One memory launches a hundred more

There was the one-legged kid with the giant mouth who sold us homemade firecrackers for 25 cents a pop on the playground. That was Clayton, grade four, with a wooden leg and a broad freckly face topped by a shaggy pageboy. I still don’t know why Clayton had one leg. But he got along, though with a strenuous limp that made him look like a lurching scarecrow.

Those were some times, grade school in Santa Barbara, Ca., when John Travolta, John Ritter and Jonathan Livingston Seagull soared. When skateboarding became a bowl-swooping craze and the Boogie Board vaulted bodysurfing to radical crests. And when Pong and Space Invaders rocked high-tech recreation with bleeps (and, face it, creaks). 

Jim Jones and “The Devil in Miss Jones.” Darth Vader and “Dancing Queen.” The time machine churns and Clayton, poor Clayton, is probably selling TNT to demolitionists in Arizona these days. Light the fuse …

Boom! That’s KISS, circa 1978. All fire and folderol. And, for a fourth grader, everything alluring wrapped in one blinding bundle: sex, rock ’n’ roll, explosions, noise, mayhem, tongue-flinging personas in makeup and costumes.

Not a good look. Things rarely age well, unless it’s wine, or Cheryl Ladd.

Some things last. Queen and the Ramones. “Annie Hall” and “Apocalypse Now.” Bowie and Belushi. Richard Pryor and Richie Cunningham. Didion and De Niro. Rodney Allen Rippy and priggish Charmin pitchman Mr. Whipple. And yes: “Maude.”

What we’re getting at is memory and endurance, how they’re braided, and the randomness of it all. It started with Clayton’s cheap firecrackers — painted silver, with the fuse strangely in the middle, not the top — a fond memory from when I wore Keds sneakers and Sears Toughskins and had hair like Adam Rich. 

Apparently out of nowhere I had a flash of Clayton, always with that enveloping smile, his disability be damned, and everything came rushing back in mere seconds, and with it the world.

You must remember this 

I own a stockpile of childhood memories (a disproportionate number of them featuring poo) that I access often and for the most part fondly — distant, dreamlike time travel that reminds me I’m alive and have lived. 

Randomly: There’s the time my mom got sprayed and drenched by a blubbery walrus at SeaWorld when I was 8. My first real kiss with Stephanie when I was 12. My dad taking us to a live taping of “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” at 14. Playing drums in my first professional rock concert at 17. And when a kid peed all over my back while I was stationed at a urinal in the boy’s bathroom. I was 7, and wearing a brand-new shirt to boot. Yeah, I bawled. (The fact that I never made a voodoo doll of that kid is miraculous.) 

Those are youthful flickers. I’m skipping adult flashbacks — like when I was detained by Hezbollah in Beirut, or when I got acupuncture and almost puked — in favor of more faded scrapbook pages, not all of them fully innocent or delightful, but mostly far enough in the past that any sting has been blunted. (Strike that: a guy pissed all over me.) 

It’s smart to wax philosophical about these things. “Memories warm you up from the inside,” writes novelist Haruki Murakami. “But they also tear you apart.”

True that. I harbor some memories that are seared in my consciousness as if by a cattle brand, and I wince to this day. Still others are sublime and soaring, pleasures to revisit and revel in, visions that, as Murakami says, “warm you up from the inside.” Memories are agents of powerful, sometimes bulldozing, emotions. They hit you right here. They are not to be trifled with.

Summer memoriesMore remembrances, good, bad, ugly: At age 9, my best friend and I got our impish hands on some shotgun shells and threw them into a backyard fire in hopes they’d blow off (they didn’t). Selling lemonade from a curbside stand, my gal pal and I — we were about 7 — beseeched a passing teenage driver to buy a tasty beverage. He flipped us off. We were scandalized between giggles. My black Lab killed the neighbors’ cat. A few of us mischief-makers planned to dig a giant hole, cover it in leaves, and invite a neighbor kid over to fall into the pit. Digging the hole was so hard, I abandoned the plan within minutes. 

These are piquant memories, fragmentary yet oddly enduring. Evoking them — like seeing that dead horse in the road after it was hit by a car when I was 6 — is bittersweet.

I retain a catalog of episodic nostalgia, musty but living organisms that are easily accessible and flicker like short films across slabs of my brain: the hippocampus, neocortex and amygdala. Exhuming them is akin to fanning a Polaroid, waiting to see the image, with great and terrible affection.