Transcript

549:

Amateur Hour
Transcript

Originally aired 02.27.2015

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/549

Prologue.

Ira Glass

We've been doing a lot of stories lately on the radio show about police. And they've been pretty heavy, we know. This is not a story like that. In fact, kind of the opposite.

When Miles and Katie's apartment was robbed, they knew this was not going to be a big case. And if you got right down to it, they did not have a problem with that. New York City cops arrived after the burglary.

Miles

They had probably just come from some sort of situation where someone had gotten stabbed in the neck. And now they're in these kind of yuppies' apartment, and we're running down this laundry list of things that had been stolen.

Ira Glass

And the list is like--

Miles

Oh, it's so embarrassing. It's like, an iPad, an iPod, an Xbox.

Ira Glass

They've got bigger problems.

Katie

Yeah, they got bigger fish to fry.

Ira Glass

Surveillance video from the building showed that the culprits were three teenagers who took the elevator to the top floor, probably jumped down onto a balcony, and then walked into Katie's and Miles' apartment through a sliding glass door. Then there's video of them leaving the building.

Katie

Three teenage guys with three of our backpacks, stuffed full.

Ira Glass

Wow, so they're using your backpacks?

Katie

Our own backpacks.

Ira Glass

So they didn't even have any plans on how they're going to carry this out?

Katie

I guess not.

Miles

It didn't seem like a very well-thought-out caper. This was more of a-- let's break into this building and see if someone's dumb enough to leave their sliding glass door open.

Ira Glass

Of all the things they lost, the only thing that they actually cared about was their video camera. And they only cared about that because it had their wedding video on it-- the only copy. Katie filmed the wedding to show her brother but hadn't yet.

Katie

My brother, who I'm really close to, couldn't come to the wedding. And so it was really sentimental, and I really wanted it back. And I was really upset. I was really, really sad about it.

Ira Glass

So the morning after the burglary, knowing the police were not going to be much help on this one, Katie decides to jump into action herself. She goes onto Craigslist to see if the thieves have put her camera up for sale there.

And boom, she finds it immediately. Same camera in the same bag, with all the accessories that she had specially bought for the camera. It had to be hers. And she calls the detectives on the case, tells them the good news.

Katie

Like, I can get my camera, and I can probably put these guys in jail. And he just immediately shoots me down and says, you know, "there's no way of really knowing if that's your camera. We can't help you with anything. The only way we'd be able to help you is if you got the guy to give you a serial number off the camera and if you happen to still have the serial number from the camera, and they match." And I think he was just thinking, like, that'll never happen.

Ira Glass

Katie, however, saves all her warranties in a special folder. She does have the serial number. And to confirm that it's the same as the advertised camera, she calls the guy on Craigslist and she concocts this story that she is a girl who needs to buy the camera for a school project.

She puts on this supposedly tough-sounding Brooklyn accent that I would describe as kind of the Brooklyn accent you would hear performed by a kid actor on the Disney Channel. I made her do this for me. You do not want to hear it.

Katie

And I told him that my boyfriend was going to kick my ass if I spent our last $300 buying a camera that broke the next day. And so, "Do you have the warranty for the camera?" And he said, "No." He was like, "Uh, I got this camera from my friend, so there was no warranty with it."

I was like, "OK, well, do you know, like, is there a way to find out if it's still under warranty?" And he said, "Well, I think you can find out if the camera's under warranty if you go online." And I was like, "OK, well, what do I need to do?" And he was like, "Well, I think you need to have the serial number."

Ira Glass

So you didn't actually just ask him for the serial number. You wanted him to suggest the serial number?

Katie

Yeah. Yeah. Because I thought if I asked him for the serial number, then he would know right away what I was trying to do.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Katie

So I was trying to get him to say it.

Ira Glass

She asked him, "Can you read me the serial number?" And he says he doesn't have the camera with them. He'll have to call her back. And she figures, oh, that's it. The jig is up. He knows she's lying. He will never call back.

As Miles points out, this story that she has made up, it really makes no sense at all. Like, OK, she's got a sociopath boyfriend.

Miles

Who would beat up his girlfriend over the very nerdy error of buying a video camera that wasn't under warranty.

Ira Glass

[LAUGHS]

Miles

[LAUGHS] It wasn't like he was drunk and he found her cheating on him or anything. He was like, he's violent enough to beat somebody up, but only if they buy a video camera that we don't have a warranty for.

(IN HOLLYWOOD BROOKLYN ACCENT) Because God forbid something should happen, you know, and this camera breaks down. "We can't get our money back! We can't get it repaired! You know what's gonna happen." It's like, what?

Ira Glass

And then the guy calls back. Gives her the serial number. Of course it matches. Katie calls the detective to let him know.

Katie

He says, "Oh, really? Well, what should we do?" [LAUGHS] And I was like, "You tell me what we should do. You're the detective."

Ira Glass

And he says, "Of course, we'll do a sting. Call the guy and arrange to buy the camera from him. Set a location. We'll be there, too. We'll swoop in. We'll nab him."

15 minutes later, the police arrive to take Katie and Miles to the sting. Katie runs downstairs to meet the detective on the street.

Katie

He tells me that there's been a change of plans. He doesn't need my husband to come anymore. He only needs me. I'm not going to meet the burglar face-to-face anymore, because it's not safe. And so he's got a different plan of how we're going to do this.

Ira Glass

At that point, Miles arrives downstairs.

Katie

I turn around to him and I just say, "Change of plans. They don't need us both anymore. They just need me. It's not safe for you to go. I'll call you when it's over."

Ira Glass

[LAUGHTER]

Katie

[LAUGHTER] And he's, like, stunned.

Ira Glass

(LAUGHING) 'Cause that's not alarming at all.

Katie

(LAUGHING) Yeah.

Ira Glass

Miles watches her get into the car and drive off. Inside the car, Katie says, the detectives tell her the new plan. She's going to stay in the car and talk to the guy on the cellphone, keep him talking as the cops go and grab them-- though they are very skeptical.

Katie

Basically saying, like, "The chance of this working out is so small." Like, "This is never going to happen. Don't get your panties in a bunch."

Ira Glass

She and the Craigslist guy agree to meet at a CVS drugstore. Cops go inside. Then on the cellphone, Katie asks him, OK, "What are you wearing?" so she can recognize him. She tells him, "OK, I'm in the make-up aisle."

Katie

I'm like, "Oh, I'm by the CoverGirl makeup." He starts walking down the aisle, I guess, and he says, "Oh, I still don't see you." And at that point, I hear, "Hands up! You're under arrest."

And the same detectives who were brushing me off the entire ride out there then are walking over to the car with the video camera in hand, high-fiving each other. And I hear them say, like, "That was some real police work. Great detective work."

Ira Glass

The police could not be more surprised to be making this arrest. And to be fair, as Miles pointed out, it's crazy that it worked.

Miles

There's so many different stages where the criminal should've bailed out, you know? Like the fact that she comes up the story about, I need the warranty. He calls her back. He makes the effort to call her back and said, "Didn't you need a serial number for the warranty?" It's like, what? Like, I can't believe that he's playing along with it.

Ira Glass

Honestly, like, you don't get that level of service from real stores.

Miles

[LAUGHS] You don't.

Ira Glass

See, but that's the whole thing, is that she's an amateur sleuth, but he's also an amateur criminal.

Miles

Right.

Ira Glass

And this is the moment where they meet up.

Miles

Right. So there'd be no way a detective would ever spend the amount of time that it would take to concoct this ruse to go after this camera. So the only way that it could ever be solved would be if two amateurs met up.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today on our program, amateurs-- the fact that they are not professionals, that they do not play by the book, that they have time on their hands to try whatever makes it possible for them to accomplish things the pros simply never will. We have three stories, including amateurs stepping into one of the most powerful jobs in the world and one of the most commonplace. Stay with us.

[MUSIC PLAYING]

Act One. Theater of War.

Ira Glass

Act One, "Theater of War." Sometimes a big professional outfit that is great at one thing takes on a task at which it has no experience at all, and really no special aptitude for in any way. It is a rank amateur. Jack Hitt has this example.

Jack Hitt

Back when the first President Bush was in office, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. And for the first time since Vietnam, really, America returned to the battlefield. Derrick Brown felt called. And so he wound up at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, one of the largest military bases in the world. Back then, about 40,000 soldiers-- most famously, the 82nd Airborne and other Ready Units that can be deployed in 18 hours.

Fort Bragg is America's waiting room for war. When Derrick first arrived, he was trained as a paratrooper.

Derrick Brown

You know, you'd wake up at 5:00 in the morning. Then you would deploy out to the field. You'd do a jump from 800 feet. I was an artilleryman, so they'd throw the tanks out of the planes. Then they'd throw us out of the planes. So you'd do these mock war exercises where people would try and attack you and kill you, and you'd be out in the cold, and you'd be digging more foxholes, and just seeing how ground down you could possibly be, so that when the time comes for war, your body and mind have been pushed as far as possible.

Jack Hitt

Every once in a while, there'd be something else-- a volunteer duty.

Derrick Brown

I remember the captain of our unit, he said he had this strange detail, which was we had to mandatorily send one soldier from our battery to be a part of this musical. And it would last several weeks. You wouldn't have to do any field duty, but you would have to sing and dance.

And everyone thought he was joking. And I raised my hand. And he said, "Great. Report to the Fort Bragg theater today."

Jack Hitt

Were you the only person who volunteered for this?

Derrick Brown

I was the only person who volunteered. And they had me sit in this room, and this director first had everyone audition. And he asked if I knew of any songs that I could sing from any musicals. And I said, "Not at all."

I had never sang or danced in my life, except while running and singing cadences and Jody calls in the military. And he said, "Well, just sing me something." And I remember singing "Even Flow," by Pearl Jam.

Jack Hitt

Can you give a couple of lines?

Derrick Brown

It's-- [LAUGHS]

(SINGING) Even--

[LAUGHS]

(SINGING) Even flow, thoughts arrive like--

I think I was just impersonating Eddie Vedder the whole time.

Jack Hitt

[LAUGHS] OK.

Derrick Brown

And somehow they thought it was good enough. And it turns out that no one was turned away.

Jack Hitt

In rehearsals, Derrick quickly got a sense that something different was going on here. This was not just your average musical revue.

Jack Hitt

What kind of dancing are you doing?

Derrick Brown

It's march dancing. I don't know if you've seen it, but it is the director's idea to combine the honor and discipline of military movements with the bravado and panache of Broadway movements.

Jack Hitt

But the thing Derrick remembers most, more than 20 years later, was not the song-and-dance numbers. It was the stuff in between. There were short films projected on the screen above the performers. And they were opposite of lighthearted entertainment-- grim testimonials about soldiers who'd died. Not in combat, but drunk driving and in other accidents near the base, all done in a dark bluntness one rarely sees outside driver's ed movies.

Derrick Brown

We'd go from show tune to a video on the screen of a fellow soldier that they'd interviewed talking about how one of their fellow soldiers, their friend, died. And then-- uh-oh, surprise! We would sing a show tune.

And it was this progression of dance, sad video, sing a bit, sad video. And then some guys come rappelling out of the ceiling for the closing number at the end of the hour, for the final chance to cheer everyone up so they leave feeling inspired. It was insane.

We would have discussions backstage, which is what the-- what are we doing? Why are we doing this? How did this-- how did this thing even come to be?

Jack Hitt

Excellent questions. How did one of the most straitlaced, no-nonsense institutions in the entire country, the US Army, end up producing this piece of Dada musical theater? I wanted answers. So I went straight up the chain of command.

General Carl Stiner

Yes, I'm General Carl Stiner, US Army, retired. And I was the Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division during 1987 and 1988.

Jack Hitt

General Stiner was at Fort Bragg. And he confirmed that yes, for a while in the '70s, '80s, and early '90s, there was this annual show which the entire base was required to attend. So there were three or four performances a day for a week or so during the Christmas season, which is when accidental deaths spiked.

General Carl Stiner

We realized that we were having more casualties from off-duty activities-- mainly motorcycles-- than from thousands of parachute jumps and heavy equipment drops. You know, we just needed to do something about it.

Jack Hitt

Stiner told me that some years, for every death of a soldier during training exercises, there were almost 10 killed getting drunk and driving crazy. Wartime deaths, we all know about, and after-war PTSD. But this was a whole other kind of statistic-- pre-combat deaths-- which come when tens of thousands of teenagers anxiously awaiting war get pumped up jumping out of planes and firing heavy artillery. How could some beer and, say, a motorcycle possibly affect them?

Originally, the base had ordered mandatory safety lectures. But the soldiers just slept through them. So the United States Defense Department, the greatest fighting force ever to march on the planet, decided they would try show tunes. And that's the origin of what came to be called The Soldier Safety Show.

I interviewed a dozen veterans from this era, and they all remember the weird mash-up of gut-wrenching testimonials and cheery eye-high leg kicks. They all said, "You had to see it to believe it." And I wanted to believe it.

When I called Stiner, he told me that he had a videotape of one of the shows.

General Carl Stiner

You know, I had a VCR of it. But age caused the thing to self-destruct. You couldn't even tell what it was, the pictures and so on. And so we struck out.

Jack Hitt

I won't bore you with the details. But finding a videotape literally took months. The public school library had a set of Soldier Safety Shows, but not long before I called, they went full-on digital and junked all their old school audiovisual stuff. A Freedom of Information request came up completely dry.

Finally, I happened upon Gudron Blackmon, still working at Bragg, who called back to say she had an old box at home and, in it, a tape. The label read, "1989 Soldier Safety Show-- Life is Worth Living."

Folk Guitarist

(SINGING) This road of life we travel, it can take us many ways.

Jack Hitt

Early on, we see a folk guitarist seated onstage, plucking out a sad melody.

Folk Guitarist

(SINGING) But for all of these young soldiers whose lives had just begun--

Jack Hitt

Above him, on a screen, is a general. It's actually General Stiner himself entering a cemetery. And he starts talking about accidental deaths on base.

General Carl Stiner

When a soldier is killed, I feel terrible. I get a sickening feeling, a feeling of failure. We lost 26 this year, and it's terrible. Charles. Adam. James.

Jack Hitt

General Stiner occasionally kneels down, and, at one point, removes his beret--

General Carl Stiner

Unnecessary.

Jack Hitt

And talks directly to a tombstone.

General Carl Stiner

We tried with you, Tosher, and we failed. Perhaps we could have done a little better if your friends had been more forthcoming to us with your problems. You were a great soldier. And we loved you. How many new graves next year? What do I have to do to stop these unnecessary and needless deaths?

[JAZZ BAND MUSIC PLAYING]

Jack Hitt

The lights come up on a stage packed with 30 or 40 men and women in fancy dress doing some tap dance moves with lots of spirit fingers and jazz hands. It's a tribute to everyone who fought in World War II. And these absurd smash-ups just keep happening for the rest of the show, just like all the soldiers told me.

So who came up with this idea? Who was the mastermind of Operation Schlock and Awe? His name was Lee Yopp. And his journey to theater was not one anyone might predict.

Bo Thorp

He had-- he had no personal taste. He ate overdone meat, and he wore polyester suits. I mean, he didn't care what he wore.

Jack Hitt

That's Bo Thorp, a local North Carolina actress who was frequently cast in these shows. Yopp died back in 2006. I talked to other actors, too, and they all reacted like Reese Brown, a paratrooper from the '90s.

Reese Brown

[CHUCKLES]

Jack Hitt

[LAUGHS] See, everyone laughs when I ask about Lee.

Reese Brown

No, because it's funny, because I haven't thought about him in years. But just to think about just some of the things that he said, every word he used, every enunciation he used, every colorful description he used, was filled with 10 words that didn't need to be there. [LAUGHS] He didn't say, "I'm going to the store." "I'm traversing down to--" You know, it was one of those things.

But he had no room at all for shyness on stage. He made it a point of saying that if you're going to fail, please fail loudly.

[LAUGHS]

Jack Hitt

[LAUGHS]

Reese Brown

"Please fail loudly, and sing it as though your life depended on it." [CHUCKLES] It's odd, because I'd never met anyone like him, prior to this point. It's like, where did this guy come from?

Bo Thorp

He was a high school football coach.

Jack Hitt

That's Bo Thorp again.

Bo Thorp

This was in Trenton, New Jersey. And the director of the class play died suddenly, and Lee inherited the class play. And it also happened that he had just broken his leg, so he really couldn't go out on the football field. So that's how he got into the theater.

Steve Currie

And so he took his A personality football coach approach to life into the theater.

Jack Hitt

This is Steve Currie, who long worked as Yopp's stage manager.

Steve Currie

And within a very short period of time, turned this little high school theater program into a major competitive organization that won the National Theater Award for high schools across the nation. And they went on a tour of Germany and Japan with this production he put together. And it just was like he was bit, you know? He couldn't get enough of it.

Jack Hitt

Lee Yopp wound up as the chief director of the Bucks County Playhouse outside Trenton, New Jersey, which is one of the farm teams for lots of Broadway shows. Yopp gave Bucks County his all, spending lavishly, even putting his own money into the shows.

Steve Currie

Lee had just taken a second mortgage on his house in New Jersey to use as an investment in a show called Smile, Smile, Smile. The reviews came out. It was Smile, Smile, Smile, it was supposed to be funny. It wasn't, it wasn't, it wasn't. Period. It was one of the shortest theater reviews in the history of musical theater.

Jack Hitt

Currie told me that Yopp bankrupted the Bucks County Playhouse-- and himself, his personal finances so wrecked, he couldn't get a phone in his own name. But then fate stepped in when Yopp bumped into an old Army buddy at an airport who was looking for someone who could direct theater at Fort Bragg.

Bo Thorp

They were thrilled to death with this man who brought theatricality to the Army, the last place in the world that you would think.

Jack Hitt

The one financial backer--

Bo Thorp

That-- right, that could afford him. Right. That could afford him. Exactly.

Jack Hitt

The Defense Department.

Bo Thorp

That's exactly right.

Jack Hitt

Steve Currie, the stage manager, told me that with that money, they built waterfalls and a set for a roller-skating number. Another time, they planted the entire stage in real grass for a park scene with cops on horseback.

Steve Currie

Oh, we had people rappelling from rafters. We had people in parachute rigging flying in over the stage. Cannons and machine guns and muskets, and horses rearing up through the cannon fire. Thompson submachine guns firing.

Jack Hitt

And these are all going off inside a theater.

Steve Currie

Oh, yeah. [LAUGHS]

Jack Hitt

[LAUGHS]

Steve Currie

We would also trigger explosions that we'd set into the stage floor. I would hook up these, like, flash pots. I got-- I got the guy from Special Forces-- he would get me all these, what they call squibs, which are these electronic fuses, and we would create these great explosions. You could never do it today. Fire marshal would shut you down. But we were the Army.

Jack Hitt

Wow.

Steve Currie

And what was impressive about it is how I realized that there was no end to Yopp. He had a special and unique way of making the simple more complicated than you could ever imagine it.

Jack Hitt

Let me just take a moment to say how rare this is. I wrote a book about amateurs a few years ago, those dreamers in their garages, fiddling, creating, struggling. What keeps most of them stuck in their garage is lack of funders. Lee Yopp had hundreds of millions of funders-- the taxpayers of the United States.

Everybody I talked to-- especially the cast and crew that were in so many of these shows, the regulars-- all mentioned this one time, one moment that stood out for them. It was 1982. There'd been a terrible car accident, this time involving one of the cast members' kids. Here's actress Bo Thorp.

Bo Thorp

My son was nearly killed. I mean, he was coming home from his first football game. He was 14 years old. It was October the 8th.

And the young girl who was driving her father's car decided to see how fast her daddy's car would come down Sky Drive, which is where we live. He remembers her saying 80. And when she went to put on the brakes, the car went into a skid and then hit a tree. And so he was in a body cast for six months.

Jack Hitt

She says everyone in the show was heartbroken, of course, including Yopp. But Yopp, being Yopp, saw an opportunity.

Bo Thorp

He said, "Ah! You know what we can do? You think-- would you let us go up to the hospital? And I'll bring a film crew, and we'll go up to the hospital, and we'll film Clay. And then he can-- and then he can make testimony on the tape."

And I said, "Lee, I don't-- I don't know that that's the right thing to do."

"Oh, yeah, absolutely! They'll-- the soldiers will love it. They'll-- they'll understand it. It'll mean a lot to them."

You know, I-- I was really reluctant about it, 'cause I thought that, you know, it was just not very tasteful.

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

Jack Hitt

A few weeks later, there was Bo on stage.

Bo Thorp

My 14-year-old son was in a very serious car accident. It happens like that, you know? There's no warning. It just comes-- boom-- like that. We went up to Clay's hospital room when he was very sick. And he agreed to make this film. I hope you'll pay attention.

Jack Hitt

Then, on the big screen, Clay Thorp, 14 years old, lying in a hospital bed, flat on his back, in a full body cast. And Clay jumps right in, looking into the camera as best he can, reliving the accident, calling out the miles per hour as if he were once again flying down that hill.

Clay Thorp

10. 20. 30. 40. 50. I told her to slow down. 60? 70? Oh my god! This is a dream. This can't be happening.

Here I am in this place. I'm not normal now. I wish I could get out. I wish I could get out tomorrow.

(SINGING) The sun'll come out, tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there'll be sun.

Jack Hitt

And then beneath the video screen, a young girl comes out on stage.

Girl

(SINGING) When I'm stuck with a day that's gray and lonely, I just stick out my chin and grin and say, oh--

Jack Hitt

And-- and do you think this had-- I mean, how-- how effective was this with the soldiers?

Bo Thorp

Amazing. Absolutely amazing. Because these are 18-year-old boys.

And when you're 18 years old and you're a butch kind of male, your life is gonna go on forever. And you're-- you're special. You're gonna last forever. And you can do whatever you want to do. And-- and if you die, so what? And Lee had a way of understanding that. He would do everything he could to prove to them or to show them the value of life and how short it is, and how quickly it goes by.

Chorus

(SINGING) The sun'll come out tomorrow. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow, there'll be--

Jack Hitt

You know what this is? It's the lecture I gave my teenage daughter a few nights ago when I handed her the car keys. "Drive carefully. Buckle up. Please don't be an idiot." Every parent tries to come up with some way to say this to their kid. Lee Yopp had to crack that code for 40,000 of them.

And you know what? It worked. After the Soldier Safety Show started, the average number of deaths at the base dropped by a third.

Chorus

(SINGING) Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow. You're only--

Jack Hitt

At the end of every show, one of Yopp's actors always came out on the stage to give the final safety lecture.

Man

We need your help. And we ask that each and every one of you join with us to make this pledge to always, always wear your safety belts.

Jack Hitt

The speaker asks everyone who believes in safety to stand and take the pledge. These are soldiers, and they follow orders.

Man

Please--

Jack Hitt

So naturally, up jumps everyone in the audience. And then the cast floods the stage for the final number and Yopp's last brilliant contribution to musical theater-- a guaranteed standing ovation at the end of every show.

Chorus

(SINGING) Everyone will sing!

[CHEERING AND APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Jack Hitt. He's the author of several books, including the one that he mentioned in this story. It is called Bunch of Amateurs. It recently came out in paperback.

Coming up, babies having babies-- robot babies, specifically. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two. And Baby Makes 0011.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme and bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show-- "Amateur Hour," stories of how amateurs can accomplish things that the pros cannot. That is, when they are not crashing and burning completely.

We've arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two, "What to Expect When You're Expecting a Robot."

There's this thing that a lot of kids have to do in health class. Maybe you did this when you were in high school. The idea is to give students a taste of what it is like to be responsible for an infant-- and kind of what a pain in the ass it is, actually. And they do this by making the kids carry around an egg-- or sometimes it's, like, a sack of flour-- for a couple days. Supposedly this jolt of reality helps prevent teen pregnancies. Which, you know, is a lot to ask of an egg.

So these days, some schools are using these robotic babies. These are plastic dolls with electronics inside which make them cry randomly, all day and night. Their sleeping, eating, and pooping patterns are based on logs kept by real parents about real babies. The babies cost over $600 each. Hillary Frank went out to find out if amateur parenthood is more intense and realistic with these high-tech crybabies.

Hillary Frank

The first time I saw a robotic baby was at my local pharmacy. It was one of those old-timey places with a candy counter and surgical supplies and a large selection of scented candles. One day I was in the store, and I heard this teenage girl behind me say, "My god, this baby is so heavy." She had a car seat slung over her shoulder like a purse. For a second I thought the plastic baby inside it was real.

"The real ones are heavier," I told her. She groaned and whipped the car seat over to her other shoulder. At the time I had a three-year-old, and I was dying to know if this girl's experience with the plastic baby was anything remotely like my experience with my flesh-and-blood baby.

The girl told me she went to Glen Ridge High. Glen Ridge is the town next to mine in New Jersey. So I called the school and asked if they'd let me hang out the next time the girls got the babies.

Robot Baby

[WAILING]

Ms. Hogan

Oh, and don't forget to support her neck when you pick her up out of the car seat. OK?

Hillary Frank

Ms. Hogan, the health teacher, is setting up two girls with their babies. The robot babies are so expensive that the school only has 10 of them, so the students take turns with them for two solid days of pretend parenting. In the class I visited, the students on deck were Rachel--

Rachel

Let's kick it. I'm excited. My baby's here.

Hillary Frank

And Paige.

Paige

I don't know why I'm so nervous about this baby, but it-- it'll be good.

Hillary Frank

My producer Joanna and I followed them with their babies over the next 48 hours. Rachel and Paige are friends, but they're about as different as two 17-year-olds can be. We'll start with Paige.

Paige is brimming with maternal affection for her fake baby. She pulls a flowered onesie out of her bookbag and shows it to Joanna.

Paige

I brought clothes for her.

Joanna

Wait, are these your baby clothes?

Paige

Well, I think some of them are, and my mom saved them. And then I used them for when I used to play baby dolls.

Hillary Frank

Just a note here about Paige's voice. I've never heard anyone talk like her before. She's not whispering or anything. This is just the way she sounds.

Joanna

You're really, like, going for the full immersion.

Paige

I am. I am. Because I-- I was so excited to get a baby. So I know it'll be so much fun. It'll be hard. But it'll be fun!

Hillary Frank

To be clear, there was no need to bring baby clothes. The doll comes with its own outfit.

Paige is a devout Christian. She wears a purity ring.

Paige

And I made a promise that I will not ever give myself away before I'm married. 'Cause I think it's one of the worst mistakes somebody could do.

Hillary Frank

So that's Paige. Now here's Rachel.

Rachel

I don't think that losing your virginity is giving yourself away.

Hillary Frank

Rachel is the quintessential theater kid. She describes herself as liberal and bisexual. She's never had sex with anyone, but she keeps a good luck condom in her drawer, just in case.

Rachel

Just-- it's just in my room. I know it's there. Like, I went on a trip somewhere once, like by myself. And I just brought it, even though I knew I wouldn't use it. But it's just, like, for good luck.

Hillary Frank

Rachel thinks she wants to wait until her 30s to have kids. She did not bring in baby clothes today for her robot baby. She thinks this whole baby thing will just make for a fun story, like the time she joined the boys' wrestling team and wound up puking in the locker room.

Rachel

I've been more excited about the back story than anything else. Like, I need to find-- who's the father? I need to figure it out. Was it left on my doorstep?

Hillary Frank

The girls take their babies. Each is in a car seat. Each looks like a real baby-- except plastic, with a huge speaker on its chest, a vacant stare. Their lips are always pursed for feeding. And somehow, they always look a little pissed off.

Paige and Rachel head to class. Their first big challenge--

Hillary Frank

Do you know how much blood you're giving?

Today is the blood drive at Glen Ridge High.

Robot Baby

[CRYING]

Lab Tech

Let me take my gloves off.

Robot Baby

[CRYING]

Hillary Frank

Rachel is laid out flat on a table with a tourniquet around her arm. Her baby is on the floor, behind her head, in the car seat. The lab tech says--

Lab Tech

You're not allowed to give her the baby?

Hillary Frank

She can't give Rachel the baby.

Robot Baby

[CRYING]

Rachel

I don't like this. I want to take care of my baby. I don't like that sound.

Hillary Frank

If those cries sound disturbingly real, it's because they're recordings of actual babies crying.

Robot Baby

[CRYING LOUDLY]

Rachel

Oh, the baby really wants me now.

Hillary Frank

And if Rachel could get to her baby, here is how she would get it to stop crying.

It has to be her. It can't be someone else. She's being graded on this. So she's wearing a wristband that she swipes over the baby.

[DIGITAL BEEP]

That identifies her as the mother. Next, she'd have to figure out why the baby is crying. It could need one of four things-- burping, rocking, diapering, or feeding. To feed it, you hold a fake bottle by the baby's lips, and if she's hungry, she goes like this.

Robot Baby

[GULPING] [COOS]

Hillary Frank

When she's full, she goes like this.

Robot Baby

[COOS HAPPILY]

Hillary Frank

You have only two minutes to get it right. If you don't, you lose points. If you don't support the baby's neck? More points off.

So all the time Rachel's on the blood donor table, she's losing points. The lab tech holds Rachel's arm, pushes the needle into her vein.

Rachel

Ow, ow, ow! It really hurts now. It hurts more now. Ow, ow, ow. OK.

Hillary Frank

Then, like any stressed-out drama geek--

Rachel

[SINGS OPERATICALLY]

Robot Baby

[CRYING LOUDLY]

Hillary Frank

Rachel bursts into song. Opera.

Rachel

[SINGS OPERATICALLY]

Hillary Frank

Are-- are you singing because of the pain, or because you don't want to hear the baby crying?

Rachel

It's a little bit of both. Mostly because of the pain. I'm sorry, Baby!

Hillary Frank

Meanwhile, Paige's baby seems to need attention constantly. She'll feed it or rock it and it'll stop crying, but then start up again four minutes later. Then five minutes after that. Then another seven minutes after that.

Paige

I think I've kind of learned already-- it's only an hour and a half into it. I've definitely learned this baby, it's kind of like a normal baby, but not, 'cause it-- I think a normal baby is not this needy.

Hillary Frank

Of course, a human baby is way more needy. But, you know. Amateurs.

Joanna and I follow Paige and Rachel through the rest of their classes. The babies wail through lectures, through debates--

Teacher

OK, so what else--

Hillary Frank

In one class, there are four babies going off.

Rachel

This is the most babyful class I've gone to so far.

Hillary Frank

Which makes it feel more like a nursery than a school.

Robot Baby

[CRYING]

Hillary Frank

While taking a test, Rachel discovers a clever workaround. She props the bottle up in the car seat and basically has the baby feed itself.

Some teachers are amused. Others aren't. The girls are especially nervous about bringing the babies to play rehearsal.

Director

All right, listen up!

Hillary Frank

They tell me the director's a little shouty.

Director

Hello-ooo-oo-oo. Hello!

Theater Kid

Shhh!

Director

We are going to begin.

Theater Kid

Woo!

Hillary Frank

The show is Dead Man Walking, a stage version of the film. Both girls are in the play, and they both play mothers. Rachel is the mother of the murderer.

Rachel

(SINGING) And I feel so--

Hillary Frank

Paige is the mother of the nun.

Paige

(SINGING) Will grow to hate me.

Hillary Frank

Paige is standing on a raised platform at the back of the stage. She's swaying a little, looking up at the spotlight as she sings. Then, just as she feared--

Robot Baby

[CRYING]

Hillary Frank

From backstage, her baby starts crying. Paige lunges off the platform and trips on a wooden crate that's part of the set. She flies through the air-- oddly gracefully.

[BANG]

Paige

[SHORT SCREAM]

Students

Oh!

Hillary Frank

And lands smack on her knee.

Theater Kid

OK?

Paige

Yeah, I'm fine.

Director

Are you OK?

Hillary Frank

Clearly she's not fine. She's on the ground, hugging her leg. Everyone circles around her. Since it was blood drive day, there's a student volunteer there, still in his EMS uniform. He checks her leg to see if it's broken. It's not-- just a really bad bruise.

Paige is crying. Her baby is crying. She's cradling the baby in her arms. Someone turns the spotlight on them. Paige looks like the Virgin Mary.

Robot Baby

[WAILING]

Hillary Frank

At this point, Paige decides she's ready to cheat. One of her friends tells her to take off the bracelet. Paige wriggles it off her wrist and hands the baby and the bracelet to the girl, who gets to work triaging.

Friend 1

Burping.

Friend 2

I tried feeding.

Friend 1

Rocking. Burping?

Friend 2

I did.

Friend 1

Yeah, she did.

Friend 2

Feeding.

Friend 3

It just needed to be held.

Hillary Frank

It needed to be held?

Friend 3

Yeah, it just needed to be held. And I burped it, but I didn't make any burping noises.

Girl

Do you want me to grab the nurse, see if she--

Hillary Frank

How you feeling about motherhood now, Paige?

Paige

I hate it! I'm just kidding, just kidding. (CRYING) It's been really stressful. I just-- oh. Sorry. I'm in so much pain.

Hillary Frank

I ask the girls to record themselves on their phones at night whenever their babies wake them up. Here's Rachel.

Rachel

And so it begins.

Robot Baby

[CRYING]

(SUBJECT) [DIGITAL BEEP]

Rachel

This is the first time she's woken me up. It's 11:30 PM.

Robot Baby

[CRYING]

Rachel

Diaper changing and the bottle have not worked. I'm attempting to rock the baby.

Robot Baby

[CRYING, BUT CALMER]

[STOPS CRYING]

Paige

She appears to have stopped. Hopefully she'll be sated for a while. Rachel, over and out.

(SUBJECT) [SILENCE]

Robot Baby

[SCREAMING AND CRYING]

(SUBJECT) [DIGITAL BEEP]

Rachel

This is wake-up number two, about five minutes later.

Robot Baby

[MURMURS]

Rachel

It seems like she doesn't really need anything. She's just lonely, I guess.

Robot Baby

[COOING]

Rachel

(SINGING) Oh, once I had a little dog. Its color, it was brown. I taught him for to whistle--

It is 4:13. The baby is hungry again.

Robot Baby

[GULPING]

Rachel

[HEAVY SIGH] The tiredness is really setting in. I've grown strangely emotionally attached to this lump of plastic. It'll be a tiny bit sad to get rid of her.

Robot Baby

[GULPING]

Hillary Frank

Rachel records herself every single time the baby wakes her up both nights, a total of nine times. Paige was so overwhelmed by the night wakings that she didn't wind up recording herself at all.

Paige

Like, I don't-- I am so, so tired. And my whole-- I don't know why, but I feel like my whole body has just been slammed up against a wall. I just-- I can barely keep my eyes open, and I just feel so exhausted.

Hillary Frank

And, uh-- and how were you feeling while it was going on? Were you feeling mad at the baby?

Paige

A little bit. I-- I was like, man, I just-- my Mama came in and said, "Well, scan it, sweetheart." And I remember saying, "I already did." And then I, like, took her diaper off, threw the diaper, put the diaper back on, and she still was crying. And I looked at my mom and said, "Mo-om."

And so-- and around third time she woke up, I was like-- [SNARLS]

Rachel

I just wanted everyone to be quiet and leave me alone.

Hillary Frank

The next day at school, Rachel was not herself.

Rachel

Before Chorus, Katie Schultz-- who was actually, she plays the nun in the play. She just asked me, "How's the baby?" And I just went-- (SHRILLY) "Can everyone just shut up?" And in my mind, I was like, she wasn't doing anything. She was not the person I should be yelling at. But I was just like-- [SCREAMS]

Hillary Frank

Overnight, Paige and Rachel have become animals I recognize intimately. They've become mothers, throwing their minds, bodies, and hearts so fully into a tiny being that they can't help but whine and lash out at people who don't deserve it.

Even Paige says she's become a jerk-- or her version of a jerk. She forgot to thank a boy who held the door for her. Plus, she admits to me that she's cheated a second time. She forgot to bring her costume for dress rehearsal, so she slipped the bracelet off again and left the baby with a friend while she ran home.

Next morning comes the moment of truth. The girls hand in their babies and get their grades. The robot baby keeps a minute-by-minute record of how you did. Paige goes first.

Ms. Hogan

This is a 71.

Hillary Frank

71-- which is what, in letters?

Ms. Hogan

A C-minus.

Hillary Frank

And what did she get points deducted for?

Ms. Hogan

For-- she had a missed feeding, a head support, and then 6:49, she had a missed feeding and a head support. 6:58, she had a missed burp. And 9:29-- yeah, so.

Paige

Yeah.

Hillary Frank

All right.

Ms. Hogan

It's all right. Don't worry. Don't fret.

Paige

I didn't want all that to happen. 'Cause I-- every time she cried, I picked her up immediately, gave her her bottle. If she didn't want that, I put her diaper on. So I don't know. I thought I did OK. I didn't think I'd get, like, a C. So, a little disappointed.

Ms. Hogan

Rach, let me get your grade for you.

Hillary Frank

The big moment for Rachel. She's getting her grade.

Rachel

Aaaaah.

Ms. Hogan

94.

Hillary Frank

Which translates to an A?

Ms. Hogan

An A, yeah.

Hillary Frank

If I were a betting person, I'd have never put money on Rachel doing better than Paige-- especially not this much better. For all of her baby clothes and maternal instinct-- not to mention wanting to be a young mom-- Paige turns out to be a below-average mother, at least when it comes to plastic children.

Hillary Frank

Has this changed the way you feel about becoming a mother and about babies?

Paige

Um, I thought, like, I could have a baby at 21. I'll go to ministry school, meet a man of God, a man of my dreams. We'll get married and have a baby. But I think-- maybe-- maybe I think I-- maybe a little older than I thought? Like, I-- I cannot even imagine putting a baby, a life, into my world. And I think it'd be horrible.

Hillary Frank

Paige isn't sure how old she wants to be when she starts a family now. She just knows she can't even picture it. Her whole life plan has been thrown out of whack by her robot baby.

Rachel

My response to the baby was almost the opposite of Paige's, in that if I have a baby really young, I feel like I would keep the baby.

Hillary Frank

I also never would have guessed that Paige and Rachel would flip their positions.

Rachel

Because I kind of like the feeling of having a baby. Like for some reason, like, I guess the idea that someone or something needs you and only you kind of makes you feel all, like, important.

It was awful, but at the same time, like, I was-- I kind of liked it. I'd never really thought that I would want to have a kid younger, but maybe I would.

Hillary Frank

Rachel called it early-onset baby fever and said her mom was freaked out by it. I asked one of Rachel's teachers, and the president of the company that makes the babies, about this ironic and unintended outcome-- that the robot baby made a teenage girl want to have a real one.

They both said this was rare. They shrugged it off. The teacher said she was sure Rachel's the kind of girl who will make a thoughtful decision about when to have her own child.

Overall, the girls had a way more authentic mothering experience with the robot babies than I'd expected. But the moments when Rachel and Paige couldn't be available to the babies-- when Rachel gave blood, when Paige fell-- the girls lost points in those moments. When you're a real parent, those things happen all the time.

Diagnosing whether your kid needs to be fed or diapered or rocked, that's not what makes you a pro at parenting. It's coping with the stress of getting it wrong, of feeling like an amateur. Which is going to happen, no matter how much practice you've had.

Ira Glass

Hillary Frank. She's the host of the parenting podcast The Longest Shortest Time, which I have to say is great, because unlike most parenting stuff, it is not actually designed specifically for parent listeners. It's for anybody. It's distributed by Earwolf.

Act Three. Commander In Brief.

Ira Glass

Act Three. "Commander In Brief." Now we have the story of an amateur who, for one night, gets thrown into a very, very big job, one of the biggest jobs. They basically get thrown in as the substitute teacher for a class they have never taught or never taken-- specifically, they're supposed to sub for the President of the United States. Stephanie Foo explains.

Stephanie Foo

If somebody needs to sub for the President, the chain is clear. If the Vice President can't do it, it goes to the Speaker of the House, then the President pro tempore of the Senate, then the Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense, all the way down the Cabinet to Energy, Education, Veteran Affairs. It's been this way since the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. But what happens if all of those people are in one room?

President Barack Obama

Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, my fellow Americans.

Stephanie Foo

The State of the Union address. What if someone blows up the building and kills everyone on that list all at once? Well, then the presidency goes to the designated survivor.

That is a person chosen every year before the State of the Union speech to survive. That's their whole job-- to survive, run the United States government as an amateur president, total beginner, whose first day on the job may include wreaking vengeance upon-slash-surrendering to whoever killed all our top leaders.

Each year, the designated survivor is assigned a security detail and moved to a safe, secret location away from the Capitol. This all began-- no surprise-- during the Cold War. Thomas Reed was an assistant to President Reagan for national security policy. And it was his job to figure out what to do if a nuclear weapon hit DC. He's the one who came up with the idea of the designated survivor.

Thomas Reed

Washington was targeted with over 300 Soviet nuclear weapons. They had hundreds laid that were going to lay down on every possible escape route. And to think you could escape that barrage was nonsense.

Bill Richardson

Well, I was nervous in that I remember saying, "Jeez, I know this is not going to happen. What if something does happen?"

Stephanie Foo

That's Bill Richardson, former Secretary of Energy, designated survivor for the 2000 State of the Union. Richardson wasn't sent into a bunker somewhere. He was in a small town in Maryland having dinner at his friend's house, which was surrounded by a security detail and emergency vehicles. Inside, they had steak.

Bill Richardson

We had a nice meal. But then we sat in front of the television, and I was smoking a cigar. I had a glass of wine after it was all over.

Stephanie Foo

I talked to a couple of designated survivors from the Cold War era, who said they were put on planes and flown to undisclosed locations. One of them got training where he got to play war games in this secret Doctor Strangelove-esque setting. And they asked him questions like, "OK, do you swear in immediately after the President's death? Do you launch missiles at the Soviets? Do you hold your fire?"

He said the training was so helpful, so enlightening, that he thought nobody should become a designated survivor without undergoing it first. But by the end of the Cold War-- post-Gorbachev, pre-9/11-- things got a little more lax.

Dan Glickman

Can you say that I went through any kind of training course about what to do? The answer is no.

Stephanie Foo

That's Dan Glickman, Secretary of Agriculture, designated survivor during the 1997 State of the Union.

Dan Glickman

I think I did discuss it with my wife, that I could handle it something terrible happened. And she says, "Well, good luck."

Stephanie Foo

Donna Shalala, who was Secretary of Health and Human Services, designated survivor in 1996, didn't get any special training either. And she didn't even leave the neighborhood. She was just two and a half miles away from the Capitol-- at the White House.

Donna Shalala

So I took my senior staff to the Roosevelt Room at the White House, and we had pizza and watched the State of the Union. And I sort of wandered into the Oval Office and tried out the chair.

Stephanie Foo

What did it feel like?

Donna Shalala

Big. Too big for me. President Clinton's a very large man.

Stephanie Foo

One designated survivor told me that actually attending the State of the Union is a pain. You have to look attentive and interested and approving for a really long time, in case the cameras pan to you. Being designated survivor? Much easier.

One guy, who asked I not use his name, went on a vacation to the Caribbean when he got the gig. Not a government expense, he was quick to tell me. He happened to have plans to go anyway. Another designated survivor took the opportunity to move to a new house. A caravan of Secret Service guarded him as he loaded up his moving van.

One thing you might have noticed from the designated survivors I spoke to-- none of them had day jobs that had anything to do with national security. Usually it's the non-marquee Cabinet members-- Secretary of the Interior, Energy, Commerce, Agriculture-- people whose names you probably don't know. Ever heard of Anthony Foxx? He's our Secretary of Transportation-- and this year's designated survivor.

And when I heard about that, I kind of thought, well, seriously? The decision to launch nuclear retaliation, kill millions of people, could possibly rest in the hands of the Secretary of Transportation? Thomas Reed, the guy who designed this program, says, "Why not? The Secretary of Transportation is as good a person as any."

Thomas Reed

The question in politics, and all other things in life, is, "Compared to who?" The question is not, "Is So-and-so authorized or qualified to be President, or Governor, or successor? The question is, "Compared to who?" Compared to Joseph Stalin? Of course. Compared to Dwight Eisenhower? Probably not.

Stephanie Foo

And the Cabinet, they're all brilliant people, and certainly have the wherewithal to at least make the initial decisions.

Thomas Reed

[CHUCKLES QUIETLY] Stephanie, they're not all brilliant people, any more than you or I are. And they all have problems, and some smoke too much, and some are overweight, and so forth and so on. They're all human beings.

Stephanie Foo

And, Reed said, the President's been chosen by the American people, and the President chooses the designated survivor. So therefore, by proxy, that person is chosen by the American people.

Thomas Reed

Sometimes they choose well. Sometimes they don't. That's what politics is all about.

Stephanie Foo

That's a very ominous statement.

Thomas Reed

[LAUGHS] Yes. Yes, it is.

Stephanie Foo

Here's Dan Glickman again, designated survivor, 1997, Secretary of Agriculture.

Dan Glickman

You know, I mean, I was not really briefed on what to do if something were to happen to the President. But you know, I have enough confidence in myself that if something were to happen, I would have followed certain basic rules, and would have been a good soldier, in that case.

Stephanie Foo

When Glickman was a designated survivor, they flew him to LaGuardia Airport in a G3 plane, along with some stern-looking guys in suits-- one of whom may or may not have been carrying the nuclear football in a fancy briefcase. Then they got Glickman in a three-car caravan, drove him to his daughter's modest apartment in Manhattan's West Village, and stood guard outside while he watched the speech on TV. Glickman admitted he did imagine what it would be like.

Dan Glickman

I did think about it. It was a very interesting thing that here, the Secretary of Agriculture could be President of the United States. And I'd been telling the world all these years that agriculture was the most important part of our government, so you know, I could reinforce that message, certainly.

Stephanie Foo

[LAUGHS] All of a sudden, that would be our number-one national agenda, is just agriculture.

Dan Glickman

Agriculture. Food and agriculture.

Stephanie Foo

Glickman even said that in his regular job, he was so unimportant that immediately after the speech was over, he lost the security detail. They bailed on him and went back to Washington.

Dan Glickman

In fact, their exact words were, "Mr. Glickman, the mission is terminated." And I decided to stay in New York and have dinner with my daughter. And it was cold and raining and sleeting, and once the dinner was over, we went outside of the restaurant, and we couldn't find a cab.

So we walked back, about 12 blocks, back to my daughter's apartment in a sleet storm. And it struck me that just three or four hours before, I was the most powerful man on the face of the Earth, for about an hour. And now I couldn't even get a cab.

Stephanie Foo

The fact of the matter is, no first-term president goes into office knowing how to be president. He learns on the job. Everything's new.

And opening that briefcase and deciding whether to launch a nuclear strike? Nobody could be ready for that. The President might be as likely to make the wrong choice as the Secretary of Agriculture. Or the Secretary of Transportation, or the White House intern, or you, or I.

Ira Glass

Stephanie Foo is one of the producers of our program.

[MUSIC - "I DON'T KNOW WHAT I'M DOING" BY DEAN MARTIN]

ACT 4:

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Stephanie Foo with Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Joe Richman, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer for today's show is Julie Snyder. Editing help from Joel Lovell. Technical director is Matt Tierney. Production help from Lyra Smith.

Research help today from Christopher Swetala and Michelle Harris. Music help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis.

Special thanks today to Derrick Brown for telling us about the Soldier Safety Show at Fort Bragg. Derrick goes on tour with Greg Dulli and The Afghan Whigs this March. Find out where at brownpoetry.com.

Thanks to Lisa Pollak for cluing us in about designated survivors. Thanks to Joanna Solotaroff, Alex Kapelman, Maria DiCondina, Brian Haley, Rusty Hodgkinson, Quincy Billups, Victor Hurtado, Evan Middlesworth at Pine Hollow Audio, and the teachers and students at Glen Ridge High School.

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, who hears his name right here in the credits every single week-- every single week. And he asks--

Derrick Brown

What the-- what are we doing? Why are we doing this?

Ira Glass

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

[MUSIC - "I DON'T KNOW WHAT I'M DOING" BY DEAN MARTIN]