"It Might Have Been"

But, There Is No Alternate "Sliding Door"


Lowell L. Getz

Much of what happens to us in life, what we do, what we become and who we are, results from chance events beyond our control. Some incidents result only in our taking a slightly different pathway, whereas others may lead to a major redirection of our lives, or our impact on the lives of others. A romantic comedy movie, with serious under tones, "Sliding Doors", examines the consequences of alternate chance events, e.g., barely slipping through or missing the closing of a subway door by a split-second, through alternate, parallel scenarios, as the main character proceeds with her life. In real life, however, there is no alternate sliding door scenario. We only can reflect upon what actually happened following a chance event. We may speculate the "It might have been", but we cannot perceive the full impact of an event not happening and how our lives would have been changed. I suspect many of us do not devote much time in dwelling upon "why" we are where we are in life or on what "might have been", had an event not occurred or had been somewhat different. John Greenleaf Whittier tried to explain this dilemma " in a couplet in his poem, "Maud Muller"

"For of all sad words of tongue or pen,

The saddest are these: 'It might have been!'"

In his poem, the two characters are not content with parts of their lives. The suggested alternatives are perceived as unrealized "It might have been." But, these were only fleeting thoughts, not realistic alternative scenarios.

As I approach the end of my life, it has been revealing to look back and recall those events, some fleeting in nature, others involving major incidents, that have played a defining a role in my life. Had any one of them not occurred, had occurred at a slightly different time, or had involved a different event, my life, my family, my career, what I have achieved would have taken entirely different directions. Most likely nothing of what I have been or done would have been remotely the same. Would I have had a better life, a better career? I cannot even guess. Perhaps I would have accomplished more. Perhaps not. Perhaps I would have been happier. Perhaps not. I am content, however, with the life I have lived. I have a beautiful wife and two successful daughters. I obtained a Ph. D. at a prestigious institution, the University of Michigan, and had a rewarding academic career and a successful research career that identified a valuable experimental animal for use in medical research. And, I had a successful military career, attaining the rank of Colonel. I cannot perceive a better alternative scenario for my life that would have resulted from a different sequence of events. But a parallel "Sliding Door" scenario does not exist. So, I will never know. In my mind, I would not change most of what has been. Two events, however, I definitely would change, if given the opportunity.

These are the major events that shaped my life:

My Wife

One day in early June 1949, a few days after I had graduated from high school, Bill Harth, a fisheries biologist for the Illinois Department of Conservation, came to our house asking for me. He was conducting a research project that summer at Beaver Dam State Park (10 miles from where we lived), but his assistant had not shown up to work. Earlier that day, a family friend, John Hounsely, who was visiting the park, had struck up a conversation with Bill. Bill had mentioned his assistant problem to John and John told him about me--how I was interested in conservation work and had attended an Illinois Department of Conservation school the previous summer. John suggested that Bill talk to me to see if I would be a suitable assistant on the project. Bill came over and talked to me for a couple hours and he hired me for the summer. We worked together on a bass growth project all summer, living in a trailer at Beaver Dam. That fall, I enrolled as a freshman at the University of Illinois.

Because I had worked for Fish Division of the Department of Conservation the previous summer, I was again hired by the Fish Division to work, by myself, on a fish creel survey at Beaver Dam State Park the summer of 1950. I lived in the same trailer that summer. Usually, I did not have a car (my parents had only one car) and no way of going anywhere in the evenings. Now and then, I would take the car with me during the week so could go to a movie at the Marvel Theater in nearby Carlinville. On a few of these nights I noticed that the girl taking tickets was the same cute girl that, during my senior year in high school, had come to go home with Norma Clardy, most likely Norma's sister. She was friendly and we visited with idle chatter a few seconds as she took my ticket when I went in the Marvel Theater.

Before I left to go back to the University of Illinois that fall, I looked the girl up in my old high school yearbook. There I found her and got her name (Mary Clardy; did not know she used Ruth, too). I checked the Carlinville phone book to get her address. When I got back to campus in September I told my roommate, Roy Cameron, about the cute girl I had seen taking tickets. He told me to write to her, but I didn't think it was appropriate. I assumed that as pretty and outgoing as she was, she would have a boyfriend and did not want to embarrass myself by making an attempt to get in touch with her. Roy and I argued for several weeks. Finally, to get him off my back, I wrote what had to be the most limp "pick up letter", ever. Started out with something about "not being able to get any news from home." Whatever, "Mary" was polite and answered.

We exchanged a few letters and confirmed that we would be at the high school homecoming dance the Friday night after Thanksgiving. I did not take her to the dance (not ready to ask her for a date); I went by myself and she was with her friend, Pauline Varner. I could not get up courage to ask her to dance. Eventually, the band started playing "The Tennessee Waltz", which at the time was my favorite song. So, I pumped up my courage and asked her to dance. We danced that one and a few others. After the dance, I took her and Pauline back to her house. I asked her if she would go out with me the next night and she agreed. We wrote more between Thanksgiving and Christmas and went out a few times at Christmas. After some speed bumps, we worked things out and 59+ years later, here we are, still together.

Think of the small things that got us together. Had Bill Harth's assistant shown up (never knew who he was or why he did not show), had John Hounsley not gone to Beaver Dam that day, or if he had, had he not met Bill, I would not have been hired in 1949, and thus not in 1950. I would not have gone to the movies and seen Mary Ruth taking tickets. And, had the person assigning seats for the senior class in 1948-9, put me in a seat or row a little farther away from Norma (we were not assigned alphabetically), I would not have seen Mary Ruth coming to meet her sister to go home from school, and would not have known who she was, or how to find her name, even had I seen her taking tickets.

There is no alternate "Sliding Door" scenario to let me know whom I may have married, if anyone. I may or may not have been happy. But, I would not change anything, even if given the chance.

My Career

My freshman and sophomore high school years, 1945-1947, were spent in a school of 32 students and three teachers in Chesterfield, Illinois. I was an utterly apathetic student, as evidenced by horrendous grades, which consisted entirely of C's and D's. My future prospects were dismal, to say the least, and what's more, I did not care.

In the spring of 1946 one of the teachers, Mrs. Frances Hook, became pregnant and could not teach the following year. Because of a shortage of teachers at that time, the school district was unable find a qualified replacement teacher. A college student, Wanda Leach, who had finished her junior year and was taking a year off to help her parents while working for the County Superintendent of Schools, was asked to teach at Chesterfield until Mrs. Hook could return. She agreed to do so, with the understanding she had to return to college the next year to finish her degree.

The Board of Directors faced the same problem the next year. Mrs. Hook decided not to return to teaching so soon after becoming a mother. The Board of Directors again could not find a replacement teacher. The county had already decided that, beginning fall 1948, Chesterfield would merge with the adjacent larger Carlinville school district. The Chesterfield Directors, therefore, decided that for the 1947-48 school year the district would pay the tuition for students to attend either Carlinville High or the high school in a nearby small town, Medora. I elected to attend Carlinville since I would have to go there the next year, anyway.

Because most of my friends went to Medora, I seldom saw them in the evenings. With nothing else to do, I studied. My first six-week grades were two A's and two B's, grades such as I had never seen before in High School. This gave me incentive to study even more. I made straight A's in my course grades for the junior and senior years. With these credentials and new-found motivation, I applied to and was admitted to the University of Illinois. There, too, I did well, with an almost straight A average and achieved a number of academic honors, including initiation into Phi Beta Kappa. Upon graduation in June 1953, I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army. From there on I was on a fast track to successful academic and Army careers, as will be described below.

None of this would have happened had Frances Hook not become pregnant and taught at Chesterfield for two more years or had returned to teach the 1947-8 school year. Only one year at Carlinville would not have been sufficient for me to "turn myself around" so as to go to college. With no skills, too frail for farm or any other heavy work, no motivation, and no purpose in life, it is frightening to think what would have become of me. I was on a slippery downhill path to nowhere. Although there is no alternate "Sliding Door" scenario to suggest what would have become of me, nothing could have been as rewarding as the realized scenario.

Why I Became a Mammalogist

In the fall of 1949, I enrolled as a Zoology major at the University of Illinois. The 1951 fall semester of my junior year, I took my first advanced zoology course, Mammalogy, the only advanced course I could fit into my schedule. I had no special interest in mammals, but went all out in the course, as I did in all my courses. Even though most of the 20 some students in the class were graduate students, I made the second highest grade. But, I thought no more about it. The same semester I had taken a course in general Entomology that "turned me on" to insects. I found them fascinating and started the two semester sequence in advanced insect taxonomy in the spring and became even more interested in Entomology. However, because Entomology was a separate department, with different requirements than those for Zoology, there was no way I could complete the requirements for a degree in Entomology in the time left. But, I was also interested in ecology and was told by the Zoology Department ecologist, Dr. Charles Kendeigh, that he would supervise my undergraduate honors thesis work, if I worked with insect ecology. He suggested I work with the ecology of Collembola, a primitive group of insects, about which little was known. We had on campus, at the State Natural History Survey, the world authority in Collembola, who could help me with the identifications. The logical study site was at Brownfield Woods, five miles from campus. My problem was, I did not have a car and no way to get to Brownfield Woods to do the field work. I was mulling over my possibilities, using a bicycle, among others.

While still uncertain as to how to get to Brownfield Woods the next year, I walked across the campus Quad one mid May afternoon, along one of the oblique sidewalks. At the intersection of another oblique sidewalk, I met Dr. Hoffmeister, who had taught the Mammalogy course. This was the first time I had seen him since the class had finished in January. We talked briefly as he asked me about the family and what I was doing that semester. He also asked if I would be doing an honor's thesis project my senior year. I told him I was and about my dilemma regarding getting to the study site. He told me that I had done so well in Mammalogy that I should consider maybe doing my research with mammals. He told me he had a project that might interest me and if I had time, to come with him to the museum to look at what he had. I did. He emphasized several times on the way to the museum that I had been very astute regarding mammals and would do well in that area.

The project he had was a large collection of deer mice from Mexico that he had purchase for the museum, but had not yet identified. He told me there would be all sorts of new information and maybe a publication from the collection. I could do the work in the museum and not have any hassles with getting to a study site. He kept playing on my ego and I finally gave in and agreed to work with him. I found out later there was no new information in the collection--he merely wanted someone to identify them for him so he could file the specimens properly in the museum. And so, I became a Mammalogist rather than an Entomologist.

If either I or Dr. Hoffmeister had been more than five seconds sooner or later in arriving at the intersection of the two sidewalks, we would not have bumped into each other and I never would have become a Mammalogist. My entire career--where I went to graduate school, where I ended up in academia, the kind of research I would have done--all would have differed. Maybe for the better, maybe not. I will never know. There is no alternate parallel "Sliding Door" scenario. Whatever, I would have had a completely different career, all because of five seconds.

My Research

In September 1955 I left the Army and began a Ph.D. program in Zoology at the University of Michigan, intending to work in systematics of mammals. A number of major developments in biology had occurred during the two years I had been on active duty (including, discovery of DNA and the Citric Acid [Krebs] Cycle, among other advancements), none of which I was aware of. Further, the Michigan Department of Zoology was far "ahead" of the University of Illinois in many areas of Biology. Thus, I had much catching up to do. The Zoology Department had a comprehensive twelve-hour written Preliminary Examination that I was required to take and pass the next April in order to continue in the graduate program. Although I plunged into preparing for the exam, taking or auditing eleven courses and reading extensively during the fall and into the spring semester, I was ill prepared for the Preliminary Exam.

On 3 March my Dad was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given six months to live. He was subjected to four weeks of X-ray treatments before going home. I had no sibling and wanted to be there to help my Mom cope with the situation for the first two weeks my Dad was home. Because these two weeks overlapped those of the Preliminary Exam, I requested and was granted permission to delay taking the exam until the next fall. This gave me an additional six months of preparation time. My Dad's cancer progressed as predicted and he died in mid August at the age of 50.

The additional preparation time paid off. Of the 70 students taking the exam in October, my score was the highest. Because of my high score, the Zoology Department nominated me as its candidate for a Graduate College predoctoral fellowship, which I was awarded. I, thus, could work full-time on my research the next year.

The fellowship allowed me to change my research direction so as to conduct an intensive field study of small mammal ecology, rather than the planned dissertation dealing with systematics, that I would have done had it been necessary to obtain my financial support as a teaching assistant. During the Ph.D. field research I also became interested in introduced European slugs that occurred in my traps (as described below). I worked with Dr. Henry van der Schalie, the Malacologist at the University of Michigan, on a "side study" of the ecology of the slugs. After I finished my Ph.D. requirements in 1959, Dr. van der Schalie offered me a postdoctoral research position in his program. This gave me expertise in another discipline, Malacology, and allowed me time to publish papers from my doctoral research. Additional malacological papers resulted from the postdoctoral research.

In 1961, I applied for, was offered and accepted a faculty position at the University of Connecticut, which called for someone whose primary training was in small mammal ecology, but who also had training in Malacology. It appeared the job description had been written specifically for me. At Connecticut I was able to carry out a federally funded research program that resulted in still more publications. In 1969, because of the breadth of my expertise and research/publication record, I was offered a position as Professor of Zoology, specializing in ecology, at the University of Illinois, the same department from which I had received my undergraduate degree. To return to my alma mater, something I had long wished for, was the most satisfying achievement of my professional career. I remained at the University of Illinois until I retired in 1997, serving as Department Head for 12 years.

Thus, diagnosis of my Dad's terminal cancer on 3 March 1956 sent my career in a completely different direction than I had planned, field ecology rather than systematics of mammals. If he had not developed cancer or it had been detected just a week sooner or a week later, I would have taken the Preliminary Exam in April. Had I taken the examination then and had passed, which is doubtful, my score would not have been exceptionally high. I would not have been nominated for a fellowship and would have studied systematics for my dissertation. I would not have studied slugs and gone to the University of Connecticut, or returned to the University of Illinois. I may very well have had successful career, but doubtfully one as personally rewarding as was the one I have had.

We cannot close the "Sliding Door" and change the future. But, if it were possible to do so, this is one door I would close. I would give it all up in an instant and take my chances, if only my Dad could have had the additional 31 years of life that I have had.

My Academic Career

When I started my doctoral field research on small mammals, I used a special multiple-capture live trap that I had never used before. I did not know exactly how to use the traps and there was no one on the faculty to tell me how. So, I simply baited and set the traps as I assumed was the procedure. I found out later that one had to "prebait" the traps (put bait inside an open trap for several days so the mice would know there was food in the traps). For the first several trap checks, I did not catch any mice. While checking the empty traps, I noticed three kinds of slugs crawling on the traps. After the first day of no mice, just to get something from tramping through the field, I started counting the number of each of the three species of slugs on my traps. The third day it rained and one species "went off scale" in numbers, whereas numbers of the other two species increased only slightly. One species obviously required more moist conditions to be active than did the other two. I took specimens in to Dr. Henry van der Schalie, the Malacologist at the University of Michigan Museum of Zoology. He became excited, in that two species were introduced from Europe and the other a native species. He said there was only one other person in the country working on the ecology of slugs. He gave me some money and equipment to do a laboratory study of moisture requirements of the three species and ideas as to what else to look for in the field. I did this work in the evenings and while in the field checking mouse traps. In the meantime, I started catching a few mice. Since I never had handled live mice before (had only snap-trapped for the course in Mammalogy), I really struggled trying to mark the animals and get data from them.

By the end of the first seven-day trapping session I was catching 30 or so mice each check of the traps (the mice finally realized there was food inside those little wooden boxes). Had I prebaited, I would have caught 30 or more mice from the first day. I would have been so overwhelmed by trying to learn to handle them, most likely I would have paid little attention to the slugs and definitely would not have become interested in them or worked with Dr. van der Schalie.

Because I needed someone on my doctoral committee who was outside my research area, and since I knew him, I put Dr. van der Schalie on my committee. The slug project was successful and I got a nice publication from it. Because I had done well in the slug research and he had come to know me better as a committee member, upon completion of my Ph. D., Dr. van der Schalie offered me a 2-year postdoctoral position to work with him on the ecology of snails. I accepted so as to get expertise in another discipline and to have time to publish all the papers from my doctoral research, and to get more papers from the postdoctoral research. As I described above, when I was ready to leave Michigan, the University of Connecticut advertised a position for someone whose primary expertise was in small mammal ecology, but who also was well-versed in Malacology. I was offered the position without their having even opened another applicant file, all because I did not know how to use the multiple-capture traps, AND was inquisitive enough to pick up on the slugs.

The alternate "Sliding Door" scenario, had I known how to use my traps, would have started with my leaving the University of Michigan directly after receiving my Ph.D. Although unknown as to where I would have gone, it would not have been the University of Connecticut or, later, the University of Illinois. I would have had completely different academic and research careers, maybe better, maybe not. Whatever, I would not close the sliding door and change the scenario, if given the opportunity to do so.

My Army Career

Because I was able to attend the University of Illinois, I began a second career, as an Army officer. In those years, every able-bodied male student had to take two years of ROTC. When the Korean War started in June 1950, one had to be enrolled in ROTC the entire four years or he was drafted. I, therefore, remained in the ROTC all four years, receiving a commission as a Second Lieutenant in June 1953. In August 1953 my wife (wives were as much in the military as were their husbands) and I went on active duty at Fort Devens, Massachusetts.

After finishing the required two years active duty, as described above, I went to the University of Michigan for graduate school. Because I was so far behind in what I needed to know and overwhelmed by the advanced information I needed to learn, my long-term commitment to the Army was the least of my concerns. I knew I still owed the Army six and a half years and could be called back to active duty at any time during that period. But, I assumed I would go back at my final rank (First Lieutenant). I, unfortunately, had paid little attention to the details of my Army separation papers.

At a General Zoology Teaching Assistant meeting early in the 1956 spring semester, of the other twenty or more TAs, I sat next to Mary Ann Church, to whom I happen to mention that I had recently been separated from the Army. She asked me what I was doing to keep my commission active. Her husband had been commissioned the year before at University of Wisconsin and she said he had to attend Army Reserve meetings and make at least 12 "points" a year to keep his commission active.

I went home and got out my records and saw that, indeed, I did need to make the 12 points before 20 June (the end of my "Army year") or I would revert to enlisted status (Sergeant First Class), if called back to active duty. I found an Army Reserve unit in Ann Arbor to attach to, barely in time to make the 12 points before my "year" ran out. I then decided maybe I should do something a little more constructive during the six and a half years of commitment and applied for and got an active reserve Mobilization Designation assignment with the National Security Agency. After my commitment was over, I decided to stay with the active Army Reserves to get retirement benefits. After I had completed the 20 years needed to receive benefits, I saw that I was on track to make full Colonel, so stayed on, making that rank and then finishing out the maximum 30 years of commissioned service. Thus, I had a "second" career that personally was rewarding and now provides Mary Ruth and me with additional medical and nursing home coverage.

All this because I happened to sit next to Mary Ann Church at the TA meeting and happened to mention that I had come to Michigan from the Army, and that she asked me about my "points." Had this not happened I would have lost my commission and would not have had an Army career. My life and academic career would have gone on, but I would not have the "Sliding Door" close.

Dwight Clark

On a Douglas DC 10, returning home early (because my wife had just had a lumpectomy) from an American Society of Mammalogists annual meeting in Missoula, Montana, I was seated next to a young woman on the flight from Billings to Chicago. Early in the flight we started talking and found that she, a graduate student at the University of Maryland, also was returning early from the same meeting, on her way home to Washington, D.C. In discussing our research we found that we both did field studies of voles. For her Ph.D. research, she was working on a small island in the Chesapeake Bay. Further, she was having trouble with the field design of her study and wondered, if I could give her some ideas as how to solve them. I told her that in two weeks I was going to be on active duty in Washington, D.C. as part of my Army Reserve obligations. If she would like, and had the time, I would be willing to go out to her island and see what I could recommend. She accepted my offer and we made the arrangements as to how to get together.

On the day that we went to the island, she brought along a friend from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who was interested in checking out the birds that were nesting on the island. On the trip out to the island I explained to him the small mammal work we were doing in Illinois. He said that a USFWS worker in the office next to his was looking for someone in the Midwest to help him develop the protocol for a long-term study he was designing to evaluate the influence of Interstate Highways on wildlife, including small mammals and song birds. He said if I were interested, he would give the worker my name and address. Thinking this might be a means of expanding my research program, I told him I would be interested.

A few weeks later, I was contacted by the USFWS worker and we eventually agreed upon a contract to develop a protocol for his projected study. Because the contract also called for a protocol to study birds and Interstates, I assigned that part of the project to an ornithologist colleague, Jim Karr. I had sufficient graduate students to fill my small mammal research assistant positions, but Jim could not find an ornithologist graduate student at Illinois to fill his one research assistant position. Jim had just joined our faculty from Purdue University. There was a graduate student, Dwight Clark, at Purdue who had worked with Jim and said he would be willing to move to Illinois for his doctoral work. He was admitted to our graduate program and began working with Jim on the highway project in the fall.

The next summer, Dwight and another graduate student went fishing in a nearby strip-mine lake. Dwight slipped on a steep bank and went into deep water. He could not get out and drowned before anyone could get to him.

This tragic event was the culmination of a series of happen-stances. However, no matter how one tries to explain away the situations as unrelated to me, one cannot refute the fact that had my wife not had a breast lump, had I not have left the meetings early, had not the student left the meetings early, had either of us been assigned to almost any other seat than the ones we occupied in the large DC 10, had her friend not gone with us to the island, and had I not been interested in his friend's project, Dwight Clark would be alive today. In all these instances, the "Sliding Doors" did not close in time. Our "Sliding Doors" can have a major impact on the lives of individuals with whom we interact, as well as upon our own lives. If I could change any one of the above situations, I obviously would do so in an instant. Tragically, there is no "Sliding Door" that can be changed.

There Is No Alternate Sliding Door Scenario

The above personal incidents help explain a few of the incidents that have shaped my life, my family, my careers. I know only what happened when I made it through, before the "Sliding Doors" closed. There is no parallel scenario as to what would I would have become had the doors "closed" before I "entered". It is not possible to contemplate a parallel life. I could, however, identify some of those events, over which I had no control, that put me in this place in time and what I accomplished getting here.

Sometime in our lives, we all should sit down and reflect on the events, large and small, responsible for who we are and what we have been. It will reveal that no matter how much we plan our careers and pursue the training necessary to achieve such, in most cases it is the chance events, over which we have no control, that are the major determinants of our lives. It may scare us to realize a small thing that took place, one that we may have forgotten about, dramatically changed the course of our life. We will understand then that had the event not happened or had been different, we would not be married to our spouse, we would have had different children, our career would have been different, where we live would be different, others may have had different lives, in fact almost nothing of what we are and have been may have been remotely the same. Our life may have been better, it may have been worse. That we will never know. The "it might have been" will remain unknown. There is no alternate parallel "sliding door."

Fig. 1 The oblique cross-walk intersection on the University of Illinois quad, at which a chance encounter in mid-May 1950 completely changed the direction of my life.