NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
Myron Uhlberg grew up with one foot in the world of silence, the other in the world of sound. His first language was sign, learned from his deaf parents. His second, spoken English, learned from the Philco radio next to his bed. Part of his story is about life in Brooklyn during the Depression and the war, but most of it describes his unique experience as both the child and the interpreter for his parents, in particular, his father and his world of eloquent facial expressions and hand gestures. A man who wrote pictures in the air and suffered the indignities of the hearing world that described him and his wife as the deafies in apartment 3A.
Later in the program, two of the founders of Twitter join us. If you have questions for them about this suddenly ubiquitous phenomenon, you can send them now by email, firstname.lastname@example.org. We're also on Twitter as TOTN. But first, "Hands Of My Father." And if you have been a child forced to interpret for your parents for language or disability, what was it like for you?
Give us a call, 800-989-8255, email us email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our Web site, that's at npr.org/talkofthenation. Myron Uhlberg joins us from the studios of member station WUBR in Boston. Nice to have you on the program today.
Mr. MYRON UHLBERG (Author, "Hands of My Father"): Oh, very nice to be here, Neal. Thank you for having me.
CONAN: And you write, you started to speak for your father from the age of six.
Mr. UHLBERG: Actually, it was closer to five, Neal. Inside my house, I was the appointed, so to speak, as the official interpreter for my father. And I became the interface, as I say in my book, between his silent world and the outside hearing world at about the age of six, and I can date that age pretty accurately because I recall it was 1939, and my father took me to the World's Fair, which was in Queens, New York.
CONAN: In Flushing.
Mr. UHLBERG: Yeah. And it was - I thought this was the greatest thing for me. Parents in those days, generally speaking, the tail end of the Depression, didn't have the kind of money to buy a ticket to go to the World's Fair, but my father being a union man, working for the New York Daily News, he had, as a union man, he had a steady job, and he bought the tickets for me. And I thought that would be the greatest thing that ever happened to me, a little kid from Brooklyn.
But I quickly realized, when I arrived on the subway stop where the World's Fair was, that my job that day was not really to have a good time, but it was to interpret everything that was going on. I had to tell my father everything that the people at the various exhibits were saying, and pointing out and so forth. And it turned out to be a very tedious day for me.
CONAN: There's a picture of you in the book at the World Fair looking pretty unhappy.
Mr. UHLBERG: Yeah, my editors said this is a perfect picture to insert here because you look very crabby for a six-year-old.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. UHLBERG: And, in fact, I was.
CONAN: And there's also a scene you describe at a butcher store - the neighborhood butcher store.
Mr. UHLBERG: Well, that was the - when I first became, actually, unknowingly, nobody hung a - my father didn't hang a sign around my neck and saying, as of today, Myron, you're my interpreter. But when I became the interpreter, and I realized that what I was doing was assisting my father, who I loved dearly, as, of course, I did my mother. And I felt very proud of that, that a little kid like me could be relied upon to assist him in the outside hearing world.
But that hearing quickly transformed itself into a bit of a shame and frustration, which to my undying shame today, I did experience as a child. The example I gave, which was rather typical in those days, was when we did the shopping, and my father would take me. He did the shopping. My mother's job was to do the cooking. And he would take me to the various shops on Kings Highway in Brooklyn, New York. We didn't have supermarkets in those days. There was a bakery store. There was a poultry store. There was a butcher shop. There was a greengrocer and a dairy store.
On and on, we went to every one of those shops. And my job as a six-year-old, beginning when I was six, was to interpret for him. And I recall distinctly going into the butcher store and my father said to me, it was a long line of very impatient Brooklyn women. And - as only Brooklyn women can be, very impatient and very forceful. And my father said to me, okay, now, you tell the butcher man, that's what he called it, you tell Mr. Herman(ph) the butcher man that we want five pounds of rib roast, no fat.
And by the way, tell him, don't put his thumb on the scale when he's weighing it. I, as a little boy, was smart enough or intuitive enough to think, well, okay, I can sign part of that. And I told him I want five pounds of rib roast and so forth. I did, I left out, conveniently, the put your thumb on the scale. Well, the butcher man became very impatient with me signing for my father -interpreting for my father, while he was signing instructions for me.
There were a lot of women pushing and elbowing, trying to get to the counter to place their order. And he said to me, listen, he obviously saw that my father couldn't hear and typically he used a word which everyone used with my father. He said, tell the dummy, if he won't wait his turn, get to the end of the line or get out of the store. And I'd never heard anybody call my father a dummy. In those days I used to listen constantly to the "Charlie McCarthy Show." And I remember Edgar Bergen saying, Charlie, you're nothing but a dummy, a block of wood. But my father was not a dummy. He wasn't a block of wood. And that was the downside of interpreting, which was a very difficult thing for me to internalize.
CONAN: And we want some listeners in on the conversation. Our guest is Myron Uhlberg. His book is "Hands Of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and The Language Of Love," if you'd like to join us. 800-989-8255, email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Especially interested in hearing from those of you who've had to interpret for their parents. And Marshall joins us on the line. Marshall calling us from Tucson.
MARSHALL (Caller): Good afternoon.
Mr. UHLBERG: Good afternoon.
MARSHALL: I grew up as a son of deaf parents, but in very different circumstances. I never learned sign language.
Mr. UHLBERG: Oh my. I've heard that. Are you a CODA? It's known as - an official organization - an acronym for Children Of Deaf Adults. I don't know if you're familiar with it.
MARSHALL: I'm familiar with it. I'm not in organization. I just was a child who grew up that way. When my kids went - when my parents went to school, my mother went to a school for the deaf. My father went to an oral program in Milwaukee.
MARSHALL: And learned very quickly that if you signed, you were a dummy. And dummy, of course, being a word that was very pejorative among deaf people.
Mr. UHLBERG: Yes.
MARSHALL: They referred to themselves.
Mr. UHLBERG: Yes, I've heard that experience by many people. That's true. There were some deaf parents who did not wish to protect their children. They did not wish the children to become so involved in their own deaf world, which was indicated by their signing. I don't know if your mother or your father, and both mother and father could sign. I'm sure they could. I'm sure that's how they communicated with each other.
MARSHALL: Oh yeah, (unintelligible) between themselves and with their friends.
CONAN: But how did they communicate with you, Marshall?
MARSHALL: Lip reading. And they were, at times, very good at it, and at times, it wasn't good. It was very difficult because when you depended on lip reading, you miss the communication of things where you wanted to express things that had a lot of emotional context and feeling. Because when you got into something very deep, it happened too often, what was that? Or I didn't get that. And it became impossible to do. I always regretted very deeply never having learned sign.
Mr. UHLBERG: Oh yes. I - believe me, I understand what you're saying. And I personally can't imagine my own experience if I had not been taught sign. Frankly, I know what you're saying because lip reading, at best, the most skilled lip readers can only detect 30 percent of what's said. And they can only figure things out partially by trying to place the 30 percent that they think they understand in some sort of context. And it allows for great confusion and great misunderstanding.
MARSHALL: That's right.
Mr. UHLBERG: Personally, I am so glad, although, believe me, when I was a child, it embarrassed me to sign in public in many situations. Nonetheless, I'd give my left arm if I could not sign.
CONAN: In a way, and Marshall, thanks very much for the call.
MARSHALL: Thank you.
CONAN: In a way, what he's describing is the situation your mother grew up with as the only deaf person in her family amidst a family that did not learn to sign.
Mr. UHLBERG: Well, Neal, that was the case for both my parents. They were both the first-born children, born hearing. My father developed spinal meningitis at three years old. And he was deafened thereafter, with no language. And my mother was a year old, approximately, when she had scarlet fever, was deafened. She was the first-born, as well.
So both my parents were born hearing and then became deaf through illness, scarlet fever and spinal meningitis. Their parents were first - were immigrants. They could barely speak English, could not read. Three of them could not write, except for one. And they had - not virtually - they had no communication with their children, both my father and my mother.
Both my father and mother told me in later life: I love my parents, but we never had a single intelligible conversation in our entire lives, a frightening thing. And of course, I was so glad that I did learn sign because that's something I cannot say. I had many intelligible conversations with my parents because I learned their language. That was my first language and that's really my mother tongue.
CONAN: There's a fascinating story you tell, when you were born, both of your grandparents, sets of grandparents, being worried that you, too, would slip away and become deaf and coming down from the Bronx with pots and pans to bang on - bang next to your crib. So, you know, you would hear the sound and wake up screaming.
Mr. UHLBERG: Yeah. My father told me that later. He said, you know, when you were born, we were so thrilled, Myron, but we were concerned at whether or not you could hear. There was no one there to tell us. So he said, I devised a foolproof method. He says that - he told me there were no audiologists or things like that. He said, but I intuited that sound creates a reaction in the hearing world, at least that's what my vision detected.
And so I told my mother, and father, and my two sisters and brother that they had to come down, took two trains from the northern reaches of the Bronx to reach Coney Island, where we lived, to come down with pots and pans. And - I didn't trust our own pots and pans for this purpose. And we waited until you were sleeping in your crib.
And this was from about the time I was born until roughly a year old, and they would congregate behind the headboard, my father told me. And by signal, on the part of my father, they would start banging away on those pots and pans. And obviously - I say obviously, because I could hear, I say obviously - and I woke up and started to cry.
And for a year, every time I cried, I saw this huge smile on my father's face. And I could never equate why it was - here I'm crying in discomfort and it seems that my father is very, very happy. But my father, not trusting their opinion, also asked his wife, my mother, Sarah, to have her family come from Coney Island, which wasn't far away, but they were allowed to use our pots and pans. And they did the same thing. It was quite an interesting experience growing up, at least until the year I was - until I was a year old.
CONAN: We're talking with Myron Uhlberg about his book, "Hands of My Father." Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com and stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Myron Uhlberg is our guest. We're talking about his new memoir titled "Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love."
His mother, Sarah, was sent to deaf school where sign language was forbidden by the hearing teachers. And he describes in a passage in his book how the girls taught each other sign language at night, sometimes in the bathroom - it was the only place the lights were on after dark - and quotes his mother as saying, oh, we were so naughty.
Here he writes, she made the sign for bad, but the gestures that accompanied it, lips compressed into a sly grin and shoulders lifted in a girls-will-be-girls shrug signaled that what she meant was not really bad, but rather, naughty.
By now my proficiency in sign had grown to the point that I was able, without even thinking, to discern the subtleties of my parents' language. A sign could have multiple meanings, depending on the context and the manner in which it was conveyed, the shape of the hands in making the sign, the utilization of facial grammar, the positioning of the hands relative of the body and, indeed, the use of the entire body.
Thus, bad became naughty that day, but with my mother's expressive ability in sign, it might just as well have become evil, nasty or wicked, depending on the context, though, my parents' hands, bodies and faces' individual signs recombined effortlessly to communicate volumes of information. And Myron Uhlberg, I've read a lot about sign, I've seen people talk in sign language; I've never gotten it so clearly.
Mr. UHLBERG: Well, thank you for that, but I believe any hearing child who learns sign language as their first language, as was my case, would express it pretty much in the same way. Sign language is a beautiful, visual, gestural language. It employs every part of the body, the eyes, the expression, the mouth, the shoulders, the face conveys grammar.
And the hands are always in motion, conveying all the complexities capable in any spoken language. And I believe even beyond that because so much more of the body is employed to convey meaning, and thought and so forth. It's a beautiful language. And interestingly, at the turn of the last century, which the deaf today call the bad old days, which really date back to 1880 when hearing educators of the deaf convened in Milan, Italy to determine - think of the arrogance and - at best, the paternalism, but at worse the arrogance of hearing educators of the deaf convening to decide how best to teach the deaf.
And at that point, they determined, we will not permit the deaf to use their gestural language. It's not a real language. It lacks sophistication and it's incapable of conveying thought. So from 1880, very quickly, all the teachers of the deaf who were deaf themselves and employed sign to communicate were dropped from the rolls of the educational system or were forced to retire. And from 1880, roughly, on into the mid-1900s, the teachers of the deaf were hearing.
Signing was forbidden. And my parents would say the only way they learned their language was when they were sent away to deaf residential school, both my mother and father. My father was sent away to a deaf residential school by the name of Fanwood, a very old school up in the Bronx, northern parts of the Bronx, New York.
My mother was sent to Lexington School for the Deaf, which after Gallaudet, which Abraham Lincoln signed the charter for in 1864, was - I think Lexington School for the Deaf was founded about 10 or 15 years later in New York. But it was founded as a strictly oral school.
And in most cases, in these deaf residential schools, signing - the use of hands, the use of the body - was strictly forbidden. The teacher would smack a child's hand, literally, with a ruler if they were caught signing. But that was their natural language. So--
Mr. UHLBERG: Yeah.
CONAN: I just want to give some listeners a chance to get in on the conversation.
Mr. UHLBERG: I'm sorry.
CONAN: They want to talk to you. Let's see if we can go now to Sarah(ph). Sarah with us from Wichita in Kansas.
SARAH (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Go ahead, please.
SARAH: Well, I just remember - I was raised by deaf parents. And I remember being about six years old, and they took me to the bank with them to set up some new accounts. And I was expected to translate concepts like compound interest, which to this day I'm not sure I understand.
CONAN: Me neither.
SARAH: I certainly didn't understand then. And they didn't understand it either. And I didn't have the words and it was a frustrating experience all around.
CONAN: And did - it's an awkward situation for a child, particularly that young, to be put in this - you know, at the moment, and I think this happens to this day, people listening to an interpreter will speak to the interpreter, not to the person who's actually talking.
SARAH: Yes, absolutely. And I was asked to assume a very adult role when I was far from it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Myron, you were in that situation often.
Mr. UHLBERG: Well, that's the exact experience. She phrases that beautifully. And yes, we're asked, typically the oldest child, at the age of roughly five or six, to be that interface and to interpret. But at five or six, I read somewhere where a typical five, six-year-old has acquired approximately 3,000 words.
Well, those of us who were born with deaf parents, I don't think we get the 3,000-word vocabulary. It's rather less than that - I have no idea how much. And yes, when an adult was vocalizing and verbalizing something at an adult level, we didn't understand all the words and certainly not all the concepts.
It became extremely frustrating, as much as we wanted to help our parent, to filter that through our little five and six-year-old mind with limited vocabulary to the parents. And then, in turn, try to interpret the - we were more sophisticated in signing than we really were in oral language - a very frustrating experience for a little kid.
CONAN: Sarah, thanks very much.
SARAH: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to Benjamin. Benjamin with us from Columbus, Ohio.
BENJAMIN (Caller): Hi there.
BENJAMIN: Thanks for taking my call. I have bilateral Meniere's disease, which means it affects both ears, and I've been told this will probably render me deaf in, I don't know, about 10, 15 years. And, of course, who knows what technology will bring, but I'm anticipating that my family and I will need to learn sign. And granted, I know this isn't how you learned it, but I wonder if your experience, if you have any suggestions for should we learn now while we can hear, while I can hear? Or should we wait until then because it's easier when it's forced upon us? What do you recommend?
Mr. UHLBERG: Well, my thoughts on that would be to learn it as soon as you can. And it is such a beautiful language, I have no doubt that you will enjoy the learning of it, and your family will also enjoy participating and learning the language, as well.
BENJAMIN: I'm a little concerned about the old-dog-new-tricks thing, I got to admit.
Mr. UHLBERG: Yes, right.
CONAN: The advice is to go back to being three, and then you can learn it pretty quickly.
BENJAMIN: Yeah, exactly.
CONAN: Good luck, Benjamin.
BENJAMIN: All right, thank you.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Here's an email that we have from Bill in Brookville, Tennessee. I'm the uncle of two nephews now in their 20s. Their mother, my sister and father are both profoundly deaf, though, their sons are not. ASL is the boys' first language, and they communicated in little else their first three years. Even the dog was trained to respond to sign language.
When their older nephew was in the seventh grade, I was helping him prepare for a spelling test, and I noticed he would fidget with his hands while struggling to spell the words. I finally figured out that he was small-signing the words and then trying to convert that to phonetic language, a near impossibility. What would you advise to parents or mentors facing this common challenge?
Mr. UHLBERG: That's a tough one. And I'll tell you why because I experienced the same thing in those days. I had trouble spelling, but I had no trouble signing. And the transition from a spelled word, letter by letter, to a signed thought - signing is not a word-for-word rendition of spoken language, but whereas finger-spelling, you can do each specific letter, but it's much too slow to try to do that.
And articulate signers can't speak faster than they can spell manually with their fingers. There really is no way to combine the two. So I would really have no advice to give on that subject.
CONAN: I was fascinated to hear you describe your father signing in his sleep.
Mr. UHLBERG: Yes. That's a typical - and also signing when sitting by themselves; I caught my - both my mother and father doing that. And I - actually before my mother died, when she was in the hospital, I saw her signing in her sleep. And I like to think - although I can't document it, of course - she was signing to her husband who had died 25 years before her, that she was signing to him, wait, I'm coming, I'll be there soon, Lou. Yes, that thinking, the deaf think and articulate with their hands. And even when they're still, their hands often are in motion.
CONAN: Let's talk with Barbara from San Francisco.
BARBARA (Caller): Hi.
CONAN: Hi, Barbara.
BARBARA: I'm just getting off the freeway and talking. My grandfa-- both my grandparents on the maternal side were deaf, non-speaking people. And my mother didn't learn to sign; she learned to finger spell because she was put out of the family when her mother died. But our grandpa was really friendly to us, and I don't know how, but at about four or five he taught us to play chess, taught us a little finger spelling. But the funniest thing that he ever did with me was I was ranting and raving about Nixon as a teenager and writing and writing on his little pad, and he snatched the pad from me and wrote and wrote, and he said, You talk too much.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BARBARA: And that's all I have to say.
CONAN: Barbara, drive carefully, please.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BARBARA: Thank you.
CONAN: Fascinating. There's a moment where your father - of course fascinated by sounds, and there's a moment you describe when you're at the beach at Coney Island and he's asking you to describe for him - he's constantly asking you to interpret sounds for him. This time - what does it sound like when the waves crash on the shore?
Mr. UHLBERG: Yes, my father - what was important - I only learned this later. My father was what they call postlingually deafened. He was three years old. He had to have acquired some language and he had to have - certainly had a concept of sound, so he was intrigued by it. My mother, on the other hand, at a year old was prelingually deaf. She had been deafened before she acquired any language.
Therefore, my father being postlingually deaf, constantly fascinated by sound, was forever asking me to explain sound to him. And you can imagine a five, six-year-old child trying to explain the sound of the ocean, the sound of a wave slapping against the shore. It was impossible, so my first instinct when my -and I didn't enjoy doing that, by the way.
My father's insistence - what does the wave sound like? And I couldn't think of anything, and I said it sounds wet. My father knew what wet was but he didn't know what wet sounded like. And he kept insisting, what does it sound like? And I could only come up with the sound - the sound itself, of the noise that it made, the wet sound slapping against the damp earth and so forth. And to the best of my ability, which never entirely satisfied my father, I attempted to explain it to him.
CONAN: We're talking with Myron Uhlberg. His book is called "Hands of My Father: A Hearing Boy, His Deaf Parents, and the Language of Love."
Let's hear from Rona. Rona with us from St. Louis.
RONA (Caller): Hi. I actually had the opposite experience. I'm a parent of a five-year-old deaf son. And reading your book has given me such insight that I'm so glad my son is deaf at this time period because of so many opportunities, because your father was not dumb; he was the opposite. He had a job, a union job during the Great Depression. He could read. And he was the opposite of what everybody called him. And I just wanted to tell you that. The book is just amazing.
Mr. UHLBERG: Oh, thank you so much. That really touches me. Thank you so much for that.
RONA: You're welcome.
CONAN: And Rona, and you talk about opportunities for your son now. Do you feel like his life is limited in any way?
RONA: No. He actually has a cochlear implant. And we send him to an oral school but we teach him sign. We feel like he is - will be bilingual. And you know, the world is much more accepting of deaf people. And people don't assume he is dumb. In fact, everyone tells me how bright he is.
Mr. UHLBERG: That's true.
CONAN: ...we wish you and him the best of luck. Thank you very much for the call.
RONA: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking about, well, interpreting for your parents with Myron Uhlberg. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
Don is with us. Don calling from Buffalo.
DON (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I had a question about something called home sign, which I'm ashamed to say I speak. My sibling is deaf and my parents are both fluent in American Sign Language. But myself I never really learned it completely. And between myself and my sister, we communicate perfectly but with other members of deaf community I have a problem with it because I convert English directly into the sign language. I know the vocabulary, but I don't really - I don't emote when I speak and I have problems communicating with the other members of the deaf community. I wondered if that's a common problem that you've heard of a lot. Thank you.
Mr. UHLBERG: The answer - you put your finger right on it. The answer is yes. I'm now 75 years old. I have written the book, and I was invited to Gallaudet University, you know, the only deaf liberal arts college in the world. And I was very frightened about going there, really. This is the heart of deaf life today and deaf with a capital D and deaf culture with a capital D and their beautiful language which they protect and honor as the centerpiece of their culture.
My language, like yours, started with a combination of home signs and ASL, American Sign Language. But I acquired it - I was born in 1933, so I began acquiring it about three years old. It was not known as American Sign Language. It was just known as sign language, signing a language. It had no formal vocabulary and formal grammar, but it evolved. And it was a legitimate language. It was only later, in the '60s, named American Sign Language. It wasn't discovered. It was there all the time.
But every deaf - every hearing child of deaf parents of that era had a combination of homemade signs that were peculiar to their environment, to their mother and father; signs that they use with their children, which were not used in the overall deaf community.
So when you went into the overall deaf community, even in those days, in the late '30s, and you started to sign the language, a hearing child started, he used the language that they had literally at their mother's and father's knee; maybe 80 percent of it was intelligible to other deaf people. But there are always those signs that they never understood; those were the home signs.
CONAN: And I wonder, Don, is this uncomfortable for you?
DON: Well, at home - because I'm not really exposed to much of the deaf community, but at home it works just fine for me. But when I go out - my sister is only two years younger than me so she takes me out to parties and stuff like that sometimes, and I - it's difficult. I'm always really happy to say that people help me out and people work with me. But yes, it is a bit uncomfortable.
CONAN: All right, Don, thanks very much for the call. And Myron, we just have a couple of minutes left with you. I wanted to ask you to tell the story of your father taking you to see the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.
Mr. UHLBERG: I'll never forget that. That was April 15th, 1947. Jackie Robinson, the first African-American player to play in the white major leagues since a fellow named - Toledo - I forget his name, Moses - he played for Toledo Mud Hens or something back in 1860-something. But since that time there had never been a black player in the white leagues.
My father identified, being a deaf man, being discriminated against and having prejudice all surrounding him like a coat his entire life, related to Jackie Robinson; it was unbelievable. Now, my father knew nothing about baseball. In deaf residential school in those days there was no time really for sports and fooling around and playing. It was very serious business, trying to educate a deaf child.
So I couldn't understand why he was so intrigued. He explained to me, he said, I know what Jackie is experiencing. He is experiencing the same thing I am. I have talent. I have ability. But no one will recognize it. And I know Jackie Robinson has the same thing. And merely because of the color of his skin, he would say to me, they're not giving him due credit. But we're going to go watch Jackie Robinson prove to the baseball world the kind of man he is. It's not the color of his skin, it's the man he is. And I only wish people would treat me the same way. Not my deafness. Don't look at that. Look at what I can do.
He was absolutely fascinated with Jackie Robinson. He was Jackie Robinson's greatest fan in that part of Brooklyn, I can tell you that.
CONAN: Myron Uhlberg. You can read an excerpt from his story on our Web site, npr.org/talk. He's the author of "Hands of My Father." And he joined us today from member station WBUR in Boston.
Thank you so much.
Mr. UHLBERG: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And when we continue, we're going to be talking with the founders of Twitter. If you'd like to talk with them, stay with us. This is NPR News.
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