Transcript

559:

Captain's Log
Transcript

Originally aired 06.26.2015

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/559

Prologue.

Ira Glass

I don't know when I got this idea that a captain's log be pretty interesting to read. Probably it was from watching Star Trek as a kid. You know, they do that whole captain's log star date thing. But in fact, in real life, here on planet earth, most captain's logs--

Erik Larson

Usually they're incredibly boring. I mean, it's like, you know, it's really primarily meant to be a record of ships' positions, weather.

Ira Glass

That's the story on Erik Larson. He ran into this when he was writing a book about this hurricane that destroyed the city of Galveston in 1900. He thought that ships at sea might have interesting observations about the formation of this historic weather event, this storm. So he looked at lots of ships' logs.

Erik Larson

And I found it very frustrating, very frustrating. It was just, like, routine references. And meanwhile, here's this gigantic storm looming on the horizon.

Ira Glass

And why? What would they way in their logs?

Erik Larson

Nothing. They would just list, you know, some wind speed, wind direction. Sometimes I think that a ship could be passing Krakatoa when it was blowing up, and there would be no reference, except maybe a sudden change in the air temperature.

Ira Glass

A ship's log does record anything unusual that happens on the ship itself, any damage to the ship. But really, it's about legal and administrative responsibilities. If cargo's damaged, insurers are going to need a record, that kind of thing.

Which is why this one captain's log that Larson found really stood out. He was researching the sinking of the Lusitania for his book, Dead Wake. And he got his hands on the captain's log for the U-boat that sunk the Lusitania in 1915.

The prose is businesslike and direct, just like most logs, even in translation from the German. But this captain just includes way more stuff, like way more detail than other logs that Larson had read. When Captain Walter Schwieger spots the Lusitania at 2:20 submarine time, he notes four funnels and two masts.

Erik Larson

You know, starboard ahead, coming from south to southwest, it's steered towards Galley Head, which is a Maritime landmark there in the Irish sea. The ship is made out to be a large passenger steamer. Then he says submerged to a depth of 11 meters, and at full speed, took a course converging.

Ira Glass

So, so far, very matter of fact.

Erik Larson

Very matter of fact. Now, what's important to know here as well is that, meanwhile, what's happening aboard his submarine is total chaos. He's doing a fast dive, which, depending on conditions, sometimes involved having members of the crew race to the bow, run to the front of the submarine to add ballast.

Ira Glass

To add that extra weight.

Erik Larson

Yes. So he's doing this very fast dive. There's chaos aboard the submarine. There's a lot of energy, a lot of excitement.

Ira Glass

That human drama doesn't make it into the log, even this one. 2:35 PM submarine time, the ship that he's chasing turns starboard towards a town called Queenstown. He runs at the ship at high speed, which Larson says was actually not very fast at all. 3:10 PM submarine time, the log says he takes a clean bow shot at a distance of 700 meters. He names the kind of torpedo he uses and the depth adjustment he makes, the angle.

Erik Larson

"Torpedo hits starboard side right behind the bridge." There it is. That's the actual firing of the torpedo in the attack. Then, though, he starts in with a fairly elaborate-- at least for a German submarine commander-- narrative.

He's watching this now through his periscope. "An usually strong explosion or detonation takes place with a very strong explosive cloud. The cloud reaches far beyond the front funnel. The explosion of the torpedo must have been accompanied by a second one," parentheses, "boiler or coal or powder?" Question mark.

"The superstructure right above the point of the impact and the bridge are torn asunder. Fire breaks out, and the smoke envelops the high bridge. The ship stops." He's incorrect there, by the way. The ship continued at 18 knots because its engines were knocked out, and you need engines in order to stop a ship.

"The ship stops immediately and heels over to starboard very quickly." And he says, "immersing simultaneously at the bowel. Great confusion ensues on board. The boats are made clear, and some of them are lowered to the water."

Ira Glass

He means the lifeboats there.

Erik Larson

Yes, the lifeboats. "In doing so, some must have lost their heads. Some boats, full to the capacity, are lowered, touch the water with either stem or stern first, and founder immediately."

Ira Glass

This is actually happening as they're filling with water, capsizing, sinking. It is a grisly scene-- people throwing themselves off the ship into the water and getting sucked underneath the sinking vessel, people getting crushed by the lifeboats. 1,198 died.

Captain Schwieger watches through his periscope, and he can't actually hear anything. What he's seeing is like this terrible silent movie. 3:25 PM submarine time in the log.

Erik Larson

"As it seems as if the steamer will keep above water only a short time, we dived to a depth of 24 meters and ran out to sea." Now, what he means there is he doesn't have to hang around and fire another torpedo.

However, here he says the most controversial statement in is log. "It would have been impossible for me anyhow to fire a second torpedo into this crushing crowd of humanity trying to save their lives."

Ira Glass

"It would have been impossible for me to fire a second torpedo into this crushing crowd of humanity trying to save their lives." This sentence is controversial because he's never like this anywhere else in the log, never sympathetic to his enemies this way. He never expresses feelings like this in this log that's going to be read, you know, by his superior officers. Why say this?

Erik Larson

I don't know what to think. I would like to think that this captain had that level of remorse, right, and that he acknowledged it right there at the time. I don't think so. My money is on a post-patrol revision that he may have added that after the fact, after everybody recognized how much the world had been repulsed by this attack on men, women, and children on an unarmed passenger ship.

Ira Glass

But if you think about it, even this, it doesn't totally add up. Like, OK, sure, the rest of the world was horrified by the sinking of the Lusitania. But Schwieger lived in Germany, where this was celebrated, a huge victory.

Did he want to change the log because he thought like, OK, maybe they would actually lose the war and he worried about how this was going to look? Did he just not want this to be his legacy, how he'd be talked about 100 years later as, you know, I'm doing right this second?

Well, today on our program, we bring you captain's logs of various sorts. For every story in today's show, we found a terse, businesslike record of some kind of some event in the past. Some of these are historic events. Some of them are small and personal. And what we're going to do is we're going to go back and reconstruct what really happened, which is way more complicated and emotional than the logs.

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us, mateys.

Act One. Cookies and Monsters.

Ira Glass

Act 1, "Cookies and Monsters." So part of what's interesting about reading captain's logs is then going back and piecing together the true story that they're only sort of telling. And that is what PJ Vogt does in this next story. He starts picking something apart and asking questions, and he ends up somewhere very different from where he starts. Here's PJ.

Pj Vogt

I've got a friend, let's call him Dale. Dale has a Gmail address that's pretty generic, like [email protected] And people with email addresses like these get a lot of emails that just aren't meant for them, like email wrong numbers. And this happens to him all the time.

Last time I saw him, he'd just gotten an email written completely in Spanish from a kid somewhere asking if he could turn in some work late. Dale's a nice guy, but he likes to play pranks. He likes to mess with people. So he answers the emails. Here's one he got a while back.

Dale

I think it started off, "Hey, ladies. To all Calgary area district commissioners and district cookie advisers." And then it started talking about how they had a bunch of stale cookies that they didn't know what to do with, and we've got to move them off the shelves. And if they're past the expiration date, then we can't use them in the next cookie campaign.

Pj Vogt

The emails continue. And Dale learns that the world of professional cookie advising, it's surprisingly bureaucratic. At the top, there's a national cookie adviser. But beneath her, there are provincial cookie advisers who report up. And then beneath them, there are district cookie advisers.

Dale has no idea what's going on here. But he decides the best thing he could do would be to reply with an intentionally stupid email, detailing a bunch of asinine solutions to the stale cookie problem. He suggests the advisers Sharpie over the expiration dates on the packages. He suggests they eat all the stale cookies themselves.

Dale

In my mind, I was thinking, no one's going to believe this. What a stupid email to write to somebody. Who would hire a person with suggestions like these?

Pj Vogt

Cynthia, who's the Calgary area cookie adviser, responds to Dale's email with complete polite cheerfulness. She sends him a cookie freshness calculator to help him sort his stale cookies from his fresh cookies. So Dale responds with even stupider messages. He was trying to make it more obvious that he was just kidding.

Dale

I said, "What's the status on the cookies? Yarr. Me so hungry," with a picture of Cookie Monster. And I think she responded something along lines of, "Those orders were supposed to go in a month ago. Or did I misunderstand your question?"

Pj Vogt

Rather than clarifying, Dale asks her, why are we even in the cookie advising business? He says, his clients, they're all about chocolate bars now.

Dale

And Cynthia responded, "Chocolate bars????" Question mark, question mark, question mark, question mark. All of my other suggestions were met with, like, oh, maybe I misunderstood or something. But this one was very emphatic. It was like, "Chocolate bars?"

Pj Vogt

It actually seemed like Dale had maybe touched a nerve. Because after that, cookie advisor world went completely quiet. Dale was bothered by this.

The original email he'd gotten had been meant for a woman named Debbie. What if he had gotten Debbie in trouble, or even just made her look bad?

Dale

I'm a little afraid. I'd like to think that, oh, they just got it sorted out, and now it's funny, and Debbie is in on the joke-- just people trying to do their cookie job.

Pj Vogt

I reached out to the woman who'd been trying to email Debbie, Cynthia, because I wanted to find out if Dale's prank had hurt anybody.

Pj Vogt

Hello?

Cynthia

Hello.

Pj Vogt

Hi, Cynthia?

Cynthia

Yes, it's me.

Pj Vogt

Hi, it's PJ.

Cynthia has multiple sclerosis, and it can be hard for her to talk. So her friend, Sheila, volunteered to help out. I read them the emails.

Pj Vogt

"And of course, the obvious solution is to eat them during our next member meeting. Please discuss with the rest of area, and I will forward your decision on to national. Thanks so much." Do you remember getting that?

Cynthia

You know, I don't, but--

Sheila

We get a lot of questions all across Alberta at Cookie Time. Often, they have suggestions that don't always fly. So we find a way to respond do them as best we can.

Ira Glass

Cynthia and Sheila explained that they were part of Girl Guides. In the US, we have Girl Scouts. Most everywhere else in the world, they call them Girl Guides.

Pj Vogt

If you know anything about Girl Scouts, you won't be too surprised by this. But Cynthia and Sheila have a way of talking that is just unrelenting positive. It's just the Girl Guide way. That's why Cynthia was so patient with Dale. It was her job.

But she was also very patient with me, even as-- for reasons that I don't quite understand-- I found myself explaining to her the entire pattern of events that had led Dale to email her.

Pj Vogt

I guess the email was meant for Debbie, but it went to a Dale.

Cynthia

Oh. Now it's starting to make a little bit of sense.

Pj Vogt

This helpful sunny tone, this Girl Guide voice, is hardwired into their original mission statement, which reads, quote, "A guide smiles and sings under all difficulties," end quote. Smiling and singing under all difficulties.

This sounds ridiculous to me, or at least it did, until I heard a truly crazy story about this exact thing, Girl Guides smiling and singing through incredibly extreme circumstances. I first heard about it from a woman named Janie Hampton. She's kind of a Girl Guide expert. She wrote a book about them.

Janie Hampton

Now I have to admit, when I started writing the book, I thought, you know, I'm going to make this a bit of a satire and laugh at them.

Pj Vogt

She says laughing at Girl Guides is pretty easy, because most people think of them as not particularly cool, too sincere.

Janie Hampton

What we call "naff" nowadays.

Pj Vogt

What's naff?

Janie Hampton

Sort of unfashionable, nerdy.

Pj Vogt

So Janie sets out to tease some nerds. But then she starts researching. And one day, she's deep in the Girl Guides' archive in their London headquarters, and she finds this old notebook.

It's small, 7" by 10". And the book's a handwritten log of nearly everything one Girl Guide troop did years ago.

Janie Hampton

And it said, we did skipping, and we did knots, and we did all sorts of jolly things. And then I came across this song that they'd written. And it said, "We sang our song yesterday. And it went, 'We might have been shipped to Timbuktu. We might have been shipped to Kalamazoo. It's not repatriation, nor is it yet starvation. It's simply concentration in Chefoo." And I thought, what on earth does that mean? Concentration in Chefoo?

Pj Vogt

Janie does not know where Chefoo is. But she's sure it's not in England, so she looks it up. Chefoo is-- was-- a place in China, a coastal city. It's a good 7,000 miles from London.

According to the guide's logbook, the song had been written and performed by a group of Girl Guides for a concert on Christmas day, 1942. The Christmas concert, Janie discovers, was held in Chefoo, but not at a school. The Girl Guides sang their song in a concentration camp. Janie was baffled.

Why would a concentration camp in China have a singing Girl Guide troop? So Janie starts digging. And she finds someone who was there, an actual witness, born in China, who ended up in the same camp as these Girl Guides, this Belgian guy.

Leopold Pander

Leopold Pander, 74 years old.

Pj Vogt

The problem is, it turns out he has absolutely no memory of his time there.

Leopold Pander

I tried to remember something, but nothing comes back to me.

Pj Vogt

Nothing, except for this nightmare he used to have when he was a kid. At the time, it hadn't made sense to him. But later, he thought it must have taken place at the camp.

Pj Vogt

What was the dream that you would have?

Leopold Pander

Well, I'm there in the hot sun, the blue sky. It's a brown slope. It's a browned earth. And there are big stones next to myself, dirty earth and people running all over the place.

Pj Vogt

Are there sounds?

Leopold Pander

No sound, absolutely no sound. Somebody picks me up, and then I wake up. That's all I remember. That dream came back very often.

Pj Vogt

Leopold grows up. And as an adult, he wants to know about this place that he used to dream about, and so he builds a website. He invites people to write in with memories of the camp. And the story he learns is pretty crazy.

Reporter

Japan's latest invasion of China, which has already lasted two years, is war on a huge scale.

Pj Vogt

So I did not know this, but during World War II, when Japan occupied China, they built concentration camps that were filled with American and British and other European civilians.

Reporter

Japanese put their prisoners of war to work.

Pj Vogt

Civilians who had been living in China. One of those camps was called Weihsien. That was Leopold's camp.

And among the inmates at Weihsien were a group of children. They were American and British. They were mostly the kids of missionaries. And they'd been studying at a boarding school called Chefoo. Japanese troops invaded Chefoo and captured the kids and eventually brought them to Weihsien.

Janie Hampton

With their teachers, but no parents. So about 150 children who, for four years, were in this camp, and the teachers had very sensibly taken with them books, paper, musical instruments.

Pj Vogt

And of course, one more thing.

Janie Hampton

Brownie uniforms, guide uniforms, all the things they thought, we're going to need this sort of thing to keep the kids occupied.

Pj Vogt

In the Japanese camps, there was very little food. Prisoners died of starvation. In Weihsien, imprisoned monks would smuggle in eggs, and then everybody would share them. And then they'd also have the kids eat the ground up egg shells just to get some extra calcium.

The log book Janie had found was the record kept by one of the Girl Guides' leaders. The leaders were called Brown Owls. This one was a woman in her 20s. And the tone of her writing was the exact same, cheerful, impervious to bad news tone that Dale's cookie adviser email thread had had.

This is the entry from the day they were marched into the camp. "Hello. What's this? Behind bars. Yes. It's Weihsien camp. Well, I guess there's a good deal of fun to be got out of this. Just the place to earn some badges."

According to the logbook, the Brown Owl ran the troop as if it were any other Girl Guide unit, concentration camp or not.

Janie Hampton

They were all told it doesn't matter how disgusting the food is, we still want good table manners. It doesn't matter how hungry you are, you're not going to steal. You're still going to do a good deed every day and help other people.

Pj Vogt

Obviously the grim sadness of life in a concentration camp should have overpowered this miniature world that the Brown Owls were trying to build for their young girls. But according to Janie, that's not what happened.

Instead, it was the Girl Guides who started to exert an influence on the adults around them. They lead by example.

Janie Hampton

It made a difference to all the adults in this camp and kept them going. The whole atmosphere was better because they had this very strong promise that they wouldn't stop smiling. They wouldn't give up. They would carry on singing songs. They would insist on everybody washing.

Pj Vogt

This is the point where I wondered, was this true? I didn't think that anybody was necessarily lying to me. I just thought probably the Brown Owl had left the bad stuff out of her log book. I figured she'd put the best possible spin on an awful situation. That's what Girl Guides do, right?

Mary Previte

Oh, the door's open.

Phia Bennin

Oh, hello.

Mary Previte

Come on in.

Pj Vogt

Fortunately, there's a woman who's still alive and remembers Weihsien. Her name is Mary Previte. She lives in New Jersey. I visit her with my producer, Phia Bennin.

Mary Previte

What can I tell you? Oh, by the way, can I pour you some tea? I am so bad about this. I get so busy talking that--

Pj Vogt

Mary Previte is a small, beautiful 82-year-old woman. She's also one of the happiest people I've ever met. I don't know if anybody I've interviewed has ever fully broken into song unprompted. Mary did-- seven times.

Also, unlike Leopold, Mary has a phenomenal memory. She told me about the day that Japanese troops arrived at her boarding school.

Mary Previte

The day after Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Japanese showed up on the doorstep of our school. They put seals with Japanese writing on everything-- the tables, the chairs, the pianos, the desks. Everything belonged to the Great Emperor of Japan.

And then they put arm bands on us. Everyone had to wear an arm band. A for American, B for British, whatever our nationality was.

Pj Vogt

The girls were eventually transferred into Weihsien. Mary became a concentration camp Girl Guide. This was over 70 years ago. But when Mary talks about the camp, she sounds like she's still there, like she's 12 years old again.

She said this story about the Brown Owls insisting on good table manners, absolutely true.

Mary Previte

So you're eating some kind of glop out of a maybe boiled animal grain-- because [CHINESE] is a broomcorn that the Chinese feed to their animals-- was often what they fed us. And you're eating it out of a soap dish or a tin can.

And here comes Miss Stark up behind us-- one of our teachers. "Mary Taylor, do not slouch over your food while you are eating. Do not talk while you have food in your mouth. And there are not two sets of manners, one set of manners for the princesses in Buckingham Palace and another set of manners for the Weihsien concentration camp."

Pj Vogt

Mary was separated from her parents, unsure of when she'd BE released, surrounded by pack dogs and men with guns. She says that she spent a lot of her time just thinking about earning merit badges.

In the winter, it would get cold, freezing. But no heat was provided to the prisoners by the guards. Instead, Mary and her friends had to go collect leftover coal shavings from the guards' quarters.

Mary Previte

I remember now the ritual of going to Japanese quarters to get the coal dust and carry it back.

Pj Vogt

Like making a new pencil from pencil shavings, except the coal is heavy. And it had to be passed bucket by bucket in a line of Girl Guides. Then the shavings were mixed with dust and water and dried in the sun. It was long, hard work.

And then at the end of it, you still had to go use that recycled coal in a pot-bellied stove and keep the stove lit so that everybody would be warm. It sounded horrible, like a childhood from a Charles Dickens novel. Except Mary remembers it as being surprisingly fun, a game she could win.

Mary Previte

I and my partner, Marjorie Harrison, we won the competition in our dormitory of which stove lighting team made the pot-bellied stove in the winter turn red hot more times than any other girl in the camp. Well, you know, here I am, 82 years old, and what do I choose to tell you? I won. The pot-belly turned red more times with me and Marjorie Harrison than any other girl in our dorm.

Pj Vogt

When you describe it, it sounds like you're describing summer camp instead of describing a concentration camp. Did it feel like summer camp? Did you ever--

Mary Previte

Well, I never was in a summer camp. So I can't give you a-- no, no, no, absolutely not. When you had guard dogs, bayonet drills, electrified wires, barrier walls, pill boxes with armed guards in them, you weren't in a summer camp. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying this was Fun City. I'm telling you, we lived a miracle where grownups preserved our childhood.

Pj Vogt

There's reference in the logbook to the trouble the adults were having keeping it together, but you'd have to know to look for it. A scout leader writes one entry that reads, "Dear me, what a tragedy. Brown Owl had an attack of neuralgia. Let's hope he's better for our meeting.

Neuralgia's a nerve disorder. But what that actually meant was that the Brown Owl was having a nervous breakdown. Years later, Mary went and tracked down one of the grownups.

Mary Previte

I said, Miss Carr, what were you feeling when we were in a concentration camp? Well, all the grownups in the camp knew about the rape of Nanking, the atrocities that the soldiers had done when they came to the southern city of Nanking.

Pj Vogt

Japanese soldiers went door to door, systematically raping and killing tens of thousands of Chinese civilians.

Mary Previte

So they knew what could happen. The teachers knew what could happen. So I said to Miss Carr, what were you feeling? She said, well, I would pray to God that when they lined us up along the death trenches-- and they were outside the camp-- when they lined us up to shoot us so our bodies would fall into the death pits, that I would be one of the first so I didn't have to see it.

Pj Vogt

So there were two sets of prayers. At night, the grownups, many of them not much older than the kids themselves, prayed grimly for a fast death. And then they woke up in the morning and they sang songs with the kids, set the bouncy camp melodies.

Mary Previte

It was like you weren't going to be afraid if you could sing about it. We would sing, (SINGING) Day is done. Gone the sun from the sea, from the hills, from the sky. All is well, safely rest. God is nigh.

How could you be afraid when you're singing about all is well, safely rest, God is nigh? How could you be afraid of that?

So we were constantly putting things into music. Often, you know, there was a little bit of a twist of fun to it. One of the songs that we sang was, (SINGING) We might have been shipped to Timbuktu. We might have been shipped to Kalamazoo. It's not repatriation or isn't yet stagnation. It's only concentration in Chefoo.

Pj Vogt

There probably aren't many places on earth where you have less reason to be cheerful than a concentration camp. But it turns out, in a place like that, being able to be cheerful, to have a positive outlook, it's not dopey or silly. It's how you survive. How you tell the story matters.

Mary Previte

For example, one of the things that we sang when the Japanese were marching us into concentration camp was the first verse of Psalm 46. (SINGING) God is our refuge, our refuge and our strength. And on it goes. In trouble, we will not be afraid.

All of these words just sung into our hearts. That sticks. It's like you've got a groove sticking in the gramophone record. I am safe. I am safe. I am safe. That was just profound.

Pj Vogt

The first Chefoo brownies warded off despair for four years, until finally, on August 17, 1945, they were rescued.

Mary Previte

It was a windy day.

Pj Vogt

Mary remembers the American plane flying low over the camp.

Mary Previte

And the parachutes falling from the sky. All I knew was I was running to find whoever it was that was dropping out of the sky beyond the barrier walls.

Leopold Pander

I'm there in the hot sun. It's a blue sky. It's a brown slope. It's a browned earth.

Mary Previte

And the people went berserk.

Leopold Pander

People running all over the place.

Mary Previte

People were crying, screaming, dancing.

Leopold Pander

Somebody picks me up, and then I wake up.

Pj Vogt

Leopold says that the nightmare that used to haunt him is just his memory of that day, of being a four-year-old, lost and wandering around a riot of freed concentration camp survivors. Most of the people who are there on liberation day are now dead.

One of the dormitories at Weihsien's a memorial, but mostly this place exists as a footnote in some books on a website designed by a Belgian man and in the memories of the remaining survivors. It's a half disappeared world with a strong pull on the people who do still remember it.

A couple weeks ago at the grocery store, I watched a gang of Brownie Scouts rush down the pet food aisle. They had their uniforms on, covered in merit badges for public speaking and backyard astronomy. They were happy and safe in their own world, a million miles from Weihsien. I wondered if they knew what they might be capable of.

Ira Glass

PJ Vogt. He's the co-host of the podcast "Reply All," where this story came from, and which I am a big fan of. You can subscribe to "Reply All" on iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts.

On July 28, "Reply All" is going to be appearing in Cast Party, which is a podcast festival broadcast live to movie theaters across the country. It also features "Radiolab" and "Invisibilia." Info and tickets at castparty.org.

Coming up, Aziz Ansari thinks you don't know how to text. And when he makes the case, I have to say, I think you're going to believe him. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two. Romancing the Phone.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme. We bring you different stories on that theme. Today's show, "Captain's Log," stories where we take the unemotional facts in logs and records of various sorts, and we look behind them at the much more emotional, complicated stories that they are so stoically documenting. We've arrived at Act Two of our program, Act Two, "Romancing the Phone."

Recently, my wife and I, we were texting some things to each other that were so intense that at the end she suggested we just delete all of our texts that we had ever written to each other ever. And it wasn't like we thought that anybody else was going to see our texts. It's like we just didn't want them to exist in this world any more.

We wanted that history of our conversation to vanish forever from the face of the earth, never think about it again. You know, it's like text messages are this little history. It's like they're our logbook of our interactions with people.

And of course, usually they're not so emotional. Usually they're pretty terse, which totally makes them perfect for today's program, because their terseness behind it, there can be a whole story.

And recently, a sociologist started to study this. This was not very traditional sociology. The sociologist Eric Klinenberg at NYU teamed up with a comedian, Aziz Ansari, to examine the texts that people send to each other right when they start dating. And they put out a book with her findings. It's called Modern Romance.

And what they did, they spoke to a few hundred people. Their research was conducted in focus groups, like 10 to 20 people in a room, in eight different cities. And then sometimes they would do a version of these focus groups on stage in front of audiences, in New York and Los Angeles.

What they would do is Aziz would get up, and he would do a little stand up. And then he would introduce Eric, like Eric was the next comic who was coming on stage.

Aziz Ansari

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Mr. Eric Klinenberg.

Ira Glass

So Eric would come up, and he would talk a little bit about previous work that he'd done. And he would drop this statistic, that in 1950, 23% of American adults were single.

Eric Klinenberg

And today, about half of all adults are single. About half of all of adults are single. And I live in Manhattan. And in Manhattan, one out of every two households has just one person.

Ira Glass

Several people in the audience go "hmm."

Eric Klinenberg

See, I got a "hmm," Aziz.

Aziz Ansari

Those are like big laughs for sociologists, when people are like, "whoo." Gasps. I imagine backstage at sociology conferences, it's just like, man, I got so many gasps.

Like, did you hear how many gasps there were? You hear how many rumblings there were after I dropped that statistic? Those are good stats, man. Those are great stats.

Ira Glass

Now what Eric and Aziz were interested in was exactly what it is that people say to each other when they want to ask somebody out on a date. So at these shows, Aziz and Eric would ask people for their phones, and then they would take their phones, and they would read their text messages out loud to the crowd.

Those texts, that log, that was the raw data for their research. And if you think about it from a research perspective, texts are great, because they are a real time record of what actually transpired, which is way more reliable and accurate than asking people later on to recall what happened. One of our producers, Jonathan Manjivar, dove into that data, and he now explains how those shows would go.

A quick warning before he starts, we're talking about dating. So there's nothing explicit in this story at all, but we acknowledge the existence of sex. Now here's Jonathan.

Jonathan Manjivar

This particular focus groups slash comedy show was recorded at the Upright Citizens Brigade theater in New York. The room had been split up so that all the guys were on one side. The girls were on the other.

And pretty quickly into the show, Aziz asked for volunteers to come up on stage. He and Eric specifically wanted guys who had recently made first contact with a woman they were interested in. How had the guys made their initial approach?

So four guys get up on stage. And then, one by one, they hand over their phones to Aziz.

Aziz Ansari

Pull up your text message exchange with these women. And what we want you to do is scroll to the very first message you sent to the women.

Jonathan Manjivar

Aziz starts reading texts. And the first guy, he'd been set up by his boss, not over text but over email. The email was sent to both him and his potential date. And it just said, "Cocktails, go get some." So this guy emailed the woman.

Aziz Ansari

You said, "Hey, Jared," that's his boss, "sure has a way of setting things up, dot dot dot, LOL. Would love to get a drink. When is it good for you, early next week or following Thanksgiving? My number is blah blah blah, by the way, if that is an easier way of communicating. And then she texted you, correct?"

Zach

A week later.

Aziz Ansari

A week-- a week later? Everyone's like [BLEEP] that [BLEEP] why'd you do that? So OK, so she said, "Hey, Zach," exclamation. "It's Collette, Jared's friend. I'm so, so sorry. I completely lost track of your email and forgot to respond. But--" no one believes her.

How many people don't believe that she really lost track?

Jonathan Manjivar

No hands go up.

Eric Klinenberg

That's insane. There's not one person that believes that someone could lose track of something anymore. OK. So she said, I'm sorry. I lost track of your email and forgot to respond, but I'd love to grab a drink if you're free this week. So she wrote that on Friday at 12:45.

Jonathan Manjivar

So the guy wrote back.

Aziz Ansari

"Hey, Collette, dot dot dot. Would love to get a drink, dot dot dot. Wednesday works well for me, dot dot dot. How about you?" Question mark. OK.

Jonathan Manjivar

OK, so Aziz moves on to guy number two, because what's about to happen is that we're going to hear all of their initial attempts. And then the women in the audience are going to vote on who did it best. Guy number two met a woman on the train one night.

Aziz Ansari

The next morning, he sent the message. This is what he said. "Hey, Audrey. This is Joe. Nice meeting you real quick last night. How are you?" Question mark. So that's his first message. And then--

Jonathan Manjivar

Moving on to guy number three, he had met a woman at an NYU alumni event.

Aziz Ansari

And then you wrote a message a few days later. And this is two messages, OK. You said, "Hey there. How'd your Thanksgiving feast turn out?" Question mark. "Here's a shot of the spread I put together. I'd say it came out all right." Smiley face. "Yo. I know it's tiny, but I promise, it looks delicious."

Jonathan Manjivar

Guy number four got someone's number at a wedding. She left the wedding. And then not long after, he texted her.

Aziz Ansari

Was this like a "hey, this is my number" type text? OK. So you say, "What's up? It's Theo." That's the voice your text has.

And then she said, "Hey, nothing much. Hey, NM. Just heading back home. How's the party going?" And then you set a few minutes later, "It's fun. You left too early. Ha ha. This was like [BLEEP]. I thought we were boning tonight."

Was that, like, what you were really thinking. Like, you know, we could have just-- so then, the next night, you send her the equivalent of your first contact, if you will. And you say, "It was cool meeting you last night. I'll be back in Cali in two weeks for winter break. We should hang out some time. Ha ha." It wasn't necessarily a Young Jeezy ha ha. It was just a ha ha.

Jonathan Manjivar

So four guys, which one did this best? Aziz and Eric turn to the women in the audience.

Aziz Ansari

Why don't we see which one do you guys like the most? Just the women in the audience. Clap if your favorite is this.

Jonathan Manjivar

So the clear winner, the guy who wrote about Thanksgiving. "Hey there. How'd your Thanksgiving feast turn out? Here's a shot of the spread I put together."

Eric Klinenberg

But could we find out from someone here what is so good about that text? If you voted for that text--

Aziz Ansari

Yeah, raise your hand.

Jonathan Manjivar

A woman in the audience, who's a little off mic, says it gets the conversation going. You asked a question. And he said something about his Thanksgiving, and it made you want to comment on it.

Aziz Ansari

OK. Anybody else?

Jonathan Manjivar

It was personal, another woman says. He remembered what you talked about.

Aziz Ansari

Personal, remember what you talked about.

Eric Klinenberg

You guys taking notes over there, by the way? Same time, we kind of need to know what didn't work out so well with the texts that nobody voted for.

Aziz Ansari

What did you not like about--

Eric Klinenberg

Oh, yeah, all the way in the back.

Jonathan Manjivar

The woman in the back doesn't like the "what's up" guy who met someone at a wedding and texted her after she left. In fact, no one liked that text. It got zero claps.

The woman says, it sounded like he just wanted to have sex. He's saying, I don't live here. But I'm going to be back. Let's hang out. And I don't want to talk to you until then.

Aziz Ansari

What do you mean? Why do you think he doesn't want to talk to her until then?

Woman 1

Because he would have asked a question.

Aziz Ansari

He would have asked a question. Does anyone else feel like that?

Audience

Yeah.

Aziz Ansari

Guys are like, must ask questions.

Jonathan Manjivar

Other than asking questions, Aziz and Eric have some very clear advice about the kinds of texts their research shows works when you're trying to ask someone out. Number one, invite the person to something specific at a specific time.

Two, say something that refers back to an earlier conversation you had, so it's clear you were listening. And three, say something funny.

Aziz and Eric say most guys, surprisingly, do not instinctually get this. They don't do it. But after dropping this knowledge at the show, women were invited to come up on stage to share texts they'd gotten from guys. And coincidentally, the very first woman received a text from a guy that followed two of the three rules.

Aziz Ansari

This was his first text to you. "Hey, how was the rest of your Thanksgiving?" Question mark. "You want to grab a drink tomorrow around 7:30 in LES?" Question mark. That's a pretty-- whoa.

Woman 2

He's good.

Aziz Ansari

She just said, he's good. That's the bar for he's good. "How was your Thanksgiving? Do you want to get a drink Wednesday?" Oh my god. Who is this god?

Jonathan Manjivar

That guy got a date. Another woman got a text that was at the opposite end of the spectrum. The guy pretty much does everything wrong, from the start.

Aziz Ansari

OK. So his first message, "Hi." And then you have to go, "Hi, is this Connor?" I mean, this dude doesn't even want to tell his name. "Hey."

You said, "Hi. Is this Connor?" And he goes, "This is." Connor, you want to say some [BLEEP]?

"Hi. What's going on?" "I'm actually just waking up. Picking my mix up for my morning. So far, it's consisting of "Goodbye Horses" and "Big Pimping." And you're still being very nice.

"Oh, nice. Well, what are you up to tonight?" "Tonight, I'm not sure. I may want to eat some mushrooms."

No one is like, yeah, you should go out with this guy. Everyone's like, good decision. Way to go.

Jonathan Menjivar

OK, so to review, there are three rules. Ask a question. Make a specific plan. Be funny.

In fact, this night at the UCB theater, Aziz asked guys in the crowd to text someone they were interested in, right now, armed with this new knowledge. And just before the end of the show--

Aziz Ansari

Did any of you guys get a message back? Anybody?

Eric Klinenberg

Oh, come on.

Aziz Ansari

You did? OK. Oh my god. OK. OK, so you said, "Hey, I'm finally free from the horrors of math. Do you want to check out a new bar on Franklin next week?" Question mark.

She wrote back, six minutes later, "Yeah, for sure!" Exclamation. "I'm down. Also, next Thursday is my birthday. So I'm hoping to party it up next weekend." Smiley face. Holy [BLEEP]. We were right.

Thank you, guys, so much for coming out. We really appreciate it.

Ira Glass

Aziz Ansari. The book that he wrote with Eric Klinenberg is called Modern Romance. Jonathan Menjivar is one of the producers of our show.

Act Three. A Quiet Street in Richmond.

Ira Glass

Act Three, "On A Quiet Street in Richmond." So all through this hour today, we have documents that describe big dramatic things in the most "just the facts, ma'am" language possible, like a captain's log usually does. And we found this article from 1853 that's a good example of this.

In the article, a writer named William Chambers went out to witness and report on slave auctions. Apparently enough people had written about these in a very melodramatic and sensationalistic way that Chambers felt like somebody needed to go out and give a true, factual account.

John Ellison Conlee

Everything is described precisely as it occurred, without passion or prejudice. It would not have been difficult to be sentimental on a subject which appeals so strongly to the feelings but I preferred telling the simple truth.

Ira Glass

Our excerpts of Chambers' article were read for us by actor John Ellison Conlee. By 1853, slavery was controversial, and Chambers opposed it. He was a Scottish guy, an outsider.

And so he spent a couple days going from one auction shop to another in Richmond, Virginia. Chambers explains that he's seen advertisements for slave sales. And when he went to the addresses, he found a narrow short street between two main streets in the city, brick houses on either side where there were a few small auction shops.

On this particular day, it was pretty empty. Shops were identifiable by little red flags that hung outside their doors. And pinned to each flag was a piece of paper listing the men, women, and children who were going to be sold that day.

John Ellison Conlee

Conceive the idea of a large shop with two windows and a door between, no shelving or counters inside, the interior a spacious, dismal apartment, not well swept. The only furniture a desk at one of the windows and a bench at one side of the shop, three feet high with two steps to it from the floor.

Conceive the idea of this dismal looking place with nobody in it but three Negro children who, as I entered, were playing at auctioneering each other. An intensely black little Negro of four or five years of age was standing on the bench-- or block, as it is called-- with an equally black girl, about a year younger, by his side whom he was pretending to sell by bids to another black child who was rolling about the floor.

My appearance did not interrupt the merriment. The little auctioneer continued his play and appeared to enjoy the joke of selling the girl who stood demurely by his side. "$50 for the girl. $50, $50. I sell this here fine girl for $50," was uttered, with appropriate gestures in imitation, doubtless, of the scenes he had seen and acted daily on the spot.

I spoke a few words but was scarcely understood. And the fun went on as if I had not been present. So I left them, happy and rehearsing what was likely soon to be their own fate.

Ira Glass

At 9:30 AM, at another store, Chambers is approached by a salesman and asked if he's there to buy a slave. Chambers explains that he is not. He's simply there to witness the sales and gather information, which seems fine with the salesman. A lanky man sits down next to Chambers wearing what Chambers calls a wide awake hat, which is a hat with a kind of low round crown and a wide brim.

John Ellison Conlee

Looking towards the door, I observe the subjects of sale. The man and boy indicated by the paper on the red flag enter together, whence, as the day was chilly, they edge themselves towards the fire in the corner where I was seated. I was now between the two parties, the white man on the right and the old and young Negro on the left. And I waited to see what would take place.

The sight of the Negroes at once attracted the attention of Wide Awake. He kept keenly eyeing the pair as if to see what they were good for. Under this searched gaze, the man and boy were a little abashed but said nothing.

Their appearance had little of the repulsiveness we are apt to associate with the idea of slaves. They were dressed in a grey woolen coat, pants, and waistcoat, colored cotton neck cloths, clean shirts, coarse woolen stockings, and stout shoes.

Moved by a sudden impulse, Wide Awake left his seat and, rounding the back of my chair, began to grasp at the man's arms, as if to feel their muscular capacity. He then examined his hands and fingers, and last of all told him to open his mouth and show his teeth, which he did in a submissive manner.

Having finished these examinations, Wide Awake resumed his seat. I asked the elder Negro what was his age. He said he did not know. I next inquired how old the boy was. He said he was seven years of age.

On asking the man if the boy was his son, he said he was not. He was his cousin.

Ira Glass

Chambers and the man that he calls Wide Awake wait around for a while for the auction to start and then get tired of waiting. And they leave the shop to check out another one further up the street.

John Ellison Conlee

Here, according to the announcement on the paper stuck to the flag, there were to be sold a woman and three children, a young woman, three men, a middle aged woman, and a little boy. Already a crowd had met. A few were seated near a fire on the right-hand side, and others stood around an iron stove in the middle of the apartment. The whole place had a dilapidated appearance.

From a back window, there was a view into a ruinous courtyard, beyond which, in a hollow, accessible by a side lane, stood a shabby brick house on which the word jail was inscribed in large black letters on a white ground. I imagined it to be a depot for the reception of Negroes.

On my arrival, and while making these preliminary observations, the lots for sale had not made their appearance. In about five minutes afterwards, they were ushered in, one after the other, under the charge of a mulatto, who seemed to act as a principal assistant.

I saw no whips, chains, or any other engine of force, nor did such appear to be required. All the lots took their seats on two long forms near the stove. None showed any signs of resistance, nor did anyone utter a word. Their manner was that of perfect humility and resignation.

As soon as all were seated, there was a general examination of their respective merits by feeling their arms, looking into their mouths. Yet there was no abrupt rudeness in making these examinations, no coarse or domineering language was employed. The three Negro men were dressed in the usual manner, in grey woolen clothing.

The woman with three children excited my peculiar attention. She was neatly attired with a colored handkerchief bound around her head and wore a white apron over her gown. Her children were all girls, one of them a baby at the breast three months old, and the others two and three years of age, respectively, rigged out with clean white pinafores.

There was not a tear or an emotion visible in the whole party. Everything seemed to be considered as a matter of course. And the change of owners was possibly looked forward to do with as much indifference as ordinary hired servants anticipate a removal from one employer to another.

While intending purchasers were proceeding with personal examinations of the several lots, I took the liberty of putting a few questions to the mother of the children. The following was our conversation.

Are you a married woman? Yes, sir. How many children have you had? Seven. Where is your husband? In Madison County.

When did you part from him? On Wednesday, two days ago. Where you sorry to part from him? Yes, sir, she replied with a deep sigh. My heart was almost broke.

Why is your master selling you? I don't know. He wants money to buy some land. Suppose he sells me for that.

There might not be a word of truth in these answers, for I had no means of testing their correctness. But the woman seemed to speak unreservedly. And I am inclined to think that she said nothing but what, if necessary, could be substantiated.

Ira Glass

When the woman and her three children are put up on the auction block, bidding starts at $850. But it only gets up to $890. That won't do, gentleman, the auctioneer says. I cannot take such a low price. And the women and her children step down from the block.

$890 is the equivalent of nearly $26,000 today. Chambers reprints a price list. That's what one adult would sell for, not an adult and three kids.

The most interesting passage in Chambers' report is where he speculates about what the slaves feel about all this. Then in this passage he starts fine.

John Ellison Conlee

There was an entire absence of emotion in the looks of men, women, and children thus seated, preparatory to being sold. This does not correspond with the ordinary accounts of slave sales which are represented as tearful and harrowing.

Ira Glass

And then, Chambers takes a turn. He says something that is really hard to imagine somebody today writing.

John Ellison Conlee

My belief is that none of the parties felt deeply on the subject, or at least that any distress they experienced was but momentary, soon passed away and was forgotten. One of my reasons for this opinion rests on a trifling incident which occurred.

While waiting for the commencement of the sale, one of the gentleman present amused himself with a pointer dog which, at command, stood on its hind legs and took pieces of bread from his pocket. These tricks greatly entertained the row of Negroes, old and young. And the poor woman, whose heart three minutes before was almost broken, now laughed as heartily as anyone.

Ira Glass

Today, this just seems wrong-headed. Of course you could be deeply affected by something you're going through and still, you know, laugh at a dog doing tricks. Of course, any of us could contain both those things at the same time. It's weird that Chambers doesn't see that.

A scholar who's written about Chambers told me that Chambers was actually not a keen observer of people in his writing. He doesn't do much character observation when he writes. So it's possible he just was not super perceptive about people's feelings.

But also, when you read more of Chambers, it's clear he thinks that white people are superior to black people. He wrote, quote, "A black man is only a kind of man. He stands upright on two legs, his hands to work, wears clothes, can cook his food, a point not reached by monkeys," Chambers writes. "Perhaps," Chambers says, "there's something wrong with his craniological development," which, I guess he means, not as smart.

So he went on a mission to document the reality of slavery for his readers. He was that enlightened. He was that against it. But that was as far as he went. On his visit to Richmond, he was not able to see the people in front of him for what they really were, which was, of course, exactly the same as him.

Act Four. A Brief History of Us.

Ira Glass

Act Four, "A Brief History of Us." So to close today's show, we asked a fiction writer, Etgar Keret, to create a short story that works like a captain's log that's told completely through a series of unemotional facts. Here's what he wrote. It's read for us by actress Sue Scott.

Sue Scott

At first, we were a cell, then an amoeba, than a fish. And after a very long and frustrating era, we became a lizard. That was the era when, as we recall, the earth felt soft and unsteady beneath our feet. So we climbed a tree.

Up there in the treetops, we felt secure. At some point, we climbed down and started walking upright and speaking. And as soon as we began speaking, we just couldn't stop.

After that, we watched a lot of TV. It was a fantastic era. We always laughed in the wrong places. And people stared and said, what's so funny? And we didn't even bother answering. That's how little we cared.

We promised ourselves we'd find a job we loved. And when that didn't work out, we settled for a job we didn't hate. And we felt lucky, and then unlucky, and then lucky again.

And suddenly, our parents were dying. Then they died. A second before they departed, we held their hand really tight and told him we forgave them for everything-- everything. And our voice broke when we said that, because we weren't convinced we were telling the truth. And we were afraid they could sense it.

Less than a year after that, our son was born. And he also climbed a tree and felt secure up there. And he came down at some point, too, and went off to college. Then we were left alone, and it started getting cold, not like the other time eons ago when we hid in boroughs and peered out while the dinosaurs froze to death, but still depressingly cold.

So we went to a drama workshop, because our friend said it would do us good. They gave us a series of improv exercises. And in the first one, we poisoned each other. And in the second one, we cheated on each other.

And in the third one, the instructor, who spoke English with a heavy indistinct accent said, now switch partners. And within seconds, it wasn't us anymore.

The new man who was my partner said, let's do a sketch where you're a baby, and I give birth to you and nurse you and protect you from all evil. And I said, sure, why not? But by the time he'd finished giving birth to me and nursing me and protecting me from all evil, our time was up.

And the instructor with a strange accent asked if the exercise had made any primal memory surface. And I said it hadn't, because I didn't want to admit that it had brought back warm primordial memories from millions of years ago, from before we even emerged from the water.

Afterwards at home, we got into an argument over something really dumb and had the biggest fight we'd ever had since we were created. We yelled and cried and broke things, the kind of things that if you'd asked us a day earlier we'd have told you were unbreakable.

Then we packed our stuff up in a suitcase and shoved whatever didn't fit in the suitcase into plastic grocery bags. And we dragged all that behind us like homeless people to the apartment where a very wealthy friend of ours lived. And he put a sheet out on his plush sofa for us.

The friend told us that it might seem like the end of the world now. But by morning, all the rage and hurt feelings would melt away, and everything would look different. And we said, no, something had been broken. Something had been torn apart, something we would never be able to mend or forgive.

The friend lit an imported Slims cigarette and said, OK, maybe so. But can I just ask, why do you keep talking in the plural? Instead of answering, I just looked around and realized I was alone-- truly, completely alone.

Ira Glass

Sue Scott, reading a story by Etgar Keret. Etgar's latest book is a memoir called The Seven Good Years. His story was translated from Hebrew by Jessica [INAUDIBLE].

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Zoe Chace and myself with Sean Cole, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Brian Reed, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike.

Editing help from Joel Lovell. Production help from Simon Adler, Seth Lind, our operations director, Emily Condon, who's our production manager. Elise Bergerson's our office manager. Elna Baker scouts stories for our show.

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

[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, he donated blood this week. And when it was all over, I don't know. He told me he was really feeling out of sorts.

Dale

I said, "What's the status on the cookies? Yarr. Me so hungry."

Ira Glass

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