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Recall — total or otherwise

A while back, Diane Griffin and I were chatting on the phone. And as might be expected, after the usual exchange of pleasantries, the talk turned to our usual topic — The Good Old Days.

Specifically, I’d mentioned that little hole in the wall on the first floor of Petrova school where school supplies were sold. Diane knew it well, since she was the gal who worked there. But here’s the thing: I remembered a bunch of stuff she didn’t.

“Oh,” she said, “you’ve got a better memory than I do.”

“Actually, I don’t,” I said. “Just is, I remember different stuff.”

And there you have one vital point about memory: Some people remember this while other people remember that. And even weirder, they can remember the same event differently, either because they were focusing on different things or because they interpreted the same thing differently.

Something else about memory: It’s not reliable. Which is why cops take eyewitness accounts with a dose of salts.

I know this full well, and it’s a limitation I deal with every time I tell a tale from my Gilded Youth.

The problem is two-fold. First, if I have a story I want to tell about Way Back When, I’m gonna do it. After all, those memories are not only dear to me but are crystal-clear as well. But that said, while I think I’m telling the tale perfectly accurately, I know it’s not. No matter how anyone cuts it, a bunch of the details are either exaggerated, understated or wholly incorrect. And with the passage of time and each retelling of a story, the details — correct or not — are further reinforced as gospel.

Of course, we can’t check those details unless we have either photographic evidence or a time machine. Lacking the latter, but having the former, I managed to have one of my old Winter Carnival memories verified … sort of.

Pubs a-plenty

As I remembered it, it took place during the Carnival parade of 1966.

The Carnival in those days was very different from today’s. For one thing, it was only four days long — from Thursday to Sunday. Second, it was an industrial-strength pub crawl. According to locals’ estimates, the numbers fluctuate widely. But according to Chief Don Fina, there were 39 bars in town when he joined the force in 1969, and I take his count as accurate. To put it in stark demographic terms, there was one bar for about every 175 people. And since probably half the town’s population was underage kids, ultimately there may have been a bar for every 100 people. Even Ireland can’t match that ratio.

All the bars were leftovers from the heyday of the tuberculosis era. While the cliche image of a TB patient is someone totally bed-bound, that’s not true. A lot, if not most, of the TB patients were ambulatory, and they frequented the many local businesses, a lot of which were bars. Thanks to antibiotics, by 1966 TB was gone … but the bars remained. And people patronized them. When Winter Carnival rolled around, they weren’t just patronized — they were jammed up the wazz. Even with that many bars, you had to search (often far and wide) to find one you could muscle your way into.

But for all the boozing went on, it was in good spirit and bonhomie. I can remember walking the streets from top to bottom on Friday night, going in this bar and that, and for all the crowds and drinking, I can’t recall any aggressive behavior, though a helluva lot of it was raucous. And the most raucous time of all, of course, was during the parade.

The memory

When I tell people about those old Carnivals, there was always one story that comes to mind, which happened in the parade of ’66. Actually, I remembered only one detail about that parade, and it stuck in my mind because it was so emblematic of those old Carnivals. It was the parade entry of Chuck’s bar.

While there were floats with all kinds of fancy decorations and doodads, Chuck’s had taken a decidedly minimalist approach. It also perfectly illustrated the quiddity of Chuck’s bar and its owner, Chuck Pandolph.

Chuck was one of the focal town characters of my youth. He’d been a bobsledder, a cop, a restauranteur and was an all-around good guy. There may have been someone in town who didn’t like him, but if there was, I never met them, and I never recall anyone saying a bad word about him.

The bar itself, on the bottom of Berkeley hill, was nothing fancy. There were maybe 10 stools, five tables and a pool table, but it was a warm place and Chuck was always friendly and fun. It was my favorite local gin mill, and in fact I was standing in front of it during that parade.

So what about his float? Well, it was called the Chuck Wagon, and it was a Volkswagen bus. But its interior had been suitably altered for the parade, for in it were a few guys, several full kegs of beer and a huge stash of cups. And it was all for go and not for show: Throughout the parade, the guys kept filling up the cups and handing them out, much to the delight of all, except the few desiccated crones still clutching their WCTU membership cards in their talons.

I remembered the Chuck Wagon perfectly. And I remembered three other things. One was, like all the Carnival parade days, it was brutally cold and snowing. Another was the van’s color — blue. And the third was, when the van stopped in front of Chuck’s bar, some hardcore ran out from it with an empty pitcher. He handed it to one of the guys in the van, and — voila! — it got returned, full.

The reality

So those are the details, still crystal-clear in my memory. The only problem is they’re not all correct. How do I know? Amazingly, last week on Facebook, Peggy Stringer Dora posted a home movie of that parade. The cinematography was a tad on the shaky side, probably because whoever was holding the camera was getting jostled my the crowd, which back in those days was four deep the whole parade route.

So what did I remember incorrectly?

First, the year. It wasn’t 1966, it was 1967.

Next, the van itself. It wasn’t blue — it was red. And beyond that, it was covered with stickers of some sort and was trailing a long string of beer cans — details I’d also forgotten. And while I remembered kegs inside the van, I saw only one keg, balanced in some fashion on the van’s roof.

But I got most the story right. It was a perfect, Arctic-frigid parade day. And that was apparent by looking at the queen as she came by on her float. She was Judy Carne, a celebrity of some sort, known for three things: She was a cute English redhead, she was the “Sock it to me” girl on “Laugh-In,” and she was the first Mrs. Burt Reynolds. And as was clearly shown in the film, she was freezing her British bum off. She was wrapping her cloak around her, turning this way and that and trying to bestow a warm smile on all her loyal subjects in Dogpatch while only wanting to hammer a hot toddy … indoors.

The van itself was jammed full of the ad hoc bartenders.

But I got the main detail right — the pitcher.

The film had been taken from in front of Chuck’s bar — right in front of where I was standing. And amidst all the camera shake and split-second scene shifts, suddenly there it was — an arm holding the pitcher aloft, handing it to the guys in the van.

But here’s the thing about memories: I looked at that movie a bunch of times, most recently a half-hour before I started writing this column. So the actual details are vivid to me. Still, when I close my eyes and think back, I still see the van as blue and minus all the stickers.

And this only proves a couple of things.

One, I’m a storyteller, not an historian.

And two, what matters is not that I remember the Good Old Days so perfectly, only that I remember them so fondly.

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