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May 20, 2024

A Second Chance

By Dan Mulhollen

It began like any other June morning with me dragging myself out of bed. Then all the bits of the extraordinary became apparent. First I realized that I was much younger than I should have been. Then there were my parents, both alive and younger than I should have been. I was also apparently an only child.

Also there was a couple of older people arguing in broken English with my parents about whose house this was.

"We moved here in 1957," my father said, angrily.

"1957?" the man spat. He walked into the kitchen and grabbed the newspaper off the table. "Look here; 1951."

My mother was about to speak when her face went white. It was as if she suddenly remembered it all. Having two more children. Growing old. And those painful last two years.

From outside, a police car repeated the message "Turn on your radio."

The man walked to the large floor-model radio and turned the knob. It took a few seconds for the tubes to warm up and sound to appear. "We repeat the need for everyone to remain calm," the announcer said. "Today is Monday, June the eleventh. The year is 1951. President Truman will speak to the nation at one o'clock this afternoon."

My father had a confused look on his face. "I should be in Korea," he said.

"Yes you should be," the older man said, emphatically. "Not in my house This is the Jablonski house and has been since 1924."

"Emil," his wife chided, "there is something not right happening. I don't think these people are here on purpose."

"I'm not supposed to be here at all," I said, noticing the mirror. "We moved here shortly after I was born." I was disturbed by my image, thin, almost skinny, butch haircut, a ten-year-old when my age should be in negative numbers.

"We should wait to see what the President has to say," Mister Jablonski said. "Something to do with all that bomb testing, I think."

Mister Jablonski was half right. As the President revealed in his speech, the evening before, a bomb different than any previous design, was set off in the south Pacific.

It was one of only two warheads of this type. The second, as the White House was just informed, would be stored away and forgotten. That was until December 30 2011, when it detonated as if of its own volition.

"I must admit," Harry S. Truman said, a note of astonishment in his voice, "being surrounded by grade-school kids who know far more than my senior advisors is a humbling experience. Everything is being pieced together, however, and there will be answers."

I remembered December 30, 2011 as if it were yesterday. It was my yesterday. A week after a disappointing Christmas, I was alone in my living room, half-drunk, sipping champagne. Then the countdown began. It reached zero, and I awoke as a ten year old.

"A program to deal with this crisis is already being set up," the President said, his voice reassuring. "I am asking all Americans for their forbearance. If strangers have appeared in your home, give them lodgings until other dwellings can be arranged. There are too many questions to answer at once. But rest assured they will be answered."

"Well, if the President says so," Mr. Jablonski said, gruffly.

Once past the shock of our unexpected arrival, the Jablonskis were gracious hosts. Mrs. Jablonski made a tasty dinner of ground meat wrapped in cabbage leaves, sauerkraut, and a barley and mushroom soup. The Jablonski's daughter was visiting friends for the summer, as a confused phone call confirmed. I was given the sofa.

The next morning, I accompanied my father downtown. The radio had hourly updates, we were to go to the nearest Federal office building to apply for a place to live. After walking for about fifteen minutes, we came to a streetcar stop. I was used to buses, but having to rush to the middle of the street to catch a trolley was a new experience.

Noisy, crowded, but somehow fascinating, I found travel by these electric vehicles enjoyable. I remembered seeing some unused tracks during what had been my childhood. Old-timers used to call this the city's Golden Age. I didn't see it; the air hung thick with smoke factories spewed out. Junkyards stood where strip malls would in another thirty years.

And this was not the downtown I knew. The skyline was entirely different. There were far fewer tall buildings. Pedestrians were all dressed more formally; ties and jackets the rule. And everywhere were the same bland gray fedoras.

The woman also wore hats; silly things with bows and lace trim. Blouses, skirts, and sensible shoes seemed the rule. Missing from both sexes were the denim, gym shoes, and logos I was used to.

Instead of the sleek, white building I remembered walking past, this Federal Building looked like a Roman temple with tall columns and a wide portico. The line of people waiting to register, as instructed by the President, was out the door, down the steps, and halfway to the street.

For the most part, everyone took things in good humor. There were a few people, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, mostly, who were not given shelter in what would ultimately be their home. Some were dismayed at having to live their life over again. But most seemed happy about getting a second chance.

After nearly three hours of occasionally moving forward a few feet, my father was given a form to fill out. He looked at me. "This is not fun," he said, clearly annoyed. "I'm remembering things that haven't happened yet and it really bugs me."

I looked around, and there was the same grim expressions on the faces of those filling out the forms. A few wept openly, perhaps remembering some tragedy.

It took him fifteen minutes to fill out the form. Then it was another hour waiting. Finally the form was taken and we were given a small, hastily-assembled guidebook to living in the 1950s.

We left the Federal Building and walked back to the streetcar depot. Everywhere there were lines. Lines to enter stores. Lines to enter restaurants. I would later learn that in the past two days, the city's population had more than quadrupled. Many suburbs were still farmlands and the Interstate system was still a few years off.

On the way back home, I ran into Lester, my childhood friend. He looked at me and crossed the street, unwilling to look at me. I was confused for a moment, watching him walk away. Then I remembered his three failed marriages and him coming out of the closet at age forty.

Meanwhile my mother had been busy trying to phone relatives. The President had ordered the tolls on long-distance calls, which still required operator assistance, to be suspended for the week. It seems almost everyone was trying to get in touch with someone or other and it often took over an hour to get an operator.

The initial shock gave way to an odd sort of adaptation, where people started dressing as close as possible to the fashions they preferred. My parents were not happy about the tighter jeans and t-shirts I enjoyed wearing in my teens and twenties.

The clothing industry was quick to respond, and soon you could walk into a downtown cafeteria and see secretaries in miniskirts, executives in loud, broad-lapel jackets, bank tellers in sweaters and leggings, and schoolchildren in a visual cacophony of styles.

Despite an increase in suicides, this was generally a calm period. It was only later we would learn how the world's various law enforcement and intelligence agencies had a remarkable time, each trying to change history in their vision of their national interest.

Assassinations were commonplace, if unreported. Even children and men who would father future "troublemakers" vanished. People seemingly of no importance were suddenly given around-the-clock protection. An apocalypse took place that would not be written about for decades.

In September my family was assigned to a two-family house that would have been torn down in early 1952. My father, now working in the factory that would have hired him once he was out of the service, would pay the government for the house in monthly installments.

School may have seemed superfluous, but it was the law. But this was not the relaxed atmosphere I remembered. This was 1951; Latin declension, slide rules, and due to the increased population, classes of upwards of fifty students. The jacket and tie dress code was all that changed, as a three-day student strike convinced the School Board to allow the 1960s to arrive a little early.

My history teacher, Mr. Finney, was well past seventy and knew he was dying. He left the textbook in his drawer and spent the entire class reminiscing about his life. His being a soldier in Cuba in 1898. His college days during the Teddy Roosevelt administration. In many ways, this was a far better education than anything I might have had out of a textbook.

In early October, we rented the upstairs apartment to Jenny and Miranda, neither of whom would be born for at least another decade. Jenny was a country girl, thin, outgoing, and finding her strict Baptist upbringing at odds with her later life as a singer in a punk rock band.

Miranda was a tall, busty black woman who seemed at war with the year 1951. She often went braless, worked part-time as a stripper in a notorious downtown burlesque house. She also retained enough of her martial arts training to have put a potential rapist in the hospital.

Where Jenny loved talking about her future, the clubs, the drugs, the sex, Miranda never discussed the path her life had taken. "Now," she would say, "is all that matters."

My sister, Karen, arrived on Halloween. We were eating dinner when she arrived, six years old, seated at the table. She looked at the table confused, and said, "I hate sweet potatoes!"

I turned eleven a few days later, with the normal cake and party. My parents gave me a chess set with wooden pieces, my dad certain he could beat me--at least for the next year or two. Jenny and Miranda each gave me a crisp ten dollar bill.

Christmas was amazing; all these vintage toys I was given. Of course, it took me a moment to realize these were the toys of the day. A toy rifle that shot rolls of red paper caps. A set of Lincoln Logs.

But most amazing of all was a globe of the world. I immediately realized there were some very different boundaries from the original 1951, with a lot of areas bearing diagonal strips and the words "In Contention".

As 1952 dawned, I realized a growing discontent within myself. Adults have interests, eccentricities, and fetishes that are only budding in an eleven-year-old. Here I was realizing all of mine, but far too young to experience any of them.

My parents were busy dealing with their own issues. My mother had quit smoking, while my father was up at the break of dawn going through his Army calisthenics. He would often run around the block just before breakfast. It seemed people were more health-conscious now, perhaps remembering the obese couch potatoes they would become.

I was depending more and more on Jenny and Miranda for advice. Miranda had a solid, common-sense outlook. Jenny was more philosophical. I decided for this matter, I would need both of their opinions.

"Let's stop all this age bullshit," Miranda said, puffing an unfiltered cigarette. "In truth, we are all adults here."

"The laws have yet to catch up with that," I said. "One of my teachers was arrested for being with a student he actually married in 1966."

"You know what I mean," Miranda sniffed. "I don't see what the big deal is."

"The Internet, digital cameras, it was a lot easier in 2011."

"Doesn't your school have any photography courses?" Jenny asked. "School newspaper?"

"There's plenty of room in the basement for a darkroom," Miranda added. "As for models, I know any number of women at work who will do it for a few bucks. Hell, I'll do it for free."

"Me too," Jenny said, smiling. "And one thing about 1952, it's a lot easier to find open space."

I nodded, realizing I was putting up obstacles for myself. "I guess I'm still not comfortable in this body," I said.

Miranda shook her head slowly. "Two-hundred ten pounds, five kids by five men, a heart attack at forty nine. What sucks is I'm heading down that same path."

"You're not pregnant?" Jenny asked, concerned.

"Nah," Miranda replied. "I just see the signs."

"We can all change our fates," Jenny said, emphatically. "We can avoid everything that held us back."

"Can we?" Miranda asked. "We're still the same genetic material we were. And even if we overcome what we see coming, everything has changed, there are going to be new problems we can't even imagine happening. Read the newspapers; China and India in crisis. Revolutions, epidemics, even HIV. I'm afraid. I'm afraid that no matter how much I try, I'm going to make all the mistakes I remember myself making. A black belt who gets herself seduced by a smooth talking player. A college graduate who can't see when people are stringing her along. A loving mother who can't see her son's deceit."

"A united, democratic Korea," Jenny reminded her. "Stalin deposed and talk of Glasnost in Russia. The Voting Rights Act and equal pay laws. Even more tolerant social attitudes. The future is what we make of it."

"Maybe," I suggested, "you should try something different. Something you never did before. See what happens."

Jenny smiled and agreed. "We all have 'what-ifs', things we always thought about doing but never did."

My brother Freddy arrived in March, four-years-old and already obnoxious. Scientist were developing theories about the "early birds", those of us arriving prior to our actual births. Most involved complex equations involving the bombs' mechanics and a symbol used in all their equations the called the "Psi factor". These theories would never be put into layman's terms.

In late May, Jenny, Miranda, and I drove out to land owned by my Uncle Nate. He lived above his jewelery store in the city, spending his weekends in the country. Realizing his future, he decided to move to Arizona nearly 20 years before he would in the former reality; twenty-one years prior to his death. All of my father's relatives wanted the land. My uncle, previously a sour person, was tickled by all the attention he was getting.

The twenty-five acres of rolling hills, a clear stream, and well-maintained house and barn offered plenty of privacy. Neither model was shy about undressing; Jenny in particular, relishing running nude though the tall grasses in back, up the tallest hill, and then splashing through the stream.

I felt a bit awkward around them, at first; my adult mind taking a moment to catch up with my twelve-year old body. But then the artist took over, and while still appreciative, I was seeing these two attractive women as elements in a composition.

There were a few softly erotic shots, and when Jenny and Miranda looked at one another, I noticed a glimmer in their eyes I hadn't noticed before. I wondered if Miranda had indeed tried something she never had in her previous life.

I'd always been curious about nudism, and by late afternoon, I was hooked. The three of us would return there later that week.

Perhaps influenced by my frequent visits, Uncle Nate sold the land to my dad. We moved in during the summer. Here my life took on a more pastoral existence, that would continue for decades. My parents took frequent vacations, visiting relatives. Usually, particularly during warmer weather, I stayed behind. I would spend close to a week at a time without dressing; walking around the grounds, writing, drawing, and simply enjoying the sensation of sun and wind on my skin.

I began to develop a network of like-minded friends. They were all artists, poets, and free-thinkers. Carolyn was in this group. She was close to my age, but in the 1990s she had a brief career as a television actress before fading into obscurity. Now she was taking an alternate path with her life, studying electronics. We would develop a life-long friendship that progressed to much more.

In January 1953, in according to the Presidential Succession Act of 1952 Dwight Eisenhower was sworn in as President, followed by John F Kennedy in 1961. November 1963, JFK voluntarily handed over the Presidency to Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy going on to become a respected philanthropist--Lee Harvey Oswald having disappeared very early on. The Nixon Presidency was amusing. His unsuccessful attempt to circumvent the 1952 law saw the return of the sobriquet "Tricky Dick".

This predictable succession brought a sense of regularity to the world and most countries enacted similar laws. But the Presidents' names were all that remained chronologically normal. Computers and the Internet came quickly, there was too much money to be made to hold those back. But there were still wars and various crisis. Those who acted the quickest gained the most.

By the late 1970s, the "full story" was being revealed. Tales of espionage, murder, and secret meetings between world leaders were turned into books and films. And for every real story, there were even more conspiracy theories. There were the typical "new world order" sort. Some involving either beings from other planets or demonic forces. Then there were the ones suggesting this was all an illusion done with psychedelic drugs put in the water system.

Even a second chance can't prevent paranoid stupidity.

My parents both outlived themselves, my dad dying in 2001, and my mom an active seventy eight year old. My siblings outdid their previous selves, more successful and happier than they had been. Jenny and Miranda are still around, and still sharing an apartment.

Me? I was able to turn my hobbies into a successful career. Carolyn and I have had a happy marriage, a few rough spots and a few unexpected adventures. I was also a far more successful, if somewhat unconventional, parent than I could ever have imagined myself being

So it's New Years Eve 2011. We're all here, watching the clock run down. All wondering if we'll wake up in 1951. All nervously counting as the seconds tick off to "one".

Then the fireworks go off, the bells ring, toasts are made, and champagne consumed. 2012 is here, after a very long detour. Maybe the future is what you make it, as Jenny suggested so long ago. But it sure helps having a few hints.

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2010-04-12
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