This Way or That Way Via Russian Dolls

The pathways of our lives our usually anything but linear. We make conscious and unconscious turns. Where were the major turning points in your life? What drove them? What happened as a result of your shift? Where did you hit the “I’ll pass, thank you.” button on a possible turning point? How do you feel about your decision now?


“What’s all . . . this?” my wife asked, waving her hand toward the yellowing file folders spread across our dining room table and the floor.

“Purging,” I explained as I tossed another folder toward the “no-longer-brings-me-joy” pile. “Treasures from my closet spelunking expedition.”


I picked up a file labeled simply “College” and opened it to my first semester grade report from the University of Illinois: A in History, D in Math.

“And you were going to be a math major?” I chuckled to myself.

“Hey, hey, hey” I pushed back. I loved math in high school, and I was good at it. Its formulas and structure fit with my then A-type personality. Okay, maybe I had no idea what I would actually do with a major in math; I just knew I liked working out problems that had a right answer.

That report card and the classroom experience leading up to it – where Mandarin Chinese would have been easier for me to understand than whatever math class I was enrolled in – inspired me to quickly visit the registrar’s office.

“Switching majors, please. History.”

Turning Points

Truth is, that turning point in my life started during the summer of 1969 before my freshman year of college when I found myself working in a lumber mill in the small town of Polson, Montana.

There I worked alongside modern-day cowboys – only they weren’t roping steers. These dirt-honest, pick-up truck driving, country music-lovin’ men lassoed fresh cut timber, cut it into boards, wrapped those boards in neat bundles, and then placed those bundles in staggering numbers on flat cars destined for the town of Just This Side of Everywhere, U.S.A.


Yes, it was July 1969, the summer of the first moon landing. And along with just about every other person in the world, I watched the hazy black and white image of Neil Armstrong descending down the Lunar Landing Module ladder. A short hop and he was on the surface of the moon, and forever into the pages of history.

“That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.”

I was fascinated by the physics – the math – behind it all. How had scientists and engineers ever figured out how to get three guys from here to there and back? And in one piece! Even today when I look at a simple schematic of the mission, I shake my head in disbelief.

Simply. Amazing.


But, it was the mission’s impact on history that truly resonated with me. The U.S. was first on the moon! U.S. scientists and engineers had figured out the complexities. The U.S. had won the space race – one of the most dramatic and visual “battles” of the post-World War II Cold War with the U.S.S.R.

“Take that, Brezhnev!”

Years later, I sat across a table from David McCullough, the venerated historian of such monumental works as The Great Bridge, Truman, and most recently, The Wright Brothers. We were seated in the pub of The Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts, which is allegedly the oldest continuously operating inn in American. The inn was also the subject of Longfellow’s famous poem, “Tales from a Wayside Inn.” If you were going to pitch a historian on an idea, I reasoned, you had to do it in a truly historical setting. And as the department head at the time for Prentice Hall Social Studies Publishing, I was there to pitch McCullough on the idea of being an author for a new American history text for high school.

“Only if we could tell our story from the perspective of turning points,” he offered, skating his glass in the small pool of water that had condensed beneath it.

The roaring fire on his right and my left crackled with anticipation.

“Turning points” – he went on – “events and decisions that changed the path of history because of their enormous significance. But just as important is the need to wrestle with the questions ‘What if those events and decisions had never happened? How would the course of history have been different?’”

The project didn’t pan out. McCullough went back to his Martha Vineyard office to finish The Path Between the Seas, his epic chronicle of the building of the Panama Canal. In 1977, it won the National Book Award. We went on to publish what would become just another survey of American History.

A path not taken.

Russian Dolls

Now, looking down at that report card, I’m remind of the various right and left turns I’ve made during my life, and of McCullough’s questions. Maybe none were as impactful as my decision to major in history. I went on to get a Masters in the Teaching of History, and when I was riffed from my first teaching job due to district budget cuts, I secured a job as the lowliest social studies textbook editor at Scott Foresman Publishing. I would work for that company or the corporations that owned it for almost 40 years.

Turning points in life are like Russian dolls: they aren’t just the one doll. They are one decision or event embedded in another, in another, and so on.

Example: I eventually became a school publishing executive, but that probably wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t done poorly in math and switched majors.

And that switch wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t watched Neil Armstrong hop down to the moon’s surface.

And that event might not have taken place if then President John F. Kennedy had not challenged the country in 1962 to do something seemingly impossible before the decade was out:

"We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win."

Today, it is certainly interesting to pick up McCullough’s question – “What if . . .?” – and turn it over in my hands. What if I had gone a different way?

But I tend to let those questions go. History and personal choice are interlocking strands of our life-span's DNA. So, there are no “right” answers that the one-time math major once sought. Just right-for-me answers.

I am older now.  And content.

Well, mostly. There was that one decision.

What's been a major turning point in your life? What encouraged you to go one way or another? What's a turning point you're longing to take to avoid regrets?

Jeff Ikler