Transcript

263:

Desperate Measures
Transcript

Originally aired 04.16.2004

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/263

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Principal Gartner and Assistant Principal James have tried everything they know how to try. They've filed paperwork, they've talked to people above them. They've gotten the parents from their school to go and stand up at school board meetings. Nothing's worked.

Principal Gartner

We were told the new school would happen, this is about, six years ago.

Ira Glass

They run a public elementary school in Chicago called the Richard E. Byrd Community Academy. The school has no lunchroom, no auditorium, no gymnasium. Even for Chicago, it's pretty bad.

Cheryl James

Promises were made. Land has been cleared. A sign has been posted for years and years and years. We have gone through planning, right down to picking out tile. And then, it's not happening.

Caprice

There go our bullet hole in the window. There go our missing drinking fountain. And there go our other bullet hole in the window over there.

Ira Glass

Caprice, a fifth grader, takes on a tour of what's wrong with the building. Things were going nowhere in the campaign to get a new school until the fifth graders in her class, room 405, got involved this fall. Among the things that got them maddest about the school was the heating system. Here's Davielle.

Davielle

At our classroom, I remember once the heat was supposed to be on but we had to put on our hats, our coats, our gloves. We put on our gloves, we can't even hardly write, because people have mittens. You know you can't write with no mittens.

Ira Glass

They walk me to the bathrooms. There's no soap, no paper towels, no paper towel dispensers. A door is missing from the stalls.

Davielle

We don't have our own privacy. There aren't any doors on the stalls. And don't nobody uses the bathroom anymore. But--

Ira Glass

So what does everybody do? You just hold it in?

Davielle

Yeah, mhm. We go take it down to our lunchroom. It's a bootleg lunchroom. We've got a bootleg lunchroom, because it's a hallway with just tables in it.

Ira Glass

The bootleg lunchroom features bootleg cafeteria ladies, who look just like any cafeteria ladies anywhere, except they're serving chicken nuggets and corn and milk in the middle of the school hallway. The kids in room 405 decided that they needed a new school back in the fall when their teacher, Brian Schultz, a young idealistic teacher in his second year, decided to try something new, a program called Project Citizen, where the kids would pick some problem in the school or in their neighborhood that they wanted to solve. And then they would solve it together as a class. So one day Mr. Schultz stood at the board and had them name possible problems that they could address.

Mr. Schultz

Some of the problems that they came up with were everything from wanting to clean up litter in the parks to teenage pregnancy to stopping Michael Jackson.

Ira Glass

And did you try to get them to just choose one problem?

Mr. Schultz

That was the aim, was to pick one problem. And truly I thought that they would pick something like getting mandatory recess every day, or getting a different selection of drinks at lunch.

Ira Glass

But when the kids started naming their problems at their own school, he says, the feeling was so many of these problems could not be solved one by one. The only way to get an auditorium or a lunchroom would probably be just to build a whole new school, the one they were supposed to get six years ago, the one whose plans are actually on display in the entryway of this building for them to see as they walk in each morning.

So that's what they decided to go for. They've had politicians visit. They've written letters to the head of Chicago schools. There have been TV crews. There's been coverage in the newspapers.

But Byrd sits in the middle of Cabrini-Green, one of the most famous public housing complexes in the country. And the city of Chicago is tearing down the public housing high-rises around the school. Lots of Cabrini is already gone, replaced with expensive townhomes. Assistant Principal James says that maybe the new school will come only when this process is finished.

Cheryl James

And maybe this is what's happening. Maybe the plan is to let's just stall it, stall it, stall it until the buildings are torn down and the new townhomes are all in place and we get the population we want for the new schools, but not for our students. It'll be for the new residents, because they're going to need a school.

Davielle

I think they're going to fix stuff up. I don't really think they're going to give us a new school.

Ira Glass

Yeah? How come?

Davielle

Because they're going to build condos over there. Because my mama said that when they knock down the projects, all the other people from them move over here, they're trying to make us move from over here.

Ira Glass

The kids are getting some small results. The school board has finally scheduled some repairs for the building, minor stuff, covering some fluorescent lights, fixing some wiring. If they just get repairs and not a whole school, a lot of kids say they're going to be really disappointed. And Principal Gartner is worried about the lesson that they're going to take away from all of this.

Joseph Gartner

If they don't see things happening, I'm afraid that they're going to say, mm hm, voice all you want, but your voice is a small voice and doesn't matter.

Ira Glass

And this is the problem with the big, desperate, brave attempt to change things. When you raise the stakes, you either win big or you lose big. And that's what our show is about today. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Today on our program, stories of people stuck in unfixable situations, people who try desperate measures, unusual, inventive, desperate measures. We're talking stories of American ingenuity, stories of problem solvers, stories of what this country is all about at some level.

Act One, Hasta la Vista, Arnie. In that act, a patient, a doctor, a problem, and a movie star back when he still made movies.

Act Two, We Built This City on Rock and Coal. In that act, a small town in Pennsylvania goes for the extreme makeover, decides to get a famous face of a favorite celebrity.

Act Three, The Router Not Taken. A man tries to unload a piece of junk that he bought by selling it on eBay, not by concealing its many terrible qualities, but by bragging about them, which actually, it turns out to work.

Act Four, The Rocks at Rock Bottom. In that act, a guide to how to get over a heartbreak using only your throwing arm. Stay with us.

Act One. Hasta La Vista, Arnie.

Scott Miller

He would go on and on babbling about that he was The Terminator. And the big thing was that he had helped a bunch of other patients on this particular ward escape. They'd find them down on level two in obstetrics in there around the ward. And this had happened on more than one occasion. And they'd get a call, they would bring the people back up to the ward. And it wasn't too long before he'd be back out.

Ira Glass

So he would stage breakouts?

Scott Miller

He did. He was there to rescue John Connor and had to help those people get off the ward, that they were all being kept there against their will. And in fact, he felt also that he was being poisoned by the staff, The commandant, in particular, which I took was the lead psychiatrist on the unit, given drugs that was messing up his software.

Ira Glass

And was he quoting lines from the movies? Like would--

Scott Miller

Oh, yes. He stayed in character, which is another unusual feature. Very often clients with this particular condition will go in and out of focus, different kinds of characters. They'll come in and out of their-- they'll remember who they are or what their role in life has been. But this guy stayed, and his delusion had fixed features.

Ira Glass

So what did you do?

Scott Miller

Well, the staff was just embarrassed, but also upset with this. And they would bring him back and try to have a very rational discussion with this very psychotic man about why he shouldn't be doing this. And one of the things that often happens is they give him more of the treatment that wasn't working.

Ira Glass

Like, they gave him more of the drug that didn't--

Scott Miller

They give him more of the drugs. And they tried even more to be rational with him and explain the reasons why he couldn't be escaping from the units, restate who he really was, what his real name was.

Ira Glass

OK. So you guys try more drugs, and you try reasoning with him. Neither thing works.

Scott Miller

No. And here I am a student, so I probably don't know any better. And I had been to a couple of workshops, and I was intrigued by this man whose name was Milton Erickson, who was kind of this wacky psychiatrist who lived out in the Arizona desert. He was famous for treating very difficult clients, and often in very unusual and unorthodox ways.

And the case that came to my mind, that I am sure I'd heard at this workshop, was of a man in a state hospital-- I believe it was in Michigan-- who believed he was Jesus Christ. He'd been at the hospital for decades if I'm remembering the story correctly. And nothing had helped. Milton Erickson comes in, learns of this particular case, and invites the man to his office. Or goes and visits him, I don't recall, and asks him if he is indeed Jesus Christ. The man says, yes, I am.

And Erickson, rather than fighting with him, asks him, I understand that you're a carpenter. He said, yes, that's true. And he put him to work building bookshelves at the hospital. Within a very short period of time, he's out of the hospital, working as a carpenter.

Ira Glass

OK, so you remember this case, and?

Scott Miller

So one day I come in and this young man is now in the seclusion room. So I figured it's escalated even more. This is a padded room, and they've stripped him down to his skivvies. And I asked if I could go talk with him. They said, OK. Feel free to go ahead and chat with him, if you'd like.

Ira Glass

Right. Everything else has failed.

Scott Miller

Everything else has failed, but more, they figured there's nothing that I can do. I'm a student. I'm not going to mess things up terribly. This is a case that's going to take some time to remit.

And so I went into the room. By the time I had gotten admitted to the locked room, he was sitting on the ground, cross-legged. And I walked in, and I just said, hi, my name is Scott. What can I call you? And he says, you can call me The Terminator. And so I stretched out my hand, and I say, I'm very pleased to meet you-- Terminator, or The Terminator? He says, you can just call me The Terminator.

We keep talking for a while. I start to remember this case of Erickson's. And I'm thinking could I develop something similar to that, some way of joining him, some way of being with him? And I say to him at some point, out of the blue, totally by chance, are you really The Terminator or are you Arnold Schwarzenegger?

And he stops, and he looks at me, and he says, how did you know? And he kind of smiled. And he says, you're the only one that knows this. And I say, thanks for telling me this. I said, great. I said, you know I've been watching your-- you're like an American success story. You come over here with nothing. You become an icon of weightlifting. You marry a Kennedy. My God, I said, it's incredible. We're laughing, and carrying on for another, I don't know, 10 minutes, maybe 15 minutes.

And again, I'm sort of thinking what the next move is here. And I got an idea. I said, I have a new role for you to play. I said, you know The Terminator series, how many really of these can you do? You really need to think about developing another side, a nuanced kind of role, not just sort of stare into the camera and really just be Arnold.

Ira Glass

And his reaction?

Scott Miller

What's the role? And as soon as he said that, then I thought, OK, the idea seems to be working. I said, it's a very different kind of role. It's not a role that you've ever played before. It's not a strong, silent, shoot-em-up kind of type. It's not action hero. Do you think you're capable of it? And he says, oh, I'm very capable. And I said, are you sure? He says, yes. I said, well, you know I'm not-- and he says, come on! Tell me what the role is.

And I said, mental patient. And in so many words he says, what do I have to do? And I said, you have to leave this room. You have to start engaging the people running around here that are pretending to be the staff. You have to talk to them about your feelings. You have to sit in groups. You have to go to arts and crafts class and paint and mold clay and do all the things that they're doing in your arts and crafts class. And he says, I can do it.

Ira Glass

So did he get better?

Scott Miller

Yes. He was released I think within about five or six days after that. Over the course of time, he was in role so much that even he didn't seem to be able to tell that he was really Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Ira Glass

Right. He was just as willing to see himself as himself at some point.

Scott Miller

Yeah, it was equally rewarding. People got along with him well from that point forward.

Ira Glass

Oh, it's interesting to think about that in a way, his problem was that he didn't know how to relate to the world. He had some sort of breakdown, and he didn't know how to relate. And so he just chose a way to relate that it was clear how to relate. If he's Arnold Schwarzenegger, if he's The Terminator, it's clear what his role is. And all he needed for somebody to do was give him a way to think about, no no, here's who you are, and here's how to interact with the world.

Scott Miller

Yeah. And let's put a twist on it. It depends on whose eyes you look through. Maybe the world needed to figure out a way to relate to him, especially the small world in which he was living. But every day, I'm meeting people. And I want to blur the boundaries a bit here between so-called delusional clients and our everyday garden-variety clients who come through the door. They also have views that I sit opposite them and think some days, how the hell could they believe that? It's so patently absurd. But my job is to somehow understand that perspective and what that leads them to. And that seems to open up a connection that leads to change.

Ira Glass

How common is this as a technique to do with very extreme patients, though? This idea that you're going to enter their world in this way and enter their fantasy and just suggest a variation on the fantasy?

Scott Miller

I think the field would be divided about that. We have these notions that psychosis is a biological condition, and talking just really isn't the thing that helps them, they really need the drugs. In fact, very often people are advised, you don't actually engage people in conversations about their delusions. That might perpetuate them. So you want to make sure that you are very rational with them, set limits with them.

And with some clients, that's going to work. The question is, you try that approach, it doesn't work, you probably need to try something else. And our research actually says that clinicians frequently don't recognize when a case is failing.

Ira Glass

Huh. So what does that mean?

Scott Miller

That means they persist in doing more of the same thing that hadn't worked before, either the same class of intervention or type of intervention. So if a little medication doesn't work, well, then we'll try a little bit more. If a little confrontation doesn't work to overcome the client's denial, then by God, we'll put them in a group where 12 people can confront them simultaneously.

Ira Glass

And do I understand right? You're saying that with these difficult cases, the problem isn't that people recognize, oh, this one's a stumper, and now I've got to do something different. The problem is that they actually don't recognize I'm failing in what I'm doing. I'm just doing it over and over, and it's not getting fixed.

Scott Miller

Yes, very often. So it's interesting to me that in mental health, often times when there's a problem, it's the clients who end up somehow blamed.

Ira Glass

Scott Miller is a researcher and clinician and co-director of the Institute for the Study of Therapeutic Change. Their website is www.talkingcure.com. This story is mentioned in the book, The Mummy at the Dining Room Table: Eminent Therapists reveal Their Most Unusual Cases.

[MUSIC - "PSYCHO THERAPY" BY THE RAMONES]

Act Two. We Built This City On Rock And Coal.

Nancy

Yeah, I don't really think there's anything here for me. I would love to move out of the state.

Ira Glass

Nancy is one of the people who the governor is trying to reach with this program. She is 18 years old, a freshman at Lansing Community College. She says that when she and her friends talk about the Cool Cities Initiative, they just can't take it seriously.

Nancy

I don't understand how they say a deli and a cafe, an internet cafe or whatever, is going to make this town cool. I mean, if this was coming from the youth, and they were knowing-- I wouldn't want to say the youth, because they're not necessarily youth.

Ira Glass

Is that what you all are calling yourselves these days, the youth?

Nancy

I always refer to myself as the youth, but--

Ira Glass

I'm taking notes here.

Nancy

I mean, really, I kind of almost feel embarrassed for the people putting this out there.

Ira Glass

Well, one of the things that your governor says is that a big part of the initiative is getting broadband access everywhere. Do you have--

Nancy

[LAUGHS] I'm sorry, what?

Ira Glass

That's just laughable to you, huh?

Nancy

Yeah, that's funny to me. But go ahead.

Ira Glass

Why is that funny to you?

Nancy

Why is it funny to me? I don't see how the internet's going to make-- I mean, the cities already have broadband internet access. And everybody has a computer in their house. And everybody's-- what you need is all there. I just don't see how broadband internet access is going to draw people in.

Ira Glass

Do you personally already have broadband internet access?

Nancy

Yes, at my house.

Ira Glass

Hm. And so that's not doing anything to keep you in the state, huh?

Nancy

No. Not in the least. I mean, where can't you get it?

Ira Glass

Let me just read to you a couple of sentences from your governor's state of the state address. "So the fourth way we will grow the economy is by spurring strong regional economies anchored by cool cities. We can have local commissions on cool. Government can't create cool. But we can and will target existing resources to support local efforts, to have vibrant cities." Do you find it disturbing to hear the governor say the word "cool" so many times?

Nancy

I'm so glad you said that. Yeah. Everything is dotted with cool and hip everywhere. They just seem so out of touch, almost. They're speaking about the youth like this different species of-- maybe we can be cool like them. It's like if you came home and your mom decided to redecorate your room so it was cool and hip. And she'll do what she thinks you'll like, but your mom doesn't have the same idea of what's cool and hip.

Ira Glass

Which brings us to this story, about a town in Eastern Pennsylvania that was in such desperate straits that it took some very unusual measures. It didn't just try to bring in broadband internet access. It did what ex-cons do, what aspiring starlets do, what immigrants do, what people in the witness protection program do. It changed its name.

It changed its name to the name of a person, a person who actually never set foot in the town. A man named Jim Thorpe. One of our producers, Sarah Koenig, visited there recently.

Sarah Koenig

The name change happened 50 years ago. But still, if you ask two people here, people who live just down the street from each other, what's the name of their hometown, you can end up in a discussion like this.

Chunker

You say to somebody, it's like, I go to meet somebody. I go up the Hazelton River. Where are you from? I'm from Chunk. Then they know you're no phony.

Sarah Koenig

And you? And you Craig?

Thorper

Oh, I'm from Jim Thorpe. There's no doubt about it. Born 1959--

Chunker

You work at the Jim Thorpe National Bank, for Christ's sake.

Thorper

But we were one of those places that went from Mauch Chunk National Bank to Jim Thorpe. We changed our name in honor and respect.

Chunker

Chunkers are Chunkers and Thorpers are Thorpers.

Sarah Koenig

This place had its heyday in the late 1800s, back when it was two towns, one name each, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk. It got rich off coal, when people started hauling anthracite to market along the canal. They built a railroad, one of the first in America. And by the turn of the 20th century, it claimed to have more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country. Thousands of tourists came here, and checked into one of the nation's biggest hotels, where five presidents stayed.

Bob Knappenberger

You could probably get a good view over here.

Sarah Koenig

Bob Knappenberger, who's lived here all his life, took me on a tour. We drove to the top of a big hill and looked down on the houses tucked neatly into the valley.

Bob Knappenberger

Now that road coming down there off to your left, see, that's the Asa Packer Mansion.

Sarah Koenig

And so you were saying they called this the Switzerland--

Bob Knappenberger

Switzerland of America. If you look down here, you could see why they call it. And there was a big restaurant here, right here. You'd come up here and have dinner at night and sit out on the veranda. The bear would be walking right there. You'd throw some food out to him.

Sarah Koenig

Really?

Bob Knappenberger

Oh, yeah.

Sarah Koenig

He tells me Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey got their start playing in the dance hall attached to the dining room. It's dilapidated now, the wooden ballroom kind of sagging. After the Depression and World War II, the coal business started dying here, and a lot of people lost their jobs. And soon the biggest employer, the railroads, started closing too, until they didn't even stop in Mauch Chunk anymore. People say by the early '50s, at 6:00 AM, you'd see all these cars driving away, taking people to work out of town. They'd go to Bethlehem to the steel mill, or to factories in Allentown.

And this is where a man named Joe Boyle comes in. Joe and his father owned the newspaper in town, the Mauch Chunk Times News. Boyle died in 1992, but he still holds a kind of mythic status here as a tireless town booster who churned out scheme after scheme in the name of progress.

Town Resident 1

He was ahead of his time. He was just so onto the future, one of those very rare people.

Town Resident 2

Joe could sell us on anything, because we loved that man, admired that man, and he would never lead us astray.

Town Resident 3

Most people liked Joe, but he did have some pretty funny ideas.

Sarah Koenig

In 1950, Joe Boyle literally dreamed up a way to save the two towns, to bring in new industry. He woke up at 3:00 AM, he told a reporter, with a crazy idea. He would ask every man, woman, and child to contribute a nickel a week to a common fund for a period of seven years. That's how long he thought it would take to collect enough money for an industrial building. And then they'd get businessmen to fill it.

So people went around with buckets and collected nickels. They even put a strip of tape along the main road and asked drivers coming into town to stick a nickel on the tape. The nickel a week fund started making money, and a story about it ran on the national AP wire, and then got picked up by TV. It's at this point that the towns happened to cross paths with Jim Thorpe, or at least the body of Jim Thorpe. He had died in 1953.

Thorpe, like the Mauch Chunk towns, had been at the height of his glory almost 50 years earlier. He was a Sac and Fox Indian from Oklahoma who became a legendary sports figure. They made a movie about him, Jim Thorpe, All-American. Burt Lancaster stars.

Pop Warner

Pretty good, Jim. Very good for a first jump. Let's try it again. Watching Thorpe in succeeding weeks was like watching a magnificent young stallion, untamed and unbroken.

Sarah Koenig

The film tells how Thorpe won the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Olympics, a feat that's never been repeated.

Pop Warner

And when it was over, the King of Sweden asked to meet Jim Thorpe, to pay personal tribute.

King Of Sweden

Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world.

Jim Thorpe

Thank you, Your Majesty.

Sarah Koenig

Thorpe was also a football Hall of Famer, a professional baseball player, and a champion in lacrosse, swimming, and skating. He also played hockey, handball, and tennis, boxed, fished, sailed, shot golf, and bowled, and was a great dancer. Basically, there wasn't any physical thing he couldn't do.

But a lot of his life was tragic. His Olympic medals were stripped from him in 1913, because he had played some baseball for a little money a few years earlier, and he never really got over it. He lost a child to polio and drank a lot, fouling up his first two marriages. And he couldn't seem to hang on to money. He ended up working sad kinds of jobs, emceeing dance contests, or playing bit parts in movies, or working as a laborer with a pick and shovel. He died in California in his house trailer of a heart attack. He was 65.

Patricia, his widow, tried to get his home state of Oklahoma to build a memorial to him. But the governor eventually vetoed the idea. So she came East looking for help and, by most accounts, money. She was in Philadelphia when she saw a TV story about a plucky little town nearby that had amassed a small fortune in nickels. Bob Knappenberger was working at the American Hotel at the time.

Bob Knappenberger

Now, this lady had come in. I'll never forget it. She had come in, and she had a poodle dog in each hand. And she said to me, young man-- that's exactly what she said. I was a young man then, I'm now 78. She said, do you have a chamber of commerce? I says, no we don't. But the secretary of our borough is right across the street. The Acme store used to be right across the street which is now Anne's Early Attic. Everything used to congregate around the American Hotel there. Within a few hours, talk was around that it was Mrs. Thorpe here.

Sarah Koenig

As soon as she got to town, Patricia Thorpe hooked up with newspaperman Joe Boyle. And this was her pitch. The town would pay her for the right to bury her famous husband, build him a memorial, and change its name to Jim Thorpe, PA. In exchange, she said, the town would cash in on his name and Mrs. Thorpe's connections. The head of the NFL was a friend of her husband's.

They would set up a national charity foundation in Thorpe's name that she said would raise money for a $10 million heart and cancer research hospital that would be built in town. There was talk of establishing the NFL Hall of Fame there, maybe a sporting goods manufacturer, maybe even a motel called Jim Thorpe's Tepees. Tourists were sure to come, just like in the old days.

Boyle initially thought the idea was preposterous, he said. But it grew on him, as a way for the two towns to unite under this new name. He started running stories about it in the newspaper almost every day. He even printed an architectural sketch of the hospital. The notion started to catch on that the very existence of the towns was at stake. On May 17, 1954, a day before the town voted on the name change, Boyle wrote in his column, "the voters will decide whether or not the twin communities will merge and be known as Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, or drop into complete oblivion." Again, Bob Knappenberger.

Sarah Koenig

And were there people who didn't want them joined?

Bob Knappenberger

The older ones. The older ones were, "oh!" But it passed 10 to 1. And I'll never forget the night of the general election. I sent a telegram to, well, I don't know how many major newspapers. That night, I said on the teletype, I said, Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania is now Jim Thorpe. I'll never forget it. Yeah. I thought it was great. Believe me, I did. I thought it was great.

Sarah Koenig

So the body of Jim Thorpe was finally buried. Using $10,000, or 200,000 nickels, they built a red marble mausoleum the size of a large bathtub. There are carvings of Thorpe throwing a discus and jumping a hurdle, and the words, "sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world." It sits just off the roadside on the outskirts of town. Eydie Lukasavige, a member of the town council, was about 20 at the time. And she remembers how hopeful everybody was.

Eydie Lukasavige

Are you kidding? We thought it was the greatest thing since the coming of-- you know what. It was wonderful. It was going to do something for the community. It was going to put us on the map. And it just never happened. And people just stopped talking about it. But when you bring all this up, they'll say, yeah, remember? We were promised this, and we were promised that. And what did we get? We got nothing.

Sarah Koenig

Nothing. Not one new building, not one new business. And the Football Hall of Fame? It went to Canton, Ohio, where it has gotten more than 7 million tourists since it opened in 1963. Some people blame Mrs. Thorpe. Other people blame Bert Bell, or the lack of him. He was the head of the NFL, and the Chairman of the Jim Thorpe Foundation. And the day he was supposed to go on national television to kick off the fundraising campaign, he was at a Philadelphia Eagles game, and he collapsed and died right on the field. And that was it. Nobody took up the cause after that. And people started to get mad. Ray Hills remembers bringing his boy scout troop to town around that time.

Ray Hills

During the course of the weekend, we went down to look at Jim Thorpe's memorial. And I talked to scout troops, because I thought it would be pretty good for the scouts to see. And it was like demolished and had graffiti all over the monument.

Sarah Koenig

The marble, you mean, part?

Ray Hills

Somebody had come down there with sledgehammers and gave it a work over. Because all they said they ever had was a dead Indian. They never got anything from Jim Thorpe's wife, when she said she was going to dedicate a hospital or a library, something of that sort in town. And they never got it, but a dead Indian.

Sarah Koenig

A faction of older residents were so embittered, they started a movement to change the name back to Mauch Chunk. In 1964, 10 years after the first switch, the town put it to the voters again. They decided to remain Jim Thorpe, but the tally was much, much closer. Things eventually settled down, but the economy kept sliding. By the 1970s, the beautiful downtown buildings began to fall apart, and shop windows were mostly empty. Then Thorpe's children hired a lawyer in an effort to disinter his body and bury him in the family plot near Shawnee in Oklahoma, but nothing ever came of that either.

Video Narrator

In a scheme designed--

Sarah Koenig

Today, the video for sale in the Mauch Chunk museum refers to the town's name change in a tone that, for a local historical video, seems oddly hostile.

Video Narrator

In return, Mrs. Thorpe promised the balance of her husband's estate to build a $10 million, 400-bed hospital. While this bizarre exchange received nationwide headlines, it did little to change the town. Only controversy resulted from the name change, controversy which haunts the town to this day.

Eydie Lukasavige

I guess maybe we were living in a dream world. I guess maybe our families were living in a dream world.

Sarah Koenig

Eydie Lukasavige, like a lot of people you meet here, thinks the town did right by Jim Thorpe. But she also thinks the whole scheme was half-baked to begin with.

Sarah Koenig

Can you imagine that kind of campaign happening now, and people going--

Eydie Lukasavige

Never. Never. It could never happen now.

Sarah Koenig

Why?

Eydie Lukasavige

It could never happen now because I think we're all a little smarter. I don't think we're as gullible as people may have been back then. I think we would do a lot more checking into it to make sure that this is for real. It's like my getting a letter today telling me that I won $670,000. You know, maybe back in the '50s I might have been gullible enough to believe it, but I wouldn't believe it today. No, I don't think you could sell a bill of goods like that today.

But my children were all very happy with the name of Jim Thorpe. When I'd say to them, oh, I don't know why we give up the name of Mauch Chunk, they'd say, what's the matter with you? Jim Thorpe's a great name. Well, sure, it's a great name. But I couldn't see Lansford changing their name, or Nesquehoning or Coaldale. None of those coal mining towns would ever change the names of their towns for nothing. For nothing. You know, you've got to be proud of what you have and work with what you have.

Sarah Koenig

In the last few years, the town has been doing much better. Jim Thorpe now survives on tourists who come not to see the mausoleum, but to go hiking and whitewater rafting and look at the restored downtown and go to all the nice shops. And maybe all of that's possible exactly because Joe Boyle's plan failed and no industry ever came here to spoil the river and surrounding hills. Because 50 years after the name change, Jim Thorpe still looks exactly like Mauch Chunk.

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig is one of the producers of our show.

[MUSIC - "ISTANBUL (NOT CONSTANTINOPLE)" BY THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS]

Coming up, an engineer's brain and a broken heart. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Desperate Measures, stories of people in impossible situations trying to invent their way out of them. In this, the second half of our show, we have two stories. And I'm not sure if both of these guys are full-time engineers, but they're certainly engineer types, guys who take stuff apart and think it through.

Act Three. The Router Less Taken.

Dave

My name is Dave and I put a listing on eBay called Ryobi Router Table, Worthless Junk, No Reserve.

Ira Glass

Now this story of American ingenuity. Dave and his wife were expecting a baby. And he decided to build a crib for the baby. So he went to Home Depot, and he bought this machine that would help him do the job. The cheapest model that he could find, since really he had no idea when he would ever want to use the thing again.

Dave

This item is a router table. And it essentially is a support for a router. And what this item does is it will take a piece of wood and put a decorative edge on the piece of the wood.

Ira Glass

And basically, it just guides you as you're cutting the piece of wood, right?

Dave

Right. The table guides you or the wood, depending on what you're trying to do. And the router itself, which mounts to the bottom of the table, actually does the work. So the table's used more for precision-type work. If you're making pieces that mate together, then you'd want to use the table to make sure that you got everything perfect.

Ira Glass

And so that's what it's supposed to do. What did this one do?

Dave

This one didn't do pretty much anything right. Basically the table was falling apart, and it caused me a lot of quality problems, I guess, with my work. And also, it was pretty much a safety nightmare as well. I've got this router bit spinning at 15,000 RPM, and my finger is three inches away from it. And all of a sudden, it decides to move.

Because the legs were falling off, I had to wedge it against the wall and jam my knee underneath it and hold it with one hand against the wall, and my knee and the other hand, I was trying to guide the wood. It wasn't real safe, but I do still have all 10 of my fingers.

Ira Glass

So you came up with a totally ingenious solution for what to do this. You basically decided to sell it on eBay. Can I ask you to read from your listing that was posted on eBay?

Dave

Sure. "This Ryobi router table was the worst thing I've ever spent money on. Period. I've wasted money on a lot of things in my life, women, cars, lots of other things I didn't need. You name it. But I never felt like I totally 100% wasted my money on something until I bought this table. This is the most worthless piece of crap I've ever had the displeasure of working with in my life."

Ira Glass

What I love about this is just how completely categorical it is.

Dave

Well, it's kind of an anti-description. Most of your descriptions try to tell you how good something is on eBay. And then this one I just decided to go the totally opposite way and explain how bad it was.

Ira Glass

I'm going to ask you to read some of the next paragraph.

Dave

OK. "It comes complete with most of the crappy accessories it came with. An example is the plastic pusher mitre thingy that's so sloppy that I don't understand why they even bothered making it adjustable. It's really nice when you're trying to route something at an angle and it slips in the middle of the cut and jerks the work piece right out of your hands and flings it across the room. Or the super anti-precision fence that's almost impossible to adjust and keep in place. Or the slippery painted surface that wears off, exposing the rough surface that mars the work piece as you slide it over. It does come with a power switch that always worked. I'll give it that. It has a really nice power switch. Some of the other small items got destroyed in a fit of rage one day after fighting it for a couple of hours."

Ira Glass

Then you go on and you say that the best part of it is that it is a three-legged router table.

Dave

Right, right. Well, it became a three-legged after I was trying to route something one day and I noticed that the table was moving. Then well after a few more pieces, I'm in the middle of a cut and the leg just fell off. So I had to stop to keep from losing any fingers and I tried to beat the plastic inserts back in. When I took the picture, I had the table supported by a beer bottle to keep it from falling over.

Ira Glass

All right. Keep going in the reading.

Dave

"This table comes with no warranty from me. I never bothered to try to take it back, even though it was under warranty. I was so ticked off that I knew I'd create a scene when I threw it through the front window of Home Depot."

Ira Glass

And then you go on and you explain how to ship it and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. And so it seems like it was the listing when you first sent it out. And then people started writing you. What kinds of emails were you getting?

Dave

I was getting all sorts of emails. I think to date I've got close to 1,000 emails on this. But the first ones that came in, I got a lot of requests to shoot it or set it on fire, or make a video of some sort of destruction of the table.

Ira Glass

Right. And why don't you read the addendum that you added in mid-March based on this emails.

Dave

OK. "I received some emails. And yes, I am willing to set it on fire, shoot it full of holes, et cetera, and mail a picture/video to you. If the bid gets high enough to cover my costs, I'll be willing to shoot it full of holes with your choice of the following-- 12-gauge slugs, 00 buck, or a 40-round mag from an AK. Then I can make a pile of the remains, douse it in gasoline, and light it on fire. The winning bidder would get pics if they so choose. I could even ship you the charred remains if you like. Hey man, I just hate it. Let me know. Whatever trips your trigger."

Ira Glass

And then the next day, apparently in response to other emails, you add the following.

Dave

"Yes, I can drive over it with something. I can drive over it with a Massey Ferguson 620-cubic-inch diesel-powered tractor." At this time I only had one bid. It was for a penny. So I wrote, "again, for Chrissakes, the next bid's $0.02. I'm willing to do all this crap for a penny, so the video's got to be worth $5. Bid and tell me what you want."

Ira Glass

And then the next day, apparently, people are writing you about the bottle. So you had to make this addendum.

Dave

"For those who are interested, the bottle does carry a $0.10 Michigan deposit, and it's pre-printed for the other standard deposits for other states, which is $0.05. So yeah, it's like a huge bonus, worth hundreds of times what the table is worth."

Ira Glass

So how many people looked at this site?

Dave

At the time the auction ended, I had about 40,000 views. And it kept going around. I noticed it was up on some message boards on the internet. As of this morning, I had, I think, 202,000 views.

Ira Glass

So you have fans.

Dave

Yeah, I've got quite a bit of fan mail. I haven't got any hate mail so far, so that's good. But I've had four or five marriage proposals. I hope they're not serious, but--

Ira Glass

Wait. Are you-- what did they say in the marriage proposals?

Dave

It's just kind of really odd. They just said, well, you sound funny, and wow, I want to marry you, and I want to meet you, and so on. But I'm married, and happily married, and I have a son. So I guess I wasn't real interested in those. I'm not so sure I'd be interested otherwise anyway.

Ira Glass

So who bought the thing.

Dave

Well, a guy bought it. And I didn't hear anything from him for a couple of days. So I emailed him, and he just responded that he didn't really want the table. He kind of got caught up in bidding on it. So he just paid me for the table, and that was the end of that.

Ira Glass

Wait, wait, wait. He didn't want it? He just got caught up in the excitement?

Dave

Well, there are a lot of other fictitious or false auctions on eBay. A lot of people will then bid up these things, and nobody's actually serious about completing the transaction, but it's just kind of understood that the transaction's not going to be completed. It's just for entertainment value.

So he assumed that this was that. And I told him I wasn't really concerned about getting the money. But he wanted to pay me for it anyway, because he did win, and he wanted to make sure he got his positive feedback out of the deal.

Ira Glass

He didn't want you ruining his reputation.

Dave

I guess. He had a pretty good reputation, just like mine. So feedback's everything on eBay.

Ira Glass

Wow. I can't believe you actually made money.

Dave

Well, the interesting thing is somebody also Paypaled me $11 to buy myself a six pack of beer because they got so much entertainment out of reading the auction. So I've actually made more money than what I sold it for.

Ira Glass

Dave lives in Ann Arbor. He did finish the crib, barely. The price he got for his routing table, $26.22.

[MUSIC - "PIECE OF CRAP" BY NEIL YOUNG]

Act Four. The Rocks At Rock Bottom.

Hillary Frank

Jerry and his wife had split up and he moved to this little village, leaving everything behind, his young son, his home. He was about as low as he'd ever been.

Jerry

Thoughts were running around in my head and wouldn't stop. It was like a broken record. And when I lay down at night and tried to sleep, sometimes the most absolutely ridiculous little thing would be running around in my head and I couldn't divert my attention away from it. And I found that walking on the beach, hunched over a little bit, looking for flat rocks, picking up a handful, throwing them in the ocean, and the fact of throwing very hard as well, this relaxed me a great deal.

Hillary Frank

Jerry started skipping rocks at the beach five or six times a day for at least a half an hour at a time. The bay at this beach was shaped like a U. Jerry worked on one side of the U and lived on the other. He had to walk along the shore to get home, and on his way, he'd stop to skip stones. Over time, he began walking less and skipping more.

Jerry

And one night-- it was during the tourist season, which means that this little bitty village fills up with tourists from all over the world. And right at sundown, it was just gorgeous weather and the bay itself was like glass. And I stopped at the base of the U, which is downtown, so to speak, where the main plaza is. And I was in my own little private world of walking and skipping and the stones just were flying. I mean, it was an extraordinary night. I had no peripheral vision at all. No sound occurred to me.

And all of a sudden, the stones were flying out to where the boats were moored. In fact, I'm talking 120 meters, a long way out there, and it actually hit a couple hulls and all that. And it just surprised the heck out of me. And at one particular point, a stone just flew and bounced and bounced and bounced and bounced and kept bouncing and kept bouncing and kept bouncing and I'm standing there agape.

And all of a sudden, when it quit and just sank, there was just this spontaneous burst of cheers and applause, which absolutely startled me. And it was like somebody slapped me on the shoulder in a dark room or something. I turned around and there must have been 2 or 3 or 400 people about 60, 80 feet behind me in a great big crescent.

Hillary Frank

And you didn't notice them gathering.

Jerry

No. No No, not at all. I didn't have a clue.

Hillary Frank

Did you turn around and take a bow or something?

Jerry

No. No! I was embarrassed. No, I just slinked off down the beach and got out of the way. It was like, whoa. Because it was like a very private moment that all of sudden you realize that hi, we're Candid Camera. So I sort of stumbled down the beach to-- there was a cafe outside. And I sat down at one of the tables and ordered a Coke or whatever and realized that I was shaking so bad that I couldn't hold my drink still. Well then I couldn't go anywhere in the village after that because every night I walked and every night I skipped. But I couldn't find a place where I could skip that nobody could see it.

Hillary Frank

Why was it important to you to try and find a private place?

Jerry

Well because-- I don't know. I guess I'm very shy. And I'm-- that's a good question. I suppose that coming out of a depression and sort of a funk in one's life is sort of a private thing. I mean we all tend to sort of brush that off, don't we, and put on a smiley face with everyone. And it was just at this point in my life things weren't OK. They weren't going well.

And what was going well, I enjoyed to do, and I enjoyed to do it privately. And that was throw rocks at the water. And I didn't want to share my pain in other words. And so then I had to make some conscious decisions about was I going to quit skipping because this was not what I had mind. Or do I go theatrical with it? In other words, [INAUDIBLE]?

What happened was eventually I would be skipping and children, little German and French kids and Spanish kids, they would come up to me in an absolutely orchestrated order almost stand in line and one by one giving the other one time and room, they would come to me. And they would bring me a stone and ask me to skip it. Or they would bring me a stone and ask if they could skip it and show them how to hold it or whatever. And that went on for a while.

And then pretty soon the older people started getting in line as well. This became a nightly ritual. And I was now being introduced everywhere in the village as here's the stone skipper.

Hillary Frank

Over time Jerry learned to enjoy skipping rocks in front of an audience. And a few years later when he moved back to Texas, where he's from, he learned that there was actually a Guinness world record for rock skipping, 29 skips. Jerry knew he could beat that record. And eventually he did with 38 skips. Or at least that's all the camera could catch before the rock skipped out of the frame.

Jerry says that back on the night he became the village stone skipper at the beach in Spain, he probably got well over 50 which seems unimaginable. For most people, even getting three skips is tough. Jerry says it's really all about physics. That you need to learn to rotate the stone and get it as parallel to the water as possible, while also throwing it down.

Jerry

It's just like a basketball or tennis ball or something. If you got in a gymnasium and I got one end and you got at the other, and you said throw me the ball, I'd just throw it to you. That's one thing. Now if you said make it bounce 30 times before it gets to me, I'm going to throw it toward you, but I'm also going to have to throw it down at the floor of the gym pretty hard for it bounce that many times before it gets down there.

Hillary Frank

Jerry also says the size of the rock is important. It needs to be almost as big as the palm of your hand and uniformly thick.

Jerry

If somebody said skip an Oreo cookie for 20 times, I couldn't do it because there's not much mass to an Oreo cookie. And I've tried that.

Hillary Frank

You've tried skipping an Oreo cookie?

Jerry

Well actually, I did a program. They came out and wanted to film me skipping a whole basket full of different things from bagels to cans of tuna. And by the way, bagels are best skipper in that food group. And if it's frozen, I can probably skip it pretty well.

Hillary Frank

So you need to have a decent sized stone and be able to throw it down. But probably the most important element in getting a stone to skip far is being able to throw it hard, like you would if you were angry. And anger, after all, is what made Jerry so good at this sport to begin with.

Jerry

When I find myself headed down a road of depression or boredom or whatever else, I look for a pond and some flat rocks. It was something that worked for me once and it'll work for me again.

Hillary Frank

It kind of seems like that perfect combination of a kind of aggression and meditation.

Jerry

Well, I'll tell you something, Hillary. In fact I had four stone skipping events in four consecutive years at one point there. And during the course of doing these events, I met a wide spectrum of people. One in particular was a guy that came up to me and said-- he was from Chicago in fact, by the way-- and he worked with at-risk delinquent children, and had told me this story of how these kids, one of their favorite pastimes was chucking rocks through factory windows from the alleys and all in Chicago. And so instead of round rocks in an alley, he found them flat rocks in a pond, and said it was absolutely phenomenal the effect that skipping stones had on these children.

Hillary Frank

It does seem ideal. For all those times you want to punch a wall or a person, just to take a breath, walk to a place where the water lies still, and there's an abundance of flat, smooth rocks.

Ira Glass

Hillary Frank.

Credits.

Scott Miller

Sh. You can call me The Terminator. You're the only one that knows this.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.