"Here's my dream," roars Studs Terkel in a raucous laugh. "Me and a tape recorder at the foot of Calvary on that Friday.
"Now what was going on? There's a man up there being executed, crucified, creamed, nailed to the cross. Who is this guy? Now who're the people down below? They're members of an underground organization, a subversive organization called the Christians.
"And you got soldiers all around. You got FBI guys all around. You got scared people. People are fawning. Who is this guy? Wouldn't that be great! What were the thoughts of people at that time?"
Tapes into antiquity: These are the dreams of Studs Terkel, the poet of the tape recorder, author of four bestselling oral histories of everyday Americans.
Interviewing thousands of contemporary Americans of every political persuasion, social class and ethnic background hasn't satisfied his hunger for talk. It doesn't matter that he has talked with people about their memories of the Great Depression, the frustrations of work, the social turbulence of the '60s and their most personal hopes and dreams. He wants more.
"Who built the pyramids?" he contnues. "It wasn't the goddamn pharoahs who built the pyramids. It was the anonymous slaves. Why is the Egyptian story used in so many black spirituals dealing with the Hebrews?"
Terkel, 68, is an inveterate interviewer. Anyone he talks with is going to be interrogated -- often without noticing it.
Looking like a working man's intellectual in a herringbone sport coat, plaid shirt and square knit tie, Terkel is dining at Chez Camille. Wine has just been served when owner Camille Richaudeau strolls up to deliver one of his customary euphoric, Gallic greetings.
Immediately, Terkel starts questioning the restaurateur. Who are your customers? How long have you been in this location? Where do you live? At the end, he raises a toast to Richaudeau.
The people Terkel interviews are as colorful and varied as the many regions of the country he taps for resources. In his current book, "American Dreams: Lost and Found," he talks with C. P. Ellis, a former exalted cyclops (president) of the Durham, N.C., chapter of the Ku Klux Klan who is now business manager of the International Union of Operating Engineers in Durham.
Ellis, 53, has done a turnabout. On his office wall hangs a plaque from the Durham Human Relations Council recognizing his faithful survice. He quit the Klan to become a union official. A black woman civil rights activist he once detested has become a trusted ally in civic work.
He is like a new person. "When the news came over the radio that Martin Luther King was assassinated," Ellis recalls in the interview, "I got on the telephone and begin to call other Klansmen. We just had a real party at the service station. Really rejoicin' 'cause that son of a bitch was dead. Our troubles are over with.
"They say the older you get, the harder it is for you to change. That's not necesssarily true. Since I changed, I've set down and listened to tapes of Martin Luther King. I liten to it and tears come to my eyes 'cause I know what he's saying now. I know what's happenin'."
For the book, Terkel also interviews Dorothy Lawson McCall, now 90, and her son, Tom McCall, former governor of Oregon, James Abourezk, Jesse Heims and Coleman Young are other politicans he talks with. And there are Joan Crawford, Ted Turner, Bill Veeck. And Frank Willis, the security guard who first noticed the tape on the door at Democratic National Headquarters at Watergate.
But mostly his subjects are little-known people like 59-year-old Mexican-American Jessie de La Cruz, who operates a small farm with her husband outside Fresno, Calif. They started as farm workers. But as a member of the National Land for People in recent years, she's battled the large growers.
"When we were picketing," she recalls, "a Nisei [first-generation American-born Japanese] farmers' group was formed: And all those Japanese farmers came out to the picket line and called me all kinds of names. Four o'clock in the morning we'd be there. They have these big wire fences around the building. And they had all the people that were scabbing were drove inside that fence. And the Japanese farmers would be excorting the buses out with people who were gonna break our strike.
"And I'd tell them: Hey, what does this wire fence remind you of? I said: 'I cried with your families when they were herded into cattle trucks and put in the fairgrounds behind barbed wire here in Fresno. So now you're doing the same thing to us, the farm workers, because we're standing up for what we believe in . . . . How can you do it? That does not make you more American . . . . You're still a Japanese and I'm still a Mexican.' They bowed their heads down."
Terkel started interviewing in the early '40s on Chicago radio, first as a news commentator and sportscaster and next as a music announcer. He also appeared in dramatic productions in Chicago and in 1959 wrote a play, "Amazing Grace," that drew mixed reviews. From there he gravitated into oral history. ("I was always being fired," he says. "Somebody said I was always doing a farewell show.")
How does Terkel find his people? "I call myself a gold prospector," he answers. "Let me draw an analogy. Eighteen forty-nine. Gold discovered in California. People all head out there. I hear about a person. I go out. Now the prospector starts digging. And we start talking. That other person and me.
"And now the prospector has all this ore. And now this person and me talk, what, two, three hours. And the prospector starts sifting, filtering. Out of it comes this little bag of gold dust. Out of 200 pages comes eight or nine pages.
"And now comes the key moment of danger. I gotta be sure I don't distort or lose the truth of that person. Again, it's the highlighting of the truth. You have to distill it and highlight it. So that's the gold dust."
It's late. Terkel takes a long drink of wine and surveys the near-empty restaurant.
"We read 1066," he says in his sandpaper voice. "William the Conqueror crossed the Channel and conquered the Saxons. How did that alter the life of a Saxon peasant? I want a tape recorder there, you see. There's a history not written."