“My momma always said, ‘Life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’”
While the chocolate box metaphor works to describe the unpredictability of any individual’s life, it is also true that some people just get more interesting boxes of chocolates than others. Gump himself traverses American history with a bumbling, stumbling gait, accidentally thrusting himself or being thrust into several of the country’s must integral turning points. The trope of “ordinary people who were accidentally a part of history” had its champion, and everyone’s favorite historical film of all time starred a character who didn’t exist.
Tom Hanks portrayals aside, there are several real-life Forrest Gumps out there that also goofed their way through some of history’s largest events. Some of the examples mirror Forrest in his simplicity, while others are considered among the greatest men to ever live, but each of them shares one uniting quality: they entered the history books through coincidence, circumstance, and sheer dumb luck.
Yang Kyoungjong was a Korean man in the 20th century, which meant he didn’t exactly live a peaceful life. At the outbreak of World War II, Yang was captured by invading Japanese troops and forced to serve in their army. This took him to the mainland, where he went up against the Soviets, only to be captured again and forced into service for their army, too. This took him all the way across the continent, where he faced off against the Nazis, and, at this point unsurprisingly, he was once again captured and forced into service for the Germans, completing every space on his “Evil Armies” punch card. Finally, Yang was captured by the Americans, who decided he’d had enough fighting and sent him to a detention camp instead.
Timothy Dexter is the historical figure who best matches Forrest Gump’s “idiot savant” genre of story. Dexter was a self-made success who made nonsensical decision after nonsensical decision, invariably lucking into a financial windfall due to circumstances outside of his control. He married rich, and sought to multiply his wealth by purchasing mass quantities of the now-worthless Continental currency, which had been abandoned in the wake of the American Revolution. This insane business plan paid off when it was decided that such currency could be traded in for 1% of its original value, leading to a massive payoff for Dexter that he could not have foreseen.
Most of his attempts went thusly. On one occasion, some cruel tricksters convinced him to purchase and send bed-warming pans to the sweltering Caribbean, where they would have no use. Instead, the warming pans were repurposed as sugar and molasses ladles and sold like hot cakes. Such was the life of Timothy Dexter.
Surviving one of the two nuclear bombings in history is a stroke of good luck. Living through both of them brings the claim of luck into question, however. On the one hand, it’s undeniably fortunate to survive two nukes. On the other, it’s not very lucky to be in both of the targeted cities during the only two uses of that deadly weapon. Such was the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi. He was in Hiroshima when the first bomb struck and survived by leaping into a ditch. He returned to his family in Nagasaki, probably thinking he’d had his worst day ever. Somehow, this trooper still went to work the next day, despite feeling ill, and had his life saved from the second bomb by the reinforced stairwell in his office. His family thankfully survived, too, and Tsutomu lived to the age of 93.
The 18th century was a ripe time to be a revolutionary. Country-changing campaigns were fought on multiple continents, and several men and women got the chance to earn their spot in their countries’ heroic stories. Some got more of an opportunity than others. Francisco de Miranda, through sheer circumstance, happened to be around for and fight in three major revolutions. He served in both the American and French Revolutions on the side of the revolutionaries, before using his training to play an important role in the Venezuelan war of independence under Simon Bolivar. He ultimately became the dictator of Venezuela, before finally being ousted. He was also a prolific writer, whose journal chronicling his exploits ran to 63 volumes.