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613: OK, I’ll Do It

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Prologue

Ira Glass

Doctor Sean Roden normally works for NASA caring for astronauts before and during their missions, which he does from Houston Mission Control. But back in 2012, he had another gig as the doctor at the Amundsen-Scott Station at the South Pole. When he got there, they told him this story.

Sean Roden

I think it was probably the station manager. It's the story that's told.

Ira Glass

Is this the first story they tell every doctor who gets this job?

Sean Roden

Pretty much.

Ira Glass

They tell doctors this story because it is the most spectacular thing anyone has ever done in this kind of job. The story goes like this. In 1961, a Russian doctor got appendicitis at a Soviet Antarctic station, and so he needed emergency surgery to remove his appendix or he would probably die.

And he was the one doctor there, snowed in during a blizzard. And so he had to figure out what to do. And so this Russian, a 27-year-old surgeon named Leonid Rogozov removed his own appendix and lived.

Ira Glass

Could you perform this procedure on yourself?

Sean Roden

Oh, hell, no. [LAUGHS] I guess if my life depended on it, I'd rather die trying than give up.

Ira Glass

Dr. Roden isn't a surgeon, though. And so to try to understand just how difficult this would be, I turned to a surgeon and associate professor at the Harvard Medical School named Doug Smink, who hadn't heard this story. But he's written a lot about appendectomies for textbooks and medical journals, and he's performed the procedure a lot.

Doug Smink

Probably 200 to 300 times, at least, maybe more.

Ira Glass

We have two accounts of this. There's a published report that the doctor wrote up in the Soviet Antarctic Expedition Information Bulletin. And then we have his--

Doug Smink

I don't read that.

[IRA LAUGHS]

Ira Glass

And we have the patient's diary.

Doug Smink

Are you calling him the patient or the surgeon? You could call him either one, right?

Ira Glass

Well, it's interesting because in his account, he goes back and forth between those things over and over again.

Doug Smink

That's fascinating.

Ira Glass

So this is from his published account. He says, "the symptoms noted were weakness, general malaise, later nausea. Body temperature rose to 37 degrees centigrade," which is 99 Fahrenheit. And then he wrote in his diary, April 30, 1961, "I did not sleep at all last night. It hurts like the devil. A snow storm whipping through my soul, wailing like 100 jackals."

Doug Smink

Sounds like appendicitis.

Ira Glass

Dr. Roden, the doctor who performed medicine at the South Pole went a little further.

Sean Roden

It sounds like a Russian. My wife and I have lived in Russia for over four years, off and on, with the space program and both speak Russian. So it's just-- it's poetic. It's perfect Russian.

Ira Glass

This is from the diary. "An oppressive feeling of foreboding hangs over me. This is it. I have to think through the only possible way out, to operate on myself. It's almost impossible, but I can't just fold my arms and give up."

And then, later that same day at 6:30 at night, "The guys have found out. They keep coming by to calm me down. And I'm upset with myself. I've spoiled everyone's holiday. Tomorrow's May Day and everybody is running around preparing the autoclave. We have to sterilize the bedding because we're going to operate."

Ira Glass

And then he explains which person is going to do what. A meteorologist is going to hold retractors, a driver is going to hold a mirror, and then, just in case one of those two guys who's never witnessed an operation passes out, another guy was on standby to jump in. "In the event that the patient lost consciousness"-- he switches to third person and refers to himself as the patient, "they were instructed to inject the drugs in the syringes that I had prepared and to administer artificial respiration."

Doug Smink

Oh, geez.

Ira Glass

He writes, "The position of the patient at operation was designed to make it possible for him to perform the operation with minimal use of the mirror." And to do that, basically, they'd prop him up on his back.

Doug Smink

Right.

Ira Glass

He's leaning on one hip.

Doug Smink

Well, I'm just looking down at my own abdomen and trying to figure out how-- I know where I would make an incision. But to then see deeper down in the deeper layers would be a challenge. I'm sure that's where the mirror came in. It probably was also just really uncomfortable to sit in that position for two hours and try to work. I can only imagine.

Ira Glass

I'm going to read from the diary. "My poor assistants. At the last minute, I looked over at them. They stood there in their surgical whites, whiter than white themselves. I was scared, too. When I picked up the needle with the Novocain and gave myself the first injection, somehow I automatically switched into operating mode and from that point on, I didn't notice anything else."

Doug Smink

Wow. That's amazing. Almost like an out-of-body experience, it sounds like he had.

Ira Glass

"I worked without gloves. It was hard to see. The mirror helps, but it also hinders. After all, it's showing things backwards. I work mainly by touch. The bleeding is quite heavy, but I take my time. I try to work surely."

Doug Smink

The other thing to remember in this is that not only is he just operating on himself, but he is quite ill. Patients who have appendicitis don't feel like doing anything. They just want to curl up in bed and hope somebody will make them better. So to actually have to function and think clearly, both function physically and mentally, is amazing. It's just amazing.

Ira Glass

In fact, Rogozov spends most of the two-hour operation fighting off unconsciousness. After just 30 or 40 minutes, he wrote, he started to experience vertigo. Every four or five minutes he had to stop and rest. Dr. Smink explained to me that what happens in an appendectomy is you cut through the skin, then through a layer of fat, then three layers of muscle, then a layer of something called fascia. And then, finally, there's the peritoneum.

Doug Smink

I describe it like a clear balloon. It's about that thin.

Ira Glass

Inside that balloon are the intestines. And you kind of poke around the intestines with your fingers to find the appendix.

Doug Smink

The appendix is about the size of your pinky.

Ira Glass

And so he's having to move his own intestines out of the way to find the appendix.

Doug Smink

Exactly. By feel, which is actually how we do it, often, in an open appendectomy. So he would have had experience with that. You basically feel around and you can feel what feels like a firm, almost like a sausage or something like that. And that is the appendix.

Ira Glass

But before Rogozov locates the appendix, he realizes that he accidentally tore into a part of the large intestine called the cecum and he has to sew it up. He wrote in his diary, "Suddenly it flashed in my mind there are more injuries here and I didn't notice them. I grew weaker and weaker.

My head starts to spin. Finally, here it is, the cursed appendage. With horror, I notice the dark stain at its base. That means just a day longer and it would've burst."

Ira Glass

And then, Rogozov doesn't write what is obvious to him-- that a burst appendix, he probably would have died.

Doug Smink

Yeah. I think he would have. I think he would have.

Ira Glass

Rogozov writes, "At the worst moment of removing the appendix, I flagged. My heart seized up. I noticeably slowed. My hands felt like rubber. Well, I thought, it's going to end badly." Then Rogozov doesn't say this explicitly, but Dr. Smink explained to me, in order to cut the appendix out, Rogozov would have pulled it out of his body with the stuff that it's attached to, like through the four-inch hole in his belly, and then he would have cut it off. Which of course, he did successfully. Fully recovered in two weeks, then back on the job.

Ira Glass

What's the most impressive part of this to you?

Doug Smink

There are so many parts that are impressive to me. Probably most impressive to me, though, is what is the mental aspect of this. And he obviously had the perfect personality to pull this off. And then to have the courage, but also the wherewithal to assemble a team and explain to them what they were going to do while he had appendicitis.

Ira Glass

That's the thing. When I read this, I can't tell, well, could most surgeons do this or was he special?

Doug Smink

I think many people would be really uncomfortable doing it on themselves or would not be able to remain composed while also the patient.

Ira Glass

Could you do this?

Doug Smink

Well, as we were talking, I was trying to think if I could. I don't know. I think you would never know until you were put in that situation. I'd like to think I could, if given no other option.

Ira Glass

Of course, we all would like to believe that we would measure up if we were tested like this at something. Today on our program, we have two stories of people who put themselves into the kinds of situations where they are tested, doing things that are dangerous sometimes, doing the kinds of things where most of us would say, let somebody else do that one. But these people just had to take it on themselves. They do it themselves.

Act 1 of our show is about somebody who decides to protect the border. Act 2 is about somebody who decides to run guns over a border. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Line in the Sand

Ira Glass

Act 1, "Line in the Sand." After he got out of college, Francisco Cantu decided that he wanted to become a Border Patrol agent, which his family did not understand at all. But he had his reasons for stepping up. And he did the job for four years and ended up writing about the experience.

And his account was interesting to me and a bunch of us here at the radio show because he takes you inside in this way that does not seem to fit the usual ways that people talk about the border. It kind of sidesteps all the usual politics of the border. He's just documenting things. A lot of it is just random stuff that happened and that he saw while patrolling the border and during his training. Here he is.

Francisco Cantu

Robles ordered us from the mat room into the spinning room and we each took our place atop a stationary bicycle. At the front of the room, Robles climbed atop a machine that had been situated to face us and shouted for us to begin pedaling. At no point should your legs stop moving, he yelled.

When I say stand, lift your ass off the seat and keep it in the air until I tell you to sit. He snapped his head towards a stout man in the front row named Hanson. Is that clear, Mr. Hanson? Yes, sir, Hanson shouted, already out of breath.

As the minutes passed, Robles prodded us to work harder. Sit, he shouted, move those legs, stand. Your body is a tool, he announced, the most important one you have. A baton is nothing, a taser is nothing. Even your gun is nothing if you give up on your body when it becomes tired. If you can't hold it together when every muscle cries out for you to quit.

In the Border Patrol, Robles continued, you will be tested, I can promise you that. In my time, I have taken a life and I've saved a life. When I was brand new to the field, like all of you will be, my journeymen and I jumped a group of Salvadorians in the lettuce fields outside Yuma.

A man ran from us and I chased after him until I thought my legs would give out. I stumbled and tripped over dirt berms and rows of lettuce, but I kept chasing him until we came to the edge of the canal and the man turned to face me. He came at me before I could react and we went to the ground fighting.

If I'd given up, maybe the man would have killed me, but I didn't. I grappled with him in the dirt until I kicked him over the edge of the canal into the water. The man couldn't swim. None of them can. And so an hour later, me and my journeyman fished his dead body out of the water at a buoy line.

Robles's eyes seemed to detach from his surroundings, like his gaze had turned inward. A year after that, he continued, I chased another man to the banks of the Colorado River. He ran out into the water and was swept away by the current like it was nothing. And I'll tell you what I did.

I battled to keep him afloat, even as I inhaled mouthfuls of water, even though I can't remember ever having been more tired. I save that man's life. And still, there's not a single day I don't think about the one I took before it.

As Robles fell silent, we stood sweating over our bikes, our legs pedaling weakly. In the front row, I saw Hanson's head dip, his ass falling to the seat. Robles snapped his gaze from the middle of the room and turned his head towards Hanson. Get back up there, he roared. Don't give up on me, Mr. Hanson. Do not give up.

As the sound of our labored breathing settled back over the room, I thought briefly of the man from El Salvador and I wondered how the news of his death might have arrived to his family. I watched Robles standing tall over his bicycle at the front of the room, dripping sweat. I wondered if he thought of his body as a tool for destruction or as one for keeping people safe. I wondered about my body, about what sort of tool it was becoming.

My mother flew in from Arizona to see me for Christmas. She picked me up from the Academy on Christmas Eve and we drove up into the Evergreen Mountains of southern New Mexico. We stayed the night in a cabin and stayed up late, laughing, until the conversation finally descended into a discussion of my impending work.

Listen, my mother said, I spent most of my career as a park ranger, so I've got nothing against you working for the government. But don't you think it's sort of below you, earning a degree just to become a border cop? I don't really understand what you want from this work.

I took a deep breath. Look, I told her, I spent four years in college studying the border. I'm tired of reading about it. I want to be on the ground, out in the field. I want to see the realities of the border, day in and day out. I don't see any better way to truly understand the place.

My mother stared at me. Are you crazy? She asked. There are 100 other ways of knowing a place. You grew up near the border. It's in our blood, for Christ's sake. Your great-grandparents brought my father across the border from Mexico when he was just a little boy. I kept my maiden name and passed it on to you so that you'd always carry that heritage.

I lowered my voice. I'm grateful for those things, I told her, but having a name isn't the same as understanding a place. Do you remember, I asked my mother, how you joined the Park Service because you wanted to be outdoors? Because you felt you could understand yourself in wild places?

It's not that different, I said. There's something here I can't look away from. Maybe it's the desert, maybe it's the closeness of life and death, maybe it's the tension between the two cultures we carry. Whatever it is, I'll never understand it unless I'm close to it.

My mother shook her head. There are ways to learn these things that don't put you at risk. You make it sound like you'll be communing with nature and having heartfelt conversations all day. The Border Patrol isn't the Park Service. It's a paramilitary police force.

Listen, I said, I know you don't want your only son turning into a heartless cop. I know you're afraid the job will turn me into someone brutal and callous. But that's not me. And those aren't the kind of people that I see at the Academy. Nearly half my classmates are Hispanic. Some of them grew up right on the border.

I speak both languages. I know both cultures. I've lived in Mexico and traveled all across it. I'll help people. I explained to my mother that good people would always be crossing the border and whether I was in the Border Patrol or not, agents would still be out there arresting them. At least if I'm the one apprehending them, I can offer them some small comfort by speaking with them in their own language, by talking to them with knowledge of their home.

Fine, my mother said. Fine. But you must understand, you are stepping into a system with little regard for people. For several moments, silence hung between us. I said, I'm not going to become someone else.

After graduating from the Academy, we were deployed to our respective field stations. We caught our first dope load only two days after arriving on duty. They must have seen us coming across the desert, said Cole, our supervisor. We fanned out to comb the hillsides, and after 10 minutes, we had recovered two backpacks filled with food and clothes, and four additional bundles wrapped in sugar sacks spray painted black.

Those ought to be about 50 pounds each, Cole said. He kicked one of the bundles with his foot. 250 pounds of dope. Not bad for your second day in the field. I asked Cole if we should follow their trail up into the pass, if we should try to track down the backpackers.

Hell, no, he said. You don't want to bring in any bodies with your dope, if you can help it. Suspects mean you have a smuggling case on your hands and that's a hell of a lot of paperwork. We'd have to stay and work a double shift just to write it up.

He smiled. Abandoned loads are easy, though. You'll see.

Cole had us dump the backpacks and I watched as several of my classmates ripped and tore the clothing, scattering it among the tangled branches of mesquite and palo verde. In one of the backpacks, I found a laminated prayer card depicting Saint Jude, a tongue of flames hovering above his head. Morales found a pack of cigarettes and sat smoking on a rock as others laughed loudly, stepping on a heap of food. Nearby, Hart giggled and shouted to us as he pissed on a pile of ransacked belongings. As we hiked with the bundles back to the vehicles, the February sun grew low in the sky, casting a warm light across the desert.

After sundown, Cole sent Morales up a hill near the highway with a thermal reconnaissance camera. Let me borrow your beanie, vato, he said to me. It's cold out. I handed it to him and stayed inside the vehicle with the others.

An hour later, Morales spotted a group of 10 just east of mile marker five. We rushed out of the car and set out on foot as he guided us in on the radio. But by the time we got there, the group had already scattered. We found them one by one, huddled in the brush and curled up around the trunks of mesquite trees and cholla cactus. Not one of them ran.

We made them take off their shoelaces so they couldn't run from us and we sorted through their backpacks, checking for weapons and throwing out their food. We walked all 10 of them single file back to the road. For a while, I walked next to an older man who told me they were all from Michoacan. It's beautiful there, I said. Yes, he replied, but there is no work.

You've been to Michoacan? He asked. I told him I had. Then you must have seen what it is to live in Mexico, he said. And now you see what it's like for us at the border.

We walked silently next to each other and then, after several minutes, he sighed deeply. Hay mucha desesperación, he told me, almost whispering. I tried to look at his face, but it was too dark.

At the station, I processed the man for deportation. After I'd taken his fingerprints, he asked me if there was any work for him. You don't understand, I said.

You've just got to wait here until the bus comes. They'll take you to the headquarters and then onto the border. You'll be back in Mexico very soon.

I understand, he assured me. I just want to know if there's something I can do while I wait, something to help. I can take out the trash or clean out the cells.

I want to show you that I'm here to work, that I'm not a bad person. I'm not here to bring in drugs. I'm not here to do anything illegal. I want to work.

There are days when I feel I'm becoming good at what I do. And then I wonder, what does it mean to be good at this? I wonder sometimes how I might explain certain things, the sense in what we do when they run from us, scattering into the brush, leaving behind their water jugs and their backpacks full of food and clothes. How to explain what we do when we discover their lay up spots, stocked with water and stashed rations.

Of course, what you do depends on who you're with. It depends on what kind of agent you are, what kind of agent you want to become. But it's true that we slash their bottles and drain their water into the dry earth. That we dump their backpacks and pile their food and clothes to be crushed and pissed on and stepped over, strewn across the desert floor and set ablaze.

Look, it sounds terrible, and maybe it is. But the idea is that when that come out from their hiding places, when they regroup and return to find their stockpiles ransacked and stripped, they'll realize their situation, that they're [BLEEP]. That it's hopeless to continue.

And they'll quit right then and there. They'll save themselves and struggle towards the nearest highway or dirt road to flag down some passing agent. Or they'll head for the nearest parched village to knock on someone's door. Someone who will give them food and water and call us to take them in.

That's the idea, the sense in it all. But still, I have nightmares, visions of them staggering through the desert, men from Michoacan, from places I've known. Men lost and wandering without food or water, dying slowly as they look for some road, some village, some way out. In my dreams, I seek them out, searching in vain until finally, I discover their bodies lying face down on the ground before me, dead and stinking on the desert floor. Human waypoints in a vast and smoldering expanse.

After three months, we were finally released from the training unit and dispersed into rotating shifts to work under journeyman agents. I was partnered with Mortenson, a four-year veteran of the patrol. Early one morning, before dawn, Mortenson brought me to the port of entry and we arrested a woman who'd cut a hole in the pedestrian fence.

As Mortenson inspected the breach, the girl wept beside me, telling me it was her birthday, that she had just turned 23, pleading for me to let her go and swearing she would never cross again. Mortenson took a long look at the woman and laughed. I booked her last week, he said. The woman spoke hurriedly as we walked back to the parking lot.

While Mortenson went inside the port of entry, she told me she was from Guadalajara, that she had some problems there. That she had already tried four times to cross. She swore to me that she would stay in Mexico for good this time, that she would finally go back and finish music school. Te lo juro, she said. I promise.

She looked at me and smiled. Someday, I'm going to be a singer, you know. I believe it, I said, smiling back.

She told me that she thought I was nice and before Mortensen returned, she snuck her counterfeit green card into my hand. I don't want to get in trouble at the processing center like last time, she said. I slipped the card into my pocket. When Mortenson came back, we helped her into the patrol vehicle and drove north towards the station, laughing and applauding as she sang "Bidi Bidi Bom Bom" to us from the back seat.

She's going to be a singer, I told Mortenson. The woman beamed. Well, [BLEEP], he said, she already is.

Morales was the first to hear him screaming in the distance from one of the spider roads. He hiked for a mile or two and found the kid lying on the ground hysterical. The coyote who left him there told him he was holding back the group and handed him half a liter of water, pointing to some hills in the distance, telling him to walk at them until he found a road. When I arrived with the water, the kid was on the ground next to Morales, lurching in the shade and crying like a child.

The kid was fat. His pants sagged from his ass and his fly was half open, his zipper broken. His shirt hung loosely from his shoulders, inside out and torn and soaked in sweat.

Morales looked at me and smiled, and then turned to the kid. Your water is here, gordo. I kneeled next to him and handed him the gallon jug. He took a sip and began to pant and groan.

Drink more, I said, but drink slowly. I can't, he moaned. I'm going to die. No, you're not, I told him. You're still sweating.

After the kid drank some water, we helped him up and tried walking him through the thicket toward the road. He lagged and staggered, crying out behind us. Ay oficial, he would moan. No puedo, I can't.

As we crouched and barged through tangled branches, I slowly became overwhelmed by his panic, until finally we broke out of the thicket and spotted the dirt road. You see the trucks, gordo? Can you make it that far? Maybe we should just leave you here. No puedes, verdad?

On the ride back to the station, the kid regained some composure. He told me that he was 18, that he planned to go to Oregon to sell heroin. I hear you can make a lot of money that way, he said.

Agents found a man named Martin Ubalda de la Vega and his three companions on the bombing range 10 miles west of the highway. The four men had been in the desert for six days and had wandered in the July heat for more than 48 hours without food or water. By the time of rescue, one of the men had already met his death. One was quickly treated and discharged from the hospital. Another remained in intensive care, recently awoken from a coma, unable to remember his own name.

When I arrived at the hospital asking for the third survivor, nurses explained that he was recovering from kidney failure and guided me to his room. I had been charged with watching over de la Vega until his condition was stable, at which point I would transport him to the station to be processed for deportation.

I settled in a chair next to him and after several moments of silence, I asked him to tell me about himself. He answered timidly, as if unsure of how to speak. He apologized for his Spanish, explaining that he only knew what they had taught him in school. He came from the jungles of Guerrero, he told me, and in his village, they spoke Mixtec and farmed the green earth.

He was the father of seven children, he said. Five girls and two boys. His eldest daughter lived in California and he had crossed the border with plans to go live with her and find work. We spent the following hours watching telenovelas and occasionally, he would turn to ask me about the women in America, wondering if they were like the ones on TV.

He began to tell me about his youngest daughter, still in Mexico. She just turned 18, he said. You could marry her.

Later that afternoon, de la Vega was cleared for release. The nurse brought in his belongings, a pair of blue jeans and sneakers with holes going through the soles. I asked what had happened to his shirt. I don't know, he told me. I looked at the nurse and she shrugged, telling me he had come that way.

We've got no clothes here, she added. As we exited through the hospital lobby, I watched the way people looked at his shirtless body and imagined him alone and half naked in the days to come as he was booked and transferred and finally bussed to the border.

When we got to the parking lot, I placed him in the passenger seat of my patrol vehicle and popped the trunk. I walked to the back of the cruiser, unbuttoned my uniform shirt, and removed my white v-neck to give to him. Before leaving town, I asked him if he was hungry. You should eat something now, I told him. At the station, there's only juice and crackers.

I asked him what he was hungry for. What do Americans eat, he asked. I laughed. Here, we eat mostly Mexican food. He looked at me unbelievingly. But we also eat hamburgers, I said. We pulled into a McDonald's.

As we drove south along the open highway, I tuned into a Mexican radio station and we listened to the sounds of norteño as he finished his meal. After he finished eating, he sat silently next to me, watching the passing desert.

Then, quietly, as if whispering to me or to someone else, he began to speak of the rains in Guerrero, of the wet and green jungle, and I wondered if he could have ever been made to imagine a place like this. A place where one of his companions would meet his death and another would be made to forget his own name. A landscape where the earth still seethed with volcanic heat.

A woman on the south side of the pedestrian fence flagged me down as I passed her on the border road. I stopped my vehicle and went over to her. With panic in her voice, she asked me if I knew about her son. He had crossed days ago, she said. Maybe it was a week ago, she wasn't sure.

She hadn't heard anything from him-- no one had, and she didn't know if he had been caught or if he was lost somewhere in the desert, or if he was even still alive. Estamos desesperados, she told me, her voice quivering, one hand clawing at her chest and the other trembling against the fence.

I don't remember what I told her, if I took down the man's name or if I gave her a phone number to some faraway office or hotline. But I remember thinking later about de la Vega, about his dead and delirious companions, about all the questions I should have asked the woman.

I arrived home that evening and threw my gun belt and uniform across the couch, standing alone in my living room. I called my mother. I'm safe, I told her. I'm home.

When the call came out on the radio, I braced myself for the smell. That's the worst part, the senior agents would always say. The smell. My first week at the station, one of them suggested I carry a small tin of Vicks VapoRub with me wherever I went. If you come up on a dead body, he would say, rub that [BLEEP] under your nose or else the smell will stay with you for days.

When I arrived, it was evening and Hart had already been on the scene for half an hour. The body is fresh, he told me, maybe two hours old. Doesn't smell yet.

Hart had been flagged down by two boys as he was driving across the reservation. They put rocks in the road, he said, gesturing awkwardly at the boys. He stood for a moment with his hands in his pocket and then asked me, quietly, if I would talk to them. They keep asking me questions, he said. I can't understand them.

One of the boys sat quietly on a rock, looking disoriented. I went over to him and asked him how he knew the dead man. Es mi tio, he told me. He's my uncle. He stared at his hands as he spoke. How old are you? I asked. Dieciseis, 16. I looked at his friend. And you? He looked up from the ground. Diecinueve, he said. 19. The dead man and the two boys all hailed from the same village in Veracruz and had set out together on the journey north. The 19-year-old did most of the talking, telling me that a few hours before the man died, he'd taken two caffeine uppers that border crossers often take for energy, and then washed them down with homemade sugar cane liquor they brought from Veracruz.

A few hours later, he said, the man was staggering around like a drunk, and then he collapsed. I walked over to the body. Hart had placed a shirt over the dead man's face. I lifted it and looked at him. His eyes were closed, white foam had bubbled up and collected between his parted lips, and his face was covered with small red ants, traveling in neat lines towards the moisture.

The 19-year-old told me that the three of them had become separated from the group. Their guide had told them to spread out, to hide in the bushes by the road to wait for the load vehicle. They must have gone too far, he said, because sometime later, they heard a car stop and then drive off and after that, they couldn't find anyone.

Alone at the edge of the road, they walked for several miles in the August heat until the dead man finally lay down to die. The boys waited beside the road to flag down one of the infrequently passing cars, but no one stopped for them. That's when they put the rocks out, they said, to make the cars stop.

The boys asked me what would happen to the dead man, if they could come with the body to the hospital. I told them that they could not, that they had to stay with us, that they would be processed for deportation and the body would be turned over to the tribal police.

They asked if the body would come back to Mexico with them, if they could bring it back to their village. I told them that they could not, that the body would be taken to the county medical examiner, who would try to determine the cause of death.

I told the boys that they would be taken to the sector headquarters, where they would meet with the Mexican consul. That it was they who would make arrangements for the repatriation of the body to Mexico.

As I spoke, the man's nephew stared at the ground. The boys didn't want to leave the body. And even as I explained the procedures to them, I began quietly doubting, given what I knew from my short time on the border, whether they would actually see the console, whether the consulate would actually arrange for the body to go back to Mexico. Whether the boys would even receive a piece of paper to help explain to the dead man's family what had befallen him on the journey north.

Before the boys were loaded into the transport unit, I went to them and told them I was sorry for their loss. It's a hard thing, I said. I told them that if they ever decided to cross again, they must not cross in the summer. It's too hot, I said. To cross in the heat is to risk one's life. They nodded.

I told them that many people died here. That in the summer, people died every day, year after year, and many more were found hovering at the edge of death. The boys thanked me, I think, and were placed into the transport unit and driven away.

The sun had already began to set, as I left the body in a cast of warm light on the storm clouds gathering in the south. I drove toward the storm. When the first rain drops began to hit my windshield, I could hear the dispatch operator radio to Hart, who had stayed behind with the body, that the tribal police didn't have any officers available and he'd have to wait with the dead man a while longer.

Later that night, at the end of our shift, I saw Hart back at the station and asked what had happened with the body. He told me the storm had finally come and dispatch had told him to just leave the body there. The tribal police wouldn't have an officer to take charge of it until the next day.

It's all right, he said. They've got the coordinates. I asked him if it had been strange waiting there in the dark watching over the body of a dead man. Not really, he said. At least he didn't smell yet.

We stood for a few more minutes, talking about the storm and about the human body that lay there in the desert in the dark and in the rain. And we talked of the animals that might come in the night and of the humidity and the deadly heat that would come with the morning. We talked and then we went home.

At the end of my shift on Christmas Eve, I returned home well after midnight and woke my mother, who had come to stay with me for the holiday. We sat together in my living room, talking through the early hours of the morning, drinking eggnog and stringing popcorn around an artificial tree.

My mother asked me about my shift. It was fine, I said. She asked if I was liking the work, if I was learning what I wanted. I knew what she was asking but I didn't have the energy to think of it, to weigh where I was against what had brought me there.

The work isn't really something to like, I told her curtly. There's not a lot of time to sit around and reflect on things. It's my job, I told her, and I'm trying to get used to it. I'm trying to get good at it. I can figure out what that means later.

You know, my mother said, it's not just your safety I worry about. I know how a person can become lost in their job. You asked me once how it felt looking back on my career.

The Park Service is an institution. If I'm honest, I can see now that I spent my career slowly losing a sense of purpose, even though I was close to the outdoors, close to the places I loved. I don't want that for you.

I cut my mother off. I was too exhausted to consider my sense of purpose, too afraid to tell my mother about the dreams of dead bodies, about the hands I had seen shaking at the fence.

What I couldn't articulate to her until years later was that, in a way, I hadn't learned anything from my work that I didn't already know. People were risking their lives to cross an unnatural divide, while others were being employed to stop them. And there was, of course, a profound violence in all of this. People were dying with nobody hoping or intending for them to die. But to see it firsthand, day in and day out, it seems somehow more awful than I could have ever imagined.

After dark, the scope truck spotted a group of 20 heading north toward the bombing range. The operator said they were moving slowly, that it looked like there might be women and children in the group. He guided us in and we quickly located their trail and then lost it again across a stretch of hard packed desert pavement.

We split up and combed the hillside, hunting for toe digs and kicked-over rocks. As I looked desperately for a sign of their passage, I thought of the deadly expanses that stretched between here and the nearest highway, the nearest place the group might stop for aid.

On the walk back to our vehicle, I became furious. There were supposed to be 20 of them. They were supposed to be slow. But still, I couldn't catch up. I couldn't stay on their sign. I couldn't even get close enough to hear them in the distance.

And so now, they remained out there in the desert, men, women, and children. Entire families invisible and unheard. And I was powerless to help them, powerless to keep them from straying through the night.

Ira Glass

Francisco Cantu, reading excerpts of what's going to be a book next year called "The Line Becomes a River." A version of his account originally ran in Ploughshares. Coming up, we turn from a family where the mom does not want her kid at the border to a mom who goes there herself to run guns, illegally, across it. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme. Today's show, "OK, I'll Do It," people stepping up to the plate to do dangerous things that most of us do not do. We've arrived at Act 2 of our program.

Act Two: Da-Do-Run-Guns-Mum-Da-Do-Run-Guns

Ira Glass

Act 2, "Da Do Run Guns, Mom, Da Do Run Guns." As we get older, if we're lucky, we get to see our parents in a new light. We get to learn parts about them that we did not really get when we were kids. Reya El-Salahi is a journalist in London. And in her case, what she learned about her mom is that her mom ran missions for a guerrilla movement in Africa.

Reya El-salahi

A few years ago, I found out, just months before she met my dad, my mum had been in a fake marriage. She was a university student at the time and her sham husband-to-be was a man called Laurence. They boarded a plane, exchanged rings, and checked into a hotel in Zambia as husband and wife.

Katherine El-salahi

For Laurence, it was his first time. First time on the continent.

Reya El-salahi

That's my mum. She'd been to Africa before, but Laurence hadn't. Like a lot of newlyweds, they got a car together, a brand new, spacious Land Rover.

Katherine El-salahi

We bought the Land Rover in Botswana. We drove it up to Zambia and it was then secretly modified to be able to carry guns. So there was a false petrol tank which looked as though we just had an extra petrol tank put in for our trips. And then we had to drive it across, back to Botswana, with guns in it. That was pretty scary.

Reya El-salahi

It was 1971. Posing as white tourists, they'd drive guns and guerrilla fighters as close to the border of South Africa as they could and drop them off over and over again for three months.

Katherine El-salahi

We were undercover agents.

Reya El-salahi

Undercover agents for the African National Congress, the party Nelson Mandela led to end apartheid in South Africa to give non-whites equal rights and the right to vote.

Katherine El-salahi

What we were meant to be doing was smuggling men and arms down from Zambia down into a part of Botswana, southern Botswana, where they could get over the border into South Africa.

Reya El-salahi

I learned the details of my mother's secret from a book when I was 25, the same age she was when she went on the mission. It was the first time she'd ever told her story and my mind was completely blown. She was a conventional mum in so many ways. She drove me to school each day and was home cooking dinner every night.

Growing up, I loved ice skating. My friends' parents would join in, but my mom would always watch from the side, too worried about breaking bones. She was that kind of mum. How was this the same person who, at my age, was smuggling guns for guerrilla fighters? And why would she give that up for the life she had with us?

Reya El-salahi

Did you feel any sense of regret? Given that you'd had this hugely exciting, unique experience in your early 20s, to spend the latter part of your 20s and early 30s taking life in a very different direction, was there any sense of regret?

Katherine El-salahi

Never, never, never. If I think about the one thing that I feel I've done fairly well, it's bringing up you lot. I didn't find it fulfilling enough. I always needed to be doing something that was for me, as well. But I've never regretted that. But also, I felt very good that I stepped up to the challenge.

Reya El-salahi

I just can't believe how fundamentally her life changed in such a short space of time. I'm 30 years old. I'm starting to see my female friends make the same choices my mom made, to get married and have children, setting aside their careers and aspirations in ways my male friends never seem to. And to be honest, I can't imagine following the same path. I just don't relate to it at all because she raised me not to relate to it.

So how did this fearless young woman turn into the mother I'd grown up with? To answer that, I took the 90-minute bus ride to my family home in Oxford and sat down for breakfast with my mum in a room filled with her and my dad's old books. And for the first time, she and I talked in depth about what really happened back then.

Reya El-salahi

Do you think if you'd asked a good group of your friends what sort of a person you were that time, how would they have described you?

Katherine El-salahi

Oh. What a question. I have no idea, all sorts of things. I was a good time girl, I liked partying. I liked-- I had boyfriends. I liked to do all sorts of pleasant things. And I was quite indulged and I came from a family which, at that time, was quite well off. So I had the choice to do all sorts of things that I took for granted.

Reya El-salahi

My mom grew up in a Jewish family in Newcastle. It's an industrial city in North England. She lived her life like many students in the late '60s and early '70s, taking part in anti-apartheid demonstrations and marching in protests against the Vietnam War. And when she was approached by a man claiming to be a student, as a cover for recruiting young white Londoners to risk their lives running people and weapons into South Africa, she went for it. My mum doubted she'd be killed if caught, but she did worry they might be imprisoned or deported.

My mother signed onto the covert operation. She was assigned a partner, her fake husband Laurence, and together, they were given training. How to tell when you're being followed, where to leave secret messages, and why to never write mission details down. She's a sociable person and it was this last point that proved the hardest for my mum. Not being able to talk to anyone, not even her parents, about what she was really doing.

Katherine El-salahi

Part of me wanted to tell-- to tell my friends, who I knew would be interested and impressed, this is what I'm going to do.

Reya El-salahi

But you didn't.

Katherine El-salahi

No, no, no. I didn't. I didn't because we were told we'd put people's lives at risk.

Reya El-salahi

The deception fascinated me. I couldn't get my head around it. It seemed beyond her, somehow. She was never a cool mom. To think she could travel with a cover story and a fake marriage, and she kept it up for three months. The mission was dangerous, but they didn't spend all of their time, or even most of it, racing through the African bush with machine guns hidden in the gas tank.

Katherine El-salahi

We spent a lot of time looking at animals, which I had never done before. Because we were near a game reserve and that's one of the things tourists do and honeymoon couples do. So we did all the things we knew we had to do to look plausible.

Reya El-salahi

Was there no sense-- or was there any sense, I should ask, are people really going to buy this?

Katherine El-salahi

Oh, I had that all the time. I was really anxious that they wouldn't buy it.

Reya El-salahi

Why?

Katherine El-salahi

Because it wasn't true. [LAUGHS] To me, it was blindingly obvious that we weren't a honeymoon couple.

Reya El-salahi

My mother and Laurence did share a room, but not like that.

Reya El-salahi

Did you think there was any chemistry between you?

Katherine El-salahi

No. No, there wasn't. People don't ask questions. People didn't ask questions. We were a European couple. We were going to safari, if anybody asked us, for two or three months. And that was that.

Reya El-salahi

What was the dynamic like between you and your fake husband?

Katherine El-salahi

I don't think we talked like that.

Reya El-salahi

Because you didn't know each other.

Katherine El-salahi

We didn't know each other and he was very cool. He was very cool. He was very cool and reserved. And I was battling with these anxieties on my own.

Reya El-salahi

What did you talk about?

Katherine El-salahi

We talked about our lives and we probably discussed various things. I don't remember.

Reya El-salahi

You say that as though you weren't actually spending time together when the doors were closed. Did you feel as though, once you were able to drop the act, you were back to being by yourself, even if you were sharing a space?

Katherine El-salahi

Yes. Yeah, I did. That's right. You've hit the nail on the head.

Reya El-salahi

The downtime was frustrating. There were times that the mission felt poorly planned. Sometimes the men they were meant to help were too drunk to travel. And always, the fear of being found out hung over them. The stickiest it got was one time, they got lost and accidentally crossed over the border into Rhodesia and came face to face with armed guards, who were known to take pot shots at anyone who wasn't meant to be there.

Katherine El-salahi

That was very scary, going into Rhodesia. Coming in in a way that-- from a place they weren't expecting white-- anybody, actually, to come through, but certainly not white tourists. I think we were running out of petrol, too. So at some point, a black South African came and asked us for a lift while we were being processed.

Reya El-salahi

So while you're going through the border gates.

Katherine El-salahi

Yes. Would we give him a lift to Chobe, which was the northernmost part of Botswana, just on the border with Zambia. And we had to be very cold and unfriendly and say no. And that felt terrible.

It felt mean and horrible. And afterwards, Laurence said he thought he was planted, that it was a test. But he didn't tell me that till-- that he thought that. I hadn't thought at the time. He thought it much later and it could have been. Who knows?

Reya El-salahi

A test by who?

Katherine El-salahi

Oh, the Rhodesian police. The Rhodesian border police.

Reya El-salahi

It was frightening, but my mother and Laurence weren't close, so of course she didn't really talk to him about it.

Katherine El-salahi

And sometimes, that was frustrating. I used to talk to Jimmy in my head.

Reya El-salahi

That was your real boyfriend?

Katherine El-salahi

That was my real boyfriend, yes.

Reya El-salahi

Before the mission, my mom lived in Tanzania as a research student for two years. During that time, she had a love affair with a black South African man called Jimmy, who was active with the ANC. She has talked about him before, but until now, I didn't know the finer details of their relationship.

Katherine El-salahi

Why I'm hesitating is because he wasn't my boyfriend. As I say, I knew when I left Tanzania-- it wasn't stated, but we both knew that was likely to be the end of the relationship because he was completely committed to underground work of the ANC.

Reya El-salahi

So when you decided to take this mission, you did have a boyfriend?

Katherine El-salahi

Yes.

Reya El-salahi

I didn't know that.

Katherine El-salahi

Well, but he was in jail-- [LAUGHS] in Tanzania and then sent to the Soviet Union. And I was in England.

Reya El-salahi

Even though they weren't together at that point, and telling him anything was off limits, my mom joined the ANC partly because of Jimmy.

Katherine El-salahi

I wanted to do something. I suppose, in some ways, also to impress him and to show that I was serious about things that I said I believed in.

Reya El-salahi

I'm completely in awe of what she did. But knowing that Jimmy was, in part, why she did it was a bit of a letdown. It made me realize we're very different in how we're motivated. Jimmy found out about my mom's mission and wrote to her. He said how proud he was, but also warned her never to talk about it.

The letters continued for a while longer, but she never saw him again. Years later, when a book about the operation, called The London Recruits, came out, my mother heard through the grapevine that Jimmy had been killed in action. But to this day, his body's never been found.

Reya El-salahi

Do you think, to a certain extent, that I idealize a period of your life that was essentially a three-month period and nothing more? Do you think I romanticize it as more than, perhaps, it was to you?

Katherine El-salahi

Oh, definitely. Definitely. I think that that's why I was reluctant, in the first place, to talk about The London Recruits. Because I knew an awful lot of people who had done and continued doing a hell of a lot more. And it didn't feel like the pinnacle. If felt like something good to do. I was glad to do it.

Reya El-salahi

A few months after my mother returned home from her mission, she was introduced to the man who'd become her real husband, my dad. They came from completely different worlds. He was Muslim from Sudan and there was a considerable age gap. But for my mum, the relationship just clicked, especially because of what she'd just gone through.

Katherine El-salahi

That mission was part of a huge developmental change for me of what I cared about and believed in, reflected in the kinds of friendships that I had and the kinds of lover I was interested in.

Reya El-salahi

How much do you think the decision to marry someone, as you say, who was from a very different background from you, was an extension of putting your politics into action?

Katherine El-salahi

I would hate it to come across as some kind of, right, I have married this person as a political statement. Because I didn't. It was because I loved him. But I think that it was a confirmation of who I'd become.

Reya El-salahi

So they married. My dad got a job in the Middle East and together, they started a family in Qatar. We grew up between Qatar and London. My mom tried to stay politically active with other forms of work, from journalism to publishing.

But eventually she gave up on all of that. She'd left her independent life behind to follow my father to a place where, she admits, she was cut off from everyone and everything she previously knew and loved, and turned her attention to raising a family. She never did anything like she'd done in southern Africa again and she never talked about it.

It was always so confusing that there she was, this mumsie mum, a woman dedicated to supporting a man-- my dad-- but constantly telling my sister and I not to be, making us focus on putting ourselves first. Age 12 or 13, she encouraged me to get my first job, helping out at a bed and breakfast in my neighborhood, cleaning rooms and doing laundry after school. My mom said it was important I knew the value of hard work and could appreciate the independence of making my own money. It was years before my elder brothers were taught the same lesson.

Later on, when I was building my career and living miles away from friends and family, I'd call my mom moaning about being so far away and the impact it was having on my love life. She'd always told me the same thing.

Focus on the future. Independence and work come before love. Knowing how committed she'd been to her mission might have helped me better understand where she was coming from. She hadn't always been a mum.

Reya El-salahi

I didn't know the full extent of what happened until I was well in my 20s, in terms of your experience of this mission. Why didn't you tell me, tell your children, what you did? Did you think we'd judge you?

Katherine El-salahi

Well, you judge me all the time.

Reya El-salahi

That's because I love you. But I think--

Katherine El-salahi

You judge me whatever I do.

Reya El-salahi

I think I judge you because I look at a lot of the decisions that you made when you were around the same age as me and I find it incredible that you made those decisions and then went on to live a life that I can't quite imagine myself living, in terms of putting relationships with men at the forefront of the decisions that I make. You always brought me up very focused on career, on education, not on relationships. But that's completely at odds with the decision that you made when you were the age that I am now. You, to a certain extent, dropped everything you had previously been for a relationship.

Then she told me something. Something she'd actually been kind of saying to me all along throughout this entire conversation. Whether it was about what she didn't have with Laurence or what she did have with my dad, or with Jimmy.

Katherine El-salahi

Relationships were always important to me. As important as career. My mother died when I was your age. And in the time running up to that, the thing that hurt her most, upset her most, was the thought that I didn't have someone.

Reya El-salahi

I'm glad this isn't how she raised me. And I want to take a moment to state the obvious here. I'm fully aware that when I questioned her decision to start a family, any criticism might sound completely insane. I wouldn't be here if my mom hadn't made the choices she did.

Reya El-salahi

Does it upset you that I'm critical of the decisions you made? And that I'm so kind of black and white about, I would never do that, I'd never give up my job to have four kids and get married and whatever and lead the life that you went on to lead. Does that upset you?

Katherine El-salahi

No. I'm very glad you wouldn't do what I did because you're-- it's a different time, you're a different person. I expect you to be very critical.

I think you judge me because you're my daughter and you're very judgmental. That's who you are. And I think you're pinning it on to something here. You've got to find a reason for doing it and so you've made it that one. I think the judging comes first and the reason for judging comes after.

Reya El-salahi

Do you honestly think that? Do you honestly think that? That it's just that I'm judgmental and therefore, I'm saying, let me pick a reason to judge her? It's not that I think you could have achieved so much more had you not become a wife and mother?

Katherine El-salahi

But I don't think I could because I think being a wife and mother stabilized me in ways that-- I was very, very up and down and insecure in the midst of all this. But becoming, not so much a wife, but a mother really grounded me and, in many ways, made me much more confident. So no, for me, those were the right decisions and I think you're wrong to judge me on that.

Reya El-salahi

If I came home one day and said to you, I'm marrying someone and I'm going to essentially put my career on hold slash quit my career, would you be happy with that?

Katherine El-salahi

I'd be very, very, very upset. I think what you're muddling up is judging and wanting to follow in my footsteps. And I hope you won't follow in my footsteps.

Reya El-salahi

Because you'd judge me. You would judge me if I followed in your footsteps. That's why, right? That's you being judgmental of me, too.

Katherine El-salahi

No, it's not. It's because I know you. Well, and my mother used to say, I know you, Katherine. And I'd say, no, you don't. But actually, she did. And I know you and I know if you followed in my footsteps, I'd think some kind of spirit had possessed you.

Reya El-salahi

There's something comforting in knowing she gets me, even if I can't always return the favor. Listening back, I hear how judgy I am. I get that she made the decisions that were right for her, just not for me. And that's OK. Perhaps that's just the trick of parenting. You can't always lead by example.

Ira Glass

Reya El-Salahi. She's a reporter and anchor for the London TV channel, London Live.

[MUSIC - "REBEL WITHOUT A PAUSE" BY PUBLIC ENEMY]

Credits

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Robyn Semien and Karen Duffin. Our staff includes Susan Burton, Sean Cole, Whitney Dangerfield, Neil Drumming, Stephanie Foo, Jonathan Menjivar, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Music help today from Damien Graef.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, thisamericanlife.org. This American Life" is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program's co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, at my niece's birthday party last weekend. I asked him to teach everybody to play musical chairs. And I don't know, he got really intense about it.

Francisco Cantu

When I say stand, lift your ass off the seat and keep it in the air until I tell you to sit.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of this American life.

[MUSIC - "I DON'T WANT NOBODY TO GIVE ME NOTHING (OPEN UP THE DOOR I'll GET IT MYSELF)" BY JAMES BROWN]