#28 Shipped to Timbuktu

June 18, 2015

An email to the wrong address sends us hurtling into the world of professional cookie advisors.

The Facts

The theme song and piano scoring in this week’s episode was by Breakmaster Cylinder, with additional horn arrangements by Michael Leonhart. Our ad music is by Build Buildings

Additional Reading

Check out this article on digg.com

Don’t forget that we will be appearing at Cast Party with Radiolab, Invisibilia, The Truth, Lauren Lapkus, and many others! Tickets can be found at castparty.org



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Show transcript



PJ: So I’ve got this friend, let’s call him Dale. Dale has a gmail address that’s pretty generic, like dsmith@gmail.com. And people who have email addresses like these get a lot of emails that aren’t meant for them, like email wrong numbers. And this happens to Dale 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 can turn in an assignment late. Another time, he got a letter congratulating him on the low insurance rate for his two-door Chevy Cobalt. He doesn’t have one. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, Dale’s a nice guy but he likes to mess with people. He likes to play pranks. So Dale 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 advisors:” and then it it started talking about how they had a bunch of stale cookies that they didn’t know what to do with, and we gotta move them off the shelves, if they’re past the expiration date then we can’t use them in the next cookie campaign.

PJ: The emails continue and Dale learns that the world of professional cookie advising is surprisingly bureaucratic. At the top, there’s a national cookie advisor, and then beneath her there are provincial cookie advisors who report up, and then beneath them, there are district cookie advisors. He was picturing a corporate office building with a lot of people in fancy business clothes talking about cookies all day. And Dale decides that what he should do is send an intentionally stupid email detailing all these asinine solutions to their stale cookie problem. He says the advisors should sharpie over the expiration dates on the packages. Or he says they could just eat all the stale cookies themselves.

DALE: In my mind I was thinking no one’s gonna believe this, what a stupid email to write to somebody. Who would hire a person with suggestions like these?

PJ: Instead, Cynthia, who’s the Calgary area cookie advisor, responds to Dale’s email with complete polite cheerfulness. She sends him a cookie freshness calculator to help him sort his stale cookies from fresh cookies. So Dale responds with even stupider responses. 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 with something along the lines of, “Those orders were supposed to go in a month ago, or did I misunderstand your question?”

PJ: Rather than clarifying, Dale asks her, why are we even in the cookie advising business? He said 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: It actually seemed like Dale had touched a nerve, because after that cookie advisor world went quiet.

DALE: There was radio silence after that. I felt bad. I felt like I was in a little bit too deep maybe.

PJ: The original email he’d gotten had been meant for a woman named Debbie. What if he’d 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 and everybody can laugh at me and I hope that they’re not laughing at poor Debbie. They’re just people trying to do their cookie job.

PJ: Hello?


PJ: Hi Cynthia?

CYNTHIA: Yes, it’s me.

PJ: Hi it’s PJ. How are you doing?

PJ: I wanted to find out if Dale’s prank had hurt anybody, so I tracked down Cynthia. She lives in Calgary. Cynthia has multiple sclerosis, so it can be hard for her to talk. Her friend Sheila volunteered to help out and I read them the emails.

PJ: “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 to them as best we can.

PJ: Cynthia and Sheila explained that they were part of Girl Guides. In the US, we have Girl Scouts. Most everywhere else they call them Girl Guides. Like the Girl Scouts, they wear uniforms, collect merit badges, and sell cookies to their parents’ friends. Coordinating the thousands of underage cookie salespeople can be a logistical headache, and so some adults volunteer as cookie advisors. Those advisors frequently field confused emails. And they’re used to handling them diplomatically. That’s why Cynthia was so patient with Dale. It was her job. But she was very patient with me. Even as, for reasons unclear even to me, I explained to them the whole pattern of events that had led Dale to email her.

PJ: Yeah I guess the email was meant for a Debbie but it went to a Dale.


CYNTHIA: Now it’s starting to make a little bit of sense.

PJ: The thing about talking to Cynthia and Sheila on the phone, is that they had this tone of voice. It had been in the emails too. And I was starting to think of it as girl guide voice. Girl guide voice is cheerful and patient, unrelentingly so.

PJ: Is there like a cookie general?

CYNTHIA: Cookie general?

SHEILA: No. We have advisors and commissioners but that’s about the extent of the military terms.

PJ: And when I started reading about Girl Guides, I found out that that helpful, sunny tone is hardwired into their original mission statement, which reads, “A girl smiles and sings under all difficulties.” So, all difficulties. When I first read this I’m thinking that this is hyperbole.


PJ: Hi, can you hear me okay?

JANIE: I can hear you. Can you hear me?

PJ: It’s not. I talked to this woman named Janie Hampton. And she told me about this thing that happened that I literally found unbelievable. So a few years ago, Janie decided to write a book making fun of the Girl Guides.

JANIE: I have to admit that when I started writing the book I thought, you know I’m gonna make this a bit of a satire, and laugh at them.

PJ: Honestly it was sort of a Dale thing to do. And Janie says most people think about girl guides the way she did. They’re not considered cool.

JANIE: What we call naff nowadays.

PJ: What’s naff?

JANIE: Sort of unfashionable. Nerdy. Do you use the word nerd?

PJ: Oh we absolutely use the word nerd. I’ve had it applied to me.

JANIE: Right.

PJ: 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. Seven by ten. And the book is a handwritten log of everything one Girl Guide troop did, years ago.

JANIE: 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: Janie doesn’t 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 seven thousand miles from London. According to the guides’ logbook, the song had been written and performed by a group of girl guides for a concert on Christmas Day, 1942. This 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 another, more complete log of what happened to these girl guides. It’s a website, run by an an old Belgian man named Leopold.

LEOPOLD PANDER: Leopold Pander. I’m seventy four years old.

PJ: So, the good news: Leopold was an actual witness, he was born in China, ended up in the same camp as these Girl Guides. The bad news:

LEOPOLD: I try to remember something but nothing comes back to me.

PJ: He has absolutely no memories, 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’ve taken place at the camp.

PJ: What was the dream that you would have?

LEOPOLD: Well, I’m there in the hot sun, the blue sky, it’s a brown slope, it’s a brown earth and there are big stones next to myself. Dirty earth and people running all over the place.

PJ: Are there sounds?

LEOPOLD: No sound. Absolutely no sound. Somebody picks me up and then I wake up. That’s all I remember. But the problem is, the curiosity is that that dream came back very often!

PJ: 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.

NEWS: Japan’s latest invasion of China which has already lasted two years is war on a huge scale.

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

NEWS: Japanese put their prisoners of war to work.

PJ: …civilians who’d 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 Weishen.

JANIE: With their teachers but no parents. So about a hundred and fifty children, who for four years were in this camp. And the teachers had very sensibly taken with them books, paper, musical instruments…

PJ: And, of course one more thing:

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

PJ: In the Japanese camps, there was very little food. Prisoners died of starvation. Take Weixen, imprisoned monks would smuggle in eggs and then everyone would share them, and then they’d also have the kids eat the ground up eggshells just to get some extra calcium. And the camp had almost no infrastructure. The prisoners had to build their little world from nothing, their own kitchens, their own lavatories, their own hospitals and their own Girl Guide Unit. The logbook Janie had found was the record kept by one of the girl guide’s leaders. The leaders were called Brown Owls.This one was a woman in her twenties. And the tone of her writing was the exact same cheerful, impervious to bad news tone that Dale’s Cookie Advisor email thread had had. This is the entry from the day they were marched into the camp: “Hullo. 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: 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: 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 led by example.

JANIE: 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: This is the point where I wondered, was this true? I didn’t think that anyone 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?

PHIA BENNIN: Oh and the door’s open? Oh, hello!


PJ: Fortunately, there’s a woman who’s still alive and remembers Weihsien.

PJ: It’s the first time I think I’ve been right on time.

MARY: You timed that out. I mean from New York!

PJ: Her name is Mary Previte. She lives in New Jersey. I visited her with my producer Phia Bennin.

MARY: Oh by the way, can I pour you some tea? I am so bad about this.

PJ: Mary Previte is a small, beautiful eighty-two year old woman. She’s 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. She’s like a real-life Mary Poppins or Maria Von Trapp. Also, unlike Leopold, Mary has a phenomenal memory. She told me about the day that Japanese troops arrived at her boarding school.

MARY: 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 armbands on us, everyone had to wear an armband, A for American, B for British, whatever our nationality was.

PJ: The girls were eventually transferred into Weihsien. And Mary became a concentration camp girl guide. This was over seventy years ago, but when Mary talks about the camp, it sounds like she’s still there, like she’s twelve years old again. She said the story about the Brown owls insisting on good table manners, absolutely true.

MARY: So you’re eating some kind of glop, out of maybe boiled animal grain cause goulain 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 Weishen concentration camp!”

PJ: Mary was separated from her parents, unsure of when she’d be released, surrounded by attack 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 left over coal shavings from the guard’s quarters.

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

PJ: Like making a new pencil from pencil shavings. Except the coal was heavy, and it had to be passed bucket by bucket in a line of girl guides. Then the shavings had to be mixed with dust and water and dried into balls of coal. It was long hard work. And then at the end of it, you still had to go use the 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: 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 eighty-two years old and what do I choose to tell you? I won the pot belly turn red more times with me and Marjorie Harrison than any other girl in our dorm!

PJ: When you describe it it sounds like you’re describing summer camp instead of describing like a concentration camp. Did it feel like summer camp?

MARY: 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 guards, armed guards in them, you know, 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: 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 she better for our meeting.” Neuralgia is a nerve disease, 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 grown ups.

MARY: I said Miss Carr, what were you feeling when we were in a concentration camp? Well, all the grown ups in the camp knew about The Rape of Nanking.The atrocities the guards, the soldiers had done when they came to the southern city of Nanking.

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

Mary: 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: So there were two sets of prayers. At night, the grown-ups, 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 sung psalms with the kids, set to bouncy camp melodies.

MARY: It was like you weren’t going to be afraid if you could sing about it. We would sing, “day is done, gone the sun, from the sea, from the hills, from the sky, all is well, safely rest, god is nigh.” How can 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, there was a little bit of a twist of fun to it. One of the songs that we sang was, “We might have been shipped to Timbuktu, we might have been shipped to Kalamazoo, It’s not repatriation, nor is it yet stagnation, it’s only concentration in Chefoo.

PJ: 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: I can still, for example, one of the things that we sang when the Japanese were marching us into concentration camp was the first verse of Psalm forty-six: “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: The first Chefoo brownies warded off despair for four years. Until finally, on August 17, 1945, they were rescued.

MARY: It was a windy day.

PJ: Mary remembers the American plane flying low over the camp.

MARY: Then 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: I’m there in the hot sun, the blue sky, it’s a brown slope. It’s a brown earth.

MARY: And the people went berserk.

LEOPOLD: People running all over the place.

MARY: People were crying, screaming, dancing.

LEOPOLD: Somebody picks me up and then I wake up.

PJ: Leopold says 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 were there on liberation day are now dead. One of the dormitories at Weihshen’s a memorial, but mostly, the 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, well-fed and rich and a million miles from Weishen. I wondered if they knew what they might be capable of. After the break, it’s been a long time, we’ve gotten a lot of requests, Yes Yes No returns.


ALEX GOLDMAN: Welcome once again to Yes Yes No, where our boss Alex Blumberg finds the most inscrutable stuff on the internet and comes to PJ and I to explain it to him.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah because you guys, that’s what you know how to do.

ALEX GOLDMAN: It’s basically all we know how to do.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Well, you do it so well. Well today I have this thing. Normally I come to you with a specific tweet and today it is an entire twitter feed. It’s a feed called @RikerGoogling and what’s weird about it is he has almost fifty thousand followers.

PJ: That’s like two Alex Blumbergs.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I know. Which is twice as much as me, five times as much as you guys. And the number of people that he’s following is three which is I think pretty odd, right? For somebody with that many Twitter followers and then you look at the tweets and they’re just utterly inscrutable. Like for example, there’s one that says Arrested Development Season 85. Next one: Real Housewives of Kardasha, next one: phaser setting, dry clothes. I added punctuation that was not there. Another one: GQ, good beards, evil beards.

ALEX GOLDMAN: So, do you want to know what this is about?

ALEX BLUMBERG: So Alex Goldman, do you understand this Twitter account?


ALEX BLUMBERG: PJ Vogt, do you understand this Twitter account?

PJ: Yeah. I don’t like understanding it but I understand it.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Alex Blumberg do you understand this Twitter account?


ALEX GOLDMAN: Alright, let’s start at the very beginning. Do you know who Riker is?


ALEX GOLDMAN: Commander Riker? Of the Starship Enterprise?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it, okay.

ALEX GOLDMAN: He was the second in command in Star Trek the Next Generation, played by a guy named Jonathan Frakes.

PJ: I didn’t know you were this kind of nerd. I thought you were a slightly different kind of nerd.

ALEX BLUMBERG: And wait this is a Twitter account of his search terms?

ALEX GOLDMAN: This is a Twitter account of Commander Riker’s twenty fifth century Google searches.


PJ: So it’s like, if Commander Riker were around today, what would he be googling?

ALEX GOLDMAN: No, it’s not if he were around today.

PJ: Oh it’s if Google were around when he was around.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Yes. So, “evasive maneuvers, Wikipedia” makes sense. Phase settings, dry clothes.


ALEX GOLDMAN: Right? Good beards, evil beards. In Star Trek when they turn evil they have, they get certain evil facial hair.. But Riker already has facial hair.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Got it. Got it.

ALEX GOLDMAN: Now that you know what it is, how do you feel about it? Oh, this is a long pause.

ALEX BLUMBERG: I surprisingly have a lot of feelings about it.

PJ: Really?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Well I feel like so much ingenuity applied to something so meaningless. But also, can’t argue with fifty thousand followers.

PJ: That’s sort of the internet, right?

ALEX BLUMBERG: Yeah. Here’s the main feeling: the mystery of it was better than the answer of it.


ALEX BLUMBERG: I mean it was very satisfying the moment, I was like, ohhhh. And then I was like, oh.

ALEX GOLDMAN: The moment that comprehension clicked into place was nice?

ALEX BLUMBERG: It was exciting and then it was like, oh.


ALEX BLUMBERG: It reminds me of this time that one time like, probably the highest I’ve ever been was on Spring Break in college. And you know we ended up back in the hotel room watching TV and there was this movie on and you know when you’re high it’s like everything seems really mysterious and it was like, it was the most amazingly mysterious movie I’d ever seen and I was like, what is going on here? I can’t understand, I can’t believe this movie and then finally as we were watching the movie it finally wore off and then I was like, Oh. It’s HIghlander.

ALEX GOLDMAN: I think that’s a pretty profound movie.

ALEX BLUMBERG: It was but it wasn’t, it was really depressing to know. Thats sort of how it feels.

ALEX GOLDMAN: I don’t know. I mean you know.

PJ: I can hear your brain scanning Highlander references to make a match.

ALEX GOLDMAN: I am scanning. I am scanning.

PJ: You can hear the program running.

ALEX GOLDMAN: I think there are some things that are best left unsaid. Unfortunately you burned me so much harder than I could have done myself. I fucking love that movie.


ALEX GOLDMAN: I love it so much.


ALEX GOLDMAN: Fuck you for calling me a nerd. You know every fuckign thing about Star Wars. You corrected me today about the Sarlacc pit.

PJ: Tim was like reaching for a Star Wars reference and he was like, What’s the name of that monster? And Alex was like, Oh Sarlacc pit. But the pit is where the Sarlacc lives. So that’s like if I said Alex’s name was Alex House.

ALEX BLUMBERG: Alright, I think I have a way to end this segment. I’ll just be like, Thank you guys, and you guys keep arguing about Star Trek, and you can hear the door close behind me. Bring up the music.

PJ: Reply All is me, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin and Alex Blumberg. Our intern is Sylvie Douglis. Our show was mixed by Rick Kwan. Matt Lieber is your friend’s swimming pool. He said it’s okay if you come by. Janie Hampton’s book about the girl guides is called how the guides won the war. Another great book on this is by Tammy Proctor, it’s called Scouting for Girls.

Special thanks this week to Maida Campbell Harris, Tammy Proctor, and Michelle Harris. Our theme music and additional scoring this episode was by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder and our ad music is by Build Buildings. Horns by Michael Leonhart. You can find more episodes of our show at itunes.com/replyall. Or if you use a different podcatcher you can visit our website replyall.limo for our feeds. Our site was designed in partnership with Athletics. You can also find bonus materials for this week’s episode on digg.com

If you are still listening to this episode you really, really like our show. And if you’d like to do something small that can help us a bunch, leave us a review on itunes. It does a lot to promote the show actually. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.

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