In 1968, Alistair Cooke, the BBC correspondent to the US was one of many witnesses to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. His account included an unusual detail. He said that “There was suddenly a banging repetition of a sound that I don’t know how to describe, not at all like shots, like somebody dropping a rack of trays.” Even after knowing that what he had in fact heard was gunshots, he still retained the sonic image of the rack of trays as a central part of his testimony. Even after he saw Bobby Kennedy lying on the ground, felled, he continued to negate the sound of gunshots and speak only of the tray rack. It was as if the rack of trays was as a kind of buffer to reality, the last thing standing between what actually happened and an imaginary realm of alternate scenarios where what happened never happened.
I have since come across many similar examples where benign objects stand in the place of the facts of the event itself. “It didn't sound like a punch but a lighter being thrown to the ground and popping,” said a witness in an Oregon Courthouse. A New Zealand witness said of a blow he overheard that it “sounded like an egg cracking.” Sometimes, as in the case of the egg, the objects are repeated during the testimony with such frequency that it becomes seemingly impossible for the witness to uncouple the sound of an egg, indeed the apparition of the egg itself, from the violent event they witnessed.
It is not so much the information about the event but the process of encoding and recalling such events that becomes stored in these objects. The sound of the rack of trays or the egg do not capture the event itself but they petrify the moment of the event’s mental processing. These objects allow us to remain with the event at the first moment it entered the mind’s ear of its witness. These object/images become a relic of the split second between the event and its reckoning.