68: Yellow No. 2

68: Yellow No. 2

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dreams and the Unexplainable

Yellow No. 2

And in today already walks tomorrow.

~Samuel Taylor Coleridge

It was my first day of college and I was walking alone across campus toward the college bookstore, one of many students headed in the same direction. I was told it would be crowded, and I would probably have to wait in line, so I was in a hurry. I was in a hurry a lot in those days. On the greens near the pathway I was on, students were tossing footballs and flinging Frisbees. The air was filled with the shouts and laughter of young men and women greeting each other, alive with first-day excitement.

Bellbottoms and miniskirts were in fashion, along with long hair and oversized afros for men and women. The air was warm and breezy, smelling faintly of a nearby freeway and the more promising aroma of marijuana. Everyone seemed excited and expectant and filled with purpose. We were in college. We had dreams. The future was ours.

I was within a hundred yards of the bookstore when I saw a yellow pencil lying on the ground under a shrub. I intended to study engineering in those early days and had purchased several mechanical pencils that didn’t need sharpening. The one on the ground was made of wood. It was out of my way, and I was in a hurry. I should have paid it no mind, but without much thought and for no good reason, I made a small detour and picked it up. It was a plain yellow No. 2 wood pencil, never even sharpened, waiting there to be spotted and picked up by some passerby. In hindsight, perhaps it was waiting just for me.

The few steps out of my way lasted no more than ten seconds, but those ten seconds changed the direction of my life. I can trace every major life event thereafter — including meeting my wife ten years later, the conception of my children and the selection of my eventual profession — to that fortuitous little detour.

There was no sudden epiphany, no gleeful cheer of discovery, nothing to distinguish that small and seemingly insignificant moment from any other. In fact, I gave no thought to that pencil until more than fifty years later when, on another warm September afternoon, I drove by the old campus. For no good reason, other than to satisfy a taste for nostalgia, I decided to stop by for a walk down Memory Lane.

I didn’t expect to remember much after fifty years. I thought that everything would look different — that the many miles I had traveled since then would make the campus look old and insignificant — but I was wrong. As I started to wander around, memories came flooding back. They were filled mostly with people — friends I had not kept in touch with, the few girls I had dated, the professor who had awakened my curiosity about history and politics, the English professor who helped me appreciate literature.

Fifty years later, the students were still throwing footballs and flinging Frisbees, and now kicking soccer balls as well. Their clothes and hairstyles were different, but they were still laughing, shouting and making the same joyful noises. They had their own dreams now, and the future belonged to them.

I wanted a souvenir to take home with me, maybe a sweatshirt or a coffee cup or something for my grandkids. Maybe some three-ring binders with the school’s Brahma Bull mascot on the cover or some pencils bearing the college name. And so, once again, I started off for the bookstore. I’m not sure how memories get triggered. Maybe it was being on campus again on a warm September afternoon or maybe it was walking to the bookstore or thinking about buying some pencils. But there it was: The memory of that brand-new, never-been-used, yellow No. 2 floated up into my consciousness like I had just found it.

And with the memory of the pencil, I remembered the rest of the walk to the bookstore: students filing into line as I approached; the sweet girl who ended up in line just ahead of me; bits and pieces of our conversation; my telling her that I was looking for a job; her advice that I check the administration office where job offers were posted on a bulletin board. Had it not been for that pencil and the ten seconds or so it took to pick it up, I would have lined up behind someone else, and that conversation would never have taken place.

At the administration office, they were just about to pin up a 3x5 card with a part-time job offer on it: a shoe clerk at a local shopping mall. The woman who was about to pin it up handed it to me. I applied that very afternoon and reported for work the next day.

It took me another fifty years to realize that with that part-time job, the trajectory of my life was changed. The store manager and his family became my best friends, and when he left for another job with an insurance company, I followed. It was there that I was employed as a claims adjuster, met my wife, and developed an interest in the law that led to me becoming a lawyer.

I picked up that yellow No. 2 in September of 1964 when I was twenty-one years old and just out of the Navy. Kennedy was dead less than a year, and Johnson and Goldwater were battling for the soul of the country. The Vietnam conflict was escalating into a ten-year war that would mire the country in pain and nearly split it at the seams. But on that late summer day in 1964, the music of the Beatles was floating in the air, and The Drifters were making love “Under the Boardwalk.” The heavy and somber protest songs of the 1960s and 70s had not yet been written, and the suffering that was to come was on no one’s mind. My path through life, which until that day had been headed in a different direction, was altered by just a few seconds, but just enough to change everything.

~Andrew Garcia

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