Catch ‘Em While You Can

No need for a show of hands here, but how many of us have heard ourselves say, “I wish I’d have done that?”

Right to the point here.

None of us are getting any younger and the older members of our families have our history between their ears.  While these memories are still functioning our job is to record these recollections.

It’s our last shot at our family’s history, the story about our past to be passed on to future generations.

Now, just to let you know that I have practiced what I’m preaching here, I did this with my family but I’ll also refer to my books, Pen Men “Baseball’s Greatest Bullpen Stories Told By The Men Who Brought The Game Relief, “ and V&Me “Everybody’s Favorite Jim Valvano  Story.”

In writing those oral histories—equipped with my hand-held recorder—I interviewed several hundred people.  Of those hundreds at least fifty are no longer alive.

From V&Me, well Dean Smith just passed away last week.  And the week before we lost Don Shea, my old friend the WTVD TV sports reporter, who became one of V’s business partners.  Yesterday it was Jerry Tarkanian, the UNLV coach.

Like the voices of Pen Men these folks’ stories (in many cases), had I not captured them, would have been gone forever.  If my premise had no merit the National Baseball Hall of Fame wouldn’t have asked (and received) all 72 cassette tapes of the voices of Pen Men.

Oh, pardon the transition, but that said, how many of us have living memories of WWII in our family?

Better get them!

Okay, point made.  Now let’s get busy.

  • Purchase (should you not have one) a hand-held recorder and a number of mini-cassettes. There are some excellent digital recorders (which I use as well) but sometimes the recordings get lost in the technology and so I’d recommend the use of tapes—which you can label and keep—that’s what the Baseball Hall of Fame now has in their archives—-my cassettes labeled with each announcer, player or baseball guy’s name.
  • Okay, if you’re looking for a hand-held recorder (good old Amazon), click here. If you’d rather use a hand-held video camera that can work as well but bring the recorder as a backup because some people (“Oh, how do I look? Etc.) clam up when the little red light comes on.
  • Identify the oldest and most lucid members of your family, the folks who know the stories and have the history. Shake your family tree until the names of these people fall like acorns. They don’t have to be elders; any of us might have stories that have been passed along over the years.
  • Make a list and add to this list when Cousin Mary says (during your interview), “Oh, you have to talk to Katherine, she has the best stories.” For the most part you’ll get and enjoy important, meaningful pieces of your family history.

Who knows, Katherine may even come up with something as fun and as trivial as this!!!!

My uncle Chub (90) told me this one last year and now Chub and I are the only ones who know the story about my Grandfather Roop who, as the town’s butcher and saint, fed the little mill town of Union Bridge, Maryland, through the Great Depression.  “So, on Halloween his son Johnny (my uncle who was later killed heroically in the Pacific in WWII) hooks a manure spreader to a pickup truck, waters down his load and as he’s fertilizing main street with the town cop on his tail, Johnny slams on the brakes, the cop rear-ends something that came from, well a rear-end and tears up the front end of the police car.  When the officer arrives at my Grandfather Roop’s meat market he hands Grandy a bill for $265 for damages done to the car.  My grandfather calmly walks to the huge basket where he kept the town’s IOUs pulled about a dozen of the cop’s unpaid bills and counting them out says, “Here you go, Donnie, this should cover it!!

  • Back on task. Place these names of potential interviews (or anything you ever heard these relatives relate at reunions, etc.) on a note pad in preparation of your interviews. For instance (me talking to my older sister here about our grandparents) “E.A. I have a vague memory of Popa and Nana’s Georgetown town house, in Washington, DC. I know the address was 2733 P Street and I remember staying there in the late 1940s—there was a little cafeteria nearby, where we walked down a flight of stairs to eat. I remember the kitchen in the town house had furniture painted a bright green and that Nana had a fox stole that we called, ‘Na Nya!’ but that’s all I recall. Oh, except that from their bedroom window we could see a red light flashing off in the distance and that it was atop the Capital. Tell me everything you remember about 2733 P Street and our visits there.”
  • It’s time to turn on that hand-held recorder, and with pen in hand open a loose leaf tablet, and to sit back and listen. If the storyteller triggers another memory that you might have or even one that isn’t in your notes, make a note and then use that note as a follow-up question. “You just mentioned our trips to the Smithsonian when we visited, I don’t recall that at all. Any specific stories from our trips there?”
  • If you have old family photographs (may not even know who the people are) bring then along for the interviews as they make a wonderful catalyst for conversation.
  • Okay, say your great aunt Sue lives in California and you’re here in North Carolina. How do you interview her? Through a series of phone calls or e-mails arrange to carry out the interview on the phone. There are neat little ear pieces for your recorders that make this possible. I interviewed Goose Gossage, the Hall of Fame pitcher, at three in the morning from his apartment in Japan where he was playing at that time. Ryan Duren, the great Yankee fastballer, the one with the thick wire rimmed glasses talked to me via the phone from a bathtub somewhere in Wisconsin.
  • Oh, look for surprises. That’s one of the many joys of this process. I was talking to Mace Brown, the man who threw one of the most infamous pitches in baseball history, the one where Gabby Hartnett took a Mace fastball into the dark of the night costing the Pirates the pennant. It was called The Homer in the Gloamin’ I was prepared for this story, knew it down to the pitch count. And when Mace gave me it from his perspective he suddenly turned to his wife who was washing dishes and said, “Hon, do you remember that little movie camera I bought you that you used to film Babe Ruth’s last home run?” And then he told the story of the Babe’s last three in Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and how after he’d hit the last one (Ruth was with the Boston Braves then) how the Bambino touched home plate and came right to the Pirates dugout to go down the runway to the Braves locker room. Then just as he was ready to make his exit, he suddenly plopped down on the bench next to Brown, a rookie Pirates pitcher, looked down the bench at the Bucs players and said, “Boys, that last one felt good!”Now, that’s history and thanks to Mace Brown we know what Babe Ruth said after hitting his last home run. You may not have any Babe Ruths in your family but trust me you will, through this process, record some home runs.
  • When you’ve interviewed everybody and anybody (it doesn’t have to be family, it can be close friends or neighbors) there are technical ways to take the spoken word and put it in writing.
  • I sit at my computer and type every word that’s said into a document, going back and forth with the recordings—rewind, type, rewind, type. This is a very tedious task but it pays dividends in the end because by the time you’ve finished—although a great deal of the conversation may be unusable—you know what was said. Trust me repetition is a tremendous teacher.
  • So you have it word for word transcribed. Now, don’t be shy about this, when necessary edit the heck out of it. Don’t change it; just make it make sense conversationally. Let one story lead to another to another until you have a “chapter” called, again for instance, “My Sister E.A Remembers Our Family.”
  • When the identifying, the questioning, the recording, the transcribing and the editing is done, read each piece carefully and if you see anything that might merit a follow-up question (again, sometimes a phone call will do) go for it. You want the gathering to be complete!
  • The presentation of this oral history is the easy part. Any and every printer or printing store—KINKOS—can take a disc of your work and present it to you in bound copies that will look like you’ve been published by Random House.
  • About those old family photographs. Drop them into the copy. It will only enhance the history.And, hey, the finished product makes a great gift but the gift we’re talking about here isn’t limited to a package being opened by your great aunt on Christmas morning—it’s the life story of your family, something to be enjoyed and appreciated for generations to come.