Dean Merlo, a 57-year-old Brisbane coffee entrepreneur, first met Chris Backstrom, also 57, in primary school. They now play competitive lawn bowls together despite Chris, a retired teacher, being legally blind.
DEAN: Chris and I have known each other since the fifth grade. We played school sport together – football and cricket – and were always on the same team. My father, Gino, was a lawn bowls fanatic and was president of New Farm Bowls Club in Brisbane for five years during the 1990s. When Dad suggested I play lawn bowls, I told him he was crazy to recommend such a boring sport.
It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that I finally tried bowls and discovered the game is strategic, appealing to my competitive nature. From that first tournament I was hooked and I’ve been a member of the New Farm Bowls Club for 20 years. I became president in 2016.
Chris was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at 22. Realising his eyesight would worsen, he signed up for Blind Cricket. Chris was the first person to score a century in Blind Cricket for Australia, and probably the last person to tell you this. When he retired from cricket just before his 41st birthday, I suggested he try lawn bowls. He loves sport and is a guy who has a go at everything. He joined our club and plays in my four-side team. For years we’d make the finals for the intra-club championship but kept losing until we finally won in 2017 and 2018.
Watching Chris bowl is incredible. As lead, he rolls the jack [the white ball] first, then I shout out to him how many metres he needs to bowl to be close to the jack. Most of the skips [team leaders] we play against aren’t aware Chris is vision-impaired until I tell them. Psychologically, I believe it’s an advantage having him on our side because the opposition think, “We can’t lose to a blind guy.”
Chris is independent, proud and doesn’t like to show he’s blind. He refuses to use his cane at the club, only using it when he reaches the footpath. Chris is a straight shooter who expresses his opinion and people like him are needed in any business, but especially in a bowls club. When I became president, I encouraged him to stay on the committee as I trust his counsel.
His mind is sharp and it’s a cruel irony that he has a photographic memory but can no longer use it. It was a complete tragedy that the education department took away his role as a special education teacher at 46, when his sight worsened. Chris was an inspiration to those blind kids. The guy taught himself braille, how to play guitar. He taught my two kids to read.
A group of seven of us from high school meet twice a year for a competition card night. We set Chris up under a spotlight with a huge magnifying glass. When we show our cards, we say to Chris what they are, but with that magnificent brain of his he’s able to play competitively, hearing and picturing what cards we all have.
CHRIS: Dean and I played rugby union from primary through to high school and we showed more enthusiasm than skill. At 18, I was studying to become a teacher. I’d also joined the Army Reserve and couldn’t understand why others in my team were not running into trees during night drills like I was. That’s when I discovered my night blindness.
Initially I thought it was a vitamin deficiency but after numerous medical consultations, a Sydney specialist diagnosed my problem as retinitis pigmentosa, which is incurable. He said, “You have a degenerative disease and are likely to be completely blind by the time you’re 50.” I’m 57 now and am about 98 per cent blind, so he was a little out with his estimate.
I was a driving instructor in the Army Reserve, but at 24 they revoked my driver’s licence and a test revealed my peripheral vision was 13 degrees; the army requirement was 160 degrees. So I was declared legally blind and discharged, then drifted for a few years, playing music and singing in bands. Eventually, I realised a career in music wasn’t going to pay the bills and returned to university, planning to be a science and maths teacher. The education department directed me into special education, wisely realising that children, acid and Bunsen burners would not be a good mix with someone who is losing their eyesight!
In 1992, when I began teaching the vision-impaired in Townsville, Dean opened his first espresso bar in Brisbane’s CBD. During summer holidays I’d return to Brisbane and catch up with Dean at one of his cafes. I always knew he’d do well as he’s entrepreneurial, though he never boasts about his success.
I was working with a 15-year-old student with the same condition as me in 2008 and couldn’t keep up with her reading. In the classroom I was struggling to read from the whiteboard. The alarm bells went off and I spoke to my principal, who said it was time to stop teaching. I knew this day was going to come, but it crept up on me. I was 46, in a nice niche, then suddenly that was it. It was a devastating blow. The education department allowed me to access my accrued sick leave, but when this ran out in 2009 I had to resign from teaching and haven’t found a job since. I’m involved in sport to keep me busy.
Dean is endlessly patient, not only with me but all his bowling partners. We play hard but, despite his competitive nature, Dean knows it’s only a game. We haven’t had any major blow-ups, but we argue about football because I’m a rugby union tragic and Dean loves his rugby league. We empathise with each other’s situation and make the effort to find things in common. We’ve known each other for 47 years and have an enduring friendship that neither of us planned but one I consider a privilege.
Jennifer Johnston, 2019, ‘Two of Us: ‘It’s a cruel irony that Chris has a photographic memory but can no longer use it’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 09/05/19, (https://www.smh.com.au/national/two-of-us-it-s-a-cruel-irony-that-chris-has-a-photographic-memory-but-can-no-longer-use-it-20190212-p50x83.html)