Monday, August 22, 2016

What's In Our Heads?

Many people are getting to that certain age, and I’m one of them. We’ve got reams of experience by now, good, bad and indifferent. Our memories are becoming more acute in some ways, and less reliable in others. What do we really know about the things that we “remember.”

Our heads now seem like some kind of bio-Internet. There’s a lot in there, but sometimes it’s hard to know what’s true. I still take as facts many things that I heard, or read about, long ago, but I don’t remember the sources for most of it. Maybe a lot of it was never true in the first place.

For instance, there’s a story about Marines that I heard at the height of the Vietnam War. I like the Marine Corps, and I like snipers, and I like the M2A1 Browning .50 caliber machine gun, so I’ve never forgotten the story. I might have read it somewhere, but where that would be exactly I could not say.

It told of a Marine sniper who discovered that there was a mount on the .50 cal for a telescopic sight. That gun can shoot flat trajectory for over a mile, so he was very interested in the concept. He got hold of an appropriate sight, or used his own, and he got permission to experiment.

Were they at Khe San? I don’t remember. Somewhere in the boonies. One day he’s out with two other marines in a two-and-a-half-ton truck, a flat-bed, with a quad .50 in the back. That’s four .50 cals in a special mount, and he’s got the sight on one of the .50s. They set the truck up on a high spot.

He and one of the other Marines were looking through binoculars, looking for targets. The other fellow was keeping his eyes open for activity closer to the truck. They noticed something at long range, further than anyone without binoculars would notice them.   They saw what looked like some NVA soldiers sitting around, with one fellow standing around waving his arms. It looked like he was delivering some kind of lesson or pep-talk. So the Marine sights him up with the .50 and takes a shot, and a couple of seconds later the guy’s head blows up.

It sounds like the kind of story that you would hear in a bar.

Wait! I might have heard it in a bar! I was in the Navy back then, and I spent time at a base that had more Marines than Navy personnel. I enjoyed drinking with those guys. It was a rest-stop for them; they had all served in Vietnam already. What stories they told!  All of my Navy friends were black, and they stayed away from the EM Club, because too many fights would result from their presence. (“Enlisted Men’s Club.”) I’d go to the club and buy a pitcher of beer and then look around for a lively table of Marines. “Mind if I join You?” And with the pitcher, they’d say sure! And then drain the pitcher and somebody would buy another one.

What stories they told! They’d done some terrible things and they showed no shame in relating the details. Most of those stories had the ring of truth to them. They, at least, would spot a phony immediately, so if they all just gave a knowing shake of the head and laughed I figured that that story was true. They were all decompressing from the experience, and many of them probably had PTSD. They seemed to be in a state of amazement, not only because of what they had seen and done, but also because they had survived.

That story about the sniper might have been one of the stories they told me. Was it true? It could very well have been, in fact I think that it probably was true. It was a second hand story though, and that mitigates against veracity. It was “hearsay,” and maybe not one of the 23 exceptions to the rule against those things. On the plus side, the story was not over embellished. Only the officer that had been standing was killed.

That’s the state of our brains these days, we people of a certain age. We’ve believed these stories for fifty years now; our brains are full of them. It’s got me wondering what I really know, and what I have only imagined.

There are stories about ourselves, too. These are stories that we’ve been telling ourselves for fifty years, telling them to ourselves and others so many times that we have come to believe them. Are they true, our Disney versions of our lives?

Usually not, I’m afraid. 

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