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Oral history project tells Aspen’s coronavirus story for future generations

by Andrew Travers

HOW TO SHARE YOUR STORY

There are two options for submitting:

1. Record your oral history as a voice memo on your smartphone and email it to aspenpublicradio@gmail.com

2. Call 970-812-3726 and leave your story as a voicemail

ORAL HISTORY PROMPTS

* What has been the hardest challenge

for you and/or your family during the COVID-19 pandemic?

• What has been rewarding about staying at home? What are the peaks and valleys of the day?

• Have you or a family member been personally infected by the COVID-19 virus? If so, tell us what that was like? Have you been tested?

• Has the county and statewide “Stay at Home” order affected you financially? How are you coping?

• What is homeschooling like for your child? For you?

• How do you think life will change in our community?

• What are you most afraid of? Encouraged by?

• How are you connecting with your community as we continue to be physically separated?

• What are you most looking forward to after social isolation policies are rolled back?

More at aspenhistory.org and aspenpublicradio.org

Preparing for the centennial of the 1918 flu pandemic two years ago, Aspen Historical Society curators and archivists were disappointed to find sparse resources in the society’s files about the outbreak in Aspen.

Curator Lisa Hancock collected all she could from archived newspaper articles, cemetery indexes and hospital records. But she found no first-hand recollections and no historical artifacts — the things museums and historians rely on to interpret events of the past meaningfully for present audiences.

One of the first people in the world killed by the flu in 1918 was here in Aspen, where whole families died from it and where deaths continued in waves through 1920. But the local experience of that pandemic is lost to history because it wasn’t preserved.

“We saw where the gaps were,” Historical Society executive director Kelly Murphy said. “We had the data but not the personal story.”

That experience was fresh in Murphy’s and Hancock’s minds as the novel coronavirus outbreak hit Aspen in March and soon shut down public life here. With the historians of 2120 in mind, they wanted to leave a textured and detailed record of local life through the public health crisis.

At the same time, Aspen Public Radio began using its platform to share locals’ first-person accounts of COVID-19 and the stay-home period, broadcasting them on air.

“As soon as we heard about it, we were like, ‘We’ll archive that!’ and we volunteered to be a part of it to keep those stories,” Hancock said. “The impetus came from the lack of a collection from 1918 and knowing we needed to be proactive and collect all the stuff now.”

The nonprofits partnered and launched their “Quarantine Stories” oral history project, with a call for public submissions announced April 14. The project has gathered more than 30 histories since then.

For the radio station, the project aimed to build empathy and connect people personally while they were forced to stay apart. For the historians, it’s about future Aspenites understanding how this period reshaped the town.

“We have specific missions as organizations and it’s interesting that this project aligns with those missions separately,” said Aspen Public Radio community engagement manager Lisa DeLosso.

They want to reflect the full spectrum of local experiences. They’ve gathered stories from people who have been infected and recovered, people who lost loved ones, who lost jobs, people whose work and school lives have been disrupted. An entire class of Carbondale sixth-graders shared their impressions (“Dear Future Historians…” they begin). One local woman recorded a poem she wrote in mid-April about the anxiety of the stay-home period (see sidebar).

Because everyone’s life has been impacted, everyone has a valuable story to tell for history. (Hancock’s own oral history details watching the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe with her family during the shelter-in-place period.)

“Everyone’s experience going through this is unique, everyone has something to contribute,” Hancock said. “It doesn’t have to be one extreme or the other.”

Statistics and public records like the ones she has from 1918 provide information, but they can’t tell future generations what it felt like here.

“Quarantine stories are invaluable to us,” Hancock said. “Historians can tell all sides of it.”

Eventually the transcripts will all go into the Historical Society’s database along with its other oral history collections, as well as digital files of the audio recordings.

For Aspen Public Radio, the community-centric project follows a bumpy patch in community relations. A fierce public backlash followed the station’s January decision to remove most of its music programming and a dozen shows hosted by local DJs, filling their time blocks with more national programming.

“The feedback for us is that we need to be local,” DeLosso said. “(‘Quarantine Stories’) is something that we are doing to maintain that connection to our local community. It’s a good community-focused program.”

The Historical Society has never taken on a contemporary research project like “Quarantine Stories.” It has occasionally gathered artifacts from evidently historic events as they happen — archiving the receipt for Aspen’s first legal recreational marijuana sale, for instance — and in 2018 recorded a handful of oral histories about the Lake Christine Fire in Basalt. But it’s never done one on this scale.

The Historical Society is also collecting physical artifacts — “social distancing” signs from the county and local businesses, homemade masks and, eventually when it’s no longer needed, personal protective equipment from Aspen Valley Hospital.

“When looking back at the 1918 pandemic, I’ve thought ‘What are the things I wish I had?’” Hancock explained. “I wish I had a nurse’s uniform, I wish I had business signs, I wish I had physical objects that would tell the story.”

There is no end-date on the oral history project, just as there is no conclusion to the pandemic in sight. The Historical Society and Aspen Public Radio are hopeful that locals will continue sharing their stories as stay-home orders lift, recording initial experiences with public life in the safer-at-home period and as more people return to work and school in the coming months and years.

The prompts for participants will change as the situation on the ground evolves.

“‘Quarantine Stories’ will add so much to the ability to interpret this event because of their personal nature,” Hancock said. “I wish I had this kind of material to know how people were feeling 102 years ago.”

FROM QUARANTINE STORIES

“Wondering if the grocery store worker sneezing in aisle 3 was infected

Wondering why the kid stocking the shelves isn’t wearing a mask or gloves and keeps getting in my space

Wondering if I should eat breakfast as soon as I get home from seeing your early bird shopping hour

Or wipe down all the groceries with disinfectant first

Wondering if washing the thin wool gloves I wore to the store and my face muff with other clothes

Will infect everything because it was only a cold wash

Wondering if the article someone sent me today saying that vigorous exercise creates a vortex of exhaled droplets that travel as far as 35 feet is real or fake news

Wondering why the store manager says he can’t make his workers wear masks only encourage it

Wondering why I can find any place to get a test to see if the cold I had six weeks ago was actually a mild case and now I’m okay

Wondering why our president isn’t giving us plans that reassure us rather than make us even more nervous

Wondering what the summer will look like

Wondering if I just go back to bed will I wake up to find it was all a bad dream”

— Katherine McMillan

“The social distancing became a challenge because I was not in my normal work environment, spending lots of time alone at home, and the isolation became mental and emotional as well as physical and I found myself sort of sinking into a bit of depression and loneliness. But, regardless, I have a dog and every day I had to walk the dog down the stairs and in the open space that is sort of at the end of our property back behind the lumberyard. And most of my neighbors would end up walking their dogs at the same time, so the neighbors would walk their dogs and maintain social distancing so we’d be standing in a circle or squares, you know, 6 to 10 feet apart. … Just that little bit of contact and that little bit of community was really valuable and really helpful and became something that I looked forward to almost on a daily basis.”

— Michael Monroney

“But this stupid pandemic has also shown me what I took for granted: school. I never thought I’d ever say that, but here I am, saying it. I realize that waking up at 6:30 in the morning is worth it, so thank you, stupid pandemic. You have taught me something that I will remember for the rest of my life.”

— Masamo Stableford, Carbondale Middle School

“I’m a rancher and a writer, which right away defines me as a practitioner of social distancing and self-flagellation. I spend days out riding my horse a riding a tractor getting the hayfields ready. … It’s all the same been the same for years. Probably the biggest effect on me is the social distancing. (There is) nothing I love better than to see my grandkids run up and jump and I catch them in the air and give them a big hug. Can’t do that anymore.”

— Tony Vagneur

“I think I have met the person I will be spending the rest of my life with. He and I have been able to create an emotional connection that I probably never would have happened if COVID-19 would not have forced us both to be sheltered in place and to truly develop a deep emotional connection virtually. And so I think this has truly been a rewarding experience for myself and for him and we probably never would have been brought together if it wasn’t for this month.”

— Dana Wood

atravers@aspentimes.com


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