Sure, it's easy to look back and play "What if?" "What would have happened if JFK had screwed himself into a sex coma minutes before he was scheduled to get in that convertible in Dallas? Or if John Wilkes Booth had been accosted by an overzealous opium salesman on his way to Ford's Theatre? Or if Amelia Earhart had been a good cook?" We could play history games all day.
But you don't need a killer imagination to see how little, insignificant details have changed everything ...
#5. The Felt-Tip Pen That Won the Moon
The moon landing story we know is already pretty kickass: Apollo 11 rode a trail of fire to the moon, stabbed it in the heart with an American flag, won the universe for the USA and sailed home on rockets fueled by eagle blood. Every kindergartener knows that. But behind the scenes, things weren't quite so perfect. For example, did you know Buzz Aldrin nearly murdered all three of the astronauts with one misstep?
Sometimes trust is the same as insanity.
While bumbling around the Eagle, Aldrin stepped on a switch. Which switch? The circuit breaker that would power the ship off the moon in order to rendezvous with Michael Collins in the Columbia. That switch. In fact, we have the transcript documenting how the whole thing went down:
Aldrin: Houston, Tranquility. Do you have a way of showing the configuration of the engine arm circuit breaker? Over. (Pause) The reason I'm asking is because the end of it appears to be broken off. I think we can push it back in again. I'm not sure we could pull it out if we pushed it in, though. Over.
Don't let the tone fool you -- the conversation was the equivalent of the Titanic calmly asking if there was a way to repair an iceberg stab wound. Since the breaker for the engine was the only thing that could fire the engine to get them off the moon, Aldrin inadvertently Apollo Thirteened the whole mission. After telling mission control, they were advised to sleep a few hours while Houston came up with a plan to fire Eagle back up. As if pondering the implications of getting Gilligan's Islanded on the moon was good nap fuel.
The Tiny Thing That Saved the Day:
Instead of catching some shut eye, Aldrin weighed their options. He couldn't use his finger or anything with a metal tip because the circuit was electrical; he'd fry the ship. Ultimately, Aldrin MacGyvered the situation with a simple solution: a felt-tip pen. He found that an ordinary pen could fit in nicely where the breaker once was. And it was a good thing, because if it hadn't, the triumph of the American space program could have ended in a crippling tragedy. And we'd probably all be Soviets by now.
Speaking of ...
#4. The Forgettable B Movie That Saved President Reagan
Before Ronald Reagan got good at the '80s and forgetting things, he was really just good at one thing and one thing only: making shitty movies. Between 1937 and 1964, Ronald Reagan starred in millions of mostly forgettable movies, some of them about Gippers, and others about chimps.
In most cases, the movies were so bad that Hollywood struggled to find him something else to do: managing the Screen Actor's Guild. Little did they know that presiding over "the Guild" would be the perfect springboard for Reagan's political career. Little did he know that one of those crappy little movies he made years before would just about save his life.
Above: President Reagan confers with Henry Kissinger during a vacation to Camp David.
The Tiny Thing That Saved the Day:
In 1939 Ronald Reagan starred in a movie called Code of the Secret Service. Never heard of it? Probably because it was released the same year as Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men and Stagecoach. Not to mention a new Betty Boop flick. The movie was so bad that Reagan himself called it the worst movie he ever made, which is really saying something, all things considered.
It was just them reading the actual code verbatim for 90 minutes.
But one 9-year-old with the film taste of a, well, 9-year-old disagreed with the critics, the audiences, the studio and Reagan himself over the value of Code of the Secret Service. This kid loved the movie so much that he made his parents take him to see it over and over again. And in the same way that Elvis influenced the Beatles and the Beatles influenced boy hair, Code of the Secret Service inspired 9-year-old Jerry Parr to eventually become a Secret Service agent himself. The end.
Except, not really. Jerry Parr, the kid who was influenced by a Ronald Reagan movie to become a Secret Service agent, later became a Secret Service agent protecting President Ronald Reagan. And he was right there by Reagan's side on March 30, 1981 when a Jodie Foster-obsessed nutcase took at shot at the president. It was Parr who shoved Reagan into a limo, getting him away from the shooter and out of danger.
So what would have happened had Reagan used his better artistic judgment and not made Code of the Secret Service? Jerry Parr would never have seen the movie, and someone else would have been standing at Reagan's side. Maybe someone with duller instincts or a club foot. And imagine the 1980s without Ronald Reagan running the show. Imagine it!
#3. The Pocket Change That Saved a Senator from a Bullet
Do you remember how in Forrest Gump, Tom Hanks shows up at momentous spots in history: meeting JFK, teaching Elvis how to dance, busting the Watergate burglary and showing the world how good the Chinese are at Ping-Pong? It was a triumph in cinema. In some ways, Hawaiian senator Daniel Inouye has lived that kind of life.
"Life is like a box of chocolates, only all of the chocolates are for me."
After all, not many people can claim that they've been a part of so many important moments in history, like the ratification of the statehood of Hawaii, delivering the keynote at the riotous 1968 Democratic Convention and serving on the committee that investigated the Watergate scandal. Even today, Inouye is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee -- so he helps decide who gets what, tax-money-wise. He's also third in line to succeed the president, should something terrible happen to Biden and Boehner.
Not bad for a guy who should have died almost 70 years ago.
The Tiny Thing That Saved the Day:
While fighting during World War II in France, Inouye led a charge against a group of Germans and was shot in the heart for his trouble. Luckily, it didn't go through, because it hit two silver dollars he carried in his shirt pocket. Two little coins that he was probably saving to buy a steak when he got back to the States were all that stood between him and a shot to the heart.
Back then, two dollars was half of all the money on the entire planet.
Not that the senator made it through the war unscathed. He later lost his arm in a devastating attack in Italy, and he was eventually awarded the Purple Heart for his service. But it was those two little silver coins that allowed him to put his mark on the next 70 years of history.