Five Pieces Of Great Luck That Shaped My Life

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If you’ve been reading this column regularly, I’ll bet I know what you’re saying, “I know which one he’s going to say was Number One. He’s going to say it was meeting Lolly, his wife.” 

Right, Johnny! Nothing compares to that. How could it?

So I’ll tell you about numbers 2 through 5.

The second best thing that ever happened to me came five years after my dad died. Every young boy needs a father, but mine was taken by a golf ball that strayed across the rough and struck him in the neck on the fairway on one of the back nine. 

Daddy was a golf pro, and a good one, so I am told. He went the extra mile when someone was serious about learning how to chase a little white ball around the grass. Mom used to tell us how he sometimes came home long after dark because someone wanted to improve his drive, his chip shot, or his putting. 

It was on one of those dusk days on the course at Clove Lake Golf Course on Staten Island in New York City that someone with a bad slice sent a drive sailing from one of the front nine holes to the fairway where Dad was standing. It struck him on the right side of his neck and caused an immediate swelling. Dad, though shaken by it, just laughed it off, and actually finished up the hole with the two golfers he was teaching. But in the clubhouse he began to look dizzy, and his speech became erratic, so they called an ambulance. In the hospital they found that a blood clot had formed in his neck and moved to his brain.

I don’t know how long Dad was in the hospital; no one ever told me. They did tell me that when Dad was recovering, and his main problem was trying to talk, I used to go to the theater with him and buy the tickets for the two of us. I do not remember that. All I know is that somehow or other I learned that he was gone.

Five years later my oldest brother Bill brought someone home with him from his job in a wartime shipyard. His name was Harry Johnson, a Connecticut Yankee who had taught Bill what he needed to know to get a good job at the shipyard. Three years later, Mom and Pop, as I was soon calling Harry Johnson, took me aside, said they wanted to get married, and asked my permission. I was 10. I said yes. Pop Johnson was the best father anyone ever had.

Then came two things that made a great difference in who I am. First, we moved up to New London, Connecticut, where I began roaming the woods from the first day I arrived. It wasn’t long before I knew I belonged out there. Two years later I entered Pop’s old Alma Mater, Chapman Technical High School, where I took two hours of shop classes a day for four years — and loved it!

Had I stayed in New York, I would truly be someone else.

My second piece of great luck came when Bill arrived home from World War II and discovered that there was something about the military that was missing in civilian life. He enlisted in some kind of paramilitary federal program that sent him back to Europe, but it was not the same, so he came back home again. He was just about to reenlist in the Air Force, in which he had served during the war, when he discovered a Connecticut Air National Guard outfit across the river in Groton. From that day until the day he retired 40 years later, he served in that ANG outfit.

And me? Bill recruited me because he thought that military life would suit me. And he was right! What a privilege it was to serve this nation of ours. Had it not been for my 21 years in the Air Force I would surely have been a different person.

The next incredible piece of good luck is different from the first two. But if it hadn’t happened I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this, so I guess it belongs on the list. It happened one dark, rainy night in Karachi, Pakistan. 

Lolly and I lived high up on a hill. It was easy to drive up the hill from the east side. The land and the roads sloped gently upward from that side. But the west side of the hill was a steep escarpment, and the city had built two roads going up to the top. 

Road building was not an art in Pakistan. Americans would have built a road that sloped up the face of the escapement, made a hairpin turn, sloped up again, made another hairpin turn, and so on. They did something very different. They dumped rock and dirt off the escarpment in two places until they had two narrow piles, each one just wide enough for a single lane. Then they laid a strip of asphalt on either pile. The result was what they called the “Going Down Road” and the “Going Up Road.”

I never gave either one of them a thought. I just used them. 

One dark, rainy night I left our little love nest to drive to a staff house down on the flat below. That meant I had to go down the “Going Down Road,” which was the one on the left because they drove on the left. Hopping in my trusty Jeep, off I went. 

There were no lights on the roads in Karachi, but 200 feet before I reached the crest of the “Going Down Road” my headlights showed a line of three- to four-inch rocks crossing the road. Thinking they had fallen off a truck or perhaps been put there by some kid as a prank, I zoomed around them at 30 miles an hour. But 50 feet farther on I realized they had been placed in a more or less straight line from one side to the other. 

Curious why. I stopped, got out, and looked around.

Good thing too. There was no “Going Down Road” anymore.

Lucky me. That first step would have been a long one.

And yes, that was how they marked a closed road over there.

Live and learn. Or a least live.

The last piece of luck is really amazing. I had always wanted to come here, and Lolly did too because she’d seen Arizona on our travels across the country. But everything went against us. My Air Force retirement in 1973 was 50 percent of $880 a month, not much. And since I had decided to teach, my civilian salary didn’t add a lot. It would have been enough for someone just starting out, but I was 41 and had two preteen kids to worry about, a whole different ball game. And to top it all off, Lolly’s sister and husband were trying to emigrate to the U.S. from England, and we had no idea where Peter would find work. So I took a job in Texas, hoping to save up money for a second move we knew would be coming.

Now think about this, Johnny.

Can you imagine the elation we felt when Peter landed a job as supervisor of Terminal Four at Sky Harbor and called us and told us about it? We could hardly believe it!

“Impossible,” we thought! But it was true! And here I am.

If anyone ever tells you that luck doesn’t count, you can tell him for me that he is stuffed clean full of blueberry cupcakes.

Or some of that other stuff...

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