Reconstructing Cleider Rodman

by Alice Terry

[from The Silent Worker
vol. 33, no. 8, May, 1921]

It was a beautiful April morning. The night's rain which had been gentle and abundant added new life and vigor to everything that now exulted in the glowing sunshine of the new day. Many times before the high spirits of Iren Swinburne had gone forh to meet, to revel in the compelling influence of a day like this. This time the very air seemed filled with a newer freedom---as if mankind and nature had just escaped a tyrannical bondage and were having their initial thanksgiving. Irene walked along, her air of content being heightened by the girlish straw hat on her head, by he blue bird shade of her freshly starched dress, the immaculate white shoes on her feet, and by gay pink and buff checkered market basket on her arm. "lettuce, apples, oranges, nuts-for salad; rib bone, carrots, rice, celery---." These items and others she turned over in her mind as she approached Wall and Wallen's, the corner grocery. Suddenly she stopped. An unusual site met her eyes. In front of the store, just outside the door, a khaki clad figure, an ex-solider of Uncle Sam, made a pathetic site sitting on an empty bread box, his bowed head resting heavily between his hands. No one seemed to notice him, people and traffic rushed by, apparently he was alone in his misery. "His palms cover up his ears," observed Irene, in no hurry to move on, "he is shutting out the sounds-or perhaps, who knows, he may be like me-what if he is--." The khaki figure looked up, and Irene did not finish her surmising. Ladylike she moved on.

The nest morning on her way to market she came again upon the forlorn-looking figure, seated as before on the empty bread box in front of Wall and Wallen's. This time his head dropped even lower than before. "He may be some friend of the firm," thought Irene hesitating whether she should step into the store and inquire, for she did not like Max Wall, who in defiance of profiteering accusations had developed an acute snobbishness toward discriminating buyers, among whom was Irene, and she had sore off dealing there. Being as yet a comparative stranger in the neighborhood of Normandie Junction she did not feel at liberty to inquire at random, nor did she feel it feasible to address the ex-soldier herself, fearing that it might result unduly in embarrassment, due to a physical handicap of her own, of which she became conscious only when meeting strangers. Again, unsatisfied like on the previous day, she passed him. A block further up the street, at Crystal Market, she asked about him. But the clerks did not know, evidently they had not noticed him. Her basket was quite heavy. She walked on for some minutes before looking up-to see just ahead the dejected figure still there on the bread box. A floating cloud momentarily obscured the sun, which seemed to Irene to deepen the shadow and mystery about him. An idea occurred to her. She crossed the street over in the drug store to purchase a magazine whose bright cover heralded a feast of good things within. Then she walked up to the ex-soldier, gently nudged him, and proffered the periodical. Cleider Rodman-such was his name-slowly disengaged his hands and looked up, first at the magazine, then at her. His smile reassured her, she smiled in return. His lips moved in speech, Irene said nothing. He persisted in talking. Irene placed her finger on her head and shook her head negatively. "Oh, you are that way too?" he peered at her, while the curious expression came over his face. He was pleased; above all, he was surprised, greatly surprised. He was that she was happy, which impressed him, nothing else mattered. To him she seemed secretly amused at her physical failing. His surprise and curiosity grew accordingly. "Do not speak to me, for I cannot understand," he said to her when her lips moved as if she too, would talk that way to him.

This was no less a discovery for Irene than for the solider. She was equal to the situation; psychologically, they were in the same sphere---in that world where sound plays no part; she felt at home with him, as if she had always known him. She made a sign, pointing to him, to herself, then to her home down the thoroughfare, a little way off to the left. Opening her purse, she drew forth a snap shot of two children at play, she made him understand that she was their mother and that he must go with her and see them. She had not the least misgiving, she knew that her husband would welcome him---this hero, this fellow-sufferer.

"Our hero!" Irene exclaimed to Owen, her husband, "the brother we have heard of, talked of, dreamed of; I found him at the corner and brought him home--to make him glad, O Owen, as you and I are glad!" Cleider watched them, he did not know what they said, but they were good to look at, for they were happy, very happy. To him that suffered, nothing else mattered. "Hang it!" he muttered under his breath, "and folks told me that their method, the manual method of talking is impossible, obsolete, undesirable. He watched them, to become conscious of a gladness, a new hope dawning upon him.

Irene was right. The ex-soldier was, indeed, unhappy. For sometime he had wandered about aimlessly from place to place. He suffered a sense of helplessness, a woeful incompetency; often he was afraid of himself. If he looked ahead at all, it hurt still more for it presented visions of bleak and barren future. Nothing suited him. The strange new world of silence---his deafness-into which an accident of war had forced him mystified, terrified him. It had been the wish of his family and friends that he rely upon lip-reading in communication with others. For a year he had tried it, only to find that in his case (ah, how individuals must differ) it did not work. The familiar sound of the encouraging voice was not there ; to watch the hushed motions of the lips to be in doubt and always guessing, guessing was too much for his sensitive organism. He grew nervous and impatient. Somehow, he had a vague idea of something easier. He got a dictionary and found the manual alphabet. He showed that to his friends and said, "I think this will suit me, let's learn it." They were not inclined to sympathize, they would not listen to him. For they said, "Lip-reading is the only way-you must never give up." This was not the first time that they had thus cruelly spoken, denying him his innate wish. He felt more and more that they, his friends, were assuming toward him the role of supermen, with him, a deaf man, a mere dependent, to dictated to at will. Finally, he could stand it no longer, he chose the last initiative of the free man-he fled.

For the first time now since the day he had returned from overseas disabled for further military service -since he had met Irene and Owen-he lost his sense of void, of oppression. He was free. After all, the boundaries of his terrible new world were not so small; he was going to expand, now that he had room to expand in. How could he feel otherwise? In that congenial company of others like himself who were happy, busy and independent. How pleasant and substantial their home, he thought, how tempting and appetizing their first meal together; above all, what dear children they had. "No, you shall rest first," they told him when he showed too great a hurry to tell them everything. Communication by writing was slow. In his haste and sheer delight Cleider turned to the children to pour out his heart to them. "Come now brother," they said, drawing him away, and showing him his bath and clean clothes and the bright sunny room where he was to take his prescribed rest.

"Do you thin we are making a mistake taking this stranger into our home?" Irene's husband asked her.

"No!" said Irene, sure of her course, "we are going to reconstruct him, it is our duty to do so, if we don't, who will? He prefers us, didn't he say so?"

Nothing daunted Irene. People who did not know her might have pitied her because she was deaf, but had they known of innate happiness, her ready adaptability to make others happy, their pity must have turned into admiration or possibly envy.

One by one Cleider's fear, real or imaginary fell away. Each morning he awoke in better health and spirits. The closer he observed his host and hostess and their simple efficient way of doing things, the more he could appreciate them and the silent road that he too must travel. After a week he felt so far restored bodily and mentally that he insisted on going to work with Owen. "No, not yet brother, you stay here and rest longer, presently I shall ask the boss to find a place for you." "Rest-oh, you mean my lessons!" Cledier laughed jovially. He had already learned the manual alphabet. Now he was learning a quicker way of expressing his thoughts and feelings by the conventional sign language. He was surprised by how graphically one could express himself in this matter. English interpreted nicely into signs, and signs interpreted nicely into English. Each had its idioms, its peculiarities, always an infinite source of gain and pleasure, as he was to find out later.

"This would do nicely for the universal language," he said to Irene.

"Yes," she agreed, "but people are prejudiced and will not listen." The ex-solider frowned, he said thoughtfully, ""This is what the dough boys needed in France it would have saved us time and vexation of spirit, it would have spared us ludicrous situations."

"For instance, in ordering eggs, had we known signs like these, we would have been spared the humiliating process of crowing like roosters."

"What is coffee?"

"That is capital," he said, as he imitated her act of placing the right fist over the left and making the motion of grinding.

"And what is milk?" Holding her fists upright in front of her she made the motion of milking a cow. Cleider laughed, and there was tonic in the laughter.

"These simple signs we needed badly," he said again.

"How do you sign fish and cheese?"

"That is so realistic," he said, after she had shown him, and he blushed as he recalled the stupidity of the boys when they needed only such simple gestures as these.

"The French were more clever-they were more adept at signs," he told her.

"Yes," assented Irene, "our sign language originated there, in France many, many years ago."

"The great-hearted French, bless them," he said reverently, "they know art, art in all her forms-and they are not ashamed of it."

In this way, time passed, the lessons proceeding with ever recurring pleasure and interest for the ex-soldier. In a social way he had all he desired. When he spoke orally the children and the neighbors were his eager listeners, always finding him thoroughly entertaining. But sound was out of his life forever, and to be psychologically true to himself he preferred the companionship, the spontaneous sympathy, and the congeniality of those who likewise lived in the same still world. When they came to the sign for love, Irene crossed her open palms over her heart, she looked at him reproachfully, to say, "Cleider, you have not yet told us about your mother, where is she?"

"She is in Philadelphia," he spelled on his fingers, while his face was grave.

"You must write to her," Irene insisted, "think how she must worry over your long absence and silence."

"Not yet," he said, "she would not understand." Four months had passed since he had wandered away, in which time he had neither sent nor received word from home. He had not, however, intended to keep his mother waiting indefinitely.

"Tonight we are going to our club," they told him one evening," and we shall take you." Then they told him about it and of the many friends who awaited him there. Cleider received this information thoughtfully, he did not appear anxious to go. "Oh, you are not ready for them yet," his host remarked, noting his embarrassment. "By and by you shall know them and feel at home with them." Sufficient unto his starved soul was the company of Irene and Owen; he had grown jealous of their very comradeship, and was loathe that others should share their joys.

The way to club life finally opened, after many of its interesting people had met him at the Swinburne's. "Our hero," they called him, which he promptly resented. One year in the army, then a year's struggle against the odds, without success was not guarantee of a hero, he told them. "Rather are you---you who all your lives have fought and won against terrible handicaps---rather are you the heroes." Nevertheless, in their hearts he remained then and always, their hero.

To Cleider, nothing lessened the inconvenience of deafness, nothing gave him more courage to face the world again than some of the aids in the form of signaling devices in the Swinburne household, devices which answered for closed ears. For instance, a ring on the door bell was announced by the simultaneous lighting of an electric bulb over a door somewhere else in plain view of the occupants of the house. At five-thirty each morning Owen awaked by the fall of a stick upon his pillow --- the first sound of the alarm clock. To no other parents were children such a reliance and aid. Even the pets about the place, the dog and cat, had nearly become aware of the circumstances, to develop into creatures of service to their master and mistress. Everything else about the place seemed peculiarly tuned to their needs; the position of the trees, shrubs, and flowers in the yard; to them the windows were more than mere look outs, for an unusual sight or movement outside led often to an investigation which proved timely, preventing loss or trouble. It was something which other people depending sorely on their ears missed entirely.

"The brightness of leaf and flower-it is eloquent music to us," Irene told Cleider. She held up a crimson rose, and said, "Whose cheek does this match?" He blushed for he thought instantly of Rebecca Hiles whom he had lately met and fallen in love with. From the first she had proven his chief attraction at the club. She was so much like Irene in womanly qualities; she was young, trusting, and entirely unsophisticated. During the war she had worked unceasingly for the Red Cross; she could not remember how many pairs of socks she had knit, she had worked too fast to count. She had watched the boys muster out for service; she had gazed silently on, admiring them, and envying other girls who had sweethearts, or brothers, or husbands to give, while she had no one to give. "As long as I live, the sight of those brave boys shall be my source of worship," she vowed to herself. It was in lien of one to claim for her own that she had thrown herself whole-heartedly into the task of ministering to their comfort. Never did she dream that one of those brave boys-Cleider Rodman--would come back to her, to love her and make her happy to the end of her days.

The ex-solider soon proved his fitness to work. Each morning he went with Owen to the composing rooms of The Daily Herald. He had always had a liking for printing; years ago he dreamed of a time when he could venture into a publishing business of his own. His father, however, had different plans for him, early persuading him to take up the study of law. Now, that he was back to his first love, printing, with promise of promotion, he felt free, indeed; his reconstruction, hi complete restoration to usefulness was assured. He watched Owen's skill on the linotype, and determined he would learn that too.

Several months passed. Life looked good to Cleider Rodman; he was thankful to be alive, thankful again for the privilege of citizenship, above all he was thankful for winsome Rebecca Hiles. He thought again of his mother, he thought no longer in terms of misunderstanding, but in loving desire to see her again. "Rebecca, I shall leave you for a little while," he said one evening. "I am going to see my mother."

As he expected, his mother pleaded with him that he remain with her. "No, no, no," he said, "I must go back to the place where I have been happy and useful, I must go back to her."

"To her-who?" gasped his mother.

He told her of Rebecca, of Owen and Irene, of their club and his many friends. But it was hard for her to comprehend; she still loved her boy, she felt that through his silent associates she was losing him. She felt that way ---she could not feel otherwise, for she did not understand. Feeling dutifully bound, Cleider stayed with her longer than he had intended which filled Rebecca with apprehension. "He is not coming back," she said to Irene, tearfully.

"Yes, he is coming back, don't worry, he will be here presently."

Irene was older, she knew men, she knew that nothing could dissuade a good man from the object of his devotion.

Not until two years later Cleider's mother visited him and Rebecca in their comfortable home did she finally see and appreciate the circumstances which led up to her son's complete restoration and happiness.