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351: Return to Childhood

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Prologue

Ira Glass

Fifth grade. It was so long ago. Who can remember that far back? Two whole years.

Kayla Hernandez

I remember all of, like, the old things. Like, we used to read the book Harry Potter. And we made curtains.

Ira Glass

Harry Potter curtains.

Kayla Hernandez

And, like, they have new curtains now. And I look back at them, and I'm like-- I look at them and I'm like, wow, you know. It's changed. And I wish it was still there somehow.

Ira Glass

This is Kayla Hernandez, in seventh grade at the Pulaski School in Chicago. She says she actually visits her fifth grade classroom, room 211, and her fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Chan, fairly often, and reminisces about the past.

Kayla Hernandez

Recently I went through the shelves, and our books are still there. Like, Our America.

Ira Glass

You're talking about the book, Our America.

Kayla Hernandez

Yeah. You know, I'm reminiscing about when we used to read that book, and how it showed lots of racism.

Ira Glass

Back in fifth grade, she covered her copy of Our America with one of those paper book covers you get. It was her copy, though they're not allowed to write their name in the fronts of books at her school.

Kayla Hernandez

They had numbers, and my number, I think, was like, 30.

Ira Glass

So you did find book number 30?

Kayla Hernandez

Yeah, I did. I saw the book, and it was just there, without its paperback cover. And everything that was mine is not mine anymore. I think that's the hardest thing from switching to another grade, into another classroom and to another teacher. And there is new environments and new and different things to learn, and old memories to leave behind.

Ira Glass

20 years from now, 30 years from now, when you try to remember back to seventh grade, what do you think you're going to remember from this year?

Kayla Hernandez

I think I'll remember barely anything.

Ira Glass

Isn't that kind of strange, though, to think that you're going through all these experiences now that somehow are going to get wiped off the blackboard?

Kayla Hernandez

Yeah. But I even have that experience now. Like, I can't remember things from second grade. I see some things. Like, I remember this kid, he wrote this Valentine card for me. It's like, you're pretty as a rose. I don't know. Something like that. But I can't remember teachers really well like I used to.

Ira Glass

Do you feel sad about that, or is that OK?

Kayla Hernandez

I feel sad about that, because it's a part of me. It's like you don't even remember what's happened. It's kind of hard because it's been a part of you.

Ira Glass

When I asked Kayla which of her friends she wouldn't remember at all some day, it wasn't hard for her to answer.

Kayla Hernandez

Cynthia. I'll probably forget AlĂ­leni. I'll probably forget Diana and Maria. I'll forget Erica Sorio. I'll forget a whole bunch of people.

Ira Glass

She's not close to these kids or anything. But as she said their names, it was like watching them vaporize or something. Someday they'll just be gone, erased from the history of her life, like they had never been there in the first place.

We forget most of everything. And then sometimes we go back and try to remember. And there really is no predicting which people and places and moments we're going to be able to get back. Diana and Maria, they could still make the cut.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, "Return to Childhood," what you find and what you do not find when you go back.

Our show today in four acts. Act 1, Ich bin ein mophead. In that act, a 34-year-old man investigates who he was at nine years old and learns a thing or two he would just as soon not remember. Act 2, Punk In a Gray Flannel Suit, in which a mortgage broker discovers that the punk band he was in the '70s is hot in Japan and decides to leave corporate life for a little bit and go back on tour.

Act 3, Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres, David Ben Gurion, and Me-- an American teenager who dreams of someday being the prime minister of a nation where he does not even reside. Act 4, When We Were Angels, in which we hear the purest possible student uprising imaginable, the most innocent, documented by an actual student using the crudest tools-- a telephone answering machine and a shiny red boom box. Stay with us.

Act One: Ich... bin... ein... mophead.

Ira Glass

Act 1, Ich bin ein mophead. Alex Blumberg was a producer on our program for many years, and back when he was working here-- today's show is a rerun-- he made a decision to return to his childhood. He went searching for somebody named Susan Jordan, who he and his sister Kate and their parents knew for about a year when Alex was growing up in Cincinnati.

Alex Blumberg

These are the things that I remember about Susan Jordan. Me and her sitting in the back room and telling her about the day camp I went to that summer. I can't get myself to shut up. "And they had alligators and snakes," I can hear myself telling her. "And this one time, this one alligator got out, and the counselor had to catch it," and on and on like that.

Me and Susan flipping through one of those Time Life books-- Rock and Roll Through the Decades: The Sixties. She has long brown hair. She's incredibly skinny. It's 1975. She's wearing bell bottom Levis, a faded jean jacket.

She points to a picture of a bloated man in a powder blue rhinestone jumpsuit sitting cross-legged on a stage before a crowd of crying women. "That's my favorite picture of Elvis," she says. This information seems somehow personal and important.

Me and Susan riding in her car. I'm going through this phase where I'm trying to notice things. So when we pull up to a stoplight, I start trying to notice the guy in the motorcycle next to us. He apparently doesn't want to be noticed, especially by a peculiar nine year old staring at him through the passenger window. "What are you looking at," he sneers. I turn around fast and face the dashboard.

"Did he say something to you?" Susan asks. "What did he say to you?"

"Nothing. Uh, he didn't say anything. It's fine. Look, green light."

"Tell me what he said. What did he say to you?"

I stay silent. I know if I tell her what he said, she'll get out of the car and try to kick his ass, which scares me but comforts me too.

Susan Jordan was our babysitter. She watched my sister and me every day after school for a couple hours until our parents got home from work. We didn't know any adults like her, and we loved her. The summer before I started fifth grade, after being with us for a year, Susan got another job.

The last time I saw her was Christmas Eve 1982. I'm 16, a cashier at Thriftway Foods, a supermarket in Cincinnati where I lived. The place is packed. All 25 registers are going. People are lined up halfway to the back of the store. I look up, and there's Susan Jordan.

She smiles. We talk. She doesn't have many items, so I check them through as slowly as I possibly can. I can't recall one thing we say to each other, although I remember being distinctly disappointed to hear that she's married. She hands me some kind of business card, her husband's probably, something having to do with the building of redwood decks. She seems happy.

Meanwhile, there's a line of last-minute Christmas shoppers mounting behind her. I tell her to hold on. I'll try to get my break. We can catch up. She says great, and steps aside.

I keep signaling to my manager, but there's no one to relieve me. Five, 10, 15 minutes pass. I keep glancing behind at Susan, making apologetic gestures. I can still remember her standing there, holding her one bag of groceries, smiling back at me.

Finally she taps me on the shoulder. "I have to go," she says. "But I come in here all the time. I'm sure I'll see you around."

I worked at Thriftway for two more years. I never saw Susan Jordan again.

It drives me crazy that I never saw her again. If I hadn't run into her at the store, I don't think I'd care. But somehow having her play what to me seemed like a huge role in my life when I was a kid and then getting just a taste of what it would be like to talk with her as a peer, I've never forgotten that moment. I know it's ridiculous, but after years of thinking about her, imagining what she's up to, wondering if she ever thinks about me, I decided to find her.

[DIAL TONE]

[DIALING]

[PHONE RINGING]

I start with my only lead, the one former employer of hers that I know.

Alex Blumberg

Hi, mom.

Alex's Mom

Hi, Alex.

Alex Blumberg

Do you want to know why I'm calling?

Alex's Mom

I do. I do.

Alex Blumberg

You remember Susan Jordan, right?

Alex's Mom

Susan Jordan. Susan Jordan. Yes, it's ringing a bell, but I can't place it.

Alex Blumberg

She was our babysitter.

Alex's Mom

Oh, OK. Chicken Legs and Mophead.

Alex Blumberg

One of the many ideas that Susan introduced to our household was the concept of the nickname. I think that's all I want to say about Chicken Legs and Mophead. I'd gone to my mother to fill in gaps in my memory of Susan, but she didn't remember much more than I did.

Alex's Mom

She was a babysitter that really had more of a relationship with you two than she did with us. She seemed to have a very meaningful relationship with you, almost the kind of relationship that you might have with another adult. That was about the extent of it. And she never stayed around when I came home. She was out of there.

Alex Blumberg

What talking to my mom did do was make me look at my childhood memories from an adult perspective-- like, for example, what I remembered about her living situation.

Alex's Mom

I didn't get the impression that she was close to her family. I got the impression that she was very much out on her own very young. I think she must have been in the process of breaking with her own parents during that time.

Alex Blumberg

That's-- yeah. See, my memory is that, like, she was in high school, right? She went to Withrow.

Alex's Mom

Yeah, mm-hmm.

Alex Blumberg

But I also remember her living on her-- for some reason I remember her own house.

Alex's Mom

Yeah.

Alex Blumberg

And the reason I thought that she lived by herself was we went to some-- we went to her house or her boy-- we had to go pick something up somewhere, and we were in her car. This big blue Duster, I think it was. And her boyfriend was there, and her boyfriend had let the cats out, and they were gone. And she was furious.

And then I got in the car. And then she slammed the door. And I think we peeled out. And he was sort of standing-- you know, he was sort of standing there and trying to reason with her, and we were out of there.

Alex's Mom

Well, what did you think?

Alex Blumberg

It made me-- I think I felt sad for her. This is sort of in retrospect, but I think I had some sort of inkling of this idea at the time. I'm just sort of now realizing it. But I remember thinking that he was one of the few people that she had in her life, and she couldn't even really depend on him.

Alex's Mom

Yeah. You were probably right. She was a struggler. And you may have been at that point, at that moment, her only friend, you know?

Alex Blumberg

My mom didn't have any idea where I could find Susan, which made things difficult. Because A, Susan Jordan is a very common name, and B, it's probably not her name anymore. I called the county court records department to find all the Susan Jordans married in Cincinnati. My mom asked a friend who worked for the city to search all the Cincinnati birth records. I contacted high school alumni associations. I asked friends at high-powered newspapers to run background checks.

Finally, there was one former Susan Jordan who stood out. She seemed the right age. She was married, living in a Cincinnati suburb. She had a couple of kids. Her husband was a lawyer.

I got her number from information. And it wasn't until I sat down to call her that it hit me. A phone call from someone you babysat 20 years ago might not be a welcome surprise, but in fact strange and creepy. Here I am practicing sounding benign.

Alex Blumberg

One two, one two. Susan. Is this Susan Jordan? Is the Susan Jordan? Oh, god. Oh, god.

Finally, I made the call.

[PHONE RINGING]

Susan Jordan 1

Hello?

Alex Blumberg

Hello. Hi, is this Susan?

Susan Jordan 1

Yeah.

Alex Blumberg

Hi. My name's Alex Blumberg, and I'm calling from a radio program called This American Life. And this is probably a very strange phone call to receive, but I was wondering-- first of all, do you remember me?

Susan Jordan 1

No.

Alex Blumberg

It turns out there are a lot of Susan Jordans who don't remember me. A lot. One guy even called his ex-wife, a former Susan Jordan, and then called me back to tell me she'd never heard of me.

I was getting nowhere by myself. So I contacted a professional, one Irving Botwinick, a certified New York City private investigator. Three days after putting him on the case, I got a message saying he'd found her. I called him back.

Irving Botwinick

I called her this morning early, roughly around 7:30. I said, good morning, I'd to introduce myself. I said, my name is so and so, and I'm a licensed private investigator in New York, and I'm looking for someone that used to live in Cincinnati and went to a particular school there. And her name at the time was Susan Jordan.

And she said, that's me. And I said, OK. And I said, do you know anybody named Alex Blumberg? And right away, she-- yeah, I babysat for him. And the interesting part about the whole thing is she definitely likes you, remembers you, and she's going to call you.

Alex Blumberg

Hello, is this Susan?

Susan Jordan

Yes.

Alex Blumberg

This is Alex Blumberg.

Susan Jordan

Hi, Alex. How you doing?

Alex Blumberg

I'm doing OK. How are you?

Susan Jordan

Fine. Did you get my email?

Alex Blumberg

I got your email, yeah.

Susan Jordan

Oh, OK.

Alex Blumberg

And I called you at work, and then I realized that I'd also gotten this number from the private investigator.

Susan and I talked for over three hours on the phone, catching up, comparing notes. She asked about my sister and kids that used to live on the street and our old family dog.

Susan Jordan

How are you doing?

Alex Blumberg

I'm doing OK.

It was amazing how much she remembered and how much we remembered in common, even small incidents like the time that we were stopped at the traffic light and I stared too long at the guy on the motorcycle.

Susan Jordan

I think I remember that. Was it on Erie Avenue?

Alex Blumberg

Probably. Probably. And he said, did he say something to you? And I said, no, he didn't say anything to me. And you said, he said something to you, didn't he? And you were about to get out of the car and kick that guy's ass, I'm sure.

Susan Jordan

I think I can remember your face. I think you were sitting very still with your hands in your lap. Were you afraid?

Alex Blumberg

I was terrified. Yeah. I didn't know that he would notice me exactly. But, uh--

Susan Jordan

Well, don't worry. I would have taken him out. I had no fear, I'm telling you.

Alex Blumberg

Do you remember a time-- it was, like, maybe six or seven or eight years after you babysat us. And I was working--

Susan Jordan

The grocery store?

Alex Blumberg

Yeah.

Susan Jordan

Yeah, I remember. In Norwood, right?

Alex Blumberg

In Norwood, right. At the Thriftway.

Susan Jordan

Yeah, I remember. I guess you-- were you bagging my groceries, but I didn't recognize you?

Alex Blumberg

I don't--

Susan Jordan

And then you told me who you were, and then I did.

Alex Blumberg

Right, right. I think you said Mophead.

Susan Jordan

Oh my god. I did warp you. Do people still call you that?

Alex Blumberg

No.

Susan got married when she was still in college and went to work for the phone company as a repair person. She spent the next 20 years or so hanging from a telephone pole, she said. She hated it, but the money was good.

Around the time her first marriage ended, she finally got up the courage to quit and find work using her degree. She now teaches at a special school for mentally ill children. She lives in Florida with her second husband, and she seems happy.

Of course, when you dive back into the past like this, you find how partial and incomplete your memory is. First there are the facts you get wrong. Turns out Susan had been a college freshman when she babysat us, not in high school like I thought. My sister remembered she'd ridden a motorcycle. Also not true. And the guy who she got in the fight with over the cats, who in my mind was her hairy '70s boyfriend, turned out to be her roommate's boyfriend.

But besides the facts you change, there are the facts you completely omit. That fight over the cats, Susan had forgotten totally that I'd been there. And it was a little strange because my presence was the only thing she'd forgotten. Other details she remembered fine, even the names of the cats themselves.

Susan Jordan

Possom and Tom. We were hillbillies, remember? But I can't imagine what I took you over there for.

Alex Blumberg

I'm sure it was for-- you know, I think we were just running errands.

Susan Jordan

You're so lucky.

Alex Blumberg

It's funny, because I remember these very particular incidents, and that was one of them. And probably the reason I remember it is because it seemed very significant to you. I think I sensed as a kid that it was really upsetting to you because I think I felt at that time that you didn't really have very many people in your life at that point who you could trust.

Susan Jordan

Oh, I didn't have hardly anybody. My whole family moved out of town. I had no family at all. Let's see, I moved out the day I graduated from high school, and I was 17 because I started a year early. I just wanted out. And see, I had found out that I got the scholarship. I packed up that night.

Alex Blumberg

Why'd you want to get out so bad?

Susan Jordan

Because my family was dysfunctional. But my mom-- it was pretty bad.

The girl that I lived with-- at that time, she was taking a lot of drugs. And her boyfriend. And every time I would come home, they would always try to get me to take drugs with them or something. And I really didn't do it much at all. And it was tough to come home.

And I guess I must have been suffering a little bit. I really missed my little brothers and my little sister. And they were gone. And I was, I guess, maybe trying to substitute.

Alex Blumberg

I think maybe that's one of the reasons that I remember that we remember you so fondly, though, because I think it worked both ways. I think that we felt-- if that did make you feel closer to us, I think that we responded.

Susan Jordan

Well, I was desperately-- I guess I was looking for a family, really. But I mean, if only you knew, you probably wouldn't have hired me. But, I mean, people are complicated.

Now, what I really wanted to do was spend more time with your mom and dad. But I was terrified. I mean, I just couldn't do it. I was too shy. So a lot of times, it was-- I thought they were asking me to stay longer and talk, and I would just run out.

Alex Blumberg

I'm sure they were.

Susan Jordan

And they probably thought, what's wrong with her? But I just couldn't do it.

Alex Blumberg

So you sort of talk to us instead, it sounds like.

Susan Jordan

Yes. I was comfortable around kids because I had kids in my family.

Alex Blumberg

Every time the subject of her hard times came up, I hear a subtle hesitancy in Susan's voice. At first I thought it was embarrassment, but that wasn't it exactly. It wasn't until we had been talking for hours that I realized what it was. She was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

She hadn't forgotten that her past had happened. She'd just forgotten that I'd witnessed part of it. And her fear, it became clear, the one that had been gnawing at her our entire conversation, was that I was calling to say she had damaged me by exposing me to it.

Susan Jordan

I don't think I was too kind back then, because there was a lot of turmoil in my life and in my family. And that's what my fear is, that I might have had some kind of negative impact on people. And I know probably I did on a couple people, but they were my age.

But you just want to remember, yeah, I was a babysitter. The kids love me. Blah, blah, blah. But I would be devastated if I heard anything different.

Alex Blumberg

There are parts of your past you don't want to go back to, parts of yourself you don't want to go back to. And for Susan Jordan, the year of her life that I remember is a year she'd just as soon forget.

And it turns out, I had also done my best to forget what I was like that year. I didn't think of myself this way at all, but Susan Jordan reminded me, in the gentlest terms possible, when I was nine, I was anxious and bookish. I was kind of uptight.

Susan Jordan

Not to seem as an insult, but I just kept thinking, these kids don't know how to play. When I went to your rooms, it didn't seem like you had a whole lot of toys. I hope I've got this right, but it just seems like there were mostly books and more educational things.

I mean, I remember you had planets in your room and a chemistry set. And I didn't remember that Kate had hardly any dolls. You didn't seem quite as playful as other kids that I had babysat. Just more serious in general. So mainly, I think that's what I did, was try to play.

Alex Blumberg

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this whole story is how little our memories had deceived us about each other, even if they had deceived us about ourselves. As Susan said at one point, each of us remembered what we needed to about the other. I needed to remember the part of Susan that she doesn't think about much, her toughness in the face of hardship. She said she mostly remembered a side of my family that I just take for granted-- that it was calm in our house, that there were books, there wasn't much fighting.

Susan Jordan

It was the first time in my life where I had ever seen that people lived differently than the way I lived. And that's what I decided I wanted for myself.

Alex Blumberg

You can try to return to childhood by looking at photos or visiting the old neighborhood or listening to recordings. Or you can find someone who knew you back then, someone you haven't seen since. They still carry within themselves a picture of you that's unclouded by the years in between. They'll remember you better than you remember yourself. And you can do the same thing for them.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg. He did that story back when he was a producer here at our show. Now he runs a podcasting company called Gimlet Media, and he's the host of the podcast Without Fail.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "BROOKLYN ROADS" BY NEIL DIAMOND]

Act Two: Punk In A Grey Flannel Suit

Ira Glass

Act 2, Punk In a Gray Flannel Suit. For a long time, David Philp was the president of a mortgage brokerage firm in Beverly Hills. As you might imagine, in Beverly Hills, they handle rather large mortgages. He dresses in beautiful clothes. He's clean cut.

But back in the 1970s, in England, where he grew up, he was in a punk band called the Automatics. They were never really a big commercial success, but they were respected and known in the history of punk by people who care about that kind of thing. And a few years back, through an odd series of connections, he ended up revisiting his teenage years for the first time by going back on tour in a version of his band in Japan. Here's how something like that happens.

David Philp

I mentioned it to a client. And I said, well, you know, I played in a punk group when I was a kid. And he said, oh, really? And he's interested.

And the next day, he sent me a copy of an eBay auction and said, is this you? And I sort of-- so, it was. And I watched this auction. And I watched this price shoot through the roof. And then I began to realize, wait a minute. I'm collectible.

Ira Glass

Let's get down to brass tacks here. How much were you guys?

David Philp

I think that one actually went at $48. I particularly liked looking at all those sort of other groups that were going at $0.25. You know, music business offerings along punk lines that I thought, what a load of old nonsense, at the time. And it was good to see that their records weren't valued years later. I mean, it was--

Ira Glass

Wow. That history came out on the right side.

David Philp

Yes. That there is a sort of Darwinism in record collecting.

Ira Glass

What happened next?

David Philp

I went to go and see Ricky, the drummer. And Ricky collected everything. And he very kindly lent me these two scrapbooks. So I took pictures and things out of there. I just put it up on a-- had a friend put it up on a website.

And then I got an email from Fi-Fi in Japan saying, oh, I play in a Japanese punk rock band, and--

Ira Glass

Fi-Fi's a name of a person?

David Philp

Yes. And your record changed my life. And he found out through the website that there was an unreleased album. So he asked if he could put me in touch with Toshio Iijima of Base Records. We struck up a deal. And then they said, well, would you come over here and play some gigs to, you know, promote?

Ira Glass

So you go to tour. How old are you at that point?

David Philp

45.

Ira Glass

45 years old. A little bit of gray hair coming in, perhaps?

David Philp

A little bit of gray hair coming in. And I really wasn't sure whether I'd still be able to do it, because I hadn't played those songs in 22 years. Not in my shower, not to anyone. I mean, prior to being married-- I mean, I remember dating women for a year who never knew that I played, had ever played.

Ira Glass

It wouldn't even come up?

David Philp

It wouldn't come up, really. I mean, I'd have a guitar hanging around, but lots of other guys did too.

Ira Glass

Would you ever pick up the guitar and play for yourself?

David Philp

Yes. I wrote a lot of songs for my dog during this period.

Ira Glass

Really? Some of the titles would be?

David Philp

"We're Going to the Park" was a big favorite.

Ira Glass

To be followed by that hit, "Who's a Good Boy?"

David Philp

"Oh, What a Good Boy" is actually a--

Ira Glass

It is.

David Philp

[PANTING] (SINGING) What a, what a good boy!

So we went over there, what, October 6. I took my wife, which possibly was a miscalculation. No, it was a good thing to take my wife, because--

Ira Glass

You were approached by dozens of teenage girls?

David Philp

I was getting stopped on the street.

Ira Glass

So what happened the first night you went onstage?

David Philp

Well, there was just the announcement, the light, and sort of a moment's silence, which lasted forever.

[CROWD CHEERING]

And then sort of out at the back, I heard the opening riff of "When the Tanks Roll Over Poland." And there was just this whole ignition of energy from the club, in front. And all these kids just started going mad. And it just clicked right in.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

It felt like I was in an Automatics cover band or something like that, because it was so long ago I didn't feel that association as the writer, though-- because I wrote the material and all that. I didn't have that association as the writer anymore.

Ira Glass

See, but I would wonder if, as you sing the songs, the conviction of the writing returns to you and you remember all of the feelings of it. Did that happen?

David Philp

There's a muscle memory that was there. You know, the movements are all locked in the lyric and the beat and the parts. And as I played them, they all started to come out. And it was just like a sort of-- like being a marionette or something. Here you punch the air. There you sort of bring it, remind the drummer to come down. And there you point at the guitarist for the solo.

Ira Glass

Had you've forgotten the thrill of being onstage?

David Philp

Yes, I'd forgotten what it was to have the audience right there.

Ira Glass

Before this, had you ever performed a punk show sober?

David Philp

Never. Well, unless I was taking the antibiotics. Not unless I--

Ira Glass

There's so much information contained in such a brief sentence.

David Philp

No, it actually was one of the great paradoxes, really, I suppose, that it was great to do it sober.

Ira Glass

Were there moments onstage where you felt your age, where you just thought, oh, hey?

David Philp

Towards the end, you really feel yourself. Because it's like a sauna up there. I mean, there's so much energy going around, and it's louder than bombs.

Ira Glass

So your wife had never seen you do this before. There must have been a part of you which felt so pleased that she could see it.

David Philp

Yes. I felt kind of like I'd become this other person. And when I was over there, my life over here seemed to have a sort of almost dreamlike substance. And then, of course, as soon as I got back, the events in October in Japan just began to assume that sort of mantle of dream. I did three shows-- two in Tokyo and one in Kyoto.

Ira Glass

And all three, just great?

David Philp

All three sold out. In Kyoto, we set a club record for the largest attendance ever. And it was so packed we couldn't actually get off stage. The only way out was over. I had to sling myself over the audience, and they carried me on their hands back through the crowd and gently deposited me at the stage door.

Ira Glass

So this is your last gig? That was your last gig?

David Philp

Yes.

Ira Glass

And it ended with the entire audience lifting you up and passing you bodily out and gently depositing you out of the club?

David Philp

Well, not out of the club but to the stage door, yes. It was amazing.

Ira Glass

I don't think I've ever really been lifted by a mob of teenagers and people in their 20s. What exactly is that like?

David Philp

Well, in Kyoto I felt pretty good about it. I'm not sure how I would have felt about it in London in 1977 where the scene was incredibly violent. Whenever you played, you were just as likely to get beaten up as you were to get paid.

Ira Glass

Describe what it was like to come back after the tour.

David Philp

It was hard for me to get motivated again to do my business after the tour.

Ira Glass

It just wasn't as thrilling as being on a stage in front of cheering--

David Philp

Well, not many things are. And it's a bit like-- you know, my dad's generation. You know, after sort of growing up as a kid, being fired on in World War II and all that kind of stuff. It was kind of hard getting it up for working in the shipping industry again. Shortly after I got back, Steve Lillywhite was in town.

Ira Glass

And that is?

David Philp

He was the original producer. And he was also my roommate at the time that all the Automatics stuff was going on. And now he's incredibly successful. He does U2, Dave Matthews, and all that stuff.

And anyway, he was in town, he had some time. And so we hung out together for a couple of days. And Hunter was off.

Ira Glass

Hunter, your wife.

David Philp

Yes. Hunter, my wife. So we got to hang out. And we talked a little about the old days. And he told me, you know, Big Paul from Specs does catering. And Nigel from the members is in Australia now. And Walter from the Heartbreakers, he's a stockbroker in Manhattan.

So I think I got to see, we don't get what we deserve. We get what we get. And we have to be OK with that.

Ira Glass

David Philp, lead singer of the Automatics. David is still writing music. He's released several albums since we first did this interview a few years back. A couple of those new songs even became number one hits on the UK charts. His latest album, West of Wherever, comes out in November.

Coming up, a fascinating day in the life of a future prime minister, maybe. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, "Return to Childhood," stories of people revisiting the past, what they find there, what they do not find there. We first aired today's show a few years back.

Act Three: Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres, David Ben Gurion, And Me!

Ira Glass

We've arrived at Act 3 of our show. Act 3, Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres, David Ben Gurion, and Me. Sometimes when we revisit our childhood, it is not very pleasant what we find. Take, for example, our next guest. When he was a teenager, he started reading the biography of David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel. And one of the things that he learned is that all of his life, David Ben Gurion kept a diary. And the whole package seemed like a good idea-- the job, the diary.

Adam Davidson

"December 3, 1986, Wednesday. Another fascinating day in the life of Adam Davidson. I have a math test tomorrow. I'm going to school early to tutor a girl in my class for the aforementioned test.

"My math class, a joint pre-calculus and calculus class, consists mainly of seniors not especially interested in learning. I guess that I'm the, quote, class expert, unquote, in that I always do the math problems which no one else can. And for this, I'm disliked. I guess that because I apply myself, think clearly, and do a little work as well as some intelligence helping out, I am a geek. In truth, I am far from it."

Ira Glass

When you first read that to yourself, when you first saw it, your reaction was?

Adam Davidson

It was pure horror.

Ira Glass

Recently, Adam Davidson, an occasional contributor to our program, found his old high school diaries. Adam's mom is Israeli. His dad is American. Adam grew up in New York. Well, his body was in New York. His brain, as the diaries reveal, was somewhere else entirely.

Adam Davidson

I remember when I was writing it, I remember very clearly-- although I don't say this in the diary-- that it was very clear to me that this was the diary of the future prime minister of Israel, me, that I would one day be prime minister, and it would be very important for history, for people to know the deep thoughts of a young Zionist as he prepared his way to lead his nation.

Ira Glass

Now, our regular listeners here on This American Life might remember that you've been on our program describing your experience in Israeli army summer camp.

Adam Davidson

That was right before I started writing this diary.

Ira Glass

Read me another.

Adam Davidson

Sure. Let's see. "There's so much wrong with Jews and Israel that I'm going to have a job ahead of me. One thing is the lack of any strong Jewish identity among most Jews. This attitude sickens me.

"You Jews of the world, stop worrying about money and well-being. I do not know what exactly I'll do. But if this situation continues when I'm a bit older, then watch out, world Jewry, here comes Adam." And "Watch out, world Jewry, here comes Adam" was all in capital letters.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Adam Davidson

Yep.

Ira Glass

It's interesting that you actually are addressing a readership.

Adam Davidson

I know. I know. That's what's kind of amazing.

Ira Glass

And that readership is world Jewry.

Adam Davidson

Right. Yeah. The Jews of the world will one day read this book and will say, if he knew this at 16, how could I be living so badly?

Ira Glass

Can I ask you to just read one of the passages where you talk about Israel?

Adam Davidson

Sure. Let's see. I mean, I have this thing from January 4, 1987.

"I memorized 'The Hope,' 'Hatikvah,'" which is the Israeli National anthem, "a few minutes ago. That will help me in Israel." And I find that really amazing that here I am, the future prime minister of Israel, and one of the things I need-- oh God, I need to know the national anthem. I'll probably be called upon to recite that at some point.

Ira Glass

There will be a ballgame or something where you just stand up and sing it.

Adam Davidson

Right, exactly.

"January 14, 1987. Wednesday. I'm getting more and more angered by the effects of Arab propaganda. They blame the Jews for everything. And the world, including Jews, go along with it. Entirely ridiculous."

I mean, I really thought this was a testament for the ages. I really thought that this writing was powerful and persuasive, and anyone who would read it would immediately become a Zionist.

At 16, I had such an inflated sense of myself. There was so much going on in my life then that I can remember, and I wasn't recording it. Instead, I was creating this ridiculous fantasy of, you know, I'm not just a 16-year-old kid who's having crushes and a hopeless geek who can't get a girl to kiss him and being scared and confused about growing old. I'm the future prime minister of Israel, and everything goes through that. But I don't know. I mean, just--

Ira Glass

But maybe keeping a diary where one tells the truth, maybe that's a luxury of being a certain kind of person in a certain kind of situation. Maybe other people in another kind of situation need to actually make up a little fantasy.

Adam Davidson

Yeah. I think I didn't have much angst about being the future prime minister of Israel. I was very calm and confident and comfortable with it. And I had so much angst about every other aspect of my life. And so I now see it as just kind of-- maybe it was a good solution. It was a good way to deal with what I was going through, to have this space where I could just be one of the greats.

Ira Glass

I wonder what the 16-year-old Adam Davidson would feel in knowing that finally an audience of a million people was getting some of the reading from this diary.

Adam Davidson

I think this would feel so small to that 16-year-old. This would feel so nothing. I mean, I remember I was very disappointed and very sad about my parents. I mean, I was reading biographies, of course, of all the prime ministers of Israel.

And I would just think about my parents and just think, how do you wake up every day knowing that your actions won't affect millions of people? Like, how is that enough motivation just to have your petty little craft and your petty little family and your small little apartment? You know, it just seemed pathetic. And I mean, they have the kind of life that, I mean, basically I want my for myself.

Ira Glass

What you're saying, though, is that the 16-year-old you would be cringing at your 30-year-old version, just as your 30-year-old version is cringing at the 16.

Adam Davidson

Yeah, that's very true. Yeah, he would be very, very disgusted if he heard this radio piece. It would seem like I had settled in a pathetic way.

Ira Glass

Adam Davidson. These days, he's a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Act Four: When We Were Angels

Ira Glass

Act 4, When We Were Angels. This story originally came to us from a graduate student. Hillary Frank was studying drawing at the New York Academy of Art, and she mailed our radio show a story that she wanted to get onto the program.

And what she had done is that she had recorded the interviews using her little microcassette answering machine. And then to edit the quotes that she had gotten, what she would do is that she would record by dubbing and recording onto her shiny red boombox. It was crude, yes, but the story sounded remarkably like a story from This American Life.

Now, for one reason or another and time considerations, that unsolicited story never made it onto the radio. For this week's show, however, we had her put together another story using that same style which we added music to here at the radio station to make it fully sound like a story on our show. It's a story about an incident that happened to her back when she was an undergraduate.

Hillary Frank

Tufts University is a pretty straight place. Entertainment for most people means fraternity keggers. It's not the sort of place you'd expect people to watch a guy sitting on another guy's shoulders pretending to be a giant. It happened by accident in 1994. My friend Scott was the top half.

Scott

It was the beginning of the school year, and we were kind of bored one night. And we decided to go up to the quad. And I guess basically Jeff got up on someone's back, and he started yelling and screaming about how giant he was, and how magnificent he was.

And I think actually right after that I might have gotten on someone's back and said, yeah, I am also giant. And I guess that really struck a chord in me. I thought that was pretty amusing. I guess I thought a lot about it. It actually did start me thinking along a particular path.

Hillary Frank

Scott talked about the idea one night in the dining hall. The next day, on the way to class, he saw signs all over campus that said in bold print, "I am nine feet tall. Come see Giant Man, 8:00 PM on the quad."

Scott had no idea who put them up. He learned later that the signs were posted by a guy who had overheard him talking at dinner. Scott decided he would go to the quad at the specified time and undertake the challenge. To pull this off, he would need to create a character and a costume for the giant. He gave Giant Man a booming voice.

Scott

I don't even know exactly. It was something like, you know, behold! I am Giant! Just this-- not even loud but just kind of weird and suggesting man-ness in some vague way. You know? I don't know.

Hillary Frank

Scott asked his tallest friend, Podo, to ask as Giant Man's legs. They grabbed some props before heading up to the quad-- a blanket to wrap around their middle to hide Podo, a long wooden staff, and a black curly wig, like the guys in Kiss.

Scott

We picked out a point in the bushes, Podo and I, and we kind of really couldn't see what was going on out on the quad. And so the time came, and I got on his shoulders, basically, and tied the blanket around my waist, and we walked out.

And I remember there just being maybe 10 people, 15 people. And I remember them being way on the other side and sort of running. And what was so ridiculous about it was, there was just a handful of people. And they were so spread out, but they were all sort of coming towards me. It was like, what the hell am I doing here?

Hillary Frank

He decided to plan another Giant Man appearance the following week. They posted more signs and told everyone they knew, go see Giant Man, it'll blow your mind.

Word spread quickly, and amazingly they were able to keep it secret that they themselves were Giant Man. Most students believed there was an actual nine-foot man come to Tufts for some mysterious reason. I was friends with these guys, and I didn't even know yet.

At the next appearance, almost 200 people were waiting for Giant Man and chanting his name. It was like a political rally. Some of them carried signs that said things like, "We love you, Giant Man," "Why are you here," "Save us from ourselves, Giant Man," "Nine Feet of Lovin'," and "Giant freak, go home."

Giant Man made his way onto the quad, and the crowd went wild. People came rushing out of their dorms to see what was going on. When Giant Man reached his fans, he made a small speech. "I am giant," he boomed. "I am huge, and I have brought you butterscotch." He then threw cellophane-wrapped butterscotch to the crowd, and they dove for it.

Scott

On the walk up, I just stopped in the bookstore and saw some candy. And I was starting to think, what was the most ridiculous candy that nobody ever ate? And there was butterscotch there and some kind of cellophane wrapper. It looked like nobody was eating it.

Hillary Frank

Butterscotch became Giant Man's trademark treat. When he ran out of things to say, he would revert to throwing candy. The fact of the matter is, Giant Man had very little to tell the Tufts community other than, "My strength is amazing, my girth is enormous, and my height is unequaled." He would brag like this for only two or three minutes and then retreat back to the bushes.

Scott

The problem was Podo would get really tired really quickly. Like, he walked out really fast, like he almost was running out. And he got really tired and didn't even know where he was going. And he kind of just-- I mean, it must have looked absolutely idiotic.

Hillary Frank

So he couldn't see?

Scott

Yeah. I mean, his eyes were covered. I remember, I would sit on his head and I would put both my hands on his head, kind of give him direction by maybe forcing his head in a certain direction.

Hillary Frank

Giant Man became a phenomenon. Enthusiasts wore "I Love Giant Man" T-shirts, which had silhouettes of a huge man with a bulging middle. There was once a parade across canvas with noisemakers and a trumpet to greet him. Another time there were torch jugglers and bodyguards.

Letters were written to the student newspaper, pro and con Giant Man. Teachers were mentioning Giant Man in class. There was a discussion in an ethics course in which people who hadn't seen Giant Man argued about whether or not we were exploiting a freak of nature.

Scott

I remember, I was out there. There was this guy that I kind of vaguely knew who was there with a bunch of his buddies. I guess we were from the same fraternity or something. And they were jumping around and stuff. And they're saying, yeah, we're going to take Giant Man down.

When I went out there, I was talking for a little while. And I saw him. He was sort of right behind me, or they were coming up from the side, him and his buddies.

And I remember him just sort of coming up and starting to pull on my sheet and stuff. And one of them tried to push me. And Podo, who could barely stand as it was, after walking out there and with me on his shoulders, he was sort of shaking a little bit and managed to stay on his feet.

I remember just sort of offering them butterscotch and just screaming about how much I loved them. And they just kind of took off, and it was over.

Hillary Frank

Do you think that if Giant Man had been an actual political cause that you would have gotten such a big turnout and there would have been such a big deal about it?

Scott

Yeah, I doubt that. I mean, if there was really-- that's one of the things I think that was a big draw about it was that, you know, it didn't have any meaning. And for whatever reason, people were really drawn to that. I mean, if it had meaning or was trying to pitch some ideas or something, it would kind of seem less real, I think. I mean, there was really something fundamentally interesting and truthful about Giant Man, I guess. I mean, there is something that people are drawn to, to that absurdity, for whatever reason.

Hillary Frank

By the end, Giant Man's following had grown to about 350 people. I don't think any of us have had any experience like it since. When you're a student, it still feels like something exciting might happen at any moment. Life feels full of all this potential. But when you get out of school, that potential just doesn't seem to be there.

Hillary Frank

What do you do now?

Scott

Well, I'm an engineer.

Hillary Frank

What kind of engineer?

Scott

A computer engineer, designing computer circuits and things like that.

Hillary Frank

And do you have Giant Man-like experiences today?

Scott

No. I mean, not really. I'm not parading around talking about my magnificence.

Hillary Frank

There's actually a recording of Giant Man's final public appearance. There was a band called the Electric Fun Machine that dedicated a song to him, and he appeared with them at a concert on the quad.

Electric Fun Machine

Giant Man! Giant Man! Giant Man!

Giant Man

Students of Tufts, fear me not! For I am the benevolent Giant Man! I have come to show love! As a symbol of my benevolence, I shall once again shower you with--

Hillary Frank

And then, Giant Man threw butterscotch candy.

Ira Glass

Hillary Frank. In the years since she first did this story for us, she has created many radio stories and a podcast called The Longest Shortest Time, which is about parenting. Her most recent book is Weird Parenting Wins.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "SEPTEMBER SONG" BY BRYAN FERRY]

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, today's program was produced by Jonathan Goldstein and myself with Alex Blumberg, Starlee Kine, Aaron Yankee, and Annie Baxter, and mixed by Jared Ford and Catherine Raimondo.

Senior producer of today's show was Julie Snyder. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Production help from Anna Martin. Musical help today from Mr. John Connor. Special thanks today to Lawrench Weschler, Lacey Kine, Craig Danwire, and Anaheed Alani. This American Life is distributed by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he's been rereading the Bible and talking about it with me in the break room. I don't know about his interpretation of the Bible. Like, OK. God creates two people to live in the Garden of Eden. I really don't think he says--

Adam Davidson

Watch out, world Jewry. Here comes Adam.

Ira Glass

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

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