The joy of serendipity


Randy Riley - Contributing Columnist



I really like the word “serendipity.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines serendipity as “making happy, unexpected discoveries completely by accident.”

The origin of the word is shrouded by legend and ancient Persian fairytales. The island of Sri Lanka lies off the southern coast of India. In ancient times the island was known as Serendip.

Persian legend has it that the King of Serendip had three sons. These three princes left the island and the safety of their father’s kingdom to experience adventures. Totally by accident, as they journeyed from place to place, they made many discoveries and had many very, pleasant adventures. Thus, the word serendipity.

Most of us will rarely have the opportunity to experience a true serendipity, but there have been moments when we have seen something, heard something or experienced something so amazing that it changed us. Sometimes these moments can be shared by an entire nation.

Remember when the Beatles appeared on the old “Ed Sullivan Show?” That was an amazing, unexpected experience. As a result, rock ‘n roll music throughout the United States was completely changed. That first wave of the British rock ‘n roll invasion changed American music and culture.

Elvis had the same impact a few years earlier. With swiveling hips and curled lip he captured the hearts of millions of teenaged girls. When you first saw Elvis, you knew that you were seeing someone unique. Entertainment, music and dance changed when Elvis shook his hips and sang about hound dogs.

Like Frank Sinatra a generation earlier, every woman wanted him and every man wanted to be him

The Big Red Machine changed baseball. Nobody knew what to expect in 1970 when the Cincinnati Reds fielded that team of young ballplayers. It was amazing. Every member of the team became known in nearly every household in southwest Ohio. The Big Red Machine surprised fans and set a standard for excellence that has never been matched.

I experienced a serendipity in 1977. My personal serendipity ended up changing American movie making. The year before, I had purchased a brown, Ford Pinto station wagon, with a luggage rack on top. (Yes, I really did buy a Pinto.) I purchased this classic Ford vehicle from a Ford dealership near the Salem Mall in Dayton. The following year, 1977, I had to take it in for a six-month checkup.

The man in the service department told me I could wait a few hours, or they would be glad to shuttle me down to the Salem Mall and I could wait there. That sounded better than sitting in the dealership’s waiting room, reading 5-year old copies of Sports Illustrated, for a few hours.

Wandering around the Salem Mall, I saw that their large, modern movie theater was going to start playing their feature presentation in about 15 minutes. Wide-screen. Dolby sound. A comfortable, cushy seat. How could I say no to whatever movie was about to start playing?

So, I bought a bucket of buttery popcorn and a medium-sized Dr. Pepper and found an aisle seat about halfway back. That was easy, since the theater was nearly empty. We watched the parade of previews-of-coming-attractions. There was no cautionary warning about turning off cell phones, because the cell phone hadn’t been invented yet. After all … this happened was a long time ago, in a theater far, far away.

Finally, the theater darkened. On the huge, blank screen appeared the simple words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” Following that, for the first time ever, I saw the words “STAR WARS.”

The music was amazing. Then, from the back of the theater, the Dolby sound system, produced a loud, rumbling, vibrating, mechanical sound. Almost everyone in the theater turned around to see what was happening. I had never experienced sound coming from the back of a theater.

I had no idea what was happening. The sound moved from the back of the theater to just above me. It was thunderous. As the sound moved to the front of the theater, I turned and saw a huge spacecraft appear on the screen. It was chasing a smaller spacecraft. It was mind-numbing; unlike any movie experience ever. A few, intense hours later, I had a new, all-time, favorite movie.

This past weekend, three generations of the Riley clan drove to Beavercreek to watch the new Star Wars movie on Imax, 3-D. The magic that George Lucas brought us nearly 40 years ago, the serendipity that I discovered at the Salem Mall in 1977, is still alive and thriving. There was more action and more surprises in the last 30 minutes of “Rogue 1” than I have ever seen on the big screen.

Thank you, George Lucas. Thank you, Disney, and thank you to the three princes of Serendip for giving us such an amazing word to describe our favorite magical experiences.

Randy Riley is President of Council of Wilmington.

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Randy Riley

Contributing Columnist

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