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Collective memories


I believe in collective memory or the ability to remember things your ancestors experienced.
For example, I’m not much of a dancer but after a couple of beers my Polish/German ancestry bubbles to the surface. Throw in an oompah-pah band and I get happy feet. In my day I’ve given a fair amount of ladies a thrill as I twirled them around the floor at the Solon American Legion to the lilt of the Beer Barrel Polka as played by Eddie Ulch and the Jolly Bohemians. And at least once I put on a virtual polka clinic at the Oktoberfest in Amana to the tune of “Seven Beers With The Wrong Women” as sung by Barefoot Becky and the Ivanhoe Dutchman Band.
My prowess on the dance floor became so widely known that women in the area began wearing special dancing shoes, ones with steel toes.
Poor Sabra doesn’t share the same ancestry. I’ve tried many times to teach her some basic moves to no avail. The girl is just all left feet. The only thing that makes her a better dancer is when I drink beer.
I once read, but I couldn’t find it for this column, a study that proved that collective memory exists. Researchers showed photos of snakes to toddlers and noted that they feared the reptiles even though they had never encountered one. Critics say that children, even little babies, learn to be afraid of snakes through cues given by their family. But the researchers showed that even Irish babies are afraid of serpents in a land without snakes (thanks to St. Patrick or glaciation, take your pick).
It really isn’t so far fetched. The brain is filled with about 100 billion neurons, and scientists think we use only about ten percent of them. What are those other 90 billion neurons doing? Remembering what it was like to be Northern European? For sure it’s not where I parked the car.
Another way this phenomenon surfaces in my psyche is the irrational fear of heights that has plagued me since childhood. I can be strapped in six ways to Sunday on a carnival ride but am still scared to death, even on a tame Ferris wheel. I know I can’t fall but my heart races nevertheless. The fear is so real and pervasive that I can’t even watch someone else climb a ladder, walk along a roof or stand on the edge of a cliff.
Sabra, on the other hand, is fearless at heights. Sometime in the past her family must have been acrobats. She was a natural at the University’s “Ropes Course,” which she worked as a facilitator for many years. She may not be able to two-step but she can walk across a rope bridge and fly down a zip line with the greatest of ease. Once on family day at the course I got to go up into the trees with her, and it gave a whole new meaning to the term “tree hugger.” A couple of hours and a bucket of sweat later I did make it across the bridge and zip to the ground.
Another time while serving on the Solon City Council I took it to my head to climb the city’s water tower. City superintendent Bob Jedlicka set it up and one fine day I found myself at the bottom of the ladder that goes up and thru the water tank. The ladder is in a mesh tube and there is a rail a climber can hook into: you couldn’t fall if you wanted. Bob shot up in front of me and patiently waited at the top while I slogged out a rung a lifetime. When I finally made it to the top, I could only poke my nose out of the hatch even though the top of the tower is actually rather flat and there’s a sturdy railing.
But what is in my northern European heritage that makes me so afraid of heights? Perhaps back in the middle ages an ancestor downed a stein of grog, danced seven polkas with the wrong woman and was thrown off a cliff?