At 65, James Tramble Casts His First Ballot

Nov 6, 2012

The trip to the polls for millions of Americans is quick and easy. The hardest part may be enduring long lines. But for those who struggle with literacy, it can be hard to find the courage to stand in that line at all. New Hanover County resident James Tramble dropped out of school in the fourth grade. He learned to navigate the world without reading or writing. At 65 years old, Tramble’s never voted. But this year is different. WHQR's Sara Wood brings us his story, and what it means to vote for the first time.

Jimmy Tramble stopped going to school because he was born to run. His mother put him in the front door, and he’d go out the back. He spent most of his life avoiding words and phrases. He’d rely on his own intricate patterns for getting through each day.

JAMES TRAMBLE: “I went to the gas pump, I used to have to tell people to turn that pump on and what pump I was. I wouldn’t go in the bathroom until I see a man go in there, ‘That’s the men’s bathroom.’ I had kids and I know I wanted to be able to read a story to them some time in my life, you know.”

Three years ago, Tramble walked into the Cape Fear Literacy Council to learn to read. This time, he didn’t run out the back door. His tutor, Cathy Webb remembers the first meeting.

CATHY WEBB: “Jimmy was memorizing things. So I had to say to him, we don't want you to memorize things, I want you to sound them out. That began our adventures together.”

JAMES TRAMBLE: “You have to really grab a hold of yourself, forget shame, forget what I can't do, because that was the hardest thing for me to.”

Tramble was a well-known DJ in Wilmington, going by the name Jimmy Jam. People across the region called him up to say, Come play. We like your style.

JAMES TRAMBLE: “A lot of people today don't know I can read or write. But I was famous. I had a perfect ear and a perfect memory.”

He couldn’t read his records, so he used his memory to design a coding system for five crates of albums. He broke it down using pitch. Each record was assigned a specific letter and color. No one but Tramble understood the system.

JAMES TRAMBLE:  “The rest of people didn't know how I did it, but that was my skill. That was my power!”

CATHY WEBB: “I was very amazed that his reading level was not all that great, and we're working on that. However, his intelligence and his ability to get along in the world has just totally amazed me. And someday we will have the right words, and I will figure out how you drive, because that has really. . . The day we finally sounded out Market. 'Oh that's Market Street!' Or “ing” and knew that that was Wilm-ING-ton.”

At sixty five, Tramble has always avoided elections. He’d watch them pass, one after the other. But this year, during a session with Webb at the literacy council, he brought up the idea of voting for the first time.

JAMES TRAMBLE: “I always wanted to vote but I was scared because it was a lot of writing and I didn't know what to do put down. So I would just sit back and watch how it go down. And deep down in my heart I wanted to be able to say, 'I voted. Oh, I feel good because, I voted, I finally voted in my life!'”

CATHY WEBB: “And the idea came that you would register, so you are registered now. Probably what we're going to do, is not influencing Jimmy's vote, however, probably an absentee ballot. Because that way you can take your time and read it. Probably in the next four years you'll be able to use the computer.”

JAMES TRAMBLE: “Voting means you did something in your life. Take example, me. It's been my first ever. And I'm finally going to do it, and I'm not going to be standing on the corner no more asking my friends, 'Who won? Who won?' I did it. I'm excited, it’s like I say, it's my first ever. Now I'm going to do something that it means something.”