201: Them

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Ira Glass

It's an us versus them situation. To Felicia Blum, a freshman at Glenbrook South High School, it could not be more clear. There are fundamental differences between her school and its rival, Glenbrook North.

Felicia Blum

The differences are basically the fact that the people at GBN are a little more snobby. Like, people have to fit a certain mold that people here don't have to do.

Ira Glass

And describe the mold. What is the mold that they're fitting into?

Felicia Blum

Like, skinny, pretty. You don't necessarily have to be the nicest person. Good clothes, expensive clothes, expensive everything. Buffalo Jeans, Michael Stars, Kate Spade purses, backpacks, pencil bags.

Ira Glass

Go there, the kids at South tell me. You'll see. Over half the girls at Glenbrook North will have Kate Spade or Prada handbags. So I go. It's not far, just a few minutes across the Chicago suburbs. Now, traditionally, at this point in any story on public radio, or any after-school special for teenagers for that matter, what should happen next is that I should arrive at Glenbrook North and find out that, no, of course, kids in both schools are the same. Kids are kids. They're always the same.

But it turns out that there are a lot of kids at Glenbrook North, GBN, who agree that they are snobbier.

Girl 1

GBN is more, like-- you have to have this, and do your hair, and do your makeup. Everything.

Girl 2

Yeah. I think GBS is more comfortable with themselves as people than we are.

Girl 1

I know. Exactly.

Girl 2

We follow the crowd.

Girl 1

Exactly. And if you're not in the in-crowd, then you're nothing. And everyone will think of you as just a big loser. And it's hard.

Ira Glass

I was told that most of the girls at this school would be carrying either Kate Spade or Prada bags.

Girl 2

I have a Prada on right now, actually. Yeah. It's true.

Ira Glass

Is that true?

Girl 3

Kate Spade is true.

Girl 4

That's true.

Ira Glass

But laying it all out like this, here on the radio, exaggerates just how competitive the two schools are. Most kids didn't seem to care one way or the other about the subject. It was the kids who were the most invested in the idea of school spirit who feel the strongest that there's a difference between the schools. Like that first girl, Felicia Blum, for instance.

Felicia Blum

Yeah. I have a lot of spirit. I'm on poms, which is like dancing at the halftime shows, so I guess I'm a little high spirit. What can I say?

Ira Glass

It's hard for there to be such a thing as "us" if you don't have a "them." And some people by disposition need a good "them." Other people tend to see "thems" of all sorts as more like "us," which is the subject of today's radio show. In this time of war, when we are all feeling a heightened sense of "us" and "them," we wanted to take up the problem of "them" with three stories of people misperceiving the "them-iness" of "them." From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass. Our program today in three vivid acts.

Act One, My Friend The Extremist. What happens if you're not sleeping with the enemy, but instead find that you are watching The Lion King with him.

Act Two, Don't They Know It's Christmas After All? In that act, David Sedaris tries to contemplate the barrenness of a world that has Santa, but no elves.

Act Three, Newfies. The story of an American sailor in World War II whose life was saved by foreigners and then threatened repeatedly by Americans. Us and them, reversed. Stay tuned.

Act One: My Friend The Extremist

Ira Glass

Act One, My Friend The Extremist. Several years ago, before many of us paid much attention to the name Osama bin Laden, reporter Jon Ronson started following around the religious leader who calls himself bin Laden's "man in London." At first, Ronson definitely thought that this leader was on the "them" side of "us" and "them." But once Ronson got to know him, he changed that opinion. In the year since September 11, he has been forced to change that opinion again, to the point where it is not exactly clear what to think. Here's Jon.

Jon Ronson

I first met Omar Bakri Mohammed shortly after he declared holy war on Britain in 1995. There were maybe 5,000 of Omar Bakri's followers in Trafalgar Square when he announced that he wouldn't rest until he saw the black flag of Islam flying over Downing Street and the White House. There was much cheering. The stage had been rented out to him by the local city council, from which he outlined his post-jihad vision for the UK.

He who practiced homosexuality, adultery, fornication, or bestiality would be stoned to death or thrown from the highest mountain. Christmas decorations and shop window dummies would be outlawed. Pubs would be closed down. Pictures of ladies' legs on packets of pantyhose would be banned. We'd still be able to buy pantyhose, but they'd be advertised simply with the word "Pantyhose."

I very much wanted to meet Omar Bakri and spend time with him while he attempted to overthrow democracy and transform Britain into an Islamic nation. It turned out that he lived a couple of miles away from me in Edmonton, North London, in a small semi-detached house at the end of a cul-de-sac. I got his telephone number from the phone book. He called back straightaway. There were so many anti-Muslim lies, he said, generated by the Jewish-controlled media, so much misinformation in the newspapers and the movies. Perhaps this would be an opportunity for the record to be set straight. So yes, I was welcome to join him in his struggle against the infidels.

And then he added, "I'm actually very nice, you know."

"Are you?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," said Omar Bakri. "I am delightful."

At 9:00 the next morning, I sat in Omar's living room while Omar played with his baby daughter. "What's your daughter's name?" I asked him.

"It is a difficult name for you to understand," said Omar.

"Does it have an English translation?" I asked.

"Oh, yes," said Omar. "It translates into English as The Black Flag of Islam."

"Really?" I said. "Your daughter's name is The Black Flag of Islam?"

"Yes," said Omar.

"Really?" I said. There was a small pause.

"You see," said Omar, "why our cultures could never integrate?"

The Lion King was playing on the video. We watched the scene where the warthog sung "Hakuna Matata," the song about how wonderful it is to have no worries and problem-free philosophies. Omar sang along, bouncing the baby on his knee. "We always watch The Lion King," he said. "It's the only way I can relax. You know, they call me The Lion. That's right. They call me The Lion. They call me the great warrior, the great fighter."

Omar showed me his photo album. His teenage photographs made him look like a matinee idol. He came from a family of 28 brothers and sisters. His father had made a fortune selling sheep and pigs and cows. They had chauffeurs and servants and palaces in Syria and Turkey and Beirut. Omar escaped Saudi Arabia in 1985. He'd heard he was going to be arrested for preaching the jihad. He escaped to Britain. Now he's a big man with a big beard. "I was thin because I always worried," he said. "I was always on the run. Now I live in Britain. I never worry. What's going to happen to me here? Ha-ha. So I got fat. A leader must be big in stature. The bigger the body, the bigger the leader. Who wants a little, scrawny leader?"

Omar's plan for the morning was to hand out leaflets entitled, "Homosexuality, Lesbianism, Adultery, Fornication, and Bestiality: The Deadly Diseases." He said he couldn't help notice my car in the driveway, so perhaps I would give him a lift.

"OK," I said. I dropped him off near the tube station. I went to park the car. 10 minutes later, I found him standing in the middle of the pavement with a stack of leaflets in his hand. "How's it going, Omar?" I asked.

"Oh, very good," he smiled. "The message is getting across that there are some deadly diseases here and there." He turned to the passers-by. "Homosexuality," he yelled. "Beware the deadly disease. Beware the hour." Some time passed. "Homosexuality," yelled Omar. "Beware. There are homosexuals everywhere."

I expected to see some hostility to Omar's leaflets from the passers-by. But the shoppers and tourists and office workers seemed to regard him with a kindly bemusement. Nonetheless, after 10 minutes, nobody had actually taken a leaflet. "Beware the hour. There are homosexuals everywhere. Beware the hour," continued Omar cheerfully. "Be careful from homosexuality. It is not good for your tummy."

Omar Bakri was unlike my image of a Muslim extremist. Then he told me he had a good idea. "Just watch this," he said. He turned the leaflets upside down. "Help the orphans," he yelled. "Help the orphans."

"Omar," I exclaimed, scandalized. The passers-by started to accept the leaflets.

"This is good," chuckled Omar. "This is good. You see? If I wasn't a Muslim, I'd be working for, how you say, Saatchi and Saatchi."

At lunchtime, Omar said he needed to buy some collection boxes for his regular fundraising endeavors for Hamas and Hezbollah. Hamas had orchestrated a bus bombing in Jerusalem three weeks earlier, which had killed 11 people. "There was a cash-and-carry just off the ring road near Tottenham," said Omar, "that sells very good collection boxes. Could you give me a lift?"

"OK," I said. So we drove to the cash-and-carry. Omar sat in the backseat, which made me feel a little like a taxi driver.

"Left," said Omar. "Left at the junction. No, left."

At some traffic lights, I asked Omar where his wife was when I was at his house. "She was upstairs," he said. "She wouldn't come down until after you left."

"What would happen if I had tried to interview her?" I asked.

"I would declare fatwa on you," said Omar.

"Please don't say that," I said.

"Ha-ha," said Omar.

"Even as a joke," I said.

We arrived at the cash-and-carry to discover that the only collection boxes they had in stock were large, plastic, novelty Coca-Cola bottles. Omar paused for a moment. He scrutinized the collection boxes. He furrowed his brow. Then he placed half a dozen of them in his shopping cart. "These are good collection boxes," he said. "Very big and lightweight."

"It seems strange to me," I said, "that you plan to collect for Hamas in novelty Coca-Cola bottles."

"Ah," said Omar Bakri. "I am not against the imperialist baggage. Just the corruption of Western civilization."

We packed our stuff into the trunk of my car, and I drove Omar to the Finsbury Park mosque, where he was to deliver a speech at a conference entitled, "Democracy or Dictatorship." Omar was speaking on behalf of dictatorship.

This was my first opportunity to meet some of Omar's followers. There were maybe 500 of them in the audience. Things did not start well.

"Are you a Jew?" asked a young man.

"Uh, no," I lied. He apologized. "Don't worry about it," I said.

Omar Bakri was fast-talking on the podium, as if he couldn't contain the words that needed to be said. He filled the room. He quoted from a letter he'd just received from an old friend, Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman, The Blind Sheikh. The Blind Sheikh was in jail for life in Missouri for inspiring the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. This law of "inspiration" had not been utilized since the American Civil War. Omar used to eat with The Blind Sheikh back in Saudi Arabia.

After the speech, Omar said he needed to do some errands in town, and could I give him a lift? I agreed, although I feared I was beginning to cross the line between journalist and chauffeur. "I'm meeting someone in Soho," I said. "So can I drop you off there?"

"No, no, no," he said anxiously. "It is forbidden for me to go into Soho. Please don't take me there." Soho would be razed to the ground, said Omar, once the holy war had been won. "It is important for people to understand these things," he said, "so they will be ready to adapt to the new ways."

"Have you ever been to Soho?" I asked.

"Oh, no," said Omar. "It is forbidden."

"What do you imagine Soho to be like?" I asked.

"There are naked women everywhere," he said. "Naked women standing on street corners."

We got talking about the word "fundamentalist." Omar said it had been redefined by the infidels of the west as a pejorative term. "You use it as an insult," Omar said. "Turn left, please."

"But surely you are a fundamentalist," I said, "in the sense that you live your life by the rules set down in the Quran."

"This is true," said Omar. "The Quran rules every aspect of my life. It tells me how I eat, how I sleep, how I fight, and even how I will die." Omar paused. "You know," he said, "the Quran even tells me which direction I must break wind in."

There was a short silence. "And which direction do you break wind in?" I asked.

"In the direction of the non-believer," Omar said. "The direction of the non-believer." Omar laughed heartily for some time, and he slapped me on the back.

"OK," said Omar as I pulled up near Piccadilly Circus. "Thank you very much. Goodbye, Jon."

As I drove away, I gave my horn a little beep, and I mouthed the words, "I'll call."

As the months progressed, I found my life becoming increasingly determined by Omar's whims. "If you turn up late," he often said, "I will give you 60 lashes. Ha-ha." On many occasions, Omar would telephone and call me over urgently. I'd cancel nights out with my wife and drive over to discover that he'd forgotten all about me and had taken the train to Plymouth, or Nuneaton, or to his secret jihad training camp near Crawley. I sometimes felt I was getting a unique insight into what it would be like living under Islamic rule with Omar as ayatollah.

Time passed, and then it was January, the first day of Ramadan. For months now, I'd been asking Omar to take me to his secret jihad training camp in Crawley, an anonymous commuter town near Gatwick Airport, which seemed a rather incongruous location for a jihad training camp. Finally, he agreed.

We were picked up at Crawley station by some young local followers. These were people I'd never seen before. Omar said that in every town and city in the country, and many towns abroad, there were clustered his supporters. "When you put those people together," said Omar, "you have an army." "Oh, yes," he continued. "There's a day when military struggle will take place in the UK. Jihad. It's called 'conquering.' One day, without question, the UK is going to be governed by Islam. The Muslims in Britain must not be naive. They must be ready to defend themselves militarily. The struggle, as I always say, is a struggle between two civilizations. The civilization of man against the civilization of God."

We were driven to the jihad training camp, a well-stocked gym in a scout hut in a forestry center. Snow lay on the ground. Inside, a young man wearing boxing gloves was beating a punch bag, and Omar immediately instructed him to focus his assault. "On the head," he said. "That's it. The head. Easy, easy. OK, stop now. Rest. Rest. You kill him. You kill him." The group laughed, and I laughed too.

I was standing in one corner with my back against the wall. I found the situation slightly uncomfortable. And then, apropos of nothing, Omar made an announcement to the group. "Look at me," he said. "Here I am with an infidel. Jon--" Omar paused for effect "--is a Jew." There was an audible gasp followed by a long silence. Of all the locations in which Omar could have chosen to disclose this sensational revelation, a packed jihad training camp in the middle of a forest was not the place I'd have hoped for. I found myself searching for the fastest path to the door.

"Are you really a Jew?" said someone eventually.

"Well," I said lightly. "Surely it's better to be a Jew than an atheist." There was a silence.

"No, it isn't," said a voice from the crowd.

"When did you know I was Jewish?" I asked Omar.

"From the beginning," he said. "I could see it in your eyes. Why didn't you tell me?"

"Well," I said. "You know."

"Are you ashamed to be a Jew?" said Omar. "You deny it?"

"No," I said.

"I am not offended that you are a Jew," said Omar. "We are all Semites. If you were Israeli, if you were Zionist, that is a different matter, but what offends me is that you hide it. You assimilate. That you have no pride."

"I am proud," I said, unconvincingly. But of course, Omar was right. I should have told him.

"Assimilation," tutted Omar. "Integration. These are the worst things of all. Be a Jew."

In the years that followed my time with Omar, he sporadically made the papers, calling for this fatwa or that fatwa, reaffirming the fatwa on Salman Rushdie after Iran had lifted it. But he also began to seem increasingly anachronistic, a spent force. All that would change during the week of September the 11th, 2001. The first sign that Omar had decided to initiate his own endgame came in the form of a press release he posted on his website on September the 12th. It read, "The final hour will not come until the Muslims conquer the White House. As America declares war on 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, what is your duty?"

Omar then gave a series of newspaper interviews in which he spoke of his delight at the attacks. "Oh, wow," he told the Daily Mail. "The United States has come under attack. It's exciting." A number of his British followers joined the Taliban. At least three were, in Omar's words, "martyred" because of it. The conservative leader, during an emergency session of Parliament, called for a change in the law, so Omar could be deported. Scotland Yard arrested Omar, and then they released him. He'd committed no crime.

I telephoned Omar on the evening of his arrest. I expected to find him in defiant mood, but he seemed a little scared. "This is so terrible," he said. "The police say they may deport me. Why are people linking me with bin Laden? I do not know the man. I've never met him. Why do people say I'm bin Laden's man in Great Britain?"

"Because you've been calling yourself bin Laden's man in Great Britain for years," I said.

"Oh, Jon," said Omar. "I need you more than ever now. You know I'm harmless, don't you? You always said I was laughable, didn't you? Oh, Jon, why don't people believe you when you tell them I'm just a harmless clown?"

Of course, someone who's a clown isn't always harmless. I thought about Omar when I watched the World Trade Center fall to the ground. Had he been a monster all this time masquerading as a friendly buffoon to fool guileless liberals like me? I wondered if he'd duped me, or worse, if I'd duped myself. Someone once told me that I suffer from the great liberal misconception that everyone is basically good underneath. I'd argue instead that most people are a mix of good and bad, and that to see ourselves in them is better than seeing them as inhuman, as something that is impossible to recognize. But I have to admit, there are moments when I think I went too far in befriending Omar.

The last time I saw him in person was 1996. It had been a year since he bought his novelty Coca-Cola Hamas collection boxes from the cash-and-carry. They were full now, of loose change and GBP 50 notes. There was a check for GBP 5,000 in one. Omar and his deputy, Anjem, were taking the collection boxes to the bank. The money would be converted into foreign currency and shipped off to the Middle East, where it would be used in the fight against Israel. Omar had some business to finish. Anjem packed the bottles in the back of his car. Then he remembered that he'd left his coat inside. He said, "Could you guard the money for a moment? I won't be long."

"OK," I said. Anjem disappeared, and I was left standing guard over thousands of pounds, money that would go to Hamas to kill the Jews in Israel. For a while I stood there. And what was I doing, guarding money that would be used to kill the Jews? And then I understood that I had to take the money. I had to reach into the car, grab the Coca-Cola bottles, and make a run for it. This was my responsibility, my duty. I had an obligation to do this. I had the strength to carry two bottles. How many lives might that save?

Omar and Anjem were inside. The car was unlocked. But I didn't do it, of course. I just stood there. And then Anjem and Omar returned, thanked me for my help, and took the money to the bank.

Ira Glass

Jon Ronson. In the year since he followed Omar Bakri, Bakri left London and then was banned from returning into England. He now lives in Lebanon.

Coming up, David Sedaris puts the "damn" back in Amsterdam. You can say that on the radio, right? That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Two: Don't They Know It's Christmas After All

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme and bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Them, stories of how we sometimes expect "them" to be more like "us," or less like us, other times, and wrongly. We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, Don't They Know It's Christmas After All?

When we travel overseas, most of us want to embrace the "them-iness" of other countries and cultures. But that can be hard when we confine ourselves to museums, shopping, restaurants. David Sedaris has devised a few things to talk about while overseas to get a glimpse of the ways in which people are different from us.

David Sedaris

I've never been much for guidebooks, so when traveling abroad, my first question usually relates to barnyard animals. "What do your roosters say?" is a good icebreaker, as every country has its own unique interpretation.

Grecian roosters crow "kiri-a-kee," and in France, they scream "coco-rico," which sounds like an order for one of those horrible pre-mixed cocktails with the pirate on the label. When told that an American rooster says "cock-a-doodle-doo," my hosts look at me with disbelief and pity.

"When do you open your Christmas presents?" is another good question, because I think it explains a lot about national character. In France and Germany, gifts are exchanged on Christmas Eve, while in Holland, the children open their presents on December 6, which is nationally celebrated as Saint Nicholas Day. It sounded sort of quaint until I spoke to a man named Oscar, who filled me in on a few of the details as we walked from my hotel to the Amsterdam train station.

Unlike the jolly, obese American Santa, Saint Nicholas is painfully thin and dresses not unlike the Pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy. The outfit, I was told, is a carryover from his former career, when he served as the bishop of Turkey.

"I'm sorry," I said, "but could you repeat that?" One doesn't want to be too much of a cultural chauvinist, but this seemed completely wrong to me. For starters, Santa didn't "used to do" anything. He's not retired, and, more importantly, he has nothing to do with Turkey. It's too dangerous there, and the people wouldn't appreciate him. When asked how he got from Turkey to the North Pole, Oscar told me with complete conviction that Saint Nicholas currently resides in Spain, which again is simply not true.

While our Santa flies in on a sled, the Dutch version arrives by boat and then transfers to a white horse. The event is televised, and great crowds gather at the waterfront to greet him. I'm not sure if there's a set date, but he generally docks in late November and spends a few weeks hanging out and asking people what they want. "Is it just him alone?" I asked. "Or does he come with some backup?" Oscar's English was close to perfect, but he seemed thrown by a term normally reserved for police reinforcement. "Helpers," I said. "Does he have any elves?" Maybe I'm just overly sensitive, but I couldn't help but feel personally insulted when Oscar denounced the very idea as, quote, "grotesque and unrealistic."

"Elves," he said. "They're just so silly."

The words "silly" and "unrealistic" were redefined when I learned that Saint Nicholas travels with what was consistently described as six to eight black men. I asked several Dutch people to narrow it down, but none of them could give me an exact number. It was always six to eight, which seemed strange considering they've had hundreds of years to get a decent headcount. The six to eight black men were characterized as personal slaves until the mid-1950s, when the political climate changed, and it was decided that instead of being slaves, they were just good friends. I think history has proven that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet hours beside the fire, but by bloodshed and mutual hostility.

They have such violence in Holland, but rather than duking it out amongst one another, Santa and the former slaves decided to take it out on the public. In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat him with what Oscar described as "the small branch of a tree." Then, if the youngster was really bad, they'd put him in a sack and take him back to Spain.

"Wait a minute. Saint Nicholas would kick you?"

"Well, not any more," Oscar said. "Now he just pretends to kick you."

He considered this to be progressive, but in a way I think it's almost more perverse than the original punishment. "I'm going to hurt you, but not really."

While eight flying reindeer are a hard pill to swallow, our Christmas story remains relatively dull. Santa lives with his wife in a remote polar village and spends one night a year traveling around the world. If you're bad, he leaves you coal. If you're good and live in America, he'll give you just about anything you want. We tell our children to be good and send them off to bed, where they lie awake anticipating their great bounty.

A Dutch parent has a decidedly tastier story to relate, telling his children, "Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things together before going to bed. The former bishop of Turkey will be coming tonight along with six to eight black men. They might put some candy in your shoes. They might stuff you into a sack and take you to Spain. Or they might just pretend to kick you. We don't know for sure, but we want you to be prepared."

This is the reward for living in Holland. As a child, you get to hear this story. And as an adult, you get to turn around and repeat it. As an added bonus, the government has thrown in legalized drugs and prostitution. So what's not to love about being Dutch?

Ira Glass

David Sedaris strives for international understanding in several books. This one appears in Dress Your Children in Corduroy and Denim.

Act Three: Newfies

Ira Glass

Which brings us to Act Three, Newfies. We end our program with this story in which "us" and "them" are reversed. All the people who should be on the side of the man in this story are actually against him, and all the foreigners, who might be bad to him, actually treat him like one of their own. Chris Brookes put the story together.

Ena Edwards

Go right in where he came out of. That's the bridge [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Chris Brookes

I'm driving through the small town of Saint Lawrence, Newfoundland, Canada. It's about 300 miles from where I live myself, and the population is 1,697, according to that road sign. It's on the edge of a boot of rock that sticks right out into the North Atlantic shipping lanes. When you see this place on the map, it looks like a big foot waiting to trip unwary sailors. The person giving me directions here is Ena Edwards. She's kind of the unofficial Saint Lawrence historian.

Ena Edwards

And you turn left up here by the stop sign. Do you see the high school's down there?

Chris Brookes

Newfoundland is a place that some mainland Canadians like to make jokes about. They imagine that we're an island of some kind of naive fisherfolk. And actually, naive isn't the right word. Stupid is what they think we are. And the jokes they tell about us are called Newfie jokes. How many of us does it take to screw in a light bulb, that kind of thing. And when I first heard this story, it was in that kind of a context, a funny story about isolated Newfoundlanders just too naive to know what would have been obvious to most other people in North America. But lately, I've found out the rest of the story, and it wasn't a joke at all.

Ena Edwards

We're getting close to it though.

Chris Brookes

Where Ena's taking me here is to the new school playground. But the playground is really the end of this story. The beginning of it is 3,000 miles south of here, all the way down in DeKalb County, Georgia.

Lanier Phillips

If you'll step in here, I'll show you, that's Saint Lawrence.

Chris Brookes

That photograph.

Lanier Phillips

Yeah, that's Saint Lawrence. And here's my great-grandmother and grandfather, who were born slaves.

Well, I'm Lanier Phillips. I was born March 14, 1923, and I live in DeKalb County. And DeKalb County didn't furnish schools for black people until 1939. They didn't want the blacks to have any kind of education. Then they had the Klan, the Ku Klux Klan. And they instilled fear in the black people. At least they tried. And I know they had fear into me from five or six years old.

And I would go up the railroad track and see them come down Main Street, marching every Saturday night. They would march. And then at other times, they would be on this truck, and they would fire a shot in the air or something like that. And I knew which way they were going. When they crossed the railroad track, if they kept going straight, I knew they was going to a place called Smokey Row, predominantly black. Well, it was all black. But if they made a right turn, I knew they was coming down to what we call Bruce's Alley, where I live. And I'd take off like a jackrabbit and tell people, they're coming. And everybody would put the lamps out. They didn't have electricity.

But they did some terrible things.

Black people had a chance to build the school themselves. They called it Yellow Ribbon. Three counties, Rockdale, Gwinnett County, and DeKalb County, got together and built this school, but the Ku Klux Klan burned the school down. Yes, sir. They burned it. I remember that clear. I can close my eyes and see the flames going, standing, and watching the school burn, and listening to the grown-ups say, they'll never let us learn or let our children learn to read.

I saw no future. I had no dreams because the only thing I could say, well, maybe I'll be a sharecropper or something once I grew up. So I said, I think I'll join the navy. So in '41, I joined the navy. Well, they had blacks in one place and whites in another. And blacks better not interfere, go down to the whites' showers or bathroom or anything like that. And the blacks on board ship, they could only be mess attendants, serving and what they called taking care of your officer. You were assigned a certain amount of officers. You kept his shoes shined, his clothing ready, and his room cleaned. And you'd be out for 30 days or more. You had to wash those officers' underwear.

Well, in the convoys, we had a lot of merchant ships. And we would escort them up to Iceland. And then the British would take over the convoy and take them on into England. And the home port was Boston, and as soon as we left Boston, it was storming. And we'd join up off of Halifax. I thought we were heading for Iceland. I said, well, I won't get off the ship until we get back to the States.

Because the previous trip had been to Iceland. And no blacks could go ashore there because they had some agreement with America that they would never let a black man put foot in Iceland. And they had the same agreement in Morocco. At Port Lyautey, they had a base there. And they said no Jew could ever stand there. And that was the agreement. And that's the way it was. That's the way it was.

Ena Edwards

My maiden name was Farrell, which I kept after I married. So I'm Ena Farrell Edwards. And at the time of the disaster in 1942, February the 18th, in Saint Lawrence, it was Ash Wednesday. And it was a ferocious storm, a real blizzard.

Lanier Phillips

I heard the XO, the executive officer, tell the captain, this is going to be a rough one.

Gus Etchegary

I'm Gus Etchegary. I was about 16 and a half in 1942, just finished high school in Saint Lawrence. Oh, it was a huge-- it was a hell of a storm. There was no doubt about it at all. I don't know what the estimate of the winds would be, but it had the full strife of the Atlantic.

Ena Edwards

And I guess many people said, maybe it was even said in our house, what a dreadful night. We pity the poor sailors on the sea tonight.

Lanier Phillips

Truxtun had no radar, so what they did was rely on dead reckoning.

Ena Edwards

Before they knew it, they were right into the cliff. Bang.

Lanier Phillips

I thought we had been torpedoed. I didn't know what-- I was in my bed when it hit. Down I came. I had all my clothes on. I had my life jacket. And I grabbed a pair of shoes-- I didn't know if it was mine or what-- and went topside. Well, it was dark. And it was storming. I mean it was picking the Truxtun up and, it looked like, just slam it against the rock. And you could hear the steel grinding.

Then when day began to break, all you could see was the cliffs and the rocks. And it just picked the ship up and down it would go. And began to wash the fellows overboard. I almost got washed over two or three times, but I'd grab that lifeline and hold on.

Gus Etchegary

At about 7:30 in the morning, my father called, and in a somewhat frantic voice said, get down here as quickly as you can. Get ahold of the driver of that pickup truck. Load up all the ropes and lines that you could find in the area and get down to Chambers Cove.

Lanier Phillips

The ship had begun to take on so much water, we knew it was going to sink. They had said that no man could live in the water more than five minutes because of the cold.

Gus Etchegary

As we came up over the hill and looked down, 300 feet or so below, right in the middle of a horseshoe cove, this destroyer, this Truxtun, partly submerged, but the full length of the rail was still above water. All these people hanging on, if you like, to dear life on the rail. Some were just swept up on those jagged cliffs and then tumble down. It was a pretty dreadful sight.

Lanier Phillips

About this time, she began to break, and all the oil had come out. Oil was coming out, and everybody looked like little rats in the water covered with that crude oil.

Gus Etchegary

I, along with others, went down hand over hand on a rope.

Lanier Phillips

I told the other blacks that were standing there with me-- I said, at least we're going to die if we're still on board ship. Let's go for it. He said, well, this is Iceland. You don't know what they're going to do. Said, remember, we just left Iceland, and no blacks are allowed. Says, just like being in Georgia or Mississippi.

Chris Brookes

You mean that you're-- I'm sorry, I'm just trying to absorb this. You're in a life and death situation, getting practically washed off the deck of a destroyer which is breaking up. And there's four or five black guys having a discussion about whether they should actually swim for it or not because they might not be allowed in the land.

Lanier Phillips

Right. They wanted to stay on board ship rather than take a chance of landing in Iceland. I said, well, we're going to die if we stay on board this ship. I said, at least we can die fighting. I said, let's go. When I jumped in there, it was like I felt just one quick pain that went over my entire body, and it was all over. I didn't feel any pain after that. I just felt sleepy.

And when we got ashore, I said, well, I made it here. I may as well die. So I just laid down there on the beach, and I closed my eyes to die. This is the end.

And this fellow came, and he said, get him up. Don't let him lie there. He said, pick him up. He will surely die if he lays there. Walk him around. So he pulled me up. And he had on a cap and a coat. I knew he wasn't Navy. And he began to walk me around. And from there, it brought life to me. I said, man, here's a white person who wants me to live. If I had been in Georgia, they would have said, kick him out of the way. Let's help these white people. Then I think I passed out.

Ena Edwards

They took them to where there was a temporary first aid station erected. And of course, the call came to the women of the place to go out to clean them. And that's where the story came in of Lanier now. That little funny story. See, he was there among all the other survivors. The ladies were cleaning them up and scrubbing them up because they were covered with tar, with this oil stuff, this crude oil. They were so filthy, every part of them had to be washed. So when he opened his eyes--

Lanier Phillips

I could see these white ladies all around. There I was, stark naked, on this table. And I heard one of the ladies say, this is the curliest hair I've ever seen. I said, oh boy, this is the end of me. I said, hell, they're going to say, get him out of here, he's black. And then she said--

Ena Edwards

"This poor fellow. The tar went right into his pores. I'm scrubbing and scrubbing, and I can't get him clean."

Lanier Phillips

And I spoke up. She said, I can't get it out. I said, well, you can't get it off. It's the color of the skin.

Ena Edwards

And she said, oh, I'll get it off all right. And so she continued to scrub. Violet [? Pike, ?] she's dead now. She had never seen a black man before. So she didn't differentiate. She's out there, thought he was a white man with the black into his pores so bad as she couldn't get it out.

Lanier Phillips

And I was thinking, oh, boy. They're going to lynch me. Here I am. If I had been in Georgia, they would have ran those white women out of town and maybe lynched me for letting them bathe me.

Ena Edwards

And of course, when the men were taking them out to the different homes, she said, bring him to my home. So that evening, then, she prepared supper. And he was amazed that he ate with the family. And he drank out of china cups, the same as the family.

Lanier Phillips

And they put me in the bed. And this lady, she would come in and say, are you warm? Are you all right? And she did this the remainder of the night. I didn't go to sleep anymore because I was still afraid. I didn't know where I was or what was going to happen to me. But then I kept asking myself, did I die, and I went to heaven? What's going on?

Ena Edwards

Now look at these pictures, huh? After all these years. Now I'll show you Lanier at that time. There he is. 18 years old, see?

Lanier Phillips

The next morning, they gave me a coat and a cap. And I put these things on, and I wanted to get outside to see what was going on. And I went outside, and Ena was out there taking pictures.

Ena Edwards

And I seen him, and I said, come on over and get in the picture.

Lanier Phillips

Well, I stood aside. You know, a black is-- the only way he'll take a picture with a white is because how many logs he could lift for the the sawmill, or how many pounds of cotton he could pick in a day, or something like that. He was the white man's prize negro or something like that. And she said, get in, get in, get your picture taken.

Ena Edwards

That's him, right there. These are the ones I took with the Brownie.

Chris Brookes

Four white faces and one black one. This story I'd heard as a joke about the Newfoundlanders who'd tried to scrub the black off a black man. This is like a picture of the joke. But it turns out, the real story doesn't stop here.

Lanier Phillips

Well, it hasn't been a day passed since that happened, it hasn't been a day passed I didn't think about Saint Lawrence. They changed my entire philosophy of life.

So they gave me leave. I think I got 15 days leave. And I went to see my aunt who lived in Chattanooga. And we would catch the bus from there to go into town. And the blacks had to sit behind the whites. And what the whites would do-- if it was only three whites on the bus, maybe two of them would go to the seat just before the last seat, which means that on the way in, if the bus filled up, the whites would have plenty of seats, and the blacks would only have that one seat.

So when we got on, my aunt and I, the back seat was filled, and here was this white guy. So we sat in the seat in front of him. He reached and grabbed me by the neck and pushed me up. And he said, nigger, don't you sit in front of me. And I was going to fight him. I felt like fighting him then because of the treatment that I'd got in Saint Lawrence and what the people have treated me like a human being. I said, well, hell, I'm a human. I'm no longer a slave and the lowest and the least, the last. I said, I'm going to do it. I said, If I can give my life and fight this war the same as everybody else and can't even ride a bus when I pay the same fare as everybody else, but I can't be seated as everyone else--

My aunt said, just be quiet, just be quiet, we'll be in in a few minutes. So I thought about that.

Chris Brookes

Two years after the shipwreck.

Lanier Phillips

They sent me to Jacksonville, Florida. And when I got to Jacksonville, I was hungry. And when I got off and walked into the station, I saw all these prisoners, Italian and German prisoners. And they had Army MPs, Americans, guiding them. They had them inside the dining room, eating. And I knew that the blacks could go to a window or something, somewhere, but I knew they wouldn't be allowed to go into that dining room. And I thought about the people of Saint Lawrence, how they had fed me, gave me clothing, and put me in their bed. And I looked at the prisoners. And here I am in American uniform.

So I went in to ask, where does a colored-- is what they called us then-- where can call the colored negroes get something to eat? I'm trying to make it to the naval air station. So I went to go in, and this one cop grabbed me by the collar and slung me on the ground. And when he slung me on the ground, he put his foot right on my neck and actually pulled his gun out and pulled the hammer back. I could hear it click. I thought he was going to shoot me.

He say, you black son of a bitch, I'll blow your black brains out. He said, you know better than to come in here where these white people are. So the white people were the German prisoners and the Italian prisoners, and here I am in an American uniform. And I thought about the people of Saint Lawrence.

Chris Brookes

16 years after the shipwreck.

Lanier Phillips

I was tired of shining shoes. I was tired of washing dishes and pots and pans. I was tired of it. I had 17 years in the navy as a mess attendant. And I was looking, when I get out, I wanted to learn a trade. And I wrote the first black congressman, and I wrote the Bureau of Naval Personnel a letter, and told them I thought I was qualified to be something other than a mess attendant. And when I got that letter back saying, report to Fleet Sonar School, I really gave the credit to Saint Lawrence. Because had it not been for Saint Lawrence, I wouldn't have been writing the powers that be because I had been brainwashed that I was so inferior to the white man, to don't look forward to ever being anything.

And I got orders, report to Fleet Sonar School. They called me down. Counselor wants to see you. And I went in to see a counselor. Phillips, he said, we've got good news.

Oh, I said, I'm going to start class.

He said, no. We've contacted Washington, and they'll go along with it and make you chief steward mess attendant. He said, because we don't think you can make it through sonar school. I said, well, sir, you can take the first class if you want, I said, but just don't throw me out.

He said, well, you know you're going to flunk out, don't you? I said, no, I don't know that. I said, give me a chance. If I flunk out, so be it. He said, all right, you start the next class. So I started the next class, and I went through sonar school.

Ena Edwards

There's the board, right there. Look.

Chris Brookes

By now, you've probably forgotten how we started this story, driving around Saint Lawrence, 59 years after the shipwreck, with the town historian, Ena Edwards, looking for the brand-new school playground.

Ena Edwards

See, there's the playground. Established by the students of Marion Elementary School in 1999. You can go out and walk into it. You can go in.

Lanier Phillips

I'm not a rich man. But every contribution I can make, I make it to the people of Saint Lawrence. I realize since the mine closed, the economy is way down.

Ena Edwards

He has shown gratitude. No doubt about it. And they were trying to get a new playground for the elementary school. And I said, well, I have a nice check to present from Lanier.

Lanier Phillips

I've said, do whatever the society wants to do with this. I said, But I would like for you to do something for your museum, and let the world know what you did for the entire crew of the Truxtun. And here's this black man, let them know what you did for him too, and how you changed him.

Ena Edwards

There, look. "Lanier Phillips, USS Truxtun survivor. And then on the other side is the USS Truxtun, lost February 18, 1942." And the Marion Elementary School logo is in the center. And the name of the playground is Lanier Phillips playground.

Lanier Phillips

I seek no recognition. I just want the people of Saint Lawrence to know how much I appreciate them. And I want them to know what they did for me.

Chris Brookes

But do you think they're a different kind of people from the people in Georgia?

Lanier Phillips

Well, they're the same kind of people. But the reason they are different is because their parents and grandparents or what didn't teach them the hatred and the bigotry that the southern United States taught their kids. We are creatures of what we've been taught, and the people of Saint Lawrence taught me that I was a human being. They put into my mind-- it's etched in there. It's solid, like liquid steel, hot steel became cold and solid. It's into me and will never leave me.

Ira Glass

That story by Chris Brookes, who makes radio stories in Newfoundland, Canada. Lanier Phillips is now 83 and living at the Armed Forces Retirement Home in Washington DC.


Ira Glass

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Jon Ronson

Look at me. Here I am with an infidel.

Ira Glass

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


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