The old man sat on a log by the campfire, gazing into the flames. He had returned with his son to this canyon in a last attempt to find a great Anasazi cliff dwelling that he had seen once as a young man, but the search had been unsuccessful. In the morning the two would leave, both knowing that the father would never return.
Perhaps it was the hypnotic spell of dancing flames, crackling embers, and warmth emanating from the fire that created the special mood. Or perhaps the realization that he would never return compelled the old man to make a special effort to leave with his son a sense of his love for the canyons and creeks and mountains that had been his home for three-quarters of a century. Whatever the reason, the years seemed to melt, and he began to reminisce.
As flame-conjured shadows danced on the canyon wall on the other side of the fire, he captivated his listener with experiences that were as much a part of the country as the cliffs themselves. He was a young man again, peering into the cave where ancient people who had loved the land as much as he had built a most unusual home, calcimining white the interior and painting blue zigzag lines near the tops of the walls. Then he was a gold prospector, listening with delight to the ping made by nuggets dropped from the waist into a pan, and thrilling with the mystery of an old Spanish pick found buried in the back of a mine tunnel. Stopping occasionally to put more wood on the fire, he returned again and again to the narration of a life filled with adventure. He told of another campfire, when an old prospector had told stories and sung songs of the Klondike, of discoveries of bonanza deposits of uranium standing like yellow spring blossoms on the sandstone ledges, of outlaw trails and sheep herds, and, finally, of a gaunt old Navajo, singing of his own love for this land as his horse stopped to rest, unaware that a few feet away a young Bilagáana (white man) was sitting in the shade of a rock.
The fire had died down to a few glowing embers. There was a long pause as the old man and his son listened silently to the hundreds of crickets, an occasional frog, and, on some distant cliff, a coyote howling at the moon. Shaking himself suddenly from his past, the old man poked at the coals for a moment with a stick, then said quietly that he had better get to sleep.
A few months later, the old man’s body belonged to the land he loved. His son has recalled often the special quality of that last evening in the canyon. How he has wished that he could return to that spot with his own children and watch the fire shadows dance on the canyon wall, and perhaps hear the whisperings of an old man’s love for his country. Even though he might hear the whispering, because the message is still so much a part of his being, his children almost certainly would not. If he tried to retell what he had heard and felt, the magic of that special evening would be lost to his children, for rarely is it possible for someone to convey with the same feeling and intensity the significance of experiences that happened to someone else.
An opportunity for one family to understand the significance of part of their family heritage is irretrievably lost. Such a loss in our day is doubly unfortunate, for not only do we have tape recorders to capture the voice of our loved ones, but through the techniques developed by oral historians we can induce, rather than merely await, the reminiscent moment. Such an evening in the canyon could now be anticipated, and preparations made so that future generations could have that narrative with scintillating clarity, complete with crackling embers, chirping crickets, croaking frogs, and distant coyotes. Indeed, a skilled interviewer can guide the narrator in creating a document that is far better than unfocused reminiscence, without losing any of the appeal of spontaneity. And the interviewing techniques are not difficult to learn.
These skills may be obtained by reading the excellent material available on conducting oral history interviews (for example, see the articles in this issue), perhaps by attending oral history workshops now being offered by historical and oral history organizations, or even by enrolling in an oral history training class at one of the many universities and colleges now offering such a course.
If we make the effort to prepare well, and if we conduct the interview properly, the results in most instances will be far more satisfying than we could have imagined. For one thing, almost every interview will result in the creation of a document that will be far better and more extensive than anything that person might have been encouraged to write.
Even though, after listening to some of our grandparents’ stories at family gatherings, we plead with them to write these experiences down, we rarely stop to think how very demanding such a task is for persons with a shaking hand and failing eyesight. Also, we forget that many of our living ancestors had little opportunity for formal education, and while their narrative skills may be superb, their writing skills may be very limited. Even the grandparent’s conception of what is expected in a written autobiography often disappoints. In an oral history, on the other hand, the ultimate responsibility for recording, structuring, stimulating response, and, if desired, making a written copy, belongs to the interviewer. Because the informant need only be concerned with describing clearly and in detail his or her life’s experiences, he or she almost always responds with enthusiasm, and the result is very satisfying. But the excitement of having created an excellent life history is only part of the reward for this effort. Frequently the interviewer discovers that the informant kept a detailed journal during at least a portion of his or her life, or that he or she has a significant collection of old letters, photographs, and other memorabilia. When these are included along with a typed transcript of the interview in a bound volume, each member of the family can enjoy a meaningful record of his heritage. The realization that descendants are in fact interested in and cherish their contribution to the family heritage restores a dignity and feeling of worth to persons who often have begun to feel that their usefulness is past.
By far the most stirring and immediate reward for both the interviewer and the informant, however, is the development of a bond between the two that very often occurs during the interview. As the interviewer listens with great interest while the respondent gives an in-depth review of his or her life, often both sense that they are engaged in something important, even sacred. A bond of love, understanding, and trust envelopes them that permits communication at a level that had never been anticipated. So strong is this bond that it will last far beyond the interview session. And for generations to come, a touch of the tape recorder button will recall the voice of a loved one and will give additional meaning to the work of turning the hearts of the children to the fathers.