I have always had an issue with memory that is both a curse and a blessing. On one hand, it always seemed surprisingly easy for me to store some of the most arcane and obscure trivia in my head, completely useless as a rule, but very impressive upon first exposure. While in school, this was deemed exceedingly important, and very well received. The ability to instantly recall names of explorers, mathematical proofs, mountain ranges, kings of England, chemical compounds, physics formulae and key dates in history was applauded and encouraged by my teachers as I was growing up.
The name of the sole survivor of Custer’s debacle at Little Big Horn was considered the zenith of scholastic aptitude for one of my history teachers (a horse named Comanche, ridden by an Irish soldier of fortune, Captain Myles Keogh). Such things garnered me glowing respect from various teachers and no small amount of resentment from some of my classmates.
At the Army’s Officer Candidate School, such memory skills were absolutely vital, as the full name and middle initial of my entire chain of command was of such critical national importance that it was expected to be immediately spouted upon demand (there was a trick to it; from Secretary of the Army John O. Marsh to down to my Battalion Commander at the time, their middle initials spelled out “O War Wag”). I was in my element there, as such things were like falling off a log to me. I can still rattle off whole paragraphs of required knowledge such as Worth’s Battalion Order or Schofield’s Definition of Discipline at will, though no one has bothered to ask me for them for over a quarter of a century, and it is highly unlikely they might ever again.
All of this trivial knowledge is still up there, rarely tapped but never forgotten and constantly being added to. I’ve found that few people are willing to watch Jeopardy with me more than a couple of times.
But like I said, most of this information is completely useless in real life. It is actually exceedingly impractical in the grand scheme of things. For the dark side of my memory is centered on the gaping hole of the dreaded three item list, or single digit number. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked to get a short list of items from the store on the way home from work, and have been stranded looking at the bottom of a grocery store shopping cart with only two items in it, wracking my brain and muttering to myself over what that third item might possibly be.
“Bread? No, not bread. We’ve got sugar,.. Beer? Well, we could always use more, but that’s not it,…”
Technology doesn’t help, by the way. No more than a hand written list did in the past. Because you have to remember to charge a cell phone in order to use it, and leaving it in the car, on a desk, or in a pocket of a jacket you didn’t take doesn’t help at all. I can’t tell you the number of times crumpled shopping lists have been found in the dryer after I swore up and down I never had them on my person.
My long suffering wife is thoroughly familiar with this little quirk, and has threatened more than once to pin a list to my shirt along with a note to the store manager to make sure I bring the following items home. It’s either that or a warning she’ll use a permanent marker on my forehead for the same purpose. The intricacies of the Battle of Balaclava, Alleby’s Levant campaign of 1918, or the name of General Phil Sheridan’s black horse at Cedar Creek (‘Rienzi’, changed to ‘Winchester’ after the battle) hold absolutely no weight with her. She still insists that my memory is terrible.
I tell you, there’s no pleasing the woman.
But I’ve got her on one score. If it wasn’t for that memory, we never would have met.
A few years ago, after my parents passed away, I was going through their attic and found a box filled with my little league and school trophies, swim team ribbons and other such memorabilia. In a faded envelope was the following certificate:
“The Elephant Memory Award
To Pat Sullivan
For his knowledge of the playbook and the most number of snapcounts forgotten between huddle and line of scrimmage.”
It was true. I played center on that team and knew the playbook forwards and backwards, complete with everyone’s blocking assignment, route, formation, etc. You name it, I had it down. Inside the huddle, I was invaluable as I could rattle off the assignment of anyone who seemed unsure of the play called. Then we’d break and go the line.
And I would look down at the ball and realize I had no idea what the snap count was.
So I would turn and ask the quarterback, who would look at me with a silent “Not again!” in his eyes and he would have to whisper it to me. Of course, the middle linebacker would then immediately announce “It’s on two!” to the rest of the defense. I distinctly remember seeing out of the corner of my eye a clipboard fly into the air on the sideline from time to time.
Again, it has been both a gift and a curse, but the extremes of my recall did serve me well in one lone instance.
On a fall day at Auburn in 1980, I was walking down a corridor in Ramsey Hall and passed another student going the other way. In an instant, I realized I knew him. It only took me a second or two to place him. I turned and he was looking back at me with a quizzical look. I spoke first.
“Your name is Gil G——, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, it is. Where do I know you from?”
When I told him I used to play center when he was a quarterback in little league ten years before, the light bulb went on. Of course he remembered and we spent a few minutes catching up. After a short while, the conversation dragged, and in an attempt to revive it, he invited me to his fraternity Halloween party that weekend. I said I’d drop by, but neither of us was really that serious about it. It was just a convenient way to end an awkward conversation and go about our business.
I’m positive the only reason we spoke was due to that curious quirk of my memory. In a single split second glace I recalled the face of a kid I had known for all of ten weeks from a decade before, and he remembered me from that other dark side discussed above. To tell the truth, other than a nod or two seeing each other around campus after that, I don’t think we ever spoke again. It was just one of those odd meetings of people that cross your path in life.
But I did go to that party, where I met a pretty girl with an even prettier laugh that I’ll never forget as long as I live. Mainly because she’s been with me ever since. When I reminded her about all of this one time, she rolled her eyes and immediately dismissed it as fantasy with a single phrase.
And if you give me a minute, I might be able to tell you what that phrase was.
It’s on the tip of my tongue,… Not “O War Wag”,…”War Eagle?”, no, that wasn’t it,…
But it’s close enough for now – “War Damn Eagle.”
P.S. And since I never got the chance – “Thanks, Gil”
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