Call it kismet, call it karma, but small, one-time encounters can have a big impact on the course of one’s life. Single encounters have shaped many of the attitudes and beliefs I carry today. As I write this, three brief encounters that occurred decades apart are tumbling together in my mind, which has gotten me thinking about the power of these seemingly isolated and individual chance meetings.

 As a young boy, I trudged to our neighborhood grocery store to pick up a bottle of milk as my mother had ordered. Going by the candy aisle, the Tootsie Roll display caught my eye. I cleverly snatched two brown, wrapped pieces and stuck one in each of my front pockets. I was headed out the door when a mountain of a man stopped me. He didn’t make a scene, but he did tell me in a stern, deep voice to run home while the milk was still cold and never, ever stick candy in my pocket without paying for it. The big man’s last words were, “I know your father.” For years, I remembered the man’s face, voice and message.

 While in college I had the opportunity to meet Gwendolyn Brooks, a distinguished poet. While driving her to the airport, I asked her to read a few poems I had written. She told me I was gifted and that she would be honored to send them on to her publisher. She did. This one-time encounter led to a formal rejection letter from Harper & Row, but also a bundle of self-confidence that kept me writing for years into the wee hours of the night.

 A few weeks ago, I sat next to a young man on a flight from Dallas. He was on his way to drunk with two free drink coupons still clutched in his hand. He wanted my attention, anybody’s attention. He said he served active duty in the army and it messed him up. He said he worked construction in Houston before he was fired without getting back pay. He said his wife divorced him and took his two little daughters from him.

 I wanted to offer a meaningful comment, like the ones I had been given. Something like, “I know your father,” or “you are gifted,” but nothing came to me. I just listened. And listened more. At the end of the flight, I helped him get his backpack down from the overhead bin and rushed off to catch my connection.

 The young man stays in my thoughts. Why didn’t I tell him to buck up and take responsibility for his unfortunate circumstances?

 Maybe silence was the perfect response to this first-time encounter. After all, Tootsie Roll moments don’t come along that often.