This American Life episode #206
Initially aired March 1, 2002

Three of the show's producers (Ira Glass, Wendy Dorr and Alex Blumberg) travel to the USS John C. Stennis, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier operating in the Arabian Sea as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. The entire show is dedicated to their stories.

Alex Blumberg talks to Prevon Scott, a sailor whose entire job on the Stennis consists of restocking vending machines, twelve hours a day, seven days a week. He goes on to think about the way an aircraft carrier works - there are only a couple of dozen pilots on board who actually fly missions. The rest of the crew, over 5,000 of them, are there solely to get these people into the air and to make sure they get back in one piece.

The rest of the hour is presented collage-style, with stories running into each other and overlapping. As they go on a tour of the boat they offer their opinions on the scenery in turn. This technique quickens the pace and quickly orients the listener as to what their narrators sound like. Very slick.

One particularly inventive scene finds Alex and Wendy each interviewing a different pilot about what it's like to drop bombs on people. One pilot loves the scenery and tries hard not to think about what he's doing, distancing himself from the consequences of his actions. The other thinks Afghanistan is "a shithole" and enjoys what he does, sees it as payback. Their views on this are intercut with one another so that one will be commenting on the beauty of the desert right before the other one complains that "there's nothing of value down there."

Basically, the episode is a series of anecdotes. The reporters do an excellent job of neatly sidestepping the political implications of the Stennis' mission, instead focusing on what it's like to live on a boat with 5,000 other people for months at a time. The crew they meet are quite a diverse bunch, from the technician who prefers doing laundry, to the young crewman who can't really explain how she ended up where she is, to a young man who chose the Armed Services over prison. The chiefs tell wonderful drinking stories, the officers are all a wee bit frazzled and the pilots are extremely cocky. There are just enough technical details about the ship to be interesting without being overwhelming, and these are balanced by lighthearted stories explaining, for example, what has to happen in order to get good TV reception for the superbowl (Basically, they get the best signal while heading in a particular direction, so they chug slowly in that direction until halftime, when they turn the entire ship and its protective screen of destroyers and cruisers completely around and race back to where they started, whereupon they do it again for the second half of the game).

The greatest thing about this story is that you get to see the way the show's production staff works together in a way that's not possible in their standard weekly format. I offer this example as told by Alex Blumberg:

You've never slept in bunk beds with your boss until you've slept in bunk beds with your boss on an aircraft carrier. By Navy standards the room Ira and I shared was luxurious, only two of us, not two hundred or six hundred. But the problem with our room, everybody warned us, was that it was right below the flight deck and it could get kind of loud. And sure enough, we were woken up a few times that first night by the thumps and the clanks of the planes landing and taking off. Still, we figured, we could manage.

Then the second night a bus ran full speed into the wall by my head (...) It was the loudest sound I had ever heard. And here's what it's like to be in a bunk bed, with your boss, on an aircraft carrier, when you've just heard the loudest sound you've ever heard, if your boss is my boss (...)

I lay there stunned for a second, and then I heard Ira jerk into action, saw his feet swing down from the top bunk. I actually said the words "You're right, man!" as I threw off my blanket and started to run. And then I looked behind me and I saw Ira digging through his equipment. And I realized: I was running for the door, and Ira was running for his tape recorder.

Quoted directly from episode, available at

It's stories like this that make me want to drop everything and work in radio.

Specifics (running time, episode number, etc.) taken from
The analysis/synopsis is mine.

Back to the This American Life Episode Guide, 2002