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Senior scene

July 2, 2011

As Time Goes By: Fate works in mysterious, sometimes cruel, ways

Have you ever wondered where the phrase "the fickle finger of fate" came from? I don't know either but I do recognize when it happens to me.

When everything is running along smoothly and you are contemplating sitting in your easy chair and kicking off your shoes to enjoy the solitude of uninterrupted dreaming, this is just about the time that fate comes along and you end up with bite-marks on your backside.

I love the story of Pinocchio, especially the theme song, "When You Wish Upon a Star," by Harline and Washington. There is a line that goes, "Like a bolt out of the blue, Fate steps in and sees you through."

I've had a lifetime of "bolts out of the blue," and I know that I was in the presence of fate or angels any number of times.

When I finished graduate school at Cornell, I realized that I really needed to get a job. I started reading the job opportunities posted on the bulletin board and there were two that caught my eye. One was for a food chemist at NOPCO and the other was an assistant professorship position at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown.

I interviewed at NOPCO in Newark, N.J., and was offered a position but stated I wanted to take a look at a college professorship. I rented a car and drove to Doylestown, Pa. It was a beautiful fall day, warmth reflected from every tree and bush with the magnificence of fall colors. As I pulled onto the campus, the football team was in full practice with the punctuation of grunts and the sharp slap of shoulder pads on shoulder pads. I knew as I got out of my rental that this was where I wanted to be.

My interview went extremely well. The pay was going to be a lot less than what I was offered at NOPCO and I had to share office space with Barney, who was the other food chemist but for whatever reason this felt like home.

The only drawback was that, besides Barney, I had to share this basement office with a large rat that inhabited the steam line tunnels between buildings.

This was no ordinary rat. There were times when he looked so big I could throw a saddle on him and ride around the campus. Eventually we became friends and we respected each other's territory. I named him "Willard."

As time went by, I was happy but the meager salary of an assistant professorship and an additional boost in salary for being the freshman basketball coach was not enough to sustain two children and a wife. Fate knocked on my door.

A man I knew from singing in the choir at church told me about an opening for a dairy and food chemist at Pennsalt Chemical Corp. in King-of-Prussia, Pa. The salary was twice as much as what I was making teaching.

I went to speak with the dean of faculty and told him I would not be returning for the next semester. He pleaded with me, offered additional money but could not come close to Pennsalt's offer.

Then he said in a voice filled with shared confidences, "Do you know what a pressure cooker a job like that can be? You'll be traveling all over the country and the usual outcome is alcoholism and divorce." I told him that this would never happen to me _ I had to give it a try. I said goodbye to Willard the rat and wished him and his progeny best wishes.

I loved being a food chemist. I loved solving food processing problems all over the United Stated. My star was ascending.

A couple of years went by and I had become a market manager for automotive chemicals and household lye. I got an invite to the Executive Christmas Party held at the close of work, two days before Christmas.

With this in mind I had been careful to dress conservatively with a Windsor knot in my tie (Pennsalt had deep Quaker roots), took the morning train to my office at 3 Penn Center and made sure to have a couple of rolls at lunch to soak up any libations later that evening.

I went to the party, was properly introduced around corporate row, made my way to the free drinks bar and ordered a Manhattan.

It was very smooth, the company was exciting, and before you could say "bottoms up," I was on my third drink.

About that time I noticed that my lips were turning numb. Just then a friend came up to me and said, "Get out of here before you do something stupid _ they throw these parties to see what you will do." I had already consumed my fourth drink when I started making the rounds saying, "Good evening, I'm sorry I can't stay but I have to take my children to an Indian Guides meeting."

I got to the Reading Railroad Station checked to see when my train was to leave, when Fate stepped in and there standing in front of me was my former dean of faculty.

The Manhattans were pumping into my system and I knew that I had a feeling that my face was lopsided but I no longer cared. I looked at him and blurted the first thing that came to my mind, "I bet you think that I've been shrinking."

He looked at me for a while and then said, "Why, no, Henry, why should I think that?"

I looked at him and then looked at my feet and stated, "You would think that because I'm standing in the middle of the railroad track." (Thank heavens my train wasn't pulling in.)

A few minutes later, his train was announced and he turned to board it. As he turned I said, "Give my best to the faculty."

I wish I could have been a fly on the wall at the next faculty meeting. If Fate could talk it would have said, "Gotcha!"

Henry Geerken is a three-time NYSUT award-winner writing humorous articles addressing retiree and senior citizen concerns. Geerken also writes for Sail-World, World Cruising Newsletter, regarding his many humorous sailing episodes through the years. He can be reached by e-mail at 'Senior Scene' columns can be found at

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