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PERSONAL HISTORIES: For the Next Generation, and Yourself

BY SCOTT HARRIS

The Cambodian man had a gift.

There it is, just behind you. “We turned around,” recalled Bethesda resident John Hocker, now 78. “And there was this elephant.” It was 1971, the Vietnam War. Hocker, then an Army paratrooper, had been called on to serve as the French translator for a team tasked with rebuilding Cambodia’s armed forces. One day, the team hosted a particularly important visitor to the country. The visitor’s name? Adm. John McCain. Not the former presidential candidate, but the former presidential candidate’s father of the same name, who was then commander-in-chief of Pacific operations. The visit went well. Hence the elephant, presented to McCain by Cambodia’s new leader, Marshal Lon Nol. And Hocker, being the proverbial low man on the totem pole in that particular room, was left trying to make some pretty hefty arrangements. “You can’t say no to a gift in that situation,” Hocker said. “My commanding officer turned around to me and told me to take care of it. And since there was no one behind me, it was my responsibility.” A few phone calls and some logistical gymnastics later, Hocker had arranged for the elephant to go to the Los Angeles Zoo. A few decades later, Hocker paid his old friend a visit. “We went out about eight years ago, and there he was,” Hocker said. “But he didn’t remember me.” This is one especially dramatic example from a personal history. Hocker recorded this story and many others on video and shared it with his children and grandchildren. 8

Gazette SENIORS | January 2014

LEFT: COURTESY OF JUDY WAGN ER; ABOV E: COURTESY OF JOHN HOCK ER

ABOVE: Bethesda resident John Hocker stands with Chamrocun in Cambodia in the early 1970s. LEFT: Hocker records his personal history, which includes the tale of meeting the elephant shown above.

“My grandchildren talk about the tales I tell to this day,” he said.

Hocker is one in a growing contingent

of older Americans using video or audio

recording technologies or the good oldfashioned written word to capture their own life story or “personal history” for children and grandchildren, according to the Association of Personal Historians. Some undertake the task on their own by writing a memoir. Others sit down with personal historians for guided, in-depth interviews.

“People come to this from a variety of points of view,” said Ronda Barrett, a personal historian and “story facilitator” based in Kensington. “A lot of time, the younger family members are asking for it. Other times, older people feel their memories may be escaping and they want to record those memories.” More widely available, userfriendly technologies, such as video recording or Web publishing or research tools, make it easier than ever to piece together a personal history. Meanwhile, with extended families living farther apart and busy lives often interfering with even the best-intentioned plans, recording life stories for posterity is a way of preserving history for future generations. “We’ve lost the dinner table,” said Ellouise Schoettler, 77, a Chevy Chase resident and professional storyteller who is writing a personal memoir for her children. “You’d exchange your stories each day together.This is a way of getting that back. It’s sad that you take [family members] for granted sometimes. One death closes an entire library.” That’s especially true, Barrett said, given the major shift now underway between generations. World War II veterans and Holocaust survivors are still alive, but they, and their stories, will not live forever.The same goes for the millions of Americans who grew up in a more rural or farming environment, a less common lifestyle today.

Personal histories benefit more than

the younger generations. They can, Barrett said, help the tellers themselves, as Gazette.Net

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