Surprise Memories

Years ago, when I was executive director of an association then called the International Association of Auditorium Managers (now International Association of Venue Managers), I had an awful experience. We were in the midst of our annual conference when an emergency telephone call came in to me at the conference office. The caller told me she was trying to reach one of our conference registrants, a concert promoter. She explained that his house had burned to the ground. His wife had escaped the fire but, when she could not find her children outside, she rushed back in to find them. She died in the fire. The children had, in fact, gotten out safely before their mother went back in. “He needs to come home right away.”

I don’t remember precisely the requests the caller made, but I remember the upshot was that we should find the man and let him know what happened. She asked that we help him get booked on a return flight home to New York as quickly as possible.

The conference was held somewhere in the western U.S. I don’t remember where we were; I just remember that awful phone call and its aftermath. My staff went out in search of the man whose wife had died in the fire. I got on the phone to the airline the caller said he had flown to the conference.  I remember being terribly frustrated with the airline; the agent was not at all helpful and I think she believed I was lying about the need for an immediate return ticket.

The volunteer president of the association knew the man (I had only met him once or twice) and had offered to break the news to him. I had a private office in the conference suite and had suggested to the volunteer that he use it to speak to the man privately. My staff found the man and brought him to the conference office. The volunteer president and the poor man went into my office. Moments later, I heard the most awful wail. The man’s life had just been shattered.

All the rest of the details surrounding the incident are hazy. I know we got the man checked out of his hotel room and to the airport. Somehow, he got on a flight back to New York that day, in spite of my unsuccessful efforts to convince the airline by telephone to book a flight for him. The remainder of the conference, too, is a blur. I don’t even recall which city we were in, except that it was “out west.”

It’s odd that memories like this one, buried for years, pop up without warning and for no discernible reason. I am sure I’ve thought of that awful experience more than once since it happened, but I’ve had the good fortune that it has remained dormant for most of the years since it happened (probably in 1993).

I recall the experience as “awful.” I can only imagine what the experience was like for the concert promoter. While my memory of the events surrounding the experience are a bit muddy, I would guess his memories remain excruciatingly clear; etched in his mind like the words on a granite tombstone. Why would this memory suddenly pop up more than twenty-five years after the fact, with no precipitating event or related memory? I do not have the faintest idea.

This surprise recollection served to trigger a flood of other memories surrounding the period of my life when I worked for that association. I look back on that time as one when I had some very good times, traveled to some interesting and exciting places, and learned a lot about people. One of the things I learned during and immediately after that time is that, regardless of the position one holds, an employee is an easily forgotten and entirely expendable commodity. I spent close to eight years in that job. When my contract was not renewed and I was asked to move on, it was as if my contributions to the association were expunged from the record, along with any memories of me the institution might have built. The institutional memory of John Swinburn was incinerated upon my departure and the accomplishments I made were ascribed to the volunteers with whom I worked, rather than to me and to my staff. God, I thought that bitterness was long gone. Apparently not.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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