I have a somewhat sketchy memory, which drives my wife in particular nuts. I can recall certain dates from history or who wrote and sang the theme song to “Welcome Back, Kotter” with no problem. But what she asked me to add to the grocery list this morning … ah, more eggs? Greek Yogurt? … Yeah, big problem.
I’m also simply terrible at remembering people’s names; the medical term is prosopagnosia, which is likely the only thing Brad Pitt and I have in common.
Interestingly enough, I also have a couple “sense triggers” in my memory banks. These are sounds or even smells which cause people to recall events or even other sounds or smells from their past. Like the smell of turkey reminding you of Thanksgiving at your Grandmother’s house. (Click here to read more about the link between the senses and memory).
For example, one summer when I was in high school I worked for the city water department, doing jobs like yard work and painting water tanks and other equipment. I spent quite a bit of time at the main water filtration and treatment plant, which was located in the middle of an industrial park. Each morning one of the other workers would drop me off at the plant with any equipment or supplies I’d need and a list of things to do, and I’d fill my day. I was allowed to bring a radio to listen to, and therein lies the root of my sense trigger.
Back then AM radio was still what we listened to and in my part of the Midwest the top radio station was WLS in Chicago. That summer I learned what “heavy rotation” meant, as the top songs were played every hour, regular as clockwork. There was a tremendous amount of commercials on AM radio — and not a lot of variety in the ads, either — so when the No. 1 song came on it seemed like I had just heard it a few minutes earlier.
Anyway, one of the No. 1 songs that summer was “Miss You” by the Rolling Stones, and let me tell you I heard that song quite a bit. Lots. So much so that to this day every time I hear “Miss You” I swear I can smell a faint whiff of chlorine, which is what the treatment plant always smelled like.
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My other sense trigger also is a song; “Turn the Page” by Bob Seger. The memory that comes to mind is a warm night in Puerto Rico, at Naval Station Roosevelt Roads. As a brand-new ship USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) spent a lot of time at “Rosy Roads,” conducting shakedown testing in the warm and calm waters of the Caribbean Sea.
We pulled into the naval station for an overnight visit to load equipment and provisions, and once that was complete liberty was called for those not on watch. We were scheduled to depart the next day so the crew was encouraged to be responsible but a more important factor in limiting reckless behavior was probably the difficulty in getting anywhere. There was a shuttle van making the rounds, but the base was so spread out it took a long time to get from one end to the other.
Burke’s crew trooped off en masse and many of us walked to the head of the pier where there was a small pizza parlor operated by the base Welfare and Recreation Division. The place was crowded wall-to-wall but there was pizza and cold beer, and for many that was good enough for a one-night stop. Others, myself included, climbed into the shuttle van after eating their fill of pizza, intent on seeing what the base had to offer.
After a long ride and several stops the van ended up at the station bowling alley, which seemed to most of us like a great place to end what had been up to that point a pretty uninteresting tour. I had a couple of beers while keeping my eye on the time; some bowled but I didn’t. When it was time for the shuttle I said my good nights and headed out to join two Burke Sailors waiting for the van. Both were junior petty officers, one from Engineering and the other from Operations, and both had drank a bit more than I had but weren’t what I would consider drunk.
It was just the three of us in the shuttle on the way back to the ship, and we rode in silence at the start. Then one of the petty officers began talking to the other, and I could tell it was the continuation of a conversation from earlier in their evening. This man was having some trouble adjusting to life on the ship — it was his first sea tour — and being away from his loved ones. The second man was on his second sea tour but he also admitted to missing his wife and kids, and both abruptly fell silent again.
I felt a little uneasy listening to them, wondering if — as an officer — I should weigh into their conversation and perhaps offer some encouraging words. The truth is I was missing my family just as much as they were theirs and I doubted there was anything I could offer that wouldn’t sound false, so I just sat in the darkened van and said nothing.
Suddenly, the Engineering petty officer, who had a rumbling bass voice, began quietly singing the opening lines from “Turn the Page.” He made some mistakes with the words that he and his shipmate argued over, but before too long both were singing together — and they sounded pretty good to me.
Now when I hear “Turn the Page” I flash back to that night in Puerto Rico, traveling in the shuttle van with two homesick Sailors. It isn’t a bad memory, actually.