Oral history has been described as "part of the struggle of memory against forgetting." It's something I'm inclined to commit whenever a little ice and snow shut down the schools and government agencies in Washington. I want to tell the children and grandchildren (with a disdainful sneer, of course) about the "real" winters out on the Great Plains in the 1930s. I'll tell you too, perhaps awakening in the process your own tales of that time.

What I remember about those winters are temperatures of minus 20 to 30 degrees and days when we had to tunnel through snow drifts to get out of the house. What I'm forgetting is whether a reading of minus 30 degrees and the tunneling chores were rare or annual occurrences.

As children, we were like the mythical mail carrier, hostage to neither snow nor stabbing gales off the prairie. The walk to school was less than a mile, and although it was terribly cold it was, as I remember it, a dry cold, far less painful than you'll get on the streets of Chicago or Detroit in the dead of winter. There were no school buses, a fact irrelevant to the tale. They couldn't have run in that weather. Roads were impassable. Rail lines out of Omaha and points north and east -- the Burlington and Union Pacific -- were often blocked for days at a time. How often I can't say with any conviction. But you can be sure no helicopters flew in to drop hay to stranded livestock. No National Guard troops were mobilized to rescue snowbound towns.

There must have been a "snow day" now and then when the school was closed. But I recall none, which makes the sad and unwelcome point that memory, in its struggle with forgetting, is both selective and frail.

The winters seem, in retrospect, to have been endless, the land covered with ice and snow from late October until Easter, which was an important date, the day on which you could take off the hated long johns that couldn't really be concealed by knickers, knee socks and boots. There was a coal stove in the kitchen, and every winter morning the oven door was open so we could warm our feet before heading out for whatever the day would bring.

You could ice-skate for miles on the river. There were a few horse-drawn sleighs in town. Was it two or a dozen? We would hook our sleds behind them and sail in their wake. Townspeople and farmers set out traps for beaver, otter, coyotes and other prairie creatures I've forgotten. Furs brought extra income at the feed store. The rabbits went into stews. Long ago, this had been Lakota country -- Omahas and Osage. My mother remembered seeing wolves as a child. But I never did.

What do you do with stuff like this, fragments of memory and experience from an ordinary life? Who validates memory and straightens out the tales? In earlier times, when extended families were commonplace and members of three or four generations often shared a single home or community, there was time and opportunity for storytelling, for the passing of history and legends from the old to the young. But as we have become a more mobile and rootless society, blessed or afflicted with the diversions of the late 20th century -- television, VCRs, video games and other interests -- those intergenerational transactions are less common and more difficult to sustain.

Grandma doesn't live here anymore, if she ever did; she's in a nursing home or a trailer park in South Florida. The kids are in the Army or in Denver or L.A. It's been a long time since you could keep them down on the farm. Besides, the farms are vanishing, and small communities where childhoods like mine were spent are fast becoming ghost towns where there's little left but a gas station, a pool hall or a diner and uncertain memories in which fact and fiction become confused. There is usually a graveyard too, with names on headstones. But the personal histories for which these names are mere labels are mostly lost, never to be recovered from the black hole of nonexistence.

If we and our parents and grandparents escape that fate, it will only be because we immortalize them in our stories, memoirs and oral histories. My mother's father spent most of his working life in a cement factory. But there was another dimension to him, I recently learned. He was a "licensed exhorter" for the Methodists in North Carolina and had "died in the faith of Christ, loving the church and waiting for the call."

Imagine, a "licensed exhorter." I suspect they have long been extinct. We can't count on professional historians to collect or preserve material of this sort. It has meaning and significance only to ourselves. Sequoya, a silversmith and trader who was half Cherokee, recognized this truth early in the 19th century. He invented the Cherokee alphabet, which enabled generations of his tribesmen to read and preserve in writing their own histories, legends and traditions.

The major historians would not have done that. They have always been primarily concerned with kings and queens, generals, tycoons, politicians, the hierarchs of religion and politics and other movers and shakers of the world. That was the case with Allan Nevins, the Columbia University historian who began in 1949 the first formal "oral history" program in the United States. He believed, correctly, that it would be of great value to use a fairly new device, the tape recorder, to capture the voices and stories of important figures before they lost their memories or died. His first interviews were with a prominent jurist, Learned Hand, and with Herbert Lehman, the financier who served as governor of New York and as a U.S. senator.

In time, oral history, as Susan Brenna of Newsday has written, became a "boom industry" embracing not only "movers and shakers" but commoners as well, "those moved and shaken." Today more than 1,000 colleges and universities sponsor oral history projects. So do hundreds of state and local historical societies, municipal libraries, ethnic and racial groups, the National Endowment for the Humanities and private corporations. A lot of freelancers are going around the country collecting the stories of people of all ages and backgrounds -- children, musicians, gay men and lesbians, tattoo artists and folk singers. These individual memories, as Brenna noted, enable historians to "recreate the texture of people's lives -- what they eat, when they pray, how they get the laundry done. Such details have particular meaning in a city {New York} churning with culture-shifting transients, many just assimilating."

A lot of this work is imperfect, poorly planned and executed. Still, historian Michael Staub argued in an essay for The Nation magazine in 1991, "anyone who has ever sat in a stranger's kitchen and conversed while a tape recorder is humming {experiences} a pleasant shock of recognition. . . . Those big talking books' put together by Studs Terkel {and} each and every oral history collection in the country and public television's Front Line' documentaries are all predicated upon the premise that oral sources do matter. They matter, or so the conventional arguments go, because oral history is where the working class and other . . . groups speak for themselves, where the voices without power' can gain an audience." They are rarely "objective" and are often unreliable. But they matter.

While Allan Nevins is generally credited with launching oral history work, it had antecedents in the 1930s, beginning with the Federal Writers Project, a New Deal undertaking that provided jobs for unemployed writers, historians and sociologists. They collected, for example, the testimony of the last living Americans who had been held in slavery in the South. They filled a half-dozen volumes of interviews chronicling the lives of coal miners. These and similar materials are part of extensive collections of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The center's director and curator is Alan Jabbour.

In Baltimore, the Maryland Historical Society conducted 215 interviews among several generations of immigrants who populated the city's ethnic neighborhoods. It was called the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project and covered the years from 1904 through the late 1970s. Another Baltimore project, sponsored by former Maryland governor Theodore McKeldin and Lillie Mae Jackson, a civil rights figure in the 1930s and 1940s, involved interviews with civil rights leaders in that era and up through the 1960s.

In Washington, the Martin Luther King Library has sponsored oral history projects dealing with the lives of black Washingtonians. The work, directed by Roxanne Dean, has produced a fine book, "Remembering Washington." That library also has three large volumes of interviews with Washington Jews, compiled by the Jewish Historical Society.

In Charlottesville, Virginia oral history materials are available on the World Wide Web to everyone, including public school students and their teachers. One collection from Charlottesville residents covers the years from 1914 through 1984 and has been compiled into a book, "From Porch Swings to Patios." Barbara Rivers, Virginia's 1995-96 teacher of the year, developed a project at Venable Elementary School in which students interviewed longtime residents in their neighborhood. The interviews have been placed in the Interactive Neighborhood web site. Glen Bull, a professor at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, has been a prime mover in these projects.

There are tape collections at many institutions in the Washington area including the University of Maryland, where Haruku Taya Cook is a resident professor of history. Her interviews with Japanese survivors of World War II are a masterwork of oral history.

The oral histories of ordinary people, as Susan Brenna noted, often tell us a lot about the daily rituals in the lives of our parents and other ancestors. But very often, our ancestors were eyewitnesses and actors in the greatest historical events of their times and ours. And it is also true that very often they acquired perspectives quite different, more dramatic and more revealing of those events than the perspectives of those whose memoirs and doctoral dissertations fill the shelves of our libraries and archives.

One of the great deficiencies in the oral history collections of the American military services is the paucity of interviews with those who actually fought the battles. There is an abundance of material from generals, admirals and so on. But there are few interviews of men in the enlisted ranks, whose perspectives on the essence of combat were more intimate and personal. Those at the top of the command structure who may have planned famous battles usually witnessed them from afar.

The ex-slaves interviewed in the 1930s; Jewish survivors of the Holocaust; children and white-collar workers who sold apples on street corners during the Great Depression; the coal miners of Harlan, Ky., who spilled and spent blood in the great battles with the coal corporations 60 years ago; Southern sharecroppers; and graduates of the tenements of New York and of the Oklahoma-Kansas Dust Bowl all had tales to tell that transcend the breakfast menu.

Only three generations separate me from the American Revolution. My great-grandfather, about whom I know nothing, was born before our Constitution was adopted. My grandfather was a smuggler and blockade runner for the Confederate Army during the Civil War. In the Reconstruction era, he was shot down on a street in Memphis by a Union cavalryman, but survived and later had an encounter (unpleasant but bloodless) with the Jesse James gang at Waverly, Tenn. He died before I was born, leaving blank chapters in the story of his life.

My father was born in the 1870s. As a youngster, he was a roustabout in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, traveling with various pulp novel heroes. They included the Dakota chief, Sitting Bull, who defeated the Custer troop at Little Big Horn. By then Sitting Bull was a betrayed, broken, humiliated man playing Indian against the cowboys.

In a later incarnation, my father pitched in Mississippi, where he organized a baseball team in the Cotton States League. A black hobo, shot several times for riding a boxcar, stumbled onto his front porch one night. My father put a pillow under his head, enraging the mob when it arrived. They got the black man and hanged him. My father escaped an attempt on his life and never returned to the town.

Somewhere along the way he got religion, became a preacher, married and took his family to Loup City, Neb., where I grew up in the 1930s. Charlie Mohr, who later made a name for himself writing for Time and the New York Times, was a playmate in those years. Fred Dutton, adviser to the Kennedys and George McGovern, spent a lot of his summers in Loup City.

It was bleak country then. The Depression had us by the throat. Farmers defaulted on their mortgages. The banks failed. Dust storms, tornadoes and hail storms devastated land and buildings. There were terrible droughts. One year, the crops came in but there was a grasshopper plague: Billions of them darkened the skies, devoured the wheat and corn, the fence posts, the telephone poles. If you were caught out in a field they devoured your clothes, or so I re\mem\ber.

Farmers organized a milk strike. They aimed to force the local creamery to raise the prices it paid for milk and to raise the wages of farm women who picked chickens eight to ten hours a day in a hot and filthy processing room. Farmers who didn't join the strike were ambushed on the way to town. Their milk was dumped on the road.

These troubles came to a head one day in a pitched battle on the courthouse lawn, armed sheriff's deputies and townsmen on one side, farmers and strike organizers out of Philadelphia on the other. An 18-year-old farm boy who often took me hunting was in the middle of it. He had a broken leg and used a crutch as a weapon. He took a wild swing and hit his own father, fracturing his skull.

They carried the old man across the street to where my father and I were standing. They asked my father to pray. I can't remember if the man with the broken head lived or died and there's nobody around now to ask.

These ancestors saw a lot of "big" history, but their tales were never recorded. This loss is not vital to the world's understanding of the past, but it is important to those like me who are curious about who and where we came from. That's what kids are looking for when they say, "Tell me a story. Did you have TV? Were there cars then?"

Our generation, the "seniors", "Golden Agers" and "geezers" portrayed in films by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, could tell them a lot about a world as foreign to them as the Roman Empire to us:

The Roaring Twenties, the Depression, the New Deal, the struggle of labor unions for a place in the sun, the gangster folklore (Capone, Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, whose exploits took our minds off misery), the rise and fall of Fascist and Communist empires, the Big War, the postwar creation of suburbia and the baby boomers, our progeny.

Journalists have done a lot to recreate and preserve the past. Jonathan Yardley's "Our Kind of People" and Benjamin Bradlee's "A Good Life" are examples. A somewhat more ambitious work has been published by Frank Wetzel, a retired journalist on the West Coast. It is called "Victory Gardens and Barrage Balloons -- A Collective Memoir" of the World War II years. He wrote to 600 childhood friends and schoolmates from those days in Bremerton, Wash., when they went through high school and then into the service or got war-related jobs. Many responded and more than 50 wrote "full blown autobiographies, some of stunning felicity." They had vivid memories of the Depression years and the war that followed:

Geraldine Peterson: "A dollar given to my older brother for a date was a sacrifice. We could not run our refrigerator {in the 1930s} . . . because it took $1.50 extra for electricity. . . . We went mostly barefoot in the summer and wore cardboard soles {in worn-out shoes} in winter."

Jim Taylor: "My father would leave {home} with a dollar in his pocket, hitchhike to Seattle, sneak on the ferry, seek employment {at the Navy Yard} and return the same way with the same dollar in his pocket. He was finally hired by the yard in 1932 and the family moved to Bremerton. He pitched a tent in the City Park on Park Avenue. After a couple of paychecks we rented a house for $25 a month. By this time we had eaten up our house in Compton, Calif., which had been sold for $900."

Florence Lindberg: "In 1944, I had 63 pupils in my room. . . . I was teaching sixth grade and each morning it was necessary to have each pupil empty all pockets . . . often I'd keep knives, switchblades, weapons of all kinds . . . until Friday p.m. when belongings would be sent home with the ow\n\ers."

Dave Leathley: "Dad was {at home} in those days, out of work, but he always had a smile for us and asked about what we had been doing in school that morning. I can still see him, leaning on the old Monarch range as we ate our lunch at a small table he had made out of apple boxes."

Audrey Landon: "I have dug into an old trunk. . . . There are mementos of all our {high school} activities as well as newspaper clippings about . . . our boys in service. Some tell happy news that Lt. Wes Wager is no longer missing but has been found well and alive and the sad news that Francis Ahearn has been killed in action."

There was a lot of bad news:

"Pvt. Francis Berg, 21, has only one leg now and the Army hasn't any further use for him. He lost his leg at Anzio. . . . Fred L. Sunday is missing in action as a member of the U.S. submarine Tang. . . . Lt. Richard L. (Red) Alderman is dead, his wife has been told. He was the pilot of a P-47 Thunderbolt fighter. . . . Jack Campbell was killed in Italy on Feb. 21."

Nearly a million American families got notices of this kind telling of boys dead, wounded or missing. Most of their stories were untold or, at best, told in thin fragments.

If, as the remaining children of the '20s and '30s, we were to clean out the attics of our own minds, we could add something of value to the collective memory of a great national experience or, just as likely, give the grandchildren something to offer up at the show-and-tell hour. The problem, of course, is getting the facts approximately right.

Loyal Blood, the protagonist in Annie Proulx's novel "Postcards," talks to a young couple about stargazing: "You can't pick a cloudy place. . . . The sky has to be clear . . . and your atmosphere has to be steady. . . . Oh, there's a lot to know. Haven't even begun to tell you. . . . We'll get to it some other time."

There's a lot to know and tell about our histories. But it's best not to put it off to another time. Time runs too fast and things get cloudier every year. Richard Harwood is a retired deputy managing editor of The Washington Post. CAPTION: Images From Decades Past: Cotton-picking family looking for work, Jewish refugees from a German concentration camp, a home made desolate by drought , southern blacks packing up to head north. CAPTION: Organized sharecroppers in Arkansas, right, and a Seabee's homecoming after World War II. CAPTION: Richard Harwood at age 14 or 15, long before he became The Post's deputy managing editor.