At the age of 70, almost 20 years ago, my father took a mini-cassette recorder and over the course of the next couple years, recorded every memory he had of his childhood. His memories go back to the age of 3, which astounds me; but when I think about the things he remembers, it's not so remarkable. Traumatic events seem to stick with us longer.
After listening to the tapes recently, Dad and I decided we should write a book about his life. We've been working on getting the names and dates right; but I think, more importantly, we need to get the impressions and feelings of a small boy right. His is a story of a little boy who was alternately fought over during a divorce; and then shuttled from relative to relative, not really fitting in or wanted anywhere.
As my siblings and I grew up, Dad would regale us from time to time about stupid things he did as a kid. We'd all be laughing at the farm-boy naivete, but underneath was a tale of hardship and strife. Dad grew up during the Great Depression and when he was 4 years old, the stock market crashed, wiping out not only his family's savings, but the little bit of money he had in the bank from Christmas and birthday gifts. "Well, yer money's gone, boy," his Granddad told him, but he didn't understand for a long time where it went.
Life on a farm may not have been as tough on a kid as in more metropolitan places; at least they had food to eat. But plowing, planting and harvesting with a team of horses or mules wasn't easy. That the Amish still farm this way is like a portal back to earlier times. Dad talks of sitting on a sled behind the manure boat and getting his foot caught underneath. He didn't want to hold up his Granddad who was working the horses, so he sat in silent agony as his foot drew a furrow in the ground between the two sled blades.
He remembers most things with a sense of humor and the absurd. Before the days of indoor plumbing, the outhouse was a long way from the back door in the middle of winter, so Dad had a tin can in his upstairs bedroom that he'd use during the night. But when the can was full, he just opened the window to relieve himself. When summer came and the sun hit the tar paper side of the house, trouble found him. His father called him outside, pointed to the sun-bleached streaks all down the side of the house and said, "Boy, what the H do you call that!?" He learned to empty the can more frequently.
While transcribing the tapes, I learned a lot of things about my father that I may never have learned otherwise. The fact that he took the time to record these things has been a priceless gift. The task of putting it all together in book form has brought me closer to him than I've ever been. Often when looking at my family's genealogy, I've wondered what this person or that was like. I have a great-great grandmother who wrote poetry.
Only through her poems do I know anything about her or her life. Years from now, when my great-great grandchildren look back, they'll have a vivid picture of Bill Near, small town Sherman farm boy, World War II sailor, and father of five. And they'll have something to be proud of.
Robyn Near Albright is a Ripley resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org