In the late winter of 1965, my young wife and I went to a party given by her Chaucer professor at the University of Chicago. Marian and I were at an uncertain time in our lives: She had discovered that advanced literary studies were not for her. We’d talked the vocation thing over and decided that, although her fellowship would fund her studies through the defense of her doctoral dissertation, she would end her graduate school career with a master’s degree and look for a job teaching lower-division college English courses, probably at a community college, or “junior college,” as they were known at the time.
I had goofed off in college to the extent that although I had been granted admission to the UC graduate school the following fall, I had received no fellowship or scholarship money, and UC tuition was beyond our means. Yet I had to stay in school or find some deferred occupation; otherwise, I’d be drafted and sent to Vietnam.
We were young and lost no sleep over uncertainties that would have me tossing and turning today, and with the light and hopeful hearts of youth, we went to Prof. Norman’s party. On a table pushed against the wall of his austere bachelor apartment were a whole roast turkey, bread and sandwich fixings, a keg of beer, and many bottles of wine. The room was filled with graduate students trying to impress their professors, who seemed rather bored, and to impress and intimidate one another. I participated in and listened to several conversations that confirmed my suspicion that very smart people (school-smart, as I now think of them) often aren’t particularly pleasant or even very interesting.
After a couple of hours of this, Marian and I found each other again and were moving toward the door. Then we heard a voice coming from somewhere below us.
“So, what are you two up to?” the voice asked. We looked down, and there, sitting on the floor under the table that held the turkey, was a pudgy, balding little man holding a glass of beer. He looked up at us with amusement: We were so young, so fresh out of the small-town Midwest.
Marian explained that she was going to finish her master’s and look for a teaching job. I explained my situation, confessing that I’d earned a couple of not-so-good grades my junior year of college that, despite my high test scores and good recommendations, kept me from getting fellowship money.
The little man chuckled.
“Go to St. Louis,” he declared. “Their community college district is starting up next year. They’ve got lots of jobs for instructors. You can get in on the ground floor. And you,” he said, looking at me, “apply to the graduate school at Washington University. They have an excellent up-and-coming English department that’s looking for good students who might have a blemish or two on their records. They’ll probably even give you money.”
We thanked him. He smiled beatifically at us, raised what was certainly not his first glass of beer and wished us well. We went back to our apartment, made phone calls, wrote letters. Three weeks later, the academic dean at fledgling Forest Park Community College in St. Louis invited Marian to lunch at the Conrad Hilton. She returned that afternoon with a signed contract for a full-time job, beginning in the fall. Two weeks later, Washington University informed me that I was admitted to the graduate program in English, and a week after that informed me that I’d been awarded a full-tuition scholarship. We were indeed going to St. Louis.
We never saw our fairy godfather again, but we referred to him often in the following years. Our daughters heard the story many times and learned to use the phrase “the little man under the table” to characterize any of the seemingly random accidents that affect the course of our lives, from fender-bender to overheard remark to chance encounter
I belong to a church community that is a valuable part of my life because of a remark made to my wife at a birthday party more than 30 years ago. A favorable remark by my first academic boss about the American Studies department at the University of Minnesota started a sequence of inquiries and applications that led me to Minneapolis for a doctorate, a 24-year teaching career and a 40-year residence in the Twin Cities. A gynecologist’s mistaken diagnosis of my wife’s infertility led to our abandonment of “unnecessary” contraception, an accidental conception a year later and a nick-of-time, permanent draft deferment for me, as well as a force-of-nature daughter presently conquering the corporate world.
The butterfly flaps its wings, and far away the storm breaks; the little man speaks from under the table, and the course of our lives changes.
Thus far, I’ve been lucky, or “blessed,” as people of faith would say, that almost all of my “little man under the table” encounters have worked out well. He has never come at me out of the shadows, bearing a gun or driving a truck that bore down on my car head-on. The snowdrift across the highway in western Minnesota sent our car skidding into the ditch rather than into the path of the oncoming car that subsequently stopped to see if we were all right (we were). My younger daughter hit the sidewalk at an angle that broke her occipital ridge rather than the part of her skull that held her brain. I have been a lucky guy all my life: My mother once remarked that I could fall into a cesspit and climb out wearing a tuxedo.
Physicists and theologians are divided among themselves about the nature of these contingencies and of the lives that they make possible, or necessary. Does the universe not change, so that the future and past are identically fixed and determined, the apparent passing of time an illusion produced by our movement along the dimension of time? Or do the choices and accidents of our lives create one certain future out of an infinite number of possibilities?
Did God decide at the beginning of time that that tipsy little man would sit on the floor under a table, and did he ineluctably lead an Iowa boy and his child bride into his sight? Or could things have happened, as it seems to me, quite otherwise, had we not heard or heeded the little man? Or are both conditions, in some unfathomable way, the case?
I don’t know. Maybe one day I will. In the meantime, the little man under the table has taught me to be kind, to be patient and good-humored, to help where and when I can. To remember the value of chance encounters, and the huge difference they can make in our lives. To remember at the sight of others’ misfortune that I might have suffered a worse fate than I have, but for a voice from under a table in Chicago in the late winter of 1965. And to never, ever, take for granted a life that seems to be, the longer I live it, a most unexpected gift.
Michael Nesset lives in North St. Paul.