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by William H. Benson

July 8, 2010

     A book review in the Denver Post last week caught my attention. It told of a book written by a banker named Wes Moore and was entitled The Other Wes Moore. In it, Moore recounts the details of his life: that he grew up in poverty in the Bronx, that his dad had died when he was quite young, and that his mother had worked at several jobs. Determined to see him succeed, she had extricated him from the street by sending him to a military school, where his native intelligence and leadership skills blossomed.

     He was then fortunate enough to enroll in and graduate from John Hopkins University, and then, in the year 2000, he surprised everyone and won a Rhodes scholarship, becoming “the first black student at John Hopkins ever to win the award.”

     Roughly, at the same time that the news of Wes Moore’s scholarship was being blazoned across the headlines of the Sun, Baltimore’s newspaper, the name of another young black man, coincidentally named Wes Moore, was in the same newspaper, but for an entirely different reason—murder. He had killed “an off-duty police officer named Bruce Prothero, father of five.”

     This second Wes Moore had had a tough start in life too, growing up in a poverty-ravaged and drug-infested neighborhood, but he had distanced himself from that deplorable environment by joining the Job Corps, getting his GED, and learning some marketable job skills. But, he “never found a good job and tumbled back into his old life.” He became the other Wes Moore, now stuck in prison for the rest of his years.

     A German word that the English language has appropriated is “doppelganger,” which refers to “the counterpart of a living person that is often ghost-like.”

     In Washington Irving’s classic story, Rip Van Winkle, the never-do-well Rip falls asleep on a mountain in the Catskills of upstate New York and awakens twenty years later. He walks back into his village, and the people have all changed. In despair, he cries out to the crowd, “Does nobody here know Rip Van Winkle?” Someone points and answers: “Oh, to be sure! that’s Rip Van Winkle yonder, leaning against the tree.”

     Rip gapes in wonder and exclaims, “I’m not myself—I’m somebody else—that’s me yonder—no—that’s somebody else got into my shoes—I was myself last night, but I fell asleep on the mountain, and they’ve changed my gun, and everything’s changed, and I’m changed, and I can’t tell what’s my name, or who I am!” He had met his doppelganger.

     Abraham Lincoln, when notified of his election as President in November of 1860, saw himself in the mirror and noticed two faces, one of which was paler and ghost-like. That second face would disappear, and then reappear later. So concerned was Lincoln by the oddity that he confided in Mary Todd, his wife, and eventually he concluded that it meant that he would win the election again in 1864, but that, because of the ghostly pale of the second face, he would not survive a second term. He too had met his doppelganger.

     Mark Twain, in his story The Prince and the Pauper, tells of two boys, who look very much alike, who meet one day near Henry VIII’s palace. One of the boys, Tom Canty is a pauper, a ruffian, shabbily-dressed, but a dreamer. The other, is Edward, a prince, the King’s son. They try on each other’s clothes, and suddenly guards yank Edward, drive out of the palace, and throw him amongst the laughing people who jeer and ridicule him when he protests that he truly is Edward, the prince. In the palace, Tom Canty hesitantly begins acting and talking as a prince, even to the King. Tom and Edward each had met their doppelganger.

     The idea of a doppelganger, and even that of another Wes Moore, prompts me, and I ask, “What about the other Richard Nixon?” Instead of shouting, “I am not a crook!”, he might have been a law-abiding citizen, perhaps an electrician, minus the bristling ego and the paranoid mindset. The other Ronald Reagan may have stayed in Iowa and worked for decades in relative anonymity as a sports announcer, and the other Bill Clinton never won a Rhodes scholarship, never attended Yale law school, but he was faithful to his wife.

     Some of us might want to trade places with our alter ego, a second self, our doppelganger, the “other Wes Moore” of our lives, but, I am convinced, most of us would not. We are where we are in life because of the choices we made early on, and to put our lives into reverse and go backwards to a point where we made a crucial mistake or made a foolish decision and then fast forward is not possible: time only marches forward.

     Would I truly want to live the other Bill Benson’s life, my doppelganger? I wonder. Yes, it might be better, but it might be worse. To me, this life, as I have lived it, has been sufficient for one person.