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Around 1948, Red and I, both around ten-years-old and, true to our Irish DNA, red-headed and as pale as the underside of a trout, wandered into a dicey area of Compton. We were out a bit late and feeling a little adventurous when a couple of tough-looking pachucos (Chicano gang members) spotted us about a half-block away. “Hey, white boys! Watcha doin’ out so late?” (I made up that quote to add some life to this account, but they probably said something like that. That’s the way tough guys talk, isn’t it?)
Red and I had apparently wandered into their ‘hood, which was a violation of some kind of territorial imperative that all urban gangs seem to have.
Then they started running toward us. It looked to me as if these particular pachucos wanted to wail on a couple of little white kids. At any rate, we took off down the street as if we were being chased by the Devil himself.
I can’t remember how we got away. (This occurred about 70 years ago). All I remember is The Chase itself. The image of that running match has loomed large in my consciousness over the years.
Yesterday I had lunch with Red in Las Vegas. I asked him about that episode. He said he had no memory of a chase. Darn, I now think I made up The Chase out of thin air. And I believe I know how that might have happened.
You see, five years before the imaginary Chase took place, the LA newspapers were full of stories about a series of fights and brawls between zoot-suited pachucos and servicemen stationed in LA. (Zoot suits were often worn by pachucos who fancied themselves big shots and criminals. These zoot suits consisted, in their purest form, of a pork pie hat (see photo below), a long coat sometimes reaching to the knees, baggy trousers, and some bling, usually a long watch chain.)
The Zoot Suit Riots, as all the LA newspapers called them, started with a fight between a sailor and a Chicano. The sailor was beaten badly. Upon hearing of the beating, sailors and other servicemen stationed in LA, some carrying clubs and other crude weapons, started roaming the streets of LA looking for any zoot suiter who was unlucky enough to be on the street. After three or four days, the riots had spread to the south LA suburbs of Watts and Compton, my hometown.
The LA City Council finally became so worried that they banned the wearing of zoot suits altogether.
But by that time, we Compton kids had turned pachucos and zoot suiters (often one and the same) into the stuff of childhood nightmares, and I was evidently beginning to shape, in my unconscious mind, the outline of a story in which Red and I were chased down the street.
When Red and I get together in Vegas once a year, we usually compare stories of those long-ago days in Compton. Our memories often don’t jibe. (I’ve already written about our disparate memories of an encounter with a pedophile, who grabbed either Red’s or my crotch. To this day we’re not sure whose crotch got grabbed. I say it was Red’s; he says it was mine.
Each time I come away from meeting with Red (who is a retired professional gambler), I realize that my head is stuffed full of partial memories, edited memories, and false memories; and that I’ve shaped my persona over the years based on those memories. I wonder how I would think of myself if my memories were all based on the unvarnished truth.
Minus these dramatic (and dubious) episodes from my past, the inventions of my fevered imagination, I’m just a boring, ordinary guy. But my memories make me more interesting, in my mind at the least.
The example I’ve chosen, a false memory with a starting point about 70 years ago that grew through the years, may seem extreme, but my wife and I even have differing versions of the recent past.
According to memory theory these days, every time we recall a memory, we change it slightly. I’d like to ask Socrates how we can know ourselves if our memories, which make up the Self, are so volatile and unreliable.Published in