I don’t believe in luck. Maybe it’s because I believe you have to work hard for everything, and only then do you get the things you truly deserve, but if I had to point to one event in my life where luck may have played a significant role, it would be the moment I met Barbara. I can’t explain it any other way. It was 1964. I was 18 and had just graduated from high school, and like a lot of young men at the time, I was looking for a job. Back then, college wasn’t a forgone conclusion like it was for my kids and my grandkids. We went to work – real work.
I had grown up in a small town that had few options beyond farming or livestock, but my cousin lived closer to the city near a thriving textile mill, and he encouraged me to move in with him and take one of the jobs at the mill. With few other decent choices, I took a chance and moved into his small apartment in the middle of a row of dilapidated old buildings. Looking back on it now, the living conditions were deplorable. The ramshackle apartment reeked of smoke and mold, but for two young men just starting out, it smelled of opportunity. Despite the backdrop, I still count that year I lived with my cousin to be one of the best of my life. I wish he were still alive today to reminisce about our time together.
For a while after I started working at the mill, my cousin and I worked the same night shift, but the mill was growing and he was soon promoted to a supervisor and moved to the second shift so our schedules no longer aligned. One Friday morning shortly after he changed shifts, I found myself clocking out with nothing to do and no one to do it with since my cousin was working six days, so I walked around the streets near the mill until I decided to have breakfast at a dinky little diner near the factory.
I took a seat at the edge of the restaurant near a big plate glass window that looked out into the sad street that rolled out from the main entrance to the mill. There was no view to speak of, but I still found myself watching the passers-by and gawking at the cars that puttered down the street. Litter danced across the road among the pedestrians who hurried by and the homeless men who huddled in the nooks of the buildings. At any other point in my life, I would have declared the scene depressing, but at that moment, I felt alive and free despite the shackles of a low-paying job in a run-down mill town. Youth breeds an endless optimism that only time can squelch.
I remained mesmerized by the active scene on the other side of the window until a comely feminine voice pulled my attention away.
“Good morning! What can I get you today?” she asked.
My head swiveled in the direction of the inviting voice and my eyes met what I have often described as the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. I must have looked like a total dunce sitting there with my eyes wide and my mouth half open at a loss for words. Suddenly, I couldn’t form sentences like a reasonably competent adult could. All I could do was stare at the striking young woman before me.
She was dressed from head to toe in that ridiculous red and white diner uniform with the silly cap. I didn’t think any of it was humorous then because Barbara was a stunning young woman. Her smiled gleamed from behind the small pad she held in her hand with her pen poised above it ready to write down my urgent order. She looked at me expectantly and her smile slowly deflated as the uneasy silence wore on.
“Are you going to order something?” she asked after a few moments too many.
I stuttered and shuffled in my seat until I realized that I held the menu in my hand. I tightened my grip on its sides and focused my eyes on it. In a panic I ordered the first thing I saw – some eggs and toast. I shook my head yes to coffee and juice before I knew what had happened, and as she walked away with my hasty order, I worried that I didn’t have enough money to pay for it.
I didn’t realize what had come over me. For much of my time in the mill town, I had pretty much kept to myself. I knew no one other than my cousin and the few people who actually talked to me at work. My downtime was spent primarily back at our old apartment or at a similarly run-down, illicit bar across the street from the mill. My cousin and I would spend our time listening to Cubs games on the radio or smoking and reading the newspaper on the stoop out back of our apartment. While we were obviously interested in women, we had little money and little time with the mill running at full capacity, so our love lives were nonexistent.
That all changed when I met Barbara. She eventually returned to my table with a cup of coffee, and by then, I had regained my ability to think and speak concurrently. She asked me if I worked in the mill and if I liked it. I appreciated her interest and asked about her job and when she normally worked at the diner. We had a nice conversation, if not entirely predictable. Years later, I realized she was just having a normal chat with a customer, while I had thought we had some sort of connection that ultimately led to our dating and marriage. Funny how that worked. I’m glad I didn’t know she was going to through the motions at the time, but I’m not sure it would have changed the outcome because I fell in love with her that day, and nothing could have changed that.