This post is dedicated to the memory of my wonderful father, Joseph Culotta, who passed away on August 1, 2016.
Blog Post #43
1. the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.
There are certain serendipitous scenarios that you just can’t set up in advance, no matter how much scheming you do, nor how badly you want things to turn out exactly as you imagine them. In fact, to “set up,” scheme, or plan anything is the antithesis of serendipity, because serendipity, by definition, involves chance.
My father, the late Joseph Culotta, served as a naval photographer in World War II. He attended the Naval Training School of Photography in Pensacola, Florida where he labored to memorize all that was required for his area of expertise. He developed a strong habit of memorization starting at an early age. (See blog post #2 “The True Measure of a Man.”) While stationed at the Naval Air Station in Bermuda, he spent much of his free time in the library memorizing poetry.
After the war ended, my father (“Daddy”) went on a road trip with friends. Evening approached, and one of the other passengers—looking for an opportunity to show-off—pointed out the setting sun off in the western sky and asked if any of the other fellows in the car (including my father) knew what “refraction” was. At first, Daddy acted as if he didn’t know anything about it (his photography training eagerly churning in the back of his mind). Just as the other guy opened his mouth to enlighten everyone about refraction as it related to the setting sun, word-for-word Daddy interjected the following. “Oh.…you mean ‘the deflection of a ray of light upon entering a transparent medium at an oblique angle, or bending of light when passing from one medium to another of different density?’” He recited this (as he later did countless times throughout his lifetime) with the same uninterrupted, rote speed and tonal quality characteristic of something entirely ingrained in one’s memory.
The man was so surprised by Daddy’s impromptu recitation he begged to know how my father did that! When Daddy explained he had memorized that definition while in Naval Photography School, the man decided he wanted to choose the definition of a word to memorize so he could pull that on someone else. The man chose “viscosity” as his word. My father told us later that he thought the circumstances were too unusual for a similar opportunity to arise like that again. He felt that his traveling companion would be disappointed in his scheme, because you couldn’t hope to plan for that kind of serendipitous stunt. Happily, for my father the stars had aligned and he had taken advantage of that unique set of circumstances.
It is this unique set of circumstances to which I refer when I said that you cannot set-up in advance certain scenarios—no matter how much scheming you do. I believe there’s truth in the phrase, “The best laid plans … often go awry!” (Robert Burns)
Many years ago, my family of seven (my husband, Brad, our five children, and I) were on a road trip together with my sister, Karen, and her six children. We drove two vehicles, one of which was a truck pulling a fifth wheel trailer, and the other, a large van with three rows of benches and two front seats. The eleven children took turns riding in the cab of the truck with Brad, but mostly the two eldest children (my daughter, Thalia, and my sister’s daughter, Bridey) claimed that privilege. The rest of us were crammed in Karen’s big blue van, appropriately named “Big Uggs.”
One of the stops on our trip was the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. My sister had been there before, and had a vivid memory of rounding a bend and seeing those magnificent mountains suddenly appear before her eyes. Completely moved by that experience, she wanted to recreate the same inspirational effect for the children (and for me). To add to the effect, we chose to play music that would build and climax at the precise moment when the mountains appeared like a vision before our eyes. (Just the way it always happens in the movies.) The main theme in the soundtrack to the movie, “The Man from Snowy River,” was our music of choice. (I should probably add that this was during the days prior to compact discs, MP3 players, or Bluetooth connections. Cassette tapes had to be re-wound or fast-forwarded—like a video tape—to find the desired location. Unless you had a counter on your machine, you had no idea where to stop the tape to find the song you wanted.)
There we were, driving along, following a map, (no GPS in those days, either), and as we approached a bend in the road at the approximate location we thought the mountain range would appear, we’d call out to the children to “Look!” Quickly we rewound the tape,—the violins building in crescendo to a fever pitch, the French horns ready to signal,—and as we rounded the bend…..nothing. No mountains. Just more road and more of the same scenery on both sides of the road. “Quick! Stop the tape!” one of us would call out. We rewound again, preparing for the next bend in the road —the correct bend.
And another bend soon came! Again, we called to the children, the tape went on—violins building toward the magnificent view. And….nothing. We repeated this scenario perhaps a half-dozen times or more. We heard those violins brace themselves for the climax over and over again (we became quite intuitive as to when to stop rewinding the tape at the perfect place).
Finally, after rounding every bend, the Tetons appeared way off in the distance, like piles of small, jagged rocks, gradually growing larger as we bridged the miles that spanned the distance between us. It was as opposite an experience from that imagined as possible. We let the rest of the tape play out. After the second or third “Look!” the children had tuned us out anyway.
At last, Karen concluded that her initial introduction to the Tetons must have come from a different direction or perhaps from a different road (possibly because she had flown into the area and had arrived in a shuttle). We had to resign ourselves to having made a valiant attempt on behalf of our children—all of whom sat obliviously happy in the back seats (drawing, laughing, talking, singing, and playing together) totally unaware of our desire for them to regard, with breathless anticipation, the experience we had attempted to orchestrate…that never happened.
Countless are the times I’ve tried to rehearse exactly the right thing to say or do only to have it completely backfire on me. I might lay the blame on my inability to predict the reactions of others, my ignorance of human nature, or my failure to be poised for action at the moment when the stars align. As I ponder this enigma, I think it all boils down to the idea that you simply can’t plan for unique events that appear like bursts of serendipity sent down from above.
However, I do believe it is completely possible for one to plan and create moments that are special—that are beautiful, touching, emotionally charged (in a good way), and that may be remembered for a lifetime. It takes thought, planning, effort, presence, and a smattering of joy to create an enchanting moment, be it a dinner with friends, a wedding or birthday celebration, a community event, or even more beautiful–a special moment with a child.
Still, I think you cannot re-create, or manufacture, unique moments that first occur as serendipitous, once-in-a-lifetime occasions. When the stars align, when the heavens open, and when your life preparation unites with the moment, that’s the time to be grateful you were at the right place at the right time.
One more thought….which may shoot down the entire premise of this post. As I think about that little scheme we set-up during our trip to the Tetons, it was, in its own way, a serendipitous event. We didn’t achieve the desired result, but our bumbling attempt to create a stirring, unforgettable moment was, in many respects, achieved. The outcome was, in its own right, something we’ve remembered and laughed about for years on end. And isn’t that, in itself a unique little bit of serendipity?
I’ll leave you to sort this all out. Obviously, I haven’t succeeded.
I sincerely hope you are able to find serendipitous joy when your schemes to create or recreate some wonderful event turn out differently than you had, at first, hoped. If you were chasing rainbows, and found one that was upside down …. well, what could be more serendipitous than discovering a giant smile in the sky?
From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, dear Friends, for reading.