The role of fortune in our daily lives. A meeting with a nuclear engineer and a WW II vet.
“You are so fortunate to be able to take the time off for this trip” is one of the most frequent comments we get. We are fortunate, yes, for being born in relatively well-to-do families, for having trained in an area that is in high demand, for getting the lucky breaks that enabled us to hold well paying jobs and most importantly, for being so well matched that we enjoy taking long vacations together without stress or compromise.
Yet what is “being fortunate”? There is definitely an element of choice in being able to take long vacations, we choose our path to some extent. So we own neither house nor land, we did not sell our souls to the digital gold rush, we are willing to risk losing a comfortable and happy existence in San Francisco in return for our long and frequent travels.
“I feel so fortunate in my life that I was given the chances that I got”. We were speaking to Lindy Ferguson, a World War II veteran from a small manufacturing town in Wisconsin. We had been searching for apartment rentals by the week when we ran into Lindy in the ex patriot corner of Merida. We ended up spending the evening listening fascinated to his stories of being down in the engine room of ships used for troop transport, of heading towards Okinawa and certain death, of the gallows humor of the engine room resulting from hazardous and perilous work. (For “What would you aim a torpedo at? The engine room”!).
After the war the chances of finding a job in manufacturing towns were slim. He went on to relate how his experience with steam engines allowed him to get a job in the nuclear engineering department of Argon National Labs, how a boy from a mainly blue collar town with no relevant training worked with and among Nobel prize winners and of meeting Oppenheimer. And all through this fascinating narrative there was a pervading sense of gratitude for such unexpected rewards.
Yet, over a pint of (terrible) Mexican beer at a (pretty good) pizzeria, we remarked how unusual it was to meet an eighty year old whose conversation was not limited to complaints of his aches and pains, who was obviously enjoying himself inspite of any setbacks that he may have had, who was genuinely amazed and grateful for his good fortune, who never uttered a negative sentence in the entire conversation. I wonder, was it good fortune that led to his success, or his refreshingly positive attitude?