Before I say anything about any early memories I might have, I’d like to emphasize that the most important thing in any discussion of early memories is to avoid sentimentality. A memory is never good simply because it’s an early memory. I would say that for me, “sentimental” is a synonym for “silly,” were it not for the fact that I think some silly things are good. Monty Python movies and Edward Lear poems are all silly, but also all good. I can see nothing good about sentimentality.
I was pretty far into my adulthood when it occurred to me for the first time that some of my early memories might be of events that never took place. There were a few things I thought I remembered that just seemed a bit off to me. Somehow the experiences I thought I recalled didn’t seem to ring true; didn’t seem to mesh with my experience and my personality.
Now, I noticed (as an adult) that all these questionable memories were of things I had been told had happened or that I had fantasized had happened or that I had wished had happened (but perhaps had not in fact).
Let’s take an example. I grew up believing that when I was a boy of 3 or 4 in Nashville I waited for my father to come home from work every day, and as soon as he walked through the door, I yelled out, “Bullwinkle!” (He, in return, called me Rocky.)
I thought I remembered this. But did I really remember it, or had people simply told me that I’d done it, with the result that I’d constructed mental imagery to reproduce what I’d been told?
One thing my reading of philosophy has taught me is that it’s usually misleading (or downright false) to say that something has been proved or that it can be proved. It is, on the other hand, sometimes helpful to use such phrases as “there is strong evidence in support of” or “the available evidence indicates that it is likely that …”
While I couldn’t prove or disprove that my early memories were things I truly remembered or memories of things that had really happened, I did develop a method for finding fairly strong evidence for the validity of any early memory. First, I decided, it was necessary that I have a very vivid and detailed memory of the event in question. Second, it was necessary that the event was something I would never have had reason to tell anyone else about. If no one else knew the thing had happened, no one else could have told me I’d done the thing. I’d have no ability to build up an artificial memory about something someone had told me about my past.
Here’s a trivial example. When I was, I guess, 7 or 8, living with my parents in a house in Cleveland, Tenn., I hid a small plastic toy rhinoceros in the cabinet under the bathroom sink. I don’t remember going back to look for it at some later time. I can’t imagine that I would ever have told anyone that I did this.
Even at this early age, I was already a fairly serious reader of almanacs. I remember cutting out a small card and typing on it the dates of the major eclipses set to occur in future years — even in the 21st century (which seemed far, far away then — in 1966 or ’67). I then placed this card in a special place in my little children’s desk — a place where I knew I’d be able to find it when I wanted it.
But I have a vague memory of thinking, even as I put the card in its special place, that I would lose track of it.
Both these stories seem a little sad to me. I made an effort to put objects that were important to me in special places so I could use or enjoy them in the future. And then I lost them, or perhaps just forgot about them. These sorts of stories gradually disappeared from my repertoire of memories as I developed the ability to control my memory and remember where I’d put things.
I remember that at about the same age (7, 8 or 9), I always saw stacks of aluminum cups on top of the refrigerator in my grandmother and grandfather Goins’ house. Next to these cups, there was always a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. The sight of these things was a great comfort to me. For whatever reason, these objects signified security and continuity. I felt as if these things would always be where they were and that that was the best indication that things would never change and my life would always go on as it was.
Within 10 years, my grandfather Goins would be dead and the house with the aluminum cups would have been moved from its downtown Cleveland location to a rural lot miles away. By the time my father died in 1990, my world view had so altered that I believed that disruptive change occurred frequently and was unavoidable. After his death, I remember looking at a piece of embroidery in our old Cleveland, Tenn., home and thinking — with great sadness and a painful sense of loss — “I’m going to lose this house, too.” As it happened, my mother would continue to live there 20 years, and I’d visit fairly often.
Another early memory from about the same time is that of reading comics in old newspapers in the garage outside my grandparent Goins’ house. I remember Dick Tracy in particular. It made a great impression on me that the date on the newspapers was nothing like the date of the time when I saw them. In truth, they probably weren’t more than a year or two old. But to me, they seemed to come from a long distant and mysterious time. I felt that the experience of reading them was mysterious.
Also mysterious to me was the sort of life I lived in the afternoons at my own home at this time. My younger brother, Scott, must surely have been born by this time. But I don’t remember his being in the house. Perhaps, as an infant, he slept a great deal or stayed in a room that had been made into a nursery.
As I recall it, almost every afternoon there was no one in the house but my mother and I. She did household chores and watched some afternoon television. Each day she watched a soap opera called The Edge of Night. This show differed from the other soaps in that it had a distinct film noir twist. It covered criminal and psychological motifs that other soap operas would never have touched.
I felt that my mother and I lived in our own private and mysterious world. It may have been my earliest sense that I, like everyone one, could create a private culture; that I could live in and for this private culture and draw my greatest satisfaction from it.
So, I’m still 7, 8, 9; possibly younger. I’m still doing things that I don’t believe I’d ever want to tell anyone else about for some reason. I remember the box for a model kit for a World War II boat that sat way up in the cabinet in our kitchen for years. It was a complex model of a big gray boat: probably an aircraft carrier or a battleship.
My father and I had worked together on the model once. I remember looking up at the box and hoping that we’d work together on it again. But I don’t think we tackled it more than once. Perhaps the thing was so big and complex my father just didn’t want to deal with it. But I was always a little sad because the pleasant experience I’d had and could remember wasn’t ever repeated.
It seemed to me at the time I was happiest when I played with my little plastic toy soldiers. They were green for the GIs, grey for the Nazis and brown for the Japanese. I also had plastic bunkers, barbed wire, tanks, jeeps and so forth. I had a system for conducting a battle that I still remember well, and I followed the system to the letter. The GIs usually won (as I recall). But then, I knew that the GIs had won the real war.
I don’t remember whether I had any Soviet soldiers. I do recall that my father had a hardback biography of the Soviet WWII leader Malenkov. I tried to read it, but it was big and heavy and complicated. I never learned more than 7 or 8 pages worth of stuff about Mr. Malenkov.
Everything I’ve related so far happened before I reached the age of 11. I know this because when I was 11, we moved from the relatively small city of Cleveland, Tenn., to the relatively big city of Chattanooga.
In Chattanooga, I could listen to rock ‘n’ roll stations for the first time and made a serious hobby of it for a while. Nothing on the stations impressed me until I heard “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” by the Rolling Stones for the first time. This song seemed qualitatively different from all music I’d heard before. It was powerful in a raw, primitive, noisy way. The rhythms were forceful in the extreme. I felt as if the song filled me with energy and gave me a sense of exileration.
Even then I sensed — in a childlike way, of course — that there was something subversive, rebellious, nonconformist about this song. This song sent some sort of message. I really had no clear sense of what it was about, but I could sense that it was, in fact, about something. To this day, the song strikes me as a good example of what can be done with even extremely popular music if the musicians are willing to work hard enough at it.
As an 11-year-old, I continued to develop my private culture. In my new room in our new house, I collected the mailings I got from the Seventh Day Adventist church. (Seventh Day Adventists are big near Chattanooga. They make the Little Debbie cakes in a Chattanooga suburb called Collegedale.)
I liked the Seventh Day Adventists because they didn’t believe there was any such thing as hell. Their position on that matter certainly resolved a lot of questions for my young mind. I went to sleep at night listening to the Public Radio station, which was also the Seventh Day Adventist station, and which featured an evening program called “Songs in the Night.” It was meant to be comforting and relaxing and, as I recall, was.
I kept my Seventh Day Adventist mailings in a cigar box. Also in the box was a very goofy looking toy bird I had named Herr Guten Morgen. I no longer remember why I named him that.
This box was important to me, and I sometimes took it with me when I went to sit on the large tree that had fallen across the clearing I’d found in the woods behind our house. I thought that as big as this tree was, it might rot away one day. And it did — within a year after we moved in. There came a time when I was able to walk on it and crush it beneath my feet as I walked.
In the yard next door, I played with a boy much younger than me. He must have been six. One day, he and his family moved. We were playing in his yard shortly before the move. He started crying and wrapped his arms around one of my thighs and said, “I’m going to miss you, Brad.”
I was dumbfounded. I had never dreamed that anyone would care about me that much. I didn’t know how to react. Today, I have no idea what that little boy’s name was.
And now we are 12. I’ve gone a little too far for my story to count as early memories.
As I remember the whole thing, I was a very happy child who was always interested in and satisfied with whatever was going on. Each day was a new adventure. I was, perhaps, a bit more attracted to the private pursuit than the social one. But I wasn’t aware of that at the time. I thought I was an ordinary guy and I would always be happy. I think that’s an excellent place to end the essay.