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 thirteen to ninety-four. Someone else produced an old black and white snapshot recently discovered and printed.

And then the questions and comments started.
"Who's in this photo Ruel?
"Is that really you with the fiddle? You had hair back then!"
"Is that you, Aunt Peg, that little girl on the man's lap? Wow, really! It was sixty-four years ago?"
It sounded like they thought it was a couple of hundred years ago by the awe in their voices.
"Who is the baby?, oh..... Aunt Patsy."
" And hey, who's that man strumming the fancy guitar?"
"That's Braskell," Ruel answered, his eyes misting over with memory film.
"Who is he, and how come we've never seen him?" Pete asked.
 Ruel shot a glance at his daughter Peggy, that looked like 'what shall we do now? I piped right up, sensing a story.
"It's part of your oral history Ruel" I told him, "and it's time to pass this story down now." He nodded thoughtfully, as people quieted and leaned back expectantly, so he began his story slowly.

"Braskell was the best friend I ever had. He was my cousin, we all called him 'Brak', and he had a twin brother named Haskell. He followed me out to Oregon, from Arkansas. You already know that Nate, Stanley, and I came from Missouri looking for work." The oldsters of the group nodded. "Brak, along with my other cousins and their friends worked for Edward Hines Logging Company, logging out in the woods during the days, drinking and playing music in Seneca at night. I was already married with two little girls, and had moved to Burns to start my own business.

"On Halloween night of 1953, Brak, along with his friends were all going to a dance in the bigger town of John Day. They filled up a couple of cars and started out. On the way it was decided that Oscar, a close friend of Brak, would go back to Seneca to pick up the shoes someone forgot. Oscar's wife was in the car with Brak and others, while Oscar's sister Ophie was back in Seneca. When Oscar got there, Ophie started filling his ears with tales of Brak's running around behind his back with his wife. Ophie got in the car with Oscar and rode to John Day with him, getting him more and more enraged as they went with her stories. She had even quietly brought along a knife.

When they got to John Day, Oscar pulled up along the curb, behind the car Brak was driving. Oscar had built up a jealous rage by now, and he jumped out and raced up to Brak's window, his wife sitting in the seat beside Brak. Ophie got out on the other side of Oscar's car, ran around and put the knife in Oscar's hand, then went around and leaned in the other window, all the while repeatedly screaming at her brother to kill Brak. Oscar then reached into Brak's window with the knife, and in his rage 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, then 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.... Brak don't die!"

Ruel paused and swallowed, then told us with a steely look in his eyes, that Brak had indeed died that night and that Oscar and Ophie were later tried in John Day for the crime. Oscar got a life sentence for second degree murder (unpremeditated) and his sister Ophie 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 in Salem to serve their sentences when the sheriff's car they were riding in went over an embankment on Santiam Pass and Ophie was killed outright.
"Justice was served in her case," Ruel muttered, but then added bitterly, "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, "he knew better. If he had, I would have had my shotgun and shot him dead."
No one said anything, and no one doubted that 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 right now."
"Wouldn't have mattered, justice would have been done" Ruel shot back.

As we sat in silence, I reflected that some true history had just been told and passed down. I looked around at each somber face and thought that hidden there 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

* For a wonderful update to this story, see my post written on July 29, 2017.... titled 'Now a Story of Forgiveness, Peace, Blessing and Comfort!'

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.