From drag racing to auto repair to running his business — piano tuning —
Charley White doesn’t let the fact that he’s blind stop him from accomplishing his goals
|"A lot of fellas, even with perfect vision, have a problem doing certain things," said Bellingham’s Charley White, a blind piano tuner who is pictured checking the pitch on his own piano. "Once I learned how to do it, it’s nothing to me." While the technique of piano tuning isn’t complicated in theory, piano tuning is very much a skill, as it requires patience, a good ear and practice.|
The story starts like a lot of good stories do — with a buildup.
“I used to drag race. The ’57 Chevs came out, and they were hot. But I had an old ’47 Plymouth, and nobody knew that I had hopped it up. And so I had a bunch of my best buddies with me, and this guy goes, ‘You wanna drag that sled?’”
Charley White, now 70, remembers his reply.
“An-y-time.” And so they were off, down a long, dusty Eastern Washington road used specifically for such events. As White retells the story from a lounge chair in Bellingham’s Beaver Inn — one of his regular haunts — a broad smile stretches across his wrinkled face.
“I shocked the hell out of him,” said White of the other driver. “He was sitting there spinning his tires and I dropped the clutch in that baby and we were off and down the road. He couldn’t catch me until I was doing damn near 90 (miles per hour).”
As he talks, the smile grows.
“My buddy was riding beside me to help me steer and keep it going on the right track,” White said. “Oh God, I shook so bad the next day, I told myself I’d never do it again. No way. If I’d a wrecked and killed us all or hurt any of us, I’d have had a hard time living with it.”
The story is already a good one. But it improves even more when you throw in this detail: Charley White doesn’t have any eyes.
The fact is, White has never seen. He has been blind since birth. It’s also a fact that the feisty Bellingham resident has always pushed the limitations of his disability in all areas of his life. That’s why it comes as no surprise that White owns Major Minor Piano Service, a piano tuning and repair company. White has been a Bellingham-based piano tuner since he started here in the summer of 1958, and has been involved with the trade since he was 14.
“I always push the envelope,” he said.
‘Get on it and pedal’
As she grins from behind the bar, Katina Briles, a bartender at the Beaver Inn, said she is suspicious of White.
“He’s really, really funny,” said Briles. “I think he can actually see, and he just lies to everybody. He can tell everybody in here by their voices. He knows everyone.”
She said White often stops by the Beaver for coffee once or twice per day, and is a regular downtown character.
“I think everybody in this town knows him,” she said. “Especially downtown.”
She said White normally sits in the same stool at the end of the bar.
“He’s really nice, and really generous,” she said. “Sometimes he’ll bring me fruit, and sometimes he brings food that he’s cooked.”
Drag racing. Cooking food. Owning a business. These activities are difficult enough for those who have the benefit of sight. For White, they are but a few items on a list of many.
An inventory of some of his injuries reveals some of his character: He said his arm has been broken twice — once from a roller-skating accident, and once on a bike. He said he also enjoys hiking and playing darts.
A response to the question of how he could ride a bike reveals some of his soul.
“You get on it and pedal,” he said, with a characteristic chuckle. “I don’t know how you ride a bicycle.”
His ability to “sense” without seeing is a gift, he said.
“When my health is good, I can walk down the sidewalk and tell you if there is a hose laying on it,” he said.
It’s this sense that has allowed him to develop his skills as a mechanic.
“I can just look at something and fix it,” he said. “I’ve had junk brought to me and put it back together.”
This mechanical ability is not something everyone has, he admits.
“It depends on the individual,” he said. “You either have it or you don’t have it. Hell, I have worked with sighted people who drive me up a wall. I’ve had people work for me — drive for me and that sort of stuff — and I’ll say, ‘Here, why don’t you tighten all these screws.’ And I’ll show them how to get at them because they’re a little bit hard to see. Pretty soon they aggravate me so bad I take (the tool) away from them and tell ‘em to go sit down and read a book.”
White was born in Colfax, in the heart of the Palouse in Eastern Washington, and he started learning piano tuning in high school at the age of 14. It was also during his youth that he learned to be independent, as he left home to attend the Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver, Wash., from age 7 to 19. Following high school, he attended the Piano Hospital and Training Center for two years to become a registered piano technician.
“I was independent anyway, but that really made me independent,” he said.
He doesn’t like people doing things for him to this day.
“I do everything. I run power tools, saws and drills. And I still have 10 fingers,” he said. He also doesn’t like it when people speak for him, something that seems to happen all too often with blind people, he said.
“It’s an automatic thing for people,” White said. “They want to talk for that blind person or whatever. No! … Sometimes it sounds like you’re being rude. But you’re not being rude. You have to sound that way a little bit to get your point across, you know?”
Move on to the next job
Being a blind business owner has its challenges, White said — especially in an industry that can be very complex.
“There are a little over 7,000 moving parts in a piano, depending on what you’re working on,” he said. When he started tuning pianos, he would charge a minimum of $8 for a job. Today, that minimum charge has risen to $70. Aside from the price and the higher taxes, he said not a whole lot has changed about the job.
“It’s time consuming and it takes a lot of patience to do it correctly,” said White, who added it takes him the same amount of time to tune or repair a piano as a person with sight. “If I didn’t have patience, I’d be in a world of hurt.”
The most difficult part of his job is getting to and from jobs, he said. To help, he has hired drivers from time to time, and sometimes customers even provide transportation.
“I don’t advertise the fact I’m blind,” he said. “A lot of times, when I go into a stranger’s home, they’ll just about have a heart attack when they find out I’m blind.”
The more uncomfortable the customer, the better, joked Charley.
“I get over to the piano, and the first thing you know, I’m tearing it all apart. So when I see they’re really uncomfortable, my favorite thing to do is make them even more uncomfortable,” he said, laughing. “I’ll say, ‘Ah damn, I haven’t taken the course on putting it back together.’ And they go, ‘You’re kidding aren’t ya?’ And I say, ‘Yeah. No problem.’ I’ve had these things come to me in a box and I have to sit down and figure the parts out and put it back together.”
He said fellow colleagues in the field have been known to call him and ask his advice, he said.
“I’m a schooled technician,” he said. “A lot of times, they’re calling me to figure out how to do something.”
David Steege, a registered piano technician in Bellingham, has worked in the industry for the past 31 years. He owns David Steege Piano Service, and also works as a piano technician for Western Washington University.
Over the years, he has crossed paths with White several times. During their meetings, the two would trade ideas and advice, Steege said.
“I know that his customers really like his work,” Steege said. “I’ve always thought of him as a wonderful person and a great colleague.”
Steege said he was often amazed at White’s ability to overcome his blindness — as well as his ability to sense.
“I’ve heard (some of his) customers say how he would have a sense for the positioning of a piano in room, in terms of, ‘Well, if you put it over against that wall, it would sound better,’” Steege said. “He was always known for doing incredibly fine tunings.”
When his business was at its height, White said he would set a goal of servicing three to four clients per day.
“I can’t even say (how many pianos I’ve tuned). I don’t pay attention,” he said. “I just move on to the next job.” He would also travel around the region for work.
“When I was really going at it, I used to do Whidbey Island and the San Juan Islands, and the Concrete area” he said. “I enjoy it. Especially when I’m feeling good. I’ll go anyplace, anytime.”
A piano that is “kept up” — meaning it has been tuned on a regular basis at least once per year — may take 1.5 to two hours, depending on the make. Repairs can take much longer.
“I’ve spent days on major jobs,” he said. Because of age and medical issues, he said, he usually works with just a handful of customers per week now.
In addition to mechanical training, White said he has also been schooled musically. He started playing the piano in second grade, and he still plays the instrument, along with the saxophone and clarinet.
This depth of knowledge — as well as a fearless attitude — has kept White going all these years.
“I’ve helped train people who have gone blind (later in life) and they have a lot of things to overcome,” he said. “You have to kick them in the butt and get ‘em going. Don’t be afraid of it, it won’t do any more than bite ya.”
Charley White has a unique view on life. The following is a collection of some random “Charley-isms.”
On his true passion: “My true love is automobiles … I had my eyes set on doing something in the automobile industry. It probably just wasn’t ready for me yet.”
On his younger brother’s 1956 Thunderbird Roadster: “I go down to his place, and the only place I go is out to the garage and drool all over it. I love those things. It’s a beautiful design … When they came out with it, they should never have messed with it.”
On car design: “I’ve always loved foreign cars and I’ve always gone to car shows … You can tell just by feeling them out a little bit. And you don’t have to feel, feel, feel, feel. You can just get a general line. A lot of blind people paw everything, you might say. That’s not me … There are certain things I check out: the line of it. (I run my fingers) from the front to the back. I check out spots here and there … I have a tremendous ability for a mental picture, immediately.”
On his illness: “At that time they didn’t know what they know now. A child born with the same condition today would pretty much have a 99 percent chance of perfect vision. But that’s progress, thank God.”
On his gifts: “My gift is me. The dear Lord gave me the ability to just do everything mechanical and with my hands … I love working with my hands.”
On starting a business: “Find somebody to back you up. That’s always No. 1. Always have a backup (such as a family member or friend). Which I didn’t. And it was tough … It can push you in the right direction to do things business-wise. You know how it is this day-and-age, man: It just keeps getting worse as far as taxes and
all this kind of crap.”
On boarding school: “They don’t give you a chance to feel sorry for yourself. ‘So you ran into that tree. You’ll get over it.’”
On talking to parents of blind kids: “The parents are always the problem, because they want to baby the kids. It’s normal … (I would tell them) ‘He’s going to get hurt. Just accept the fact. He mends.’”
On whether his life’s journey has been difficult: “I can’t say one way or another too much because it’s the only journey I know … Somebody who has gone blind later for some reason or another can give you a different answer.”