The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sometimes, familiar faces show up in some unfamiliar places

In 1970, Tim Joliet was an Army officer serving in Vietnam. An encounter with a helicopter gunner after his platoon was dropped at a base atop a mountain left Tim scratching his head. (Courtesy of Tim Joliet) (Courtesy of Tim Joliet)

Late one night in 1979, Chip Beck found himself atop a roof in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, with a group of strangers.

“It was midnight, and the breeze up high was a relief from the desert heat,” wrote Chip, who lives in Hillsboro, Va. “The conversation turned to the usual small talk.”

Chip asked another fellow where he was from.

“A place you’ve never heard of, called ‘Halfway,’ ” the man answered,

“Yeah, halfway between Hagerstown and Williamsport,” Chip responded.

The man nearly fell off the roof from astonishment. “How did you know that?” he asked.

“Because I lived a half-mile from there growing up!” Chip said.

If this week’s columns have proved anything, it’s that our past is never far away from us. Neither are the people we met there.

To prepare their children for a trip to Venice, Bethesda’s David Austin and Karen Gulliver bought a copy of “Vendela in Venice” by Christina Bjork, with illustrations by Inga-Karin Eriksson. The children’s book, about a young girl’s trip to the watery city, served as a template for their own visit.

A few days before the family left for Italy, Bjork happened to be appearing at the old Olsson’s Books at Metro Center.

“So we went,” wrote David. “She told her audience that she’d patterned Vendela’s trip after her own trip there as a young girl.” Bjork said she still wore something she bought on that trip: a silver pendant of the winged lion that sits above the clock in Piazza San Marco.

A week later, the family was standing in a long line in Piazza San Marco — waiting to enter the basilica to see its four bronze horses — when a solitary woman wandered toward the queue.

“She comes right up to us,” David wrote. “And it’s Christina Bjork! Had she recognized us from Olsson’s? No! She simply wanted to know if this was the line to see the bronze horses.”

Phil Winkler is drawn to explore dark, hidden passages. He’s a caver, and in 1977, when he was in the Army and stationed in Germany, he was one of two Americans invited to join a Swiss team during its annual six-day exploration of Hölloch, a long cave near Lake Lucerne.

“On day four or so, the Swiss team leader said we might want to go over to bivouac where a British team was being given a one-day guided tour of the cave,” wrote Phil, who lives in Dewey Beach, Del.

Phil and his American friend made their way to the large, dark chamber the British team was in, seeing from the dim lights of their helmets that they were eating and resting.

“We asked where they had been and heard of the usual attractions they had visited,” wrote Phil. “A voice from the rear said we sounded like Americans and we answered that we were. The Brit then asked if either of us had ever visited Huntsville, Alabama.”

Phil responded that he’d once lived there. The man said: “If you ever get back there, please say hi to Phil Winkler for me.”

Several years previously, Phil had met a pair of British cavers in the mountains of Alabama, inviting them back to his house for dinner and cave talk. They’d even slept on Phil’s floor. Now one of them was in the same Swiss cave as Phil.

Wrote Phil: “You can’t make this stuff up!”

Not all the stories I heard of uncanny coincidences involved vacations. We’ll close with an entirely different sort of trip. Tim Joliet of Greenbackville, Va., served in Vietnam as an infantry officer with the 101st Airborne. In 1970, it was decided — “by vainglorious minds, smaller than mine,” Tim wrote — to reopen a long abandoned Marine firebase in the heart of the A Shau Valley, near the border with Laos. The base’s new name was “Ripcord.”

“God awful place,” Tim wrote. “Surrounded on three sides by higher terrain.”

Tim’s platoon was normally the first in and the last out, but its insertion was held back as it awaited replacements. “I was down to 18 men, including myself,” he wrote. “That stroke of fate saved my life. The first platoon in was virtually eliminated with their new lieutenant.”

Tim’s platoon was the last in, landing in a hail of bullets that struck the dirt like pattering rain. Other helicopters continued to bring in ammunition and take out casualties, until it was too dangerous to land.

As the last Huey helicopter hovered to leave, Tim saw the door gunner waving insanely at him. Tim wasn’t sure why, but figured it must be incredibly urgent. He sprinted to the helicopter.

Wrote Tim: “The door gunner yelled in my ear: ‘Are you Lt. Joliet?’ I shook my head yes. He yelled in my ear: ‘I knew you in grade school.’ ”

And then the helicopter lifted off and was gone.

“I stood there for a few moments unable to comprehend what had just happened,” Tim wrote. “I went to two grade schools, one in Georgia and graduated from Holy Redeemer in Kensington, Md. I always assumed he was from Holy Redeemer but never saw or heard from him again. His name tag was hidden under his seat harness. Fifty-one years later I still scratch my head.”

That’s a whole different order of uncanny coincidence. Are you still trying to make sense of a mysterious encounter from your past? Send the details — with “Mystery” in the subject line — to me at john.kelly@washpost.com.

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