Transcript

246:

My Pen Pal
Transcript

Originally aired 09.12.2003

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/246

Prologue.

Ira Glass

This story takes place so long ago here in America that the stuff that we normally think of as long ago is in the far, far distant future. It's 100 years before Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are even born-- the year 1635. That year, this guy named Roger Williams, who was this charismatic young preacher, gets banished by the brand new state of Massachusetts because he goes around questioning a lot of things, including the central premise of what the settlers were trying to do.

In particular, he was questioning the teachings of a guy named John Winthrop. Winthrop was the elected leader of the colonists. He was very clear about what they were doing there in the New World. They were creating God's kingdom on earth. It was going to be a religious community. They would obey God's laws. That was the point of it.

This young guy, Roger Williams, had the radical idea that maybe there should be a separation of church and state on this new continent. So the powers that be, including John Winthrop, who, at this point, would be governor of Massachusetts, got together and agreed that this could not stand. This radical, anti-Christian agenda had no place on this new continent, and they voted to expel Roger Williams-- send him back to England.

Well, in this dark hour, one person steps in secretly to help Williams. That person was the governor of Massachusetts. In a sense, Williams's main adversary. John Winthrop.

Ted Widmer

There are all these fascinating hints that Winthrop really liked Roger Williams.

Ira Glass

This is Ted Widmer, a history professor at Washington College and a former speechwriter for President Clinton.

Ted Widmer

And in fact, at the crucial moment when Roger Williams is about to be arrested and put on a ship and sent back to England, Winthrop sends word privately-- we don't quite know how-- that Williams really ought to go down to Narragansett Bay. And Winthrop helps him to escape, even as he's publicly voting for his banishment.

Ira Glass

Williams does go to Narragansett Bay, where he founds the state of Rhode Island. And then he and the guy whose administration just kicked him out had this kind of amazing correspondence which lasts for years. The governor, Winthrop, wanted to hear how Williams was surviving, and Williams all of a sudden is the leader of his own colony. And among other things, he needs advice.

Ted Widmer

Williams is adjusting from having been this dissenting figure, this person who was very quick to point out what was wrong in the way Massachusetts was governed, to suddenly having to organize a government and get the people even crazier than him to tow the line. And he's complaining to Winthrop about how hard it is to organize a government.

So this is a letter from the person who has been banished to the to the person who more or less banished him. And yet it's very friendly. It says, "Much honored sir, the frequent experience of your loving ear ready and open toward me emboldened me to request a word of private advice with the soonest convenience it may be by this messenger." It's a little hard to get through the 17th century tone, but there's an enormous affection always underlining what he's saying to him, pouring his heart out to the person who is kind of a surrogate father.

Ira Glass

Does he ever actually say, you know, how could you do this to me? You know, you kicked me out?

Ted Widmer

The tone comes out, but he never says it explicitly. He actually, in the next line after that, he says, "The condition of myself and those few families here planting with me, you know full well." Which is a pretty interesting sentence. Sort of like, you know why I'm here, and you know how I got here. But they don't, no, they don't really dwell on it.

Ira Glass

If you think about it, the only place their relationship could exist at all was through these letters. The letters were this paper-thin space where these people who could not have had any other way to be friends had this exchange that seemed very important to both of them.

And it's funny, you know, how letters really do not work that way for many of us anymore. If anything, we have so many different ways to stay in touch with each other that we do not even notice that we're staying touch over long distances.

Ted Widmer

I think it's so easy to communicate that there's almost no reason to communicate anything of interest, you know? It's become like breathing. And if you listen to cell phone conversations on the train, it's always just, you know, monosyllables. Like hi, I'm here. Or I'll be there at 5:19 instead of 5:18. And it's the most boring verbiage you'll ever hear. Listen to someone else talking into their cell phone.

And back then, it was extremely difficult to write a letter. You weren't sure if it was going to be delivered.

Ira Glass

And because letters took more work, people would make sure they said something.

Ted Widmer

And there were real things to say. I mean, every week brought a new challenge.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International.

Every now and then, you still do get this kind of correspondence, where people will write letters because that is the only way they could have any interaction. And today on our radio program, we are devoting most of the hour to a story like that. Of an unusual relationship that mostly happened in letters. This one between a ten-year-old girl and an enemy of the United States of America-- a man accused of being a dictator, a drug runner, a murderer, a man accused of double-crossing the United States. And we have a little story at the end of the hour about what it is like to get a letter every single day for eight years from your own husband. Stay with us.

Act One. Who Put The "pistol" In "epistolary?"

Andrea Maio

When you're driving to Palmer from the west, the first thing you'll notice are these strange orange cliffs up ahead of you, rising above the pine-covered hills. They would make sense in Utah or the Mojave Desert, but here, in the lush green hills of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, they stick out out and look almost scary. This is the site of the Palmer Mines. The air in Palmer is sooty and metallic, and a black dust settles down on homes of the miners.

A few miles on the road from here, Sarah York grew up in a house that her parents built. Her dad, Mitchell, worked in the mine for years, until he got a job as a corrections officer at the nearby prison. Pauline, Sarah's mom, worked as a dental hygienist.

One night in February, in 1988, they were all at home watching 60 Minutes. That night, Mike Wallace was interviewing General Manuel Noriega. He was the big news at the time. Here's Sarah.

Sarah York

I'm pretty sure that the 60 Minutes program was about charges that were being brought up against him, or just accusations that he was a drug trafficker, and you know, a bunch of other stuff.

Pauline

You know, I asked my husband, I said, well, what do you think about this?

Andrea Maio

This is Sarah's mom, Pauline.

Pauline

Then he says, oh, I don't-- you know, he was kind of giving his opinion about it. And I said, well, I don't really know what to think. But the discussion ended with-- he had a pretty nice hat on, though. And Sarah's dad has always had some kind of interesting hat from somewhere or another.

Mitchell

Oh, yeah. I had a Mao hat--

Andrea Maio

Sarah's dad, Mitchell.

Mitchell

--from China. And different cowboy hats.

Pauline

And I made the comment that-- well, I suppose that you could write to him and ask for a hat.

Mitchell

Everyone has one down there, or several.

Pauline

But I says, I don't think you're going to have much luck. Maybe if a kid did it, then it would happen. And there's Sarah saying, well, I'll write to him.

Sarah York

You know? Maybe he'll send us a hat. Because we made sure to put in that letter that, like, I really liked his hat, you know?

We had this stationary that I wrote it on that had a partridge on it. We thought it would be a nice touch.

Andrea Maio

I should mention that Sarah had her 18-month-old baby on her lap when we talked.

Sarah York

And I think, you know, I drafted out something on notebook paper and we worked on it a little bit.

Pauline

I guess I can say I coached her a little bit. I said, well, you know, you don't want to just come out, right, and ask him for a hat. You know, you've got to say something nice, and-- so she did. And she mentioned about how she had been seeing him on TV, and hoped that our countries could still remain friends.

Mitchell

Well, it was clear and direct, and she complimented him on the hat. And it was simple.

Sarah York

Well, like I read the first letter, and I don't remember writing that. You know? And it's just kind of like-- almost I feel like it's a joke coming back to haunt me, and like, my dad [INAUDIBLE] in a way. Like, I don't know. He probably was like, oh, wouldn't it be cute if she said this?

Mitchell

"Dear General Noriega, congratulations on the patriotic support of your people. I hope this letter finds you and your countrymen well. I am a ten-year-old American schoolgirl. I study Central America. It is a special interest to me. I have seen you on television often here in the United States. Your hat was greatly admired here. Sadly, we can get nothing like it. I hope friendship will remain--"

Sarah York

Yeah, I said that, you know, I really liked your hat, and "sadly, we can get nothing like it here." Come on! Jeez. You've got to send me a hat.

Pauline

Well, we just put General Manuel Noriega, Panama City, Panama. I mean, there's probably only one general, Manuel Noriega, there. And it got there, and it was totally amazing, because it's probably about a month later that I went out to get the mail, and there was this letter addressed to Sarah, and it had this Panamanian-- some type of a military flag type thing on it. And it was like whoa, you know?

Mitchell

I knew she would get a return. I had a feeling. She was so cute at the time. She was in braces, and she's got her glasses. I thought she would get an answer. And she did. Pretty quickly.

Pauline

And she was in fifth grade. And I couldn't stand it. I had to go to the school right away and show her this, because it was pretty amazing.

Sarah York

Yeah. It was probably one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me, you know? I get this letter. Everyone loves getting mail anyway. But I'm like, a foreign leader! Wow.

"Dear Sarah, I feel honored by your letter. I appreciate your message of faith and friendship. I hope you continue sending your message and tell me about yourself and your city. With friendship and appreciation, General Manuel Antonio Noriega."

Pauline

And it was just like two sentences. That was all it was. But he did ask her to write again, and to tell him about herself and where she lived.

Sarah York

And I told him about where I was from. And you know, I'm from Northern Michigan, which I still think is a pretty special place. Kind of out there, as far as away from cities. And we get a lot of snow, and it gets really cold in the winter.

Pauline

And they kept on writing back and forth. It was usually about once a month.

Andrea Maio

At the time these letters were being written, Noriega was as notorious as Saddam Hussein is now. He had just been indicted on US racketeering and drug charges, and images of him were all over the news. Ted Koppel said that Noriega belonged to that special fraternity of international villains, men like Qaddafi, Idi Amin, and the Ayatollah Khomeini, whom Americans just love to hate. Dan Rather placed him, quote, "at the top of the list of the world's drug thieves and scums." Things had gone so far that he even had a nickname that sounded like a cartoon criminal-- Pineapple Face.

Despite the bad press, Noriega and Sarah continued their correspondence, Sarah telling Noriega about herself and Noriega telling Sarah about this country.

Sarah York

Everything was really formal. And he never gave me personal details, I don't think, about his life. It was almost more like he was a spokesperson for Panama. And I think that's what he wanted to do. Not so much make me know him, but know his country.

So in this next letter, he says, "I'm very honored of the letter you sent about yourself, your family, and your city. In addition, your interest to the problems in Panama and Central America. And so I'm sending you some books about the country. I hope that you read them and tell me your opinion about them."

He says, "The US and Panama signed a treaty in 1977 about the Panama Canal in which the US controls it until December 31, 1999. The only thing that we want is that they comply with this agreement and respect the sovereignty of our small country, Panama."

"And greetings to your parents and brothers, and keep being so studious as you are." Because I told him that I get good grades. "Because it's people like you who are going to make this a different world in the future, full of peace."

Andrea Maio

Noriega, it has to be said, was a very good pen pal. He was prompt, thorough, polite, used pretty stationary, sent presents. He even sent a hat like the one Sarah and her dad liked so much. She sent back a picture of her wearing the hat.

But the letter that came next was the biggest surprise. It arrived in the mail while Sarah was at school-- a manila envelope with an eight by ten glossy photograph of Noriega wearing a Panamanian hat, and an invitation for Sarah and her mom to visit him, all expenses paid in Panama City.

Pauline

I called the school and I asked her. I said, Sarah, there's this envelope here. I told her, I said, I'm coming up to the school. And we went into the office, and we showed it to the principal. And the principal said, "Oh, this is fantastic! You're going, aren't you?"

But I did go home and I called my mother, and I told her about it. And so I said, "Well, what do you think?" And she said, "Well, let me think about it." And she said, "I'll call you back." And she happened to be over at one of my brothers' houses.

And my one brother was a little bit upset with us for carrying on this correspondence with Noriega. Because I mean, he was reading Time and Newsweek and those kind of things, and he was going with whatever they had to say. And he says, he's a bad guy, and you should have nothing to do with him. And so anyway, I was a little bit worried that he was going to try to influence my mother by what he had to say.

But nevertheless, she did go home, and she called me back. And she said, "You know, I really don't think that there should be any kind of problem with Sarah going. I think it'll be a great experience for her." And I mean, I had my mother's blessing, you know? I just thought, that's all I need.

Sarah York

It seemed important. It seemed very important that we got invited, and that we're going to do this. You know? How just something happens in your life, and it's always different after that. It had that kind of feeling to it.

Andrea Maio

At the time, Noriega wasn't just arguing with the US. He faced dissent at home from Panamanians who didn't want the United States to pull out of Panama, which was scheduled to happen by January of 2000 under the Panama Canal Treaty signed by Jimmy Carter and Omar Torrijos. It wasn't clear then if the United States was going to comply with the treaty. The Reagan and Bush administrations both declared they would not turn the canal over to Panama as long as Noriega was in power.

At a rally where Noriega was addressing the issue, he held up one of Sarah's letters and told the crowd that even American children offer their support. Afterwards, one of his secretaries came up to him and said, why are you showing them the letter? Why not just get the girl?

And so that's what he did. He invited Sarah and her mother. Sarah's dad stayed at home.

In the years since all this happened, there's no longer much doubt about the way Noriega ran Panama. Human rights groups have documented how the Panamanian defense forces, under his direction, beat, jailed, and deported opposition leaders. An official Panamanian Truth Commission was able to prove that 110 were killed or disappeared.

Back then, it's not like Sarah's parents thought Noriega was an angel, but they weren't ready to believe the hype in the press, and they encouraged their kids to think for themselves.

Sarah York

I knew that I was going to get plenty of the bad guy story, so why not get the story from the bad guy, you know? But I don't know that I ever said, I'm going to be the judge of this. I think it was more just-- let's see what happens. Or let's see what we can find out.

I remember getting all our clothes together, because my mom wanted me to look really nice. And I think she might have made me a new dress. And I remember we had to buy me some new socks, because my socks were too ratty. And we went to the children's clothing store which I couldn't believe, because in my mind, I was not a child anymore. And we got the white socks with the turned-down cuff with the ruffle on the bottom, which was pretty borderline too young for me.

And I was really into making friendship bracelets at the time out of knotted embroidery floss. You guys probably remember. And I remember making Noriega a bracelet in camouflage colors.

Pauline

The night before we were going to leave, I was busy, busy packing, and we got a phone call from our Congressman's office in Washington. And this guy says, well, I know it's a little bit late for this, he says, but I was asked to call you and tell you not to go on this trip. And he says, but I don't suppose I could talk out of it, could I? And I know he didn't really want me to say, yeah, I won't go. And he didn't really care. I could tell. But he said, well, I just thought I'd give it a try.

It was an all-day trip. I mean, we left at six in the morning, and we got down there to Miami, and our plane was delayed for three hours. So we got down there at nine or ten o'clock at night.

Sarah York

When we landed it was dark, and the city looked so enormous. And I don't think, when we were planning the trip, we knew much about what was actually going to take place when we went there.

Pauline

The stewardess came over to us and said, we just got a message out of Panama City that you are going to be the first ones off the plane. So we want you to come up and sit in the front. So we went up to the front, and they asked us to give them our baggage, tickets and things-- somebody was going to take care of all that business. And as soon as this door is opened on the plane--

Sarah York

We were whisked away by these people. This was really overwhelming to me, because I'd been on an airplane all day. I just remember feeling really hazy about all this, and kind of just letting myself get dragged along. And I just knew that I had to keep smiling, because flashbulbs were going off everywhere, and everyone was, like, saying my name.

Andrea Maio

Throughout her entire trip, Sarah was appointed a personal videographer who documented her every move. The video starts as Sarah and her mother are hurried from the plane to a press conference, where Sarah meets the mayor of the city and is given a scroll proclaiming her a "Meritorious Daughter of Panama."

Mayor

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

I declare Sarah York--

Mayor

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

A great friend [INAUDIBLE]

Andrea Maio

She's also given the key to the city-- the second one ever presented to an American. The first one was given to Jimmy Carter. Panamanian and American reporters called out questions over the sound of cameras clicking.

Pauline

On the airplane we asked the stewardess, like, how do you say "good evening"? Because I said, you know, you've got to be able to-- you might have to make a statement, Sarah. And she's like, well, what am I going to say? And I said, well, we can maybe figure something out. And so this stewardess or flight attendant told us that it was "buenas tardes," is "good evening." And so that's what Sarah managed to get out.

Younger Sarah York

Buenas tardes.

Woman

Oh! She says buenas tardes.

Andrea Maio

In the video, Sarah can barely speak through the huge grin on her face. When she does talk, she takes deep breaths and speaks carefully. As the flashbulbs glint off her big, round glasses, she looks dazed and fragile.

Younger Sarah York

Yeah, you can tell him that I'm happy that he invited me here. And I'm really excited. [INAUDIBLE]

Sarah York

Yeah, I just felt like such a celebrity. And everyone seemed like they knew me already. And I was just-- I don't know-- really amazed. I felt really loved.

Journalist

What do you expect to see in Panama?

Younger Sarah York

Oh, they told me that I was going to see toe canal, and then I was going to go to the fair, and go to see a couple of cities, and meet a lot of people here.

Andrea Maio

Since they arrived late in the evening, they wouldn't meet the general until the next day. Their celebrity entry into Panama ended in a good night's sleep at a nice hotel.

In the morning, they were led by an entourage to the Defense Forces headquarters. The steps to the building were lined with soldiers in their uniforms at attention. When they reached the top of the steps, Noriega himself was there to greet them.

Pauline

He was right there, and he put his hand right out, and he said, welcome. And he gave us each the traditional, you grab the hand and then you do the kiss on each cheek type thing. And he did that.

Sarah York

He looked just like he did on TV or in pictures, you know? I knew who he was right away.

Pauline

Well, first of all, we exchanged gifts. We brought him down a few things from Michigan. That's when he gave Sarah a little Teddy bear in fatigues.

Sarah York

I think we brought him the snow globe that you shake? You know, just things that were different, that we thought would be different for them.

Pauline

I had I thought he was this big guy. I mean, just from what you saw, I thought he was this kind of hefty guy. and he wasn't. He was about my size. I'm not kidding. He's petite.

But anyway, I made him this shirt. It was a khaki-colored thing. And I made it like extra large. And I'm sitting there going, man alive. I was really kind of embarrassed when I gave it to him. I said, well, maybe you can find somebody that this is going to fit. And he held it up to him, you know, and it's like a mile too bit. But he said, "It's very, very nice! Oh, you made this!"

After we exchanged gifts, I said to him, well, we have a few questions. I said, would you mind answering a few questions for us? And he said, sure, ask me anything. And I said, if you don't want to answer anything, you just tell us, if we ask a question that you don't want to answer.

And so we just started out with basic stuff like, you know, when is your birthday? When were you born, and where were you born, and do you have brothers and sisters?

Manuel Noriega

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

Three older brothers.

Pauline

You're the baby?

Manuel Noriega

Yes.

Sarah York

And he was just really friendly, and really smiley. Almost just as much as his letters. Like very formal and kind, but not super personal.

Younger Sarah York

If you could vote in the upcoming US presidential election, who would you vote for?

Translator

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Manuel Noriega

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Translator

Oh, yeah, right! He said he would vote for you.

Pauline

But then finally we got into some things about the Panama Canal. And I guess-- I don't think we ever asked him any questions about drugs and drug trafficking. We just didn't. I mean, we had read enough of that kind of thing, but I didn't really say, are you guilty or not?

Andrea Maio

The next days would be spent touring the city and then the country, meeting Noriega's family and other Panamanians. People that had been appointed to show Sarah around, but also people from all over the countryside, even hours away, who had come just to meet her and bring her gifts.

Sarah and her mom saw the tourist sites, but they also went a little off the beaten path, to a poor neighborhood where Noriega grew up and to a village outside of Panama City. In every place that Sara went, she was given gifts and introduced to children her age. She traded friendship bracelets-- also a craze among youth in Panama at that time-- and took in words of Spanish. And she even learned to dance.

She saw Noriega here there, when he had time, but mostly, she was sent off to see as much of the country as she could. And wherever she went, the press followed her. While on American news every night, there was talk of Noriega and his oppressive regime, on the Panamanian news, there was a full report of where Sarah had gone and what she had done that day.

Sarah York

You know, I tried to be really polite. But I definitely tried to give the cold shoulder to people who I felt were being impolite to me. It was hard sometimes to be in the spotlight all the time, too. There was photographers following us around, constantly.

Andrea Maio

There's this series of photographs that Sarah's mom showed me that I keep thinking about, because in them, Sarah seems so small, and literally tossed around in a very strange setting. They were taken at Noriega's beach house. Sarah's mom is inside with the adults. Sarah is swimming with Noriega's young daughter and her friend. But the water's pretty rough. There are big waves.

Pauline

And then here she got knocked down. And once you're down in that kind of water, I mean, it's hard to get your bearings and get back up again before another wave hits you. And she was kind of getting flipped around by this wave. She got one leg up in the air, and she looked like she was punching herself in the face there. And it looks like just a lot of water flying around.

Andrea Maio

The next photo shows a wave crashing down on Sarah's head, and at the edge of the frame, the arm and leg of someone onshore, running to help her.

In the last picture, General Noriega is wrapping a towel around Sarah, his shirt soaked with water, a worried look on his face, ushering her towards drier ground. He doesn't look like a ruthless dictator or a drug kingpin. He just looks like someone's dad.

Andrea Maio

What was it like to go back home?

Sarah York

It was almost as much of a shock as going there. When I came home, it was freezing, and of course I'd felt like, oh, I'm accustomed to this tropical climate now. And there was kids from my class waiting for me at the airport. And I felt like a total celebrity.

Tv Anchor

Sarah York finished up the research for her two-page report on Panama this week. That followed a nearly week-long visit to the Central American country as a guest of General Manuel Noriega. If grades were given by the enthusiasm of teachers, school officials, and nearly 450 students, then Sarah could easily get an A triple plus.

School Official

She created a bond of friendship between people of Panama and the students of this school district. The school board has proclaimed tomorrow, October 14, as Sarah York Day in the Negaunee Public Schools.

Sarah York

And right away, when I got, back we started putting together a slide show of pictures that we'd taken. And I went to a lot of classes in different schools, and went and talked to the ladies' club at some church. I felt pretty important. But it wasn't long before we started hearing more negative stuff, too.

Ira Glass

Coming up. The negative stuff arrives, permanently and irrevocably, as negative stuff can do sometimes. In a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, My Pen Pal. If you're just tuning in, we're in the middle of Andrea Maio's story about Sarah York from the town of Negaunee, Michigan, who, at the age of ten, befriended and then visited a man who is considered an enemy of the United States, Manuel Noriega.

At point in our story, she has just returned from her trip. And the American public, the American government, and the American media are not too pleased with her.

Sarah York

I guess it was pretty controversial that I accepted the invitation. And a lot of people said, you know, it was fine that she was writing to him, but why would she have to accept this invitation there? I wouldn't let my daughter go.

But I think they thought that my family was foolish for having this friendship, and that we were just getting ourselves into a bad situation. And I think they just felt like it was unpatriotic. I don't know. There's a lot of nastiness out there.

Andrea Maio

They got phone calls and letters from strangers. There were articles in newspapers all over the country and all over the world. Everyone had an opinion. The Guardian in London ridiculed Sarah and called her "the bespectacled infant" and "the white-socked, short-frocked Pollyanna."

Andrea Maio

So this is interesting. I wonder if you could read this.

Pauline

Yeah. OK. What's this one here? Oh. Every Sunday in our local newspaper, they have what they call Voices of Superiorland, and someone goes out into the community and asks a key question of what's happening currently in the world. And this particular Voices of Superiorland says, "Do you think Sarah York should have gone to Panama to visit with General Noriega?"

And this guy says-- he's from the Air Force-- there used to be an Air Force base here-- he said, "I think it's a risky move." And then there was another woman. She was from Negaunee. "I'm suspicious of Noriega's motives to invite her there." Here's another one. "No, it's just too much military activity." Another one here. "No. I think it's too dangerous for her. It's a scary part of the world." "No. It's obvious that she's being used." And another one. "No. Noriega still is under drug investigation." And then here's one other guy. This guy says, "Sure, why not? It's a free country. She should be able to go there if she wants." So two out of the ten said yeah, this is all right, and the rest were like, no, no, no.

Newscaster

Sarah's friendship with a man who has been described as a drug runner and is under indictment here in the United States has drawn some criticism, including that of Northern Michigan's Congressman.

Congressman

And I think what happens is it kind of gives Noriega the opportunity to be able to take advantage of that situation and use it as a propaganda tool.

Newscaster

But Sarah's father says, if she has been used at all, it has not been for propaganda purposes.

Mitchell

I wouldn't call it propaganda.

Interviewer

What would you call it?

Mitchell

A symbol. She's been used as a symbol of friendship between the two countries.

Sarah York

I remember being in middle school and getting a phone call from a radio station. And I think it was set up beforehand that I was going to do this interview, like a live radio show. And I took the call in the principal's office, and they left me alone in his office I could use the phone and have some privacy.

And I think usually when I'd talk on the phone to a reporter, my mom or dad would be maybe just in the other room, or listening to make sure things were going good and everything. But I was totally on my own this time.

And it started out like a normal interview, and then the guy got totally nasty, and started saying all this staff that brought me to tears. And I was just crying and I couldn't respond. He was saying things like, "Do you know that Noriega rapes girls your age?" and things like that. And I was just like-- I couldn't believe that he would have the gall to say that to an 11 or 12 year old girl, you know? And that his listeners would think that was OK.

I really wish I would have been able to tell him off on the air, you know? It was a live show. If he was doing that to me, I really wish I could have come back with something, or just hung up on him. And instead, I was too polite. I didn't even hang up. I stayed on the stupid line and I was crying on the radio.

Andrea Maio

Among the things that Sarah was given was a letter from Noriega that he had written while she was visiting and intended for her to read when she got back home. In the letter, he gives her a kind of kid-sized diplomatic mission.

Sarah York

"Dear Sarah, when I invited you to visit my country Panama, I did it only for the intelligence and curiosity that you had about Panama, never with the intention of political or propaganda overtones. The United States and Panama have had common interests since 1903, and never in our territory has there existed any hate or aggression toward the North American people. The American people have an interest in knowing our children and our ethnic groups. I was interested that you should see our poor and not just the pretty, coquettish things. I was also interested that you should be free to move around, question, and walk our streets. I was interested that you should see our children and play with them and see that they have need of help and protection of the government and its leaders.

"The government and leaders of Panama have not yet done everything in order that there would be fewer hungry children, without schools, shelter, and food. But I continue fighting for the children that are the future of all the countries of the world. Your visit to Panama demonstrates that the children and peoples separate from the government and their advisers speak the same language, which is that of love, friendship, and peace.

"I ask that when you return to Negaunee, that you say that you met men, women, children, old people, government officials, and soldiers who want to live in peace. That they don't want war.

"God protect you, and from today on, I solemnly invite you so that in the year 1999, at 12 noon, December 31, you will be at the bridge of the Americas to cut the ribbon of Panama."

Andrea Maio

This is huge. The ceremony he is talking about is the day when the canal would finally be handed over to the Panamanians.

Sarah York

"May you have a good trip. I send greetings to your father Mitchell, to your brother Carl, to your brother Caleb, to your neighbors, to your teachers, to your friends, and the man who runs the only gas station in town, Francis. Greetings to the principal, Mr. Robert Trevilcock. The next time you'll also be invited to Panama.

"Sarah, I have come to know much about your people and friends. Therefore, I congratulate you for being so brave and talking with such emotion about them. Sarah, I'm not going to say goodbye, just see you later. Peace is from God, and therefore, it is welcome to whichever part of the world that will have it.

"Today, October 10. Happy birthday, and on the 14th, when you celebrate it in Michigan.

"Your friend, General Manuel Antonio Noriega.

"P.S. My wife Felicidad joins me with my words and wishes to give you a mother's kiss that would tie you to the tears, laughter, struggle, and work for the children of Panama."

Wow. He was a much better letter-writer than me. I think it's a great letter. And yeah. I really took that to heart when I got it, too.

Once I went, I couldn't really back down anymore. And I think that Noriega and people in Panama felt like, OK, now. Like, you've come here. We brought you here. You just took on a job. You have to be our spokesperson, and you have to learn as much as you can about this, and kind of educate Americans. Because our country is at stake.

So I guess, in a way, after I got back, it was like I had a job, and that sounds kind of naive and simple-minded, maybe, now. But I'd just met a whole bunch of people in this country, and I didn't want to see our country attack them. I didn't want to see us go in and kill, or whatever, this new friend I had, either. To me, he just seemed like a reasonable guy.

In retrospect, I look at the newspaper articles and the quotes, and you know, people were just interested in what a demon Noriega was, and how could I be friends with him? And I would defend him. And it sounds really naive now, when I read these articles. "Oh, he's a really nice guy." You know? I'd say things like that. But people would just take my story or my words and twist them around, turn it into something sensationalist.

I wish I could have been more articulate then. Because I think my message came across as really unrealistic and brainwashed. And I feel like there must have been a way for me to get my message out without sounding so stupid. You know?

But I mean, what do you expect from an 11-year-old? I don't know if there's any way I could have done a better job.

Andrea Maio

The closer the US came to an invasion, the clearer it became that Sarah and her family couldn't do anything to stop it. It was December 20, 1989, late at night, when in the first US troops were parachuted into combat and took over the Torrijos International Airport.

The Yorks were in bed when they started getting calls. Pauline's brother called first to tell her the news, and then reporters started calling. A friend at a local news station helped them issue a message to the media to leave them alone. They watched live news feeds from a neighbor's house who had a satellite dish. Around 4 AM, they went home to try and get some sleep. It was the first full day of the invasion.

In the early hours of the morning, they got a call from Thais, one of Noriega's secretary that they had become close to while they were there.

Pauline

She called me and she says, "Pauline!" she says. "You have to do something." She said, "We've got people that are shot, and they need to get to the hospital, and they won't let us through the streets. They won't let the ambulances go through the streets."

And I mean, I'm helpless. What could I do for her? But she was in a desperate situation, and I don't think she knew who else to call in the United States that was their friend. I mean, who was she going to call? The President? Is she going to call a Congressman? She didn't have those kind of connections. And I just felt so helpless.

Andrea Maio

They watched in horror as the US continued to invade Panama. Buildings were being bombed that Sarah and her mother recognized, and had even been to. The neighborhood where Noriega grew up was bombed, too, and Sarah wondered about the safety of the kids she had met there.

Conservative estimates say around 200 Panamanian civilians died in the invasion, but thousands wounded. 26 Americans died.

A US Psychological Operations battalion surrounded the Vatican embassy, where Noriega was taking refuge, and blared rock music all day and night. Finally, after days of this, Noriega surrendered and was taken to a federal prison in Miami and convicted of drug trafficking and money laundering.

Although it was one of the most expensive drug cases ever prosecuted, and although the US searched for proof of Noriega's wrongdoing after they invaded, they found very little and had a hard time proving their case. The US ended up relying on circumstantial evidence and testimony from convicted drug traffickers.

Afterwards, Noriega's lawyer, Frank Rubino, said he was alarmed at the way the first Bush administration invaded Panama and went after Noriega He declared, quote, "The United States will now trample across the entire world, imposing its will on so-called independent, sovereign nations. Unless leaders of foreign governments are willing to kneel once a day and face Washington and give grace to George Bush, they, too, may be in the same posture as General Noriega."

During this time, Sarah continued her correspondence with him. She even visited him and his family during his trial in Florida. But it became more and more difficult to sit down and write the letters. She was a teenager, getting into teenager things, and she had never had a friend in prison before. She became less interested in the correspondence, and her folks kind of took over, sometimes dictating what was she said in the letters.

Sarah York

I think it got just too confusing for me, and I think it was just easier for me to kind of ignore a lot of what was going on. I don't know. You don't know what's a safe. Like, can you imagine there's a young teenager writing to you in prison? Like, what would they say, or how would they try to-- how would they be able to make you feel better?

Andrea Maio

[INAUDIBLE] was your concern? You wanted to make him feel better?

Sarah York

I guess so. And just to let him know that we were standing behind him and supporting him, and that we were still friends. But I just didn't really know how to do that.

Andrea Maio

When we talk about the story, Sarah says that she isn't sure how that experience fits in with the rest of her life. The life she's living now seems really far away from that, and she rarely speaks about Noriega anymore.

She and her husband and baby are living completely off the grid in the woods of northern Wisconsin. No electricity or running water. You take a county road to another county road, and then a dirt road with no name, and eventually, you'll find their canvas tent.

There's a lot to do here. They make everything they can from scratch, haul their own water, clean their own diapers. And they're building their own house, which they want to get done before Sarah delivers their second child and the winter sets in.

I ask Sarah if she thinks that the whole experience with Noriega has anything to do with her choice to live this way, and she kind of shrugs. She doesn't make that connection.

When Sarah was 11, when she was thrust into the international spotlight and her world got so much bigger, it also spun a little out of control. Suddenly she had things she felt she need to say but didn't know how to, and everything seemed to get twisted around.

Something you can say about her life now is that there's not much chance of that. She's in control of everything, from the food she feeds her family to the electricity she doesn't use. She lives as responsibly as she knows how. There's no room for misinterpretation.

Ira Glass

Andrea Maio from Camden, Maine. She's currently finishing a film about boat punks on the Mississippi. It's called Burn This Boat.

In the years since we first broadcast the story, Sarah has moved into a timber-framed house with her husband and her two children. She still lives off the grid.

Act Two. Pen Pal Husband.

Janice Powell

Now this is a letter from 1986. Nate was in Haymarket, Virginia at this time. "My dearest wife, I received your letter expressing your delight of our last weekend. There should be joy in our hearts in remembering--"

The relationship just enriched so much. It just blossomed. I received a letter every day. Every day.

He was a nonstop talker. I called him Mr. Et Cetera because he talked on and on and on and on. Initially, when he first went to jail, I read all his letters over and over, but then they started coming so frequent, and every day and four and five pages, and all on legal paper. I just didn't read them over.

"If I had money when we met, I would have brought you the best of everything and taken you around the world. Even though I was a sinner, I had the desire to give you every pleasure that you had ever dreamed about having." That's-- this is the X-rated bit.

In our phone bill at one point, it went to like $800. We would talk on the phone. Because the inmates, they had a certain time that they could call, and they were limited to so many minutes. But if there was no one else in line to make phone calls, then you could talk as long as you want to. And Nate had such charm and a charisma about him that sometimes the guards would come get him. They'd say, Mr. Powell, there's no one in line to use the phone if you want to call your wife.

Every now and then, he would have an opportunity to call me at work. "Hey, baby." And I said, oh, God. This is great. You have made my day.

"Thinking of you and the joy I feel in having you as my woman is a delight on a day-to-day basis in itself."

I had the craving. I had to see him. When he was sent to the road camp, I was not supposed to meet him. But this was something that we did. He was able to know where he would be, and sometimes, after he would get to that location, because he was outside, there may be a restaurant or a phone there on the corner, and he would have so change or something. He'd call me and say, baby, I'm down the street from your job. Can you run down here for a minute? Or I'm going to the at-- tomorrow. Do you think you'll be able to come out there?

I would always bring whatever I could, you know, and I would leave stuff in the woods. Whatever it was he wanted me to leave for him. If it was beer, bring a sandwich, a shirt, or whatever. You know. It's over there by that tree. Did you see the one I passed? By that tree? Well, it's right there.

Or either I'd just stand there and talk to them, you know, like just somebody walking down the highway. [UNINTELLIGIBLE], Hey, baby. You sure do look good, man. I'm telling you. Things like that, yeah.

Whenever he was working with the Bureau of Sanitation, he was the maintenance man. So the crew would go out, but would leave him at the office. Well, they had a fence. It was like eight, ten feet. I didn't know how to climb up there. And he'd talk about, you mean to tell me you don't know how to climb a fence? That don't make sense.

So he would give me some gloves, and he would show me how to climb the fence. And I would have a picnic basket with a blanket in there, and I would have drinks and classes, and we would go up in the woods, and we'd lay down in the woods, and it was just like we were at home, you know?

And I had bought him a cassette player, and I brought tapes. And plus he would make tapes and he would bring them out to the picnic area, or whenever we would have our lunch, and we would play them. So then we would dance.

He liked blues, and there's a different dance that you do when you dance to the blues. It was sort of like a dirty dancing. Or we would listen to Nancy Wilson. That's one of those two-step things. And I'd really like that, you know, because his arms was always all around me and everything, like we were the only ones there.

Those eight years that Nate was in prison, those were precious to me. And the six boxes of letters. Since he wrote me every day. Every day. I mean, big boxes. And in some of the letters, he would tell me, oh, I had a dream about you last night, and oh, God, it was just great, and you know, things like that.

And it was a positiveness that came out of the eight years. Because my husband had not graduated from high school. So he got his GED. And he was president of Alcohol Anonymous. And it enhanced him.

After the eight years-- this was in the back of my mind. I said Nate, I said, do you think that you're going to revert back to how you were before you came to? Oh, no! There's just no way. And when he out of prison, he started drinking again. It was just the same Nate.

When he was drinking it was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He was on that binge. It was like, I hated to come home because this other person was there. He would get violent. And I had to go in my bedroom and board up the door. Push the dresser in front of it, and anything else, and sit on it. If there was a lock on the bedroom door, he took a hammer and he would break it off. And he'd come in there and he'd say, you are my wife, I paid for you--

And maybe that's why the eight years were probably my most precious years with him. Because I didn't have to hear the arguments in the evening. You know? If he was drinking. But if he wasn't drinking, he was just the perfect guy. Just perfect.

Our relationship blossomed while he was in prison. While he was in prison.

Ira Glass

Janice Powell. A version of this story was originally produced for the Chicago Public Radio series Speaking of Sex. The story was co produced by Alex Kotlowitz and Amy Dorn. Amy did the editing. Thanks to Julia MacAvoy.

Credits.

Pauline

I don't think we ever asked him any questions about drugs and drug trafficking.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.