“So I says to Howard Hughes…”
Posted by donraymedia on May 16, 2009
The techno-rebirth of the ancient tradition of story telling.
By Don Ray
(Originally published in Los Angeles Magazine in October, 1982)
Pauline Clark had been waiting, alone and anxious, for this moment. Her new gas stove had just been installed. She reached down for the porcelain-covered handle and gave it a cautious turn to the right. First nothing happened. Then she heard a low rumble that grew louder and louder—as if a freight train were rounding the corner from the living room and heading straight for the kitchen. Things began to shake. Knickknacks and cooking utensils jumped from the wall and crashed down onto the counter. Pauline tried to run but couldn’t. The whole room was shifting back and forth.
It was March 10, 1933. Meanwhile, Pauline’s Husband was trapped in another room.He was unable to open the door. When the shaking finally stopped, Lee and his son went outside—where they saw the damage done by a major earthquake that was centered 20 miles away in Long Beach. Moments later his wife ran outside and said to the, “Boy! That’s some stove!”
That’s how Lee Clark, now 96, told the story of the Long Beach earthquake to his grandson, David L. Clark. The younger Clark, a Los Angeles historian and author, uses recollections like those of his grandfather to piece together the history of common people—a history that would otherwise vanish with each passing generation. The process is rapidly finding its place alongside conventional historical methods.
“History is generally written for, by and about winners,” says Clark. “Seldom is there a different perspective. But oral histories shift interest to non-elite groups.” In his book Los Angeles: A City Apart, he uses information obtained from dozens of oral-history projects his students at UCLA have done over the past eight years. The result is a rare glimpse at the lifestyles, goals and crises of the people who assembled in what would one day become a leading metropolis.
Oral histories, of course, are as old a method of record keeping as history itself. But it wasn’t until the late 1940s that they became a part of academia—first at Columbia University and later at Berkeley. Today there are oral-history programs of some sort at most colleges and universities.
But after more than 50 years of consistent use, there are still a few historians who criticize the whole concept. Why? The main argument concerns the reliability of the human memory. The critics say you just can’t trust the information.
“That’s balderdash,” says Clark, who is quick to point out that traditional written documents are just as likely to be flawed as the verbal account. He’s currently going through written mountains of personal correspondence, minutes of meetings and other documents relating to the early history of UCLA—and says he’s finding a number of cases of intentional misinformation. “People,” in short, “were lying,” he says.
Those in the oral-history field agree that spoken accounts compiled with conventional methods provide a complete and accurate history. Dr. Lawrence de Graas, director of the oral-history program at Cal State Fullerton, points out that although modern technology has provided us with the tape recorder to preserve the spoken word, it has also done its part in eliminating much of the written word. “The average person doesn’t keep the sort of written records that historians have traditionally used—be they diaries, estate papers or minutes,” he says. “You just don’t find Joe Dokes neatly keeping those as a general rule. Either you don’t write that man’s history at all or you have to go to the oral interview.”
Years ago, personal experiences were recorded in longhand and sent to friends and relative. Today, the telephone delivers the stories so efficiently that personal letter writing is becoming a lost art. Modern transportation has also had a effect: Travelers of the past had the time to write lengthy trail journals—diaries that would paint a vivid picture of a lengthy westward movement or an Atlantic crossing. Today’s travelers have time only to jot a few notes on the back of their airline tickets.
For those reasons, academic historians began systematically interviewing members of previous generations. At UCLA, a team of professional interviewers has since 1959 been involving in recording biographies of prominent scholars, artists, politicians, moviemakers and the people who were involved with bringing water to Los Angeles. The UCLA Special Collections Library houses more than 200 interviews ranging in length from 12 to 70 hours; the tapes are all transcribed and edited for accuracy before being indexed and bound.
“It’s probably used the most frequently of any one collection in the department,’ says Jim Mink, who heads the special collections. “We figure that over the past three years, for example, every day that we’ve been open somebody had been here to consult one or more of those interviews.”
The oral-history program at Cal State Fullerton serves another purpose. Rather than simply gather and store material, it uses oral histories as an instructional tool. Students are trained in oral-history techniques and are then sent out to interview selected people for projects focusing on such subjects as Indian urbanization, the uranium industry, Japanese relocation during World War II, acquaintances of Richard Nixon and community histories.
At Cal State Long Beach, a similar program is offered. Sherna Gluck runs that campus’ Oral History Resource Center, which provides assistance to students, faculty members and any member of the community interested in undertaking an oral-history project. And she’s involved in an ambitious project herself: With the help of two other interviewers she has conducted interviews with 43 women who worked in war plants during World War II. The project, “Rosie the Riveter Revisited: Women and the World War II Work Experience,” has given her insight into how the industrialized roles of women affected their homes, husbands and careers.
Even though they may not have done identical jobs during the war, they were in a setting where they could compare themselves in terms of skill and mastery,” Gluck says. “And that had a tremendous impact on a lot of the women, even women who were used to working, who’d been in the work force.
“That’s not something you can measure with most traditional data. You’re dealing with the subjective reality of the person—and you can only get that from oral history,”
Gluck has encouraged a variety of people to undertake oral-history projects. Kay Brieg is one of the hundreds who have taken Gluck’s class in oral-history methods at Cal State Long Beach; now Brieg is working on a history of oil drilling in the Long beach area. “I was your basic, unemployed Ph.D., teaching part-time, one place or another,” she says. “I grew up in Long Beach and thought this would be an interesting thing to do.”
But she really became sold on the oral approach to history when she was showing a traditional history film to a class. “It was the same old eastern-Establishment film. And I said, ‘Gosh! I live in this backward, undeveloped place called California, and it’s hard for me to find myself in that film, because it’s all the history of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and slaves and textile factories and all that stuff that’s eastern oriented.’” She says she realized that oral history brings the past home to people. “It shows them that the people right in their own neighborhood are important.”
Lakewood High School’s Dan Ryan took Gluck’s class, too, and before long his history students were putting together a collection of interviews of local, long-time residents. “They found that this was a whole lot better than reading a dry text-book,” says Ryan.
One of Ryan’s students, Stephen Rima, interviewed a man whose family had run a paper-and-dry-goods store in downtown Long Beach since 907. The proprietor, George Marmion, took the teen-ager on a descriptive trip back to the days of the Long Beach Pike, the Pacific Electric red cars and both world wars. Rima says, “When you read how bad things were during the Depression, that’s one thing. But when you talk to someone who really lived through it and who tells you how bad it really was, it puts a whole different light on the subject.”
The use of oral histories ahs even spread into the corporate world. Atlantic Richfield, for example, has contracted with an author to conduct oral histories with employees and officials of the five corporations that merged to become ARCO. And the Directors Guild of America has been compiling hundreds of hours of interviews with aging motion-picture and, more recently, television directors. Various cities, churches, historical societies and other associations are jumping on the oral-history bandwagon, as well.
One of the more intriguing projects is being undertaken by Wrather Entertainment International—the corporation in charge of running the Queen Mary Hotel—in preparing Howard Hughes’ famous flying boat, the Spruce Goose, for public showing. Wrather has hired a staff of historians to research the airplane and its designer, Hughes, and the firm has employed a full-time oral historian named Ronald Larson. He’s interviewed more than 30 of of the late recluse’s closest aides and coworkers in an attempt to find out more about the legendary billionaire. And though Larson says he’s still a long way from really understanding the man, he has been able to shoot some holes in some of the many Howard Hughes myths.
One such myth portrayed Hughes as being extremely hard of hearing, yet an anecdote that surfaces during an oral-history interview gave Larson a different view. According to a technician who had flown many times with him, Hughes would always bring a bottle of milk in a a paper bag and some chocolate-chip cookies on test flights. During one noisy flight, a technician at the back of the plane saw Hughes eating cookies as he sat at the controls. The worker put his mouth right up to the ear of the technician sitting next to him and said, “Why doesn’t that son of a bitch give us one?” According to one of the two men, Hughes looked around at his gauges, then turned around and walked back to where they were, held out the bag of cookies and said, “Here you go, you son of a bitch!”
Larson says he’s learned that Hughes’ behavior varied depending on where he was and whom he was with. He was comfortable around his engineers, but with other business associates he could be very frustrating. “Was sort of a jerk in a lot of ways,” says Larson, “but I’ve found that almost every person really respected him—at least in the field of aviation.”
Larson’s pursuit of Hughes’ real character is turning out to be as difficult as the fictional search for Charles Foster Kane’s Rosebud. “It’s still a myster. We still can’t put our finger on who this man was. We’re getting some of the small parts—but I think without oral history we wouldn’t have gotten that.”
For people in search of their own Rosebuds, there are places to turn to learn about oral-history resources, such as national and local oral-history associations. Shirley Stephenson, vice president of the Southwest Oral History association, says her group has more than 100 members who share information and techniques. The group sponsors workshops, puts out a newsletter and a directory of ongoing projects and conducts an annual conference.
For the average citizen interested in conducting oral histories of family members, the project can be expensive and time consuming. Taped interviews are of limited value if they’re not transcribed, edited and bound. The expense of typing, editing and retyping can bring the cost of the project to more than $200 per hour for each taped interview.
Gary Shumway, the founder of the oral-history program at Cal State Fullerton, has spent nearly two years trying to lower the cost of processing the information and upgrading the appearance of the finished product. He now operates a service out of his home using three word0processing computers. By streamlining the transcription process and finding less expensive ways to print and bind, he says he’s been able to bring the price down to about $115 per interview hour. But he says there’s still a lot of physical work involved in the entire process. “If I didn’t love it so much—if I didn’t need something to put my scholarly interest into—it would not be worth it.”
You may or may not be able to afford the cost of transcribing and binding a family history, but the value of sitting down and interviewing a loved one is surely priceless for both interviewer and subject. Karen Burch conducted interview with her grandmother and neighbors in the Dayton Heights area of Los Angeles. She learned that her grandmother’s family was one of the only black families in a predominately Japanese neighborhood. She learned about the government’s removal of those Japanese-Americans when World War II broke out. And she learned about her grandparents’ refusal to get caught up in the anti-Japanese hysteria. Her family looked after the property and personal belongings of dozens of their friends who were in internment camps throughout the Midwest.
Her interview project enabled Burch to get a better understanding of her family. “It just opened up new vistas back into my family history and my roots, as well as opening an even closer relationship with my grandmother. I think I saw her as a whole person.”
Sonja Manasian interviewed her mother, Ruby Avoian Manasian, and learned the details of the Armenian family’s escape from the Turks in 1918. Her mother’s account gives almost a historian’s documentation of starvation, corruption and senseless death. Sonja’s mother and grandmother nearly died trying to reach Ruby’s father in California—a father she had never seen. When they finally reached a friend’s house, Ruby looked up at several men. “And everybody asked me, ‘Which one is your father?’ My heart ran to him.”
“You knew?” Sonja asked her mother during the interview. “Yes. I knew, but I wouldn’t dare to say it because I was afraid I might claim some other man and they would laugh at my dad and my mom. So I just stood there and didn’t say anything, and then my dad said, ‘Hey what are you trying to do, confuse my baby?’ Then I knew it was my father.”
Everybody has recollections and memories that are of value to future generations, but it’s easy to put off collecting them. As David Clark explains it to his students; “In oral history, you’re working in a library that’s burning down. You have to work fast, because when these people go, the memories go with them.”
Aside from surviving the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, Clark’s grandfather had ridden on a horse with Buffalo Bill and had traded oil wells for used-car lots, says the younger Clark. But when you ask him if he’s taken the time to sit down with a tape recorder and get the whole story, he responds, “No. I haven’t done that yet—which I obviously should do. Everybody says that—because everybody always assumes that people will live forever.”