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Here’s how I remember it.
In late 1988, I was living in Charlotte with my new wife, and I hated my job selling VCRs in a department store. Young and naive, I had vague thoughts about finding a better job “in business” — you know, wearing a tie and working in an office — so I started an aimless job hunt, scattering applications around and reading the classifieds.
At one point, I visited the office of an employment agency, hoping that their experts would be able to match my experience and skills to a job opening. Problem was, I didn’t have any experience or skills. Before the department store, my only job had been six summers working at the Carowinds theme park. So I was pleasantly surprised when the agency said they’d found an opportunity for me and would set up a meeting.
Days later, dressed in a cheap suit, I found myself sitting in a hotel conference room with a middle-aged businessman named Anderson, along with two or three other people he’d already signed on for his project. He had a vision: a new theme park, themed entirely around strawberries. He showed me a map of the site he had in mind, near Florence, S.C., and explained why his idea couldn’t miss. He needed someone to be the manager of his rides department, and my background at Carowinds apparently made me qualified.
At one point he asked me what kind of salary I would expect after we were in business. I’d never done better than just above minimum wage, and I didn’t even have a good sense of what annual salaries were. I remembered hearing a few years earlier that someone I knew had landed a job making $21,000 a year straight out of college, so I ambitiously named $30,000 as my figure. Anderson smiled and said, “Well, I hope we can do a little better than that.” Wow.
And so I joined the team. Anderson asked me to work up some numbers estimating the staffing needs for his park’s rides department. My only relevant experience was in making out rotation schedules for a crew of ten or fifteen, but I tried to scale this up and did my best to guess at how many employees would be required to operate the number of rides he had in mind.
Throughout all of this, I had misgivings. The whole idea, to me, seemed questionable: a theme park devoted to strawberries? Apart from Anderson’s thoughts about the location, I’d seen no evidence of anything real going on: no investors, no zoning applications, no business plan. I did not suspect Anderson of any dishonesty, but I didn’t see enough to convince me that this was really going to go anywhere.
But the biggest red flag I saw was the fact that Anderson had chosen me to manage his rides department. It was like the Groucho quote: “I don’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.” I knew how unqualified I was, and I knew that I was completely bluffing my way through the planning work that Anderson had asked me to do. I knew that I wouldn’t have hired me. The fact that he was willing to do so, at a generous starting salary, gave me little confidence.
And so, after a few more meetings (all in this same hotel conference room), I asked the employment agency to tell Anderson that I was no longer interested. I never heard another word about it.
Over the years, occasionally something would make me think about that experience. And the more time passed, the more inexplicable the whole thing started to seem. It really didn’t make any sense.
It didn’t help that my memory tends to be poor, and so there were a lot of details I couldn’t account for. Who were the other people in those meetings? I must have been introduced to them, but I can’t tell you any of their names, their backgrounds, or even what their roles were in this new enterprise. For that matter, I couldn’t tell you anything about our intrepid leader: who was this guy Anderson? Was I right to doubt him? (The theme park never happened, but there could be a lot of reasons for that.)
Gradually, I started to wonder if I was even remembering the events accurately. I tend to be a packrat, but I don’t have any physical evidence of any of it: no meeting notes, no memos, not even any of the staffing calculations I remember scribbling on a legal pad. Could I be sure that any of it actually happened? If a lawyer were to cross-examine me, I had an uneasy feeling the story would fall apart.
Here’s what I find fascinating: that’s actually the case for a lot of experiences we all remember, and indeed for history in general. There’s a whole branch of philosophy — epistemology — that asks how we know what we know. History tries to uncover the objective truth about the past, but it has to contend with all sorts of distortions. First-hand accounts are biased, or even intentionally false, and memories are unreliable. Written records are spotty and incomplete, and there’s often a very blurry line between mythology and history. We correlate with physical evidence where we can, and we try to triangulate on the truth, but we can never be asbolutely certain.
But a society is shaped by what it remembers about its past. It almost doesn’t matter whether the Trojan War actually happened, because Homer’s account of it is far more influential than anything we can actually know about the real history. Like it or not, we are always curating and editing the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, and the best we can do is to be aware of this.
In fact, I am confident that my experience with Mr. Anderson did actually happen, even if I can’t be sure of so many of the details. I started keeping a journal in early 1989, just in time for it to include a single relevant passage:
I need to call Mary Ellen at Accurate Personnel and tell her I’m no longer interested in Mr. Anderson. I kind of dread doing it, but I’m supposed to be at a meeting with him Friday night so he needs to know before then.
And some Google searching reveals that there was, in fact, a corporation with the right name, and with a CEO named Anderson, supposedly in the amusement-park business. (Astoundingly, I see that this corporation was not officially dissolved until 2011. Was he trying to make a go of it all this time?) This is just enough evidence to convince me that I did not, at least, make the whole thing up.
But it’s nonetheless interesting for me to ponder: are there other stories I believe about myself that didn’t actually happen? Stories that became part of who I am? And does it matter?
What about you? Do you have memories that don’t seem quite believable, or that can’t be squared with the facts?Published in