A number of my posts here have noted the way my memory of past events is quite restricted. Only memories of certain events in my life—exceptional in the impression they made on me—have survived the decades, and even then in fragment and mist. I talked about this phenomenon in Something on Memories. I’ve actually become much more aware of it through my writing here, and I can’t say how typical it is.
As the fatal date September 11 approaches, I’m moved to write of one of those memories from my childhood that is dreamlike and without clarity of detail, yet definitely grounded in real events and with strong, undefinable feelings and impressions attached.
I know the setting, though not the exact date, of this memory. It was at my Uncle Herman’s house in rural Northeast Texas. Herman was one of my maternal grandfather’s younger brothers, perhaps the youngest. Although the two brothers lived only a short distance apart, there wasn’t much social intercourse between the two families, at least whenever I was there for summer vacation and holiday visits. The little community’s Methodist church was very important to my grandfather, but I don’t recall seeing Herman there, even though he and his wife lived close to it, on the same road. It could be that they went to a different church, but their failure to attend the same church as my grandfather would have made them seem less a part of the family and the community. In any case, we would see Uncle Herman in my uncle’s general store on a fairly regular basis. Almost everyone in the surrounding area would be there sometime or other during the week if only for the society.
As I recall him, my uncle Herman was a lively, outgoing man who liked to kid a lot. But in my memories of him from childhood a couple of things stand out more than his personality. One is that he had had his larynx removed due to cancer, which made his appearance quite singular and rather disturbing to a child that only saw him occasionally. I can remember him before the operation though, and before that alteration in his appearance and speech, the main thing that made him stand out in my mind was his hound dogs. On the few occasions I went with my grandfather to visit Herman, it seems we always saw him outside the house instead of going inside, as one would do on a normal visit. He had numerous coon hounds which he kept in an enclosure not far from his house, and the dogs were always part of the picture when we were there. I suppose he kept the dogs for his own hunting pleasure, but for all I know he bred them for sale. They were a noisy and undisciplined lot, and I did not like being close to them. I don’t know how many there were of them, but there were more than enough to intimidate a town boy who wasn’t used to semi-wild canines who lived for the thrill of the hunt in the company of men experiencing the same primal pleasure. I don’t know if they became agitated at the sight of strangers or from seeing my uncle, with whom I imagine they shared delicious memories of hunts and kills.
The event I am now seeking to recall was a large family gathering at Uncle Herman’s house. Perhaps it was a family reunion, though I have a vague feeling it might have been a wedding anniversary. It may be the only time I was actually inside the house. Large gatherings with relatives that one barely knows are not a great pleasure to children. This one was exceptional though, because among those present was a cousin I had never met before, a boy about my age named Jimmy, one of Uncle Herman’s grandsons, presumably just visiting for this special occasion. Jimmy and I hit it off immediately. Perhaps he had inherited something of Uncle Herman’s exuberance. All I’m sure of is that Jimmy and I had a great time playing together and that I liked him a lot. I think we must have run through the unfamiliar house a few times, because I have a tantalizing sense of what it felt like to jump onto and off the porch and can vaguely picture the room that opened to the porch. Cousins of my generation were not numerous in my family, and the unexpected discovery of a new one my own age was exciting, with its implicit promise that we would have many more days of fun together.
That was not to be the case. As far as I know, this was the first and only time I ever saw Jimmy. I have no memory of what he looked like. I’m not sure how old we were when we met; my guess is about ten. The very singularity of our meeting and the thrill of discovery must have preserved from that day a small pool of feelings and impressions deep in the cavern of my memory, long after the details of the event had evaporated. I know I would have wanted to see more of Jimmy, but I don’t remember wondering about him. Perhaps such fleeting encounters are not unusual in childhood, as grownups determine the where and when of our lives. Given the loose connection between our grandfathers, Jimmy and I may well have been in the same small area at the same time both before and after that day without being aware of it.
Now I need to say how the September 11 attacks brought me back to that day long ago when I met a new cousin. Talking to my mother on the telephone sometime after 911, I was surprised to learn that one of my cousins, whose existence was news to me, Jimmy Nevill Storey, a Houston businessman, had been killed in the World Trade Center, a trip to New York City having been timed with the worst possible luck. He was one of Uncle Herman’s grandsons. It was quite some time later that the memory of the family gathering at which I had met a delightful new cousin came creeping into my consciousness. Yes, he was the one, it had to be so.
There’s a lot to ponder in this: the way we led our separate lives, only crossing paths once, my presence at his grandfather’s on just that day being almost as much a matter of chance as his being a victim in the events of September 11, 2001; and the way my recalling our single meeting was only the result of the circumstances of his death, which made me search my memory for some recollection (for if I’d heard that a cousin I didn’t know had died of a heart attack it probably would barely have registered and wouldn’t have set the wheels of my memory into motion).
I wonder what it would have been like to have met Jimmy as an adult? Would we have remembered our first encounter from so long ago? Would we have had enough in common to have felt even a small fraction of the rapport we’d felt our first meeting? He was a businessman and a graduate of Texas A&M, whose students—”Aggies” then and forever after—have traditionally viewed and defined their school as the polar opposite of my alma mater, the University of Texas (with its “tea-sip” students). I think A&M at that time was still all male, with military training a requirement for everyone. That was definitely not my cup of tea. Given that we were roughly the same age, we would have been cheering for opposite sides in the big rival games between our two schools. Scratch “cheering.” Aggies make a point of saying they don’t cheer; they yell, and have yell leaders. Jimmy and I probably would not have agreed on the Vietnam War had we met while it was going on. Perhaps those accidental facts of our lives would have been insurmountable barriers to connection. Such thoughts can make me long for the simple days of boyhood.
As with other victims, a few details of Jimmy’s life can be found on the internet. I came across a web page that had the text of an article from the Houston Chronicle, which had details I found touching. It was transcribed on September 26, 2001, but the actual date of publication wasn’t stated. The memorial service for Jimmy reported in the article was held only after the family had given up any hope that he could have survived. He had been on the 99th floor that morning. The article implies that he must have lost his father at a rather early age; and a cousin of mine has told me Jimmy’s father died at around the age of forty. Jimmy’s mother is quoted in the article as saying “He was kind of thrown from boy to man real fast, but he handled it well. He was a very devoted son, a very, very good father to his children.” Jimmy Storey was just one of many who died that day, but he’s the one I’ll be thinking about this September 11.