Visit to Norway shines rays of light into blind man's life
Seattle Times reporter
LOFOTEN ISLANDS, Norway — Blind for most of his life, Charlie Kinder wanted most of all to experience the midnight sun — a place of warmth and light unlike the darkness in which he lives.
On these foggy islands more than 100 miles above the Arctic Circle, there were 24 hours of daylight, but the ghostly clouds moving in and out of the snowy mountain peaks kept the warmth from his skin.
He felt another kind of warmth, however, from friendships formed, the day-to-day unfolding of surprises and the generosity of strangers. As Kinder, 72, of Seattle, toured Norway over the past two weeks, he has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and friendship from Norwegians familiar with his story and eager to share their land and legacy.
Ever since The Seattle Times published a story last month about Kinder and the volunteer efforts of his classmates in Ed Egerdahl's Norwegian language class to convert the lessons to Braille, Kinder has become an international celebrity of sorts.
He has been fascinated by Norway since he was a student in the 1940s at the Colorado School for the Blind, where he was sent after his vision began failing because of inoperable childhood cataracts. It seemed like a fairytale, that there was a place where for a few weeks the sun never set.
Although he'd longed to go to Norway, Kinder lives on a meager income from Social Security and what he makes as a piano tuner. But Times readers and Egerdahl's Scandinavian Language Institute students created a miracle.
Immediately after the story ran, they began sending contributions. Some $11,000 later, Kinder and an assistant — a Norwegian-speaking Seattle nurse, Barbara Grande Dougherty — joined Egerdahl's annual 17-day tour to Norway.
Kinder's limited life in a plain South Seattle apartment, where his day includes listening to the radio and television, visiting with neighbors and maybe a bus trip somewhere, was about to change.
A media star
Before Kinder left for Norway on June 26, Oslo's leading newspaper ran an article about him, based on The Times story. Then a Norwegian magazine sent a crew to Seattle to do a story. After he arrived, other newspapers in Norway's major cities and one television station joined in the coverage.
When he was at an Edvard Grieg concert in Bergen, a woman from Argentina seated next to him overheard the conversation, jumped up and excitedly asked if he was "the Charlie" she had read about on the Internet.
She hugged him. Kinder beamed. People snapped photos.
Then came the call that would forever be the midnight sun of his heart.
The mother of a 12-year-old blind girl, Solveig-Marie Oma, asked him to come to their house in Trondheim because the girl had written a song for Kinder.
He stood beside the piano as the slim, red-haired girl played, the melody splashing glorious notes through the house, moving many of his new friends to tears as the gift unfolded — a composition called "The Midnight Sun."
When Kinder asked the girl what school for the blind she attended, she said she went to school with sighted kids but that she had a computer that talked to her, a high-tech cellphone and other items that made it easier for her to fit into a mainstream classroom.
"I wish they had done that to me," Kinder said later. "I was sent to blind school when I was 7. What do you think that's like when you're 7 and you have to live away from home?" he asked, his voice edged with sadness.
Although he is not Norwegian, Kinder got the idea of taking Norwegian lessons after hearing a Norwegian class on the radio.
He entered Egerdahl's Norwegian class a few years ago — and excelled.
He's been an achiever ever since, including on the tour, his new friends say.
A tour by touch
Traveling by van from southern Norway to the north, Egerdahl's 12-member tour group played word games, sang silly songs and stopped along the roadsides for picnics. If Kinder wasn't holding onto Dougherty's shoulder, he was holding onto someone else's. If he needed a napkin, a refill on coffee or a piece of lefse, someone in the group was always happy to oblige.
In Trondheim, a special "tactile" tour of the city was arranged so he could experience old buildings with his hands, running his fingers over bronze plaques and statues in the venerable Nidaros Cathedral, the oldest in Norway.
Tour-group member Andy Highfill was so influenced by Kinder that in the cathedral he closed his eyes to drink in the scents and sounds and "experience it like Charlie would."
Others on the tour also talked about how they began to think of the senses beyond sight — listening to the zzzzz sound as the van traveled into a tunnel and the whoosh and near silence when it emerged.
"I purposefully tried to take us places that Charlie could experience, too," Egerdahl said.
Rather than a waterfall seen from a distance, he chose a location where they could stand within range of the spray and feel drops on their faces.
In a museum in Hallingdahl, Kinder felt wool before and after it's carded, heard the creak of a spinning wheel and touched felted-wool animals.
He ran his hands over a traditional Norwegian Hardanger fiddle, having learned violin and piano at the school for the blind, and then played a tune.
In Oslo, he was given a tour of the institute for the blind and was told the institute would send him books in Norwegian Braille and a Norwegian Braille dictionary without charge.
On the last days of the tour, the group took the ferry to the Lofoten Islands, where the travelers stayed in old fishing cabins. It was like camp with bunk beds and wood-burning stoves and picnic tables and a chorus of squawking seagulls.
"The seagulls here sound different than they do in Seattle," Kinder said. Their cries are "staccato and then long."
One night, full of fishcake, lefse and memories, everyone sat back in chairs and sipped coffee and listened to the waves on the pier beneath the cabins.
"Smake godt (so good)," Kinder said with a satisfied sigh.
"Smoke a goat," said fellow traveler Karen Strand, of Ballard, giving a pronunciation of the phrase that for days had become a recurring joke.
"It changed my life"
The group returned to Seattle on Wednesday.
Kinder is grateful, not only to his tour mates, but also to everyone who contributed in any way to make it possible for him to experience his Land of the Midnight Sun.
He now thinks of things he never dared think of before — returning to Norway to learn more about its training for blind citizens, studying more about Norway at a university and the possibility of new friends.
"I never thought this would happen," he said. "It changed my life."
Nancy Bartley: 206-464-8522 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company