Archive for the ‘fate’ Category


Two Dogs, One Book, and a Long Lost Friend

August 21, 2016

“In essence, everything in the entire universe is intimately linked with each other as moments in time, continuous and separate.” — Dogen Zenji, ancient Zen master

This is a story about a confluence of events that I could not have envisioned beforehand, the unpredictable kind that sometimes occur in life. It concerns two pit bulls, a book about dying, and a friend lost for forty-two years.

The story really begins back in June of 1970, before I met the two dogs, before I read the book, and before the friend was lost. The place was Saxtons River, Vermont, the training site of Peace Corps Group 39, scheduled to depart for the Philippines that September. It was there I met several people who were to become my friends — Greg, Steve, Max, Judy, and Linda — our relationship born of the communal spirit of the intense training as well as shared interests and that indefinable element that makes connections occur between certain people and not others.

Once arriving in the Philippines, we headed off to our assignments scattered amongst the far-flung archipelago. Greg, Max, and I took up residence in different towns in the same province in southern Luzon and ended up working together for part of our two-year tour. After some initial scrambling, Judy and Linda wound up in Davao City on the southern coast of Mindanao, about as far as one could be from where the rest of us were located. Steve found himself in an isolated area and in a job that never quite defined itself. An artist, he became unhappy with this situation and stayed only a brief time. He returned home, reportedly joined the Coast Guard, never to be heard from again.

We were all involved in teacher-training programs which often resulted in a high degree of frustration. Linda became especially disenchanted, and in the spring of 1971 returned to the states to pursue a degree in nursing. All of us continued communicating through the writing of letters (this was the 70’s, after all). Greg and I even managed to get together every so often after our homecoming.

However, in February of 1974, I received the last letter from Linda. It became the last letter because of my failure to write back, thus letting go of the remaining thread of connection to a friend, something I unfortunately have done several other times in the past.

Then in April of 1982, one of those strange late season snow storms struck. I took the opportunity to undertake one of my many (and mostly unsuccessful) attempts to clean out — or at least organize — my incredibly cluttered basement. In sorting through the piles of stuff, I came across that 1974 letter. Despite the passage of time, I decided to write a return letter. It came back stamped Address Unknown. I assumed that was it.

However, in 2003, after seeing a documentary about a guy who wanted to find buddies from his old neighborhood by searching on the internet, it struck me that I could do the same. Having only recently been introduced to the online world, a sincere but clumsy search ensued. I found what I thought to be a likely address and sent my last attempt at reconnection. No answer. I thought I had hit a dead end.

Fast forward to May 2016, a typical late spring day with nothing special on the agenda. My wife sorted through the mail that afternoon and said, “Here. This is for you.” When I saw the return address, I was stunned. Could this possibly be?

I opened the envelope, and indeed it was a letter from Linda. In it she said she had been cleaning her desk and came across my letter of 2003. She didn’t remember if she had ever answered it but figured she would respond now, saying that compared to my lapse of twenty-nine years between her last letter to mine that she was being quite prompt at only thirteen. We agreed to write a bit more regularly than that, modernizing to the more timely email mode.

The book, Where River Turns to Sky, arrived unexpectedly in the mail a few weeks later, a novel about aging and loneliness and the struggle with the end years and ultimate death. When described that way, most people say “Why on earth would you want to read that?!” Well, two reasons. One, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about these subjects for a while now. Two, because whenever Linda, a true bibliophile, had recommended a book in the past, she was always on the money. So read it I did.

In the story, two old men, George and Ralph, had been left alone after the deaths of their wives. But they had each other, at least until a stroke devastated Ralph. Relatives put him in a nursing home where he lay unresponsive, and his good friend George was the only one to come to visit him. He did so religiously, sitting by the bedside and talking to his friend, feeling that Ralph was still inside there somewhere listening. George made a promise to Ralph that he would not let him die alone.

One day George went on a short fishing trip, one he took many times with Ralph, though not quite the same now. When he returned to visit Ralph, he found his room empty. He had died. Alone.

George exploded in grief and anger at himself for breaking his promise to his friend. He swore he would never let anyone else die alone in the bleak, uncaring environment of the nursing home. He proceeded to buy a big red house in the middle of town and by hook or by crook get as many residents out of the Home and into a real home where a community of support and actual caring could be theirs in what time they had remaining in this life.

Amongst the residents was Rose, a spiritual being who spoke of death being something not to be feared but rather as a natural part of the circle of life. And inevitably, death came to some residents including both Rose and George, but not before they lived together sharing joyful moments and exasperating ones — the stuff of real life. It brought tears to my eyes, something no book had done in quite a while.

During the time I was reading Where River Turns to Sky, I met Chloe. As I turned the corner at the end of my block on the way home from my morning walk one day, I heard a voice calling me.

“Yoo hoo! Excuse me! Can you help me?”

The voice came from a woman to whom I waved hello in passing from time to time. She stood outside her open garage door, a dog lying near her in the entrance.

“I’ve locked myself out of my house! Do you know how to pick a lock?”

I informed her that skill was unknown to me as I approached to assess the situation further. The dog, a light brown pit bull, slowly rose and limped over to greet me with a nuzzle of my leg.

“This is Chloe,” said the woman. “Say hello to the nice man, Chloe.”

I extended my hand since Chloe was clearly both docile and friendly. I scratched behind her ears and she nuzzled me again, asking for more. I noticed Chloe’s haunch had been shaved and bore a large scar.

The woman introduced herself and indicated that she didn’t know what to do because she had to go to work soon. I suggested that she walk with me to my house down the block where she could call a locksmith.

As we walked, Chloe limping beside us, she told me about herself. Rose happened to be from the Philippines, something I had already surmised from her accent, and she was a nurse at a local hospital. She had taken Chloe in from a Newark shelter to foster during her convalescence. Poor Chloe had been abused and abandoned and then hit by a car, hence the scar. In spite of her terrible previous life, she was the sweetest dog. Rose thought she would most likely adopt Chloe.

After I got my phone and a locksmith’s number, Rose paused then excitedly exclaimed, “Wait! I just remembered something! My niece has a key, and she works nearby.”

I offered to drive her there to pick up the key, so Chloe clambered into the back seat, and we all drove together to retrieve the key. I dropped Rose and Chloe off, and she thanked me profusely.

“Be sure to come back and visit us any time!” she called as I pulled away.

The next day we heard a knock on the door. There stood Rose, a thank you cake in one hand and Chloe’s leash in the other. We invited them in, and Chloe greeted us warmly and then explored the entire house, plopping herself down by the front door when finished. From that day forward, each time Rose walks her, Chloe pulls Rose up our front walk looking for another visit. Whenever we see her on the block, she greets all with great warmth, including a new neighbor with a little boy in a stroller whom Chloe proceeded to “kiss” much to the little guy’s delight. I have yet to hear Chloe bark or growl.



A few days after finishing Where River Turns to Sky, a phone call came from my niece. Emma is a sensitive young woman with a tender spot in her heart for animals, especially dogs. There have been a succession of beloved dogs in her house, the current ones being Rocky the Schnauzer and Max the Morkie. She volunteers at an animal shelter, and this was the topic of her tearful call.

She had just encountered the sweetest dog she had ever met there, a pit bull named Bruno. Of course the image of my new friend Chloe came to mind. She told us that Bruno had a heart condition and had only two months to live. He had spent years in shelters and deserved to know a loving home in the short time he had left in this world. She wanted to take him, but her living situation precluded that. She thought we could provide that final home for him.

I had my doubts. Bruno was a large pit bull. We had Pop, a rather frail 95-year-old, living with us in our small house. But I too share her feelings about animals, and having just read the book Linda had sent left me particularly vulnerable. Could I let this poor creature die alone? I agreed to go meet Bruno myself.

I brought Pop and my wife along for they too must be in on the decision. When we arrived at the shelter, though, I figured I’d see Bruno first to make some kind of initial assessment before bringing Bernadette and Pop in. While they waited in the reception area, I headed off to the “meet and greet” room.

The handler came in to ask me a few questions and then picked up all the doggie toys from the floor and placed them on a high shelf, which struck me as a bit odd. I had bought some treats for Bruno, so I followed his lead and placed the bag with the toys. A few minutes later, the handler returned with Bruno, who was straining at his leash and pulling the handler, a rather burly gent, behind him. My first thought was that he was aptly named. Bruno came in and sniffed around the room, pretty much ignoring me. I had imagined a greeting like Chloe’s, but Bruno had a much different presence.

I asked the handler if I could give Bruno a treat, hoping that would break the ice. With a raised eyebrow, he said, “You’d better let me do it.” He took one from the bag and held it out. Bruno lunged for his hand, the handler tossing the snack into Bruno’s mouth as he quickly withdrew.

“He has an issue with food possessiveness. That and toys. You need to be careful with both.”

Not exactly the kind of information I was looking for. He continued, telling me that Bruno also had pulling issues (an image flashing in my mind of my diminutive wife trying to walk him and then another of Bruno bowling over Pop on his way to the food bowl). I asked how he was with other animals.

“Well, he hates cats.”

I envisioned our friendly ferals who come up on our deck to visit and Bruno smashing through the glass door to get at them.

“He also is not so good with certain dogs. Or young children.”

I pictured my walks through the neighborhood when I care for Rocky with all the local kids who run up to pet him and all the other small dogs we run across who sniff their greetings to each other. I shuddered at the idea of doing so with Bruno.

Finally I asked about his medical condition and what could be expected as his time drew near.

“I’m not sure what you mean,” the handler said with a quizzical look.

I repeated what Emma had told me about his two months left to live.

“No, not at all. He does have a 5th degree heart murmur, but there is no immediate danger. As a matter of fact, he’s pretty healthy. He could live another ten years.”

I thanked him for his time and told him that I didn’t think Bruno was right for our situation. On my way out, I wondered about the huge miscommunication that obviously had occurred with Emma. I relayed what I had learned to Bernadette and Pop on the drive home. I heard a decidedly loud sigh of relief coming from the back seat of the car.



How does the story end? Well, it doesn’t, not really.

It looks like Chloe will enjoy a life together with Rose and more than occasional visits to my house for good measure. Bruno awaits someone who can provide the kind of home that suits them both. In the meanwhile he’ll be cared for at the shelter with Emma, I’m sure, giving him an extra dose of TLC whenever she can.

I’ve started another book sent to me by Linda, A Tale for the Time Being, one which contemplates life and death, the nature of being, and the fate of inextricably bound people. I believe there will be many more welcome recommendations to come.

And my long-lost friend is now lost no more.

Two old letters found, two old letters answered years apart. Two dogs abandoned to shelters; one finds a loving home, one does not, my path crossing with both. Just the right book arrives at just the right time for just the right reader.

To what can this be attributed? Serendipity? Fate? I do not know. But I do know how to be thankful for good fortune, and I remain mindful of these simple events and their strange connectivity so often present in the world.



September 9, 2012

The day after Labor Day I attended the annual luncheon reunion of the retired teachers from the last school in which I taught. It is held on the day those still in the classroom return for their first day back. This was my third reunion, and I enjoyed seeing former colleagues and old friends once again. Much reminiscing transpires at these gatherings (though no gloating, as claimed by some of my still-teaching friends), and I always end up hearing many behind-the-scenes stories that I had been unaware of previously. I have one of my own, though I’ve never shared it at this particular gathering. It’s the story of how fate brought me to my final teaching position, one which lasted twenty-five years until my retirement.

My Newark students hard at work.

The new school year of 1985 found me beginning my thirteenth year teaching in the city of Newark. Throughout those years, I had the opportunity to hone my skills and learn much from those with whom I worked. In spite of numerous difficult socio-economic circumstances beyond their control, some of my Newark students still stand out amongst the very best I ever taught in my forty years in the classroom. But that year would prove to be the low point of my career, the result of a critical culmination of various negative forces.

The revolving door of superintendents during this period created constant instability, not to mention a crisis in confidence. My first year started with an outgoing superintendent replaced by an acting superintendent succeeded by one who was then removed from power four years later. The next one lasted three, followed by a short-term interim. Another highly touted replacement took office only to be suspended after three years and supplanted with yet another acting superintendent. The eighth of the series ascended in what proved to be my final year.

A combination of incompetence, corruption, nepotism,  and a “boys’ club” mentality crippled the administration of the largest school district in the state. Much lip service but very little actual meaningful attention was paid to the real needs of the kids. A constant shortage of supplies as well as an overabundance of disrespect for the professional nature of the task plagued the teaching staff and resulted in frequent labor strife. A fire that partially destroyed my hundred year old school building didn’t help matters much, either.

But the most critical problem became my mental state. I always held the belief that my classroom was my kingdom, and what happened outside its walls would not affect what I did within, which was to teach the children before me to the best of my ability. I slowly came to realize the error of this vision, for the continuously changing and often inexplicable policies and requirements of each new regime and a disheartening de facto acceptance — and worse — expectation of poor achievement pierced my castle walls and eventually crushed my spirit. I knew inside that I had to leave in order to survive as a teacher.

During that school year, I must have sent resumes and applications to scores of districts in five different counties in an effort to rescue myself. I felt bad about this, something akin to being a rat leaving a sinking ship, but in reality that abandonment was essential to my survival. And, after all, I hadn’t been the one to sink the misguided vessel. However, in district after district, at least in those that actually bothered to interview me, I got the distinct sense that my status as a teacher was simply dismissed. In their eyes, as a Newark teacher all I could possibly be was a cop or a baby-sitter. By the end of the year, my anger over this turned into frustration and then resignation. I felt destined to remain where I was or else leave the profession I loved. Then one day near the end of July, I received a phone call from my good friend John.

“Hey, are you still looking for a new teaching position?” he asked without any of his customary introductory chat.

“No, I kind of gave up on that. Why do you ask?” I replied, curiosity rising.

“Well, I just finished up with one of my patients. She happens to be a school principal and mentioned that there’s an opening in her building for an eighth grade English teacher. I told her I knew someone who might be interested.”

“What?! You’re kidding me!” My curiosity instantly morphed into anxious excitement.

“No, I’m not. But the search is closing tomorrow. Call her right now, and she’ll see you then.”

He gave me the number which I immediately called. I would have my interview the next morning at a place called Pierrepont School in Rutherford. I tried hard to temper my high hopes, remembering what had happened in all my previous interviews. I nervously reviewed the questions I’d fielded in those and some possible responses that would best capture my teaching philosophy. I had experience, excellent observation reports, and a proven track record, but self-doubt kept creeping in.

The next morning I entered the front office of Pierrepont School, an old but well-kept building on a tree-lined side street in Rutherford, for the first time. After a short but tense wait on the couch, I walked into the principal’s office. Ann Marie Amorelli greeted me with a pleasant smile, asked me to sit, and then got down to business. The directness of her no-nonsense questions surprised me a bit, quite a departure from the pedagogical obfuscations I had to wade through in so many other principals’ offices. Most of her inquiry concerned what I would do if and when certain situations occurred, and I answered as honestly and simply as I could. We ended the session talking in a friendly manner about our mutual connection. What were the chances that my friend would turn out to be her doctor? How improbable that she see him the day before and mention this opening? I left with a good feeling about this job.

Shortly thereafter I got another call, this one an appointment to see the superintendent. What I thought would be another interview turned out to be an offer of employment. Elation filled my very soul. I felt validated and pledged to myself to prove to them beyond any doubt that their decision had been the right one. I wanted this to be the school in which I would finish out my career, one that I’d be able to look back at with a feeling of accomplishment and pride. Twenty-five years later, that mission had been fulfilled, and I stepped out of Room 26 in Pierrepont School for the last time as its eighth grade English teacher.

Pierrepont School, my home away from home for 25 years.

And now, two years farther down the road, I still marvel at how it all came to pass, how my despair had turned so rapidly to hope, how my career became resurrected. I know many would attribute it to mere circumstance, nothing more than an unusual chain of events, but not I. There have been far too many people who have had experiences in which events beyond the simple explanation of coincidence changed the shapes of their lives, some for better, some for worse. This is not the only instance it happened in my own.

So yes, I believe that every so often, when lost and adrift in the sea of life, one can indeed be rescued by the mysterious hand of fate. It is not something upon which to count, for it seems to happen when it’s least expected. Nor is it something that can be proven. Some think they can never accept this even as a possibility. But to those I say be aware; keep your mind open. It just may happen to you.


The John Dumm Connection

July 15, 2012

Most of our lives have been influenced by certain individuals we have met along the way that have had a disproportionate impact on us. Where and when this will occur is unpredictable, but the effects can be significant and the memories long-lasting. When I was a sophomore in college, I had the good fortune to meet three such individuals. This trio of upperclassmen who lived in my dorm became a personal holy trinity during a critical developmental period of my adult self.

One of these was a senior named John Dumm. He happened to be friends with the other two, all of whom I considered to be intellectual giants walking amongst the rest of us empty-headed oafs. They read books by Sartre and Camus and Mailer. They watched Fellini and Godard movies. They spoke thoughtfully and seemed to know quite a bit about nearly everything. All three wove parts of their essence into my existence in different ways, but a unique connection with John Dumm occurred through a whim of fate.

After John graduated, he joined the Peace Corps, something I had thought of doing since high school though I never before knew anyone who actually did. He wrote me letters from the far side of the world — I had never received mail from a foreign country before, either — and that further fanned the flames of my inspiration. I admired him greatly for his leap into this idealistic adventure, and it seemed quite exotic to have this connection to it.

I subsequently followed through on my own Peace Corps dream, and in the early spring of my senior year I received my acceptance letter. I would be heading off to Micronesia, a small island nation somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. However, not long after, I found a second notification in my mailbox. My country of assignment had been changed.  My new destination would be the Philippines.

The Philippines?! That’s where John Dumm was! Of all the countries in the world with Peace Corps involvement, what were the odds of that happening?

My path to the Philippines took me through several months of training, first in Vermont, then Montreal, and finally in-country. The last phase took place in Manila, and I began my inquiries into the whereabouts of John. He  lived a seemingly surreptitious gypsy existence with frequent changes of location, and in an archipelago of hundreds of islands, he could be virtually anywhere. My investigation reached a dead-end, and I resigned myself to my only hope, that of an accidental encounter.

When the sessions in Manila concluded, each group of volunteers shipped out to the province in which they’d be living and working for a final period of orientation. My destination was Camarines Sur at the southern end of the main island of Luzon, the province of my eventual assignment. After meeting our provincial director and the local officials with whom we’d be working, we broke up into small groups of four or five to spend a weekend in the field with a current volunteer who would give us insights on what our lives would be like for the next two years. I would be going to a remote island off the tip of Luzon called Catanduanes.

“So, who will we be staying with?” I asked Fran, our director.

“A very interesting guy by the name of John Dumm,“ he replied. My double-take must have been quite emphatic for he immediately inquired, “Do you know him?”

“Know him! You bet I know him!”

ferry to Catanduanes

The next morning the five of us so assigned boarded the small ferry for the ride to Catanduanes. Everyone’s anticipation level was high, but none more so than mine. As the ferry slowly approached the arrival dock in the port of Virac, I could see John standing at the end of the pier. He expected some newcomers but didn’t know about my presence in the group. The boat was secured and the gangplank lowered. I strolled off the ferry and with my best nonchalant act greeted John.

“Hey there. How’ve you been?”

“What!” he exclaimed, “Daborn?! You’ve got to be kidding me! What the heck are you doing here?”

“Well, the same as you, I hope.”

Much catching up over more than a few beers followed as John regaled us with stories both of his recollections of our shared lives at college and his current endeavors in the Peace Corps. Because he lived in a small place in a rather remote area of the island that made travel difficult, we stayed at the lone and rather rustic hotel in Virac. Or at least that’s what he told us; other possible covert reasons fueled my imagination for months to come.

Over the next year our paths crossed several more times, though not in Catanduanes. John’s exceptional abilities propelled him into a succession of innovative positions within the Peace Corps Philippines hierarchy. I usually ran into him in Manila while he was between trips to far-flung places. There were always the tales of his adventures, and I looked forward to them for he was a master storyteller.

When his tour of duty ended, he made a legendary return home, buying a motorcycle in Jolo in the Muslim-controlled southern end of the islands and making a dubiously legal exit to Indonesia by boat. He biked through Asia and North Africa and up into Europe. He survived a crash and attributed his rapid recovery to the restorative sun and salt water of the Mediterranean. As word of his trip reached me, I marveled at this modern-day Marco Polo with great enthusiasm and envy, for I hadn’t the courage to undertake such a journey myself.

Unfortunately, as too often happens, I lost track of one of the important influences in my life. My bumbling attempts to locate him through Googlesque methods always came up empty. However, since fate unexpectedly brought us together once before, it is not out of the realm of possibility to think that some day, when I least expect it, it could very well happen again. I’ll be sure to let you know.


The Creel Affair

November 5, 2011

Each of us gathers an assortment of knowledge throughout our lives. Some of it was the result of a directed effort, as in school, to attain a specific goal. However, much like that one drawer in our homes that has a wild assortment of odds and ends that were picked up incidentally along the way, so too does our brain have a miscellaneous collection of strange and often useless information.

Useless, that is, unless you play Scrabble.

I think Scrabble is an acquired taste. I say this because those times when it is suggested as an activity, quite a few members of whatever group is present will opt out, often immediately and vehemently.

I happen to like Scrabble. I like the combination of chance (getting good letter tiles and spaces in which to use them) and skill. Most of all, I like the opportunity to dip into that assortment of extraneous knowledge residing in the back corner of my brain.

One such occasion occurred while on a family vacation in the state of Washington. We were staying in the gloriously rustic Timberline Lodge (the hotel in The Shining) on the slope of Mt. Hood. After supper as we relaxed on the balcony overlooking the lobby, someone in the family found Scrabble in the game bin and asked if anyone was interested. I was willing, as was Paula, my sister-in-law, with whom I had played before. We had a bit of a history with this game; she often accused me of making up words when we played (untrue, of course). She, an eminent New York City children’s book publisher, was highly competitive, so the games were usually rather lively. This time proved no exception.

The game was drawing to an end; few letter tiles remained. Paula and I were far in the lead, and our scores were fairly even. Each move would now be critical.

It was my turn. I studied my letters and the spaces available on the  board that would get the highest return. I had my eye on a “double word score” spot. There was a strategically located “c” on which to build. Then I spotted it: the perfect word. I coolly placed the tiles down, reaching the double word score space with the final one.

“Creel?!?” Paula cried out in disbelief. “What kind of word is that? You’re making them up again!”

“No, Paula, it’s a word. It’s a piece of equipment used for fishing.”

“Well, I never heard of it. What the hell is a creel?”

Now had the movie Slum Dog Millionaire been out, it would have been an easy analogy. The accidental, or fateful in the view of some, acquisition of certain random pieces of knowledge is unplanned but can suddenly become useful in ways one would not have predicted. I was never that deeply involved in fishing, but somewhere along the line, I learned about the creel.

“You mean ‘reel,’ don’t you?” Paula continued.

“No, creel. It’s a basket hanging from the shoulder that fishermen use for the fish they catch.”

Normally I would follow this by, “Look it up if you want.” However, as we were tourists in the pre-smart phone era, no dictionary was available, and Paula was not about to take my word for it.

Just at that moment, a gentlemen with camouflage pants and a cap with fishing flies attached — surely an outdoorsman — walked by. Here’s my chance, I thought.

“Excuse me, sir. Do you fish?”

“Yes, I do,” he amiably answered as any fisherman with a prospective audience would do.

Paula stiffened, watching attentively in case an attempt at some conspiratorial clue were to be made.

“Do you know what a creel is?” I asked in my most objective tone, eyes fastened on Paula to show my compliance with her unstated demand.

“Why, sure,” he replied, smiling at such an elementary query. “It’s the basket we use to put our catch in.”

I raised my eyebrows in a gesture asking Paula if this was acceptable evidence. She scowled and conceded with a dismayed, “Oh, all right!” The points I gained turned out to be the game-winning difference.

I haven’t played Scrabble with Paula since. I believe she still harbors suspicion that I somehow set up that encounter with the fisherman. I have never had the occasion to use the word “creel” again, either.

So if you ever worry about the clutter of facts floating around in your noggin for no good reason, don’t fret. One of them may come in handy one of these days. After all, there’s always a Scrabble game somewhere.


Blood Wedding

October 21, 2011

It was to be a day of joy, the union of two good friends in marriage. When it began, I didn’t know fate would have my path cross that of a young man of such great ill fortune. I never even knew his name, but his spilled blood still stains my memory of that day.

Charlie and Lucy were to be wed in the chapel at Seton Hall University on the campus where my circle of friends had all met. Since I’d recently returned from overseas, I was in a period of transition, living in my childhood room at my parent’s house in Bergenfield. I had no car and thus was forced to take a complex and circuitous route to get to South Orange. This entailed a bus ride across the George Washington Bridge, a subway to 42nd Street, another bus from the Port Authority Terminal to Irvington, ending in a walk through Ivy Hill Park to the chapel in the center of campus.

The trip began uneventfully enough, but something went terribly awry. As the downtown A train was pulling into the 42nd St. station, it suddenly jolted to a squealing halt with most of the cars, including mine, not yet out of the tunnel. I could see through the window that the next car had made it into the station, so I went there. Since I was running late, I exited between cars despite the posted warning against doing so. As I stepped onto the platform, I saw him right there in front of me. It was an image I can’t forget.

The young man was awkwardly sitting on the floor next to the subway car in a huge pool of  blood. One leg was bent beneath him, the other pinned at the thigh between the platform and the subway car. His face was a ghastly white, his terrified eyes staring down in agonized disbelief, all the while rocking, rocking, and repeating trancelike in a low moan, “Oh God, oh God, oh God,” over and over again.

I stumbled back, both horrified and transfixed by the sight, as a transit cop rushed over and started applying a tourniquet. In numbed shock, I made my way up the steps to head for the bus terminal, peering back as a crowd gathered around the drama that was unfolding below. The bus ride to Irvington was a blur as the horrific scene replayed itself in my mind. Who was that poor guy? How could something like that happen? And so much blood — could he possibly survive?

Being with friends at the wedding was a good salve for my shaken soul, but I remained distracted. The following day, I hurried to the local newspaper vendor to buy a Daily News to see if there was any information about the incident. Indeed there was, buried way back on page 48.

The young man was from a small town in Pennsylvania. He had recently returned home unscathed from a tour of duty in Vietnam. To celebrate his safe return, he decided to go into the Big Apple, something he had never done in his short life. Finding himself on the wrong side of the track to go downtown and unfamiliar with the stairway system to cross over, he had jumped onto the tracks, run across (amazingly without contacting the deadly third rail), and was climbing up the platform wall when my train pulled in, pinning and crushing his leg. The article went on to say that the leg had to be amputated, but he was expected to survive.

As it turned out, Charlie and Lucy’s marriage did not survive, ending in divorce several years later, perhaps another victim of ill fate. But I couldn’t stop thinking about how someone could get through the extreme travails of war only to be maimed in that fashion back home and the odd manner in which I had come to witness it. I wonder sometimes what became of this young man, if he was bitter about what happened, or did he count his blessings to have lived.

I occasionally told this story to my students in school when discussing the role of fate in the play Romeo and Juliet. There are two sides to consider. The decisions of those involved can be seen as the direct cause of the consequences that followed. However, the series of events that placed them in the position in which they found themselves sometimes seems inexplicable but for destiny. Who knows for sure? Either way, my recollection of Charlie and Lucy’s wedding is forever entwined with the blood of an unfortunate young man on the platform of that New York subway station.


Ruth, Imogene, and a Simple Twist of Fate

September 10, 2011

I don’t think I ever really had girlfriends, at least not in the traditional sense. There were, however, girls whose journeys through life became entangled with mine for brief periods through fate, for I was far too inept to have accomplished it on my own. This is the story of one such girl that had an odd twist to it. This is the story of Ruth.

I met Ruth during my freshman year at college. Our relationship was quite unexpected and totally inexplicable. I think I was pretty much of a dorky guy. She was, to put it simply, a knockout. If we were cars, I would have been someone’s beat-up old Buick. Ruth was a sleek new Lamborghini. How I ever ended up with her is beyond me.

We met through a friend that knew her from high school, and the details of our initial encounter are foggy at best. But there are several episodes of our time together that are still crystal clear.

I had been newly exposed to the world of jazz through my roommate, who was a jazz drummer. I listened to every album I could get my hands on. New York City was a hotbed of jazz, and it was just a short ride away. I read that Rahsan Roland Kirk was playing at the Village Vanguard, so I asked Ruth if she’d like to go.

Now, I was not a “dater” in any sense of the word, nor was I very sophisticated about what a night in the city entailed. I had never been to the Vanguard, either, so each step of the way was a new discovery. Like paying an exorbitant amount to park. Like realizing there were such things as cover charges and minimums. The show itself was terrific, and I even had a chance encounter with Monk in the men’s room. Of course Ruth looked fabulous. But when the check came, I didn’t have enough cash. It was beginning to feel like one of those scenes in a Woody Allen movie with the bumbling protagonist stammering his way through excuses and being physically tossed out of the joint. Ruth, however, immediately perceived the quandary I was in and, in her cool manner, slipped me the necessary money. She had saved my hide, and better yet, didn’t even make a big deal about it on the way home. What a gal!

Another memorable evening occurred during New Year’s Eve. My parents, quite uncharacteristically, decided to have a party in our decidedly 1950’s Goodwill decor basement. I was living on campus, and my life there was quite separate from that of home, so no one had met Ruth or even heard of her until I announced that I was bringing her. The “guests” were an odd assortment of relatives and neighbors, mostly older, and when I walked in with Ruth, mouths literally dropped (and perhaps a drink if I remember correctly). I even heard a “Va-va-voom” uttered by one of my rather intoxicated uncles in the back. Ah, the stories that must have been told far into the night after we departed.

Later that spring, Ruth suddenly moved to Florida. She wrote to me sporadically. Once, in a creative attempt to keep the flames of our relationship burning, I wrote her a poem/letter on a napkin. That was a big hit, but after a few months, I didn’t hear from her again.

Years went by. I graduated, went overseas in the Peace Corps, came back, and began both my teaching career and married life. Years turned into decades. Ruth was firmly and irrevocably in the past. Or so I thought.

Each June at the school in which I taught an award was given to one graduating student, second in prestige only to Valedictorian. It’s in honor of a legendary principal of the school (the one, as a matter of fact, who hired me–another exercise in fate those who know of my life are familiar with) who was known for her kindness to all and an intense belief in the betterment of oneself through education regardless of the obstacles. Not a stray dog or cat would go uncared for in the vicinity of the school, and she had a special place in her heart for those who exhibited such kindness themselves. I had been in charge of this award since its inception years ago, and one of my duties was to write and deliver the presentation speech at graduation.

This particular year when the staff met to nominate students for this award, one name came up immediately and repeatedly. She was an extraordinary young lady, the sweetest, kindest, most genuine kid you could ever imagine. As soon as Imogene’s name came up, there was little further discussion needed. Everyone loved Imogene. Everyone admired and respected her for the humble way she had risen to the top of the very tough mountain she had to climb. She had been raised by her grandmother because of a difficult situation within her family. Imogene won the award, and I was glad, for it would be a pleasure to write and deliver this speech.

Graduation night. The students marched in. Imogene was in the front row, directly in front of the podium on the stage. It was time to present the award, the students not knowing ahead of time who had won. As I delivered my speech, I saw Imogene, listening intently as she always did to everything. I saw her grandmother sitting in the parents’ section. And when I finally announced her name, I watched the stunned look on her face as she sat there (someone so pure as she never would think she is the winner). Her fellow students cheered from the heart, for they knew how worthy she was even if she didn’t. As she walked up in disbelief, the auditorium spontaneously stood in an ovation. I could have swept her up in my arms and hugged her.

The scene after the students marched out to Pomp and Circumstance was always a madhouse as parents, faculty, students, and assorted relatives and friends packed the hallway on the way to the cookie and juice “reception” that followed in the cafeteria, so I didn’t get to speak to Imogene or her grandmother. During the course of the year, I had gotten to know her grandmother, who in her own quiet way watched over Imogene like a mother bear over her cub. I remember the first time I met the woman at Back to School night for the parents in September. She came up to me after the session was over and introduced herself (not by her name, but as “Imogene’s grandmother”) and exhorted me, kindly but with an unmistakable inner strength, to take good care of her little girl. The day after graduation, she sent an e-mail thanking me.

I e-mailed her back, thanking her and telling her again how strongly I felt about this wonderful kid she had raised. The secretary had told me that she wanted a copy of the speech I delivered, so I included that. School ended, and off I went to my annual Cape Cod interlude. Once home, I checked my e-mail to find this:

“Dear Mr. Daborn:

This is something I want to share with you: I have a sister-in-law whom I adore.  She is beautiful and brilliant.  She means so much to me.  It’s not often that you get an in-law in life that you love unconditionally.  I e-mailed her your speech.  Life is so strange.  And at times we do see that  we are spiritually connected.  She happens to love Imogene a lot. I know you like Imogene too.  My sister-in-law, Ruth, told me that she dated a young man that was a Freshman in Seton Hall University who went into the Peace Corps  and he was one of the nicest men she ever met.  Why he even bought her tickets to a jazz concert because he knew she loved jazz.  She remembers going to his home on New Years Eve. She would not be surprised if he became a teacher.  He had it in him so to speak.   She moved away to Florida.  Her last name was Francis, Ruth Francis.  Ring a bell? She said your speech was eloquent and so well written.  Since she is a very good writer, take that as a compliment.  Imogene getting you as a teacher was not only luck but meant to be.  Thank you so much. “

I nearly fell out of the chair! Fate had woven this pattern with such an intricate and surprising design. I wrote her back, telling her that indeed I was that freshman at Seton Hall, and that I remembered Ruth clearly. I asked that my regards be sent along and concurred that fate is often at work in strange and unusual ways. Grandmother responded one more time, giving me a brief history of the forty-some years since I had known Ruth, how she moved to Florida, married the grandmother’s younger brother and became part of a husband-wife comedy team (this sounds like a Vonnegut novel) but then realized the financial instability and went into advertising, ending up as executive vice-president of a big agency (she was responsible for the Verizon “can you hear me now” campaign). At one point the grandmother was thinking about having her come in to school and speak to the class on how to make TV commercials.

“Wouldn’t that have been something!” she said.

Yes, indeed, it would have.