The other night, I was sitting around with M and an old friend, trying to come up with the name brand of the sleds we all used to ride down the hills where we grew up — M in Brooklyn, my friend in Manhattan, me in the Bronx — and giving one another hints. “It’s red,” one of us said. “Red um something.”
“No. But it had red paint on it.”
It took only fifteen minutes to come up with FLEXIBLE FLYER but oh, what a relief when it finally came.
Sometime in the middle of the night M sat up in bed. “Red Ryder,” he said. “The comic book cowboy.”
“I know,” I said, and we both turned over and went back to sleep, satisfied. Obviously, the near-rhyme of “flexible flyer” and the color red had touched off the question, “Who was that popular comic book cowboy that reminds me of that?” in the back of M’s mind. It just took a while to get from back to front.
Is there anything more satisfying, I ask you, than thinking of the name that is just beyond the tip of your tongue, around the corner from your brain? Like, that actress, you know the one, with the red hair?
You laugh. How many actresses with red hair are there, you think. But you know (if you happen to be over forty) it’s Emma Stone, or (if you are over sixty), Julianne Moore or Susan Sarandon, but eventually (if you are over seventy) you’ll come up with Maureen O’Hara. Oh, well, I might have meant Arlene Dahl, my friend says.
Speaking of which, that kind of forgetfulness is NOT a sign of Alzheimers, as we all know (or should know) by now. It is just a sign that the old skull is getting too stuffed with information for its own good, and only keeps what it needs. The retrieval of irrelevant information takes a little longer to access nowadays, but the pleasure when it comes almost makes it worth it. Like scratching an itch or quenching a thirst.
The name of the other actor in the movie THE THIRD MAN, by the way, the one who wasn’t Orson Welles? Michael Rennie.
The little song, plop plop fizz fizz oh what a relief it is, was for…wait a minute, wait a minute…Alka Seltzer, wasn’t it?
Who sang “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me?” Andrew Sisters.
What product advertised “Where’s The Beef?” Burger King.
Who promised a chicken in every pot? (Well, okay, that was before my time, but I remember reading about it. Herbert Hoover. Election Promise. 1928.)
Who was the late night radio host who interviewed people who claimed they had been abducted by aliens and probed? Long John Nebel.
What was the thing, white, sort of egg-shaped…a shmoo. What was the deal with shmoos? I’m working on it.
And then there are the private memories that we play hide and seek with, that make the people we share a history with so important. This friend, for example, is the only other person who could answer the question, “What was the name of the teacher who wore the funny hat and always hummed to himself…” because we went to school together. And those connections become more valuable as they become rarer, especially since we can now easily Google the red-haired actress, but not the hat-wearing humming teacher.
But whether it is private memory or memory shared by everyone of a certain age or from a place we have long been absent, it can come slowly: the thought, then one detail, then another, tumbling, catching up, thickening with the accumulation of details that attach to the old recollection.
As I was falling asleep the other night, on the heels of the words, “Who was that…” I had a split-second blankness and then “Who was that masked man” popped into my head, and then “The Lone Ranger” and “Tonto” and after him trotted Hopalong Cassidy, Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, Trigger and Scout, and sweet dreams of more innocent days.
Happy Trails to you, too.