This article, I am going to have fun writing it. I have wanted to just sit down and write about some of the funny stories and comments that have been made to me over the years and situations that I have been in. When I think about these, it makes me smile, shake my head, and laugh. We all have had comments made to us and been in situations that may not be funny at the time. I am glad the Good Lord gave me the personality where I can laugh at the situation and go on. My view is that if I don’t over react then it becomes a learning experience for the individual that makes the comment and everyone that witnesses this as well. I hope that you can laugh with me as you read these. Life is too short to take everything that is said and experienced so personally. Now, I give you permission to laugh with me. Let’s have some fun!
Most of the funny comments or stories have come about when I have been running, talking with individuals, or speaking to audiences at special events. I am so thankful that I have every one of these memories. Many of you know that I am vision impaired, a marathon runner, and that I have had a very successful working career. I started sharing my life story in 2002 which has allowed me to experience most of the things that I will be telling you about. I broke 40,000 miles in the spring of 2002 and the first newspaper article was written. After this article, I was being asked to share my story with others. I will try to write and tell my story in order according to the year it occurred. I hope you enjoy this!
The first story occurred in the winter of 1985. It was a very cold and snowy winter. I lived in St. Joseph just north of the Buchanan and Andrew County line. I still had some limited sight and would run with a ski mask when it was 10 degrees and below. The ski mask had only an opening so you could see out of. It covered your entire head and face. I had run many times up and down the highway called Business 71. There was a small Bank at the corner of County Line Road. I just happened to also bank there and knew the bank teller and branch manager.
One evening, I ran by the Bank on the shoulder along the highway. It was a split highway with a grass median in the middle. I heard and saw two cars go North bound, one was an Andrew County Sherriff car and the other one was a Missouri State Highway Patrol car. I was running on the south bound shoulder of the divided highway. They had their sirens and lights on and driving very fast. Suddenly, they made a turn and were coming towards me. One of them pulled in front of me and the other one behind me. They jumped out of their cars. I immediately thought that my cousins were playing a trick on me and set this all up. I had cousins that worked for both the Sherriff’s Office and Highway Patrol. So I said, “What’s wrong guys? Was I speeding?” They found no humor in this and I found myself in the back seat of the Highway Patrol car going down the highway. They both pulled into the small bank. They opened the car door and took me in. I was asked to remove my ski mask for the Bank employees. I removed my mask and said hello Cheryl and Nancy. One of the officers said, “Is this the man?” They both said, “NO! Hello Dennis!” He is one of our customers. I ask what was going on. They said that the Bank had been robbed by a man in a ski mask. In the future, I was a little cautious running by that Bank especially wearing a ski mask. I would not recommend wearing a ski mask into or close to a Bank. It is funny now but not so much then.
The next story took place in September 1999. I had been living in St. Louis and was transferred back to St. Joseph. My vision had deteriorated to where I could not see for a while when going out to run because of the bright sun. I would walk and run using the feel of my legs. This was a new subdivision that I had never run in before. I would walk up the sidewalk feeling my way by letting my running shoes hit the grass edge along the sides of the sidewalk. I never thought about how this might look for the neighbors. I went the same way every day teaching myself the course that I wanted to run. I spoke to the same woman every day. After a while, I would hear her yelling at her children to hurry and get into the house. I didn’t know what it was about. I just kept doing the same thing each day and she would get her children in the house as I came up the sidewalk.
One evening after work, I was walking up that sidewalk. I was met by one of my neighbors. I introduced myself and shook his hand. He said, “Would you do me a favor?” I said, “Sure! What can I do? ” He said, “Would you stop drinking and coming out to run drunk.” I told him, “I am not drunk but blind”. He said well that is great. Just keep your running up! Every day after that, the children were allowed to continue playing in their yards while I ran. I never would have thought about someone thinking that I was drunk. Well, welcome to the neighborhood Dennis!
In the same neighborhood, about six months later, I had another funny thing happen. I was running along the curb when a pickup came around the corner going way too fast. The driver went up on the curb right in front of me. I heard him cussing and then he yelled at me, “Are you stupid, drunk, or blind! I replied,” One of the three! Have a great day!” I just started to laugh while I ran away from the pickup. I am glad that I took the higher road with this situation. It might have been different if I wasn’t in a hurry to get home. I had to get ready for work. I would have liked to have known what he was thinking when he heard my reply.
I continued to run and speak when requested. I had run a couple of marathons for charity in St. Joseph. I was becoming pretty well known in the area because of television interviews and newspaper articles. I was a member of our Church Hospital Ministry Team. One Sunday in 2003, I went to visit a woman in the hospital and her daughter and husband were there. The husband recognized me from a recent article in the paper. He came over and shook my hand. He said it is nice to meet you, Dennis. He turned to his wife and said come here and meet Dennis. Dennis is a blind runner. She said that is wonderful! She told me that she was a High School Counselor and a huge fan of Special Olympics. “I wish you the very best in that Special Olympics event next year”, she said. Her husband immediately apologized for his wife. I told him that it was fine because I am a huge fan of Special Olympics myself. The next year, I scheduled a visit to her school and spoke with the students. I am sure that she hoped never to see me again after that day at the hospital. Surprise! I knew that school was going to have a visit from me to present disability awareness training. Now that was fun!
Just a few months later, I was asked to speak at a Church dinner for the adult Sunday School Classes. This was a large Church with over a hundred adults there. My Mother and I attended the dinner before I was to speak. Our table had about six couples sitting with us. I introduced myself and I thought that everyone knew that I was the guest speaker. Well everyone knew except one woman at our table. Most of us had finished eating and my Mother went to get some dessert. That woman took up a conversation with me. She said that she was an elementary school teacher. We had spoken for a few minutes when she started talking about the drug problems in the world. She said, “I believe that most of the diseases and disabilities are caused from the parents being on drugs. The schools are seeing the effects of drugs on our young children. I believe that probably our guest speaker is blind because his Mother took drugs while she was pregnant”. You could have heard a pin drop at that table. I didn’t know what to say with that comment. I knew that I was about to start my presentation. I said that I didn’t believe that was the case. Her husband immediately told his wife who I was. The interesting thing is that she never said anything after that. I guess I would have expected her to apologize. I did just like I did in the story above. I contacted the school where she taught and presented a disability awareness presentation. I would have liked to seen her face when I walked into the gym that day. In my mind, I could hear her say, “Oh No, it is him”! I know that she was extremely lucky that my Mother didn’t hear her comment and because of that, she is still alive.
In 2005, I decided to run in nine rural counties around St. Joseph in a five day period. The purpose was to develop and encourage disability awareness in the rural communities. I spoke in all nine counties in schools and Senior Citizens Centers. I would run five miles Tuesday through Friday that week in one county in the morning and then another one in the afternoon. I set it up so that I could run with the children on their school track. On Saturday, I ran on the campus of Missouri Western State University to complete a marathon and break my 50,000 mile goal. That was a fun week with many funny things happening.
Running with the children was a blast. The children would take turns running with me on the track to complete the five mile run. I especially remember running with the kids on the Northwest Missouri State University campus. The second and third grade classes from the Maryville School met me at the campus to run. I remember running with this one little girl. As we started the second lap that she ran with me she said, “Why do you do this? This is so stupid”! All that I could do was laugh. I said “I know, it is just what I do!”
A lap later, another little girl said, “I think that you have broken my legs! I may never be the same!” I agreed to slow down and walk with her for a while. I ask her if they were better. She said that she thought they were healed and she would be okay. I loved all the conversations with the children that ran with me. One little boy stated that if he had my legs he could run better. He was just born with bad legs.
The run at NWSU still sticks in my memory today. After the five mile run, we had a question and answer session in the parking lot. There were so many great questions about my disability and how I can do what I do. It came time to wrap up the question and answer session but one little boy had one more question. This boy ran with me about 3 laps. He was such a delight. He talked real fast and was difficult to understand if he was excited. I told him to go ahead and ask his question. He was so nervous but finally got his question out. He said, “How long have you been paralyzed?” Everyone laughed at that question. I laughed as well but immediately felt bad for the little boy. I said, you meant to ask how long I have been blind, right? He said yes. Oh I loved that question about being paralyzed. When I told some friends about this we all agreed it was priceless. One friend said that I may need to change my running style.
In that same week, I spoke at 7 schools and 4 Senior Citizen Centers. I remember a couple of things that happened at the Senior Centers. I would talk right before they served lunch. One gentleman came into the Center and came up to shake my hand. He said, “I hear we have a blind man talking today. I sure hope he doesn’t talk long because I am hungry”. “Have you met him?” I replied. I have heard he is a great guy. I would have loved to have seen his face when I started speaking.
I had a very unusual question ask of me at another Senior Center by an older woman. During my presentation, the woman asked me if I was married. She said that she was 85 years old and still wears a swim suit. She went on to say that she sunbaths topless on her deck and did I have any interest. Now that question and comment totally took me off Gard. All I said was well, good for you. I then went on with my presentation. I have laughed about those comments for years. I didn’t know that women could be so bold.
In my previous occupation, it required me to fly on my own a lot. I always had great assistance from the gate and flight attendants. One day in 2005, I was going to fly to Chicago. I was preboarding the plane with the gate attendant lending me her elbow. They called for preboarding and many individuals jumped up in front of me to be in line to board when they started regular boarding. This was a Southwest Airlines flight which had no assigned seating. Everyone wanted to be first on. The gate attendant came back to get me. We were weaving through the people and their roll on bags. A woman had an issue with me preboarding. She said, “You need to wait your turn! There is absolutely nothing wrong with you!” The terminal before this was very loud but it became dead silent. I turned to the woman and explained that I couldn’t see, the young gate attendant was assisting me, and told her I was sorry. As I walked away, I turned to her and said it will be okay because I am also the co-pilot for our flight. The terminal was definitely silent then. I started to laugh and so did the gate attendant. Suddenly the whole terminal went up in laughter.
I boarded the plane and was sitting in an aisle seat towards the front. I was feeling good about myself because I made fun of the situation. Then I felt a woman tap me on my shoulder. I knew it was that woman and I thought, Oh no! She said that she was glad that I got on the plane safely but thank God I wasn’t flying today! I believe that several individuals learned that day that individuals with disabilities can live a very normal and independent life.
A few months later, I flew into Chicago on my way to Madison, Wisconsin. I was waiting to board a flight in O’Hare Airport. The plane was a small one that required us to go outside to board. The plane was boarding and the gate attendant called for an assist to help me outside and board. The supervisor for that department walked by and the gate attendant yelled at him. She told him that I needed an assist. The Supervisor said that he would send someone with a wheelchair. I heard him say that and I said I only need an elbow and I can walk. He said Mr. Atkins, you will ride in a wheelchair just like every person with a disability. I said that is not necessary. He yelled back as he was walking away and said, you will ride in the wheelchair. I was mad at this point and I turned to the gate attendant and said, “we will just see about that!”
The Supervisor and his employee returned bringing a wheelchair. The Supervisor said, Mr. Atkins get in the wheelchair! He said that the wheelchair was assigned to the employee and it had to go with him. I said oh I understand, the wheelchair has to go with us. He said yes. I turned to the employee and asked him to get in the wheelchair and I would push him while he tells me where to go. The Supervisor said, are you serious? I said, “I am not going any other way”. The Supervisor turned to the employee and asked him to walk me to my plane and he watched the wheelchair. The man that helped me started laughing once we got out of sight of his Supervisor. He told me that he knew some day that man would be put in his place. I handed the person four dollars as a tip and he refused it. He told me that I had already made his day. He gave me his business card and told me to call him any time I flew into O’Hare and he would help me again. I made a new friend during a bad situation.
I moved back to St. Louis in July 2007. I moved into a new subdivision that had 110 lots with only 20 homes built. Every few months someone would be moving into their new home. I was out running, training for an upcoming marathon. At this point, I had pretty well memorized the streets that I ran on. I had been out running for about two hours and had identified where the parked cars and construction equipment was. When I train for a marathon, I might run 4 to 5 hours at a time. The subdivision had 5 streets which were about 1¼ miles around. I was on the back side of the subdivision when a large moving truck parked in front of a new home. One of my neighbors was having their furniture and appliances delivered. I decided to speed up for the next hour. I came running around the corner and down the hill straight up into the back of the furniture truck. I just about wet my pants while I was running up the truck ramp.
When I ran up into the back of the truck, there were two men in it. The one yelled, “What are you doing! What are you doing?” I said that I am a blind runner just out for a run. I ran back down the ramp and around the left side of the semi-trailer and got wedged between it and the mailbox. One of the men came down the ramp and said, “You are, truly blind!” I said “yes, help me find the middle of the street”. I thanked him and said I will be running by your truck for at least two more hours. The man said well okay. Please be safe! This scared me at first when I ran up that ramp, but now it is hilarious.
I was out a few months later in this subdivision when a woman approached me. She told me she lived in the neighborhood and didn’t like me running in the street since I was blind. I told her I had been running for years and that I would be fine. She told me she had a brain injury a few years ago. She asked if I would sign a release stating that if she runs over me with her car accidently and kills me that my family would be restricted from suing her. She didn’t want her children to lose their inheritance. She had already had an attorney draw up the document for me to sign. I told her definitely not! She became very upset with me and joined some of my neighbors to get me banned from running on the streets in St. Charles, Missouri. You can read about this situation in two of my previous articles titled “A Story of One” and “A Story of One Part II”. Who in their right mind would sign a document like that! Maybe she should have stopped driving and stayed off the streets herself.
My Mother had double knee replacement in July 2012. She was sent to a rehab center for physical therapy. I stayed with my sister and went to visit my Mother every day for three weeks. Mom and I got to know the other patients pretty well. One of the women Mom knew and would sit with her at meal time. They had a dining room which most of the patients would gather to eat. I had visited with this woman several days. At lunch one day, the woman decided to comment on my appearance. She said, “Dennis, you are really handsome for a blind guy!” I didn’t know how to respond so I just said thank you. I just smiled because I didn’t know what a blind guy should look like. Then she immediately said, “So what do you do now since you can no longer do anything for yourself?” I just said “well, I keep very busy”. She went on to say that it’s good that you keep busy. My Mother said she wanted to go back to her room. While walking with Mom she said, “What is wrong with that woman?” I told Mom it was okay and just laughed about that for hours. I just couldn’t believe that anyone would say those things. That woman just had no filter. I am sure she had no idea that her comments would be offensive.
I have more children’s stories that I would like to share with you. These occurred in October 2012, when I moved to Viburnum, Missouri. The first one, I scheduled a Saturday morning run with the children in our community at the high school track. I wanted to get to know the children and their parents since I was new to the community. I dearly loved this morning because of what the young children said. One little boy stated that the doctor had told him not to run because he had a serious heart condition. I immediately had him stop and walk instead of running. We walked around the track and I went to find his mother. I ask about her son’s heart condition. She said he didn’t have heart problems. She immediately told him to get out there and run with me.
A little girl told me while running that she had serious lung problems. I ask about this and she said every time she runs, she can’t breathe good and her heart beats fast. She said she probably should watch instead of running. She didn’t want to die. I told her I would prefer that as well. Guess what? Her mother also said that she was fine. Some of the things that children come up with. Now isn’t that funny!
One day I was out running, learning how to run on Walnut Street in Viburnum, when I was stopped by a man in a vehicle. He asked me if I was lost. I said no. He said he was an ambulance driver and noticed that I was weaving all over the road when running. I told him that I was blind and was teaching myself how to run on this street. He laughed and said that is great. He thought that I was lost or drunk. I said no, just blind. We both laughed and have become friends. He now serves on our Board of Directors.
I could continue to write about a hundred more stories and comments that have been made over the years. Every one of these has touched my life in some way. Some were funny right then when they occurred and some have become funny over time. I have learned to laugh at almost everything now. If I can laugh and share these with others, the greater chance they will develop a better understanding of what it is like to live with a disability.
I see it as my role to help others feel comfortable being around and getting to know individuals with disabilities like me. I want to encourage and demonstrate to individuals with disabilities that they can do anything that they set their mind to. I am all about every person having independence and living a normal life in the community of their choice. The idea is to never give up. We all need to laugh at things that occur in our lives. If we can, then our lives will be full of joy. I encourage you to stop taking things so seriously. If you can find the humor in things, then your life will be full of laughter and happiness. Once you start, this behavior becomes second nature.
I encourage each of you to stop and think about the funny things that you have experienced in your life. I am sure you have had adults say things to you that were off the wall. Can you remember the silly things that your children, grandchildren, or other children have said to you? If you can remember these, then you can easily relate to the things that I have experienced. Please join me in my laughter. You can use my saying as well: