Memo To: Website browsers, fans, clients
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: A Book that Changed my life
As promised, I am adding to my list of books that altered the course of my life. The first seven can be accessed from the home page, "Seven Books That Shook Wanniski." Today, I confess that the most important book I ever read was a comic book. And I don't even remember its name.
It was in 1946 or 1947 that I read it, when I was 10 or 11. When WWII ended, my father Michael Wanniski lost his job at the war plant where he worked as a machinist, in Brooklyn where we lived. With the help of Stanley Weinstein's dad, who lived in the same apartment house, he soon got work as a bookbinder for Superman DC publications, working the graveyard shift which got him home at 6 a.m. My brother Terry and I would get up soon thereafter and look in his lunchbox, for he almost always brought home some comic books. We were the most popular kids in Boro Park, receiving all the new comics weeks before they hit the candy stores where they were sold. It was in one such batch that I read the comic strip that changed my life.
It was science fiction, about sometime in the 21st century, when scientists had discovered the secret of time travel. The story was about a place in New York City where you could go on safari by time travel. You would pay some great amount of money and with a guide and a few other men, step into the time machine. In this particular safari, the men traveled back a million years, to hunt dinosaurs. The guide would take them back to a time and place where he had previously found dinosaur that was about to die because of some disaster, like walking into quicksand. The time machine would deposit the men at the site, on an electronic beam that hovered above the ground. They were told to not step off the beam, but to shoot when given the signal, then return to the time machine.
On this particular trip, one of the hunters steps off the beam to get a better shot, then jumps back. On entering the time machine for the trip back, they notice the fellow who'd left the beam had stepped on a butterfly, which was crushed on his heel. When they get back to NYC and step out into it, they notice something funny. People around them are talking English, but instead of with a New York accent, there is a trace of a Dutch accent. Also, one of them notices that the man who had been elected mayor the day before they departed was not the mayor. He'd lost by a narrow margin to the fellow he defeated.
The point of the story which hit me exactly as planned was that over the course of a million years, even something as insignificant as a butterfly can change the course of history. I brooded on the idea for a long time, and kept the comic to read the story again and again, until it got tossed out. If a butterfly's death could change the world, well so could my life! When I was 16 or 17, I read Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, which is a grown-up's version of how time can expand or contract depending upon how you use it. As I read it slowly — it took two months I recall — I thought often of the butterfly. We shouldn 't waste the time we've been given on earth. What we do should be as constructive as possible, so it will lead to good things a hundred or a thousand or a million years from now.
I'd told the butterfly story now and then to close friends. It had no greater impact on anyone I told it to than Mike Milken, when he was about to go into federal prison even though I believed he was innocent of all the crimes the government had charged him with. I told him if he never did another thing in his life, the good he had done so far with all his projects and all his charities had changed the history of the world in major ways, and that could never be taken from him. During the years he was in prison and the years since, he has mentioned my butterfly story to me many times, how he thought about it in prison. On the day he was released, he was told he had prostate cancer, with some chance his life would soon end. If you have been keeping up with him, you know Milken has that butterfly on his back. He makes every minute of every day count.