Coincidence strikes thrice

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"a coincidence," said handsome Gerald, the game warden's brother, "is when you get two things at the same time and don't believe it."

O. Henry, who invented many a curious coincidence for short-story purposes, had a good one about two couples in Brooklyn who lived in adjacent flats for years, and while they saw each other every day, they never got acquainted. But after many years, each couple, unbeknownst to the other, went on a trip. And as one couple came up on one side and the other couple came up on the other, they met at the top of the Great Pyramid at Giza and greeted each other warmly in coincidental surprise, as if long-time close friends. Such a thing can happen.

No. 1: the meeting

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We had a neighbor named Ivory Higgins, a dear man who was uncle to Ralph Warren, who kept the big dairy farm on The Ridge.

In his later years he came to live with Ralph and family, and he did odd chores that weren't too strenuous. He also did a lot of sitting in a rocking chair on Ralph's porch, where he could see off over the valley.

He was sitting there one beautiful summer day when an automobile drove up the driveway from Route 9 and stopped just in front of Uncle Ivory. (As is common in rural surroundings, the neighborhood called Mr. Higgins "uncle," although he was uncle only to Ralph.) But the man in the automobile was a stranger and he didn't know Uncle Ivory from Adam Bede, and when he stepped out of his car he spoke to Uncle Ivory in this manner:

"Good afternoon, good sir, I wonder if perhaps you can oblige me?"

Uncle Ivory said, "You've certainly come to the right place."

The man said, "I think I'm lost. I'm a Quaker, you see, and I was told to be sure and see the beautiful Friends' meeting house at South Durham, and I can't find South Durham. Can you direct me?"

"Yes, I guess so. It's right there," and he pointed off over the valley. "In winter, you can see the Quaker Meeting House from here, but it's behind them trees in summer. Lovely old church. They still meet there. 'Bout 10 miles, no more. You tourin'?"

"That's right! First time we've ever been East!"

"Do you like Maine?"

"Oh yes! Beautiful. My folks came out west from Columbia Falls in 1815, after the year-long winter."

Uncle Ivory said, "That so? What was their names?"

"Same as mine, Higgins."

Uncle Ivory said, "You don't say! That's my name."

So the stranger said, reaching over to shake hands, "Well, that's a coincidence for you, sure enough. I'm Ivory Higgins from Auburn, I-oh-way."

And it was true, and Ivory Higgins shook hands with Ivory Higgins. They were not related, and neither had ever dreamed a second Ivory Higgins prevailed.

No. 2: a different sort of meeting

A sloop has one mast, a schooner rightly has two, and a ship has three. There are variations to make a ketch, and so on, but in the days of sailing vessels, the number of masts and the kind of sails meant something.

One day there was launched a five-masted ship with fore-and-aft sails, and definitions faltered. Then one day a six-masted schooner was launched, which was never bettered in wooden ships. A second six-master followed. Consider, please, that upon the broad bosoms of the Seven Seas, there were thousands of sailing vessels afloat and two, but only two, six-masted vessels.

So the two six-masted vessels bumped into each other in Boston Harbor. The newspapers agreed this was a coincidence.

No. 3: Jim and jacks

My friend Jim Hartley was a salesman of heavy equipment, specializing in things railroads needed. Based in the Midwest, he called on the railroads one by one across the country, and railroad purchasing agents are far apart. One time he introduced a new kind of jack. Using a new principle, it was different, and Jim thought it would sell more readily if he had the jacks with him.

With a dozen jacks in the back of his station wagon, he was thus on tour and he had sold one jack to the Boston Maine and another to the Bangor & Aroostook. His next call would be in Rutland, Vt., and as it was Friday and he was in Maine, he decided to do a little trout fishing.

He drove to Gordon Frazier's sporting camp at Square Lake and had an enjoyable and relaxing weekend. On the way out Monday morning, he came upon a huge truck, loaded with sawlogs, and the two men standing by looked to be in distress.

Jim drew up and said, "Can I help?"

The two men laughed, and one of then said, "Not unless you've got a 20-ton jack, you can't."

It was a flat tire, they told Jim. And under normal relativity, you'd not find too many folks driving around in the Maine wilderness with heavy-duty hydraulic jacks.

Jim said, "There's 10 in back, help yourself!"

And when one of the men opened the rear he said to the other man, "Ralph," he said, "I believe we can rate this as a coincidence! He's got 10 of 'em!" And the other man said, "I don't believe it!"

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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