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A Lighthouse To Guide Soldiers

Creator: Walter A. Dyer (author)
Date: July 6, 1918
Publication: The Independent
Source: Available at selected libraries

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THOUSANDS of miles away from Amiens and Verdun, on the other side of a great ocean, we study a war map, and with varying feelings of apprehension and hope we watch the shifting of the battle line. That line represents for us the ebb and flow of the tide of war -- the War for Democracy. It also means miles of trenches, thousands of cannon, millions of men. It is difficult for us to visualize the single soldier, the sentient human being who holds his infinitesimal place in this great frontier of liberty, fearing, suffering, perhaps dying. When our own boys begin to come home, maimed and broken, we shall understand. But up to this time, who of us that has not been there has been able to put himself in the place of the individual Tommy or poilu, to think as he thinks and feel as he feels, to suffer with him, and to look out upon the future thru his eyes? Eyes, did I say? Sometimes there are no eyes.


Try to picture a French peasant or clerk, mechanic or shopkeeper, a young man full of hope and ambition, betrothed to a village maid, with all of life glowing bright before him. The Hun breaks loose; the War has come. He kisses his sweetheart goodby and goes forth to face the danger, to stand long hours of vigil in the trench mud, to bend his back to the spade -- heartbreaking work for the saving of France.


There comes a day when a shrapnel shell bursts above his head and the world goes black. He is borne to a hospital, and when at last consciousness returns -- pitiless consciousness! he learns that his eyes are gone, and perhaps an arm as well. The glory of combat is over for him. Gone, too, are all his life's hopes. He is a helpless, worthless wretch. Independence is henceforth impossible for him; he must not hold his fiancée to vows granted to a whole man; life holds nothing for him. Suicide is too often his refuge.


In Paris, at 14 rue Daru, there is a typical French mansion of three stories including the mansard roof, in which there dwells a company of these French soldiers blinded in battle -- les aveugles de la guerre -- who are laboriously, patiently and cheerfully learning to live without eyes. Already there have gone forth from its walls hundreds of men with hope reborn within them and with hands trained to earn a livelihood without the assistance of eyes. What the Hun has stolen from them the house on the rue Dam, so far as is humanly possible, has given back. And all because an American woman was vouchsafed her vision.


Last winter la Gardienne, as she is affectionately known among her pupils, wrote a letter home which gave a vivid glimpse of the life at 14 rue Daru. It told of the entertainment which the blind soldiers got up on Christmas Eve in honor of their patrons, and it overflows with the spirit of their gratitude and their rekindled hope.


The blind men refitted an old stage in the historic music room on the top floor and trimmed a Christmas tree. Programs of the entertainment were printed by the blind men on their own press in ordinary type and ink and also in Braille, the raised lettering of the blind. A young soldier, his sightless eyes bound, wearing his hard-earned decorations -- the Medaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre -- came forward and sang a ballad in a sweet tenor voice -- "Si j'ai pleure pour vous." Then a blind Samson, who had already gone forth to earn his living as a stenographer, sang with great earnestness the Christmas hymn, "Long lay the world in sin and darkness pining," and there was no doubt that he felt to the uttermost the meaning of the words. Another played the violin. There followed a riotous debate on "la femme" by two irrepressible blind conferenciers, and more singing and vaudeville.


Many readers are familiar with the name of Miss Winifred Holt and with the work of her Lighthouse at 111 East Fifty-ninth street, New York. This woman had already found her work and when the great call came she was ready. Miss Holt was an authoress and sculptress of distinction who gave up a brilliant career for one even more honorable. Some years ago, while in Italy with her sister, Miss Edith Holt, now Mrs. Bloodgood Baltimore, she became interested in the discovery that the Italian Government had arranged "blind seats" at the opera, at concerts, and at some plays. Upon their return home the sisters endeavored to persuade American managers to provide similar facilities for the blind, assuring them that the blind guests would be neat, that they would wear darkened glasses to conceal their infirmity, that they would be accompanied by a sighted guide, and that they would be content with the undesirable seats that did not command a view of the stage.


Miss Holt's efforts to arrange these details brought her into contact with the home conditions of the blind and led at length to the formation of what is now the New York Association of the Blind, which recently issued its eleventh annual report. Miss Holt was instrumental in securing openings in 1912 and 1913 of the Emma L. Cornwall-on-Hudson Hardy Memorial Home at Cornwall-on-Hudson, the well equipt Bourne workshop for blind men on Thirty-fourth Street, New York, and the Lighthouse on Fifty-ninth Street, the headquarters of the association. Here hundreds of blind persons have been educated and made self-supporting.

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