The Danger of Oral History

Zackary Vernon

My Granddaddy’s signature drink was a mixture of Kentucky Gentleman and Diet Mountain Dew. Years ago, it was regular Mountain Dew, but when his cholesterol started creeping up, he switched to diet.

I call this cocktail The Granddaddy.

A few summers ago, I found myself pounding Granddaddies with the man himself on the porch of his “fish camp”—a small ramshackle lake house in Santee, South Carolina.

I’d asked Granddaddy to meet me so that I could record him talking about our family history. The impetus for this request came from a conversation I had with William Ferris, the great folklorist and historian at the University of North Carolina. Ferris told me a story that inspired me to conduct what I thought would be an ongoing oral history project. The story went like this:

Two farmers are making their way home after a hard day’s work. They’re walking along a fence line, and up ahead they see something strange on top of a post. As they draw near, they realize that it’s a live turtle. “How do suppose he got up there?” one farmer says.

The other farmer scratches his chin, considering the question. After a few moments, he responds, “I reckon he had some help.”

The point of the story, according to Ferris, is that we’re all turtles atop our own fence posts. Whatever we’ve achieved in life has been the result of lots of help from others.

If that’s true, then I have to say my Granddaddy played a large role in this turtle’s assent.

From an early age, Granddaddy took me under his wing. I suspect now that he thought it was his responsibility to educate me about all the things my father was failing to teach me. My father, a sensitive artist and architect, showed little interest in manly endeavors when he was a kid, and he subsequently showed even less interest in teaching me what it meant to be “a man” by working-class South Carolina standards. So every summer as a child, I lived with Granddaddy on his farm outside of Columbia.

He taught me how to love the big woods behind his house, bathe in a creek, shoot a gun, drive a truck, grow a tomato, catch a catfish, and stew a quail in its own dark brown gravy.

One day when I was ten, Granddaddy decided for some reason that I needed to witness a deer being gutted. He took me to see Uncle Kenny whose garage was full of freshly killed bucks. I walked in and saw the deer dangling from the ceiling, their tongues hanging from their mouths, their limbs outstretched. I was scared, weak-kneed, but I steeled my nerves and took my place next to Granddaddy, as Kenny laid out one of the bucks on the table in front of us.

When Kenny made the first incision in the deer’s belly, I marveled at how the offal bubbled out. Then the acrid aroma of iron and blood hit me. My mouth felt like it was full of old pennies, and within seconds, I vomited on the table and fled the garage in tears.

Granddaddy followed me out, drove me back to his house, and put me to bed. But he was silent on the long ride home. I had failed him; I was my father’s son after all.

No matter how traumatic, I relished this experience and many others like it. My parents, religious and both the children of alcoholics, sheltered my sisters from Granddaddy. But I, the male child, no matter how closely aligned with my father, was given over to him anytime he took it into his mind to shore up my faulty education.

This unique access to Granddaddy continued into adulthood. No longer about masculine education, we were drawn to one another because we were cut from the same cloth, stumbling all too often toward depression and drink—what Granddaddy called our “dark turn of mind.”

So several summers ago, tape recorder in one hand and drink in the other, I attempted to chronicle our family history. I was eager to write my way into a fuller understanding of how this turtle ended up on this particular fence post.

But William Ferris didn’t warn me about what a dangerous business oral history can be. As a thirty-year-old, I found myself as unprepared to face Granddaddy’s past as I had been as a ten-year-old facing the gore that spewed forth from that buck’s belly.

With Granddaddies lubing the rusty wheels of memory, he held forth deep into the night. I’m not sure what I had expected—perhaps rollicking childhood adventures, stories from World War II, his courtship with my grandmother—but not a catalogue of his affairs, not his firsthand involvement in creating weapons for the US government, and not my grandmother’s suicide, a hazy family secret about which nary a word was ever uttered.

To this day, there’s a folder on the desktop of my computer labeled “Granddaddy” that contains all of his stories. Before recording them, I thought I’d burn them onto CDs and give them to my sisters and cousins for Christmas. It’s now been years, and I still haven’t listened to a single file, much less shared them with anyone.

Granddaddy died a few months ago at the age of 93. On the day he was buried I drank one Granddaddy after another. I drank until I passed out, incapable of thinking of him lying in a cold dark hole in the ground. 

For me Granddaddy is entombed in my recordings, immortalized. Like so many, he is a hero that one day I must find the courage to square, not with my fantasies or childhood memories, but with the actual man, turning as he did, as I do, in darkness.


Author Bio

Zackary VernonZackary Vernon is an associate professor of English at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He is the editor of two recent scholarly collections: Summoning the Dead: Essays on Ron Rash (USC Press, 2018) and Ecocriticism and the Future of Southern Studies (LSU Press, 2019). He is currently working on a novel entitled The Flesh Parade.