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Roadblocks on Memory Lane

July 23, 2010
Adirondack Daily Enterprise

Over the past few years, my memory has become mighty strange.

For example, if we had a two-hour conversation this morning, by the afternoon I'd be lucky if I remembered any of it.

Or say you and I've worked together for years, see each other every day and shoot the breeze frequently. Then one day, passing each other in the hall, you say, "Hello, Dope," and I answer, "Hello, Richard." Seems perfectly logical until I realize your name is actually Mike.

Or this: I'm on the phone with someone and something suddenly hits me.

"Hey," I say, "I've got two questions for you."

"Go ahead," he says.

I ask the first question, and he answers it. Then there's a long pause.

"And...?" he says.

"And what?" I say.

"And what's your other question?"

"My other question?"

"Yeah," he says. "You said you had two questions for me."

"Oh," is all I can manage, now that the other question is as lost as the crew of the Mary Celeste.

On the other hand, my memories of hanging out in the back of Boynton's candy store, drinking an RC Cola and sneaking looks at the covers of the men's magazines are as clear as if they took place ten minutes ago.

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No friction between fact and fiction

Then there's another memory tweak, as exemplified by something that happened to me about 20 years ago.

An old guy I knew slightly stopped me in Berkeley Green.

"You do magic, right?" he asked.

"Yep," I said.

"Well, I've got a great story for you," he said.

And he did.

As a little boy in New York City, his father had taken him to see Houdini attempt an escape from a packing crate. And this wasn't just any packing crate escape: Once Houdini was locked in handcuffs and leg irons and stuffed in the crate, the crate was nailed shut and then tossed in the East River.

And to add to the excitement and horror, it was in the middle of winter; the river was frozen solid, and - Gasp! - the crate crashed through the ice and sank out of sight, far beneath the surface of the water.

Of course, Houdini being Houdini, he freed himself from his shackles, the crate and his frigid near-tomb, once more emerging triumphant, as documented in the Houdini movie starring Tony Curtis.

The man related every action in exact detail and there was only one thing wrong with his account - it never happened. Or at least it never happened like that.

Houdini did indeed do a packing crate escape in the East River. But since it was July 7, 1912, the whole bit about the crate being under ice was pure bumpf.

So where'd his recollections come from? I suspect they were a combination of NYC and Hollywood. I assume he saw both the original escape and the movie and combined both into one.

It wasn't conscious deception, nor a form of dementia - it's just another one of Father Time's practical jokes - the artful combining of fact and fiction, which once combined, become inseparable.

This is why I used to regard my memory as some sort of precise, analytical, factual process, but now think of it as a mnemonic grab bag.

---

The greatest show in My Home Town

But while I understand the erratic, if not entirely false, nature of my memories, I'm still not good at accepting them. Which is why I'm still bugged by my visions of the circus parade.

It all took place in the summer of 1954 (if in fact it took place at all). Certainly, the circus was real and there was no way to mistake it, since it was pitched on the Petrova field and stayed there for one whole glorious week.

The place was a wonderland of rides, food stands, games of chance, and my favorite - side shows with such exotic fare as tattooed men, bearded women, hootchie-kootchie girls, sword swallowers, human pincushions and the like. Sadly, I never got to see any of them due to minimum age requirements and a severe cash flow problem (the latter being a greater obstacle than the former, I'm sure).

Of course there was also a big top - to my eyes, at least as big as the Petrova school itself. My father took my brother and me to the show - at night no less, when the entire grounds were transformed into something magical, if not heavenly.

I still remember two of the acts. One was a Masked Marvel - a masked wrestler who'd give any rube from the crowd $100 if he could last 10 minutes without getting pinned. One rube came forward and of course got pinned.

The other act was a knife thrower whose finale was strapping his lovely, sequined assistant to huge wooden wheel, spinning it, and then outlining her with flashing, razor-sharp knives one-two-three, just like that.

So what about the circus parade?

Well, here's the thing: I can only remember a few images.

One was standing in front of Grey's Bookstore. Another was a bandwagon, chockfull of musicians in magnificent uniforms, their instruments shining blindingly in the sunlight. The last was a beautifully-painted steam calliope playing something that stirred my little Dopey heart, while great white clouds puffed out of pipes.

Those are the total of my images - just the briefest glances, so brief in fact I've no idea if they actually happened. Did that magnificent circus parade roll so down Main Street of My Home Town or was it part of some other memory - something I saw in a movie or perhaps read in Toby Tyler, Circus Boy?

Or since there's so little of it, did I just imagine the whole thing?

Being the compulsive fact-checker I am, when confronted by situations like this, I don't rest until I find out the truth.

But in this case I won't even attempt to do it and I'll tell you why.

If I find out that parade took place, it'll be a great memory to have.

But if it didn't happen, it'll too great a memory to lose.

 
 

 

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