How Accurately Can I Remember 50 Years Ago?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, February 16, 2019

2019 is the 50th anniversary of my graduating high school in 1969. I attended three different high schools in two states from 1966 to 1969. I’ve been looking at their yearbooks which has triggered a flood of memories. That is inspiring me to write a series of essays in lieu of attending my high school reunion. The process of struggling to remember and validating my memories with evidence has unleashed emotions and revelations that reflect a new honesty about myself. This is my third attempt to write about this experience. I keep bombing out when the essays got too long and complicated. So I’ve decided to cut them up into thematic chunks. I’ve toyed with writing “50 Lessons From 50 Years Ago” because I’ve remembered at least fifty scenes from the past that are worth an essay each, with more burbling out of my unconscious every hour. I’ve either stumbled upon a psychological fountain of wisdom, or a wriggling can of worms.

As my current ability to remember becomes iffier, and access times get longer, the whole topic of memory has become a siren call of fascination, even obsession. This week as I’ve worked to remember 50 years ago, I had many revelations about myself, some unpleasant and unflattering. An essential insight is I might be different from most other people. Because my family moved so much as a kid, I have always been hung up on recalling the past because I was always remembering friends, homes, and schools I just left. I envy people who never moved. My friend Linda, who is working with her 50th-anniversary reunion group is also in charge of the 1st-grade reunion. She told me recently she’s in contact with 9 of her 15 classmates from her first grade. That blows my mind. I can’t remember a single classmate from grades 1 through 3. And I can’t remember now if I went to four or five schools in those first three grades. I do remember living in 7 houses during those years.

This first essay will be about the limits of memory and evidence. To put it bluntly, our memories are flawed and unreliable. Whole books have been written about that. My favorite is Jesus Before the Gospels by Bart D. Ehrman. Don’t be scared off because it’s about Jesus, Ehrman takes a historical approach and spends most of the book talking about how we remember. Describing someone from 2,000 years ago tests the limit of memory and evidence. I’m just trying to remember who I was 50 years ago and a few friends. Supposedly I should have been the best eye witness. I probably wasn’t. After reading through the yearbooks I went searching for more physical evidence. I found very little.

The photo above is from my 10th-grade yearbook, The Warrior when I attended East Tallahatchie High School in Charleston, Mississippi from September 1966 through the beginning of March 1967. I’m the guy in the striped sweater. Except for the teacher I can’t recall any of those other science club members. So far I’ve only found three photos of myself from 1966-1969. That’s scant evidence. I thought I had a few old report cards my mother saved, but I can’t find them. I have no diaries, journals, or other physical evidence. I had more physical evidence, but in the 1970s, went through a Buddhist phase and got rid of all my possessions that triggered memories. God, I wish I had that stuff now, what a jackass. At the time I wanted to free myself from thinking about the past.

The Yardsticks of Memory

There are two primary ways to reconstruct the past. The first is memories. The second is physical evidence. But I needed a standard unit of measurement, a yardstick to lay against both memory and evidence. Or I needed anchors in the past to work out from. I’m slowly developing several:

  • How many people did I know and how often did I talk to them? This involved recalling names and finding photographs and giving myself the third-degree about how deeply I interacted with these people.
  • What was I required to do every day? What were my routines?
  • What did I want to do with my free time?
  • What did I hope to do? What were my plans for the future?
  • What events can I document on Google that I remember attending?
  • Where and what did I eat at my three meals?
  • What TV shows did I watch?
  • What books did I read?
  • What movies and concerts did I go to?
  • How did I commute to work and school?

I’ve decided not to attend my reunion because digging through the yearbooks convinced me I knew too few classmates. I realized while contemplating this whole high school reunion thing, that I can measure my high school years by how much I talked to the different people. Today I can name damn few people I got to really know back in high school. I wasn’t particularly shy. I’m fairly confident that I learned all the names of my classmates in every class. I paid that much attention. People would talk to me and I’d talk to them, but it was all casual chit-chat that’s been forgotten. I remember several girls in each class that triggered sex fantasies to alleviate the boredom of lectures. Some of them actually like talking to me. However, I only actually dated only one girl for a couple of months, and I can’t remember one distinctive thing she said to me. I found damn few kids in my memories that liked to talk about what I liked to talk about, which was science, science fiction, the future, and NASA’s efforts at space travel. I did gab daily with folks about cars, television, movies, and rock music because those were the lowest common denominators of pop culture back then. I didn’t like talking about sports or school activities or gossiping about the other kids.

I still chat on the phone several times a week to my oldest friend, Jim Connell. We met at Coral Gables High School, my second high school, in 1967. So he wasn’t part of my graduating class, but Connell was the person I spent the most time with back then. We were also pals with George Kirschner. George is probably the second person I spent the most time talking to during my high school years. We three loved science fiction, and we had each had rejected our Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish upbringing. I was into the counter culture, George was the know-it-all with a more sophisticated upbringing, and Connel was adventurous but shy and loved the ocean. We all loved science.

My family moved from Coconut Grove, Florida to South Miami when I was in the 11th grade, and I finished out high school at Miami-Killian Senior High. However, I kept my job in Coconut Grove until the last week of November 1968. That kept me tied to some of my friends that still went to Coral Gables High School, but it meant a long daily commute to work. Remembering this made me realize I had friends at two high schools and a job so that meant a lot more names and conversations to recall.

It also made me realize that I did a lot of traveling every day and I didn’t own a car. Just trying to remember how I got from place to place is unearthing all kinds of memories. Google Maps tells me from home to Kwik Check was 16.1 miles via Old Cutler Road, and would take 37 minutes. Here’s a memory puzzle. I think my mother and father each had a car, but I didn’t. They both worked. I remember a 1967 Pontiac Tempest and vaguely remember a much older Mercury. I think sometimes I’d go to school on the bus, or catch a ride with Tim Green. Miami-Killian was between home and work. And then I’d hitch-hike into the Grove, but I don’t think I did that often. I only vaguely remember driving to school a few times, but what I really remember was loving the drive home after work. I’d be hot and sweaty after working six hours. My end-of-the-night tasks were sweeping and mopping the floors, cleaning the bathrooms, and incinerating the out-of-date food. I’d buy two 16-ounce Cokes after work and drive home via the Old Cutler Road, which was dark and lined with ancient looking trees. I’d have the windows down and play the radio very loud. I love the time I had to myself driving home. It was the only time I wasn’t rushing. So my assumption is my parents would lend me their cars. But I have no memory of discussing who’d take the car each day, or how they got to their jobs.

Nor do I remember much about my sister Becky’s life back then. She was two years younger than me. When I started the 12th at Miami-Killian she started the 10th, but I have no memory of which junior high schools she attended in Gables or South Miami Heights.

And this makes me remember something else. To many, high school is 9th through 12th, but in Miami, junior high was 7th through 9th and high school 10th through 12th. So if I’m recalling the details of my high school years, do I think of four schools or three, or four homes or three? Because recalling the 9th grade is a whole other memory era for me, and a different group of friends.

This quicksand trap is teaching me about memory. Every time I find a piece of evidence, remember a name, think of an activity or recall an event, I trigger memories around them. It feels like it’s all there, I just need to find the hook, or thread of the web and follow it. It boggles my mind to think that chemical etchings in my brain stores all these memories.

Now that I’m working out the framework for finding memories, I want to pick an individual memory and reconstruct it in depth. I know there was the reality to my life fifty years ago, but it was all perceptual. There was the person I wanted to be, the person I thought I was, the person other people saw, and they were all different. And my parents and teachers wanted me to be different people with different futures, and I wanted to be something I could never be.

One of the hardest things to remember is my realistic expectations about the future. I remember countless unrealistic expectations, but how often did I make realistic decisions and plans? Stay tuned for part 2.