Memories Rescued from Childhood Amnesia

David Dayton
12 min readApr 30, 2022

And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 18:3, New International Version

“Where are you from?” was a nettlesome question for me. As an Army brat, I didn’t have a home town. Inevitably, I’d feel compelled to say where I was born. After JFK’s assassination, shame often prompted a disclaimer: “I was born in Dallas, but I’m not from there.” Indeed. My family moved far from Dallas before any memories got imprinted in my brain. And yet I still have the ornate birth certificate given to Mom by Florence Nightingale Maternity Hospital, which used to be part of Baylor University Hospital. Old online photos show that the baby factory was a small blocky structure, mostly two but partly three stories high, with a sandstone-like façade. Each narrow window was shaded by a steeply slanted three-sided fabric awning. The first time I examined the photos, I thought the window awnings looked like old-fashioned prams, demurely shushing the harsh sunlight. The hospital’s peak output occurred in 1950, when about 7,000 babies were born there. The overflow of moms were nursed in beds lining the hallways.

I was born early on the morning of February 24th, 1952. I was a breech baby, bound and determined to exit butt first. When my head finally slipped free, the doc, according to Mom, looked startled. The umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck. The delivery had been prolonged. I might have suffered brain damage from lack of oxygen. Mom said she had been too relieved to be worried. She didn’t mention Dad’s reaction. He was an incurable worry wart. If he had been nearby and were told about the uncertain outcome, his thoughts would have gone right to the worst case scenario. Nevertheless, he would have kept a bracingly stoical mien and manner. And he would have asked whoever was there to join him in prayer.

I have to wonder, though, if Dad was even in the hospital that Sunday morning, an hour before dawn. Having exhausted his GI Bill benefits, he was working part-time as a post office mail sorter to help pay his tuition at Dallas Theological Seminary. Also, someone had to look after my sister, not yet two. In a family photo album pulled from a musty closet, I once found a black and white baby photo that Mom swore was me: blond, butt-naked, belly-surfing on a blanket. I had to take her word for it that the drooly cherub was me and not my older sister Doreen or my next younger sister Chandler. With that pose at that age, the three of us would have looked the same. I didn’t ask why Mom was so sure it was me. I remained doubtful. If something in the photo said “Dallas” to her, that only ruled out Chandler. Doreen was born in May 1950 as Dad was finishing his first year of seminary. He graduated with a master’s in theology in May 1953. Chandler showed up in December of that year, while we were living with or near Dad’s family near the Finger Lakes region of central New York.

After seminary, Dad was ordained as a minister by the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches. An offshoot of the Northern Baptist Convention, it was based primarily in the Midwest. His home church though was Venice Baptist Church near his father’s farm in Cayuga County, New York. A teen-age soldier in World War II, Dad rejoined the Army in January 1954 as an officer in the Chaplain Corps and attended the U.S. Army Chaplain School. At that time, the Chaplain School was housed at Fort Slocum, New York, on a small island at the western end of Long Island Sound. Before, during, or right after his chaplaincy training, we moved to Camp Kilmer, near Brunswick, New Jersey. I have no memories of that northern New Jersey interlude in my family’s exotic travels through the 1950s. But I do have a copy of one photograph from that period. This family portrait must have been taken in 1954, probably after Dad graduated from Chaplain School, while we were living at Camp Kilmer. Hence, that’s two-year-old me, sandwiched between Doreen, who must be four, and Chandler, who’d be not yet one.

Photograph of the author’s family when he was two years old, with him and his sisters sitting in front of their smiling parents.

We sailed from New York City to the Panama Canal Zone in January 1955 aboard the USNS George W. Goethals, stopping along the way in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I have documents attesting to these facts thanks to the resources of I was almost three years old, so I may have retained some memories of that travel adventure well into childhood, but neither Doreen nor I can be sure when our memory of hurrying with Mom along city sidewalks and peering up in awe at skyscrapers occurred: Was that mnemonic moving picture from the days before we set sail for Panama, or after we returned, on the same ship, about two and half years later? I’ve decided that ghostly filmstrip must reflect what happened during our return trip, after we disembarked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on September 1, 1957. Doreen would have been seven, I would have been five, and the weather would have been warm, making it more likely that Mom would take us along on some errand that had her rushing down crowded sidewalks in Manhattan.

I believe my earliest memories are of moments I experienced in the Panama Canal Zone. Some of those memories have haunted me like dreams that stubbornly and mysteriously recur. Here’s one: I am watching a small metal rod roll downhill ahead of me as I nudge it repeatedly with my foot. I keep catching up to the rod and then watch it roll away again from my nudging toe. Fascinated by this game, I move fearlessly down a concrete sidewalk that slopes away from our house. After some minutes, I stop and peer upward: Translucent white flowers lushly shine among small trees chinked with sunlight. I continue forward as though floating into a dazzling grove. Suddenly, I become aware of a man’s voice, repeating a question. My eyes seem to snap back into my head as I realize I’m expected to answer. I remember nothing specific about the man. I vaguely recall walking with him back up the hill, confident he would get me back where I belonged.

My youngest sister Camille was born at Gorgas Hospital in the Canal Zone in November 1955. Knowing that is why I’m confident in saying I was four years old when I experienced what I just described. At four, I would have been able to communicate with the man who found me, to tell him my name — even if he had spoken Spanish, a bit of which I’d picked up from our maid, according to Mom. I wonder who had let me wander away from the house that day, Mom or the maid? Maybe each thought the other was keeping an eye on me? We were not wealthy, by the way. The maid came with the house, both provided by the Army.

Doreen would have been six at the time, and I suppose Mom might have told her to keep an eye on me, but she was probably attending school, finishing kindergarten or starting first grade. Chandler, not yet three, was likely in a playpen, maybe the same one I recall from another Canal Zone memory: Chandler and I were alone in a room, which had a balcony above us with an open doorway I kept glancing up at. I stuck a leg between the playpen’s wooden bars and Chandler started sucking on my big toe. Amazed and amused, I shouted the news up to Mom, who shocked and shamed me, disgustedly yelling back to not let her do that. I obeyed, though conscious I didn’t feel the shame she had meant to inflict, just embarrassment. I should have kept the fun to myself.

Mom may have been tending to Camille up there, her new baby. Four kids in five and a half years! Dad’s first Canal Zone assignment was at Fort William D. Davis on the Atlantic side of the canal. We later moved to the Pacific side, when Dad joined the 33rd Infantry Regiment based at Fort Kobbe, adjacent to Howard Air Force Base. In December 1956, after almost two years in the Canal Zone, my parents sent out their Christmas cards with the following snapshot and, in centered type underneath, Season’s Greetings / from Panama.

I wish I had more photographs from that time. Two Kodak-captured moments have stuck with me in memory. In one, I’m seated on a metal toy tractor. I wasn’t keen to sit on the thing because the toy was not mine and it was broken — the crank and pedals were missing. When I complained about that, Mom, trying to charm a smile out of me, cheerily suggested I just pretend it had pedals. So I reluctantly bent one leg and left my foot dangling in the air where the pedal might have been on that side, ready to push down. Later, Mom seemed to think the disgruntled look on my face was cute. I couldn’t look at that snapshot without feeling embarrassed that I had gone along with her silly suggestion. I looked stupid with one bent leg hanging in the air like that.

The other snapshot I recall showed my pre-kindergarten class standing side-by-side in a straggly lineup outdoors. We were celebrating Halloween: Each of us sported a costume. Everyone but me had a mask of some sort at least partially covering their face. My mask was in my hand, hanging at my side. I was dressed up as a cowboy. I didn’t see the point of the stiff plastic mask, which hurt my face. I had taken it off and refused to put it on when coaxed. I pretended not to hear and just squinted toward the camera, the mask held down below my hip, not quite hidden, like my umbrage.

If I still had that pre-kinder photo, I would look for the little scar on my chin. How noticeable was it really? I think I see it in the Christmas-card photo above. It took me a long time not to focus on it every time I looked in a mirror. Doreen and I had gotten on the teeter-totter, a rather crude wooden plank. The handle at each end was a metal T-bar. We went up and down a few times, and then a hyperactive little girl insisted on having a turn. After dismounting, Doreen held down her end of the wooden board and the girl got on. No sooner did Doreen release control, with me helplessly watching, waiting to descend, than the spoiled little brat hopped off and darted away.

Down I plunged, the board banging into the hard-packed dirt before my feet could stiffen. My chin bashed the metal bar. I ran, tears streaming, bloody fingers cupping my gashed chin. I remember Mom reacting quickly and efficiently when I came screaming into the house. She knew how to stanch the bleeding. I vaguely recall getting stitches, but I can’t recall if it was the first or second time I got stitched up by an Army doctor in the Canal Zone.

On another occasion, while traipsing down a rough path through a field, I tripped and felt a stabbing pain in my leg. Tall, kind Carlos knelt down and inspected the cut, chattering soothingly in Spanish. He did not seem too concerned. I had to bend and crane my neck over my knee to see where the shin was bleeding. Carlos reached into an overgrown patch and fished out what looked like a tiny rusted crown with serrated points. He explained that it was the top of a discarded can. Carlos was Dad’s chapel assistant, a local who must have spoken English well enough because my Dad didn’t speak any Spanish. I think this incident might have happened when Carlos took me home to see his mom, probably on the way back. I vaguely recollect a rotund smiling woman sitting on a chair in her rustic kitchen, effusively ratatat talking as Carlos presented me to her.

I have whiled away quite a few hours reading website posts by fellow Army brats sharing memories of the Canal Zone. I don’t remember fist-size flying cockroaches clattering about in kitchen cupboards. I cannot recall, but wish I could, the friendly skittish gangs of coatímundí: raccoon-like critters with an ant-eater’s narrow pokey snout and long monkey-like tails. I can recall, but wish I couldn’t, running among a gang of kids behind the jeep-like vehicle that circulated slowly in the neighborhood, spraying clouds of DTD atomized in diesel oil. I remember waking one time when the dark house shook and we kids ran screaming into Mom and Dad’s bedroom. Mom seemed amused. It’s just a small earthquake, she said.

Someone posted snapshots of the pool at Fort Kobbe, and one in particular jogged my memory: a blue tile obelisk rising from the water in the shallow end of the pool, a little boy perched on the ledge forming its base. I remembered those blue tiles and the goose-bumped skin of my arms all sparkly wet, my legs dangling in the water. In another web-posted snapshot of Kobbe Beach, I recognized the ugly barrier just off shore, an A-frame tunnel of thin metal beams. I remember asking Mom what it was and her sly glee in explaining that it held up a net to keep the sharks out of the swimming area.

Doreen, being almost two years older, has more vivid memories of our years in the Canal Zone. She reminded me that we liked to sled down grassy hills in the canoe-like stems of royal palm fronds. She also described how we loved to raid the mango trees on the nearby golf course, gorging ourselves when they were ripe, and coming home with our clothes yellow-stained and still sopping wet with mango juice.

To have lived like that and not be able to remember! That’s the curse of childhood amnesia. But it has its blessings too.

Doreen reminded me that one time I went into the jungle remnants near our house with one or more pals and started a fire. The base’s firefighters had to come and put it out. The MPs — Military Police — informed my parents that I was among the culprits. I’m sure I was bright enough to admit I was there but also to adamantly insist I wasn’t the one who lit the match. And maybe I wasn’t. But I think I was, egged on by one of the older boys. I have a dreamlike memory of watching a couple other boys form a small pile of dried grass and other jungle detritus. They held out the matches and so I crouched and scraped the match against the side of the box until it flared and flew from my panicked fingers.

I cannot explain why none of my Panama memories have anything to do with the work my father did and the religious activities that shaped our family routine: a prayer before each meal, bedtime Bible stories and prayers, Sunday School, church services. My earliest memories of that sort begin when I was in second or third grade. Before then, all the religious routines that I dutifully abided I gave no more thought to than I did to food and drink. I am grateful to childhood amnesia for that at least.

I have retained some memories suggesting I was born with a mystical bent. Maybe it was that oxygen deprivation in the birth canal? I remember before falling asleep I would make up mundane dialogues repeating simple question and answer conversations. I would give actual voices to these conversations, like a ventriloquist, by modulating the breath passing in and out of my nostrils. The ability to invent voices of imaginary persons and have them chat in a forum only I could hear fascinated me. It became a pastime I engaged in to help me fall asleep.

At some point this exercise in directed auditory make-believe opened a portal in my imagination. Drifting toward sleep, I would begin to hear classical symphonic music, which I cannot imagine now where I would have heard before. On the radio? At a concert attended with my parents? I could not always summon this music. But for a time when I was very young, certainly before I learned to read, I would jiggle some impalpable dial in my mind, seeking a weak signal. And if I was lucky I’d begin to hear it. The thrilling music would begin again. The symphony orchestra’s perfectly blended sounds would sweep and swoon and crescendo, carrying me inward and away, spirited into a purely sonic state of ineffable emotion.

One time, while drifting off before sinking into deeper sleep, I felt myself falling into an abyss that I sensed went on forever. Panic of lostness-without-end pierced through me as I fell faster and faster. The darkness without form and void abruptly bloomed streaks of light, silently exploding fireworks, forming into galaxies that began to swirl, and suddenly all the stars snapped into place, shocking me with the rapture of every question being answered, all unknowns revealed, all beauty blossoming in surrender to the perfect sense of the peace that surpasses understanding. It felt to me like the all-encompassing love at the end of all loss, which my parents, of course, taught me to think of as the love of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.



David Dayton

See Here, you’ll find draft chapters of a memoir and drafts of poems to be published in a book on Amazon.