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Saturday, May 01, 2004

Followup letter from United State Department of Interior...,

National Park Service, with additional information on the Ken Burns documentary:

"...After searching through our files, we selected you for an interview with a PBS film company that has contact us because you live near one of the communities that this film company hopes to focus upon in this exciting documentary called "The War".

This documentary will be five part series about American life during the war -- focusing on four communities and the lives of ordinary people. The film will be completed and will air on PBS in 2006.

As we discussed and as you agreed to, your name, phone number and story were given to the producer, Lynn Novick of Florentine Films (A Ken Burns Film Company), however, there is no guarantee that you will receive a call from her. The communities that were originallly requested by the film company included: Waterbury, CT, Luverne, MN; Mobile, AL; and Sacramento, CA. We insisted that Richmond should be included."


So -- I'm not even sure that I'll be around to see this epic -- and, if I am, that it will matter a hell of a lot! But once committed ... .

Completed Dorian's move and closed down her Oakland apartment today. It's been a real challenge and we seem to have simply transferred the clutter from her place to mine. My apartment -- a place of pride for me -- is now crowded with far more than the space can accommodate comfortably. I'm already feeling pinched! Must be careful to mask such feelings. She's extremely perceptive and picks up subtle signals, especially negative ones. When she begins to get testy and irritable I've learned to look to myself for clues. That suggests that a high level of sensitivity must be maintained at all times. Nothing is more exhausting!

Wednesday, April 28, 2004


Am beginning to feel a bit uncomfortable ...

about the attention that I'm receiving these days. Like a bit of a fraud. It's not that I'm particularly humble or coy, but that the outcome appears to be aimed at moving me onto the sidelines of national life while I'm still in the middle of mine! Well, if not the middle -- at least the top quarter.

This morning -- only a few days after that invitation to the White House -- comes a consolation prize of sorts; "...PBS' Ken Burns is working on a television special on Rosies of World War II -- and we'd like to have you as one of those interviewed. She continued, "...they've asked for some women from the Sacramento area, actually, but we've told them that Richmond is the center of Rosie-dom, so we're compiling a list of interviewees for them and it must be in today's mail. Please say yes!"

Saying no to the White House carried with it a feeling of a bit of daring (waiting for a better class of tenant), but I love Ken Burns documentaries and will be delighted to be a part of it -- even for a few minutes. Loved "Jazz" and "Baseball" and "The Civil War" is a masterpiece. This also gives me a real reason to start watching that oral history video from the Bancroft Library. What they need may be accessible without actually going through another interview. Somewhere on that tape may be precisely what they need.

My reluctance to become a central figure in the tales of Rosie comes back to the fact that my role was a bit less than glorious. If I'd ever worn a hardhat or wielded a welding torch, I might feel better about being front and center in these retrospectives. In my little file clerk's role in that Jim Crow union office -- out of the sight of either the ships or the shipyards -- it feels less than legimate. I surely didn't feel any particularly strong feelings of patriotism or that I was saving the world. Those women who were actually on board those merchant ships, crawling into those unreachable nooks and crannies to do their work surely must have a very different response to the accumulating honors we're beginning to experience now. The fact that we're again at war (have we ever not been?), the patriotism is heightened for many.

My guess is that I'm being called because I'm one of the women in my age group who is not either on life supports or suffering from Alzheimers! If only people realized just how many of us are still out there -- still in the trenches -- plowing the fields of life. The fact that I'm African American probably fills another gap in their coverage. That I'm fairly articulate and still productive helps ... but whatever reason ... I don't feel anymore legitimate as an honoree as I believe the current occupant of the White House is in his assumed role as president. The difference seems to be that I know it, and his arrogance may prevent him from seeing the truth.

There may be enough reason to say yes to being a part of that history -- if I can deal with it within the context of the times; honestly. That bright and capable young black women were prevented from full employment even under union sponsorship was a fact of life. That all African Americans who worked out of those Jim Crow union halls were designated as "trainees." That word was on every file card -- after each name. This insured that no black person would ever reach journeyman status and would not be in competition for jobs at war's end. This was the Forties. Change would not come for another two decades. This, after all, may be a very important part of the history that we must not re-live.

Maybe this Ken Burns piece -- if I can bring honesty to my few minutes of it -- can be a vehicle for another look at the period and reinforce the changes that must be held to if we are to continue to survive as a nation. A chance to re-visit yesterday's ethos with the accumulated lessons of the Civil Rights movement that followed ... And -- before we continue to export our conditional "democracy" to other places on the planet.

Yes.

C'mon Ken Burns!

Photo: The office staff at the time that I was employed as a clerk in Boilermakers A-36. I'm on the far left, front row. The occasion was a baby shower for the Marguerite Roles, wife of Mahlon Roles, Secretary-Treasurer of our auxiliary. Zola Adams, Christine White; that's my late sister, Marjorie Charbonnet Brooms far right, back row. The others I can no longer can identify. (Circa 1943-44)


Sunday, April 25, 2004

Received a large official-looking package in the mails yesterday ...

from The Bancroft Library of the university. Hadn't gathered in the mail until late this (Sunday) morning. In the large manila mailing packet was a thick transcript -- about one-and-a-half inches thick -- fastened together by a huge black metal clip. There was also a videotape with a label that read:


Betty Reid Soskin
Interviewed November 7 & 11, 2002 by Nadine Wilmot
Regional Oral History Office
The Bancroft Library
NARRATOR COPY

Recalled then that this was a part of the project the university was conducting for their own purposes and that I'd rather enjoyed the process at the time. Meanwhile -- given my lifestyle -- a lot of life has been lived since two years ago and I'd completely forgotten about it. This was one of several such interviews I've participated in over the past few years. In fact, I didn't realize at the time that they would send a transcript to me at some point. The accompanying letter asked if I would read it and make minor corrections (things that were deemed inaudible or obvious misspellings) but:

"...The transcript is intended to be a reasonable record of the conversations, and for this reason, urge our interviewees not to formalize the transcript as if it were a written autobiography. A few fumbled words, an aside, a lapse in memory--all these serve to remind the reader that this was an informal interview. The informality adds to the readability and liveliness of the transcripts and presents a more human picture of the interviewee than a more formal written document would.

The transcript will be the draft on which we base our final version. If you have any changes, we ask that you notify us within one month of the receipt of this letter. If we do not hear from you by then, we will prepare the final print and web transcript from our draft. We cannot make minor or aesthetic changes to the video, though we could remove sections should you decide they should not be made public."

Final copies of the transcript and video will be deposited in The Bancroft Library, the Richmond Public Library and with the National Park Service...".


Spent the last few hours scanning the transcript and doing the three-hole-punch duties so that the entire document could be placed in a binder for easier access. Can just imagine what a tragedy it would be if I dropped that mess of papers? For some reason they're not numbered.

All-in-all, considering how much life I've lived since "November 7th & 11th of 2002," the entire event had fled from memory. It read well though there were glaring misspellings of names and places. Felt some embarrassment at just how many times I said "yeah" instead of "yes" and made a solemn vow to correct that immediately!

The best thing was that -- though I've yet to watch the video from which the transcript is taken -- I liked that woman. Felt no embarrassment. What a nice surprise, though it shouldn't have been. Learned a long time ago the trick of watching myself being myself and being fairly forgiving in the process. Perfection has never been a goal. Truth, now, is another matter -- and principle -- ad nauseum, as you can see by the events in my recent past.

Decided to spend the next several days resisting the temptation to retype the whole thing (wiping out all those "yeahs"), but will follow the instructions and forego that urge. Will do the corrections they've asked for on their original draft and return it to the Bancroft for the completion of their project.

Also, I'll wait a few days before viewing the video -- for a time when Dorian is away at NIAD and I have the apartment to myself. Not sure just why, but that may be a more penetrating experience. There are about two hours of taping to view -- and that's a huge amount of "Betty" to sit through. May watch it in small pieces over time.

Just recalled that -- at a recent NPS planning session -- a number of historians from the Bancroft were present. I know now why I was greeted in the way that I was, with real deference and warmth. These men were familiar with the contents of this work. They knew all about me before I walked into that room. At the time, I'd totally forgotten about these interviews.

Oh, just remembered that my father's videotaped interviews are tucked away somewhere in my apartment. I have about four hours of his life--done in the early 80s by the Public Health Department at U.C. Berkeley, too. Future genealogists in the family will have a treasure trove of archival material to work with. As one of several family history researchers, I see this as such a gift!

Decided against taking part in the great Women's march in San Francisco today.

Dorian seems worn out from participation in yesterday's Special Olympics Basketball Tournament at Cal. She played in just two games (losing both). That involved a very long day of crowd activities. That's always stressing for her. Her day started at 6:30 yesterday morning -- she went full steam all day. I picked up a teary mess of an athlete at 5:15 in the evening. Her team had placed fourth and had therefore not received a medal. Having been participating from childhood in these games -- when there was a medal for everybody simply for participating -- to a time when the awarding is governed by whether or not one wins, she just isn't prepared. We "normal" folks just don't get it, do we?

Puts me in mind of our very Special Olympics when she was a resident at The Cedars in Marin County. What a time that was for us both. The participants were about equally divided between the handicapped (both mental and physical) and volunteers and supporters (mostly teens wearing special tee shirts) who stood at the starting and finishing lines urging the athletes on. It was a completely loving and supportive environment.

Saw a miracle that day that forever colored my attitudes about competitive sports, but before I tell you about that -- let me tell you about one little girl -- maybe ten or eleven. She looked tired and teary. I walked over and asked a volunteer if I could help. The answer was a kindly but firm, "no, thank you." She then explained to me that the child had somehow run and won first place in the wrong race only a short time before -- she was not the right age -- and therefore her win could not be counted. The staff was asking that she run again, this time with the proper age group. This time, being tired from the first run, she could not possibly win. The rule book won out over common sense. Were I in the position of having a voice, I would have simply had her time transferred to the proper race. These athletes would never have known the difference, and it was no one else's business, after all.

The miracle I speak of was an example of heroism worthy of mention in the history book of sports.

There was a 50-Yard Dash about to be run. I was sitting in the stands at the high school. In the row above me sat Trevor Thomas of KQED-TV, the local PBS channel. He had a camera crew on the field and was connected to them by remote. I assumed (later) that he'd surely seen what I'd witnessed. It was that extraordinary, to me.

There were three young teen volunteers below at the starting line with three athletes. There was a little girl about ten or eleven -- tall and rangy for her age, another slightly rounded little girl about the same age -- short and stocky and a bit lumbersome in her movements. The third child was a little boy of maybe 7-8. All three were obviously mentally-retarded with Downs syndrome clearly present in the little boy. The rest is hard to describe since it all happened almost simultaneously:

The starting gun sounds!
The three young volunteers send their charges off with a loving shove and shouts of "Go!"
The three children dash off -- each at a different pace.
The tallest little girl is far ahead of the others -- quite obviously the winner, but...
Little boy falls and screams out, less in pain than in frustration ...
He's pounding the ground with his little fists!
Tall little girl stops still in her tracks as she hears his cry, inches from the tape ...
There is a loud gasp in the stands as we "normal" people saw her -- only a few feet from victory --
stop dead!
She turns to run back ...
picks up the little boy and brushes him off...
totally ignoring the roar of the crowd ...
She'd done the human thing.
She'd answered a human cry of pain.
In the stands there was confusion and the buzz of conversation ... as we adjusted.
She'd lost.


I drove home to Walnut Creek feeling that I'd witnessed something terribly important. I felt elated. Upon reaching the house I immediately called everyone I could reach to tell them to watch "NewsRoom" that night to see my "miracle." I just knew that Trevor Thomas had seen the same event and that his cameramen on the field surely must have picked it up. But he hadn't. It was missing from the news that night. There was coverage of the games, but that coverage consisted of children standing on a set of graduated boxes receiving medals from grownup volunteers. The Special Olympics was quite new and newsworthy. They were the local dignitaries awarding the "winners" with ribbons -- for 1st place, 2nd place, 3rd place. Everyone was a winner, except that lovely little girl who'd gone back to pick up a fallen competitor. She was missing.

Wonder to this day how often we award those ribbons for the wrong things?

The next year, with this experience under my belt, I attended the Special Olympics Track & Field Statewide games at Cal. There were two volunteer coaches sitting nearby in the stands. I listened as they chatted about the special challenges of working with this population. At the time we were watching the lineup for the 100-Yard Dash below. "You have to teach them to watch the lines on their lane when they're running. If they catch sight of the runners on either side, they begin to run alongside." Here it was again. It is simply unnatural to compete below a certain intellectual level, I suppose. Have no idea if this is supported by the research, but I would guess that it might well be. For this population, running alongside was sufficient reason to participate. Originally, ribbons were awarded to everyone simply for pariticipating. This is apparently no longer true -- as we elevate the Special Olympics Game competitors to more "normal" status.

Years later, while watching the San Francisco Bay to Breakers marathon on the tube, I found myself laughing at all those "normal" folks having the time of their lives "running alongside," and in weird and wonderful costumes at that! How lovely it was to see those thousands of runners in Boston and in New York doing the same thing every spring.

Met the mother of that little boy of the Marin track meet some years later. She was in an audience when I was singing. I was telling the story (as I often did between songs) about that life-changing event when I heard someone laugh. She identified herself to me when the concert was over. She, too, had the same reaction that I'd had and also felt very much alone until now. She, too, had watched Trevor Thomas on NewsRoom that evening -- believing that he'd witnessed what she'd seen. Though it was years after the fact, we were both close to tears as we embraced as old friends ... so grateful to be confirmed in this shared miracle. It was so wonderful to discover that someone else had noticed. We were not alone.

Dorian is quieter today. She talks basketball talk these days and understands free throws and penalties and double-dribbling and fouls and interference -- and has been moved over many years to some familiarity with the rules of the game. In taking on the values of the field, the arena, the court, I wonder what she's given up? And, what we've all given up on the way to becoming more "normally" competitive"?

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