StoryCorps 461: The Survivors
[MUSIC – “Mississippi Turn-Around” by Nick Jaina ]
Michael Garofalo (MG): It’s the StoryCorps Podcast. I’m Michael Garofalo. The stories in this episode are all about survivors. And we’ll start with survivors of the Bubonic Plague.
Yes, the plague, the black death that killed about a third of Europe’s population during the Middle Ages. But this story doesn’t take place in a medieval village. It takes place in 2002 in New York City.
See, the plague, even though it feels like something from the history books, is very much alive, though it is rare. In the U.S., there are just a handful of cases reported each year. Now, it’s not transmitted by rats like many people think, but by the fleas that live on rats and other rodents. And since wherever there are people living, there are usually rodents nearby, the infection can jump species fairly easily. All it takes is a flea bite.
Lucinda Marker and her husband John Tull were bitten by fleas near their home in New Mexico, just before they left for a vacation in New York. And that’s where our story begins.
Lucinda Marker (LM): We had been feeling sick for a few days in a hotel room–thought we had the flu–and decided, maybe we didn’t. And of course, it was a good thing we got to the hospital because it was the first case of plague in New York City in over a hundred years.
John Tull (JT): And for a married couple to both get the plague, at the same time, was an inconceivable thought.
LM: They thought maybe we were terrorists or victims of bioterrorism. A few hours later that day, you were in a coma. So, what do you remember after you woke up?
JT: What really struck me was, where have I been? I thought, What happened to Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Years. And you told me that I’d been in a coma for almost 90 days.
LM: What do you think kept you alive?
JT: I think there’s one of three reasons. The first reason is because I’m a tough son of a bitch. The second reason is because God just didn’t want me at that particular time. The third reason is, we knew my oldest son and his wife were pregnant with the first grandchild. And by God, I was going to stay alive to see that little grandbaby. If I had just folded into a wet dishrag on the bed, I think it would have let a lot of people down.
LM: So, why do you think we got it?
JT: Well, in my opinion, it’s just called bad luck.
LM: I agree.
JT: As an old West Texan would say, we drew the black bean. But, you know, I was in the hospital for a total of 224 days. If it hadn’t been for you, from the very beginning, I would have died. It almost makes me cry.
LM: You know what I think? If you can live through something like the plague, you can probably live through just about anything.
JT: That’s absolutely true. And we did it.
LM: Together. That’s how we’ll keep doing everything else.
JT: That how we’ll keep doing it until the day one of us really leaves.
[MUSIC -“I’ll Become Everything” by Nick Jaina ]
MG: Bubonic plague survivors John Tull and his wife, Lucinda Marker, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. They recorded that conversation ten years to the day that John woke up from his coma. John died in 2014, not from a medieval plague, but a modern one, — cancer. He was 65.
So, in this episode, we’re not talking about television game show, last-man-standing type of survival. The people we’re hearing from have either survived something so rare, like Lucinda and John, or something so large that unless you’ve lived through it, it’s hard, maybe even impossible, to comprehend. Sometimes, these people end up being the keepers of certain stories and memories that are so potent that they don’t share them with anyone. And these memories, they’re a burden that they didn’t ask for, but one that they cannot say no to.
Debbie Fisher’s dad, Oscar, was in that situation. In January of 1945, he was one of the prisoners liberated from the most infamous Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz. Here’s Debbie.
Debbie Fisher (DF): My father was a Holocaust survivor. He had survived the same camp as Elie Wiesel. They were both the same age. And when my dad was alive, through school, I was reading Night. I was 14 years old when I was reading it. But I had no idea that the Auschwitz that Wiesel was writing about, where he lived for a year, was the same one that my father lived in. Because my father’s Auschwitz was a kinder, gentler Auschwitz. It was sort of like Robin Hood and his merry men meet the Nazis in my father’s Auschwitz. There was never a moment where people were dying in front of him. The worst happened the first night. They killed his siblings and they killed his parents and from that moment on the boys took over and that was the story that we were given.
But when he was very, very sick in the hospital and I knew that I was losing him, I realized that there was no going back and that if I didn’t make my move I could not return to the moment of having access to his memories. And this time he was really tired and he wasn’t feeling well. And I said, I need to ask you about your time there, in Auschwitz. I need to ask you some things, Dad. It’s important. And I remember he looked at me, and he had real anger in his face and in his eyes. And he said, You know, Debbie, from the time that you were a young girl, you always asked your questions. And I always told you: We got food, we got bread, we divided it up, we didn’t suffer. It was fine. And you keep bothering me and asking me the question. And I keep telling you, as if I’m in a room, go away, stop knocking on the door, I do not want to let you in this room. And yet you keep coming back saying let me in. And he said, So I’ll ask you one more time to go away, and if you knock again, I’ll let you in. But if I let you in this room, you will never, ever get out. So, do you want to knock again and come in? And I said, Yes, I do, Dad. And he was crying, and I remember he had covers on his body because he was really skinny and very, very weak. And he kicked all the covers off, as if he was kicking down a door. And he said, Fine. Come in then. Come into a room that you can never leave. Come in. And I said can I ask you my questions? and he said, You’re in the room. You can ask anything. And I asked him everything that I ever wanted to ask. I asked him to tell me the real story. And he did.
It was painful, and scary, and sickening. I felt a part of me had died. And he’s right. Once you’re in that room you can’t get out. It’s always with you.
[MUSIC – Peter Rudenko “5:00 AM”]
MG: That’s Debbie Fisher remembering her father, Oscar, an Auschwitz survivor.
MG: Debbie had the prisoner number of another survivor, a woman named Magda Blau, tattooed on her forearm, after learning her story at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC. And when this interview was first broadcast, for the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we included a picture of that tattoo on the web. Because of that photo, Magda Blau’s daughter, who lives in Australia, found Debbie, and they met for the first time in New York in 2006.
Being a survivor can mean being alone. It can put you in a special category all by yourself. Like Lance Corporal Travis Williams, an Iraq war veteran. He is the only Marine, post 9/11, to lose every other member of his 12-man squad. It happened in August 2005. Williams and his 11 teammates had been sent out on a rescue mission in Barwana.
Travis Williams (TW): That morning, we loaded into the vehicle. And I get tapped on the shoulder and I got told that I need to bounce up to the next vehicle. I said, “Catch you guys on the flipside.” And that was the last thing I ever said to them. Next thing I know, I just hear the loudest explosion. And I see, that’s my squad’s vehicle that got hit. The bomb flipped it upside down, it ripped it completely in half, and everything inside of it was just parts. And uh, we got to wait for the chopper to come recover them. So the guys from the rest of our platoon had to go out there with blankets and cover up these body parts, so dogs don’t come and grab my friend’s arm and have a meal. When I got back into our room for the first time, it was just a mess, you know. We had to spend the next couple of days just packing all this shit up, and mailing it home to their families. Mailing their letters that they hadn’t mailed, and cleaning up the dishes that they hadn’t cleaned up and… There’s dirty laundry… It was all I had left of my friends. And uh, when I got home, I knew that I would meet these guys’ parents, their girlfriends and their brothers and sisters and…It’s hard because I feel guilty for being the one guy left. But I also feel a responsibility. I better make sure that everybody knows who these guys were, what these guys did. And you know, I am most proud of not blowing my head off by now. It’s just a whole lot easier if you’re dead. But that shouldn’t be your tribute to your dead friends. When they’re looking down on you, they don’t want you to be living in the moment that killed them. You made it. You got home. You should honor their memory by living the life that they didn’t get to live.
Squad Leader Justin Hoffman, Team Leader David Kreuter, Team Leader Brett Wightman, Team Leader Aaron Reed, Lance Corporal Eric Bernholtz, Lance Corporal Michael Cifuentes, Lance Corporal Edward August Shroeder, Lance Corporal Timothy Bell Lance, Lance Corporal Grant Fraser, Lance Corporal Nicholas Bloem, Lance Corporal Christopher Dyer.
[MUSIC – Christopher Bowen “I Want to See You Fly”]
[MUSIC – Lee Rosevere “In A Moment”]
MG: That’s it for this episode of the StoryCorps podcast. These stories were produced by Jasmyn Belcher Morris, Sarah Kramer, and Yasmina Guerda. The podcast is produced by me and Elisheba Ittoop. You can find out what music we used on our website, StoryCorps dot org, where you can also see an animation of Travis Williams’ story, and find out how to record your own interview. For the StoryCorps podcast, I’m Michael Garofalo. Thanks for listening.