It was like the squealing of an orchestra tuning up. The random noise that filled Eagle Mountain Casino, northeast of Bakersfield, Calif., seemed to have no meaning, no pattern. It was mostly just the ringing and clanking from rows of slot machines.
Most people would dismiss the noise as just the clatter of a gambling hall. For Chuck Wall, it sent clear messages. It spoke to him as it spoke to no one else.
Wall, 68, is blind.
As he pushes buttons and the slot machine spins, Wall keeps two counts in his head -- one of how many plays he has left, the other of how much money he has spent.
As he counts his machine's sounds, he listens to the machines around him. He recognizes sounds, particularly those coming from machines that have paid off in the past. He moves around the room, listening for "lucky" machines to play.
"It's fun. I have a system. I don't have to rely on someone else. I can do it by myself. It gives me a bit of independence. It is always important for someone with a disability to have independence," he said.
Wall lost his sight to retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited disorder in which an excessive amount of a substance called phytanic acid accumulates and causes extensive damage to the retina and eventually blindness. Wall was diagnosed with the disease at 19 years old, the year he graduated from East Bakersfield High School. His eyesight began deteriorating years earlier.
Wall, who retired in 2004 from his position as a management and communication professor at Bakersfield College, has not let his loss of sight stand in the way of his ambitions. He earned advanced degrees, including a doctorate in education from UCLA.
He formed a foundation to promote his national "Random Act of Kindness" movement and is in demand as an inspirational speaker.
At his home in northeast Bakersfield, he does woodworking on power saws. Recently he took up pottery, throwing clay onto wheels and shaping it into pots.
Anyone who knows Wall likely wouldn't be surprised that he refuses to let a little thing like being blind stand in the way of enjoying a day out with his wife, Diane (or Di, as as everyone calls her) at the Indian casino in the hills above Porterville.
On a recent Monday morning at 7:50, Wall and Di boarded an Eagle Mountain Casino bus near the East Bakersfield Senior Center on Ridge Road. The bus already had picked up a few passengers at the Wal-Mart on White Lane and would make another stop in front of the Smart & Final store on Golden State Avenue, before heading out of town. The route is one of four originating daily from Bakersfield. The last bus leaves Bakersfield at 6 p.m.
Wall's bus arrived at Eagle Mountain at 9:30 a.m. The charge was $10 per person, roundtrip. Each passenger received $15 in "bonus cash" and other incentives, easily breaking even on the transportation.
From the friendly greetings, it seemed the bus was filled with regulars. Like Wall, many were retirees enjoying a cheap day out.
When the Walls arrived, Di guided her husband to a familiar row of slot machines. Wall ran his fingers over the front of the machine, found the opening to insert the card he was given by the casino to retrieve his incentives and found another opening to insert a $10 bill.
Then Di disappeared. Matter-of-factly, Wall explained that his wife is the lucky one. She doesn't stick around with losers.
He was right. At the end of the day, Di was ahead by more than $500. Wall was ahead by only $200.
"It's a rare day that I don't come home at least breaking even," he said, smiling at the memory of his largest jackpot: $2,500.
"He's amazing," said casino worker Patti Gemmell, as she hovered around Wall, watching him play. He is the casino's only blind gambler.
Wall and his wife set strict limits on how much they will spend, pulling money from separate envelopes that contain their winnings from earlier visits. They gamble until 11 a.m., when the buffet opens. After eating a leisurely meal, they play some more slots. They cash out at 1 p.m., moving to the casino's entrance, where they "dink around" on some more slots until the bus leaves for home at 2 p.m.
"For me, it's an adult Disneyland," Wall joked, noting they have been visiting Eagle Mountain for more than a decade.
"Some people may moralize that I shouldn't be here; that it is wrong to gamble. But I do not consider it to be harmful to my character," Wall said.
As the Walls boarded the bus to return home, there was a friendly stream of "how'd ya do?" and some good-natured grumbling. Folks settled into their seats. The bus pulled away and headed down a windy road. Within minutes, the bus fell quiet as the gamblers snoozed.
As Wall also snoozed, he smiled, content with his day of independence.
This article written by DIANNE HARDISTY appeared first in The Bakersfield Californian on Nov. 15, 2009.