By Sandy Burns
George Bartram is just like any other full-time RVer. He has traveled throughout the US and Canada by RV with his wife, Pauleen. He makes regular repairs and maintenance to the camper. He plays the fiddle and keyboard, and enjoys spending time with friends.
He’s just like any other RVer except for one thing. George is blind.
He lost his vision in early fall, 1953, at age eight. He and his brother were alone outside one evening with a pile of blasting (dynamite) caps they had found, and a fire was burning garbage in their backyard. George decided to see what would happen if he placed one of the caps onto a stick and held it in the fire.
“I stirred it in the fire, and nothing happened except for some pretty colors that copper often gives when put in a fire,” he said. “I was disappointed, so, I grabbed a handful and put them in the fire and leaned over to watch. Then the world exploded.”
The blast shook the house and rattled the windows. George was thrown back several feet, narrowly missing a guy wire from a Hydro (electricity) pole.
He used the guy wire to pull himself to his feet and grabbed his brother’s hand. He could still see, but his vision was very blurry.
“The copper shells fragmented like shrapnel, and they flew all over me from head to foot. Why I wasn’t killed from pieces entering my brain, no one knows. It was a miracle, but my eyes were peppered,” he said.
His brother had been hurt too, but not as bad, as he was further away from the fire.
George said details of the weeks following the accident are a blur. He was taken to his local hospital, and later transferred to the Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto.
“I was in a bed in Sick Kids, and had bandages all over my arms, torso, legs, and face. I kept wanting them to take away the bandages off my eyes, and they kept telling me to wait. I can’t imagine the trauma my parents and family went through.”
Doctors removed his left eye after it become infected. Over the ensuing months and years, attempts to regain his vision in his right eye failed.
His brother lost a lot of vision in one eye, but several years later, was able to regain about 90 percent of it.
THE LOSS OF SIGHT meant having to relearn even the most basic of everyday tasks, including dressing and eating. While George recovered from his injuries, he learned Braille from a home teacher through the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
He continued his studies at the Ontario School for the Blind in Brantford, Ontario. It was there he learned wood working, carpentry skills, hand and power tools, and basic electrical repairs, all of which would be very useful once he started RVing. His father was a mechanic and taught his sons how to perform mechanical repairs, and George also learned how to tune and repair pianos.
“Thanks to what I learned back then and all the patient and giving friends over the years,
I have had gainful and good employment and managed a pretty complete and fulfilling life style and living for myself and my family,” he said.
When they met in St. Catherines, Ontario, George was a working as a piano tuner, and Pauleen was a taxi driver. She says he was an “outrageous flirt;” he says he was just passing the time as Pauleen drove him to various homes and schools for service calls. Their marriage was a second for both of them; they each have a son from their first marriages.
Neither he nor Pauleen had stepped foot inside an RV until the early ‘90s, when they visited friends in Elliott Lake, Ontario, and, at the friends’ suggestion, stayed in their 24-foot Coachmen trailer in their driveway, as the friends had little room in their home for guests. George and Pauleen enjoyed the amenities of the trailer over multiple visits with their friends until one day, the friends announced they had built a guest room in the basement and had sold the trailer.
That’s when they decided to become RVers. They already had a pickup truck, and Pauleen was nervous about pulling a rig, so they decided to get a truck camper. The learning curve about tires, shocks and suspension was a steep one, as was the realization that between both of them and George’s guide dog, then a chocolate lab named Coco, the truck camper would just not be big enough. So they traded it for a single axle, 17-foot Jayco, which they enjoyed for about two years. Their next trailer, a 23-foot Reallight, added more luxury, with a full washroom, hot water tank and air conditioning. But it also came with more learning, particularly about sway bars.
Fast forward another couple of years, and the couple decided to get something a little bigger, so they purchased a 27-foot Achiever.
It was with this rig that George brought his mother to visit his brother, who had moved to Georgia. Engine troubles along the way confirmed what George and Pauleen had been starting to suspect. Their light Ford E150 wasn’t strong enough to keep up with their increasing towing demands, so they switched to a ¾ ton diesel pickup.
IN EARLY 2000, they switched to the trailer they still use today, a 29.5-foot Fleetwood with one slide. To help with backing into a campsite, Pauleen places George strategically so she knows where to stop. In other words, George essentially acts as a human pylon. It’s a system they have honed over the years, and it works well, they said.
Much of what George knew about maintaining a trailer, he had learned from his friends in Elliot Lake, the ones with the Coachmen in their driveway. There are things that George will not attempt, including greasing wheel bearings, checking and maintaining brakes, and major electrical issues, as well as things like checking the roof for cracks and leaks. But he is very adept at many other repairs and maintenance duties, both inside and outside the unit.
George has always had an ear for music. As a child, he played his mother’s guitar (even though he wasn’t supposed to), his dad’s harmonica, the piano, and the violin. In university, he tried the guitar, and went back to playing the fiddle in his late thirties. When he was in his forties, he began competing. It was during this time that Pauleen decided to learn step dancing, and has been enjoying it ever since.
During their travels, they learned about large music festivals and competitions throughout Ontario, including ones in Sturgeon Falls and Pembroke. They continue to go to these festivals every summer and occasionally still compete.
George and Pauleen have travelled throughout Ontario, as far east in Canada as Newfoundland, and are planning a trip to Alberta to see their new grandson in fall 2014. They have been snowbirding to Florida for five years now, and have been full-timing for a couple of years.
“This was a dream when we starting planning our retirement, and it is now a reality,” he said. “We will continue to enjoy it as long as we’re in good health, and then we’ll look into a retirement home.”