I don’t have a blog, so every now and then I slap something into Chaff. Nothing about backpacking, being outdoors, etc. But it is chaff, so before you begin whining, it’s allowed. This one’s kinda long. I warned you.
Scraps of Brain Matters
I was named after no one in particular.
I know this because that’s what either my mother or father wrote in my ‘Baby Book’ shortly after I was born. It’s written - definitely not scrawled - in neat penmanship right under my name in answer to the printed question: “Named For.”
I was baptized less than a month later at the Holy Infancy Catholic Church. I have no idea where that is, but since I lived my first year in Lake Luzerne, N.Y., I assume it’s there or somewhere nearby.
All this information is on my birth record page of the book - my full name, my date and time of birth, the doctor’s and nurses’ names, my weight (7 lbs., 8 oz.), my length (20 inches). The newspaper announcement, yellowed with age, under the headline “In The Cradle,” is taped to the top of the page. My favorite bit on the page, by far, though, is “Other Data.” Here one of my parents wrote, “two dimples - blue eyes.” Those dimples and eyes have served me well over the years - and escorted me into no small bit of trouble as well.....
I’m purging. Winnowing down the paper trail of my memories. Much of the paper has been neatly filed away, the memories not so much. That’s just not how my brain works. I wrote about it years ago during another bout of purging.
Back then I wrote: “I’ve never been that good at mental filing, so my memories are in such a mish-mash state of affairs that I can never quite remember where I’ve put them. But the hours spent in a large, brightly lit but drudgingly appointed room in Raeford, N.C., hot-waxing newspaper pages together come back in a flash when I read the few thoughts dashed off on a small, round, laminate-top table near the soda machine. And the downright silly sense of joy at finding not one but two golf balls out in the middle of absolutely nowhere, Arizona, during a bike trip rushes over me as I peruse a few pics sent to me by my bike mate Thomi. Call it the Dougie Decimal System. Each bit of paraphernalia locates its corresponding memory that was tossed haphazardly into my mind. Pretty cool, the way that works. Pretty darn cool. Especially since it seems most of the bad memories were never filed.”
So now I’m discarding some more of the brick-a-brack, and probably forever the corresponding memories as well. That’s okay, I’ve got plenty. I tend to do this right around this time of year - right around Oct. 18 - a day that often finds me taking stock, doing a bit more remembering than most other days, a day that often finds me thinking about who I’ve been, where I’ve been, and what I’ve learned from my journey thus far. It’s a time that finds me smiling broadly, with an occasional tear gently winding its way down my unshaven face. But mostly smiling.
I’m once again discovering some wonderful past moments in my boxes and filing cabinet folders and closets - my memory joggers are stashed haphazardly throughout my house. An old letter my father wrote me is a true gem. He’s writing to apologize for not saying goodbye before handing the phone to my mother the last time we talked. I was in Germany, and he was calling to tell me my brother had just died. He was overcome with grief, and had to hand the phone to my mother before finishing the conversation. And then he wrote to apologize.
Of course, the letter brings back a chain of memories of my brother, Stephen, as well. That’s one of the wonderful things about certain pieces of paper or cloth or whatnot - they don’t just summon one memory, but a basketful. I said goodbye to my dad a few years ago when his heart finally gave out. Yeah, I’ll be keeping the letter for a while longer.
In a box, stashed in a corner of the downstairs closet, underneath the stairwell, I find a trove of long forgotten cards and letters - and an engagement ring. I read each of the cards and letters before placing them in the recycling bag. Well, most of them. I set a couple of them aside. One is a letter I wrote to my soon-to-be-second wife in 1994. It’s probably the longest letter I’ve ever written - I typed it over a week while TDY (on temporary duty, for you non military types) in Bosnia and Macedonia - with a trip to the Sarajevo airport to deliver supplies (I wasn’t allowed to disembark from the plane because the airport was under constant harassment from snipers in the nearby hills). It’s 8-plus, single spaced, typewritten pages, detailing the trip. Lots of details that are still a bit hazy even after reading the letter, but absolutely fascinating, including a discussion I had on the flight into Sarajevo with Mustafa Ceric , then the Supreme Head of the Islamic State in Bosnia-Hercegovina. Yup, I’ve had quite the interesting life. Keeping this letter too.
But I’m not sure what to do with the ring. I no longer attach any significance to it - I long ago moved on - but I can’t just throw it away. I don’t know anyone who’d want it. It’s now a small, round puzzle with a diamond on top. A friend suggested I make a pendant or something out of it and give it to someone. Maybe. I also came across a quilt that’s been languishing in an upstairs closet for 13 years now, and I’m not sure what to do with it either. It’s pretty cool, really. When I first married my second wife I was pretty poor. Christmas was coming and I didn’t have much money to buy something special. So I had a dozen and a half dear friends and family members of my wife contribute a pair of old jeans - they had to be a pair that they’d actually worn. I spent countless hours cutting all those jeans into 6” squares (I think it was 6” anyway). I then gave the squares to a talented friend of mine, who sewed a wonderful blue-jean, ‘friendship’ quilt out of the squares. She also crocheted the names of the folks who contributed to it, each name got its own square. I don’t think I ever gave Gloria anything that meant as much to her as that quilt.
And in my rummaging I found a page from a photo album - an old one that young folks probably wouldn’t recognize, since you actually put paper photos in it! It’s the kind with the plastic overlay that you’d raise, place the photos on the semi-sticky page, then press the plastic sheet back over the page. A relic! This one had each of my school pictures from every year - kindergarten through 12th grade. It was fun seeing how much I changed year to year, and how I didn’t change much at all.
I’m a bit of a packrat when it comes to paperwork, so I also rummaged through the orders and financial paperwork from every TDY I ever took, since I still had them. As an Army photojournalist I traveled the world over, and I traveled often. A few plum assignments - as a journalist with the 82nd Airborne Division and 18th Airborne Corps, and as a senior photojournalist with Soldiers magazine - kept me on the road and often overseas. Looking over the paperwork I easily recall sitting on top of the State Department building in Haiti, overlooking the bay late on a clear night, using a Sat phone to call my wife, and then my mom, to let them know I was okay during Operation Uphold Democracy. And I remember being high on a mountain top between Peru and Ecuador at a small, military outpost on another trip. And chatting with my brother on the tarmac in Grenada during Operation Urgent Fury - I was with the 82nd and he was with 2nd/75th Rangers - he jumped in and I airlanded the next day. We had about 10 minutes chatting, and then we each had to get back to our missions. Three among many.
But I don’t need the paperwork for those memories, so to the shredder they go, along with old bank statements, old pay stubs, and other personal papers. I’m up to four bags full of memories reduced to quarter inch cross-cut strips, all jumbled together. Fitting, since that’s the way they’re stored in my brain.
When I moved from Garlstedt, in Northern Germany, to Heidelberg back in ’91, everything I owned fit into a 10-foot panel van. Even my touring bike and touring equipment (heavy-ass tent, sleeping bag, etc.). Everything. Now I live in a 4-bedroom, 2.5 bath house with my pup. And every room has something in it. Not necessarily full, but nowhere near empty. That’s what I’m working on. My pup probably has no more than a couple of years left, if that. She’s 15 and really showing her age. When I say my final goodbye to her, I’d like to move everything I own in a 10-foot panel van again. I’m not sure I’ll get there - after all now I have 5 bikes instead of just one - but I’d like to get a lot closer than I am now.
So I’ll keep purging. I’m only purging stuff, not really purging memories, but I know that when some of the stuff is gone the memories will probably be stuffed into some dusty, dimly lit corner of my brain. Without the stuff, those memories might never see the light of day again. I guess I’ll just have to keep making new ones.
Oh well, I told you this was a tad long. But my glass of Glenrothes 1994 single malt is almost done, so I might as well close. Thanks for taking this stroll with me. Enjoy your evening.