Transcript

351:

Return to Childhood 2008
Transcript

Originally aired 03.07.2008

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/351

Prologue.

Ira Glass

Fifth grade. It was so long ago. Who can remember that far back? Two whole years.

Kayla Hernandez

I remember all of, like, the old things. We used to read the book Harry Potter when it first came out, and we made curtains.

Ira Glass

Harry Potter curtains.

Kayla Hernandez

And they have no curtains now. And I look back at them, I look at them and I'm like, wow, you know, it's changed. I wish it was still there somehow.

Ira Glass

This is Kayla Hernandez, in seventh grade at the Pulaski School here in Chicago. She says that she actually visits her fifth grade classroom, room 211, and her fifth grade teacher Mrs. Chan, fairly often and reminisces about the past.

Kayla Hernandez

Recently I went through the shelves and our books are still there. Like Our America.

Ira Glass

You're talking about the book Our America.

Kayla Hernandez

Yeah. Reminiscing about when we used to read that book and how it showed lots of racism.

Ira Glass

Back in fifth grade, she covered a copy of the book with one of those paper book covers with a pictures of 'N Sync on it. It was her copy, though they're not allowed to write their name in the front of the books at her school.

Kayla Hernandez

They had numbers, and my number I think was, like, 30.

Ira Glass

So you did find book number 30.

Kayla Hernandez

Yeah, I did. I saw the book and it was just there without its paperback cover. And you know, everything that was mine is not mine anymore. I think that's the hardest thing from switching to another grade and to another classroom and to another teacher-- there's new environments and new and different things to learn, and old memories to leave behind.

Ira Glass

20 years from now, 30 years from now, when you try to remember back to seventh grade, what do you think you're going to remember from this year?

Kayla Hernandez

I think I'll remember barely anything.

Ira Glass

Isn't that kind of strange, though, to think that you're going through all these experiences now that somehow are going to get wiped off the blackboard?

Kayla Hernandez

Yeah, but I even have that experience now. Like, I can't remember things from second grade. I see some things. Like I remember this kid, he wrote this Valentine card for me-- it's like, you're pretty as a rose. I don't know--something like that. But I can't remember teachers really well, like I used to.

Ira Glass

Do you feel sad about that, or is that OK?

Kayla Hernandez

I feel sad about that, because it's a part of me. It's like you don't even remember what's happened. It's kind of hard because it's been a part of you.

Ira Glass

When I asked Kayla which friends that she wouldn't remember it all some day, it wasn't hard for her to answer.

Kayla Hernandez

Cynthia. I'll probably forget [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. I'll probably forget Diana and Maria. I'll forget Erica [? Rosario. ?] I'll forget a whole bunch of people.

Ira Glass

She's not close to these kids or anything, but as she said their names, it was like watching them vaporize or something. Someday they'd just be gone, erased from the history of her life, like they had never been there in the first place.

We forget most of everything. And then sometimes, we go back and try to remember. And really there is no predicting which people and places and moments we'll be able to get back. Diana and Maria? They could still make the cut.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, Return to Childhood: what you find and what you do not find when you go back.

Our show today in four acts. Act One, Ich Bin Ein Mophead. A 34 year old man investigates who he was at nine years old and learns a thing or two he would just as soon not remember. Act Two, Punk in a Gray Flannel Suit, in which a mortgage broker discovers that his old punk band from the 70s is hot in Japan and decides to leave corporate life for a little bit and go back on tour. Act Three, Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres, David Ben Gurion, and Me! An American teenager who dreams of someday being the prime minister of a nation where he does not even reside. Act Four, When We Were Angels, in which we hear the purest possible student uprising imaginable, the most innocent, documented by an actual student using the crudest tools-- a telephone answering machine and a shiny red boombox. Stay with us.

Act One. Ich... bin... ein... mophead.

Ira Glass

Act One. Ich Bin Ein Mophead. This act is the story of how one of the producers of this program made a decision to return to his childhood. Alex Blumberg went searching for somebody named Susan Jordan, who he and his sister Kate and their parents knew for about a year when he was growing up in Cincinnati.

Alex Blumberg

These are the things that I remember about Susan Jordan: me and her sitting in the back room. I'm telling her about the day camp I went to that summer. I can't get myself to shut up. "And they had alligators and snakes," I can hear myself telling her. "And this one time, this one alligator got out and the counselor had to catch it." And on and on like that.

Me and Susan flipping through one of those Time Life books: Rock and Roll Through the Decades: The Sixties. She has long brown hair. She's incredibly skinny. It's 1975-- she's wearing bell bottom Levi's, a faded jean jacket. She points to a picture of a bloated man in a powder blue rhinestone jumpsuit sitting cross legged on a stage before a crowd of crying women. "That's my favorite picture of Elvis," she says. This information seems somehow personal and important.

Me and Susan riding in her car. I'm going through this phase where I'm trying to notice things, so when we pull up to a stop light, I start trying to notice the guy on the motorcycle next to us. He apparently doesn't want to be noticed, especially by a peculiar nine year old staring at him through the passenger window. "What are you looking at," he sneers. I turn around fast and face the dashboard.

"Did he say something to you," Susan asks. "What did he say to you?"

"Nothing. Uh, he didn't say anything. It's fine. Look, green light."

"Tell me what he said. What did he say to you?"

I stay silent. I know if I tell what he said she'll get out of the car and try to kick his ass, which scares me but comforts me, too.

Susan Jordan was our baby sitter. She watched my sister and me everyday after school for a couple hours until my parents got home from work. We didn't know any adults like her, and we loved her. The summer before I started fifth grade, after being with us for a year, Susan got another job.

The last time I saw her was Christmas Eve, 1982. I'm 16, a cashier at Thriftway Foods, a supermarket in Cincinnati, where I lived. The place is packed. All 25 registers are going. People lined up halfway to the back of the store. I look up, and there's Susan Jordan. She smiles, we talk. She doesn't have many items, so I checked them through as slowly as I possibly can. I can't recall one thing we say to each other, although I remember being distinctly disappointed to hear that she's married. She hands me some kind of business card, her husband's probably, something having to do with the building of redwood decks. She seems happy.

Meanwhile, there's a line of last-minute Christmas shoppers mounting behind her. I tell her to hold on-- I'll try to get my break, we can catch up. She says, "great," and steps aside. I keep signaling to my manager, but there's no one to relieve me. 5, 10, 15 minutes pass. I keep glancing behind at Susan, making apologetic gestures. I can still remember her standing there holding her one bag of groceries, smiling back at me. Finally, she taps me on the shoulder. "I have to go," she says, "but I come in here all the time. I'm sure I'll see you around." I worked at Thriftway for two more years. I never saw Susan Jordan again.

It drives me crazy that I never saw her again. If I hadn't run into her at the store, I don't think I'd care. But somehow having her play what to me seemed like a huge role in my life when I was a kid, and then getting just a taste of what it would be like to talk with her as a peer, I've never forgotten that moment. I know it's ridiculous, but after years of thinking about her, imagining what she's up to, wondering if she ever thinks about me, I decided to find her.

[SOUND OF PHONE DIALING]

I start with my only lead, the one former employer of hers that I know.

Alex Blumberg

Hi, mom.

Mrs. Blumberg

Hi, Alex.

Alex Blumberg

Do you want to know why I'm calling?

Mrs. Blumberg

I do, I do.

Alex Blumberg

You remember Susan Jordan, right?

Mrs. Blumberg

Susan Jordan. Susan Jordan. Yes, it's bringing a bell, but I can't place it.

Alex Blumberg

She was our babysitter.

Mrs. Blumberg

Oh, OK. Chicken Legs and Mophead.

Alex Blumberg

One of the many ideas that Susan introduced to our household was the concept of the nickname. I think that's all I want to say about Chicken Legs and Mophead.

I'd gone to my mother to fill in gaps in my memory of Susan, but she didn't remember much more than I did.

Mrs. Blumberg

She was a babysitter that really had more of a relationship with you two than she did with us. She seemed to have a very meaningful relationship with you, almost the kind of relationship that you might have with another adult. That was about the extent of it. And she never stayed around-- when I came home, she was out of there.

Alex Blumberg

What talking to my mom did do was make me look at my childhood memories from an adult perspective. Like, for example, what I remembered about her living situation.

Mrs. Blumberg

I didn't get the impression that she was close to her family. I got the impression that she was very much out on her own very young. I think she must have been in the process of breaking with her own parents during that time.

Alex Blumberg

Yeah. My memory is that she was in high school, right? She went to Withrow.

Mrs. Blumberg

Yeah. Mm-hm.

Alex Blumberg

But I also remember her living on her-- for some reason, I remember her own house.

Mrs. Blumberg

Yeah.

Alex Blumberg

The reason that I thought that she lived by herself is we went to her house, or her boy-- we had to pick something up somewhere, and we were in her car-- this big, blue duster, I think it was-- and her boyfriend was there. And her boyfriend had let the cats out, and they were gone. And she was furious. And then I got in the car and she slammed the door, and I think we peeled out. And he was standing there and trying to reason with her, and we were out of there.

Mrs. Blumberg

Well, what did you think?

Alex Blumberg

I think I felt sad for her.

Mrs. Blumberg

Mm-hm.

Alex Blumberg

I remember thinking-- and this is in retrospect, but I think I had some sort of inkling of this idea at the time and I'm just now realizing it-- but I remember thinking that he was one of the few people that she had in her life, and she couldn't even really depend on him.

Mrs. Blumberg

Yeah, you were probably right. She was a struggler. You may have been, at that point, at that moment, her only friend. You know?

Alex Blumberg

My mom didn't have any idea where I could find Susan, which made things difficult, because A., Susan Jordan is a very common name, and B., it's probably not her name anymore. I called the county court records department to find all the Susan Jordans married in Cincinnati. My mom asked a friend who worked for the city to search all the Cincinnati birth records. I contacted high school alumni associations, I asked friends at high powered newspapers to run background checks.

Finally, there was one former Susan Jordan who stood out. She seemed the right age. She was married and living in a Cincinnati suburb. She had a couple of kids. Her husband was a lawyer. I got a number from information, and it wasn't until I sat down to call her that it hit me-- a phone call from someone you babysat 20 years ago might not be a welcome surprise, but, in fact, strange and creepy.

Here I am practicing sounding benign.

Alex Blumberg

One, two. One, two. Susan? Is this Susan Jordan? Is this Susan Jordan? Oh, god. Oh, god.

Finally, I made the call.

[PHONE RINGING]

Susan Jordan

Hello?

Alex Blumberg

Hello. Hi. Is this Susan?

Susan Jordan

Yeah.

Alex Blumberg

Hi. My name's Alex Blumberg and I'm calling from a radio program called This American Life. This is a probably very strange phone call to receive, but I was wondering, first of all, do you remember me?

Susan Jordan

No.

Alex Blumberg

It turns out there are a lot of Susan Jordans who don't remember me. A lot. One guy even called his ex-wife, a former Susan Jordan, and then called me back to tell me she'd never heard of me. I was getting nowhere by myself, so I contacted a professional, one Irving Botwinick, a certified New York City private investigator. Three days after putting him on the case I got a message saying he'd found her. I called him back.

Irving Botwinick

I called her this morning, early, roughly around 7:30. I said, "good morning, I'd like to introduce myself." I said, "my name is so-and-so and I'm a licensed private investigator in New York, and I'm looking for someone that used to live in Cincinnati and went to a particular school there, and her name at the time was Susan Jordan. And she said, "that's me." And said, "OK. Do you know anybody named Alex Blumberg?" And right away she said, "yeah, I babysat for him."

The interesting part about the whole thing is she definitely likes you, remembers you, and she's going to call you.

Alex Blumberg

Hello, is this Susan?

Actual Susan Jordan

Yes.

Alex Blumberg

This is Alex Blumberg.

Actual Susan Jordan

Hi, Alex. How are you doing?

Alex Blumberg

I'm doing OK. How are you?

Actual Susan Jordan

Fine. Did you get my email?

Alex Blumberg

I got your email, yeah.

Actual Susan Jordan

Oh, OK.

Alex Blumberg

Susan and I talked for over three hours on the phone, catching up, comparing notes. She asked about my sister, and kids that used to live on the street, and our old family dog. It was amazing how much she remembered and how much we remembered in common. Even small incidents, like the time that we were stopped at the traffic light and I stared too long at the guy on the motorcycle.

Actual Susan Jordan

I think I remember that. It was on Erie Avenue?

Alex Blumberg

Probably, probably. And you said, "did he say something to you?" And I said, "no, he didn't say anything to me." And you said, "he something to you, didn't he? And you were about to get out of the car and kick that guy's-- I'm sure.

Actual Susan Jordan

I think I can remember your face. I think you were sitting very still with your hands in your lap. Were you afraid?

Alex Blumberg

I was terrified. Yeah. I didn't know that he would notice me.

Actual Susan Jordan

Well, don't worry. I would've taken him out.

Alex Blumberg

I know.

Actual Susan Jordan

I had no fear. I'm telling you.

Alex Blumberg

Do you remember a time, it was like six or seven or eight years after you babysat us, and I was working--

Actual Susan Jordan

In the grocery store? Yeah, I remember. In Norwood, right?

Alex Blumberg

In Norwood, right, at the Thriftway.

Actual Susan Jordan

I remember. I guess-- were you bagging my groceries, but I didn't recognize you? And then you told me who you were and then I did.

Alex Blumberg

Right, right. I think you said Mophead.

Actual Susan Jordan

Did I? Oh, my god. I did warp you. Do people still call you that?

Alex Blumberg

No. [LAUGHING]

Susan got married when she was in college and went to work for the phone company as a repair person. She spent the next 20 years or so hanging from a telephone pole, as she said. She hated it, but the money was good. Around the time her first marriage ended she finally got up the courage to quit and find work using her degree. She now teaches at a special school for mentally ill children. She lives in Florida with her second husband, and she seems happy.

Of course, when you dive back into the past like this, you find how partial and incomplete your memory is. First, there are the facts you get wrong. Turns out Susan had been a college freshman when she babysat us, not in high school like a thought. My sister remember she'd ridden a motorcycle-- also not true. And the guy who she got in the fight with over the cats, who, in my mind, was her hairy boyfriend, turned out to be her roommate's boyfriend.

But besides the facts you change, there are the facts you completely omit. That fight over the cats? Susan had forgotten totally that I'd been there. And it was a little strange because my presence was the only thing she'd forgotten. Other details she remembered fine, even the names of the cats themselves.

Actual Susan Jordan

Possum and Tom. We were hillbillies, remember? But I can't imagine what I took you over there for.

Alex Blumberg

I'm sure it was for-- I think we were just running errands.

Actual Susan Jordan

You're so lucky.

Alex Blumberg

It's funny because I remember this very particular incidents, and that was one of them, and probably the reason I remember it is because it seemed very significant to you. I think I sensed as a kid that it was really upsetting to you because-- I think I felt at that time-- that you didn't really have very many people in your life at that point who you could trust.

Actual Susan Jordan

I didn't have hardly anybody. My whole family moved out of town. I had no family at all. I moved out the day I graduated from high school, and I was 17 because I started a year early. I just wanted out. And see, I had found out that I got the scholarship-- I packed up that night.

Alex Blumberg

Why did you want to get out so bad?

Actual Susan Jordan

Because my family was dysfunctional. But my mom-- it was pretty bad.

The girl that I lived with, at that time she was taking a lot of drugs-- and her boyfriend. And every time I would come home, they would always try to get me to take drugs with them, or something. I really didn't do it much at all, and it was tough to come home. I guess I must have been suffering a little bit. I missed, I really missed my little brothers and my little sister, and they were gone. I was, I guess, maybe trying to substitute.

Alex Blumberg

I think maybe that's one of the reasons that I remember, that we remember you so fondly, though, is because I think it worked both ways. I think that we felt-- if that didn't make you feel closer to us, I think that we responded--

Actual Susan Jordan

Well, I was desperately-- I guess I was looking for a family, really. But if only you knew, you probably wouldn't have hired me. But I mean, people are complicated. Now, what I really wanted to do was spend more time with your mom and dad, but I was terrified. I couldn't do it, I was too shy. A lot of times I thought they were asking me to stay longer and talk, and I would just run out.

Alex Blumberg

I'm sure they were.

Actual Susan Jordan

And they probably thought, what's wrong with her? But I just couldn't do it.

Alex Blumberg

So you talked to us, instead, it sounds like.

Actual Susan Jordan

Yeah. I was comfortable around kids because I had kids in my family.

Alex Blumberg

Every time the subject of her hard times came up, I'd hear a subtle hesitancy in Susan's voice. At first I thought it was embarrassment. but that wasn't it, exactly. It wasn't until we'd been talking for hours that I realized what it was-- she was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

She hadn't forgotten that her past had happened, she'd just forgotten that I'd witnessed part of it, and her fear became clear, the one that had been gnawing at her our entire conversation-- it was that I was calling to say she'd damaged me by exposing me to it.

Actual Susan Jordan

I don't think I was too kind back then because there was a lot of turmoil in my life and in my family. And that's what my fear is, that I might have had some kind of negative impact on people. And I know, probably, I did on a couple people, but they were my age. But you know, you just want to remember, "yeah, I was the baby sitter, the kids loved me, blah, blah, blah." But I would be devastated if I heard anything different.

Alex Blumberg

There are parts of your past you don't want to go back to, and parts of yourself you don't want to go back to. And for Susan Jordan, the year of her life that I remember is a year she would just as soon forget. And it turns out I had also done my best to forget what I was like that year. I didn't think of myself this way at all, but Susan Jordan reminded me, in the gentle terms possible, when I was nine, I was anxious and bookish. I was kind of uptight.

Actual Susan Jordan

Not to seem as an insult, but I just kept thinking, these kids don't know how to play. When I went to your rooms, it didn't seem like you had a whole lot of toys. I hope I've got this right, but it just seems like there were mostly books and more educational things. I mean, I remember you had planets in your room and chemistry sets, and I didn't remember that Kate had hardly any dolls. You didn't seem quite as playful as other kids that I had babysat. Just more serious in general. So, mainly I think that's what I did, was try to play.

Alex Blumberg

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this whole story is how little our memories had deceived us about each other, even if they had deceived us about ourselves. As Susan said at one point, "each of us remembered what we needed to about the other." I needed to remember the part of Susan that she doesn't think about much-- her toughness in the face of hardship. She said she mostly remembered a side of my family that I just take for granted-- that it was calm in our house, that there were books, there wasn't much fighting.

Actual Susan Jordan

It was the first time in my life where I had ever seen that people lived differently than the way I lived. And that's what I decided I wanted for myself.

Alex Blumberg

You can try to return to childhood by looking at photos, or visiting the old neighborhood, or listening to recordings, or you can find someone who knew you back then, someone you haven't seen since. They still carry within themselves a picture of you that's unclouded by the years in between. They'll remember you better than you remember yourself, and you can do the same thing for them.

Ira Glass

Alex Blumberg.

[MUSIC - "BROOKLYN ROADS" BY NEIL DIAMOND"]

Act Two. Punk In A Grey Flannel Suit.

Ira Glass

Act Two. Punk in a Gray Flannel Suit. David Philp is the president of a mortgage brokerage firm in Beverly Hills. As you might imagine, in Beverly Hills they handle rather large mortgages. He dresses neatly in beautiful clothes. He has clean-cut hair. But in the 1970s, in his native England, he was in a punk band called The Automatics, which was never really a big commercial success, but known and respected in the history of the punk movement there by people who care about these kinds of things. And last year, through an odd set of connections, he ended up revisiting his teenage years for the first time by going back on tour in a version of his band in Japan. Here's how something like that happens.

David Philp

I mentioned it to a client, and I said, "well, you know, I'd played in a punk group when I was a kid." And he said, "oh, really?" He was interested. And then the next day he sent me a copy of an eBay auction and said, "is this you?" And it was. And I watched this auction, and I watched this price shoot through the roof. And then I began to realize, wait a minute-- I'm collectible.

Ira Glass

Let's get down to brass tacks, here. How much were you guys worth?

David Philp

I think that one actually went at $48. I particularly liked looking at all those other groups that were going at $0.25. You know, music business offerings along punk lines that I thought, what a load of nonsense, at the time. And it was good to see that their records weren't valued here until later. It was--

Ira Glass

That history came out on the right side.

David Philp

Yes. That there is a sort of Darwinism in record collecting.

Ira Glass

What happened next?

David Philp

I went to go and see Ricky, the drummer. And Ricky collected everything. And he very kindly lent me these two scrap books. So I took pictures and things out of there. I just put it up, had a friend put it up on a website. And then I got an email from Fi-Fi, in Japan, saying, "I play in a Japanese punk rock band and--

Ira Glass

Fi-Fi is a name of a person?

David Philp

Yes. And, "your record changed my life."

Ira Glass

Wow.

David Philp

And he found out through the website that there was an unreleased album, so he asked if he could put me in touch with Toshio Iijima, of Base Records. We struck up a deal. And then they said, "well, would you come over here and play some gigs to promote?"

Ira Glass

So you go to tour. How old are you at that point?

David Philp

45.

Ira Glass

45 years old. A little bit of gray hair coming in, perhaps?

David Philp

A little bit of gray hair coming in. And I really wasn't sure whether I'd still be able to do it because I hadn't played those songs in 22 years. Not in my shower, not to anyone. I mean, prior to being married, I remember dating women for a year who never knew that I played, that I had ever played.

Ira Glass

It wouldn't even come up?

David Philp

It wouldn't come up, really. I mean, I'd have a guitar hanging around, but lots of other guys did, too.

Ira Glass

Would you ever pick up the guitar and play for yourself?

David Philp

Yes. I wrote a lot of songs for my dog during this period.

Ira Glass

Really? Some of the titles would be?

David Philp

"We're Going to the Park" was a big favorite.

Ira Glass

To be followed by that, "Who's a Good Boy?"

David Philp

"Oh, What a Good Boy" is actually--

Ira Glass

It is?

David Philp

[PANTING SOUND] "What a, what a good boy."

So we went over there October 6. I took my wife, which possibly was a miscalculation, but-- no, it was a good thing to take my wife because--

Ira Glass

You were approached by dozens of teenage girls?

David Philp

I was getting stopped on the street.

Ira Glass

So what happened the first night you went on stage?

David Philp

Well, there was just the announcement, the light, and a moment's silence which lasted forever.

[SOUNDS OF CROWD]

[BAND STARTS]

And then out at the back I heard the opening riff of "When the Tanks Roll Over Poland." And there was just this whole ignition of energy from the club in front. And all these kids just started going mad, and it just clicked right in.

[BAND PLAYING]

It felt like I was in an Automatics cover band or something like that because it was so long ago I didn't feel that association as the writer. Even though I wrote the material and all, I didn't have that association as the writer anymore.

Ira Glass

See, but I would wonder if as you sing the songs the conviction of the writing returns to you, and you remember all the feelings of it. Did that happen?

David Philp

It was a muscle memory. It was there. You know, the movements are all locked in the lyric and the beat and the parts. And as I played them, they all started to come out and it was just like being a marionette or something. Here you'd punch the air, there you'd remind the drummer to come down, and there you'd point at the guitarist for the solo.

Ira Glass

Had you forgotten the thrill of being on stage?

David Philp

Yes. I'd forgotten what it was to have the audience right there.

Ira Glass

Before this, had you ever performed a punk show sober?

David Philp

Never. Well, unless I was taking the antibiotics.

Ira Glass

There's so much information contained in such a brief sentence.

[LAUGHTER]

David Philp

No, actually, it was one of the great paradoxes, really, I suppose, that it was great to do it sober.

Ira Glass

Were there moments on stage where you feel your age? Where you just thought, ugh--

David Philp

Towards the end, you really feel yourself-- because it's like a sauna up there. I mean, there's so much energy going around and it's louder than bombs.

Ira Glass

So your wife had never seen you do this before. There must have been a part of you that felt so pleased that she could see it.

David Philp

Yes. I felt kind of like I had become this other person. And when I was over there, my life over here seemed to have a sort of almost dream-like substance. And then, of course, as soon as I got back, the events in October in Japan just began to assume that sort of mantle of dream.

I did three shows-- two in Tokyo and one in Kyoto.

Ira Glass

And all three just great.

David Philp

All three sold out. In Kyoto, we set a club record for the largest attendance ever. And it was so packed we couldn't actually get off stage. The only way out was over. I had to sling myself over the audience and they carried me on their hands back through the crowd and gently deposited me at the stage door.

Ira Glass

So this is your last gig? That was your last gig?

David Philp

Yes.

Ira Glass

And it ended with the entire audience lifting you up and passing you bodily out and gently depositing you out of the club?

David Philp

Well, not out of the club, but to the stage door, yes.

Ira Glass

Wow.

David Philp

It was amazing.

Ira Glass

I don't think I've ever really been lifted by a mob of teenagers and people in their twenties. What exactly is that like?

David Philp

Well, in Kyoto I felt pretty good about it. I'm not sure how I would have felt about it in London in 1977 where the scene was incredibly violent. You know, whenever you played, you were just as likely to get beaten up as you were to get paid.

Ira Glass

Describe what it was like to come back after the tour.

David Philp

It was hard for me to get motivated again to do my business after the tour.

Ira Glass

It just wasn't as thrilling as being on a stage in front of cheering--

David Philp

Well, not many things are. And it was a bit like my dad's generation, you know, after growing up as a kid being fired on in World War Two and all that kind of stuff, it was kind of hard getting it up for working in the shipping industry again.

Shortly after I got back, Steve Lillywhite was in town.

Ira Glass

And that is?

David Philp

He was the original producer, and he was also my roommate at the time that all The Automatics' stuff was going on. And now he's incredibly successful. He does U2, Dave Matthews, and all that stuff. And anyway, he was in town and he had some time, and so we hung out together for a couple of days-- and Hunter was off.

Ira Glass

Hunter, your wife.

David Philp

Yes. Hunter, my wife.

So we got to hang out, and we talked a little about the old days. And he told me Big Paul from Specs does catering. And Nigel from The Members is in Australia now. And Walter from The Heartbreakers, he's a stockbroker in Manhattan. I think I got to see we don't get what we deserve-- you know, we get what we get, and we have to be OK with that.

Ira Glass

David Philp, the lead singer of The Automatics. Though he hasn't quit his day job since we did that interview a few years back, he has released several albums. And a couple of the songs have actually become number one hits on the UK charts. His next album, Jukebox of Human Sorrow, comes out later this year.

Coming up, a fascinating day in the life of a future prime minister-- maybe. 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 and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program: Return to Childhood. Stories of people revisiting the past, what they find there, what they do not find there. We have arrived at Act Three of our show.

Act Three. Airel Sharon, Shimon Peres, David Ben Gurion, And Me!

Adam Davidson

"December 3, 1986. Wednesday. Another fascinating day in the life of Adam Davidson. I have a math test tomorrow. I'm going to school early to tutor a girl in my class for the aforementioned test. My math class, a joint precalculus and calculus class, consists mainly of seniors not especially interested in learning. I guess that I am the quote 'class expert' unquote in that I always do the math problems which no one else can, and for this I'm disliked. I guess that because I apply myself, think clearly, and do a little work-- as well as some intelligence helping out-- I am a geek. In truth, I am far from it."

Ira Glass

When you first read that to yourself, when you first saw it, your reaction was?

Adam Davidson

It was pure horror.

Ira Glass

Recently Adam Davidson, an occasional contributor to our program, found his old high school diaries. Adam's mom is Israeli, his dad is American. Adam grew up in New York. Well, his body was in New York. His brain, as the diaries reveal, was somewhere else entirely.

Adam Davidson

I remember when I was writing-- I remember very clearly, although I don't say this in the diary-- that it was very clear to me that this was the diary of the future prime minister of Israel, me. That I would one day be prime minister and it will be very important for history, for people to know the deep thoughts of a young Zionist as he prepared his way to lead his nation.

Ira Glass

Our regular listeners here on This American Life might remember that you've been on our program describing your experience in Israeli Army summer camp.

Adam Davidson

That was right before I started writing this diary.

Ira Glass

Read me another.

Adam Davidson

Sure. Let's see.

"There's so much wrong with Jews in Israel that I'm going to have a job ahead of me. One thing is the lack of any strong Jewish identity among most Jews. This attitude sickens me. You Jews of the world, stop worrying about money and well being. I do not know what exactly I'll do, but if this situation continues when I'm a bit older, then WATCH OUT WORLD JEWRY, HERE COMES ADAM."

And "WATCH OUT WORLD JEWRY, HERE COMES ADAM" was all in capital letters.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Adam Davidson

Yeah.

Ira Glass

It's interesting that you actually are addressing a readership.

Adam Davidson

I know, I know. That's what's kind of amazing.

Ira Glass

And that readership is world Jewry.

Adam Davidson

Right. Yeah. The Jews of the world will one day read this book and will say, "if he knew this at 16, how could I be living so badly?"

Ira Glass

Can I ask you to just read one of the passages where you talk about Israel?

Adam Davidson

Sure. Let's see. I have this thing from January 4, 1987.

"I memorized "The Hope," "Hatikva," which is the Israeli national anthem-- "a few minutes ago. That will help me in Israel." And I find that really amazing that here I am, the future prime minister of Israel, and what are the things I need? Oh, god. I need to know the national anthem-- I'll probably be called upon to recite that at some point.

Ira Glass

Or there will be a ball game or something where you'll just stand up and sing it.

Adam Davidson

Right, exactly.

"January 14, 1987. Wednesday. I am getting more and more angered by the effects of Arab propaganda. They blame the Jews for everything, and the world, including Jews, go along with it. Entirely ridiculous. We should have our own propaganda campaign, only we should use the truth, a concept unfamiliar to Arab leaders."

And I mean, I really thought this was a testament for the ages. I really thought that this writing was powerful and persuasive, and anyone who would read it would immediately become a Zionist. At 16 I had such an inflated sense of myself. There was so much going on in my life then that I can remember, and I wasn't recording it. Instead, I was creating this ridiculous fantasy of, "I'm not just a 16 year old kid who's having crushes and a hopeless geek who can't get a girl to kiss him, and being scared and confused about growing old-- I'm the future prime minister of Israel and everything goes through that." But I don't know--

Ira Glass

But maybe keeping a diary where one tells the truth, maybe that's a luxury of being a certain kind of person in a certain kind of situation. Maybe other people in another kind of situation need to actually make up a little fantasy.

Adam Davidson

Yeah, I think-- I didn't have much angst about being the future prime minister of Israel. I was very calm and confident and comfortable with it. And I had so much angst about every other aspect of my life. And so I now see it as just kind of-- maybe it was a good solution. It was a good way to deal with what I was going through, to have this space where I could just be one of the greats.

Ira Glass

I wonder what the 16 year old Adam Davidson would feel knowing that, finally, an audience of a million people was getting some of the reading from this diary.

Adam Davidson

I think this would feel so small to that 16 year old. This would feel so nothing. I mean, I remember I was very disappointed and very sad about my parents. I was reading biographies, of course, of all the prime ministers of Israel, and I would just think about my parents and just think, "how do you wake up every day knowing that your actions won't affect millions of people? How is that enough motivation, just to have your petty little craft, and your petty little family, and your small little apartment?" It just seemed pathetic.

And they have the kind of life that, basically, I want for myself.

Ira Glass

What you're saying, though, is that the 16 year old you would be cringing at your 30 year old version, just as your 30 year old version is cringing at the 16.

Adam Davidson

Yeah. That's very true. He would be very, very disgusted if he heard this radio piece. It would seem like I had settled in a pathetic way.

Ira Glass

Adam Davidson. These days he works for National Public Radio, where he covers global business.

Act Four. When We Were Angels.

Hillary Frank

Tufts University is a pretty straight place. Entertainment for most people means fraternity keggers. It's not the sort of place you'd expect people to watch a guy sitting on another guy's shoulders pretending to be a giant. It happened by accident in 1994. My friend Scott was the top half.

Scott

It was the beginning of the school year, and we were kind of bored one night. We decided to go up to the quad. And basically Jeff got up on someone's back and he started yelling and screaming about how giant he was, and how magnificent he was. And I think, actually, right after that, I might have gotten on someone's back and said, "yeah, I am also a giant." And I guess that really struck a chord in me. I thought that was pretty amusing.

I guess I thought a lot about it. It actually did start me thinking along a particular path.

Hillary Frank

Scott talked about the idea one night in the dining hall. The next day on the way to class, he saw signs all over campus that said, in bold print, "I am nine feet tall. Come see Giant Man. 8 PM on the quad." Scott had no idea who put them up. He learned later that the signs were posted by a guy who had overheard him talking at dinner. Scott decided he would go to the quad at the specified time and undertake the challenge.

To pull this off, he would need to create a character and a costume for the giant. He gave Giant Man a booming voice.

Scott

I don't even know exactly. It was something like, you know, "behold, I am giant." You know, not even loud, but just kind of weird and sort of suggesting [UNINTELLIGIBLE] in some vague way. I don't know.

Hillary Frank

Scott asked his tallest friend, [? Podo, ?] to act as Giant Man's legs. They grabbed some props before heading up to the quad-- a blanket to wrap around their middle to hide [? Podo, ?] a long wooden staff, and a black curly wig, like the guys in KISS.

Scott

We picked a point in the bushes, [? Podo ?] and I. We really couldn't see what was going on out on the quad, and so the time came and I got on his shoulders, basically, and tied the blanket around my waist and we walked out. And I remember there just being maybe 10 people, 15 people, and I remember them being way on the other side and sort of running. What was so ridiculous about it was there was just a handful of people, and they were so spread out but they were all coming towards me. It was like, what the hell am I doing here?

Hillary Frank

They decided to plan another giant man appearance the following week. They posted more signs and told everyone they knew. "Go see Giant Man. It will blow your mind." Word spread quickly, and amazingly, they were able to keep it secret that they themselves were Giant Man. Most students believed there was an actual nine-foot man come to Tufts for some mysterious reason. I was friends with these guys and I didn't even know yet.

At the next appearance, almost 200 people were waiting for Giant Man and chanting his name. It was like a political rally. Some of them carried signs that said things like, "We love you Giant Man." "Why are you here?" Save us from ourselves, Giant Man." "Nine feet of lovin'." And, "Giant freak, go home." Giant Man made his way onto the quad and the crowd went wild. People came rushing out of their dorms to see what was going on.

When Giant Man reached his fans he made a small speech. "I am giant," he boomed. "I am a huge, and I have brought you butterscotch." He then threw cellophane-wrapped butterscotch to the crowd, and they dove for it.

Scott

On the walk up, I just stopped in the bookstore and saw some candy. And I was trying to think, what was the most ridiculous candy that nobody ever ate? There was butterscotch there in some kind of cellophane wrapper. It looked like nobody ever was eating it.

Hillary Frank

Butterscotch became Giant Man's trademark treat. When he ran out of things to say he would revert to throwing candy. The fact of the matter is Giant Man had very little to tell the Tufts community other than, "my strength is amazing, my girth is enormous, and my height is unequalled." He would brag like this for only two or three minutes and then retreat back to the bushes.

Scott

The problem was [? Podo ?] would get really tired really quickly. He walked out really fast, like he almost was running, and he got really tired and didn't even know where he was going. Any he kind of just-- it must have just looked absolutely idiotic.

Hillary Frank

So he couldn't see?

Scott

Yeah. He was basically-- his eyes were recovered. I remember I would sit on his head and I would put both of my hands on his head. Kind of give him direction by you maybe forcing his head in a certain direction.

Hillary Frank

Giant Man became a phenomenon. Enthusiasts wore "I Love Giant Man" t-shirts, which had silhouettes of the huge man with a balding middle. There was once a parade across campus with noise makers and a trumpet to greet him. Another time there were torch jugglers and bodyguards. Letters were written to the student newspaper: pro and con Giant Man. Teachers were mentioning Giant Man in class. There was a discussion in an ethics course in which people who hadn't seen Giant Man argued about whether or not we were exploiting a freak of nature.

Scott

I remember I was there, there was this guy that I kind of vaguely knew who was there with a bunch of his buddies. I guess they were from the same fraternity or something. And they were jumping around and saying, yeah, we're going to take Giant Man down. When I went out there, I was talking for a little while and then I saw him. He was sort of right behind me, or they were coming up from the side, him and his buddies. I remember him just coming up and starting to pull on my sheet and stuff, and one of them tried to-- and pushed me. And [? Podo, ?] who could barely stand as it was after walking out there and with me on his shoulders, he was shaking a little bit and managed to stay on his feet. I remember just offering them butterscotch and sort of screaming about how much I loved them, and they just kind of took off and it was over.

Hillary Frank

Do you think that if Giant Man had been an actual political cause, that you would have gotten such a big turnout and there would have been such a big deal about it?

Scott

Yeah, I doubt that. I mean, that's one of the things I think that was a big draw about it was that it didn't have any meaning. And for whatever reason, people were really drawn to that. I mean, if it had meaning or was trying to pitch some idea or something, it would kind of seem less real, I think. There was really something fundamentally interesting and truthful about Giant Man, I guess. I mean, there is something that human-- people are drawn to that absurdity for whatever reason.

Hillary Frank

By the end, Giant Man's following had grown to about 350 people. I don't think any of us had any experience like it since. When you're a student, it still feels like something exciting might happen at any moment. Life feels full of all this potential. But when you get out of school, that potential just doesn't seem to be there.

Hillary Frank

What do you do now?

Scott

Well, I'm an engineer.

Hillary Frank

What kind of engineer?

Scott

A computer engineer. Designing computer circuits and things like that.

Hillary Frank

And do you have Giant Man-like experiences today?

Scott

No, not really. You know, I'm not parading around talking about my magnificence.

Hillary Frank

There's actually a recording of Giant Man's final public appearance. There was a band called The Electric Fun Machine that dedicated a song to him, and he appeared with them at a concert on the quad.

[MUSIC - "GIANT MAN" BY THE ELECTRIC FUN MACHINE] Giant man. Giant man. 1-2-3-4. Giant man.

Giant Man

Students of Tufts, fear me not, for I am the benevolent Giant Man. I have come to show love. As a symbol of my benevolence, I shall once again shower you with--

Hillary Frank

And then Giant Man threw butterscotch candy.

Ira Glass

Hillary Frank. In the years since she first did this story for us, she's done many radio stories. She's also become the author of the novels, Better Than Running at Night and I Can't Tell You.

Our program is produced today but Jonathan Goldstein and myself with Alex Blumberg, Starlee Kine, [? Aaron ?] [? Yankee, ?] and Annie Baxter. Senior producer for our show is Julie Snyder. Production [UNINTELLIGIBLE] from Seth Lind and Emily Youssef. Musical help today from Mr. John Connor.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our show by Mr. Torey Malatia. And you know, he says he's played Japan, also. He swears.

David Philp

I'd forgotten what it was to have the audience right there.

Ira Glass

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

P R I-- Public Radio International.