Sunday, June 16, 2013

Can I Trust My Memory?

"Since I treasure my memories, I'm horrified by the idea that I'm making them up." - Len Blum

Back in the early 00s, my brother wrote a column for a national newspaper called "Going to the Movies."  It was a short brilliant column published every Friday.  In it, he'd compare the information available about two films that were playing in his city.  Based on rumours, feelings, and whimsy, he would choose one to see.  The column would end with a "bottom line" about the impact of his chosen movie.

One such column looked at East is East, about a Pakistani-British family, and U-571, about Americans who capture a German submarine.  U-571, Len wrote, makes him feel anxious:  "In the Second World War, two of my uncles were serving on a Royal Canadian Navy destroyer when their vessel was blown in half by torpedoes from a German U-boat.  Each was on a different half of the ship, and each was certain that the other had been killed.  Maybe that's why I don't like German subs.  In any case, both uncles survived."

Every week I would email my brother's column to family members living around the world, including those two uncles.  My uncle Abe wrote me back saying this:
"If the story refers to my wartime experience, there is absolutely no truth to it.  Baron von Munchausen couldn't have dreamed up a more fanciful tale."
My uncle was on a boat that was struck by a bomb from the Luftwaft.  My other uncle was in the navy but except for travelling to Scotland, he stayed on land.

My brother was quite upset when I told him that the uncles denied his story.  The following week, he wrote in his newspaper column that he was once again considering seeing U-571:
"As I mentioned last week, U-571 is a fictitious war story about a bunch of Americans who capture a German submarine.  Speaking of fictitious stories, it turns out that I was entirely wrong when I wrote that my two uncles were on a Canadian destroyer that was blown in half by a German submarine.  My sister spoke with them, and apparently this never happened.
I'm very upset because I remember hearing this story when I was a child and thinking it was wonderful.  Since I treasure my memories, I'm horrified by the idea that I'm making them up." 
I understand how his memory might have been jumbled.
  1. My uncle's ship, the HMCS Matane, destroyed a German U-boat with depth charges three months before it was hit from the sky.
  2. The Matane was attacked, just not by a submarine.
  3. My uncle survived the attack and went on a short leave to Scotland where he did meet up with his brother.  Apparently they spent a few days together driving the people at the gatehouse crazy by their coming and going dressed in identical uniforms.
Shake these various stories up in a child's brain and add forty years and a whole new "memory" appears.

It turns out that even memories of our most intense times are unreliable, and it doesn't require 40 years for the mash-up.  Still, I treasure my memories - even if I am making them up.  What about you?


Unit: Annan 20 Jul 1944
Bay of Biscay, South of Brest Peninsula. HMCS Matane was struck by a glider bomb, launched by a Dornier 217. The ship was rendered dead in the water. There were three fatalities and a number of injuries attributable to the attack. Matane was towed into Plymouth by HMCS Monnow, and after major repairs returned to service.

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