The Lusitania, before she was sunk by torpedoes during the First World War. (Library of Congress photo)

The Lusitania, before she was sunk by torpedoes during the First World War. (Library of Congress photo)

COLUMN T.W. Paterson: Everyone has a story to tell

Somewhere, T.W. has an interview with Florence Padley, a survivor the torpedoing of the Lusitania

The VIRL “Tell Us Your Story” project is a win-win for all concerned.

A recent article in the Times-Colonist gave me a jolt. The story was about preserving First Nations voice in song.

But what hit home for me was mention of the fact that audio tapes last only 30-40 years before their chemicals break down.


Somewhere in storage I have perhaps dozens of tape recordings I made when I first began my writing career in the very early ’60s. These are interviews of some really interesting, even historically significant people.

Among them, for example, are tapes of two of the senior officers who survived the torpedoing of the troopship Princess Marguerite in the Mediterranean Sea during the Second World War. Ditto an interview with Florence Padley, a survivor of another torpedoing, this one the Lusitania off the south coast of Ireland during World War One.

Twelve hundred men, women and children, all civilians, died in that atrocity that helped to draw the U.S. into the war. The Lusitania and the Titanic are probably the two most famous shipwrecks in history.

And I have Florence on tape. She was married to a banker and it’s intriguing to hear her liken the first explosion (the first torpedo hitting home) to the slamming of a vault door. She goes on to tell how she evacuated the rapidly sinking liner (one of the largest of its day) and eventually made it to safety.

I also interviewed William Oswald Douglas who, as a young RNWMP constable (that’s Royal North West not Royal Canadian Mounted Police) chased an Inuit murderer for nine months across Canada’s frozen Arctic. I also have his handwritten account of pioneering, upon retirement from the Hudson’s Bay Co. after he left the police, in the farming of mink for their furs.

I likely recorded my interviews with Charles Taylor, first white child born in Port Alberni, although I’m trusting to memory now and he may have just preceded my purchase of a recorder.

There are other tapes that escape me at the moment. In fact, and this is scary, I’m not quite sure where I’ve stored them. I still have the old recorder, a Sony reel-to-reel (it, a typewriter and a file cabinet were my first three purchases as an aspiring writer) but the tapes—?

I’m going to have to make a point of digging them out, then seeing if they can be saved. If so, then I must find proper homes for them. I’m sure the War Museum would like the firsthand accounts of the losses of the Marguerite and the Lusitania. The Mounties should be interested in Douglas’s memoirs…

I really haven’t meant to treat them so cavalierly. It’s more a matter of my having put them away in a cupboard when I moved 20 years ago and forgetting about them. You know, out of sight out of mind. But that article about their deteriorating over time has rattled me, so now it’s a matter of digging them out. A cupboard, as any archivist who reads this will tell you with alarm, is anything but environmentally controlled.

Forty years of fluctuating room temperatures, even if just slight, let alone chemical break-down, might have damaged them already. Here’s hoping.

Which presents an opportunity to plug a new program in which Cowichan’s Vancouver Island Regional Library branch is participating, in commemoration of Canada’s 150th anniversary. “Tell Us Your Story” is designed to “celebrate the unique stories of the nation’s ordinary [sic] citizens.

“VIRL wants people from all our 39 communities to have the opportunity to have their stories heard so each branch has received a digital recorder…”

Other than the reference to a digital (not tape) recorder this reminds me of the aural history program promoted in the 1980s among local museums and historical societies. The idea was for volunteers to interview, in that case, older citizens to get their stories down on tape for posterity.

Programs such as these are ideally suited to the involvement of secondary school students as a class project. The benefits for all concerned are immense. Elders are encouraged to share their life stories for the record which makes them feel they’re being acknowledged and appreciated; students benefit from the one-on-one experience with an older person who has something to say — something worth sharing and that’s sure to be well beyond the experience and pre-conceived mindset of a teenager.

I’m speaking from experience. My first interview for the Colonist was with Charles Taylor. He was 92, I was 17. He was a wealth of knowledge, Alberni Valley history and experience. We became friends until his death. I’ve never forgotten him or the lesson I learned from those interviews. Namely, that there’s no such thing as a generation gap when it comes to listening to and learning from someone we like, admire and respect. Elders are a gold mine of experience who have something to share with young people.

The VIRL project is a win-win for all concerned.

Now, where did I put those tapes…?