Under normal circumstances, Sherrie Rheingans of San Luis Obispo, Dan Tower of Cambria and I probably never would have met.
But our shared story is far from ordinary, and it was facilitated by a tragic event affecting three strangers, with healthy doses of timing, kindness and fate — or whatever you want to call it.
What IS it when you experience something that wouldn’t have, shouldn’t have happened, but did because of an eerily aligned set of circumstances? Pre-ordained? Coincidence? The hand of God? Fate? Synchronicity?
My new e-friend Sherrie had a simpler explanation: “It was just meant to be,” she said.
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Just after midnight on Jan. 4, Tower awoke to the shrill shriek of his smoke alarm. Thick, acrid yellow smoke was roiling out of his bathroom.
Still woozy from sleep but in shock, he fled from the house, futilely grabbed a garden hose and called 911.
The house was destroyed, along with his lost treasures, hopes and dreams, including the Morro Bay radio DJ’s treasured guitar, music, CDs and vinyls he used on the air, his collection of select rocks and minerals, his plans for the future.
As a journalist, I wrote from the heart about Tower’s tragedy, which triggered devastating memories and old nightmares. I know what fire survivor-hood feels like. Our home and nearly everything in it were demolished in a 1994 blaze in Cambria.
On Jan. 15, after my story about Tower had been published in The Tribune and The Cambrian, Rheingans sent me one of the most incredibly heartwarming messages I’ve ever received.
She wrote, in part:
“(I) believe you are the perfect person for my quest. In yesterday’s Trib, your story addressed Dan Tower — and his losing everything.
“I want to offer him my late son’s electric and acoustic guitars.
“Mike had a heart attack and died in front of me two years ago. The instruments have been sitting in the room that was his since Sept. 18, 2016.
“One of my goals for the new year was to let them go so they could ‘make music’ once again. To that end, I looked up the names and addresses of a couple music stores.
“And then, your story yesterday. Perfect.”
She asked if I would be the intermediary. Of course, I was in tears by then, but I quickly replied that I’d be honored to help, also sending the email to Tower, a somewhat shy man who tends to hold his emotions close to the chest.
He and Rheingans finally met at her San Luis Obispo home on Jan. 25.
“She sat me down and we talked so she could get to know me and tell me all about her son,” Tower said.
Then she showed him the guitars, including the electric “gold top Epiphone Les Paul cutaway,” he said.
“He just fell apart,” Rheingans said. “He picked up the Les Paul, and told me ‘Gibson made those!” and that lots of professional musicians used those models, including Duane Allman, leader of the Allman Brothers Band.
“It was a very emotional day,” Tower said. “It wasn’t easy to just go and take guitars from a lady I didn’t know.”
No matter how much he may have yearned for them and how much she needed to know those instruments would have a future.
“My emotions are raw now anyway,” he explained, “and when I saw how attached she was to her son, and how much he loved the guitars,” it brought home what she was going through, too.
Tower carefully carried his new treasures out to his truck, wrapping them all in a blanket, and then shyly asked Rheingans “would you mind if I hug you? I need to hug you.”
Later, when I talked to Rheingans, she said the guitars, especially the Gibson “meant everything to Mike, and now it’s time for somebody else to play it.”
After all that time, she was finally ready to let them go, a painful but necessary step in her healing from the sudden death of her son.
Faced with the decision, she said, “I gave it to the universe. And you wrote your story. It made my heart sing … It was time to let go of the final piece of him.”
Well, almost. “I saved one of his picks,” she said quietly.
But wait. There’s more.
At the end of our phone conversation, Rheingans said she’d been meaning to call me for years.
I asked why. She said, “because I think we both worked at the same place.”
“On my desk,” she explained, “was a three-hole punch with a label on it that said, ‘This is Kathe’s!!!’”
Yes. I remember putting that label on, because everybody at KSLY Radio (now KKJL or K-Jewel) kept stealing my punch.
Rheingans started working there a couple of years after I left. Later, she worked at and retired from Cal Poly, and I had my careers as bakery-catering shop owner/operator and newspaper columnist/reporter.
Pre-ordained? Coincidence? Fate? The hand of God? Synchronicity?
As Tower said with a chuckle, “Well, it’s a small world.”