BY LARRY PORTER
(WORLD-HERALD STAFF WRITER)
Published November 19, 2006
TEKAMAH, Neb. – Among Richard Crawford’s prized possessions is a .45-caliber pistol that his father-in-law carried during World War II. Crawford, 56, a financial planner in Sioux City, Iowa, has completely refurbished that beloved pistol. The handle has even been fitted with ivory grips. The pistol is not for show. It isn’t on display in some fancy wall mount or glass-enclosed cabinet. No, even though he is blind, Crawford uses the pistol for target practice. For years, Crawford has taken his pistol to the farm of a friend who is a doctor. The target this day was a battery-operated Christmas bell, which Crawford declared expendable because of its annoying tone. “It drove my ears nuts because it was a little flat ” Crawford recalled. “I put six shots pretty darn close to that bell. My doctor friend had a brand-new .357 magnum. He handed it to me and told me to try it. I pulled the trigger and hit that bell. A dead shot.” The amazed friend asked Crawford how he had done it. “This doctor had a blind son, who was young at the time,” Crawford said. “I said, ‘Doc, it doesn’t happen if you stay in the house.’ I was trying to teach him a lesson. It wouldn’t happen for his kid if he stayed in the house.” A retina disease claimed Crawford’s sight when he was 10. “As a child,” he said, “my folks were too dumb to know that their blind kid wasn’t supposed to run chain saws, change oil in trucks, change spark plugs, rotate tires and work around the house. My dad taught me to do things like electrical wiring and plumbing. He didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to teach a blind kid those things. He didn’t let these so-called sighted professionals put me in a box. “I tell the joke that my brother always wanted to use me for second base, but at least I was in the game. It drives home the point.” * * *
It was the opening morning of Nebraska’s rifle deer season, and the three men tried to be quiet as they climbed the ladder to the tree house that serves as a deer stand. It was well before dawn, and at that point two of the men were disabled because of the darkness. But not Crawford. Being blind, he was in his environment. “Listen to the turkeys,” Crawford whispered to Ernie Glup of Tekamah, Neb., a semi-retired dirt contractor on whose farm Crawford was hunting, and Dr. Everett “Buzz” Madsen, an Omaha eye specialist. Crawford’s companions strained to hear the turkeys. Not until five minutes had passed – after the turkey chatter had grown increasingly louder – could they hear the birds. By then, Crawford knew how many birds were in the trees and their locations. Madsen is president of the Nebraska chapter of the Safari Club. He and Glup have hunted together for more than 25 years. They were here this morning because Madsen had asked Glup to donate a deer hunt for a disabled person to be auctioned during the Safari Club’s annual banquet. Madsen bought the hunt himself with the intention of finding a handicapped person to take to Glup’s farm. He told Dr. Howard McCutchan, a Harlan, Iowa, optometrist, about the hunt. “If you’re going to take a handicapped guy,” McCutchan said, “why not take a blind guy. I’ve got a friend who is just crazy enough to try it.” * * *
Crawford grew up in Grinnell, Iowa, where his father owned a tree service business. At age 10, he went to the Iowa School for the Blind in Vinton, but he was booted out after his ninth-grade year. “I was just so darn ornery,” Crawford said, laughing. “The superintendent had a policy that he didn’t punish a kid the first time he’d do something wrong. But he used to say, ‘Crawford, would you quit figuring out new things to do?’ I was finally asked not to return.” Crawford implored the Grinnell public school officials that he be allowed to attend high school there. “I begged them to let me try public school,” he said. “That was back before handicapped kids were being integrated into schools. The superintendent looked at my grades. Since I had mostly Ds and Fs, he wasn’t very impressed. He looked at my brother’s grades. That didn’t impress him, either. But he finally agreed to let me try it.” Crawford made the honor roll that first nine weeks. He then settled
into becoming a strong C student, heavily involved in school politics, drama, sports and other activities. He found that wrestling was the sport for him. He averaged about 19 wins – a dozen by pins – each of his three seasons. He qualified for the state tournament as a senior. “Do you know when I won most of my matches?” Crawford asked. “In the final 30 seconds. I couldn’t see the clock, and I didn’t quit early. I’d pin ’em when they flat ran out of gas or when they looked up at the clock and said, ‘Whew! I’ve about got it.’ then I’d flip ’em and stick ’em.”To make up for not being able to see, I spent time getting in better physical condition. You could be bigger and tougher, but if you ran out of gas and I still had some energy left, I could beat you.” * * *
After McCutchan called with the news that a deer hunt might be in the offing, Crawford began to figure out how to make it happen. Answers to questions finally led him to Ted Hart of Mount Pleasant, Iowa, whose brother built an offset scope for a 30.06 rifle. That rifle, along with a companion who could see through the scope and tell Hart when to shoot, allowed him to realize a dream. After getting the approval of Madsen to be the recipient of the hunt, Crawford borrowed the rifle and went to Glup’s farm to practice. Glup stood to the right of Crawford, almost head-to-head, as they prepared to fire. Glup peered through the scope and placed the crosshairs on a 45-degree angle exactly 31/4 inches up and to the right of where he wanted the bullet to hit. Although Crawford held the rifle against his shoulder, Glup placed his right hand beneath the forearm to guide and steady the aim. “We got to where we could hit a target at 100 yards and group the shots pretty close together,” Glup said. The second time Richard came, we actually got up in the tree house and practiced from there. That’s when I really became very comfortable about it. I knew he could kill a buck.” * * *
Crawford’s family was poor, and supper often was rabbits, squirrels and pheasants provided by his hunter father. But those days in the field with his father also filled Crawford in other ways. He fell in love with the outdoors. This blind youngster would never stay in the house. Crawford even hunted pheasants after blindness blackened his world. “They make a ton of noise when they take off,” he said. “It scares the pewaddle out of you if you’re not ready. But by sound – and if you get lucky – you can shoot a bird.” Crawford hunted with his brother and with friends. One day, a friend took him out and he shot a bird. Unfortunately, it was a hen. “The guy said, ‘What are you going to do if the game warden stops us?’ I told him it wasn’t my problem. ‘What do you mean, it’s not your problem?’ I said, ‘Do you really think a game warden is going to believe a blind guy shot that hen? It’s your problem.'” Crawford specialized in solving real problems. For instance, he loves to roar down snow-covered Colorado mountain slopes on skis. “I hire a guide to ski behind me,” Crawford said. “We wear headsets – surveyor walkie-talkies that are voice-activated. He talks me down the mountain. He tells me the slope is cutting off to my right, that trees are on the right so stay to the left, that people are coming from the left. I can see the mountain in my mind’s eye. “It’s much better now. Before, he could just holler three commands – left, right and stop. Back then, I just hoped he never said, ‘Whoops!’ * * *
The early-morning light began to nibble at the darkness, and dark blobs slowly became trees and bushes. Glup and Madsen watched for deer to appear at the edge of the woods that bordered the meadow. Suddenly, Crawford pointed toward a patch of timber about 50 yards from the tree house. “I couldn’t tell what Richard was pointing at,” Glup said. “I got to
thinking – can this guy see a little bit? Finally, four does stepped out of the timber right where he had pointed. I asked him why he had pointed. He said, ‘I heard them coming through the trees.'” The three saw dozens of deer that day, but all the bucks were small. At 4:45 p.m., a bigger buck stepped into the meadow. Madsen’s range finder indicated the deer was 180 yards away. Glup bent into the scope. Crawford nestled the butt of the rifle into his shoulder and reached for the trigger. The shot rang out, and the two who could see began to verbally paint the scene for Crawford. He had to sift through the shouts and babble, but he understood that the buck jumped when the bullet hit, took a few steps, then fell to the ground. “When I heard, ‘It’s down,'” Crawford said, “it was such a rush. Money can’t buy that feeling. It was a natural, God-given feeling that was just wonderful.” * * *
Sara Crawford, who can see, was asked how she met her husband. “On a blind date,” she said, laughing. “I know that sounds terrible, but it’s true.” A computer screen sits on Crawford’s desk in his Smith Barney office. He taps a command, and some financial figures pop up that his clients can read. But his screen is a green strip below the keyboard that provides a braille printout. The blind boy who once was so proud to earn Cs now manages money for clients who live in 27 states and five countries. Crawford has been told that within five years the transplant of miniature cameras in his eyes could give him sight. “If it happens,” he said, “it will be wonderful. But the good news is that it doesn’t matter. What else can I have in my life? I’ve got all the money I want. I have good health, a great family, good kids. I couldn’t script a better life, even if I could see. “The Apostle Paul teaches us to be content in all things. I think the lesson is simply that I can’t control the deck of cards in life, but I sure can control how I play the hand.” * * *
After the buck dropped, the three men in the tree house whooped, hugged and pounded on each other in jubilation. “We truly went a little wild,” Glup said. “As we walked down to where the buck was, Richard said, “Fellas, we need more people like you to help people like us.’ That’s when it really got emotional.” The emotion is still thick. “This is more than a blind guy shooting a deer,” Crawford said as tears welled in his sightless eyes and his voice began to quiver. “It was a bonding. Together, we made it happen. The best part was when we were loading the deer into the truck. We knew this friendship was bonded. It will last a lifetime.”
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