Transcript

114:

Last Words
Transcript

Originally aired 10.23.1998

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/114

Prologue.

Ira Glass

I've been thinking about the gangster, Arnold Rothstein, the guy who's often credited with fixing the 1919 World Series. I've been thinking about his last words after he was shot during a poker game in 1928. Someone asked who shot him. "Me mother did it," he said. His mother. Even in death he was not going to rat. You know, at that point, what is the killer going to do to him? Naming his mother was nothing more than reasserting who he was one last time, in the face of death, who he was, which was a guy who would not rat.

And this is what we want from last words, let me tell you, this kind of summing up of who a person is. You know, sometimes you'll see those collections of famous last words that were printed in the paper or in the Sunday magazine, and they all have this quality-- they always do-- of pretending to sum up an entire life. Bing Crosby, "That was a great game of golf, fellers." WC Fields, "I've spent a lot of time searching through the Bible for loopholes." Oscar Wilde, "Either that wallpaper goes, or I do." And you know, the fact is, Oscar Wilde didn't even say that on his death bed. It's a remark he made to a friend at a cafe a month before he died. That's how much we want to believe in these things.

But, you know, we want our lives to mean something, and we want to believe that words can capture that meaning. And, seen in that way, last words, attempts at last words, a one final shot at figuring it all out, summing it all up, they have this way of asserting the fact of our existence at the exact moment of our annihilation.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Last Words. Several case studies for you. Act One, Actions Speak Louder, the story of people who were perfectly eloquent and the limits of what even the best chosen last words can say and do for people.

Act Two, The Unknown Soldier, a story in which 40 voices become one voice here on your radio.

Act Three, Rosebud, an act about which the less said the better.

Act Four, How the Living Use The Dead, Writer Greil Marcus explains what rock fans use dead rock stars for.

Act Five, Black Box. We go through transcripts from those black box flight recorders, the ones recovered from airplane crashes.

Act Six, What Goes Through Your Head. We have a story from writer Tobias Wolff. Stay with us.

Act One. Actions Speak Louder.

Ira Glass

Act One, Actions Speak Louder. This is the story of people attempting to surround death in a web of words to better understand it, a very eloquent people and their last words and of what last words can and cannot accomplish. Page Smith and Eloise Pickard Smith were married for over five decades, and they died one day apart. In Santa Cruz, where they lived, they were well-known. She was an artist. He was a writer and historian, one of the founding provosts at UC Santa Cruz. Our contributing editor Sarah Vowell tells what happened.

Sarah Vowell

This is a love story, a death story. It is also a competition between actions and the power of words to describe those actions, between theories of death and the practice of dying. Before we get to anyone's last words about Page and Eloise Smith's joint life and joint death, here are the facts. I asked their friend, John Dizikes, and their daughter, Anne Easley, to tell this story. Anne recalls the beginning of the end when her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

Anne Easley

Early on, the diagnosis was not a good one for her. Like, within the first three weeks, we knew that it wasn't a battle that she was probably going to be able to win, but she went ahead and allowed a lot of treatment anyway. And I think that she did that mainly for my father. And then he had started symptoms, probably, beginning in the first part of her third month of her illness.

And I talked to her doctor because Dad's doctor seemed to think that it was nothing important and was being very cavalier about it. And my mother's doctor told us not to be surprised if Father died shortly after Mother. And she had just met both my mother and father, but she could tell. And, I don't know, there must be something that happens when people who are that connected-- the doctor just knew right away. And she said that Father wouldn't live six months. I repeated that to my parents. I couldn't even believe it. It was kind of shocking.

And my mother had had a major heart attack 10 years before they both died. And Dad told all of us, all the four children, that if she died, he would also die.

John Dizikes

He said-- and I've never forgotten it-- "I've looked into the void." And it stuck in my mind very much.

Anne Easley

And he never suggested he would commit suicide or anything other than he would just drop dead. He was just going to die. He refused, spiritually, to live without her.

John Dizikes

There was something in the way he said it that made me realize that this person who was so strong, powerful, he exuded a sense of power, this person must have found the prospect of life without Eloise impossible.

Anne Easley

And he told us individually, I mean, just made sure that all of us knew, that that was the way he felt about it and that that was what was going to happen. And none of us questioned it. I mean, we all thought it was crazy and that he shouldn't do that and that there was a lot to live for after Mother died. But it was what he wanted. We just figured he'd be able to do it somehow, and he did.

Sarah Vowell

When the doctor said that your father would die shortly after your mother and you told your parents this in disbelief, what was their reaction? What was your father's reaction?

Anne Easley

I think it was relief. I think Dad-- well, he knew he was going to do it. We didn't tell Mother, because we didn't want to upset her, until just a few days before she died. But I think it was also a relief for her. You're just going to have to accept this because I'm going to do it.

Sarah Vowell

That's OK.

Anne Easley

OK, good.

Sarah Vowell

That's OK.

Anne Easley

Anyway-- but, as a matter of fact, I think that Father would have died, probably, right with Mother, if he hadn't been on chemotherapy. They put him on chemotherapy because he insisted on outliving her. He didn't want to die before her. He wanted to die after her. And he was actually having one of his chemotherapy treatments when we went and told him that she had died. And he removed the intravenous lines from his arms and said, well, that was it. He wasn't going to have any more medical intervention and that he would just be dying shortly, and he did. He died 36 hours later.

Sarah Vowell

Those are the facts. As for the last words that try to make sense of that act, Page Smith wrote a column that does as well as one might hope. It was part of a series of columns he wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle in his last years on old age and dying.

In the essay, he talks about the deep pleasures of lifelong coupling and, ultimately, the deep pain for those whom death does part. He wrote, "The consolations of an old marriage are the good news. The bad news is that one partner in a marriage, however idyllic, will pre-decease the other. Many years ago," he continued, "my dear old friend Josephine Jacobson, the poet, saw on a New England tombstone the unbearably poignant words, 'It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.'"

In another column, called "Famous Last Words," Page ponders the quandary of the final thought. He said that he admired the last words of John Quincy Adams, who collapsed on the floor of the House of Representatives and declared, "It is finished. I am content." Page points out that the problem is that, in order for your last words to be famous, you have to be famous, which rather complicates things. He continues, "It casts a shadow over the whole enterprise. Maybe the proper thing to do is to die in decent, resigned silence, keeping one's final thoughts to oneself."

Anne Easley

Well, of course, all of us were waiting for his final words. But it wasn't something where we asked him, "If you had your last words, what would you say?" And he slipped off into the coma before any of us would have done that.

John Dizikes

We live and we disappear. We come from somewhere and we go somewhere. And yet, words can remain. Writing can remain. Art remains. Art is long, life is short, as we know. And the last words, I think, are connected with that evidence that it's a kind of testimony against our obliteration and our disappearance.

Sarah Vowell

That may be true, but whose last words actually live up to that? Anne says that Eloise's final words spoken to her sister, Ellen, were, "I'm going to God." Page told his son to, "Give my best to everybody up at Cal," meaning Cal College at UC Santa Cruz, which he founded.

Historians, as an occupational hazard, live among the dead more than the rest of us. They talk to the dead, read their words, heed their warnings, try to give breath and blood to bodies long since turned to dust. The first important work of Page Smith's career was a two-volume biography of John Adams published in 1962.

John Dizikes, Smith's former student, fellow history professor, and friend, delivered a joint eulogy for Eloise and Page at their funeral. I asked him to read it for me. It begins with one of Page's favorite anecdotes about the second president, the fact that Adams died on July 4th, 1826.

John Dizikes

Precisely 50 years after the Declaration of Independence and coinciding with Thomas Jefferson's death on the same day in Virginia, for Page, this extraordinary occurrence, to which he returned again and again in conversation and in lectures, the joint departure of two presiding spirits, two lives, two deaths, free will and necessity, unfathomably intermingled, suggested something far beyond mere coincidence. History is divine drama. "It could not be said that Americans were struck dumb," he wrote, "rather the reverse. They were struck into an outpouring of wonder and astonishment, of amazement and awe." And in these last few days many of us, too, have felt something of wonder, of amazement, of awe.

The biography of John Adams was also a biography of Abigail Adams. And one of its most compelling aspects was the way past and present were merged, the 18th century and the 20th century, life and love, husband and wife existing simultaneously in the consciousness of the writer and of the reader, exemplified by the book's unforgettable dedication to Eloise, "through whom I know what Abigail meant to John."

Sarah Vowell

Those are lovely words, an historians words, but sometimes there's only so much words can do. When the man John Dizikes talks about the uncanny deaths of his friends Page and Eloise, he ultimately rejects the poetry of last words for a kind of wondering. Anne does too. In the face of such a story, of such a marriage, who can resist comparing his own marriage to theirs?

John Dizikes

I think many of us have wondered and thought privately about ourselves in relation to that. What Page and Eloise were and did may or may not be at all relevant to what we all are in our own lives. I do think, myself, that there is a quality of intensity of love that some couples have, of a necessity of being together, that many other devoted people don't have.

Anne Easley

Oh, very, very few people will ever have what they had. And I have a wonderful marriage. I have a wonderful husband, but-- I don't know, maybe in 20 or 30 years, if we're still alive-- and we've been together 30 years already-- and if we have another 30 years, maybe we'll be as tight as my parents are.

John Dizikes

I believe that I understand how much Eloise meant to Page, just as he understood how much Abigail meant to John Adams and how much my wife means to me. There's a certain point at which you say-- not that life is not worth living, it is, but-- perhaps, that you've lived it fully, and there's no point in living a diminished life.

Sarah Vowell

Page Smith once commented, "Often, the power of the original fact is so great you're awed by it." As Charles Adams said when his grandfather, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the same day, the fourth of July, 1826, "There is nothing so eloquent as fact." Historians, which is to say writers of non-fiction, spend their careers as fans of facts, noticing those moments when actual events have about them an air of magic, of myth.

I think Page Smith, who loved his wife more than his life, would have appreciated the eloquence of his body's final act, dying when he did. Page and Eloise were cremated together, their ashes mixed. They're buried at the bottom of a hill. The marker, made by Anne, reads, "It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch."

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell's most recent book is Assassination Vacation.

Act Two. The Unknown Soldier.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Unknown Soldier. We have this story written by Luc Sante.

Man

The last thing I saw was a hallway ceiling, four feet wide, finished along its edges with a plaster molding that looked like a long row of small fish, each trying to swallow the one ahead of it.

Woman

The last thing I saw was a crack of yellow sky between buildings, partly obscured by a line of washing.

Man

The last thing I saw was the parapet and, beyond it, the trees.

Man

The last thing I saw was his badge, but I couldn't tell you the number.

Man

The last thing I saw was a full shot glass slid along by somebody who clapped me on the back.

Woman

The last thing I saw was the sedan that came barreling straight at me while I thought, "It's OK. I'm safely behind the window of the donut shop."

Man

The last thing I saw was a boot, right foot, with nails protruding from the instep.

Man

The last thing I saw was a turd.

Man

The last thing I saw was a cobble.

Woman

The last thing I saw was night.

Man

I lost my balance crossing Broadway and was trampled by a team of brewery horses.

Man

I was winching myself up the side of a six-story corner house on a board platform with a load of nails for the cornice when the weak part of the rope hit the pulley sideways and got sheared.

Man

I lost my way in snow drifts half a block from my flat.

Woman

I drank a bottle of carbolic acid, not really knowing whether I meant to or not.

Woman

I got very cold, coughed, and forgot things.

Woman

I went out to a yard to try to give birth in secret, but something happened.

Man

I met a policeman who mistook me for somebody else.

Man

I was drunk on my birthday, and I fell off the dock trying to grab a gold piece that looked like it was floating.

Man

I was hanged in the courtyard of the tombs before a cheering crowd and people clogging the rooftops of the buildings all around. But I still say that rascal had it coming to him.

Man

I stole a loaf of bread and started eating it as I ran down the street, but there was a wad of raw dough in the middle that got caught in my throat.

Woman

I was supposed to get up early that morning, but I couldn't move.

Woman

I heard a sort of whistling noise above my head as I was passing by the post office, and that's all I know.

Woman

I was hustling a customer who looked like a real swell, but when we got upstairs he pulled out a razor.

Woman

I owed a lot of money for rent and got put out and, that night, curled up in somebody else's doorway. And he came home in a bad mood.

Woman

I was bitten by that black dog that used to hang around, and I forgot all about it for six months or so.

Woman

I ate some oysters I dug up myself.

Man

I took a shot at the big guy, but the hammer got stuck.

Woman

I felt very hot and shaky and strange. And everybody in the shop was looking at me. And I kept trying to tell them that I'd be all right in a minute, but I just couldn't get it out.

Woman

I never woke up as the fumes snaked into my room.

Woman

I stood yelling as he stabbed me again and again.

Man

I picked up a passenger who braced me in the middle of Broadway and made me turn off.

Woman

I shot up the bag as soon as I got home, but I think it smelled funny when I cooked it.

Man

I was asleep in a park when these kids came by.

Woman

I crawled out the window and felt sick looking down, so I just threw myself out and looked up as I fell.

Woman

I thought I could get warm by burning some newspaper in a soup pot.

Woman

I went to pieces very slowly and was happy when it finally stopped.

Woman

I thought the train was going way too fast, but I kept on reading.

Man

I let this guy pick me up at a party, and sometime later we went off in his car.

Man

I felt real sick, but the nurse thought I was kidding.

Man

I jumped over to the other fire escape, but my foot slipped.

Woman

I thought I had time to cross the street.

Man

I thought the floor would support my weight.

Man

I thought nobody could touch me.

Woman

I thought nobody could touch me.

Man

I never knew what hit me.

Woman

They put me in a bag.

Woman

They nailed me up in a box.

Man

They walked me down Mulberry Street followed by altar boys and four priests under a canopy and everybody in the neighborhood singing the Libera Me Domine.

Woman

They collected me in pieces all through the park.

Man

They had laid me in-state under the rotunda for three days.

Woman

They engraved my name on the pediment.

Man

They drew the collar up to my chin to hide the hole in my neck.

Man

They laughed about me over the baked meats and rye whiskey.

Man

They didn't know who I was when they fished me out and still didn't know six months later.

Man

They held my body for ransom and collected, but, by that time, they had burned it.

Woman

They never found me.

Man

They threw me in the cement mixer.

Man

They heaped all of us into a trench and stuck a monument on top.

Woman

They cut me up at the medical school.

Man

They weighed down my ankles and tossed me in the drink.

Man

They gave speeches claiming I was some kind of tin saint.

Man

They hauled me away in the ash man's cart.

Woman

They put me on a boat and took me to an island.

Woman

They tried to keep my mother from throwing herself in after me.

Man

They bought me my first suit and dressed me up in it.

Woman

They marched to City Hall holding candles and shouting my name.

Woman

They forgot all about me and took down my picture.

Luc Sante

So give my eyes to the eye bank. Give my blood to the blood bank. Make my hair into switches. Put my teeth into rattles. Sell my heart to the junk man. Give my spleen to the mayor. Hook my lungs to an engine. Stretch my guts down the avenue. Stick my head on a pike. Plug my spine to the third rail. Throw my liver and lights to the winner. Grind my nails up with sage and camphor and sell it under the counter. Set my hands in the window as a reminder. Take my name from me and make it a verb. Think of me when you run out of money. Remember me when you fall on the sidewalk. Mention me when they ask you what happened. I am everywhere under your feet.

Ira Glass

The Unknown Soldier was written by Luc Sante. We had 46 different readers, too many to name here, ending with the author himself.

[MUSIC - "WHO BY FIRE" BY LEONARD COHEN, PERFORMED BY HOUSE OF LOVE]

Act Three. How The Living Use The Dead.

Ira Glass

Act Three, How the Living Use the Dead. Janice, Jimi, Elvis, some dead pop stars are so big you don't even need their last names. Then there's Kurt Cobain, John Lennon, Keith Moon, Jim Morrison, Sid Vicious, Mama Cass Elliot, Jim Croce, Ronnie Van Zant, Duane Allman. I could go on and on with dead pop stars, but I don't actually have to because, in 1979, writer Greil Marcus did it for me, for all of us, in the most definitive way possible.

He had observed the ghoulish fascination that people have with rock deaths, how it's kind of gain for fans, sometimes, seeing which stars in their deaths come closest to who they seem to be on stage. Who comes close to meeting that 19th century romance slash James Dean ideal of living fast, dying young? And then he decided that the only way to deal with it was to make it into a joke. To settle the discussion forever, once and for all, he ranked 116 dead pop stars according to a complicated point system.

Greil Marcus

Now, I had absolutely fabulous fun doing it. You know, very quickly, I was taking it really seriously. Well, how much is a suicide worth? And, depending on the manner of the suicide, do you get extra points or less points? And, oh, it was so much fun. It really was.

Ira Glass

A classic example of something starting off as a joke and, suddenly, becoming an obsession.

Greil Marcus

Well, I got fascinated by this in the '70s, at the end of the '70s, when this whole notion of the survivor seemed to utterly dominate contemporary discourse. And I don't just mean in pop music. Bruno Bettelheim wrote this quite wonderful, long essay on the cult of the survivor, basing it on concentration camps, Nazi concentration camps, and the whole notion of what it meant to survive, and how, for some philosophers and artists, it had become the primary virtue, that nothing was more important than surviving, that it was a good in itself. And I noticed that, in music, there were all these records called Survivor, or I'm a Survivor, or I Must Survive, or I Will Survive.

Ira Glass

In USA, Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes, which is collected in your book, Ranters and Crowd Pleasers, you list them. There's Grand Funk's Survival, the Rolling Stone's "Soul Survivor," Barry Mann's Survivor, Cindy [? Bowen's ?] "Survivor," Eric Burdon's Survivor, Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," Adam Faith's I Survive, Randy Bachman's Survivor, Georgie Fame's "Survival," Lynyrd Skynyrd's Street Survivors, then The Wailers' Survival, and then the band Survivor.

Greil Marcus

Yeah, and it's worth noting that all these songs called "Survivor" were different songs, or, at least, they had different words and melodies. I guess they really were all the same song. And, at the same time, Brian Wilson made a comeback with the Beach Boys, and everything written about him said he's a survivor. He was being praised for not being dead. And you reach a point when people are patting themselves on the back for not being dead, when they're celebrating their triumph over the dead, when they're affirming their superiority for not being dead.

Ira Glass

Greil Marcus is the author of Lipstick Traces and other books including the upcoming book, The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "L'ANARCHIE POUR LE UK" BY THE SEX PISTOLS, PERFORMED ON THE ACCORDION]

Coming up, the voices of airplane pilots from black boxes and other last words. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Four. Rosebud.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and reporters and performers to tackle that theme. Today's program, Last Words, people's attempts to make sense of their own lives, sum up their own lives, assert the fact of their own lives in the face of death. We've arrived at Act Four of our program. Act Four, Rosebud.

Charles Foster Kane

[WHISPERS] Rosebud.

Act Five. Black Box.

Ira Glass

Act Five, Black Box. The most frequent contemplation we do, as a culture, of people's last words is when airplanes crash. There is the black box, which is frequently florescent orange, not black, which has data from the airplane's instruments and the taped voices from the cockpit voice recorder, or CVR.

We wondered, do these voices tell us anything about how people compose themselves in the face of danger and death? Well, Malcolm McPherson has published a book of transcripts from 28 different crashes. It's less ghoulish reading than you might think, more like the movie Apollo 13 than The Bride of Chucky. It's full of technical talk and people trying to work things out.

Malcolm Mcpherson

I think that, in general, what I've seen in these is the work of some extremely professional people, some highly-trained people who are doing what their training has instructed them to do to that last second, and some, in many cases, through the last second. And then, at one point, you just know, you can read and you can feel in reading these, that they know that it's the end game, that it's over. And that's usually when you get the kinds of emotions that you can read in these, the yelling and the shouting and the swearing which goes on. A lot of these people just end with, "Oh, [BLEEP]!"

Ira Glass

Thinking about the different categories that these fall into, there are the ones where the crew actually acts very heroically and does what they can to save the plane. There are a few where people just seem to die out of sheer stupidity. There's one, a China Airlines flight--

Malcolm Mcpherson

It was a China Northern Boeing MD 82 over Western China. It was in November of 1993, and the crew lost track of their altitude in a fog. And they were coming in for a landing, on a landing approach, and there are these ground proximity warning horns that go off in the cockpit. They're quite loud, and they are recorded in English. And, when they go off, they start screaming in the crews ears, "Pull up! Pull up," in a very flat, very loud way. And, these Chinese pilots and co-pilots, they were later overheard on the cockpit voice recorder after the plane had crashed, and the pilot was asking his co-pilot in Chinese, "What means pull up?"

Ira Glass

The pre-recorded messages that the equipment puts out are all through these, and sometimes it's a little eerie. One of the most eerie times is Korean Airline flight 007, which got hit by a missile, and at the end of the transcript, the plane goes down. And, after the last words by any person in the transcript, the public address system recordings are still saying, "Put out your cigarette. This is an emergency descent. Put out your cigarette. This is an emergency descent. Put out your cigarette. This is an emergency descent," over and over after all the people are dead.

Malcolm Mcpherson

Yeah, it's like an Arthur Clarke nightmare, you know? I mean, the humans are dead and the computers are still sort of living. How far those warnings were going on, I don't know. But they must have been repeated over and over as that thing plummeted from 50,000 feet. It was way up there, and it had a long way to fall.

Ira Glass

Let's go through a few of these so people get a sense of what these are like. There's one of the flights, Atlantic Southeast Airlines flight 529, this was August 21, 1995, going to Mississippi. And can I ask you to just read a little bit from where the captain says we can get in on a visual?

Malcolm Mcpherson

"We can get in and land on visual approach without instruments." The control tower, "Good luck guys." The captain, "Engine's exploded. It's just hanging out there." The co-pilot, "Yes, Sir. We're with you. Declaring an emergency." The captain to the co-pilot, "Sin- single-- single-engine checklist, please." Co-pilot, "Where the hell is it?" Captain to the co-pilot, "Help me. Help me hold it. Help me hold it. Help me hold it." There's a vibrating sound as the stick shaker starts warning of the stall. Co-pilot, "Amy, I love you." The cabin, sound of grunting. Sound of impact. End of tape.

Ira Glass

One of the things I thought was interesting reading these transcripts is how few of them have anything like the pilots or co-pilots saying any last words to their loved ones. There's this one where the co-pilot says right before the tape goes off, "Amy, I love you." But in the whole book of these you don't have any others where anybody gets any last words like that to anybody on the ground.

Malcolm Mcpherson

They're certainly not listed on these transcripts, the CVR transcripts. The NTSB, National Transportation Safety Board, which gets these things out of the black boxes, sanitizes them to an extent where personal or deeply emotional words that have nothing to do with helping anyone to analyze the incident, the crash, whatever it might be, they're not released to the public. In some instances, some of it gets through. But, for the most case-- and I think NTSB is absolutely correct in this, that-- it really has no business for the public to be reading this. I think that it's an issue between that crew and whoever.

Ira Glass

And so it's possible that, in fact, many more crews are actually trying to get in last words to their loved ones, but they don't get printed.

Malcolm Mcpherson

Yeah.

Ira Glass

As a reporter traveling around, do you travel with a little tape recorder?

Malcolm Mcpherson

I do.

Ira Glass

And have you been on airplanes where you were frightened about it crashing and you've looked at your tape recorder and you just thought, what should I say here?

Malcolm Mcpherson

No, when I've been afraid on an airplane, Ira, I've been too afraid to turn on a tape recorder. What about you? Have you?

Ira Glass

I have, yes. I don't know what that says about me, but I have.

Malcolm Mcpherson

Tell me. What have you--

Ira Glass

Well, most of the time I'm travelling, I'm traveling with tape equipment, I'm working on a story. And every time that I've been scared that the plane was going to crash, I have sort of mentally prepared, OK, what am I going to say into this tape recorder if this thing goes down? Who do I want to say anything to, and what's my obligation to actually observe what is happening around me? I mean, in a way, it's the kind of self-flattering melodrama-- do you know what I mean?

Malcolm Mcpherson

Oh, sure.

Ira Glass

And, I mean, it's putting yourself at the center of a dramatic movie that you're imagining in your head.

Malcolm Mcpherson

Yeah. The thing that interests me most about the intrinsic nature of these transcripts is that I am fascinated by the moment at which everything normal turns 180 degrees in an instant. And, all of a sudden, everybody is-- in the case of the CVR transcripts-- everybody is in a pre-tragic situation. They're in an emergency.

It happened to me when I was a kid and I was driving along one night at about 10 o'clock with my parents. I was 12 years old. It was in 1955. And we were driving along. My father poked along. He was a-- you know, whatever. And, all of a sudden, blam! Somebody stove into the side of us. My parents were killed instantly.

Ira Glass

Oh, my god.

Malcolm Mcpherson

And my whole life at that instant changed. It turned around. Things happened to me that were not expected, you know? And I think about that issue when I'm reading these transcripts. So I think that's what brought me to these things, why I'm interested in these things as much as I am.

Ira Glass

Well, thinking about your collection of cockpit voice recorder recordings as an examination of how people handle that moment when the world goes from its normal trajectory into this sort of extraordinary trajectory where nothing is normal, the ones who come off as the most heroic are the ones who manage to keep themselves calm and keep themselves as much like they were still living their normal life, for example, Al Haynes from the Sioux City flight. Let me ask you to read a little bit from page 183 of these transcripts.

Malcolm Mcpherson

OK. The remarkable thing was the humor that kept going back and forth. I mean, there was a running joke in that cockpit.

Ira Glass

Explain the running joke. Yeah, it's amazing.

Malcolm Mcpherson

There was this guy in San Francisco they kept trying to get in touch with, who was part of the United maintenance crew in San Francisco. And he simply would not believe what they were telling him because, according to all his manuals and all he knew, this couldn't happen. The systems all couldn't go down the way they had gone down.

Ira Glass

Specifically, explain just how badly off these people were.

Malcolm Mcpherson

Oh, there had been an explosion in the tail of the airplane, which had severed the hydraulic control elements that turn the plane, and the only thing that they had to move the plane left and right and down and up were the two engines on the wings. And so they had no control except for these engines, and they had to control by the throttles.

Ira Glass

So they would, basically, let up on one throttle and push ahead on the other to turn the plane to the right and-- yeah.

Malcolm Mcpherson

Exactly.

Ira Glass

At the bottom of page 173 there's this moment where Captain Haynes is talking to the flight attendant, and he's giving her the instructions, "OK, here's what we're going to do to evacuate. Here's the command I'm going to give you to brace for landing," and, you know, all that. He says, "And then, if you have to evacuate, you'll get the command signal to evacuate, but I really have my doubt you'll see us standing up, honey. Good luck, sweetheart."

Malcolm Mcpherson

I know.

Ira Glass

And then she says, "Thanks, you too."

Malcolm Mcpherson

Isn't that amazing? It's so sweet. It's just so concerned and caring, you know? "Good luck, sweetheart." "Thanks, you too."

Ira Glass

You know, just to get back to something you said earlier, you know, I can't decide if I think it's a good thing or if I find it a little disturbing that people's last words are edited off of these transcripts. I can kind of see it both ways.

Malcolm Mcpherson

Well, I see it, pretty much, in line with the NTSB. And there's nothing we can do about it, as you know, but the fact is that why would you want to see, or hear, or read some of the words that would come off that would be just-- I'll give you an example of what these can be like.

There was a Turkish airline, DC-10 in 1975, that crashed in Paris. It was taking off going to London. And, as this thing was going down, the pilot started to sing a lullaby in Turkish, a child's lullaby. And it was extremely affecting. And it was just horrifying and, at the same time, it was so sad that this guy at that point knew he was seconds away. And this was his reaction. Why? What was going through his mind, what he was thinking about? God only knows.

Ira Glass

Malcolm McPherson's book is called The Black Box: All-New Cockpit Voice Recorder Accounts of In-flight Accidents. His latest book about a Navy SEAL's helicopter crash landing in Afghanistan is called Robert's Ridge.

Act Six. What Goes Through Your Head.

Ira Glass

Act Six, What Goes Through Your Head. We have this piece of fiction from writer Tobias Wolff.

Tobias Wolff

Anders couldn't get to the bank until just before it closed. So, of course, the line was endless, and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders, a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.

With the line still doubled around the rope, one of the tellers stuck a "Position closed" sign in her window and walked to the back of the bank where she leaned against the desk and began to pass the time with a man shuffling papers. The women in front of Anders broke off their conversation and watched the teller with hatred. "Oh, that's nice," one of them said. She turned to Anders and added, confident of his accord, "One of those little human touches that keep us coming back for more."

Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptuous crybaby in front of him. "Damned unfair," he said, "Tragic, really. If they're not chopping off the wrong leg or bombing your ancestral village, they're closing their positions." She stood her ground. "I didn't say it was tragic," she said, "I just think it's a pretty lousy way to treat your customers." "Unforgivable," Anders said. "Heaven will take note." She sucked in her cheeks but stared past him and said nothing.

Anders saw that the other woman, her friend, was looking in the same direction. And then the tellers stopped what they were doing, and the customers slowly turned, and silence came over the bank. Two men wearing black ski masks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door. One of them had a pistol pressed against the guard's neck. The guard's eyes were closed, and his lips were moving. The other man had a sawed-off shotgun. "Keep your big mouth shut!" the man with the pistol said, though no one had spoken a word. "One of you tellers hits the alarm, you're all dead meat." "Oh, bravo," Anders said. "dead meat." He turned to the woman in front of him. "Great script, eh?" The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes." She looked at him with drowning eyes.

The man with the shotgun pushed the guard to his knees. He handed the shotgun to his partner and yanked the guard's wrists up behind his back and locked them together with a pair of handcuffs. He toppled him onto the floor with a kick between the shoulder blades. Then he took his shotgun back and went over to the security gate at the end of the counter. "Buzz him in," his partner said. The man with the shotgun opened the gate and sauntered along the line of tellers, handing each of them a Hefty bag.

When he came to the empty position, he looked over at the man with the pistol, who said, "Whose slot is that?" Anders watched the teller. She put her hand to her throat and turned to the man she'd been talking to. He nodded. "Mine," she said. "Then get your ugly [BLEEP] in gear and fill that bag." "There you go," Anders said to the woman in front of him. "Justice is done."

"Hey! Bright boy! Did I tell you to talk?" "No," Anders said. "Then shut your trap." "Did you hear that?" Anders said, "Bright boy. He called me 'bright boy' right out of The Killers." "Please be quiet," the woman said. "Hey, you deaf or what?" The man with the pistol walked over to Anders. He poked the weapon into Anders' gut. "Do you think I'm playing games?" "No," Anders said. But the barrel tickled like a stiff finger, and he had to fight back the titters. He did this by making himself stare into the man's eyes, which were clearly visible behind the holes in the mask, pale blue and rawly red-rimmed.

The man's left eyelid kept twitching. He breathed out a piercing, ammoniac smell that shocked Anders more than anything that had happened. And he was beginning to develop a sense of unease when the man prodded him again with the pistol. "You like me, bright boy?" he said. "You want to suck my [BLEEP]?" "No," Anders said. "Then stop looking at me." Anders fixed his gaze on the man's shiny wing-tip shoes. "Not down there. Up there." He stuck the pistol under Anders' chin and pushed it upward until Anders was looking at the ceiling.

Anders had never paid much attention to that part of the bank, a pompous old building with marble floors and counters and gilt scroll work over the teller's cages. The domed ceiling had been decorated with mythological figures whose fleshy, toga-draped ugliness Anders had taken in at a glance many years earlier and afterward declined to notice. Now he had no choice but to scrutinize the painter's work. It was even worse than he remembered.

The ceiling was crowded with various dramas, but the one that caught Anders' eye was Zeus and Europa, portrayed in this rendition as a bull ogling a cow from behind a haystack. To make the cow sexy, the painter had canted her hips suggestively and given her long, droopy eyelashes through which she gazed back at the bull with sultry welcome. The bull wore a smirk, and his eyebrows were arched. If there'd been a bubble coming out of his mouth, it would have said, "Hubba, hubba."

"What's so funny, bright boy?" "Nothing." "You think I'm comical? You think I'm some kind of clown?" "No." "You think you can [BLEEP] with me?" "No." "[BLEEP] with me again, you're history. Capiche?" Anders burst out laughing. He covered his mouth with both hands and said, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry," then snorted helplessly through his fingers and said, "Capiche, oh, God. Capiche." And, at that, the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right in the head.

The bullet smashed Anders' skull and plowed through his brain and exited behind his right ear, scattering shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus. But, before all this occurred, the first appearance of the bullet in the cerebrum set off a crackling chain of ion transports and neuro-transmissions. Because of their peculiar origin, these traced a peculiar pattern, flukishly calling to life a summer afternoon some 40 years past and long since lost to memory.

After striking the cranium, the bullet was moving at 900 feet per second, a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace compared to the synaptic lightning that flashed around it. Once in the brain, that is, the bullet came under the mediation of brain time, which gave Anders plenty of leisure to contemplate the scene that, in a phrase he would have abhorred, passed before his eyes.

It is worth noting what Anders did not remember, given what he did remember. He did not remember his first lover, Sherry, or what he had most madly loved about her before it came to irritate him, her unembarrassed carnality and especially the cordial way she had with his unit, which she called Mr. Mole, as in, "Uh-oh, looks like Mr. Mole wants to play."

Anders did not remember his wife, whom he had also loved before she exhausted him with her predictability, or his daughter, now a sullen professor of economics at Dartmouth. He did not remember a single line of the hundreds of poems he had committed to memory in his youth so that he could give himself the shivers at will, not "Silent, upon a peak in Darien," or "My God, I heard this day," or "All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?" None of these did he remember, not one.

Anders did not remember his dying mother saying of his father, "I should have stabbed him in his sleep." He did not remember Professor Josephs telling his class how Athenian prisoners in Sicily had been released if they could recite Aeschylus, and then reciting Aeschylus himself, right there, in the Greek. Anders did not remember how his eyes had burned at those sounds. He did not remember the surprise of seeing a college classmate's name on the jacket of a novel not long after they'd graduated, or the respect he had felt after reading the book. He did not remember the pleasure of giving respect.

Nor did Anders remember seeing a woman leap to her death from the building opposite his own just days after his daughter was born. He did not remember shouting, "Lord, have mercy!" He did not remember deliberately crashing his father's car into a tree, or having his ribs kicked in by three policemen at an anti-war rally, or waking himself up with laughter. He did not remember when he began to regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread, or when he grew angry at writers for writing them. He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else.

This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whir of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They've been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedious to Anders, an oppression, like the heat.

Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle's cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they've chosen sides and someone asks the cousin what position he wants to play. "Shortstop," the boy says. "Short's the best position they is."

Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to ask Coyle's cousin to repeat what he's just said, but he knows better than to ask. The others will think he's being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn't it, not at all. It's that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.

The bullet is already in the brain. It won't be outrun forever or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet's tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can't be helped. But for now Anders can still make time, time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, "They is, they is, they is."

Ira Glass

Tobias Wolff's story, "Bullet in the Brain." That's from his book, The Night in Question.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder. Contributing editors for this show Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Amy [? Takahara ?], Seth Lind, and Sativa January.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our web address, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our shows for absolutely free or buy CDs. Or, you know, you can download today's program and our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who wanders the empty halls of WBEZ after each pledge drive is over saying--

Tobias Wolff

All my pretty ones? Did you say all? Oh hell-kite! All?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Tobias Wolff

What's so funny, bright boy?

Announcer

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