationship didn’t continue, so it was a moot point.
In my early years as a substitute teacher, I had a blind child in my fourth grade class. I knew nothing about working with such a child. However she was quite intelligent and independent using braille textbooks, a typewriter and a Braille writer.
In gym class I began a series on volleyball and thought it was too dangerous for her to play, so I asked her to help me keep score. This brought out an angry response. She turned, found her way to the door, and using her cane she walked home; telling her mother I wouldn’t let her play. Mother came back with her and assured me she would handle it her way. That day I learned a valuable lesson—ask someone who is blind if they can manage a given task, telling them the details of what is involved.
I also learned about blindness from a young lady who taught a class for the visually impaired in the same school as I in Springfield, Ohio. We became friends. I loved visiting in the home of someone blind and watching how she managed. We would often go out to eat with her guide dog curled up under the table between our feet. The day we ate Greek she discovered an anchovy in her mouth and was not happy. Another time we were at a pancake house and she plopped a ball of butter on her tongue. Spitting it out, she begged me, “Please tell me these things.”
From these lessons learned, I was not afraid of “marrying a blind man,” and in fact, did. Charlie and I married in 1992 and stayed in Ohio for four years. And yes, my mother took Charlie up on his offer of giving her a massage. She came to the conclusion that Charlie, although blind, was a great son-in-law.
Moving to Arizona was a major change for us. It was a place I had wanted to be most of my life, and finally I had a chance to live in this beautiful state. Charlie retired from giving body massages (his customers were very unhappy) and I packed. We had a house to sell and planned a drive cross-country.
First we lived in Green Valley, south of Tucson, for five years. However Charlie became overly dependent on me. There were no activities for the blind, nor was there transportation, so we decided it would be better to live in Tucson.
We learned about Sun Van for the handicapped, providing door-to-door transportation, and then the various opportunities for the blind. Southern Arizona Association for the Visually Impaired (SAAVI) was first on the list. Charlie added to his knowledge by taking various classes for many years. Some were meant for the newly blind but even though Charlie had been blind since age ten, he picked up some new tips, such as having me mark appliances including washer, dryer, TV control, dishwasher, microwave and toaster oven. I had purchased a pliable substance that left a dot, and set up a system where three dots meant hot or large, while two dots meant medium, and one, cold or small.
I found my husband to be quite capable in handling many household tasks. He loaded and emptied the dishwasher, gathered the garbage and took it out, retrieved the mail and newspaper, and managed the laundry with my help in sorting. He never commented on colors I chose or pictures I hung on the wall! He rose earlier than me and would fix his cereal or an egg with toast (using the microwave for the egg). Next he would prepare my cereal and have it ready when he awakened me.
Charlie and I had opportunity to travel extensively. We started with a small-ship cruise to the inside passage of Alaska. We went cross-country using Amtrak to get to the embarkation point in Portland, Oregon. During the hours on the train I read to him a book about Alaska and usually my voice, along with the motion of the train, put him to sleep! We both loved the fresh air and he felt the excitement when the first morning we woke up surrounded by iceburgs.
We joined a group going to the Holy Land. This was probably the hardest travel for both of us but the reward made it worthwhile. I believe that Charlie was a good example and showed others that travel is possible for the blind. Using the white cane is the independent symbol of capability, plus it put others on the alert when it was obvious that he needed help.
Our first night on this trip was almost a disaster. We had experienced extremely long travel time to arrive in Israel and spent our first night at a hotel in Tel Aviv. It seemed to me a good idea for each of us to take a Tylenol PM. Charlie had never had one. In the middle of the night I heard a door close. After looking around the room and checking the bathroom, I found no Charlie. The door I heard had to be the one into the hallway. Looking out, in my nightgown, I saw him at the far end of the hall. With a soft, loud, “Psst,” I called his name. He heard me and started inch by inch in the right direction; however, he was turning the handle to every room along the way. This was thankfully the only time he sleepwalked.
We also did cruises to Hawaii, Columbia and Snake River in Oregon, and several more in the Caribbean. A Disney Cruise, with my two sons and their families, was surprisingly wonderful. I expected a lot of noise from children, but that was not the case.
As a couple we joined a Lions Club and helped with various projects. We became members of a church and were active in several groups.
Charlie continued taking classes at SAAVI and advanced his cooking skills. He tried out some of the meals at home and was quite proud of himself. He took a large number of painting and craft classes including helping with a wall mural, using clay, copper tooling, and sanding and glazing all sorts of vases and plates that were then fired in a kiln. His family and I treasure them. Wherever he was, he said something that made people smile and understand that their life was not over because they were blind or had developed vision loss.
We heard about a new group forming for the blind and visually impaired. The name of the organization was Tucson Society of the Blind (TSB). The difference between SAAVI and TSB was in the leadership. SAAVI was “for” the blind with mostly sighted teachers, and TSB was “of” the blind. They offered weekly gatherings with speakers and many field trips. The Board was made up of mostly blind and visually impaired members.
Charlie’s daughter and grandchildren live in Tennessee, and my two sons in Ohio. Every year we travelled east to visit—often driving cross-country with many motel overnights, since I was the only driver. Charlie was an easy traveler as long as he had his Sirius XM-Radio and talking books. He took over the back seat. Only once did he get in serious trouble. I had gone down the hall of our motel to do laundry. Charlie had a bad habit of exploring the room whenever I was gone. He found a bag that appeared to be marshmallows and popped one into his mouth. It was a detergent pod!
I believe that the blind have more than five senses. Sight may be gone, but there is a sense of environment and nature that surprised me. Sounds are not only measured in loudness, but also distance and size of a room. The blind feel with their feet in ways I never thought of. When we lived in Ohio, Charlie could sense distance and tell me we were coming up on a particular exit and he was right (most of the time).
I don’t recall him ever complaining about his blindness. Several times he mentioned he wished he could see my face and those of his family. Outward appearances meant little, although he did want to know what clothing I laid out for him each morning and often asked me what I was wearing.
Charlie and I had been married almost twenty-four years the day he died in November, 2016. That came after three days of non-stop activity. He didn’t get up at his usual 6:30am and later when I checked on him he was no longer on earth. He had gone to be with the Lord. Marrying a blind man was perhaps the best decision I ever made, especially since that man was Charles Barnhart.