Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Letter from California-February 14, 2005

I was leafing through the local paper this week, when I started thinking about all the things I remembered that had never actually happened to me. The more I thought about it, I realized some of these things happened even before I was born. Yet there these imposter memories sit in my brain, like they own the place.

Before you stop reading and back slowly away from your paper, let me give you an example. Perhaps you might find there are one or two things you remember even though you never actually experienced them. Here’s one: remember how there used to be so many more trees? You could roam the wilderness for miles and miles, boring yourself to a stupor, without seeing anything but acre after acre of trees. It’s such a peaceful scene compared to today, in an America that has cut down its trees to build Taco Bells. It makes you long for the old days, like say, around 1920, when your father or grandfather or great-grandfather carried pails full of tadpoles back home from the creek (or crick, depending on which way you go on that word) through the mighty woods. Yes, those were the days.

See, I said you’d remember something you didn’t really experience. It gets worse though, because in this case, not only did you not experience it, it also doesn’t happen to be true. You might want to go see somebody about this or at least take one of the many available purple pills that deals with this kind of thing. To be specific, America has more trees now then it did back in 1920, according to the U.S. Forest Service in a report this week. A lot more. In fact, we’ve added enough forest land in the last 80 years to cover Rhode Island, a couple Super Wal Marts, and most of Puff Daddy’s cribs. At this point, we’re planting trees faster than we can cut them down. In fact, in some rural towns out here in the West, frightening stories have emerged of residents being driven from their homes near forests that have become completely overrun with trees.

It seems fair enough, since we tormented trees pretty well for so long. When the colonists arrived in the 1600s, they cut down trees for any reason or no reason at all: to build houses, to start fires for cooking, to clear land to grow farms, to make wooden shoes in case they had Dutch visitors, for decorative bird houses, to settle bar bets, for popular competitions like “Wood Chopping Idol,” and sometimes just for spite. If you think about it, not a lot of recreational options existed, so chopping wood was like Yoga class and a day at the office all in one. Plus, you had chopped wood for a birdhouse at the end.

So they chopped and they chopped their little hearts out right up until 1920, when the nation was all chopped out. Well, not really, but that was the low point for forests. Ever since then, we’ve had more and more forest land as the years have gone on, which means that most of us have lived our whole lives during a time of both growing forests and the convenience and great taste of Taco Bell’s Value Menu. Ok, convenience, anyway.

Of course, you might remember something that really did happen, but just not to you. In Palo Alto this week, an elderly survivor of World War II had an experience that reminded him of past discrimination against his people. According to an AP story, Herbert Kaiser says memories of the labels that had to be worn in Nazi Germany came back to him when he received a letter that put the word “Jewish” next to his name on the envelope. Who sent this sinister letter? Some shadowy neo-Nazi group? Not quite. Instead, it was the Alliance for Retired Americans, asking for money! The printer of the letters had accidentally put the religious affiliation of the recipients beside their name on the envelope.

Kaiser spent the war as an American submariner, so his memories of Nazis mostly involve sending a bunch of their rotten ilk to the ocean floor with torpedoes. This episode caused Kaiser to flash back to something he didn’t experience directly, but did have a hand in putting a stop to. In my book, he’s got a pretty solid right to be frosty about this little mix up. He’s the one who had to spend his prime girl-chasing years in a tin can underwater, setting the world straight.

Kaiser protested and the organization apologized. The United Farm Workers, who rented the list to the Alliance, said through a spokesman that, “even if it’s one that’s offended, that’s too many.”

Clearly, the group had no intent to offend anyone, so I think people will forgive them. I say that because if they wanted to offend people this way, it would be amazingly easy. Writing “John Jones, Catholic” on a letter might make people feel a little awkward, but just watch what would happen if you sent out a letter saying “Jennifer Jones, moderately overweight” or “John Jones, needs Viagra.”

It would be memorable, whether you were actually there or not.


  • At April 27, 2005 at 5:40 PM, Anonymous SheilaB said…

    And then there are those people who remember things whether they happened or not.

    Got here via Haight Speech. You're a good writer. Keep it up.


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