Transcript

289:

Go Ask Your Father
Transcript

Originally aired 05.13.2005

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/289

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Hi there, podcast listeners. Ira Glass here. I'll be brief, and then we'll get to the show. Two facts I want you to consider. Number one, all revenue going to public radio stations is down this year. The radio station that we're part of, WBEZ Chicago, because of the recession, didn't make $700,000 in corporate underwriting this year that they had hoped to make and that most years they would have normally made. So that's one fact.

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

Child Aric

Hi Dad. How are you doing? I'm doing fine.

Ira Glass

When Aric was a kid, his dad would leave for six months at a time. He was in the Merchant Marines. He would be in Guam, or Scotland, or God knows where. And Aric would record these cassettes, send them off to him.

Child Aric

Have you been in the desert? Did the Easter Bunny send you an Easter basket? If he did, you better make sure there are no lizards in it. Dad, when are you going to coming back up to stay? I'm anxious to see you or at least hear your voice. Yeah, send me a tape, Dad.

Ira Glass

His request, that his father record a tape for him, is repeated over and over again on these tapes. Here's Aric, probably four years later, on another tape in seventh grade. His hope that his dad would respond was so great that every cassette that he sent, he would only record on one side. The other side was blank for his dad to fill in and send back. Never did, though.

Child Aric

You can use this tape to send me. I want a tape back, bubba. And I really hope you can get your hands on a tape recorder. Well I guess you did or else you wouldn't be listening to it right now. But I just got my hair cut yesterday. I don't know if you'd like it or not. It's--

Ira Glass

These recordings are filled with so much yearning, that even when Aric tells his dad about his haircut, you can hear it. Aric reads his dad a poem he's written about the environment. He talks about the weather, two feet of snow. He plays his clarinet, though even this gets a nervous preamble.

Child Aric

I'll play my piece for you that I'm going to play tomorrow. But my reed is a new reed and it's not fully soaked yet. So there'll be squeaking. It'll be OK tomorrow because it's soaking right now. So I'll be squeaking. OK, I'm going to play it now.

[PLAYING CLARINET]

Ira Glass

I know this is the saddest tape in the world that we're starting the show with this week. And I'm just doing it so I can talk about this choice. As adults, we have this funny choice. Are we going to sit down with our parents and talk about the stuff that hurt us, didn't make sense to us when we were kids? And it's hard to know if it's worth it sometimes. If it's just going to make your parents feel bad. And what are they going to say anyway? But Aric has never understood why his father, in all those years, never sent him a tape back, not once. So, not long ago, he got together with his father.

Aric's Dad

Those tapes ripped the guts right out of me. They are from the era of my life that was so sad.

Ira Glass

This is Aric's dad. Back when those tapes were sent, during the months when he wasn't away at sea, he was often just living out of his car, scraping by. He and Aric's mom split up pretty early. I've got to say, this little encounter did not start so well. Aric played his father a bit of the old tape. And his dad cried and said it was killing him. It was just too sad, too hard to listen to knowing all the ways he'd let Aric down back then.

And then finally, Aric asked him the question that he brought him there to ask him. Why he never sent a tape back? And his dad was as honest as he could be.

Aric's Dad

I don't know. I can't answer that. I was a failure, total failure in that. I guess I figured I'd get home and talk to you. I should have had the strength to do it. I didn't have the strength to do it. That's my only answer. I didn't have the strength to do that.

Aric Knuth

And why didn't you?

Aric's Dad

I don't know.

Aric Knuth

I believe you.

Aric's Dad

It's my only answer. Sorry. You know that? You know how sorry I am about that?

Aric Knuth

Yes.

Aric's Dad

That isn't worth much, I guess. But--

Aric Knuth

No, it is.

Aric's Dad

It's all I can do.

Ira Glass

Was that satisfying?

Aric Knuth

No. No, I don't know. No, it wasn't satisfying. But yes, I think I do believe him.

Ira Glass

I talked to Aric about all this on the phone.

Aric Knuth

I have two completely different understandings of my dad in my head. One is that dad I knew and missed and was really mad at as a kid. And one is the dad I know now. And I don't know, I feel like maybe asking him those questions, I wanted to conjure up that younger version and see what a total jerk he was so that I could really be mad at him. It didn't happen. And I just saw the dad that I've known for the past few years. And I'm not really mad at him.

Ira Glass

Right, you're still mad at that young dad.

Aric Knuth

But he's gone. And there's this sweet, kind of sad, loving older guy there now.

Ira Glass

But how unsatisfying for you and for everyone who wants to confront their parents given the fact that the people who they're mad are gone and have been replaced by these kinder, gentler, more sensitive people.

Aric Knuth

Totally unsatisfying. And I think probably then confronting your parents never works. Confronting your parents never works because by the time you get around to doing it, your parents are totally different people. They're gone. And there are these different beings sitting in front of you when you confront them.

Ira Glass

The problem, of course, is that we still have our questions about the past, whether or not those people we've got beef with are still around to answer those questions. Today on our radio show, we have stories of two people who head off bravely for answers despite these odds. Act One is about a man who's handed a mystery that he could really use his father's help in unraveling. But unfortunately, his father is dead.

In Act Two, we have a son, a father, and questions so unusual that their answers may require an army of Russian lumberjacks, a giant circular trench in the Sahara Desert, and possibly, just possibly, a website. Stay with us.

Act One. Make Him Say Uncle.

Ira Glass

Act One, Make Him Say Uncle. This is the story of a family. And every family has a black sheep. In Lenny's family growing up, it was Uncle Abie.

Lennard Davis

Uncle Abie was the person in my family that I was always told, don't be like Abie. Don't be like Abie. He was like a model of what not to be. My father would always say to me, don't read in bed at night. Uncle Abie reads in bed. And what was bad about that was that you need a book as a crutch to go to sleep at night.

Or Uncle Abie read on the toilet. Don't read on the toilet. That's bad. It's not clean.

Ira Glass

Uncle Abie was always an hour late for everything. Uncle Abie went out with a string of women when he was single in a way that seemed unsavory to Lenny's parents. Uncle Abie couldn't be trusted. There were all kinds of things about Uncle Abie to avoid. So Uncle Abie didn't come around much, even though he lived right in the neighborhood. This is in the Bronx in the 1950s. Lenny's dad operated a sewing machine at a factor in the garment district. His mom did alterations in a department store. It wasn't much money. Lenny and his older brother and his parents lived in a one-bedroom apartment.

So fast forward several decades. Lenny grows up, moves out. And by the time he's 31, his mom had passed away. His father is in the hospital with cancer. And Lenny is visiting his dad there.

Lennard Davis

And Abie comes in and pulls me aside and he says, "I have a secret to tell you. But I can't tell you until your father dies." So I just was like, OK, leave me alone. And I just didn't-- I said fine.

So then my father did die. And it was about a week after my father died, just a little bit after the funeral. And Abie called up. And we were talking about some pieces of furniture that he-- actually he had gone to my father's apartment and taken furniture without asking us.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Lennard Davis

And we were talking about the furniture. And then said to him, "So, what's the secret?" And there's this long pause. And then he says, "No, no. Forget it. Never mind." And then I go, "Well come on, you said there was a secret. I mean you said this. What is it?" He said, "I really don't want to talk about it"

And I nudged him and finally he said, "OK, I'll tell you the secret." And I said, "What is it?" And he said, "I'm your father." And there was just this-- this was just completely out of the blue. There were no clues in my upbringing. There was nothing. And my father had just died. And I'm in the process of mourning him and thinking about my connection to him. So I said, "What do you mean?"

And he said, "Well, your parents tried to have you for a long time." And there are 10 years between me and my brother. "Then your father came to me at my workshop. And he had a jar. And he came over and he gave it to me. Explained that he needed some semen." So he said he went in the bathroom and he produced the semen. And came back, and then he said, "Nine months later, you were born."

Again, it just seemed completely preposterous, I mean the whole idea. Then Abie, sensing that I was probably fairly freaked out, said "Well, don't worry, though. because your father told me that they mixed the sperm together." So that--

Ira Glass

They mixed the two brothers? His sperm and your dad's sperm.

Lennard Davis

Right. And so there's a chance, there's some statistical chance I guess. And the other thing that he said on the phone was he said, "You know, you're a smart fella. And I've watched you at school and all of your accomplishments. And I've always thought it's because of me."

Ira Glass

And is that the most horrible thing you can imagine when he says that? Is that very much like a Darth Vader--

Lennard Davis

Absolutely. And I was in a complete, total state of shock. And I just thought, wow, whose movie am I in? The whole thing was completely bizarre.

Ira Glass

Did it seem believable to you at all?

Lennard Davis

It felt like someone had spun me around 100 times. And I was just standing there reeling and trying to put the details together. And it seemed kind of crazy. And especially the details, like when he told me it was about artificial insemination. I thought that has to be really early for artificial insemination.

So I went up to the medical library at Columbia. And I just started looking up. And sure enough, I found these documents that said that in the early-- actually I probably would be one of the early artificial insemination babies in the United States. But in the early days, they asked for a family member, which of course they never do now. And they also did mix the sperm. And I found that detail. And that was the detail that seemed to me the craziest.

Ira Glass

The mixing the sperm?

Lennard Davis

Yeah, and they don't do it anymore because obviously it doesn't do anything other than make the person who wants to be, who has been trying to be a father, feel better.

Ira Glass

It's such a beautiful idea, though. It's like a firing squad, but in reverse.

Lennard Davis

That is absolutely true.

Ira Glass

Like in a firing squad, each person would choose to believe they weren't the one who hit the prisoner. And in this, everybody would choose to believe they were the one.

Lennard Davis

Right.

So I did that research. And then the other thing that was interesting was that my father was this amazing cheapskate. And he never had a checkbook because he just wanted to deal straight in cash. So he had kept these meticulous notebooks of everything he spent. And particularly medical things. And I found this notebook with all these expenses going back to the year I was born. So--

Ira Glass

Going back to year you were born but not before?

Lennard Davis

Not before, yeah.

Ira Glass

Oh. So was it helpful?

Lennard Davis

Well yeah, because it listed the name of the gynecologist. So I figured, OK, I'm going to track him down. So I called up. He was dead. But his wife answered the phone, and she said that his records all went to some other guy. So I tried to find that guy. I called for two weeks I remember. And his line was constantly busy. And then when I reached him, it turned out he had just died that week.

Part of the time when I was wondering about was I went back and thought, are there any clues? If this was true, why were there no clues? And the only clues I could come up with was this idea that I just never felt part of that family.

Ira Glass

Though everybody has that feeling at one point or another when they're a kid.

Lennard Davis

Right, absolutely. Only everybody doesn't have the opportunity to find out that the feeling is true. My brother, by his own admission, he said, "We never felt like you were one of us." "You're really different from us," is the way he put it.

Ira Glass

And what were the differences?

Lennard Davis

My father and my brother very much are very controlled people. Everything had to be in its place. Everything was orderly. And I was like this little spark. I was going around trying to have a good time. I was very-- the way they described as a kid is overly sensitive.

Ira Glass

And you mean overly sensitive like literally you were just an emotional kid, an overly emotional kid?

Lennard Davis

Yeah, like I cried a lot. I mean, I now, after having children, realize I wasn't particularly over-sensitive. I was just normal. I lived in an imaginative fantasy world. To them I seemed like I was different.

Ira Glass

And because he seemed different, Lenny got a lot of-- not punishments, exactly. It was more like a steady stream of never-ending reminders to simmer down, settle down, be a nice boy, be more like them. And of course in their somewhere, don't be like Uncle Abie. Any burst of enthusiasm, any odd thoughts expressed out loud, any impulsive deed or comment could be cut short by his parents, sometimes gently, sometimes not so gently.

Lennard Davis

So 1985, my Uncle Abie died. It was four years after my dad died. And I went to the funeral with my wife. And nobody was there. And my Uncle Abie was the kind of guy that didn't have-- I don't know. Everyone hated him. He was obnoxious. There was literally no one there. Never been to a funeral with nobody there. It was somewhere way out on Long Island.

It was me and my wife, his son and his family, and one neighbor from the old neighborhood in the Bronx. And after the funeral was over, I go and talk to Les, who is Abie's son. And I said look, "I don't know if you ever heard the story." And I told him the story about this.

Ira Glass

About the jar?

Lennard Davis

About the jar and the whole thing. And Les says, he goes "I'm sure that's not true." And I said, "Really, why?" And he said, "Well, I have to tell you. Around that time, my father was delusional. In fact, we had to lock him up. We had to put him away in an institution because he was hearing voices." So he said, "I don't think that anything he said would have been too accurate." So he was like "Nah, nah, it's probably not true."

So that was the thing that completely put the whole thing to rest in my mind for a long time. At that point, my wife said, "Look, what difference does it make? I mean, you grew up with your father. You thought he was your father. That's really the thing that's important. So you'll never know. And just leave it at that." That seemed like, yeah, that's true. And just get on with your life.

Ira Glass

And Lenny does get on with his life. For over 15 years, he pretty much let the question rest right there.

Ira Glass

Can I ask you a couple of really basic questions before we go on to what happens next?

Lennard Davis

Sure, absolutely.

Ira Glass

Who do you look like?

Lennard Davis

I don't-- I look like my mother.

Ira Glass

OK.

Lennard Davis

But I've always felt that I have my father's body type. He was stringy, his stringy muscles. I mean I look like I'm a runner.

Ira Glass

And Uncle Abie? What did Uncle Abie's body look like?

Lennard Davis

He was squarer, solid, chunkier. The other detail about Abie, which wasn't a genetic thing, was that he had this huge cleft in his skull from some childhood accident. I always felt like he got hit in the head with an ax or something. And he had this dent in his skull. The whole thing about Abie was like repulsion toward him.

Ira Glass

As years pass, for Lenny, this question about his father and Uncle Abie is like a cut that never quite heals right. It's a hard question to have sitting in the back of your mind. What if your parents were lying to you your entire childhood about something so basic? And finally a couple years ago, the miracle that is American science conspired with the miracle that is online shopping to make DNA tests ubiquitous enough and cheap enough for anybody. And Lenny decided to see if it would be possible to settle the question of who his father was once and for all with a DNA test.

So he looked for envelopes that his dad might have licked to get a remnant of DNA. And he found some. Excited by this, he moved to the next step.

Lennard Davis

So I called my cousin, Lesley, up. And I said to him, look I'm thinking about trying to do this in a more serious way. How do you feel about it? He was OK about it.

At the end of the conversation, which I had basically called to ask him if he could find some letters for me, there was a pause on the phone. And then says, "By the way, I have to tell you." He said, "Do you remember how last time you asked did I know about this? And I said I didn't know." He said, "I lied to you." And I said, "What?" And he said, "I lied to you."

And he said, "Well, when I was 12 years old, Abie took me aside and told me that same story he told you way before my father died." And he said, "Don't ever tell Lenny."

Ira Glass

That's what Abie said to him?

Lennard Davis

Abie said to him, "Don't tell Lenny. Swear you'll never tell him." So wow, when he said that, then I thought, this has got to be true, right? Because here's Abie telling Lesley 30, 40 years before my father died that this story happened, that this thing happened. So that was really a turning point.

Ira Glass

Yeah, suddenly it seems like it's probably true.

Lennard Davis

Exactly. Then I tilt over to the thinking like wow, then it must be true. But I don't know. There's just something fishy about the story. There's something that I don't quite believe or I just find it hard to believe that there that I could have grown up and nobody would-- you know how in a movie, someone would take you aside and whisper to you, "There's something you don't know about yourself." There was just nothing of that.

Ira Glass

But somebody did do that. They did it in 1981 when your dad died.

Lennard Davis

That's true. That's true, but there's something about Abie. I guess I still feel there's something unreliable about him, that there's something self-interested. In a funny kind of way, for the story to work, for it to point to Abie, it all depends on whether you trust Abie or not. Do I trust Abie? Because if I trust Abie, then what he told me and what he told his son is true. But if I don't trust Abie, if I doubt Abie, then the story's not true.

So it takes me back to that whole conflict with me and Abie as a child. Abie's not trustworthy. Don't believe him. And the circumstantial evidence that might make you feel yeah, the story points that way, isn't enough for me. But I don't know.

There's a joke. I have to tell you this joke. So there's this guy. And he thinks his wife is cheating on him. So he hires a detective. And he says to the detective, "I've got to tell you that I think my wife is cheating on me but I just have this element of doubt. And I want to clear it up." So the detective says, "OK. I'll follow her. I'll give you a report."

So he comes back two weeks later. And he's got all these photographs. And he says "Well here you see there's a photograph of your wife. You're leaving home. And there's a photograph of this man ringing the doorbell. Then your wife and he go out. And then they go to this hotel. And I was able to photograph them, see them embracing in front of the hotel. And then they go in the hotel, and I telephoto lens up to the room. They go in the room. They take off all their clothes. And then they close the shades." And the guy goes, "See, that's what I mean. That element of doubt."

And I feel like that in this story. Every time I come to a place, I have this element of doubt. And then it seems to clear up. And it seems not to. And so I am like the guy in the joke. I want to have it more certain.

The thing people always say is well, you don't get a choice about your parents. And in a weird way, I have a choice. There are parts of me that want my father to win. And there are parts of me that want Abie to win.

Ira Glass

Oh really?

Lennard Davis

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Which part wants your dad to win and which part wants Abie to win? What's the advantage of each?

Lennard Davis

I guess the part that wants my father to win is the part that just wants to have that consoling structure of you know your past. If you looked at home movies and you reran them, and you saw yourself and your parents. And you said, oh look, there's me and there my parents. And here is my father doing this or my mother doing that. As opposed to if you reran them and you saw a person who wasn't your father, who knew on some level that he wasn't your father, trying to be your father, it just complicates the whole issue. There's something about the continuity and the way you thought of yourself you whole life that you want to keep going.

The other side of that is I didn't particularly like my father. He was a difficult man. He had an explosive temper. Like if I cried, my father would laugh at me and make fun of me for crying.

He could be very intolerant. He could be-- he would ridicule me and shame me. And that's a part that I wouldn't mind saying goodbye to, or distancing myself from. Not that Abie was better. But it would allow me to detach myself from something that's complicated and painful.

Ira Glass

Of course, at Lenny's age, what exactly does detaching himself mean? He's already detached himself when he moved out at age 16. He detached himself when he went on to college, when he made his own friends, when he found a wife, when he turned himself into an adult who's very different from either his dad or his uncle.

If you're 55, and you're fully formed, and your parents are long dead, and your own kids are actually completely grown, how much hold do your parents really have on you at that point? How much more independence from them can you really need? And yet somehow, even at that age, it is still possible to daydream about the parents who you would rather have had.

Ira Glass

So if you got to choose, if you got to imagine your dad going around and collecting other samples besides from your Uncle Abie, who would you want to choose?

Lennard Davis

Oh. hmm.

Ira Glass

He can roam all over New York City in the year 1948. Who do you want him to stop by?

Lennard Davis

That's a good question. Two people are coming to mind. One was this guy who lived across the hall who was a podiatrist. And his name was Nathan Zuckerman. And he had an office a couple blocks away from where we lived. And in the office was the one room that was the podiatrist room. And then there was the waiting room. And then there was what felt like 100 rooms back behind there with all kinds of electronic equipment.

Ira Glass

He was just an electronics hobbyists? Like an old radio hobbyist?

Lennard Davis

Exactly, yeah. But I would just turn everything on. And turn knobs and hear the [RADIO NOISES] sounds. And I used to go there every day after school and just go in there. And there would be all these old ladies waiting for their bunions to be removed.

Then I would just go in the back and work of my science projects. He would come back and he 'd help me. It was a really nice relationship.

Ira Glass

And so if he were the guy, that would be good.

Lennard Davis

If he were the guy, yeah.

Ira Glass

Like the whole thing actually gives you solace in a way that it doesn't with Uncle Abie.

Lennard Davis

Yeah, exactly. I mean, if we only got to pick our parents.

Ira Glass

Do you feel bad at all for thinking that it's possible that your dad isn't your dad?

Lennard Davis

Yeah, I really do. I mean, it definitely, in a weird way, it feels like I'm doing the act of dis-parenting my father.

Ira Glass

I'll show you. I'm no longer going to be your son.

Lennard Davis

Right, right. I mean, that feels definitely bad. That feels kind of mean.

Ira Glass

This fall, Lenny met a guy named Wayne Grody , the doctor who runs the molecular diagnostic laboratory, the DNA lab, at UCLA. He told him that for paternity tests, you want more DNA than is usually found on an envelope or a stamp. So the envelopes Lenny found probably wouldn't be enough. But Wayne told him that there's often a really reliable source of DNA from people who have already died. In most hospitals, when they take a biopsy or a tissue sample of any kind, they'll preserve a scrap of it in paraffin wax just in case it'll be handy some day in reconfirming a diagnosis, or in an epidemiological study, or as part of a legal case.

Wayne told Lenny to check all the hospitals that his dad was ever in. So Lenny did. And he found a fragment of his dad's tissue from the 1970s at the Columbia Medical Center in New York. And then, before he knew it, Lenny was standing in Wayne Grody's DNA lab in California just two months ago talking to a lab technician named JJ.

Jj

Your DNA actually is here.

Lennard Davis

Can I have a look?

Jj

Yes actually it's very-- it's supposed to be clear.

Lennard Davis

It's just a tiny little bit. It looks like maybe, if I were crying, would be about five tears.

Ira Glass

A technician named Dawn shows him another sample, which she insists is less like tears and more like a floating piece of lint. Then he's shown a little slice of wax, the size of a fingernail with a little black line embedded in it. The line is tissue.

Lennard Davis

Let's see. That's the paraffin block?

Dawn

They cut it in slices, and this is one slice.

Lennard Davis

That's one slice? So that little piece of paraffin that you have there is where my father resides? So Dawn just put that back in a little drawer under a desk. And that's where my dad is now, in the drawer. He's in the drawer.

Ira Glass

Dr. Grody warns Lenny that it could take weeks to get accurate results. And there's no guarantee with tissue so old they'll be able to salvage enough DNA to make a real determination if his dad is Uncle Abie or if his dad is Morris, the man he thought was his dad. Lenny goes home to wait. We give him a tape recorder to have on hand in case he gets any news. A month passes. Then a letter arrives.

Lennard Davis

OK, let's put this in context here. The envelope arrived today. It's sitting right over here. And I'm looking at it, and I know that inside this envelope is the answer. I'm going to find out who my father is. Or if my father is my father. The answer is sitting right there in the envelope.

And I am really nervous right now. I'm kind of excited about it. I'm kind of dreading it. OK, let's see.

[OPENING ENVELOPE]

Whoa, this is scary. It says, "I'm writing to tell you." It's from Wayne. He says, "I'm writing to tell you that we have now concluded--" I almost can't read this. This is really weird. I'm getting very scared about this. "We have now concluded paternity testing." Blah blah blah. "Results indicate that Mr.-- Morris is excluded as a possible father of yours." There's all the rest that I'm not even going read that.

So my father is not my father. Morris is not my father. Makes me feel really sad. My father is not my father.

There's a part of me that's going, I knew it. But there it is. It's just in definitive print. "Results indicate that Mr. Morris," it says, "is excluded as a possible father of yours by mismatches we have observed." And it says that "We find a DNA pattern in the child which is not present in that of the alleged father, meaning that it must have been contributed by another man." Wow.

I guess I feel abandoned. And I know that doesn't make any sense. But I feel like I was abandoned by my father.

Then there's this next wave of feeling that's coming up. And it's like, aha, see? That was right. I was right. That the feelings I had of not being part of my family, of being the one who was just bad for being the other is true. That really is true. That was going through their heads. And my father had this really tough row to hoe.

And I'm feeling sorry for him, really. And knowing what he went through, how difficult that was. And all the pretense and the trying to rise above it and be noble. I mean, I feel like he did a great job on that. He really did. In the sense that he never let me know, he just kept the secret. Both of them, they went to their graves without letting me know.

And they must have thought there's no way he's ever going to know. And now I know. Now at 55 years old, I know that Morris is not my father. You know in a weird way I almost feel better about him for that.

Ira Glass

A week after he opened the letter, Lenny came back into the studio. And he told me that the DNA test showed something else that was completely unexpected. There are six genetic markers that would have indicated paternity. Lenny's dad only had a match on one of those. If he were Lenny's uncle, you'd expect he'd have three matches since brothers share half their DNA. And this raises a whole new question.

Lennard Davis

I had been operating on the assumption that if my father wasn't my father, then my uncle was my father. And that if my uncle was my father, my father was my uncle, which of course sounds like some kind of camp song. But it's still statistically possible that my uncle could be my father. But, in fact, it's probably more likely that there was another donor.

Ira Glass

And who might that have been? Just somebody who worked at the hospital?

Lennard Davis

It could have been anybody. If this was done in the hospital-- it probably wasn't. It was probably done in a doctor's office. And one of the standard things that happened back in 1949, 1948, was that the doctor himself sometimes was the donor. Or sometimes it could have been a medical student.

Ira Glass

Lenny, both your parents have been dead for decades. But if what you're saying is right, you might have a living parent in New York right now.

Lennard Davis

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Knowing that he could be out there and alive, your actual dad, doesn't that make you want to find him?

Lennard Davis

No, in a way, I'd just like him to wander along in his life and let me wander along in mine. I think I've had enough parents. I think I know enough now. I don't think I need to know more.

Ira Glass

Which is to say, in the end, it doesn't matter as much to Lenny who his father is as who his father isn't. From the day that Lenny's uncle, Abie, first told him on the phone about his father, to the day that Lenny got the letter where the other shoe dropped, it was 24 years. And in the recording that he made that day, Lenny talked about how one of the strangest things about the whole experience was that now he couldn't go and talk to the people who he most needs to talk to about the whole thing.

Lennard Davis

This is even made so much stranger by the fact that my mother and father are dead. And I should be able to go over and see them and say, so what was this all about? And I would say it's OK.

I think I'd actually end up comforting them in a weird way. You did all right. You did what you had to do. You did what the doctors told you to do. You thought that keeping secret forever, that it would be devastating for me to find out. But I would say, I'm not devastated. I still love you, I love you very much.

And I guess if I were really being honest, then I would say but you didn't have to. You could have let me just grow up the way I would have. You didn't have to try to shape me and change me so I wouldn't be like Abie. And you didn't have to fear the difference that you would see in me.

And then I think I would just say thank you. Thank you for doing the impossible and for having me. And then probably we'd just get into a fight with each other or something. Or just go have some really bad food that my mother made.

Ira Glass

Lenny Davis is a professor of English at the University of Illinois in Chicago. In the year since we first broadcast this story, he's discovered through additional genetic testing that indeed Uncle Abie is most likely his father. His book about his experience, Go Ask Your Father, just came out, just in time for Father's Day.

Coming up, a dad in one of the most misunderstood, maligned professions in the world. And I'm not talking about insurance salesman, lawyer, telephone solicitor, or member of Congress. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two. My Favorite Martian.

Ira Glass

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, Go Ask Your Father, stories in which grown people seek answers from their own parents. And there are definitely certain answers that they would prefer to hear. And only sometimes do they get them. We've arrived at Act Two of our show. Act Two, My Favorite Martian. Paul Tough tells the story.

Paul Tough

This is a story about fathers and sons. And it is a story about communication with alien beings. It begins in the 1820s in Germany, where an astronomer and mathematician named Carl Friedrich Gauss was working as the director of the observatory in the town of Gottingen. After the death of first one wife and then a second, he began to spend every evening at the observatory, staring up through his telescope at the moon and the stars.

Could it be, he wondered on those lonely nights, that far away on those distant specks of light there was life? That people just like him were staring back through their own telescopes?

Since the first moment that humans began dreaming of communicating with beings from other worlds, there have been two schools of thought on how best to go about it. One strategy is simply to observe, to look through telescopes, to listen to radio waves beaming down at us from space. The second is the active approach, to try to make contact ourselves.

Gauss was the first person to suggest this latter approach, to say that it was we who should make contact with them. But how? This question is hard enough to answer today when we've got rocket ships and lasers and transistor radios. Gauss lived in an era of sextants and quill pens and leeches, none of which were very useful when it came to sending messages into space. So remember those limitations when I describe Gauss's two proposals, which might sound a little crude.

Idea one, deploy an army of Russian lumberjacks to clear cut thousands of square miles of Siberian forest in the precise shape of a right triangle with huge markings on each side demonstrating the Pythagorean theorem. Idea two, dig a giant, circular trench in the Sahara Desert hundreds of miles in diameter, a perfect circle. Fill the trench with millions of gallons of kerosene. Wait until nightfall, and then set it on fire.

But no one would spring for the kerosene. And so Gauss turned his attention back to non-Euclidean geometry. And for 150 years, no one had a single good idea. Then rocketry was invented. And Alan Shepard played golf on the moon. And all of a sudden the stars seemed closer than ever.

Over at NASA, somebody had a brainstorm. Let's send the aliens a plaque. So in April 1973, Pioneer 11 was launched into space. And bolted onto it was a gold plaque. Maybe you've seen it. It's got a diagram of the solar system, some mathematical notations and a drawing of a naked Caucasian woman and man, the man with his right hand raised at a 90 degree angle.

Thirty-two years later, this calling card is more than 4 billion miles from Earth at the outer regions of our solar system. At some point, maybe tomorrow, maybe in a 100 million years, someone will find Pioneer 11, or so the theory goes. And when they see the plaque, they will get the message. "Greetings from planet Earth. This is what we look like. We are waving hello to you. And we are nude."

In 1974, a year after the launch of Pioneer 11, an American astronomer named Frank Drake took the next step and sent a radio message into space beamed from a giant radio telescope in Puerto Rico and aimed at a star cluster 21,000 light years away. The message was a series of ones and zeros that could be rearranged to form a diagram that showed a stick figure of a human. Innocuous enough it would seem.

And yet Drake's message drove the astronomy establishment completely crazy. International rules were drawn up. And since that day, no official radio message has ever been sent into space. But that doesn't mean that freelancers have quit trying to make contact on their own. They have not. And I can you this because one of them is my father.

In the mid-1970s, my father, a mild-mannered university professor, concluded that there had to be more to life than commuting to work every day in his red Toyota Corolla and coming home every night to the quiet house on the sleepy street where his family was waiting for him. When he was about the age I am today, he started looking for something new, experimenting with LSD and open marriage and extra-sensory perception. And listening over and over to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Until finally, at about the time that Frank Drake was beaming his lonely message out into space, my father left his family behind and set off on to uncharted waters.

From this description, my father might sound like a real Peter Fonda type. But in fact, he is anything but. He is a lover of office products. A man who thinks there is no decision, no matter how intimate and emotional, that cannot be made more effectively by drawing up a few lists and charts.

At one point, a couple of years into his relationship with the woman he lived with after moving out of our house, he explained to me that he had come up with a system to eliminate the arguments that had begun to crop up between the two of them. If they had a disagreement, let's say about what they wanted to eat for dinner, they would each simply assign a number out of 10 to how strongly they felt about their preference. So their conversations included sentences like, "I'm a seven on chicken." If his number was higher than hers, they'd have chicken.

It might seem a little strange that a man who often has trouble making contact with the human beings around him has focused his energies on attempts to make contact with extraterrestrials. Strange, and at the same time, entirely fitting. Over the last few years, my father has been building his own giant flaming moat of kerosene. It is a page on the world wide web, and it is titled "An Invitation to ETI," which stands for extraterrestrial intelligence.

This is how the page reads, "Hello ETI. We assume you are a highly advanced form of alien intelligence that originally came to Earth from some other place in the universe. We welcome you here. With respect, and a spirit of friendship, we invite you to make contact. Feel free to use whatever form of communication you prefer: email, fax, telephone or a face to face conversation."

It's easy to make fun of my father's project, but there's a logic to it, as unlikely as it sounds. A series of premises, each of which, taken alone, makes a certain sense. My father is right that there probably is life somewhere else in the universe. If other civilizations have developed, they probably are a lot more advanced than we are. He has a point when he says that there's no particular reason to assume that extraterrestrials would choose to communicate via radio signals. He can even be convincing when he says that these alien civilizations might instead have sent probes to our planet to monitor us and our communication media, including the internet.

It's only when you put it all together, when you're actually sitting there, staring at the fax machine, waiting for the alien message to arrive, that the project suddenly seems a little dubious. In five years, my father has received about 60 messages through his website. And they were all pranks, emails from smart alecks who thought it might be a good chuckle to impersonate an alien for a while.

My father wrote back to all 60 of them, asking them for proof that they were really aliens. A couple of them kept the charade going for a few rounds. But eventually they all gave up and admitted they were only human.

And then, late last year, a breakthrough. In November, my father received an email from a man named Harold, who seemed different than the jokers he usually heard from. Harold didn't claim to be an extraterrestrial. Instead, he said, he had obtained physical evidence of alien life. And he was offering to submit it to rigorous scientific testing. This evidence, he explained, was an alien probe, an energy field embedded in his body. He said that it emitted radio waves that could be detected by conventional instruments.

My father was skeptical but intrigued. He talked it over by email with the board of advisers he had assembled when he set up his website. And they decided that for the first time in the history of this project, they should put an alien claim to the test. Which is how I wound up driving out to a warehouse in New Jersey one winter morning to meet my father, who had flown down from Toronto for the day.

I went because I wanted to see my father at work, because I thought it might give me a chance to connect to a part of his life that meant a lot to him, even if I didn't really understand just why. It also crossed my mind that if evidence of alien life was going to be found in suburban New Jersey, it wouldn't hurt to be the one guy there with a tape recorder.

Paul Tough

Hey, Dad.

Father

Hi.

Paul Tough

How's it going?

Father

Good.

Paul Tough

When I first spotted my father, he looked a little weak and off balance. A couple of years ago, he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. And although it hasn't incapacitated him yet, he gets tired easily these days. It affects the way talks, too. Sometimes he has to start a word three times before he finishes it once.

But he seemed glad to be there, catching up with two members of his advisory board, who were also there for the test. One, named Paul, was an aerospace engineer, a bearded, energetic man who laughed a lot. The other, Richard, was tall and laconic with long gray hair. He owned his own electronics firm, and it was his warehouse where we were going to run the test.

It was nice to watch these guys interact with my dad. They looked up to him, in a way. There was no sign of Harold, and for a while we thought maybe he wouldn't show up. But then he walked in and launched right into what sounded like a prepared speech.

Harold

I have a little presentation. Do we have a chalkboard? Or paper?

Paul Tough

Harold is wearing baggy khaki pants and a white Oxford shirt that looked like it had been packed inside a duffel bag for a few days and then unfolded that morning. He had a kind of 40s hat on, not a fedora but a round hat, more casual, almost a fishing hat. He was clean-shaven and olive-skinned and animated. We all followed him into the library for his presentation.

Harold

I'm going to do a demonstration with an RF detector to show that I am emitting radio frequencies. And exactly how, why, and where they're going, we will determine in the lab.

Paul Tough

What he was saying, that he himself was emitting radio signals that were being monitored by an alien spaceship, didn't make a whole lot of sense. But there was something about the way he was talking. He acted just like a scientist. He had the lingo down, saying things like gigahertz and RF instead of radio frequency. And when he drew diagrams on the whiteboard, they looked convincing, full of vectors and arrows numbers. Then he started unpacking his equipment.

Harold

At this point, I will demonstrate the radio frequency.

Paul Tough

He removed a Tupperware container from his knapsack and revealed a little device that looked like a computer circuit board, about two inches long. Then he put it into his mouth.

[BEEPING]

It started to make noise.

Harold

What you have just seen is the activation of an RF detector by transmission from an electric field anomaly placed next to my vocal cords that it transmits back to the extraterrestrials.

Paul Tough

I looked over at my father to try to figure out what he made of all this. But it was hard to tell just what he was thinking. And then it was time for the test. We all went downstairs to the lab, which was equipped with a huge radio wave detector. The idea was that it would measure the waves coming out of Harold's head. Richard talked him through it.

Richard

I guess the next step is for you to go in the room. Would you care to remove your hat first, please?

Harold

Oh sure.

Paul Tough

You can't hear it on the tape, but this was a really awkward moment. When Harold took off his hat, we could see that he had lined the inside with tin foil. A tin foil hat. It's like a cliche, right? A shorthand term for crazy people who believe in aliens. I'd seen tin foil hats in movies, but I didn't know they existed in real life.

Harold

I use that because sometimes the radio signals really affect me.

Richard

I can imagine. Do you have anything with you, any devices, anything made of metal?

Harold

Yes, I have some foil on my chest.

Richard

OK. Just plain aluminum foil?

Harold

Is that all right to bring in there?

Richard

If that's all it is. You don't have any artifacts?

Harold

No, nothing that emits radio signals.

Paul Tough

After the tin foil thing, it wasn't such a big surprise when the lab's equipment failed to detect any radio waves being emitted from the probe in Harold's head. Harold was clearly upset that the experiment hadn't worked. And he made excuses, and explained how maybe we needed more sensitive equipment. Paul and Richard, the scientists, seemed a bit ticked off by the whole experience.

But my dad wasn't worked up at all. He thanked Harold, shook his hand, and gave him some money for his bus trip home. I wasn't quite sure what to feel. I was a little disappointed despite myself. I did feel like I'd shared some history with my father, even if it wasn't the Pulitzer Prize-winning kind. But I still didn't really understand just what it was that had brought us here.

So after Harold left, I sat down with my father on an office couch just off the library. And I finally got a chance to ask him about some things I'd never really understood about his quest, including what seemed like an unavoidable question for anyone in the field of SETI, which is what insiders call the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Paul Tough

Do you think people think of SETI as a joke sometimes?

Father

Yeah, we call it the giggle factor in SETI. Sure.

Paul Tough

And why do you think that is?

Father

Haven't figured it out. I feel it myself, you know? I can't always keep a straight face when I tell people what I do.

Paul Tough

Really?

Father

Sure.

Paul Tough

Well how come?

Father

Well it's just funny to try and make contact with another culture that we don't even know about whether they exist or not.

Paul Tough

Is there any other scientific field that is like that?

Father

I can't think of one where the field hasn't even proved that its central phenomenon exists.

Paul Tough

It's true when you look at it that way. It's pretty dramatic.

It's the thing I sometimes forget about my dad. He doesn't have a lot of illusions about how likely it is that aliens will get in touch anytime soon. I think it's the reason why he didn't seem all that disappointed when Harold struck out in the lab. He's prepared to keep waiting.

But I can't help feeling that there is something a little sad about any search for extraterrestrial intelligence, whether it's Carl Friedrich Gauss's or my father's. It seems like a quest born out of a great loneliness, out of the feeling that the life we see around us is not enough. It is a feeling, a longing, really, not that different than the way a frustrated husband and father might feel coming back to the same predictable home night after night. It is the feeling that there must be more than this.

Father

If I thought that if what's on Earth is all that there is in the universe, I would feel that the universe was diminished somehow. I sometimes get accused of expecting a savior. I don't think I'm doing that. But it certainly comes close to religious belief because you're dealing with something that's just so big, so overarching, so transcendent, that it's pretty close to what a lot of people call God.

For me, the difference is that the ET could exist. I don't see how God could exist. It just sounds too fantastic.

Paul Tough

Do you think this project is the most meaningful thing you've ever done?

Father

Yes, I think it is. In fact, my shorthand nickname for it is "The Ultimate Project" because it's probably my ultimate project. I've called it that from the start.

Paul Tough

If I'm going to be honest with you, I should probably say that that's not the answer I wanted him to give. I wanted him to say, sure maybe it's the most meaningful thing I've done professionally. But it doesn't compare to raising my family, to being a father.

I think any child of an eccentric father feels two opposing things simultaneously. Mostly, you want him to stop embarrassing you. When he sends you an email, you want the subject header to be something normal like "Thanksgiving plans." You don't want subject headers like the one I received from my father the other day: "What if our galaxy is populated by super-smart machines?"

But at the same time, the thought of my dad dismantling his website and giving up his dream feels like a terrible loss. Even if my father's project doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me, even if it sometimes feels more like prayer than like science, I want him to keep looking. It makes him seem a little less alien, oddly enough, and a little more human.

Ira Glass

Paul Tough is one of the original contributing editors to This American Life. He's now an editor at The New York Times Magazine. and the author of "Whatever It Takes, Geoffrey's Canada's Quest to Change Harlem in America." He first read a version of his story at the Little Gray Books lecture series in New York.

Since our show first aired in 2005, Paul's dad has found out that he suffers from multiple system atrophy, not Parkinson's disease. His father's website, if you are hearing my voice right now and you come from another planet or you know somebody who does, is, and sign in please, www.ieti-- that's for invitation to extraterrestrial intelligence-- ieti.org.

Credits.

Lennard Davis

But I would turn everything on. And turn knobs and hear [RADIO NOISES] sounds.

Ira Glass

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