Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Journey 'Back There'

"Let's say that you go back in time. It's October 1929, the day before the stock market crashed. Now, you know that, on the following morning, securities are going to tumble into an abyss. Now, using this prior knowledge, there's a hundred things you could do to protect yourself."

Millard (Raymond Bailey)

I am something of an amateur historian, and one thing I have noticed about historians is that they have a secret — or maybe it is not so secret — wish to go back to a particular time and place.

I guess that is a byproduct of that particular preoccupation. If one ponders a certain event enough, it is only natural that one should start to think about actions that could have been taken that would have changed the course of said event — or perhaps prevent future events.

I have written about one of the truly intriguing what–ifs of history — the day near the end of World War I when a British soldier allegedly had a young Adolf Hitler in the sights of his weapon and didn't pull the trigger. What if he had? Would millions of lives have been spared?

Knowing what you know, would you go back in time to that battlefield and tell that soldier what Hitler would do if he lived past that day in 1918?

Put in a 21st–century context — Given what we know now, who among us wouldn't want to go back to Sept. 10, 2001, to warn the people of New York and Washington that terrorists planned to strike the next day?

Back in the days of the Commodore 64 computer, I owned an all–text game that could simulate presidential elections in the second half of the 20th century. The player(s) acted as campaign managers(s) as well as candidate(s). Through this game, it was possible to replay an actual campaign (i.e., the 1960 cliffhanger between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon) and see if you could change its outcome, or you could change one or all of the nominees in an election and see if a different party or candidate would win, or you could change the economic and international situations to see if that would have an impact on things.

Or it could be a combination of the above. The possibilities were virtually unlimited.

For someone with the desire not just to study history but to go back in time and change its course, it was an addictive game. I learned, after playing it several times, that it was difficult to change outcomes of elections, especially landslides but even cliffhangers. I suppose the game was predisposed to favor certain parties in certain years — and that is consistent with actual voting patterns, anyway. Since the end of World War II, the same party has won three consecutive elections only once.

So it was also a pretty good lesson in predestination. Most things — perhaps all things — are intended to turn out in a certain way. No attempts to intervene will succeed. Well, on second thought, I suppose anything is possible.

But even without computers, I'm sure historians have been fantasizing for centuries about traveling through time. What–if questions obsess them — as well as creative writers. There have been more movies and TV episodes about a person going back in time (or into the future, although that has been far less common) than I can count. Usually, the lesson of the story has been that if something is meant to be, it will happen, and no one can change it. Not even a visitor from the future.

(Five years ago, I wrote about such an episode from the mid–1980s incarnation of the Twilight Zone. That blog post led to a kind of modern–day pen pal relationship — strictly via Facebook — with the author of the story. Apparently he did an internet search to see if anyone had written about the 25th anniversary of the first showing of that episode and determined that I was the only one who had. Anyway, he sent me an email and, well, the rest is history.)

These movies and TV episodes can take many forms. They don't always deal with historical figures and events in which those figures were prominent participants — sometimes they deal with the times and their technologies — but the episode of the Twilight Zone that first aired on this night in 1961 did.

"Back There" was about the night that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, and it was about time travel.

It didn't have an actor portraying Lincoln — but it did showcase a few actors who became pretty well known on TV series within a few years. The most prominent actor was Russell Johnson, who found fame as the Professor on Gilligan's Island.

In a then–present day Washington, D.C., gentlemen's club, Johnson (playing a professor, of course) got into a spirited discussion with Raymond Bailey (who became better known as banker Milburn Drysdale in The Beverly Hillbillies) about the nature of time travel. Bailey took the position that, if time travel were possible, there would be nothing to prevent the time traveler from altering history's course. Johnson argued that historic dates were fixed dates that could not be changed.

The debate went on for a few minutes, then Johnson excused himself, saying he was tired and found the subject too theoretical for his taste. As he was leaving, he bumped into an attendant named William and started to feel faint. He felt confused and disoriented upon stepping outside, where he found horse–drawn carriages where before there had been cars and gaslights where there had been electric lights. His clothes were changed, too. Instead of his 20th–century suit, he was wearing 19th–century garb.

He decided to go to the place where his home had been, but it was now a boardinghouse. He went in and spoke to the landlady when a young couple, an Army officer and his lady friend, came down the stairs on their way out to the theater. Johnson spoke with them and connected the dots — it was April 1865, the day Lincoln would be shot in Ford's Theater.

There were still a few hours before anything would happen so Johnson's character ran to the theater and began raising a fuss. He struck everyone as being some kind of wild–eyed lunatic, and the police were summoned.

Back at the police station, the arresting officer brought Johnson before a police sergeant, played by actor Paul Hartman (who had an extensive career as a character actor but probably is best remembered as Emmett, proprietor of the Fix–It Shop on The Andy Griffith Show and Mayberry R.F.D.), who listened to Johnson's story then ordered him taken to a cell to "sleep it off."

About that time, a man calling himself Wellington came in to the station and offered to take custody of Johnson. It was granted, and back at Wellington's room, he gave Johnson a drugged drink. When Johnson passed out, he left to go to the theater — not to prevent the assassination but to be sure it succeeded. Wellington was John Wilkes Booth.

When Johnson came to, the deed had been done.

A patrolman who was with Johnson when word reached them of the assassination was played by long–time character actor Jimmy Lydon. He had been in the police station when Johnson was brought in and became convinced that something would happen to Lincoln. So he had gone all over the city trying to find someone who would authorize increased security for Lincoln's box, but he had found no takers.

Johnson had been unable to prevent the assassination in spite of his knowledge of the past.

In the blink of an eye, Johnson found himself back in the present time — at the gentlemen's club. Only now, the attendant who bumped into him earlier was one of the participants in the discussion Johnson had left.

Apparently, Johnson's excursion into the past had altered William's family fortunes. That patrolman had gained so much attention for knowing what would happen that he had been rapidly promoted, did some wheeling and dealing in land and became a millionaire. William, his descendant, had benefited via inheritance from his great–grandfather. In the previous timeline, William's great–grandfather apparently didn't go much beyond his job as a patrolman, and that would have been a barrier to future generations.

But the family had money. So Johnson's character did alter history — although not in the way he wanted.

As the closing narration put it, "Mr. Peter Corrigan, lately returned from a place 'back there,' a journey into time with highly questionable results, proving on one hand that the threads of history are woven tightly, and the skein of events cannot be undone, but on the other hand, there are small fragments of tapestry that can be altered. Tonight's thesis to be taken, as you will — in The Twilight Zone."

I suppose the only conclusion to be reached is that, if time travel is possible, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to alter major events, but it is possible to, as the Twilight Zone put it, alter "small fragments of (history's) tapestry."