Transcript

248:

Like It or Not
Transcript

Originally aired 10.24.2003

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/248

Prologue.

David Rakoff

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm David Rakoff, sitting in for Ira Glass.

There was an old cartoon, it was either in the New Yorker or National Lampoon, I can't remember, where a man is sitting on the bus. It's pretty empty. An odd stranger boards, and the man in the seat thinks to himself, "Oh, God. Please don't let him sit beside me. Oh God. Please don't let him sit beside me." The guy approaches and says, "God told me to sit beside you."

In the spring of 1978, I was 13 years old. The local public high school that I would be attending in a year's time was having an evening screening of Casablanca. So I took my friend Jeff and we went off to the high school.

In addition to my love of old movies and my general cluelessness about popular music and youth culture, I was also a really tiny child. Maybe five feet at time. Probably closer to for four foot eight. So I looked markedly different from other kids my age.

I was also a little neurotic. I was riddled with phobias. It all served to make me seem a little odd, I'm sure. I didn't lack friends, but I was a strange, round-limbed, feminine little kid. A strange, round-limbed, feminine little kid for whom a screening of Casablanca at the high school, no less, was a fairly important event.

If I think about it, I guess the fantasy going through my head was that I would meet other old movie buffs who would see past my juvenile exterior and into my very poet's soul. And then I would have, you know, a community of people who didn't care that I was dwarfish or 13. Maybe we would smoke and talk about films.

Jeff and I were the only ones who showed up. The only two people in the auditorium, aside from two older boys at the back on a ladder who were taping up some banner of some sort or another.

So the lights are still on and we're waiting for the movie to start. And I hear one of the boys on the ladder call my name. "David! David!"

If you're a gay kid, or even just a gay-ish kid, you basically spend your life anticipating having the crap beaten out of you, or at the very least, being given what used to be known on Leave It to Beaver as "The Business." I didn't know this guy calling my name. I knew that much. He wasn't a friend of my brother's or my sister's. I knew, actually, two things with complete certainty-- one, that I wasn't the David that he was calling for, and two, that if I did turn around, he would give me "The Business." So I didn't turn around.

But it just went on and on. Him was calling my name and nobody else being in the auditorium. After about a quarter of an hour, against my better judgment, thinking, perhaps, that there had been some wrinkle in the space-time continuum, and maybe this older guy did somehow know me after all-- there was no one else in the auditorium and he kept on calling "David! David!" So eventually I turned around and I said, "Yes?"

It was as if I could see the words coming out of his mouth, printed like a speech bubble in a comic, moving through the air towards me as if the entire atmosphere was viscous. Moving as slowly towards me as a bubble traveling through liquid Prell. And I knew, I knew what the words would be before they even reached my ears!

"David! David!" "Yes?" "Not you, you fag!" Of course, that was what he said.

I had thought that the unforeseen bonanza of the evening was that I was going to be somehow enfolded, all four feet eight inches of me, into some Bohemian clique, when in fact, what I should have seen was this. If I hadn't turned around, he probably would have just gotten down from the ladder anyway, and walked over to me, tapped me on the shoulder, and called me a fag. "God told me to sit beside you."

Hope might spring eternal, dread might loom like a dark cloud on the horizon. Sometimes, regardless of your action or inaction, half-empty, half-full, some things in this life are just bound to happen.

Today on our show-- stories of inevitability. Those things that will happen, like it or not. Our show today in four acts.

Act One, If It Drives, Go Live. A true crime story about the world's most law-abiding perp ever to receive four hours of continuous live news coverage.

Act Two, Don't Just Stand There. You can't change the people you love even when your life might depend on it.

Act Three, Hello, Baby. How to prepare yourself for one of life's greatest inevitabilities, like it and not, with little more than a wobbly movie projector and a breathing chart.

Act Four, On the Eighth Day, God Created Tartar Sauce. How mother nature, in an act of pure generosity, annually lays out the world's greatest all-you-can-eat raw bar on a small beach in Alabama. Stay with us, won't you?

Act One. If It Drives, Go Live.

Starlee Kine

In Los Angeles, on August 31, 2001, all other news and KCAL 9 was interrupted in order to bring you this car chase.

Reporter

And the pursuit continues. And I believe we're north of the airport now. Larry Welk?

Larry Welk

Yeah. Back with you here. This suspect has been going on now for over three hours now, well over three hours. Almost four now. With showing no signs of giving up, no signs of stopping.

Starlee Kine

This, of course, would have been no big deal, since in LA, there's car chases on TV all the time. And really, this one is no different than your basic high-speed police pursuit-- except for that speed part.

Larry Welk

The suspect still driving well within the speed limit. In fact, lower than the speed limit. Driving very reasonably right now through the streets of southern California.

Starlee Kine

And the police part.

Larry Welk

There's nobody else behind him right now. Everybody has pulled off, including the LAPD, Hawthorne, Inglewood. They are not there. Nowhere to be seen.

Starlee Kine

Oh. And the pursuit part.

Larry Welk

You know, at this point, the officers are saying that they have a really good idea of who he is. They have a pretty good idea of where he lives, even. And so at this point, they're going to go ahead and let him drive home, if that's what he wants to do.

Starlee Kine

On Thursday, August 31, 2001, viewers of KCAL were told they were watching a car chase. But what they were actually watching was a white Geo Prizm driving slowly up and down residential streets, stopping at every stop sign, and signalling every time he wanted to turn, with no police behind him. If you tuned in the day with the sound off, you'd be wondering why it was on TV at all.

Of course, if you had the sound on, you were probably even more confused, because the image on the screen had very little to do with what was coming out of the news announcer's mouth. It was as though they weren't looking at the screen at all, but were instead reciting their lines for memory, drawing from all the past car chases they covered.

The car chase began normally enough. At around six o'clock, the car's driver pulled a hit and run. It was a minor fender bender and no one got hurt, but he took off anyway. The LAPD tried to pull him over, but he refused. They chased him for a few hours before finally deciding to stop.

In the past couple of years, many police departments have begun to rethink their strategies when it comes to chasing. If a suspect doesn't seem like an immediate threat, the police will often pull out, or try to get his license plate number so they can arrest him later, reasoning that the risk of hurting innocent bystanders in a car chase is greater than the risk of letting a guy who ran a red light get away.

At the time of this chase though, this was still a relatively new procedure that most people had never seen before.

Larry Welk

We were in shock. We were saying, wait a minute? What's going on here? They're letting this guy go.

Starlee Kine

This is Larry Welk, the KCAL helicopter pilot whose voice you've been hearing.

Larry Welk

And it was tough to be on TV and explain to people what was happening. Because we had this pursuit going on, then the police pulled up, and it's almost like the news story just went away. Well, what are we doing here now?

Starlee Kine

That was indeed the question. With their top story called off right under their very noses, the KCAL news team suddenly found themselves in the unique position of being the only one following this guy around. But rather than turn to another story, the station decides to stick with this one.

And it's around this point that the situation goes from being merely baffling to truly absurd, when the newscasters begin floundering for things to say. In fact, right about here.

Reporter 2

I guess one thing we've certainly learned-- this is a fuel-efficient car. I guess just the kind you want to have in a pursuit. And forgive me if I'm making light of the situation. I'm not trying to do that and you guys know that. But for goodness sakes, this has gone on, as you say, for four hours now, and he has not run out of gas yet. So that says a lot about the vehicle he's driving.

Starlee Kine

The chase even survives a shift change.

Reporter 3

We are going to stay with this case, so stay with us. There is another hour of news ahead.

Reporter 4

[UNINTELLIGIBLE] and Gary standing by. KCAL 9 news at 10 starts right now.

Reporter 5

And thank you, Dave [? Cillia. ?] A pursuit that continues right now only by air. Ground units have completely pulled out.

Starlee Kine

KCAL is a local independent station. In addition to news, it also airs shows like People's Court and Family Feud. They usually show one car chase about every two weeks, and the effects on the ratings are dramatic. On a typical day, about 400,000 people tune in to KCAL's nightly news programming. The numbers quadruple once a car chase comes on. And when the chases are over, the numbers drop back down again. Here's the helicopter pilot, Larry Welk.

Starlee Kine

Are there other car chases that don't make the cut?

Larry Welk

Not really. If we [UNINTELLIGIBLE] had a car chase, for the most part, it'll make it on TV.

Starlee Kine

Do you watch car chases?

Larry Welk

I'm embarrassed to say that I do. I not only watch the car chases, but I yell at the television screen while it's going on, as though I'm covering it. When the guy blows a red light, "Oh no, look out!" You know? And my wife comes in. She'll be doing the laundry, and she'll walk in and watch me watching a chase, and she'll shake your head and say, "What in the world are you doing? Go take out the garbage." I mean, there could be a pursuit that runs through our backyard and she wouldn't care.

But I'm one of those guys that watches pursuits. It's cops and robbers. You watch these guys getting chased, and you don't know what's happening next. And that's what keeps you glued. And you're afraid-- I'm afraid to go to the bathroom. I'm afraid to go get a glass of water. Because I'm afraid that when I walk out of the room, the guy's going to pull a Dukes of Hazzard and jump over a bridge or something.

Reporter 2

Well, you know, he's picked up speed here. Look at this.

Larry Welk

That is a good observation on your part. He has picked up some speed. He got up to about 45 to 50 miles an hour, the suspect, right now. He makes his turn.

Reporter 2

He's slowing down again, Larry.

Larry Welk

He is. He's slowing down. Begs the question, how much gas--

Starlee Kine

It wasn't, however, just the news team that was at a loss about how exactly to proceed. The cops who weren't chasing him were confused as well. Detective Brian Spencer of the Inglewood Police Department was on duty that night and remembers getting a strange call on his radio.

Brian Spencer

Well, when I first heard about it, we were out on patrol in our marked police car. And California Highway Patrol or Los Angeles Police Department got on our radio frequency and said that they didn't want to follow a car anymore. And basically, they told all the police units to back out of it completely.

And you know, we were a little frustrated. Be like anything. Pick any profession, you know? You're supposed to do this, but then you don't do it. It doesn't feel like you fulfilled your job.

For me, it's pretty simple. They run, we chase.

Starlee Kine

So, like legions of cinematic counterparts before him, Detective Spencer decided to go with his gut and take the law into his own hands, even if it meant disobeying his superiors.

Brian Spencer

We just decided to follow him anyways.

Starlee Kine

Oh really? On your own?

Brian Spencer

Yeah. Just the two of us. We found the car on Century Boulevard. That's a street in our city. And we happened to be down in that area, because we heard the pursuit was coming in our city. So we went down there snooping, and lo and behold, there it was.

Starlee Kine

Of course, now that they'd found the car, there was still the question of what to do next. I mean, how hard really could it be to catch this guy?

Brian Spencer

He had stopped initially right-- there was a traffic light there, and he was stopped right there. And we wanted to just, you know, get out of car, and like open the door, and get him out of the car, but we knew we'd get in trouble if we did that.

Starlee Kine

How many feet behind him were you when you were following him?

Brian Spencer

Oh, I mean, we were right behind him. We were the car right behind him. Yeah. It was just like regular driving. He was doing like 35 on Century. He would stop at all the red lights. Just like we were on patrol, just driving around.

Starlee Kine

Detective Spencer and his partner continued tailing the fugitive on their own for another quarter of an hour before they were called off for good by their boss, who, it turns out, was watching KCAL'S coverage of the chase back at the station.

Brian Spencer

What happened was, when the car was on Century Boulevard, I had stuck my head out the window to yell at the guy to pull over. But it wasn't working. And the watch commander saw the car on the news, and that's when he told us to leave. So we did.

Reporter 2

We do know that he has stayed in the relatively general area around the airport, and--

Starlee Kine

That's at KCAL. The chase is still on, and the news team is no closer to answering the story's main questions. Who is this guy and why is he running?

Ordinarily when you watch a chase on TV, the very least that you, the viewer can expect is that the people actually on the TV know slightly more than you do about the situation. It's usually a given. But in this case, the announcer didn't know the answers any more than anyone else did. So they just speculated like crazy.

Reporter

You just have to wonder, Patty, if the guy has to be aware of the fact that police have unmarked vehicles. And you have to be wondering if he's wondering if he's being pursued now by an unmarked police vehicle, being that SUV.

And while police may know who this individual is, the question still remains. Why did this person flee the scene of a relatively minor traffic accident, and then lead police on a chase that's now gone on for more than three hours? Do we have any idea if there are outstanding warrants, if this individual may be wanted for something else.

Dr. Kimball

No. There was no warrants. Not a one. No. I hate to disappoint them, as a precedent-setting individual.

Starlee Kine

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the fugitive. He turned out to be a very affable and helpful guy, and he agreed to talk to me on the condition that I didn't use his name. So I'll just call him Dr. Richard Kimball. Dr. Kimball for short.

On the night this all happened, Dr. Kimball had just finished up a big project for his consulting firm. He decided to celebrate by getting high. Because you see, aside from being a workaholic and Georgetown graduate, Dr. Kimball was also a crack addict.

He'd gone to a hotel to smoke up that night so his family wouldn't see, and he was just leaving when he got into the fender bender. When he saw the flashing lights behind him, he ran.

Dr. Kimball

By no means was there ever any delusion of thinking I was going to get away. No. That's the farthest thing from my mind. I knew that what I had done was wrong. They're on your tail right now. So I told myself, well, just drive a little bit more. Try to get your resolve together. Calm down.

Starlee Kine

So the plan you had was to gain composure. Would you call it a plan?

Dr. Kimball

A plan! But you know. It's unfortunate that-- and I can say this, because certainly, I'm black. Being stereotyped as a black man and having to step out of a vehicle looking all shoddy and sweaty, and hair all awry, and with that obvious-- man, the guy's on drugs-- it was like, wow. At least try to clean up your act a little bit.

Starlee Kine

Talking to Dr. Kimball, he defies everyone's theory about why people run. He hadn't hurt anybody or stolen anything. He didn't think he could get away. And he definitely didn't want to be on TV.

There are people who study pursuits. Yes, there are actual people who do this. And they say that trying to figure out the reasons behind why people run, the cause behind the effect, is the wrong approach. What these experts have discovered is that there aren't any reasons behind why people run. There's just a type of person runs. They don't stop to weigh the consequences or to factor in all variables. They just run. They run because it doesn't occur to them not to.

Which is to say, Dr. Richard Kimball ran because he was born to run.

Dr. Kimball

Oh, yeah, well, something you may not know, I've done this once before. This happened had happened three years before.

Starlee Kine

Really?

Dr. Kimball

Yeah, yeah. Oh, yeah, really. The first time, I don't remember too many details about it. There was no hit and run. There was no accident or anything. I think it was a traffic infraction that just turned out to be a couple hour slow speed chase again.

You know, I take great pride to think that I am a relatively decent, law-abiding citizen, OK? So even while under the influence, I'm very cognizant of stop signs, turn signals.

Starlee Kine

Dr. Richard Kimball tells me that driving around, he had no idea he was on the news. He also tells me that he didn't know the cops had pulled out.

So I run by him some of the questions that the newscasters had. I asked him if the cops were in contact with his family. He tells me no. I asked him if he thought that SUV driving behind him was an undercover policeman. He tells me no. I asked him if he planned on driving home. He tells me he wasn't thinking about it that clearly.

Starlee Kine

Did you have any particular pattern of where you were driving or a particular area that you were circling?

Dr. Kimball

Oh, no. Strictly random. Like a leaf in a windstorm.

Starlee Kine

Does your car get good gas mileage?

Dr. Kimball

I think it's probably like 24, 25 miles to a gallon.

Starlee Kine

Would you call it a fuel-efficient car?

Dr. Kimball

I would, I would.

Starlee Kine

Did you have a cell phone in the car with you?

Dr. Kimball

I did.

Starlee Kine

Did you use it to call anyone?

Dr. Kimball

Nope. Nor did I keep the radio turned on, either. Just had a CD playing, if I recall correctly.

Starlee Kine

What was it?

Dr. Kimball

Boston. Yeah. Their first album, More Than A Feeling. You laugh, but I mean, that's my favorite group.

Starlee Kine

Can I just tell you that learning these answers was ridiculously satisfying? It's hard to put into words exactly, but it felt sort of like scratching an itch, while simultaneously solving a crossword puzzle, at the precise instant that, after racking your brains for it for two solid years, the name of your best friend from kindergarten suddenly pops into your head. It felt like that, only better.

Incredibly, there was one piece of KCAL speculation that came true. It was something they latched onto early on and that they kept coming back to over and over again, throughout the four hours, debating about when it would happen. Somehow they knew that this chase wasn't over, would never be over, until the fugitive ran out of gas.

Dr. Kimball

I think the low fuel indicator light came on. If I recall correctly, the red light came on, and I'm sitting there going, well, maybe two gallons, three gallons at the most. What are you going to do? Are you going to run out on the freeway, or are you going to pull over and give up?

Larry Welk

So right now, the suspect is pulling over now, here in Inglewood. We don't know if he's out of gas, but he has completely pulled over and blacked out. And stand by one second. We'll see what's going to happen here.

Brian Spencer

We'd driven away, and went somewhere and parked, and we're talking about it, a partner and I.

Starlee Kine

Again, Detective Spencer. After getting called off the chase, he and his partner pulled over and parked in a nearby area. They kept listening for any word of what was going on, but the radio was silent. They had no idea that the fugitive had pulled over, and were in fact still feeling frustrated that they'd been called off.

Brian Spencer

We were just taking a breath, you know?

Starlee Kine

Venting.

Brian Spencer

Yeah, exactly. We're just like, we couldn't believe that after four hours, he was just going to get away.

Reporter 2

No ground units yet, as far as we can see. Don't see any movement of any doors at this particular point, and we do know that law enforcement agencies did back off, and they will probably be sending in ground units momentarily.

Reporter

No helicopter lights on the suspect. We can see a vehicle approaching-- I guess, no, he's just making a turn. But--

Dr. Kimball

I distinctly remember sitting there in the car. Certainly there was no sirens, no lights. And then, I'll never forget. There was a couple of young black women were coming from a gas station on the corner. They were walking across the street. And one of them yelled out, "There the fool is!"

Starlee Kine

And was that when it really registered that this might be on TV?

Dr. Kimball

Yeah, yeah, for sure.

Starlee Kine

Meanwhile, while sitting in his parked squad car, Detective Spencer received a phone call.

Brian Spencer

My wife called me on my cell phone and said, "You know this car that everyone was chasing is in your city? It stopped at like Ash and Manchester. And he's just sitting there." And I said, "Really? The car's where?"

Starlee Kine

She'd been watching the chase on TV?

Brian Spencer

Yeah. She was flipping back and forth between that and a Dave Matthews interview. And then she said, "You know, you guys look really dumb right now. There's a guy sitting in your city, and the helicopters are up, and it's all over the news, and they're saying that Inglewood police isn't doing anything. And the guy in a helicopter's saying that normally I tell them not to run from the police, because you'll never get away, but this guy seems like he's going to." And she said, "You know, you might want to go over there." And you can see our car just come down the street.

Reporter

--this driver presents any kind of an immediate threat--

Larry Welk

I see an LAPD officer right there. Through that intersection there.

Reporter 2

There's one right behind him, too.

Larry Welk

OK. There they are, right behind him now. So officers just pulled in right now. They have their guns drawn. The suspect is now getting out. The suspect appears to be an older man, heavy-set, and he's making his way back. No resistance whatsoever. Those are Inglewood PD officers. And now the suspect is in custody. He's in the custody of the Inglewood PD.

Starlee Kine

Throughout all of this, the only person who didn't doubt that he the fugitive would get caught was the fugitive. And in the end, perhaps that's why he got caught. His faith in his inevitable capture turned out to be self-fulfilling. Here's Detective Spencer.

Brian Spencer

I mean, if he would have ran or did something, you know, I believe that news helicopters up there, and they don't have like to the infrareds and the spotlights and all that thing. And so I mean, technically, he probably could have got away if he would have ran, but he didn't. He just sat there.

Dr. Kimball

I don't think I ever thought that. And it certainly isn't, it is not my MO to have gotten out of the car and added yet another segment to the chase by me running over fences and through backyards.

Starlee Kine

So you weren't surprised when the cops showed up.

Dr. Kimball

Well, no, no. Because that's what happens in those sorts of situations. No, I wasn't surprised. Of course not.

Larry Welk

[INAUDIBLE] pursuit that we've never really seen anybody get away here, and this would have been the first one.

Starlee Kine

The news team gives its closing comments. And consistent with the rest of the evening, they seem to apply to a whole different case altogether.

Larry Welk

And I have to point out that out after this entire pursuit here, four hours long, nobody got hurt during this pursuit, and that is the best news, Bob.

Reporter

OK. The executive producer says we have to take a break, Larry. OK?

Larry Welk

Sounds good to me.

Reporter 2

All right. We'll be right back.

Starlee Kine

Here's what happened next. Dr. Richard Kimball was arrested and taken to trial. He was given two years for felony evasion and possession of cocaine, although he only had to serve a year. Ironically, the initial hit and run charge that started it all was dropped completely due to a lack of evidence. If he hadn't run in the first place, he probably wouldn't have gone to jail.

For a short while, on the night of August 31, 2001, this chase was KCAL's biggest story. A possibly dangerous fugitive who obeyed all traffic lives had managed to elude LA's police force for four hours for reasons nobody could fathom. And now that he'd been apprehended, we would finally learn the story behind it all.

But immediately after the capture of Dr. Richard Kimball, KCAL returned to its regular programming. There was no follow up the next day or the next week. In fact, there was never any. My conversation with Dr. Richard Kimball turned out to be an exclusive. In the two years since the case, no one has ever contacted him from the press. When I called him, it was the first time he'd learned that he'd been the star of that night's news.

Most everyone remembers where they were during the OJ chase, because it was one of those times when you could tell beyond the shadow of a doubt that you were expecting history in the making. But if all history starts off as news, not all news becomes history. No one remembers where they were for this case. Except, of course, the man wasn't being chased, the man he wasn't chasing, and the diehard fan hovering in the air above.

David Rakoff

Starlee Kine.

Coming up-- a film that makes you cry every four minutes, or me cry every four minutes, and a seafood buffet on the shores of Alabama. That's all in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. Don't Just Stand There.

Sheila Peabody

My father has always been a mild man, and all my friends whose fathers were mean or domineering always told me how lucky I was to have him. He's gentle, kind, and introverted. His great loves have always been the once-removed kind-- architecture, opera, multivolume Jefferson biographies.

But he's what psychologists would call, well, passive. When he helps you carry the groceries into the house, he'll stand next to an empty kitchen counter and wait for you to tell him to put them down. Most of the time, this is not a big deal. You say, "Right there, on the counter," and he puts them down. He was the kind of dad who could read a newspaper completely unflustered as you had a temper tantrum. The detachment wasn't a parenting strategy. He just wasn't so keen on being an authority figure.

Faced with my dad's passivity, my mother used to say to me, "When I get old, I'd rather be in a state nursing home than have your father take care of me." That was her worst fear, I think. What he'd do, or more to the point, what he wouldn't do if she was totally helpless and needed him.

Then last year it happened. My mom was at home alone with my dad and she started feeling breathless, and he waited to call 911. He waited for her to ask him to do it.

It was nine in the morning on a sunny July day. They'd been setting up in armchairs at the kitchen table, dozing on and off since 3 AM. She was afraid of lying down, afraid of really falling asleep, because of what had happened a couple of days before. She had woken up feeling breathless and said, "Honey, call 911. I can't breathe."

He did, and the ambulance rushed her to the hospital. They put her on medication, and kept her for 24 hours for tests, and then sent her home, telling her it wasn't a heart attack, just an episode, because she'd skipped her medication for three days for a heart arrhythmia she'd managed for decades without a hitch.

I think she left the hospital feeling she might have overreacted. They certainly didn't tell her, "If it happens again, call 911 immediately." They didn't say, "If you don't feel better, come right in."

So there they were, sitting in the kitchen armchairs, and the phone rang. We don't know who called. My dad assumes it was a telemarketer. Later when he told me he would shake his head bitterly, as if the telemarketer really should have known better.

My mother jumped up to answer it. It didn't take much to trigger her heart racing. She said hello, and then put the phone down. "I wish I hadn't done that," she said. suddenly breathless. "Should I call 911?" my father asked. "Oh, not that again," my mother said. So my father waited. My mother hated doctors, and the last thing he wanted was to incur her wrath by inviting those arrogant young men to manhandle and advise her all over again.

She took an aspirin. My father helped her take her shirt off, because she said she was hot. Gradually the attack escalated. She panted, squealed, yelped. She held her arms out in a stiff imitation of a Frankenstein shudder. I know these things because my father offered muted renditions of them the first few days after she died for whoever would watch.

Then she passed out. My father would act this out as well, dropping his head back in the chair where she died, his mouth open, arms slack. "She was just gone," he'd say, shaking his head. It was then, he said, after she passed out, that he called 911.

"How long did this take?" I always ask, wanting to hear something different. "10, 15 minutes. I don't know." "That's an eternity," I say. My dad nods, agreeable. "So you waited until she passed out to call 911?" I really want to say "died," but don't have the heart. "I think so. I don't remember," my dad answers.

The paramedics finally arrived. They put a tube down her throat, did CPR, but she didn't come back. In his own car, my dad had to follow my mom's ambulance to the hospital for the disposition of her body.

When it had sunk in that they weren't reviving her, he called the family from hospital. He left a message at work on my voicemail. He said, "I have some very sad news. Your mother passed away this morning. I'm here at the hospital and I'm all alone, and it's just awful, awful." He hung up.

In the days just after my mother died, my father talked guiltily about not responding quickly enough, about not feeling he had the strength to lay her on the ground as the 911 operator instructed him to do. I told him, no, don't blame yourself. How could you have known?

But secretly I had to wonder. Had my father done with my mother's life what he'd always done when he noticed there was no butter at the dinner table? He'd ask, "Where's the butter?" then place his hands slowly on the table, pretending to raise himself up in a supreme effort, waiting to see if anyone else would leap into action.

My dad wasn't negligent, exactly. All she had to do was ask, of course. But it's hard not to see this moment-- her dying, him waiting to be asked to call 911-- as the inevitable ending to a 50 year relationship that simply never changed.

She was always looking to him to provide the final word, and he was looking to her for the same. The problem was, they wanted completely different final words. She wanted him to say, "Let's talk about the state of our marriage, let's plan a party, let's worry about one of our children and devise a way to make a million dollars. How about it?" And he wanted her to say, "The spatula is in the second drawer to the left. But don't bother, sweetheart. I've already cooked your one egg sunny-side up. Yolks broke, whole-wheat toast buttered, coffee very hot, not too strong, with half-and-half, not milk."

No matter what she threw at the relationship-- philosophy, feminism, therapy, Prozac, love, and patience, and rage-- she could never get him to play her way. "What do you want me to do?" he'd say, after she'd been lecturing him about one thing or another, an unreadable smile just visible behind his eyes. "Just tell me what to say, and I'll say it."

In the end, maybe I wasn't any better than my dad. I acted the same way I'd always acted. I pretended things would be fine. The day before my mom died, I called her from work and asked her how she was. "Oh, I've been better," she said cheerfully, explaining she'd just gotten back from the hospital and was feeling breathless. "The cardiologist really acted strangely," she added. "I'll tell you all about it when we have time."

The next morning I awoke feeling uneasy, and told my husband so. Still, our life was crazy, and I didn't have room for another crisis, so I decided it just couldn't happen.

Now looking at all or behavior, I think, how could we all have been so stupid? Why weren't we all acting like life didn't sometimes require us to just act a little differently? Why didn't I drop everything to take care of her? Why didn't he notice she was dying in that moment, that she couldn't ask for help?

After my mother died, a friend who had suddenly lost her father wrote me. "The only thing we can learn from her parents," she said, "is to resolve not to make the same mistakes." I keep on trying to figure out what I'm supposed to learn from this. If my mother died from her worst fear, what must I do to avoid mine?

My worst fear used to be my mother's death. Now it's that I have a blind spot like she had about something in my life I'm not able to transform, no matter how hard I try. How do you begin to see your own blind spot?

Weird little things help. Like it helps to remember a conversation my brother said he had once with my father, when his world, like some mountain cracking open for the Pied Piper, became visible for the briefest moment. My dad was staring into space and my brother asked him, "Dad, what are you thinking about right now?" "The hippopotamus," answered my father, apropos of nothing. "What's the hippopotamus doing?" my brother asked him. "Oh," my father said, "he's going back to the forest."

David Rakoff

Sheila Peabody from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Act Three. Hello, Baby.

Wendy Dorr

To push this giant, you know, melon out of your vagina.

Starlee Kine

Well, how high is your level of fear from a one to ten?

Wendy Dorr

Probably nine. Probably a nine. Part of it is this feeling of, there's nothing I can do. Like, I have no choice now. What else am I going to do? Like, find a substitute? Or quit? Or just decide I don't want to do it anymore? There's one way out.

David Rakoff

She's right. There really is only one way out. And the basic belief is that the better you prepare, the better you'll be able to deal with it. There are books about what to expect, videos you can watch, classes you can take. But does it actually help to prepare for something like this?

Wendy Dorr

My name is Wendy, and my due date's the 26th.

David Rakoff

Wendy takes me to her Lamaze class to see. We're in the Elizabeth Bing Center for Parents, a ground floor apartment in a building on the Upper West Side. Six women, three husbands, myself, and Fritzi, the teacher, sit on chairs in a circle in the main room.

The highlight of today's class is going to be a film of childbirth.

Narrator

The hours that precede your baby's birth may provide physical and emotional challenges that are hard to anticipate. But taking time to prepare will give you confidence. Also, it will reassure you that although bringing your child into the world takes work, it is work with a very special reward.

Woman

We did it, he's here. Hello, baby.

David Rakoff

Hello, baby. That's the name of the movie. The title card comes up at that moment.

At 20 minutes or so, it's the highlights of childbirth. It's not some 18-hour Andy Warhol verite epic. It looks to be from the early '80s. It's shot on film. It's three couples, each going through the labor process, and ending, of course, with the vaginal birth of a healthy baby.

The same thing happened all three times. Which is, you begin by focusing on how dated things look, how fried their hair seems. But that recedes as you go along.

It's incredibly intense to watch a baby being born. You get sucked into the undeniable drama of it all, even though you know how it's going to end.

Mother

It was so incredible looking in the mirror when his head was born. Then, all of a sudden, Kyle Junior was in my arms.

Oh my God!

[BABY CRYING]

David Rakoff

At this point, I'm crying. I cried three times. Every time a baby was born. But Wendy cried, too. Seeing it firsthand made it seem significantly less scary to me. Then again, I'm not having a baby.

Wendy Dorr

It was-- I guess I felt the same. It seemed really painful and out-of-control to see it.

David Rakoff

She's still glad she saw the movie. She's glad she took the prenatal course. It hasn't made the inevitability that much less scary. But as we talk, it emerges that preparation might not even be the real goal of these classes.

Wendy Dorr

What the classes, is just-- it's like having something to do with your hands. It's just busywork to get you through the weeks of waiting. And it's doing that. It's keeping me preoccupied.

David Rakoff

But then why not just pick up a hobby? Why not learn lacemaking or something? What is it specifically about confronting the details?

Wendy Dorr

Lacemaking? I would feel a little irresponsible. Because even though I realize that I'm going to have pretty much no control over what happens when I actually do go into labor, there's this sense that the more I learn about it, the more I can feel like I'm in control, even though I know that I won't be.

David Rakoff

Producer Wendy Dorr. Four weeks after that interview, she gave birth to a daughter, Lucy.

Act Four. And On The Eighth Day, God Created Tartar Sauce.

Curtis Sittenfeld

As people in Mobile Bay explain it, there's nothing quite like a jubilee. They're strange and exciting, and they're really, really fun.

Man

Have you ever seen so many fish? There's a big flounder coming in. See him out there? Let him come in a little bit.

Curtis Sittenfeld

This is a videotape of a jubilee shot in 1991 by a man named Bird Zundel. It's dark out, so as people walk around in a shallow water near the shore, they're shining really bright lights. In the water, there's basically this chaos of fish. Eels slithering by, and flounder carpeting the sand, and catfish swimming in huge schools, and crabs moving sideways or climbing up on a jetty. I'm not sure how else to say it except that the water is crowded, like Penn Station at rush hour.

Man

That is wall-to-wall flounders right there. I don't know how many there are. And they're just as stunned as they can be. A crab of lying on top of two flounders, right?

Curtis Sittenfeld

Mr. Zundel is helping some friends who have never seen a jubilee before. He's advising them on how to use gigs, which are spears for impaling flounder, and how to gather crabs in a net.

Man

This is jubilee at its strongest. Here's flounders on the beach-- glitter you see on the war is fish. Just thousands of fish with the sun hitting them. Come stand out here and look at this. Good [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Curtis Sittenfeld

Mobile Bay is 32 miles by 8 miles. The eastern shore, where the jubilees occur, has a timeless feel to it. Some of the families have lived here since the 1800s, and several generations might share a cottage or group of cottages. A lot of the houses have sleeping porches, and some have real, actual white picket fences.

I learned about jubilees last summer when I was a bridesmaid in a wedding with two sisters named Murray Douglas and Marion MacPherson. They grew up on the bay, and Murray told me that from the age of five to the age of 15, she spent every night of the summer sleeping in her bathing suit on top of the covers, waiting for a jubilee. Basically, for ten whole years, she existed in a state of anticipation.

As I talked to Murray and Marion, I began to see jubilees as some sort of intersection of anticipation, inevitability, and luck. I decided to go down to Alabama to try to catch one for myself. When I got there, I discovered that everyone has a jubilee story.

Woman

When the jubilees happen, of course, it's still early, early in the morning, and usually still very dark. So you go out in in your little shorty nightgown, and you know, your little babydoll pajamas, because it's so dark. And you're out there, and you're digging, and you're scooping, and all of a sudden, you realize it's broad daylight and you are out there in your pajamas. And then you kind of slink on back to the house and get your clothes on.

Woman 2

My favorite jubilee was when my husband and my son and I went down the beach just to flounder. And we come into a big jubilee then at Bailey's Creek, which is about a mile from here. One of the most biggest jubilees I have ever seen in my life. They were literally five and six lying on top of one another. You could get one and come up with five. When we got in that night, we had 720 big flounders. It was beautiful.

Man 2

So I stayed and didn't go to work that day. Cleaned all of them, fileted them, put them in a little bag. Then three weeks later, Hurricane Frederick came, and we were 79 days without any electricity over here. So all those free flounders we got from the bay went right back to the bay. That's why I call it easy come, easy go.

Curtis Sittenfeld

It turns out there's a whole etiquette to jubilee. Some people say that a jubilee reveals who your real friends are. If you call people to alert them when you find one, they'll call you the next time. And if you don't do your share of patrolling the beach at 3 AM, you might find that your phone's not ringing as often.

Also, it's totally acceptable to miss a day of work because you were up gigging flounders the night before and now you have to clean them. The only thing is, you have to bring in some flounder for your boss.

Marion Macpherson

Down there. Ooh, did you see it? Yeah, it was down there.

Skiddy

I saw one!

At night, around 10 o'clock, I go with Marion McPherson, whom I know from the wedding, her four year old son Skiddy, and their ten year old neighbor, Sayer Kerley to check the conditions. We've walked up the dock and now we're peering into the water with flashlights.

And believe it or not, there are more and more signs of an impending jubilee. We see a crab near the piling of the wharf and a few catfish.

Sayer

Ooh! They're all around there.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Jubilees believe can be several miles long or less than 100 feet. They can contain all sorts of fish or just one kind. For example, you can have an all-shrimp jubilee.

Sayer

I thuink there might be a jubilee. Do you think there might be?

Marion Macpherson

There's at least three crabs on that [INAUDIBLE] over there.

Thayer

There's little fish, aren't there?

Curtis Sittenfeld

Sayer says he thinks there's a seven in ten chance of a jubilee. Even though I'm really excited, I try to remember he's in fifth grade. I ask Marion to weigh in. I would say that really there are very good signs tonight. And this would be a night, if I-- well. This would be a night, if I were hunting jubilees, that I would sleep on the wharf and look for one.

Curtis Sittenfeld

So I decided to sleep on the wharf. And I have some company.

Sunny

I'm Sunny Kerley and I'm 14, and I'm about to go to sleep.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Why are you on the wharf?

Sunny

Because we're waiting for a jubilee.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Are your parents making you do this?

Sunny

Ah, somewhat. Not really.

Curtis Sittenfeld

No comment.

Sayer is also sleeping on the wharf. Our plan is to get up every couple hours to see what's happening. I ask Sayer if he thinks we should set an alarm clock, but he says he'll be able to wake up without one. Before crawling into his sleeping bag, he drinks a Coke.

Less than fifteen minutes after saying goodnight, we have our first jubilee casualty. It's really buggy out, and Sunny decides to go sleep in his own bed. Sayer and I settle back down. But an hour later, we hear a noise.

Sayer

OK. There's some mysterious thing that is floating with two lights in the front. Has a very loud generator engine on it. And it looks like he's catching some flounder, and we're going to go interview him, see what he's doing.

Curtis Sittenfeld

We've been here for like almost an hour. I did not come close to sleeping.

Thayer

Neither did I. [UNINTELLIGIBLE] didn't do anything.

Curtis Sittenfeld

We walk to the shore to meet the boat coming in.

Sayer

Hi. You think there's gonna be a jubilee?

Man 3

I don't know. There's a lot of flounders out here, I know that.

Curtis Sittenfeld

The guide tells us he's caught 50 flounder so far, which is more than twice as many as you'd get on a normal night. His plan is to stay out until morning hunting the jubilee, and he seems pretty sure that it's a matter of where, not if.

After this excitement, Sayer and I go back to sleep and wake up a few hours later to check out the conditions.

Thayer

Look where we're stepping.

Curtis Sittenfeld

We've established a routine Sayer fires up a flounder light and we walk about a half a mile down the beach. We're sloshing through the water and climbing underneath docks and over jetties. We don't find anything.

Sayer and I wake up for good around seven. There wasn't a jubilee, which is weirdly hard to believe. In my head, I had imagined the jubilee so clearly that at some point, it began to seem inevitable.

Since I didn't get to see a real one, I decide to pay a visit to Manci's Antique Club, a nearby bar that has an entire wall covered with pictures of jubilees. I walk in and introduced myself to Mr. Manci, who immediately tells me there was a jubilee.

Mr. Manci

This was a big one, up in [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. It started at like seven o'clock in the morning.

Curtis Sittenfeld

I can't-- it was at seven o'clock in the morning? I was literally up at seven o'clock looking, but I was in the wrong place.

Mr. Manci

Well, you've go to be at the right spot at the right time.

Curtis Sittenfeld

Clearly I wasn't in the right place at the right time. But people console me by saying I have had the most authentic jubilee experience of all, which is the sort where you stay up all night chasing the jubilee, and you come close, but you don't actually find it. You invest all this time and excited energy, and then nothing happens. Of course, it's still fun to get excited.

To me, one of the coolest things about jubilee is that it's both unpredictable and good. I've been trying to think of other things that are like that, but it seems like there aren't that many. Usually stuff is unpredictable and bad, like a car accident, or predictable and good, like Christmas.

While I'm in Alabama, I keep coming up with comparisons, but none of them are quite right. This is the one I finally hit on.

A jubilee is like hearing a song you love on the radio. Just like you can go out and buy shrimp at the grocery store, when I was 19 years old, I could have bought a Tom Petty CD and listened to "American Girl" anytime I wanted. But somehow it always sounded better when I was driving along in the car and it just came on. It sounded better when I was surprised by it.

And even all the times you don't hear your favorite song, you still know that it exists in the world, that it's only a matter of time. It's not that big, but it gives you something to keep hoping for.

David Rakoff

Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of the novel Prep.

Credits.

Woman

Hello, baby.

David Rakoff

I'm David Rakoff. Ira Glass will be back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.