What M*A*S*H Taught Me About Memory

I am almost certain that I learned more from popular culture than the classics (whatever the classics may be).

For example, the TV series M*A*S*H provided me with two philosophical bits that I still recycle on a regular basis. The first warns me to never drink when I need a drink, and the other restricts the need for tattoos by noting that it makes no sense to permanently inscribe something on your body if the art is not worthy of hanging on your wall.

These two bits came up during separate M*A*S*H episodes that I had only seen once many years ago when they originally aired. I had a very distinct memory of the scenes, but when I recently replayed the episodes on the internet, I found that the actual scenes were different from my memory.

In my memory, the drinking wisdom took place when Hawkeye walked into Rosie’s bar after a hard night of surgery and told Rosie that he needed a drink. He gets the drink from Rosie, looks at it and says: I will be back when I don’t need it anymore. He then spends the rest of the episode being an annoying teetotaler to his brothers and sisters at medicine (as compared to non-drinkers that are non-drinkers for nothing but the best reasons and lead by example).

As far as tattoos is concerned, I recall Radar mentioning that he was going to get a tattoo, because it would be cool. During most of the episode his campmates are trying to convince him otherwise and at one point he brings up the subject with Colonel Potter who is painting a picture. Without turning away from his painting, Colonel Potter says: Radar, as far as I am concerned, I would not put a picture permanently on my body if it is not good enough to hang permanently on a wall.

I have a very vivid memory of these scenes, and have relayed the scenes and central thoughts on quite a number of occasions, mostly to people who are not interested in hearing it anyway (teenagers, etc.).

Recently, my friend Mark (the one who also joined me at the Hoover dam) visited me and I referred to my popular culture basic training. We decided to see if we could find the episodes on the internet and after some searching we succeeded.

The “I need a drink” episode is Season 8, Episode 16 and it was available on Netflix. It starts with most of the crew in the officer’s bar and Hawkeye is presented with his bar tab. He is shocked to realize that he has a big tab in the officer’s bar, another tab in Rosie’s bar, and also drinks from his still in the swamp and decides to stop drinking. But he never said anything about needing a drink. For the rest of the episode he is a temperance bore to his mates and, meanwhile, I am wondering how I could have gotten all of this so wrong. Towards the end of the episode there is a crisis in the operating room and at the very end of the episode the crew finds themselves back in the officer’s bar. Here Hawkeye announced that he is going off the wagon and orders a drink. He says he needs this drink. He gets his drink, raises it to his lips, puts it down and says: “And I will be back when I want it, not when I need it” and that basically ends the episode.

The tattoo episode is Season 6, Episode 9 and it also was available on Netflix. In the episode there is a scene with Colonel Potter, but he has a different (still funny) comment about tattoos. Again I was wrong. So where is the comment? Later in the episode, Radar walks into the swamp to deliver the mail and mentions his plan to get a tattoo to B.J. Hunnicutt, Hawkeye and Winchester. And here B.J. says: “Why would anybody hang a picture on his body he would not want to be caught dead hanging on his wall?”

In both cases the message was there, but I was not even close as to how the message was delivered.

In the drinking episode I thought it was in the very beginning and it happened in Rosie’s bar. Instead it occurred at the very end and it happened in the officer’s club.

In the tattoo episode I thought that Colonel Potter said it, but instead it was B.J. Hunnicutt.

The question is: Why did I get it wrong? Interestingly, in both cases it is simply related to how memories are created and retained. Every day we see thousands of events and retain only a few at best. Those we retain are memories, but very few memories exist by themselves. Memories need to be stored in context to be retained. The stronger the association the more readily the memory is available.

In this case both the tattoo and the drink bits of wisdom struck me as significant, but to retain them they needed context. In both cases I needed to place the memories and in both cases I placed them in the most readily available contexts.

If there was going to be a comment about art in MASH, it most certainly would have to fit with Colonel Potter and his painting and that is where it ended up.

If there was going to be a comment about drinking, it most certainly would have to fit with Rosie’s Bar. I had no specific memory of an officer’s club (I just discovered that there is an episode about the origination of the officer’s club, but I must have missed it) and now realize I simply assumed that Igor worked in Rosie’s bar at times.

Meanwhile, while the gist of my memory was quite good and even useful, the actual circumstances were painted in and were clearly incorrect. What does this mean? In my case it further reinforces my long standing wariness of eye witness accounts. If asked, I would have sworn to the best of my abilities that the drink scene occurred in Rosie’s bar and the tattoo comment occurred in Colonel Potter’s quarters. If anybody would have suggested otherwise I would have been very unlikely to believe them.

As such, I certainly cannot fault anybody for misreporting an actual event that I am investigating. It simply can be, and should be, expected that even the most earnest person can misstate actual events. There is no evil there, it is simply the human mind at work.