Valley Voices

Joe Leroy Hemphill: First times can be charming

Joe Hemphill writes at his computer workstation at home.
Joe Hemphill writes at his computer workstation at home. Fresno Bee file

Neil Diamond wrote a song named “First Time.”

Each time I listen to this song, I reflect on the many first times that I have had and how those events have changed my life, often, for the better. The first time you do something, you don’t know where it will lead you.

First times may be scary, but I have learned I need to see where they will take me.

I was born with severe cerebral palsy. So, many things are a challenge for me, especially the little things that other people can do without too much effort. Doing things for the first time holds a great deal of significance for someone like me. Every little first time is a major step forward in my life.

I attended a day school for disabled children. When I was about 9, an occupational therapist first showed me a typewriter. She asked me if I would like to try something new. I was always up for something new. Learning to use that typewriter enabled me to use a computer for the first time years later. Being introduced to these tools made being a writer possible.

When I first started going to the local United Cerebral Palsy Center, I had no idea that the computer technician there would make my computer a link to so many new experiences.

He gave me many first times including hearing my computer read things to me, such as my emails, articles on the Internet, and whole books that we scan into my computer. This was a big first time, as I can’t pick up a book and read it myself.

So many things are hard for me to do, but I can now access Skype, Facebook, Netflix, and many other sites and services. I am connected to the world out there for the first time. So, that day in school when I was introduced to a typewriter, was a really big first time in my life.

Some years ago, I moved to an apartment complex for people with disabilities and senior citizens. It was a new part of town for me. One of my care providers suggested I should go to the section of town called The Tower District, where there were restaurants and coffeehouses.

It was a bit scary going to this new area in my power wheelchair and meeting so many new people. Soon, however, this became my place to be most evenings. This is where I have coffee and think of my writing and come up with ideas to include in my articles and stories.

Shortly after I began going to Tower, I met a local entertainer. I started regularly going to listen to him play the piano. Later, he began reading my poetry at local open mic nights. Having my poetry read in public was a new experience for me.

Recently, he was reading my material at a coffeehouse and the opportunity came together for him to be videotaped while reading my poetry and other writing. He then edited the video and posted it on YouTube, a website on the Internet. This was a first also.

Trying something for the first time could be scary, but, good things might result from a first time in your life. I learned to use a typewriter and then a computer. I learned ways to use my computer to access the world. I discovered I loved going out for coffee and meeting new people. Having my writing where everyone in the world can view it on YouTube was thrilling.

None of these things would have been possible, if I would not have done something for the first time.

Sing that song again, Neil, as if it was your first time.

Joe Leroy Hemphill is a resident of Fresno. Contact him at