I have been very fortunate that my career direction took me down the path of a documentary producer. In our busy world it is hard to take the time to stop and listen to an older person. Or for that matter, to listen to anyone for more than a few seconds can be a challenge...there are so many distractions; phones buzzing, lights blinking, music playing...but its all about a journey. A journey into the past that is shared by you and the person telling the story.
As an interviewer, I was blessed to open that scrapbook of their lives and learn about their families, friends and a different time...foreign to most of us. And, after about two hours, I have made a new friend...just like that.
In this day and time we tend to discard those who are old. Sadly, because they can not contribute to our economy by working a regular job, their value decreases, but as a society we have lost sight of a source of education millions of times more beneficial than anything online. Remember the saying "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it." Well, these individuals have lived through our nation's history and can tell it to you in the first person narrative.
An interview normally starts with the usual introductions: "Hello, my name is...and I am from..."But, then we start finding connections: "Oh, I was born near there...have you ever heard of the town...?" Before too long we are talking like we'd known each other for 80 years and that is when the magic happens. You see, it is then when I see a smile in their eyes. It is then when I know I am about to be given a gift that I will cherish forever. You see, it is then that I go back in time with them to a world that no longer exists.
If you allow yourself to imagine and not have your imagination generated for you, you can follow them down the path into their history. You can see them in younger form, imagine the old wood floors in the house being shiny and new again. You can hear the horn of a Model A bustling down the dirt road in front of the house and see a young girl practicing on the piano by an open window. I can hear the echoing keys coming from the piano...I can see the light breeze moving her hair and rustling the sheet music pages...causing them to flip ahead or behind and in turn, causing some frustration to the young composer seated in front of the grand instrument. I can hear a grandfather clock ticking back and forth and can smell the fresh pine walls and ceilings in the house.
Other times, it could be the story of a young man and his passion for life and career. An optimistic young man jumping off of a troop transport in the mountains of Italy during World War II. He was a ball player back home. And a damn good one at that...a "left-hander" who could knock em out with the speed and power of his pitch. Before he'd left for war the famous baseball coach, Connie Mack had promised him a slot in the big league when he returned and the young man named Lou was ready to finish this war and get home to do what he loved more than anything...play ball. But, no one can predict fate. No matter how badly we want something it seems there is always fate which gets in the way. On this day, when Lou and his fellow soldiers were exiting their vehicles, the German's started shelling their location. One shell landed at Lou's feet and within a second, his hopes of becoming a baseball star were shattered in bone fragments and torn flesh. As Lou awoke from the concussion, he could hear nothing but muted yelling and explosions around him. He pulled his body to whatever cover he could find, noticing as he looked behind him, that he could only see one leg. His other leg was still there; bent behind him and nearly severed. Eventually, help came and hauled Lou to a med vac location where the doctor, upon first assessment determined his left leg was too damaged to save. It had to be amputated. But, Lou pleaded with the doctor and told him of his goal to play ball in the big league.
After many, many surgeries, lots of antibiotics and much rehabilitation, they saved Lou's leg. He came home to play ball for the minors at first in Savannah for the Southern League, winning 25 games in 1947. And then, Connie Mack moved him to the major league and the Philadelphia A's. His name was Lou Brissie and he shared this and many other memories with me.
Once, while on business in Texas, I stopped at a small pizza bar in Amarillo to enjoy a local beer and a slice of their specialty. The server was very kind and carried on a great conversation with me. Within a short period of time and after I had explained my passion for interviews, my server told me of a woman "I had to meet!" Her name was Wanda and she lived just west of town in a small community called Vega. On the interview Wanda took me back to her childhood and the open plains. A time of ecological disaster in America when the farmland had been ravaged by over grazing, over use and a drought that would not end. It was during the dust bowl of 1930s and Wanda remembered it well. As we talked she introduced me to her parents and siblings, we talked about her father's goals and his attempts to survive in a place which became almost uninhabitable. How the dust would come from far off, like a thunder storm looming on the horizon and how her family would hurry to prepare for the coming nightmare of blinding, choking dirt. I could see the interior of the house growing dark even in the middle of the day. I could see the flickering of the kerosene lights. I could see her mother dampening towels at the sink and hanging them over the beds of the small children in the family in an effort to filter the dust from their young, sensitive lungs. There was a look of desperation and utter torment in their eyes and I could smell the earth as it irritated my nose and lungs. Wanda Milburn survived this time in her life and she took me there in her memories.
When working on a documentary about Jacksonville, called Jacksonville Remembers, I interviewed an African American man named Alton Yates. Alton had been a key part in our space program, NASA in the early years and in fact, he was used to test g-force on the human body. Daily, Alton would be strapped into a rocket sled that would start extremely fast and then stop quickly. He did this numerous times, risking his life and health for our country. These tests were being conducted in Texas, so Alton would have to drive home to Jacksonville whenever he could, to take care of his ailing parents. It was a long drive, but it was also very unsafe for an African American man traveling alone during the early 1950s. I can hear him describing the disbelief and astonishment when, while wearing his military uniform he was denied entrance into a crossroads diner. They could meet him around back with a "to-go" plate, but he could not enter. Alton would sometimes almost wet himself trying to find a place to stop for a bathroom break and god forbid he carried any metal silverware or a metal knife to cut his sandwich with...that could mean jail time. In his descriptions, I could hear through his voice, at times rattling with emotion, the frustration and anxiety this had caused him. I could see in his eyes the pain and as I listened felt shame. Shame on my race for the injustice and inhumanity inflicted on others because they were different.
Thankfully, I have never been in combat...but I've gone there many times in memories. I wasn't even a thought in my mother's mind when the stock market crashed, but I have been there in memories. I wasn't beaten for simply protesting and demanding civil rights and human decency but I was taken there in memories. I never went through the tragedy of the dust bowl, but I have been there in memories.
No, I was never at any of these historical events. But thanks to the generosity of many seniors, my imagination took me there and I am a better person today because of it. It was a true gift of the human experience and life that I was given.
And even though you are being given a gift...the smiling eyes which look back at you in appreciation say it was mutual. I listened and they told.