March 8, 2012

What If?

I've been reading Stephen King's latest novel, 11/22/1963. The story is about a guy named Jake Epping who travels back in time to prevent the Kennedy assassination. No doubt, one of the great what if scenarios of all time, and at least for the first half of the book he has come up with an engrossing story within a story, as Jake falls in love with a girl, a town, and a time in history that I remember oh so well.

This story has particular resonance for me. I was 18 years old and a freshman at Georgetown University in 1963. I was attending the School of Foreign Service, enthused by the dreams of the New Frontier. On November 22, those dreams came crashing down. Instead of Camelot, we got Vietnam. And I did indeed get my foreign service, only instead of the diplomat's striped pants and red tape, I got jungle fatigues and an M-16.

What if? What if Kennedy hadn't died? What if he had backed away from a full blown war with Vietnam? What if I had never been drafted and sent to Vietnam? What if? These are, of course, questions with no answer, at least none that is emotionally satisfying.

I am what I am, and a big part of what I am is the war. That experience burned inside me like a ball of molten blown glass, reshaping my soul into something that only the passage of time would allow me to see, as the glow faded and the final shape emerged from the fire. It may not be pretty, and it could certainly have used a little more work, but on the whole, I can live with it.

King talks a lot about the butterfly effect in the book. Small events like the flapping of a butterfly's wings can lead to huge changes. Well, the Kennedy assassination and all the changes it wrought were no butterfly wings. Maybe there was a better future out there, but this is the one I got. I'm not so sure I'd be in a hurry to go back in time and change it, as bad as parts of it were.

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