Clio Whispers About Oral History

by Raul Blacksten

This "Clio Whispers" column appeared in the Winter 1995 issue of the Vintage Sailplane Association newsletter Bungee Cord.

It has occasionally been asked of me, "Raul, you keep harping on this Oral History thing, how do you go about it?" My stock answer has usually been an intelligent, "duhhhh, I dunno." In a sense, that is a true answer, but it is also a cop out and I always realize it at the time.

How do you do an oral history? Duhhhhh, I dunno. I have never really set out to do an oral history. What I have almost always done is to visit someone and take a tape recorder with me. The result is often a valuable oral history but occasionally it has almost been a waste of time.

I say "almost a waste of time." This is because even if the person is boring or has little of interest to say, whatever they do say could be of value to someone some time. Even though they do not have an entertaining way of saying something--or you are not interested in what they say--does not mean that this person's oral history was not worth collecting.

Let us look at a hypothetical situation in a subject where, let us say, I have absolutely no interest or knowledge--Dr. Peter Lissaman's 1993 SHA Western Workshop speech on low-speed airplanes, birds, fluid mechanics, and creativity. Actually since he is a very good speaker I quite enjoyed this speech, but for the sake of the argument, let us say that I found him boring and the subject matter quite dull. If Dr. Lissaman and I were to sit down for an oral history under these conditions, am I wasting my time? No! Although I may have been bored out of my skull, or because you, a reader of this oral history, cannot stand to wade through all the facts and figures, does not mean that, say, Jim Marske will not find something in the oral history which he could use for a future project of his.

Was I bored? Positively! Were you overwhelmed? Certainly! Was there anything anyone could get out of it? Yes! Was it a waste of time to do Dr. Lissaman's hypothetical oral history? Absolutely not!!!!! There are no bad oral histories, just bad audiences.

So, let us look at how to go about an oral history.

First, and most obvious, select a interviewee. Why is this person worthy of an oral history? It looks like I have already said that everyone is a good interviewee but that is not true. You do not want to talk to a 14 year old kid about their career in soaring, nor do you want to ask an 85 year old man who has not flown in 20 years about how GPS has aided cross-country soaring and what his experiences with it are.

You could do as I did with my interview with Warren Merboth, which was my first soaring oral history. I went to talk to him about his experiences owning and flying the Bowlus-duPont Albatross which is currently hanging in the NSM. I took a tape recorder with me simply so that I could listen to his stories without having to make notes. I did not spend a lot of time with him, probably eight hours over two days, but I came away with a unique view of soaring. From flying off a frozen lake in New Jersey in the early 1930s to his work at Aerojet General when they put J-bottles on a Pratt-Read in the 1950s. I also came away with an absolutely fascinating story about his flight from Elmira to NYC during the 1939 Nationals (see Bungee Cord Spring 1992).

Second, you need to select a topic to interview your subject about. You could use any criteria but unless you are writing a book, you must narrow it down even if you are interested in the person's whole life. A specific topic is a necessity, BUT, be prepared to abandon your plans. Often you will find that the topic of conversation will wander. That is OK because often what it wanders into can be the most interesting part of the whole interview.

Here I am reminded of a tape which Frank Kelsey sent me. His intention when he started out was to talk about the Bowlus-duPont Albatross. Frequently Frank would go off the topic, eventually apologizing for it and returning to the original subject. Yet it was one of these wanderings which became a most unexpected and interesting part of the whole tape. That is, Frank told me the story behind Ron Nelson's two-place Bowlus Baby Albatross (see Bungee Cord Spring 1994).

Third, set up an appointment to interview your subject. It is impolite to just show up at their door with a tape recorder at 8am and expect them to adjust their day to suit you on such short notice. Call a couple of weeks or even a month in advance. Then call them again a week before. Finally, also call the day before just to make sure that nothing has happened which will postpone the interview. Often if an emergency arises, you will be the last person that they will think to call. You do not want to show up, tape recorder in hand and discover that they are holding a wake for your subject.

Fourth, you need to prepare for the interview. This is extremely important! Learn as much as you can about your subject before ever leaving your house for the interview. Actually, it is a good idea to prepare for the interview before even scheduling it. That way, you can tell your subject what you want to talk about, and then they too can prepare. You do not want to go in sounding like a dummy because you do not know who your subject is, and they do not want to sound like a dummy because they cannot remember 60 year old details. Preparation on both of your parts is the key to a successful interview. A lack of preparation shows.

Yet this is not to say that ad lib interviews are worthless or are to be avoided. Here I am reminded of my interview with Clarence See (see Bungee Cord Spring 1993). There was absolutely no preparation involved in this interview.

I was at Harris Hill in the summer of 1992 to examine the Albatross in the NSM. While there, well, you just have to take a flight off the Hill, right? Clarence See was my check-out pilot. When we landed, I said, "your name is familiar, but I can't place it." He retorted with, "I'm the guy who rescued the Orlik."

What could I do? I went to get my tape recorder and I interviewed him during a quite period when he was not too busy. I came away with what I thought was an absolutely fabulous interview with absolutely no preparation what-so-ever.

Fifth, get your "tools" together early. Are you going to audio tape them? Video tape them? Make a movie? Take notes? Get everything together before the day of the interview. That way you have time to get what you need early and do not have to rush around before the interview.

If you are going to tape the interview, make sure that your audio tape and/or video recorder works and that you take more tape than you think you will need. It has always been my experience that a scheduled two hour interview lasts four hours, minimum. If you only take two hours of tape, you will miss recording the most interesting part of the whole interview. It is a law, like Murphy's. I would suggest taking three times more tape than you expect to use.

Spare batteries are just as important as spare tape, if not more so. Even if you put new or freshly charged batteries in the recorder that morning, take spares. It is not unheard of for batteries to be old or bad when you put them in (especially NiCads). You do not want to lose something because your batteries went dead and you do not have any more.

Take a still camera. Video is nice, but if you wish to publish this oral history, you need pictures which will reproduce on the printed page. Again, take more film than you expect to use, and take spare batteries. Today's new auto wind/focus/exposure/rewind/scratch-your-head-when-you-cannot-figure-out-how-it-works cameras eat expensive lithium batteries for lunch. Even if you think your battery is fresh, take a spare.

Take a pencil or pen and a pad of paper. Personally, I like mechanical pencils with spare leads and legal pads. Still, ball point pens and pocket note pads are good too provided the pens are not dry and the pad is not too small for all your notes. Take spares! Even if you plan to tape the interview, you will find a need to make notes of some sort.

Is there anything else you are going to need? Maybe. I know that there are a lot of times when I wished that I had a xerox machine in my back pocket! An operator for the video or movie camera might be a good idea because then you, the interviewer, will be freer to interact with your subject. What ever it is that you think you might need, get it together and take it. If you do not use it, that is OK, but just think, if you did not take it, you are going to wish you had. That is another law like Murphy's.

Sixth, be prompt. Your subject is doing you a favor, you are not doing them a favor. You do not want your subject sitting and waiting on you. Do you know what they are going to think of you if you are fashionably late? It ain't nice what they are going to think. What if your subject's spouse was preparing lunch or dinner to serve you while you talked? Besides, being prompt is just a common courtesy.

Seventh, be conversational. Feel free to make a list of questions but do no not limit your interview to your list of questions. Use them only as a starting place. Let your own interest and imagination, or that of your subject guide you. Who gives a hoot if you only get to ask the first question on your list throughout the whole interview. THAT is the mark of a good interview. If the interview begins to lag a little, or you get way too far afield, you can always go back to your list for a little inspiration or re-direction, but you do not need to be wedded to it.

What kind of questions should you ask? I have no idea. It is going to depend upon your subject and topic(s). No two interviews are going to have the same questions. Just figure out what you want to know and gear your questions to that end. Asking me or anyone else for anything other than simple guidance is a waste of time. You and I are going to expect different things from the same interview. It is unavoidable.

Eighth, even if you are uninterested in something which your subject wants to tell you, do not let them know that you could care less. If it is important to them, it is important. You are only a vehicle. You are there to get their story and your feelings about a particular subject are irrelevant. There is time enough in editing for an article for you to omit that which you found superfluous.

Ninth, save the original tape. Do not edit the original! Make a duplicate and edit the duplicate. If you are not editing the tape itself, and are only transcribing the tape, it is still possible to damage the original. The original tape--audio or video--is the most valuable part of the oral history. It is the raw data.

Tenth, be mindful that the human mind can play tricks on its owner. A person can remember something in a way which is completely different than the way it really happened. Often it is simply a matter of perception at the time the event occurred, but usually it is because the memory just ain't what it used to be (and never was). If the oral history you have collected differs from other accounts, do not worry about it. If you know about the mistake during the interview, you can gently suggest the correct version and see if your subject recognizes their mistake. If they do not or insist that theirs is the correct version, do not worry about it, but by all means, DO NOT CONFRONT THEM WITH HOW STUPID THEY ARE FOR REMEMBERING IT WRONG!!!

You must remember that "oral history" differs from "history." An oral history is something which is remembered by someone. Flawed, right or wrong, it is their memory. It is not up to you, the interviewer/editor to correct the "mistakes" in the oral history. It is not your oral history, afterall. The corrections can come when the historian makes use of that oral history.

Some people believe that publishing un-corrected oral histories will damage the history of soaring. I disagree. I believe that it will enrich it. As you may know, I have a Master's Degree in History and one of the things which I was taught in both my under and post-graduate studies is that "History" requires verifiable facts, usually from three different sources. Did George Washington chop down that cherry tree? Of course not, but has the popular belief in that story damaged the true History of George Washington? I do not believe so.

Perhaps you could get around the dilemma by appending a disclaimer at the end of the published oral history as I have begun to do. That way you are warning readers that they should know that you do not guarantee your oral history article to be gospel. They are put on notice that there could be misperception and mistakes in it.

I hope that these few suggestions will help you with the collection of oral histories. If you have any questions, please feel free to write and ask. People often preface questions by saying "this is a stupid question, but . . . ." Do not believe it! There are no stupid questions if you are truly trying to find out information. How do we learn anything without asking so-called stupid questions? The stupid people are the ones who are offended by being asked "stupid questions." I am here to help. Ask all the "stupid questions" you like.

Finally, send that oral history tape (original or duplicate) to either the NSM or to me. If you make a transcription of the tape, a copy of that would be nice too. The future of soaring will thank you for preserving its past. And by all means, do not neglect your own oral history!

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Raul Blacksten
PO Box 307
Maywood, CA 90270 USA

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Raul Blacksten, 1995