Physically, Blind Sam was mostly bones and a loose suit. A shapeless, dirty suit draped over his Ichabod Crane shape. Rarely did I see this lanky old man in clean clothes. He looked like a food-spotted pin-striped blue serge bag slung over bent old bones. A sinewy, elongated neck, with an Adams apple like the bow of a coast guard cutter, rose from his hollow, rounded shoulders and supported a bony, hook-nosed head wearing a brown felt hat.
Two blind and rheumy pale blue eyes, often weepy, gazed heaven-ward from beneath the brim of his hat as though Sam was looking for the stairs to heaven, for his place among the believers. He tapped his way along the street, dragging with him the tools of his trade . . . an old collapsible camp stool, his violin case, and a grimy cigar box.
He slung the stool over his left shoulder. His violin case hung low on his left side, held in place by a length of rough twine looped over his head and right shoulder. He carried a dirt-stained cigar box in his left hand. His right hand held a steel-tipped walking stick with which he found his way along the streets of McCook, Nebraska . . . my hometown.
Blind Sam was born in 1880 in McCook. His real name was Isaac O’Connor. He was McCook’s own troubadour, a man who literally sang for his supper. And, for many of us, whether we knew it or not, he was an escape valve of sorts. Looking at Sam brought to our hearts a little prayer of thanks that, while things may be bad or getting worse in our lives, at least we weren’t blind.
At another level, Sam was the blind spot in all of us. We all have a dark place through which we must pass on our journey through life. Some of us spend a good deal of time in our respective blind spots. Sam was our surrogate bridge to — and from — that dark place. And, he let us all know that even in utter darkness we can find something to sing about.
Sam wasn’t born blind. He lost one eye as a child. He developed an ulcer in his remaining eye later on. By 12, he was blind. He attended the Nebraska School for the Blind at Nebraska City where he once met Helen Keller when she came for a visit. Sam became her guide while she was there. Later in life, Sam said she taught him many useful things. He wept when she left. While at school, Sam learned to make brooms, and to play the violin.
I don’t recall seeing Sam making or selling brooms. The violin was his first love. It supplemented his pension check, and it became his magic carpet that took him to new wonderful places.
His favorite spot was in front of the First National Bank down on the corner of Main and C Streets. Later, Main Street was renamed Norris Avenue in honor of George W. Norris — a US Senator from McCook — but when I grew up there, it was just plain Main Street. Somehow, I still fancy it as Main Street.
The First National Bank was on a busy corner, and Sam sat there every Saturday afternoon, weather permitting, sawing away on his battered old violin, singing at the top of his lungs in a voice that sounded like a bawling calf, with his cigar box clamped tightly between his bony knees to accept the offerings of folks who passed by.
Sam wasn’t a Bible-thumping sort of a person, but he had certain beliefs which he held close. One of these was that if man simply lived by the Ten Commandments, he would do alright.
On the other side of the coin, Sam occasionally hankered after a cold beer . . . or two . . . or three. It didn’t happen often, but I can remember watching Sam tapping between building and curb all the way down the block, making his way home from P. O. Carthouser’s Pool Hall on a Saturday evening after a good day in front of the bank where local farmers, having just deposited money from the sale of livestock or grain, and feeling more generous than usual, cast whole pockets-full of change into Sam’s grimy cigar box. In those days, our money was real silver, and the sound of it ringing into Sam’s box sounded sweet compared to his nasal, thin, and plaintive voice bawling out a chorus of When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder, I’ll Be There.
Much of Sam’s repertoire was religious in nature . . . old time religious songs like Bringing In The Sheaves, which, in his nasal tonality, sounded like “Mringing i’ th’ ‘heaves,” and “Earer m’ Nod To Knee” — Nearer My God To Thee. He never a specific church, but Sam read his Braille Bible from cover to cover many times during his life.
For all this, Sam, like most common mortals, had his secular side. He belonged to several lonely hearts clubs. “There was Maggie in Michigan, Edith in Wyoming, Mattie in Missouri and Alice in Ohio,” according to Trails West, a local history and biography of McCook and Red Willow County, written by McCookites Robert Ray and Lois Rutledge.
Of all the lonely ladies, it was Alice of Ohio who won Sam’s heart, if only for a short time. Sam and Alice were married by a local judge on August 11, 1947. Sam swept Alice away to his favorite street corner where he introduced her to local folks by singing and playing My Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown. Shortly thereafter, Sam and Alice parted. She went back to Ohio and got a divorce.
Sam supplemented his income, and his wanderlust, by going off to play at rodeos and fairs around the Midwest. He celebrated his impending journeys by taking a bath, shaving and putting on clean clothes.
I wish I could have seen him all clean and shaved like that. He was dirty and stained mostly because he couldn’t see. But folks overlooked that. Sam spent most of his life singing and playing for the people of McCook, and in return, McCook looked the other way when Sam drank an extra beer or two, and they cheered and brought flowers to his front yard the evening of the day he married Alice. And, to their everlasting credit, they were respectfully silent when Alice returned to Ohio.
Sam suffered a stroke in 1957. He lived the rest of his life at a nursing home in Lexington, NE. The streets of McCook seemed mighty quiet after that. Sam would never be mistaken for a great singer or violin player, but there was something good in his voice, something that made you feel safe and comfortable as you shopped along Main Street. If the streets were safe enough for a blind man with a box of money clamped between his knees, they were safe enough for anyone. You could here his nasal cry and his sometimes sour violin a couple of blocks away. He played through summer heat, and well into winter’s bite. Every coin earned the giver a “God bless you.”
He died of a heart attack in the nursing home in June of 1960. He was 80. I believe the day Sam died, he went straight up to the place his blind eyes used to fix themselves. Now, I find myself looking forward an event I hope happens on the day of my final roll call.
I believe that when I arrive, I’ll be among the faithful listening to the heavenly choir welcome me in. And from somewhere up high, a voice, singing clear and sweet will ride out above all the rest. It will be carried on a bright note struck from the first Stradivarius violin ever made. And when I look to see who it is, I’ll see a tall and skinny, but handsome young man with a big Adams apple and clear, seeing, blue eyes, his head back, singing, When The Roll Is Called Up Yonder, I’ll Be There.