It’s Meet the Blind Month, so let’s meet some of the Vail Valley’s blind
Go ahead and ask if you can help — they'll tell you
EAGLE — Jon Asper flashes a million-watt smile as he empties a clip on the machine gun some friends helped him fire at a local gun range.
“Did I hit anything?” Asper asks, since he can’t see anything at all.
“There’s nothing special about me. I’m just blind,” Asper said.
Meet the blind
October is Meet the Blind Month. If you’re lucky you’ll meet Asper, ReNae Anderson and a few others around the valley. Anderson is on Colorado’s state board for the National Federation of the Blind and heads the state’s Mountains and Plains at Large Chapter.
Anderson prefers to be called blind because, she says, that’s what she is.
“Others prefer visually impaired. They usually have some sight,” said Anderson, who doesn’t.
If your vision is 20/200, you’re legally blind. You can still see some things, but you need large-print books and a voice synthesizer for your computer and phone. You cannot drive, or you’re not supposed to. Anderson smiles about being behind the wheel at least once since she lost her sight at age 27. A reaction to birth control pills caused swelling of her optic nerve and wrinkled her retina.
“It’s such a thin, fine tissue that when it hits the air it breaks and dies,” Anderson said.
Your retina is a little like gold leaf that way, she says, only more valuable.
“A blind person is just like everyone else. We’re not to be feared. We can do everything everyone else can do. We just do it differently,” Anderson said.
She was a graphic designer before she lost her sight. She had to go back to school for vocational rehab, lessons that included learning to get around with a cane, which she hated. She now has a seeing-eye dog and teaches art with the Vail Valley Foundation’s Youth Power 365.
“A blind lady teaching art and I’m pretty darned good!” she says smiling.
She has a second job with Caregiver Connections.
Anderson went back to college and earned a second degree in social work from Colorado State University in Fort Collins. That’s where she met her husband, an Army veteran back in school after fighting in Desert Storm and Desert Shield.
To help, just ask
Here’s a little etiquette. Ask a blind person if they want help. They’ll tell you, Anderson said.
“I prefer someone asking than not asking,” Anderson said.
Also, tell them what you’re doing. Anderson says she appreciates it if someone holds her door, but let her know with a simple, “I have that door for you.”
“My dog is trained to take me to the door and wait. I’ll be reaching to push on the door and it’s not there because someone is considerately holding it for me,” Anderson said.
People are curious, especially young people.
“I always tell the kids, ‘If you have questions, ask,’” Anderson said.
There was the kid in Walmart who asked if she’d be in trouble for bringing her dog into the store. She explained she needed the dog because she’s blind.
Memorizing the Marine eye chart
Asper started losing his sight in the fourth grade with what used to be called “lazy eye.” It wasn’t. Nothing about Asper is lazy.
“It’s not your fault. Being blind is the card you were dealt,” said Asper, who plays every card with passion.
His great aunt raised him. He says she probably spent $150,000 trying to get his eyes fixed.
She died when Asper was a teenager, so he went to work in the Somerset coal mine near Paonia. His vision cost him that career, a twist of fate that saved his life. His mining crew was sent to South America and was 2,700 feet down in the ground when an explosion killed his former coworkers and several others.
He was positively giddy when he was drafted into the Marines. The Battle of Khe Sanh was raging in Vietnam and he wanted to fight. To pass the physical he memorized several eye charts because he knew the medics changed the chart every dozen guys or so.
While everyone on the plane headed for basic training in California was dressed in regular Marine clothes, Asper donned a serape and a huge peace sign.
“I was the happiest guy on the plane. Everyone else was whimpering and crying,” Asper said.
As they were preparing to land, Asper snuck into the lavatory and changed into his jeans, boots and cowboy clothes.
“They thought they’d lost someone. They were looking for the hippie,” Asper said laughing.
On the shooting range during Marine basic training, Asper memorized how the targets moved. His shooting was so good the Marines considered sending him to sniper school. Finally, though, the Marines figured out that he couldn’t see and sent him home.
He landed in Eagle County driving bulldozers and other heavy machinery for the crews building Interstate 70 through Eagle County. At night he tended bar and was a bouncer at Bernice’s Place bar in Eagle. He joined the Eagle volunteer fire department and served for nearly 34 years, half of it as chief, coordinating traffic for eight U.S. vice presidents and First Lady Michelle Obama.
“Most people didn’t know I was going blind when I was fire chief. I look people in the eye when I speak to them. I hear where they are,” Asper said.
You’ll see him walking Third Street in Eagle with J.C., his 140-pound Rottweiler. As he and J.C. stroll through town, people stop to greet him with “Hi chief!” His work with Eagle’s seniors caught President George H.W. Bush’s eye. Bush honored Asper with a Point of Light Award.
Former Rep. Scott McInnis read a long list of Asper’s accomplishments into the Congressional Record, opening with, “Mr. Speaker, to place your life in danger for the sake of others is an honorable and noble task, and that is what firefighters do regularly. Chief Jon Asper of the Greater Eagle Fire Protection District is a local legend and hero whose main goal is to serve his community.”
Asper didn’t know it was happening.
“Why would you do that?” Asper asked McInnis.
“Because you deserve it,” McInnis responded.
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