Past Imperfect

It was a stainless steel box about the side of a medium doghouse, contained a Kwh and Kw meter and telemetry equipment, and not as I remembered. I thought it was wood. True, I had only been to the site two or three times, and had looked inside the box once, but for whatever reason remembered the box as wood. Maybe it was because the equipment was mounted to plywood in the back of the box. Still, my memory was wrong.

I did correctly remember the meter, down to the name and “form.” Meter form is how the meter connects to the electric service. The most common is the Form S, which fits into a socket directly in back of the meter. This was a Form A, an older type, where the meter has a card-like connector at the bottom that fits into a rectangular slot. To date it’s the only Form A meter I’ve seen in use, and rare enough that when someone would ask at meetings “Has anyone seen a Form A meter?” mine would be one of the few hands that went up. Sometimes it was the only hand. They’re that rare, and I remembered that meter quite clearly.

I got to look it again yesterday. It was installed at an industrial site in the late 1980s. The stainless steel box originally belong to our power suppler, but was abandoned decades ago. The industrial site itself closed, the property sold, and one of our crews took the old metering equipment down when they hooked up a new meter on the site. They deposited it at our warehouse, where my supervisor and I inspected it, both for possible reuse and maybe to take a short, if faulty, trip down memory lane. That the box and how it was mounted was significantly different from my memory bothered me to the point that I looked at the enclosure again to see how it was installed on the pole, and if maybe it had sat in a wooden enclosure (it hadn’t).

Some will see this as confirmation that memory can’t be trusted. I know one person who insists no history passed down through a family is reliable. Yet while I had the enclosure wrong, what made the biggest impression on me was the meter, and that I could remember just by closing my eyes. Next was the telemetry equipment, but it was more fuzzy. Last was the enclosure, which I didn’t remember correctly at all. Of the items at the site, it’s the one thing I couldn’t close my eyes and visually remember. Most likely we best remember what we find significant.

That may be stating the obvious, but it’s worth considering.  That means what we regard as significant varies, which is why eyewitnesses notice different things. In my memory of the equipment at the site, I focused on one thing: an unusual meter. The rest wasn’t as clear. We encounter this all the time, in “I’ll never forget when” statements, which focuses on one thing. Like many of my generation, I remember where I was when John F. Kennedy was shot; remember the Eagle landing on the moon; remember 9/11; and remember sundry personal events.

Were I to one day relate these memories to someone else, the most vivid parts will likely be correct, but the rest may not. I can remember the words “Houston, Tranquility Base here, the Eagle has landed,” followed by “Roger, Tranquility . . . You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue,” but for years was convinced Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed that Sunday evening. Turns out it was about 4:18 pm, EDT. Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon didn’t take place until almost 11 pm EDT, something I lamented because I feared I’d go to sleep and miss the moment (which I did, only seeing a replay of it the next morning). But the landing itself was during the afternoon where I was at, and my memory of it being in the evening was in error, even though a check shows my memory of Neil Armstrong’s first words from the moon are accurate, with my memory of the reply less so.

The important thing here is that while all oral accounts may not be 100% accurate, the core can be. There’s no question my memory that on Sunday, July 20th, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to land on the moon is correct. Other, incidental, information is less accurate. In the same way, an eyewitness to an event in the Civil War who said she’d never forget the words a Union soldier said to her is probably reliable. Other details? Possibly. Since the person was known to be reliable, there should be no great doubt that the incident took place. Rather than discount recollections out of hand, we should realize there could be something there.

Decades ago, when I was discussing the account of the Union soldiers with someone, a listener teared. His grandfather has said he’s seen the smoke from places the soldiers had burned and no one believed him because “everyone knew” no Union soldiers came to the area. History was lost because his grandchildren dismissed it out of hand.

Yet errors happen. Wooden enclosures turn out to have been stainless steel; a moon landing at evening turns out to have been in the afternoon. And, unfortunately, people can confuse similar events, or outright lie. Memories can even be falsified, if we’re not careful.

So, in evaluating such accounts, what do we do? Well, we can treat it as we do any other type of testimony. Such as, can it be verified? Sometimes it can. Other times there can be enough to verify aspects of the account to increase the likelihood of accuracy. In the same way, efforts at verification can show where an account is inaccurate, or an outright lie. Is the person giving the account trustworthy? This is more than if the person is known to spin tall tails and exaggerate. Conditions such as Alzheimer’s can play havoc with memory. Finally, we must be aware that while parts of a memory may be accurate, other parts may not.

Messy? You bet, just like anything else in life. And when evaluating several accounts, we have to be aware there is going to be variation based on such things as point of view and what stands out most in someone’s mind. An auto buff might recall someone drove a 1967 Corvette while a tailor might notice the driver wore an Armani suit and a lineman that he narrowly missed a guy wire. We also have to be aware that someone can be adamant about part of a memory that turns out to be wrong. If you had asked me Monday, I would have sworn that enclosure was made of wood. Obviously, it wasn’t.

That may well be the hardest part: applying the same measure of evaluating oral histories to our own memories. We can try to separate what we actually remember from our interpretation. The two can be different. We can try to verify what we remember. And above all, we need to recognize our own memories can be fallible, at least on aspects that weren’t our focus at the time.

There’s a stainless steel “wooden” enclosure to remind me of that. But there is also a meter inside it that reminds me I did get some things right.