He was my most incorrigible cad ever. Blond as the prairie, with blue eyes and a football player's build, he was everything I dreamed of in a suitor: sexy, charming, hilarious. In his airline captain's cap and wings, my pilot from the heartland had a genius for landing hearts. Only problem was, he broke them soon after delivering his line, "Darlin,' will yew be mah bride?" -- though never before the common-law weddin' night. Furious women littered his airline's 1980s flight circuit. So many swore never again to fly with that carrier I sometimes wonder whether he's the reason it went belly-up.

Okay, so he wasn't marriage material. Besides vanishing for weeks at a time, he bought foreign cars on the gray market and chased fashion models with the same zeal that he dodged STDs. He explained his stash of speeding tickets to me with, "Ahm jest used to goin' 600 mahles an hour." But his cowboy drawl rang in my young East Coast ears with an allure that no parents-perfect lawyer from Bethesda could ever match. My Captain may have been a Premiere Class cad, but he was also a ton of fun. No one has called me "Cowpuncher" since. I remembered him fondly as, in Sheryl Crow's lyrics, "my favorite mistake."

At least, until I Googled him.

It took just 0.38 seconds to change my image of him -- and myself -- forever. Not to mention inflict myself with a bad case of Googler's Remorse. I kept looking at his picture and bio on the Web and wondering, "What was I thinking?" We forget when we track down present Others that this invariably brings us face-to-computer-screen with our past Selves.

Thanks to the scourge of the Too Much Information Era, I now know that my favorite mistake is today, in his sixties, a model citizen, a paragon of what my eighth-grade history teacher used to call The Great Americans This Country Was Built On. And this sobering experience has made me realize that this is something I am not.

The man who scrawled me a declaration of "Forever" on a cocktail napkin in a dive near National Airport, then took off, no doubt with company, has deplaned into real estate. He is a pillar of his community. His bio says that he and -- get this -- his wife are devoted members of their church. He helps sick children and gives to his alma mater. He appears to wear a flag pin where his wings used to go.

I, meanwhile, have been generating no assets for the GNP (I'm a freelance writer), am what my childhood rabbi used to call a "Station Identification" Jew (devoted to the holidays), and technically contribute nothing to future generations (no children). That puts me into the category of what the same history teacher used to call The People Who Are Just Taking Up Space. She was referring to what was going on in her classroom, but next to my pilot's renovation it looks as though I took it as a lesson for life.

Did I miss him on "Extreme Makeover?" Besides the psyche transplant, he looks as if he's been on Atkins and dyes his hair. But it's him, all right, and he's clearly no longer the subject of every woman's relationship self-help book. Whereas I could have written them all.

Quelles tragedies . . . these discoveries. In the first place, I can't stand the irony of his being "grounded." Perhaps more disturbingly, it crashes my own self-image. Here I was for two decades thinking I had at least one terrific Byronic "mad, bad and dangerous to know" memory for my old age, and it turns out I was dating the future Methodist version of my father. Now I have nothing left of him but the cocktail napkin. And the certain knowledge that while they were, in fact, tons o' fun, my twenties were probably not my most enlightened years.

I'm not alone in this epiphany, nor in the impulse to Net the ones that got away. Sooner or later many of us go from hookup to look-up. What bizarre compulsion is coded into our DNA -- or ISP -- that makes us keyword old flames on the Internet? We are literally playing with fire.

Now obviously, I am not talking about using the Web to reconnect with old lost friends with whom we shared the special bond of skipping gym and sneaking off instead to breakfast at IHOP. If only we stopped there. Though we would never spend hours in the library combing phone books to learn what happened to people who dumped us (i.e., whether they are listed with spouses), the temptation to Google for that information in a split second is often too gripping to pass up.

And, voila, there we are in all our previous incarnations. Today's hits turn up yesterday's misses. True, that can flood us with fond memories. It might also explain why some of us are now on meds.

Who, for instance, wants to remember that there was a time in our life when we actually tolerated (or engaged in) bad behavior, ambivalence or too much understanding? Or that we were gullible enough to believe a liar -- or at least to give him the benefit of the doubt -- when he said that he'd been with a gay woman friend that night and so, of course, "nothing happened."

There are enough hideous moments in life when we run into our mistakes accidentally and are forced to confront our former selves. Why would we choose "Search"?

On the plus side of seeing our many selves reflected online is the chance that, now chastened, we will vow to devote more offline time to helping sick children and giving to our alma maters. Take it from me, the former Cowpuncher.

Author's e-mail:

pamwrites@hotmail.com

Pam Janis is a Washington writer and recovering Googler.