Pilot Of Dreams
Jay Bigg was a Super Man, a super star, an uber mensch of Nietzschean proportions. He had stroked the novice third boat into a good position in the Fairburns and then the Clare Regatta too. I knew how hard this job was; one had to constantly balance or ‘sit’ the boat so that it was level and the crew’s blades could hit the water from a repeatedly predictable height; one had to take instruction from the Cox directly in front as to rate and strength of stroke; one had to be able to manoeuvre the boat at slow speeds to turn it around in narrow stretches of water; one had to lift and carry the boat, a very large and heavy thing as ours were solid wood and aged to boot; one had to place it in the water; one had to strap ones feet into the footplate and lock ones blade into its rowlock and of course one had to get in and out of the boat, not as easy as it sounds. Jay did all of this and Jay is blind.
I first came across him in the queue for dinner in Hall. He was a handsome guy, a bit shorter than myself and solidly built. With a shock of blonde hair he was always with his golden retriever. I talked to him broaching his condition in a frank and honest way as is my wont. He let me in on one of his skills. He wore shoes with heels which made a good sound when they hit the stone slabs of the college Old Court. From the sound of the echo he could make out how close he was to the wall or the approaching steps to the Hall. HIs sense of hearing must have been super keen. In a quick moment you thought maybe that he was making some of this stuff up but the more you got to know him you realised that this, and any number of other talents were well earned and developed coping mechanisms to counteract his lack of sight. Super skills.
Jay had a tandem bicycle. If he needed to go into town for any reason, he would ask a friend to go with him, I believe he and Nat Dealer were close. Jay would sit on the back, peddling with those strong legs and the friend would be up front peddling and steering.
He would put his finger over the lip of a glass so that when he poured in water from a jug he could tell when it was full. He had a football which had some ball bearings inside, you could kick that about with him, hearing being his super sense. He was a radio ham. With a large twenty foot pole aerial in the garden of his special accommodation. The stacks of hi-fi type electronics enabled him to listen to radio broadcasts from all over the world.
Jay was a black belt in Judo. Can you imagine picking a fight with a blind man, knowing this? Seeing the man opposite to you, ready to take you on. How would you attack? What would be your calculations as to how to defeat him? A black belt in a martial art.
Once I read for him. I sat in his room reading from a text book. Occasionally he would stop me and enter the relevant information into some kind of braille enabled computer. I only did this once, Jay would intersperse the session with personal questions. Did I have a girlfriend? How was my studying going? He was certainly my hero. I wish I had been less self-centred and selfish with my time and gotten to know him better than I did, certainly I could have read for him more. I even learned something about the degree he took.
There was one Summer when a few of us hired a punt and went down the river towards Grantchester. We took a picnic and some bottles of wine. Jay was on board and was standing up at the front of the punt balancing with all the ease of someone who knew Judo. We warned him that a very low bridge was coming up, a small metal bridge only five feet or so above the boat. He asked for its description and approximate dimensions. As we slid through the water, the bridge came closer and Jay held his arms up and out. We slowed the punt, it came closer, Jay got a hand on the bridge, grasped it, pulled himself up and over it, climbing to the other side. When he had cleared it he climbed down the other side and he hung down from it with his hands and arms and then with our direction lowered himself down onto the back of the punt as it passed beneath the bridge.
I’d only had a couple of glasses of wine but for quite some several moments after this stunt I wondered if Jay really was blind, or that maybe it was this big lie, this big deception that I had now been privileged to be let in on.
Jay was blind but he had vision and what’s more, with it he earned a 1st class degree in Economics, from The University of Cambridge.