Last writes

MARILYN JOHNSON is the author of the just published book, "The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries."

THE BEST TALES of survival are found in the back pages of the newspaper, in the obituaries. This might sound strange because no one gets onto those pages alive. But many of the people who finally land there have had brushes in the past, encounters that might have meant an earlier obit if they hadn’t ducked.

I collect these resurrections, stories like the one about the interior decorator who crawled out of the deadliest airplane crash ever, in the Canary Islands, pulling 24 extra years. She died at 95 “after a brief illness.” Isn’t that good news, when you know her story?

Then there’s Shelagh Lea, who died this winter, a sweet English vicar’s widow who loved to sing. Her death would not have merited much notice except that her diaries, kept during captivity in World War II, are treasures in London’s Imperial War Museum. They are “regarded as some of the most important records of that time,” according to the Daily Telegraph.

Lea’s scrawled pages elaborate “with restrained but meticulous detail” her experiences as she and her mother tried to flee Singapore while being bombed by the Japanese. Blown into the sea, they clung to a raft for 18 hours, then were hauled out by the enemy and herded through a series of prison camps. Afflictions, she wrote, included “bugs, rats, the trots -- life is not such fun. When we go to the lav the mossies bite our bottoms. It is all very ghastly.”

She spent 3 1/2 years in the prison camps and buried her mother in one, using her bare hands to put earth on the grave. Within a month of her return to Britain in 1945, she agreed to marry a parson and settled with him into a long, uneventful and happy life. She died peacefully at 89, after listening to evensong on the radio.


Our country has been at war now for three years, but I still wake up to singing birds, fresh fruit and symphonies on the radio. No mossies, or anything else, bite my bottom when I use the lav. Is that why I find these tales so compelling? I know life can change in an instant -- I’m reminded every time I strap myself into a car or read the news from Iraq. I need these gritty stories of survival to make sense of life.

I found two grandfathers, who both lived to an advanced age and led lives as placid as mine, or so it seemed. Frank J. Wesner was in computer sales; he died at 83 after falling off his porch. Half a century earlier, it turns out, he endured the notorious POW camp, Stalag 17, by eating worm-laden soup and bread made of sawdust.

William Herskovic ran a camera shop in West Los Angeles and died of cancer at 91. More than 60 years earlier, he cheated death when he dug a pair of wire cutters out of the snow and used them to snip his way through a fence at Auschwitz. He and two companions “armed with the memory of a map drawn in the snow” fled, and somewhere on his way to a quiet life, Herskovic set bricks on a train track and liberated a car full of doomed Jews.

Ninety-one sounds like a good, long life to me, but I notice obituary subjects seem to be getting older. Recently, a couple of 108-year-olds stretched the curve.

The writer Susan Lydon, though, died of cancer last year at 61 -- too young, we think now; a life cut short. And yet she lived a bundle of lives in that time. She crammed them in. She helped found Rolling Stone magazine and wrote the profound feminist essay, “The Politics of Orgasm,” a brave thing to do in a countercultural bunker. Even proposing the story to a room of long-haired men at Ramparts magazine had taken guts: “They laughed until she cried,” as the Los Angeles Times obit noted.

Lydon took a sharp dive sometime after this into drugs and prostitution, and was quoted describing her rides, sans license, “in the car I had taken from my mother, with my [crack] pipe in my mouth and the needle in my hand, trying to find a vein, while the car was moving. I was totally insane.”

Later, after she’d cleaned up, she fell down a flight of stairs while bird watching, breaking an arm and shattering a shoulder. She took up knitting as physical therapy and became a “guru of knitting as a spiritual endeavor,” and an artist in the process. Yes, it was a shame she died. But I take the long view: Look at how many lives she lived.