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The TNR Challenge

To honor ten years of radio success and a new television program on Showtime, I created a "This American Life" contest. I asked readers to send in their childhood memories, profound moments, or fleeting epiphanies and turn them into "This American Life" masterpieces, complete with forced themes. I wrote an entry, and asked readers if they too could narrate à la Ira Glass. A lot of people turned in touching and funny stories, and I would like to thank everyone who made judging this contest so rewarding. The three finalists are stokes.tom, walto010, and emigdio; their entries are below. Do you think they out-Ira Glassed me? I think they did an amazing job. Vote for your favorite finalist in Talkback. I'll announce the winner tomorrow on The Plank.

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By stokes.tom

IRA GLASS: This is Dave. When he was five years old, his father decided the time had come to remove the training wheels on his bike. After all, he told Dave, this was the age when he had done the same for his brother.

DAVE: I was an avid bike rider. I got a little nervous about the prospect of riding without training wheels, but I was excited nonetheless.

GLASS: Dave worked hard at riding but just couldn't get the hang of it--thus underperforming compared with his older brother. So when he reached his sixth birthday, Dave vowed never to ride a bike again.

DAVE: I wasn't about to let my brother outdo me, so I just quit. I didn't realize until years later that my dad was pretty upset and blamed himself for pressuring me to learn before I was ready. But I wouldn't give in. I was a competitive kid, especially with my brother. From then on, when my friends would ride their bikes around the neighborhood, I would just run alongside them.

GLASS: What did the other kids think?

DAVE: They would ask where my bike was and I would tell them I don't ride. It was tough, especially when I got to the age when girls would pick boyfriends based on their bike-riding skills.

GLASS: When Dave was in fourth grade, entering the prime of his biking years, he won a role model award at school. His prize: a Huffy and a helmet.

DAVE: I still have a picture of my parents and me posing with that bike. All my friends wanted it, but I kept it for myself. It ended up sitting in my garage, never used, and was eventually sold in a garage sale some ten years later.

GLASS: Dave's friends never really brought up his decision to give up riding. It wasn't an issue once he was in high school. But when he arrived in college and his friends asked him to ride down to the store to pick up a few things, they learned of his ridiculous dedication to this cause, and after much deliberation they finally convinced him to break his vow.

DAVE: I borrowed a bike and had a friend coaching me in the parking lot outside my dorm. He held me steady and ran alongside me as I improved my technique. There were literally dozens of people hanging out of their respective dorm room windows, cheering me on. I had a few brutal falls, but before long, it happened. For the first time in my life, at age 19, I could ride a bike without training wheels.

GLASS: Dave called his dad and told him the good news. They shared a mutual joy--Dave's for having learned a skill that he had given up on; his dad's for parenting redemption.

GLASS: Often it seems like parents and children are intentionally trying to make life difficult for each other. But it's important to remember that, although some moments in this relationship appear to cause great suffering, in hindsight, they can turn out to be offbeat memories of happiness. I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of "This American Life."

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By walto010

GLASS: Bill--by his own description --is an old man. He turns 77 this year. He's paid his dues. He was a Marine. Fought in Korea. After that, he was married--twice. He had three kids. And, for most of his adult life, he worked for NASA. But Bill isn't here to talk about space travel. He's here to talk about helicopters.

BILL: When people hear "NASA" they think of the Apollo program or the Space Shuttle, but a big part of what NASA does is R %amp% D for defense contractors.

GLASS: In other words, behind the scenes of all the showy Mission-to-Mars, Houston-we-have-problem stuff, a significant part of NASA's mission is to help companies build weapons of war.

BILL: My work was all in vibrations. Structural dynamics. When you hear that thwop-thwop-thwop of a helicopter rotor going around, that amounts to one heck of a vibration. And if the resonant frequencies aren't just right, a helicopter can shake itself apart. Literally. It has happened more times than I can count.

GLASS: Over the years, Bill developed lots of innovative methods to help helicopter designers avoid this kind of problem. He developed a type of computer model that's still used in aircraft design today. He also investigated a lot of helicopter crashes for the military. And, over time, his attitude toward helicopters--these machines that he'd spent his whole career working to improve--grew more complex.

[Cue eerie music.]

BILL: In Korea, helicopters made everyone happy. They were ambulances, you know, like in "M.A.S.H." They were there to help. And hell, they even looked friendly, like some kind of silly dragonfly. But in Vietnam, all that changed.

GLASS: Like most Americans at the time, Bill watched the Vietnam War unfold on the evening news. He saw what he calls the Army's over-reliance on helicopters, and he saw the relative ease with which even lightly armed Vietcong soldiers managed to shoot down U.S. helicopters. But Bill's mixed feelings also had to do with some of the things helicopters were being used for: They were killing machines.

BILL: What's a helicopter good for? It's an admirable weapon for killing large numbers of unarmed people.

GLASS: That was Bill's saying. After years of working to build a safer helicopter, he had reached the conclusion that the ultimate purpose of these machines was the murder of defenseless civilians.

GLASS: How did it make you feel to realize that your life's work might actually result in something you considered to be evil?

BILL: Bad. It made me feel bad. I tried to keep my mind on the fact that helicopters do have benign uses. And they do. And, you know, I don't ... I never thought the United States military was evil.

GLASS: How do you feel now, when you look back on your career? Do you feel like it was worth it?

BILL: Yes. I think so.

GLASS: But still you have some concerns about helicopters, about how they've been used by various governments.

BILL: That's right. I do.

GLASS: So, there you have it: what it's like when you're embedded so deep within an institution, within a way of life, that it gets hard to tell whether the consequences of your actions within that institution are ultimately good or bad. This week on "This American Life": "In the Belly of the Beast," a show in three acts.

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By emigdio

IRA GLASS: Emigdio was just a little kid from Mexico when his family moved from Mexico City to Chicago. Suddenly, everything was different.

EMIGDIO: I was only eight when we moved. It was hard. I missed just about everything from home. Mom tried to keep our lifestyle as close to unchanged as possible. She kept talking in Spanish to us, she put us in Catholic school, and she'd get our Aunt to mail up care-packages with Dulce de Leche, that kind of thing.

GLASS: That's that Mexican curdled milk sweet, right?

EMIGDIO: Right. It's really sweet, way too sweet for gringos usually. We loved it, though. So of course, as soon as a care package came we would just polish off the Dulce in about ten minutes, me and my sisters.

GLASS: Candy doesn't last long in little hands, huh?

EMIGDIO: Right. So I guess mom wanted to make it last longer, because she would give us a bit, but then she'd it hide away. The thing is, one time when I was playing in her room, I found it.

GLASS: The mother-lode.

EMIGDIO: Right! At first I was thrilled, of course. But then I realized that, if I just ate it all, I'd get in trouble. So I tried to pace myself. Every so often, I'd sneak in there when she wasn't around and just take the tiniest little morsel. Which made me like it even more. I mean, it wasn't just the Dulce any more; it was the thrill of sneaking around.

GLASS: So you were pretty much struggling with Dulce de Leche addiction. But then something happened to make things much, much worse, right?

EMIGDIO: Yeah. I was in Catholic school then, and it was pretty conservative. I mean, it was run by Opus Dei.

GLASS: Seriously?

EMIGDIO: Oh yeah. Hard-core stuff. We'd have these priests who would come in and pretty much scare the bejeezus out of us about all the sins we were committing.

One time, a priest gave us this very stern talk about masturbation, about how evil it was and how strong the temptation was and how we needed to fight it, especially when we found ourselves alone. Otherwise we'd burn in hell forever.

But, I was eight! I had no idea what that word meant. The dictionary didn't clear things up at all, and I got a strong feeling from the talk that it wasn't OK to even ask about it. I started to really worry. I mean, what if I'm doing it already?

GLASS: (laughs) So, here you are, eight years old, and suddenly you're aware that there's this secret pleasure, this strong temptation that you're supposed to resist, especially when you're alone, on pain of eternal damnation ...

EMIGDIO: Right. Of course I put two and two together. "That's must be the word for eating Dulce de Leche without permission!" It tore me apart, you know. After a couple of agonizing weeks, I decided I couldn't live this double life anymore. I worked up my courage, walked straight up to my mom and told her, "Mom, there's something I need to tell you. I've been masturbating in your closet."

GLASS: This week, on "This American Life," kid sins. What kids think is a sin, what they understand by the word, and the things they do to try to lead a life of righteousness.

By Sacha Zimmerman