Column: Technology and memory, gaining and losing

  • Steve Nelson

For the Valley News
Published: 5/25/2019 11:00:18 PM

I’m in the midst of writing a book about my time in the military, from 1966-69. Little about my service was noteworthy or courageous, but the stories of others with whom I served are haunting and powerful and these years changed the country in profound ways. But this is not a self-book report.

Having had no 50-year plan to write this book, I had no notes or other documentation to assist my memory, but it is surprising how much floods in when the gates are opened.

Memory is fascinating. Clarity does not necessarily correlate with accuracy. It is commonly thought that memory fades or fractures with age, leaving gaps in recollection. At a seminar 15 years ago a cognitive psychologist offered a more comforting explanation. He asked us to think of memories as items in manila folders, stored in filing cabinets in a room. When we are young, the files are all in one cabinet, neatly filed by date, perhaps color coded by the intensity of the memory. When we are old, we simply have a great many more folders and file cabinets. Identifying any particular item is a much more complicated search, but not necessarily a sign of decline.

Whether tucked in a tattered folder I can’t find or simply gone, I can’t for the life of me remember how I got from point A to point B in those days. Until I bought a green VW Beetle to travel from Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland to Fort Stewart, Ga., I had no car, so I must have taken public transportation during my earlier military travel. But even with the green VW, travel was a very different experience.

In winter 1968, I hitchhiked from Fort Ord, Calif., to Cleveland for Christmas with an Army friend. We had a tattered map of the United States and no formally planned route. That trip is a poignant chapter in the book, but its relevance in this piece is that we made it home with no communications and very little money. We had our thumbs, our songs and the generosity of remarkable people along the way. It is a far cry from the road rage and deep suspicions that characterize today’s highways and byways.

Whether a crosstown or cross-country trip, there was no GPS and road maps seldom had the details of specific neighborhoods. You had to depend on often-sketchy or inaccurate instructions from the person at your destination.

There were no cellphones to call or receive messages. There were no answering machines, at least not widely available. If your plans changed, you had to hope someone was home and that you found a pay phone and had sufficient change in your pocket. In light of today’s technology, it seems nearly miraculous that anyone ever successfully visited anyone else in those days. But we did.

I’m no Luddite or technophobe. I’m writing on a MacBook Air and looking forward to the next FaceTime with my granddaughter in Ottawa. I have more Apple devices than apples in my house — a source of some shame — but I think something is lost with every gain. Navigating by a map, taking public transportation or Greyhound buses, writing letters to make rendezvous plans and other skills are becoming vestigial.

There are marvelous aspects to modern technology, but the rhythms of life and flow of emotions have shifted dramatically in a very short time. We take for granted the nearly instantaneous ability to hear or see our family members or friends, wherever they or we might be. During the year that military service took me to Thailand, my parents and younger brother were in the Netherlands. My father was on sabbatical. I recall that we may have exchanged two or three letters during the year. I awaited each one with a greater anticipation than all the emails in my life combined.

We think the ease of connection strengthens bonds. I’m not so sure. The trite notion of “absence makes the heart grow fonder” has merit. Longing is an important emotion. I remember a night in Thailand when a radio signal delivered a static filled version of Hey Jude to our small bungalow. It was sublime and evocative of home, all the more powerful because we couldn’t summon it up on Spotify.

In the writing of the book I used Google to search for my friend Willie Vance, with whom I hitched across the country. I found him in a day, retired from a career as a federal lawyer, living in Peoria, Ill. He was surprised to get an email, as you might imagine, after half a century. His life was ripped apart by the war, in ways I learned one evening in the early ’70s over dinner back in Cleveland.

We will share memories by email and, perhaps, by phone, although he has 80% hearing loss as a result of combat experiences I was lucky enough to avoid. In my research I’ve found gruesome details of a lost friend’s experiences in Graves Registration in Chu Lai, Vietnam. I’ve exchanged Facebook messages with a naval officer who witnessed the Apollo moon landing while in Southeast Asia, as did I.

Technology is allowing me to reach back more than 50 years to revisit the richness of life without technology. The irony is not lost on me.

Steve Nelson lives in Boulder, Colo., and Sharon. He can be reached at

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