Saturday, March 27, 2021

Memories That Seem Real


I have suggested for years that memory is unreliable and I have cited a study done by Ulric Neisser after the Challenger disaster. He provided his first-year students with a short survey asking them about how they heard about the disaster, where they were and the like. Three years later, he provided those same students, now seniors, with the same six questions. He added a seventh about how accurate they thought their memories were.

He found that nearly 75% of those were wrong about some of what they remembered. Nearly a quarter of them were completely wrong. Once of the students, when confronted by that information, said that she was sorry, but it was how she remembered it.

Why bring this up here and now?

I have been posting to a blog ( my experiences as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam. At the top of the blog, I note that these are the relative true stories of my year there. I said relative true because I’m aware of the foibles of memory and how it can fool us.

One of those stories was called “The Real, True Story of My Thanksgiving Dinner.” I had said for literally decades, that I had left the dinner on a tray in the serving line as the flight crews were scrambled. I won’t go into all the details but if you wish to read that story, you can find it here:

And now for the rest of the story as the late Paul Harvey would say. I have all the letters that I wrote home more than fifty years ago. I hadn’t looked at them and hadn’t really cared to read them in all those years. But, for the blog, which, frankly, I created to help promote the Vietnam Ground Zero books I had written with Robert Charles Cornett in the 1980s, and to satisfy some of my friends and colleagues who were interested in what I had experienced, I pulled those letters out.

I will note here that, more than once, the flight crews were scrambled in the middle of a meal, often to either reinforce or extract a unit that had gotten into some kind of trouble. But, as you’ll read, it didn’t happen on Thanksgiving. One of the letters explained exactly where we were. We were not at Cu Chi but actually had been deployed to Tay Ninh for some sort of mission. We were told that the Thanksgiving meal would be provided there. Apparently, it wasn’t very good.

The Hornet Company area, circa February, 1969. Photo by Kevin Randle.

I have no memory of this. I must bow, of course, to the letter I had written a few days after that experience. I have to say that a document written at the time is surely more accurate than my fifty-year-old memories. This would be my fifty-year experiment in the reliability of memory. I offer this as a cautionary tale as we attempt to unravel mysteries that are decades old. Documentation created at the time is certainly better than memories related long after the fact.

There is one more caveat to be offered here. As I work through those letters and tell the stories that happened in Vietnam, I can verify some of the memories as correct, from the story of “Smokey” to that of Tet 1969 (I used, as an aid, an article I had written decades ago when those memories were fresher, but what I remembered now was reinforced by that article).

The point is simply this. Memory isn’t always reliable. We must search for additional corroboration but we much not reject the memory because it happens to be old.

1 comment:

RWE said...

I recall a study that looked into what people had said about the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 compared what the same people said about those events today. When it was pointed out to them that their memories today were significantly different than what they said then, the majority of them said that they were lying back in 2001.

Back in May of 1999 I had dinner with Col Bill Coleman and he described an incredible experience when he was flying a B-25 back from Andrews AFB MD to Greenville AFB, Miss, in 1955. They encountered a flying disk and flew formation with it for a while, and chased it when it pulled away.

Several weeks back I found an interview with Col Coleman on TV in which he describe that same incident. However, he said they had stopped at Miami and there were a few other details that were different. For example, he said the saucer was flying at a 90 degree angle to the B-25 when they first spotted it. In contrast, I recall him saying they found they basically were flying formation with the object and when it was called out to him by one of the people in the nose compartment he first put it off to being the sun glinting on the canopy. Maneuvering the airplane revealed a disk 4 ft in diameter and 2 ft thick flying along with no evidence of any propulsion system. In the TV show he did not mention the size.

Now, the differing accounts could be explained to some degree. There was no reason why the B-25 could not have stopped at Miami on the way to Miss; Bill Coleman originally was from Florida so there could have been multiple reasons for him to choose that route. But other details are different. Is that due to my memory or to his?

Col Coleman did file a Blue Book report on the incident, and had the others on board the aircraft independently write down their own accounts and then compared them. But when Bill Coleman became the PIO for Project Blue Book in 1960 at the Pentagon, he looked at the files and found his report was not there. So we can't check memories against that.