Who doesn’t love a good mystery? Some call it research, but I prefer to think of it as a cold-case investigation, at least on my part. I’m talking about all that goes into crafting a new historical program.
A year ago, Ellen Munds, executive director of Storytelling Arts of Indiana, contacted me about going to war. She wondered if I’d be interested in developing a program set in World War 1, about some Hoosiers who participated in some capacity in the Great War, the war to end all wars. SAI and the Indiana Historical Society would co-sponsor the commission.
I told her I would love to do it.
She gave me five names from which to choose, or I could include all of them. I know of storytellers who can tell five or six stories in a half hour. I can’t tell five or six jokes that quickly, so I knew I’d have to cut the list.
One stipulation was that a portion of the research was to be conducted at the Indiana History Center’s William H. Smith Memorial Library. Not a problem. For all of my historical programs, that was always the starting point.
The prospective list included three soldiers, one nurse, and one pro-active mother. After looking through the folders of the five candidates, I finally shortened it to three, settling on Col. Robert H. Tyndall, a well-seasoned warrior who later was elected mayor of Indianapolis; Ruth Wright Coppedge, a licensed RN and Red Cross volunteer who joined a cadre of medical professionals to staff a base hospital; and Alice Moore French, the mother who wanted to make sure those serving in the armed forces were well-fed.
The Smith library offers patrons the opportunity to hold in their clean, lotion-free hands primary sources—letters, diaries, journals, and notes—for close examination. When I was working on my Civil War program, I held a letter written by Gov. Oliver Morton to President Abraham Lincoln. Seeing that there was writing on the back, I flipped it over. President Lincoln had responded with a note! That was a thrilling moment.
Sometimes there’s a problem with original documents, however. Take Col. Tyndall’s correspondence, for example. His folders are full of letters, primarily to his wife, Dean. Unfortunately, his script was small, he had a habit of dividing longer words, and the ink had faded as the paper had yellowed over the century. Most of the letters were illegible. Those to his children, however, were fairly clear, the writing slightly larger. Using them to see how he formed certain letters, I was able to decipher a few more passages in the letters to Dean.
Ruth Wright didn’t keep a war diary. When she was in her 80s, she granted an interview to the Rochester Sentinel, her hometown newspaper. It was brief and sketchy, but it gave some insight into her life as a war nurse. Among her materials at Smith library was a book, A History of Base Hospital #32. I found the text for the book online, also. She is listed in it throughout, so I was able to track her assignments and transfers. How I wished I had some more personal insights of her, though. Writers and storytellers love salient details. That’s what makes a story pop alive.
Serendipity is a wonderful thing! Once I’d selected and photocopied documents I needed from the Smith library, I went searching online. What was the life of a WW1 Red Cross nurse like at a base hospital?
I stumbled across the diary of Maude Essig, director of nurses at Elkhart General Hospital. Essig and Wright had grown up within 60 miles of one another. Further, her experience matched Wright’s. They were billeted in the same places, had the same duties, and knew the same people. Essig went into much more detail, however. They would have known one another well. Ruth began to breathe, to have a pulse. She came alive to me!
Alice Moore French was easy. She wrote lots of letters, ones I could actually read, and she wrote a complete history of the Indiana War Mothers, the organization she founded at the request of Herbert Hoover. And someone had transcribed it!
A storyteller always gathers much more material than she’ll use. In preparing Over There and Back Again, I certainly did that. I studied the constructing of the trenches. (Did you know there were three different ways to go about it?) I learned more than I ever wanted to know about the gases used in the shells. I watched old newsreels. And, with the help of Google Street View, I toured Contrexeville, where Base Hospital #32 was located, and I hiked the Vosges Mountains. The cutting is painful, though. I had to amputate one episode from French’s story that I really wanted to include. Ouch!
The United States entered the war 100 years ago, but this is not a program about the war. Rather, Over There and Back Again shows the effect of the war on three patriotic Hoosiers.
And their effect on the war.