Iraq veteranís life takes positive turn on potterís wheel

By Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer October 05, 2011 08:51 pm

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Owner of Island City ceramic supply store teaches soldier blinded during combat operations how to work with clay 

A soldier blinded in war and a ceramic artist with a yearning to teach are doing each other a lot of good these days, when they meet once a week over a potter’s wheel in Island City.

The soldier is James Rabourne, formerly of Wallowa and Halfway and currently a family man living in Cove. Rabourne lost his eyesight in a friendly fire incident in Iraq in 2008. Now he is battling to preserve his sense of self-worth.

 The teacher is Kevin Bradshaw, who with his wife, Joanna, opened a ceramic supply store, the Potter’s Shack in Island City, earlier this year. Bradshaw has worked as a potter for decades, and teaching is part of what he does.

Rabourne was one the first students to come through the door after Bradshaw started advertising classes. Bradshaw said he saw a chance to do some real good, and jumped at it.

“I was excited. The situation was very interesting because I have a natural inclination to help. I thought it would be a good opportunity for the both of us,” he said.

Neither man had much idea how the whole thing would work out, but it didn’t take long for both to feel at ease. It helped that Rabourne was eager to learn, and had better than average dexterity.

“The first day he sat down at the wheel, he was doing things most students don’t the first time,” Bradshaw said.

Rabourne was good at centering his work and finding his starting point. The challenge from there was to pull the clay up and shape it into a vessel both functional and attractive.

The walls need to be just the right thickness. People with perfectly good eyesight struggle with that issue; Rabourne did too, but not painfully.

 “I didn’t have any problem getting the walls thin. I have real good hands for it. Kevin says it usually takes quite a long time for someone to get good at it,” Rabourne said.

Rabourne was an active duty member of the U.S. Army in the early 1990s. He left the service, then came back in 1999, joining the Oregon National Guard’s Third Battalion, 116th Cavalry headquartered in

La Grande. During his time in the military, he served variously as a medic, tank commander and infantryman.

In 2007, the Guard’s 234th Engineers out of Warrenton was slated for deployment to Iraq. Rabourne joined that outfit, whose mission it was to provide support for the 101st Airborne. He was stationed at Camp Anaconda.

“It was the desert. We did a lot of convoys and base security. We were going seven days a week, so we were tired and pretty worn out,” he said.

He came home after sustaining an injury to his left eye in the friendly fire incident. He went blind in that eye first, later completely lost his sight.

Today there’s a little light perception left, but that is all. It’s a more-than-unfortunate circumstance, but Rabourne can still crack a joke.

“If you see me coming at Walmart, look out. I’m not too good with my cane yet,” he said.

Rabourne and his wife, Amanda, have three children, Makayla, 6, Matthew, 5, and Myley, 2. The family lives in a comfortable home on Conklin Road, and enjoys small town life.

Because the children are so young, they’re accepting of their father’s problem. Everybody, Amanda said, learns a little more each day about living with James’ blindness.

“It’s a lot of adjusting,” she said. “Plans have changed and new goals have been set. Every day is a new challenge.”

James Rabourne has a strong support network in his family, one that helps him cope successfully with his condition. But he still grapples with the fact that things he once took for granted are gone.

A lifelong firearms enthusiast, he’d always had it in the back of his mind to make his living as a gunsmith. He still works with firearms, but in a limited way.

“I’ve had to scale way back. I can still do some work on stocks and finishes and cleaning, but I can’t do the fine detail work,” he said.

Yet at the same time, he has trouble being idle.

“I’m 37, and I’ve got to do something,” he said.

 This year, the Rabournes plan to build a greenhouse on their property on Conklin Road in Cove. James loves to garden, and one thing he’d like to do to is grow plants, put them in pots he makes himself, and market them at venues such as the La Grande Farmers Market.

“I’d also like to sell some of my ceramic work in Kevin’s store someday, but that’s down the road because I know I’ve got to get much better,” he said.

If Bradshaw has anything to say about it, Rabourne will get better. The teacher is completely immersed in showing his pupil the way.

“When I first started with this, I tried to find a book on teaching blind people how to do pottery. There were none, so I’m thinking about writing one myself,” he said. “I think James changed my life. He’s given me a focus of helping people like him.”

So far in Bradshaw’s shop, Rabourne has turned a few cups and bowls and pots, getting a little better at the art each time.

He doesn’t know if pottery is an answer to the question about what he will do with the rest of his life, but he does know he likes sitting down at the wheel.

“It’s a lot of fun, enjoyable and relaxing. It’s a way to let your mind wander. Just picture something in your head, and you’ll make it,” he said.