(I promise to cut this soapbox part short, OK?)
If you’re fortunate enough to continue staying alive X number of years, there will come a time sooner than you expect when the phrase “vivid memory” will become, for you, a contradiction in terms.
Some long-time memories will leap from your neurons and bite the dust altogether. Probably a greater number, though, will hang around but rewrite themselves to be more or less pleasant than they originally were, so as to polish up your self-image a little, as mortality starts whistling a tune named just for you.
Nothing wrong with that. As the great John Lennon observed, “Whatever gets you through the night / Is all right...”
The result, for me at least, is that the few vivid memories I actually retain start standing out in much greater relief, by comparison.
In this memory, it’s the summer just before my twelfth birthday and our family’s on vacation at a small motel near Gulf Shores. One night, long past bedtime, I have trouble sleeping and decide to sneak out and walk on the beach to relax my mind.
“Sneaking” was required because my parents were convinced that, on any beach, the odds of (a) being kidnapped, or (b) drowning, were exceedingly high.
There’s a full moon and a blessedly cool breeze. But as I walk I’m badly worried about something, and have no idea what it is. A couple of miles out on the water is a brightly lit causeway bridge, and its distance makes its stream of traffic—surprisingly steady, I think, for this late at night—look like toy cars.
At that moment, the source of my vague grief hits me like hailstorm of ideas. It’s the first time in my life I realize how big the world—not to mention the universe—is. The beach sand covers a huge area, the Gulf of Mexico dwarfs the beach, and I figured it would take me roughly an hour to walk to the distant, tiny bridge.
A bridge which, when I got there, would be huge. Far overhead in the dark I see the flashing lights of an airliner, and I picture myself riding the airliner and looking down at the causeway bridge that appears as only the vaguest specks of light against the ocean. From a space satellite, even in daylight, none of this scene would even be visible. Just the broad outline of the Florida panhandle, maybe, and the dark band of green to the north that was the Smoky Mountains.
And the southern United States was only a tiny fragment of the world. The only people within hundreds of miles of where I stood who even knew I existed were my parents, asleep back at the motel, and I was completely dependent on them for my survival. And though they worked hard and loved me a great deal, I had begun to suspect they were just as befuddled about life as I was, making it up every day as they went along. (When I became a parent myself, that suspicion would be confirmed.)
All I knew to do at that moment was to cry, which I could do as long and loud as I wanted because there was not a single human being visible in any direction.
I don’t remember going back to the motel afterward, or how I slept, or what I dreamed about. All I know is that the next morning, though things in the world all looked the same, everything had changed for me, forever. And there wasn’t even anybody I could tell about it.
During that morning and afternoon I had the distinct feeling of having been let out of an invisible jail. And I spent a lot of time wondering whether this being released into freedom was a good thing, or a bad thing.
And I still do.
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos, and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com, and is archived afterward on his website.