pine tree armI have a vivid childhood memory of my older brother falling out of a tree and breaking his arm. I remember the exact location, the tree, even the crunch as he hit the ground. The only problem with this vivid, crystal clear, memory is that the incident never happened.

As kids we often were dragged along as my parents visited Uncle Ralph and his family. Ralph was actually my Dad’s cousin, but the distinction was lost on us at that young age. He was also an antique dealer, where too the distinction between “treasure” and “junk” was lost on us. He and his wife Shirley lived in Rowley, the small town where my Dad was born and which abutted where we currently lived. They had two kids; one severely mentally challenged and both (it appeared to me at the time) significantly older than my brothers and I. These facts contributed to the general sense of boredom we experienced as the adults chatted over coffee at the kitchen table.

Luckily the abandoned barn at the end of the street had bats. My brothers, and sometimes others in the rather low-income rural neighborhood, would toss rocks into the barn in hopes of rousing the bats into flight. This only worked in the evening, which in retrospect makes sense as the bats were probably just going out at dusk for a night of foraging off the ubiquitous summer mosquitoes and greenhead flies. [For you science geeks, greenheads are Tabanus nigrovittatus, the velociraptor-sized horseflies prevalent in the northeast.]

On one visit my brother was climbing the pine tree next to the driveway. I have him reaching nearly the top before a sudden snap sent him crashing with a loud thud to the ground below. The ground was a pile of dirt and not something harder like pavement, which probably kept him alive. My brother moaned and groaned and I yelled for my Dad, who left his tepid coffee on the table and rushed outside. At this point my memory stops. I don’t recall any transport to the hospital or follow up recovery, just that he had broken his arm.

I mentioned this memory to my mother some years later. She said it never happened. There is no record of such an accident and my brother has no memory of ever breaking his arm. He did break his leg in three places in a skiing accident at some later point in time, but evidence shows the entire falling-out-of-a-tree scenario exists only in my own mind. To this day I still can’t figure it out. I can still see him in the tree, then on the ground, and the concept of his arm being broken, none of which ever occurred. To be honest, I’m less worried about being mistaken (as clearly I am) than I am about how my mind created such a vivid memory out of thin air. What other vivid childhood memories are figments of my imagination? Was I ever a child at all?

David J. Kent is a science traveler and the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, in Barnes and Noble stores now. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.

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