MAXWELL:  The young eyes of John Wise

9/20/1998- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


I do not recall the year during the late 1950s when my uncle John Wise died, and I do not remember how old he was. When I was 9 or 10, my grandmother said that he probably was in his late 80s.

My grandmother believed that he was born blind and never learned to read. As a young child, I became John Wise’s windows to the world _ his eyes. I read to him every day.

I was reminded of him a few weeks ago after I was asked to speak briefly at SpellDown ’98, an annual fund raiser for Read Pinellas Inc. The program is usually held in September, National Literacy Month. In deciding on the theme of the talk, I, a former reading teacher and tutor, tried to recall the events that showed me that, in additional to being a source of personal enjoyment, the act of reading can be a service to others.

John Wise came to live with my grandparents, in Crescent City in 1940, five years before I was born. I used to watch my grandfather, a pastor, prepare his sermons by reading the Bible aloud so that John Wise could listen. In time, I took over and read the Scriptures to him. He preferred me to my grandfather because I made the Bible exciting.

I would read from a standard Bible but also would describe the paintings in an illustrated children’s version that my grandmother gave to me as a birthday present. John Wise especially loved descriptions of the Garden of Eden, its beautiful rivers, the Tree of Life, “that damned snake,” as he called the reptile that tempted Eve, the lovely Eve herself and the rainbow painted against the Mesopotamian sky.

Of all of the books of the Bible, Exodus was the most fun to read. The dramatic images _ the Pharaoh, Moses among the bulrushes, the burning bush, the toiling Israelites, the plagues of frogs and lice and flies and hail, the death of Egypt’s firstborn, the Passover, the parting of the Red Sea, manna from the sky, God’s fearful presence upon Mount Sinai, the Ten Commandments _ brought us back to Exodus time and again.

As I would read, John Wise’s sightless gray eyes would roll in their sockets, and his head would rock from side to side. Both hands would rest on the cane in front of him. When he particularly liked a scene or passage, he would bang the cane on the floor, stomp and laugh.

Although the Bible was our favorite text, we had a secret: Often when my grandparents were not at home, I would drag out my stash of 25-cent Signet paperbacks that I had found in a trash can outside a house where my grandmother was a maid. The first book I read to John Wise was Chandler Brossard’s Who Walk in Darkness, a 1954 novel about a group of young hipsters in New York’s Greenwich Village. We loved the book’s irreverence, the characters’ jaded appetites for drugs and booze, the sex, their impulsive violence and profane voices.

Another favorite was Pearl Schiff’s Scollay Square, a vivid novel of Boston’s “pickup” street and a brief and violent tryst between a wealthy debutante and a salty sailor. John Wise particularly liked The Hoods, by Harry Gray. It was an intriguing account of gangster life, giving an inside view of a crime syndicate and of men who specialized in assault, robbery, drugs and, of course, murder.

He also liked radio news but favored newspapers. I would read the local paper to him, but we thoroughly enjoyed the Pittsburgh Courier and Grit, two Negro weeklies that came in the mail. The Courier was especially enjoyable because it carried the predictions of “root workers” and other assorted Negro spiritualists, and it detailed the exploits of major leaguer Jackie Robinson.

Later, after I became the local delivery boy for the Palatka Daily News, I would read it to John Wise each night as he lay in bed. By the light of a kerosene lamp, I would read the sports pages first for news of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Because of John Wise, reading became my conduit to complex ideas, distant places and brilliant people. I served him, but he also served me by trusting me to see for him. I tried to imagine living in a world of darkness as he did, depending on another person to shape the contours of reality for me, to define the signposts that literally would guide my existence.

I was a mere child, but, already, I comprehended the power of reading. I knew that it was the beacon in a world of ignorance, that it deepened human understanding.

In 1958 or 1959, John Wise died while I was in Virginia with my father harvesting potatoes. My grandmother said that he asked for me during his final hours. He told her that I was a good reader for a child.