Oral History is storytelling at its most ancient tradition and its most personal level.
I’ve been recording interviews with Eastern Shore old-timers for over a decade now.
The inhabitants of the Chesapeake Bay region have been historically known for the blunt and eccentric saltiness that comes natural to people living off the land and the water. Supported by the Kent Island Heritage Society and inspired by their goal to “discover, identify, restore and preserve the heritage of Kent Island,” I’ve collected dozens and dozens of personal life stories, from watermen and farmers to preachers and music teachers, and have been privy to the reflections of many acquaintances I have come to think of as friends.
For my book, A History of the Kent Island Volunteer Fire Department, members past and present sat individually and in groups and told me their compelling stories of compassion, bravery, dedication and kinship. Centenarians have shared their earliest childhood memories. I’ve seen a big, important man in his nineties surprise himself with the emotion of recalling his favorite radio show hero from when he was a boy, a precious entertainment that the man had not thought of in decades. I’ve been told many off-the record accounts of gossip and hearsay that would be included on-the record if I were a more professional historian and a lesser neighbor. Many of the people I have gotten one last chance to talk to, one last opportunity to record their story, have since passed away. And with regret, I’ve missed more than a few.
I’ve been honored to be able to record a people’s history, a history that otherwise would be lost, washed away from any hope of posterity like an eroding Chesapeake shoreline.
One of the things I like best about oral history is the fiction of individual perspective, the element of embellishment, of the teller improving the story, not letting the hard-line facts get in way of a good story. The facts aren’t always the truth.
My favorite stories are the funny ones.
From his Depression Era childhood my uncle, my dad’s brother, Roger Lewis remembered: “We had two gardens. One behind the barn filled up with Irish potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, cabbage. So much we gave a lot of it away. It was the Depression. People would stop in just to eat. In the garden up front there was a grape arbor, every fruit and vegetable you could imagine except rhubarb. When I was ten or eleven, I was down Dominion and those old men were out on their porches. One of them said, “Boy,” everybody called you boy, you could be in your twenties, and he said “Boy, you think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?” I didn’t know what rhubarb was, never heard of it, I said, “I don’t know.” That old man turned to his buddies and said, “That boy’s dumb as hell, ain’t he?”
Island raconteur and all-around unforgettable character, Wes Thompson told me about World War II. Wes came ashore at Normandy on D-Day plus two, landing into a hellscape of death, destruction and despair. Wes was patrolling the French orchards of the battleground when heavy ordinance came screaming out of the sky, killing Americans by the score. Wes, a young Eastern Shoreman who’d never been farther than Baltimore, who went for his physical and “didn’t come home for three years,” turned and ran in fear. “Thompson!” Wes imitates his commanding officer shouting, “Thompson! Why are you running, soldier?” Wes’s answer as he ran past? “Because I can’t fly.”
Wes made Private First Class four times and “got busted down every time.” When he was ready to muster out, “The guy at Fort Meade come along and said reenlist, we’ll make you a corporal. I said I get back across this bay and get to my boat I’ll be a captain.”
Writer and Historian Nick Hoxter told me about the early days of the KIVFD, back when the fire department pretty much consisted of who ever happened to be around.
“Late one evening we were in Denny’s Garage when the siren went off. Juls (Julius Grollman) was with us. He said, “Come on, boys, I need your help. We jumped in the car and got to the firehouse where they said the Silver Roof (bar) was on fire. Silver Roof was where Ram’s Head is now. We hopped on the back of that big old International with Josh Bullen, John Holden and some others. When we got there the building wasn’t burning, but there were fires all around it. Fire was headed toward Owens Lane’s big house over where they eventually built Rte.50. I grabbed a shovel, Denny grabbed a shovel, Juls and Josh grabbed Indian tanks, and we started fighting fires. It took us about and hour and a half. When we got done it was too dark to see where we were going. We were wet from walking through the marsh and decided to cut through the cemetery. As we got to the older section we got separated a little, but I could hear them holler when they’d stumble into a tombstone. All of a sudden my right leg went through the ground. My foot struck something solid and I realized I’d stepped thigh high into a grave! It was so deep I couldn’t get out. I was trying to pull myself up on a headstone. Man, I was so scared. I hollered, “Help! Help!” Here comes Denny, then Josh and Juls, and they all were laughing. When they finally got me out of there, and we made it back to the main road, Denny asked me if I was really scared! I said, “Are you kidding? I’m still shaking.” I lost that shovel that night,” Nick says, “and for all I care it could still be there.”
But as much as I enjoy the stories that make me laugh, my favorite is one that inspires me to lighten up. Jimmy Ewing,one of the Island’s favorite sons,once told me, “The Circle (restaurant) wasn’t always a success. I spent many sleepless nights, and more than once decided to close the place and go to work for somebody else. One man changed my mind for me, and I’ve been grateful to him ever since. Dr. (Theodor) Sattelmaier stopped by one day for a sandwich. I told him some of my troubles. He listened until I had finished pouring out my heart and then in his familiar accented English said…”Stick it out Jimmy. It won’t always be this bad. Tomorrow is going to be better, you’ll see.” Though I still had my doubts, something about his encouraging and sincere remarks stuck with me. And from then on things kept getting better and better. I’ll always be glad for the day old Doc stopped by and gave a worried man a much needed shot in the arm. He taught me not to worry. “Worry,” Doc Sattelmaier said, “is a bad disease.”
The idea of National Tell a Story Day is to share the joy of storytelling.
In my life, I’ve been fortunate enough to hear some of the very best.
Thanks for taking a few minutes to join me around our electronic campfire.
My books are available through The History Press, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, The Easton Newscenter and various other local retailers. Both are heavily based in oral history and the stories I’ve been told.