CullmanTimes.com - Cullman, Alabama

November 8, 2012

SOUTHERN STYLE: Time travel might be nice, but ...

By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times

— I’ve been reading Stephen King’s book, 11/22/63. It’s about a time traveler who goes back to try and stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing John F. Kennedy. It really makes you think about how the different choices we make can affect things in the future.

For instance, if the hero of the book, Jake, were to disarm Oswald’s rifle (he knows where he hides it because he’s been watching him), would Oswald just kill Kennedy at a later date? If he tells the police and they detain Oswald, would Jake give himself away? Or would Oswald enjoy the attention and let that be enough for him?

And if Jake makes a wrong move in the past, will it affect his own future?

We might not be time travelers, but so much rests on the decisions we make; which crossroads to take, which job, which party to attend, what college to choose, who to marry… our salvation, or lack thereof.

Who among us hasn’t said “what if” at some point in our lives? What if we hadn’t stopped for coffee? Would we have been in that three car pile-up just down the road?

What if we’d listened to our parents when they told us that some friends would lead us astray? Would we have picked up those bad habits, or been in that car when it crashed?

What if we’d chosen another profession? Been in another building instead of the office where we met our future spouse?  

Who knows how each of these choices might have affected the outcome of our lives? Would we be happier? Richer? Smarter? More spiritual?  

The old saying about hindsight being 20/20 is one of the truest. What if we could go back and change something major in our past? Would it have an effect on something else, and maybe not a good one? It’s something we’ll never know, but an idea that people will speculate about forever.

There is something called the “butterfly effect” (also referred to as the chaos theory), which put simply, theorizes that the slightest change at one place in time can result in large differences to a situation at a later point in time. According to Wikipedia, it was Edward Lorenz who initially coined the phrase. Lorenz described the theoretical example of a hurricane's formation being contingent on whether or not a distant butterfly had flapped its wings several weeks before.

According to Lorenz, “Although the butterfly effect may appear to be an esoteric and unlikely behavior, it is exhibited by very simple systems: For example, a ball placed at the crest of a hill may roll into any of several valleys depending on, among other things, slight differences in initial position.”

The butterfly effect is common in fiction when presenting scenarios involving time travel and with hypotheses where one storyline diverges at the moment of a seemingly minor event resulting in two significantly different outcomes.

That being said, I guess I’ll never again see a field covered in those millions of little yellow butterflies without wondering how many lives are changing due to the fluttering of their gossamer wings.

In King’s book, the hero saves a girl from being crippled by a hunter’s bullet, a family from a terrible fate due to a drunken father, and several smaller, more insignificant things before preparing for his true mission; keeping President Kennedy alive.

He benefits from the knowledge gleaned from history books and old archived newspapers. He can research what time flights arrive, the outcome of sporting events, and other past historical facts, all the while not realizing how his actions, although good in intent, might effect the future of the people whose lives he touches.

It gives us something to think about. It makes me more aware of the decisions I make. Which fork in the road I take, which appointment to keep, which job to choose. Everything we do can potentially have a wonderful, or conversely, a disastrous effect on our lives.

I guess that’s why my mamma always quoted old Dr. Sanders who lived down the street from her when she was growing up. “Be careful who you date because you never know who you’ll fall in love with.”  

One of the true joys in what I do for a living is that I get to meet so many truly wonderful, interesting, and unusual people. And it’s true, everyone has a story. So many of them include watershed moments when something life-changing happened to them just because they happened to be at the right place at the right time.

Like Linda Hurst Morgan, a young girl whose job it was to arrange events for air shows. She met her future husband at a show she hosted in Lakeland, Fla. He was the fabled Col. Robert Morgan, pilot of the B-17 bomber, Memphis Belle, which flew to fame in World War II by not getting shot down in its 25 missions over war-torn Europe in the 1940s. Because of that fortuitous meeting, she would later meet people like Charlton Heston, Prince Charles, Lady Diana, and the Queen of England.

I’ve also known people who made disastrous choices. Choices that cost them dearly both emotionally, mentally and physically.

 Then there was the lady I interviewed last week who had her first mammogram because her insurance company instituted a wellness incentive that would pay her to have the test. It came back positive for breast cancer, although it was in Stage 0, meaning it was caught pretty soon after it manifested itself. A matter of perfect timing again.

All in all, whether in the fantasy of time travel or in real life, what goes around comes around. It never fails.

So, the next time you have a decision to make, think twice, maybe three times. It really does matter what you choose at that fork in the road. It could mean the difference in happiness and sorrow, health and illness, wealth or poverty.

But back to the book…it’s a good read. Not in King’s usual macabre style, but a thinker’s book that gives you insight into how important it is to make the right choice, and how sometimes those decisions seem to rest on something as esoteric and fragile as the beat of a butterfly’s wing.