Transcript

203:

Recordings for Someone
Transcript

Originally aired 01.11.2002

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/203

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Here is a recording you weren't meant to hear. A guy from New York, a percussionist, went to perform in this opera in Italy. While he was there he met this woman, who was a graduate student, who was writing about the opera for her thesis. She took him on a tour of Rome on the back of her scooter. He met her friends. They hung out. One thing led to another. They had this week together. And when he got home to New York, he didn't want it to be over. So he made her these tapes.

David Cossin

It's scary. It's scary how much I'm thinking of you. But it's good. It makes me happy. Even if you're not here, I feel happy to think about you and to know that you're existing somewhere.

Ira Glass

When you're really love and other people overhear you, I think it's hard not to sound a little over the top. That's what I like about these recordings. The feeling in them is so direct. And so today we're going to try something completely different on our radio show. Every story on the show is made out of tapes like this one. Every story is made from tapes that were intended for an audience of one. Someone somewhere made somebody else a tape. We listen in, all of us. I have to say, it's kind of an amazing show because of that.

Act One, we hear the greatest phone message in the world, the absolute greatest. Act Two, we have a special effects story. In that act, we use the power of audio technology to turn someone who stutters into someone who no longer stutters, so he can deliver a message to one man in Idaho. Act Three, a war story. In fact, the story of a soldier in the first Persian Gulf War who made tapes for his wife during battles, until he accidentally recorded this incident, this violent incident that haunted him for years. And Act Four, a love story. In that act we return to the guy who you just heard from a minute ago, a man trying to sustain a relationship that spans oceans, all with a little cassette tape.

Act One. Buddy Picture.

Ira Glass

And so without further ado, let us turn now to Act One. This Act One is the story of the greatest phone message of all time. Some people see it that way anyway. You may judge for yourself. A quick warning that there is one famously nasty word in this story that occurs exactly seven times. Count them yourself. But do not worry. We beep the word every single time. Producer Jonathan Goldstein tells the tale.

Jonathan Goldstein

The first thing you should know about my friend Josh is that he calls me a bitch squealer. Now bitch isn't the bad word you're going to be hearing in this story. And that's because it's referring to an actual dog, a fenced in security dog that barked at me and Josh while we were out walking one night. And while my scream may have been louder that evening, Josh's scream was definitely higher pitched, which to my mind means Josh should rightfully be called the bitch squealer, while perhaps I should be called something like bitch bellower or bitch loud crier. Just the same, quit your bitch squealing is what Josh says to me when I ask him to please change the station on the car radio or to stop crowding the armrest in the movie theater.

The other thing to know about Josh is that he thinks of himself as an idea man. And he always refers to his ideas as pure gold. So a few years ago, when I first started doing stories on the radio, I would call him up and ask him if he had any story ideas. And he always did. The thing was, most of them involved hot dog eating contests and all-nude car washes. One time Josh talked to a French-Canadian waitress who used the words diggy do as a conjunctive phrase, as in, my mother, she gave birth to me in Lac Saint-Louis, and diggy do, I'm in Montreal. Josh tried to convince me that this semantically innovative young woman was most definitely worthy of a 40 minute interview on national radio.

Just the other day, Josh was telling me about this really funny phone message that he heard back in his college days, and how I should definitely do a radio show about that. He swore to me that it was the defining moment in his class' campus life that year. Now how is a person supposed to believe something like that?

Jonathan Goldstein

I can imagine you really liking this message.

Josh

Oh, I see. I see.

Jonathan Goldstein

But you see, I can't imagine it being the kind of thing that was like--

Josh

That your sedate NPR audience would appreciate?

Jonathan Goldstein

No, no, no. I mean it sounds like you got a kick out of it at the time. But I can't imagine it being like an atomic bomb that hit the campus or something.

Josh

Yeah. See, this is clearly another example of the failure of your imagination. How many times have I given you ideas that you have nay said? How many times have I given you gold standard ideas--

Jonathan Goldstein

Josh yells at me a lot, especially when he thinks I'm not taking his ideas seriously. When we go out to eat, he yells at me loud enough to make the other patrons turn around and look at us. Sometimes though, he'll get all unexpectedly silent, and just stare out the restaurant window, and then turn to me and say something like, wouldn't life be better if there was a big old pig sitting out there by the fire hydrant? Why can't life be more like that?

But anyway, to get back to the phone message, the one Josh heard in college, I'm telling you about it not to demonstrate what a slightly misguided colorful character Josh is, but to chart with honesty the unfairness of my pre-emptive bitch squeals of doubt.

Josh

I went to Columbia University in the early '90s, OK? Late '80s, early '90s. When I was there, they had this phone system-- I'll just give you a little bit of background, all right? And then I'll cut to the chase. They has this system there called the Rolm system, Rolm phone system, R-O-L-M. And you could forward messages to people. You could forward messages to everyone on campus if you wanted.

Jonathan Goldstein

Sort of like a precursor to the internet.

Josh

Yes, like a precursor to the internet. Thank you, Mr. Current Affairs Guy. So it was an amazing utility. People could forward all kinds of crazy messages. So one day, there was this guy named Fred. And his mother left him a message on his answering machine. And he forwarded it to maybe one or more of his friends. And his friends turned around and did a Brutus, and they stabbed him in the back. And they forwarded this message across campus to everyone.

So do you want to hear the message? All right. So he prefaced it by saying--

Jonathan Goldstein

You have it? You have the message?

Josh

I do not have the message. I have the message in my head. I am telling you a story. All right?

Jonathan Goldstein

OK.

Josh

All right. So he prefaced it by some kind of a sad little lead in. In a little voice, he was like, I think you'd would appreciate hearing this message from my mother. And then the message played. This was the entirety of the message. And I'm going to do the voice for you as best I can. You ready?

Jonathan Goldstein

Yeah.

Josh

Oh, sorry. More background. Apparently he was not a hit with the ladies, Fred. This is what I was led to understand. I'm not sure if this is true or not. But he had managed to score a date to go see The Little Mermaid, of all movies. The Little Mermaid. OK? So this is the message his own mother, his blood relation, leaves for him.

And I quote, "You and The Little Mermaid can both go [BLEEP] yourselves. The books you wanted, they're not here. They must be in La Jolla. I'm not going to wait up all night for you. Goodbye." That's the entirety of it. All right?

Jonathan Goldstein

Yeah. That's the message that his mother left him?

Josh

That's correct. You catch that part? "You and The Little Mermaid can both go [BLEEP] yourselves." I love you, son. That's gold.

And then-- no, hold on. Are you going to listen?

Jonathan Goldstein

Yes.

Josh

Then somebody took it-- some evil mix-meister genius took it and remixed it into a 12 inch dance version. "You and The Little Mermaid, La Jolla, La Jolla, [BLEEP] yourselves, [BLEEP] yourselves. They're not here, the books. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

Jonathan Goldstein

And there are other people who remember it?

Josh

Are you even listening to a word I just told you? This was the The Producers of its day, OK? Everyone heard about it. Everyone knew it. Everyone had an opinion about it. Every single person who attended Columbia that year, I guarantee you they would know what I'm talking about.

Jonathan Goldstein

I still didn't believe him. But just for the hell of it, I phoned the Columbia alumni magazine to see if there was anyone there who might remember anything about the Little Mermaid message. I ended up speaking to someone who not only attended Columbia in the early '90s and remembered the message, but just like Josh had, he actually quoted it to me, the whole message.

"You and The Little Mermaid can both go [BLEEP] yourselves. I can't find the books. They must be in La Jolla. I'm not going to wait up all night for you. Goodbye." The guy then became so excited at the thought of someone doing serious research about the message that he offered to use the Columbia database to look up every Fred that might have graduated around that time. No matter how long it took, he said, it would be worth it if I could track down some recording of the message and allow him to hear it again.

[PHONE DIALING]

I called other Columbia students from that period. And every one of them reacted the same way to the message, like this guy Ben Feldman, now an entertainment lawyer.

Ben Feldman

Hello.

Jonathan Goldstein

Is this Ben?

Ben Feldman

Yes.

Jonathan Goldstein

I have two words for you, little mermaid.

Ben Feldman

This is the funniest call I've ever received. Well, you and The Little Mermaid can go to hell.

Jonathan Goldstein

A few days later, Josh called me back. He had found out Fred's last name from his older brother, who it turns out graduated the same year as Fred. Josh said that Fred's last name was Schultz. And I told Josh that this was great news. And Josh told me to shut my squeal hole, which I did.

So I called Fred Schultz. And it turns out that he had recorded the original message and still had a copy of it, a copy which I am now going to play for you. Remember, this is a phone message that was forwarded from one person to the next, each person re-prefacing the previous prefaces as it made its way from one voice mail message box to the next.

Voice Mail Box

Recieved at 4:20 PM Friday.

Woman 1

Guys, I have never heard a phone mail message like this one. Listen to the first person. You are going to die.

Man 1

No seriously, this is the funniest one of all of them.

Woman 2

All right, here it is--

Jonathan Goldstein

These giddy introductory messages continue for two and 1/2 minutes, each one revving up the impending drama, acting as a kind of stage curtain that opens onto another curtain, and yet another one still, each one teasing you with the tantalizing proximity of the main stage about to be bathed in the spotlight.

Man 2

OK, I've gotten like 95 phone mail messages in the last two days, but this is the funniest.

Man 3

This is going to blow you away. This makes the other ones look like chopped liver.

Jonathan Goldstein

And then finally the chain of deferral ends with the very first forwarded student's solemn pronouncement.

Man 4

There comes a time in life when we hear the greatest phone mail message of all time. And well, here it is. You have to hear it to believe it.

Fred Schultz

I thought you'd get a kick out of this message from my mother.

Joan Schultz

Hi, Fred. You and The Little Mermaid can go [BLEEP] yourselves. I told you to stay near the phone. I can't find those books. You have other books here. It must be in La Jolla. Call me back. I'm not going to stay up all night for you. Goodbye.

Jonathan Goldstein

These days, Fred Schultz lives in Venice Beach, California. He plays in a band, he skateboards, and he pretty much seems happy. When he sent me the recording of the Little Mermaid message, he also included burnt incense and a CD of his band's soundtrack for a film about cannibalism called Eat Me. Here's a clip. [MUSIC - "EAT ME"]

Fred is the kind of guy who, when the subject gets on to future plans, will tell you he's thinking pretty seriously about moving onto a boat. When I ask him about the phone message from his mom, he says that from the moment he got it, he knew he was sitting on something big. The question then became, what was he going to do with it?

Fred Schultz

I did sit down and stress and think about it for like an hour or two. I debated whether to send the message out to anyone. And then I sat down and listened to music, and just thought about it, re-listening to the message and just thinking, should I send this along or just let it die, kill it, hit erase.

Jonathan Goldstein

But Fred decided not to hit erase. And he explains his mother's cryptic message this way. He had called looking for an old school notebook. She said she'd search for it, but only if he'd wait by the phone while she did this special favor for him. But did he stay by the phone? No, he did not. As for The Little Mermaid, this was the one thing Josh was completely wrong about.

Fred Schultz

My whole life, I have had a thing about mermaids-- and dolphins, but mermaids.

Jonathan Goldstein

When you love mermaids that much-- and dolphins-- you don't keep that to yourself.

Fred Schultz

My outgoing message, first it had Ariel from The Little Mermaid singing "Part of Your World," singing like, "part of your world. What would I give if I could live out of these waters?" And then I jump on and say, hi, please leave a message for me and The Little Mermaid. And then you hear beep.

Jonathan Goldstein

Now put yourself in his mother's shoes. To hear Joan Schultz, Fred's mom, tell the story, that outgoing message was like a call to arms.

Joan Schultz

I hear The Little Mermaid music. And he said, sorry I can't answer you now. Please leave a message for me and The Little Mermaid. Well, that's all I had to hear. I was so infuriated and so incensed, that without even thinking-- and I never ever say this word-- I said, Fred, you and The Little Mermaid can both go [BLEEP] yourselves. And I slammed the phone down.

Jonathan Goldstein

So late that night, studying in his dorm room for finals, Fred finally decides to forward the message to his friend Jeff. Then Fred goes to bed. And by the next morning, he wakes up to discover, that just like one of those guys in one of those movies, his life has suddenly become forever changed.

Fred Schultz

My message machine was blinking that all 10 messages that it accepts are filled. They were all filled with people-- like chains of 20-- it had already gone around to say each chain had hit 20 or 30 people.

Jonathan Goldstein

How many people heard it over the course of the night?

Fred Schultz

Hundreds had already heard it in the middle of the night.

Jonathan Goldstein

Over the course of how many hours?

Fred Schultz

Like four hours.

Jonathan Goldstein

What was then to follow for the Schultzes was nothing short of campus-wide celebrityhood. Women ran up to Fred and hugged him. Men envied him for his ability to inspire that much raw transparent hostility in his mother. The phone message was so popular that, like a hit TV show, it spawned spin-offs. Other messages circulated with people commenting on the original.

Woman 3

As a history major, I think we've got to put this into a class struggle perspective. His mother represents--

Man 5

From a political science standpoint, I would say that both Fred and his mother are products of the political system.

Man 6

I feel that Mrs. Schultz's sexual desire for her son, Fred, is manifest.

Jonathan Goldstein

And Josh was even right about the dance remix version of the message.

Joan Schultz

You and The Little Mermaid can go [BLEEP] yourselves. The Little Mermaid can go [BLEEP] yourselves, yourselves, mother, mother.

Jonathan Goldstein

Although no official at Columbia could confirm this next claim, virtually everyone I spoke to who graduated Fred's year remembers this as a point of fact. The popularity of the Little Mermaid yielded message threads that were too long for the new voice mail technology to handle. And so the messaging service for the whole of Columbia crashed.

It goes further still. Fred's mother's message went on to become the most crowd-pleasing musical number from the year-end Varsity Show, a time-honored all-male production that goes back to Columbia alumni Rodgers and Hammerstein in the early 1900s. The choreographed routine involved a kick line of hairy-legged men in seashell brassieres and mermaid tails.

Steve Nadick, the show's lyricist, dug out the words and favored me with a few select lines.

Steve

Oh, here it is. Look at that. But I don't even know if this is the final wording, because I see some handwritten notes on the side. It starts off, "We beautiful creatures inhabit the sea. Fish-women, frolicking frivolously. Although no one said that we'd have to enjoy-a, it still could be worse. We might be in La Jolla." And we sang "in La Jolla" as Handel's "Messiah." "So it's time to decide what you might want to do. We're not going to wait up all night for you. Goodbye."

Jonathan Goldstein

As even the most casual viewer of VH1's Behind the Music knows, fame like this doesn't come without a price. When Fred's mother came to New York for her son's graduation, she experienced the darker side of super stardom.

Joan Schultz

On Broadway, in restaurants, in the shops there they would say things like, that's Fred's mother. That's the Little Mermaid. And I was mortified. Wherever we were, people would point and laugh and snicker.

Fred Schultz

So she just made it her job, at that point, to just walk up to any random group of people, and just start saying, you don't understand. I never use the F word. He provoked me. He provoked me. So she felt that that was her responsibility, to clear her name, to at least let them know she never curses.

Joan Schultz

Before my message came along, the funniest message they had sent around was something like other kids' mothers begging them not to forget to use their rubbers in the rainy season.

Jonathan Goldstein

Here's an example of what Joan Schultz is talking about, one of those feel good homesy messages. This is a message from Huey Hockman's grandparents, making sure he was taking care of his cold.

Huey's Grandmother

Huey, we heard you have a cold, darling. We called to see how you feel.

Huey's Grandfather

Yeah.

Huey's Grandmother

And to tell you we love you.

Huey's Grandfather

Yeah.

Huey's Grandmother

That's all. We hope you're OK, darling.

Huey's Grandfather

Yeah, me too.

Huey's Grandmother

Good night.

Huey's Grandfather

Good night.

Joan Schultz

Mine was so far and above that that they won't even go back to the old one.

Jonathan Goldstein

Do you take a certain level of pride in that?

Joan Schultz

I guess so. In a strange way, yes.

Jonathan Goldstein

The Little Mermaid message was everything Josh said that it was. And now that I spoke with everyone about its glory, there was really only one more person left to talk to.

Josh

What do you want?

Jonathan Goldstein

I made some calls to Columbia. I spoke to some people who went to school the same time that you did. Yes, I did. And diggy do, you were right. It was all true. The message made a great impact.

Josh

Wow, thanks John. Listen, what a bastard you are. I gave you gold. Don't you understand?

Jonathan Goldstein

But anyway, you are missing the point that what I'm saying is that I apologize, because you are right.

Josh

I diggy don't give a rat's ass.

Jonathan Goldstein

I am going to read to you a piece of the script that I've written that I'm thinking I might actually end this whole story with, because I want to get some of your feedback. OK?

Josh

Oh, I'm ready.

Jonathan Goldstein

I would say something to the effect of, "and so a recording intended for one person unintentionally became the beloved property of thousands. And in so happening, the message went from being what might have been considered a rather tragic personal artifact that spoke of dysfunction to becoming a triumph of contemporary American humor.

Josh

What is that? That's public radio wussy talk. Be a man.

Jonathan Goldstein

No, a part of that whole statement is that I'm actually saying to you, you were right and I was wrong.

Josh

All right. Whatever. If you want to talk that fancy talk, you do your thing. But don't drag me into your serious voice nonsense. And you get to speak in this stentorian tone, like, and then America laughed at this inadvertent piece of comedy. I'm John Goldstein.

Ira Glass

Jonathan Goldstein broadcasts his bitch squeals these days as host of the CBC's program Wire Tap, which you can hear on some public radio stations in this country and also find on the internet. His friend Josh is a regular contributor to the show.

Act Two. Special Effects Story.

Ira Glass

Act two, Special Effects Story. When this story was recorded, Kevin Murphy was a college student in Idaho. And normally, if he was moderately relaxed, he talked like this.

Kevin Murphy

Not too long ago, a few of my friends and I were hanging out in my dorm room, watching TV.

Ira Glass

But using the editing gear that we use to edit all of the sound on our radio show, we can take out the stutters, the pauses, the repeats. We can make Kevin sound different from how he has ever talked in his life. So he sounds like this.

Kevin Murphy

Not too long ago, a few of my friends and I were hanging out in my dorm room, watching TV.

Ira Glass

Kevin was interested in using this powerful technology to record a message for one man at one business who has been bothering him. Here it is.

Kevin Murphy

This recording is for the Pizza Pipeline in Moscow, Idaho. Not too long ago, a few of my friends and I were hanging out in my dorm room, watching TV. Same old stuff, nothing new. As college students, when hunger calls, we call for pizza. I pick up the phone behind me. I've got the coupon book out. I decide to go for the $10.99 special, drinks and crazy bread included. I dial the number.

This is when the beast takes over. Anxiety climbs with every ring of the phone. This is what I feel whenever I have to call you up, Mr. Pizza Man. I've dealt with my stutter every second of my life. Is it too much to ask for you to deal with it for a couple of minutes? You interrupt, you cut me off, you speak as if I am this nuisance to your day. Well, today I've saved you this inconvenience. I've edited out all my stutters and pauses to make it easier for you. That is what you want, isn't it?

When my anxiety has reached its peak by the third ring, I hear you bellow, hello. I attempt to respond, but nothing comes out. This is the most difficult point in a phone call for stutterers, getting past the point of being a suspected prank caller. Hello, you say again, impatiently. I still can't get a sound out. Please don't hang up on me. Please stay with me. This it finally pops out, my name is Kevin, and I stutter. I would like the $10.99 special with pepperoni.

There's no response. I fear I've lost you. Are you there, I ask. My friends act as though paying attention to the TV. You finally respond, yeah. Thank God, I think, I got him, hook, line, and sinker. From here on out, all I have got to do is reel him in.

But then you ask what kind of drinks we want. Oh no, I didn't even think of this. Now I've got to tell you to hold on. That has an H sound in it. I hate H's. They are always a killer. They start but do not end. They drain my lungs' air capacity. But I finally get it out and ask everyone what kind of drinks they want. All Cokes. That's easy enough.

Oh, no. Oh, no. I don't have any cash. This means I am going to have to put it on my bank card. That is one heck of a lot of numbers. I break the bad news to you. And I can hear the oh crap in the silence of your voice.

You carry on with this curt annoyed voice. You obviously couldn't be bothered by such a nuisance. To think I would have the nerve to call you and waste so much of your valuable time. If you knew what I go through, Mr. Pizza Man, I'm sure you wouldn't act this way.

You know what, Ira? I don't think this is working. Turn off that editing equipment. It's not for me. Stuttering is a part of my life. Without it, I'm not myself.

OK. You see? One thing that makes it tricky about stuttering, Mr. Pizza Man, is when I'm afraid I'm going to stutter, it makes me stutter more. So one way I can actually stutter less is by forcing myself to stutter now and then. It relieves the tension. So if you can relax, Mr. Pizza Man, and let me stutter, I'll take less of your time. But I would appreciate a little more consideration. Sincerely, your loyal customer, Kevin Murphy.

Ira Glass

Kevin Murphy, from Idaho State University. He asks us to mention-- and we're glad to mention-- the National Stuttering Association. He says contacting them changed his life, led him to learn how to handle his stuttering. Their web address, www.westutter.org.

Coming up, people recording love and people recording war. In a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. War Story.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Most weeks on our program we invite writers and reporters to put together stories on various topics. Today we are trying something completely different. Every story in the show today is built out of tapes that were made for just one person, not for a national radio audience, recordings made for just one person. We have arrived at Act Three of our show. Act Three, War Story.

During the first Persian Gulf War, back in 1991, John Brasfield was an Army scout. That meant that he and three other guys would drive out ahead of everyone else in their unit. They were in a Humvee, which is light-skinned, no real armor, one big gun on it to defend themselves, and some radio equipment. And what they would do is they would drive out, they would spot the enemy, they would call in bombs and troops and tanks on the positions that they spotted. And he took along a little cassette recorder to make tapes for his wife.

John Brasfield

And I had made the tapes in case I was killed, that my family might know what happened to me in those last few moments, what actually took place. Maybe if I didn't die instantly, I'd be able to say goodbye to them.

Ira Glass

And so when would you record?

John Brasfield

I would record any time I thought a significant event was going to take place. If I felt like we were getting ready to go into a battle or something had already started, I might push the record button, and go ahead and get the tape rolling.

Ira Glass

Well let's go through some of these. Let me ask you to explain what, for example, is happening in this one.

John Brasfield

You never want to go through this. You never want to go through this.

Ira Glass

What is this? Where are we?

John Brasfield

This was, basically, the first artillery attack that I had sat through. We were sitting under a pretty intense artillery barrage. And I was just, basically, telling my wife-- and I had a small son at that time-- that, basically, you never want to go through this type of fighting or conflict. It was pretty scary at the time.

Ira Glass

Now you had trained for this kind of thing. How was actually being in the real thing different from the training?

John Brasfield

Well, they say train as you fight. And I guess it's a lot louder. We had done simulations of this, where they have small TNT chargers that they explode around you while you do your training, but nothing like the real thing coming down and just kind of shaking your nerves up.

Ira Glass

Now you don't really say that much to your wife on most of the tapes. Usually, it's just long stretches of bombs going off. Let me play another one, and ask you to just explain who is talking in this. [GUNFIRE]

Frank Carlson

[BLEEP]

John Brasfield

I've got my tape recorder on.

Frank Carlson

Really?

John Brasfield

Yeah.

Frank Carlson

Damn, I didn't think of that.

John Brasfield

This is one of my friends, Frank Carlson. And we had just moved on to what's called a screen line. And it's our job to report any enemy that would come through our position. And we were just having a conversation. Basically we've stopped, we're resting, having a conversation about some events that had taken place earlier that day.

Frank Carlson

I'll tell you what was awesome, was when we were on the road. We stopped, and we fired that [UNINTELLIGIBLE], I almost ran over two guys. They were laying on the road.

John Brasfield

On the road?

Frank Carlson

Yeah.

John Brasfield

I didn't see them.

Frank Carlson

They were like this. If I hadn't seen them, I would have run over them.

Ira Glass

And so in that situation is there just a lot of sitting there and chewing the fat?

John Brasfield

Basically, at that point in time, there was nothing we could do. We had put ourselves out in the open. And we felt about as secure as you could feel in that type of situation. And we were just going about business as normal, waiting for this to all pass by.

Ira Glass

And are there tanks between you and the enemy?

John Brasfield

No. No, we were the lead element. There would have been us between the tanks and the enemy.

Ira Glass

And your weapon, the weapon mounted on your vehicle, could it shoot back at them? Or was it too far away for that particular weapon?

John Brasfield

No, much too far away.

Ira Glass

And so you're just sitting there without any kind of armor on you, just sitting there waiting.

John Brasfield

Sitting out in the middle of the desert, having a conversation, just kind of waiting for the next order to either move forward or call it quits for the night.

Ira Glass

That does not sound like a very pleasant job.

John Brasfield

It's really hard to relay your combat experiences of what you went through to a person that has not been in that situation before. When you are actually in the battle, you have this immense fear of being killed. I just felt like-- when I was sitting through those artillery attacks, I just knew at any second one of those artillery rounds was going to land in my lap and kill me. That is just what it felt like. They are exploding all around you. And you just have this immense terror that the next one that goes off, you're not even going to know it's there. And it's just going to blow you to bits. And then you would go in, and you engage these guys that were firing at you, and destroy them. And you'd be elated. They died, you didn't. You're alive. All right.

And then you move on to the next little conflict. And then you'd be back down in the pits of fear, of you're just going to die on this. And then you get through, and you destroy them, and you're elated again. It was just an emotional roller coaster going through that.

And about the only people I could really-- besides soldiers that have been in the same situation, would probably be a victim of a violent crime, that has gone through that fear of-- they just know that they're going to die, because that person standing on the other side of the gun is just going to pull the trigger. And then when they make it out of that, the elation that they feel, I am alive.

Frank Carlson

I've come to the conclusion that if you can hear the artillery, you are still alive.

John Brasfield

Is that incoming?

Frank Carlson

Yeah.

John Brasfield

There?

Frank Carlson

Exactly.

John Brasfield

The last round you heard, where it kind of shut the tape recorder down, exploded right behind us. They were just kind of feeling around for us, where we were. And they had us pretty much. We had been sitting in the same location for a while.

Come on. Do your [BLEEP] job, artillery. Take out their [BLEEP]. I don't [BLEEP] care if you [BLEEP] kill [UNINTELLIGIBLE] [BLEEP] artillery [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. Just kill them. [BLEEP] kill them.

Soldier

Man, they're firing up some [BLEEP].

Ira Glass

What is it like for you to hear these tapes?

John Brasfield

It gives me an adrenaline rush. It kind of brings me back to the battle. Sometimes it's more than I really care to think about, because it brings back a lot of aspects that the mind has kind of forgotten, and has done that for a reason.

Ira Glass

I know that that's one reason why you were hesitant to talk to us, that your wife was concerned about you listening back to these tapes and thinking through all this again.

John Brasfield

For a couple years after the Gulf War, I had trouble sleeping. And I had nightmares. And she didn't want that stuff to resurface.

Ira Glass

Did your wife eventually listen to these tapes that you originally made for her?

John Brasfield

No. She has not listened to those.

Ira Glass

Could you talk about the impulse that made you want to make the tapes, that you wanted her to have a tape if something would happen to you, a tape of the moment that it happened?

John Brasfield

I think it's tough. As a soldier, I've dealt with friends dying and death. And I think it's the not knowing of the family members that is the bad thing about it. Even if what had taken place, even though it wasn't pleasant, that answers a lot of questions.

[MILITARY RADIO NOISES]

Ira Glass

Now on February 27, 1991, you made some recordings. Let me just ask you to explain what's going on in this first one.

John Brasfield

Well, what had happened is, we were on a screen line again. And our tanks and Bradleys had stopped to refuel. This is something that happened about every two to two and a half hours. We happened to be sitting-- part of us happened to be sitting across a major highway that ran between Basra and Baghdad.

And what was happening is the Iraqi forces were retreating out of Basra to Baghdad. And we just happened to be right in the middle of it at that point in time. And these were vehicles. They were buses, trucks, what we would call light-skinned vehicles, or vehicles that we could engage and destroy very easily. So we could actually stop these vehicles on the road. And that is what we started doing. And we got to a point of about 200 plus prisoners that we are taking.

Ira Glass

Now the prisoners are just-- they're just sitting there on the ground, basically, in the middle of where this road is this? Is that the deal?

John Brasfield

Exactly. We had stopped them on the road, and had taken them out, and we had-- I guess if you want to call it processed them. We had taken their weapons away from them, and done whatever we needed to do to neutralize them. And they were giving up very easily. They had no will to fight left in them. And when the task force was done-- when they had refueled and re-armed, or whatever they needed to do-- we got the call to go ahead and move out.

We had communicated the location of the prisoners back to the battalion command net. The problem with this is we have radios on our vehicles, but not everybody has the radio to the same frequency. So typically what would happen is the battalion commander would have a battalion command frequency, where he would have his commanders up on that frequency.

Ira Glass

Right. So the commander knows everything that you're saying. He knows.

John Brasfield

That is correct. Basically, we left the prisoners, by themselves, with no weapons, sitting out in the middle of the desert, expecting that the battalion command net would put out that there were prisoners there. Now I don't know if this was ever put out or not. I can't-- but as the infantry moved up and came in the visual range of the prisoners, the infantry began opening fire.

Now what you hear on my radio is a call from one of the scouts that was left behind, saying, I hope they know what a Humvee looks like, because he was afraid of being hit by friendly fire.

Ira Glass

He saw the rounds coming down.

John Brasfield

He did. Yes. I never saw the rounds coming down.

Soldier

The lead company right behind us is buying up all those vehicles there. I hope they understand what a Humvee looks like.

John Brasfield

Vehicles continue to come down the road. And instead of processing prisoners-- the Bradleys have quite a bit of range on them-- they were engaging these vehicles and destroying them. It was not a fair fight.

Platoon Sergeant

Why, why are we shooting at these people, when they are not shooting at us?

John Brasfield

I know. They want to surrender. [BLEEP] armored vehicles. And they don't have to blow them apart.

Ira Glass

Now that's you?

John Brasfield

That was me speaking there. And I was agreeing with the platoon sergeant, Sergeant Mulek, about these guys want to surrender, we've got armor going up against light-skinned vehicles-- trucks, buses, whatever-- that were carrying people back and forth. I didn't feel that there was any need to be killing these people, because they didn't have any fight left in them. All we had to do was take prisoners.

See those guys toasting the back of that truck? When we drove up? Man. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] The killed a lot of people that didn't have to be killed, because if they would have moved the company up there, everybody would have given up. I guarantee you.

I felt that, at that point in time, if we would have set up a roadblock, that we could have processed Iraqi prisoners all day. And there was no need for the unnecessary taking of human life.

But this means these guys don't want to fight. You saw the equipment we blew up. They could have wasted us. They were coming down the road.

Soldier

This is X-ray. We have got a truck with troops on it, moving down [UNINTELLIGIBLE]

John Brasfield

Don't shoot it.

Platoon Sergeant

See? He's telling them to engage.

John Brasfield

Why don't you tell them, sir, they they are willing to surrender? Tell him that. Why don't you tell the commander that? It's murder.

Ira Glass

You're on here saying, it's murder. Tell the commander that they are willing to surrender. Did anyone tell the commanders that these guys were probably willing to surrender?

John Brasfield

I can't recall if we did or not. I'm sure that the platoon leader did make some reference that these guys didn't have any fight left in them. But I couldn't tell you if that was actually said or not. It just felt like we were doing the wrong thing.

Ira Glass

Now since then, you have had a lot more combat experience. This is still pretty early in your combat career. Just explain briefly where else you served and where else you saw combat.

John Brasfield

Well, I was in the Gulf War. I finished that out. And I've also spent time in the Bosnia Kosovo conflict. With the Kosovo conflict, flying military intelligence missions for that.

Ira Glass

And with more combat experience, do you feel the same way, that it was wrong for the commanders to just fire on these guys and not try to get them to surrender?

John Brasfield

No, actually my view has changed quite a bit. It has done almost a 180. And I feel now that what we did was right, that we were not actually murdering people unnecessarily. We were soldiers, they were soldiers. There is risk. They knew what the risk is.

People that haven't been exposed, they may listen to those tapes and still feel like it was murder. As I grew a little bit more battle hardened, I realized there are risks. And they were risks that those soldiers were willing to take. They were risks I was taking at the same time. It could have been me that was killed.

Ira Glass

This particular set of events on February 27, 1991 has gotten a certain amount of press coverage. Seymour Hersh wrote about it in The New Yorker. It was on ABC News. It has gotten a certain amount of coverage. Do you feel like the media's attention to it and the public's attention to it misunderstands it?

John Brasfield

The information that was put out in ABC News and the Hersh article, I think, was kind of one-sided. They used parts of my tape in the Hersh article. And they took the tape out of context to kind of support what I felt was their point of view. And they were trying to build a case that American soldiers had killed innocent POWs illegally, and that everybody knew what was going on.

It's more of a deal if you have another My Lai Massacre during the Gulf War than if you actually say that if prisoners were killed, it was because of lack of communication. It was almost like a friendly fire accident. If they were killed, if they indeed were killed, I imagine it was a communication problem that took place, and that the people that killed them-- they wouldn't have done it intentionally-- did not know that these were prisoners, did not know these people were not armed, and did not know they did not pose a threat.

Ira Glass

The guys who were killing them never got word that these guys weren't armed.

John Brasfield

That's right. It's more of a story when we have American soldiers that are renegades out there, intentionally killing enemy prisoners of war. And that's not the case. If you sit there, and you listen to the tapes, and you listen to what was going on, there was a lot of confusion on the battlefield. And there's no proof-- even the scouts, even though they felt like the prisoners could have been killed, or they saw rounds exploding around them, nobody actually saw anybody killed.

Ira Glass

John, do you have friends who you served with in these particular fights who still feel like it was wrong to kill those guys?

John Brasfield

Yes, I do. And some of these people have a real difficult time-- they just never-- some of them just have this sense of guilt, where they feel like they have killed people unnecessarily, or were part of a team that killed people unnecessarily, and some of what we did was wrong.

I've struggled through that myself. And I feel what we did was right, and what we did was just, and we did what we had to do. And I've moved on with my life. I was able to do that because I came to that conclusion. If I had felt like I had murdered people on the battlefield, I don't think I could live with myself. I think I would have a lot of stress and grief, and not be able to deal with a lot of issues.

I think that's basically what it comes down to. You've got to either rationalize what you did, or you're going to live with a lot of guilt.

Ira Glass

When you take a moment and you reflect on it, do you feel like there's a part of you that's rationalizing?

John Brasfield

I did my rationalization some time ago. And I've made my decision on what I did was right. And I stick with it. And I've rationalized at that point. I think you've got to do that so you can live with yourself.

Ira Glass

John Brasfield now has a job as a flight instructor for civilians in Wichita, Kansas. He is also in the Army Reserve.

[MUSIC - "THE BATTLE IS OVER (BUT THE WAR GOES ON)," BROWNIE MCGHEE AND SONNY TERRY]

Act Four. Love Story.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Love Story. Well, let's return to the guy who's recording we heard at the beginning of today's program, the percussionist who met the woman in Italy and had started sending her tapes. His name is David Cossin. He sent her over a dozen tapes after their week together, trying to convince her to please, please visit him in New York City.

These tapes are such a complete portrait of a certain kind of quest and a certain feeling you get early in a relationship. And he agreed to let us play some excerpts here on the radio.

David Cossin

It's David. I thought I would try to make you a little tape, give you a little tour, or a picture, of how it is in New York. And I guess I will tune in and out with the events of my day. I'm in my apartment. There are instruments everywhere here. [PLAYS INSTRUMENTS]

And there's a vibraphone. [PLAYS VIBRAPHONE] Hopefully one day you could see all of this. So I will turn off now, and come back later, and talk to you some more.

I'm about to leave my apartment. So you'll hear Chinatown. Usually there are people hanging out in front of my building, old Chinese ladies. So this is my neighborhood. It's nice. There is a bus here, filled with Chinese people going on a tour. And this neighborhood is pretty residential. At nighttime it's very quiet. In the daytime there are a lot of children. You can hear them from my apartment. At lunchtime they're out in the schoolyard playing.

And everything that I see, I think of you. So I thought I could just talk to you as I see them. You have to let me know if it is incredibly boring or if you like this. So I'm going to a rehearsal today in Queens, close to my parents' house.

Hey. I'm in my rehearsal. And I'm sneaking, talking to you. [INSTRUMENTS TUNING UP]

Oh, Allesandra. I just read your letter. Wow. I finished reading the letter, and I realized I wasn't even breathing while I was reading. I was holding my breath. And I finished. And I realized I am out of breath, like I just ran up a flight of stairs or something. I miss you so much right now. Oh, please write me more. It's very beautiful, very tender, and making me so happy. And you're great, you're great, you're great. I miss you. I love you. I really have fallen for you. Thank you so much. That was my first letter from you. And to know that-- even though it was a week ago, my feeling is stronger and stronger. So thank you again. That was so nice. I feel so happy right now. I'll speak to you soon.

Well, I just talked on the phone a little while ago, Allesandra. And we'll be OK. It's just a feeling. It's not my thought. But just-- I feel confident that everything will be fine, and we will see each other soon. I'm thinking about you.

I couldn't just end like that. I'm back, 10 minutes later than before. Wow, it's even hard to say goodbye to you on a tape. It's hard to say goodbye to you on the phone.

I went back outside. So maybe I'll just record the sounds of outside for a moment. [SOUNDS OF CHILDREN PLAYING] This is New York, where, hopefully, you will be soon.

Ira Glass

So David Cossin, who made these tapes, now joins us to explain, first, if they worked.

David Cossin

Yeah, I mean that was three years ago. And I guess they worked, because I'm sitting in Italy right now with Allesandra.

Ira Glass

And how worried were you about how she would react to the first tape?

David Cossin

Yeah, I was a little worried, because it's a fine line between somebody who is intensely trying to connect with somebody with distance and being a stalker or something. I have never really went after something like that before. Allesandra is the first and only person that I ever felt a strong need to keep being connected to on that level, especially for such a quick meeting.

Ira Glass

And Allesandra is sitting right there with you, right?

David Cossin

Yes.

Ira Glass

Could you put her on?

David Cossin

Sure. Hold on one second.

Allesandra Pomarico

Hello.

Ira Glass

Hi, Allesandra.

Allesandra Pomarico

Hi.

Ira Glass

So could I ask you to talk about what it was like getting the first of these tapes?

Allesandra Pomarico

It was tender. It was really feeling again the presence of somebody.

Ira Glass

Before you got the tapes, did it seem like such a serious thing that happened between you and him?

Allesandra Pomarico

I have to say, it was serious because it was intense. We met, and we had a wonderful, incredible week. Something really special happened. But then, maybe I started-- more than him, I started to be more rationalistic. I started to step again on earth. So all this was like a romance, but I was rationally thinking, oh, I'm in Rome, he's in New York. And those tapes helped to continue the romance. And I think this was when I actually consciously felt in love with him. I became aware of that. And this helped me to believe in that love. It was easy in that situation to be scared, and to try to hide from your own feelings or your own state of mind.

Ira Glass

On the tapes, he worries about being too intense or being too boring. Were there moments of the tapes that struck you that way?

Allesandra Pomarico

No, no, I was never bored. And I never felt this was too much or too intense. It was tender. I was always sorry when the tape finished. I always wanted more. And I rewinded some parts. And I listened to some of these many times.

Ira Glass

He's so in love with you on these tapes.

Allesandra Pomarico

I guess he was. And that's why it was so convincing, in a sense. I felt it was true, and it was irresistible. How can I say? I could not resist. It was natural. Really, you have the sensation your destiny was changed. I guess every love story starts in the same way, in a sense.

Ira Glass

Allesandra and David are now married. In the years since we first broadcast this story, they have had a daughter, named Nina, who just turned four.

[MUSIC - "SEND ME SOME LOVIN," OTIS REDDING]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well today's show is produced by Jonathan Goldstein and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Wendy Dorr, and Starlee Kine. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help for today's show by Brian Reed.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Music help today from Adam "the tape guy" Jacobs and from Edward Wilson. Our web site, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to all of our shows for absolutely free, sign up for our free podcast, or check out all the merch in our online store. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by our boss, Torey Malatia, who keeps showing up at my house dressed as a pizza, saying-- [MUSIC - "EAT ME"]

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

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.