29 January 2015

A Confluence of Coincidences

I want to relate some coincidences that I’ve experienced in recent months.  Most of us have run into these kinds of unanticipated and serendipitous encounters from time to time.  When my family lived in Europe in the early ’60s, we were astonished at how often, when we were traveling in, say, Italy or France, we met people out on the streets whom we knew from back home.  It became a family joke, when we set out on one of these journeys, to start wondering aloud, “Who do you think we’ll meet this time?”  It seemed to happen at least once on every trip we took back then.

Once, on board a ship back to the States from Caen, France, for home leave, my folks got very chummy with a slightly older couple.  They had meals together on the voyage and met for drinks or other activities during the day.  A few days into the voyage, my father discovered that he had not only known the husband in the couple before, but that the man had been my father’s counselor at a summer camp (he’d been known then as “Uncle” Somebody-or-Other) when Dad was a preteen! 

In my freshman year of college, I joined my parents for a skiing vacation in Zermatt, Switzerland, at Christmastime.  I was about to schuß down the slope one morning when I heard someone with an American accent shout out my name.  Of course, everyone was bundled up in ski clothes, with woolen caps, turtleneck sweaters, and dark goggles, so faces were hard to recognize, but someone about 20 yards away along the same ridge—we were at the top of a popular run with a ski lodge/shop and the end of a lift right behind us, so there was a lot of activity all around—was a guy waving at me.  I had no idea who he was, but I skied over to him and he clued me in.  He was in my French class back at school in Virginia!

The truth is that I wouldn’t have known the guy even without all the ski paraphernalia and the out-of-place encounter.  I was a freshman at Washington and Lee University, and only a few months into the year, even in a small school like W&L, I hadn’t gotten to know many people outside my year (we had a “Freshman Camp” before classes started so we’d cohere into a class) or my new frat (W&L had fraternity rush the first week of school).  Because I’d been living in Germany and going to school in Geneva for two years before starting college, I was pretty fluent in French and German and tested into junior- and senior-level classes for both languages, so I didn’t know any of my upperclassmen classmates.  My French class met right after PE, which was in the gym across the campus from the classroom buildings, so I always arrived a few minutes late and slinked into a seat at the back and joined the discussion without mingling with the other students, so I really hadn’t ever actually met this guy.  (I no longer remember his name; we never became friends.  And, of course, he’d have graduated that June or the next anyway.)  I suppose he knew who I was because of the peculiarity of being a freshman in a 300-level course, and because I actually spoke (colloquial) French—which in an American school would have been rare in those days.  So, there I was, 4000 miles from campus, meeting a schoolmate for the first time.  I’d say that’s a peculiar coincidence.

Later that same year, I was on the neighboring campus of VMI, the military academy whose grounds bordered W&L’s, for some purpose I no longer recall.  A uniformed cadet called out to me across the Parade Ground as I was walking back to W&L, but I had no idea who it could be.  (It didn’t help that he used the wrong last name—but it was clear he was directing his call at me.  I guess there weren’t many people on the Parade Ground at the time.)  He turned out to be a middle school classmate from D.C. who was a Rat (first-semester cadets—check out the 1938 movie Brother Rat with Ronald Reagan, Eddie Arnold, and Jane Wyman) at VMI that year.  There was never any follow-up on this meeting—Keydets (as they’re called locally), especially first-years, have very restricted social lives, and we never got together again—but what makes this surprise encounter sort of interesting is that the Keydet’s name is Totten—Jim, I think—and he’s the grandson of Gen. George Patton.

Now for the more substantial instances.  My mother moved to a retirement residence a little over two years ago, and the community there presents many activities and entertainments across the spectrum of genres and subjects.  One is a monthly sing-along with a piano-player who bills himself as the Piano Man.  (Yes, I did ask him if he’d ever heard from Billy Joel on this, but he hasn’t.)  Mom went to one of the afternoon sessions shortly after she moved in, but I wasn’t visiting at the time, so I wasn’t with her.  As she tells it, the musician recognized her and came up to her after the gig.  He introduced himself—or re-introduced himself—and explained that he and I had known each other back before high school.  He uses the professional name Jerry Roman now, but in our childhoods, our families had been members of the same synagogue and country club when we were growing up, and we’d gone to the same summer camp for a couple of years.  We’d gone to different schools, so we didn’t have that in common in those late-1950s days, but for several years, after my parents moved from Montgomery County, Maryland, back into the District (pretty much just east across Western Avenue in that part of the area), we were close enough neighbors to walk or ride our bikes to one another’s houses.  Jerry and I weren’t so much friends as occasional playmates—I especially recall horsing around in the pool at the country club on numerous occasions.  (I expect we were about 11 or 12 at that time.)  I lost contact with Jerry; by my reckoning, I hadn’t seen him since I left Washington for boarding school in 9th grade, 53 years ago (though he insists he saw my folks sometime in the late 1960s, after they returned from overseas).  How he recognized my Mom after all that time, I’ll never figure!

Mom saw Jerry a couple of times at her residence—he plays a monthly gig there in the first week of every month—but it wasn’t until one time back in April, when I was planning a visit that Mom invited him to join us for Sunday brunch—her building sets out a helluva spread for that weekly event which is a very popular occasion for family and friends to come for a visit.  We talked through the buffet for about two hours and returned to Mom’s apartment for another hour, and the remarkable impression I had afterwards is that while Jerry and I seem to remember a lot of the same things and people—our families traveled in the same circle—we remember them all differently!  Kids we knew in common were friends of his but just acquaintances of mine, or vice versa; events he remembers directly and specifically are just tangential memories to me, things I heard about from others.  I attribute this to the fact that we weren’t schoolmates, which for elementary and middle schoolers is the center of their social lives; schul, summer camp, and the country club are ancillary, something you do on weekends or in the summertime. 

The next incident is really kind of stupid because it should have been revealed long ago, but somehow the subject never came up.  Go know, right?

My cousin Jim, who now lives nearby in Bethesda, married a woman who actually lived in my building in Manhattan.  Jim moved into Janis’s apartment and when he was working, since I was often at home days, she’d call me and suggest going to a movie.  (I even drove their first baby home from the hospital because Jim wouldn’t have been able to park.)  Of course, we remained in contact even after they moved to New Jersey because of a growing family, meeting at family gatherings like Passover and Thanksgiving as well as the occasional wedding and Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  In all that time—they married in 1979—we never compared notes about where I worked and where she went to school.

In 1987, I took a job teaching English and theater at Columbia High School in Maplewood/South Orange, one of New Jersey’s best-rated public high schools.  I only lasted a year—I was great in the theater, but awful in the classroom!  In November, Janis and Jim drove back to New Jersey for Janis’s 50th high school reunion in Summit, and I assumed that’s where she went to school.  About a week later, however, when they came by my mother’s apartment for a visit and it came up that I had taught a year at CHS, Janis announced that that was her alma mater.  (The school hadn’t been in Summit; that was just where the reunion had been held.  Janis is from South Orange, and I never knew it.)  My boss in the English department had even been one of her English teachers.  In all the years since 1987, we never discovered this coincidence!

A sidelight: one day just after that revelation, I found a collection of mementos my dad had stashed away.  He’d saved every program and flyer from a play I’d either been in or directed that he and my mom had come to—which was most of them, including school shows I directed when I taught middle school in Brooklyn and high school in Maplewood (Patricia Joudry’s Teach Me How to Cry, the fall play).  He also had the CHS student newspaper in which an interview of me appeared—the paper sent student reporters to interview all the new teachers—and Janis immediately recognized the byline: “Parnassian Role Filled” by Alissa Vradenburg in The Columbian of 22 October 1987.  (The Parnassian Society was Columbia High’s student theater club, what in most schools is called the Thespian Society.  Part of my job was to act as the Parnassians’ faculty adviser.)  The writer was the daughter of a close friend who’d been a classmate of Janis’s at CHS.  So not only do we have the base coincidence—that I taught for a year at Janis’s high school alma mater—but the twist that we didn’t know it for almost 30 years.  And then the additional coincidence that I’d been interviewed at CHS by someone Janis knows (the young woman’s now a successful entertainment lawyer in L.A.) and with whom she’s still in contact.

Now, the last coincidence:  Four years ago, I posted a collection of short reports on ROT called “Short Takes: Theater War Stories” (6 December 2010), one of which was about an amateur theater group to which I belonged when I was in the army in Berlin.  The group was called the Tempelhof American Theatre (TAT for short) because it was based at Tempelhof Air Base.  In early November, someone Googled TAT and the only hit he got was my blog article.  “It immediately dawned on” him who “Rick” is (I only use that name on ROT, no last name or full first name), and when it did, he left a Comment on the post on 19 November 2014.  

That story was about a near-disastrous performance of a play, A Hatful of Rain by Michael V. Gazzo, that we’d staged and which won the USAFE play contest in Europe in 1973.  (One of the judges was Dennis Cole.  Anybody remember him?  He was a blond, surfer-boy TV actor who never got beyond some light-weight series—the most successful of which was Felony Squad, 1966-69—and guest shots.  Hardly what you’d consider an arbiter of excellent stage work.)  We had to take the show from Berlin to Ramstein, Germany, to present it before Brig. Gen. Robert C. Thompson, Deputy Chief of Staff for engineering and services of the U.S. Air Force, Europe (USAFE), and there were several problems caused by the move, some involving the set.  The guy who recognized the anecdote, Dave, an Air Force NCO in those days, had designed and built that set!  He even filled me in on some details of the bigger story that I didn’t know (and which I’ve now appended to it as a Comment of my own, dated 4 December).  Dave and I’d been friendly enough—even though I was an Army officer and he was an Air Force non-com—that after we each got out of the service and I was at my parents’ home in D.C. and he was at his family home in Columbia, Maryland, I went over and visited with him.  That was the last time we’d had contact; it was 1974—40 years ago.  Now we’ve been exchanging e-mails and trying to catch up a little.  (Dave no longer lives in Maryland; he moved to Melbourne, Florida, after he got married and started a family.)  

These last two events happened within days of each other.  That’s a coincidence of its own, I think.

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