Feature Article: November
Call Me George...
A true story about George and a dog named Karl.
by George J. Salpietro
I dedicate this story to my wife Marie,
my daughter Stacy, to the foster family that raised Karl, to my friends
at the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation and to one very special dog named
Since the loss of my sight, I guess the thing I've been looking for
most is the person I once was. In the writing of this story I realized
that I am still me, George, the same person I have always been, with
just one exception. I can't see as I once did, but I feel a new vision
has replaced my loss of sight. This vision has helped me re-prioritize
my life with a new appreciation of things that should have been most
important to me...things like my family, my friends - things I never
saw with sight, but now I see with a newly found vision.
Let's start at the beginning. As I sit here to tell this story, I realize
that the real story isn't about how I lost my eyesight. It is about
the wonderful people that helped me like my wife Marie, daughter Stacy,
other family members, many friends and the professional people in the
field of rehabilitation and services for the blind. In short, everyone
that helped me "look at life in a different way." Oddly enough,
the greatest help didn't come for a person at all. It came from a dog
named "Karl." That's right, a dog. As I sit here at my computer
recreating this part of my life, he is lying at my feet as always -
faithful and ready to assist me. You see, he's not just a dog. He's
First, I think it's important for you to understand how something like
this can happen to anyone. Being a long time member of the Lions, I
can remember having speakers at my club who were blind. I remember being
amazed by their courage and accomplishments, but more so, I can remember
thinking that this could never happen to me. I mean, I didn't even wear
I was born in a small town in Connecticut and lived what could be considered
to be a pretty regular life. I was the middle son of three boys. Growing
up in the sixties, I had grand illusions of a life that would never
submit to the system. But as time went on, I found you had to be part
of the system to effect a positive change. After high school, it was
time to decide where my life's journey would take me. I started to work
in a local factory as I searched through my options. Not long after,
I decided to marry the girl of my dreams. I was almost nineteen years
old and could not be happier. For a time I would jump from job to job,
not ever sure what I wanted. At twenty-one years old, my wife and I
received the greatest gift one could image. My wife gave birth to our
baby girl. It was the proudest day of my life. At this point, I decided
it was time for me to get serious about my life's work. It was soon
thereafter I started a career in the automotive business and it was
there that I felt I had found my lifeís work. Or so I thought.
It was June of 1994. A wonderful day, my daughter was graduating from
high school. My wife and I were as proud as we could be. I was the typical
father, bragging to anyone who would listen. I remember borrowing a
friend's video camera to film the entire event. What a day.
Two weeks later, July 7th 1994, my birthday, I was hitting the big 4-0.
It was a fantastic day. My wife threw a surprise party that I would
always remember. She invited friends that I had not seen in years. It
was a night that was filled with talk of the old days and talk of our
plans for the future. My wife and I bragged how our daughter was getting
ready to leave for college, how she was ready for her new life, and
how we were ready to be newlyweds all over again. Then it was time for
everyone to give me my birthday cards - you know - the cards that would
make fun of me turning forty. I was ready for the ribbing as I opened
my first card, and that's when I noticed I could not read the cards.
In fact, I had to ask my wife to help me. Everyone laughed and said
it was the first sign of old age, but I knew that wasn't it. My wife
could tell just by looking at me that something was wrong.
The next day I made an appointment with one of my friends from my Lions
club who was an eye doctor. He saw me immediately. As he examined my
eyes, my wife and I could tell he was concerned. He made an appointment
for me to see a neuro-ophthalmologist. That's when all the testing began.
You can imagine the fear my wife and I had.
One week later, July 15th 1994, a day my wife and I will never forget.
We sat waiting in the doctor's office. All the testing was done and
the results were in. My doctor said I had bilateral optic neuritis of
unknown etiology. He said the medicine that they were treating me with
was not working. I had lost all the sight in my left eye and the majority
of the sight in my right eye, and it was not over yet. The doctor destroyed
the world as I once knew it. He was declaring me legally blind. I remember
turning to my wife and asking, with tears in my eyes, "Did he say
blind?" I thought, "How can that be? It's impossible. They
must be able to fix this." I remember taking my wife's arm as she
led me to our car, a car I would never be able to drive again. We got
into the car, turned to each other and we cried in each otherís arms.
I remember her saying to me, "Don't worry. We'll get through this
as long as we have each other. I'm not going anywhere, and I'll stay
by your side no matter what. For better or worse, remember?" As
I sit here and type, I realize I do not know where I would be without
her. She brings light, hope and love into a world that has been turned
I had a very successful career of twenty-two years in the automotive
industry, and that was about to end. I remember going home that night,
telling my daughter, family and friends. No one could believe it, no
one knew what to say or do, and everyone felt helpless. All I wanted
to do was retreat to a place where I could feel in control. I found
a safe place in my house. It was a big comfortable chair in the corner
of my living room. And it was there I would sit, scared to leave the
house, feeling afraid in a dark world that I didn't choose to be in.
I was fortunate to have a very supportive family and many good friends.
A lot of help came from friends associated with Lions clubs. Helping
people who are blind has always been the mission of Lions. Through those
connections, the help started pouring in from many directions. People
from the State Board of Education and Services for the Blind started
me in a rehabilitation program to learn to live in this new world. I
would learn to do many things in a different way - things that made
it possible for me to take care of myself. It seemed everything was
difficult, and everything that I once did without thought now required
a lot of thought. I was angry and I constantly asking myself why had
this happened to me. It was a sad day when I realized that there were
no answers to the questions I was asking.
After a couple of months, I started to learn to travel using a long
white cane with a red tip on it. I was told that this was the tool that
people who were blind use to navigate in a sighted world safely. I had
a difficult time with the cane at first, but in time I would learn to
use it and found it to be an adequate way of travel. But there was still
something missing. I still felt dependent on others. I met many other
people who were blind that were very good cane travelers, but still
it was hard for me.
One night my sister-in-law and her husband came to our house. After
dinner we sat and talked about all that had been going on the past couple
of months. They were also Lions and were familiar with many of the services
that were available to the blind community in our area. They told me
that their Lions club supported an organization called the Fidelco Guide
Dog Foundation. They had visited Fidelco, seen demonstrations of these
incredible dogs, and met some of the people that used these dogs everyday.
They heard stories of increased independence since their dogs came into
their lives. They encouraged me to apply to Fidelco for a guide dog.
Everyone felt this was the answer I was looking for, and they all felt
it was what I was missing. Everyone felt that but me. I was not what
you would call a "dog person" and I didn't understand how
a dog was ever going to give me back the independence that blindness
took from me. Being a Lion, I had heard about Fidelco and their good
work, but I did not think that a dog was the answer I was looking for.
I assured everyone that I would think about it, but I knew way deep
down that I had already made up my mind. How was I going to take care
of a dog when I was having trouble taking care of myself? No, I was
sure a dog was not for me.
When everyone left, I could tell that my wife knew what I was thinking
and that she did not agree with me. I asked her what she thought about
me getting a guide dog and she proceeded to tell me. She told me about
how hard it was for her to watch what blindness had done to me. She
told me how hard it was for her to leave me alone at home every day,
how scared she was, and how helpless she felt. She told me she even
felt guilty - guilty she could see and I could not. That night, I realized
that blindness did not just happen to me, but it happened to her, my
daughter, my family and my friends. They all felt my loss. They were
all by my side, walking every step with me and they were all in my corner
pulling for me. I still wasn't convinced, but the next day I called
Fidelco and applied for a dog.
In the meantime I started listening to every audio tape I could get
my hands on that was written by someone who had successfully overcome
the barriers created by blindness. I could not believe what I was hearing.
I would learn that there was life after blindness, and for the first
time in months I was starting to believe that maybe, just maybe, I could
be something. The problem was that every day I woke up and I was still
blind. And then someone I knew had just attended a Lions convention
and said that the speaker at the banquet was a blind man named Tom Sullivan.
They gave me a tape of his speech and his talk that night changed my
life. Mr. Sullivan was a guide dog user and he did anything he wanted
to do and nothing got in his way. He talked about how in life you had
to change negatives into positives. He said that you have to believe
in your own human spirit. He talked about pride and how you had to have
pride in yourself. His definition for the word pride was "personal
responsibility for individual daily effort." And most of all, he
talked about how his guide dog changed his life. I played that tape
over and over. I knew the speech by heart, and his words inspired me
to the point that I stopped feeling sorry for myself. I started to believe
in myself and I started to get very excited about getting a guide dog.
The call from Fidelco came two days before Christmas. They said they
had a dog for me and his name was "Karl." From that day on
I would learn that nothing was going to be the same. My life was about
to change again and I did not even know it.
The day was finally here. It was January 2nd 1995. That was the day
Karl was coming to his new home. I wonder if he knew what he was in
for, because I certainly didn't. The timing was just right - my daughter
was home from college on Christmas break and my wife took a couple days
off for this monumental event. They were both standing at the window
watching for every vehicle that came by. All of a sudden one of them
said, "A van from Fidelco is pulling into our driveway." My
wife and daughter were both elated and I was scared to death. My trainer's
name was David Darr, and to our surprise he came in without a dog. You
could taste the tension in the air. Dave told us before he could bring
Karl in there were some things we had to go over. There were papers
to sign and about a million things for him to read to me. To my wife
and daughter's complete frustration, I had a ton of questions for Dave,
which delayed Karl's arrival into our home.
After about an hour it was time and Dave went out to get Karl. The moment
had come and we would finally meet. And meet we would. The door opened
and in he came with a bound. He ran in past Dave, past my wife and daughter
and ran straight to me as if he knew who needed him most. I sat in the
chair as this eighty-seven pound German shepherd started to check me
out. He picked his head up ever so gentle, as I took his head in my
hands and I asked him, "Are you the one?" and he licked my
face. It was a moment that was filled with hope and anticipation.
My first impression of Karl was, "This dog is huge." As I
petted and examined him, I can remember being amazed how gentle he was.
His ears were pointed and very soft. His head was large and his legs
were long. As I scratched his back he rolled over so I could rub his
belly. I remember sitting on the floor with him and as I did, he snuggled
close. This dog was a gentle giant and I could instantly feel his warmth.
It didn't take long to see that Karl knew what he was doing and that
I was having a hard time figuring out which end was which. The first
night was a night that I'll always remember, and Iím sure Karl remembers
it too. I did everything wrong. I didn't measure his food correctly,
I stepped into his water dish and I couldn't find where he relieved
himself to pick it up. Heck, I didn't even know if he relieved himself
at all. I finally managed to get him settled into his spot by my bed
for a well deserved night sleep and that's when Karl met our two cats.
Oh yeah, did I say we had two cats? Karl had no problem with the cats,
but the cats had a problem with Karl! What a first night.
The morning would finally come and it went a little more smoothly than
the day before, but not much. When Dave got to my house to start our
first day of training, I don't know who was happier to see him, Karl
or me. Our first lesson was for Dave to lead me around the neighborhood
with the harness. That's right, Dave played guide dog and I tried to
act like someone who knew what he was doing. I can only imagine what
my neighbors were thinking as I gave Dave commands like "forward,"
"left," "right" and "halt." Dave did well,
and as for me, well, let's just say we somehow made it back to my house.
Thank God one of us could see! The next lesson was let's see if the
blind guy can get the harness on the dog. Karl knew what he had to do,
but I didn't have a clue. Somehow I managed to get the harness on him
and we were ready to go. "Yeah right." I thought. We made
it to the sidewalk and I started to learn the commands of a guide dog,
commands that Karl knew well and that I still had to learn. I'll always
remember the first time I told Karl "forward," it felt like
a dream. In fact, it felt like we were running and that's when we learned
the "steady" command! The first thought that I had was that
we were doing it. I remember all my neighbors coming out and cheering
us on. They yelled, "Go for it George" and "You can make
it, we're behind you." I still get tears in my eyes when I think
about how it felt. What a proud moment. It was the start of my journey.
I didn't know where my journey would take me, but one thing I did know,
Karl was going to lead the way.
The training was hard and stressful. It was tough on me and I could
tell Karl was feeling the stress too. There were days that went well
the first week and then there were days I felt we would never get it
right. I believe everyone that trains with a dog reaches a point in
their training that it all falls together. That day came for Karl and
me in the middle of our second week of training. I remember it like
it was yesterday. It was a day that wasn't going well. I felt as though
we had reached a point that nothing was ever going to go right. We were
missing curbs, we werenít going down the sidewalk in a straight line,
and I felt as though Karl wasn't listening to any of my commands. I
was frustrated, I could tell Dave was getting frustrated, and Karl didn't
know what to do.
All of a sudden, as Karl and I were walking down a busy sidewalk bumping
into each other, Dave yelled out "Will the both of you just stop."
I gave Karl the command to halt and we stopped. I thought "All
right Karl, you're in trouble now." That was when Dave said, "You
two have got to be the worst looking guide dog team I've ever seen in
my life. Karl goes to the left and George, you try to go to the right.
Karl tries to walk you around obstacles and George, you walk into them.
Karl stops at curbs and George, you keep going." Well this wasn't
what I expected to hear. It sounded like I was in trouble, not Karl.
How could that be? That was when Dave said the thing that would change
the way I was looking at my situation. He said, "You have to start
to follow his lead, you have to start to listen to him. George, he can
see and you can't. You're blind." Those words were very hard for
me to hear. It was the first time since the doctor that someone said
I was blind. I stood there in shock. Then he said something that made
it all make sense. He said, "George, let Karl do his job. His job
is to guide you and keep you safe. Do this for me - always trust the
dog. If you trust him, he'll never let you down, I promise." That
was when it all changed. What Dave said made sense. I told Dave, "All
right, I'll try." I picked up the harness and even though I couldn't
see, I closed my eyes and put all my trust into Karl's training. I let
Karl be my eyes.
And guess what--it worked. We were walking as a team. I could feel the
confidence in his stride and for the first time we picked up our pace.
I felt like I was reborn. I knew we had a long way to go, but I knew
if I trusted him, we could make it. That was the day that not only my
bond would begin with Karl, but it was the day I began to love this
dog that had come into my life. Something else happened that day - I
wasn't afraid anymore.
The training continued into the third and last week and it seemed every
day was better than the last. With Karl at my side, I was traveling
into the cities, big and small. My training took me into cities like
Boston and New York. We rode in taxis, busses and subways. We went to
the mall, dined in restaurants and took walks in the country. All of
this with Karl at my side, all of this with my new best friend.
The last day of my training brought the worst rain storm you could imagine,
but I didn't care -- we had made it. It was official--Karl and I were
a team. I was now ready to face a new day, new goals, new dreams and
a new life. I would soon learn that I still had many fears to overcome.
I still had to learn to trust Karl, and I would soon learn that it wasn't
going to be that easy.
Our first weekend after training was a time of celebration. We had all
of our family and friends over so I could show off Karl. Before my wife
and I went to bed Sunday night, I told her of a plan that I had to test
my new guide dog skills. My wife worked in the town that I grew up in,
and my parents still lived there. My plan was to go to work with her
the next day and walk to my parents' house (just under two miles) spend
the day, and then walk back to her office at the end of the day. She
thought I had lost my mind. I laughed as I told her I could do this
walk blindfolded. As you can probably tell, I was about as cocky and
confident as I could be. I told her, "What are you worried about?
I grew up in this town, I know every turn and every street, and besides,
I have Karl. Don't worry." She agreed, but she still worried and
I was soon to learn this was going to be more than a walk ó it was going
to be a new beginning.
The walk would start in front of my wife's office. The first challenge
that Karl and I would face would be the most dangerous thing a person
who is blind has to do, and that is to cross a busy street. So I picked
up the harness and listened for a lull in the traffic. When I heard
no oncoming cars, I gave Karl the command "forward," and our
walk began. Even though Karl and I crossed many streets during training,
this was the first time we were alone. I was amazed how focused Karl
was. As we stepped off the curb he instantly was looking for danger
and he was doing his job, just like he was taught. I thought, "Wow,
just like my trainer said, just another day on the job for Karl."
As we reached the other side of the street and he stopped at the up
curb and stepped onto the sidewalk, he halted and waited for my next
command. I gave him the command to go right and away we went. He stopped
at every curb and walked me around every obstacle that was in our way.
It was hard to believe, but it was working just like it was supposed
Everything was going great until we reached about the one mile marker
of our walk. That was when it happened - I second guessed myself, but
even worse, I doubted Karl. It happened on a busy narrow street. A large
vehicle passed us on the right and it sounded like it was on the sidewalk
right in front of us. I gave Karl the command to "halt," I
dropped the harness, and stood there with the leash in my hand in complete
and total fear. I can remember thinking, "What are you trying to
do?" I had no right to be out here, I was blind and I needed help,
and I shouldn't be out here by myself. And there I stood until a person
came up to me and asked, "You appear to be lost. Can I help you?"
And I thought back to my training. I thought back to what Dave, my trainer,
had said. The words that were hard to hear then were the words that
would save me now. He said, "Always trust the dog. He'll never
let you down." As I sit here now and write this story, I'll always
remember what happened next. I bent over and took Karl's head in my
hands and asked him, "What do you think, Karl? Do you think we
need help, or do you think we can make it?" He licked me on the
face and licked away my fears. That simple act of love from him made
me realize that I had nothing to fear as long as he was by my side.
I stood and thanked the person for their offer of help and I explained
to him, "I'll be fine, because you see I have this dog and I trust
him, and he'll keep me safe. So thanks, but we have to get going. You
see, my journey begins today." He probably was thinking, "I
just wanted to know if he needed help!"
The walk now had a whole new meaning. It was more than just a walk ó
it was a new day, a day that my dreams of independence would become
reality. As we crossed each street, and passed my landmarks that I couldn't
see, I still knew they were there. I passed the church I went to as
a child, the school I attended, and the playground where I learned to
play basketball. They were all there, and as I came closer and closer
to my destination, I started to feel like the little train in the children's
book that said, "I think I can, I think I can, I know I can."
As we crossed our last street before my parent's house, I knew my parentís
front gate would be about seventy yards on the left. When I felt we
had gone about forty yards, I started to tell Karl, "Find left
inside." At that point, Karl began to look to his left to find
an opening of some sort that would take us off the sidewalk and inside
to the left. I repeated the command several times and I started to feel
as though we had gone too far. Then the fear started to come back. What
if he had missed the gate? That wouldn't be a problem. We would just
have to backtrack a little. But what if I had taken a wrong turn, or
what if I miscounted streets? If that was true, I had no idea where
we were. What would I do now? I thought, "Trust the dog, and we
can do it." As I was going through all of the negative thoughts
in my mind as to what we might have done wrong, Karl was still looking
for "left inside." Then all of a sudden he turned hard to
the left, picked up his head and put his nose on the gate of my parentís
front yard. We had made it.
As I tell you this story, I still get too filled with my own emotions
to speak. I remember opening the front gate and dropping to my knees
while wrapping my arms around Karl and crying. It wasn't me that had
made it, it was us. I remember thanking God for this incredible gift
of this dog, but not just a dog, my guide dog. Some of you might think
it was just a walk to my parent's house, but to me it was rebirth.
My life changed that day and it changed for the better. To say Karl
and I are bonded is not enough. He serves as not only my guide but as
my best friend. He serves as my eyes and his work is a labor of love.
It's sometimes hard for me to remember life without Karl because he's
part of me. He has not only changed my life but he has changed the lives
of my wife, my daughter, my family, friends and all those we come in
contact with. If given the choice of sight, but to have to live without
Karl, well, let's just say I'd have to give that a lot of thought because
I can't imagine life without him.
I now work for the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation as their Senior Vice
President. How ironic that I now work for the organization that provided
me Karl. I was once afraid to leave my house. Now I travel all over
the country, giving motivational speeches to groups of all types to
help them to realize their own inner strength, their own human spirit
and to let them know that they too can deal with life changing situations
in their own lives. I feel very fortunate for my new career. I use to
like my work, but now I love it. I feel one of the most important things
I do at Fidelco is to spread a greater awareness of the difference these
dogs can make in the lives of the men and women they serve. My speeches
take me all over the country and I have had the opportunity to meet
some incredible people. So in some ways, as crazy as it sounds, my life
is better now than it was before losing my sight.
In closing this story, let me say that I want to be remembered as me,
because in life you have to believe in yourself before others can believe
in you. I was once asked, "How should we refer to people who are
blind? Are they blind, visually impaired, visually challenged, etc.".
I answered, "When you refer to me, please just call me George."
That's who I am! The same person I was before sight loss. I want you
to remember that when life throws you a curve, it's your attitude that
can save you. I want you to remember my family, friends and the men
and women of the Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation, because if it weren't
for them I would still be sitting in that chair in my living room. So
please remember me as just George and know that "I remember the