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Roger Barbee: The call of stories

By Roger Barbee

In the mid-1970s I taught at an all-boys Catholic high school in Alexandria. An older lady, Anne, worked in the school's main office. Her gray hair framed her smiling face, and she was always pleasant and patient, even to a rude parent on the phone or an impatient, young teacher.

During World War II, Life magazine published many photographs of the war. In one issue was a single page photograph of four or five American soldiers huddled in a sandy foxhole. The young soldiers were sharing a lighter moment in that deadly war. One of the soldiers faced the camera, and he was smiling as he sat smoking and talking with his buddies. He was Anne's young husband, and a few days after the photograph was taken he was killed on that South Pacific island. After she and I became better acquainted, Anne shared the photograph and her story of it with me. The photograph did not sadden her, but gave her a certain comfort in seeing her husband alive just before he was struck by an enemy bullet.

Like all of us, Anne had her story, and when she finally shared it with me, it helped me to see her differently. She was the same kind, sweet person she had always been, but when she shared the experience of the photograph, I saw her differently - I could then see something of her experience and how she had dealt with it, and continued to deal with it. Her humanity began to show in a different light. That awful war, before Anne's sharing, was mostly a historical event, but it became more personal even though my father and uncles had fought in it.

I recount this experience to share an idea. Sometimes an article I wrote will prompt a reader to contact me and share a similar experience. Many conversations have been had with readers who knew the person I had written of or the area or the event. Each reader, like Anne, has his or her story to tell. Our area is rich in its history of people, events, and geography. However, as a reader said last week about growing up at Buck Hill, "There aren't many of us [older folks] left. When we die, so will our stories."

I think he is correct. Over the years, I have had conversations with some of the men and women about earlier life in and around Bowman's Crossing and Edinburg, where I live. Perhaps it is just me, but I think their stories of the original Bethel Church, Aunt Helen, Uncle Lemuel's bear trap, and Granny Reb are important. No, they are not major historical events or people, but each is a thread of the valley's history, so each matters in his, her, or its own way. And, what of the stories from Bayse, Hudson's Crossroads, Strasburg, Rinkerton, Mount Jackson, Rude's Hill, Meems Bottom, Red Banks, the "colored school" on Water Street in Woodstock, and New Market? All of it is a history that I think deserves preserving, and it is not all in books, museums, nor can it be.

What if a recording studio were created and established in a central location of the valley? Then, just as NPR did for years, citizens could come and record their story(ies) that would be preserved for future generations. Would it not be of interest to hear about the experiences of our older citizens? Similar projects, such as NPR's, have been successful in other parts of the country. In Rabun Gap, Georgia, a school teacher sent his students out into the hollows of the Great Smokey Mountains to record oral history. The result was Foxfire, a program that preserved a way of life- everything from butchering to shingle making. Why not preserve what we have in the valley?

All that would be preserved need not be old. For instance, I wager that owners of the several auction houses in the valley have interesting tales of items sold, their history, and how the item reflects on the valley's history. Just think of the stories behind pieces of Strasburg pottery, the handmade furniture now highly valued by museums, and the homes that have been auctioned - what a story that rests in each item.

Now, I am not a historian, nor do I have knowledge about creating a recording studio, and, as usual, money is an issue. However, there are people here who can answer to all three of these issues. I already know that citizens are interested in such a project, as am I. Perhaps an oral history can be created to capture some of our history just as the Hugh Morrison books hold a photography history of our area.

Roger Barbee is a retired educator who lives in Edinburg with his wife Mary Ann, four dogs and five cats. Email him at redhill@shentel.net.


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