RM: Just a quick note, this episode is a little on the crude side. Nothing too terrible, but if you have small kids you might want to listen to this one first before you let them listen to it. Just too check it out. Thanks.
This is 99% Invisible, I’m Roman Mars.
There was a rubber shortage in the US during World War II because we were fighting Japan in many
of the countries that supplied our rubber. So the government funded research into synthetic rubber to make up the shortfall. One of the products of this research was a new material made by mixing boric acid and silicone oil. It could bounce and it could stretch. You know, it was rubbery.
But sadly it could not be used to make tires or rafts or gas masks. It had no practical use at all. But a marketing consultant discovered that it was pretty fun to play with. So he put it in tiny plastic eggs and sold it as Silly Putty probably done. Yes there are hours and hours of fun in the little.
(Silly Putty commercial): “Hey! Hey! It’s Silly Putty time! Yes there are hours and hours of fun in the little egg that Silly Putty comes in.”
AS: We’re surrounded by products that were designed for one purpose but found their true calling in another line of work.
RM: That is Amy Standen co-host and co-creator of the new KQED podcast, The Leap.
AS: Play-Doh was invented to clean coal soot off of walls. Both Viagra and Rogaine were designed to
lower blood pressure before they found their real purpose, making boners and growing hair.
RM: In all these cases the original designs were meant to solve big important problems, but they had to settle for less meaningful yet, you know, maybe slightly more delightful roles in the world. But in rare cases, the story goes the other way, and something designed to be a trifle, a gag, a joke, stumbles upon its true destiny as something heroic, and honorable.
AS: Ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to the heroic and honorable product known as Liquid Ass.
RM: Liquid Ass is a bottled smell and as you could probably guess, it does not smell good.
AS: That’s an understatement. It’s important you get how bad the smell is. It’s kind of the lynch pin of this whole story. So while I was reporting this, I made a bunch of people in my life smell Liquid Ass.
“My throat’s constricting!”
“It’s super real (wretches).”
AS: Do you feel like there’s a sense of shame associated with that smell?
“Yeah. Like, you feel like you shouldn’t know what that smells like.”
AS: Yeah, exactly. But you do.
This terrible smell was invented by a guy named Alan Whitman. As a teenager Alan’s main interest was pranks, specifically smell related pranks. There was one with Limburger cheese, something else he called the ketchup situation.
RM: But it wasn’t until he began experimenting with a chemistry set his parents gave him that he’d create his masterwork.
AS: He’s cagey when asked what exactly the ingredients were, but he is very comfortable describing how it smells.
AW: It smells like ass. It’s like, it’s a butt crack. You know kind of a sewer smell, with a hint of dead animal in there.
AS: Butt crack, with a hint of dead animal.
RM: For 15 years Liquid Ass languished in smell obscurity. Alan would use it to pull the occasional prank but it never found a larger audience. And then, when he and his friend Andrew Masters lost their jobs at a trucking company, they decided to turn this terrible smell, into an income
AS: Andrew and Alan didn’t even have to advertise Liquid Ass. Radio talk shows did it for them.
“If you ever seen, there’s a bottle, of uh, do you know what liquid ass is?”
“Yes! Bubba the Love Sponge who works here uses Liquid Ass all the time.”
“It’s awful shit.”
“Yes it is.”.
AS: That’s Howard Stern.
“It smells! It Smells!”
AS: The Opie and Anthony show.
“Smell your ponytail.”
“I just washed my hair!”
AS: The orders poured in. You can probably imagine the clientele, teenage boys playing extremely stupid pranks.
RM: But then 23 years after its invention, Liquid Ass found a higher calling.
AS: Enter Stu Siegel. Siegel produced a bunch of television shows in the 90’s.
RM: Including the shows Hunter, Renegade,
(TV trailer): He was a cop,and good at his job. But he committed the ultimate sin and testified against other cops gone bad.
RM: and Silk Stalkings.
AS: Silk Stalkings was one of those shows you might have of watched on the USA Network, when the people you were babysitting for didn’t have HBO.
RM: Stu’s business was thriving until right about September 11, 2001.
SS: My business changed after 9/11 because the networks wanted to get away from violence. They wanted to get away from shooting things, and blowing stuff up and you know, it was a dramatic change; it flatlined my business for quite a while. One day we were in the thick of making television, and the next day we weren’t.
RM: All those sets he’d built were just sitting there, gathering dust.
AS: But it gave him an idea for a whole new business venture. Maybe cops who needed training could get some use out of those old sets.
SS: We did quite a bit of training on that kind of front.
AS: Like how best to respond to a school shooting, or how to carry out a drug bust. Where to position the officers,how to break down a door.
RM: This was good business. And then in 2003, the US invaded Iraq. Reservists were being called up to go overseas.
AS: And a lot of them Stu already knew, because these were the same people, cops mainly, who’d had been training on his sets. One day he got a phone call.
SS: They called me up and said “Hey I got 150 guys sitting on the tarmac, we’re going to a place called Iraq. We got about a week to kill can you help us out? So I said yeah, come on over.. So that’s how it started.
AS: Stu’s big idea was that he could use not just the sets but the whole lineup of Hollywood effects to create a facsimile of combat. Show soldiers exactly what they were stepping into.
RM: He says no one else was doing this. 18 and 19 year olds were being sent to Iraq with almost no sense of how the place would look, what the culture was like, or how to communicate with people.
SS: All of their training was pretty much sterile or make believe, this is that, or they would take the Marines and turn the shirts inside out and say “Okay, those are the bad guys.” You know that’s that’s not training. It’s not realistic training.
AS: Stu says the military has gotten a lot better at training since then. But in the beginning, his innovation was to try and make trainees forget that they were on a TV set in Southern California. His sets should look and feel as much as possible like the kind of place a group of Marines might go out and patrol in Iraq.
“We’re in a simulated Iraqi village.”
AS: Stu got one of his employees, Greg Figuera, to show me around.
GF: Up on this tower here we’ll have 2 huge speakers playing call to prayer.
AS: In a simulation, this whole place would be full of actors. Actual Iraqis who live in San Diego and now get hired as extras to act like Iraqis. The village has a complete fake Iraqi marketplace, bins of plastic cucumbers and yams, stands selling dusty old Sony discmans and clock radios. Greg and others here work very hard to make this place realistic
RM: And Greg can do this because he did 2 tours in Iraq as a medic in 2007 and in 2008. And he remembers exactly what it felt like to walk into a village like this. How unwelcome he felt there, and how much the Iraqis wanted him to go away.
GF: These people are just trying to live their lives, and now we’ve set up this base right outside their village.
AS: So in a simulation, the whole place is supposed to feel on edge. Like anything could happen; and then it does.
AS: Meanwhile sometimes they’ll pipe in the sound of a scene from Saving Private Ryan, just to amp things up a bit.
SS: You can talk about it, intellectually beforehand, but once the gunfire goes and people are screaming and yelling “Get out of the way!” All of the things that happen, it is real. Except nobody dies, and nobody bleeds out, and we can do it again.
AS: Stu says he seen recruits wet their pants, even throw up in these simulations. Both normal reactions to the screaming, the smoke, the explosions, the disorientation of it all.
RM: And yet these recruits, teenager some of them, are going to have to make decisions in the midst of all that. Life or death decisions.
AS: Some of them, the medics, will have to deal with horrible injuries; amputations, severed arteries.
RM: For this they use a cut suit. That was invented here at Strategic Ops.
AS: Kept in a locked. Storage shed.
GF: So the main thing we do here, is with this.
AS: The cut suit, as in a suit that you cut, works kind of like a fat suit.
Arms go through here. So the vest goes on, skin goes up over top. You step into the legs, the front side goes over the top of the vest, and it zips up in the back.
RM: It’s a realistic looking body that you wear over your own body. And then with the help of a makeup artists, inflict horrible, very realistic injuries onto. Bullet holes, shrapnel wounds, even disembowelment.
AS: Trainees can learn how to perform or assist surgery on a cut suit where the intestines are literally hanging outside the body.
RM: And for that scenario there is something very important they need to learn.
AS: And it is in the context of these very realistic combat scenarios that we will be reunited with the true star of this story: Liquid Ass.
RM: A firefighter knows the smell of smoke as a barista can sniff sour milk. Surgeons know this smell. They fear it.
AS: Because this smell is a signal that something has gone wrong; that there’s a tear in the intestine and feces is leaking into the abdominal cavity.
GF: Um, no pun intended, Oh shit.
AS: This is a huge infection risk. People die this way.
GF: Whatever surgery you were just doing or attempting to do, you just complicated it by ten.
AS: Strategic Ops prides itself on realism. Hyper realism. So they needed to recreate that “Oh shit” moment. Show young soldiers what it would be like to encounter this in the midst of combat.
RM: There was only one smell for the job.
AS: We found a bottle of Liquid Ass in the makeup tent. We took it outside and sat down at a table.
GF: We’ll sniff the cap.
AS: In his hand, Greg holds the concoction that Allen Whitman invented in his high school bedroom.
AS: Oh, it’s so bad.
GF: So many adjectives that you could use. It’s bad. Like you know, fecal, dried. You know, nasty.
AS: If Liquid Ass were a person. I don’t think it would be totally farfetched to call this a redemption.
RM: Because to Strategic Ops, this ridiculous, disgusting, prank product is also indispensable. They’re one of Liquid Ass’ most loyal customers.
AS: Stu says over 750,000 people have trained through strategic ops. Thanks to Liquid Ass, some of them might be better prepared to save the life of a fellow Marine as he or she screams in pain amidst exploding RPGs and machine gun fire.
RM: All the while surrounded by a miasmic cloud of the worst smell in the world.
99% Invisible was produced this week by Amy Standen. She’s the co-host and co-creator along with Judy Campbell of the new KQED podcast, The Leap. A storytelling podcast about people making dramatic
risky changes. We’ll have a link on our website.
99% Invisible is Katie Mingle, Sam Greenspan, Avery Trufleman, Kurt Kohlstedt, and me Roman Mars. Reporting from Autodesk University in Las Vegas, Nevada. We are Project 91.7 KALW in San Francisco, and produced out of the offices of Arcsine, the finest architecture and interiors firm in beautiful, downtown Oakland California.