Transcript

14:

Accidental Documentaries
Transcript

Originally aired 02.21.1996

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/14

Prologue.

Different Voices

From PRI, Public Radio International. From PRI, Public Radio International. From PRI, Public Radio International. Public Radio. Public-- Radio International. Radio International. One more time.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

A few years ago, I was putting together a story about a high school senior prom. And after the prom, I tagged along with two couples in a Ford Tempo, as they drove around, going to parties, talking, and joking, and singing along with the radio. We drove to pick up a friend of theirs at her house, but all the lights at her house were off, and nobody seemed at home.

Girl 1

Wait, this isn't her house. This isn't her house.

Girl 2

Yes, it is. Her car's right there.

Girl 1

Really? I don't remember this being her house. Is it?

Boy

You guys have been friends for such a long time, you don't even know where her house is, man.

Girl 1

Hey, hey, this is her new house, all right?

Boy

All right?

Ira Glass

A word now about doing documentary stories. When you're doing this kind of story, this is pretty much exactly the kind of moment that you dream of. Everybody's acting the way they act when there's no tape recorder present. It's intimate. It's alive.

You feel like you're hearing these people as they really are even though there is a tape recorder and a boom microphone, a huge one, a foot and a half long, and a stranger. And to get to this point, you have to spend hours with people, get them used to you, get them to the point where they're actually bored with being recorded. And I tell you all this really only as a prelude to telling you this story.

A while back, a guy named Joe Silovsky bought some old reel-to-reel tapes at a Salvation Army thrift store. And he took them home. And one of those tapes had exactly this quality tape on it, like in a really good documentary, that is, the people spoke the way that they really talk in real life. It was intimate. And it completely revealed what the people speaking were like.

And hearing that tape gave us the idea for today's program, that we're going to devote the whole show to three stories made out of found tape like this. Accidental Documentaries, we call them.

Act One takes place 30 years ago in Michigan. Act Two happens 40 years ago in my hometown, Baltimore. And Act Three happens 25 years ago here in Chicago. Stay with us.

Act One. Berrien Springs, Michigan, Circa 1967.

Ira Glass

Act One, Berrien Springs, Michigan. The tape that Joe Silovsky found is from 1967. It came in one of those boxes. I don't know if you remember these boxes that reel-to-reel tape came in in the '60s, and '70s, and '80s. And it fits two hours of tape. It's not that big. It's nine-inch reel of tape, two hours of tape.

And the box had stamps all over it, and addresses written, and crossed out, and written. And what it was was a letter on tape between this family in Michigan, the Davis family, and their son, Arthur, Junior, who was in medical school in Loma Linda, California. And the tape is interesting because it documents pretty thoroughly life in this one American family.

Mother

Hello, son. There isn't much news. Grace was over one day. And she was feeling so bad about her marital situation. So I gave her this reality therapy book.

And by the way, I sent you one, son. You'll be getting it in the mail soon. I had it sent right direct to you. It isn't that I think you need it. It's just a new insight on mental health, mental illness, that I think is good.

I probably told you about the chapter I read to Jimmy when we were riding to Mrs. Lester's voice lesson. And it was a chapter on nagging. Smart wives don't have to nag. And it was so interesting. Halfway through it, I realized that this was written for me because I do nag quite a bit. And here, it brought out that sometimes a person nags because they want to feel superior.

Each time they-- well, here, I'll read it, son. "If you stop to think about it, you know perfectly well that this sort of nagging, that means nagging to get things done and things, isn't correcting the evil of what you complain. It's only making you feel important, virtuous, and superior. So for goodness sake, find some more constructive way of enhancing your feeling of virtue if it's so badly in need of being enhanced."

Daddy has been very, very busy working in the basement. One of the machines is broken down. And true to form, it's taken him a long, long time to fix it. We're behind as usual on strips. Jack goofed, I guess, in his order of extrusions. And we are out of extrusions and won't be having them until Friday.

I made $50 in one week and a half. That's when I bought-- I bought your suit, and paid my tithe, and things like this. Well, son, I'll say goodbye. But thank you for your words of advice as far as my resting. And thank you for being concerned about my welfare.

I really have gotten along quite well recently. I didn't feel too bad of depression last month. Well, here I go. We'll see you again. And I'll let someone else talk on the tape. Bye-bye.

Father

Hello, Joe. How do you like this big tape anyhow? Isn't this pretty neat? I don't know if we ever get the thing filled up. And if we do get it filled up, I don't know whether you'll ever have the time to listen to it or not.

Things are surely busy around here. They're really popping. I didn't get to bed 'til after 1 o'clock though. I was working downstairs, and I had work ready to take up to Jack's today, so we can get paid. We don't have any strips right now though. I guess I got a call for supper, so I'll come back later.

I heard a little story that I thought I would tell you, Joe. Mom reminded me at the supper table. I just got back from eating supper. There were a couple out. They were getting acquainted, shall we say, doing a little French kissing. And the fella said, "Oh, I think I got your gum." And she said, "No." She said, "I got a bad cold." So I'll leave you with that little thought for the time being.

Hi, Joe. I just got through talking to you on the phone. Little Kenny [? Jacques, ?] who I don't know if you remember him or not, but he's Quint [? Jacques's ?] oldest son, got married last March. And his girlfriend was here in school. And they were intending to keep it quiet until after school was out, but I guess he's pregnant now. So I suppose when you fool around, and do things like that, why, I suppose that's the price you're prepared to take. But I guess he's still in the Army.

I saw him tonight in the drive-in. They look real happy together. She seems like a real nice little girl, almost too nice for him. He's a real nice fella, but he's quite mentally retarded, I think. At least, he may not be mentally retarded, but he has an awful time in school trying to figure out his ABC's. Anyway, that's the way it goes.

And she seems to be real happy with him. She went with Carl Hamel before. And she seems like a good Christian girl. She's got one hand that's deformed. I suppose that makes her feel like it'd be awfully for her to get anybody. So she probably thought she'd take whatever she could get.

Mother

It was interesting as we visited Aunt Menta and Uncle Wendall's this weekend. We just had a real nice time. But I felt a little odd about going and suggested in a very small way that Art ought to call Menta. But sometimes he gets real negative about my suggestions. And I realized that it's because many times I perhaps force myself on him. So I didn't say anything until about 50 miles before we got there.

I really felt as though Menta should know we were coming. I should have written and told her. But I've left the communication with his family to Daddy. Well, he got a little bit vexed, and jumped out of the car, and went to the telephone, saying, "I hope you're satisfied now." But when he came back, Menta hadn't realized we were coming. And we were all grateful that we'd made the telephone call even though I didn't want to be right and say, "I told you so." Because it wouldn't have been nice to have walked in on them at a quarter to 10:00 at night.

It was interesting how genuinely they accepted us. I don't know if I could be that gracious or not. Although they live such different lives. They had no plans for the weekend. We came. This was fine. And we ate what they had. And this was it.

But I think of if the situation were reversed and Ment and Wendall dropped in on us, how many times we have company over the weekend, we have to go to functions, and we have music lessons, and things like this, and our lives are so completely different. It's interesting that we just spent all day sitting without doing anything at all. And this is so unusual for us. And even though I don't suppose I could do it every week, it did seem good for one week, just to sit, and look at each other, and talk. Ment and Wendall are sweet people really. It's very difficult for me not to judge a person's Christian experience.

Darlene was voicing her experience last night. Art was a little bit perturbed because her skirt was too short. And Darlene was telling me that, really, she, in a way, resented Daddy's religion because it seemed to be so void of actual feeling and love. And I felt rather bad this morning. I got up to have my worship. I neglected it over the weekend.

And I got up to have my worship. And as I did, Daddy came in and sat down beside me. And I felt rather funny because I really feel that he does this as a duty more than anything else. And when I have my worship, I feel communication with God, and I enjoy what I'm reading. And when Daddy came in, there was just a-- I don't know. I suppose you'd call it an inner resentment.

I didn't know quite what to do. I was right in the middle of reading a chapter. So for the first time in my life, rather than to try to anticipate what he wanted and his needs, I just let him sit there. And I thought if he would say to me, "Could I have worship with you?" it would be fine. But he didn't. So I just continued reading and didn't say anything at all. He sat there for a little while, and then he left.

Father

Hi, Joe. That was sure nice to hear from you the other night. What I wanted to talk to you about tonight was I wanted to tell you about our power feed. This power feed that I made, we got that going now. So I got a hydraulic cylinder from Bimba, put that on there, and put some microswitches on there. And as the thing goes up, it pulls the chain around the sprocket.

Mother

I think that if Daddy feels a spiritual lack and feels a need, then he, himself, ought to be the aggressive one and fulfill this need in his own way.

Father

So put that sprocket on there. And as the cylinder goes in, it pulls the chain that goes around the sprocket, it pulls it up and pushes the drill down.

Mother

I would love to begin to have worship with Daddy, together, as husband and wife.

Father

And then when it gets to the other microswitch, why, it comes back. And as it comes back, we've got weights on the other side of the sprocket, pulling the chain in the other direction.

Mother

We certainly have begun to enjoy many relationships that are very, very fulfilling in our marriage. But as far as this worship is concerned, it seems as though I'm always the one that has to make the initiative, plunge and say, "Well, come, have worship with me," and select things that are inspiring. And I think this is wrong.

Father

And this new compressor works like a dream. It really is doing a good job for us, which makes us very happy. We're real happy with the results we're getting so far.

Mother

I was reading an article last week, where we, so many times, try to fit people into our own pattern rather than to understand their background and appreciate their own pattern. And I think that he ought to fulfill his spiritual needs in his own way.

Father

Ken is going to come over. Ken Scholski. I don't know whether you know him or not. But he does real good at drilling the big holes. So he's going to come over and drill a couple hundred of the strips with the big holes for us. So we can at least get into production again by tomorrow night.

Mother

Because I don't really know the depths of his spirituality and his basic needs.

Father

This one is practically foolproof, as long as we don't put too much air pressure on it and drive it too hard.

Mother

So because I have no way of knowing, I'm going to stop worrying.

Father

We've been drilling some extrusions, 18-inch extrusions on the press with two holes at a time. It's been going pretty good.

Mother

Daddy's calling, so bye-bye, son. And I'll see you later. I just had to tell you, son. Daddy screamed and hollered. You may have heard him over the tape, "Honey!" And I was right in the middle of a sentence to you, so I didn't go.

But when I ran down, here, he has this power feed on. You know Daddy. He is very, very slow at what he does. And everyone has about lost their temper at him because they've tried so hard to be patient. And day by day, they've hoped this thing gets fixed.

And so now I find this morning that he had fixed it. And this John that is working there was sitting there and working this just as easy as could be. And of course, everyone was really thrilled. And Daddy was so tickled. He was just as tickled as a little boy really.

Father

So son, we love you. We'll see you. I want to save some room here for your lady love. Good night.

Mother

Well, son. I don't know who's talked.

Father

So son, we love you. We'll see you. I want to save some room here for your lady love. Good night.

Mother

If I had the money, I would have called you tonight. It's funny. When you have an emotional problem, you don't quite know where to turn. They can say, "Turn to the Lord." And I think this is true. And yet, we're so human. We want human help.

I just come back from taking a walk this evening, thinking, "If I could just talk with someone." And of course, you don't talk your problems out with too many people. And so I decided I'd turn the tape recorder on. And you could hear a negative [CLEARS HER THROAT]-- I'm trying to get a cold-- you could hear the negative side of the Davis household, which has been typical in the last few years.

Here's Darlene. I could go on and on, and I know I must stop. Bye-bye, son.

Sister

Hi, Art. This week has really been a week, I tell you. I think it was Monday afternoon, I went into Mrs. Hare's office. And she told me that I would not be able to take my test because of my debit, which is $500-and-some. And that was very upsetting to me of course. I didn't realize I couldn't take my test for this.

Mother

There's no excuse for this really other than that I can see for the first time she has money of her own. And it's the little things that she's bought. It seems good to just have money and spend it. And at the first of the year, she really probably didn't work quite as much as she should've. Regardless of what's gone over the dam, she's left with a $500 bill now. And well, naturally, we brought the problem to Daddy.

Sister

First, I talked with Dad about it. And he said he'd see what he could do. Well, he didn't do anything. There just seems to be no understanding at all there. But I guess that's to be expected, being what Daddy's like.

Mother

When Darlene found this out from Mrs. Hare, she came home and cried an hour while I was teaching music lessons. And after the lessons, I went up and found out what the problem was. Naturally, she realizes her mistake. She's defeated. She doesn't know which way to turn. And I explained this to Art last night that she had realized that she made mistakes.

But goodness knows how many mistakes we've made in life. And as parents, if we could just help her pick up the pieces and somehow put them together again, so she wouldn't feel defeated, this would be so much more rewarding. But I also told him that I felt that we hadn't really helped you children too much with your schooling and that it seemed to me, and I'm sure you children felt the same way, that there were hundreds of dollars that goes into the basement. And I didn't really think it was right. Well, this he resented very much.

Father

Mom said she thought I ought to help her on this bill. But I don't know whether I'm wrong in this situation or not, but I feel in a way that she had this coming because she hasn't put in her full time. This last month she has. But up until that time, she's agreed for 12 hours a week, and it's been usually around-- oh, I imagine 5 to 6 hours is a lot closer to what's actually been accomplished. And then the money she does get, she's been spending on so many incidentals. And I kept talking and talking, but it didn't seem to do much good.

But I feel it's better to provide a way for children to earn their education than it is to actually give them the money. And besides, we don't have the money. And if we weren't working down in the basement, why, there wouldn't be any money any more than there is right now. In fact, there wouldn't be as much. So I don't know.

I guess I get mixed up in my philosophy and my thinking sometimes. And I know Darlene sometimes resents the fact that we don't give her more money. She sees all these other folks getting money, and she doesn't. I don't know exactly what to do about the situation. I don't know what's really right and what's wrong.

But right now, I'm pretty strapped with all the taxes. I just had to pay $400 out at the first of the month. And now I come here again in the middle of the month and have to pay another $200.

Sister

Just a minute. Back again. Dad just came up to talk to me for a few minutes. I didn't know if I was going to work for him this summer or not after our little mix-up here. But I guess I'm going to work at the school and then in the afternoons for Dad because I have to pay off this debt just as soon as I can.

Father

Well, anyway, be that as it may, Rich told a story he was told about a little mama mouse that lived on the-- oh, there goes-- the thing is running downstairs now. I can hear it clicking-- told about a little girl mouse that lived on one side of the corn field. And the little boy mouse lived on the other side of the field. And one day, the little girl mouse in the autumn made a trip across the field. And when she got to the little boy's house, she said, "Help, help, I've been reaped. I've been reaped." They were reaping the corn.

And old Darlene just laughed and laughed. But she couldn't figure out what she was laughing at. The more she talked, the worse it got. She couldn't get the connection to the whole thing. See, she said, she thought it had something to do with emptying garbage or something. I don't remember just what her statement was. Anyway, it really made it quite funny. Her naiveness made it funnier than ever.

I'm going to quit for now. I've got some big holes to drill downstairs. And tonight's Fugitive night. I haven't watched Fugitive for so many months, I don't know whether he's still afoot or horseback. So well, anyway, so much for that. It's really been nice to talk to you.

And I want to leave you with one really profound statement that the more you drill on these castings, the lighter they get. I want you to be sure if you don't remember anything else that you remember that. So son, we love you. We'll see you.

[MUSIC - "IT'S A MAN'S WORLD" BY JAMES BROWN]

Ira Glass

Well, Alix Spiegel, on our radio staff, did a few days of detective work and tracked down the Davis family, who mailed this tape to their son in medical school in the late 1960s. And we reached the former medical student, Arthur Davis, Junior, in his home in Indio, California, not far from Palm Springs. He practices family medicine. He actually makes house calls, he said, and has six kids of his own. And he told us that these letters on tape went back and forth between him and his parents for a period of about four years when he was away in California in medical school.

He said, no, he hadn't heard one since the 1960s. He said, no, he had no idea how one could end up in a thrift store in Chicago. No, he said, his parents were not still alive. His mother died 12 years ago, and his father died 4 years ago.

We sent him uncut tapes of everything that was on the tape. And he heard them. And he said that it was fine with him for us to play the tapes on the radio. He said that the tapes captured the dynamics of his family perfectly. The drama of a lot of American families is the emotional distance of the father, the father staying away from the family orbit, the father not being around, the father holding himself apart. And Arthur Davis, Junior says that his father was like a lot of American dads in that way and was, in fact, pretty removed.

Arthur Davis

He was reared in a divorced home. And there was a lot of bitterness. And so it was pretty tough for him to even consider getting married. And then when I was born, my mom said that he just broke into tears, thinking that he might have to deal with some of those issues as a parent. He never did really want to be a parent. And she really helped him through that a lot.

It was very fascinating, Ira. After my mom died, my dad changed tremendously. And he came to live with me, and spent quite a bit of time with my sister and me, and was very connected with us and our children. So that all changed after Mom died.

Ira Glass

Arthur Davis, Junior. Coming up, more old tapes, more about fathers in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Baltimore, Circa 1956.

Ira Glass

Well, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, invite a variety of writers and performers to tackle that theme with radio monologues, original reporting, memoirs, short fiction, anything they can think of. Today's program, Accidental Documentaries. Stories made from old tapes that have been sitting in basements, and attics, and thrift stores for decades. We have arrived at Act Two of our program, Baltimore.

Barry Glass

We'd like to ask you this question, my friend. Do personal problems and worries have you down? Are you disturbed by business problems, marriage problems, or emotional problems? See Mrs. K, reader and adviser. Mrs. K, formerly of Europe, gives you a reading and answers all your questions for just $1. And you'll feel much better. You'll have a much better picture of where you're headed after you've talk with Mrs. K. The telephone number is Saratoga 7-2753, but, of course, no appointment is necessary.

Ira Glass

I'm just going to stop this tape right there. I have three things to say about this tape. Number one, formally of Europe? Number two, of course, no appointment is necessary. She already knows you're coming. And number three, this is my father in 1956, three years before I was born. He's 23 years old.

Barry Glass

And coming up right now, news about a wonderful appliance from Norman R. Mitchell, yes? For the homemakers, as we said before. We're talking about an electric dryer. And my friend, if the lady in your house has her heart set on an electric dryer, here's some big news for you from Norman R. Mitchell. Right now, they are featuring the new 1957 Frigidaire Filtra-matic electric dryer at an unbelievable low price.

Ira Glass

My father started in radio when he was 19, the same age I was when I started. He began at the college station at the University of Maryland, and, after graduation, got a job spinning records at a commercial station in Baltimore. Then he was drafted. And at the time of this particular recording, my father was actually in the Army, stationed in Virginia. But he wanted a career in radio so badly that every Sunday morning, at the break of dawn, he would leave his wife and his five-month-old baby, my older sister, and drive up to Baltimore to do a four-hour program.

Barry Glass

For over 18 years, thousands of folks just like yourselves here in town have relied on Norman R. Mitchell appliances for sincerity, service, and substantial savings. Three important must's for a successful business today.

Ira Glass

My dad's paycheck for this four-hour Sunday morning program was $5.88. The most he ever made at a radio job was $90 a week.

Barry Glass

My friend, how would you like to get 21 beautiful greeting cards absolutely free? Plus details on how easy it is to earn $35 to $50 a week selling Liberty Bell greeting cards?

Ira Glass

Hey Dad?

Barry Glass

Yeah.

Ira Glass

When you were doing radio, what did you like about it? What was the appeal of it for you?

Barry Glass

It seemed easy to do. Certain amount of, I guess, notoriety. It's good for your ego. People know who you are. I was a big man on campus at the University of Maryland.

Ira Glass

You're a good announcer. I didn't really know that. I've been listening to the way that you do the announcements. You're relaxed, and yet, you punch the main points. But you sound completely at ease, and you're convincing. You're doing ads for the hokiest products in the world, and you sound completely like you believe it.

Barry Glass

Really? What are some of the products? I've forgot about them.

Ira Glass

There's a lot of appliances. And then there's one reader and adviser named Mrs. K.

Barry Glass

That's right. I'd forgotten about her.

Ira Glass

Formerly of Europe.

Barry Glass

Just show them to your relatives, friends, neighbors, and the folks you work with, and see how quickly they order. You're actually doing them a favor by saving them money on Christmas cards. And such fine quality cards you've never seen in your life as Liberty Bell.

Ira Glass

A lot of what it's like to be on the radio is just trying to sound relaxed when you're not. You're doing a show. You're not just talking to people. And in some of these tapes, I can actually hear my father struggling to sound relaxed. And these recordings give me this picture of him that I have never had in my life really. He seems so young and innocent. A guy in his 20s, doing this thing that I know so intimately myself, just sitting in front of a microphone trying to sound at ease, trying to sound like this relaxed old pro, not a care in the world.

Barry Glass

Yes, now you can have color in that kitchen of yours and really make it a true showplace for your family and your friends. And make it a lot easier to work in too with color, huh? And you can have this color in your kitchen all at the price of white. And of course, Frigidaire features the new 1957 Frigidaire refrigerators, ranges, washers, and dryers in four decorator colors at absolutely no extra cost to you. You have your choice of pink, yellow, green, or charcoal.

Ira Glass

This is just how long ago this happened. They had not yet invented the idea of renaming the colors of appliances, things like avocado, lemon, eggshell.

Barry Glass

Well, let's get on to that featured top tune of tomorrow, a brand new release, one we think is going to be real big in the coming weeks and months all across the country and right here in Baltimore too. This week, it goes to The Crew Cuts. Listen to their rendition of "Love In A Home."

Ira Glass

Not long after he got out of the Army, my dad decided that radio was no way to make a living. And after a series of jobs, he decided to become a Certified Public Accountant. He was a typical workaholic, suburban dad. Off to the office at 7:00 in the morning. Back at 6:30 for dinner. Exhausted after that, he would sit in his yellow recliner in front of the TV and fall asleep. He started his own business, struggled to establish it, worked lots of nights and weekends. During tax season, from January to April 15, we would barely see him.

Ira's Mother

What's this?

Ira's Sister

This.

Ira's Mother

Is that a radio?

Ira's Sister

Radio.

Ira Glass

In our house when I was growing up was an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, a little consumer unit, that my mother and my sisters and I would goof around on from time to time, record us singing or telling stories. And while my mom appears on these tapes a lot, my father does not appear on them once. He simply was not there to be recorded. The only time he's mentioned on all of these tapes is this. I'm going to play this moment to you. My mother is cooing to my older sister, Randi, who's probably-- I don't know-- a year old, a year and a half old.

Ira's Mother

Where's Barry?

Ira Glass

Barry's my dad.

Ira's Mother

Where's Barry, Randi? Daddy? Where's daddy? Did daddy go bye-bye?

Ira's Sister

Go bye-bye.

Ira's Mother

Did he go outside?

Ira's Sister

Go bye-bye.

Ira's Mother

In the car?

Ira's Sister

Car. Bye-bye.

Ira's Mother

Uh-huh.

Ira Glass

These days, my dad explains his decision to leave radio and become an accountant this way.

Barry Glass

By that time, I had realized that radio was not for me. What happened would be a new program director would come in. And if you weren't the apple of that guy's eye, then you were out of a job, and you gotta go start looking for a job again. Even though that never happened to me, I could see it happening to other people. And I wanted to be in control of my own destiny, and I decided that it wasn't going to work out. Radio was not going to work out.

Ira Glass

And that was 1959?

Barry Glass

Yeah.

Ira Glass

The year I was born?

Barry Glass

Right.

Ira Glass

Are those two things related?

Barry Glass

Not at all.

Ira Glass

It sounds like they are.

Barry Glass

No, they're not. No, they're not.

Well, all the stars are on record, and all the records star on the Sunday Morning Carousel. Coming up for you right now, our featured top tune of the day. Number one in the record stores we visited this week in Baltimore. And judging by your cards and letters here at WIN, it ranks very high. The Prince of Wales himself, one Johnnie Ray, with "Just Walkin' in the Rain."

Ira Glass

Now the way a story like this usually ends is that I reveal that this is why I'm in radio, to make good on my father's legacy, to live the dream that he never got to live. But I have to say, the fact is, I never knew him as a radio deejay. I did not know that he had ever done radio the entire time I grew up. It was never discussed. The recordings of him doing this stuff were packed away in the basement. Nobody talked about it. I never thought of him as somebody who did anything but certified public accounting. If my mom ever mentioned this, I do not remember it.

And I certainly didn't grow up with any special feeling about radio. I could care less about radio. Like most Americans, my medium of choice was television. I got my first job with National Public Radio in Washington when I was 19 years old. And at that point, I simply wanted a job in the media. I was a freshman in college. If an ad agency had hired me that summer, right now, I would probably be doing Bud Light commercials. I can just see the whole thing laying out that way.

And in 1978, when I started working at NPR, my parents absolutely did not want me to do it. It wasn't even a judgment call. They were completely against it for the next, I want to say, 10 years, maybe it was 15 years really. They simply saw it the way most parents would. They saw it as impractical. They worried that I would never make any decent money, never be able to support a family, essentially, the reasons that my father quit radio.

When I first dug out these tapes of my father, about a year ago, I asked my dad if he ever wished he could still do radio. And he was completely unenthusiastic about the idea. In all my life, I had only seen his desire to be on the radio once. And this was actually a couple years ago. I was filling in as the guest host of Talk of the Nation, this daily call-in show NPR does out of Washington. I was doing that for half a year. And my father had never seen me host a radio show.

And he and my mom drove down to Washington from Baltimore to watch me do the show. And before the show, he asked me if he could read the news. And at first, I thought he was joking. And I don't remember exactly what I said, but I joked something back at him. And then later, as we got closer to going on the air, he asked again that he would like to read the newscast, the NPR newscast at the top of the hour, at the beginning of the show. And I realized he was serious. And I had to explain to him that I didn't have any authority over that, that the NPR newscasters, they wrote their own news, and they delivered it themselves.

Since then I've had him on our show a few times, on this show, including as an announcer, co-hosting a Father's Day show. He's coming around, I think. Lately, he's started saying that maybe I did not make such a mistake going into radio, that it seemed to be working out OK, which I'm glad for. I think one of the hardest things for any parent is to have one set of expectations for their children, and then be forced by their children to change them. That's really hard. I can't imagine what it would be like to see your kid doing something that you, yourself, decided wasn't worth doing.

Barry Glass

And time for us to go out on a limb and predict big things for a new record. Our featured top tune of tomorrow. Here's a guy we feel pretty safe in predicting big things for. His name is Nat King Cole. Our featured top tune of tomorrow, "My Personal Possession."

[MUSIC - "MY PERSONAL POSSESSION" BY NAT KING COLE]

Act Three. Chicago, In The 1960s.

Ira Glass

Act Three, Chicago. Nora Moreno now joins us with some records, and tapes, and a story.

Nora Moreno

This is an old 45. It's my father. He was a pioneer in Spanish-language broadcasting here in Chicago, a radio announcer in the 1950s and '60s. My dad's not playing the guitar or singing on this record. He's reciting poetry. This is what he sounded like when I was little.

Nora's Father

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Nora Moreno

"I knew love."

Nora's Father

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Nora Moreno

"It was very beautiful."

Nora's Father

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Nora Moreno

"But in me--"

Nora's Father

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Nora Moreno

"In me, it was fleeting and a traitor."

Nora's Father

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Nora Moreno

"It blemished what was glorious. But it was great because it was the first love."

It was hearing my dad recite poems like this that made my mother fall in love with him. It was a poem called "El Brindis del Bohemio" about Bohemians toasting in the New Year that did her in.

Nora's Mother

"El Brindis del Bohemio." Beautiful.

Nora Moreno

Describe it. What does it say?

Nora's Mother

Well, this poem talks about women, the mother, the mistress, the girlfriend.

Nora's Father

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Nora's Mother

There was a soldier. There was a Bohemio. And there was another guy. And they were doing this toast. The best part was when this Bohemio-- the toast is for the mother, the one who carry him nine month, the one who cry with him and took care of him when he was a baby.

Nora's Father

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Nora Moreno

I know what my mother was thinking when she heard this. Any man who can get so worked up about his mother had to be a special man. So she called the radio station. They talked on the telephone, went out, and, three months later, they were married.

Now falling in love with the voice on the radio may sound a bit extreme, but consider this. My mother was 16, in Chicago for only a few months after having lived in Puerto Rico. It was her first time in the States. She barely spoke English and mostly stayed at home.

Nora's Mother

It was like being in a cage after living on an island with the sun shining and sleeping with the doors open and windows. And when I came here and went to that apartment, I feel like I was dead to life. I used to cry every night.

Nora's Father

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Nora Moreno

I'm not even going to bother translating this one. Let's just say it's very romantic about the perfection of a woman's eyes. And this man, the one you're hearing, I never knew him. Sure, I heard stories about his radio shows, how he would produce talent shows, and have live performances, and bring in crowds from all over the city. People would come to be part of live radio. Women wanted to hear him and his poetry.

But by the time I was old enough to hear him on the radio, he was reading the news and not poetry. And what I remember were the fights between them, my mother and father, about how he was never home, always late, too busy for us. His life on the radio was all consuming. The very thing that brought my parents together drove them apart. And I had fights with him too.

Once when I was 16, my dad came home after being away for a few days. And I asked him what he was working on that kept him away so much. It wasn't as if he was out of town. He just didn't come home. Well, he didn't appreciate it, got very indigent, and he beat me.

Partly, he was defensive because he was seeing another woman. And partly, it was because of this culture clash. I was talking to him like an American girl, but he was born in Mexico. And in Spanish families, you never questioned your father. You never questioned your dad. In his mind, there was nothing more disrespectful than a child questioning the authority of her father.

When my mother found out about the other woman, she couldn't believe it and didn't. He would tell her in that same beautiful voice that he still loved her. He persuaded her that she was imagining things, convinced her that there was no one else and could never be anyone else but her, all in that voice, that romantic, seductive, tempting voice that she had heard on the radio. Finally, after another one of their many fights, after months of continuous abuse, my mother took a gun and shot my father in the mouth.

My dad survived the gunshot. And when the police came, he lied to them about what had happened, so they wouldn't take my mother to jail. He told them that he was teaching her to shoot when the gun went off. The cops didn't believe him, but he didn't want to press charges, and basically, there was nothing they could do. The strange thing is that, for a while, that whole experience brought them closer together. For a while.

A couple of years ago, I decided to meet my father in Mexico. We were going to celebrate Father's Day together. I don't really know why we picked Father's Day. We both understood that being a father wasn't something he did very well. And when I think about it now, I can't remember a time in my life when I recognized that day. The point is that he didn't show up.

It makes me sad because what I ended up doing was so much fun, and I knew he would have enjoyed himself too. I went to visit my uncle and cousins in Mexico City. We told stories, recited poetry, talked a lot about my dad. My cousin even brought out his guitar and tried to recite some of the poems my dad used to read. It was typical for my dad not to show up to things that included the family. Now that he's not really a part of it, it seems normal.

My parents are divorced. My dad is in Texas, lonely and broke, dying of cancer. He's been out of radio for almost 20 years. When I talked to him on Monday and asked him about his poems, he couldn't remember the last time he had written one.

I have a picture of my dad on a stage with the backdrop of a Spanish dancer and a big band surrounding him. There's a woman sharing the stage with him. She is elegant and stunning. She has this long, flowing evening dress. This woman is not my mother, but she captures my father. He's bowing at the waist. She holds out a hand to him, and he clasps it with both of his and kisses it, gazing up into her eyes with complete romantic concentration. His attention is for her alone.

Ira Glass

Nora Moreno works in philanthropy at the Boeing Company in Chicago.

Ira Glass

Nora, to end our story about your dad and you, you asked us especially to get this one particular song called "El Rey."

Nora Moreno

The king.

Ira Glass

Explain the significance of this song.

Nora Moreno

Well, it's my dad's favorite song. And he sort of took it on as a theme for his life.

Ira Glass

Can you tell us why this would be his favorite song?

Nora Moreno

Well, it talks about a man who has no place. And regardless of where he finds himself, he continues to be the king.

[MUSIC - "EL REY"]

"I know very well that I am outside, but the day that I die, I know you will have to cry."

Ira Glass

"Cry, cry, cry," they're singing.

Nora Moreno

Yeah. "You will say that you never loved me, but you will be very sad. And you'll be that way forever. With money or without money, I always do what I want. And my word is the law. I have no throne, or queen, or anyone who understands me, but I continue to be the king."

Ira Glass

Have you actually heard him sing this song?

Nora Moreno

Oh, yes. He sang this at parties, family gatherings, in the morning. He sang this all the time.

Ira Glass

What's so beautiful about it is the guy in the song is clearly-- he knows he's not really the king. He knows he's not--

Nora Moreno

Well, actually, Ira, that's not really true. I think that what's truer is that he really thinks he's king.

Ira Glass

No.

Nora Moreno

Yes. It was a tribute to the way he lived his life. His way. You know, Frank Sinatra?

Ira Glass

It's funny you say that. I was just about to say, this is the Spanish "My Way."

Nora Moreno

"El Rey."

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, thank you Nora Moreno. Our program produced today by Alix Spiegel and myself with Nancy Updike, Peter Clowney, and Dolores Wilber. Today's show was first broadcast in 1996, one of the first episodes of our program. Contributing editors for this show, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, Paul Tough, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Music help from Mr. John Connors.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can get our free weekly podcast or listen to old programs online. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Father

Well, anyway, so much for that. It's really been nice to talk to you. And I want to leave you with one really profound statement that the more you drill in these castings, the lighter they get. I want you to be sure if you don't remember anything else that you remember that.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.