Parched Land, Rich Harvest
Travels and Oral History Interviews with Veterans in West Texas
Rodney Reagan does not look his age. Dressed in tight, dark jeans and a light-colored work shirt and sporting a large iPhone attached to his belt, this tall, lanky Texan could pass for someone in his 60s. In fact, he was 90 years old in 2016 when he sat down to talk to us in Uvalde, 85 miles west of San Antonio. He was still working on a ranch. During our interview, he took a call and conversed in Spanish. Picking up Spanish is one of the many skills he has developed since his time as a submariner in World War II. He shows no signs of slowing down, either. The secret to being so fit at his age? “Don’t ever stop working,” he declares. “God didn’t make man to sit around and do nothing. He gave him a job to do. When he quits doing it, he has to quit being around,” he tells us before slipping back out into the heat.
Perhaps it is something about the climate in these rural areas of Texas, west of the Interstate 35 corridor that connects the major cities of San Antonio, Austin, Fort Worth, and Dallas. Here, where the Hill Country—LBJ’s old stomping grounds—descends into the arid, mesquite-covered countryside, and ultimately the Chihuahuan Desert, one uncovers a host of rich, untapped stories. Much of the scholarship on Texas concentrates on the most populous areas of the state—east of I-35—and historians have, until very recently, ignored the vast and arid western part of the state.
Four years ago, we received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities—part of its “Standing Together” initiative—to launch “War Stories: West Texans and the Experience of War.” The project collects and preserves a record of West Texans’ experiences of military service from World War I to the present. We have traveled to West Texas towns, met with veterans, collected their stories, and made them available for research at our university’s library. The project has yielded some exciting material but has also produced another important result: it has helped some veterans come to terms with their service and experiences. Recalling the past, therefore, provided healing in the present and seeded sources for the future. The accounts coming from this project, including interviews like Reagan’s, highlight the benefits of collecting histories off the beaten path, despite the challenges.
Neither of us is from Texas, but the academic job market brought each of us here. Landing positions at Angelo State University, a regional university on the edge of the West Texas desert, we noticed the large number of student veterans on campus and learned about the region’s close ties to the military. In the era of the post–Civil War frontier, Army units pacified native tribes while forts stimulated local economies in the region. During the 20th century, the region became home to numerous military installations and a popular place for military retirees to settle.
In West Texas, there is a lot of space between towns. The isolation hinders locals from sharing their stories and dissuades scholars from collecting them.
But we also realized that some conditions inhibit study of the area’s history. In West Texas, one learns that there is a lot of space between towns. The isolation hinders locals from sharing their stories and dissuades scholars from collecting them. So we took a years-long approach and set out to find people who lived in areas too distant to easily share their experiences with scholars. And rather than focusing on one conflict or one group of individuals, we considered all people who lived in this region, with its mesquite-like roots in the military and service. We partnered with local churches, libraries, museums, and veterans’ service groups in order to reach out to locals.
Few of the veteran participants have ever been interviewed about their experiences before. This has contributed to their belief that their service was inconsequential and not worth sharing. Their understanding mirrors an unfortunate and ingrained belief that only people who saw combat, witnessed key events, or played leadership roles should have their stories preserved. All too often, we are met with the familiar declaration “I did nothing important.” These are questionable claims coming from a San Angelo resident who was forthcoming about his father’s service but seemed to think his time as the body-man for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the 1980s was insignificant. Another humble and good-natured veteran in Pecos played down his service, despite having been a tunnel rat in Vietnam. Others clearly wanted to share their stories but remained fearful of revisiting old memories. One Vietnam medic in Del Rio was curious about our project, lingered around with our staff all day, shared material from a relative, recounted his experiences off the record, but refused to sit for a formal interview. We have found local partnerships key to overcoming this challenge. Partners who know the veteran community personally have been crucial, not only for introducing us to potential interviewees but also for convincing them that their stories are important.
As many oral historians know, sometimes veterans find the interview process therapeutic. Because they are not used to talking about their experiences with scholars, a few conversations start with single-word answers—but as the floodgates slowly open, some feel the need to unburden themselves of decades of thoughts that have been rolling around in their heads. One veteran in Fort Stockton began the interview slowly and hesitantly. He did not make eye contact at all, but switched his gaze between the table and the floor. Merely thinking of Vietnam was difficult enough. But he soon let loose a lengthy narrative about the fall of South Vietnam, the resettlement of American allies, and the circumstances by which he was exposed to Agent Orange, which was slowly killing him.
Tapping into the past sometimes unearths sentiments that have stayed with these interviewees despite the cultural changes of the late 20th century. In Uvalde, a World War II marine veteran who sneaked a camera into the Pacific Theater and emerged with a remarkable collection of unauthorized pictures of carnage pointed to the images, nonchalantly describing each as “dead Jap, dead Jap, dead Jap” before looking at Kanisorn and saying, “Maybe these were some of your kin.” On another occasion, a veteran called the history department office and told the coordinator that he wanted to speak with either “the gook or the little girl.” As Kathleen M. Blee has pointed out in her analysis of oral histories of Klan members, the unself-conscious expressions of these sentiments are in themselves revelatory.
Some veterans are clearly grateful that their stories will live on and that someone, somewhere will know what they did.
As the reader might guess by our names, not only are we not from Texas, we also do not fit neatly into that 20th-century veteran community, which in West Texas is dominated by older white and Hispanic men. Our very presence has, at times, hindered our ability to coax full details from our interviewees, which is unsurprising. In Pecos, a Korean War–era Navy veteran told Christine about “dance companions” before his formal interview. When Kanisorn interviewed him, however, he revealed that these “companions” did more than dance. Indeed, they were prostitutes who stood in line as Navy men picked out the ones they wanted, as at an auction. During our initial intake discussions with veterans, we assess whether a potential interviewee is more comfortable speaking to one of us over the other in order to gather as complete a record as possible.
Despite our outsider status, we sense very little hostility or animosity from these veterans. In fact, we sometimes sense a level of amused curiosity about our request to talk to them about their experiences. Few people have questioned the fact that we are not veterans, and we have found it easier than we expected to build a rapport. We emphasize our position as historians and the importance of preserving military experiences for future generations, a goal to which many of our interviewees want to contribute. Some are clearly grateful that their stories will live on and that someone, somewhere will know what they did. For others, the fact that we are professional historians seemingly validated their service and the importance of their experiences in a way they had not felt before.
Our interviewees have been kind, gracious, welcoming, and unassuming. They willingly sat down with strangers to discuss sometimes difficult periods of their lives. They have taught us both about their service and the value of getting off the beaten path to listen to people whose rich histories have yet to be told. We are pleased that we have been able to preserve their experiences and provide them with some way to express their emotions and beliefs about their service. We encourage fellow historians, whether professional or amateur, not to be intimidated by vast rural distances in their quest for stories. Rich sources remain untapped in America’s wide-open spaces. What is the secret to finding and preserving them? Rodney Reagan would say, “Don’t ever stop.”
Christine Lamberson and Kanisorn Wongsrichanalai are associate professors in the Department of History at Angelo State University. In January, Wongsrichanalai will become director of research at the Massachusetts Historical Society.
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