A few months ago I saw a segment on 60 Minutes about people who remember the details of every day of their lives, such as what they had for dinner and whether it was a night to put out the regular garbage or the paper garbage. And yesterday I read a review of a book on the U.S. Memory Championship, where mental athletes compete to see who can recite the most digits of pi and the most items off of the dollar menu at McDonald’s.
The whole world knows about these people and their high-powered memories. But what the world probably does not know is that I was the memory champion of my college fraternity. The primary data I had to recall was which actors had been in movies with Kevin Bacon, and where certain brothers were last seen wearing pants. But there was one incident where my mnemonic powers came in especially handy.
It was believed at that time that one of the best ways to extend the warm embrace of brotherhood was to make the pledges get the brothers food from the dining hall. At college, food was purchased with cards instead of cash to train us for life in the real world. And it came to pass that one day during my pledge term, one of the brothers handed me his ID card with an instruction to toilet paper the dining hall and then bring back a turkey club.
In those days the students’ social security numbers were written their ID cards, something that now sounds like my parents telling me about the days when no one locked their doors. On the walk to the dining hall I memorized the brother’s social security number. Like a modern memory champ, I used the expert technique of rubbing my temples and imagining the digits involved in lewd acts with other ASCII characters. By the time I had returned with the sandwich, I knew that brother’s social security number better than I knew the casts of JFK and Flatliners.
It was nearing the end of the semester and was time to register for the next round of classes to sleep through. Registration was easy; it was all done by computer. And to make sure that students signed up for only their own classes, a social security number was required. In a stunning display of perfect recall, I used Brother Turkey Club’s social security number to sign him up for a series of classes that I thought he would find interesting. It was always possible to go back into the system and change the classes, and so the prank would come to its hilarious denouement when the brother signed in to the system to sign up for his classes.
My anticipated punchline, however, had been based upon the assumption that Brother Turkey Club would remember to sign up for classes. That assumption turned out to be wrong. A week into the following semseter, when I was a brother myself and could send my own pledges for turkey clubs, even though I did not care for turkey clubs, I overheard the victim of my prank talking about how he was stuck taking organic chemistry, advanced Hebrew, and a seminar on gender issues and amphibians. Word soon got out—as it usually does when alochol is mixed with speech—that I had been the mystery registrar, and how I had performed my feat. The brotherhood was impressed. I still get requests to recite that brother’s social security number, and the numbers roll off my tongue as easy as pi.
I am still waiting for a call from 60 Minutes.