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`Thanks for the memory'

I'VE got a memory problem. I can't forget things. I still know the first telephone number I was issued over 25 years ago. I can instantly recite the social security numbers of my wife and children, as well as credit card numbers, drivers' licenses, library card IDs -- you name it, and it's blurted out faster than a high-speed computer. When I read, the page and places, the important dates of the text, are quite literally photographed in some recess for recollection. As a drama student in college in the 1950s, I could learn my script in nanoseconds, and I still remember the lines I had in roles in ``Death of a Salesman,'' ``Three Sisters,'' ``The Crucible,'' and ``Androcles and the Lion.'' In sandlot baseball in 1946 (our team was the Mudsox), I batted .264 and played a lousy shortstop, making three errors in a particular game. My first girlfriend was Shirley Boyer, and my first-grade teacher's name was Miss Talbot, which I pronounced as Tablet. I'm serious.

I can't go to a movie without taking home all the lines (``What we have here,'' said Strother Martin in ``Cool Hand Luke,'' ``is a failure to communicate.''). When I watch television, I try to turn off the sound for each of the commercials for fear that more information will be stored. To my chagrin, I've found that I can read lips.

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Of course, as a historian, I've benefited from a capacity to sweep up all the facts. Important and unimportant dates, contents of treaties, legislation passed by Congress, itineraries of presidents in off-year elections -- all chiseled like Mt. Rushmore into my memory. When my children were in elementary school, the highlight of their history lesson was to try to find some obscure fact or quotation that ole Dad didn't know. They never won, although they sometimes resorted to every trick in the book of deceptive clues that I had read and memorized a long time ago.

I guess I should say thanks for my memory, but the problem is that I can't purge any of the junk or trivia I've stored. Unlike a computer, the garbage that goes in stays in. So I don't read any more of the bulk mail I receive, I absolutely refuse to look at billboards when I drive, and I wouldn't get even close to the classified pages of a Sunday newspaper.

No doubt about it, I've got a memory like an elephant -- and, as my wife reminds me, the bulk to match. Now that I would really like to forget.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University.

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