Alt-History: All Singing, All Dancing, All Trotsky!

A friend on Facebook recently posed the question, “What if World War I never happened?” Many comments dealt with the geopolitical pressures, noting that some kind of war was inevitable given Germany’s militarization and the creakiness of the Russian, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires. Others were more optimistic, that with no World War I, there would have been no World War II.

I took a different approach.

Lacking any original insights into the dynamics of European history, I mused on the impact of peace on the United States. I speculated that Fidel Castro would have developed into an ace fastball pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, a crowd-dazzling righty, of course, rather than a communist dictator.

My main contribution combined numerous interests into one great big riff I might title “All Singing, All Dancing, All Trotsky!” That’s my kind of alt-social history. Here’s what I wrote:

Without WWI and communism, Lev Davidovich Bronshtein decides to stay in New York and chucks his revolutionary identity of Leon Trotsky. He forges a brilliant career as the leading Broadway theatrical impresario of the 20th century. That’s not surprising at all, since traits of cold-blooded ruthlessness, organizational aplomb and strategic vision are key to the success of both Soviet military commissars and Broadway producers.

He marries the adorable Fania Borach and fast-tracks her career as Fanny Brice. His impact is so great that the New York theatrical awards are named after him, the Bronys. He lives well into his 90s, retiring in style after producing his groundbreaking blockbuster, a musical about aspiring dancers in the Russian-Jewish shtetl of his childhood, “A Boris Line,” with showstopping hits like “T&A & Kreplach.”

Meanwhile, his grandson Baruch Shmoikel Bronshtein opts for a life in politics, changing his name to the less-ethnic Bernie Sanders Bronshtein and becoming a Republican senator from Alabama, where his heavy Brooklyn accent and Randian economic policies charm the locals. Lev and Fanny live long enough to see their great-granddaughter, Baby Snooks Maddow-Bronshtein, become the star commentator on the New York Times’s wildly successful cable project known as DNN–the Duranty News Network.

So begins my sideline writing alt-history. This could go places and, best of all, I can make it all up.

Searching For That Red-Letter Day at the Hidalgo County Courthouse

My father recently called me to find out the date he and my late mother were divorced. He needed the information for a matter involving his military pension.

“You were one of the parties there, not me,” I said, both amused and annoyed.

The papers had all been misplaced, he replied, in moves from South Texas to Michigan to the East Coast. He hoped I could apply my sleuthing skills to dig up the details. With some reluctance, I agreed. I knew I’d be walking into an emotional minefield.

My parents were married and then divorced in Hidalgo County, Texas. The divorce took place between 1960 and 1962. I hoped the public records would be online, but the Texas divorce decrees are online only back to 1968. The county government’s website offered up a likely source to call for details. Never could I imagine, 40 years after I last lived in Hidalgo County, that I would be dealing with the district court in Edinburg to request this document. But I pulled up my big-boy britches and did what I had to do. If not me to help, then who?

I called and spoke to a woman who took my details and said she would contact me when she found something. I pictured her rummaging around among the divorce decrees buried deep in a box on metal shelves down in the basement of the county courthouse, like the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark. 

After several days, my father called, anxious to get the information. I didn’t have anything to report.

“I could give you the contact’s name and number and you could call her,” I suggested.

“No, you have the right accent to talk to her,” he said, a comment that would have riled me 40 years ago as a dig at my South Texas roots but these days I just let it go and take it as a point of pride.

While waiting for a response, I recalled my mother, who died in 1984, carried in her purse her divorce notice from the public records column of the local paper, the McAllen Monitor. That must have been some kind of red-letter day in her life. I checked with my brother, but he didn’t remember that and didn’t have a clipping.

After a week, the court official called. She found the divorce decree, which she scanned and emailed to me. I thanked her for her service and immediately called my father with the date, from 1961. I mailed him a printout of the decree, having no interest in keeping a hard copy for myself. To the extent I can, I’ll leave the past in the past rather than dwell on it. My father was deeply grateful for my successful South Texas sleuthing.

The document unsettled me. Here I am, on the verge of my 60th birthday, reading about my brother and me when we were still toddlers. There was the child support order, payment of legal fees and the other mopping-up of the end of a marriage. I read it once and gladly rid myself of it. The decree had a toxic quality, since I knew the rancor, resentments and silences that would follow in the decades after that red-letter day in Hidalgo County. I can envision the day, my mother taking time off from her job as a secretary at an insurance agency in Mission to drive to Edinburg in her Chevrolet Corvair. She did what she had to do in court, probably smoked a cigarette and returned to work to support her family. Knowing her, she might have sent a thank-you note to her lawyer for his service.

Fifty-six years passed and the decree cycled back to me. I did what I needed to do with it.

To close the loop, I mailed a handwritten thank-you note to the court official who sent me the document. She did her job well and made several lives a little more secure. Meanwhile, my father and I will share a weekend lunch with our significant others at a Chinese restaurant after my birthday.