Memory is a Mysterious Master

Or: ‘Ah, yes, I remember it well’

Mundi, African Bush Elephant, Mayaguez Zoo, Puerto Rico ©2014 Ronald C. Flores-Gunkle

I admire people who can remember their earliest years in great detail. Memory, for me, is a marvelous mystery. For most of my life, my “toddlerhood” had been lost in a heavy fog. Trying to recapture it would be like looking out a train window during a long journey in a heavy rain.

I am, at 80, quite near the end of my ride. To save my survivors the trouble, I have been discarding the detritus of my life — closets full of papers, some nearly seven decades old. It is there I discovered written in pencil on four sheets of yellow paper this record of the fifth year of my life. I had written it in 1955 when I was 15.

Pembroke Village

Pembroke Village was a housing project in Bethlehem, PA, completed at the end of World War II. [Today it is part of the Pembroke Historic District.] I don’t know how long my family had been living there in 1945 when I was five years old, but it could not have been very long. There were many, many little kids and each day we would gather at the central playground. I would join Jimmy, my best friend, two not-so-identical twins, an older girl named Janet and her little tagalong sister Nancy, and my tomboy sister, Barbara. We formed the reigning gang of that playground, although I was among the youngest and had very little to say. The older “monarchs” voted and decided who would get to use the box hockey and who pushed who off the jungle gym — and what would be done about it. Children’s justice was fierce.

My favorite pastime was hiding and playing in the little rooms that adjoined every dwelling in the project. I especially liked one next to the field house. It was for storing coal in the winter but in the summer was empty, except for some sand-fine coal dust and a few chunks of coal. I would crawl in with a stick and my trucks. I needed the stick to climb up to the coal chute and to brace myself for the fall when I bounced in. Oh the glorious hours I spent there playing, singing or just enjoying being alone!

Jimmy was also five. He was smaller than me and looked much younger. He was quite loyal to me. As I look back now, I realize how wonderful a little friend he was and how much I loved him. When I was in there, he would stand outside, rarely wandering away, keeping guard.

The twins were about our same age but they were much bigger and stronger. They would often pick on us. Sometimes they would play nicely but after awhile they would get rough with Jimmy. I would get mad and pelt them with coal and they, in return, would pounce on me and slap me until they were tired. We would never cry, for that was the lowest sin a gang member could commit. But we did cry, inwardly, and when we were alone.

Most of the girls didn’t act like girls. My sister climbed the jungle gym and looped the swing better than any of the boys. Janet could really fight. Her mom said she had to take care of her little sister so — although she was hardly more than a baby — she was considered a member of our gang. Both my sister Barbara and Janet were old: they were both eight.

There was an older gang with headquarters at The Cup, an ice cream store at the edge of the project. I had some casual — usually unwelcome — contact with that group because my oldest sister, Shirley, was a member.

Jimmy was a gentle, well-mannered boy— not like he rest of us. I heard his parents had been rich before the war but had lost their business. His father worked at the Bethlehem Steel Company, just like my dad. Jimmy’s mother worked at the Just Born Candy Company across the field in an ugly old factory building. A sickly sweet smell sometimes reached us from it on a hot day. The factory had one fascinating attraction, a large, deep, murky pond, full of fish. At 4:30 every afternoon Jimmy went there to watch the fish jump and wait for his mother and walk home with her. One day Jimmy’s mom was surprised and alarmed that Jimmy wasn’t there.

I was playing in a new coal bin when I heard my mother calling for me. I climbed out and went home for supper. Jimmy’s mom was at our house and she was hysterical. Mom sent me to my room, although I begged to stay. Some of the other kids’ moms used to come in crying sometimes but Jimmy’s mom was not one of them. Before my mother yelled at me again I heard her say that she wanted to use the phone. I don’t know how long I was up there — I may have napped. When I came back down, there was no one around. I was scared. I saw people down in the field and I ran to see what was happening. People were standing around the fishpond and men with a metal drum, pulley and rope were working there.

“Nobody can find Jimmy,” my mom said. “These men and Jimmy’s mom think he may have fallen in.” I stood there dazed, then felt sick and slowly walked home. I remember later sitting around the table to eat but I could not. No one could. I was sick, so sick I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t do anything. I went to my room and stayed there for days. I don’t know how long, I was so numb. I never went back into a coal bin.

We went to Jimmy’s funeral at his house. I saw him lying there so white, so small, smaller than ever. He held a Bible in his hands. I kissed his cheek — it was very cold — and my mom kept holding me as I cried and cried. The neighborhood was quiet for weeks. No kids played. The candy company built a fence around the pond. I don’t remember anything else about Pembroke Village after Jimmy’s death.

Forest Avenue

I remember Forest Avenue, the place my family moved while I was still five. The new house wasn’t exactly new. It was at the very northern limit of Bethlehem, in a small cluster of houses facing open farmland — there was no forest. It was originally a huge one-room bungalow with a large yard. There were few neighbors: just two houses to the west, the Mulhausens and the Stametz, and one to the east. My father had spent all of his spare time dividing the huge room into four and building two rooms upstairs, one for me and one for my sisters.

He raised chickens, something he could not do in the village. I remember a mean rooster that used to stand at the gate and refused to allow my sisters to go to school. I remember the rooster being hit by a car. My dad got rid of the chickens, built a white picket fence, planted fruit trees and built a small swimming pool. One day in particular is clear to me. My sisters had gone to school. My mother was sick in bed and my Dad asked me if I wanted to go to my grandmother’s. I didn’t want to go, but he insisted. That afternoon my grandmother told me I would have a surprise. I stayed at my grandmother’s for a few days and when I went home it was crowded with relatives. I went to see my mother: she looked thin and pale — but very happy. She told me she brought me a little brother.

The next thing I remember is going to school. I wasn’t jealous of my sisters who had already been in school as much as I was of Tommy Stametz, the neighbor boy, who started school before me, interrupting our play. Tommy and I had hiked all over the farmers’ fields seeking adventure. We would often walk down to a small city park built around a former tannery. One day Tommy, his brother Larry, my sister Barbara and I climbed the hills above the park to roast hot dogs in the mouth of a cave. A very old man appeared and told us a story.

“This cave,” he said — he spoke very slowly to make his words mysterious. “This grotto was once inhabited by the devil. Up on the ceiling there was a skull and bones painted in blood. Even the Indians believed an evil spirit lived in a deep pool of black water at the bottom of the cave. They would never go beyond this entrance, where they held their council.”

I know we looked nervously into the dark of the cave. After a long pause he continued: “Once, a little boy came up here all alone. He didn’t know about the devil. He climbed into the dark of the cave on his hands and knees. His mother came looking for him but there was no sign of him. He disappeared into the depths. He was never found.”

I don’t remember his exact words, of course, but I remember the story very well. The old man moved on. The hot dogs had lost their flavor and we left soon after. I can still remember the old man’s gravelly tone of voice and exactly how he looked.

The handwritten notes

Editing these notes, I discovered memory is not my friend. I had retained little of what my adolescent self had written in 1955 —just a vague recollection of the coal bins and of Jimmy’s drowning. These pages in my file suggest two things: Hiding in a coal bin could have been the chrysalis of a writer, and, I might have metamorphosed if I had kept more notes. But I didn’t and my memory today mimics that of Maurice Chevalier who with Hermione Gingold sang “Ah, yes, I remember it well” in the musical Gigi.

I do remember some vignettes of my post pre-school youth that might have provided prompts for stories: an iceman coming down the alley behind our house; my running behind his cart in summer for pieces of ice to suck on. I remember seeing blocks of ice being loaded with huge tongs into our neighbor’s iceboxes — we had an electric refrigerator so we were not clients. I remember being told about a terrible bike accident I had: a fence post pierced my crotch and my family feared for my life. I have no recollection of the event nor of the pain or hospitalization. I remember our first TV — the only one in our neighborhood — with its tiny screen and a magnifying lens my Dad bought so my friends who sprawled on our living room floor could watch the new gadget.

I could have added other details of stories like that of sweet little Jimmy who drowned in a candy factory pond and the story of a nameless child who crawled into forever, if only I could remember them.

Memory is a mysterious master. But, in the end, does it matter? What is it that Robert Frost said?

“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: It goes on.”

An aging humanist hanging on to the idea that there is hope for humankind — against all current indications.

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