I once knew how to take apart an M-16, clean it, and put the rifle back together again. I say “once” because I have not done so for over 20 years. It is possible, I can guess, that I remember how to do this activity. Possible, but not guaranteed.
It is fashionable among academics or writers who are not academics to begin a memoir or personal recollection by noting the state of poverty or blue collar background that they came from. I can cite my background differently: I came from a suburb in Miami, Florida. My family was middle class. We had plenty to eat. My parents owned two cars. I had clothes to wear. There were shopping malls in various directions we could drive to and visit. My high school sent many students to college.
When I was in maybe seventh grade, I won a contest sponsored by The Miami Herald. Each week, the Herald published a comic strip without words, but with empty word balloons. Children readers were invited to fill in the balloons with something witty. The best completed strip won a cash prize and chance to appear on The Sunday Funnies, a Sunday morning show where the host and his sidekick named Toby the Robot read the Sunday comics with a panel of kids. One week, I won the contest. For some time, I have searched the YouTube archives in the desperate hope that this episode was saved and uploaded by someone else who lived in Miami in the early 1980s. I have had no luck finding the lost The Sunday Funnies episode. I imagine myself finding it one day, showing it to students or colleagues, posting it on Facebook, returning to my childhood 15 minutes of fame. After we taped the episode, my parents stopped off at Spec’s on Dixie Highway on the way home. I used my cash prize to buy a copy of The J.Geils Bands’ Love Stinks album. In sixth grade, I wanted to be a cartoonist for a living. I drew a comic strip whose title was my own name. I had two other friends who did the same with their own names. The main character’s sidekick was a manatee. This was an obvious rip off of Bloom County where the sidekick was a penguin who was in love with Diane Sawyer.
Sometimes we begin a freshmen class with an ice breaker: Tell a lie about yourself. Tell us something unique about yourself no one would know. The idea is the start the class on a familiar note, and as students share the anecdotes, I quickly memorize their names. I can memorize the first names of an entire class in one day. Then I use this achievement as an ice breaker: “Am I good or what?” I will declare after I demonstrate my memory to them, going one by one, saying their names out loud. “Can any of your other professors do that?” In the army, I was sent to an anti-terror training course for several weeks. After completing the course, I was sent back to my unit, told only that I did not pass security clearance. I wish I could dazzle colleagues and friends with my ability to stop terrorism by firing an M-16 out of a moving car. That one exercise is about all I remember from the course. I am sure none of my other colleagues can do that either.
When I read a memoir or personal recollection, I’m amazed at what writers recall from their childhood: details of where they lived, names of classmates in the second grade, daily occurrences. They do so in great detail and with great importance. But with me, I struggle to remember anything in great detail. I struggle to remember how we moved from house A to house B in Miami. It’s as if: one moment we lived in house A. Suddenly, we were in house B. When did the trucks arrive to get our stuff? When did we unpack? When did my parents look for a new house? I have no clue.
My most vivid memory of taking apart an M-16 is not the actual process of removing pieces and cleaning them but the tiny pin we called “Shabbat pin.” If you lost Shabbat pin, you “got Shabbat.” Getting Shabbat meant staying on the base during the weekend when everyone else got to go home. Home for me was a run down kibbutz near Tiberias where, years earlier, half its membership had packed up its belongings and moved somewhere else over a fight. Some time ago, I joined a Facebook group focused on this kibbutz where group members shared memories of living there and photographs of their time there. Nobody from my time period posted a photograph. Of if they did, I don’t remember their names. In fact, I can’t remember anybody’s name from the kibbutz, including my adopted family.
Memoir means memory. Memories are recorded. That is a basic idea, as basic as growing up in a middle class suburb in Miami, Florida. There is something self-satisfying about telling one’s story or series of memories, however little or however much we remember. Search through YouTube, and you find all kinds of media memories: KISS on the Tom Synder show, home movies, old Mike Douglas episodes, old TV newscasts, concert footage from years ago. There is something very Barthes-esque about such moments: That happened/that person is now dead. For some reason, someone decides that they want to share a forgotten moment that, for some reason, was preserved years ago. They locate that moment from an old videotape, and then they upload it. Do most people have boxes of old videotapes in their closet? My father brought such a box to us when we lived in Missouri. “I don’t have a VCR anymore,” I told him. He brought an old VCR as well. We threw the box of videotapes out one day on trash day.
I wonder where my copy of Love Stinks is now. Maybe in a box in my parents’ house? If so, how did it get there? Who packed it? How did it get from point A to point B? Has it been thrown out? It doesn’t matter. I don’t have a record player anymore either.