How I Finally Solved a Mystery of Memory

by James Wallace Harris, 7/27/21

I made a discovery this morning that’s very important to me. One I had to write about. Whether or not you find it worth reading will depend on if you also have memory mysteries that haunt you too.

I lived in South Carolina twice, however I was very young the first time, and for my whole life I’ve tried to figure out when and where I lived the first time. This mystery of memory only began to matter once I got into my forties and I realized my memories were fading. It became a tiny existential ache. I even remember being disappointed at the time when I asked my mother about this and she couldn’t remember either. How could someone not remember when and where they lived when they were an adult? As I catch up to my mother’s age I might be able to answer that too.

Today I was going through a box of old papers, letters, and photos I found at my mother’s house after she died in 2007. I had put them in a drawer in my closet and forgot about them. Going through them today I discovered clues that may answer the South Carolina memory mystery.

The first clue was a “Certificate of Training” from the Department of Air Force given to my dad for completing 88 hours of Apprentice Aircraft Mechanic (Jet Two Engine) at Shaw Air Force Base dated August 15, 1958. Now this isn’t proof I lived in South Carolina at the same time. My dad sometimes went off without us. For example, on the back of this certificate it says he had previously completed 12 weeks of training at Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas and I have no memory of the family living in Texas.

This 1958 date does jive with the one clue I found after the invention of the search engine. I remembered going to the movie theater for the very first time in my life to see Snow Fire when we lived in South Carolina. Google helped me then by providing the movie release date, May 18, 1958. At the time I thought it was a false clue, or a false memory because that was after I had started going to school and I have no memory of going to school when I lived in South Carolina the first time.

The next clue I found was the report card from the third 1st grade school I attended, Watkins Elementary in Hollywood, Florida. It has me finishing the year dated 6/6/58. I transferred there during the third six-week period in 1957.

So this puts me in Hollywood, Florida for the first half of 1958. That was at the Lake Forest subdivision house that I remember as being the first house my parents bought. That memory of ownership might not be true since its just a childhood impression. Some of my all-time favorite memories come from living at that Lake Forest house. [Here it is. Becky and I are wearing cowboy outfits. I’m guessing Christmas 1958.]

The next report card in the box is from 2nd grade at Lake Forest Elementary putting me back in Hollywood, Florida in the 2nd six-week period.

This accounts for the rest of 1958 from about October or early November on. That means I could have lived in South Carolina during June through October of 1958. But I don’t remember attending school there. I’ve always thought I attended two 2nd grade schools but never could remember the first. I can recall being taken to Lake Forest Elementary and enrolled after the year started. I never could remember the first 2nd grade school, but assumed there was one and I just forgot.

I have a new theory from these clues. My parents bought the house at Lake Forest in late 1957 or early 1958, but during the summer my father was sent off for training in South Carolina, and we went with him. We rented a house out in the country and I have many memories from then. But not of going to school, or of leaving. One thing I recall now is I have no memories of my parents ever telling me and Becky we were going to move. I’m guessing we stayed in South Carolina during the summer and my parents just didn’t send me to school at the beginning of the 2nd grade year. Becky didn’t start the 1st until I started the 3rd.

This kind of boggles my mind that my parents didn’t enroll me in school. I would have missed a whole six-week period and part of another. I do remember always being the new kid. I didn’t know it until I got older, but I was always a year younger than the other kids. I started 1st grade at age 5, and didn’t turn six until November 25th. I really should have been held back a year. This might also explain why my grades in elementary school were so poor, and my teacher comments were always about how little Jimmy needs to work harder.

I hope I’ve finally solved the mystery of when and where I lived in South Carolina the first time. I’ve thought we had lived in a city that started with a C, either Columbus or Charleston. Shaw Air Force Base is near Sumter, but Columbus isn’t that far away.

I was six years old that summer, which explains why I had no memory of when and where I lived. At six I didn’t know such things. I don’t think it was until 1959 that I knew about years. But I do have many major memories from that summer of 1958. And that’s another validation. I have no memory of it ever being cold. Some of those vivid memories include:

  • The house we rented had a large wooden porch on three sides of the house. I loved that house.
  • The house we rented had a second floor that wasn’t part of what we rented but me and my sister would go up the stairs to where all this old stuff was stored. I specifically remember stacks of old magazines as high as Becky who I now know was four, and strange old-timey furniture. We never turned on the lights up there so it was always spooky. For years after this I would have reoccurring scary dreams, and the scary place would always be this floor at the top of the stairs.
  • My father put up two homemade swings in the trees outside. I remember him throwing ropes over very high limbs. We could swing almost as high as those limbs. I also remember those trees had long strands of moss hanging from them.
  • We lived out in the country with no paved roads, and those roads went through hills that had been cut away, leaving large sides of exposed dirt that was very red/orange.
  • We had a henhouse and my mother bought 24 chickens and 2 ducklings. Wild dogs that I called wolves would come run off with them and my father shot at the dogs with a .22 he said his grandfather gave him and he would give me when I grew up. After we moved back to Lake Forest I would sneak the gun out to play with on the street and neighbors complained. It disappeared and I never saw it again.
  • The dogs eventually got both ducks and some of the chicks. I remember trying to get the chicks to fly by throwing them up in the air. (Feel bad about that now.)
  • My job was to carry the garbage out back to a pit. My mother promised to buy me a real pig if I did that. In my fifties she finally bought me a concrete pig to keep in the flowerbed because I kept telling her she never paid me.
  • This was the first time I learned about black people. Becky and I played with two kids from a farm nearby. We thought they were rich because they had giant hogs that I wanted. One day my mom told us to go out and play with our little black friends. I didn’t know what she was talking about. I thought black was the color of cars and she had to explain that she meant our friends who were only brown, and I hadn’t even noticed that since we were brown too. My father then told us to always be nice to black kids when this happened. Decades later I learned the Air Force had integrated in the 1950s and my father worshiped the Air Force, so anything they commanded was how we were going to act. I see that as the seed of my liberal philosophy.
  • I’ve already mentioned going to a movie theater for the first time and seeing Snow Fire, but one of my most cherished memories is waking up in the middle of the night and my dad letting me stay up with him to watch the all-night movies. The movie we saw was High Barbaree, which I didn’t know then, but realized later when I was in the 6th grade and saw it again and remember the previous time. I’ve written about this memory many times. The reason why the movie was so important to me was it featured two kids that got separated when the girl’s parents had to move away for a job. I had already been the kid to move away several times in my life by then, and had lost many friends. That scene really resonated with me.
  • I had my first nightmare about dinosaurs at that house that has reoccurred many times over the decades. One of my most popular blog posts is about dinosaur dreams.

I have many other memories from this time period, and that amazes me when I now realize I was only six years old. That’s why for decades I’ve wanted to know when and where all this took place. I’m glad I didn’t throw all this stuff away. And it looks like I will find other clues to memory mysteries in this box too. So be forewarned.

I believe this is what I looked like in 1958.

JWH

13 thoughts on “How I Finally Solved a Mystery of Memory”

  1. The specifics of memories are different, but I moved a lot as a child, since my father was an evangelist. I can remember a lot from 5 years old, including the six places we lived till I left high school, but not the two previous places, although I have since visited each of those as an adult. Many school memories, many church memories, many house memories, much as you recall military and social events. Probably a normal thing, that aspect of memory. I suspect most people could relate to the same travel environment. So you might be normal in that way, depending on how we understand normality.

    1. That’s another thing I’d like to remember, all the houses we lived in. I’d love to go see if they were still standing. It bothers me when I go back to places and things are gone. I went back to see Homestead Air Force Base after Hurricane Andrew, and the area where I lived on base looked like a computer circuit board, just black lines (roads) etched on a green board (grass).

      I also vaguely remember all the different churches we attended.

      1. It has been years since I’ve seen those old houses, but some I know are still in use. One became an insurance office, but it looked the same. Others I’m sure are long gone. But the memories remain in some detail. Maybe that’s how they should be remembered.

      2. It’s really weird about remembering houses and going back to them. My grandparents lived on a farm not far from our farm. I was over there often and after we moved (I was 7 years old) I would come back to stay with them in the summer times until I was about 16.

        When I was little the whole place, lawns and barns and so on were enormous. There was a big farm kitchen and a huge dining room for more formal meals. A big winding stairs led up to second floor where there were 4 big bedrooms.

        I went back to visit when I was about 25 and oh my gosh, it had shrunk! Now the kitchen was a wee bit cramped, the bedrooms crowded and the stairway too narrow. The yards were still big enough – I wouldn’t want to mow them – but this was not. the way I remembered it. LOL!

        1. I love that sensation of going back to childhood haunts and feeling everything is small. Becky and I once went back to Lake Forest. I thought the street we lived on was so very long, but when we got there it felt so small that I thought I could make a few giant strides down to the street to either corner. I couldn’t, but it felt that way.

          I went back again in the 1990s but the friend that drove me was too afraid of the neighborhood and wouldn’t stop. I wanted to get out and walk the street again, but we just zip on by.

          For decades I had reoccurring dreams of trying to find my way back to that house in Lake Forest. Then I got on Google Street View and found my way there virtually and haven’t had any of those dreams since.

  2. I really enjoyed reading about the resolution of your mystery. I have very little memory from age 5 (lived in Air Force base housing) but at age 6 we moved into a house and I lived there until age 20. My memories of that home are so detailed, sometimes it’s a pleasure just to go back and make an imaginary visit, wandering through the rooms and out in the yard. My parents sold that house while I was living out of state and to this day I wonder if my childhood treasures and diaries are still in the crawlspace above my bedroom closet, where I hid them.

    I do have a few memories from earlier years (ages 2 and 3) – my mother only ever gave fuzzy explanations for them and then in the years since she passed information came up which more fully explained those memories – including some rewriting of “history”! Which just goes to show that life holds new surprises even after retirement!
    🙂

    1. That reminds me that a few times I’ve discovered little interesting things left in the attic. In Philadelphia, it was some toy soldiers. In a duplex my mother bought, I found Paladin’s calling card from the old TV show Have Gun-Will Travel.

      I used to enjoy hearing memories of my mother from her four sisters. Some of them were very strange like Aunt Belle telling me my mom pretended to be lame when she was little so people would carry her around. When I was little I pictured my mom doing this for months. When I got older and learned how stories work, I realized it was probably once.

  3. Dreams are raw knowledge about the most crucial thing in the Universe: oneself [“know thyself (/”nothing to excess” /”surety brings ruin”)]. They provide uncensored data on the relation status between the “conscious” and the “shadow”, the Jekyll and the Hyde; simply put, they are a raw analysis of the state of the heart-mind nexus.
    It’s not surprising that highly rational people despise dreams: they usually are control freaks and tend to feel uncomfortable, if not outright scared, with such displays of uncontrolled imagery (enter “lucid dreaming”.)
    If he wanted to, Jonathan Pageau would make a terrific oneiric interpreter/counselor.
    I have my own interpretation of your dinosaur/giant/space alien dreams – it’s somehow different from what you shared but I’m afraid you won’t like it, so for now lets just leave it at that.

    Thank you for keeping the doors open (it helps keep things fresh and appealing.)

    1. No, I’d love to hear your take on the dinosaur/giant/space alien dreams. One reason I put myself out there in these blogs is I’m willing to hear interpretations beyond my own delusions.

      I’ve been more aware of my dreams lately since I have to get up to piss several times a night. For some reason, people I used to know long ago are showing up in my dreams. However, the other night I seem to spend the entire night dreaming about retro game emulation on the computer. (That night I fell asleep watching a documentary about that.)

      1. (Disclaimer: I’m not a native English speaker – you will have to excuse me if my discourse looks somehow garbled.)

        My interpretation:

        Dinosaurs*/Giants/Space aliens = fantasy foes

        You sense contemporary men (yourself?) are overwhelmed by imaginary foes and you feel a strong contempt towards those who revel in engaging with that particular enemy, to the point you want to see them dead, crushed by their fantasies.
        Your pragmatic nature collides with the pervasive, excessive wishful thinking – your appreciation of the sci-fi genre is a trojan horse (you need to venture inside the enemy’s citadel in order to fully defeat it.) A love-hate relationship, maybe (resulting in a psychosomatic quarrel?)

        Cheers

        * As per the established narrative [for a controversial outlook, pls cf. Michael Cremo (1) (2)], humans and dinosaurs haven’t coexisted, have never engaged outside movies and novels.

        1. I’m not sure I understand exactly what you’re saying. The dreams started when I was six, so what they might mean to a child would be different than what they would mean to me as an adult. But that is an interesting idea that I want those who confront challenges to be destroyed. But in the dreams, I don’t wish or enjoy seeing those people crushed. The overriding fear of the dream is their actions will bring attention to me and others who are avoiding the monsters.

          The fantasy foes as you call them represent overwhelming obstacles, power, threats, and dangers. By the way, I have other dreams where I confront threats and monsters and kill them in horrible ways. But in the dinosaur dreams, there is no hope of winning against them. The mood of the dream is to survive and thrive by not drawing attention.

          By the way, I recently read Of Men and Monsters by William Tenn about giant aliens taking over the world. I just loved that story. Maybe because it tuned in to my old dreams.

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