Bringing a touch of distant roses to the mind's eye

HERE at C.E. Bent & Sons Warehouse, where many of the floats for Friday's Rose Parade are being assembled and covered with flowers, John and Larry Gassman are taking notes. ``This feels like the membrane of a giant butterfly wing, probably made with coffee beans,'' says John, speaking into a running tape recorder, strung around his neck. ``It's huge,'' says Larry, ``definitely showing a lot of work. Wow!''

The couple is being led by Frank Whitely of Pasadena Radio station KPCC-FM on what can only be called a tactile tour of these $200,000-and-up moving horticultural creations.

For the second year in a row, back by popular demand, these blind twins will be providing ``mind's eye'' coverage of the parade to nonsighted listeners on stations in the National Public Radio network. Seven teen stations have signed up so far this year, from New York to Illinois, Texas to Seattle. Last year 30 stations carried the coverage.

To better explain the enormous floats, many with movable parts, and all covered with once-living materials, the twins have paid more than 20 visits to this and similar warehouses. The idea is that only the visually handicapped can adequately translate the excitement and pageantry to other visually impaired listeners through a sort of visualization by association. ``You can feel these corn husks,'' says John, speaking into the recorder about the runners of an enormous rocking horse, the parade entry for the City of Torrance, Calif. ``Yeah, they're just like last year's scales on Baskin-Robbins's Loch Ness monster,'' says Larry. ``And here's large, uncooked white rice covering the inside of the runner.''

After climbing, smelling, and feeling their way over a half-dozen floats, the twins call it quits for a day. Then they go home to transfer their tape notes onto Braille, for use from 8 a.m. to about 10:40, high above Colorado Boulevard.

During that time, 60 floats of all shapes and sizes, covered with everything from cocoa beans and pampas grass to okra and honeysuckle, will pass by their radio booth. ``The biggest problem is the 45- to 50-degree temperatures,'' says John. ``After a while, it makes our fingers so cold we can't read the Braille anymore,'' says John. ``That's when we have to ad lib, and try to translate from our firsthand experience - pun intended,'' says Larry.

The idea of having blind commentators describe one of the most visually oriented parades in America was that of station manager Larry Shirk. The broadcast has been packaged and marketed as a free service to member stations, many picking it up in their roles as radio informational services for the blind.

``All you have to do is think for a moment how left out the visually impaired are when it comes to major national festivities like the Rose Parade,'' says Mr. Shirk, ``and you realize this is not so much a good idea, but an outright necessary one. A sighted person says, `Oh, look!' and the rest is silence. Through their own blind experience, the Gassmans can relate things comparatively - such as `this giant's thumbnail is the size of a frying pan,' something all blind people can relate to.''

Obviously, the broadcast is not limited to the sight-impaired, but will be designed to heighten the imagination with richer word pictures. ``Doing a parade isn't just about describing roses,'' says Larry. ``Even if you can see, it's a little tough to elaborate on exactly what a rose looks like. It's something you feel.''

Besides transferring information from press information packets into Braille for the big day, the two have spent hours quizzing tournament officials and interrogating float builders for specifics.

``We're definitely overprepared,'' says John. The 32-year-old twins have been blind since birth, but both say they can register broad ranges of light and shadow. They have worked together on radio since college days in 1973, when they had to sell their own time on a local college station in Whittier, Calif.

Since 1980, the pair has acted as hosts of a weeknight, old-time radio show called, ``Same Time, Same Station.'' They are also charter members of a group called SPERDVAC, the Society to Preserve and Encourage Radio Drama, Variety, and Comedy. Larry is now president.

``We had never been to the Rose Parade, but had felt the floats afterwards at the post-parade party at Victory Park,'' says John. When station manager Shirk ``popped the question, we jumped at the challenge to try to translate both the substance and spirit by talking to the blind, not at them.''

``The twins are dedicated enough to want to go the extra distance to do this up right,'' Shirk says. ``And they both have hilarious senses of humor that let them be both compassionate and not self-coddling about their handicaps.''

The twins say they will be relying on the raised-dot Braille cards instead of two more expensive options: a print reader known as an Opticon, which transfers print into impulses read by the fingers, and a speech output, which turns readable material into audio sound. As a backup, Shirk will communicate from street level by headsets to the twins. Even though the ``line of march'' has already been decided well in advance, delays and cancellations can change the lineup on parade day. The trio will use the same strategy this year, with modifications.

``Last year the response from the blind listenership was incredible,'' says Shirk. ``It ranged from `couldn't see the parade without you' to `I wish the third guy [Shirk] would've just kept his mouth shut.' I had been trying to jump in with details like colors when I should've just let the twins talk about smell or size.''

Coverage may also include on-the-spot interviews with viewers and celebrities, or pretaped conversations with figures such as last year's grand marshal, soccer star Pele. For their coverage last year, the twins received the ``Courageous Broadcasters of the Year'' award from Major Market Radio Sales, based in Chicago.

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