Dip Room Blues

Read more about this in Men Without Fear, available at Amazon.

After missing a year of high school to a life-threatening illness, Fred Tarrant would need an extra year to earn his high school diploma. Not a great student to begin with, he found himself falling just short of the credits he needed to graduate. Unwilling to trade discrete favors with one of his teachers, he returned home in 1946, sans diploma, to Saratoga Springs to work at Tarrant Manufacturing. He started in the factory dip room, alone, hooking machine frames onto an electric lift and lowering them into huge vats of paint and thinner, afterward sliding each frame over a thirty-foot drip pan. He did this over and over while, unbeknownst to him, the lift threw sparks here and there, trying its best to set the place on fire.

By 1952, Fred had saved up just enough money to fly to Managua, Nicaragua and marry his sweetheart Odilie. He’d met her years back at the Institute when she came to train at working with the blind. Fred and Odilie returned to New York and started a life and a family together, while Fred continued to work at the factory, climbing up the corporate ladder to supervision and design.

In late 1968, after 22 years at the factory, Fred’s eyesight entered a phase of rapid degeneration. Within six to eight months, the remainder of his eyesight was lost. His father Fred Sr., at the prompting of his older brother Bill, wrote Fred out of the family business.

Bill Tarrant was far from fortunate, having been stricken with the same vision disorder as Fred but also cursed with polio, yet he was the eldest son. He had the power. Bill was a tough customer when it came to sharing the family spoils, and he made sure the business would be all his. Fred was now totally blind and unemployed, with a family to care for. Odilie, having to consider their two children, contemplated leaving Fred, who though fearing that his brother might go so far as to murder him, made preparations for suicide.

There was little or no fraternity of the blind to fall back on or even to commiserate with. For most of the kids at the Institute, the society of the blind was a society of workshop laborers. There was a strong sense in which the only escape for these kids demanded that they escape each other. Reading the few autobiographies and recollections available, one is given the impression that each writer saw himself as the sole survivor; on his own in a windowless capsule upon a sea of sighted people. Each one might as well have been the only one.

Fred’s buddy John Jensen was far off on the California coast, married with five kids, building a prosperous business and dreaming of moving back to South Carolina to spread God’s Word. Fred probably hadn’t talked to John in over a decade.

Louis Mitchell wasn’t so far off, an English professor down in Pennsylvania, finding his place in the Civil Rights movement. Fred called Louis once or twice, hoping Louis had heard from John.

Arthur Torgersen, married with four kids (so far), was still in the New York area, working as an electrical engineer. Though Torgersen and Jensen had seemed like twins at one time, they seemed to have lost track of each other completely.

Gene Manfrini had a good thing going tuning pianos, and though he had a band and a name among New York musicians, it seems none of his former schoolmates were aware of it.

Anthony Mattei had his family and was teaching math out of the edge of Queens. He’d never showed much interest in keeping connected to the blind crowd. He wasn’t alone in that regard.

The list goes on.

In the end, Fred didn’t use the hanging rope, and Odilie—she held on.

Tapping his industry experience, Fred started his own manufacturing business, but he could barely manage to break even, so after four years of that struggle he gave real estate a try. That kept Fred, Odilie, and their two kids sheltered and fed for twenty years. They then moved to Naples, Florida, where after some time Fred got involved in municipal government.

As a city councilman, Tarrant once made the news by objecting to the public display of artwork on city property that he deemed inappropriate. Some people found this laughable, seeing that Tarrant was blind, but of course people regularly express opinions based on accounts from trusted sources. When a blind man does so, some people don’t judge him by the same standard. But no matter: Fred battled on.

In 2005, Fred and Odilie cashed in their chips and retired to the mountains of Costa Rica. The summer heat in Florida had been hard on Fred, so he is much more comfortable at a kilometer above sea level in the highlands of Costa Rica. After a decade in Odilie’s native Central America, Odilie passed away. Now she has joined the ranks of the absent, along with Twersky, Russell, Jensen, Torgersen, Mitchell, Manfrini, Mattei, and Downs.

Fred continues on his own, watching from his mountain porch, still sharp, writing verse and pumping iron at 90. Fred will be joining them sooner or later. He’s not a religious man, but he writes a damned good poem about God:

GOD IN A DREAM
by Fred K. Tarrant, Jr.[1]

Seen God in a dream
Seen him plain as day I did
Big scoop shovel in his hands
Barefoot, naked to the waist
Shovelin golden pea coal
Shovelin into a monster furnace.
Furnace bigger than any I ever seen.
Sparks flyin up the stack
Billions of sparks exploding
Into zillions of stars, everything all lit up
For miles around, smoke stars and sparks
God a smiling an bendin to his work.
Wanted to rap with him but seen
Him as being too busy keepin things goin
Job so big only God could do it.
Made me feel good knowin at last
How it all works and all of us a part of it.

[1] Tarrant, Fred K., Jr., ODDS AND ENDS. June 6, 2014

© 2016 Kaweah