Tag Archives: memory

Holding the Bag

My memories are of two mansions: the first is like a movie theater; the second is more of a tomb. Memories of the first type are similar to movies, stories played out visually through time. Memories of the second kind are without sight, sound, or time—that is, they are naked, raw feelings.

NOTE: This blog series is dedicated to the quest for understanding who I am and how I came to be me.

A very early memory is the story of the combine. I was perhaps three and a half (maybe four and a half) when I rode with my mother to the oat field where my dad was combining, probably to bring him some drink. I believe I can recall the grasshoppers jumping ahead of my feet, the heat of the midday August sun, and the smell of sweet oat straw tinged with the pungent volatiles of green weeds. I know I can remember climbing onto the combine frame and walking along it, holding onto supports.

It was not an old combine at that time. It was an International with its own engine to drive the machine even though it was towed by the tractor. The engine was that of a smaller tractor, like a Cub, but it managed the machine and was mounted forward on the frame.

Not all memories of my farm boy days are pleasant. It’s just that the pleasant ones are easier to recall.

As I walked along the frame, I grabbed onto things to support me. I remember grabbing hold of the engine breather tube, the straight vertical tube that brought clean filtered air into the engine. I do not remember grabbing the next straight vertical tube, the exhaust pipe.

There is a gap in that movie.

The next thing I recall is sitting on my mother’s lap in the house with my hand completely wrapped in gauze, wondering why.

It is a blessing that our subconscious minds that store our movie memories can be so effectively edited. Some things should be forgotten.

But they are not really forgotten. They are stored in the tomb, that timeless dark and silent place where feelings go to never die.

There are some movies in my library that are not so positive, though. They just are not the painful trauma like grabbing a hot exhaust pipe.

Later, when the season came to get into the fields, I loved the work, the smell of tilled earth, the clarity of the job and the sense of power and accomplishment. But, I was the youngest and often sentenced to serve my time in the barn. My job was the routine of chores rather than the thrill of the till. I didn’t like that.

When we bought these new “automatic” milking machines that required special thorough cleaning that required tedious detail work, it fell to the youngest. I still don’t like doing dishes.

And then there was the oat bin. Once each week we would take ear corn from the crib and oats from the granary to the mill in town to have them ground into meal with some additives, special feed for the milking cows. Once a week somebody had to shovel the oats into a gunny sack. Once a week the youngest got to hold the bag open while somebody older manned the shovel.

And I never seemed to do it quite right. To this day, I take great offense at being told I am doing something wrong when I am really trying to do it right. I do not like being left to hold the bag.

No, this was not traumatic. In fact, it is quite humorous in retrospect, just one inconvenience of being the baby of a farm family; there are many inconveniences, but there are far more blessings being the youngest.

I have a lot of childhood memories, mostly good or great. Yes, I know the mind recalls the good memories in preference to the bad, but still—I have a lot of good memories.

One of the things that bothers me about Vietnam is the nagging feeling that my memory is incomplete, that there is one particular conflict I am forgetting. That leads me to believe that there was something significant about that experience, something that I filed away in the tomb rather than the theater library.

But, as to my farm boy life, my memory is robust and remarkably complete. That tells me that my childhood trauma was limited, indeed.

I was a lucky boy.

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King and Porky

Who am I, really? Introspection is but one feeble method for seeking an answer. Tracing of tracks on the ground known as personal history is another. I shall attempt to combine the two with a spirit of the Quest to generate some answers. Join me if and when you may be so inclined.

NOTE: This blog series is dedicated to the quest for understanding who I am and how I came to be me.

My mind is a mosaic of memories, snapshots of experiences—or, more honestly, homemade records of perceived experiences. Early memories and memories of traumatic times are especially suspect of fidelity; but they are all the memories I have of these times.

I remember my fourth birthday party. Well, specifically, I remember that there was a party, that it was a celebration of my becoming four years old, and that I got some small red trucks as presents.

One particular toy tractor is a clearer memory, a plastic scale model of a Farmall H with real rubber tires and a rubber steering wheel. It was one of my favorite toys of all time. I cannot remember receiving it but I remember it being taken away once.

It seems I got angry at my sister and threw a fork at her. My dad didn’t seem to think that was appropriate behavior and took my tractor away and set it up high, on the cook stove I believe, where I couldn’t reach it. I learned early that I had a volatile temper.

My older brother had a metal scale model of an Allis Chalmers C, but it was not to the same scale as my H. So, even though a Farmall H is bigger than an Allis C, his toy was bigger than mine. Even so, I played with both. I liked my H best.

In the 1970s, I owned a real H for awhile. My brother has owned lots of tractors on the farm including about a hundred accurate scale models, some in original boxes. I never have, although I gave a true scale model of an Allis Chalmers 190XT to my oldest daughter.

I learned to drive our real Farmall H when I was about four. More specifically, I learned how to start it in low gear and steer it straight while somebody loaded a wagon behind, then kick the switch off to stop.

Our neighbor’s Ford 8N or 9Nwas more fun for me to drive. I could use the clutch because it was horizontal so I could step on it. This one I could really drive like the big boys. I now own a Ford 9N which I use on our land and road in Wisconsin.

I never owned working horses or even learned how to drive them the way my dad did. He farmed with horses until I was about four. That’s when he bought the Farmall H and, I expect, my toy model of it.

Not all important memories are primary, meaning some were told to me. One story is how my dad got started farming with horses after being a hired hand. The only team he could afford was one so rank that nobody wanted them. He had very specific training methods that, in his words, would not break a horse’s spirit. To convince these horses that he was boss without beating them, he threw them each to the ground with a rope (a technique I never learned) and sat on their heads. Horses cannot get up without throwing their head up first. It is basically the same thing as the puppy submission training hold.

I can still remember our two working horses, draft horses we called them, King and Porky. They were huge, filling their stalls near the front of our barn, but I do not remember ever being afraid of them. I’ll have to check with my brothers to see how accurate my memory might be.

King being appropriately regal was a tall and lean golden chestnut with a blaze of some sort on his forehead. Porky was darker, bay I believe, with dark mane, tail and feet. In my mind, the memory created when I was three to four years old, King was sort of the boss, the serious one, but Porky was the steady muscle with a sense of humor.

I do not know who I was before these memories, but I am certain such early experiences contributed to the person I have become. I still have a powerful connection to the land, love animals, and would often rather drive tractor or garden than fish. Perhaps more importantly, I still admire my dad. I was a lucky boy.

Pre-Trauma Love

I am not a psychologist. It seems prudent to remind us of that fact because I hear myself talking as if I were. These are just my opinions.

Reminder: This blog series is dedicated to love, the various kinds of love beyond the romantic and erotic that support personal growth and healing, especially the healing of invisible wounds from Combat PTSD.

Dr. Hart coaches us to remember our pre-trauma selves, to get back to those things that amused us, entertained us, attracted us, and made our lives meaningful and enjoyable. In other words, things we loved.

Good advice, Dr. Hart, but very difficult to do. It seems much easier to remember the trauma than the days before.

Who was I before Vietnam? Even that question is difficult to ask—and even more difficult to answer.

Am I not the person I was? No, but that admission is a big step, perhaps the greatest leap of all. I do not remember, of conscious mind, being any different.

Subconsciously, I do. If I can put myself back into situations I enjoyed with people, places, and things I loved before, I may remember at a feeling level.

Hay barns help, the smell of dried alfalfa and grasses. It takes me back to my youth.

Wrestling helps, being on the mat, coaching. Just being around schools helps. For me, school was a safe and enjoyable place. So, I went back and stayed.

Nothing takes me back to the pre-trauma world like Nature, whether it be hunting, gardening, or just walking in the woods. I accept that this is a feeling memory from the happier me. I know that the smell of tilled earth, wet wood, fallen leaves, or apples from the tree evoke the subconscious memories. But, I believe there is more.

I love the woods. For a reason I do not understand, I feel right, there—at home. I love the sights, sounds, smells, movements, and wholeness of field and forest. I know I belong.

In the woods, I am small but significant. I am one part of a big thing, equal to the tree, deer, squirrel, inchworm, and mosquito. I belong because I am part of it, because I accept it as bigger than me, because…I have been invited. Yes, I feel invited.

I love the woods, but even more importantly, I believe the woods loves me. Without prejudice or judgment of any kind.

In the forest I feel small yet bigger than anywhere else. I hope that makes sense to you. It feels right to me.

Perhaps you see a pitfall, here. People with Post Traumatic Stress symptoms who do not have a pre-trauma place that invites them may have more difficulty finding equilibrium. Well, people without hay barns, gardens, or forests of youth may have trouble reaching their equilibrium even without trauma. I grieve for people who do not feel invited into the woods.

It is not too late. I believe that. I (the not psychologist guy) believe that Nature is here to love all of us whether we meet before or after trauma. Find a teacher, a guide, and go home to Nature. It is in your DNA.

Mother Earth loves every one of us. Isn’t it time you accepted and returned that love?

Pain o’ Past

“…We vividly relive a combat experience or see the world that we are in, in the here and now, as if it were somewhere in the combat zone.” (Hart, 2000, p. 109)

Reminder: For the next few weeks, this blog is dedicated to my reflections on a book by Ashley B. Hart II, PhD, called An Operators Manual for Combat PTSD: Essays for Coping.

We sometimes forget what we want to remember and sometimes remember what we want to forget. Forgetting is an important part of the human mind. We need to forget some things to make room for other things and to make sense out of senseless things. But there are memories we never forget.

We remember snapshots, like the first time we saw our spouse or child. Such memories return as flashbulbs providing vivid pictures of bits of our past and allowing us to relive the feelings of another time. The first time I jumped out of an airplane and my parachute opened. Gratitude—and surprise at the sudden quiet after that noisy old flying boxcar. It was exhilarating and pleasant.

Combat memories are not so pleasant. They can also flood upon us not just as flashbulb memories of little snapshots, but as full production movies we call flashbacks. We are suddenly overwhelmed by the sensation of living the experience all over again in the here and now. Fortunately, this is a rare occurrence for me—although, not so rare for some of my brothers.

Memories elicit feelings, and that can be very pleasant, instructive, and helpful. Big memories like flashbacks can also elicit emotions. Such memories may not feel good, but the emotional consequences feel worse. What is the difference? Emotions exceed feelings because they include physiological responses.

Flashbacks produce feelings and emotions. They produce chemical changes, such as adrenalin, that cause many more changes in the body. Our breathing and heart rates change. We perspire. We may get weak—or, unbelievably strong. Such physiological changes may be exhilarating, but as they continue for three or four days, they hurt.

Combat Veterans would not usually choose to have such memories. We have ways to avoid them. We repress certain memories. We think about other things. We stay busy with work and/or hobbies. We drink. We focus anger on certain people or things. We refuse to talk about them or be around people who do.

None of these things work forever. Memories percolate to the conscious mind at the most inopportune times. In nightmares. While we are driving. At a funeral. When we are hunting.

Sometimes it is a sight, sound, feeling, or smell that triggers the memory. Smells are especially effective. Many of my Vietnam Veteran brothers cannot stand the smell of nuoc mam, a sauce made of fermented fish and used like soy sauce. Because I lived and ate with Vietnamese as an advisor, I actually like the smell. Nor am I triggered by the sound of tonal languages or the look of Asian faces. Americans who fought in the jungles in isolation from the Vietnamese people have more difficulties.

The human mind has another avoidance mechanism. When powerful memories emote physiological responses, part of the mind goes away. We dissociate, meaning we lose time. It may be for only an instant, or it may be for frighteningly long periods of time. Some of my friends have reported finding themselves at their safe spot in the desert far from home and hours later than their last conscious memory. I am, again, fortunate to have little experience with this phenomenon.

Two points about dissociation: First, it is a protective mechanism to shield our minds from reliving our trauma and is, therefore, useful; Second, it is a cue to us to take action (breathing, EMDR, talking left brain to right brain, calling our psychologist, talking to a friend) to cope with our emotions. We cannot forget everything—nor, should we—but, we need not let our memories destroy our present and future.

There are methods to cope, but we must learn and use them, and for that, we must have help. Our Veterans need our support after they come home. Support Troops After Return (STAR).