With All Due Credit to the Good Dr. Beckett: My Quantum Leap Moment
From 1989 to 1993, the NBC science fiction show Quantum Leap chronicled the adventures of good guy Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula), a physicist who created a time machine that allowed him to inhabit the bodies of others who lived within his lifetime. Each week, Sam would leap into a new character. Some of them were everyday folk—an air force fighter pilot, a wrestler, a chimpanzee, a pregnant woman—and some of them were famous—Lee Harvey Oswald, Elvis Presley, and sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer.
No matter whose body Sam occupied, he was always there to change something to make the person’s life and, presumably, the world better. During his leaps, Sam even had occasional sideways brushes with celebrities, running into early versions of people like Marilyn Monroe, Buddy Holly, a young Michael Jackson, and Donald Trump. Each week, Sam and his hologram buddy Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell) spent most of the episode figuring out what needed to be changed. In the end, Sam would usually prevail, leap into his next body, and utter one of the most famous quotes in sci-fi television history: “Oh, boy.”
I could go on at length about Quantum Leap, and I plan to sometime soon. It was required watching in my early 1990s household—which was, essentially, myself, a dog and three cats—and the only other program that occupied more space on my VHS tapes was The X-Files.
What I want to talk about here, however, is my own encounter with Sam Beckett, my Quantum Leap moment, the point in my life where things changed for the better. It was 1983, and I’d graduated high school. My grades were decent but nowhere near as good as they could have been, and I was ambivalent about college. Though I’d entertained ideas of getting a degree in art, members of my family told me that was a bad idea, and I believed them. I believed a lot of things back then.
As things stood, I was working graveyard shift at a local grocery store, making decent money with somewhat promising prospects. My employer liked me, and in about ten years, I could’ve been an assistant manager, making slightly more decent money and getting to wear a stylish (for the time period) burgundy jacket. It seemed like an okay future.
And that was when Sam Beckett leaped into me. This is the most reasonable explanation I can come up with for what happened next, my decision to join the U.S. Navy.
On its face, enlisting in the military doesn’t seem like such a momentous decision. Eighteen-year-olds do it all the time. Among other things, it’s an excellent way for indecisive loafers to defer life decisions for three or four years. Show up and do what you’re told, and you’ll be fine. It’s a team activity.
The problem is, I don’t actually remember making the decision to join the navy. It wasn’t a “me” kind of thing to do at the time, and I spent the eight months leading up to my actual enlistment in a constant state of panic, as if I’d done something entirely out of character. At least once a day, I asked myself what I’d been thinking. Even today, knowing everything I know, I’m still not sure.
The effects of the navy on my life were drastic, but not in the ways you might think. Of course, it gave me time to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, but it also taught me a few important things I’m sure I wouldn’t have learned otherwise. For one, I found out that the world is an astoundingly enormous place, a fact which can be both thrilling and frightening.
Second, I soon discovered that most of what I’d grown up learning about people from other places was a load of crap. As a bonus, it turned out that the things those people thought they knew about me were also garbage.
Lastly, although I returned to my Alabama hometown a couple of years after my discharge, I’d learned one other thing, perhaps the most earth-shaking of all: I wasn’t tied to my geographic home by some unbreakable bond. If it one day turned out to be my permanent place of residence, that was fine. If it didn’t, that was cool, too. That was my unexpected life-changing moment, then, deciding to do this insane thing that would knock me far enough out of my comfort zone that I’d never see home in quite the same way again.
I can’t remember it, of course, (see the complicated rules of quantum leap acceleration), but here’s how I imagine the pivotal Quantum Leap conversation happening:
INT. GROCERY STORE – NIGHT
SAM, if this guy stays here now, ZIGGY says there’s an eighty per cent chance he’ll never leave.
What’s wrong with that?
In this scenario, he quits college and stays at the grocery store. Over the next few years, he moves up through the ranks, doing a brief stint as meat market manager, and one day gets that red coat. But he never goes to college or leaves his hometown for any significant amount of time.
So? Is he happy?
Well, I guess. But…
Have you been outside lately? Summer in Alabama feels like the chamber of a nuclear reactor.
And the insects. Have you seen the bugs? Would you want to live here with them forever?
What if he joins the military?
Hey, how about the Marines?
Let’s not get carried away.
Okay, what about the navy?
(Consulting his ZIGGY handheld interface)
ZIGGY says if he joins the navy, there’s a ninety per cent chance he’ll get to travel more than he has any right to, live in California for a while, play in a few bands, eventually move back to Alabama..
…but he goes to college, gets a few degrees, starts writing, gets happily married, and ends up living in Colorado, where he writes an award-winning comedy novel that causes world peace.
Oh, wow, Colorado’s nice.
Okay, if I’m honest, the Quantum Leap idea is just the most appealing of many explanations for my sudden desire to become a sailor, but it’s the one I’m sticking with. And if you know me, you also know I always opt for the choice that involves time travel.
Now I need to go work on that novel.