I’m nearsighted. Been that way for a long time. Don’t always have my eyes checked until I notice the prescription is off. So I tend to be cautious around things I haven’t really looked at.
The cartoonist James Thurber (1894 – 1961) could find great humor in being nearsighted when he didn’t have his glasses on. He even wrote a story about it, “The Admiral on the Wheel.” I suspect many of his cartoons were engendered by something Thurber saw, or, rather, didn’t quite see.
My own experiences with blurred vision have been less happy. Though I did have one that revealed a funny aspect of child psychology. It happened in third grade. I was already quite nearsighted, so much that I had to walk up to the blackboard to copy down the assignments, but no one had noticed. Similarly, my playmates on the school grounds were nothing but blurs if they weren’t very close to me. In fact, everything was a blur. This is not ideal on an elementary school playground, where there are many hidden and obvious hazards just waiting to maim schoolchildren, and I’m not just talking about the pretend-game called “Knives” that we used to play.
One of those hazards was a jungle gym: a multi-tiered open construction of pipes that gave every child the chance to climb, jump, and dangle by their legs while five or six feet in the air. Originally, the playground had a sandy surface, but by third grade this had been replaced by asphalt, supposedly for our safety. I guess falling and grinding dirt into your scalp was unsafe, while falling and cracking your skull was an improvement. Certainly I had classmates that could have used a cracked skull.
Well, I was on the jungle gym one day, when I was kicked in the forehead by some girl wearing those nice pointed shoes young girls wore in those days in order to be respectable. I couldn’t tell you who did it, because she was too far away from me; well, her foot wasn’t, but I hadn’t gotten around to identifying my fellow pupils by their footwear. My forehead hurt, but I was a kid, and didn’t pay it much attention. Kids hurt themselves all the time. They get used to it. My brother Colin once laid open one of his fingers on broken glass, and just walked home to scare the daylights out of my mother when he showed it to her.
So, about two or three minutes later, the bell rang, summoning us back to class. I got down off the jungle gym and paused for a second before heading back into the elementary school building. Just then, I noticed something odd. There was a bloodstain on the asphalt in front of me. I touched my hand to my forehead. It came away with more blood on it. Let it not be said that I was altogether slow on the uptake. I put two and two together, and realized my forehead was bleeding from being kicked. See how the asphalt made me safer? It helped me realize I was bleeding.
Up to this point, I hadn’t really paid attention to the pain in my head. (Probably getting prepared for a lifetime of migraines.) But now I knew that not only had I been hurt, but I was bleeding! I immediately started crying out loud from the intense pain I hadn’t really noticed until that point, and ran shrieking to find a teacher who would do something for me, like make it stop bleeding, make it stop hurting, and no doubt save my life.
Well, whichever teacher I encountered first was used to kids getting injured, because she calmly took me to see the school nurse, who fixed me right up. And later that year, the annual vision test demonstrated that I was very nearsighted, and I’ve worn eyeglasses ever since. The next time a girl kicks me on a jungle gym, I will be able to identify her.
Once we become adults, we usually develop more reserved manners. We are told we should respect the rights of others, and sometimes we actually do. Which, combined with my weak vision, led to another misadventure.
It was 2003, and I was on a vacation with my girlfriend in Estonia. I had taken on the responsibility of learning Estonian, and could phrase simple questions whose answers were completely unintelligible to me. So I tried to be polite, more than I usually was. Politeness can be very helpful when you are faced with a menu you can’t read, and don’t want the waitress to bring you an order of braised tripe.
Ever since I was a kid, I had an interest in coin collecting. So one of our stops in Tallinn, the capital, was to the currency museum in the Bank of Estonia, a state institution that issues the nation’s currency. (This was before Estonia converted to the euro.) The currency museum was in the basement, and it pretty much looked like what you’d expect a museum to look like in a state bank: a single room, quiet, dignified, modern, with well-lit display cases.
At first I thought we were the only two people in the museum, as it was mid-afternoon. But, no, there were four or five people standing around. Far from staring at them, I did my best to pretend they weren’t there, even avoided glancing at them. After all, they were being quiet and considerate, too.
That was all fine and good until, as I moved along one wall, I got to the point where I was going to have to cut in front of one of the other individuals to continue looking at the display cases along one wall. I tried to formulate an apology in Estonian, failed, and figured I’d try to get by with a smile.
I looked up with a smile. The effect was completely lost on the other person. He didn’t understand that I was about to cut in front of him. And he didn’t move. It would have been hard for him to do so: he was a wax figure, a mannequin!
I nearly burst out laughing at my mistake. All the other “people” in the room, save my girlfriend, were mannequins. But what were they doing there?
In this country, we put our political leaders on our coins. In other countries, monarchs and military heroes are common. But Estonia doesn’t have a monarch, doesn’t have much in the way of native military heroes, and apparently doesn’t want their politicians to get too big-headed. So they had put literary figures on their paper money. And, with one exception, the mannequins were of some of those same literary figures. I don’t remember most of them, but there was one woman among them, the poet Lydia Koidula (1843 – 1886), who was on the 100 kroon note.
But what about that one exception? That mannequin was of Jüri Jaakson, the head of the Bank of Estonia in 1926 – 1940. In 1940, the Soviet Union occupied Estonia, which lost its independence and was incorporated into the U.S.S.R. Jaakson was removed from office, arrested, taken to Russia, and shot in 1942. The Soviets continued to rule Estonia until 1991. Their rule is not fondly remembered in many quarters . . . and that apparently includes the Bank of Estonia.