There's this story my mom used to like to tell. My older sister, Randi, was eight or so when this happened. And something came up at school that Randi didn't understand, and she came home. And she asked my mom, where do babies come from?
And my mom just felt like, great. This is great. She's bringing this up on her own. I don't have to sit her down in some awkward birds and bees conversation someday. We can get this out of the way now when she's young, and she's really excited to tell her this stuff. And she explains the whole thing, right? Where babies come from, what sex is. And the way my mom always used to tell the story, she said that she felt like, I am doing such a good job here. Like, I am such a good mom today.
And at the end of it, she asked Randi, OK, so that's everything. Do you have any questions? And then Randi pauses for a long moment, and she asks, "Can birds really fly?" And my mom realizes, of course, oh, she was not ready. Like, she absorbed nothing.
And, sure enough, like, a year passes, and Randi comes back to her-- I don't remember why-- and asked her again, like, where do babies come from? And it's like the first time never happened. She remembered none of it. And I think of that story sometimes when there are debates over what is suitable for children. And I think there's a whole category of things that kids protect themselves from. Like, they just don't want to engage with that stuff. Adults don't need to keep them from it.
But then there's other stuff, stuff that does seep into their world that they take to heart and they mull about and they make part of themselves. And the thing that's difficult is that it can be really hard to predict what those things are going to be. Well, today, on our program, things that kids hear, things they see, things that happen to them that affect them in ways that they only understand later as adults. Like, for instance, what it means to give little Black kids toys that celebrate the Confederacy, or to drag teenage boys into the desert to watch atomic bombs go off, or to bring your kid to work when your work involves breaking the law. How do you even quantify exactly what that does to a person?
Well, today, we try to figure that out. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.
Act One: Stars & Bars & Bars
Act One, Stars and Bars and Bars.
We got the idea for this week's show from this thing that happened to one of our producers, Neil Drumming, a realization that he came to an adulthood about a TV show that he'd watched as a kid. Here's Neil.
The hit TV show, "The Dukes of Hazzard," ran from 1979 to 1985. It starred John Schneider and Tom Wopat as Bo and Luke Duke, two rakish, good ol' boys trying to stay on the right side of the law in rural Georgia. But if you ask any man my age who was a fan of the show, "The Dukes of Hazzard's" true star was a bright orange 1969 Dodge Charger nicknamed the General Lee. Every week on CBS, the General Lee would roar through country backroads, leaping over virtually everything, defying the laws of physics, and blowing little boys' minds across America.
I had a General Lee.
In what, like, a Matchbox or a Hot Wheels?
No, I had a straight up, like, the plastic joint.
Oh. OK, like a big sized one.
The big sized one.
You know, whatever, go around. Drive it over your dad's foot, and he'd get angry. Like that size.
This is one of my favorite rappers, Breeze Brewin. He's from the Bronx. Like me, he watched "The Dukes of Hazzard" faithfully as a boy. We both had "Dukes of Hazzard" lunch boxes, and we were both proud owners of miniature versions of the General Lee. Back then, it was probably one of the most coveted toys any kid in either of our neighborhoods could possess.
I remember the bully of the neighborhood stole mine and tried to pretend it was his.
I hate when that happens. This is mine, right? I'm like, no, it's definitely not.
The General Lee was remarkable. Not just because it was both fast and furious before that was a thing, but because its rooftop was emblazoned with the Confederate flag. As kids, Black kids, pushing our mini American muscle along the carpets and concrete of New York City, neither Breeze nor I saw anything bothersome about that bold symbol up top. In fact, for us at the time, the rebel flag was just part of what made the car so damn cool.
There was a kid in my neighborhood, Irish kid. He had an orange Dodge Challenger 440, no flag on the top. I remember a lot of us were like, damn, he need to throw the flag on top of that bad boy.
Wait, it was a real car, or it was a toy?
No, he drove that bad boy, and you heard him coming down the block.
You're just like, that car would be dope.
That car would be dope if he had that flag on that bad boy.
I got the idea to talk to Breeze about this because, in 2001, as part of his group, the Juggaknots, he wrote and released a song called "Generally." It's spelled like the adverb, but a play on the name of the Dukes' prized racer. I don't remember exactly when I heard the song, but by then, it had been over 15 years since "The Dukes of Hazzard" went off the air. I hadn't thought about the show or the car in ages.
[MUSIC PLAYING - "GENERALLY" BY JUGGAKNOTS]
That was my favorite, y'all. General Lee. They was them good ol' boys. General Lee. They wasn't meaning no harm. General Lee. You watched the show. You had the toys.
I'm pretty sure that when I was in my 20s and heard "Generally," well, that was the first time I put two and two together and realized, oh, wait. One of my favorite toys growing up actually bore an unabashed affront to my humanity and freedom. The flag on the roof-- how the hell did I miss that? Listening to the song again recently, I thought maybe it was about Breeze himself coming to that same realization. We are the same age after all.
But when he and I met to talk about it, Breeze said he'd recognized the inherent put down in the General Lee's paint job by the time he was in high school. He was actually inspired to write "Generally" a few years later, after he'd had kids of his own. One day, he took them on a shopping trip.
I was literally in Toys "R" Us, probably on Gun Hill Road near Co-op City, or the one in Yonkers on Central Ave, and kids losing their shh, looking for toys, and me questioning, like, what's up with these toys?
And then I see the General Lee.
The iconic roadster was back on the shelves, being pushed on a new generation to promote some TV movie relaunch.
Do you remember it?
What, the song?
Could you take me through it?
You want bars?
Oh, man, it's tough. I'm 43. (RAPPING) You drive me batty. Daddy's survivin' and be seeming slimmin', screaming women. Could the sound be more annoying?
The thing I love about Breeze is that he writes these dense, clever, impressionistic rhymes that sound like words tumbling down stairs. In this first verse, he's telling the story of that trip to Toys "R" Us, building the scene of a frustrated parent overwhelmed by toys and demanding children.
(RAPPING) Baggin' all these whack toys, trying to lack noise, peace and quiet. Cease a riot constructively. Then what I see? The General Lee.
And I said, you know what? I need to explore this idea, like why do they think that was OK? Why do they think that they could show this image and make us champion that image? Why is it OK to make our pain this pop icon? Why was it OK? I just wanted to attack it, that you would have the audacity to do that. I was just thinking, not with my kids.
So then you go-- so then there's the chorus after that, right?
Yeah. So the chorus it's like, (RAPPING) the General Lee, representing for your clan. The General Lee, for real, somebody pulled a fast one. The General Lee, now, I'm starting to overstand. The General Lee wasn't the first, won't be the last one.
I love that line, "somebody pulled a fast one," just because it's nice. It's like, the car is fast, and it's like a really-- it's a really nice one.
I appreciate that.
It's very slick.
I mean, it's pretty blatant. It's the hoodwinking.
They got over, you know? They normalized it, for better or for worse. It's a huge screw you, you know? It's like, we're going to do this. You're not going to say nothing. We're going to put it on prime time TV. We're going to put it in Toys "R" Us. In fact, you're going to buy it. So it's like-- in the song, I say, "But sell my L. Sell my loss."
Of course, at seven, eight, nine years old, it wasn't Breeze and I controlling the TV remote or spending our hard-earned cash. It was ultimately our parents who let us watch the show and bought us the toys. Considering that both my parents were born and raised in rural South Carolina and experienced chilling racism firsthand, you'd think they would have objected to the Dukes and their General Lee. But they didn't. Breeze's parents, who are from the Caribbean, they didn't either. He has a theory as to what our parents were thinking.
I think, you know, it's a lot about, I don't want my kids to be left out. I don't want my kids to be weird. It was a number one show. So it was like, you know, why deny them that?
OK, this is important. On TV, the doors on the General Lee were welded shut, as is common with a lot of stock race cars. So Bo and Luke Duke were constantly hopping through the windows. It was the only way in or out of the car. Here's Breeze with the song's final verse.
(RAPPING) Disturbable to see what we was murdered to when it coulda, shoulda been a convertible.
I started off with like, you know what? You was constantly jumping in and out of the windows. It would have made more sense and been more practical to have been a convertible. Just cut the top off. Chop the top off.
But you needed it. You needed the top of the car. You needed to show that image, because that's the pimpery. That's the game. I get it. Y'all wanted to see it. Here it is.
OK, take me through that verse.
(RAPPING) Disturbable to see what we was murdered to when it coulda, shoulda been a convertible. See that they're climbing through the windows and go make better time and do the pro hopping, but no stopping. Commercial use is the issue. They get you with decals. Match the lunchbox, pajamas. You wanna snatch the bunch. Lock that be wild, generally praise the stuff, crave the stuff, slaves to stuff. Get it for me, begging, like, please.
So now with that, I talked about how I would beg my parents for it. But then it's just, like, sporting the pain, you know what I mean? Like, you were sporting my pain, and it's literally a comedy.
(RAPPING) Sportin' the pain. Sure was a brainwashed kid, but never had a fad with rockin' a swastika. Of course, Nazi. But that I'd rather not see. The closest that I got be seek Haile Selassie. But sell my L, see it's nothing than this double standard. Trouble, be it something candid or this subtle. Gun the flag down. What? No hesitating. Gutter regulation, fuck the legislation. But now, some of y'all walking around like, for shame, word, as I wonder what the murderers of James Byrd thought about the General Lee.
In 1998, James Byrd, a Black man in Texas, was badly beaten and pissed on by three white supremacists. The men then chained Byrd by his ankles to a pickup truck and dragged him over asphalt for roughly three miles. Byrd died when his head and arm were severed from his body.
The white supremacists, who sported various Nazi and confederate symbols, dumped Byrd's mutilated body near a Black church. This atrocity was heavy on Breeze's mind when he wrote "General Lee," which is why the last verse ends in anger. As he says, gun the flag down, no hesitating.
I kind of was like, I know some people are going to be like, Breeze, you're wildin'. You're talking about shooting down a flag. You should go through the right channels. There's legislation. [LAUGHS] But I'm like, word? Well, what do the murderers of James Byrd think about the General Lee? You know what I mean? It's just like, at some point, we gotta kill your idols. We gotta burn your idols.
So you were saying-- you told me that you were-- you've been thinking about this song a lot lately.
Literally, like a week before you called, I was listening to the song and I almost got a little choked up. Because like, god damn, you know what I mean? It's like, 16 years later, why is it still an issue? I'd like to think, come on, you're better than that now, America.
That said, I can't help but harbor a little bit of nostalgia for the General Lee. Not so much for the thing itself, but for what it represents for me-- a time before I could possibly recognize the insidiousness of its design, before I really understood its origins or how that history has shaped me and the people I care about, back when all I really had to worry about was who had the coolest toy on the block.
Neil Drumming. These days, he works at our sister company, Serial, making podcasts. Today's show is a rerun.
I honestly believe they should have changed the name, Robert E. Lee High School, a very long time ago-- probably after, you know, '90s, early 2000s.
That's Joralen Mauldin. When we talked to her for today's program, she was 16 years old, a member of the drill team at Robert E. Lee High School in Tyler, Texas-- a Black girl with a blond afro, which, on Fridays, would be tucked under a white cowboy hat, part of her drill team uniform. She talked to B.A. Parker.
I love being on this team. I love the girls who are on here. But you know, the history is still-- you know, it's there at the back of my mind. And I know a lot of it, it doesn't really bother that many people, but it's still something that I find that gets to me.
That history is that Robert E. Lee High School was founded in 1958, four years after "Brown versus Board of Education," as a place for white students to go to avoid integration. The town gave it the name Robert E. Lee as a way to give the finger to the Civil Rights movement. The school prided itself on having this massive Confederate flag-- allegedly, the second-largest Confederate flag in the world.
It took 20 people to carry it. Then in the 1970s, the courts ordered the town to integrate the high school. These days, 60% of the school was Black and Latino. Though in Tyler, it is still referred to as the white high school. When they announce the name of the school at the beginning of games, Joralen says, she just kind of blocks it out. She found out about the school's history a little while ago.
I learned this last year, I believe, because we have memory books. And it dates back all the way to when Lee first opened, and we were flipping through one of the very first ones. And that was when I saw the uniforms and all the traditions that they used to have, the Southern Belle Drill Team and our Bell Guards. They were called the Rebels and the Rebelettes, and they did wear Confederate uniform style of clothing and things like that, and they proudly displayed their Confederate flag. And it just shocked me, and all I could think about was, what? Like, for real? Y'all are kidding me right now.
Do you have to sing the school song?
They tried to make us learn it, but I never memorized it.
The school song starts with the lyrics, "Robert E. Lee, we raise our voices in praise of your name. May honor and glory guide you to fame."
Have you ever-- have ever looked at the lyrics of it?
I've looked at the lyrics, which is why I haven't tried to memorize it.
Would you ever sing it?
Never in my life, never.
There's one lyric in the school song-- "Our memories will bind us to Robert E. Lee." That part definitely seemed true back when we first aired this story in 2017. Then, in 2020, one year after Joralen graduated, the school district actually changed the name of the school to Tyler Legacy High School. Joralen, by the way, is not crazy about that name either. She says, "Legacy" is a nod to the school's Confederate legacy. She says she would have gone with something neutral-- like, for instance, Rose City High.
[MUSIC PLAYING - "WAITING FOR THE ROBERT E. LEE" BY DEAN MARTIN]
Way down on the levee in old Alabammy, there's daddy and mammy. There's Efraim and Sammy. On a moonlight night, you can find them all. While they're awaiting, the banjos are syncopating.
What's that they're sayin'? What's that they're sayin'? But while they keep playing, I'm humming and swayin'. It's the good ship "Robert E. Lee" that's come to carry the cotton away.
Act Two: History is Not a Toy
Act Two, History is Not a Toy.
So there are over 200 public schools around the country named after Confederate leaders and over 700 monuments memorializing the confederacy in public places. Those numbers come from a database run by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Of course, many other statues have been taken down in the last few years. The Statue of Robert E. Lee was removed just this week in Richmond.
But for all this commemoration of white experience of life in the South before and during the Civil War, there's actually not that much out there memorializing the Black experience. One of the few places is in Baltimore. I have to say, I was surprised to learn it was there.
I grew up in Baltimore, and OK, this came into existence after I moved away. But I'm back in Baltimore regularly to see family, though I had never heard of it, until B.A. Parker, who was a producer at our program-- and who also grew up in Baltimore, not far from where I grew up-- told me about it. Here she is.
Every Black kid in Baltimore knows this place. Most of us went there on field trips when we were in school or were taken there by an earnest parent. It's called the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum. That's great Blacks, and they're rendered in wax. It's the first Black History wax museum in the country.
I first went there on a field trip in the third grade and, for better or worse, it's been stuck in my memory ever since. To be honest, it scared the shit out of me. It's violent and graphic, and unlike any other museum I've ever been to. And its main clientele was children.
Even today, I can talk to anybody who grew up Black and in Baltimore, and if you bring up the Blacks in Wax, they'll be like, yeah, that was messed up, right? Texting with friends and family about this last week, I got messages like, "I had nightmares" and "I started to tear up" and "I can still see it in my head." I wanted to go back to the museum to see if it was as bad as I remembered.
There's a crowd of people from a bus coming in.
Oh, there's a couple kids.
So I went back there recently with my colleague, Sean Cole. The museum itself is an old fire station and three row houses fused into one building. In the lobby, the wax figures of W.E.B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson are there to greet you. Next to the ticket booth is a figure of the great military general Hannibal, riding a massive elephant. And up over ahead is the first Black female pilot, Bessie Coleman.
Oh, I didn't even see. There's an airplane above us.
There is an airplane above us with, like, a cool chick in it with her shades on, and she's taking no one's mess.
The lobby's awe-inspiring and stuff, but then you buy your ticket and actually enter the museum. Then everything changes. A quick warning-- there's a lot of violence of all sorts in what follows. It might not be for everyone.
When you step inside the museum, it's dark. Immediately to the right, there's a wax figure of a slave. He's on his knees, his teeth knocked out, and he's being held down by two white slavers who pull his head back. They've shoved a long funnel into his mouth and are pouring gruel through it, force feeding him. Brown gruel spills out of his mouth.
As an act of rebellion, some slaves wouldn't eat, so the slavers made them. This is the very first thing you see. And then to the left, is one of the museum's signature attractions.
All right, so do you want to go into the slave ship?
They've built a facsimile of a slave ship into the museum. It's not that big, about the size of a large trailer. But when I was eight, it seemed enormous. Back then, walking down to the hold below was like walking onto an amusement park ride, only the opposite of fun.
At the entrance, there are two white wax slave merchants, both impeccably dressed. One sits behind a desk. It used to be that when you stepped onto the stairs, a recording would play, one of the merchants announcing, "New load of slaves coming aboard now." At eight, I understood. They meant me. I was supposed to be a new slave. I burst into tears. At first, I refused to go all the way down into the ship. But the other kids did it, so I did it too. And what I saw when I got to the bottom of the steps was what I was seeing now, another vicious looking white man.
And he's branding a slave woman who has a chain around her neck and, like, placing the brand on her shoulder. And she's fully nude and covered in blood. Jeez, it's just-- pure agony is on her face. And he looks like he's full of hate and anger, and is just ready to torture someone. None of this has changed.
There's collections on shelves of just parts of bodies bloodied.
Being eaten by rats. That should be noted. Like, there's one under-- like, below, that's dismembered and being eaten by rats.
The museum goes for an intense realism. It doesn't leave anything out. It's over the top in a way that's almost campy. This is probably because the wax figures all were made in the 1970s. The slavers have mutton chops. A few of the slaves look more like they're from "Good Times" than from "Roots." But the scenes are always based on documented atrocities.
At a certain point in the slave ship, I turn around, and I see the entire wall behind me is one huge mirror. And then I see the chained-up slaves and I'm forced to look at myself. And it comes home to me in an instant that these people are my ancestors. Without the torture, without the sorrow, without the misery that they endured during the Middle Passage, there would be no me.
So what do you remember from when you were a kid and seeing this?
I remember, like, being confused, right, and being scared. The fact that it's someone who's my skin, my-- you don't have the language for it. But it is, like, a pause and reflect, and your eyes grow wide. And you're trying to understand what it means.
I'm sorry. I just got distracted by them trying to shove the guy in the oven. Sorry.
No, that's the Underground Railroad. It's a fake oven.
There was an exhibit behind Sean of a white man helping his runaway slave escape through an oven with a door in the back, allowing him to slip through from one house to another and another.
As a kid, it wasn't like I was unfamiliar with Black history. By the third grade, I had already been to the plantation in North Carolina where my ancestors were sold. I was obsessed with Thurgood Marshall. I wanted to be him. I wanted to marry him, everything.
And my elementary school made such a big deal about Martin Luther King every year. And I once got to play one of Coretta Scott King's bridesmaids in an assembly. But it was exactly that, the elementary school version of Black history-- Dr. King, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, the coloring book of greatest hits, not the brutal reality.
But none of this compares to what you see in the museum's basement. The basement is so intense that the museum has posted a sign outside of it, warning that you shouldn't go into it until you're at least 12. Under 16, you need a chaperone.
We headed there, past Henry Box Brown, the slave who mailed himself to freedom in a box. When I was a kid, he'd pop out and wave. But it startled too many kids, and they don't do that anymore. We walked past Henry to the top of the basement stairs.
All right, so we're going to go downstairs to the lynching exhibit.
I didn't see the lynching exhibit when I was eight. I saw it on a second field trip, when I was a freshman in high school. I still don't think I was ready. I don't think I was ready now.
It starts off when you're still walking down the stairs, with historical photos and newspaper clippings of actual lynchings as recent as 1998. Black people hanging from trees, set on fire, dragged by trucks. Photos of the dead surrounded by crowds of white spectators all decked out in their Sunday best. Smiling little girls with the ribbons in their hair, looking at the camera, some with pride, a man hanging from a tree behind them. Then at the bottom of the stairs, as soon as you round the corner--
All right, so--
Oh. Oh, my God.
Do you want me to describe what's happening here?
In front of us was a husband and wife named Hayes and Mary Turner. They lived in Georgia. Back in 1918, a local Black man had killed the plantation owner. And when the Sheriff's Office went hunting for the killer, they and a mob lynched practically every other Black man in their path.
Hayes Turner was one of the casualties in that massacre-- a warning, this gets especially graphic. Just as I was about to describe what happened next to Sean, the museum's educator, Imani Haynes, walked in. And I was grateful she did, because she took over.
He had nothing to do with the situation, and unfortunately, he was lynched. Afterwards, he was castrated. So what you're seeing in this scene in the exhibit is Turner, lynched. He is wearing overalls, and we have his overalls opened up in his private region, blood dripping down.
Next to Hayes is his wife, Mary. After he was lynched, Mary bravely went seeking justice for her husband. She was eight months pregnant at the time. They lynched her too.
In the museum exhibit, she's hanging from the neck. But in real life, they actually hanged her by her feet, set her on fire, slashed her stomach open, and pulled out her baby, which was still alive. That's what's depicted in wax. Then they stomp on its head.
The sign on the wall adds to the story that haunted me. It's also the only part that historians can't fully verify. It reads, "Walter White, describing the lynching of Mary Turner and her husband, Hayes Turner, depicted in the scene, said that it was too horrible to describe the mob taking the time to sew two cats in Mrs. Turner's stomach and making bets as to which one would climb out first."
To the left of the Turner's bodies is a mantelpiece with souvenir jars. Sometimes, the lynchers would keep pieces of their victims. In these jars were supposed to be the ears, locks of hair, and genitalia of Black people, all next to a kid's baseball trophy. I'm not sure why that's there, except to underscore the point that these body parts are trophies too.
It's a difficult room to process. When I saw this at 14, some of my classmates didn't even know how to react. A few of them, stoic. Others, awkwardly deflecting with, yo. I remember feeling angry, because you couldn't escape it.
There are signs around the room that anticipate your distress. They say, "Identify with the victims and martyrs, and never forget them. But do not get bitter or despondent over what they endured."
Dr. Joanne Martin founded the museum with her husband, Elmer, in 1983. And when I told her all the kids in my third grade were crying and freaking out and holding hands, she was fully aware that happens. In fact, it's intentional.
For me, that's the point. When they leave shaking, when they leave crying-- and that's often the reaction-- I have no problem with those tears. And it is-- what people are going to talk about years later is going to be our slave ship. And they're going to say, I never forgot your lynching exhibit. And everything else, it seems like a movie, if you don't have a sense of exactly what people were fighting against. If you think that Rosa Parks-- that what she did had something to do with the seat on the bus, and you don't understand that that act was going to get her jailed, but it could have gotten her lynched as well.
When Joanne and her husband founded the museum, they set out to create something that they wished existed in the world, a museum that celebrated and preserved Black history, created by Black people for Black people in a majority Black city. They were professors at historically Black universities in Baltimore, Elmer at Morgan State and Joanne at Coppin. But they wanted to reach more than just the academic class.
When they visited a wax museum in St. Augustine, Florida, they thought, yeah, wax figures. That's the way to go. They had money saved for a house, but instead put it towards wax figures. It still wasn't enough.
Wax figures are absurdly expensive-- $4,500 then, but tens of thousands of dollars now. They ended up with their first four Black history figures, Frederick Douglass, John Brown, Nat Turner, and Mary McLeod Bethune. Elmer and Joanne would tour around with their quartet of wax figures at different schools and churches and expos.
We just would take the figures, set them up as exhibits, throw them into my Pontiac, take them back home to our two-bedroom apartment. So if you looked into the guest bedroom of our two-bedroom apartment, you would have found Mary McLeod Bethune's head on the dresser and Frederick Douglass' parts over in a corner, and so forth, You know, I just gave him an ultimatum. Mary McLeod Bethune has got to go. You've got to find a place for Mary McLeod Bethune.
Dr. Martin told me they're thinking of expanding the museum and making it more child friendly, toning down the violence, which surprised me. It doesn't seem like her mission at all, and it only makes sense if our history were a little more child friendly, which it definitely isn't.
The four little girls killed in the 1963 church bombing in Alabama, they were all 14 and younger. The kids who marched in Birmingham's Children's Crusade were beaten and had dogs sicced on them. They were as young as 12. And Emmett Till was 14. He has a memorial in the lynching room, but you wouldn't even be allowed to go down there without a chaperone.
Even though the museum upset me, I respect it. It got through to me. Even as an adult watching right-wing pundits discuss the greatness of America, I still think of Mary Turner and her baby. When I left the museum, I have the same feeling I did as a kid, like I was in on a secret about what the country was really like, like all of America's truths were in a basement on North Avenue.
B.A. Parker-- she can be heard on the podcast "The Cut" from "New York Magazine." Coming up, a seventh grader gets a taste of the family business, which means breaking the law with mom and dad. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.
Act Three: Take Your Kid to Work Day
It's "This American Life." I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, Suitable for Children, stories about the random stuff that kids encounter that just sticks with them for the rest of their lives, for good or for bad. We have arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, Take Your Kid to Work Day.
So in this half of the show, we have stories of kids seeing stuff that really maybe they should not see, and we begin with this story from Domingo Martinez about tagging along with his parents when they were on the job. His dad had a trucking business in Texas. They were doing worse and worse over the years.
By 1986, Dad had become a truck driver with nothing left to haul but marijuana. Through his early 30s, he could do little with the trucking business he'd inherited from Grandpa, except watch as it crumbled around him. Back then, he began his days by throwing open the door to the bedroom I shared with my brother Dan.
He'd stand there in his underwear, looking like a tall, diapered child, and say, "You two, get up." He would end the day drinking a lot of $1.50 Budweisers at the shanty bars that littered the port of Brownsville. At home, Mom kept the bookkeeping. She watched the flow of money slow to a trickle, and then stop outright when I was in middle school.
My brother, sisters, and I knew things were dire when our mothers stopped shopping at El Centro Supermarket-- the nice grocery store, as she'd always told us-- and started bringing home bags from Lopez Supermarket, the poor people grocery store.
One morning, mom surprises me by showing up at my seventh grade algebra class and removing me, getting us on the road out of Brownsville, headed north. There's no explanation. "Sientáte y lla callete," she snaps at me. Sit down, and shut up.
I don't know why I didn't guess what we were doing that morning, that Mom and I were lookouts for Dad, who was on the road somewhere behind us in one of his flat-nosed tractor trailers, carrying a large load of marijuana and headed north. I had heard the stories, knew some of the tactics of smuggling by this point. But I didn't make the connection that mom and I were driving ahead of Dad to make sure the customs station was closed. And if it happened to be open, we were supposed to turn back and warn him.
This was back in the 1980s, before the Patriot Act, when there were two US customs checkpoints blocking the migration of drugs, fruit, people, reptiles, and parrots on the roads between the United States and Mexico, both about 100 miles north of the Mexican border at highway checkpoints.
The station on Highway 77 in Sarita was the busier and the better financed. The checkpoint in Hebbronville, though, was an Airstream trailer with an attached carport to protect the agents from the sun, and it would often close for breakfast or lunch. So we were headed towards that one this morning, going north on Highway 281, driving through the scenery of asthmatic plants and stunted trees.
The car is hot, no air conditioning. My mom and I are saying nothing to one another. We have each decided that the other is unworthy of conversation. We stare out the windows and think very different things.
Mom is thinking about the $100 she and Dad had spent before six o'clock that morning. $100 that would help them make $2,000 if things went right, because their first stop on this felony excursion was to Dad's curandera, whom we knew as La Senora, Dad's personal witchdoctor, for an emergency session. They were let right through at 5:00 in the morning, and they had only one burning question-- will the checkpoint be open?
After years of sitting through these sessions with my grandmother, I didn't have to be there to know exactly how it went in the curandera's office. La Senora is older, matronly, dresses in a thin frock with her hair pulled back in a bun. She has my parents sit across from her desk in a black leather love seat with chrome handles. A panorama of photos hang around her office, some wallet sized, others larger and in portrait. A pencil sketch of a Camaro by one of her grandsons hangs next to a window.
She listens closely to their question, nodding sleepily at their preoccupation, sympathizing, understanding. They've reached a decision and they can't turn back, they tell her. They need to do it. No other choice anymore.
She stands up abruptly and walks behind her desk, which is cluttered with sheets of notebook paper crawling with ink, illegible notes, names of people, sets of cryptic numbers, home addresses of saints. She closes her eyes and scribbles something on her yellow legal pad-- nonsense to anyone else reading it. On her desk are two cheap, leaded crystal bottles, each filled with a clear liquid. She gently reaches for her matching shot glass and lifts it to the light, making it sparkle.
She places the glass on the surface before her and pours from one bottle, then the other. When the two clear liquids mix, they turn a deep crimson and thicken, like plasma. She nods her head as if her suspicions have been confirmed. She produces a glass orb filled with water sitting on a black, plastic ring. She sits up straight, closes her eyes, and regulates her breathing into a loud, rhythmic inhalation, exhalation. That unconsciously forces Mom and Dad to do the same.
After a few seconds, she opens her eyes suddenly and strikes the glass orb with a metal wand, making it ring in the clear morning air. Then she lifts the orb between her two pudgy hands and stares deeply into the inverted image of the room around it. Sitting opposite the chicanery and watching everything she does, you're drawn to the ritual. And you can't help but try to figure it out too.
No, she says with certainty. The checkpoint will not be open this morning. Go in peace. God be with you.
When Mom and I reached the checkpoint at 11:45 that morning, it is very much open for business. A line of cars five deep stretches back from the under-budgeted Airstream trailer. Our job now is to go through, and then turn back around and report to dad that his doom was indeed imminent.
Mom is visibly shaken. She turns off the radio with a hard click and considers this, considers her options. From the car, we can see a skinny, middle-aged white guy in green Border Patrol garb, sitting on a reclining chair in the open doorway of the Airstream trailer. He's facing the cars as they pass under the tin roof.
It must have been 110 degrees inside the trailer, 100 in the shade. From his position, never bothering to get up, the agent sits, fanning himself with the newspaper and sleepily peers into the cars, asking if everyone is an American citizen, waiting for an accent and answer, smiling, and then waving them through, like a sympathetic priest granting absolution. "Hi. Where are y'all going to today?" asks the skinny, little man.
Mom's window is now only halfway open, and in her nervousness, she rolls it all the way up. "Hi, sorry. I mean, San Antonio," as she opens a window. "Y'all American citizens?" "Yes," she says, as she leans back so he could get a clear look at me, nodding my head.
I don't say anything, except a quiet "Yup" when I nod, but he has not heard me. There is an uncomfortable pause-- I think because they're supposed to hear your accent. There was an anxious beat, and he still hasn't let us go when I say, "Yes, I am," a bit too enthusiastically.
Mom laughs nervously. She had been hoping our light skin would exonerate us without a problem. "Y'all have a nice day," he says, like he hasn't noticed anything awkward. We drive through, and I feel her seethe for the next few miles.
That was about noon. Somewhere behind us at a roadside rest stop, Dad and my older brother, Dan, are waiting in Dad's tractor trailer, which is attached to the trailer with the marijuana. The two center I-beams that run the length of the trailer make perfect housing once you weld metal plates all along the underside and at the tail end. It creates a long, rectangular box sealed at the rear end with the axle of the rig, where 20 40-pound blocks of marijuana can be hidden. This is what Dad and Dan are carrying.
I wonder dimly if Dan has figured out what he's doing out here on the road north, when he should be in high school. But Dan has always been more streetwise, much savvier than me. I figure that if I figured it out, he'd have figured it out long before.
Mom and I drove on to Hebbronville. I'm dehydrated. I want to stop at a store. We can't, she says to me. We have to turn back. I think we're behind.
Still, I'm hungry and really thirsty. So I persist. Certainly, we have time to get to a convenience store. They can't have scheduled this thing to hinge on a few minutes. Certainly, they've devised this more cleverly than that.
Please, I plead, just stop at the 7-Eleven. Grudgingly, she pilots the noisy car around the small town and finds a convenience store. I get out with a couple of dollars and come up short when I tried paying for some donuts and a chocolate milk. I returned to the car for more money. Just get in, she yells, and I do, leaving the food at the counter.
Mom whips the car around and I'm in trouble. I'm used to it by now. We travel like that for a few minutes, and when the checkpoint is back in sight, we hold our breath so the guy won't see us. And right then, we see Dad and Dan and the trailer, heading right for the checkpoint.
Dad had become nervous, or maybe brave, or maybe he was blinded by his $100 faith in his curandera and had charged forth without waiting for Mom's report. "Oh, god," my mother says, and all the blood drains from my face from just the tone in her voice. I had never heard her voice so charged with fear.
"Oh, god," she says again. With her left hand, she grabs the knob that controls the headlights and flashes at Dad, who is only a few hundred feet from the checkpoint. She flashes four times, in clear view of anyone who is paying attention. I wonder if that is her signal that the checkpoint is open, but question the wisdom of doing it while he is next in line, in full view of the guy at the checkpoint, were he to look over his shoulder and see the noisy, southbound car that just drove through not 30 minutes before. She slows down, slows terrifically down, going less than 20 miles per hour on the highway, and for a moment, I can see Dad is driving.
I can see that the blood is drained from his face too, making his eyebrows stand out a rich black on his pallid, deathly-white forehead, a mask of someone pretending desperately that everything is A-OK, but doing it horrifically badly. I see Dan in the passenger seat, holding onto the handrail above the door as a means to steady himself through this craziness, through this stupid, unnecessary risk. And he looks calm, collected, uncaring, like he isn't there.
There are no cars ahead of them now. The trailer is next in line. It slows to a crawl, and I could see dad desperately trying to ignore the crazy, flashing, noisy Bonneville rattling through the southbound lane, keeping his eyes fixed to the road, pretending like he isn't smuggling anything in the empty trailer behind him, this empty, useless trailer with the I-beams all sealed up, with the two Mexican men driving it with no obvious destination, no paperwork, no affiliation with any hauling or trucking company. No, sir, not trafficking in drugs, just driving through-- to Houston probably, looking for work.
Oh, yes, we're American citizens. That's not why we're nervous. We could prove that. That's nothing. We're nervous because of the pot we're hiding, and because we're only getting $2,000 for risking upwards of 10 years in prison. Isn't that funny? Isn't that just hysterical?
But the skinny white guy is having lunch and can't be bothered. In one of the weirder moments of this whole debacle, the Bonneville, the Airstream, and Dad's tractor are all lined up, like some cosmic event. And we see the skinny Border Patrol agent with a white napkin tucked under his chin, and Dad's bloodless face up in the trailer through the window of the Airstream, as the agent waves them through with a fork, like he's conducting an orchestra. Go on through, go on through.
Mom continues driving south, stunned by what has just happened, and I am careful not to say a word. We almost reach Raymondville and stop at a Whataburger to get a quick, wordless lunch, and spend some time sitting in a parking lot, waiting. When she feels it is safe to return, she turns the car around and heads back north, back through the same checkpoint.
"Are you sure this is safe?" I ask. She doesn't answer. When we pull up again to the checkpoint headed back to Hebbronville around three o'clock, there was a different Border Patrol agent at the Airstream. He is a small, clean-cut, militant Mexican with a southern drawl.
"Y'all American citizens?" he demands instantly, leaning into the car through the window, clearly smelling for marijuana smoke. "Oh, yes," says my mother, who was probably quite relieved the hard part is over and it looks like we're getting away with it. "How about you, son? You an American citizen?"
He gives me a direct glare through reflective sunglasses. There is nothing more potentially hostile than the indigenous ego interpreting the laws of his conqueror upon his own people. "Yes, sir," I say, careful not to move or fidget or look away, like I've learned.
He looks back at my mother, then at me, like he smells the nervousness of earlier. Something tugs at his intuition. "Where are you all headed?" the sunglasses finally ask. This catches mom off guard. Her subterfuge had ended when Dad had driven through the checkpoint.
She left all her answers back in Raymondville. "We're going to Hebbronville," she says unconvincingly. Had he asked one more question, had he pressed it, we would have been in some sort of trouble. But he doesn't, and he backs off and motions us through.
Mom drives the noisy car through Hebbronville and we were about to hit the open highway again, when we noticed Dad's trailer in the parking of a cheap motel by the side of the road. My brother is lodged between the rearmost tires, working on the brake lights that, ridiculously, aren't working. Mom is as alarmed to find them there as I am. This confirms my suspicion that there had been no planning beyond the consultation at the curandera.
This whole debacle had been based on nothing more than $100 worth of faith. Mom pulls up next to the trailer, and I think she expects a victorious reunion. When he sees her, Dad suddenly looks like he's about to punch her. "Stupid fucking woman!" he yells at her in Spanish. Mom stops cold.
"What the fuck were you thinking? If they would have just turned around for a moment, it would all be over, and it would all be your fault," he spits at her in Spanish. We realize what he's upset about-- the flashing headlights.
His words continue to snap and hiss around her like bullets in a firefight, and she follows him forward to the cab of the truck, kowtowing to her punishment. Lucky for us, La Senora was right, Dad says, walking back with Mom, now excited and seemingly over his anger. She made them blind, and we were let through like they were closed.
When we left them later that evening, Dan was doing the driving. They pulled out of the parking lot and headed off to Houston and their payoff, the brake lights temporarily fixed in loops of black electrical tape. I watch as the truck disappears.
It looks like every other piece of now broken-down equipment we've ever owned, rusting, miserable, and totally criminal. Mom and I turn south back to Brownsville. Mom is her usual quiet self, except this time she plays the radio louder. This means she's thinking.
It's getting dark, and I'm sleepy, so I sleep. She'll get us home. She knows the way. For that, I could trust her.
Domingo Martinez, reading a story from his collection, "The Boy Kings of Texas," which is a memoir and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
Act Four: Rocket Boy
Act Four, Rocket Boy. So we close our program today with somebody who was just a teenager when the Army ordered him to report to Camp Desert Rock, which was next to the Atomic Energy Commission's bomb testing range in Nevada in 1955, to do something that he was totally unprepared for. Though, I think maybe nobody could be prepared for this.
He was 19. His name was Paul Zimmer. He grew up to be a writer and a poet, and he wrote about what happened there. He wrote this account back in the first year of the Trump administration, if you remember, when North Korea was doing test launches of intercontinental missiles and President Trump was threatening retaliation, demanding they stop. Anyway, Paul's account was read for us by an actor, John Conway.
I had paid attention. I had seen the newsreels of Hiroshima. But just watching atomic bombs go off, I thought it was going to be kind of cool. I thought the story would be a way to interest girls. They didn't tell us anything about what was going to happen, no initiation, no training. And the first time, I had no idea what to expect.
We traveled by convoy and buses in the middle of the night to assemble at the site. We shuffled around in the cold, chain smoking, until we were ordered into the trenches. The trenches were long, thin slits in the desert earth only wide enough for us to line up single file. We wore our steel helmets, but we're not issued earplugs, eye covers, or any protective clothing. Then they told us to get down.
I did not become fearful until the countdown was broadcast over the loudspeakers. And I only became terrified when I saw the flash, bright enough where, even with my eyes closed, I could see the bones of my hands over my eyes.
A shock wave crashed over the trench top, and we were ordered to stand up and look. We did and saw the mushroom cloud, glowing purple and changing colors, rising and rising up. I saw eight atomic blasts in total, all on different days. Some devices dropped from airplanes, and some detonated from towers. There was an aerial burst and an underground blast as well.
Sometimes, during the shock wave, the trench sides caved in and buried us alive, so we had to claw our way out from our own graves. Some poor doggies and Jeeps were assigned to drive forward with Geiger counters and radio transmitters. When clearance was radioed back, we were ordered to walk forward into the blast area to bear witness.
As far as I could tell, bearing witness was the entire reason we were there. The largest bomb I witnessed was called Turk, and it was almost three times the size of the Hiroshima bomb. It was dropped from a 500-foot tower, and our trenches were approximately two and a half miles from ground zero. The blast yield was bigger than expected, so the brass ordered us to retreat to the buses, where we swept each other off with kitchen brooms and hustled into our seats.
The next morning, some of us were bussed back into the area in our fatigues and ordered to walk forward to bear witness. There was still a heavy smell of ozone in the air. The vegetation was shredded, scorched, torn out by the roots, and small animals and birds were scattered, dead, crippled, and blind, lurching about, some still trying to find a place to hide.
We walked past crumpled vehicles and artillery pieces that had been placed in the open, mannequins staked out, khakis torn apart and melted grotesquely. Caged Cheshire pigs that had been dressed in specially-fitting Army uniforms were dead or mangled, the latter still shrieking their last. Herds of blasted sheep and cows were mangled together, dead or moaning. Staged houses and barns were splintered and scattered.
We never had to write reports, nor did anyone ask us what we saw. Because it turned out, they were looking at us. They wanted to see how a young men reacted to an atomic blast. Apparently, that's all they wanted to do, and I was not selected because I was special. I had no need for qualifications, aside from being a 19-year-old boy.
Over the years of America's open-air atomic bomb testing in Nevada, a few thousand Army men participated. It does not matter anymore that only feeble attempts were made by the government to find out how these experiences affected us. Lately, I've begun to realize that I am one of the last people living in America to have actually experienced close-up explosions of atomic bombs.
We're all dying now, and most of us are already dead. I'm not aware of anyone's health being affected by the blasts, but some years ago, I did check with the Veterans Administration about the possible radiation dosage I received during my participation. I was informed that the radiation film badge that I wore throughout my four months at Desert Rock had been burned up in a government warehouse records fire in St. Louis some decades ago.
Now, in my late years, when I can conjure that brief, surreal period of my youth, I try in vain to make some sense of it. And in some ways, it has become my responsibility to, at least, recollect and tell how that great flash and blast permanently reached into my very young mind and heart. How those enormous sounds deadened my ears and still ring in them to this day. How the crush of shock waves sometimes buried us alive in our trenches. I feel it my duty to tell the reckless absurdity of it all.
In August, our president threatened to unleash fire and fury like the world has never seen. We keep threatening to unleash these bombs, so I suspect that, one day, we will. Most of us have forgotten what we are capable of. I have not.
John Conley, reading an essay by Paul Zimmer. A version of this essay was first published in "The Georgia Review." Paul Zimmer died in 2019. He was 85. Over his life, he had health problems that he and his family believe were related to his radiation exposure.
[MUSIC - "KIDS" BY MIKKY EKKO]
(SINGING) Oh, I'm going to let the future in, the future in. I'll take it on, make it on my own. Oh, into the fire, we go again. We go again. We shake it off before we get too old.
Our program was produced today by Jonathan Menjivar. The people who put our show together include Susan Burton, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Dana Chivvis, Sean Cole, Whitney Dangerfield, Neil Drumming, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Mariya Karimjee, David Kestenbaum, Miki Meek, B.A. Parker, Robyn Semien, Lilly Sullivan, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Nancy Updike, and Diane Wu. Our senior producer for today's program is Bryant Reed. Production help on today's rerun from Chloe Weiner.
Special thanks today to Rebecca Sosa, to Eve Stotland at The Door, to John Freeman, Tasneem Raja, Lee Hancock, Rhonda Parker, Tyshaun Glover, Francis Guinan, Mary Zimmerman, and Bruce Norris. Our website, thisamericalife.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 lists his personal vices this way. He has five vices, five, exactly five.
Drugs, fruit, people, reptiles, and parrots.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
[MUSIC - "KIDS" BY MIKKY EKKO]