Soldier at Heart
Orason Lee Brinker with the author. Photo by Ryan Teller.
A few weeks ago I, along with Union College Director of Public Relations Ryan Teller who came along to record the interview, had the very special privilege of visiting with 98-year Orason Lee Brinker. As a teenager attending Campion Academy in Colorado, Brinker had planned to continue his education at the United States Military Academy at West Point. But a conversation with Dr. Everett Dick during a Union College recruiting visit changed the course of Brinker's life.
At the time, Dick was a professor of American history. As a teenager himself during World War I, Dick had voluntarily enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps. Although raised in a devout Adventist home, Dick was an uncommitted Christian. But as an adult he renewed his commitment to the church of his parents. From both his own experience and from the negative experiences of other Seventh-day Adventists during World War I, Dick realized that young Adventist men would have a challenging time in any future war. In the fall of 1933, Dick proposed a solution to Union College president Milian Lauritz Andreasen. Andreasen was attending the Autumn Council of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists where he received Dick's letter asking him to share an idea with the church's Young People's Department leaders. His idea was a pre-induction training program of military etiquette and medical first aid for young men of draft age. His idea was rejected by church leaders, but when Andreasen returned to College View, Nebraska, he encouraged Dick to start such a program at Union. The first class was held January 8, 1934. And it was about this time that Brinker met Dr. Dick.
During that conversation at Campion Academy, Dick shared with Brinker how difficult it would be to maintain his principles of not taking human life and honoring the sanctity of the Sabbath. Dick convinced Brinker to attend Union College where he quickly became an officer in the newly formed Union College Medical Corps, renamed Medical Cadet Corps (MCC) in 1939 when the program was finally adopted by the denomination. For the next twenty-four years Brinker worked with the MCC first at Union College, and then in the Pacific Northwest starting the program at Walla Walla College. During the summers he also worked at Camp Desmond T. Doss in Grand Ledge, Michigan. Brinker was acquainted with all of the major figures of both the MCC and the Servicemen's Organization (forerunner of the Adventist Chaplaincy Ministry) including not only Everett Dick, but also Carlyle B. Haynes, George Chambers, Clark Smith, Desmond Doss, and many others.
I was hoping Brinker would be able to tell us about specific experiences and give us details about the people he knew, but not many of those memories surfaced during our interview. He much more readily remembered his opinions about individuals which ranged from deep admiration and respect to complete disgust. Several things were very clear though. Brinker was passionate about the role he played in the MCC during World War II, deeply loyal to the United States, and proud of his family's history of military service, a tradition he firmly feels he followed during his MCC days. Brinker may have played a civilian role during World War II, but he was a soldier at heart.
Conducting this interview required overcoming many challenges. Funding, scheduling, and traveling were the first hurdles. Then once the interview was scheduled, we had to hope for two good days with Brinker. While his mind was sharp and even witty, his memory was not as clear. But the biggest obstacle proved to be his hearing. To ensure a good recording, we tried these tips:
1. Plan multiple interview sessions. Given the constraints of our schedules, we were able to meet with Brinker twice for about three and a half hours each time. The first session was in the afternoon, the second session was the following morning.
2. Write questions on paper. This allowed Brinker to read the questions instead of trying to hear what I was asking which was a frustrating exercise for both of us.
3. Let the interviewee wander. Asking open ended questions allowed Brinker to take the conversation where he wanted to go. This might not have answered the questions I was hoping for, but it did allow us to record what he remembered, what was important to him, and reduced frustration on his part. From my perspective it revealed new and interesting information for which I never would have asked.
4. Be patient with repeated telling of a story. Sometimes repetition was just repetition. But sometimes repetition revealed new details.
5. Look through artifacts together. While we hoped this would stimulate some memories (which I still believe it can) it didn't work so well this time. Still we were able to view some original documents and photographs which were very interesting. When recording family history this is a very important strategy for passing information on to a new generation.
6. Check facts using reliable records. No one has a perfect memory all of the time. Memories are very good for learning about subjective information like thoughts, feelings, opinions, and significance. But for facts, memories need to be backed up with documentation if it is available.
7. Keep the camera rolling. A story or valuable information can pop up any time during a conversation. Don't turn off the video camera or voice recorder too soon. And don't worry about long silent segments. They can be edited out later.