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An Experience of Immersion 

Oral histories, like those compiled by StoryCorps, add texture and nuance to the historical.

The door to the silver Airstream trailer opens and an elderly man steps down to the pavement slowly, aided by a wooden cane on one side and a younger man behind him who grips his elbow carefully. Henry Schmidt plants both feet safely on the sidewalk and announces, "I could have gone on for hours." A young woman smiles at him as she stands near the door. "We only made it to 1935," his son, George Schmidt, adds. Both father and son are attired in immaculate suits despite an outside temperature in the mid-80s; they have been in New Orleans too long to let heat get in the way of fashion.

Henry, 95, has a lot to tell, and he's been telling it to his 61-year-old son in a 40-minute interview conducted for the traveling oral history project, StoryCorps. The brainchild of "Genius" Fellowship recipient and Sound Portraits founder David Isay, the nonprofit StoryCorps is helping develop an archive for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The project began with two recording booths in New York City, then continued in a mobile recording studio that has toured the country since May 2005. New Orleans was originally slated for a visit last December, but that was postponed until last month in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. By the time the studio finally arrived, says StoryCorps facilitator Brett Myers, the staff and the number of time slots for interviews had doubled.

StoryCorps is modeled after the Works Progress Administration's Federal Writer's Project in the late 1930s and early '40s. The WPA effort recorded thousands of life histories to document the diversity of the American experience. The best known of the outstanding collection are the stories elicited from more than 2,300 former slaves then still living in the South. "The slave narratives" were the first stories of their kind. Rather than being the subjects of stories written by white historians, former slaves themselves were the authors of history.

Since then, and with the advance of supporting technology, oral history has revolutionized our understanding of the world. By allowing everyday people to tell their stories, oral history democratizes the record -- a method of documentation that is especially important in the post-Katrina era.

Carl Lindahl and Pat Jasper, co-directors of "Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston," say that their University of Houston-based project marks the first time in history that "survivors have had the leading role in interviewing fellow survivors." Interviewers are trained and paid for the job. According to Lindahl, participants appreciate the chance to correct the image of evacuees perpetuated by the mainstream media. "The interviewers and the interviewees derive a sense of deep satisfaction and validation from having the opportunity to share their stories with the world," says Lindahl.

Donna Bronner, a cultural anthropologist who formerly worked at both Tulane University and the University of New Orleans, agrees that oral history can be as valuable for the teller as it is for the listeners. "In having to explain our experiences to someone else, we come to understand more fully what has happened to us," she says. Bronner, who is currently working on a book about the experience of New Orleanians, points out the mutual benefit derived from sharing stories: "It would be impossible to understand the United States today without understanding the far-reaching effects of this disaster. We cannot allow what we have gone through and continue to go through to be forgotten or ignored."

After Hurricane Katrina, various oral history projects all over the country began efforts to document one of the greatest natural disasters in history. But as StoryCorps project suggests, New Orleanians carry far too much history in their heads to talk solely about the storm. According to Zachary Barr, a StoryCorps co-coordinator, only 25 percent of New Orleans participants devoted their interviews to Hurricane Katrina. Other local endeavors, such as the acclaimed Neighborhood Story Project, have been documenting the New Orleans experience for years.

The Schmidts are typical; they did not discuss recent events. "I wanted to hear the early stuff," says George of the interview with his father. "He was an eyewitness." In the interview, Henry told his son about the glory days of the flapper era, when he was a "jellybean." George, whose love of history shows in his paintings as well as in the music he plays with the New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra, says young men in his father's generation may have earned the name "jellybean" because they styled their hair with petroleum jelly.

After graduating from Jesuit High School in 1930, when tuition was $10 a month, Henry Schmidt landed a job at Stephen's, a men's clothing store on Canal Street. In addition to supplying Henry with free suits, Stephen's was a good place to work because it was downtown, right in the middle of the action. Schmidt remembers the afternoon Sen. Huey P. Long visited the store flanked by six bodyguards. Other salesmen were intimidated, but Schmidt introduced himself to the senator as a nephew of Pat McGill, New Orleans' first constable and a political ally of Long's.

The former governor took a shine to young Schmidt and frequently purchased clothes from Stephen's while living down the street at the Roosevelt Hotel. He purchased "nothing but the best," recalls Schmidt, who particularly remembers three sets of 850-thread-count Manhattan silk brocade pajamas: in green, blue, and maroon. Schmidt says Long touched off an international incident when he wore the green pair while receiving the commander of the German cruiser Emden in his hotel suite. Those pajamas are now on display at the Governor's Mansion in Baton Rouge.

"If I had known getting old was like this I would have stayed young," Henry Schmidt jokes. Truly, he seems happy in the past. His blue eyes sparkle as he recalls a raid at Betty's speakeasy on Upperline Street. One of the federal agents was a friend of his father's who let him escape, then told him to come back for two cases of homebrew -- one for his father and one for the agent. Schmidt also remembers a date with Helen Cain, the original baby doll voice for Betty Boop. He took her to the Morning Call for doughnuts and coffee.

If Schmidt's memories don't match the images of hardship typically associated with the Great Depression, they underscore the value of oral history projects. As StoryCorps facilitator Laura Spero says, "There are facts and there are a million opinions that go beyond it somewhere. People aren't talking about the kind of things you can find in history, and you can't say those things aren't true, because those are their experiences."

ORAL HISTORY ADDS TEXTURE AND nuance to the historical record, allowing readers "an experience of immersion," says Shana Walton, an anthropologist who currently is an adjunct professor at the University of New Orleans. Both Myers and Spero worried that traveling to New Orleans would be a depressing, if not overwhelming, experience. Being in the booth can be an intense, even tearful, experience. After a month of interviews all over New Orleans, both facilitators are impressed by the positive attitude of local participants.

In addition to the interviews conducted in the mobile booth stationed in Jackson Square, StoryCorps conducts outreach sessions in every city its teams visit -- "to target the population who won't find us," says Myers. In New Orleans, StoryCorps visited the Uptown Shepherd's Center, the AshŽ Cultural Arts Center, Family and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children in New Orleans and the St. Bernard Unified School (SBUS) in Chalmette. At SBUS, there were plenty of Katrina stories.

Wayne Warner was the principal at Chalmette High School prior to Katrina and now heads the newly created SBUS. He wears a green shirt and tie, black slacks and black Reeboks. His professionally pragmatic attire reflects competence earned as school administrator for the past 32 years, but his dedication that made him one of many heroes who emerged during the storm.

During a six-day, 110-degree inferno spent in the makeshift shelter on the second floor of the high school, Warner helped ensure the safety of some 1,300 evacuees. Much of the shelter's food and water were submerged under 6 feet of water when the levees broke, and many people with medical conditions had sought refuge at the school, which had limited medical supplies in the best of times.

Fortunately, the St. Bernard Fire Department also was set up on the second floor of Chalmette High. Among the firefighters, Warner found assistance from Frank Rauber, a former EMT whose olive skin and thick chest attest to years of physical work. Warner and Rauber, who were strangers before the storm, quickly organized themselves into a life-saving team. Warner determined the needs of those stranded in the shelter while Rauber organized expeditions to find insulin, oxygen and gasoline for the generator that was keeping alive twins connected to a ventilator.

Rauber has a perpetual crease between his eyebrows and often pauses reflectively before speaking. "Mr. Warner keeps referring to me as a hero," he says. "There were 20 other guys here. It just so happens Mr. Warner and I started to communicate."

When Warner and Rauber exit the makeshift recording studio at SBUS after recording an interview, they are still discussing the storm. They haven't seen each other since they evacuated to different parts of Louisiana after their trying days at Chalmette High. Rauber, who now resides near Ponchatoula, spends every third day on duty in St. Bernard with the parish's sole surviving fire truck. Like many of the firefighters, the vehicle survived the storm but lost its home.

In the fluorescent-lit hallway of the high school, Rauber and Warner shake hands, then hug goodbye. Despite the amount of time and work that has passed since they last saw each other, the bond between them hasn't diminished. Thanks to StoryCorps, it will last forever.

SPERO COMPARES RECORDING STORYCORPS interviews to looking through a pinhole. "There's only so much in a spot that's there, but each view is completely amazing and different from the other ones."

On a sultry Friday evening, Priestess Miriam Williams comes out of the cool soundproof studio inside the trailer and takes off her sunglasses, though the warm glow from the lamps isn't bright. With her electric hair and enigmatic, heavy-lidded eyes, Priestess Miriam looks every bit the part. She has just been interviewed by longtime friend Allen Villeneuve.

Though they talked about a "snippet" of the storm, says Priestess Miriam, the majority of the interview was about life and spiritual issues. She recounted her arrival in New Orleans with Priest Osworn from Chicago 16 years ago. They had only $6 between them. Charles Gondolfo gave them jobs at the New Orleans Historic Voodoo Museum, and three weeks later they paid the first month's rent on what is now the Voodoo Spiritual Temple, located on North Rampart Street.

Priestess Miriam's smile encompasses her entire face, though her eyes remain inscrutable. "Voodoo in itself knows how to preserve itself. It does preserve itself through changes and conflicts," she says. "If I were out there trying to preserve it, I might miss what I needed."

But, still smiling, Priestess Miriam says she came down for the interview because New Orleanians are like kids. "We like to show our teeth."

click to enlarge "I wanted to hear the early stuff," says George Schmidt, 61, - of the interview with his 95-year-old father, Henry. "He was - an eyewitness." In the interview, Henry told his son about - the glory days of the flapper era, when he was a "jellybean." - VI LANDRY
  • Vi Landry
  • "I wanted to hear the early stuff," says George Schmidt, 61, of the interview with his 95-year-old father, Henry. "He was an eyewitness." In the interview, Henry told his son about the glory days of the flapper era, when he was a "jellybean."
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