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Voices of the Past : . . . While Private Thoughts Do the Same for Loved Ones

November 23, 1987|WENDY HASKETT

ENCINITAS — When Dorothy Klipp and her first husband bought 17 acres of land on an old stagecoach trail six miles inland from Solana Beach, the year was 1941. The land was $100 an acre.

"But that took every penny we had," said Klipp, who recalls moving into the tar-papered center section of their unfinished house in December with their 3-year-old daughter and 8-month-old son. They had no electricity, no heat, no hot water. Their nearest neighbor was a dairy several miles away.

"One night the temperature dropped to 18 degrees," she said. "My hands were so cold I was scared to change the baby. So I ran down the long, isolated road flapping my hands up and down to get the circulation going."

Forty-five years later, when the "long, isolated road" had turned into Camino Real, all built up with luxury homes, Klipp's son and daughter each handed her a book.

"They were books in which you were supposed to record the details of your life," said Klipp, who traveled across China in her teens. "They had spaces with headings like 'I Was Born On . . .' But, somehow, I just couldn't summon up the interest to get started."

Saw Notice of Class

Then in May, as she was browsing through a brochure on adult education from San Dieguito High School, Klipp noticed a life-story writing class. It was described as a class to preserve memories of the "good old days" to pass on to grandchildren.

"I was so excited by the first one I took," she said, "that the minute I got home I sat down and began writing."

Betty Springer, who teaches the life-story class Klipp discovered, as well as two others in Clairemont and Solana Beach, said people often rush home to write after listening to the memories of others.

"They hear stories about buying gas at 8 cents a gallon, or dancing the Charleston, or watching a father--who had just come in from milking the cows--eat three huge plates of pancakes covered in hot, liquid bacon fat, and it awakens all kinds of memories of their own past," she explained.

"Our format is to write an incident, or a description, at home and bring in a rough draft."

A rough draft, Springer emphasized, is all that is needed.

"Because it's while people are sharing their stories that the best parts tend to come out," she said. "Then they go back and rewrite and polish. The aim is an interesting book for their descendants to treasure."

Springer, a tall, cheerful woman in her 50s, her skin smoothly tanned after a week in the Caribbean, was speaking in her Encinitas class at the Family Service Senior Center. Around her, on folding chairs, fanned a circle of men and women whose birth dates ranged from 1894 to 1937.

"Well . . . shall we start with Bill today?" she asked, leaning forward to smile at a distinguished looking man with a neatly pointed white beard.

Bill--also known as Folk Artist of the West William G. Wicknick--has been in the class since December. By writing for four or five hours a day, he has managed to complete his life story. Considering that he is 93 and left home at 15 to be a cowboy, a homesteader, a railroad construction worker, a logger and a Marine before he became a successful artist, a book encompassing his life seems a major accomplishment.

His great-granddaughter, he said, does his typing. "But I'm still writing things between the lines. I keep finding things I omitted the first time. Soon, I'm going to have more writing between the lines than I have on the original manuscript."

As Wicknick finished speaking, Mac Hartley, a retired college professor in his 60s, drew several folded pages from the pocket of his red shorts.

Hartley had reached the part of his life story where he and his wife, Sut, were newlyweds, and moving, because of the postwar housing shortage of 1947, into the only home they could find; a crumbling duplex with a 4-by-6-foot hole in the kitchen floor.

Renovation Required

They could stay, the landlord informed them, only if they renovated the place.

As Hartley, who had never tackled any kind of home improvements before, described struggling to wallpaper a ceiling with a wife who was a foot shorter than himself--"About the closest we ever came to a divorce"--the class dissolved into laughter.

"Mac, you mentioned rent control. Do you think that your grandchildren, reading this story now, 40 years later, will know what rent control meant?" Springer asked. "Remember, you want your stories to be clear to them."

Making their life stories clear--as well as entertaining--is one of the reasons, Springer said, that she urges people to include photographs, maps, family trees and letters. Wicknick plans to illustrate his book with his own sketches of the American West.

"Ummm . . . I'm not sure my story is going to be very interesting," a hazel-eyed woman named Henriette Lane, who was born in Germany in 1922, murmured. She glanced dubiously at several handwritten pages in her lap.

"Most of us feel that way. But they're always better than we think," Springer said.

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