Ever Wonder Why We Remember Unimportant Things So Well?


There isn’t the slightest doubt in my mind that if I could do the impossible — make a list of all the things I don’t remember — it would stretch from Pine to Payson. Or maybe even Pine to Tokyo.

But there are some things, Johnny ...

Even if I tried, I could not get rid of some of the things stuck in my head. And what gets me is the fact that most of them are totally unimportant. Why do most of the routine things that happen to us fade away, while others stick around forever?

In case you think I have the answer, I don’t.

And don’t get the idea that I am going to tell you about the moment I met Lolly. That was, and always will be, the greatest moment of my life. It doesn’t surprise me even slightly that I remember every detail of that evening so many years ago.

Nor am I going to tell you where I was when I heard that President Kennedy had been assassinated. Sure I remember that. I was driving back to work on Hill AFB in Utah, having just finished lunch with Lolly. Everybody remembers where he was at that moment.

And it’s no mystery to me why I remember the day I saw some poor basic trainee hanging in a tree. Wasn’t one of my troops, but that sight of that poor kid hanging there made me feel almost as guilty as his own drill instructor felt. I tell you, that day was the ruin of one good DI. Poor guy kept asking himself what he had done wrong. His men tried to convince him that he was blameless, but it didn’t help. He applied for a transfer two weeks later.

And I can see why. I’d probably have done the same thing.

But what about all those other crazy things? The ones that stand out like an alligator in the swimming hole even though they are about as important as 10 times nothing? Why in the world do I remember them so well?

Tell you what, Johnny. I’ve given up on it, so I’ll tell you about a few things, and you tell me why I remember them. OK?

The earliest. The year is 1932. I am standing on the living room couch and looking out the window as some men tear up the road out in front of the house. I watch them haul off some long, heavy metal things. Then they repave the road.

Mom told me I couldn’t possibly remember that. It happened when I was just nine months old. But I do remember it. Why?

The year is 1936. I slip out of the house one morning to see the doggone “sunrise” thing everyone always talks about. Although I am too dumb to know why it is important, I see that it is an overcast day. Later, tired of waiting, I cross the street and see something unlikely coming out of an ant’s nest — ants with wings. Huh! It begins to drizzle. If this is sunrise, it is not my idea of fun. I go back inside and never say a word to anyone about it.

The year is 1940. The neighborhood kids are playing war in the vacant lot across the street. We have built two forts out of whatever we can find — rocks, bricks, tree branches, leaves, grass, and anything else handy. It is a real war because we are using spears, arrows, and hand grenades. Our spears are the pithy stalks of some rough-leafed weeds that grow in the field. Our bows are branches and kite strings. Our arrows are sections of the same pithy stalks. Our hand grenades are their clumpy root.

I get an idea. The root clumps do not throw well. What if I use a root clump that still has a foot long section of stalk attached? Wouldn’t it throw better? Like a German potato masher grenade? I pick up a root ball — plus stalk — and wait.

Why wait? Over in the enemy fort is an Italian kid named Muzzie who was named after Mussolini back when his namesake in Italy was popular. Muzzie is an artillery spotter. He bobs his head up every now and then, takes a quick look, and disappears. Then a hail of missiles rain down on us.

I wait, timing Muzzie. After a while I throw a hand grenade while no head is showing. Muzzie rises up to take a peek. Whammo! One potato masher right between the eyes. I start to laugh and applaud myself, but then the enemy troops come out of their fort, helping poor Muzzie, whose eyes are filled with dirt — also with tears. The war halts while we take poor Muzzie home.

I do not know if the war resumed later, or if anyone won.

The year is 1943. Our apartment in New York City, which for years and years has been a place bustling with happy busy people, has grown eerily silent. It is about as busy as a sand and gravel store in the middle of the Sahara.

World War II has arrived.

Pop Johnson, my stepfather, has shipped out on an oil tanker headed for the Gulf of Mexico. Bill, my oldest brother, is in the Air Force aboard a ship headed for an island in the Pacific. My next oldest brother, Frank, is in training somewhere out west, but will soon be headed in the opposite direction from Bill as part of the 97th Engineers, which are to join the tank drive toward Nazi Germany along with General George S. Patton’s Third Army. Charlie, now 14, is living up in upstate New York for reasons I have mentioned before and will not bore you with again.

Who is left on the home front? Me and Mom.

Not exactly a party group.

So what do I remember so well?

One night Mom and I walk the two or three miles from our apartment to the St. George theater and see “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the life of George M. Cohan. From that day to this, I can see most of that film as though it were playing in my head.

I can still remember the names of everyone in the cast whose name I knew back then — James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, Jeanne Cagney, George Tobias and Rosemary DeCamp. I can still remember tunes that came from Broadway musicals of 20 years before I was born. And I still remember most of words to “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Over There,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Harrigan,” “Mary’s a Grand Old Name,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”

And I remember the way the 11-year-old dummy who was with my mother danced and sang all the way home.

But why do I remember it all so well?

Why? Why? Why?

I could tell you more of them, but those four are examples of what I mean. As far as I can see, they are meaningless.

Aren’t they?

Guess what’s running in my head right now?

“You’re a grand old flag, you’re a high flying flag, and forever in peace may you wave. You’re the emblem of ...”

Why, Johnny? Why?


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