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Cover Story: Reflections

Subjective oral history captures the tears and laughter of war veterans

By Rebecca Lomax · September 5th, 2002 · Cover Story
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Lucie M. Rice



U.S. Air Force veteran Samuel Miller is dressed in a baby blue suit that looks light against his dark skin. He's leaning in toward the video camera held by a Columbia University student and he's saying, "All the heroes from Vietnam are dead." The movements of his hands, both formed in fists, accentuate his words.

U.S. Army veteran Eric L. Peterson flashes the camera some black-and-white snapshots of himself during World War II. In one he clutches a large bunch of flowers handed to him by a grateful stranger during the liberation of France. In another, he poses with a young girl dressed in her Sunday best. "This little girl was so cute that I jumped out of my half-track and picked her up and my buddy took a picture. I had a little baby at home that I had never seen," he tells the camera.

These stories are part of the Veterans History Project and are available online at www.loc.gov/folklife. Since October 2000, the Library of Congress' (LOC) oral history project has been collecting audio and video recordings and mementos from veterans. U.S. Air Force veteran Samuel Miller is dressed in a baby blue suit that looks light against his dark skin. He's leaning in toward the video camera held by a Columbia University student and he's saying, "All the heroes from Vietnam are dead." The movements of his hands, both formed in fists, accentuate his words.

U.S. Army veteran Eric L. Peterson flashes the camera some black-and-white snapshots of himself during World War II. In one he clutches a large bunch of flowers handed to him by a grateful stranger during the liberation of France. In another, he poses with a young girl dressed in her Sunday best. "This little girl was so cute that I jumped out of my half-track and picked her up and my buddy took a picture.

... I had a little baby at home that I had never seen," he tells the camera.

These stories are part of the Veterans History Project and are available online at www.loc.gov/folklife. Since October 2000, the Library of Congress' (LOC) oral history project has been collecting audio and video recordings and mementos from veterans. They're working to collect the memories of both war veterans and the civilians who supported them during World Wars I and II and the Korean, Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars.

Because of their deeply personal nature, the stories in this archive will enrich the public memory of these wars. They also take time and patience to collect. More than the small team of trained folklorists at the LOC is needed to gather so many stories, and they encourage everyone to participate. Of course they do have some guidelines. A full "Project Kit" is available at the Web site, but in-person training is being offered a little closer to home.

On a Wednesday morning in August, about 20 people gathered at the Mary L. Cook Public Library in Waynesville to learn more about collecting stories. Call it boot camp for the recording corps. The participants there ranged from a grade schooler who's interested in war and a videographer who doesn't know any veterans but wants to lend his talents and state-of-the-art-equipment to a veteran who's donated his story and would like to help get others to open up.

All listened as Claudia Watson from the Montgomery Historical Society detailed some of her own successes and failures in oral history projects. Success is as much about finding the right person to tell the right story as it is about legal matters, recording nuances and interviewing techniques.

What do you do when your interviewee gets all choked up? You stop the tape and give them some time, understanding that these stories are often difficult to tell. What do you do when your interviewee won't touch certain sensitive topics? You let it go; this is a subjective kind of history, and their story is whatever they want it to be.

Speaking later, Linda McMaken, the Cook Library's public relations director, recounted the start and expansion of their project. The library wanted to salute the town's veterans but knew hosting a speaker wouldn't draw a big crowd. They decided that building an oral history library would be a more effective way to share these stories with kids.

Early into the project, the Congressional mandate that started the Veterans History Project was passed. The Cook Library became the first library in the country to partner with the LOC and remains the only library partner in the state of Ohio. Now the stories they collect are archived nationally, with a copy kept locally at the library.

They've completed 30 interviews, with 45 more interviewees signed up, and they're getting more calls every day. McMaken estimates 2,500 veterans live in the immediate area but acknowledges the project is quickly expanding to encompass all of Southwestern Ohio, which makes that number much higher.

McMaken has conducted almost 20 interviews and says she's honored to be doing it. She's also amazed at what the veterans did at such a young age.

"I've finally figured out what a hero is," she says, recounting the story of a 19-year-old man scared and alone in a foxhole, fighting for his country.

There's no doubt in her mind that the combination of spoken stories and live images is a powerful one. She remembers an interview with an older man whom she describes as the strong, silent type.

"To watch him break down and cry had an impact that reading his story wouldn't have," she said.

Among the bits of advice offered at the seminar, "Bring Kleenex" was a resounding one. McMaken says there's a range of emotions -- anger, sadness and a lot of humor, too. The emotion is what makes the stories powerful.

The United States is losing an estimated 1,500 of our 19 million veterans every day. The Veterans History Project is racing against time to gather and preserve veterans' memories. They're as important as the facts in telling the stories of war.



Veterans History Project seminars are planned for 10 a.m. Oct. 28 and 6 p.m. Oct. 29. For more information, visit the Mary L. Cook Public Library Web site at www.mlcook.lib.oh.us or call 513-897-4823.
 
 
 
 

 

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