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Childhood Amnesia
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Published Monday, November 10, 2014 @ 12:53 AM EST
Nov 10 2014

This article on childhood amnesia made me think about my own earliest memories.

The most primal ones are just fragments, flashes of images and sound to which I can't attach specific dates or locations.

I believe I do remember my second birthday: September 11, 1956. At least I think it was my second birthday; there was a cake and candles and people singing, and Elvis was playing on the radio- "Hound Dog," a song my grandmother liked and often sang to me. It was at the top of the charts in the fall of that year.

There was Mister Peepers, a big white German Shepherd my dad brought home. The dog was named after the Wally Cox character from the 1952-1956 television series. He was huge, friendly, exuberant, and had the unfortunate habit of knocking me over. Repeatedly. Think Calvin and Hobbes.

I remember crying- not from the collisions, but when my grandmother yelled at my father that a 50 pound "puppy" was not an appropriate pet for someone my age living in an apartment in the city.

Mr. Peepers was relocated to a relative of my cousins'. We visited him once on something like a farm- it was a long drive, and there were lots of fields and woods. Having spent my life to that point in downtown Homestead, it made an indelible impression. I could run around with other children, play hide and seek, get a Pepsi from the big ice-filled tub and drink it right out of the bottle.

I mimicked the older kids and picked ripe blueberries. Speaking of indelible impressions- I gathered them in my white t-shirt, which turned an amazing shade of purple. I thought it was neat; my father was not as impressed. He made me take it off, and he tossed it, explaining to a group of laughing adults that my grandmother would kill him if she saw the stain.

I also sustained my first sunburn, and remember lying in bed while my grandmother slathered me with Noxzema. The summertime equivalent of Vicks Vapo-Rub, these two ubiquitous 1950s home remedies are probably responsible for my lifetime dislike of the aromas of camphor and eucalyptus. As she forced the smelly cream into my toasted epidermis, she yelled at my Dad. "I told you not to let him run around without a shirt on. Where's his shirt? Where are his shoes? ... What. In. The. Name. Of. Jesus!? ... Why does this child have blueberries in his hair?!"

I know I wasn't in school then, and I'm guessing by my general mobility and improved motor skills- I don't recall being flattened by Mr. Peepers on this occasion- that this was July or August of 1957. Again, Elvis helps with the dating: one of the kids had a teddy bear, and I remember Elvis singing about it. "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear" was the number one song on the radio for most of July and August that year, the months for picking blueberries.

My grandmother ran a boarding house and I would play under a table in the living room while her boarders watched TV. One program stuck out in my memory, but only vague details. It was by Alfred Hitchcock; there was a woman at the top of a flight of steps; and she said, "Oh, good," which elicited gales of laughter from the adults which continued until the commercial break.

Thanks to the marvels of the Internet, I was able to find the program:

It was the first episode of the television series Suspicion, entitled "Four O'Clock," directed by Alfred Hitchcock and broadcast on September 30, 1957 on WIIC Channel 11, which had just gone on the air on September 1.

Suspicion aired at 10 pm- kind of late for a three year old. But I also have fond memories of watching What's My Line and Candid Camera and listening to Ed and Wendy King's Party Line on KDKA Radio. I don't think my grandparents ever made a big deal out of when I went to bed; at least I have no traumatic memories surrounding bedtime. I don't know if that demonstrates a lack of parenting skills or the early recognition and tacit acceptance of the bizarre circadian rhythm I maintain to this day.

There are several Christmases in the late 50s of which I have black and white photos, but, honestly, my original memories of them are undoubtedly affected by the snapshots.

I remember my first day of kindergarten, which was probably August 30, 1959; Khrushchev visiting Mesta Machine in West Homestead on September 24, 1959; the Pirates winning the World Series on October 13, 1960; and the election of President Kennedy on November 8, 1960 and his inauguration on January 20, 1961. My grandfather was a rather reserved, stoic person. He was also a Democratic committeeman. His excitement over Kennedy's win was therefore quite memorable.

From that point on, my memory is fairly intact. I recall the names of all of my teachers, and about 90% of the kids in all the class photos.

My "adult" memory- that contiguous chain of chronological recollections tied to times and events which extend to the present- began on November 22, 1963.

I was nine years old then, around the time researchers say our brains lock in the childhood recollections we'll carry through the rest of our lives- the point where our "mature" memory begins functioning. Perhaps. But until then, I really hadn't paid much attention to what was going on in the world. After Kennedy's assassination I began noting and filing memories in an orderly fashion, instead of just throwing them in the pile of passed (and past) occurrences.

Just don't ask me what I had for breakfast.


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