AMERICAN history is resplendent with stirring words, gallant phrases like: ``Damn the torpedoes, straight ahead,'' ``The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,'' and ``I cannot tell a lie.'' But when future historians examine the 1970s and 1980s, one quotation will immediately jump out at them: ``I can't recall.'' Memory is, indeed, a subjective and fickle attribute - particularly among politicians and second-story men. Even normal human beings remember experiences in bits and pieces, or not at all, depending on a myriad of mysterious factors. Our minds' picture of childhood, for example, is a Swiss cheese of solid (if sometimes romanticized) images and inexplicable gaps. My four older brothers insist that as the youngest I was spoiled and indulged to the extreme; I have no such recollection.
I do recall, at the tender age of four, helping my brother Steve stretch the garden hose over to the family car to play ``fill 'er up.'' Actually, I have heard this tale so often since that my mind could well have absorbed the relevant data from these later accounts. In any event, when confronted with our red-faced father, I remember rapidly transitioning into my deniability mode, pointing at Steve and insisting through a veil of tears: ``I was ill-served by my older sibling and was not fully briefed on the driving implications of this otherwise laudatory policy of watering up the Buick.'' Needless to say, I couldn't sit down for a day to two.
I would have insisted, ``Father, I can't recall,'' were it not for the inconvenient fact that the gushing hose was still in my hand. On numerous other occasions, however, that magical phrase would come in mighty handy, as it has for children of all ages. It rarely worked but it always seemed to have a comforting ring to it. I never got caught with my hand in the cookie jar (having quick hands and being sure to shred and swallow the evidence pronto); but once I was discovered with a roll of caps, which - since six-year-olds back then had no money - could only have been acquired by less than honorable means. When my mother demanded to know precisely how, I examined the caps carefully, as if to divine the wondrous miracle of their appearance in my pocket.
``Gee, mom, I don't remember; I think I found them on the sidewalk - yeah, that's it, I found them....'' Think again, she replied, adding that I could do so while returning them to the nice man at the five and dime. Unfortunately, I was just a kid and had no access to legal counsel and was totally unaware of my rights under the Fifth Amendment to our Constitution.
Hey, maybe that's the solution to this mess in Washington: If alleged public servants like Oliver North can't refrain from behaving like children, perhaps we should treat them like children. Ollie and friends should be told in no uncertain terms, ``Find that missing $30-odd million from that foolish Iran arms deal and return it to the American people to whom it belongs - and do it now!''
My most vivid childhood memory - it's in Technicolor - is playing with fire. Like President Reagan, I don't have a clue as to what I did on Aug. 8, 1985, the day the first arms shipment to Iran was authorized. But I sure do recall what I was up to on Easter Sunday, 1955: no good. With my dad and brothers off at Mass, what was a five-year-old to do but fetch some matches from his mother's purse. Next, I made a beeline outside for the hay protecting the pipes on the east side of our house. Gathering up a small pile away from the main supply, I touched it off.
It happened so fast, I just sat there and watched the flames spread along the side of the house. Then I pulled myself together, walked into the kitchen, and asked my mother for a glass of water. After the third glass, she grew suspicious and spied smoke billowing outside.
Blunders like that are not soon forgotten, especially when they become part of family lore. The firemen saved the house and I acquired quite a reputation among my neighborhood peers. I was the kindergarten cowboy, a gung-ho kid who got things done - dumb things, mind you, but entertaining stuff all the same. If my writing career doesn't pick up, my tombstone will probably read: ``At age five, set parents' house ablaze.''
Ronald Reagan and the boys are in danger of being remembered for their big blunder, too. They'd like to forget it ever happened, and that's understandable. When grownups plead ``I can't recall,'' justice is not so swift as it is for children. But clearly a spanking is in order, one they'll never forget.
David Holahan is a free-lance writer.