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Well, people of Earth, if I may call you that, you are probably unaware of the gathering last weekend in Orlando, Florida, that was attempting to address a problem that you also may be unaware of. I'm talking about the problem of interstellar space travel. We sent a reporter.
This was the best assignment I've ever had.
You know, it's possible that Dan Grech says this to everybody who ever asks him to do a story, I have no idea. His usual job is running the news at WLRN, the public radio station in Miami. He attended the Hundred Year Starship Conference for us.
This was basically a bunch of scientists and engineers, finance guys, tech geeks, science fiction writers, all imagining what it would take to build a starship, a spaceship that could get us to the nearest star.
The nearest star to the sun is four light years away, and using the kind of rockets that we use now, it would take 10,000 years to get there. 10,000 years. And what was so thrilling about this conference, Dan says, was that the people at this conference were thinking through the steps of exactly how you would develop and build a different kind of starship. They believe it was the first conference of its kind. It was sponsored by NASA and by DARPA, which is the advanced research arm of the defense department, who are going to pay a half million dollars to whoever invents the most feasible time line and plan to get us to the stars.
And at this conference, there were over two dozen seminars on the most basic question you face when you try to do that, how do you power a rocket that can carry you fast enough and far enough? Some of the panels considered what they called exotic science, which is the stuff that you see in sci-fi movies-- warp drives, wormholes in space-- which, in reality, apparently, would just stretch your body into infinity or crush you into a tiny speck of dust. But there was other stuff.
Well, there's a whole class of far-out solutions that are actually real physics solutions, such as the ideal photon rocket, the anti-gravity engine, the antimatter rocket. They don't go faster than the speed of light, but they do get a little bit closer.
They don't go faster than the speed of light because nothing can go faster than the speed of light.
Well, that's what physics tells us. I spoke to a Tufts physicist named Ken Olum, and I asked him what's possible.
Antimatter, fusion drive, this is real stuff. It could be developed. It's a small matter of engineering, as we like to say in science. In other words, it's a huge matter of engineering. You know, we're making antimatter now. All we need is a hundred billion times more than we're making now, and we can go to the stars, right?
So then how real is that stuff? Like what's the most promising scheme that these scientists say that we would use if we wanted to travel at, or maybe just a lot closer to, the speed of light?
Well, at least according to the people I spoke to, there was kind of consensus around this idea called the light sail. It's kind of like a sailboat in space, but instead of the sail being pushed by wind, it would be pushed by light. And that could be sunlight, a laser, microwaves.
So one scheme for a light sail would be you would put this giant laser in orbit around the sun. And, you know, when I mean giant, this laser would have huge solar panels, miles wide, and it would send this concentrated beam of light to hit the sail of a space ship. The great thing about light sails is, besides the fact that they actually could work, they overcome one of the biggest limitations of rockets, which is that you have to carry around this huge volume of fuel, which is heavy, and it takes up a whole lot of room.
Cost of the light sail? $10 trillion, which is 1/6 of all the money spent on our planet in one year. And that's probably the cheapest interstellar spacecraft we could make. And how much energy would it take to travel at a reasonable speed?
Just to give you a sense of how hard it is to get to the speed of light, if you wanted to get to 3/4 of the speed of light-- and this was told to me by a Japanese physicist at the bar, working on the back of a napkin-- he said it would take 30,000 times all the power created by all of the power plants in the world in a year. Just to go 3/4 the speed of light.
What was most amazing about this conference, and you can read the agenda online, is how much of it was scientists thinking through all these utterly practical questions of traveling such immense distances on journeys that would probably take hundreds of years.
Questions like, what kind of light bulb would you use that would never require replacements? How to communicate with the Earth from so far away, which is a big problem if you're two light years away. It would take a radio signal two years to make it to Earth, and then it would be another two years before you'd get a reply. And then there's the problem of space dust, which apparently is a big issue if you're traveling at, for example, a tenth of the speed of light.
When you're traveling that fast, a little speck of space dust will slam into the hull of a ship like it's a missile. And so you need to create some kind of shield. And what's interesting is that it seems like we've solved this problem. A NASA scientist named Geoffrey Landis has proposed an idea to create a plasma shield. It would be like a cloud of hydrogen in a magnetic field. You would create it, you would have it in front of your spaceship, and it would block the space dust from doing damage to the ship itself.
So yeah, the plasma shield is something that is real technology, something we can make in the lab today.
And so, therefore, this is kind of a real, today solution to tomorrow's problem of space dust?
Yes, exactly. It's a solution that we have to a problem that we have yet to encounter.
Dan says that this event did not feel like any normal scientific conference. It felt bigger. It was exciting, like we are heading for the stars. He says there was a lot of talk about Columbus and maiden voyages.
This is a group of people who see themselves as pioneers. They call themselves pioneers. And one of the speakers talked about this conference, that when they look back 300 years from now, 1,000 years from now, when people are writing the history of interstellar space travel, people will look back at this conference and see this as the first small step towards interstellar space travel.
Well, today on our radio program, ordinary folks like you and me-- glasses wearing, slightly pudgy, not getting enough exercise, and I might just be talking for myself here-- who get the call of the wild, the call of adventure, and find themselves suddenly meeting criminals and smugglers on the other side of the world, traveling through time, traveling through space, fighting pirates in the fires of hell. I am not kidding.
We have true stories today, and also brand new adventure stories written for our program by Dave Eggers, Neil Gaiman, Jeanne Darst, Wendy McClure, Fiona Maazel. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.
Act One. Chinese Checkmate.
Act One, Chinese Checkmate. There are people who head out into the world looking for adventure, and then there are the adventures that come and find you. We start today's program with a story of somebody who thought he was having the first kind of adventure until the second one came knocking. Alex Blumberg tells what happened.
One way you know you've had an adventure is that the things you've been through are so intense, you'd like to have your name changed when they tell your story on the radio. So let me call our protagonist Luke. And the adventure he thought he was having was that he's an American, from Minnesota, working and living in one of the most booming, vibrant cities in the world-- Shenzhen, China. 15 million people, one of the richest cities in China.
And he loved it. He made good money, he'd built a life for himself, a life which included a semi-regular after-work pickup soccer game. Now his real adventure, the one that found him, started after one of these soccer games. He'd gone out for a drink after a game with some of the players, and around 10 PM he was heading home, walking along one of Shenzhen's wide boulevards, with outdoor cafes and noodle shops all along it.
So I'm kicking my soccer ball, for the most part completely under control, but all of a sudden I slip, fall on my back, and the ball goes flying.
Flying directly at a man seated at one of the nearby tables. Luke is a little unclear what happened next, the ball struck either the man's bag or his dog. But in any event, the man got upset and got right in Luke's face, yelling at him in Cantonese. Luke spoke only Mandarin. The situation escalated. A group of young men also started yelling at Luke. He could hear them coming at him from behind.
And instantly, boom. This punch comes, hits me in the right eye. I kind of turn around to face where it came from, and there's the victim standing right in front of me, and I headbutt him. I don't know where that came from, I'm thinking it's the soccer instinct. I'm not a fighter. I've never headbutted anybody in my entire life before. And instantly, he started bleeding, and I fled. I turned around and ran.
Back at his apartment, when he realized that nobody had chased him, he figured, I guess that's that. But a week later, the cops showed up at his door with the man he'd headbutted. They'd tracked him down through some of the Chinese guys he played soccer with. Turns out there aren't that many foreign white guys in Shenzhen.
Over the next few weeks, the police questioned Luke several times. And then one night, they brought him in, they said to fill out some paperwork. But instead, they locked him in handcuffs and threw him into a detention cell. Luke was confused and frightened, but not as much as you'd think, mainly because a lot of the Chinese officials and police officers who were handcuffing and processing him were also telling him that this was just a small thing, a mix-up, and that it would all be resolved pretty soon. Even the guards who locked him up that night.
It was like a Tuesday I think I went in, and they're like, we'll be back on Friday to let you know what's going on. And honestly, at that time I thought I was going to be released on Friday. I was thinking, OK, three nights, four nights, this is no problem. I'm kind of an adventurous soul. At this point, I'm still fairly calm. Like, well, I'm in a Chinese jail, this is crazy, but what a story.
And in the end, how long did you end up staying in this detention center?
Eight months. Eight months.
Over the next eight months, Shenzhen Foreign Detention Center Number Three became Luke's home. The cell was a rectangle, 10 by 50 feet. Imagine a bowling alley with high concrete walls. It was occupied by as many as 15 prisoners at a time. As many as would fit slept side by side on a narrow plank. The rest slept on the floor. Half the cell was covered by an overhang, half was in open air. During storms, you couldn't hide from the rain blowing in, so everyone would get drenched.
The jail was officially for foreigners, but about half the prisoners were Chinese, mostly white-collar criminals. The foreigners were a mix. They were African drug mules, Indian jewel smugglers, people Luke would never have met otherwise, from corners of the world he would never have visited. And there were non-human residents, as well.
The rats and the la cucarachas. This detention center was fantastic for the rats, because whenever we got done with our three meals, you'd scoop all your rice into the toilet, and so they were just all in the pipes. And if lunch was late for some reason, the rats would start squeaking, like, where's our lunch? And they'd pop out of the toilet, kind of run around a little bit, and we'd have to chase them back in.
You'd literally chase the rats back into the toilet?
Back into the toilet, yeah. There was always an Indian, because of this big Indian case, in every room, and they were definitely kind of circle of life, karma type thing, and they would not want you to kill anything, even a cockroach. So if a cockroach is running around, they don't want you to kill it. And sometimes people would respect that wish, and sometimes they wouldn't.
The day was strictly regimented. Up at 7:00, then breakfast-- thin rice water broth-- chores, an hour of what was called quiet study time, nap from 11:30 to 1:30, an hour of exercise, and then a couple hours of free time in the evening.
Luke continued to get positive news about his case. From the beginning, it had revolved around money. The man who he'd headbutted wanted $2,000. Luke thought that was ridiculous. He thought he was the victim. He figured all he needed to do was get in front of a judge and make his case. But he'd failed to consider China's massive and mystifying bureaucracy. It took months for police to gather evidence, then months more to get a trial date.
In theory, this detention center was supposed to be a short-term holding facility, a place to spend a couple nights before going before a judge. But there were people who'd been there for five years. Contact with the outside was rare. He had a lawyer, but he could only visit with him once every four or five weeks, same with visits from the consulate. He had no phone, no email, and he was allowed to write one letter a month.
Which I would always do at the end of the month, hoping to get as much information I could during that month, and then I would send it at the end of the month.
When you read that first letter, what do you--?
Gosh, there's so much optimism.
You were presenting the whole thing as like a big adventure, basically?
Yes, yes. At that point, I'm still thinking maybe a month, maybe two months, maybe three months. I'm going to be home by Thanksgiving, Mom. And then, I'm going to be home by Christmas, Mom. Then I'm going to be home by your birthday, March 19th, Mom. Then I want to be home for my birthday, April 26th, Mom. Oh, jeez.
One feature of an adventure story, you don't just visit the foreign land, you go a little native. That's why tourism, as much as we'd like to pretend otherwise, is not much of an adventure. Luke settled into his strange new 500 square foot world with his new roommates. There was the mayor's son, who'd taken bribes. Another Chinese guy everyone called Tiger, who was doing five years for smuggling diesel into the country without paying taxes.
Then there were the foreigners. Marco, the Colombian musician with the Chinese wife, whose charges were even flimsier than Luke's. A South African drug mule named Nathan. A teenage, Vietnamese, illegal immigrant named Nunu. And a member of an Indian jewel smuggling ring who was still getting a salary and used the money to buy lots of stuff from the detention center commissary, which he shared with everyone, so they called him The Warehouse.
One of my favorites was Chacha. He was from Afghanistan. 45-year-old man, Muslim, big beard, jolly old fellow, kind of a Santa Claus belly. He just exuded warmth. And he was very open to the idea of-- we talked a lot about the clash of civilizations.
So you would just have these big, sort of, political conversations about Islam and the West?
Yeah. It's kind of interesting to see what kind of stories he had heard about from the United States. I remember there was that big one a couple years ago in Florida, and that woman was on life support, and like his family kind of wanted to pull the plug.
Right, the Terri Schiavo case.
Yeah, and he just thought that was horrible, that people would want to do that. And it's not like I'm trying to play the devil's advocate with him a lot of the time, but I'm, you know-- this is a guy that also-- just understanding these people do not-- I was really surprised about how many of these countries didn't believe the United States put a man on the moon.
Yeah, they do not think we put a man on the moon. The Chinese, for the most part, didn't think we did. Southeast Asian countries. Yeah, I mean, the Africans. Even the Indians, college educated Indians, and they're like, no, we're pretty much sure you guys didn't.
As a big, white guy from America, Luke was pretty exotic. Everyone called him simply America. That was his nickname. And as nicknames go, it came with a lot of pressure. Luke felt like everything he did would reflect on his country. There was also a guy everyone avoided, who didn't seem to have any friends. He was a thief nicknamed Crazy Eyes. He had a reputation for stealing stuff from his cellmates. And also, he had these oozing bumps all over his body. All over.
We all have the same shorts. They are red shorts. They look identical. And it's like my fifth day in there, and I put on his shorts by accident. It was in the morning, I took off my old pair, I took his pair, and I put his on. And I didn't know it was his pair. And we don't have underwear, so I don't have underwear on, my penis is touching his penis area.
All of a sudden this guy realizes that someone has his shorts, and he's asking everybody, who's got my shorts? Who's got my shorts? And everyone's looking like, with big eyes, like, oh my god, someone's got bumpy penis's shorts. And I look down, and I realize I'm wearing his shorts. And yeah, that was tough.
As time wore on, the day's became all the same-- boredom punctuated by the occasional spasm of extreme emotion. There were fights, mainly over snoring and hot water. Also, Luke says, you'd hear screaming in the middle of the night all the time, someone having a nightmare. And then there was lots and lots of crying, the pining of hundreds and hundreds of men, continents away from their friends, their spouses, their children.
And sometimes people cried because they knew that this was where they were going to die. That was the strange thing about the detention center. Aside from the visa violations and tax frauds, there were also death penalty cases. Mostly drug mules, many of them poor African kids who'd been promised quick money and then been nabbed right off the plane, thrown directly into Detention Center Number Three, where they'd stay until they were executed.
Anything over a kilo, yeah, you're going to have a needle put into your arm and you're going to die.
Did you see people taken off to be executed?
Yeah, just one. That was [? Shagwai ?] from Taiwan. He got caught with like seven kilos. He was kind of like a semi-famous person in the detention center. He was in with the death penalty, so he's shackled by his ankles his entire time, for almost three years, while he was in there. I still knew him, even before I got to meet him.
You can't see these people, but you can hear them when they're outside the courtyard, or from 3:00 to 4:00 when we're doing our exercise. Everyone's kind of hooting and hollering quite a bit, during that time, and everyone kind of yells, [? Shagwai, ?] [? Shagwai. ?] But the way he exercised, this guy just was a machine at the end.
But he would do kind of like this step up, step down, step up, step down, on the bed that we were on. And this whole time, he's got chains shackled that are on his legs. So you just hear smack smack, smack smack, smack smack. And then you hear him all the sudden, like 45 minutes into it, start getting faster. Smack, smack, smack, smack. And we would just be like, [? Shagwai ?], go, go, go, you know? [SPEAKING CHINESE], add gas.
Yeah, he ended up getting carted away one morning. And we didn't know for sure, but we definitely had a different sense because this time there was like three guards that came, and one of them was the leader of the facility. But they were like, [? Shagwai, ?] and he goes out and we don't see him. He doesn't come back all day. And we pretty much knew by dinner time that it was not good. And then the next day they came back and told us they had executed him the next morning.
I mean, I remember talking to him earlier that morning, even before he left. Because I had some apples, and he was joking that one of his apples I had eaten. And I said, well, if you think I ate one of your apples, you need to eat two of mine, or something. So he had two apples, and we would kind of joke around about that. And about five minutes later, they called him away and executed him.
Because of the desperation of so many of the people that Luke met, he's uncomfortable classifying his experience as an adventure. An adventure can be a wild night in college, or a crazy trip over spring break, but what he had was definitely different from that. But in classic adventure stories, like The Odyssey, there isn't much fun. There's pain, fear, and death, and occasionally, if you're lucky, small transformations.
Maybe once every two or three months, you can purchase [UNINTELLIGIBLE] like this little hot sauce condiment thing. And you have to really ration that stuff out, because you only get it every once in a while. So the idea of just little simple things like that, realizing the significance in a place like that. It's like, wow, OK, so after the new guy that just comes in slathers that stuff on, because he doesn't realize how scarce that thing really is. And it's kind of like, I was that guy for a couple months.
You were that guy for life. Like, Americans are that guy.
Exactly. So I saw myself kind of slowly not become that guy anymore, and just get my little spoon and put one little scoop on there, and make that last, and realize it tastes good.
The pie chart of Luke's experience in the detention center might look like this-- 80% boring, 18% sad, 2% really weird. For instance, the prison leadership felt the need now and again to engage the detainees in morale boosting exercises. So one day, the guards came to Luke's cell with a new order.
Every every cell needs to write a poem. You're going to do it. I'm like, all right, fine. So I write a poem, and I hand it off, and I had no idea what was going to happen with this. About three weeks later, they come and say, all right, at 3 o'clock this afternoon we're having a poetry contest. You've got to have it memorized and give it. They'd kind of set up a little stage outside, and we had a poetry contest. I won second place.
Who judged it?
So there was a panel of elite judges. No, it was maybe five people. There was two of the leaders, I think they brought over a couple leaders from the other detention centers to watch. So I don't know, they take a lot of pictures, they're going to put it in these little pamphlets and say, this is a model detention center, is what they keep saying.
I sort of want to get you to recite your poem for us.
All right. So let's see here. I'll start off with, so-- you, you, him and her. You, you, him and I. Billions upon billions of souls in this world, what brought us together, and why? Destiny, fate, a higher purpose or power, all I want to know is when can I shower? From the cradle of humanity, pride, length and strength, from Halong Bay to UCLA, we've all ended up here. Bending when one must, for who can contest fate.
Leave your possessions, positions, and ambitions at home, and temporarily quit the human race. How long can we stay? The fairies with the stars won't say. It all depends on your money, your [UNINTELLIGIBLE], and your case. And that's it. And then roaring, roaring applause. No. And then they kind of look at you with a blank stare, OK, he's done. And I'm like, [SPEAKING CHINESE], then they clap.
It's very much drawn from personal experience, it sounds like.
Well, yeah. I tried to nail every person that was in the room. We had the Canadian, I had the Indian, we had the Cameroonian. From the cradle of humanity, pride, length and strength.
The Cameroonian guy was tall?
Yeah, and strong.
By New Year's Eve, after being told one more month, one more month, over and over again, Luke had reached a low point. This wasn't a good story anymore. He was miserable. He was ready to go home. And that, of course, is when the most memorable moment of his entire incarceration happened.
It was called the Spring Welcome Performance, a facility-wide, on-stage variety show. Since so many of the foreign prisoners spoke English, the center's leaders wanted one of the MCs to speak English as well. Based on his strong showing in the poetry contest, they chose Luke. He agreed. And he also agreed to do a performance. He just wasn't sure what. He couldn't sing or play an instrument.
Then I came up with the wonderful idea of the hokey pokey dance, because I could do it with three other people. It wasn't exactly the group, but it was Chacha behind me, and Nunu, the Vietnamese boy, and Indian, The Warehouse. You know, three guys behind me, and me kind of lead vocals, choreographing this-- you know, you put your right hand in, you put your right hand out. And we had a blast kind of practicing that, because they allowed us to practice that for a couple weeks before it, in our cell, during our quiet study time.
So if you would've-- like from 3:00 to 4:00 during this time, you would have seen you, a Vietnamese teenager named Nunu, an Afghan drug smuggler named Chacha--
And then an Indian diamond smuggler named The Warehouse, doing the hokey pokey.
Yeah. You put your butt in, you put your butt out, you put your butt in, and you shake it all about. They bought a suit for me as the MC. It was like the first time I actually got to wear shoes in six months, seven months. And as an MC, what part of my job was was to introduce each of these skits. And I didn't have to write the introductions for them, they would just kind of hand it to me, and they wanted me to memorize them.
So this was like a traditional American dance done at most holidays. Americans have a great sense of humor. Well, here's one of their traditional American dances that they do at most holidays. Yeah, and it's called the hokey pokey.
We gather around the Christmas tree.
I'm like sure, I don't know.
It's funny when you talk about it, it seems like a really fond memory.
Yeah, I mean it's-- looking back, and seeing Chacha, The Warehouse, and Nunu dancing. I mean, there was times where my sides hurt so bad from laughing. And maybe four times-- three, four times?-- I can recall actually having that moment where I was just laughing so hard. And you know, it's just, you don't hear laughter much in that detention center at all, and it just feels really good when you have a moment like that.
A couple months after the Spring Welcome Performance, Luke was finally released from the detention center through the help of a family friend with lots of connections in China. And it turns out, Luke had been thinking about his case all wrong from the beginning. He'd been thinking, I just need to get before a judge and plead my case.
But the Chinese process is different. The two sides basically bargain with each other. It's like a mediation which the police broker. He should have been negotiating a price that he felt he could pay the man he headbutted, and that would have been justice. Once he got sent to the detention center, it was too late. And Luke realized the guy he headbutted was probably just as confused by Luke's behavior as Luke was by his.
You know, me being like, oh, OK, well, I'll see you in court then. And this guy never showed up in court.
Right, and he didn't even want you to go to court, right?
Yeah, he wanted money. And he didn't get any money out of me at the end, so it's--
But in the end, now knowing what you-- like if you had to do it all over again, you would have just paid him in the beginning?
Yeah, I mean, if someone says, you've got to spend eight months in Chinese prison, or give this guy $2,000, you give the guy $2,000.
And yet, and this might be one of the best definitions of an adventure, even though Luke wouldn't do it again, he's glad it happened.
Yeah. I'll go on the record as saying, yeah. You do start to see or appreciate other things.
Do you ever find yourself missing it?
Gosh, that's a tough question. You know, the camaraderie that you get to have with those people, you know, the stories, the opening up. Like, I don't think I'm ever going to get to know another Muslim-- I mean, I hope I do, but-- as much as I did with Chacha. I mean, you spend every single hour with this guy for four or five months, you really get to know this person as a person.
It's this weird thing where like, in order to get that kind of connection, it requires like a deep amount of discomfort or unpleasantness that sort of goes along with it, you know what I mean? To form like that kind of connection.
Yeah, you know, everybody's suffering, we're all suffering. When you're actually going to the bathroom right in front of somebody. There's no walls, I mean, you're talking to them. You're still having a conversation with some guy with his shorts down. And we're talking about everything. And so, yeah, I guess in a sense, I do miss those kind of connections with people.
It's so easy to imagine nearly anyone else in the same situation feeling bitter and resentful, like they shouldn't be treated this way. But talking to Luke, he never complains, never seems to feel sorry for himself. If someone had to represent our country in Detention Center Number Three in Shenzhen, China, he's maybe the perfect person. A sturdy, open-minded Minnesotan, nicknamed America.
Alex Blumberg. He's one of the producers of our show and one of the creators of Planet Money, which you could find at NPR.org/money.
Coming up, how to outwit 17th century pirates and other adventure stories, in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.
Act Two. Oh the Places We'll Go.
Act Two, Oh the Places We'll Go. We thought that any adventure show would be incomplete without the kind of old-fashioned adventure stories where people are swept out of the most ordinary lives when a visiting, you know, wizard shows up one day, or they head through the back of a wardrobe and they end up in some totally extraordinary place, encountering things that they have never ever even imagined.
So we asked five writers to write us very short stories, just a couple pages for each story, that do just that. And we present those to you now. In order, you will hear stories by Dave Eggers, Jeanne Darst, Wendy McClure, Fiona Maazel, and Neil Gaiman.
When I was a kid in the suburbs of Chicago, adventure meant Quetico Provincial Park, up on the border of Minnesota and Canada. The name implies that the place was small, but Quetico is a million acre nature preserve, so big you could go days and days without seeing another soul.
We would go on camping trips up there, weeks of canoeing and portaging, seeing bears and moose and deer, sleeping under star-soaked skies. The park was isolated and so pristine that you could actually drink the water straight from the lakes. But I won't be going back to Quetico anytime soon. Not after what happened to a girl name Francis Brandywine.
Francis was 17 at the time, black haired and with a reckless nature, determined always to leave the well-trod path, to break new ground and be alone. A few years ago, Francis was up in Quetico with her family. They were in a remote part of the park, camped on the shore of one of the deeper lakes, a lonely body of water carved millions of years ago by a passing glacier. The deep part of this particular lake was rumored to be about 300 feet.
One night, after her family went to bed, Francis took the row boat out, planning to find a quiet spot in the middle of the lake, lay on the bench of the boat, look up at the sky, and maybe write in her journal.
So she left the shore, rowed for about 20 minutes, and when she felt satisfied that she was over the lake's deepest spot, she lay down on the bench and looked up at the night sky. The stars were very bright, and the aurora borealis was shimmering like a neon lasso. She was feeling very peaceful.
Then she heard something strange. It was like a knock. Clop, clop. She sat up, guessing that the boat had drifted to shore and run aground. But she looked around the boat, and she was still a half mile from shore. She leaned over the side to see if she'd hit anything, but she saw nothing-- no log, no rocks. She lay back down.
She told herself it could be any number of things, a fish, a turtle, a stick that had drifted under the boat. She relaxed again and soon fell into a contented reverie. She had just closed her eyes when she heard another knock. This time it was louder, a crisp plop, plop, plop, like the sound of someone knocking hard on a wooden door, except this knocking was coming from the bottom of the boat.
Now she was scared. She leaned over the side again. It had to be an animal. But what kind of animal would knock like that, three quick, loud knocks in rapid succession? Her mouth went dry. She held onto each side of the boat, and now she could only wait to see if it happened again. The silence stretched out. A few minutes passed, and just as she began to think she'd imagined it all, the knocks came again, but this time louder. Bam, bam, bam.
She had to leave. She lunged for the oars. She got them in place and began rowing. The water was very calm, so she should've made quick progress. But after rowing feverishly, she looked around, and she realized that she wasn't moving at all. Something was keeping her exactly where she was.
Again she tried rowing, she rowed and rowed on the verge of tears, but she went nowhere. She stopped. She was exhausted. Her heavy breathing filled the air. She cried. She sobbed. But soon she calmed herself again, and the boat was silent again, for 10 minutes, then 20.
Again, she tricked herself into thinking she'd imagined it all. But just like before, just when she was beginning to get a grip on herself, the knocking came again, this time as loud as a bass drum. Boom, boom, boom. The floorboards of the boat shook with each knock. Now she was so shaken she started making questionable decisions. The first was to lower one of the oars into the black water, trying to feel if there was some land mass, even some creature she could touch. As soon as the oar broke the water's surface, though, she felt a strong, silent tug at the other end, and the oar was pulled under.
She screamed, she jumped back, and now she had no options. All she could do was sit, and hope, and wait-- wait for the morning to come, wait for whatever was going to happen to happen. The knocking went on through the night. She passed the time writing in her notebook, and it's only because of this notebook that we know what happened that night. Frances can't tell us. She was never seen again.
The boat was found on shore the next day, empty but for the journal. On those pages were her frantic jottings, all written in her distinctive handwriting, all but the last page. When the journal was found, that page was still wet, and on it were four words, looking as if they'd been written quickly, with a muddy finger. They said, "I did knock first."
Stink Tooth was born with a baby tooth with no adult tooth underneath it, and the baby tooth had never fallen out. It was rotting and dead, and her five sisters began calling her Stink Tooth. Soon her mother and father called her that, and then everyone in their town did, as well. No one ever talked about seeing a dentist and pulling it. You carry on. Even though something is decaying right under your nose, you carry on.
At 44, she did the only thing she'd ever done, bus tables at Rouge a Levres sur un Couchon-- lipstick on a pig-- the French bistro in town in Superior, Wisconsin. She'd never gotten a raise. She'd seen other bus people promoted to waiter, but she definitely did not want to be a waiter. The waiters were all French, not a single one here legally. If you were legal, you didn't stick around Superior.
She didn't have enough to live on. She ate off plates when she got them into the kitchen. Sure, everyone did that, all the young illegal bus boys. But she also didn't have enough booze and cigarettes. And often, when she ran out of cigarettes, she would just shut off the lights and go to sleep. She needed a raise.
She got to the restaurant and found Blouson, the owner. "Sir, I need a raise," she said. Blouson ignored this.
"Why don't you learn French, Stink Tooth? You've worked here so long."
"I don't like to learn new things. It makes you vulnerable in my opinion."
"Well, that in itself is very French. You're lazy. You love to nap, no? Your skill set is general, hazy, like a smoky room, not sure what is what, who is where. You do speak French, very well, just not the language. C'est sa. You understand what we French call the gout de maleur, the taste for misery. You love to suffer."
"Perhaps, sir, but I'd still like a raise."
Suddenly, shouting and cackles were heard out on the street, and a crew of 11 pirates from 17th century Hispaniola broke down the door of Rouge a Levres sur un Couchon, brandishing swords, breaking tables, and smashing windows. Stink Tooth took note of the marauders' filthy faces and hands, their period-perfect, tattered, billowy shirts, as they burned chairs and flung centerpieces everywhere. "I'm never getting out of here tonight."
They yelled that they were looking for the famous treasure of Leopold the Sullen of Spain. Stink Tooth ignored them, walking back and forth to the kitchen to get a broom to clean up the broken windows, and then back again because she forgot her dustpan. They demanded to know who was in charge of the restaurant. Blouson yelled, "I am in charge. This is my restaurant." The pirates ignored him, surveying the place and surmising that Stink Tooth was clearly in charge, as she was the most manly, masculine creature in the joint.
They held up and pointed to their crinkly yellowed map, which said the Sullen treasure was buried under the restaurant. They told Stink Tooth that, as the leader of the restaurant, he-- they called her he-- needed to get all the customers out, so that they could burn the place to the ground to dig for the treasure. "Burn this place to the ground?" Stink Tooth said, "I've wanted to burn this place to the ground for most of my adult life. Matches are in the hostess podium."
They began lighting torches when their leader, Captain Treadwell, yelled, "Stop! Stop! Why, I ask you all, is he so eager to torch the place? He's already gotten to the booty. The treasure is clearly somewhere else." One of the captain's men grabbed Blouson by the hair and dragged him across the floor to where Stink Tooth was standing. He threatened to cut off Blouson's head if Stink Tooth didn't tell them where he had relocated the treasure. Stink Tooth walked through the swinging kitchen doors and came back and handed the pirate a knife. "It's an Oxo," she said, "better grip than what you've got there."
Captain Treadwell, feeling that decapitation wasn't impressing Stink Tooth, glared. "Stink Tooth, you will tell us where that Sullen treasure is, or we will cut off the arms of all your customers," Treadwell said.
"That sounds like an awful lot of work, if you ask me," Stink Tooth said.
Treadwell ordered the pirates to begin. "Anywhere in particular you'd like me to start, Stink Tooth?"
"Yeah, actually, table 12 by the front door. Real plate cleaner, that one. Has never so much left a few frites for me to take home in all the years I've worked here. Why don't you start with him? His name's Ted Turk." One of the pirates dragged Ted Turk over to Stink Tooth and put a large blade at his arm.
"Hey there, Ted."
"Hey, Stink Tooth."
"Oh god, yeah," said Ted.
"They're going to cut off your arms, Ted."
"That's what they're saying, isn't it?"
Captain Treadwell screamed for both of them to put a lid on it. He considered a new plan, since maiming and killing others wasn't working with her.
"People are always wanting to do things," Stink Tooth said to Ted. "Do, do, do. This is glamorous? Doing things? This is any way to live? Striving, sweating, searching? Treadwell, you think anyone's going to remember you for all this effort? OK, yes, slaughtering, maiming, pillaging, all real calorie burners, I'll give you that. But come on. It's also just pointless. This is silly, boys, really. All this exertion's a bit embarrassing. It's so obvious and empty. At the end of the work day, you're drunk and alone and hating the world, just like me. The same results can be had with no effort at all."
The pirates look at each other, wipe the sweat from their eyes, and rub their lower backs, finally lowering their swords. They head out the front door, one battered pirate releasing his parrot into the night sky over Lake Superior.
Captain Treadwell called back to her from the door. "I can pull that tooth for you, lassie."
"Sorry, Captain," she said, "this tooth is who I am."
The customers emerge from under tables and the bathroom. One by one they pat her on the back and shake her hand, thanking her for saving them, no one getting too close to her. These people have known her her whole life. They know not to get too close. Stink Tooth looks at Blouson.
"I'm sorry, Stink Tooth. No raise. Non."
Heaven only knows why Uncle Cornelius agreed to let my twin brother Kirby and me come for a visit in his rambling townhouse, when he was so busy working to perfect his latest secret invention. It's not like we didn't have other relatives willing to take us in whenever our parents absconded to the Orient for a spell, which was often.
Of the half dozen eccentric uncles and aunts charged with looking after us, Uncle Cornelius was the most absent-minded. He was also the only one who didn't have a Merchant Marine, a robot, or a Chinaman for a servant. So it was hardly a surprise that he neglected to lock the door to the third floor room, the one that he'd instructed us never to enter.
It was a rainy morning, and we were sick of playing cribbage, so we tiptoed down the hall to visit the secret room, which, as we soon discovered, was a butler's pantry filled with an elaborate assortment of wires and glass knobs.
"By god," Kirby declared, "it's a time machine."
This was a lucky guess on Kirby's part. For all anyone knew, the butler's pantry could have been a portal into another dimension, except that alternate realities were definitely more Great Aunt Emily in specialty, whereas a time machine just seemed so Uncle Cornelius, who was presently hurrying down the hall in his asbestos bathrobe.
"Children, don't touch anything," he cried. "Well, except for that giant lever over there that's making a sort of electrical humming noise," he added. "Try that."
Kirby couldn't wait. "Hikey pikey!" he exclaimed as he reached for the switch. "Let's go."
"Wait," called Uncle Cornelius. He reached inside one of the pantry cabinets and drew out a fistful of silverware. "Take one of these bouillon spoons," he cried. "Put it in your pocket, and whatever you do, don't leave the--" but just then, Kirby pulled the switch, there was a flash of cerulean light, and before we knew it, we were all standing in a primordial swamp watching massive brontosauri swim by.
"Hot zig!" cried Kirby. "Just like we read in geology class."
"The scientists are right about dinosaurs," proclaimed Uncle Cornelius. "At last we have proof. And proof that my invention works." He swatted at a passing pterodactyl with one of his slippers. "Enough of this place. Grasp your spoons, children. Let's return to good old 1949 where we belong."
My bouillon spoon began to tingle in my hand, sort of like a joy buzzer, and before I knew it, we were back in the pantry. After that first trip to prehistoric times, we had several time travel journeys a day. Except, it was hard to tell what a day was anymore, since our time travels never lasted more than a few seconds in the present, which meant Kirby and Uncle Cornelius and I would have breakfast and then spend two weeks in, say, the Acadian empire, then we'd return to the hot toast that we'd put in the toaster before we left, which we'd eat while Uncle Cornelius quizzed us about the Mesopotamian's invention of irrigation systems.
All the same, I began to savor the little moments in between our journeys. I craved the sheer ordinariness of the ordinary day that was interrupted again and again by adventure. I began to wonder if I could travel just a day or two into the recent past so that I could visit myself and convince that version of myself to travel with Kirby and my uncle, while I remained in the present and read Trixie Belden.
Plus, I just wasn't sure if we should be playing with the space-time continuum like it was Kirby's chemistry set or something. But whenever I brought up time dilation and special relativity, Uncle Cornelius would say, "Do you want to see how little girls who ask too many questions grow up? You'll spend the 1960s as a spinster if you don't zip that lip, young lady."
It wasn't until I found a note under my pillow that said, "I'm not coming back," written in my own handwriting, that I knew I had to do something. Or rather, that I had already done something in a future where I clearly had more nerve. And so while Kirby and Uncle Cornelius were in the kitchen, buttering their 74th piece of toast of the morning, I said goodbye to Fibber McGee, the passenger pigeon we had brought back from the 19th century, and left my note on my bed along with my bouillon spoon. And then I went into the butler's pantry one last time to steal a moment for myself.
May 11, 2010. We're in an open jeep from Ashgabat to Derweze, me and some of the boys from the lodge. The road looks like someone dragged his boot through the desert and went, "Hope this works."
Hubert's wearing a hospital mask. Orville's throwing up. I feel the sand all up in my drawers and think, so this is Turkmenistan. Our guide, Weppa, stands up every few seconds, throws out his arms, and says, "All lands are squalid before you, the desert." His complexion's like beef jerky, though he seems nice enough.
Last year at this time, we were fishing the Newark Bay right by the airport. Trouble was, Orville got his thyroid trashed from PCBs in the crab, and Hubert caught something in the lungs, maybe from all the jet fuel. So their doctors said, "Go heal in a warm dry place." There was an ad up at the lodge, something about immortal fire and men needed to put it out. Some of the other boys had already signed up and come this way. The ad said, Success full of doubt. Lunch provided.
"Ship of the desert," says Weppa as we stop for a camel in our path. We're going to the hell gate. In 1971, some geologists were drilling for gas when their rig sank into a hole the size of two jumbo jets. Their thinking then was toxic fumes leeching into the air, and something like, oh god, what have we done? The geologists decided to set it on fire. 40 years later, it's still on fire.
Last week, Hubert asked if it was like a barbecue pit, like one of those Hawaiian meat caves, and I said, "Sure, it's just like that." None of us has any firefighting experience, but I did some reading on the plane.
We pick up a guy from Yerbent. He's wearing a mop of tinsel, it looks like. "Nomad," says Weppa, by way of introduction.
The nomad says, "Watching the crater, you will be courting hot, red flame of magnificent eternity in hell."
It says in my travel guide the way to put out a natural gas fire is to drill into the coal and flood it with water and slurry, smother it with nitrogen foam. I figure all this stuff's at the site, but for good measure, we all have mini-foamers in our packs. The sun has gone down, so there's light visible in the distance. In fact, the whole sky's lit up for miles, like a city.
Orville says, "Maybe they got running water, and Dramamine, and a hospital nurse."
Weppa shakes his head. "No city," he says, standing up. "Hell hole. All men bow before you, hell hole." Me and the boys stare at the light come up from the Earth like a lampshade upside down. It glows more gold than red, maybe what Fort Knox is with the dome blown off. But as we get closer and park, and all three of us start walking towards the crater, the size of a football field, the crater calling out to us like those ladies who seem nice but then not so much, my face gets blasted with the heat, and we're still yards away.
The crater's not roped off-- the cordon kept melting, I bet-- so you can walk right up to the edge, and what you see is damnation itself. A 200 foot drop, flames snapping at the stars, and a sound like death, hot and close in your ear, whispering hello.
I don't see any equipment to put out this fire. What I do see are Weppa and the nomad struggling with Orville and Hubert, saying something about the president of Turkmenistan wanting to close the hole, but no way are they letting anyone close the hole. The torment of man is in that hole. It should probably stay in that hole. Do not tinker with the design of the hole.
Weppa nudges me forward. The nomad is yelling, "There are bones in the hole!" The implication being, see what happens to American mens from lodge who come to vanquish our hole? This explains why Edwin and Francis and Charles didn't come back.
They've got us headed for a plank that juts over the mouth of the crater. The plank is fire resistant, I guess. I'm 67 with a bum hip, so it's not like I'm thinking, run. And anyway, come up at Dune, nomadic shepherds on camel and an army from Yerbent. We are surrounded. I look at the boys. I go for my mini-foamer and take aim at our captors.
The boys do the same, and when I let out the cry we use at the lodge to announce dinner, they know what it means. It means, destiny awaits. Shoot. And we do. The camels are out of there in no time. The nomad talks tough, but he's out of there too. Back in the jeep, I tell the boys, there really is no point to what we're doing here. Snuff out the torment of man in one place, it'll just rise up someplace else.
I told my wife that I was going to write about adventures, and she laughed without stopping for two minutes. I timed her. She laughed from 11:09 until 11:11. "Are you going to tell them," she said when she pulled herself together and more or less stopped laughing, "about how you call every trip to the store an adventure?" I told her that I wasn't, that I was going to write something rich, and true, and wonderful for the radio.
There would be aliens in it, and prehistoric monsters, Aztecs and vampires, crazed scientists and their beautiful daughters. It would contain, somewhere in its 700 words, spies and swordsmen, oracles and barbarians, ghosts, a dancing bear, wise women, werewolves, foot-long carnivorous centipedes, and quite possibly some illicit sex.
She still laughed. I don't think she believed me. And she's right. I get it from my parents, I'm afraid. In my family, adventure tended to be used to mean any minor mishap we survived, or even any break from routine, except by my mother, who still uses it to mean what she did that morning.
I suspect that my father, who loved G. K. Chesterton's essays, had encountered Chesterton's aphorism that an inconvenience is only an adventure looked at the wrong way, and an adventure only an inconvenience wrongly considered, and he took it to heart. So any inconvenience, any problem, any struggle of a personal nature, any of these things in my family would be described as an adventure.
Let's admit it. Real adventures are the sorts of things most of us would just as soon avoid. I wouldn't know what to do if I were on a plane that crashed into an Amazonian dinosaur valley, or a Fumanchu unleashed his centipedes of doom in my general direction. Probably I'd die, quickly and fairly horribly. A character in one of my novels, Tristan Thorn, put this better than I or any of my family members ever managed to. "Adventures were all very well in their place," he thought, "but there's a lot to be said for regular meals and freedom from pain."
Neil Gaiman. Before him we heard, in order, Dave Eggers, Jeanne Darst, Cristin Milioti reading a story by Wendy McClure, and John Conlee reading a story by Fiona Maazel. Thanks to all of them.
Well, our program was produced today by Robyn Semien, with Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Jonathan Menjivar, Lisa Pollak, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer's Julie Snyder. Production help from [? Micky Meek. ?] Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon's our office manager. Music help from Damien Grey, from Rob [? Geddes. ?] Our website, thisamericanlife.org.
One of the longtime producers here at This American Life is moving on. Jane Feltes started here as an intern in 2003 and then came on staff as a producer in 2004. Her sensibility has shaped our show in countless ways over the years, made hundreds of stories better, and any show that was especially out for fun-- our amusement park show this summer, Christmas shows, Halloween shows-- those were usually Jane. We miss her already.
Her new job is as a writer and co-editor of The Hair Pin, which, if you've never visited, is a really nicely-written site. You can find her there under the name Jane Marie. That is at thehairpin.com.
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who is not happy with my performance.
Why don't you learn French, Stink Tooth? You've worked here so long.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
PRI Public Radio International.