Friday, September 11, 2015

In Praise of Oral History

There were ten of us, sitting around the oval wooden table. Dinner was over, we were full and satisfied, and talk was being batted around over a net of laughter and good will. Napkins, drinks and elbows littered the tabletop. Someone snapped a photo and mentioned the sweetness of our family group, ranging in age from ninety-four to thirteen. Someone else produced an old black and white snapshot recently discovered and printed.
 
 
"Who's in this photo, Grandpa Ruel? Is that really you with the fiddle? You had hair back then!"
And is that you, Aunt Peg, that little girl on the man's lap? Wow, really? Sixty-four years ago?"
It sounded like they thought it was a couple of hundred years ago by the awe in their tone.
"Who is the baby? Oh, Aunt Patsy. And hey, who's that man strumming the fancy guitar?
"That's Braskell," Grandpa Ruel answered, his eyes misting over with memory film.
"Who was he, and how come we've never seen him?" Uncle Pete asked.
Grandpa Ruel shot a glance at his daughter Peg, that looked like 'what shall we do now?' I piped right up, sensing a story.
"It's part of your oral history Ruel, and it's time to pass it down now."
He nodded thoughtfully, people quieted, and he began.
"Brak was the best friend I ever had. He was my cousin, and had come out to Oregon from Arkansas. He worked out in the forest logging during the days, and they all drank and played music at night. He had a group of friends he hung out with including his brothers.
It was Halloween night of 1953, and Brak, with his brothers and friends were all going to a dance in John Day. One of Brak's really good friends, Oscar, had gone back to the logging camp to pick up some shoes someone forgot. Oscar's wife was in the car with Brak and the others, while Oscar's sister Opah was back in the camp, and she started filling his ears with tales of Brak's running around behind his back with his wife. Opah got in Oscar's car and rode to John Day with him, getting him more and more enraged as they went, with her stories. She had brought along a knife, and when they finally caught up with Brak's car in John Day, Oscar had built up a head of steam, and as he jumped out, Opah got out on the other side, ran around and put the knife in Oscar's hand. Oscar reached into Brak's window with the knife, while Opah went around and leaned in the other window, repeatedly screaming at her brother to kill Brak. In a rage he stabbed Brak multiple times, then lifted the knife up and slit his neck from one end to the other both ways.
When he saw what he had done, he dropped the knife in a fit of remorse, reached back into the car and grabbed Brak's neck and tried to hold the two sides of the slits together. He was sobbing and crying "Don't die Brak, don't die!"
Grandpa Ruel paused and swallowed, then told us that Brak had indeed died that night and Oscar later got a life sentence for second degree murder (unpremeditated) and his sister Opah got a one-year sentence for manslaughter. A year and a half later, after the trial had concluded, they were both being transported to the State Penitentiary to serve their sentences, when the sheriff's car they were riding in went over an embankment on Santiam Pass and Opah was killed outright.
"Justice was served in her case," Grandpa Ruel muttered, "but Oscar only served eight years then was released for good behavior."
"Did he come back to John Day?" Alex asked breathlessly.
"No," Ruel answered harshly with a very steely gaze.
"If he had, I would have had my shotgun and shot him dead."
No one said anything, and no one doubted that Grandpa Ruel meant what he said.
"That would have been just great," his son Pete told him.
"He would have been dead, and then you'd have been in prison."
"Wouldn't have mattered, justice would have been done" Ruel shot back.
I thought that some true history had just been passed down, as I looked around at each somber face. I also thought that written in these faces were many more stories waiting, yet to be told.
 
 
In Memory of:
Braskell Merle Wright
May 10 1923-October 31 1953
 
 
 
Written by Jennie Asmussen, copyright Sep 11, 2015
 
 
 



1 comment:

Peggy Asmussen said...

Thank you, Jennie for writing this story. As I sit here with tears running down my face I am thankful that Dad was able to share. I was just about 4 when Brak was murdered but I vividly remember the place and situation when I understood that Brak was DEAD! With me being the first child I was spoiled by all of those guys in that picture but Brak was my favorite even then.

Choices in life leave those left with pretty damaged hearts.