In 1966 the old Forest Park Merry Go Round burnt to the ground. It had opened in 1918 and suddenly in a massive dark cloud of sooty smoke, its hand-carved wooden horses were destroyed forever. The people in the neighborhood, my neighborhood, looked over the charred ashy remnants and cried. The carousel was just a very short walk from the house I grew up in, but I don’t remember the fire. I was only three years old. Isn’t that one of those traumatic memories that’s supposed to make a permanent etched mark somewhere deep inside the grey matter-of-facts stored away between my ears.
At this point in my life, I’m losing track of what memories from my young childhood are actually mine created, logged and saved at the time versus just an amalgam of old discolored Polaroids and rehashed family stories I’ve repeatedly heard. Like the 1964/65 World’s Fair was less than 5 miles from my house. I know I went but my memories of being there are strictly based on a single photograph of me sitting upright in a carriage in the shade on some unknown outside wood planked floor, no doubt cooling off with my Mom while everyone else was exploring something like the original pre-Disney Carousel Of Progress (which did not burn down). But that is an assumption I am making based on our family dynamics and stories; it is not based on any memory.
All the blanks being filled are made up in my meandering brain, the only fact I have is that pic of me sitting there all big eyed with the same goofy semi-confused grin I have worn on my mug most of my life. If that photo is ever lost, the only proof I was there will be from my family; unfortunately my Sister’ memory is as bad as mine and my brother Arthur seems to have conveniently disposed of 90% of his memories prior to attending college… I guess he needed the space to get through M.I.T. That leaves my oldest brother as barer of all family knowledge since my folks have been mixing up which of the kids did what for last half dozen decades. Apparently raising five kids will fray your nerves and fry your brain because they have always mixed up who did what when. They might have named me but that has not stopped them from calling me everyone else’s name including the family dog.
Truth is all my recollections of that Worlds Fair outing are from family stories and the handful of photos taken that day: Dad’s not particularly successful attempt at trick photography with my brother Neil holding the Fair’s iconic globe almost in his hands or the shot of the human cannonball snapped just at the wrong time with the flying stuntman hidden behind a pole. Or maybe that is just an oft retold story and not really in a photo? Or maybe it was from some other family outing and I am mixing up my tales of family lore. I’ll have to ask my brother. It’s a jumble in my head not based on the actual experience.
I have listened to my Mom and her sister debate over their very different versions of events from their childhood 75 years ago. Perspective and time obviously can tinker with the truth which makes me wonder if we can really trust the accuracy of those old family tales or even history books and bible stories. What is the truth?
How soon until my brain starts rewriting and reassembling other stories? Has it already? When do I stop trusting my mental archives? Lately I have been wondering if my bad memory is a curse and a gift. Like I want to remember every minor detail about all the fun stuff growing up with my late brother Neil (his memory was crap too so he would not have made a good archivist either) but I am okay forgetting my images of the painful physical difficulties he experienced prior to his death. Maybe selective memory for self-preservation is not a bad thing. I don’t need to lug around the bad stuff everyday besides I look good in rose colored glasses.
I do have crystal clear memories from when I was 11 years old back in 1974 not long after they moved a ‘new’ old circa 1903 carousel from Massachusetts to the same Forest Park site where the old one had stood. I recall several summer Sunday mornings right after watching Davey And Goliath at 6:00 AM, slipping out of the house before everyone else was awake (except my sister who unbeknownst to my folks, might not have snuck back in from her Saturday night yet) and walking down to the carousel. New York neighborhood streets are oddly quiet at that hour and the world felt like mine alone; a rare feeling for the youngest of five kids. I would watch the workers slowly arrive and after much coffee and conversation, eventually slide open up the ugly metal protective gates surrounding the magnificent old hand-made Daniel Carl Muller merry-go-round. Sometimes they would let me slip on for a couple of free rides while they set things up for the day. There are no photos of that but that memory stuck.
I read that the old neighborhood carousel shut down a few years back but recently reopened and has since been awarded landmark status to keep it going round for years to come. That’s good news but my head is still spinning on this memory thing. There is not a committee that can vote to preserve my recollections and if they burn down no one can come along later to rebuild and restore them. Watching my mother-in-law deal with Alzheimers has been real tough and I do not wish that on anyone. My Wife is worried it’s in her genes; I worry too because I was counting on her mega-super brain remembering all the stuff I was forgetting. I can just imagine in 20 years it will take us both three hours to find the car keys and by then we won’t remember where we were going.
Nowadays with a phone camera in every other pocket, everyone’s daily lives are preserved and life’s events are easily pieced together with a zillion pictures and videos floating in a cloud or hard drive. You don’t have to rely on old crusty memories to retell the stories of your life. I have one picture of me at the World’s Fair and none at the Carousel but that’s OK. I think my re-created story of my family abandoning me in the shade covered carriage while they traipsed off to the “best times of their life” Carousel of Progress is likely far more entertaining than what really happened. Which likely is they were all absolutely miserably bored waiting forever in the blazing summer sun just out of the lens’ sight while my Dad took an eternity (as he always did) framing and shooting the shot of me with his bulky Polaroid. Yup, maybe forgetting some details is actually a good thing.