Transcript

421:

Last Man Standing
Transcript

Originally aired 12.03.2010

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/421

Prologue And Act One.

Ira Glass

OK. Imagine for second what it would be like to have the entire country have one opinion about something and you were the only person who disagreed. Out of the entire country. This pretty much happened to the woman I'm about to introduce you to. She was a juror in the criminal trial of Rod Blagojevich.

You may remember Blagojevich, Governor of Illinois. When Barack Obama became president, Blagojevich was caught on tape talking on the phone about how he might use Obama's senate seat for his own personal profit.

Rod Blagojevich

I've got thing, and it's [BLEEP] golden. And I'm just not giving it up for [BLEEP] nothing.

Ira Glass

When the tapes became public, Blagojevich did the kind of media blitz that did not seem to win many people over. He squirmed on talk shows, he appeared as a contestant on The Apprentice. Here he is about to get fired by Donald Trump.

Donald Trump

Your Harry Potter facts were not accurate. Who did the research?

Rod Blagojevich

There was not a specific direction to do the research on Harry Potter, but the inability to learn the product-- and it was an issue in the--

Donald Trump

Was what their inability or your inability?

Rod Blagojevich

I suppose I should have directed everybody else to learn the product.

Ira Glass

And so most of us who saw him on TV decided, "that guy is guilty." And then the case went to trial. Seven weeks. Jury deliberated for 14 days after that. Six men, six women. 24 counts against the governor. The jury could only agree on one count-- lying to the FBI. They convicted him on that one. It was split, with a handful of not guilty votes in various configurations, on the 23 other counts.

And on the charge that everybody was the most interested in, selling the senate seat, that was the one charge where the vote was 11 to 1. 11 to 1. The holdout? A 67 year old grandmother, JoAnn Chiakulas, who says that yes, the jury did know that the people of America wanted this guy convicted.

Joann Chiakulas

Well, I think that that was a big part of it. I think that there was a tremendous amount of pressure on the jurors to convict, and I do think a lot of it had to do with people didn't like him. He was an annoyance, he was on TV. And so I think it was like people wanted to make him go away. I mean, I certainly had that feeling. And I think that those of us who had some doubts felt a great deal of pressure.

It was probably one of the most difficult things I've experienced in life. I couldn't sleep at night. I had headaches, I had stomachaches.

Ira Glass

Today on our radio show, we have three stories of people who end up as the lone holdout, the last man standing, in various situations. And if these three stories are any indication, it is always pretty dreadful.

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

Act Two. Last Man Stand-Up.

Ira Glass

In JoAnn's case, she says that she's been on a couple of juries before, and nothing like this happened. She went into the case with no particular fondness for Blagojevich and no desire to draw attention to herself. In fact, it was kind of the opposite on that score. In the aftermath of the trial, hounded by the press for weeks, she did one interview. I was her second.

She says she simply felt that the prosecution failed to make its case. When she looked at the entirety of the secret tape recordings of Blagojevich, he said so many scattered different things about what he would do with that senate seat-- maybe he'd give it to Oprah, maybe he'd take it himself, maybe he'd leverage it into something else-- it just didn't seem to rise to the level of a criminal conspiracy, which was the charge against him.

Joann Chiakulas

There were enough other things in the transcripts that could make one think that this guy was, like, a little nuts and just talking. Just talking off the top of his head.

Ira Glass

Do you remember when you got your first hint that you were seeing the case differently than some of the other people on the jury?

Joann Chiakulas

Probably almost as soon as we were beginning our deliberations. I think when we came back into the room, as people started to talk, there were some people who were very firm in their belief that he was guilty, and there were some other people who were not so certain of that. I think what happened as we went along is that the people who felt he was guilty did not look at anything to the contrary. I got a sense that there was no sense that there might be reasonable doubt or there could be reasonable doubt. So whenever anyone in the room raised an issue that might have questioned the guilty verdict, those that felt that he was guilty were very antagonistic, very hostile, very critical, very demeaning.

Ira Glass

Can I ask you, does some particular example come to mind of some time when you or somebody else raised one of these points and the reaction you got from the side that thought that he was guilty?

Joann Chiakulas

Well, I think that some of us felt that some of the material was open to interpretation as to what the governor meant when he said certain things. And it was often the women who had more reasonable doubt then the men. Most of the men on the jury felt that the defendant was guilty. We were criticized.

And it was so difficult in the room sometimes that one juror cried several times because she felt that her point of view was not being listened to. We were made to feel that we were not smart enough, we weren't looking at the evidence correctly, we were misinterpreting the facts.

Ira Glass

You're saying that the men were saying things that were demeaning. What kinds of things did they say?

Joann Chiakulas

Well, I can't recall specifically, but it was a dismissive attitude. "Oh, you're not looking at the facts." "We have to convict him, because the prosecution will have to retry the case if we don't." Or, we'll be embarrassed if we don't find him guilty."

Ira Glass

Hey JoAnn, are there any other moments for you that stand out when you were deliberating?

Joann Chiakulas

One gentleman who sat somewhere else decided that he had to sit across from me so that he could look into my eyes. And I felt it was very much an act of intimidation. I think that one day in particular towards the end-- I think we had been there for 12, 13 days at that point-- and I think that was the day the gentleman sat across for me, and another man said he wanted to tell the judge that one of the jurors was not deliberating in good faith. I really felt that I was going to lose it that day because of the pressure.

Ira Glass

What happened after the verdicts were announced? What happened to you then?

Joann Chiakulas

Well, we were cautioned by the judge to not give any statement and to take a few days to think about how we wanted to approach it. And we all agreed that we were not going to talk about who voted how, and that we were all going to go home and not give a statement. So we all left thinking that that was going to be the case.

But I could not go home, because I received a phone call after I got off the train that there were swarms of reporters in front of my house. And so I went straight to my daughter's. And at that point, the phone started ringing nonstop and went on for days, if not weeks. We turned on the TV, and we saw some of the jurors talking immediately. They were pointing to the fact that there was one juror who was the holdout, and the press figured out that it was me.

There was a helicopter flying over my daughter's house, which is where I was saying. One gentleman on TV, who was a reporter, said that he had listened to the evidence and he definitely thought that Blagojevich was guilty. And the only way that he could explain the fact that I voted not guilty was because I was crazy. So it was absolutely overwhelming. I don't think it stopped for at least a month.

And I think that it-- I don't think, I know that it really made me question jury service in general in terms of, if you go in and you do your duty as a citizen, you're vilified if you do not give the verdict that people want and expect. If a person who serves on a jury knows that they are going to be vilified, harassed after the fact, maybe that'll have an effect on how they act in the jury room. And that's kind of chilling to me.

Let's say we're talking about a death penalty case. And people did call me and tell me that they know of people-- and one person in particular served on a case where it was a death penalty case-- they went into the jury room thinking that they had reasonable doubt, but based on the pressure that they felt in the jury room they voted guilty. And have regretted it ever since.

Ira Glass

JoAnn Chiakulas.

[MUSIC - "DO YOUR DUTY" BY CANDI STATON]

Act Three. My Own Private U.F.O.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Last Man Stand-Up.

Most people do not choose to end up as a last man standing. It just kind of happens to them. Sarah Koenig has a story about that somebody like that, somebody who was simply following his dream.

Sarah Koenig

Duke Fightmaster was making good money, but he hated his job. More than hated it-- he loathed it. Felt like he was dying inside. He was a mortgage broker. He was married with two sons-- a toddler and a baby-- living in Orange County, south of LA. Then the mortgage crisis happened, his company collapsed. So he got another job.

Duke Fightmaster

Working in a cubicle doing, like, phone sales for people in credit card debt. This really depressing office-- dark with, like, eight cubicles in it. And you're just on the phone all day calling people that are deciding whether to file for bankruptcy.

And I was just thinking, "This is so depressing." And I had this idea that if I just follow my passion or find something that I'm passionate about, something that uses my creativity, and if I just am able to find that and then throw myself into it, I'll be successful.

Sarah Koenig

His two initial ideas, in Duke's own opinion, were stupid. He would start a boy band, or else he would make Orange County, which has a lot of churches, into a huge Christian rock scene, like Seattle was for grunge. Actually, these ideas aren't quite as stupid as they might sound if you know that Duke had once had a semi-successful rock band, which toured college towns all over California.

So he started in on both these projects but soon realized he was interested neither in boy bands, nor Christians. It was 2007.

Duke Fightmaster

And then right around that time I was watching TV and I saw that Jay Leno was going to step down and Conan O'Brien was going to replace Jay Leno, and so they needed someone to replace Conan O'Brien. And then the light just clicked on in my head-- "Why don't I just do a talk show?" It just felt like it clicked. I said, "I'll start a talk show. I'll just do it in my bedroom."

Duke Fightmaster Show Announcer

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Recorded somewhere in the US Southland, it's the Duke Fightmaster Show. Tonight on Duke's show, special audience member, Robert, the comedy stylings of Robert, and special guest, Robert.

Sarah Koenig

Duke Fightmaster is not a man of half measures, and he believed in the aphorisms of success, that if he wanted something badly enough, he would have it. He was going to replace Conan O'Brien. Not by doing all the normal things like getting a production job at a local talk show, learning the business, working his way up. Instead, he would make himself into a talk show sensation from his own bedroom.

Duke Fightmaster

And so I had my little desk and I arranged it, and I arranged the couch for the guests to sit. And I had these little curtains that went out to a deck, and I just stood in front of them. And I had a video camera, so I had my friend hold the video camera. And we just started to-- we just did a show.

Duke On Stage

It's good to be here. I feel alive right now. I'm finally doing it. This is my own talk show, I'm stoked, I'm going all the way.

Sarah Koenig

That's Duke's friend Tanya's French bulldog yapping in the background. Duke is standing in front of a white curtain, actually his bedroom drapes. He's a little chubby, he's got wavy brown hair. He's wearing a black sweater and jeans.

The camera is jerking around like crazy, and when it swings over to the audience, you see a few people in chairs. Someone else is sitting on the bed, which is covered in satiny pillows. Everyone looks happy and a little confused.

Duke On Stage

I'm in a relationship, been in a relationship for 10 years. And my secret to a long lasting relationship is, don't leave.

Duke Fightmaster

I would do a little monologue, then I would talk to my wife, who was my sidekick. And then my best friend was my second sidekick. He was like an Andy Kaufman and he'd do something weird and crazy. Then I'd interview a guest and then we'd have a little music act, and we'd do it all in like seven minutes.

Duke On Stage

Now it's time for our first guest, Robert.

[APPLAUSE]

Duke On Stage

Robert, how are you doing this evening?

Robert

Good, good. Do you guys have any water or anything?

Leslie

You can have my water.

Duke Fightmaster

And I remember I put it out on YouTube, and I remember I kept checking how many hits it was. And by the next episode it was like, I told everyone it was 72 hits, but then I pretty much figured out that most of those were me just clicking on it and just checking it again what the hits were.

Sarah Koenig

So every time you clicked again, were you like, wow, another person has looked since I last looked.

Duke Fightmaster

Exactly, yes. That's what happened.

Sarah Koenig

The Duke Fightmaster Show got longer over time, to about 40 minutes, and developed regular characters. Besides Duke's wife Leslie and his best friend Ryan, he did one hilarious bit about declaring war on vegetables.

Ryan

No longer shall they take our land.

Sarah Koenig

Ryan is actually really, really funny.

Ryan

No longer shall they rape our women!

Sarah Koenig

There was a beautiful, busty blond named Tantalizing Tanya. They had a house band, a number one fan, and a weekly catch phrase.

Duke Fightmaster

There's no audience crazier than the Duke Fightmaster Show audience.

Duke On Stage

There is no audience crazier than the Duke Fightmaster Show audience.

[APPLAUSE]

Duke Fightmaster

The first show, I had two friends in the audience that I basically just forced to be my studio audience. And then in the second show I had maybe four people. And then it doubled to eight. And when I got to, like, episode 24, I had like 30 people packed into my bedroom.

Duke On Stage

It's tax week, it was tax week. And I actually do my taxes and take my annual blood test at the same time each year. So I have some good news-- I'm getting $2,000 back, and I have herpes. I'm sorry that I have to tell you this way, honey.

Leslie

Don't be sorry. It's not like I'm going to get-- we don't really have--

Sarah Koenig

Episode 24 was key. That was the night a local reporter was in the audience. By that time, the show was looking more like a show. They had real graphics, and theme music. And a surprisingly big number of people were checking it out on YouTube every week.

Duke On Stage

180,637 views.

[APPLAUSE]

Sarah Koenig

Fans and critics were writing in, so Duke started a segment on the show called, It's Time For the Comments. And he's wearing a suit now. His hair is cut, he's lost weight, he looks good. He made it into the newspaper.

Duke Fightmaster

And then the following week we were on the front page of the paper in town. And then I got a couple other newspaper articles, and it just felt to me like something was happening. And other people actually really believed it so much that it almost seems like it could work. Like, maybe, who knows? Something could happen.

Sarah Koenig

What was the plan, though? What was the long term plan? How is it going to go from a bunch of people you sort of half knew in your bedroom to actually going on TV? Or was the TV part just a lark, like you knew that was never going to happen?

Duke Fightmaster

You know, I was like, OK, we're going to be the replacement for Conan O'Brien. And I somehow thought that maybe I would pick up some type of esteem and become some internet sensation. And who knows, maybe someone would see me and go, wow, look how much this guy can do with no money. Why don't we just give him a chance. And it always seemed like one more person would find out about it, and it just seemed like success was just right around the corner.

Sarah Koenig

Duke got a producer and an executive producer, and they started booking better guests-- actual working comedians, for instance, and popular local bands. Duke started producing commercials in hopes of getting sponsors. And he met weekly with a successful business friend to map out a plan to buy space on cable TV. By this time, Duke had left his job at the credit card place, so he needed the show to make some money.

Duke Fightmaster

I said, OK, well, I can quit my job and not work for three months. I have enough money to make this happen for three months. But then three months came, and after that I was like, wow, we got on the paper and we got all this, and I was just like, I can just go a little bit longer, just a few more episodes. And it was always just a few more episodes.

Sarah Koenig

At what point did you quit your job?

Duke Fightmaster

After the first episode.

Sarah Koenig

Are you serious? You quit after the first episode?

Duke Fightmaster

Yes. After the first episode, I was at my job watching the episode over and over, checking for the views, and then I quit. And then on the second episode, I told my wife that I quit my job.

Duke On Stage

I quit my job today.

Leslie

Wait. What?

Duke On Stage

I quit my job. [APPLAUSE]

Duke On Stage

I'm no longer doing the debt settlement anymore.

Leslie

You know, we have two kids and a lot of bills to pay. We'll talk about this later.

Duke On Stage

OK.

Sarah Koenig

He had actually told Leslie the day before, and she was fine with it-- a three month experiment seemed reasonable. Soon after episode 24, the one that got them the press coverage, Duke had to move the show out of his bedroom. The neighbors were getting mad. One guy had written him a note that said, "Please stop whatever you're doing." He thought Duke was holding weight watchers meetings in the house, what with all that clapping.

Duke found another venue, at the local veteran's hall, but it was a lot more work than the bedroom. Setting up and breaking down the set, plus the tech got more complicated-- more cameras. Duke start stressing out about it. He wasn't having as much fun.

Duke Fightmaster

I would be looking at the cameraman going, hey, he's not filming what he's supposed to be filming. And then I would start yelling at the cameraman, like, Norge, don't be zooming in on the camera-- you're not supposed to zoom.

Duke On Stage

Don't zoom in, Norge. OK? We're going to get this later. Goddammit, Norge. Hey Norge, how are you doing? Oh, I forgot: we don't care.

Sarah Koenig

At this point there were about 20 people helping Duke put on the show every week, volunteering. And these volunteers were constantly backing out of shows of the last minute or just not showing up.

Duke On Stage

This is the story of my life. My right hand man's not here, flaking on me. Everyone lets me down. Ooh, I have a little baby boy, I need to watch him sleep. DJ Flux isn't here. And who else has bailed on me? None other than Chipper Starkenberg. He's bailed. He's bailed.

Sarah Koenig

Meanwhile, Duke's wife Leslie, who is a yoga teacher, was supporting the family. On the show, she's constantly letting him know she's not so happy about that. Her delivery is so deadpan it's hard to tell whether she's joking.

Leslie

Duke, that voice isn't in your head. That's actually me asking, when are you going to get a job?

Duke Fightmaster

That became her character: get a job.

Sarah Koenig

Here's another one.

Duke On Stage

Now, who are these sponsors, you ask?

Leslie

Yes. Who are these sponsors? Because I'd really love to quit my third job.

Sarah Koenig

And another one.

Duke On Stage

How are you doing this evening? Pretty good?

Leslie

I'm a little tired because I have to work so much to support the family.

Duke Fightmaster

I think she was actually being sincere. We didn't have any direct communication unless the cameras were rolling. That's probably her being just direct with me. Get a job. I'm sick of this-- get a job. Only we had an audience laughing.

Sarah Koenig

And so was that the only time you were hearing it from her, though, was in front of the camera?

Duke Fightmaster

Yeah. That's when she was able to speak her mind.

Leslie

I don't know. I kind of thought that I was pressuring him to get a job, but I guess maybe I wasn't pressuring him enough, if he thinks that I wasn't. But yeah, I mean, I think I was. I think toward the end, I said to him, "I can't think of any other place you're going to be able to live rent free other than your mom's house, so either you get a job or you're going to have to go find somewhere else to live rent free." I thought that was pretty direct. I don't know.

Sarah Koenig

Wow. Were you sort of thinking, OK, well, any day now he's going to give this up?

Leslie

Yeah, I was thinking more and more that he wasn't going to give it up.

Sarah Koenig

Oh, really?

Leslie

Yeah. So more and more I was telling them that, "This is what we make, this is what our bills are, this is how much we're short every month." So his was idea was, "Well, let's get a roommate."

Sarah Koenig

He literally suggested a roommate?

Leslie

Yeah. I mean, that was his solution. Instead of him working, he would prefer to have a roommate move in.

Sarah Koenig

Duke's talk show had inched over the line from ambitious lark to obsession. And like all obsessions, it was greedy. It sucked up not only Duke's time and energy and temper, it sucked up money. So the family's finances weren't just suffering, they were a disaster.

Duke Fightmaster

We had to leave our home that was kind of nice, in Laguna Beach, and we moved to where I am now in Dana Point. It was like half the rent.

Leslie

And you know, it got pretty scary here and there. Just, how are we going to pay for food? How are we going to buy clothes for the kids? You know, things like that.

Duke Fightmaster

My car was repossessed. My home went into foreclosure.

Leslie

And we would have to borrow money from our families. And we had a house in San Francisco that we ended up short-selling because we couldn't afford to pay the mortgage on it anymore with the taxes. And so we lost our house in San Francisco.

Duke Fightmaster

I maxed-out all my credit cards-- I think we had, like, maybe eight-- and our family went bankrupt.

Sarah Koenig

But didn't you used to be one of those guys who counselled how to get rid of your credit card debt?

Duke Fightmaster

Yeah, yeah. That's-- well, I was just becoming one of my clients, basically.

Leslie

So I was kind of hoping that he would look around him and see what was going on, and notice that he had two young children that needed to be taken care of. I don't know. I think there's kind of a fine line between having denial and have a good attitude. I think sometimes I probably tried to keep a positive attitude more then I should have.

Sarah Koenig

Duke was under so much pressure you could almost see it ricocheting through him on screen. Take episode 60. Duke's monologue is so fraught it's painful to watch.

Duke On Stage

But, hey, that's what credit cards are for-- to help you in a time of need. So I'd use the credit cards-- Oh my God, I don't know what I'm doing. This is just getting very stressful. But you know, we're married now. And then my wife says, "My biological clock is ticking--"

Sarah Koenig

So this goes on for another five minutes or so. I can hear your breathing is getting a little weird. Leslie is looking a little concerned-- there are couple cuts to her and she looks kind of-- her brow is a little furrowed there. Just explain what was going on.

Duke Fightmaster

Yeah, well, I think that that particular night, the guests backed out, too. And all my-- I mean, all together I had probably had like 10 monologue writers who had all quit by that point. Just because they just had other stuff in their life. And so I was down to writing it myself. I think that was, like, one of my first ones that I wrote by myself.

And I was having panic attacks, like every day. They would last like, I don't know, like 20 minutes. But then I would be scared that I'd have another one. And then they'd last for weeks at a time, and it got to the point where I think I was having panic attacks for like six months in a row. And I think at that point right there, I wrote a monologue wanting to talk about stress, and then I started having panic attacks right then.

Sarah Koenig

During the monologue?

Duke Fightmaster

During my monologue.

Sarah Koenig

God. I don't understand why you didn't just stop. It sounds so miserable. Like, you were having panic attacks. You know, you're not having fun. Why didn't you just stop?

Duke Fightmaster

I guess somewhere in my mind I just thought, you know, no matter how bad things get, I'll just kind of put my head down and keep going. And I knew that it was ridiculous, starting a talk show. I mean, I knew that, outwardly, people think I'm ridiculous.

And I remember just driving around like, "The show isn't going anywhere, I'm not going anywhere, I've wasted these last years." And I remember just driving around so depressed. And I just felt like I had broken-- and I had a breakdown where I just started crying in my car. And I just felt like I hit the core of my being and it was, "you're a loser." And I think that was part of my rock bottom.

Sarah Koenig

Did you quit after that?

Duke Fightmaster

No. No, I think I still went for another year after that.

You know, anyone who makes it in this life at anything, you always hear, has to go through hell. So I figured, "I'll just go through hell." I remember my friend who worked in real estate worked for one of those cheesy real estate motivators that used to yell out, "You have to have a break down to have a break through." So I was thinking, "OK, I've had my break down, so now I'm going to actually break through to some new level."

Sarah Koenig

By episode 60 and the on-air panic attack, a year had gone by. Conan O'Brien, of course, had long been replaced by Jimmy Fallon. Duke still wasn't working, and the show still wasn't making any money. None of the sponsors materialized, though Duke did manage to get Red Bull to send them free drinks every week.

Duke Fightmaster

The first people to leave were the monologue writers. And my best friend Ryan, he just got busier with work and had a baby. And the house band, Evan had left. And the other house band guy left. Our two camera people left, and I had to switch them. And I think I was down to like one camera guy, and then I was just getting random people who showed up at the show to operate cameras.

Leslie was basically not going to show that much. I think Tanya quit towards the end. I mean, towards the very end I was pretty much by myself. We had a number one fan, and he was always excited when he was there, but, I mean, they just eventually didn't want to commit every Friday night to me.

Duke On Stage

Now, I have some news, and this could be our last night here at the Veteran's Hall. Unfortunately, these veterans, they want rent, is what they want. And these veterans, I mean, they just get so crazy. It's like, they're all up in your face and stuff just after only one time, just one time it happens, one time you don't pay rent for like four months, and then they call you and they're like, "Where's the rent?"

Sarah Koenig

And did you, in fact, get kicked out of the Veteran's Hall?

Duke Fightmaster

Yeah, I think that night they picked up the keys. It might have been the next couple nights, but the guy showed up-- and we didn't record it, but he showed up during the show and I gave him the keys. I had to stop the show, and I went out and talked-- he was with his son, it was an old veteran with his son-- and I just said, "Listen, I'm very sorry, but we're broke and we can't pay the rent." [INAUDIBLE].

Sarah Koenig

How much was the rent?

Duke Fightmaster

It was really cheap. It was $30 bucks a night.

Sarah Koenig

After the show got booted from the Veteran's Hall, it moved to a local nightclub, which at first seemed like a step up, but in fact, was the beginning of the end. The space was all wrong, the magic of the bedroom was long gone-- everyone could feel it. So the nightclub shut them down. And still Duke kept going, more or less alone, for another few months until finally, after two and a half years, he had nowhere to go.

Duke Fightmaster

It was just like the whole roof was falling on my head. I basically just stopped after that.

Sarah Koenig

Notice Duke says he stopped. Not that he quit, he stopped. He describes the show as on hiatus.

A month or two later Duke got a job, one he says is perfect for him. He works for a company that makes those advertisements you sometimes find hanging from your front doorknob-- they're called door hangers. Duke's job is to fly around the country and take photos of the people whose job it is to hang the hangers on your door. So his job is to make sure they're doing their job. He's a job cop. Which maybe isn't his dream, but his schedule leaves him enough time to do some stand-up and to produce a podcast from his house. Plus, he's making some money.

After all he lost during the Duke Fightmaster Show-- the house, car, friends, self-esteem-- he's not sorry he tried it.

Duke Fightmaster

If I didn't try to do this talk show, then I would never know, and I would be on my death bed wondering like, "I could have done something." But now that I've done it I know I can't. Going out and saying, "I'm going to be the replacement for Conan O'Brien," it turns out that that's a lot easier said than done. It's not as easy to start a talk show and replace Conan O'Brien as I thought it might have been.

Sarah Koenig

I find that a really funny-- "The lesson I learned is, it's really hard to replace Conan."

[LAUGHTER]

Sarah Koenig

Because I feel like, well, I could have told you that three years ago. I mean, nobody gets to be Conan O'Brien. Only Conan O'Brien gets to be Conan O'Brien. That's why it's so hard to be Conan O'Brien.

Duke Fightmaster

I think that if you have some outlandish, big deal chasing type of an idea, you have to be in some type of denial to even try it.

Sarah Koenig

Thinking back on the show, how he believed he could do it and how so many other people did too, Duke says it's like he was an alcoholic dad who'd go out drinking and then come home and play with the kids and promise they'd all be going to Disneyland tomorrow. And everybody is so happy and expectant, and then the next morning, the father wakes up and they're not going to Disneyland, and he's forgotten he ever said it. Now that Duke has sobered up, he says really the biggest lesson he learned is that you can't just put your head down and soldier on for two and a half years. At some point, you have to look up. And if you see that, say, your wife, your sidekick, isn't in the audience, you correct your course.

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig is one of the producers of our show. And these are the song stylings of Duke's wife, Leslie, from the show.

[ACOUSTIC GUITAR AND LESLIE SINGING]

Coming up, Car Trek to Star Trek. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act 3.

Elna Baker

In my house growing up, there were two pictures of men being hit by beams of light. At the top of the stairs we had a painting of Joseph Smith's first vision. At age 14, he went into the woods looking for answers from God. In the painting, he's fallen to the ground and is looking up through the trees at a pillar of light-- God and Jesus are floating there. According to church history, this is the moment they told Joseph Smith to start a new faith.

The other beam of light picture was a poster in my bedroom from the 1993 movie Fire in the Sky. "Alien Abduction," the poster read. November 5, 1975, White Mountains, north eastern Arizona. The layout is remarkably similar to the Joseph Smith painting. Travis Walton, the abducted man, is standing in the woods. A bright blue beam of light shoots from the sky diagonally across the image, striking him in the chest. His body is arched backward and he's suspended a foot above the ground. The beam of light is fuzzy and mysterious, and inside that beam is what made the poster so special. Written with a sharpie were the words, "Elna, don't go towards the light, Travis Walton."

Fire in the Sky is actually based on a true story, and my dad got me the poster because he knew Travis and some of the other guys involved. Among UFO types, it's one of the best known alien abductions.

Travis Walton was part of a logging crew with six other guys. They had been cutting down trees all day and were on their way home. They were all piled into one truck when they say they saw a bright light through the trees. When they got up close, it was a spaceship, hovering. Travis immediately jumped out of the truck to get a closer look. Here's how the movie played that scene.

Movie Character 1

Travis!

Movie Character 2

Travis! You son of a bitch!

Movie Character 1

The hell you doing? Get back in the truck [BLEEP]! My God.

Elna Baker

That's when the beam of light struck him in the chest. The impact threw him to the ground. His friends took off, afraid that the UFO would get them next. A quarter mile later they realized the ship wasn't after them and headed back. When they got to the site, Travis was gone. He was missing for five days, and when he returned he claimed he'd been abducted.

The details are familiar-- aliens with big eyes and big, rounded heads. There's an exam table. But surprise, no probe. And Travis is let go unhurt.

My dad knew these guys because he was from the same town as Travis and all six witnesses-- Snowflake, Arizona. It's a small Mormon town named for the two pioneers who founded it, Erastus Snow and William Jordan Flake. Almost everyone in town is either a Snow or a Flake, and Mormon.

A month ago, I found myself driving north from Phoenix towards the White Mountains with my soon-to-be be brother-in-law Josh Dickens and This American Life producer Jonathan Menjivar.

Jonathan Menjivar

So what the hell are we doing right now?

Elna Baker

Right now we are driving to the mountains to meet Ken Peterson and Mike Rogers, who were both witnesses to Travis Walton's abduction by aliens in 1975-- 35 years ago today. And we're driving up there to camp overnight on the site of the abduction with Ken.

Ken has camped out on the site of the abduction before. Three times. Of all the witnesses that night, he's the only one who still fixates on it. He feels like he missed his chance to connect with these other beings, to be taken on board the space craft the way Travis had been. In the years immediately after the event, Ken assumed the aliens would come back and find them again, that there was a reason they'd reached out to him and his friends, and he wants a re-do.

This interests me for reasons that are hard to talk about quickly and glibly on the radio, but I'd had my own encounter in the woods, years ago. When I was 14, I went on a church hiking trip, and they told us all to go into the woods like Joseph Smith did and pray.

I found a quite clearing, knelt down, and asked a kind of mushy combination of, "Is there really a God," and "If there is, am I supposed to be a Mormon?" And I waited. And then the sun came through the clouds and warm light hit my face. I felt like someone was wrapping their arms around me and hugging me. My body rocked back and forth, and I knew it wasn't me who was doing it.

But over the last two years, I've lost my faith. The scale of this is hard to communicate. It affects everything. My friends, what I think about when I'm walking down the street, what I use for comfort. Not being able to pray, not having God as a constant companion, I feel like my best friend has died. And when I look back on that moment and I had in the woods, I wonder if it was all in my head. And I've wished it could happen again. I've wished that so many times.

And I know it's ridiculous to compare knowing God to seeing UFOs-- they're nothing alike. But because of my experience in the woods, I thought I understood Ken's yearning for a second encounter. That's why I wanted to talk to him.

Jonathan Menjivar

So do you have any expectations for what's going to happen tonight? I mean, I guess, why do you want to talk to Ken about these things?

Elna Baker

I want to hear what he saw, first of all. And I want to know how he's been able to, in spite of obstacles and in spite of-- it's not a convenient thing to believe, everyone in Snowflake thinks he's crazy and makes fun of him for believing these things-- how and why it matters to him to believe.

Jonathan Menjivar

But do you feel like you're going to get any answers about your crisis of faith talking to Ken?

Elna Baker

I don't know. I think I've been avoiding talking about any of the stuff we've been talking about, admitting that I still want to believe. But I think this is an experience where I've allowed myself to think about it. And I was hoping to at least come to some sense of peace of mind.

For decades, Travis and the others have lived among people who doubt them. Their story made international news, and they passed polygraph tests, but no one in Snowflake believed them. My Uncle Sank was the sheriff in charge of the investigation. James Garner plays him in the film, and he led the skeptics. I remember when I was a kid, people made fun of Travis. There was even a poem published in the local paper whose gist was, "The aliens wanted a perfect human specimen, but they got Travis Walton instead."

Josh Dickens

It's such a cool underdog story, I guess.

Elna Baker

My brother-in-law to be, Josh, is along for the ride because Fire in the Sky is his favorite movie. When he found out that my dad knew Travis Walton, he lost it.

Josh Dickens

I immediately called one of my friends, who-- we're like total Fire in the Sky nerds. And we were flipping out together on the phone, and how exciting it was. And I'm sending him an invitation to our wedding.

Elna Baker

We meet up with our two witnesses, Ken and Mike. And Jonathan and I ride up with them. Josh is in the four wheel drive behind us. Mike is burly with a wavy mullet. Ken looks older that his 60 years. Mike's behind the wheel like he was on the day of the abduction. Here's Ken, who's sitting next to him.

Ken Peterson

I'm kind of excited. This is my first time out there on the anniversary date. Mike's, also.

Elna Baker

We turn onto small, bumpy dirt roads, and as we approach the peak of the mountains, the forest looks bleak. Eight years ago, a fire, one of the worst in Arizona's history, swept through the mountains. It burned for 20 days and wiped out almost half a million acres leaving mostly empty space, broken up by little burnt spires like stumps jutting out of a swamp, only without the swamp.

The fire makes it almost impossible for Ken and Mike to recognize the site, and we got lost. We get out of the car several times, trying old fire roads covered with pine needles and dirt and fallen logs. Ken fishes for anything that might be a clue.

Ken Peterson

Seems like I remember this leaning pine tree over here.

Elna Baker

Up close, those burnt spires look like Martian cacti. Finally, they see a pile of stones they left as a marker years ago.

Ken Peterson

Well, that's the road, right?

Mike Rogers

Yeah, down ahead.

Ken Peterson

Down there.

Mike Rogers

The UFO would've been up here close to the top of the ridge.

Elna Baker

I thought it was just, like, straight woods. I didn't realize there was a ridge and a drop-off. It's pretty up here.

From the ridge where they say the UFO hovered, you can look out over the whole valley below. Ken started telling us about that night. When they first saw the light through the trees, they thought it might be hunters or maybe a small forest fire.

Ken Peterson

We got right to this spot, and there it was. It was probably about the size of two vans. Perfect saucer-shaped. Kind of a glow coming out of it, real soft light just lighting up the area around it.

Travis immediately got out of the truck and then all of a sudden I see the saucer start to wobble a little bit. A flash of light come out, last thing I saw was Travis's arms outstretched.

Elna Baker

As you'd imagine, Josh couldn't be more excited. Even Ken notices.

Ken Peterson

That's nice to see you come along, be part of it.

Josh Dickens

Yeah, well I didn't want to sound like a bumbling fan or anything, but it really has always been a huge, I guess you could say, dream.

Elna Baker

We watch the sun go down behind the mountains. Mike hadn't planned on staying the night. He said he had a nice home with a warm bed where he didn't have to worry about coyotes, bears or aliens.

Mike Rogers

Well, you take care.

Ken Peterson

All right. Thanks for coming up for the anniversary.

Elna Baker

Yeah, happy 35th, guys.

Ken Peterson

I said, "Happy Anniversary, Sweetheart," to him this morning.

Mike Rogers

Like an old unmarried couple.

Elna Baker

We found a flat spot to set up camp. Inside the tent, we all huddled around a little propane heater. Ken started telling us a little bit about himself. Prior to this trip, all I knew was that he was divorced, had kids, lived alone in a trailer, and that I had to call him at his sister's because he couldn't afford to use his cell phone minutes. He told us he spends two or three days a week in the library using the internet to research his UFO theories, which he has time for because he's pretty much retired now.

Ken Peterson

And I tell everybody-- I have four sons-- I tell people that they put me out to pasture. Just live by myself, and I'm just totally obsessed. Everybody else realized that I'm obsessed with the UFO encounter.

Elna Baker

Do you wish it had been you?

Ken Peterson

Yeah. Yeah, I wished I would have went over there with him. Right now, with 20/20 hindsight, and knowing that nothing that terrible happened to him, it would have been quite an experience to have gone for the ride.

Elna Baker

During the time after when you sort of hoped that it might happen again, or wondered if it would happen again, and then more time passed and it hadn't happened, did you ever lose faith in it? Feel sincerely doubtful?

Ken Peterson

Never about the incident. I've always believed that Travis was taken. It's been a cross to bear with family, and Mormons in general.

Elna Baker

What do Mormons say?

Ken Peterson

Well, they don't seem to be too interested in ETs or UFOs. With my sons, for a long time I was telling them about these things I was experiencing, and they got pretty tired of it. And my sister, she's totally turned off by it. That's the lonely part of this, is nobody will hear me out on it.

Elna Baker

Earlier, I'd asked Mike how he managed to hold on to his version of the events in the face of so much opposition. Did he ever have doubts?

Mike Rogers

I'm very skeptical of anything and everything else. I even have certain skepticisms about this. I would have even doubted my own self. If something like this would have happened to me by myself, or even with one other person and that person was gone or abducted or whatever, I would doubt my own side. I think over a few years I would have just decided it was some kind of a dream or some kind of an odd occurrence that has no answer, and I left it at that. But there were seven of us out here, so it made it pretty easy to rely on the other guys for complete and continuous memory.

Elna Baker

They have each other, so they don't doubt. When Mike said this, I thought about how the Book of Mormon begins with a document, the Testimony of the Three Witnesses, each claiming that they saw the golden plates Joseph Smith translated into scripture. It's supposed to fulfill this prophecy from the Bible that says, "In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established."

Basically, God made sure Joseph showed at least three people the plates so they could sustain each other's faith, and so that other people would believe them. That's what I don't have-- other witnesses.

Ever since I moved to New York, fewer and fewer of my friends are Mormon. Now I can count them on one hand. We don't want to believe our faith is contingent on who we hang out with, but there you are.

As it gets later, things take an unexpected turn. Ken tells me it's easy to hold on to what he believes about their encounter in the woods because he sees proof all the time. Signs and coincidences going back to that night they encountered the UFO.

Ken Peterson

I believe that it was intentional, that it was a display of the symbology of the phoenix, mythological phoenix.

Elna Baker

The phoenix, the mythological bird that died and was reborn.

Ken Peterson

You know, death and rebirth. And, you know, we're fairly close to Phoenix. Three of the guys were on our crew had just come up from Phoenix. And, of course, afterwards with all the media coverage and all the Phoenix TV stations there.

Elna Baker

He keeps unspooling these associations with the word phoenix. "You'll think this is really crazy," he says more than once, and the thought does occur to me. If he could just figure out the meaning of these signs, he says, he'd understand the aliens' plan.

"Lately," he tells us, "all signs point to the actors Joaquin and River Phoenix. One is living, one is dead," he says, "so there's death and rebirth again, like the Phoenix." He bought some bread from a woman whose last name was river, like River Phoenix. She knew someone who worked on the movie Signs, which starred Joaquin Phoenix, and this woman, River, turned out to be Puerto Rican.

Ken Peterson

She was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico. That's where Joaquin Phoenix was born. She was telling me this on Joaquin Phoenix's birthday, right?

Elna Baker

Ken told us that he sees these kinds of connections all the time now, in the smallest things. Like after he bought that loaf of bread, I called, wanting to interview him, and my last name is Baker. Bread. Baker. The store next to the stand where he bought the bread was called Big 5 Sporting Goods.

Ken Peterson

So then I think, "what's this Big 5 about?" And I see on the Big 5 that there's a sign there that says, "Shooting star."

Elna Baker

The way he spoke felt familiar. I used to notice signs all the time. Everything had a meaning, and it all added up to something. I'd be broke and alone and look down and see a ladybug on my should and think, "See? Someone is watching out for me." Ken was just more extreme about it, like his thing about bread and Big 5.

Ken Peterson

And I see on the Big 5 that there's a sign there that says, "Shooting star."

Elna Baker

It's almost like-- Now I'm playing the same game. The last big moment that I feel like was a spiritual experience that I had was probably three years ago, maybe four years ago, where I felt like it was getting so hard to believe for me. And I just was like, "You know, I want a sign again like the one I had when I was young. And I just want you tell me that you're there, God."

And I knelt down and I prayed and I asked this. And then I looked up at the sky and I was like, "The sky? That's the sign?" Like, anyone can see this. This isn't a sign. You just see a few stars. It's New York-- you see, like, maybe five stars. And just as I was saying, "This isn't anything, this is just what's always there," one of the stars shot across the sky. And it was biggest shooting star I'd ever seen.

I still don't know what to think of that moment. It was shocking. But as soon as it happened, I did the thing I do now-- I started questioning. Was that meant for me? Or did I just happen to look up at the exact moment when a star shot across they sky? I had forgotten about that moment until I shared it with Ken, and it made me think, "Well, that's an even bigger sign that what I experienced in the woods as a teenager, so really, I have had signs since then." And that's when I realized I don't just want a sign, I want to be myself at 14 again-- the kind of person who believes in signs.

Ira Glass

Elna Baker. She's the author of a memoir called, New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance.

[MUSIC - "MY FLYING SAUCER" BY BILLY BRAGG AND WILCO]

Credits.

Rod Blagojevich

I've got this thing, and it's [BLEEP] golden. And I'm just not giving it up for [BLEEP] nothing.

Ira Glass

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

PRI, Public Radio International.