By Whose Bootstraps?

By His Bootstraps

I’ve written about going back and giving my younger self advice, and the question was put to me, would my younger self take that advice?

I can’t really say, of course. It might depend on so many things. So I’ll use the advice about enrolling in a comp sci course with my roommate Dave in my first year at Penn State. I’ll assume that I have some sort of device that allows me to go back in time once and only once, and I use it to visit myself during my first term at Penn State. I’ll further assume that just this once the past can be changed, as that’s something that I normally rail against when I see it in science fiction movies because the past cannot be changed (unless one posits some sort of organization that exists outside of the timestream as in Asimov’s The End of Eternity), but there’s no point to this exercise otherwise.

OK, with those assumptions in place, here we go back to my Freshman year of 1967-68 when I was 18.

# # # 

James Troutman did not see the circle grow.

Nor, for that matter, did he see the stranger who stepped out of the circle and stood staring at the back of Troutman’s neck—stared, and breathed heavily, as if laboring under strong and unusual emotion.

Troutman was sound asleep, so the stranger poked him once to wake him up.

“Whah? What was that?” 

“Hello, James,” said the stranger.

“What?” Rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “Who are you? What are you doing in my dorm room?” As he said this, James flicked on the high intensity light on the shelf above his bed, revealing a short man with a neatly trimmed white beard standing next to his bed.

“I’m you,” said the stranger. “I’ve come from the future to give you some important life changing advice.” 

“Whaddya mean, you’re me? You must be a hundred years old, old man. You look like a zombie.” 

The stranger seemed taken aback. “I’ve been told I don’t look my age. Just yesterday Pat told me I don’t look old at all.” 

“Who’s Pat?” 

“She’s someone I used to work with, but never mind.” 

“So how old are you?” 

Standing straight and with some pride, the stranger replied, “I’m 74 but I’ve been told I look at least ten years younger.” 

“That would mean 64. The same as my grandparents. And two of them are dead. Of old age.” 

“Well, if you think I look old, you should see some of your classmates. They haven’t aged well, if I do say so myself. Oh, and your buddy Leonard. I just saw a recent photo of him, and I wouldn’t ’ve recognized him.” 

“I didn’t recognize you! I guess I wouldn’t recognize all you zombies. Here let me adjust the light.” He raised the light to aim it directly at the intruder. “Oh, that’s better. If your beard weren’t all white you probably wouldn’t look quite so old. Ever think of dying it?” 

“Oh, fuck this. We’re getting off the topic. Look, I know that your name is James, but most folks call you ‘Jim’ but you really prefer ‘James’,  you just can’t get people to call you that, right? Now how would I know that if I weren’t you?” 

“Maybe you’re a dream, James.” He pronounced the name slowly, dragging it out as if it were several syllables.

“Actually I prefer to be called ‘JT’.” 

“That’s a dumb name. Why?” 

“It’s a long story. But fuck that shit, we’re getting off topic again.” 

“And that’s another thing.” James was sitting up on the bed now, wide awake. “Why are you using gutter talk? We Richland folks don’t talk like that. People from Philly do, and especially Pittsburghers, but not Richland folks.” 

JT sighed. “Oh, right. You haven’t watched Deadwood yet, have you?”


“Never mind. I came to urge you to take the comp sci course with your roommate Dave next term.” 

“Next term? He’s taking comp sci this term. In fact that’s where he is now, trying to get his program to run. And why—”

“What do you mean? Dave doesn’t take comp sci until winter term.” 

“This is winter term, dipshit. Oh, now you have me talking gutter talk. You’re a bad influence on me, TJ.” 

“It’s JT, but that’s a common mistake, but if this is winter term then that means I was sent to the wrong time. I was supposed to see you in fall term. Listen. Dave will probably take another comp sci course, but even if he doesn’t, you really need to take it.” 

“Why? Dave’s up till all hours of the night trying to get his programs to run cause he can’t get on the computer any other time, and it so happens that I like to sleep at night. A sleep, incidentally that you have rudely interrupted.” James reached for the glass on his desk and tried to take a sip of water. “This glass is empty and I’m thirsty as hell. I had a Gus’s cheese steak just before bed.” 

“Give me the glass. I’ll fill it up. I still know where the water is on this floor.” JT took the glass, walked over to the door, and unlocked it. He disappeared out the door, leaving James to his thoughts.

“What a weird guy. How did he get in here? I’m sure I locked the door. I could lock it now to keep him out, but he’d probably just keep knocking until I let him back in.” 

And shortly JT returned with a glass filled with water. James took a sip. “Thanks. I needed that. So if you’re from the future, tell me something about it. Who’s gonna be our next president?” 

“Let’s see, this is January 1968 so in November the voters will choose Richard Nixon.” 

“Nixon? You’re putting me on? That loser? He lost in 1960 and then in 1962 and gave that sore loser kiss off to the press. Now you’re telling me the voters are gonna pick Tricky Dick? You might as well say that has-been actor, what’s-his-name, the governor of California, oh yeah, Ronnie Reagan, will probably follow him. Sure why not?” 


“You’re just making this up.” 

“I’m not. But Nixon and Reagan aren’t the worst that are in store.” 

“Someone worse than Nixon or Reagan? Is that even possible?” 

“Sadly it is.” 

“How about something good. If you’re from 2050 or whatever, something good must have happened by then. What?” 

“Not 2050. 2023.” 

“Not much difference from my perspective.” 

“OK, something good. Hmmmm. There’s lots of good things. Like—”

“So I assume they’ve legalized marijuana, right?” 

“Well, sort of, in some places, kinda…” 

“You come from a hundred years in the future and they haven’t legalized grass yet? I was sure that was coming within a decade. Sheesh. So according to you nothing good happens for a hundred years. Got it.” 

“No, there’s the Internet.” 

“What’s that?” 

“It’s a global network that gives nearly everyone in the world access to information and to each other. And there’s the iPhone.” 

“A what phone?” 

“An iPhone. It’s basically a computer as powerful as today’s computers but it fits in your pocket.” 

“If it’s a computer, why is it called a phone?” 

“Long story. A really long story, but a great one. And if you get involved with computers now, perhaps you can be part of the story.” 

James seemed to be lost in thought. “Say, with this Time Machine of yours, ever use it to go into your future? It’s like you’re sitting on the edge of forever, right?” 

“No, it only works one way, I can go back in time and then return to my starting point, but that’s it.” 

“That’s a shame. So you can’t jump ahead a day to see what the stock market’ll do and then come back and pick the winners?” 

“Nope, nothing like that.” 

James looked disappointed. “Doesn’t seem like there’s much point to it then, does there? So you’re just here to talk me into taking a comp sci course, is that right? Why?” 

“Because you don’t do well here at Penn State. You keep changing your major, you have a good term followed by a bad term and eventually you flunk out, mainly because you have no idea what you want to do with your life. The problem is you’re interested in everything but only a little bit, not enough to concentrate any one thing. So you end up wasting another ten years of your life before you discover what it is you’re really good at and what you really enjoy doing, which is working with computers. But you don’t discover that until you’re 31 years old, and although you end up having a pretty good career, think what you might be able to do if you discovered your true vocation when you’re 18.” 

“Wait a second, back up a bit. You’re saying that I flunk out. Of Penn State? That’s crazy talk.” 

“Nevertheless it’s true.” 

“I don’t believe you.” 

“So what’s your major? What do you plan to do when you graduate?” 

“I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. Maybe I’ll teach.” 


“Uh, at Elco?” 

“You really want to try to teach teenagers? Most of whom don’t want to be there in the first place? What’ll you teach them?” 

“Uh, I haven’t decided. English maybe. Or biology. Yeah, they need a kinder, gentler biology teacher—”

JT looked oddly at James. “Where did you hear that phrase? Uh, never mind. OK, so you’ll major in biology. And how do you expect to get through all those labs? Dissecting all those rats? You hate lab work.” 

“OK. So maybe math. I like math. I’m good at math.” 

JT sighed. “Fuck! We’re wasting time. I can’t stay here much longer. Yeah, you’re good at math, but do you think you have the patience to explain algebra to a teenager who wonders why he’s stuck in that stupid course that he has no interest in? Besides, you hate kids.” 

“I wouldn’t say I hate kids.” They stare at each other. “Not exactly. At least not all the time. All right! So I won’t teach. But I still don’t like to stay up all night the way Dave has to.” 

“But you’ll likely find that you have a real knack for programming. You won’t have to stay up until the wee hours. All I am saying is give it chance. Listen, I’ve gone through hell to come back and tell you this. Just do this for me. Just give it a chance. What can it hurt?” 

“OK, if it’ll get you out of here. I’ll do it. I’ll sign up for it next term. Satisfied?” 

A strange expression came over JT’s face. “I think that did it. I think I’m returning to my own time! That must mean I’ve changed the past! Come on, let’s hug it out before I disappear.” He extended his arms.

“Whoa! If you’re really me you know I don’t like to be hugged— Hey, your arms are going right through me!”

It was true. JT was rapidly fading away and in another instant he disappeared with an audible plop!

James shook his head. “That was some wild dream. It was almost like he was really here. Last time I eat one of Gus’s steaks just before bedtime.” And with that James crawled back into bed and turned off the light.

But before he could get back to sleep, his roommate Dave returned.

James stuck his head up. “Did your program run?” 

“Jim! You still up? I thought you’d be asleep,” replied Dave. “No such luck.” He waved a stack of computer punch cards in the air. “The problem is in here somewhere, I just can’t find it.” 

“I had the weirdest dream. I dreamt that my future self came back from the future to talk me into taking a comp sci course with you. Isn’t that the craziest thing?” 

“I’d love to see you struggling with a deck of these cards. In fact I’d pay to see that.” 

“No chance. I like my sleep too much. G’night.” 

Dave stuck his finger in the glass of water sitting on his desk and playfully flicked a few drops at James.

In mock retaliation James picked up the nearly empty glass on his own desk and flung the few drops in it towards Dave.

Except the glass was not empty, which James didn’t realize until it was too late, and a half glassful of water went soaring over to Dave’s desk.

“Hey, that’s my English paper and it’s due tomorrow and now it’s ruined!” 

James stared at the glass in his hand. “I swear I thought it was empty…” 

* * *

JT reappeared in his living room with a plop.

“It worked! I convinced him, and then I started fading away, so I must have changed the past. Hey. Why are you so glum?”

 The other person in the room had a gloomy expression on his face. He began, “I wouldn’t be too sure—”

“But wait. Nothing here has changed. If I changed the past why is everything here still the same?” 

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. We blew every circuit in your house and then my battery backup, well, it didn’t back up the way it should have, so I had to pull you back or you would have been stuck there. But you say you convinced your younger self. Great! That’s what you set out to do.” 

“Your battery backup didn’t work? Why am I paying you an outlandish fee if your fucking battery backup didn’t work? I thought I was pulled back because I changed the past, but if I changed the past, why is everything here still the same?” 

“I just don’t understand it. It was a Tesla battery. It was supposed to last—”

“Tesla?! A fucking Tesla battery!” JT was apoplectic. “You fuckhead! You know what I think of that cocksucker Musk! How could you be so stupid?” 

The other guy looked very small now. In a low voice that was almost a squeak: “Sorry?” 

“Let’s get the circuits back up and recharge your fucking battery. No! We’ll get a new battery. A real battery. None of this fucking Tesla shit! Then we’ll try again, and hey, you were supposed to send me back to the fall term but I ended up in the winter term.” 

“I told you there’s a margin of error.” 

“I thought it was a margin of a few days, not months. It was supposed to be before Dave took the course and started staying up all hours. And— I just realized something. That one big fight that Dave and I had. I think that was brought on because I filled his water glass, I mean my water glass.” He smacked his head as the realization came over him. “Oh shit! Shit! Shit! Anyway, we have to do it again. It didn’t work. Clearly I didn’t convince him. And this time you’ve got to send me back to the fall term before Dave takes the comp sci course.” 

“We can’t. I told you before, I can only send you back in time once. More than that and your body can’t take the strain. It might kill you.” 

“Well, then you’re gonna go back and convince him yourself—”

“I can’t, I’ve already done my trip.” 

“Get out of here! Out! I’ll sue you for every penny you’re worth!” 

“Oh, and you’re gonna have one hell of an electric bill…” 

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