Fourteen-year-old Jordan Aljoe laughs and a smile appears across her face as she writes down the words World War II veteran George Nilson shares with her at the Ardmore Public Library.
Nilson had just recalled a time while growing up when someone pushed over his neighbor’s outhouse as a prank.
“She got indoor plumbing soon after that,” Nilson says with a smile.
Nilson, who was born in 1924, tells Aljoe that when he was a young child, his home had no plumbing, no telephone and no electricity. Those services came later, he says.
His family did not own a car nor were there many paved streets in his hometown of Alva, located in northwestern Oklahoma. He walked three blocks to school each day, and as a chore, would walk a block to the gas station to buy kerosene for the cook stove, he tells Aljoe.
As Nilson shares memory after memory from his youth, Aljoe continues to joint down the words of the man, who she knows from attending church services together. After asking about school, transportation and celebrating holidays, Aljoe dives into questions of Nilson’s experiences during the Great Depression, World War II, the Korean Conflict, the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement.
Nilson answers each of Aljoe’s questions, giving the young home-educated student a glance at what life was like for an Oklahoman, explaining major events beyond what Aljoe could learn from reading in a textbook.
Recording the oral history of five senior citizens began as a history assignment, Aljoe said, but it has quickly become a fun activity to which she looks forward.
“I am learning more than I could from just reading about these events,” Aljoe says. “You read about World War I, the Great Depression or World War II, but when you talk to someone who lived through it, it makes it more real.”
For the past few weeks, Aljoe has been working on the assignment. She asks each interviewee the same 25 questions, which come from “The Well-Trained Mind,” a book utilized by many for home schooling.
Following her interviews, which have taken place with her grandparents and another friend from church, Aljoe creates an outline and then types the stories. At the end of the assignment, she will have created a book containing the oral histories of each interviewee. Copies will be given to the five she interviewed, she says.
The questions Aljoe asks invite the interviewee to talk about their family, education, courtship, access to health care and employment over their lifetime. Additionally, Aljoe asks the interviewees to explain how they were personally impacted by the Great Depression, World War II, segregation, President Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War, the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act.
When asked about the Great Depression, Nilson shares about losing the pennies he had deposited in a savings account at a local Alva bank that closed. Nilson said two of the four banks in Alva closed during those years. Unlike some areas of the United States, Alva remained busy with farm jobs as wheat harvest brought work to many.
Nilson shares with Aljoe about serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. The two pore over an atlas as Nilson points out that he first arrived in Northern Ireland, but was part of the troops that stormed Omaha Beach the day after D-Day, known as the day the Allied troops invaded German-occupied France on the Normandy beaches.
The two discuss where Nilson was during the war, as well as soldier culture. Nilson tells Aljoe about writing letters back home to Oklahoma during the war, as well as being in the Czech Republic when the war ended in 1945.
Aljoe says it is the interesting stories and viewpoints shared by the interviewees that have made the assignment fun.
She recalls her first interviewee explaining being married at age 15 and becoming a mother at age 19.
“She told me her father had died and her mother had remarried, but her family didn’t have much money,” Aljoe explains about an earlier interview. “For her to survive, she had to get married.”
Hearing about the past and the hardships experienced by the interviewees has made Aljoe reflect on her own life.
“It does make you think about your own life and to be grateful for what you have,” Aljoe says.
“It has taught me how important it is to learn about other people and to get to know your family and friends.”