Memory is a weird thing. If you don't believe me, just ask any cop about eyewitness reliability.
But as weird as memory is, I find the older I get, the weirder it gets. Last week's column proved this perfectly.
The column was about an Adirondack Daily Enterprise hoax that claimed a spaceman had been found wondering in the woods near Donnelly's Corners. I was 11 years old but I remembered that article perfectly. Or at least I thought so till I ran into Jack Lawless the week before I wrote my column.
The article was on the Enterprise's front page and next to it was a photo of the spaceman. He was tiny - only 3 feet high - and his face couldn't be seen through his helmet's windscreen, and Lord knows I tried. I stared and stared, but couldn't for the life of me distinguish eyes, nose or anything. Of course, that was Bill McLaughlin, the article's photographer-writer-hoaxer's intention in the first place.
One outta three ain't bad?
But as clearly as I remembered that unclear image, I forgot the rest of the photo till Jack reminded me.
"You know," I said to Jack, "fifty-plus years ago and I can still see that little space guy in the picture."
"How about Tony Piro and Chuckie Pandolph?" he said.
"How about them?"
"Well, they were in the picture too."
"They were?" I asked, shocked I had no recollection of them.
"Yeah, sure. Tony, who was an Enterprise reporter then, was holding a piece of paper with a bunch of symbols on it supposed to be a message from the spaceman."
"And Chuckie?" I asked.
"He was a town cop the, so he was there to take the spaceman into custody or some-such nonsense."
I racked my brain trying to remember anyone besides the spaceman in the photo, but couldn't. A day later, Jack told me the date of that edition. I went to the library to check out the photo and of course he was right.
How, I wondered, could I remember something so perfectly - and so incorrectly?
The next time I saw Jack, we talked about that photo.
"I don't know how I could've forgotten Chuck and Tony being in the picture," I said.
"Memory," he said. "Sometimes we just forget what was there."
"And sometimes we add what wasn't there," I said, thinking of some of my own uber-recollections.
"Well, my long-term memory's solid," said Jack, "but I've got problems with my short-term."
Ah, that phrase: If I've heard it a hundred times, I've heard it a thousand. Its most common variation is something to the effect of, "I can tell you anything you want to know about VE Day (or some other event in the distant past), but don't ask me what I had for breakfast."
We've heard that so much, we've accepted it as a Great Essential Truth of aging. But is it? I've got my serious doubts.
First, "what I had for breakfast" is a metaphor for the mundane daily detail of our lives. And since, by definition, that stuff has no importance and serves no purpose, why would we remember it?
And even if we could remember it, why would we want to? I don't know about you, but I've got so much junk cluttering the attic of my mind, it'd be a blessing to rid myself of it if only I could.
Also, though I've no proof, I suspect forgetting all the dippy details of our lives is an evolutionary advantage: Your chances of survival are probably a lot better if you're focused on the chore in front of you (like that ticked-off saber-tooth tiger) instead of mulling over that morning's firewood.
Losing it just like everyone else
Maybe the thing that most convinces us our short-term memory is heading south is our losing things.
I know every time I lose a set of keys, a pocket knife, a flashlight or anything, I figure it's dementia knocking on my door. And most folks my age have the same reaction. But I'm starting to see that in a whole different light.
Note: I'm not talking about people who have real physical or psychological issues with memory - I'm talking about those of us lucky enough to be aging predictably.
Here's the thing: Yeah, I lose stuff, but guess what? I always did. Do I now lose things more often than when I was 40 or 30 or even 20? I don't know, but I'm beginning to suspect I don't.
Something I read a while ago made me rethink this issue. It was an article about some stone houses in New England a group of people claimed were a pre-Columbian Celtic settlement. The houses and their grounds were examined by a team of anthropologists who all concluded the houses were neither Celtic nor pre-Columbian, but were from the 1700s, at the earliest.
Of course the Celt Promoters were furious with this opinion and asked how the archeologists had arrived at it.
"Simple," said the archeologists. "There wasn't a single Celtic artifact in the grounds around the buildings. No tools, no jewelry, no religious icons, no nuttin."
"Well, of course not," said the CP's. "You don't think those explorers would cross the Atlantic, struggle inland, carve out and build a settlement, only to lose their precious, handmade, and often beautiful accoutrements from home, do you?"
The archeologists' response was as succinct as it was enlightening.
It was, Yes, that's exactly what they thought.
Countless excavations over the years have revealed one truth as unchanged and unchanging as the sun rising in the east and setting in the west: People lose things. And it doesn't matter if they're Hottentots or Huguenots, Laplanders or Lithuanians, Tongans or Texans - they lose their stuff. They lose the commonplace and they lose the irreplaceable. They always have they always will and there's nothing that'll prevent it.
So when I lost my expensive sunglasses the other day, instead of thinking I'm losing my marbles, I instead saw it as me being an integral part of humankind, all humankind since time immemorial.
And if you think that made me feel good about having to shell out a bunch of bucks for a new pair of shades, you'd better think again, Bucko.