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A Terrible Ghastly Silence

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IRA GLASS: Americans imbue the road trip with every kind of mythological symbolism we can find: the hero's quest; the revenge journey; the voyage of self-discovery; the long-awaited, if not triumphant, return.

No matter where it starts or where it will end, a trip is fraught with expectation. Of finding meaning on a long, dusty stretch of desert highway. Of losing yourself down a lonely country road. Of burning up regrets with every gallon of gas.

But there's one thing we always, always forget: the inevitable crash.

When we started working on this story, we thought we knew what we were doing.

Our plan was to just get out there. There was a story waiting for us, one that we all knew was the stuff of legend. We couldn't get in on the ground floor. But maybe, just maybe, we'd get what we wanted. What no one else had. For all the words that could possibly be written, surely we could do better than two.

But it didn't quite work out that way.

 

[SONG EXCERPT: Opus No. 75 for Air Guitar]

 

ACT ONE: Party On, Dudes

IRA: Our story begins in California.

We'd left the depths of a typical upper-Midwestern winter — bone-chilling, teeth-rattling, road-closing cold — for the sunny suburbs of Los Angeles. It's been almost twenty years since a most excellent victory and we were devoting an entire show to the anniversary.

Hey, pledge season makes you do some crazy things.

BILL S PRESTON, ESQ: We just wanted to, you know, rock. All that other stuff was just, like, dude.

TED "THEODORE" LOGAN: Yeah! Like, whoa, you know? Whoa.

IRA: Bill S Preston, Esquire, and Ted "Theodore" Logan. The Two Great Ones. Wyld Stallyns. Their music defies description, calling out to people on almost a cellular level. You've seen the studies.

We were scheduled to stay in San Dimas for almost a full month. It was going to be our longest On Location prep period yet. We'd work our way around town. Talk to the old-timers. The kids who grew up on it. Really dig into what it meant to live in close proximity to such a wildly successful supergroup.

OX ROBBINS: Oh man, I got hit a lot in football, right? But watching their history project just about blew my head off, dude. And then a couple of years later? When they got on TV and played? It was like getting flattened by... by... I don't even know. It was crazy.

IRA: The Stallyns were rehearsing in a nondescript warehouse somewhere in the San Fernando Valley. With the tour only days away, we wanted to see for ourselves where it all began.

The Circle K is still there, but it's not a Circle K anymore. The family who owns it calls it the Paddok — equine-related misspellings run rampant in San Dimas — but it's just like any other no-name convenience store now. The clerk stands in a cage of bulletproof glass after dark, just her and a cash register and cartons upon cartons of cigarettes. Plywood painted a flat, dirty white covers the windows that were destroyed when someone left their car in gear while they ran in for a Brawndo. An American flag hangs limply from the ceiling next to a cracked security mirror.

You can still see the charred outline of the phone booth right there in the parking lot.

 

[INTERSTITIAL: Keyboard solo from Wyld Stallyns, Be My Ziggy Piggy]

 

IRA: We were on our way back to the rehearsal space. I was driving the rental van.

[Muffled engine noises, coughing, indistinct voices overlapping]

IRA GLASS: Are you recording this right now?

JULIE SNYDER: Of course I am. We want to get everything [indistinct] what you're doing?

ALEX BLUMBERG, muffled shouting: Why didn't anybody sign up for Triple A?!

JULIE: Where are we, even? Did anybody see a sign?

IRA: This is Torey's fault. I just know it.

IRA: It wasn't. It was a gasket. None of us knew how to fix it.

There we were, on the side of some highway. Watching the cars stream by on their way here, there, and everywhere. Steam billowing out from under the hood. Alex flapping a towel, trying to clear the air so we could see what was going on.

Not that we would know what to do if we could.

JULIE: So, what happened exactly?

IRA: I don't know. When we passed under the bridge, the wheels kind of shimmied and then there was a bang—

ALEX: Did you check the—

IRA: You don't even know what that is, Alex. Working Frank's auto industry story doesn't give you magical—

JULIE, loudly: I'm just going to call Sarah to come get us.

 

[SONG EXCERPT: Wyld Stallyns - Stranded in Time]

 

ACT TWO: DON'T PANIC

IRA: Sarah Koenig, producer extraordinaire and one-woman rescue crew. As our resident expert in all things Stallyn, she was still with the band in the Valley.

SARAH KOENIG: It took a little while to find them. Well, first it took a little time to find a car. Well, no, first the Stallyns started sound check, so I had to stay for that.

JULIE: You did not!

SARAH: They were doing Kid Billy! What do you want from me? I'm not made of stone.

IRA: It wasn't just Sarah who came to our rescue. She had somehow talked a roadie into abandoning his setup duties to drive her.

Roger nodded in response to our hellos, then came around the front of the van. He reached into the engine compartment. Within seconds, with only what he had in his pockets, he jury rigged a bypass for the broken gasket. A wiry man with a thick red beard and a tattoo of a lion springing out from under his t-shirt, he was the most beautiful thing any of us had ever seen.

We offered him everything: money, free lunch, new jobs, our wives and husbands and children. As many six packs of beer as he could carry once we found a shop to buy them in. Our first-born grandchildren. Everything.

Roger took a piece of gum and drove off into the mid-afternoon, Southern California-freeway-running-north-and-south version of the sunset.

 

[INTERSTITIAL: Choral sample from Wyld Stallyns, Kid Billy]

 

IRA: All four of us climbed into the van. Debate was heavy over what our next move should be.

ALEX: It's Bob's Big Boy or nothing. That's all I'm saying.

JULIE, sotto voce: We should be so lucky.

IRA: Kids, don't make me turn this van around.

SARAH: Oh, Ira, I almost forgot. You left your phone in the meeting room this morning. It's been ringing off the hook all day.

IRA: When I checked the caller ID, the same number came up seventeen times in a row. I didn't recognize it, but the country code was for England.

There was only one person it could be.

 

[INTERSTITIAL: Pennywhistle solo from Wyld Stallyns, Joannie]

 

IRA: My first apartment, a cold-water studio, came with a broken toilet, mice under the floorboards, and a roommate called Ford Prefect. He had the worst English accent I've ever heard and spent most of his time mainlining whisky and tequila. One night I came in from work and found him hanging coffee filters from the ceiling with my dental floss. He'd colored them with a green marker and called them his rescue party.

I moved out not long after that, changing my number as often as possible. But Ford always seemed to find me. It's not that surprising considering we spent most of our time working on the same assignment.

Sarah, in addition to delivering our salvation, also brought her entire CD collection. Before we pulled back into traffic, she already had the music turned up to eleven. It was easier to check my voicemail on speakerphone than to try to convince her to turn it down.

Everybody knows: you don't get in between Sarah and her Stallyns.

FORD PREFECT, slurring slightly: Arthur? Why are you in my phonebook under 'Airagloss'? Look, no matter. But you have to stop mooning over this girl from the party. There are far more devastating things for you to worry about right at the moment. Just as a for instance: how about the Vogon Constructor Fleet that's just popped up on the Sub-Etha. Based on how fast they worked in the J'helad'ar system, I'd say Earth's got about nineteen-point-seven-oh-four— Oh, hang on, that's my other line going. Back in a tick.

[Keys beeping as if someone's pressing them all at once.]

FORD, muttering: Who in the gafrillonting arse is Beerfur Taint? Oh, you stupid. Just connect the call! You bloody waste of circuitry, I've a mind to—

[The message ends with an explosion of curses, some in English, then a double beep.]

ALEX, after a pause: Did he say Constructor Fleet?

JULIE: Well, there goes our shot at the Guide edit.

IRA, exasperated: Didn't anyone pack a Sub-Etha Sens-O-matic?

 

[SONG EXCERPT: Wyld Stallyns, Corn Dog]

 

ACT THREE: Okay, Panic

IRA: We might be in Nevada now. It's hard to tell. All these desert roads look the same to us.

The last news we heard was on an NPR station out of Barstow. The President finally declared martial law in the afternoon. But even with the military deployments, most cities were completely out of control. Rioting, looting, panic. Those are the buzzwords of the day. It isn't just the cities, either. It's everywhere.

We stopped listening for the names of the people filing reports — too many friends, their last words shouted over sirens and blasts.

The Vice President went on the air with a live address around the time the sun went down, saying that the President and other world leaders were in contact with the ships.

A second planetary announcement knocked everything off the air a few minutes later.

PROSTETNIC VOGON JELTZ: What do you mean you've never been to Alpha Centauri? For heaven's sake, mankind, it's only four light years away, you know. I'm sorry, but if you can't be bothered to take an interest in local affairs, that's your own lookout.

IRA: So, as you can probably tell, there isn't much time left.

I'll have to sign off soon. Sarah had the bag with all of our travel chargers. The laptop batteries are almost dead. None of our phones have had reception since the first announcement from the Vogons. The only things that do seem to still be working are our towels.

Very important to keep in working order, one's towel.

According to the map, there's a town about half an hour from here. Alex thinks there's a radio station there. We'll do what we can to boost the signal, to get these last words out.

If we don't make it, hey. No big deal. With any luck, at least we'll get our names on the edit.

Earth: Totally harmless.

 

[Full song: Wyld Stallyns, Be Excellent (To Each Other)]

 

CREDITS

COMPUTER VOICE: Transmission complete. Attach identification tag now.

IRA: Today's show was produced by Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder, and Alex Blumberg somewhere on the road between San Dimas and oblivion.

Special thanks goes out to the Vogons, for spicing up the end of the world with some really creative poetry readings.

ALEX: For variable definitions of "creative," maybe.

SARAH: Look, it might not be "'Twas brillig and the slithy toves" but—

JULIE: I, for one, welcome our new officious overlords.

IRA: And to our boss, Torey Malatia, who's got a lovely summer lake house on Traal, near the Bugblatter fields.

PROSTETNIC VOGON JELTZ TOREY MALATIA: Apathetic bloody planet, I've no sympathy at all.

IRA: Thanks for listening, folks. Don't forget to pledge, wherever you are.

All right, who's got the Electronic Thumb?