Felix Carroll: For car guy first, blind guy second, feeling is believing

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LANESBOROUGH — As autumn takes over on Summer Street, Phil Shallies agrees to pause cleaning out his gutters, step down off his extension ladder and talk about the times he's raced stock cars while blind.

Yes, he's blind and he's up on his roof cleaning out his gutters. What of it?

Word has it he also rebuilds classic cars from the bottom up.

"OK, so what would you like to know?" asks Shallies, now in his kitchen, wiping his hands dry.

Well, how about we start with everything?

"Oh, boy," says Janie Ray, self-described "girlfriend of 25 years and 10 months on the 13th day of this month, but who's counting?"

To start with, everything entails starting with cars, because cars are everything, and Shallies is a car guy first, blind guy second, just so we're clear. That means that before he can get to explaining how he came to be in Car and Driver magazine (in the same issue as Paris Hilton, no less), he'll need to explain that he fell in love with cars when he was a boy, back in the 1950s.

His affection wasn't passed down from his father, a man he never knew. His affection developed from what he could see with his own eyes: Cars were sexy, shiny and powerful, and they took you where you wanted to go, whenever you wanted to go, deep into those hills and beyond. You go until you were gone. That's why he fell in love with cars.

He had a paper route. He'd spend a goodly portion of his earnings on model cars down at the Lanesborough Supermarket. He'd assemble them and behold them. Little mini muscle cars at 1/32 scale.

He wanted to be a professional mechanic, but before he can get to the part in the story about whether he did or did not shove a plate of spaghetti into the face of the last employer he ever had, he'll need to explain that, yes, he indeed went blind, as did his late mother, Sally, before him.

Both inherited Usher syndrome, a condition characterized in their case by partial hearing loss and vision loss that worsened over time until everything went dark. When he was 8 years old, it started: He lost his night vision. Into his teens, he gradually lost his peripheral vision, too.

At McCann Technical School in North Adams, where he graduated in 1969, his affliction increasingly stood out. He wore bottle glass-thick glasses. He'd trip over things. Meanwhile, he was a natural in auto shop and helped his classmates earn a spot in a national engine troubleshooting competition in Indianapolis, where Shallies got to drive a new Plymouth Roadrunner around the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Yes, he had earned his driver's license, but somewhere around the age of 25, somewhere deep in the balsam firs of Mount Greylock during a joyride, he flipped a 1957 Chevy. It was the last in a series of accidents he had before surrendering his license for good. His job as a gas station attendant would be the next casualty. His boss took him out to dinner, during which time he informed Shallies that his vision problems were proving a liability. The only reason that plate of spaghetti did not get shoved into the owner's face, Shallies says, is because he was hungry. In retrospect, he wishes he had eaten a larger lunch.

So at age 26, unemployed, he figured he had two choices: sit in a chair as his entire world went black or make something of himself. He promptly set up a car repair shop at his mother's house — the house he still lives in — and called it Shallies Summer Street Service.

As his vision worsened, he was careful to memorize the placement of every one of those hundreds of wrenches, sockets, bolts and washers, all stored neatly in a bulwark of drawers and shelves that he maestros over. Ask him to find anything, like, say, a 7/8-inch combination wrench, and he'll find it. He'll feel his way around the Fiat Spider he's working on. He'll come to a set of steel drawers, pull a drawer open, feel among the dozens of combination wrenches, choose one, feel his way back around the Fiat and say, "I would start out with this guy," presenting you with a 7/8-inch combination wrench. All in under 90 seconds.

At best, out in daylight, Shallies' world is now a solid sheet of gray. He's never seen the face of his girlfriend, Janie, whom he met through his membership to the Berkshire Benevolent Association for the Blind, for which she's a volunteer.

"He doesn't know how ugly I am," she says.

"No, you're not," he says.

He's never seen the impeccable job he did rebuilding a 1966 Chevy II, for which he's won a carload of trophies at auto shows.

Janie does the driving. When they hit the pavement, Shallies no longer needs to instruct her to make the tires squeal. She'll make the tires squeal, and he'll grin from ear to ear.

It was in his car shop one morning in 2002 where he heard an Albany radio station make a callout for blind race car drivers for a cockamamie fundraiser for a sports camp for the visually impaired. Shallies presented himself at the station. How did they know he was really blind? It was explained to him later than a notably curvaceous morning DJ stood before him at the station and shook her chest.

"My eyes didn't move. I passed the vision test," he says.

At the speedway in Fonda, N.Y., he climbed into a stock car. He was assigned a professional driver to ride shotgun and direct him in the form of "left — more left, more left gas, gas, brake, brake." He has participated in five such races over the years. And yes, Car and Driver published a photo of him driving at the moment his front end clipped the back end of another car on the track, causing it to twirl like a pinwheel.

"I've got a copy of that magazine somewhere," he says. "I'll look for it."

"Did you tell him your motto?" Janie asks.

"My motto is, `Feeling is believing,'" he says.

For instance, when he's vacuuming, before he declares a room dirt-free, he gets down on his hands and knees and feels. When he's building a new back deck, which he just did, he feels his way to plumb. He feels his way to fix cars.

He holds a finger up. Its nail is bruised and blackened. He accidentally hit it with a hammer as he was straightening out a backing plate for a set of disc brakes.

"Feeling is believing," he says. "I felt that one."

Anyway, winter is en route to Summer Street. A home is in need of buttoning up. Rolls of fiberglass insulation are awaiting installation in the crawl space under his kitchen, and that insulation isn't going to install itself — so if you'll please excuse Phil Shallies.

Felix Carroll is The Eagle's community columnist. He can be reached at fcarroll@berkshireeagle.com.

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