November 13, 2005.
Orlando Sentinel, Florida.
Donald Bowen doesn't know Lucky's big head looks like a box sometimes when he cocks it to the side or that the dog's hair looks as slick as a seal's.
Even his 7-year-old daughter's smile is something he can imagine only in his mind's eye, like fathoming the face of an unborn baby. Indistinct large forms and bright light penetrating through windows are about all Bowen's eyes see nowadays.
Being blind turns off so much -- sunsets, rainbows, art, the expressions on a loved one's face.
"It's not like a broken heart," Bowen said of blindness.
"[The heart] mends. You heal. I was married for 10 years and then divorced. And it was five years before I was interested in women. But then I fell in love again. That broken heart heals.
"But I will never see again. This is much harder than a broken heart."
For a few blind people, though, there are Luckys.
The big shiny black Labrador retriever bounded from the modest home in Lake Alfred like an overgrown puppy, his hockey-puck paws prancing like a Clydesdale in the grass, his boxy head tossing back and forth like he just knew I'd have a stick or Frisbee to throw. I let him down, coming empty-handed, expecting a guide dog to be a bigger fuddy-duddy than this.
Inside the home's porch-turned-office, Lucky plopped on the floor between Bowen's large feet, relaxing his chin on his paws as his owner told me their story.
Bowen would smile at his own memories, remembering the first moments of meeting this affectionate ball of black that would become his eyes.
A rare genetic eye disease first showed up when Bowen was about 30, offering annoying and spotty problems with his vision. Now 51, he can still see large forms of trees or the light coming through his office, but not enough to keep working at his earlier career in computer networking or to enjoy painting or reading or many of the things men his age take for granted, such as seeing their wives in a favorite dress.
He stayed on his job until 2001 but finally decided he had burdened co-workers enough. "They tried to cover for me," he said. "It was time to retire."
That year, though, another eventful thing happened.
Two days after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a little black Labrador retriever was born.
His owners named him Lucky.
"I didn't think I needed a guide dog. I thought they were for the Ray Charleses. The totals," he said, referencing those who see only blackness. "That is so wrong."
The man and his dog, 21/2 years after meeting, made me a believer too.
Lucky fits his harness like Jackie Kennedy in a pillbox hat: born for it.
His task? A job called "intelligent disobedience." Lucky does what Bowen tells him, unless those instructions could harm either of them. Bowen says, "Cross the street," and Lucky does it. Unless something is coming. Or a pothole might trip Bowen. Or a limb hangs in the way.
Lucky waits for his next command. Sometimes, Bowen can't figure out what's wrong and the next command is delayed. In those cases, Lucky makes his own decision and leads Bowen around.
"It sounds cruel, but he's trained to put my safety first," Bowen said.
The whole experience of dog-helps-man sends Bowen into passionate and heart-rending conversation. Lucky brought the world back to Bowen -- the stores, the sidewalks, the street corners and parks.
He used to call the Southeastern Guide Dog Association, the organization in Manatee County where he got Lucky, constantly, just to tell them "thank you" one more time.
Meanwhile, after leaving his career, Bowen poured himself into one passion blindness couldn't steal: music. An avid guitar player and singer/songwriter, the self-professed Parrothead turned his office into a recording studio. Today you'll find a smoke-tinged room where you might hear Jimmy Buffett on the CD player or Bowen strumming one of the several acoustic guitars that lie about the room.
When his heart gushed with gratitude for the newfound freedom and mobility that Lucky's intelligent disobedience brought him, songs poured out. "Labrador Shuffle," a rock-a-billy tune, and "Lucky Eyes," a ballad that strums the heartstrings, resulted.
Bowen doesn't claim to be great at it. "The music world hasn't missed much," he said of his talents.
But hoping to help others find the same joys and bonds as he and Lucky have, Bowen, his Even Keel Band and the Lake Alfred Lions Club collaborated on producing a CD of the music, and a nonprofit fundraising vehicle called Music for Sight launched. They ask for $10 donations, with money going to help the Southeastern Guide Dogs.
Southeastern has more than 160 people on its waiting list. It hopes to train about 80 dogs a year at a cost of about $37,000 per dog.
You can help make another Lucky story by simply sending a few bucks. You don't even have to listen to Bowen's singing. But if you do, you might find yourself doing a bit of an impromptu line-dance or two-step.
To order a copy of the two-song CD, contact the Lake Alfred Lions Club, P.O. Box 1401, Lake Alfred, FL 33850 or visit
Kelly Griffith can be reached at 863-422-5908 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source URL: http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/columnists/orl-swkellycol1305nov13,0,5242074.column?page=2&coll=orl-news-col.
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