In the first Back to the Future movie, as Doc Brown examined Marty’s photograph of his family in which his brother and sister’s images were slowly vanishing, he commented, “Erased from existence” to describe what was happening to them. I’ve discovered that the older I get, the more I’m forgetting things—whole experiences. It’s as if they never happened.
On Labor Day weekend a couple of years ago, my old roommate from college came up from Santa Clarita to visit us with his family. As we chatted on the back patio waiting for the burgers to finish barbecuing, we talked about how little time we seem to have any more to goof off. I happened to mention that my wife had just given me the complete Twilight Zone series on DVD for Father’s Day and so far I’d only managed to view the first two seasons.
“Remember when we went down to hear Rod Serling give a talk about the space program?” my roommate asked, referring to the creator of the Twilight Zone series.
“Um, no,” I shook my head.
“Yeah—remember, we drove down to Pasadena in your brown Honda Civic. I don’t think you’d gotten married yet—you were still at UCLA.”
And then, after a moment’s thought, I told him, “I think Rod Serling died in 1975. And my Honda was a 1980.”
“Are you sure he died that early?”
I pulled out my cell phone and found the Wikipedia article about Rod Serling. “Yeah—he died on June 28, 1975. I wasn’t even living in California yet. So we couldn’t have gone to hear him talk.”
“I know it was someone in the entertainment industry, and it had something to do with the space program. He’d go on and on about ‘billions and billions…’”
“Oh, that had to be Carl Sagan, then,” said my wife.
“That’s who it was,” my roommate said.
But I shook my head. “I don’t remember driving down to Pasadena to hear him speak—or anything like that at all.”
And, as we continued to talk about it over our burgers, my mind remained a blank on the incident. One would think that a trip to see a famous person talk on a subject that fascinates me would be something I would remember well. But it has vanished entirely—erased from existence—as if it were an old cassette tape. The long drive, finding a parking spot, the entire evening, has entirely disappeared from my mind. No matter what my roommate said, he sparked no recollection at all.
I suspect it was something I had learned about from the Planetary Society. In 1980 I was a member of that organization and Carl Sagan was the one running it.
Then my roommate’s wife admitted that she can’t remember much of her time in college—at least the parts of it when she was sitting in class. She has the information she learned while she was there. But the experience, the memories of sitting in lectures, seems to have faded away with the passing of the years.
And as I contemplate my own years in college and graduate school, both as student and professor, I have to admit that it all kind of runs together. I can remember certain moments, like the time an owl jumped out of the big tree next to our classroom and made a huge ruckus.
And I can remember certain tests in school—like the final exam in my Russian history class. There was just one essay question: “Please summarize Russian history from the middle of the nineteenth century to the present.” Later my professor commented that reading my answer was like reading his own notes.
Which is why I find it so puzzling that something has slipped from my mind, particularly something that should have been so memorable as a lecture from Carl Sagan. Generally speaking, I remember just about everything that I read and hear—which served me very well in my college career.
My best explanation at this point is something I noticed both with my parents and with my own children. Some incidents that were very memorable to me were forgotten by parents—not because the event didn’t happen. Although the incident was significant to me, it wasn’t for them. The same has occurred with my own children.
So, as significant as that lecture was to my roommate, apparently it didn’t mean much to me. At the time I would have driven him to see Carl Sagan in Pasadena, I was in my graduate program at UCLA, listening to long academic discussions on a daily basis. My guess is that it was simply one more lecture in a string of lectures—and my mind cared more about what I was doing in school than what happened outside it.