KaraLynne Pope (the redhead in the back). An Arizona girlfriend. Actually more than that. She was a crossroads.
It occurs to me that occasionally in life we make a seemingly insignificant decision that ultimately changes everything. These changes I suppose can be good or bad or maybe both. But mainly they represent a change in direction. A new road to a different destiny if you will. I’ve not lived a planned or well-ordered life by any means, but even by those standards meeting KaraLynne and everything that has subsequently flowed from that event has taken me places beyond my wildest imaginings.
By my reckoning it would have been August of 1981. I drove up to Flagstaff, Arizona to participate in a softball tournament. I was camping out with my teammates at a campground adjacent to the ballpark. It was a Friday night. Around about 8 p.m. we did a headcount and determined we were one player short of a team. So, it was decided to head into Flagstaff proper, find a bar, and try to a recruit a player for our Saturday game. I initially declined to participate in the quest, saying I would stay and tend to our camp. But as the car was pulling away I impulsively changed my mind and shouted “wait a minute, I’m coming with you!” Nothing has been the same since.
We pulled into a country-western honkytonk called the Pioneer Club. There was a live band and it was crowded. Although I had decided to come to the bar, I was not going to participate in the recruiting effort. So, I ordered up a beer and looked for a place to sit, finally spying an open spot on a bench along the wall. After plopping down a woman I hadn’t even noticed said “I’m sorry, that seat is taken”. I grinned and said, “ok, I’ll just sit here till they get back”. And that’s how I met KaraLynne.
It turns out the seat was not taken (or whomever never came back for it) and we sat and chatted for an hour or so. I recall her being irreverent, witty, and funny as hell. Eventually my teammates completed the recruitment mission and it was time to go. I invited KaraLynne out to see us play the next day, and she was non-committal in her response. So, when she showed up at the ballpark with her friend Edie, I was really jazzed.
They stayed and watched us play until we were eliminated from the competition late in the afternoon. I offered to take her and Edie to dinner as a reward for being such good fans and they accepted. Over the course of dinner I learned that KaraLynne was a recent graduate of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and that Edie had been one of her professors. KaraLynne was entering the graduate program at Idaho State University in Pocatello in a couple of weeks. She lived in Phoenix and was in Flagstaff visiting her friends before departing for Idaho.
After dinner Edie said her goodbyes, but KaraLynne agreed to stay awhile longer. We drove out to Mormon Lake, looked up at the stars, and talked until sunrise. And then we fell in love.
So, the next two years were a whirlwind. I’d do the all night drive up to Pocatello to spend the weekend once a month or so. We had spring break, summer vacation, and Christmas recess. Lots of letters (this was before email if you can imagine that) and huge phone bills. I became good friends with Edie and another NAU professor, Judy, and we spent a lot of time together skiing and just hanging out. So, it was a pretty exciting life in many respects.
Also a hard life. Hard, because I had custody of Renee and Kevin and single parenthood is every bit as tough as they say it is. Hard because the woman I loved was most of the time far away from me. Hard because KaraLynne’s teenage brother died tragically following minor surgery. Hard because I sent the kids to stay with my parents on the farm in Oklahoma. And hard because in the end KaraLynne broke my heart.
I’ll get over it eventually, it’s only been 30 years. Of course, I’m being facetious. Mostly.
But here’s the thing, loving and losing happens all the time. In the grand scheme of things what matters is what you learn. And what is important is what you do with those lessons. And that is really my point in telling this story.
Because by making friends with university professors, I came to understand that my lack of education did not equate to a lack of intelligence. I gained the confidence that I could hold my own with anyone intellectually and so I went back to school. It took me ten years, but I earned by Bachelor’s degree in 1991.
In my sorrow, I sold everything I owned and moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas. Initially, I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life in leaving Arizona. But in time, my work as the union shop steward caught the attention of the HR Director. Which put me in the position to earn my first promotion and begin my career in management.
The kids got to experience the joys of a rural farm life surrounded by people who loved them, like my mom and grandma Pernie.
I learned to country dance and had a great time being single and experiencing the true charm of Southern women (a story in itself).
So, do I ever wonder what would have happened if I had stayed behind at the campground? No, not really. At the time I wasn’t even aware that I was making a life-altering choice. Still, the words of Robert Frost resonate:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.