I was reading a fabulous (well, it is ok) book called Three Days at Camp David by Jeffrey Garten. Super nerd alert: it recounts the decisions that went into bringing an end to the gold-exchange standard in August 1971. I’m sure you’re just dying to know the details, but I’ll spare you. It is one of those really crucial events in financial history that about 15 people actually give a damn about, but that affects everyone. They just don’t happen to know it. Most of us are too busy obsessing over the NFL or some stuff. It’s ok. Turns out that Richard Nixon was obsessing over the Washington Redskins (I had to use the name, since that’s what they were called in the Dark Ages) even as he was eviscerating the dollar. And it was Nixon who was famously taped observing “I don’t give a shit about the lira.” Except the transcript at the time said “expletive deleted” instead of “shit.” So you’re in good company, if you consider Nixon good company, in your indifference. Incidentally, rumor has it that the Washington Football Team may soon be known as the WFT. Right. This from the No Fun League. Fcuk You, as the British brand, French Connection-UK has it. I’ll believe it when Carson Wentz rises from the Dead in a Cowboys uniform.
In any event, I was a 20 year old “sort of history sort of econ” student at Villanova, and I hadn’t gotten around to International Trade or Finance yet, so I’m not certain exactly how I was processing this at the time, other than I was about to embark on my first trip overseas (Spain, not Vietnam), and I do recall a cabbie in Madrid at the airport asking me “Que pasa con el Dollar?” God only knows what I told him, because I’m sure the idea that a fixed exchange rate didn’t just get set by God hadn’t yet occurred to me. How about you?
Back to Camp David. I was struck by a remark that George Schultz (remember him?) made in summoning up his memories of that historic weekend. He told Garten not to place much faith on his recollections because, basically, we tend to remember things better than they were. You know, remember the good and suppress the bad. He’s the second economist I’ve heard say that, the first being Albert Fishlow. Now, if Al and George Schultz both said something, it must be true, right?
Sorry, it doesn’t work that way with me. Not entirely at least. I’m not saying I don’t remember the good stuff from my past, because I certainly do. But I’d also say I don’t forget the bad stuff either. You know, I am part Sicilian, and we’re reputed to hold a grudge about as well as any primitive race on Earth. That, my friend, requires memory, because I do. Hold a grudge, that is. It took a great effort of the Five Families, shepherded by Don Vito Corleone, to get them to forget the past and stop killing each other. You know, get back to making money. Need I point out that Michael, at that very moment, chasing Appolonia in Sicily, was not a party to the agreement? Is your name Barzini or Tataglia? I didn’t think so. I read that psychologists who do memory research figure that our earliest childhood memories go back to about 3.5 years, although some now w think it may be a bitt earlier. No, you probably don’t remember being born, although that would be too cool. Or maybe too traumatic. For me, 3.5 years sounds about right, and I can document it.
Now, if you can remember Hurricane Hazel, you’ve probably got a little mileage on you. A lot, actually. I remember Hazel hitting Philadelphia. That was on October 15, 1954, and the storm was a doozy. It brought 90 mile per hour winds to Philly, because the eye of the storm passed just to the West of the city. Now, I don’t remember the storm, but I do remember the excitement in the run up to Hazel’s appearance. I would have been about 3.5 years old, as it turns out.
I remember sitting on the radiator cover in the kitchen of my grandparents stone house in West Philly looking out the window. The view was urban, driveway, Reale’s bakery, you know, really scenic. But that day, the sky caught my attention. I can still see it. It was sort of grayish green, muddy, and vaguely threatening. Admittedly, at the age of 3 you don’t have a vast body of experience with which to draw comparisons, but I don’t think I’ve ever quite seen the sky that color again, anytime, anywhere. I remember when Hurricane Donna came through in 1960, I was in class at Prisontation. The overhead lights were on because it was sort of night time dark outside and raining like Hell. It wasn’t scary or anything, just dark. I can’t say that Hurricane Agnes made much of an impression in 1972, other than it clobbered upstate Pennsylvania, flooded Wilkes Barre, and produced a genre of automobiles in Philly known as “flood cars” that were, eh, flooding the market because their wiring harnesses had gotten screwed up and they tended to behave erratically.
I think I remember taking the 44 bus (still Red Arrow?) into Philly along the Expressway and thinking I had never seen the river quite so high–which was accurate. I hadn’t. On the other hand, it wasn’t Philly’s problem, so I didn’t care. Pottstown flooded, but, like, quid boni, you know? It’s Pottstown. No one lives there.
This memory stuff intrigues me because while my long-term memory remains very good, my short term memory is slowly becoming that of an old dude. I can remember getting predictably hammered my first time out with champagne, but I can’t remember what I ate for breakfast. Or my first cigarette. Walking down Karakung Drive like a stud in high school, safely away from Devon Prep, where even the possession of a cigarette could get you tossed. I was 15 and quite fly. And, obviously, very, very stupid. That one, I’d like to get back. There are other firsts I can recall, but this is a PG site.
Thing is, I don’t think I only remember the good stuff, because if that’s the case, I had a strange notion of what fun was. I’m positive my earliest memory actually goes back to about 2. My Mom had me all dressed up in some ridiculous outfit, and I think we had gone out to Triangle Park, near my Grandparents’ home, so as to take pictures. I still have the pictures, but more to the point, I remember the day, because I stepped in dog crap. Now, you’d think a little kid stepping in dog crap would be no big deal, right? I mean, it’s stuff little kids do. I remember it smelled rank and all that. But most of all I remember my Mom absolutely hitting the roof and yelling at me. LOL. This was a theme in my childhood, and it probably is a key to my adult personality. Whenever an accident befell little Richard, little Richard caught Hell. From Mom. I don’t think there was anything malicious about this. I know there wasn’t, in fact. It was just my Mother, who was, er, excitable. And fastidious. And, like, everything–and I mean everything–had to be in its proper place. I remember once the nuns told us to put our shoes under the bed so we would remember to get down on our knees at night and pray. Uh, huh. Mom was having none of it. That’s not where shoes went. She was, so to speak, more concerned about my soles than my soul. And pulled rank on the nuns to show it. That’s just the way she was.
This one’s even better. As a kid at Prisontation, I was playing football at recess. Big deal, right? We all wanted to be Sonny Jurgensen or Tommy McDonald (look it up). Well, while I was into my Jurgy routine, one of my thuggy classmates (I have already written a bit about them) came crashing into me and managed to twist my arm into some odd position. Whereupon it broke. Yup. Broke.
Well, I knew I had a problem because it hurt like Hell, and I spent the afternoon in school in some pain. When I went home, I told Mom I hurt my arm playing football. She was not amused. Nor sympathetic We put some ice on it and she preceded to treat me as if I had contracted VD. She was not happy, to put it mildly. And every time I moved the damn thing, it hurt. A lot.
When my Dad got home–Mom didn’t drive–he took me over to Lankenau Hospital, where they did the x-ray thing. Dude: kid broke a wing. It’s gotta be reset and put in a cast. Do you remember those casts, man? They were something else. They put a stocking around your arm, then they encased it in some kind of plaster thing and solemnly told you not to wash it, wet it, crack it, spit on it, anything. Because, well, you wouldn’t want to have to go through this again. So, for six weeks, I wore it proudly on my right arm (dammit, I wrote left-handed, so it did me no good). I wasn’t playing trumpet yet, so I must have been no more than 11 or 12 years old, cause that would’ve been interesting. Maybe I would have learned to play left-handed. You know, that could’ve made all the difference in the world. Well, it didn’t.
When we got home, my Dad shepherding me into the kitchen said something to my Mom like “It’s broken.” He did not sound too pleased, although I don’t think his displeasure was completely directed at his son. My Mother went into some kind of shocked reaction. And then. Yup. You guessed it. She started yelling. Or at least raised her voice. I don’t recall the exact words, but it was something like I can’t believe you broke your arm, or something to that effect. I think I was sort of gratified, because the fact that I was in some pain didn’t elicit much sympathy. So, it was like, “See. It did hurt.” Funny the crap you remember. Bad as well as good. That was a particularly memorable moment.
I’ll treat you to one more, because this one has also influenced my subsequent existence. And I was pretty damn lucky.
I went to a birthday party at Hornet’s house. You’ll remember Hornet, my late, lamented classmate who had a way of attracting problems. Well, he had a birthday, and his parents tossed a party in the backyard of their house in Beechwood. Beechwood was, like an exurb of Penn Wynne and Wynnewood Valley, just to situate this properly. Well, it was the usual crummy kids’ party, you know stuff off the grill, including hot dogs.
I bet you can tell what’s coming. Like so many hyper kids, I always ate too fast, and I guess I was in the process of scarfing down a hot dog that day.
I choked on it.
All of a sudden, I remember it wouldn’t go down, wouldn’t come back, and I couldn’t breathe or talk or anything. But I was in trouble. For what seemed like an eternity, the damn thing just lodged there, blocking my windpipe. There was no Heimlich Maneuver in those days, but my heart was pounding furiously. Somehow, and I have no idea how, I guess I had a strong enough gag reflex to bring the damn thing up. And I did, whereupon said hot dog promptly fell to the ground. I was like (yeah, I was like) too terrified to be relieved, and I was covered in a cold sweat. My friends were sort of regarding me curiously. And laughing. Like “Ha, ha, doofuss almost choked to death.” Uber-cafone. And to raise the hilarity level even more, Hornet’s mutt, Cindy, fell upon the expelled hot dog with gusto, prompting even more laughter accompanies by “Cindy’s eating it!”
Well, no one made anything of it. I think only I knew what I thought had almost happened. Did it scare me. Man, I can still visualize the whole scene, including Cindy, and this has got to be more than 55 years ago. If Mom had been there, bets on whether she would have yelled?
Ever since, I have been deathly afraid of choking to death on food. And it really does affect the way I eat. I will eat hot dogs, but I never forgot that one almost killed me. When my kids were little, I’d insist on cutting them up in small pieces, much to the amusement of some of my tougher friends, who thought I was terribly overprotective. I was.
Break your arm and catch Hell. Damn near choke on a hotdog. Get a B on an English exam and be told you’re doing poorly in school. Total a car in a parking lot and watch it explode in slow motion around you. Yeah. I’m crazy. And there’s plenty more where that came from. I had fun for sure and no priest ever molested me. But my memory somehow refuses to suppress all the times when I screwed up but good. And didn’t get a prize or a redo. We all remember the past better than it was? Really? I think I remember it pretty much as it was. Good and bad. Better a realist than a fool.