Test Your Memory: Where Were You on This Date?

December 28 1986By Gene Weingarten

This happens to me almost every week: I finish writing my column and send it to my editor, Tom The Butcher. Tom reads it and proposes changes. Objections are raised; ad hominem attacks ensue; we reach a testy détente, and eventually ship off the newly negotiated version to the copy desk.  An hour passes, two at the most. Then, Tom phones me. The call goes like this:

Tom: We forgot to write the headline.

Me: Oh. Right. Okay.

(extremely awkward silence)  

Tom: What was the column about, again?

Me: Not sure. I hoped you would remember.

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I am 62; Tom is 59. We are both afflicted with a relatively benign form of cognitive dysfunction. It does not impair our ability to reason from the abstract to the concrete, or to disentangle a muddied thought and restate it succinctly. We can write entire books, and do. Our failures are in memory, particular recent memory. He’s bad, but I’m worse.

It is said that memory is the first hiccup of late middle age, the first casualty of reaching one’s seventh decade; alas, this fact did not occur to me before I embarked on the project in which I’m now deeply mired, one where I am finding myself at the mercy of the sometimes similarly fickle memories of fellow boomers.

Late last year, I had an unusual idea for a book. I wrote up a proposal and sent it out to publishers, who, unfortunately, liked it; money changed hands and I am now committed. The proposal was to select a day in American history completely at random, and then write a book about the events of that day. The idea is to prove that life is endlessly textured and fascinating, that if you dig deeply enough there is no such thing as an “ordinary” day.

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On New Years’ Day, Tom and I went to lunch, crumpled numbers into an Indiana Jones-ish hat, asked some kids at a nearby table to draw the date, and we were done. For better or worse, I am writing about Sunday, December 28, 1986, in the United States.

Then I started to fact-gather, which is when I began to face the completely-predictable-but-still-exasperating reality that people of my age tend to forget things. Turns out it’s hard enough to recall the events of 1986, let alone a particular month and day. For many of us, it seems, the 1980s are a soup – a consommé, spicy and complex, but with the ingredients so blended that they are individually almost indistinguishable.

Interviews have gone like this:

Me: I’d like to talk to you about the serious car accident you had on December 28, 1986 in Springfield, Illinois, in which you swerved to avoid a goat and hit a cement mixer.

Lady: Oh, I remember that!  But I’m pretty sure it was 1989, not 1986, and I think it was an armadillo, not a goat, and a Hummer, not a cement mixer.  And it was in Pittsburgh.

Me: I am looking at the police report. Cement mixer, goat, 1986, Springfield.

Lady: Oh.

Me: How long were you in the hospital?

Lady: I was in the hospital?

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Little by little, the facts unspool. It’s a fitful, often haphazard process that has been occasionally deeply frustrating but sporadically deeply rewarding. More than one compelling, gothic-type murder happened on my day, but also small, poignant things. I have found one couple who met that day for the first time, announced their engagement to highly skeptical coworkers the following day, and moved in with each other on the day three. It was a totally nutso thing to do, of course. But they’re still together and still in love.

I am now trawling for similar stories in private lives; things that may never have made it into the newspapers or police reports but which were nonetheless momentous events within families, or would prove significant when considered in the light of later events: I need comedies and tragedies, things simple and complex, important or just plain interesting. How do I find these things? Well, I’m trying right now, as you read this.

Consider December 28, 1986. It was the sleepy Sunday between Christmas and New Years. If you have anything that might pique my interest, you can find me at gene.weingarten@washpost.com. All correspondence will be treated in confidence; all facts will have to be verified.  No one will be paid, except in an extravagant thank-you in the Acknowledgements.

I’ll answer every email. If you try me and don’t hear back, wait a few days and try again: Things sometimes slip my mind.

Eds Note: The book in progress also has its own Facebook page.

Gene Weingarten is the nationally syndicated humor columnist for The Washington Post and the only two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. He has written four books. His fifth, tentatively titled “One Day” (and the subject of this essay) is scheduled for release in 2016 by Blue Rider Press, a subsidiary of Penguin. 

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