Where was I, this day, April 17, 1956…a fork in the road.

In the 1956 movie, The King and I, the King is growing increasingly frustrated in his attempts to learn the ways of the Western world being introduced to him by Anna, the English school teacher he has employed to teach his many children. As his frustrations grow, he utters a phrase that has stuck with me all the many years since I first saw the movie: “Is a puzzlement!” That phrase often comes to mind as I attempt to understand some of the experiences that life puts in front of me, and no more so than for events centering around this day, April 17, 1956.

Where I was this day in 1956, I cannot, with any specific detail, recall. It was Tuesday, a school day, so I likely would have been in whatever classes I had that day at Iola Junior College (aka “JuCo,” now generally called a community college). In all probability, I would not have been paying much attention to whatever the instructor was putting on the blackboard. No, my mind would have been far more occupied anticipating what was to come later that evening.

Could never ignore that smile

For the two years that I had been enrolled at Iola JuCo, Colleen Cady—a girl who had enrolled there from the little burg of Bronson, about twenty miles east of Iola—and I had been involved in a sort of cat and mouse game of “I wonder if he/she would go with me on a date.” That game had evolved, first of all, from the fact that we were both involved with other “steadies.” It was one thing to wonder about dating someone else, but actually doing so was most decidedly verboten.

But second of all, neither of us would have denied that almost from our first day of attending JuCo, when she signed up for Mr. Kennedy’s General Chemistry class—in which I was also enrolled—all the way through both years, we seemed to constantly find ways to be together. She had been accepted to be one of the cheerleaders for the “Red Devils,” our basketball team, and quite frankly, her smile was rather difficult to ignore.

We studied together at the library. I went to her house, some nights, to study there. We were on student council committees together. I’d see her at a movie and graciously offer to give her a ride home—insisting we stop for a hamburger and Coke on the way.

In short, it was quite obvious, though never openly expressed, that we found each other’s company much to our liking. But the second semester of our second, and last, year of the two-year college was winding down. We would soon be graduating and heading in different directions—in all likelihood never to see each other again.

She had not unequivocally ended her relationship with the guy she had gone with for six years, and I had only marginally done the same. Nevertheless, I had asked her to go on a for-real date with me, for that Tuesday night, April 17, 1956, and she had accepted.

It was a school night, her Quantitative Analysis chemistry class was eating her alive, she was bone tired, and fearful of skipping studying that night. But she was, privately, also quite fearful I would not ask her again, so she had accepted. It was just to attend the class play, put on by the Sophomore class.

We watched the play, enjoying the excitement of an actual, for real, date. But when the play ended, neither she nor I were ready for the date to end. So we went out to the drive-in theater. The ticket booth was closed by then, so I drove around to the road at the side of the drive-in, to watch it from there.

That night, April 17, 1956, we came to a fork in our road…

And there, on an old gravel road at the side of a drive-in theater, we came to a “fork in the road.” Our lives took a sudden, dramatic detour. Two weeks later, while taking her home from another date, I told her I hoped to marry her, someday, and to her considerable shock, she realized she was very much in favor of that. A few months later we were able to make it official, and began what became the best fifty five years of our lives.

That was 65 years ago, this day. I’ve thought a lot, especially these past few years since God called her home, about that date, that night, that so suddenly and dramatically changed our lives. It was, first of all, so unlikely, so improbable; truly, “a puzzlement.” I had asked her, at the beginning of that Sophomore year, for a date. But circumstances conspired against it, and she declined. For the remainder of that year, I had made no attempt to ask her again, and she privately doubted I would. Regardless of how we each may have inwardly felt, it appeared that anything beyond friendship was not in the cards.

Then one day, with only a few weeks remaining in our stay at Iola JuCo, a guy stopped me on the stairs between classes. “Colleen Cady would go with you, if you’d ask her for a date,” he informed me. I was so taken aback by his comment that I didn’t respond, before he headed on up the stairs. Regardless, I took him at his word and soon thereafter asked her for that date. Over the years, it has come to feel almost like the mysterious voice whispering in the movie, Field of Dreams, only this time the voice was whispering, “If you ask her, she will go.”

That moment on the stairway at Iola JuCo those many years ago was then, and remains, a mystery, “a puzzlement.” Colleen and I talked about it, around the time of our fiftieth anniversary. She told me she had never told anyone, never confided to anyone other than her diary, that she was interested in me. I knew I hadn’t talked about it to anyone, at least not openly—wouldn’t have been a very smart move, when supposedly going with someone else. I couldn’t dredge up even a vague memory of who it was that stopped me on the stairs, that day, only that I was surprised when he stopped me. And Colleen couldn’t even speculate on who it might have been that changed our lives with that simple statement—or what had motivated the guy, whoever he was, to say that to me.

Life seems to do that to us, or for us, at times, putting a “fork in the road” in our lives, presenting a path to an entirely different life. There have been other examples in my life, similar to that. One day, there would be an unexpected phone call, a casual visit in a hallway, and suddenly I was standing at a “fork in the road.” I would imagine that is just as true for most of us.

While we were attending Kansas State, a guy in the personnel department at the Beech Aircraft plant in Wichita, although he was unable to offer me the summer job I had applied for, took a brief moment, a couple minutes at most, out of his busy day to offer some career advice. That unexpected “fork in the road” veered my career path in a direction I had never before even remotely considered, and took our lives in unimagined directions.

Yogi Berra, famous catcher for the New York Yankees, and just as famous for his quips

A surprise phone call, one afternoon while I was still at Ohio State, took us out of Ohio and to Texas—a state we had never previously considered for a life choice, to work for a company I had scarcely heard of. There, we met wonderful new friends, created our dream “Homestead House,” raised our family. I got my pilot’s license. All the subjects of dreams previously unfulfilled.

It is a “puzzlement.” What is it, that creates those “forks in the road” for us, when life suddenly, unexpectedly, confronts us with life-changing decisions? Fate? Good luck? God’s will? Why did the guy at Beech take time out of his busy day to offer advice to a kid he knew he’d likely never see, again? What prompted the guy in Texas to call me that day, when I was faced with deciding what to do with the rest of my life? Whatever is at the root of it, I can only say that I am grateful for those “forks,” for they took my life, our lives, down paths I could never have imagined. And whatever his reasons may have been for doing so, I am eternally grateful to the mysterious guy who stopped me on the stairway, that day, and started my life down the best road I could have ever travelled.

As Yogi said, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it.” But you have to be willing to do that. It requires faith, and no small amount of courage, to leave the familiar road, the known, comfortable path, and head down that unknown path. For Colleen and me, starting down each and every one of those many unfamiliar roads, taking that first step at the “fork in the road,” carried with it many uncertainties and anxieties. We were often a bit fearful. But each and every one brought rewards we could have otherwise only dreamt of.

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