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As the son of a stuttering father, I tip my hat to 13-year-old Brayden Harrington, the courageous New Hampshire middle school student who stole the show in a moving two-minute video clip shown at the recent Democratic National Convention.
“It’s really amazing to hear that someone became vice president — despite stuttering,” Brayden said. “[Joe Biden] told me about a book of poems by Yeats that he would read out loud to practice.”
Unlike my dad, who died in 2006 at age 90, for stutterers like Brayden, Biden, celebrities Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, James Earl Jones and untold millions whose names you will never hear, speech therapy and encouragement changed their lives. My father grew up in a time when, unless you were King George VI, the subject of the Oscar-winning movie, “The King’s Speech,” strong men didn’t seek help.
“If only I would slow down, I might not stutter,” dad would often say, his face contorted, while stumbling over the letters S, T and W.
Ringing telephones especially angered Dad. While on the line, he was totally dependent on his speech, which ranged from intelligible to incoherent. He kept a police whistle by his phone, blowing it at any caller who shattered his serenity. Today, I fear there are hearing-impaired telemarketers who didn’t have the sense to just hang up.
Like Biden, who learned to laugh when classmates, even nuns, ridiculed his impediment, dad did the same. But I’m sure all stutterers die inside when this happens, and whenever Porky Pig signs off with, “That-that-that’s all folks!” on another Looney Tunes cartoon episode.
Tales of dad’s stuttering missteps are part of my family’s lore. There was the time he mangled the word “tuna” in “tuna fish sandwich,” and the waitress brought two sandwiches, just as he had said. And the night he arrived on stage acting in his high school play with only one line to recite: “Telegram for you, sir.” The audience erupted in laughter when he blew all four words.
My grandmother blamed her son’s stuttering on a bout with whooping cough at age 3 1/2. He was born three months premature, another possible factor. In any event, babies don’t emerge from the womb stuttering, and kids typically begin stammering and stuttering between the ages of 2 and 6.
According to the National Institute of Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about 5 to 10 percent of children stutter at some point. With children’s development, the stuttering often stops. But up to 25 percent of children will continue to stutter as adults.
Like many stutterers, dad found calming relief in nicotine. After a lifetime of smoking, he finally quit cold turkey in his 60s.
But the greatest gift arrived under the Christmas tree when he was still a child. He took to his new trumpet like a bear to honey, playing flawlessly at age 5. Obviously, his breath control changed radically when tooting his horn. So did his self-esteem.
There were times when he spoke flawlessly. Some people today might not even recall him as a stutterer. Typically, his stuttering grew worse under pressure and when his famous temper flared.
While a young man, he became the principal trumpeter with the Bangor Band and Bangor Symphony Orchestra. Throughout World War II, he was his Army unit’s bugler, who played “Reveille” at daybreak and “Taps” at sundown. Amazingly, his speech impediment no longer defined him, his musicianship did.
Fourteen years after dad’s passing, I still recall Sunday drives into the country. I admit biting my lip more than once, while tempted to ask, “Just say it! Why can’t you talk like everyone else?”
I’m sure all stutterers wonder the same thing, when their impediment is looked upon with such ridicule and amusement. But thankfully, there is therapy, including technical devices, that can help a lot. There is no shame in asking for help.
“I really worried that you boys would end up like your father,” my mother would say to my brother and me. “I didn’t want you to be the way he was. It can be such a curse.”
There is evidence that stuttering is inherited. If we had turned out like dad, isolated and humiliated at times, I think I would think of it as a kind of blessing. When humans are made to feel different, the world changes in their view, and they live their lives accordingly.
So, Brayden Harrington, hang your head high in your school and community. You have inspired more people than you could ever imagine. And you have prompted me to discuss my dad, the stutterer, in a whole new light.
Richard Shaw is an author and historian who lives in Bangor.