Fellow Traveler

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could…

-- From “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

Some years ago I stumbled upon a Web site for the Class of 1965 at Upper Arlington High School, which is located in the suburb where I grew up outside Columbus, Ohio. I knew a lot of the kids in that class, so I was interested in finding out how they had gotten on with their lives. However, I was surprised to discover myself listed among missing classmates, inasmuch as I had gone away to prep school after the ninth grade and had never actually attended high school there. I sent an e-mail announcing that I was no longer missing, nor was I technically a classmate. This apparently made no difference to the class officers, who welcomed me into the ranks. So I signed up and was soon receiving birthday greetings from “classmates” I never went to high school with, along with a personal invitation to attend their 45th reunion.

Some of the messages I received had me scratching my head. One person claimed I had been in her journalism class in the high school I never attended. Another said he had lived on my street in Upper Arlington when I was growing up, although I am reasonably certain that no one by that name had ever been my neighbor. For one crazy moment I wondered whether the Web site I had stumbled upon was a portal to a parallel universe.

Parallel universes have become such a mainstay of science fiction that we forget they have some claim to scientific fact – at least to those who subscribe to the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum physics. According to this view, there is never a road not taken in life, because every intersection branches off into a separate reality. In the quantum realm, one traveler – or at least alternate versions of the same – can indeed travel both roads, albeit each in his or her own newly hatched universe.

In the “many worlds” scheme of things, parallel universes are wholly self-contained, so there would be no popping back and forth through some portal. Still, it can be fun to speculate about how my fellow traveler might have fared in an alternate reality after we went our separate ways. You sometimes read stories about identical twins who are separated at birth and later turn out to drive the same model car and to have married spouses with the same first name. Would something similar hold true if one of me went away to prep school at age 15 and the other stayed home and attended Upper Arlington High School?

As it was, I had the feeling I was in an alternate reality when I first landed at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. There were no girls at Exeter when I was a student there. And it was my first encounter with boys who attended debutante balls and went on skiing vacations to Colorado or Switzerland over spring break. My father was a senior executive at a big insurance company in Columbus, so I was hardly a scholarship student. Yet I might as well have been in the eyes of certain classmates from Greenwich and Grosse Pointe. I remember one particularly obnoxious character eyeing the label on my sports coat and announcing that I was possibly the worst-dressed person in the dorm. I had never heard of Brooks Brothers before I arrived at Exeter.

Had I gone to high school back home, I might well have signed up for the journalism course my would-be classmate remembers me attending. Having girls in my classes would have undoubtedly accelerated my love life. However, the chances of crossing paths with the woman I married would have been nil, since I met her while we were both students at Yale. And I doubt I would have gotten into Yale or even considered applying if I had stayed home. Without her, of course, there would be no kids, at least not the ones I remember raising, much less my granddaughter.

In the quantum realm, there is never a road not taken. But whatever road you do take, whether or not it is the one less traveled by, every turn makes all the difference. It locks you into a chain of circumstance that eventually leads you to a place that can only be reached by a thousand forking paths. It’s fun to think about where you might have landed if you had taken another road, but there is really no portal that will transport you from here to there. In any event, I did not attend the 45th reunion of Upper Arlington High School’s Class of 1965, nor their 50th. While it might have been fun to catch up with all those classmates I never had, I wouldn’t necessarily want to meet up with my doppleganger.

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