Author: Martin, George

Absent-mindedness makes the heart grow fonder

Nancy Zuniga’s recent column about the whimsical nature of fate and how the fanning of a butterfly’s wing can cause a hurricane in one’s life some years down the road brought to my mind the most momentous “mistake” I ever made. A casual bit of absent-mindedness that totally changed my life.

After high school I enrolled in Contra Costa College, a “community” college that had just a few years before shed the “junior” from "Contra Costa Junior College" in an effort to sound more mature I suppose.

I didn’t really have a plan for my life. We lived in Crockett, a little town that was just evolving away from its long role as a company town for C&H Sugar. Most of the men I was aware of worked for C&H, or the Union 76 refinery in nearby Oleum, or the American Smelting & Refining Co. in nearby Selby.

But that life was ending; we didn’t know it at the time but Selby would close and the sugar and oil refineries would automate and computerize and eventually employ only a fraction of the work forces they had then. Fortunately my mother had got the idea somewhere that her darling boy should go to college, and since Contra Costa College was accessible and virtually free, off I went.

My first year I took a class called Career and Vocational Planning, since I had no clue about what I should do with myself. I took a bunch of psychological tests and the results came back that I would make a good clergyman or a journalist.

Starting in the third grade I had become an altar boy in the Catholic Church and had actually flirted with the idea of becoming a priest. But eventually puberty occurred and suddenly it didn’t seem like such a good idea anymore.

Journalism, I thought, that might work. By happy coincidence, the college was just starting a student paper, and I had worked on my high school paper the year before, so I signed up for journalism lab.

And it proved to be a happy thing. I was pretty good at it, and found it fun. The next year I became the editor, and started looking around for a place to finish out college.

I settled on San Jose State University (which had just recently dropped the “College” from its name). The lure was that San Jose mailed out copies of its newspaper to all the junior (oops -- “community”) colleges, and their paper was the Spartan Daily. I was awed that they could do a paper every day. We struggled to get one out each week that was usually a four-page tabloid, and the people at SJSU published eight pages or more every day. Obviously the big leagues. As Tina Fey later said, “I want to go to there.”

In those days state colleges had entrance tests, and I duly signed up. It was to be in San Jose at 9 a.m., so I convinced my parents I should drive down the night before and stay (all by myself!) in a motel so as not to be late. Each testee was required to bring a check for (I believe) $20 for the test. No cash accepted.

I drove to San Jose, found a motel, set my alarm clock plenty early, and arrived right on time. Unfortunately my check was back home on the dining room table, where the brilliant young college man had forgotten it. Sorry, no test today, but you can come back next month and do it then.

And that, like a row of dominoes falling, set off a series of events that set me on the course my life has taken.

Not taking that test meant I missed the deadline to apply for a room in the university dorms.

So my parents and I made a trip to San Jose and found a boarding house on South Tenth Street that was just starting up. Fountain Hall (named for an old fountain in the back yard -- it was a cool old Victorian house) became my home for the next year.

And there I met the three fellows with whom I would rent an apartment the following year.

And to get a telephone for that apartment, I walked next door and asked the young woman who lived there if I could use her phone, and while I was phoning Ma Bell I spotted a mandolin hanging on the wall.

“Does someone play that?” I asked.

“My husband,” she replied. “He’s at work now; he’s a reporter on the San Jose Mercury News.”

“Well,” said I, “I play the guitar and I’m a journalism student at State.”

And so that night I brought my guitar over and met my future brother-in-law, one Lynn Ludlow by name, and his wife, my future wife’s sister, Linda. Turned out we knew a lot of the same songs [not exactly bluegrass content, but folk music content -- the bluegrass came later] and we’ve been playing music together ever since.

And some months later Linda said, “My sister is coming to California to visit and maybe stay.”

And a few weeks after that, I came into their apartment and there, sitting at the kitchen table in a white blouse and dark blue skirt, was my dear wife-to-be, Barbara Ann Wakefield, all of 18 years old. No kidding, my heart went pitty-pat.

And I swear, I thought to myself, “This could be the girl I marry.” And my thoughts immediately went to my father, who had told me long before that the first time he saw my mother he had said to himself that there was his wife-to-be. I thought he was just making it up, but on later reflection, maybe not.

That was all some 47 happy years ago.

I probably should have framed that original, forgotten $20 check.

Posted:  6/10/2010

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