According to the dictionary, an epiphany is a moment when you suddenly and unexpectedly become aware of a reality that can change your life forever.
At the age of 87, I had an epiphany. As I thought about the turning points in my life, I realized then they weren’t due to good luck or being in the right place at the right time. I understood and fully accepted for the first time that all the events I’d attributed to good luck were actually the results of divine intervention.
I grew up in Ozone Park, New York, during the worst of the Great Depression. On December 7, 1941, I was listening to a radio broadcast of a crucial football game between my favorite team, the New York Giants, versus the Brooklyn Dodgers. The game coverage was suddenly interrupted by an announcement: Japanese planes had bombed the US Naval Base at Pearl Harbor. The next day, President Roosevelt declared war against Japan.
I had just graduated from high school and turned eighteen in June, 1943, when my neighborhood friends and I took the subway to the army recruitment center in downtown Manhattan. We filled out lots of paperwork with hundreds of other eager volunteers, stripped down to our underwear, and stood in a long line to be weighed and measured and poked. My friends and I were determined to join the army and fight for our country.
The universe had other plans for me.
The doctor who examined me spent a long time listening to my lungs through his stethoscope. He wanted to know if I’d had a hard time getting out of bed in the morning and if I’d ever coughed up blood or suffered from a fever. I nodded yes. I’d been going to school fulltime, plus working afternoons and evenings at a grocery store where I had to haul heavy boxes up and down the stairs. I figured that was why I always felt exhausted and weak.
I was devastated by the doctor’s diagnosis. I had active tuberculosis.
While my friends were shipped overseas, I was sent upstate to a publicly funded sanatorium. The young men I’d grown up with endured experiences I couldn’t imagine. Many of them never made it back home. Meanwhile, I was fighting for my life under very different circumstances. In 1948, I was finally declared free of infection. America had won the war. I had won my own private battle against TB.
Back home in Ozone Park, I felt like an outcast. Old friends, who believed I was still contagious, crossed the street rather than stop and say hello to me. Nobody would hire me, not even for the most menial job or low pay.
One hot afternoon, I stopped by Henry’s Ice Cream Parlor for a glass of cold seltzer, which everyone referred to as a two cents plain.
Although the owners--Henry, his wife Gerda, and her brother Fritz--were from Germany, their ice cream parlor was such a neighborhood landmark that nobody had bothered them during the war. Henry and Fritz hadn’t seen me in years. They wanted to know all about my time in the army. Where had I been stationed? Had I seen a lot of action? Was I one of the soldiers who’d participated in D-Day, the Normandy invasion? When I told them the truth, that I’d spent six years in a TB sanatorium, they were sympathetic. They didn’t shun me, as so many other people had. They were sympathetic.
The next time I dropped by, almost every table was filled. I drank my two cents plain from a seat at the counter and watched Henry and Fritz rushing from table to table, taking orders and clearing tables. Gerda seemed to have an extra pair of hands as she rushed to put out the plates of food. When the place finally quieted down, the three of them joined me at the counter and asked whether I wanted to work with them. I didn’t have to think twice about my answer. Gerda handed me an apron. I finally had a job!
I’d been working at Henry’s for a couple of years when one afternoon, just as the late afternoon crowd had finally cleared out, the door swung open. Tony, whose family had always lived on our block, walked in with a wave and a big smile. Tony and I weren’t close friends, because he was a few years ahead of me in school. But I’d always heard he was a smart kid, a hard worker, and the kind of person who’d make something of himself. He sat down next to me, ordered a chocolate soda, and asked what I was up to, and what I was planning to do next?
He had asked me the exact question that I spent all my time thinking about. Though I was grateful to be earning money, I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life flipping burgers. But I felt stuck because I couldn’t figure out an answer that felt right. Tony sipped his soda as I said I was still trying to figure out my future. Where was he working, I asked. He’d become an accountant, he said.
He was doing pretty well, well enough in fact that he’d recently gone into business for himself.
An accountant! That was more than a job— it was a profession. A career; I couldn’t hide how impressed I was.
Tony reminded me that when we were in school, I was the kid with the reputation for being smart at math. He’d heard of a place in downtown Manhattan called Pace Institute, which offered both day and evening classes. I could work during the day, go to school at night. And their fees were a lot less than the price of a four-year college. Pace’s graduates received a certificate in accounting and business law. A lot of companies considered the certificate just as good as a bachelor’s degree for an entry-level position in accounting.
As much as the idea appealed to me, I knew that on my salary, I couldn’t afford even Pace’s tuition. But how could I admit that to Tony in front of my employers, who taken me in and been so generous?
Henry had been listening to our conversation. After quickly conferring with Fritz and Gerda, he announced that the three of them had decided to pool their tips, including what they received when I wasn’t in the shop, to help me pay for my tuition at Pace. They waved away my protests and gave me no choice but to accept their offer.
I’ve never forgotten Henry, Gerda, and Fritz’s examples of altruism and selflessness. My job at their ice cream parlor led to my becoming an accountant, which expanded into a career that allowed me to meet people, travel all over the world, and develop entrepreneurial opportunities beyond anything I could have imagined.
As I got older, I began to connect the dots. I came to see that nothing I’d accomplished was due to coincidence, chance, or a lucky break. My former employees had been blessed with the knowledge that we are part of a sacred plan much greater than ourselves.
As I grew older, I continued to discover how a guiding hand was leading me along my own path.
End Part 1
One day in 1987, I was driving north on one of Long Island’s many highways. I stopped to get gas and suddenly heard a voice that belonged to my old friend, Al Busching. We had worked together at Sperry, shared an office, a secretary, and a lot of good times. Al had pulled up to the pumps on the southbound side.
We threw our arms around each other like long-lost brothers. Thirty years had passed, and we both looked a bit older, but otherwise nothing had changed. We chatted for a few minutes about our families, and what we were currently involved with. Al was the chief executive officer of Veeco Lambda, a major worldwide technology company headquartered on Long Island. I was looking for new business opportunities.
Al knew I’d had a lot of experience buying and selling companies. He happened to need someone to perform due diligence for a company Veeco Lambda was interested in buying. UPA Technology manufactured x-ray machines with a wide range of military and industrial uses. He was convinced that I was the perfect person for the task. Five months later, I told Al and the rest of the Veeco board that in my opinion, UPA was an excellent match for Veeco.
I was 62, and a lot of my friends were happily planning for their retirement. But when Al asked me to become head of UPA, I accepted without reservation. I welcomed the challenge of running a new company, especially one that was part of Veeco Lambda. During the nineteen wonderful years I spent there, we got involved with exploring the newly emerging field of high tech devices. We had more than our fair share of fascinating experiences—and no matter how serious the situation, we could always lighten the mood with a joke and a lot of laughter.
When I was younger, I would have been convinced that that bumping into Al Busching was a very lucky coincidence. But now that I’ve been fortunate to have time to reflect on my life, I have accepted that a guiding force brought us together at that particular gas station. Following my instincts and saying yes to Al’s proposition ultimately enabled me to discover the greater purpose I was meant to fulfill.
End Part 2
The insight I gained through writing Walter’s Way is that we live in a universe where all of us possess an innate and complete intelligence. It’s incumbent upon us to discover this power and develop it, not only for our own benefit, but also to benefit others.
You don’t need to write a book in order to identify your life’s purpose. But you do need time and space for self-reflection in order to access this guidance. You need some way to focus, whether it’s through meditation or prayer or journaling. When we allow ourselves that privilege, we are able to discover that the guidance we yearn for exists within ourselves. I finally learned to grab hold of it and reflect on it every day of my life. That’s the gift I wish for all of you, as well. When we sit quietly and think about everything that’s happened to us, everyone who has come into our lives, we begin to understand that accidents don’t occur in a universe where a higher being exists.
I spent many years reflecting on my life, until I had that moment of epiphany and understood my true mission. I urge all of you to open your minds and reflect on your own lives. Remember the strangers who “randomly” appeared those who “randomly” gave you ideas or opportunities. Connect the dots! Each one of those people or events was part of a larger plan to enable you to fulfill your life’s mission.
The more birthdays I celebrate, the more grateful I am for the invisible light that has guided me along my path of self-discovery.
Now, in my ninth decade, I truly appreciate the gift I received: the knowledge that our life stories are directed by a guardian spirit—an invisible spirit that becomes apparent when we understand that we need to recognize a pattern in order to realize our mission. It’s there...grab it, hold it, and reflect on it every single day of your life.
People will forget what you said, what you did, but will never forget how you made them feel.
I hope that everyone who reads Walter’s Way will feel that it has changed their lives forever.
End Part 3