The five-year-old boy who is to become my father in 20 years stands on a platform in Newark Penn Station with his mother and father waiting for the train that will soon take him away from all he has ever known and loved. It’s September, 1931.
He hands the conductor his ticket and steps onto the train under the care of a porter assigned to him. His parents wave goodbye to him and he waves back. He is all by himself now, headed to a destination 868 miles away.
Nobody else on the train knows his name or where he’s going or, for that matter, his most defining physical characteristic – that he’s severely hard of hearing, all but deaf. Because his mother gave birth to him while she had German measles, he was born able to discern only about 10% of all sounds. He has difficulty making himself understood when he speaks, and an equally hard time understanding anyone who talks to him.
The train rattles across America, through Pennsylvania and Ohio, on into Indiana and Illinois. The boy understands only that he is going away, but has no idea for how long. Finally, he arrives in St. Louis, Missouri, at his new home away from home, the Central Institute for The Deaf.
There he will stay for the next 10 years, rarely visiting home during holidays. There, in the face of a society that regards the deaf largely as dumb – several doctors originally diagnosed him as retarded – he is to study hard. He is to learn how to speak without relying on sign language, how to listen and how to read, how to function the same as a hearing person – learn, in effect, how to hear.
For years I condemned his parents for the decision to ship him off. First, the kid loses his hearing, then his family and home, too. The decision addressed one disability but created a second one.
Because his parents dispatched him, he never learned how to be a member of a family, neither as a son nor as a brother, husband nor father. How could he? And so I held a grudge against my grandparents, a chip on my shoulder that grew bigger every year.
As it happened, the boy who became my father went on to become among the first students with hearing loss ever accepted at Washington University, and graduated from Rutgers University. In 1969 he founded a non-profit organization to establish a network that, for the first time, would enable the deaf to communicate with one another and everyone else by phone.
Toward that end, my father bought, stored, adapted, promoted and distributed teletypewriters, or TTYs. The devices materialized in homes, schools, hospitals, libraries and local police, fire and emergency call departments, first in New York and New Jersey, then nationwide. He also invented the world’s first Braille TTY for deaf-blind people.
For all his public service the deaf community honored him with awards. Bell Telephone accepted him to the Telephone Pioneers of America, only the 29th member since Alexander Graham Bell in 1911. He once received a letter on White House stationary, congratulations on his accomplishments from President Ronald Reagan.
Ultimately, then, my father learned to make do with his hearing loss. He never told me what those years away from his parents and two sisters felt like. He left me to imagine how lonely he must have felt, how homesick and abandoned, almost orphaned.
Indeed, he never spoke a word against his parents about having been a five-year-old boy sent 800 miles away for 10 years. He felt nothing but gratitude for getting the opportunity to better himself.
Only after my father died, in 1997, did I confront the underlying facts. His father had come to the United States from Austria at the age of 12, alone, with no money and barely any education, unable to speak English. He had spent seven days a week running a tavern in Newark and saved almost every penny he earned – enough, eventually, to finance an expensive special education for his son in the depths of the Great Depression. Year after year, his wife wore the same dress, unable to afford a new one.
Tuition plus room and board for one child for those ten years cost him more than later putting all three of his children through college.
My grandparents made a decision – to put education first and family second. Surely that decision came hard. Surely they felt as heartbroken as he.
My father later made a decision, too. He put work first and family second, even after his grandchildren arrived. He kept his distance from me and my mother and my sister and my own son and daughter. Maybe all he ever really grasped about family was the idea of distance. Maybe, in a sense, he never really got off that train.
Even so, it’s easy to pass judgment out of ignorance. Every difficult decision about children brings tradeoffs. The decision his parents made, with heroic self-sacrifice, spelled his salvation in a society which otherwise might have had no place for him. In the end, my grudge wound up buried alongside my father, where it belonged.