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On 21 October 1962, literature professor Harold Weiss returns from a convention to his suburban New York home. On the train, he spots an Asian woman who reminds him of a girl he wooed during his time in Iwo Jima during World War II. When a man doing a crossword puzzle wonders about the 1943 merger between the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers football teams, Hal informs him in stunning detail about the team, officially called the Philpitt Eagles but popularly labeled the Steagles. At dinner with his wife Rita and their children, Annie and Sammy, Hal mentions, as he customarily does, that one day he might move the family to California. Later, as Rita listens nervously to a television report announcing that President Kennedy will give an emergency broadcast the next day, a fidgety Hal walks outside to pretend he is a famous baseball pitcher. In the morning, Hal teaches a dull class, after which he amuses his friend Max Levine in the cafeteria by flattering the various senior faculty in his constant bid for advancement. Hal then attends a faculty interdisciplinary meeting, where he wanders from discussion group to group, both impressing and annoying the senior staff with his erudite intrusions. He offers a ride home to a Florence Maguire, the wife of a colleague, and on the way they stop to listen to Kennedy's speech. The radio broadcast, about the impending Cuban Missile Crisis and its accompanying threat of worldwide nuclear war, terrifies Hal and Florence. Upon hearing Kennedy call upon Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to abandon his course of world domination, Florence begins sobbing, but when she asks if Hal thinks they will all die, he responds, "Who gives a shit?" Shocked at himself, Hal sees a mushroom cloud in his mind, and when Florence laughs, they suddenly kiss, then make love. Afterward, Hal longs to get home, but an ardent Florence feels transported. The following morning, when Hal wakes Rita with a kiss, she hurtles out of bed to make sure her home and family are still intact, after which Hal calms her by feeding her cereal like a child. When he arrives at his office, he finds Florence waiting, impassioned, but he rebuffs her. He begins his next class with a droning lecture, but upon hearing a jet's sonic boom outside, launches into a diatribe about Willie Mays, then delivers the rest of his speech in Pig Latin, earning the students' applause. Dr. Worthington Payne hears of the students' enthusiasm and visits Hal's office to praise him, but Hal, instead of currying favor with the older professor, calls him a "schmuck" and then runs through the halls jumping with glee. Spontaneously, Hal boards a plane to Chicago, introducing himself as Hal Winters to his amiable seatmate, Marty Panesh. The two men have dinner together, at which Marty breaks down in drunken tears about his miserable family and work life, recalling his German wartime lover. As a television news show announces that the Defense Department plans to sink any ships bringing arms to Cuba, Marty confesses that he sometimes wishes the missiles would destroy them all. Later, Hal calls his ex-lover, Marie Voleska, who welcomes him to her home. On the way there he relives his many trips to her house when he was a young soldier, and upon spotting Marie inside, dances with her as if no time had passed. After they make love, however, she reveals that she is actually Marie's daughter Louise, who has heard tales of Hal, whom she describes as her mother's "whole life." Hal then flies to Las Vegas, and on the flight reassures a frightened reverend, Dr. Ernest Barrow, that the world will not end momentarily. Hal inroduces himself to Ernest as George Guynemer, Jr., son of the famous World War I flying ace. In Vegas, Hal relishes driving down the Strip, then ogles the girls at his hotel pool. When Joan Thompson and Marcy Martin sit with him, he impresses Joan, though Marcy remains indifferent when he claims to be Guynemer, in town to meet with Hollywood executives about a remake of Hell's Angels . The women agree to join him for dinner, and as he awaits them in the lounge, he spots Ernest, wearing a secular suit and drinking alcohol. Supporting the nervous man's desire for "one last chance" to try out another lifestyle before the presumed end of the world, Hal invites him along on a night of drunken gambling. Hours later, the foursome park at a construction site outside the city, where a lecherous Ernest chases Joan down one path, while Hal and Marcy saunter down another. Sitting, Hal mentions that he saw the devastation of Hiroshima, while Marcy asks if there is a part for her in his film. When he makes love to her, she demands that he repeat "I, Lawrence of Arabia, am taking you, Marcy." The next day, on his flight to Los Angeles, Hal claims to Mark Forbes and his seductive wife that he is Robert Hardy, the real-life inspiration for the film character "Andy Hardy." In Hollywood, he wanders the Walk of Fame, ending up at the Brown Derby restaurant. Upon visiting the men's room, Hal find Tall Guy McCoy, an old-time Western sidekick who now believes he is Humphrey Bogart, claiming that the Maltese Falcon is under the sink. Hal plays along, to the annoyance of the other men who are trapped in the room by Tall Guy. Together they attack the other men and are thrown out of restaurant. Tall Guy invites Hal into his classic car, and while they are driving down a Beverly Hills street, the old actor seems to hop out of the moving car. Hal is horrified until Tall Guy reappears, revealing that he has been hanging onto underside of the car in a replay of one of his old stunts. They visit his old studio, where a guard plays along with Tall Guy's fantasy that he is still working. In the dark, they wander the sets, and on a recreated firebombed city street, Hal fantasizes that he is in battle again in Iwo Jima. He and Tall Guy see Nazi soldiers bear down on them and imagine themselves in a full-scale assault, comporting themselves with honor against German, then Japanese, then Colonial-era Indian enemies. In the morning, the police find them sleeping in the car, and inform them that Kennedy has saved the world and the Russians have pulled out of Cuba. Hal heads home, and on the train uses his real name when he meets fellow traveler Matt Mahew. Upon discussing the Cuban crises, Matt states that a better outcome would have been a war that led eventually to peace. When Hal questions him about casualties, Matt responds that death is natural, and if it had not existed, some American businessman would have invented and sold it. As the train passes through the Bronx, Hal recalls all of the women he has been with lately and the identities he has taken on. Finally, he imagines Rita, and when the train stops, he runs through the station in his hurry to reunite with her.