Transcript

131:

The Kids Are Alright
Transcript

Originally aired 06.04.1999

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

When it comes to teenagers, we always get it wrong. Even in the most widely scrutinized, widely reported stories, we get it wrong. Take Tiananmen Square. This week is the 10th anniversary of the crackdown and the massacre there. And you think you know the story. Idealistic students trying to democratize their government. But in fact, it was more complicated than that.

Wen Huang

The majority of students were like me. I was a very typical student at that time. And our knowledge of what democracy was was really limited.

Ira Glass

Wen Huang was part of the student movement, first in Shanghai, where he was a graduate student at the time, then in Beijing at Tiananmen Square right up until the crackdown on June 4, 1989. And he says that for him and most of the students he knew, the movement was not about turning China into more of a democracy. He says students wanted the government to cutdown on corruption, do something about inflation, allow them to criticize the government without being thrown in jail or kept from good jobs.

Wen Huang

It never occurred to us that we wanted to overthrow the Communist government. It was like the Communist party was a God-given thing. And we were born with it. We're going to die with it. And the only way to make it work for us is just to have some modest reforms within the government.

Ira Glass

But Wen says that for most of the students he knew, most of the students in the movement, he believes, there was another motivation besides politics, an equally compelling, if not more compelling, motivation.

Wen Huang

It was really like a big party. I never heard about Woodstock until I came to the US.

Ira Glass

Woodstock, yeah.

Wen Huang

Woodstock. And then later on, I watched a video tape. And then suddenly, I realized that the student movement in 1989 was just like a big-- similar to the Woodstock experience.

Ira Glass

Why? What were you seeing that was similar in 1989 in China, in Tiananmen Square, and in Shanghai that was similar to what was going on at Woodstock?

Wen Huang

The festive atmosphere and the playfulness. And we were singing pop songs, and people playing guitars.

Ira Glass

It was exciting, Wen says. Midterms were coming up. Papers were due. And everybody would skip class together to go to demonstrations. This is not to say that there was not political idealism behind all this. There was. But as one of the best known student leaders, Chai Ling, said in an article in The New Yorker magazine commemorating the 10th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, the demonstrations, even the hunger strikes weren't primarily political as far as she was concerned. It was about a kind of sheer pleasure in living, she said, a rock and roll bravado. Wen Huang agrees.

Wen Huang

I think that was kind of accurate statement. I think there was more of an honest assessment of what's motivated us to take part in this movement. Because I noticed when I first came out here, the student leaders who escaped China--

Ira Glass

The student leaders who escaped, uh-huh.

Wen Huang

The student leaders who escaped China, when they came over here, they exaggerated the motivation. They portrayed themselves as such democracy fighters, as if they knew so much about democracy. And that has a lot to do with how Americans have this romantic vision of the Tiananmen Square movement.

Ira Glass

Of course, it goes further than this. We Americans have a romantic vision of what it means just to be a student, what it means to be young. And we ascribe a lot of motivations and meaning to what young people do that simply don't bear much relation to reality. Today on our program, we try to set the record straight with a few typical case examples. From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Today's program, The Kids Are Alright, stories in which people try to set the record straight about actions that adults seem to widely misinterpret. Act One, Where The People Walk Around Upside Down. A story about what you think you know about the 1989 student uprising in China versus what really happened. Act Two, When Czechs Bounce. The true tale of how young people's music in Czechoslovakia in the 1940s and '50s seemed to pose a threat first to the Nazi occupation, then to communist authorities.

Act Three, When We Were Animals. Someone who helped perpetrate high school violence when he was a teenager tries to find the blurry line that divides childhood prank from social pathology. Act Four, When We Were Angels, in which we hear the purest possible student uprising imaginable, the most innocent, documented by an actual student using the crude tools of telephone answering machine and shiny, red boom box. Stay with us.

Act One. Where The People Walk Around Upside Down.

Ira Glass

Act One, Where the People Walk Around Upside Down. Growing up in China, Wen Huang believed that China was an advanced country, a civilized country, which provided for all its citizens, not like those countries with poor people in them.

Wen Huang

I remember when I was growing up, each time I couldn't finish my meal, my mom always say, "Oh, you gotta finish your meal. Just imagine how lucky you are. People in America are starving." And of course, I heard the same thing.

Ira Glass

And of course, once you came to this country, everybody told you, "My mom would say to me, 'Yes, finish your meal because there are children starving in China.'"

Wen Huang

Yeah, I actually believed that. I remember that was our impression of America. We thought China was very strong. We felt very lucky to be under the socialist system.

Ira Glass

In a more advanced system, where that wouldn't happen.

Wen Huang

In a more advanced system, everybody's equal. And then suddenly, in the 1980s, when China opened up to the outside world, we suddenly felt that we were left behind. And there was the phrase saying that we were at least 30 or 40 years behind the United States and England. And we felt humiliated in a way.

Ira Glass

Students like Wen had friends who'd gone overseas, who'd seen that in Europe and America, the grocery stores had 30 different kinds of cookies, that it was fantastic prosperity abroad. Meanwhile, opening to the West meant the end of wage and price controls back home in China, and prices were skyrocketing. Wen remembers living on $10 a month American and watching the price of tomatoes climb from $0.01 a pound to $0.30 a pound. It just didn't seem like there was any kind of future to be had in China, anything to be idealistic about. That was what sent students to the streets, Wen says, not some idea of American-style democracy, which they didn't know much about anyway.

Wen Huang

We really had a mentality of "We could save this world." We were young. There was a Chinese phrase, saying, "A newborn calf doesn't know the danger ahead." That is exactly what we were. We felt like the whole future-- we could change the future. We could change the country. As how we're going to change it, we didn't know.

So we grew up watching these movies about the martyrs, for example, during the early communist movements, how people would face the bullets to die for a cause. And that really had the impact. We felt like we wanted to be part of it. I remember during the Cultural Revolution, thousands of Red Guards-- like my uncle and my aunt, they were Red Guards-- thousand Red Guards, they traveled hundreds of miles to Beijing to see Chairman Mao Zedong, who was the leader of the communist movement. He was like a living god.

And my aunt and my uncle told me that they were young, and they would walk hundreds of miles. And sometimes, when they took the train, the train was so crowded that people had to stand in the toilets for 7 or 8 hours or 20 hours. And also, people have to cram into the luggage rack just to go to Beijing to see Chairman Mao. And later on, during the 1980s, we found that was kind of stupid. The Red Guards, they really did a lot of damage.

But on the other part was the fantasy. I felt like, I wish I could live in that time to experience the excitement that my aunt and my uncle, they lived. Because each time they reminisced that, their voice started changing. They got excited. It's like part of the experience. I always felt like I wanted to be that part of experience.

That was why, when I was in Shanghai after the students' hunger strike, I felt like I really wanted to go where the action was. So I took the train to Beijing. I remember very clearly that on the spur of the moment, I said, "I want to go to Beijing." And my classmates said, "Let's go." And we had a bag, only had a toothbrush and several books. We never had the idea, "We need to change." We said, "We want to be a revolutionary."

And when we went to the train station, it was so crowded, there was no way we could get a ticket with a seat. So we just bought a platform ticket, and we snuck in. And when we got on the train, it was very crowded. And then I thought about the experience of my aunt and my uncle. I kind of hoped that the train would be so crowded that I had to go stand in the toilets for 20 hours to go to Beijing.

I just sat in the aisle, and I kept thinking, "Oh, this is not as exciting as my aunt and my uncle experienced." It's just the side of living the fantasy. And also, when I was in Beijing, when we heard the martial law, the troops were going to march in, my classmates and I, we were always wanting to talk, we said, "If the soldiers start shoot us, we'll walk hand-in-hand, and then just walk towards them, and then we may die as martyrs." The fantasies we got from watching the movies is so heroic.

Now, looking back, I thought I was very stupid. But then I still think it was a very important part of my life. I'm glad I did it.

Ira Glass

One of the actions that led up to the events in Tiananmen Square were the hunger strikes that took place in different cities, students in different cities, including in Shanghai. And that seems like a situation where students actually were putting themselves on the line and would starve themselves for days.

Wen Huang

Yes, I can say that when my best friend, we grew up in the same city, and he said, he was going to be on hunger strike. I said, "What is hunger strike? How are you going to do it?" He said, "Oh, you're just going to starve yourself."

And I was really touched since I went with him, I saw students, they had a massive sit-in in the square. And then those who were on hunger strike, they were in a special place. They were really serious. And the next day, I decide to help my friend.

So I brought some water, bottled water, and a quilt. And I went to the square to look for him. So I went over there. I couldn't find him anywhere. And also, I noticed that there were a lot of new faces. The students who were there the previous night were no longer there, a lot of them.

So I just went back to the school. And I was in the students' cafeteria. I found that he was eating a big bowl of noodle. I said, "Aren't you supposed to be on hunger strike?" He said, "Oh, after the first 12 hours, I was so hungry, I just couldn't stand it. And that's why. It was too much for me. I decided to come back." He said, "We're human."

Ira Glass

You're not saying that no one was sincere and that no one was striking.

Wen Huang

No, I'm sure there were a lot of people who were very sincere about that.

Ira Glass

And actually did starve themselves.

Wen Huang

They did starve-- a hunger strike. But a lot of people-- I come back to the point that because it was a big party and, also, it was such a big show, a lot of people join us. And we were young kids. They just started to go on hunger strike for the show. And then when nobody was looking, they go and eat something.

Ira Glass

Wen, do you think that when the Western press has tended to write about Tiananmen Square and the student movement that they've been more pious about it than it felt to be in that movement?

Wen Huang

I think that my general impression of the Western media, their coverage of Tiananmen Square is they tend to romanticize the movement. When I came over here, the first things, people started to call me "democracy fighter." I always cringe at that idea when people start to-- of course, I like the treatment.

I remember one day I was invited to talk about Tiananmen Square. That's the first year I was in Springfield, Illinois. I went to talk to a civic group about Tiananmen Square and human rights in China. And I had some pictures of me marching in Tiananmen Square.

So try to impress audience, I show them some pictures. And then the organizer of the speech immediately started to refer to me as "a democracy fighter." And then they all stood up and clapped hands. I felt like I was a hero. I kind of liked the treatment.

But then also, I felt obligated to tell them that I really didn't know anything about democracy at that time. So I just said, "I wasn't really a democracy fighter. I had no idea what democracy was." And they were little disappointed.

Ira Glass

Wen Huang is a freelance journalist here in Chicago.

Act Two. When Czechs Bounce.

Ira Glass

Act Two, When Czechs Bounce. If part of the impulse behind the Tiananmen Square uprising was the pure desire to feel like life had possibility, that the future had potential, that was the same impulse behind another movement among young people in Eastern Europe, back before the Berlin Wall fell. That movement was not, strictly speaking, political, though it took on a political dimension. It had to do with music. Josef Skvorecky wrote an essay about jazz in Czechoslovakia as a preface to his novella, The Bass Saxophone. That was also before the Berlin wall fell. We asked actor Ed Dixon to read an except for us here.

Ed Dixon In Josef Skvorecky's Voice

In the days when everything in life was fresh because we were 16, 17, I used to blow tenor sax very poorly. Our band was called Red Music, which, in fact, was a misnomer since the name had no political connotations. There was a band in Prague that called itself Blue Music. And we, living in the Nazi protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, had no idea that, in jazz, "blue" was not a color. So we called ours "red."

But if the name itself had no political connotations, our sweet, wild music did. For jazz was a sharp thorn in the sides of the power-hungry men, from Hitler to Brezhnev, who successively ruled in my native land. What sort of political connotations? Leftist? Rightist? Racialist? Classist? Nationalist?

The vocabulary of ideologists and mountebanks doesn't have a word for it. The essence of this music, this way of making music, is not simply protest. Its essence is something far more elemental, an elan vital, a forceful vitality, an explosive creative energy as breathtaking as that of any true art that may be felt even in the saddest of blues. Its effect is cathartic.

But of course, when the lives of individuals and communities are controlled by powers that themselves remain uncontrolled, slavers, czars, fuehrers, first secretaries, marshals, generals, and generalissimos, ideologists of dictatorships at either end of the spectrum, then creative energy becomes a protest. That is the way it is. Totalitarian ideologists don't like real life, other people's, because it cannot be totally controlled. They loathe art, the product of a yearning for life, because that, too, evades control. If controlled and legislated, it perishes.

But before it perishes, or when it finds refuge in some kind of samizdat underground, art, willy-nilly, becomes protest. Popular mass art, like jazz, becomes mass protest. That's why the ideological guns, and sometimes even the police guns, of all dictatorships are aimed at the men with the horns.

Red Music used to play, badly, but with the enthusiasm of 16-year-olds during the reign of the most Aryan Aryan of them all and his cultural handyman, Doctor Goebbels. It was Goebbels who declared, "Now I shall speak quite openly on the question of whether German radio should broadcast so-called jazz music. If by jazz, we mean music that is based on rhythm and entirely ignores or even shows contempt for melody, music in which rhythm is indicated primarily by the ugly sounds of whining instruments so insulting to the soul, why, then we can only reply to the question entirely in the negative." Which was the reason we whined and wailed, rasped and roared, using all kinds of wah-wah and hat mutes, some of them manufactured by ourselves.

But even then, protest was one of the lesser reasons. Primarily, we loved that music we called jazz and that, in fact, was swing, the half-white progeny of Chicago and New Orleans that our non-blowing contemporaries danced to in mountain villages out of reach of the Schutzpolizei, the uniformed security service. For even dancing was forbidden in the Third Reich, which was in mourning for the dead of the Battle of Stalingrad.

The revelation we experienced was one of those that can only come in one's youth, before the soul has acquired a shell from being touched by too many sensations. In my mind, I can still hear very clearly the sound of the saxes on that old, terribly scratchy Brunswick 78, spinning on a wind-up phonograph with the almost illegible label, "I've Got A Guy, Chick Webb And His Orchestra With Vocal Chorus." Wildly sweet, soaring, swinging saxophones. The lazy and unknown voice of the unknown vocalist who left us spellbound, even though we had no way of knowing that this was the great, then 17-year-old Ella Fitzgerald. But the message of her voice, the call of the saxes, the short wailing, weeping saxophone solo between the two vocal choruses, they all came across. Nothing could ever silence them in our hearts.

There was even a swing band in the notorious Buchenwald, made up, for the most part, of Czech and French prisoners. And since those were not only cruel, but also absurd times, people were put behind barbed wire because of the very music that was played inside. In a concentration camp near Wiener Neustadt, sat Vicherek, a guitar player who had sung Louis Armstrong's scat chorus in "Tiger Rag" and thus, according to the Nazi judge, defiled musical culture. Elsewhere in Germany, several swing men met a similar fate.

And one local Gauleiter issued an extraordinary-- really extraordinary in this world of ours-- set of regulations which were binding for all dance orchestras. I read them, gnashing my teeth, in Czech translation in the film weekly, Filmovy kuryr. And 15 years later, I paraphrase them, faithfully, I'm sure, since they had engraved themselves deeply on my mind, in a short story entitled "I Won't Take Back One Word."

One, pieces in foxtrot rhythms, so-called swing, are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands. Two, in this so-called jazz-type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy and life, rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics. Three, as to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones, so-called blues. However, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo, so-called hot jazz, or in solo performances, so-called breaks, be tolerated.

Four, strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit, so-called cowbells, flexatones, brushes, et cetera, as well as all mutes, which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Free-Masonic yowl, so-called wah-wahs, hats, et cetera. Five, all light orchestra and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violincello, the viola, or possibly a suitable folk instrument.

How naive we were, how full of love and reverence because Doctor Goebbels had decided that the whining Judeo-Negroid music invented by American capitalists was not to be played in the territory of the Third Reich. We had a ball inventing aliases for legendary tunes, so that they might be heard in the territory of the Third Reich after all. We played a fast piece, one of those forbidden "brisk" compositions, called "The Wild Bull," indistinguishable to the naked ear from "Tiger Rag." We played a low tune, "Abendlied" or "Evening Song."

And fortunately, the Nazi censors had never heard the black voice singing, "When the deep purple falls over sleepy garden walls." And the height of our effrontery, "The Song of Resetova Lhota," in fact "Saint Louis Blues," rang out one misty day in 1943 in eastern Bohemia, sung in Czech by a country girl, the lyrics composed so that they might elaborate on our new title for W. C. Handy's theme song, "Resetova Lhota is where I go. I'm on my way to see my Aryan folk."

In fact, we were fortunate that the local Nazis had never seen Chaplin's The Great Dictator, never heard the bullies sing about, "the Ary-- Ary-- Ary-- Ary-- Aryans." Neither had we of course. The song of "Resetova Lhota" was simply an indigenous response to Nazism. Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller. You name them, we knew them all. And yet, we knew nothing.

The hours we spent racking our brains over song titles we couldn't understand. "Struttin' with some barbecue." The definition of the word "barbecue" in our pocket Webster didn't help at all. What on earth could it mean? Walking pompously with a piece of animal carcass roasted whole?

We knew nothing. But we knew the music. It came to us on the waves of Radio Stockholm mostly since that was the only station that played jazz that the Nazis didn't jam. Far from Harlem, from Chicago, from New Orleans, uninformed and naive, we served the sacrament that verily knows no frontiers.

Then The Great War ended. I had the splendid feeling that finally, the beautiful age of jazz had arrived. My mistake. It took only a lean three years before it was back underground again. New little Goebbelses started working diligently in fields that had been cleared by the old demon. They had their own Soviet bibles, primarily the fascistoid Music of Spiritual Poverty by V. Gorodinsky and I. Nestyev's Dollar Cacophony.

Their vocabulary was not very different from that of the little doctor except that they were, if possible, even prouder of their ignorance. They characterized jazz and jazz-inspired music by a rich assortment of derogatory adjectives, perverted, decadent, base, lying, degenerate, et cetera. They compared the music to "the moaning in the throat of a camel" and "the hiccupping of a drunk." And although it was "the music of cannibals," it was at the same time invented by the capitalists "to deafen the ears of the Marshallized world by means of epileptic loud-mouthed compositions."

Unfortunately, these Orwellian masters soon found their disciples among Czechs, who, in turn, after the fashion of disciples, went even further than their preceptors, declaring wildly that jazz was aimed at "annihilating the people's own music in their souls." Finally, the aggressive theoreticians even organized a concert of model jazz pieces composed to order for the party's cultural division. It was an incredible nightmare.

Bandleader Karel Vlach, the greatest among Czech pioneers of swing, sat in the front row, going from crimson to ashen and from ashen to crimson again, probably saying a prayer in his soul to Stan Kenton. Beside him sat an unholy trinity of Soviet advisers on jazz led by, of all men, Aram Khachaturian, colleague of Prokofiev and Shostakovich, gloomy and silent. And next to them, a senile choir master using a hearing aid.

And yet, not even the emasculated musical monster presented to them satisfied the Soviet advisers. They criticized its "instrumental makeup" and described it as "the music of a vanishing class." Finally, the old choir master rose. We heard him add the final chord. "Now take the trumpet. Such an optimistic-sounding instrument. And what do these jazz people do? They stuff something down its throat and right where it sounds despicable, whining like a jungle cry."

After that, Vlach was unable to refrain from a few heretical remarks. If they didn't give him something better than Stan Kenton, said he, he would keep on playing Stan Kenton, which is perhaps what he did in the traveling circus to which he was shortly thereafter relegated along with his entire band.

In place of Kenton, they pushed Paul Robeson at us. And how we hated that black apostle who sang of his own free will at open-air concerts in Prague at a time when they were raising the socialist leader, Milada Horakova, to the gallows, the only woman ever to be executed for political reasons in Czechoslovakia by Czechs, and at a time when the great Czech poets, some 10 years later to be rehabilitated without exception, were pining away in jails.

Well, maybe it was wrong to hold it against Paul Robeson. No doubt, he was acting in good faith, convinced that he was fighting for a good cause. But they kept holding him up to us as an exemplary progressive jazz man, and we hated him. May God rest his hopefully-innocent soul.

The steel chariots of the Soviets swung low, and I left. Jazz still leads a precarious existence in the heart of European political insanity, although the battlefield has shifted elsewhere. But it is the same old familiar story. A spectre is again haunting Eastern Europe, the spectre of rock. And all the reactionary powers have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise it. Brezhnev and Husak, Suslov and Honecker, East German obscurantists and Czech police spies. Anonymous people hold underground Woodstocks in the same old obscure towns, gatherings often ruthlessly broken up by police, followed by the arrest of participants, their interrogation, their harassment, all the joys of living in a police state.

My story has drawn to a close. Das Spiel ist ganz und gar verloren. Und dennoch wird es weitergehen. The game is totally lost. And yet, it will go on. The old music is dying. Although it has so many offspring, vigorous and vital, that will naturally be hated.

Still, for me, Duke is gone. Satchmo gone. Count Basie has just barely survived a heart attack. Little Jimmy Rushing has gone the way of all flesh. "Anybody asks you, who it was sang this song, just tell them it was-- he's been here and gone." Such is the epitaph of the little five-by-five. Such is the epitaph I would wish for my books.

Ira Glass

An excerpt from Josef Skvorecky's essay "Red Music," which is collected in his book of essays titled Talkin' Moscow Blues. It was read for us by the magnificent Ed Dixon, an actor in New York City. He's now appearing on Broadway in The Iceman Cometh. Coming up, the most innocent childhood pranks in the world, and the least innocent, and why some people have a hard time telling one from the other. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. When We Were Animals.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, The Kids Are Alright. Stories about teenagers who take things into their own hands and what to make of them, which we bring you today in the 10th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. We've arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, When We Were Animals.

Now we turn to a different kind of student action. The high school shootings in Littleton, Colorado have sent parents and teachers looking for warning signs that the children in their lives might suddenly strike out in some way. But the dividing line between normal childhood anger, normal childhood aggression, on the one hand, and social pathology, on the other, is usually not too easy to spot. Paul Bravmann tells this story from his boyhood in a suburban neighborhood on the West Coast about the sheer human difficulty of spotting that line.

Paul Bravmann

There were six of us. Most nights, we sat around the living room at Gus and Jack's house eating Nutter Butters and watching movies on the Betamax. But there were other nights when we just had to get out and goof around. It started innocently enough, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer type of stuff. Like we'd go swimming on my neighbor's strip of private beach. Or we'd play these wild games of tag in the local graveyard.

There was our own small version of train hopping. We'd jump these slow-moving freight trains that carried apples, and car parts, and these fat tanks of chlorine gas through town, just ride them up and down the waterfront. Forms of play that bent the rules a bit. That's what made it exciting. That's what made us feel like our boyhood was the real deal.

But then the nature of our play began to change. I'm not sure why exactly. So I've been going back, trying to piece together the history of those years. I contacted four of my former friends, Jack, Philip, Gordon, and Chris. Called them up out of the blue after 15 years. Here are Philip and Jack.

Jack

I remember once we took a garden hose and fed it through the window of a neighbor's car, a neighbor that we found somehow unsavory, and turned on the garden hose, and let 'er go. So come morning time, she had a small aquarium instead of a car.

Philip

I remember one really disgusting prank is we all urinated into a five-gallon bucket for about a week until we had rancid stew of urine. It was so foul, you couldn't even go near it. But we somehow managed to put it in the back of a truck. And we drove around the island, looking for something or someone to dump it on. And we ended up finding some hapless person who was walking along the road in the middle of the night, fool that he was, and spilled this thing out the back onto him. That poor guy, going home reeking of piss.

Paul Bravmann

Around this time, we were also getting really into pyrotechnics. We graduated from fireworks to Molotov cocktails, homemade napalm, and pipe bombs. We had gotten our hands on a pair of CIA explosives manuals and just followed the government recipes. None of them were harder to make than a bologna sandwich.

At this stage, most of our pranks were property crimes. We blew up mailboxes. We tried to demolish a local monument, a real eyesore.

Even these early pranks didn't sit too well with me, but I kept my mouth shut. We had adopted this sort of punk rock pose that didn't give a rip about society or other people's feelings. Decent was suspect. Philip remembers the following scenario.

Philip

There was an overpass. Actually, it was a bridge. And it overlooked the water. And we had this idea of throwing rocks off the overpass onto passing boats. So we did that, attempting to hit a boat that was passing underneath. And I don't even know if we hit it or not. We couldn't tell because it was so far down.

But when we started arguing about whether that was a good idea or not, I was telling Gordon, "I just have a feeling. This guy working on his boat every weekend to try to make it polished and beautiful. And takes it out for an afternoon, and we drop a rock on it. That's just evil." And Gordon looking at me and saying, "Philip, I'm really concerned that you care at all about this person. I'm concerned that you have empathy for this person."

Paul Bravmann

One point I should make is that I'd never really had friends before. These were my first friends, and I was glad to have them. Didn't know how I got them, but intended to keep them. Once the pranking started, there was this slow pull, this strong, slow pull towards the most extreme acts we could imagine. It was like the pranks had their own logic that pulled us further and further.

Philip

It starts out with these common, little pranks that are fun and creative. And then, for some reason, it gets darker. And we are pushing each other further. We had done some pretty bad stuff. And it was just this one-upmanship attitude, where we were just trying to think of what would be the next bad thing that we could do.

And Chris came up with this idea. And he said, "You know, guys, I got an idea." Oh, when you-- thinking about the fact that we did these things is just-- Chris looked at us and said, "There's a black family that lives down the street. Let's go to their house and write 'nigger' on their door."

And none of us were racist. And none of us were white supremists. And none of us had any political motivation about anything like that. It just seemed like just the most anti-social thing we could do.

Paul Bravmann

I know this sounds god awful. Of course, it does. This time it was Gordon's turn to try and squash a really bad idea. He stood up to Chris, which was almost inconceivable because he was like our alpha male. And Chris backed down.

But Chris was the driving force behind our biggest property crime, the local power plant. It happened one night when the five of us were in Gordon's pickup truck. In the back were a couple lengths of heavy chain. Gordon and Jack tell the story.

Gordon

Chris was in the back of the truck. And he saw these chains. And as we were driving by the power plant, he had the idea that we should go and try to blow it up.

Jack

I remember Chris took the chain, which was the bigger of the two, and looped it in half and just tried to wing it over the fence at one of the transformers.

Gordon

And honestly, I didn't think that-- I thought this was a futile effort. I didn't think that it was going to do anything.

Jack

I couldn't have been looking directly at it when it connected, when the chain connected with the transformer. And I was blinded for a minute there. And the next thing I noticed was how dark it was in that already dark, rural area. But it was so dark because every street light was out. Every house light was out. It was real dark.

Gordon

That's when the fear set in on me. I thought, "I really want to get out of here because whatever we've done, it's serious. And this is really bad."

Jack

All I remember is Chris begging us to get going. "Let's get going." I don't remember anyone saying that they felt bad for having done untold-- I don't know how much damage-- how much that would have cost to repair. That must have been huge. But yeah, I certainly don't remember anybody expressing any remorse for it.

Gordon

And the whole way back, we were just talking about how crazy it was, and how people on life support systems could be suffocating, and that kind of thing. It was exciting.

Paul Bravmann

I point out here that most of us weren't seen as problem kids. When I wasn't out with my friends, I collected Chinese stamps, went to Hebrew school, practiced the viola, not that a sociopath can't play the viola. Then there came this point when their talk about pranks, if you could still call them that, shifted from property to people. This was the beginning of the end of us as a group of friends. Here are Philip and Jack.

Jack

We were trying to decide one evening what would be our next step in what we were going to be doing violent-wise. And objects-- destroying public property or private property was just not exciting enough anymore. And so we went out one night. We were driving around downtown. And we saw this staggering drunk.

Philip

And Chris got out of the car with his Taser. And he was acting really sweet to this guy and just chatting with him, being chummy. And the guy was smiling. And then Chris took the Taser out of his pocket or wherever and showed it to him.

And he said, "Look at this. Do you know what this is?" The guy shook his head. "Well, it's for doing this." And he put the Taser on the guy's arm or something. And it didn't knock him down. But it was, obviously, extremely painful. And the guy shrieked and pulled away.

Paul Bravmann

There was another time when Chris attacked a vagrant that mirrored a scene from the film A Clockwork Orange, which we watched and rewatched during those years.

Jack

He kicked him. I remember. And he did it in this overly dramatic way. And I remember laughing.

Philip

We were all exhilarated, and we were all laughing. I think we were in awe of what we had done. But because we didn't know how to talk about it, we were just laughing.

Jack

And then all of a sudden, I realized how twisted all that was.

Paul Bravmann

I was there in the car for the first of these incidents. I remember feeling trapped. I remember wanting out. That was it for me. I dumped my friends. I was surprised to hear it wasn't long after that everyone left for the same reason. The strange thing was that each of us thought he was the only one who reacted adversely to this new violence, that the others somehow enjoyed it.

When I started to hear about the Littleton shootings and when I started to hear about the shooters, the kind of kids they were, I found myself thinking about this ugly slice of my personal past, things I hadn't thought about in years. I found myself asking questions about who we were exactly. Here's Jack.

Jack

I turn on the TV, and I saw what was happening at Littleton and the descriptions of the kids that were coming out to the media were-- I remember thinking, "My god, that was us."

Paul Bravmann

This is Philip.

Philip

When I first heard about Littleton, there were these kids in trench coats. And I wore a trench coat. And there were these kids that called themselves The Trench Coat Mafia. And I don't think we had a name for ourselves, but we had that attitude. And I won't go so far as to say, "It could have been me." Because I never would have killed anybody. Maybe.

Jack

Definitely, I remember thinking that it's way too close to home.

Paul Bravmann

Philip.

Philip

I don't think there's any difference between what they did in Littleton and what we were doing. When Eric Harris decided to take a gun to school and kill his classmates, he was thinking the exact same way we were when we decided to stay out at night and mash people's mailboxes. Or when we decided to take that monument and destroy it. It was that same anger, inarticulate anger.

Paul Bravmann

Here's Gordon.

Gordon

I guess in some sense, what we were doing wasn't all that different. They took it way further, way, way further than we would. What they did was inconceiveable to us. But I suppose, if the circumstances in my life were a little different, I suppose that I could have walked over that line. But the circumstances of my life weren't that extreme.

Paul Bravmann

How are we supposed to think about Littleton? And how are my friends and I supposed to think about the awful things we did as kids? I usually hear people talk in two different ways about the kinds of trouble teenagers get into. Either they see it as a kind of innocent boys-will-be-boys joyride. Or they see it as social pathology. And they feel they have come down on one side or the other. Based on personal experience, I think I can say, it's a little of both.

Ira Glass

Paul Bravmann is a freelance writer living in New York City.

[MUSIC - "TOO SWEET TO DIE" BY THE WACO BROTHERS]

Act Four. When We Were Angels.

Ira Glass

Act Four, When We Were Angels. Let us end our program today with an example of the most innocent childhood prank, the most innocent student uprising imaginable. Hillary Frank is in graduate school, studying drawing at the New York Academy of Art. A few months ago, she mailed our radio show a story that she wanted to get onto the program.

She had recorded the interviews using her microcassette answering machine. And then she edited the interviews and recorded the parts that she said, her script, by dubbing and recording onto her shiny, red boombox. For all the crude sound quality, the story sounded remarkably like a story on This American Life. But for one reason or another, and time considerations, that unsolicited story never made it onto the radio.

This week, though, she has put together another story using the same style, which we added music to here at the radio station to make it fully sound like a story on our show. It is about an incident which 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 beginning of the school year. And we were 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'm 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 Giantman. 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 Giantman a booming voice.

Scott

I don't even know exactly. It was something like, "Behold, I am giant." Not even loud, but just weird and suggesting man-ness in a vague way. I don't know.

Hillary Frank

Scott asked his tallest friend, Podo, to act as Giantman'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 had picked a point in the bushes, Podo and I. We 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 running. What was so ridiculous about it was there was just a handful of people, and they were so spread out. But they were all coming towards me. It was like, what the hell am I doing here?

Hillary Frank

They decided to plan another Giantman appearance the following week. They posted more signs and told everyone they knew, "Go see Giantman. It'll blow your mind." Word spread quickly. And amazingly, they were able to keep it secret that they, themselves, were Giantman. 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 Giantman and chanting his name. It was like a political rally. Some of them carried signs that said things like, "We love you Giantman. Why are you here?" "Save us from ourselves, Giantman." "Nine feet of loving." And "Giant freak, go home."

Giantman made his way onto the quad, and the quad went wild. People came rushing out of their dorms to see what was going on. When Giantman 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 trying to think, "What was the most ridiculous candy that nobody every ate?" There was butterscotch there in some kind of cellophane wrapper. It looked like nobody ever was eating it.

Hillary Frank

Butterscotch became Giantman's trademark treat. When he ran out of things to say, he would revert to throwing candy. The fact of the matter is Giantman 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

Problem was, Podo would get really tired really quickly. He walked out really fast. He almost was running out. And he got really tired and didn't even know where he was going. It must have just looked absolutely idiotic.

Hillary Frank

So he couldn't see?

Scott

Yeah, 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

Giantman became a phenomenon. Enthusiasts wore "I love Giantman" t-shirts, which had silhouettes of a huge man with a bulging middle. There was once a parade across campus with noise makers and a trumpet to greet him. Another time, there were torch jugglers and bodyguards. Letters were written to the student newspaper pro and con Giantman. Teachers were mentioning Giantman in class. There was a discussion in an ethics course in which people who hadn't seen Giantman argued about whether or not we were exploiting a freak of nature.

Hillary Frank

Do you think that if Giantman 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. That's one of the things, I think, that was a big draw about it was that it didn't have any meaning. And for whatever reason, people were really drawn to that. If it had meaning or was trying to pitch some idea or something, it would seem less real, I think. There was really something fundamentally interesting and truthful about Giantman, I guess. There is something that people are drawn to that absurdity for whatever reason.

Hillary Frank

By the end, Giantman'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 know now?

Scott

Well, I'm an engineer.

Hillary Frank

What kind of engineer?

Scott

Computer engineer, designing computer circuits and things like that.

Hillary Frank

And do you have Giantman-like experiences today?

Scott

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

Hillary Frank

There's actually a recording of Giantman'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.

The Electric Fun Machine

[SINGING] The Giantman. Giantman. Nine feet tall. Giantman.

Giantman

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

Hillary Frank

And then Giantman threw butterscotch candy.

Ira Glass

Hillary Frank in New York.

Credits.

Ira Glass

A program note. Producer Alix Spiegel leaves our program today, and producer Nancy Updike goes to half-time for a few months, and then she will also leave, which means that this program is the last one made by the team that has done most episodes of This American Life since it began in 1995, the team of Elise, and Nancy, and our third producer, Julie Snyder. For me, I have to say, it is like knowing that Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman will never play together again. They are each amazing in their own way. And they are more amazing together.

This show that you hear on the radio every week is not mine. It is ours, the four of ours. I'm the front man, but the sensibility of the show is the four of ours. As you might expect, getting a radio program on the air each week is a little battle. And we feel about each other the way that any people who have been together in the trenches feel, namely, bonded for life.

We created this thing together, this show that has become so much larger than the sum of its parts. And we will always have that together. Nancy and Elise are both skilled reporters. You will hear them here and, I expect, on other public radio shows, though I have to say, I will miss the time that we have had together very much. It has been a very unusual and a very lucky thing, this time we've had together.

So This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.