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True tales from another era

Time travel for typists

SALISBURY — Volunteers are needed to transcribe audio tapes as part of the Salisbury Association and the Scoville Memorial Library’s oral history project.

Jean McMillen said that of the original 55 tapes made in the 1990s, there are 16 still to be transcribed. And in 2011  McMillen taped 20 additional interviews.

The work is not especially easy. McMillen provides a small cassette recorder — remember those? — and a copy of the format.

The only way to proceed is to listen to a little bit and pause the tape. Then type. Repeat.

Among the hurdles are the quality of the recordings. While not terrible, they were made using a condenser microphone, so the interviewee is competing for sonic supremacy with the sounds of passing traffic, the occasional dog, the tea kettle boiling, etc.

A transcription of a 1994 interview of Crosby Wells, who has spent summers in a cabin on Mount Riga his whole life, was completed by this reporter last week. (McMillen is very persuasive.) Among the gems:

• The Man Who Wouldn’t Pay the Rent. At one point — not specified in the interview, but probably late 1800s — the ironmaster’s house on Mount Riga, now called Castinook, was run as a boardinghouse of sorts. “There was one tenant there who was quite difficult, didn’t pay his rent.”

The landlord, a Col. Sedan, appealed to Judge Warner, who was practicing law in town at the time.

“Judge Warner said, ‘Why don’t you get an ax and just get him out?’”

Col. Sedan replied that there had been a revival meeting recently on the mountain, and feelings were running high. He asked the judge to write a letter to the stubborn tenant — “... a letter such as our Savior would write.”

“And then if he don’t get out, we’ll get an ax and give him hell!”

• The Drunk in the Woods. Wells: “Other people would appear out of the woods. There was a man named Tom Malley, who was a Raggie, I don’t know where he lived, but he looked like Abraham Lincoln after a drunk — all unshaven, and he’d come into our camp every summer, very scary. Everybody was, well, the women in particular, was scared of him — and he would be selling blueberries. He would walk way up Monument Mountain and come back with these blueberries and somehow he’d exist on that, and I think my father occasionally got him to chop split wood, something to help him out.

“And I remember he used to chop wood, he had a little tin box, and he’d take these pills out. He’d slow down, and take a pill, and and then he would speed up. I think it was laudanum.”

• The 10th Mountain Division in World War II: Wells volunteered for the 10th Mountain Division in July 1943. The unit was the brainchild of C. Minot Dole and modeled after the Finnish armed forces’ tactics against the Russian army in 1939-40 — particularly, troops on skis.

“When I entered you had to have three letters of recommendation that you were a skier or a mountaineer type, which is rather unusual for the infantry.

“They trained first at Mount Rainier, and by the time I got there the actual division ...[had] moved down to Camp Hale in Colorado, and they built a whole camp in a valley for this, at 9,500 feet, so there was lots of snow there. We were skiing right through June.

“So, apparently it was about the longest trained and heavily trained division in the United States Army, they really trained for a long while, they didn’t know what to do with us.”

The training was arduous in many ways. The division “was in this valley, with the mountains all around, and they had a terrible problem with the bituminous coal that heated the barracks. Everybody had what they called ‘Pando hack,’ I mean, it was really....

“And there was this real smog, very unhealthy. We were often out for weeks at a time in the snow, camping out in these little tents and everything. One of the miserable parts was having, at 20 below zero, to get out of your little tent and stand guard for two hours, and then you’d be four hours off and two hours on.”

To pass the time, Wells said he tried to remember everything he had done in his life up to that time. (Wells was then 21.)

He summed it up succinctly: “Terribly boring and terribly cold.”

“Eventually they decided that we should go to Italy, to the Apennines, and [the division] made their name at a place called Riva Ridge, and apparently the Americans had three times tried to take this ridge. There was an ascent of something like 1,500 feet, and the Germans were on the top. It was really unassailable.

“And our people — we had a lot of professionals — a lot of really good climbers — and they went up with pitons and ropes up the side the Germans never thought we’d go up. And they went up at night and it was a complete surprise, and they took that ridge, and then they took the next mountain, which was Mount Belvedere, and these were sort of the strong points from which the Germans could [shoot artillery] shells on our troops.”

The 10th moved ahead at a rapid pace and were the first Allied troops across the Po River. It was dangerous, Wells said. “ Often our flanks were exposed.”

And casualties were high. Wells recalled being one of two men left in a squad of 12.

“And so I was made a staff sergeant and I didn’t last long in that lofty rank because in one of the next pushes I was going through this peaceful apple orchard and I’d called in the two scouts. I ended up being the first one through this apple orchard and I stepped on a land mine. That was the end of me.

“I was carried back by Germans ... they were very glad to have safe passage back, they figured if they carried an American soldier they wouldn’t be shot at.”

Jack Hamilton, the interviewer, asked: “And this was when, Mr. Wells?”

“This was 1945, very near the end. “

So while the transcription process is cumbersome, the richness and variety of the material make it well worth the time.

To volunteer, call Jean McMillen at 860-435-2112 or email jeanmcmillen@att.net.

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