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on the nature of flash bulbs

June 11, 2009

so lately, when i’m bored at work, i read the archives of this blog i happen to like. and sometimes i come across posts that i’d like to discuss – that i would, in fact, go against my natural hatred of commenting for – but the posts are old and no one wants to hear me chime in 18 months after the fact.

so instead i’m going to just do my own little post. the author of this particular post was discussing the nature of memory, particularly “flash bulb memories” – those moments so startling, so memorable, that they stick with us. unlike the situation in my previous post, which was so random and weird it stuck with me, flash bulb memories are things like JFK’s assassination. and the blogger went on to discuss the way that these memories stick with us, even when they’re totally wrong. and so the blogger inquired what sort of flash bulb memories the reader might have. here are mine (after the jump):

1. the first is (sort of) the Challenger disaster. i was 5 and in kindergarten when the Challenger blew up in 1986. i lived in southern california. and yet for years i was convinced that i had seen it happen. i distinctly remembered the weird clouds on the skyline, the haze in the air. i remembered being sent home early from school, i remembered that i was very upset, and that because my mom was working and could not immediately get away to come get me, i went home with my best friend at the time, a mexican girl named ruby who lived in an apartment building on the corner of L & Maple. i remember the school i attended – La Canada Elementary – and so i know that this memory comes from sometime between January and June 1986, because that was the only semester i went to LC.

sometime around  middle school, i casually mentioned this to my mother one day. she looked at me in semi-disbelief and informed me that i had not, in fact, witnessed the Challenger incident, as that had happened some 3,000 miles away in Florida. totally baffled, i asked my mom exactly what i was remembering, then. she told me that during that same spring, a missile had blown up immediately after launch out at the base*, and that given my age and the timing, i had probably conflated the incidents in my head.

2. the second is the truly interesting one, the one that calls into question the whole nature of what we remember and why. the middle school i went to was on the base – the base shares a school district with the town, and all the kids from outside city limits and a few from the north edge of town go to the base middle school – and happens to be on the edge of east base that is right along the highway and diagonal from the main gate of the main base (maybe i’ll draw a rough map of this and scan it at home). one day a tanker truck coming down the highway ended up crashing into the main gate and causing a huge explosion. the classrooms on the side of the school that faced the gate were evacuated for the remainder of the afternoon.

i recall this incident in detail. i remember that i was in home ec, and we were watching a video, so all the blinds were down. we heard a loud “boom.” the teacher said “eh, probably a sonic boom or something.”** we finished the film, the lights came up, the teacher opened the blinds and HOT DAMN there were huge clouds of smoke and flame out there (the classroom was one of the ones facing the gate). my other classes that afternoon – german and science – were also on that side of the school and so I got to go sit in the cafeteria for the remainder of the afternoon.

this is obviously the kind of thing you tend to remember. however, my friend bug and i absolutely cannot agree on what year this happened. i maintain that it was during 7th grade, because i only took home ec in 7th grade, and my 8th grade german class was in the morning, which to me is clear evidence it couldn’t have happened any other year. however, bug maintains that it was 8th grade, for similar very specific reasons that i cannot enumerate on my own (maybe she’ll comment!). clearly, someone’s memory is incorrect (hell, maybe both our memories). we have each tied the specific timing of this incident to other things we thought were going on at the same time. but what if – like the 5 year old me – we simply connected the memory of an exploding tanker truck with other totally random memories that seemed to make sense? how do we ever really know what we’re remembering is real? (now let’s all go watch memento and slowly go out of our minds as we ponder this.)

3. the big, the bad, the obvious: 9/11. i was a senior in college and had just turned 21. i was in the shower, getting ready for my 9:30 class. i heard the phone ring (strange, i thought, who would call us at this hour?). then my roommate banged on the bathroom door and told me to get out there right away. i came out dripping, in a towel, to see him pointing at cnn and telling me that planes had just flown into the world trade center. we spent the day nervously smoking and watching the news (i did eventually get dressed).

here’s what i find so fascinating about this particular memory, though. it’s not that it’s a flash bulb memory, because it’s obviously the kind of thing that most people remember with absolute clarity (or think they do), our generation’s JFK assassination. what i find fascinating is that while it was happening, while i was watching it on television, i thought to myself “this is going to be a defining moment, this is going to be something we all remember, this is a huge thing in the collective memory.” and i think in some ways i’ve told myself this story every once in a while just to ensure that i do remember it, that it does remain in my memory, that it links me to the collective memory. which just goes to show you what happens when a historian lives through history.***

*growing up on or next to a military base is very strange sometimes.

**seriously, totally strange, the things you get used to living next to the space program.

***side note: i get asked to participate in census bureau surveys a lot, probably because i actually bothered to fill out the first one they sent me. i love doing this; when my cousin asked me why after i told her about it one day, i explained to her that having once been someone who relied on all sorts of data, including census statistics, i like the idea that i am potentially contributing to a future dissertation.

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