Monday, May 13, 2013

The World Through Sam’s Hand

After taking a hiatus from the narrative of blind and deaf Samuel W. Bean of Alameda, California, to celebrate everything from this blog’s anniversary to everyone’s Mother’s Day, let’s return, for a few more days, to close out Sam’s story.

While Sam hadn’t enjoyed as much media attention in his family-man phase of life as he had in his earlier student years, apparently the Oakland Tribune had a few more good words to put in on his behalf, once the war was over.

We’ve already read the November 1, 1947, announcement of the new edition of his poetry book. This was followed, only eight months later, by a feature article in the Tribune. Under a two-part headline stating what had by now become the traditional portrayal of the man—“Alamedan Prospers, Plays Despite Blindness, Deafness”—reporter Elinor Hayes (or a nameless editor) added a poetic touch: “Black and Silent World Conquered By Samuel W. Bean.”

The story beneath this predictable pronouncement seemed to take up the old breathless affect. The reporter rehearsed all the usual introductory remarks: that Sam was both blind and deaf, that he hadn’t been able to see or hear anything since the age of thirteen—yet despite that, he had managed to hold to a cheerful, can-do attitude.

Still at the same address after all these years—1807 Santa Clara Avenue—the fifty-two year old man was again billed as a salesman and poet. There were a few additions, though. For this sketch, Sam’s reputation was expanded to include the labels “chess champion” and “philosopher.”

Of the “philosophy” angle, Sam’s interviewer explained,
He gets along with a philosophy and joy that would do credit to the most fortunate man in the world.
The reporter observed,
His world is completely black and silent, or so it would seem. In it he has made himself a bright, prosperous citizen. His hand, and this is characteristic of his whole attitude toward life, is his only contact with life and is held out as gaily as that of a candidate.
Considering that “not a sound or sight but memory has entered his life since he was thirteen” and that he hadn’t “heard a word in thirty nine years,” it may be no surprise that the Tribune article, once again, took on that aura of amazement. Here was another reporter, taking on the assignment of interviewing the same man we’ve had the opportunity to know and observe through nearly a full lifetime. Perhaps that was awe-inspiring for a first-time encounter.

After all, as the reporter observed,
He never saw his wife or two sons. All their smiles, affection, problems and normal family expressions could only be brought to him through their fingers tapping words out into his hand.
A new theme seemed to emerge with this story—though perhaps we could sense this message coming through in earlier articles. The reporter explained, “He regards himself as ‘master of my fate’” which Sam demonstrated “by the fact that he goes out alone whenever he wants to play at the Chess Club…or anywhere else.”

Chess, of course, had become the new love in Sam’s life, ever since he had lost his wife so many years ago. This July 5, 1948, Oakland Tribune story, itself, ran fifteen years almost to the day after Maud Woodworth Bean’s passing. With the same level of energy he and Maud had once poured into touring to promote his writing, Sam was now consistently focusing on the world of chess tournaments.


  1. Your title plus the paragraph that you quoted last drive home what it meant to be Sam. That he never saw his wife and children, their affection or their problems, is such an unfair reality. Often we know someone is hurting not by their words but by their expression, or body language, or tone, or by what they don't say. It must have been difficult to come across as a warm, loving, supportive father when denied those visual clues that are so revealing and important in communication.

    1. Wendy, you are absolutely right about the difficulty of coming across as a warm, loving supportive father. In the few pictures I've seen of Sam--admittedly in his younger years--he came across as so stiff and formal. Just the very affect you mentioned. That must have been a challenge for him.

      On the other hand, Sam had two things going for him. First, he was a real people person. He thrived on being with people. Hopefully, that came across on the home front as well as when he was out in public.

      Secondly, despite the truth of your assessment of an "unfair reality," Sam had to make a choice: whether he was righteously going to take his stand as martyr in the face of that unfair reality, or buck up and find a way to enjoy what part of life he still could enjoy. He evidently chose that latter path, and apparently his cheerfulness was infectious. Let's hope it was so in his home as well.

  2. So he carried on with his life just as it was after Maud must have been hard for him. Silent and Dark..I cannot imagine it:(

    1. Silent and Dark really became a motif for Sam. I don't know whether he played that theme for his "public" or whether he dwelt on it much in his own mind. He did stick with that "new love" of chess after Maud died, but that family seemed to have an intensity of purpose that would make such a reaction seem plausible.

  3. My older brother can not hear his sons talking - and they say horrible things knowing this. I hope Sam's kids were a lot nicer.

    1. Wow, Iggy...the first reaction I had to reading that was, "How awful!" But then, it just occurred to me: are they teenagers? I think all kids go through phases, and I think quite a few--myself included--may have found themselves at a transitory stage considered to be "lacking discretion." At least, for your brother's sake--and the sake of his sons (and their reap-what-you-sow future)--let's just hope that is the case.

      I really don't know how respectful Sam's own sons might have been. Keep in mind, Sam and both his sons passed away before I knew any of the family, so all I have to go on is hearsay. Thankfully, nobody mentioned anything like that, though I wouldn't be surprised if either of them had their moments.

  4. You can count me among those with "breathless affect." I cannot imagine how Sam found the life he did--it's beyond my envisioning. He was left only with smell, touch, and taste. I've often had the thought that all his perceptions were concentrated in his hand, and now someone is expressing it. The fact that he started his journey toward hope at 13 -- an age when many are rebellious anyway -- is all the more amazing.

    1. Mariann, you zero in on the kernel of the matter. With so many limits, Sam chose the other, less intuitive, fork in the road--not only in the opposite direction from the natural teen tendencies, but away from the dismal despair that surely enveloped him, once the reality of his future first sank into his mind.

      You know it had to be partly owing to the strong constitution and efforts of several others with significant roles in Sam's life: his mother, his teacher at the Berkeley school, for example. While it was Sam's to make the choice which way he would respond to his inescapable predicament, it was the effective teamwork of many others working together with Sam that yielded the outcome that made the difference for him.


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