Transcript

69:

Dream House
Transcript

Originally aired 07.18.1997

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/69

Prologue. Commune Dream House.

Ira Glass

It wasn't Amanda's dream house, it was her mom's. And it wasn't one you would usually think of as a dream house. 500 people living in a 10-story building, dorm style, right in the middle of the city.

Amanda

We were supposed to come for a four-day visit, and it turned into a two-week visit, and then a month visit. And then we lived here. So I never really got to go back and say goodbye to my friends or anything. And I was really mad at my mother for doing that to me and all this type of stuff. And I was just really mad at everybody and didn't like it here at all.

Ira Glass

Where they moved is an experiment in communal living that, at the time, had been going on for 25 years in Chicago. Nobody owns private property, everything is shared. The TVs, the cars, everything.

If you need pocket change, you go to a room called "the money office." And if they've got cash, they'll give it to you. Remember, this is 500 people.

And if all this is beginning to sound like a big socialist collective in the middle of a modern American city, let me add just one more fact to make this picture complete for you. The community? It's Christian. Run by a group called Jesus People USA.

Amanda

All I did was sit up in my room and just stare out the window. I did not come down to eat or anything. I just sat there and stared out the window because I was so angry that I was just going to kill anybody that bothered me. And I did that for the first few days, like, the first three days.

Ira Glass

At 16, a year and a half after they first moved to this community, Amanda says that she doesn't think of herself as a Christian anymore, which, understandably, upsets her mother, who moved here partly so that Amanda would live in a Christian environment and learn Christian values. It's kind of a tense subject between them.

Amanda

Like if I was in church and I didn't take Communion or something, then all that day I'd ask her questions. She's like, "I just can't think right now. I can't imagine you going to hell," and all this type of stuff. So I think she's really concerned about me, but she's just going to have to live with it.

Ira Glass

In a way, this story is not so unusual. How many of our parents move somewhere, some dream house, some vision of a new life in a new place, moving the family with them, settling new suburbs, migrating because of layoffs and divorces, and just hoping that it's going to work out for the kids in the long run? Though kids, of course, are all about the short run.

Amanda isn't happy at the Jesus People community, but she is the exception. Most of the teenagers living there actually seem to like it a lot. And like any good parent, Amanda's mom did consult with her about the move. Amanda even agreed to move. Though, the final decision wasn't really hers.

Amanda

That's one thing I really get angry with is I don't feel like I can make my own choices a lot of times. But that's what happens when you're 16 I guess. Everyone's like, well, that's just being a teenager. And I'm like, it stinks. I hate being a teenager.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, we choose some theme, invite a variety of writers, and documentary producers, and performers to tackle that theme. Today's show, Dream House. Stories about parents who had some utopian vision for their family's future and who built their dream houses to try to realize that future.

Act One, Meema's Adventure. In that act, a family dreams of life in rural Maine, moves there, and then, well, things start to get very complicated. Act Two, Blue Sky Dream. David Beers explains the gorgeous, modern vision that drew his parents and tens of thousands of other young families to California in the '50s and '60s to work in aerospace, and what happened when they arrived. Stay with us.

Act One. Meema's Adventure.

Ira Glass

Act One.

In 1976, Meema Spadola's parents decided to move from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where her father was a math teacher, out of the city to build a house in Maine. It turned out to be a pivotal and redefining change in all of their lives. Meema prepared this story about her family's move. It's partly the story of her parents' dreams and partly a story of her own.

Meema Spadola

I don't have to guess at my parents' dream for our family when they moved us from New York City to Maine. They wrote it all down in a book. My mother actually wrote an entire children's story, 83 pages long. My dad did the illustrations, and I picked the title, Meema's Adventures. I was six.

Meema's Mother

"Chapter One of Meema's Adventures, At Home. Meema lived in New York City. Her apartment was on the 13th floor of a great, tall building on the windiest corner in all of the city. In the spring--"

Meema Spadola

When she wrote this the winter before we left, my mom was getting her master's degree in education. She thought that our move raised some interesting questions about early childhood development. Like, how do you help children deal with the consequences of their parents' decisions? Mom writes in the introduction, "In thinking how best to prepare my children and, indeed, my husband and myself, I came upon the idea of creating a story that we might, when the move comes, actually reenact."

Meema's Mother

OK, "Chapter Four, Coming to the Mountain. The day the green pickup truck finished its long drive was sunny, cool, and breezy. The sun was setting rapidly behind the pond and over the mountains.

Mommy and daddy hoped to arrive just at this time and no later, so they could unload the truck and settle themselves nicely before dark. Of course, there was no house here yet."

Meema's Dad

It was raining when we arrived. The air was thick with mosquitoes. The grass was about three feet high and soaking wet. And the truck got stuck as soon as we pulled off the road.

Meema Spadola

That's my dad with the real beginning to our adventure in Maine. It was really his dream that got this started. For seven years, he'd been working as an administrator and teacher at a private school in New York. He didn't want to do that anymore. He was living the wrong life. He envisioned a homestead in the country with farm animals, gardens, maybe a windmill. Perfectly self-sustaining and efficient.

Meema's Dad

I had this sense that I wanted to do something in my life that I had more control over. I was feeling like I wanted to work on something that felt more like it was mine. And I suppose I really wanted to build something also, the hands-on experience of building.

Meema's Mother

Well, dad said we could build a house. So, of course, again, coming from apartment living, build a house, I just thought that meant like a-- the wildest thing I could think of was kind of like a suburban tract house, where you come in with a key and the toilets are there, the water's set up, the plumbing, the lights, heat, walls.

Meema Spadola

You never imagined--

Meema's Mother

It never occurred to me. It didn't occur to me. And I don't think it occurred to dad to mention to me, "Well, that means we have to dig a well. We have to deal with electricity." It didn't occur to me.

Meema Spadola

Her dream of our life in Maine was this. She'd bake bread, put up preserves, raise the kids. My mom was a nice Jewish girl from the Bronx. To her, it seemed like a great idea, and it didn't seem far-fetched. Dad was a country boy. His father had built their house. He'd grown up with pigs and chickens in rural Rhode Island.

But let's make this clearer. Here was his plan. We'd live in a tent while he built a house from scratch, completely by himself, on a raw piece of land on a mountain in the middle of Maine in one summer. So that was the plan. And it didn't seem crazy at all.

Meema's Mother

We were very clear that it was an adventure and that some people envied us. We actually thought everybody envied us. Did we ever think anybody thought we were nutty? No, we never did. But we thought people envied us.

This whole thing was very naive. Just no concept of how our lives would change at all.

Meema Spadola

Our lives didn't just change. For me, it's the beginning of everything, of who I am, of who my family is today. Four years into the project, the house wasn't finished, and my parents were separated. My mother moved out. My younger brother, Emilio, and I stayed with the house, with dad. 21 years later, my mother, brother, and I live in cities, as far from rural living as you can get. My father is remarried and is the last one of us living in the house. It still isn't finished.

Meema's Mother

OK, well, first of all, who are these people? I'm looking at dad with a moustache and Emilio as, I guess, a three-year-old or a four-year-old and it's-- is that me?

Meema Spadola

That's you. That's you.

Meema's Mother

Wow. Wow. I'm sorry to keep saying wow, but this-- it's like who are these people?

Meema Spadola

I look through photos with my mom of our first summer in Maine. We seemed so optimistic and playful in these pictures, our family before the fall. Mom and dad are young, good looking, working on the building site together. Emilio and I eat breakfast outside the tent and help hammer nails. There's one of us posing proudly in front of our new outhouse.

Meema's Dad

I remember one time, this great time, when I was working on cutting the swath through the brush to put the road in, and it was raining. It had been raining and raining for days. And things had gotten pretty muddy. And you kids were completely naked, and you were sliding around in the mud and covered with mud. And I had wanted somebody to come up to look at the possibility of doing a foundation for us. And he happened to arrive just as you kids came sliding down through the mud. He'd driven as far as he could up in his truck and got out to walk. And so he's confronted first with wet, muddy little kids screaming and laughing. And I went running past him down the path.

Meema Spadola

And naked.

Meema's Dad

Yeah. And I came out wearing shorts and no shirt, holding my machete, and covered with little bits of leaves. Because when I'd be chopping things up with the machete, leaves would be flying all over the place. And I was wet, so they were stuck to me all over my body and my face. I had little pieces of leaves all over me. He looked a little startled.

Meema Spadola

I love this image of--

I couldn't have been happier. If dad's dream was to have a project of his own, I had my own six-year-old dream, Little House on the Prairie. And I'm not talking about that horrible TV series. I mean the books that Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about her family's experience of moving West, building a home, and surviving blizzards, droughts, marauding wolves, and illnesses.

In New York, I'd been obsessed with the Little House books and would act out scenes from them with friends. In Maine, I got to play Laura every day. I saw everything through the filter of the Little House books. I'd pick blueberries up on the mountain, and mom would make a batch of pancakes over the camp stove. Dad would cut two by fours for the house, and I'd stand by and hand him nails. I felt like I had arrived.

Meema Spadola

OK, so in my mythology of our summer, the summer of '76, it was like you were Pa, Laura's Pa, and I was Laura. And it was like you were being this pioneer man. You were a big hero, and I was the little helper. That's what I felt like.

Meema's Dad

Well, that's not that far from the truth. I think a lot of people thought of me as a big hero for doing this. Our friends in New York City thought it was an extraordinary adventure. And I was probably the only one who didn't think I was a hero. I was filled with anxiety that I wasn't telling anybody about because I realized that I had undertaken a pretty near impossible task.

Meema's Mother

When I was writing Meema's Adventures, it was before we did it. So the time frame is totally wacky and unrealistic.

"Chapter Six, Moving In. Meema opened her eyes. Outside the tent, birds were singing their cheery morning wake-up songs, while inside the tent, Meema lay snuggled in her sleeping bag. She was thinking about the day ahead. Today, they would finally move into the new house.

The morning was cool and sunny with summer in its last days in Maine. Soon the tent would--"

Meema Spadola

In fact, when summer was in its last days, we had only a hole in the ground. There was no floor, no walls, no roof, no house.

When I look back now, I think the moment the ominous music starts is here.

Meema Spadola

Do you remember-- not to bring up sad stuff. But do you remember Jamie, the puppy?

Meema's Dad

Yeah, you mean the one I ran over. He was sleeping under the truck. I started it up, and he didn't wake up, and I didn't know he was there. I felt pretty bad about it.

Meema Spadola

It just seemed like this was like the first tragedy of the summer or something. It was like something that seemed so nice had gone very wrong.

Meema's Dad

Yeah. I feel sad thinking about it now.

Meema's Mother

This is from Chapter Seven, At Home Again. "Winter evenings in the new house were cozy and warm. Mommy and daddy had finished building the stone fireplace, so now, after dinner every night, they all settled in the living room. The warmth and color of its fire cheered and relaxed everyone. The bright new wood--"

Meema Spadola

In reality, when the first snow came on October 3, we were still living in the tent. And believe me, there was nothing cozy about it. The only thing we could do was set up camp in the unfinished house.

Meema's Dad

There were no windows. There were window openings cut, but no windows. And the openings were covered with plastic.

Meema Spadola

The fourth wall was plastic, right?

Meema's Dad

Oh, that's right. That's right. On the south side. Not a very secure house. And impossible to heat. It was just a shell, really.

Meema's Mother

And it already had started to snow, and I got kind of concerned because we were going to sleep immediately after dinner, and all us were wearing hats, and gloves, and coats, and scarves. I felt like we were hibernating.

Meema Spadola

Mom said something about feeling like she would come home from work, and we would all eat, and then we were all dressed in our coats, and our hats, and our mittens. And we would just get into bed, and it was like we were hibernating.

Meema's Dad

Oh, that's interesting. I don't remember. I honestly don't remember.

Meema's Mother

I would drive home from work through Camden and on the way home to Lincolnville. And I would see the lights. 4 o'clock, 4:30 in the afternoon, lights would start coming on in the houses. It sort of felt like I was out of Dickens or something. Oh, a house. A real home.

Meema's Dad

And it started getting cold, and we decided-- well, really, mom pushed this wisely-- that we should not go any further without getting another place for the winter.

Meema's Mother

I just felt like it's really important, I think, that we find a place where we can have a cabin and really have warmth and light. It didn't need to be necessarily electric stuff, but a closed-up house.

Meema Spadola

Yeah, that's not a lot to ask.

Meema's Mother

Well, at that point, it kind of felt like it was being a little bit of a lot to ask.

Meema Spadola

It was impossible to stay. We moved out of the house to a small summer cabin a few miles away. The pipes there were frozen, so there was no running water.

A word now about where this adventure took place. Searsmont, Maine. Population 500. You've never heard of it. You didn't go to camp there. Don't think L.L. Bean in Kennebunkport. Think Appalachia, hardscrabble, not quaint. And my dad's plan in the middle of this was to do everything himself.

At one point, he spent a week at the bottom of a 30-foot hole with a pickax trying to dig a well. We didn't have electricity or a phone then. Nothing came easy here.

Sometimes when people go after a dream like this, they make an innocent decision for innocent reasons that has profound consequences.

Meema's Mother

I wanted a view. And I just thought, well, I just didn't understand what difference it would make. But I think everyone was a mite surprised that we built right up the farthest spot up on the hill, just really way up. And that's where dad fit right in. He indulged those fantasies. Because he's like, "Hey, great idea. Sure, we can build up there."

Meema Spadola

Let me explain because this might not seem like a big deal. A view means back from the road, which in our case means back from the road, past the field, up through the brush and trees, on the side of the mountain. Which means a really long driveway. And when I say driveway, it doesn't exactly capture this. There should be another word for what this was.

During the winter, when Emilio and I would get home from school, the sun would be setting, and we'd struggle up to the house through drifted snow. My parents couldn't get the cars up, so they'd walk up and down carry supplies and groceries on a sled.

Once it was totally iced over, and we could barely walk up and down. For parts of the driveway, we literally had to crawl on our hands and knees.

And I remember once-- and this seems straight out of some Arctic expedition. Late at night, Emilio and I were so tired, we tried to lie in the snowbanks to rest. My dad pulled on our arms and yelled at us to get up or we'd freeze to death. We all had to deal with that driveway, but it was the worst for my dad.

Meema's Mother

There was one particular day when it snowed, and I really feel like something came over dad. It was like this battle with nature and that he was going to win. And he didn't. He started at the top. We must have been snowed in at the top. He started to shovel all the way down, and it took him hours, and hours, and hours. And, of course, it was still snowing, and it was very difficult to reason with him of your tracks are being totally covered, and this is kind of a blizzard, and it's windy.

I don't think he ever quite, quite got to the bottom. He was just exhausted and wiped out. And it was dark. And then when he trudged back up the hill, it was all blown over. It was a whole day's work that really, really did nothing.

Meema Spadola

It's amazing that with all the construction, and machinery, and my dad's general frenzy that he didn't kill himself. There was a series of accidents. He cut his nose on barbed wire, hammered his nose, fell off staging two times, broke several ribs, collapsed a lung, nearly ruptured his spleen. And then there was the worst of all.

Meema's Dad

We had been out for the day, and we came back, and it was towards evening. It was dusk. And I decided that I should cut up some wood, so that the whole day shouldn't be just used up on frivolous stuff, that I should do some work. Because I was trying to keep myself very disciplined about getting a certain amount of work done. And I hadn't cut up enough wood. So I said I would just work on that a little bit. And I was trying to do it very fast because it was getting dark and I'd set myself a certain amount to do.

And I was just standing in the pile of wood, cutting, which is a bad way to do it. And kicking aside the cut end pieces as they dropped off. And my foot rolled on one of them, and I fell forward into the pile with the chainsaw out in front of me. The tip hit the pile and kicked back.

And as I fell forward, it turned around, and the blade faced me. And it caught me under the chin.

Meema Spadola

Oh, God.

Meema's Dad

Missing cutting my throat open by just inches. It would have been terr-- I mean, your life would have been completely different. I thought I'd cut my throat open.

Emilio

I remember bits and pieces, and I remember the sort of ragged, pink flesh that hung under his chin.

Meema Spadola

That's my brother, Emilio. He's 25 now. He was about 5 at the time.

Emilio

And I remember mom packing towels against his neck and wringing out one of the towels before driving to the hospital.

Meema Spadola

Wringing out the blood?

Emilio

Wringing out the blood, right. And I don't remember any specifics after that.

Meema Spadola

You don't remember him coming in and saying-- I remember him coming in the door with this hand over his neck and blood just gushing out. And he said, "Maddie, I cut myself."

Emilio

Oh God.

Meema Spadola

It's just like-- that voice. Those words. Oh, God. It was so scary. I just thought-- what else could you think? Dad's going to die.

Emilio

Right.

Meema Spadola

If my dad had his dream of a rural homestead, and my mom had her dream of being Earth Mother, and I had my Little House on the Prairie fantasy, what's interesting is that Emilio had no dream about our move to Maine. He was just four. And as best as any of us can figure, he was the only one of us who didn't see the whole experience through a romantic haze.

By August that first summer, he was asking dad, "When are we going to go home?" Meaning home to our apartment in New York. And Dad had to tell him, "We are home."

Meema Spadola

So I had an interesting discussion with dad about bravery, about bravery versus insanity. And was he crazy, or was he brave? Was he a hero, or was he insane? Where do you come down on that?

Emilio

It's very interesting because the framing of the question is very telling of your vision of him that I don't quite get for myself. I get it, but I hesitate to say that it's the little girl vision of the father. But it definitely is. I just don't remember him as being crazy or insane. Or what was the other choice, heroic?

I remember spending a lot of time with him and being part of his everyday building of the house. Particularly, I remember lunches down at Sprowl Lumber and just a lot of time to just be with him. And just riding around in the green truck with him and sort of being his sidekick. And I never thought of him as heroic.

Meema Spadola

Talking to Emilio, I was surprised. I hadn't really thought about this, but it's no accident that my mom called the book, Meema's Adventures. This was my dream, not Emilio's.

Meema Spadola

So I read Meema's Adventures with mom. Do you want to hear a little bit from it?

Emilio

Please, yeah.

Meema Spadola

OK. This is in the section when mom and dad are telling us that we're going to be leaving New York.

Emilio

And we're overjoyed, I'm sure.

Meema Spadola

And we are, actually. We are.

Emilio

Interesting.

Meema Spadola

We are overjoyed.

Emilio

Revisionist history.

Meema Spadola

"'Oh, yay. Oh, this is so much fun.'" And then, "'Will we ever come back to the city to live?' Meema asked quietly turning to daddy. 'To be honest, sweetheart. I don't know. The city is a good place to live in and grow, and so is the country. We've been in the city for a long time, and life has been very happy.'

'It's cold in Maine,' said Emilio. 'I don't want to be cold.'

'Yes, the winters in Maine are cold,' said daddy. 'But we'll have a good, hot wood stove for indoors and layers and layers of clothing for outdoors. You won't be cold, Emilio. You'll be snug as a bug.'

'I don't mind the winter. I really want to have some animals,' said Meema.

'And a puppy?' asked Emilio.

'I think we surely could,' said mommy."

Emilio

And daddy will run over it with the truck.

Meema Spadola

For Emilio and me, the move to Maine was the central fact of our childhood, one of the central forces shaping who we are. As we've grown up, we've found we both have our father's mania when it comes to taking on big projects. We've both worked ourselves, literally, to the point of injury.

As a teenager, Emilio tried to embrace rural life. He threw himself into rock climbing, got wilderness first aid certification, led hiking trips. He was as obsessive about rock climbing as my dad was about building the house.

Meema Spadola

Here's another thing that I think about. Are we city kids? Are we country kids?

Emilio

Oh, well, I definitely decided that I was a city kid at the height of my attempt to become a wilderness trip leader. And I was cultivating a very natural, adventurous personality at Swarthmore, and leading the rock climbing club, and going on lots of hikes. I skipped my final exam study period when I was 19, and I went to go for a weeklong hike somewhere in the Shenandoahs, I think. And about three days into it, I realized that against every instinct that I had and every wish that I had for myself to be a rugged outdoorsman that I was really a city kid. And it came out of nowhere.

And I remember feeling upset about it on par with the realization that I was possibly gay at 16. They were very similar, that moment at which your self-image and your self-knowledge have nothing to do with each other, in fact, are diametrically opposed. So I'm a city kid.

Meema Spadola

Emilio's moving back to New York to get his PhD in anthropology, just six blocks from where we lived on the Upper West Side, 460 miles away from our house in Maine.

Meema Spadola

It feels like a person rather than a thing. It feels like a member of the family to me. I feel like I would be really heartbroken if it were sold. I'd be really heartbroken.

Emilio

I don't think there's any danger of anyone ever buying that house.

Meema Spadola

Stop. Or worse, what if someone bought the land and tore down the house?

Emilio

Right, exactly.

Meema Spadola

I feel like I would fling myself upon the machinery. Do not, do not take the house.

Emilio

Whereas I would feel in some way that I could finally get on with my life. There's the difference.

Ira Glass

Meema Spadola's story about her family's move to Maine continues in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we chose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, Dream House. Parents who try to build a brighter future for their families, and what happens to them when they try. We continue with Meema Spadola's story about her parents' move to Maine, and what it did to their family.

Meema Spadola

Just pulled in the driveway here. Starting up the hill.

To do this radio story, I went home to Maine for the first time in two years.

Meema Spadola

Oh my god, and there's the house. And dad's home. And just a honk to let him know I'm here.

He's playing piano inside. I can hear him out here. Dad's totally oblivious. He's playing piano and doesn't even hear me even though I honked. I'm going to sneak in. And [UNINTELLIGIBLE] the back.

Hey, dad. You were totally oblivious playing the piano.

Meema's Dad

How did you sneak up on me?

Meema Spadola

I honked. I honked from outside. You didn't hear me?

While I was home, my dad and I talked constantly about the house, the move, the summer of 1976. We'd never talked this much about that time. We walked the boundaries of the 63 acres of land and visited all the old sites, where we put the tent, the outhouse.

Meema Spadola

Do you see the-- of course, you see the rope hanging from the tree. That was our swing.

Meema's Dad

That was your swing, yeah. That limb is dead now. You wouldn't want to try swinging on it.

Meema Spadola

No. Hey, did you know about the thing that Emilio and I-- what Emilio and I had, the squirrel house?

Meema's Dad

No, show me.

Meema Spadola

It wasn't a real squirrel house. This was a game that we played. That while you were building your house, we were building our house. And we were the squirrel family, and it was right over here.

Meema's Dad

Does it look familiar to you?

Meema Spadola

Sort of. There's this big flat rock--

I asked dad to give me a tour of the house as it stands today. The porch in front is half completed, the floor is unfinished, Sheetrock isn't up in most rooms, the bathroom isn't done yet. And I guess I hadn't thought about this up until now, but it really embarrasses him.

These days my dad's an architect. He took pains to point out he's finished a lot of houses now, except this one.

Meema's Dad

And the stairs just have plywood treads. They don't have the oak treads on that they're supposed to get. And this little piece of wall here hasn't been sheetrocked yet. But I did run the wiring in it, so now I can put the Sheetrock on it.

Meema Spadola

I didn't have any walls on my bedroom until I was like 15.

Meema's Dad

Oh really?

Meema Spadola

Yeah.

Meema's Dad

Oh my goodness. Oh, I'm sorry.

Meema Spadola

That's OK. I survived. And I didn't have a door for a long time. I have a door on my old room now. It doesn't have a doorknob. So when you close it, it just sort of closes, and then you have to wedge your fingers in and open it up.

Meema's Dad

So this is really going to be on the radio, huh?

Meema Spadola

Sure.

Meema's Dad

Thanks, Meema. I'm supposed to be an architect though. This is great advertisement for me. Can't even finish his own house.

Meema Spadola

While I was home doing these interviews, there were a lot of times that my dad got uncomfortable. And I'm embarrassed to say that I didn't understand why, so I kept pushing him. And finally, after days of this, he told me something I never understood before. We shared this experience, the move to Maine, but we didn't see it the same way at all.

Every time I talked about it as a heroic adventure, he'd just cringe. For years, he saw the move as a grim series of failures. He dropped out of college, and this was his biggest attempt to redeem himself, to make something of his own. And every snowstorm, broken-down car, every unfinished part of the house, every single crisis was a referendum on his character. No matter how desperately he struggled, things kept slipping out of his control. And even as I say this, I feel incredibly resistant to seeing it this way because it means that I have to reconstruct my entire heroic vision of my childhood.

Meema Spadola

One of the long-term effects that I sort of joke about and it's also true, is that you've set up this ideal of what a man should do that most men couldn't really live up to. And again, it's--

Meema's Dad

Including me.

Meema Spadola

What?

Meema's Dad

Including me.

Meema Spadola

Including you, yeah.

Turns out my dad would be more comfortable if I didn't see him as the hero of an adventure story.

Meema's Dad

My agenda isn't to explode your myth, but you did ask me to give my version of it because you felt like you'd mythologized it.

Meema Spadola

It's funny. It's like people will ask me, well, what are your parents like? The fact is, you're not a big man. How tall are you, dad?

Meema's Dad

5'7''.

Meema Spadola

Right, you're not a big guy. You're strong, you're muscular. But you're not this huge, macho guy. You were a math teacher. You played piano, but you were just the coolest dad ever. No, really. You were. You made a bicycle. You didn't make a bicycle for me, but remember that bike I got? The first bike? And you painted it red, and you wrote "Meema" on the side. You were just the coolest dad ever. You built us loft beds in Manhattan, and there was a swing in our room and a bar to swing on. And then you moved us up to Maine. It was like, how much cooler could you get than that?

Meema's Dad

That's nice to hear. That's really nice to hear. I didn't know that. Oh, you wanted to know where the outhouse was?

Meema Spadola

Yes.

So we walked to see where the outhouse was. But the structure was gone, and the hole was filled in, healed over like it never existed.

My dad told me he doesn't want to be judged on that one period in our lives when we moved to Maine.

Meema's Dad

And I certainly don't want to say this was my life, building this house. A life is many things. There's a lot to it. It's having children, and raising children, and the work I've done, and all kinds of things. My relationships, friends, my whole life.

Meema Spadola

So we're breaking down the-- I guess in some ways maybe I need to diffuse the importance that this has had. Do you know what I mean?

Meema's Dad

Perhaps.

Meema Spadola

Well, just because it happened at such an important time, and it was like, this was my childhood. I don't have many memories before a time when this was happening. This is what I'm from. This is what I come from. It's this house. It was like this family member. Really, it was so present.

Meema's Dad

But that's you. And I don't know that you have to necessarily debunk a myth or anything like that to move on. But for me, what would it be like for me if I just stayed with this as if this is the essential thing about me and I didn't do anything else? What would that be like?

Meema Spadola

Then that would be super obsessive.

Meema's Dad

And it's just not sufficient either. It's not enough for me. And for me, we had a different experience of it. And now, for me, I live in it. It's just a common place. It doesn't have any of this mythical aura about it.

Meema Spadola

I don't think that's entirely true. For years, he couldn't work on the house. He just stopped. Like if he stopped trying, he'd stop failing. But over the course of talking about this for weeks while I put together this story, something changed. It happened after he told me about feeling like he'd failed.

Somehow after that conversation, it felt like there wasn't anything more to say about that time. And for the first time in years, my dad started working on the house again. He called me the other night. He says he's already finished the bathroom, put in a beautiful tile floor, replaced the ugly, old toilet. Sheetrock is going up.

Ira Glass

Meema Spadola is a documentary filmmaker living in New York, an hour subway ride from where she was born.

Act Two. Blue Sky Dream.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Blue Sky Dream.

David Beers

Ronald Reagan made my family's tract home into a dream home. Just about the time of his landslide reelection in 1984, Ronald Reagan knocked out the north and west facing walls of our house. He tore out the linoleum floor and the flocked ceiling of the family room. Ronald Reagan gave my mother a kitchen twice the area of the old one. He gave my father a shop of his own just off the garage. He got rid of--

Ira Glass

That's David Beers reading from his memoir, Blue Sky Dream. Ronald Reagan built his family dream house by funding the strategic defense initiative, Star Wars. David Beers' father was an aerospace engineer. And back in 1957, after the Russian satellite Sputnik scared the nation into a new defense industry boom, Beers' family joined tens of thousands of others who went to work in aerospace in northern California. Beers' father worked at Lockheed on secret defense projects through the Cold War and the Vietnam War.

Those these days the suburbs get criticized as a place of sheer materialism, Beers writes that it was not materialism that was attractive to his family when they moved out to the California suburbs. It was the emptiness of the place. It was the fact that you could create new, modern lives out there, hopeful lives, crafting new traditions.

He writes that, at one point, his mother actually decided that the family was Irish even though, really, they were only one-fourth Irish.

David Beers

But let's not let those facts get in the way. My mother decided that a fun thing to be was an Irish Catholic, and so she was determined to invent this Irishness for us in the middle of Mediterranean California. And so there were leprechauns living in our oleanders. And on Saint Patrick's Day, we all lined up, and our mother clipped to our little Catholic school, red sweaters these green buttons that said, "Kiss me, I'm Irish" and shamrocks with blarney stones. And she avoided altogether some of the other stereotypes of Irishness, the idea of the morose, heavy drinker.

Ira Glass

So she'd just select the parts she liked?

David Beers

Well, that was the great thing about the suburbs in California and anywhere else in the country where this great federal investment in the Cold War infrastructure was going on. These were brand new places. There was the opportunity to invent a culture, and you constructed that culture with what you had available to you.

Ira Glass

Can I ask you to talk for a minute ago about how you saw your dad when you were a kid? In your book, in your memoir, you describe him in scene after scene as showing up with lumber, and building stuff, and laying down new brick walkways, and building a deck behind the house, and constantly having one project after another. You write at one point, "There was nothing my father could not do himself apparently."

David Beers

He wasn't always successful. I think he spent maybe six months designing the sprinkler system for the backyard. And when he finally turned it on, it was wondrous to behold. The rain birds all swept around in their perfect arcs and what have you. But the grass didn't grow. As it turned out, he had picked the wrong seed for the soil, and the water didn't fully cover the ground. And as it turned out, much like aerospace itself, he had to keep going back and revising his plans. And he went terribly over budget. But in the end, he got the grass to grow. And that was the main message there, which is that through technology and perseverance, you can accomplish anything.

Ira Glass

Well, you've agreed to read a long excerpt from your book, Blue Sky Dream. You write about in the book what you call your "tribe," the aerospace workers and their families, moving into a valley that was first known as the Valley of Heart's Delight, building a home in a brand new subdivision with the Old World name Clarendon Manor.

David Beers

Whenever I think of the house they bought and the development surrounding it, the earliest images that come to mind are of an ascetic barrenness to the streets. The snapshots confirm it.

There I am with my new friends around a picnic table in the backyard. Shirtless boys with mouths full of birthday cake. In the backyard, nothing but implanted dirt, a stripe of redwood fence, stucco, an open sky. That was the emptiness being chased by thousands of other young families to similar backyards in various raw corners of the nation.

"Didn't the sterility scare the hell out of you?" I've often asked my mother. "Didn't you look around and wonder if you'd been stuck on a desert island?" The questions never phase her.

"We were thrilled to death, not afraid at all. Everyone else was moving in at the same time as us. It was a whole new adventure for us. For everyone." Everyone was arriving with a sense of forward momentum joined. Everyone was taking courage from the sight of another orange moving van pulling in next door. A family just like us unloading pole lamps and cribs and Formica dining tables like our own. Having been given the emptiness we longed for, there lay ahead the task of pouring meaning into the vacuum.

We were blithe conquers, my tribe. When we chose a new homeland, invaded a place, settled it, and made it over in our image, we did so with the smiling sense of our own inevitability. At first, we would establish a few outposts, a Pentagon-funded research university, say, or a bomber command center, or a missile testing range. And then, over the next decade or two, we would arrive by the thousands and tens of thousands until nothing looked or felt as it had before. Yet whenever we sent our advance teams to someplace like the Valley of Heart's Delight, we did not cause panic in the populace. More likely, a flurry of joyous meetings of the Chambers of Commerce and Rotary clubs. You could understand then why families like mine tended to behave with a certain hubris.

In the spring of 1962, the Valley of Heart's Delight was covered with blossoms. Back then the cherry and plum and apricot trees would froth so white and pink that driving around the place felt like burrowing through cotton candy. Spanish colonizers had planted the first of these glades.

On warm evenings in the spring of 1962, this is what my father and mother would do. After dinner, they would place my baby sister in her stroller, and the four of us would set out from the small, used house they were renting in an established subdivision, already half a dozen years old, named Strawberry Park. We would walk six blocks and run out of sidewalk. We would pick up a wide trail cut a foot and a half deep into the adobe ground, a winding road bed of waiting blacktop.

At a certain point, we would leave the road bed and make our way across muddy clay that was crosshatched by tractor treads, riven by pipe trenches. We would marvel at the cast concrete sewer sections lying about, gray, knee-scratching barrels big enough for me to crawl inside. We would breathe in the sap scent of two-by-fours stacked around us, the smell of plans ready to go forward.

Finally, we would arrive at our destination, a collection of yellow and red ribbons tied to small wooden stakes sprouting in the mud. These markers identified the outline of lot 242 of unit 6 of track 3113, exactly 14,500 square feet of emptiness that now belonged to us.

All around the outline were piles of cherry and plum and apricot trees, their roots ripped from the ground. The spring blossoms still clinging to their tangled-up branches.

Our rite evolved with the season. Early on, my father would go from stake to yellow-ribboned stake, telling us where the kitchen would be, where the front door would go, which windows would be getting the most sun. Later, after the concrete foundation and plywood subflooring were in and the skeletons of walls were up, we would wander through the materializing form of our home, already inhabiting with our imaginations its perfect potentiality.

Within a decade after the coming of aerospace to the Valley of Heart's Delight, developers were shelling out nearly $100,000 per acre for any land left that might still be covered with blossoms. This should give an idea of the quiet force my people exerted whenever they entered a place. Power enough to undo a century-old economy and strip the blossoms from a valley once and for all.

My people did sigh at the extinction of those blossoms. But honestly, we did not mourn their disappearance in any deeply felt way. Certainly, we didn't feel guilt. We had not, after all, come to the Valley of Heart's Delight to join the circular rhythm of nature. Our imagination was linear, proceeding forward and upward. And our lines did not curve back on themselves, as did the seasons. We saw promise in the clean possibilities that arose once every blossom had been erased, never to return.

Several valleys over from ours, Joan Didion watched the coming of my tribe with dread. We moved her to write, in a 1965 essay, how it felt to be a native daughter. To have come from a family who has always been in the Sacramento Valley and to see that the boom was on and the voice of the aerospace engineer would be heard in the land. 15,000 aerospace workers, almost all of them imported, had arrived on the outskirts of Sacramento to join Aerojet General, a maker of missile boosters.

Joan Didion's family was, like the orchard people of the Valley of Heart's Delight, a family tied to agriculture with 100 years of circular rhythms behind them. Hers were a people primly insular and tragic-minded, according to the native daughter. Her valley was a place where incautious children visiting from out of town often would drown in the river, disappear forever. And the old locals would see a proper lesson in that, would say, as Joan Didion's grandmother did, "They were from away. Their parents had no business letting them in the river."

In another essay written five years later, Didion gets at the profound difference between her people and mine. She writes of "growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lies in not some error of social organization, but in man's own blood." She reveals herself, in other words, to be a pessimist about human endeavour, engineered and executed on a grand scale. How different from my tribe who would say instead, "If incautious children might drown in a river, let us erect a cyclone fence. Even drive the river underground, leaving behind a manufactured surface that was dry and safe, empty, and speaking of promise." That, after all, is what was done with the creek the ran by Clarendon Manor.

Within 10 years of my family's arrival, the Valley of Heart's Delight was no longer green. It had become a vast matrix of expressways, and freeways, and Clarendon Manors, a vast matrix of companies making technology primarily for the government. The population had grown many times over in those 10 years, and we no longer heard the Valley of Heart's Delight called that anymore. In fact, no one I knew had ever used that sentimental name. While I was growing up, my family simply had called it "The Valley." Or as it was officially termed on the government studies in the plans of various developers, "the Santa Clara Valley." It would not be until a time distant, well into the 1970s, that we would begin calling our home "Silicon Valley."

There was yet another rite of spring practiced by my family, a rite that became possible once the invasion of my tribe was all but complete, once nearly all the blossoms had been replaced by settlements like our own.

On an evening that was bright and windy, but too warm to be winter anymore, my father would come home from Lockheed with a kite or two, balsa sticks wrapped tightly with colorful tissue paper. If the next morning was a Saturday, he would put the kites together for us. Tear us a tail from an old sheet, make a string bridle that held the kite just so. Help us launch the kite, and send it up over the tract homes. For just this very purpose, my father kept what seemed a mile of twine on an enormous spool. And so the kite would climb higher and higher until it became a shimmying dot against the blue.

At that point, my father would go into his garage and make a small parachute. He would unfold a paper napkin and tie its corners to four strands of string, drawing the other ends of the string together, and knotting them around a bolt for weight. He would stick a bit of reinforcing tape in the center of the napkin and pass through that a bent pin, making a hook that poked out of the top of the parachute.

Next, my father would write our phone number on the parachute with the words, "If found, please call."

"Ready for take off?" my father would say, as he grabbed hold of the taut kite string. And then a miraculous thing would happen. Driven by the wind, the parachute would skitter up the line, joining the kite high in the sky in what seemed an instant. When it reached the top, my father would say, "Give her a jerk." And the parachute would fall away from the kite and drift in whichever direction the wind was blowing, until we could see it no longer.

Then we'd begin the wait for the phone to ring. The wait for someone to call and say they had our parachute. If hours went by, my mother might suggest a prayer to Saint Anthony, finder of lost items. "Tony, Tony, listen, listen. Hurry, hurry. Something's missing. You have to believe."

If we said the prayer and did believe, the ring would come, and someone would say, "Got your-- I guess it's a parachute here. Landed in my backyard. Almost ran over it with the mower."

My father would write down the address, and he would get out the street map. He would pinpoint our destination, and we older kids would set off on our Stingray bikes, having been given a reason to trace a route we never would have traced otherwise, so empty and so much the same was every street for miles around. We would leave our cul-de-sac named Pine Hill Court, where there was neither a pine nor a hill, and we would pedal far beyond Springwood Drive and past Happy Valley Way, ending up in some cul-de-sac we had not known existed. And there would be a man about my father's age with a similarly receding hairline and knit sport shirt. A man who seemed to be pleased at the serendipitous fun our parachute had brought into his Saturday. A man who safely could be assumed to do blue sky work for a living.

Anywhere we cared to drop a parachute from the sky, there would be someone like him. A house and a family like his, and like ours.

Ira Glass

David Beers' memoir is Blue Sky Dream.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, the vocal stylings of Mr. John Wayne. Our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and me with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder. Music help today from Mr. John Connors. Today's program was first broadcast back during the 20th century, all the way back in 1997.

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can get our free weekly podcast and listen to old shows online for absolutely free.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Mr. Torey Malatia, who's going to buy you a puppy--

Emilio

And daddy will run over it with the truck.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.