John Thoms and Annie Thoms

Recorded August 13, 2008 Archived August 13, 2008 01:17:12
0:00 / 0:00
Id: LMN000534


Annie Thoms interviewed her father, John Thoms about growing up with parents who were deaf and his experiences as a child who had polio and is still has some physical issues as a result.

Subject Log / Time Code

The iron lung
Jr. High School
Brother, Bob


  • John Thoms
  • Annie Thoms

Recording Location

StoryCorps Lower Manhattan Booth


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00:07 Annie my name is Annie Tom's. I'm 32 years old today is August 13th 2008. And we're in the Foley Square storycorps boost in lower Manhattan, and I'm here interviewing. My father. My name is John Tom's. I'm 64 years old. It is still August 13th 2008 police square and I am the father of Danny Thomas.

00:35 So Daddy, what are your earliest memories of polio?

00:39 I'm told that I fell down in the bathroom and couldn't get up. My first memory is of my grandfather coming over to pick me up after a day of me being unable to move and I remember him picking me up a wrapped in a blanket and he had a Nash Car which was a part of having those days a blue nashcar. It was night time. I remember him picking me up and carrying me into the screened porch screened in porch of his house and my grandmother and the light through the green painted porch and the Ivy the light was Green.

01:26 And I remember all that night lying next to my grandmother in bed how she was wearing a flannel nightgown when I first went to bed with your mother. She was wearing her final flight and it was a pretty good memory and that that was hit. I remember that whole night.

01:44 Later on whenever I got my first drop my childhood whenever I got overheated at night, I might have this dream of that made no sense to me at the time of people putting hot cloths on my skin and that they were so hot that they felt like they might burn me and just when they started to get cool enough to be comfortable. They would take them away and replace them with other hot clots much later. When I learn more about call the I realize that that was act. In fact a memory of hot packs that was just the citric any treatment to relax and then relax the muscles in heaven contract again.

02:28 How many years old I had my tonsils out and as The Ether was being administered the anesthetists Chris telling me the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and suddenly the universe went spring and I had a clear image of myself like Alice in Wonderland in the house with the eat me drink me a biscuits and and flasks and my head was huge and my neck had a doorway over it and my body was lost to me it was in it was simply lost me. I was in my head and that was my body was somewhere else much much later. I realize that that was the memory of the iron lung.

03:18 And how old were you when you had polio and and what exactly happened to you when you were in the hospital in the air and I was three years and two months the two weeks old. It was two weeks after my third birthday. I am I think during the acute phase that they had me and isolation because I think I have I think I remember that room and I remember being for some. Of time in that room at in a kind of like a crib dinner with sides that went up and down.

03:51 I am it has to have been from that time that I remember being reeled over to the window and looking down and see my brother a few stories down on the lawn couple stories down on the line children are not allowed in polio awards at that time. And so I didn't see my brother for the whole time that I was in that hospital except that one time. I remember seeing him down below and him waving at me.

04:16 Do you know how long you were in the hospital? If you don't, you know, the only person who might have been able to tell me I've never heard of me. That's my grandparents. I don't know why with Mom and Mom's memory of these things is very distorted. I came across a reference recently to somebody who was in the iron lung for a couple of months and I just don't know how long I was in the iron lung. That's it for the memories of that particular.

04:45 I've seen the interesting that my mom died just a couple years ago and in going through her stuff. I came across a little Washington State March of Dimes pamphlet on the way to raise money and there was a picture of me on the cover and that picture showed me the nurses with the hot packs. So I have a very clear memory from that picture of what the hot packs look like. And I know that that corresponds exactly to my dream of the iron lung. I have only descriptions for later on and I've seen pictures of iron lungs, but what I experienced in that in that tonsillectomy, that was what they were like and of course my I forgot to say my body was in fact paralyzed from the neck down at that point and it was only slowly after the acute phase of the disease that all the rest of my body emerged except the inability to use my arms at all and

05:45 Basically, it left me able to walk able to hike thank God for many years and with the use only of my the fingers of my left hand and the wrist of my left hand.

05:58 What did that do when when you later went to school? What was your experience in school? Like and how did the polio affect your time in school? I had a home teacher for the first two years of my life and she came only once a week. So I had seven years of essentially being at home alone with my mother. My father tended to work late going to school was a great relief. Now, there was so many days. I remember looking out the window and realizing there were no children of my age anywhere cuz they were all in school and if I went to school I could have been the odd person out, but unfortunately for Dwayne Vincent and fortunately for me there was somebody who was even geekier than I was and more than that. He was Roman Catholic which in our little Protestant Enclave was absolutely not to not to be countenanced and he took most of the branch of being the scapegoat for the class was pretty well accepted.

06:58 Why my classmates my problem was that I couldn't recess I couldn't play with the boys cuz they always played with the kinds of sports that I couldn't play. So I would jump rope with the girls, which was not entirely satisfactory. Although I must say I had crushes on several of them and it give give me an entree with with Patty Hadley and I forgot that you were saying earlier about how you used it. Then tell stories sometime in third grade somehow or another is entered in third grade and by the end of 3rd grade, maybe it started in fourth grade. I've been reading a lot of the Andrew Lang fairy books the colored fairy books and I had all these wonderful stories in my head and I found myself sitting on the playground surrounded by kindergartners and first-graders telling them stories and my wonderful third grade teacher mrs. Crane told my fourth grade teacher equally wonderful mrs.

07:58 Davison about it. And I found myself telling stories to the class at mrs. Davidson's request in 4th grade. There is some relevance to this to my innocent my becoming a teacher of English the other ways in which probably out interface with school was that my Fitzy's third grade fourth grade teacher know my third grade teacher mrs. Crane. I used to be unable to put on my own coat and one day I figured out how to put on my own coat by putting it over the back of it of a desk and eating my arms into it one by one and mrs. Crane had me demonstrate to the whole class how I could put on my own tote now and they applauded me and I just thought that was brilliant of her to you know, Incorporated all into the class and make them, you know understand what it was I was doing where I was coming from that makes me think of is when I was in second grade in mrs. Brodsky.

08:58 Class and you were tutoring some of the kids in that class and you came in and demonstrated to my second grade class my first and second grade class how you could put on your coat and how you put on your shoes and introduced to all of the kids into the idea of polio and what that was and I remember being just so proud and just like I have this amazing cool father to Norma sense of Pride and ended just of of love having you there and it having you be famous, you know in that is so wonderful. What was Junior High School like

09:38 Junior High School was tough as it is for many people when I went through puberty. I got I was not as cute as I used to be. I got very very thin and kind of gawky.

09:51 Etsy I can talk about Janet and or fell due should I there was this girl named it must have been.

10:00 I guess that would be ninth-grade and she had kept a gap teeth and she had whatever it is that a young woman has that makes men go crazy and Gary Vaughan Hammers and I both competed for her that we found out later on that she was actually sleeping with Rhonda Lyon at the time and was way out of our league. I took her out to the movies once bought her and brought her lunch and to my great surprise and joy, she agreed to go to a PTA dance with me.

10:36 To backtrack a little bit. This was the worst thing that happened in junior high school. I was in the hall one day. It was very very busy and suddenly out of nowhere. This guy started making fun of me for my handicap. I don't remember the words to use but very busy Hall many many people Milling around between class and this guy is calling me names and making in front of me and then I went to my next class. What was that? You know, and it happened again, and it happened again.

11:09 I didn't know who this guy was. I never seen him before. I never did find out his name.

11:15 Came the knighted Jenna dandruff and I went to the PTA dance. We went out onto the dance floor to dance and this guy appeared in the middle of the dance floor and started calling me names and would not stop and there was nothing I could think of to do to stop him and nobody else was stopping him and Janet and I just kind of retired to the edges of the floor and Janet went home with somebody else that night and I went home alone.

11:43 Come sometime after that. I was in the high school in the junior high school cafeteria, and I was eating at the hot lunch which that day was spaghetti and meatballs with tomato sauce and I realized that this guy was sitting at the table behind me my back our backs to each other and I recognize his voice and either a few moments of Grace that wanted to choose in one's lifetime or that come from one in one's lifetime. It was a little difficult for me with my one hand to pick up that full plate of spaghetti and tomato sauce, but I managed to do it and I very carefully walked behind him and I poured the entire plate down his collar on the back of his shirt.

12:36 And I did not stop until the plate was completely empty and to his screams. I turned around and walked away without looking back out of the cafeteria.

12:48 And I know it sounds completely and possibly like a story out of a book. I never saw him again. I never saw him again. I have no idea who he was. He disappeared like some demon in a fairy story.

13:03 That's an amazing story. I remember you telling me that when I was little and just it's an amazing important woman for me, you know, because my brother my older brother was always the one who is the man, you know, and I couldn't stand up to him and he was like the first real real threat to my personhood I guess and I handled it and that taught me something about myself and that I that I use later on. Can you talk a little bit about about Bob in the neighborhood gang of kids and what it was like growing up as part of that there was my brother and I are four years apart and somehow another there was this group of boys in the neighborhood between my age and his age and he was the leader of that group and then there was some gap between him and boys were older. So it was like we were this contained unit and he would initiate the activities and

14:03 Where's the tag along? We live in a working-class neighborhood. You could go two blocks south of us towards Lake Washington ship canal we grew up in Seattle Washington and the streets will be on pay the sidewalks beat with the unpaved there a lot of factories around a lot of vacant Lots with a lot of really dangerous rusty nails or interesting Machinery to climb on in glass to get caught by and whatever and we lived across the street from a red shield Salvation Army Red Shield boys club girls club. And that was a roof to climb on a steeply gabled roof to climb on and they're all these these really exciting things. We live right across the street was a vacant lot and I and if it rained heavily you had a lake there and you could literally and I'll build a raft and in a float on this Lake and if it if it rained and then it snowed you actually could have some ice over there.

15:04 Our parents would let us go in them in the morning and we come back for lunch. And when the sun went down we go home in the summer. It was like we were totally free and the fact that we did not die is if it's just a miracle that you almost did I almost did my brother had a we went down to the ship canal and I was I was the tagalong. Yeah Seattle who is a major center for the lumber industry and a lot of wood came down from the north and went to the Sawmills and there was a big Sawmill right on the ship canal and The Sawmill took in logs were floating on the ship canal and turn them into planks and then turned the sawdust out. And so I just went down a pipe it into a little kind of tributary that flowed into the Ship Canal. I have I can in my head there is a movie of this hole.

16:04 I am on the shore. I am probably about.

16:10 7 years old my brother and maybe three of the neighborhood boys are way out on the ship canal way out of the logs are dangerous as hell jumping from log to log to log the sawdust just coming down into this little tributary and the Saudis is so thick that to my eyes. It's just dirt and I take a step. I took a step and I went right into the middle of the sawdust and I started thinking if you've seen Lawrence of Arabia, you know, exactly it was just like just like that. I was thinking slowly and screaming my head off and in my mind's eye. I still see my brother leaping like an antelope from log to log to log and he got to me and grabbed me by the neck and the sawdust was up to my chin.

17:06 The Saudis was up to my chin and he pulled me out. Now if I had gone under just that extra inch or curfew in and he would not have been able to reach me to admit one not have been able to see me. So my brother saved my life. I'm very grateful for that that that that grammar think I'm a science would just like let you guys go. What was it like growing up with him as parent? It wasn't just them. Okay with all that everyone in the neighborhood. We lived in a working-class neighborhood a lot of them others. Like my mom works at home mothers in those days. You can still do that and be working class. The husbands would go away. The fathers would go away and women would be home and they let their kids go wherever they wanted to go and we never had to report back. You know, what did you do today? Oh nothing.

18:06 All right, where we really had a monitor where you were every moment, you know until you got to a certain age. It was hard. It was difficult. They had both then.

18:25 Neither one of their families no one in either of their families knew sign language and they were both gas and they were both started. They were both born deaf. We should start with that mom was born deaf as a result of her mother's getting German Measles during her pregnancy and Dad was born deaf because he was a hose at 12:13 lb / 13 13 lb, baby the first child born to a woman with small hips. He was the story is that she was in hard labor for thirty-six hours. They were way out on the Olympic Peninsula very far away from any City Hospital when the obstetrician finally got there and he and delivering that he broke his jaw and that apparently is my dad was born deaf. This is important to us when we decided to have children your mother and I because we had no genetic history of deafness and I are family.

19:20 It was hard because their families treated them. They could not really converse with him and they treated them as if they were stupid really and the communication was very very General on and they're their life. They're growing up life was really with other deaf people with a small community of deaf people in Seattle. I was essentially Bob and I were with my brother and I were raised by children who are in grown-up bodies. They fought a great deal. They the fights especially on my father's part. We're very exaggerated. Very dramatic my brother remembers my father who is a marksman. I've known mean skill hear about all metals from rifle shooting. Try this all the time. He remembers a fight between Mom and Dad where Dad took is my brother didn't know it empty rifle.

20:20 Out of the closet and aimed it at Mom and Beulah. Yeah, and then pretended he was going to shoot her which is scared scared my brother. Let me know and you know, my mom and dad fought about many things my brother fought with my father when he when he grew older and was challenging him my mother and my brother fought my brother became by the time I hit high school, he ruled the house. He would basically be throwing my father and my mother was his bond slave and that he believed you terribly terribly. Have you saved my life on the other hand. He was physically abusive. All I could do is run away from him and get onto the bed. We slept together. He had all the blankets.

21:15 Forever until he moved out and then that was after he had been in, actually, I think we did have twin beds at some point at some point before he was in college. We had twin beds. Yeah, but it was it was it was a long time. So you would fight and you would rather I would run and I would get myself into the only place I could get myself to be defend myself beyond the bed in the corner with my feet up to fend him off and then he would say that's dirty fighting and you know, I knew it'll actually that wasn't fair but somehow that all I can do is dirty fight label stuck with me in a very simple example of what it was with him whenever he had he had a car. He was a teenager I was younger and he would watch it and he have the hose out and I would occasionally take the hose out and water the garden and water the lawn and once I had the hoes at just once and he came by and I sprayed him.

22:15 The way he always sprayed me he picked up a full bucket of filthy really filthy soapy water from washing his car and he poured the entire Bucket over my head with him. If there was any response from me, he would go nuclear and I could not win. He was a bully I wasn't the only one he believed he bullied some of the kids in the neighborhood, but that didn't matter he was their leader. He was he was he was the cynosure of their eyes and you know,

22:47 Amex Amex Peg my brother. What was your relationship with your father like?

22:54 Come when I was a kid, he was basically the absent guy and I was always as I say much closer to my mother mom was in a very involved with other people. She could read my lips. My dad couldn't because of the polio. I couldn't learn or speak sign language. So my communication with Mom was to my lip her lip reading my lips and my understanding both of them easily when they spoke the dad couldn't read my lips that meant that I couldn't really communicate to him with him at all until I learned how to write and even after that the communication was limited and he was not home very much. He worked at City ice and Cold Storage heated hard manual labor and came home late.

23:44 But there were a few things a few moments that really stood out when I was very small. He had a big blue bicycle and got a basket on the handlebars and he would put me in the basket and I remember several times him riding down a few blocks from our house to where the railroad tracks were and a train would come by and the engineer would wave at my father and the conductor is would wave at my father and I knew my father was an important man. Now the reason they knew him was that a few blocks down from where I would see those where the train went past was City ice and cold storage and dad would be the one who is unloading the box of Frozen boxes of frozen foods from those those cars and so they really knew him every so often I would go to visit Dad at work and

24:41 I really respected him when I saw that work, you know, these were working class men. They treated dad as one of them. They played outrageous tricks and one another dad wants brought in brownies into which he had baked. What do you call the stuff that makes you not like a Medics or something? I have diarrhea, right? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I can't remember what it was the brownies. So everybody had the runs for the next day, but they got him back. He came in to put on his his boots as work boots, and they had mailed them to the floor.

25:22 So yeah, he was a man among men there and during the Depression which is when he first got that job. He was the only person who stayed when they cut the wages and cut the wages and cut the wages. He he knew that it would be impossible for me to get another job and that was our first piece of it, but they knew that he had been faithful to them and they were good to him right up to the day of his retirement as with the Teamsters Union my Lord what we we would not have survived without the Teamster's Union, especially after I got polio they were there to help him so many ways. So yeah VM

26:07 Closest I ever was when I think of my father.

26:12 I think of his very big hands, you know, they were strong large hands with very kind of blunt fingertips, you know, the closest I can remember feeling to him when he was alive was the night before I went away to college. I had gotten scholarships to one of the best colleges in the country with more College in Pennsylvania. I was going away I knew for good that I'd be home for Summers, but this was not going to be my home anymore and we sat next to each other on the porch on the front porch didn't say a word. He had built a little fire on the parking strip of leaves or something and I was burning leaves when we sat next to each other and smoke cigarettes and said nothing.

27:06 And yet I remember that is the moment of greatest closeness with him. The odd thing is

27:13 So many years later, you know, and I should know he died of Alzheimer's the last time he saw me he didn't know who I was he didn't know what I was but whatever I was he was afraid of it. It was Alzheimer's it's terrible terrible disease. So here it is all these many years later and I find that I identify with Dad more than

27:42 More than identify with Mom much though. I love mom loved Mom. Love them and m n i n the point where I began to realize that came early, but it was when I was in college how we get letters from Mom and Mom's left for always the same so and so had a kidney operation. So until I had triplets did you read in the paper about the quadruplets going slowly and it was all news of disease and and babies and you know by black and dad would write these these wonderful little letters about going out to this farm that he later inherited out on the Olympic Peninsula the deer that he had seen the squirrels that he had seen and when I when I was growing up with him, there would be these moments where you would just see him just sitting and looking taking in what was around him. He loved fires if there was a fire he chased after it.

28:42 And he loved nature and he was most truly himself out on at Siesta Farm Siesta Ranch that was where he was truly himself cuz he was in nature and everything is it was there to do with it was physical and and I find that I identify with that quiet place in him that I was I think only barely aware of when I was growing up with him. It's under sing for me to hear you talk about your parents and and some of the way that they fought and end their marriage and and they're kind of wave of interacting which was so problematic and tend to think about you and mommy and I want to watch a very very different marriage you to have interior you're coming up in your 39th anniversary this weekend. Could you tell me the story of how you met Mommy?

29:33 Well by my first of all when we first got married remember about our first really blowout fight, I mean that's that's relevant here right after I start screaming at her the way Dad screams at mom. I stomp out of the apartment. I slam the door. Mommy whose parents never raised their voices to each other thinks that I'm never going to come back. She doesn't know the routine. It took us a while to get to a place where we were two completely different family style. You know, I just had no idea what a real family was like until I met her. Okay, so we were both in the same class in college and there were points of contact.

30:20 I never went to a single dance concert at in college except one and that was the dance concert or your mother dance to Camille Saint-Saens Carnival of the animals where she danced 3 dances and one of them was the turtle Ogden Nash is poetry come from my head with boughs of Myrtle. I know the tortoise is a turtle right and then there's this music and there she is on the stage and she's all curled up inside her shell and then the music starts and she goes up lifts her head and she looks to the left and she looks to the right and she as soon as she sees it safe. She spreads her flippers and she swim

31:06 And I wasn't the only person who took sad is a lot of people remember that Turtle so in our senior year.

31:17 Monday I'm walking it. There's snow on the hillside. We're above the cafeteria. There's a path walking across everywhere you go across campus. I'm walking one way. She's walking the other are we used to have this thing? It's worth my people would steal dining room trays out of the dining room in and go training sliding down the hillside on the Trey's somehow or another all the we barely knew each other we found ourselves on one tray going down. The hill is very close to graduation. And I am really never talk to her except to say hi and she started talking and she was very bitter about her time. It's worth more. She had not gotten into the honors program. She felt that she had chosen not to go news program and does she felt that she had made a mistake there and she's missed something and she felt that she had not gotten the education. She had hoped for

32:15 And I thought to myself very clearly. This is somebody I did not this is not the person. I thought you were that you are much more interesting than I thought you were and I'm not going to get close to this. You're too bitter for me and she and her roommate invited some people in for a party and we came across after just after we are married we came across the invitation list and she had put her name in my name on the same line at the party that after that she wrote in her journal to my mind because here we are at a party and suddenly she says I find myself sitting around her bed, and she's reading DH Lawrence poems.

33:15 She was amazing. She came back from Europe and she decided thing to do is to rent one of the rooms in in in worth Hall and show her slides to be what I thought. What is this weird person who thinks we want to see her goddamn slides, but actually was I was the first time I'd ever seen anybody's European slides that was really kind of cool, you know, and then I wrote a play for the one act play contest and she read it and she tried out for it and I had actually written it with the idea of someone else playing at main part. So she never had a chance. But she's like the play well enough so she sent it home to her parents. And so she remembers that moments of kind of owe.

34:02 Who is this person, you know and then we graduated and she went into the Peace Corps and she had a relationship with somebody a Dominican in the Dominican Republic and I went to graduate school and I had a series of kind of unsatisfactory relationships. And then the strike at Columbia happened in 1968. And I roast her position of some prominence in the Liberal Cup out wing and

34:36 And Julia been in the in the Dominican Republic all that time. Well, I mean, I think of the things that happened during that time hippies were invented and Martin Luther King was assassinated Bobby. Kennedy was assassinated horrible horrible things many many changes in the country. She came back from from the Peace Corps, and she had a little brother and her sister little sister and they they knew all this they were with it and she felt completely out of it, and she met some another classmate of ours who said that she'd seen me recently and so she called me up in July and I returned to call in December named to admit it.

35:19 And we went out on our first date. It was to the living theater The Living theater is made national news because they were so far out on The Fringe never such exciting kind of theater and we went to see their exciting play Paradise now in this huge a converted movie theater in the Bronx filled to the capacity and it was the most boring thing it is and I'm sitting next to this woman who starts chatting up the people around us and has people in front of us laugh and people next to us laughing and she's got her arm across the back of my chair.

36:12 It was like I had never been touched in. My life is just like I've never been touched before in my life.

36:26 She went home and wrote in her diary. I think I've just met the first man. I could marry. I went home and told my roommate he said how is the date I said, well, she's pretty superficial, but I think I want to see her again and after the second date.

36:42 I stopped Christmas at the end of December and we were married this next on August and simple.

36:59 For the first time in my life. I want some too low.

37:08 Impossible to tell that story about you.

37:13 I was going to ask you is the last question. I know you talked about that moment with Mommy putting her arm around you is as one of the moments that you would want to hold onto me know if if you if you can hold onto one memory of your life from eternity is is there anything else that you would want to know it was walking you and then Michael and then both of you to and from school, especially in the Autumn air was crisp and it was especially amazing with Michael because Michael never talked what happened today nothing. Where did you go nowhere but somehow or another he would get into this Zone walking to school with me holding his hand when he would talk and talk and talk and talk. I love that. I love.

38:03 Now if we could just combine those two things for eternity mommy with her arm across my back and knee Holding Onto You guys will enjoy

38:13 Good family is all thank you for telling me. Thank you for being you.

38:26 We lucked out.