Transcript

44:

Poultry Slam 1996
Transcript

Originally aired 11.29.1996

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/44

Act One. Duki.

Ira Glass

We're in Danielle's house. Ever since she was a girl, when holidays dinners come they serve a meal that will probably look familiar to you. Picture, please, a main course, big platter, drumsticks, white breast meat, golden brown skin, stuffing and gravy and cranberry relish on the side. And in Danielle's family, they have a name for this meal that she told me on the phone recently. The name for this meal is--

Danielle

Fish.

Ira Glass

Got that?

Danielle

Fish.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. Special program today on the wonders of fish. All right, actually we can say the word here. And the word is poultry. And, as you probably know, each week on our program, we choose some theme, invite a variety of writers and performers and documentary producers to tackle that theme. And this week, as we, all of us, stand in that magical five-week period, that magical interregnum between the turkey of Thanksgiving and the turkey of Christmas, that magical five weeks where Americans consume nearly a fourth of all the turkey we consume over the course of the year, 67 million turkeys. So in this period, we bring you our annual Poultry Slam, stories about turkeys, chickens, ducks, fowl of all kind, and their mysterious hold over us.

Well, I'm Ira Glass. Coming up in this hour, Act One, Duki.

Act Two, Turkey.

Act Three, writer David Sedaris.

Act Four, South African Chicken Blood.

And of course, what poultry-positive program would be complete without--

Chickenman

Chickenman!

Women

He's everywhere! He's everywhere!

Ira Glass

Yes, indeed, in the late 1960s, the winged warrior, Chickenman, struck terror in the hearts of evildoers on radios all across our great nation. And today, we are pleased to bring you the first new episode of Chickenman since 1969. This is one of those things if you have heard Chickenman, this needs no introduction. If you haven't, you are in for a big, big treat, a big radio treat. It's later in the show. Stay with us.

Act Five Preview. Chickenman.

Ira Glass

Act One, Duki. So in Danielle's family, the power of poultry is so great in their lives that when they serve chicken or turkey, they call it--

Danielle

Fish.

Ira Glass

That's right. And they call it that for a reason. And the reason has to do with a stuffed hand puppet called Duki. Now Danielle is nearly 30 years old. Her sister, Ashley, is two years younger. And Duki has been in the family since they were children.

Danielle

Well, he was a Christmas present when Ashley was about 8, and I was about 10. And when he first arrived, he was really fluffy. And he was this beautiful, fluffy, white duck. And he had a cape on and black, villain slash hero goggles. He lost the outfit pretty quickly, and he went naked. And then he became Ashley's vehicle for torturing me.

Ira Glass

Now, it's not unusual for older siblings to dominate younger ones. And as children, Danielle dominated Ashley. Ashley looked up to Danielle, fought to get her attention and her approval, and Danielle always, always got her way, except when Duki was around. Basically, Ashley would channel-- I mean the word is an anachronism in this context, but she would channel Duki. She should become Duki's voice. She would speak as Duki. And Duki was sarcastic. Duki was selfish and bossy. Duki would insult Danielle. Duki would tease Danielle. Duki would give her painful nose squeaks.

Danielle

Whenever Ashley brought Duki into the equation, he was completely the dominant force. I was just putty in Duki's hands.

Ira Glass

Let me ask you to compare his personality with Ashley's personality.

Danielle

Ashley's very considerate and kind and thoughtful. And very, very sensitive to other people, very, very concerned about if other people are happy, and if someone else doesn't feel good. And Duki has this total, what's for lunch attitude. Like what's in it for me? In your face, totally out for himself, simultaneously a braggart and a total wimp.

Ira Glass

He's boastful and vain.

Danielle

He's just this indomitable spirit.

Ira Glass

Well, 19 years after Duki arrived in the Mattoon household, the fluffy whiteness is long gone. Fluffy, in fact, is not a word you would really use to describe Duki. Nor is two-eyed, if I remember correctly.

Danielle

What he looks like physically is just-- he's a slightly pathetic looking, gray, tattered thing.

Ira Glass

Very tattered.

Danielle

Very tattered. But then the fact that his brain, what's coming out of his mouth, is in complete denial about who he actually is-- I don't know. There's just something really, really great about that. And really, you have to love him for it.

Ira Glass

All right, I've been at Danielle's apartment sometimes, and I've witnessed the following scene. Picture, please. Danielle has not spoken with her sister in weeks. She picks up the phone, calls Ashley in Michigan. Ashley answers. Danielle asks immediately, "Can you put Duki on?" And then Ashley essentially becomes Duki, puts Duki on the phone. Danielle talks to Duki for 15, 20 minutes. And then they both hang up. That's the whole conversation. And they both feel satisfied. These are adults. Danielle is an editor at a big New York magazine.

Danielle

I adore Duki. I really love Duki. And sometimes, I think if he disappeared, it would really feel like someone died. I mean, I look at him, and he looks really old and ratty, and it really makes me sad. I mean, it sounds crazy. It really makes me sad to think about a world without Duki in it. There would be a big, empty hole in the world. He takes up as much room in my heart as a lot of people individually. And if something happened to him, if he were lost at an airport or run over by a car, it would really be heartbreaking.

Ira Glass

So I hope it's becoming clear why, if you eat dinner in the home of Danielle's family, if they're serving some kind of poultry, chicken or turkey, if you were to ask anybody in the family what's for dinner, they'll tell you--

Danielle

Fish.

Ira Glass

Right. And the rationale for that is what?

Danielle

It freaks Duki out.

Ira Glass

It freaks him out-- you don't like him to know that perhaps some birds are in fact eaten?

Danielle

I think he knows. I think he's in denial about it. He's in denial about most things. He's in denial about the fact that he's totally weak and tiny and dirty. He thinks he's really good-looking and strong and that he's really smart and has a lot of friends.

Ira Glass

Right.

Danielle

He's in denial about the fact that he's actually stuffed, which he is. Sometimes I tell him that. I say, "Duki, give me a break. You're just stuffed." And he's like, "No way."

Ira Glass

Now, I thought I would try to book Duki to come on the radio for this program. So I contacted Danielle's sister, Ashley, and asked her, "Could Duki come on the air?" I received an answer back, not by phone, but by electronic mail, that for Duki to appear, I'd have to first go through someone named Yona Lu, who I could reach through Danielle and Ashley's mother. And when I talked to Danielle, I asked her about this.

Ira Glass

I've been informed that the only way that I can reach him is by calling your mom and speaking to Yona Lu. Do I have that name right?

Danielle

Yona Lu, yeah. I think she's acting as his agent.

Ira Glass

Yona Lu is?

Danielle

She's a hedgehog.

Ira Glass

Anything special that I should say to Yona Lu to make this happen?

Danielle

I don't know. She drives a pretty hard bargain. [PHONE RINGING]

Mrs. Mattoon

Hello?

Ira Glass

Hey, Mrs. Mattoon.

Mrs. Mattoon

Yes?

Ira Glass

It's Ira Glass.

Mrs. Mattoon

Hi, Ira Glass.

Ira Glass

Mrs. Mattoon, here's why I called you. I want to do a little story on the radio about Duki.

Mrs. Mattoon

Duki?

Ira Glass

Duki. And I contacted your daughter, Ashley. And she said that for me to book Duki onto my radio show, I was going to first need to contact Yona Lu.

Mrs. Mattoon

Yeah, you would need to do that.

Ira Glass

And that I needed to do that through you.

Mrs. Mattoon

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Who is Yona Lu?

Mrs. Mattoon

Yona Lu is a hedgehog. She's basically taken charge of Duki's financial affairs. And I presume this has something to do with money?

Ira Glass

Well, I don't know actually. I mean, we--

Mrs. Mattoon

That's probably why she said to contact Yona Lu.

Ira Glass

Well, so what do I do now? I was told to contact you if I wanted to get in touch with Yona Lu in order to book Duki. What do I do next?

Mrs. Mattoon

Book Duki, OK. You're going to book Duki.

Ira Glass

That's the whole idea. I want to book Duki for the show, for an interview.

Mrs. Mattoon

Well, I'll just talk to Yona Lu about it. She says OK, it's OK.

Ira Glass

Will Yona Lu want to discuss terms or something?

Mrs. Mattoon

She doesn't talk.

Ira Glass

So what's going to happen? All right, should I call you back?

Mrs. Mattoon

You could call me back. Or I just go in and check.

Ira Glass

You'll just go in and check?

Mrs. Mattoon

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Should I wait?

Mrs. Mattoon

Yeah.

Ira Glass

All right, I'll wait.

Mrs. Mattoon

Ira, this is just radio?

Ira Glass

Yeah.

Mrs. Mattoon

Not TV?

Ira Glass

It's just radio.

Mrs. Mattoon

And nobody is going to get to be on TV?

Ira Glass

No, no one's going to be on TV. No, it's strictly radio.

Mrs. Mattoon

OK, Yona Lu doesn't care what happens then.

Ira Glass

What if it were TV?

Mrs. Mattoon

I think she'd want to be on too. Radio doesn't do much for her because she doesn't talk.

Ira Glass

All right, as you might imagine, not everybody in the family takes all this so lightly. Danielle's father was never too keen on this.

Mrs. Mattoon

He was quite actually bothered by the whole. He thought we maybe had a problem in the family.

Ira Glass

Really?

Mrs. Mattoon

Mm-hmm. I mean, for a while there, we had two daughters that only communicated through a duck.

Ira Glass

Yeah, that period that you're describing, when do you mean?

Mrs. Mattoon

I would say they maybe were 10 and 12, or 9 and 11.

Ira Glass

And they would only communicate through the duck?

Mrs. Mattoon

Well, Danielle didn't pay a whole lot of attention to Ashley, but she paid quite a lot of attention to the duck. So if Ashley wanted to get Danielle's attention, all she had to do was rev up the duck.

Ira Glass

And how long did this last?

Mrs. Mattoon

I can't remember. She would also make Danielle laugh that way. Danielle thought Duki was very funny, but I can't remember her thinking Ashley was funny.

Danielle

In terms of the relationship between my sister and me, I don't know why-- I mean, this is probably completely really sick. But I have so much genuine affection and love for Duki that it's very easy to demonstrate those feelings in a way that it's not as easy to demonstrate those feelings toward my sister, just because we never got in the habit of it.

Ira Glass

What percentage of your relationship with your sister is based on your relationship with Duki?

Danielle

Well, the really fun part of it is based on my relationship with Duki, but I think as we've gotten older and older, we've gotten more and more self-conscious about the Duki factor in our relationship. But I think a big chunk. I mean, it definitely gives me this vision into her brain that I wouldn't have otherwise.

Ira Glass

Well, I did finally snag an interview with Duki. You know, big network radio program that we are, we could pull off this coup, snag for you this interview with an imaginary hand puppet. Anyway, I did make this happen by calling Ashley.

Ira Glass

Is Duki still up for this?

Ashley

Yeah, he just got back from a party though.

Ira Glass

He just got back from a party?

Ashley

Yeah, he was at a happy hour thing with a lot of college students. He's not in college, but he's in a band, so a lot of his friends go to this happy hour on Friday night.

Ira Glass

All right, well, could you get him?

Ashley

Sure, he's upstairs. Just a sec. Here he is.

Ira Glass

Hey, Duki?

Duki

Yeah, hey, Ira. How are you doing?

Ira Glass

I'm just fine.

Duki

Long time no see.

Ira Glass

Long time no see back at you. And welcome to our little radio program.

Duki

So what's going on here? You've got a whole bunch of celebrities on tonight?

Ira Glass

Well, we actually have a number of different people.

Duki

What about Tom Cruise?

Ira Glass

They're just like Tom Cruise.

Duki

OK.

Ira Glass

Now, Duki, I was talking to Danielle for our radio program, and had her come on and talk about you a little bit. And one of the things that she said was that when she was younger, in order to discipline her if she was doing something that you didn't like, you could pretty much control her with something called nose squeaks?

Duki

Yeah, because it's a prominent nose. I mean, it sticks out, and you just want to squeak it. Like over Thanksgiving, we were watching The Muppet Show, and Ms. Piggy was on. And she reminded me a lot of Neelie.

Ira Glass

Of Danielle.

Duki

Mm-hmm. And Kermit told Ms. Piggy, move the pork. And so I was telling Neelie to move the pork all week.

Ira Glass

And would she move?

Duki

Yes, she would. She would.

Ira Glass

Now if Ashley would tell her, if Ashley would sit down on the couch and say to Danielle, "Move the pork," what would the effect of that be?

Duki

You know Neelie. You know how she looks at you when she doesn't approve of something you say or do? She gets this ice-cold stare, and she gives you this sidelong glance that makes you feel like you're about the size of a pea? That's what she does.

Ira Glass

Is there anything about the life of a duck that perhaps you could tell our radio audience that we might not know? I'm sure that you know much more about it than we do.

Duki

No, not really. I'm kind of an unusual duck. I'm not really in touch with the whole duck scene.

Ira Glass

You're not in touch with the whole scene, yeah.

Duki

When I had time, I used to migrate once in a while because I had some friends who were ducks. And I tried to keep in touch with them. But lately, I've just started spending more time with people and doing my own thing, and I just don't have time to do those duck things anymore. I just wanted more out of my life than that.

Ira Glass

Well, the story of a 27-year-old graduate student who talks like a duck naturally brings us to the story of Chickenman. Chickenman first soared the radio airwaves from 1966 to 1969. Nearly everyday, there would be a new episode. These were these short little things, each one two minutes long or so, starting on WCFL here in Chicago, but spreading to over 1,500 radio stations. Three times, by the way, that's three times the number in the public radio network. According to the people who syndicate Chickenman, it has been translated into German, into Dutch, into Swedish. It is still on the air, they say, in several dozen markets, making it one of the longest running radio features anywhere. Chickenman. Chickenman existed years before National Public Radio existed as a national network. Chickenman will continue probably years after we're all gone like the mighty cockroach, like-- I don't know-- like the bagel, like [UNINTELLIGIBLE] Chickenman endures, will endure.

Well, coming up later in the program, we'll have the first new real Chicken episode since 1969, written especially for This American Life by Dick Orkin, the voice of Chickenman. But first, before that, let's hear what all the fuss was about.

Chickenman Announcer

Now another exciting episode in the life of the most fantastic crime fighter the world has ever known, Chickenman.

Women

He's everywhere! He's everywhere!

Chickenman Announcer

Benton Harper, employed as a shoe salesman for a large downtown department store, spends his weekends, his only two days off, striking terror into the hearts of criminals everywhere as the white-winged warrior called Chickenman. How did it come about that Benton Harper, weekend-winged warrior, selected the visage of the chicken in his crusade against the forces of evil? Now, it can be told.

Saleswoman

Yes, may I help you?

Chickenman

How do you do? I'm looking for a costume.

Saleswoman

What did you have in mind?

Chickenman

Something that will strike terror into the hearts of criminals everywhere.

Saleswoman

I see, well how about this?

Chickenman

No, I don't think so.

Saleswoman

Why not try it on?

Chickenman

Very well.

Saleswoman

Here, I'll help you.

Chickenman

Thank you.

Saleswoman

There you are. Now take a look in the mirror.

Chickenman

Hmm, not bad. I wonder if you would permit me to conduct a quick experiment outside this store.

Saleswoman

Certainly.

Chickenman

Pardon me, sir.

Man

Yeah?

Chickenman

Are you by chance a vicious criminal?

Man

Uh-uh.

Chickenman

Fine, would you take a look at this costume I'm wearing?

Man

Yeah.

Chickenman

Do you feel anything strange? Anything at all?

Man

Yeah.

Chickenman

And what is that?

Man

I'd like to kiss you.

Chickenman

Kiss me?

Man

Yeah.

Chickenman

How do you account for that?

Man

Because you look like an adorable bunny rabbit.

Saleswoman

Well, how did it go?

Chickenman

What else do you have?

Saleswoman

A teddy bear and a chicken.

Chickenman

A teddy bear?

Saleswoman

It'd be cute.

Chickenman

Wrap up the chicken, please.

Chickenman Announcer

Be listening tomorrow for another exciting episode in the life of the most fantastic crime fighter the world has ever known, Chickenman.

Women

He's everywhere! He's everywhere!

Ira Glass

I love these. Do you want to hear another? We have time for another. You want to hear another? The thing I love is how completely low-key the performances are. It's like they're not even trying. It's a complete aesthetic. All right, let's hear one more before we continue with the next act.

Chickenman Announcer

Now, another exciting episode in the life of the most fantastic crime fighter the world has ever known, Chickenman.

Women

He's everywhere! He's everywhere!

Chickenman Announcer

The office of the police commissioner of Midland City.

[PHONE RINGING]

Ms. Helfinger

Hello, this is the commissioner's--

Chickenman

Ms. Helfinger, this is the winged-warrior.

Ms. Helfinger

Yes, what is it?

Chickenman

Please inform the commissioner that I'm now all set for test sequence number one.

Ms. Helfinger

What?

Chickenman

It's all primed and ready to go.

Ms. Helfinger

What are you talking about?

Chickenman

The chicken missile, Ms. Helfinger.

Ms. Helfinger

The chicken missile?

Chickenman

Yes, so tell the commissioner I'm ready for test sequence number one.

Commissioner

Yes, Ms. Helfinger?

Ms. Helfinger

Commissioner, the chicken missile is ready to go.

Commissioner

Huh?

Ms. Helfinger

The chicken missile.

Commissioner

Oh, yes of course, the--

Ms. Helfinger

And it's ready for test sequence number one.

Commissioner

Test sequence number one.

Ms. Helfinger

Number one.

Commissioner

Well, that's very nice. Very nice, yes.

Ms. Helfinger

Hello, winged-warrior?

Chickenman

Right here, Ms. Helfinger.

Ms. Helfinger

The commissioner said that's very nice.

Chickenman

Oh fine, in that case, Ms. Helfinger, have the commissioner stand by with the chicken missile receiver.

Ms. Helfinger

What?

Chickenman

I'm going to count down.

Ms. Helfinger

Listen.

Chickenman

10, 9-- We'll see you at 14:00 hours.

Ms. Helfinger

Hello, wa--

Commissioner

Yes, Ms. Helfinger?

Ms. Helfinger

Commissioner, if I would say to you, prepare the chicken missile receiver, would you know?

Commissioner

No, I wouldn't.

Ms. Helfinger

I didn't think you would. Commissioner?

Commissioner

Yes?

Ms. Helfinger

I would suggest that you crouch under your desk.

Commissioner

Crouch under my desk?

Ms. Helfinger

Yes, it should provide some protection.

Commissioner

From--

[CRASHING SOUNDS]

Commissioner

--what?

Ms. Helfinger

From the chicken missile.

Chickenman Announcer

Wow. say, that chicken missile really works nifty. Will the Midland City fire department recommend that a chicken missile receive be installed in what's left of Midland City Hall? Be listening tomorrow for another exciting episode in the life of the most fantastic crime fighter the world has ever known, Chickenman.

Women

He's everywhere! He's everywhere!

Ira Glass

Well, coming up, life on a real turkey farm, David Sedaris, and, of course, the first new episode of Chickenman since the Nixon administration, written just for our program. That's all in a minute when our program continues.

Act Two. Turkey.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a topic, bring you documentaries, short fiction, found tape, anything we can think OF on that theme. Theme today, with the turkey of Thanksgiving just behind us, the turkey of Christmas ahead of us, we're in that turkey sandwich part of the year. And we are in the middle of it. We are at the center of that sandwich. And in honor of that, we're holding our annual poultry slam here on This American Life. This next story is from Julie Showalter, who grew up on a turkey farm in Missouri.

Julie Showalter

The day before the night 3,000 thousand turkeys died, we moved 13,000 turkeys to the range. This requires some explanation. Turkeys spend their first 16 weeks in a heated brooder house. Then, they are put outside to range in fenced enclosures. Usually, men in trucks come and take them to the range at night. This time, daddy decided we'd herd them ourselves.

It looked simple enough. We made a temporary chute of wire fencing that ran from the double-end doors of the brooder house 50 yards to the pen. We would get behind the turkeys in the brooder house, shout, wave old shirts and gunny sacks at them, and they would run out the doors, through the chute and into the pen. And that's the way it worked in the first brooder house. The first turkeys hesitated at the door, walked out cautiously, then moved through the chute and dispersed. The rest followed. It took about an hour. Daddy was pleased. "Let's work straight through, he said. "We'll be done by 10:00."

By the time turkeys have been in a brooder house for 16 weeks, the air is filled with ammonia, feather particles and dust. The stench is overwhelming. After an hour in the brooder house, your lungs hurt for a day. You can contract disabling lung diseases from working only a week in a poultry house. Tiny barbed pieces of feather dig into the tissue of your lung and never let go. But we didn't know that then.

We moved the temporary fence to the doors of the second brooder house. When we threw open the doors at the end of the second house, it was 9:00 in the morning. The sun streamed in the open doors on turkeys that had never seen direct sunlight. The one thing you can count on with turkeys is that you never know how they are going to react. I've seen turkeys clamor against a fence trying to get into a range fire. I've seen them rush toward a screaming child trying to kill it, and I've seen them run from a screaming child spooked and terrified.

These turkeys didn't want to go into the sun. As we pushed from behind, they compacted. It was like an old adventure movie where the walls are closing in, but there was no wall at the end, only a patch of sunlight, which the turkeys would not touch. We yelled louder, waved our cloths, kicked at the ones in the rear. Finally, Daddy walked through the solid carpet of turkeys to break the logjam at the front. He stood at the edge of the sunlight, lifting the turkeys three or four at a time with his feet, stirring them with his legs, forcing them into the sun.

Suddenly, they broke free. As stubbornly as they had refused to go into the light, they now rushed toward it. They ran in a panic, piling on top of each other, knocking down the temporary fence. By the time daddy could get the doors closed, at least 1,000 turkeys had escaped and were running free on the farm, onto our neighbor's farm, into the road.

We didn't own the turkeys. We raised them for a company that owned the hatchery, the feed mill, the fleet of trucks that delivered and loaded the turkeys, the processing plant. We got a portion of the profits, if there were profits. With 1,000 turkeys gone, there would be no profits on this flock. 16 weeks of daddy working 14-hour days, of my sisters and me working alongside him anytime we weren't in school, all for no pay. And if we weren't paid for this flock, we would have no cash coming in until the next flock was raised.

It took us eight hours to round up the escaped turkeys, four of us trying to track down 1,000 birds that had the whole world in which to hide and run from us. The sun beat down, and the air was thick and humid. We stopped once for water, and my sister Billie, the youngest of us, just 11, vomited from the cold water hitting her stomach after hours of sun, heat, and dehydration. As she lay on the ground, shaking and holding her stomach, I hated her for being the one too sick to continue. But even she was not too sick. We all went on. She got an extra five minutes to rest, but we all went on.

You may be asking right now how my father could be so cruel, how he could work young girls like that. Or you may think I'm exaggerating, that self-pity has magnified our distress. I tell you, this is no exaggeration. And I tell you, my father had no choice. Or any choice he had was so far in the past that there was no unraveling it. Years later, when we were grown, we caught a glimpse of his guilt, his bitterness over what he had done to us. "I couldn't afford niggers," he told my sister Billie, "so I had daughters."

At 6 o'clock, we rebuilt the chute. We opened the doors, and the 6,000 remaining turkeys, the sun now low behind them, walked through to the pen. We cleaned up, we ate supper, and we went to bed. That's the day we had before the night 3,000 turkeys died. At midnight, mother woke us up. "We have to get to the pen. Daddy needs us." We had been too exhausted to hear the storm. We ran out in the driving rain. Flashes of lightning showed daddy picking up turkeys and throwing them one after the other.

When people learn I grew up on a turkey farm, they invariably ask, "Is it true? Are they really so stupid that they open their mouths in the rain, look up at the sky, and drown?" The answer is yes. Some of them do that. They are that stupid. But that's not how 3,000 die in one night. They die because they are scared, and they huddle together in their fear. They climb on top of each other trying to get close, to find protection in the mass of bodies. And they suffocate. We called it piling.

It wasn't unusual for a loud noise to cause a pile in the brooder house. If there wasn't someone to pull them off each other, 50 could die because someone slammed a door. But this was worse than any pile we'd seen. Turkeys who'd never spent a night outdoors, panicked by thunder and lightning and rain in sheets. All we could do was pull them out of the pile and throw them away from it. They would run back, still seeking the comfort of the group. After a while, standing in mud, grabbing soaked turkeys, throwing them, grabbing some more, you don't know if the ones you are throwing are dead or alive. You don't care. Maybe we saved some.

The next day, the sky was cloudless, and the sun bore down on us again. We picked up dead turkeys, throwing them onto the back of a flatbed truck. Daddy drove the truck into a field far from the house. 3,000 dead turkeys sitting in the Missouri sun for two days. The company that owned the turkeys had them insured against acts of God, so we couldn't do anything until the insurance inspector had seen them. He came, a man from town in a white shirt and tie who held his handkerchief over his face when he got close to the truck. He made no pretense of counting, just stood there gagging.

After he left, Daddy shoveled the turkeys into Dead Turkey Gulch. He poured gasoline on them and struck a match. They burned for days.

Ira Glass

Julie Showalter lives in the Chicago area. She says she still eats turkey twice a year. She's just finished a novel called Needlework and is looking for a publisher.

Act Three.

Ira Glass

Well, David Sedaris is a commentator on NPR'S Morning Edition, the author of the book, Barrel Fever and the forthcoming book, Naked. And he contributed the following story to our poultry slam. It's an excerpt from his diaries.

David Sedaris

July 19, 1992. This afternoon at the 26th Street flea market, I had one of those experiences that remind me why I shop in the first place. Not shop like grocery shop, but step out into the world searching for that one thing I cannot name. I pass the usual objects, the grinning mammies offering themselves up as salt and pepper shakers, the coffee table made from dice, another head carved from a coconut. "That's collectible," the dealers say, referring to an ashtray in the shape of a doll-sized toilet bowl. Collectible to who?

Last weekend at the flea market, I saw this thing, a taxidermy turkey's head attached to its own foot. This turkey was equipped with that length of flesh that spills from the top of its beak and fell to its neck. Stiff red hair stood out from the head and shoulders, and the claws were really sharp. You'd think that something armed like that might be able to protect itself. I pictured its maker standing by a chopping block saying, "I know. I'll take the turkey's head and attach it to the foot." Why would you do that? And more importantly, what sort of life would you lead that might enable you to make this connection?

I was hypnotized by this object and asked the price as if I were under a spell. "$45," the dealer said. My tongue was dry from hanging in the open air, and I tried to fit it back into my mouth. "All right," she said, "35, 30." But she could have gone up. "All right, 85, 120, 370." I had no choice but to follow wherever she led me. I handed over my wallet in a trance, just gave it to her, thinking she could take the whole thing, the cash, blank checks, library card, whatever. Take it all. I stared into the face of this taxidermied turkey's head and nothing else mattered.

Tomorrow, what's that? Yesterday doesn't count. My life began the moment I could call this thing my own. On the way home, I felt giddy and confident that I could approach anyone at all and say, "I'll give you 100, no $500,000 if you can guess what I've got in this paper sack." And I swear that not one of them could have come up with the right answer. I walked home 30 blocks, looking everyone square in the eye and thinking, "Sucker."

Ira Glass

David Sedaris lives in New York City. The stage adaptation of his SantaLand Diaries is now at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan.

Act Four. South African Chicken Blood.

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Greeting is on. You have one new and one saved message. To listen, press five.

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Michael Stumm

Hi, Ira, this is Michael in South Africa. Listen, about the item that we spoke about, the turkey's head attached to the turkey's foot, well, I spoke to some sangomas, which are witch doctors in the neighborhood about that thing. And they've never heard of anything quite like it or seen anything quite like it. However, when I would describe it to them, their jaws dropped. But look, I discovered a whole bunch about poultry in South Africa, so call me back, OK?

Ira Glass

Well, Michael is Michael Stumm, performer, actor, former member of The Wooster Group in New York City. A former Chicagoan, now lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. And I asked him to look into the uses of chicken and other poultry among the sangoma culture in South Africa. Sangomas, or witch doctors or herbalists or orators, you hear them called sometimes, they're common in South Africa. Everybody seems to know one. And chickens are one of their main tools.

Michael Stumm

Well, it's a funny thing. I've discovered that over half the country is just awash in chicken blood. It's a substance that comes in so handy. It's rather like-- gosh, I don't know-- it flows like milk does in America or Dr. Bronner's chamomile soap or some other easily spilled liquid in modern America. It's an incredibly versatile product. You can lose bad luck with it. You can strengthen a faulty muscle with it. You can improve your eyesight with it. You can find lost items with it. You can get your wife back with it. You can transfer your bad luck to someone else with it.

I mean, I had someone tell me that there is a ceremony involving the killing of a chicken in a rather baroque manner, which I'll describe to you. But this is a very specific ceremony that involved losing your court papers at court.

Ira Glass

In other words, if you do this thing with this chicken, the court will lose the papers, and that's how you will go free?

Michael Stumm

Allow me to describe the ceremony.

Ira Glass

Sure, because I'm sure many of our listeners get into these kinds of situations and have wondered, how can we make, for example, the US District Attorney simply lose that file?

Michael Stumm

Yeah, you are arrested. A court date is set. You then go home to your witch doctor. You bring him a white chicken. It has to be a white chicken. The witch doctor then prescribes some muti, which is medicine. It can come in many, many forms. Perhaps it's a powder. Perhaps it's a liquid. It doesn't really matter because you're going to take the muti yourself. You then take the chicken and the muti to the nearest mountain. You climb to the top of the mountain. You dig a hole. You dig a hole large enough for the chicken to fit in. You then speak to the chicken. You say to the chicken, "This is what I want to have happen. I would like my United States federal court tax document, file number 869102b, to disappear." Or whatever it is that you want to disappear.

You then take a large sewing needle, and you poke the chicken's eyes out with this sewing needle. You then bury the chicken, the now blind chicken, alive in the hole. You put him in the hole. You put the dirt back on.

Ira Glass

Then this chicken is going to do something for you in the afterworld after you've poked out its eyes and you're burying it alive? This chicken is going to do you a favor among the mystic spirits?

Michael Stumm

Magic is funny, Ira. What can I say? Essentially, it's the end of the ceremony. You leave the chicken, and then you go. And as it was described to me, you go back to your court date on the day of your court date, and your papers will be lost. People will say to you, "You have no papers. You are free." That's how it was described to me.

Ira Glass

Now, Mr. Stumm, in the interest of accurate reporting, have you talked to anyone who claims that this worked for them personally?

Michael Stumm

Well, the gentleman I spoke to has heard of this working. He has not actually been arrested himself and caused his papers to disappear in this manner. But apparently, there are gangs of chicken rustlers here, not unlike cattle rustling in Western movies.

Ira Glass

You're making this up.

Michael Stumm

Cattle rustlers.

Ira Glass

Chicken rustlers.

Michael Stumm

Chicken rustlers, I swear.

Ira Glass

What kind of dignity is there in that for a man? Let me just ask you that.

Michael Stumm

Chicken rustling?

Ira Glass

Yeah, you rustle some cattle, and you feel like a man. But you rustle a chicken, I mean, the word rustle doesn't even seem like it's the right word. It's just too big a word. It's too grand a word. You don't hear the strands of Aaron Copland when the word rustle comes up next to the word chicken. Hold on for a second. I'm just going to put on some Aaron Copland here right now. I just wanted you to conjure a scene of the chicken rustlers. Could you just describe how you picture them? The music is going now.

Michael Stumm

Well, I think as I picture a chicken rustle, they probably wait until the sun goes down. And they probably have a sack, because if you stick a chicken in a sack, she is not going to make noise. So they probably chuck a bunch of chickens in the sack, as many as they can get away with until the chickens who are not in the sack start making noise. And then they run away. That's how I envision a chicken rustling.

Ira Glass

Michael, do chicken rustlers ever get rustled themselves? I mean is it like the mafia, where it goes back and forth and back and forth in an endless cycle of violence and rustling?

Michael Stumm

Luca Brasi sleeps with the chickens. I don't know.

Act Five. Chickenman, Like The Phoenix.

Ira Glass

Act Five, Chickenman, Like the Phoenix. As a child, I did not care about the radio. In fact, I have to say that there was only one thing that I remember hearing on the radio up until the age of 16, I'd say. And that was Chickenman. It had all these qualities of radio that I've since come to value. It was surprising. It was funny. It had its own sound, a sound that was completely distinctive and instantly recognizable and appealing. Dick Orkin was the voice of Chickenman, and in the years since Chickenman, he's done tons of work, including lots of commercials in that deadpan style, a style which hundreds of people all over the country have tried to imitate. Nobody ever gets it right.

And it's a pleasure, it's an honor to have him on our program. Last year when This American Life was just a local program in Chicago, before you could hear it around the country, we invited Dick Orkin to create a new Chickenman episode for our Poultry Slam. And he put a cast together, put together the first new episode since 1969. In this episode, Chickenman is a quarter century older, like his creator, and he faces a new set of problems.

Chickenman Announcer

Now, another exciting episode in the life of the most fantastic crime fighter the world has ever known, Chickenman.

Women

He's everywhere! He's everywhere!

Chickenman

Tuesday morning, 9:30 AM. The chicken alarm in my chicken cave goes off 30 minutes late, which makes me late for my annual physical at my doctor, [? Dupont ?] Chopper. I didn't want to be late since it was my first in 30 years. 9:50 AM. I get a flat as I pull the chicken Coupe out of the chicken garage. So I take the convenient number 32 bus, which drops me off only 14 blocks from the doctor's office.

Doctor

You're late. You're late for a very important date.

Chickenman

Says the doctor, and I say, "I know. I'm sorry. All the air went out of my whatchamacallit."

Doctor

That happens to all of us. Age. Try not to sit on sharp things, and don't think sharp things.

Chickenman

OK.

Doctor

Body, mind, mind body in all you do. And Santa Claus is watching you.

Chickenman

11:00 AM, after several tests and poking and prodding.

Doctor

Well, your cholesterol is a little high. The pain in your toes is arthritis, and I think you have the beginning of a nice hernia.

Chickenman

Cholesterol high, I had no idea.

Doctor

Well, technically it's not high because one, it is in your mind. And two, it is your bad cholesterol that's bad. Your good cholesterol is not good, but in time, your cholesterol will be good, and your good cholesterol will be bad. And that's not good.

Chickenman

Anything else?

Doctor

Yes, you are ugly.

Chickenman

That's my chicken mask, the beak and the feathers.

Doctor

Anybody ever tell you it's ugly?

Chickenman

Well, that's the idea. Otherwise, I couldn't strike terror into the hearts of vicious criminals everywhere.

Doctor

Aha, well don't look at small children or animals. Anyway, that's the health story, but I don't think you have to alter your lifestyle unless you are a crime-fighting superhero of some kind. [LAUGHS] Want to buy one of my tapes?

Chickenman

12:00 noon. I return to the chicken cave, and there in the chicken mirror-- ah!-- I see something horrible. No, not my ugly face, my own mortality. I ask myself why it never stared me in the face before. After all, I've been fighting crime and or evil for over 30 years, pursuing it down streets and alleys and sewers and other picturesque places, and my mortality never came up even once.

1:40 PM. I go see the police commissioner and share with him the doctor's diagnosis. After all, he is my closest friend, and if I can't tell him the bad news, who can I tell? So I give him a new coloring book I bought for him and tell him my sad news. And he says--

Commissioner

Uh-huh. This looks like a real neat coloring book.

Chickenman

So what do you think, Commissioner?

Commissioner

About what?

Chickenman

What I just shared with you?

Commissioner

Oh, it's a real neat coloring book.

Chickenman

About the diagnosis and the need to alter my lifestyle.

Commissioner

Oh, well that would mean that you'd have to-- and of course one cant even be sure that, you know-- so anyway that's how I see it.

Chickenman

OK, thanks, Commissioner.

Commissioner

Anytime, winged warrior. After all, what are friends for? And may I ask you a question?

Chickenman

OK.

Commissioner

If I make the sky blue in this picture and the mountains brown, do you think the rocks should be chartreuse?

Chickenman

Perfect. 4:00 PM. I go to the local office of the Gracehill Fergus employment agency and screen door company.

Employment Agent

OK, when you say something more sed-rentary like what do you mean?

Chickenman

No, sedentary you know, things where I can seden--sit.

Employment Agent

Oh, OK, so something sit-entary.

Chickenman

Yeah.

Employment Agent

I just started here. I'm supposed to ask some questions. What kind of previous work experience do you have?

Chickenman

Basically fighting crime and or evil.

Employment Agent

OK, and what special equipment, office or otherwise, are you experienced in using?

Chickenman

Geshtukana ray gun.

Employment Agent

Could you spell that?

Chickenman

G-E-S-H-T-U-K-N-A. And I also worked a chicken dissolver and a chicken modulator and a can opener.

Employment Agent

T-U-K--

Chickenman

A-N-A. So what do you have in light work that I could do?

Employment Agent

A-N--

Chickenman

A. That's it. Geshtukana. You got it?

Employment Agent

OK, do you know Windows 95?

Chickenman

Look, what light job openings are on your list there? Just look.

Employment Agent

Heavy cable puller, refrigerator and piano mover, cement hailer--

Chickenman

Hauler.

Employment Agent

OK. [SCREAMING] Big tree planter, circus tent.

Chickenman

Miss, not holler. Those are all active and heavy things. Anything light I could do?

Employment Agent

Yes, a negligee model in a delicatessen.

Chickenman

I don't wear--

Employment Agent

Oh, well, scratch that then. Requires previous experience. Oh, here's something really perfect.

Chickenman

What's that?

Employment Agent

A napkin folder in a nouveau Italian-Chinese restaurant specializing in pizza and light salads. Takeout available. Mmm, I'm hungry.

Chickenman

Wednesday morning, 9:30 AM. My chicken alarm goes off a half hour late for my geriatric counseling appointment. Tire still flat. So I take the convenient number 18 bus, and that leaves me off only 28 blocks from the counselor's office.

Counselor

I have one word of advice, mister. Get out.

Chickenman

Excuse me?

Counselor

Get out.

Chickenman

Do you mean from this office?

Counselor

I mean get out. O-U-T.

Chickenman

OK, I'm a few minutes late.

Counselor

You're 30 years too late. Get out.

Chickenman

Oh, you mean get out, not get out.

Counselor

May I suggest a small desert superhero retirement community. You play golf?

Chickenman

Not real good, no.

Counselor

Good, you'll fit right in. Neither does Fishwoman or that flying newt. I sent them there. They love it.

Chickenman

Fishwoman?

Counselor

Yeah, a little scaly, nice personality.

Chickenman

OK.

Counselor

Want to buy one of my tapes?

Chickenman

2:00 AM next morning. I can't sleep, and I sip warm milk in the chicken cave. What to do? I'm on the horns of a dilemma. Heavy concrete hauler? Fold napkins in nouveau Italian-Chinese restaurant specializing in pizza and light salads? Or challenge the fates?

8:00 AM. I stand on the roof of the Midland City's skyscraper, four dizzy stories high. I hurl a challenge to the fates. "This is the winged warrior, fates. I shall go on fighting crime and or evil. I don't care that my bad cholesterol is bad, that--" Suddenly, a black cloud forms swiftly in the sky, and I hear--

Frank

OK, do what you want. We'll try to be there for you, but watch the fatty foods, the cookies, the ice cream, and good luck to you.

Chickenman

Who is that?

Frank

One of the fates.

Chickenman

Which one?

Frank

Frank. Phyllis, Fran, and Fred are in Las Vegas. God bless them. They should only win and be well.

Chickenman

OK, well, fine, I'll just carry on then.

Frank

OK, listen, could you change that mask you're wearing? Now it's very ugly and could scare kids and small animals. Thank you very much.

Chickenman

Right. And at that moment, I knew fate was blind, and I, the famous fowl, would have the last laugh. For you see, I wasn't wearing a mask. [LAUGHS]

Chickenman Announcer

Well, what has the winged warrior gotten himself into here? Can he actually stop time by challenging the fates? And is it Frank Fate he's talking to or George Jessel? And another thing, doesn't that nouveau Italian-Chinese restaurant sound super trendy? Be listening tomorrow for another exciting episode in the life of the most fantastic crime fighter the world has ever known, Chickenman.

Women

He's everywhere! He's everywhere!

Ira Glass

Well, "Chickenman Challenges a Fate Named Frank" was recorded at Dick Orkin's radio ranch in Hollywood, California. Along with Dick Orkin, the cast included Allison Ann Martin, Miriam Flynn, Charlie Brill, and Jim Gallant. Engineers Elizabeth Lane and James [? Burns, ?] written by Dick Orkin and Christine Coyle. Miss Flynn's hairstyle by Mr. Bunny. If you want more information about Chickenman, it is on the internet with sound files that you can get at this address, www.radio-ranch.com.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, today's program was produced by Nancy Updike, Peter Clowney, Alix Spiegel, Dolores Wilber, and myself. Contributing editors Margy Rochlin, Paul Tough, and Jack Hitt.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Danielle

I just want a real person who's like Duki probably. I want to go marry some guy who's like Duki.

Ira Glass

And how is that search going?

Danielle

Not well.

Ira Glass

If you'd like to buy a copy of this or any of our This American Life programs, they make a fine stocking stuffer. Christmas is coming up. Don't delay. Call us at WBEZ here in Chicago, 312-832-3380. 312-832-3380. The cost is $10.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass.

Danielle

Ira, don't make me sound like an idiot, OK?

Ira Glass

Done.

Back next week with more stories of This American Life.