Flashbacks for Writers

There are two kinds of flashbacks.  There’s the one you think of when you hear the word.  You know what I mean – the war vet flipping out and doing crazy things, sometimes deadly things.  When I first heard of that type of flashback, I laughed, and thought, more made up stuff from wannabe Vietnam Vets.  Then, on the Fourth of July, 1983, fifteen years after coming home from Vietnam, I was running in a quiet residential area in Memphis, Tennessee.  Looking back on it, I can’t say for sure what triggered the flashback, but I suspect someone set off a cherry bomb or M50 near me.  One minute I was jogging down the road, the next minute I was on all fours, peeking around the trunk of a large oak tree in the middle of a well-manicured lawn, and someone was shouting, “Hey, Buddy, are you OK?”  Everything between those two moments is gone from my mind.

I haven’t had another of those types of flashbacks, but now I know they aren’t the product of someone’s imagination and I know if it happened to me once, it could happen again.  I doubt there is a sure-fire cure for that kind of flashback, but to be on the safe side, I go out of my way to avoid fireworks, especially on the Fourth of July.

I call the other kind of flashback a writer’s flashback.   Since I just experienced one, I’ll tell you about it, rather than make up a impersonal definition.

Once every six weeks or so, my day job requires me to spend the night away from home.  This is one of those nights.  I’m working in Scottsville, Kentucky for two days.  Rather than stay in the usual motel near the job, I decided to stay at Barren River State Park, because it’s quiet and it has a neat running trail that parallels the entrance road for a mile or so, and then winds through the woods for a couple of miles.

I run at night.  I have since I began running over thirty years ago.  This evening, I came in from the job, ate dinner while I watched the Braves lose another game to the Reds, took a forty minute nap, and at 10:30, I went out to run.  With no light pollution and very few street lights, darkness rules the night at Barren River State Park.  That’s fine by me.  I have a great flashlight and a run without the bustle of a city is always welcome.

Just before the trail dives into the woods, it passes a picnic pavilion.  I saw an SUV and a pickup truck parked side by side in the parking area near the picnic area.  They were the only vehicles in the area, and I assumed they belonged to lovers meeting in an out-of-the-way place.  I also assumed they were in one or the other of the of the vehicles.  My first assumption was correct– the second was wrong.

As I passed the pavilion, I heard a noise, and without thinking, I turned my brand new, 400 lumen flashlight in the direction of the sound.  I won’t go into detail, but I will note that in 30+ years of running, I thought I’d seen it all.  I was wrong about that too.

That’s when I had the flashback that prompted this post.  The source of the flashback was an evening I experienced fifty-two years ago this month.  I was seventeen years old, a high school senior, and I’d just had dinner at my steady girlfriend’s house (later she became my first wife and the mother of my two children).  She lived in a beautiful home, on a high bluff, overlooking the St Johns River.   After dinner we left her parents watching TV, and went into the living room.  We were only there a few minutes when she whispered, “I have something for you, but I can’t give it to you until mother and daddy go to bed.”  It seemed to take forever, but finally the TV was turned off and her mother called out, “Goodnight. Don’t stay up too late.”

We slipped out the front door and went down the steep stairs to the boat dock.  There we were invisible from the house, and a few minutes later, I received my surprise.   When I recovered a bit, and my breathing had almost returned to normal, I heard a strange sound – a steady whirring noise.  Then I noticed the unmistakable sound of water lapping against the hull of a boat.  I peered over the edge of the dock and looked directly into the eyes of a man sitting in a small boat.  He was bent over an old fashioned telephone, steadily turning the crank, generating electricity that flowed through wires that went from the phone, to the bottom of the river.  The current stunned bottom feeding fish, and they floated to the surface where the man could easily net them.

My sudden appearance caught his attention, and he looked up.  Our eyes met, and without pausing in his generator cranking, he said, “Good evening.”  The exact words I spoke to the couple at the picnic pavilion.

I relived that long ago night as I ran through the woods tonight.  The couple I’d surprised were gone when I went back on my second lap.  I hope they’d were pleased with their evening, but whether they were or not, I am pleased that they triggered a writer’s flashback.

Without writer’s flashbacks, there would be no writers, no storytellers, no one to breathe life into our history.

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