Feb 20, 2012

Escape!

The walls are closing in, you've got no way out... and then, suddenly, you escape! This hour, stories about traps, getaways, perpetual cycles, and staggering breakthroughs.

We kick things off with a true escape artist--a man who’s broken out of jail more times than anyone alive. We try to figure out why he keeps running... and whether he will ever stop. Then, the ingeniously simple question that led Isaac Newton to an enormous intellectual breakthrough: why doesn’t the moon fall out of the sky? In the wake of Newton's new idea, we find ourselves in a strange space at the edge of the solar system, about to cross a boundary beyond which we know nothing. Finally, we hear the story of a blind kid who freed himself from an unhappy childhood by climbing into the telephone system, and bending it to his will.

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Voices of Intro:

You're listening to Radiolab from WNYC and NPR.

 

Speaker 2:

Tired of the everyday routine? Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure? Want to get away from it all? We offer you escape!

 

Robert:

What is this?

 

Jad:

Just wait.

 

Speaker 2:

Escape: designed to free you from the four walls of today for a half hour of high adventure.

 

Jad:

This an old time radio show from the 1940s, late '40s.

 

Robert:

I figured that.

 

Jad:

It's called Escape and it always starts the same way, with-

 

Speaker 2:

We offer you escape.

 

Jad:

That phrase, I love how they say it. Here's what's great about this show and why it seems like a good way to start this show, our show, is that immediately after they say that phrase they then present you with a scenario from which there seems to be no escape.

 

Speaker 2:

You are hanging by your finger tips on the sheer face of an ice cliff...

 

Jad:

Like here's one.

 

Speaker 2:

Suspended a thousand feet above instant death with your strength running out and with no chance for escape.

 

Jad:

There's a million of these.

 

Speaker 2:

You are aboard a Chinese junk run aground off the coast of Borneo.

 

Speaker 2:

You are lost in the London Fog.

 

Speaker 2:

You are a passenger aboard a submarine.

 

Speaker 2:

You are the subject of an experiment.

 

Speaker 2:

Nazi agents...

 

Speaker 2:

Nameless terrors...

 

Speaker 2:

Gigantic department store...

 

Speaker 2:

No escape.

 

Jad:

Wait, one more just for kicks.

 

Speaker 2:

You are trapped in the remote valley of the Andes walled in by sheer rock precipices and surrounding you, closing in on you, is a band a blind men who want your eyes.

 

Jad:

How could you not listen to that? What is better than a story where the walls are closing in you and you don't know what you're going to do: "What am I going to do? What am I going to do?" And then suddenly...

 

Robert:

Escape!

 

Jad:

It's like the best story ever.

 

Robert:

That's true.

 

Jad:

So, you ready?

 

Robert:

Okay.

 

Jad:

This hour...

 

Speaker 2:

We offer you...

 

Robert:

Three bizarre scenarios.

 

Jad:

True stories...

 

Robert:

Of people...

 

Jad:

And planets...

 

Robert:

Trying...

 

Jad:

Yearning...

 

Robert:

To...

 

Speaker 2:

Escape!

 

Jad:

Will they make it?

 

Robert:

And if they do, what are they escaping to?

 

Jad:

Okay, enough of that. I'm Jad.

 

Robert:

I'm Robert.

 

Jad:

This is Radiolab.

 

Jad:

To start, let's talk about escape artists.

 

Robert:

Because why not, right? This is an escape show.

 

Jad:

Exactly.

 

Robert:

The most famous escape artist in history is probably Harry Houdini.

 

Jad:

Our first story is kind of a Houdini story. It comes from our producer Pat.

 

Robert:

Yes.

 

Jad:

It's about a guy whose nickname is...

 

Robert:

Little Houdini.

 

Pat:

I heard this story from my Ben.

 

Ben:

Hello.

 

Pat:

Months ago.

 

Ben:

How are you brother?

 

Robert:

Ben, your journalism friend.

 

Pat:

My journalism friend, yeah.

 

Ben:

I'm a reporter with the Tampa Bay Times in Florida.

 

Pat:

But our story begins at the Turney Center Penitentiary...

 

Ben:

In Only, Tennessee.

 

Pat:

That's where he caught up with Little Houdini. He was between escapes. A couple of guards walked us into this huge cafeteria, sat us down at this tiny table, and brought out Chris.

 

Ben:

Chris Gay.

 

Jad:

That's his name?

 

Ben:

Yeah.

 

Chris:

Did you interview my brother and everything?

 

Ben:

Yeah, we talked.

 

Chris:

Everything come okay?

 

Ben:

I guess the first thing I noticed was that he was even smaller than I expected him to be. I knew he was going to be little...

 

Pat:

You know, nickname...

 

Ben:

But...

 

Pat:

He was a very little Houdini.

 

Ben:

A short little guy.

 

Pat:

Maybe 5'5".

 

Ben:

Yeah, 140, 130. His prison uniform was pretty baggy on him. He was wearing a white ball cap and had a big smile stretched across his face.

 

Chris:

Escaping... I think it's actually addicting.

 

Ben:

Addictive?

 

Chris:

Yeah. I think it is. I think what's addictive about it is that it's a way to punch you in the stomach and say, "Hey, this can be done. I can do this. Y'all might've told me I can't do nothing all my life..." more people and all have told me that... "but I know I can do it."

 

Pat:

How many times have you escaped?

 

Chris:

Probably about 13.

 

Jad:

13?

 

Ben:

13.

 

Jad:

Out of jail?

 

Ben:

Yeah.

 

Chris:

And I'm fortunate to have made all 13.

 

Ben:

I did some research to see how that compares to other Houdinis and there are a few people who come close, but as far I was able to find out, nobody alive has that many escapes.

 

Pat:

Can we say pretty safely that he's the greatest jailbreaker alive?

 

Ben:

I'll go ahead and call him that, yeah.

 

Chris:

So I got away from them and...

 

Pat:

Pretty much without even asking, Chris began to list his escapes.

 

Ben:

He has escaped every way you can imagine.

 

Chris:

Slipped my handcuff off and went through the air ducts. Went out the back... In between the razor wire... Jumped the fence... Pulled all my clothes off except my boxer shorts.

 

Ben:

Like handcuffs: he said picking a handcuff key is one of the easiest things he's ever done. He's used everything from a pin spring to a safety pin, even once...

 

Chris:

A zipper thing. Made a handcuff key out of my zipper.

 

Ben:

He scrambled out windows. Ran out doors. Climbed over walls.

 

Pat:

Snuck under walls.

 

Ben:

Drilled through them.

 

Pat:

Has faked suicide...

 

Ben:

Twice.

 

Pat:

He's tricked the cops by drawing up fake escape plans. Fooled their dogs by...

 

Ben:

Covering his clothes in pepper.

 

Chris:

Bunch of pepper.

 

Pat:

Another time, he didn't have pepper, but...

 

Ben:

He had found some roadkill.

 

Chris:

It stunk. It did smell like a skunk.

 

Ben:

And he rubs it all over his body to erase his scent.

 

Pat:

Pretty good at hiding, too.

 

Ben:

He's hidden in trees, jumped down a trapdoor that he cut in the floor of his trailer...

 

Pat:

Once he hid in a grave.

 

Chris:

It was a shallow grave.

 

Pat:

Beside a dead body.

 

Ben:

Another time he...

 

Pat:

Ended up on a college campus someplace outside of Atlanta...

 

Ben:

And he hid out on top of an air duct for two days until the coast is clear.

 

Pat:

One of the interesting things about Chris is that even though he's been doing this for 20 years...

 

Ben:

There's never a record of him assaulting anyone.

 

Chris:

No. I refuse to do it.

 

Pat:

Stole things, but pretty much only things to help him run.

 

Chris:

I always refuse to go in somebody's house. I always refuse to go in somebody's garage.

 

Ben:

He says he's got rules for himself about how he breaks the law.

 

Pat:

Almost like a code. In fact, the story that Ben interested in Chris in the first place is a perfect example of this.

 

Ben:

This was a few years ago in 2007.

 

Pat:

Ben got a press release...

 

Ben:

From the Florida Highway patrol: "Be on the lookout for Chris Gay."

 

Pat:

According to the press release, here's what happened. Chris had been locked up in Alabama when he got a telephone call from his family.

 

Chris:

Said my mom was dying.

 

Pat:

She had cancer. So he faked suicide, busted out of the prison transport van that was bringing him to the hospital, stole a truck, and started driving home.

 

Ben:

He was going to see his mom to pay his last respects.

 

Chris:

I didn't expect her to live very long.

 

Pat:

As he comes around the bend in the road to where his mom lives, he's driving a Walmart tractor trailer and he's got like a dozen cops on his tail.

 

Chris:

When I get down there I run off the road...

 

Ben:

Crashes the truck into a field near his mom's trailer...

 

Pat:

Jumps out of the truck...

 

Chris:

Just as I was running towards the house, they jumped out of the cars and are running towards me.

 

Ben:

Just before he makes it inside, they case him into the woods.

 

Pat:

And he disappears without seeing his mom, who would end up dying before he could see her. A few days later Chris turns up in Daytona Beach...

 

Ben:

Driving a tour bus that belonged to Crystal Gayle.

 

Jad:

The country singer?

 

Ben:

Yeah.

 

Jad:

He stole Crystal Gayle's tour bus?

 

Ben:

In Tennessee.

 

Jad:

And then drove to Florida?

 

Ben:

Yeah.

 

Pat:

So you get this press release and you think what?

 

Ben:

I thought, "How do you miss with a story like this?"

 

Pat:

So Ben writes the story for the newspaper.

 

Ben:

Big news.

 

Pat:

And pretty soon...

 

News Announcer:

Tonight: a luxury tour bus that normally carries...

 

Pat:

TV news people are on it.

 

Ben:

It took off.

 

News Announcer:

He's an escape artist and something of a folk hero.

 

Pat:

And soon Chris something of a folk song, literally.

 

Ben:

The week Chris got caught, a Grammy Award-winning bluegrass picker named Tim O'Brien put out a song called the Ballard of Christopher Daniel Gay.

 

Tim:

Of Christopher Daniel Gay...

 

Pat:

Pretty soon, a famous Hollywood director...

 

Ben:

Bought the rights to the movie.

 

Chris:

They were recently trying to get Johnny Depp to do it but they [crosstalk 00:08:11]...

 

Tim:

They said his heart was as big as his head.

 

Pat:

It's perfect.

 

Ben:

Here's the underdog making a run for it for... what seemed at that time... to be really good intentions. And part of me thought, "This is awesome but it's also (beep)."

 

Pat:

I mean, there's got to be more to this story.

 

Ben:

Absolutely. Who is this guy, really, and why does he keep running?

 

GPS:

Approaching destination on the left.

 

Pat:

You want to tell us where we're going?

 

Ben:

We're going to Buckeye Bottom Road to talk to [Tarry 00:08:48] Gay.

 

Pat:

Tarry is Chris's older brother.

 

Ben:

He says he can tell us the whole story about how they grew up.

 

Ben:

He we are.

 

Pat:

Chris grew up in a small trailer out in the middle of nowhere, west of Nashville.

 

Ben:

There are some junk cars off in the woods.

 

Pat:

We found Tarry hanging out with a couple of buddies, drinking some beers.

 

Tarry:

Y'all have any certain things you want to know about or anything?

 

Pat:

We start talking about what it was like when they were kids.

 

Tarry:

We lived in a little bitty trailer down there.

 

Pat:

He points off into the woods across the street.

 

Tarry:

On this land...

 

Pat:

It was Chris and Tarry, they had a little brother named Eddie who went by Cotton, and then there was Leann...

 

Leann:

Leann Gay.

 

Pat:

The eldest.

 

Leann:

I'm his older sister.

 

Pat:

Cotton is in jail, so we weren't able to interview him, but Leann and Tarry both told us that growing up in that trailer was hard.

 

Leann:

We grew up like mountain people, you know?

 

Pat:

No electricity, no running water. Did their wash in the river. Wasn't always much food around.

 

Leann:

There used to be a big field of plums, a big plum thicket. We'd go down there and we'd eat.

 

Pat:

But you can't live on plumbs.

 

Leann:

A lot of days we would be hungry.

 

Ben:

Leann remembers lying in bed one night and she couldn't go to sleep because her hunger pains were so bad, and Tarry said, "Here, this'll help you," and he ripped up...

 

Leann:

A little thing of notebook paper.

 

Ben:

Gave it to Leann. He said, "Just chew it up real good and shallow it. It'll help you."

 

Pat:

For Chris and his little brother, Cotton, those were the good days, because...

 

Leann:

When my daddy and her separated...

 

Pat:

Mom and dad got a divorce and the family split apart.

 

Ben:

Tarry and Leann went to live with mom. Chris and his little brother Eddie...

 

Pat:

Who were 10 and 11 at that point moved in with their dad.

 

Ben:

And their dad...

 

Tarry:

Dad, he really wasn't... I don't guess...

 

Leann:

He just wasn't no provider.

 

Pat:

He wasn't around very much.

 

Leann:

Uh-uh (negative).

 

Ben:

He was a deadbeat.

 

Chris:

He got where he'd get off of work on Friday and he wouldn't come home for weeks at a time.

 

Leann:

He'd tell them if they was hungry to go steal from churches.

 

Pat:

Sometimes they'd hike through the woods through the woods to their grandfather's house, their mom's dad, who Chris says hated him and Cotton.

 

Chris:

We would go down there and he got where he started making us fight each other. If we fist fought each other, the winner got something to eat. He was mean.

 

Pat:

That was their life: beating each other up for food.

 

Chris:

He had dogs. He'd sic his dogs on us.

 

Pat:

So one night, one of them went and found their dad's rifle, an old 22...

 

Ben:

And a tube sock full of rusty bullets, and went out behind the barn, lit a tire fire, and made a suicide pact. Cotton was going to shoot Chris in the forehead and then shot himself. Chris closed his eyes and Cotton put the gun to Chris's forehead. Chris heard him whimper and he opened his eyes and Cotton said, "I can't do it," and Chris said, "Let me do it." He took the gun and he put the barrel to his brother's head and he couldn't pull the trigger either.

 

Jad:

And they were 10 and 11 at this point?

 

Ben:

10 and 11.

 

Jad:

Man...

 

Pat:

Ben says that if take a step back you can see that it's right about here, at this point, that Chris and his brother start to steal. Like, really steal.

 

Tarry:

They started out with bicycles and then they went to four wheelers and motorcycles.

 

Pat:

It was all stuff with wheels.

 

Ben:

Chris remembers going with Cotton to sit on a bluff.

 

Chris:

That was on interstate 40. We would go watch the trucks go by...

 

Ben:

And they would dream about getting in a semi and driving far away.

 

Tarry:

They went to four wheelers and motorcycles and cars and gradually got bigger and bigger and bigger...

 

Pat:

Until one day when Chris was 17...

 

Ben:

He stole a semi.

 

Pat:

Didn't even really know how to drive it.

 

Chris:

But I climbed up inside it and the keys was in it, so I started it up.

 

Pat:

And from there, there was really no looking back.

 

Ben:

Can I pause you right there before you continue? Let me name some modes of transportation and you tell me yes or no what you've stolen.

 

Chris:

Yep.

 

Ben:

A semi.

 

Chris:

Yep.

 

Ben:

Bulldozer.

 

Chris:

Yep.

 

Ben:

Skid steer.

 

Chris:

Skid steer.

 

Ben:

Tractor?

 

Chris:

Backhoe.

 

Ben:

Anything that flies?

 

Chris:

I actually got in a helicopter once. We got in there, started flicking switches, and we finally got the blades to rotate but it was at a low, low thing, and we got scared and got out of it.

 

Pat:

The point is...

 

Ben:

This is his life for more than two decades.

 

Pat:

Stealing things that move, getting caught, and escaping. Stealing things that move, getting caught, and escaping. Until eventually, he became that guy on TV.

 

News Announcer:

Called a Little Houdini who has police on the run in six states.

 

Pat:

But then, one night, something happened that seemed like it could break this loop forever.

 

Ben:

He met a girl.

 

Chris:

Yes, yes.

 

Pat:

Her name was Missy.

 

Ben:

She was waiting tables at a little campsite diner and he thought she was cute.

 

Pat:

And Missy?

 

Missy:

He's a smooth talker, I'll give him that.

 

Ben:

She liked the way he talked.

 

Missy:

I was taken right off the bat.

 

Pat:

A few months later...

 

Missy:

I got pregnant with my daughter and me and him...

 

Pat:

Moved in together, and for a while life was really good.

 

Chris:

We still had some money in the bank and I was working good for [inaudible 00:14:06] Construction. Had a good paying job running a bulldozer. I was actually going to school in [inaudible 00:14:11] to get my [inaudible 00:14:12] license.

 

Missy:

He had a nice trailer and it had a refrigerator.

 

Pat:

Did you like it?

 

Chris:

Yeah, I really liked it.

 

Missy:

Matter of fact I was talking to my daughter last night.

 

Chris:

I became real close to my daughter.

 

Missy:

She remembers it like it was yesterday. He got her a dog. She named him Blackjack. First puppy she ever got.

 

Chris:

That right there was the...

 

Missy:

It was the best moments and days of...

 

Chris:

The happiest days of, I think...

 

Missy:

Mine and his life.

 

Chris:

Ever, I think.

 

Pat:

But then, things got complicated. One day, when Chris and Missy were driving in the car together...

 

Missy:

We were going right through the middle of Nashville and...

 

Pat:

Chris says, "Look, I got to tell you something. I stole something."

 

Chris:

I stole a Bobcat tractor.

 

Pat:

"From my construction job."

 

Chris:

I sold it.

 

Missy:

"To make ends meet."

 

Pat:

As soon as she heard that, Missy whipped her around.

 

Missy:

And I hit him with a Big Mac right in the middle of Nashville on I-24.

 

Pat:

A Big Mac.

 

Missy:

Yes, I did.

 

Ben:

But it was only funny for a little while.

 

Pat:

A couple of days later...

 

Chris:

Somebody told on me.

 

Pat:

He got arrested.

 

Missy:

He stayed in jail for about two years and...

 

Pat:

Then escaped. I don't know, exactly.

 

Ben:

But before long, he stole again...

 

Pat:

And ended up back in jail again.

 

Ben:

And Missy?

 

Missy:

I stayed by his side.

 

Pat:

Again.

 

Ben:

She was determined. He'd come home from these escapes saying...

 

Chris:

I just hated being locked up.

 

Ben:

"Hated being away from you guys."

 

Chris:

I didn't want to be away from my kids and I didn't want to be away from Missy.

 

Ben:

Each time he got locked up, Missy would write him letters.

 

Missy:

I would send him money because I worked the whole time I was pregnant with my 13 year old.

 

Pat:

What kind of work were you doing?

 

Missy:

Worked on a sanding line. Sanded rocking chairs.

 

Ben:

Chris, meanwhile, was thinking about his next escape.

 

Pat:

And when he came charging through the front door...

 

Ben:

Stinking of roadkill...

 

Pat:

Telling Missy that, again, he had escaped...

 

Missy:

I stayed with him.

 

Pat:

Again. But this time...

 

Missy:

I started asking for check stubs on a weekly basis and adding hours up that he'd been gone from the time he left the house, which I would knock down riding time there and from.

 

Pat:

You were keeping tabs on him.

 

Missy:

Yes I was.

 

Pat:

She went so far as to take 5,000 dollars out of the bank account that they shared to buy a trailer for them to live in: one that wouldn't move.

 

Missy:

I was trying, more or less, to make him do right.

 

Pat:

And it seemed like it was working.

 

Ben:

But then one night...

 

Pat:

Chris came in after work and sat down in the living room with Missy and their daughter to watch some TV.

 

Missy:

Next thing we know we hear a loud beating at the door. I jump up and he jumps up and the next thing I know he was moving that kitchen table and sliding it out. Next thing I know he raises the rug up off the floor and he jumps down in there and he says, "Cover it back up." So I cover it back up, put the table back, and answer the door. They came in and they walked all around the house and they left.

 

Pat:

You bought this house to keep him still and he cut a trapdoor in it.

 

Missy:

Yep. He stayed [inaudible 00:17:15] the whole time and they were walking over top of him.

 

Pat:

Wow.

 

Missy:

I guess it was more or less I was young. I knowed, but I was also in denial.

 

Pat:

But eventually something happened that forced her to admit just how bad things had gotten with Chris.

 

Missy:

Day before Halloween, Danielle and her daddy had went down to Walmart and she had picked out her little witch outfit. She was old enough. She was four. Trick-or-treating for a four year old, that was a big thing.

 

Ben:

The next morning it's Halloween.

 

Missy:

Her daddy looked at her said, "Baby, I'm going to work. I'll see you this afternoon. When I get home, we'll get your outfit on you and we'll go trick-or-treating up in Nashville." That afternoon Danielle was sitting on the back step. She was just sitting there in a white shirt. I ask her, "Danielle, what are you doing?" "I'm waiting on my daddy to get home, mama. He said we're going to go to Nashville and we're going to go trick-or-treating." I said, "Okay, he'll be back in a little bit." She sat there and she sat there and he never came home that night.

 

Ben:

I don't hear a lot of bitterness from you.

 

Missy:

No.

 

Ben:

Is that accurate?

 

Missy:

Yes.

 

Ben:

Why?

 

Missy:

Well, as far as me being upset with Chris or hating Chris?

 

Ben:

Yes ma'am.

 

Missy:

Is that what you're asking me?

 

Ben:

Yes ma'am.

 

Missy:

How could you not forgive Chris? 18 years: that's how long I've known that boy. I have seen firsthand where he lived, how he lived. I'm a fighter. I go to church. My kids go to church. I learned to forgive people. Chris has had a hard life. He needs help: help that I can't give him.

 

Ben:

You thought for a while that you could give him that help.

 

Missy:

Yes, I did.

 

Chris:

I should've been there for my kids. It'll take a lifetime of making up for what I've done.

 

Jad:

So what do you make of this story, Pat?

 

Pat:

Somewhere along the way for Ben and I, this story really became about the simple question: can a person like Chris, who grew up the way he did, can a person like that change? Or do you just never escape a childhood like that?

 

Missy:

People live with how they grew up.

 

Pat:

If you ask Missy, she says...

 

Missy:

If two kids and a wife that he loves... If we can't stop him, I don't know what can.

 

Pat:

But when we asked Chris, he said...

 

Chris:

It's in mind I'm going to change, and I'm not only going to change, I'm working to change.

 

Missy:

Really?

 

Pat:

Of course, he has said that before.

 

Missy:

Truthfully?

 

Pat:

What's different this time?

 

Chris:

I'm doing classes that I don't have to take. I've taken every one of them. I'm taking how to be a better daddy. I'm taking everything. Matter of fact, when I come up for parole this month I'm going to go ahead and ask them, "Can I go ahead and complete another nine month program?"

 

Jad:

Is he saying that he's going to ask them to keep him jail?

 

Pat:

Yeah.

 

Ben:

After 20 years of running, he's asking the parole board not to let him go.

 

Pat:

Which made me think, I don't know, maybe.

 

Jad:

Ben, what do you think?

 

Ben:

I don't think there's any way that Chris changes. I think he's, unfortunately, doomed to stay in this cycle, which sucks. I'm ashamed that I have that opinion.

 

Jad:

Why do you think you feel that way?

 

Ben:

My dad was pretty similar to Chris in many ways.

 

Jad:

Really?

 

Ben:

My father abandoned me when I was a young boy and I got reacquainted with him when I was a teenager. At that point, he was a very sad alcoholic who often made big mistakes. I played high school football and near the end of the year, my senior year, they put out this highlight tape. I took that highlight tape to his trailer in Slick, Oklahoma. After shooting a lot of tequila, we sat down on the couch together and I put the tape in and we were watching me play football. Not long into it my dad starts sobbing, bawling, tears running down his face. I look over at him and he says, "I wish I could've been there." I wanted nothing more in that moment, and today, than to ask him, "Why weren't you?"

 

Ben:

I think in some way, I get that opportunity in this job to ask my dad that question.

 

Pat:

Ben says his dad never answered that question, and after that day where they watched that football tape nothing changed. Ben got older, graduated from college, got married, had kids, and his dad never showed up for any of it. So he says when he's talking to a guy like Chris...

 

Ben:

In some ways, I'm sitting across the table from my own father.

 

Pat:

Which doesn't give him a lot of hope.

 

Ben:

The only ounce of encouragement that I have, honestly, is if we find out that Chris has, when given the chance to get out of jail, said, "No thank you." Maybe that gives me an ounce of hope.

 

Pat:

A couple of weeks ago, Ben got a letter from Chris.

 

Pat:

Can you read it for me?

 

Ben:

Yeah.

 

Ben:

He says, "Dear Mr. Montgomery, thank you for your letter. I'm doing well. I went up for parole and yes I did ask them to let me go through the program. The final decision was to parole me upon completion of the program. I'll complete it on October 4, 2012."

 

Jad:

So he's staying?

 

Ben:

"Well, I better get this in the mail. Thank you again for writing. I hope to hear from you again. Your friend, Christopher Daniel Gay."

 

Robert:

Thanks to our producer Pat Walters.

 

Jad:

And to Ben Montgomery. His story on Christopher Daniel Gay is in the Tampa Bay Times, which you can find online. We've got a link to it from our website: radiolab.org.

 

Speaker 2:

We will return to Escape in just a moment, but first...

 

Ben:

Hi there. This is Ben Montgomery. Radiolab is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

 

Speaker 14:

Want more from your podcast app? Graduate to Pocket Casts, your free one-stop-shop for podcast listening, search, and discovery. The beautifully designed app gives you more control and makes it easier to discover and organize podcasts with powerful tools to customize listening. Hear all your favorite shows at pocketcast.com, or find us on the Apple App or Google Play Stores.

 

Jad:

Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

Robert:

And I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

Jad:

This is Radiolab. Today...

 

Speaker 2:

We offer you escape.

 

Jad:

We're talking about escape.

 

Robert:

Stories about people being trapped and then getting out, getting free.

 

Jad:

In our last segment we met a guy for whom escape itself became a trap.

 

Robert:

But now we're going to take our escape motif to a much bigger scale. We're calling this, by the way...

 

Speaker 2:

The outer limit.

 

Robert:

Because in this one we're going to the outer limits of the human imagination.

 

Jad:

It began for us when we spoke with this writer...

 

Ed:

Yes, I hear you booming.

 

Jad:

Ed Dolnick is his name. He told us a story about...

 

Ed:

This is Isaac Newton's story for the most part.

 

Jad:

It's a story that involves the Earth, the heavens, God, humanity, and you might as well throw in the apple.

 

Ed:

The one thing everybody knows about Newton is that an apple fell from a tree and bonked him on the head.

 

Jad:

Which isn't true, I was told. Isn't that hypocritical?

 

Ed:

It's probably not true, but it's a story that Newton himself told.

 

Jad:

Oh really?

 

Jad:

Because Newton, according to Ed...

 

Ed:

All this life had this notion that he was different from other people. Not only different from, but better. He had a pipeline to God. God was whispering secrets in his ear. No one else had been blessed in this way. Other people's role in life was simply to bog him down.

 

Robert:

Not what I would call a modest guy.

 

Jad:

No. But...

 

Ed:

At any rate...

 

Jad:

Our story begins around 1665. Newton is at Cambridge. He's a student.

 

Ed:

And Cambridge is hit by the plague. They send everybody home, because although nobody understands how the disease works, they know that if people are crowded together they tend all get it. "So everybody go your separate ways."

 

Robert:

This is kind of of an enforced summer vacation.

 

Ed:

Right.

 

Jad:

And he's like 19 or 20 at this point?

 

Ed:

He's 21, 22.

 

Ed:

Newton goes home to his mother's farm.

 

Jad:

Mom is like, "Cool, now you can help me on the farm," but...

 

Ed:

He says, "No."

 

Jad:

Because he has a plan. He brought some books home.

 

Ed:

A bunch of textbooks.

 

Jad:

And he locks himself in room...

 

Ed:

And sets himself to not only to having mastered all the science that's ever been done, but to plunging on ahead of everyone else on his own, motivated by this religious faith that everything in the universe was set up by a god who wanted someone to crack the code. Newton believes he's the one.

 

Jad:

What was he doing in his room? Was he sitting there with a thousand giant textbooks?

 

Ed:

All that's known is that he did this.

 

Jad:

He just went into his room and came out with what we're about to talk about.

 

Ed:

He came out with how gravity works, how light works, how rainbows work, how the tides work. Then, having done all that...

 

Jad:

In the (beep) summer he did all this?

 

Ed:

Yeah.

 

Robert:

What did you do on your summer vacation, Jad? I know my summer I learned how to fold like marines do, which I thought was pretty good too.

 

Robert:

So after having one flash of insight after another, Newton now sets his mind to one of the great problems of all time, which for our purposes we will call the problem of the moon.

 

Jad:

Just to set this up...

 

Ed:

What everybody before Newton and Galileo thought is there were a bunch of ordinary things here on Earth, like rocks, and they behave in the ordinary way that we know...

 

Jad:

Pick up a rock, let go, it falls.

 

Ed:

And there are a bunch of much more different, mysterious, elegant, perfect things in the sky...

 

Robert:

Like the moon, which doesn't fall. It just floats there.

 

Jad:

One could conclude that the moon has its own separate set of laws.

 

Ed:

There are one set of laws that work here on Earth and another set that work in the heavens, and there's no reason it should be the same set of laws any more than New York's laws should be the same as Paris's laws.

 

Jad:

Kind of makes sense, actually. Heavenly things float. Earthly things fall.

 

Robert:

But then here's where the problem begins. Newton and a bunch of people at that time had gotten ahold of this newfangled thing called the telescope.

 

Jad:

And one of the things they saw...

 

Ed:

Was that the moon wasn't this mysterious, heavenly body. It was a big rock. A regular, lumpy, potatoish rock.

 

Jad:

Uh oh. People were like huh.

 

Robert:

But Newton... being of course Newton... thought, "Now wait a second..."

 

Ed:

"If the job of a rock is to fall, and the moon is just another rock..."

 

Robert:

Why doesn't it fall down?

 

Ed:

Exactly so. What's it doing sitting up there night after night?

 

Jad:

Good question. It's at this point that Newton... sitting in his room or wherever he was we can imagine... makes a crazy mental leap. He thought back to a thought experiment that Galileo had come up with, which initially might not make much sense, the connection...

 

Robert:

But it pays off.

 

Ed:

Here's the set up. You've got someone standing in a big field with a gun that he's about to shoot. Next to that person with his gun is a person holding in his hand a bullet.

 

Jad:

So you've got a person holding a gun and a person holding just the bullet side by side.

 

Ed:

The bullet in the hand and the bullet in the gun are exactly the same height above the ground. Now, somebody says, "Ready, aim, fire," and at the instant he says fire the man with the gun shoots that bullet horizontally, and at that same instant the man next to him holding the bullet in his hand opens his hand and the bullet drops.

 

Robert:

So there's one bullet zipping along and then falling, and then the other one just falls.

 

Ed:

Right. We shoot the bullet out of the horizontal gun and we drop the bullet from right next to the gun.

 

Jad:

At the same time.

 

Ed:

Yes. Both bullets will hit the ground eventually, but when they do they'll be far apart. Galileo's riddle was which of those bullets hits the ground first?

 

Robert:

Everybody would know that the one that would hit the ground is the one that you just dropped because the other one has to go all that distance.

 

Ed:

This is a hard drill, and the answer is-

 

Jad:

Wait, why is it such a hard riddle? Because I would think that the bullet you drop is going to hit first. The gun has got to go all the way.

 

Ed:

No. Those two bullets both hit the ground at the exact same instant.

 

Robert:

Really?

 

Ed:

That's an experimental fact.

 

Robert:

The bullet from the gun and the bullet from the thing lands at the same time?

 

Ed:

Yes. This bullet that shot horizontally, it doesn't go like Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff. It doesn't go straight, straight, straight, and then fall. It's curving as it goes.

 

Jad:

And the thing that causes it to curve as it goes, of course, is gravity. It's the same gravity that is pulling the bullet that you drop. Same gravity. Same pull. Same speed. So, counterintuitively, when you drop a bullet and it falls for this long, when you fire the gun it'll also fall for that long, even though it ends up a mile away.

 

Jad:

See? That was Galileo's riddle.

 

Ed:

And that's as far as Galileo took it. Newton looked at that and he said something smart.

 

Jad:

First thing he said is, "This field? Let's not pretend that this is some..."

 

Ed:

"Perfectly flat field that goes on forever."

 

Jad:

No. We're on the Earth and the Earth is round.

 

Ed:

And what roundness means is that ground curves away below horizontal.

 

Robert:

Really what's happening is that as the bullet is shooting across the field and falling to the Earth, the Earth... at the same... is gradually curving away from it.

 

Jad:

Of course, most guns don't shoot the bullet very far and at that short distance the field is still pretty much flat.

 

Robert:

But here's what Newton thought: "What if you could find..."

 

Ed:

"Just the right gun..."

 

Robert:

"That could shoot that bullet not just across the field but across thousands of miles. And..."

 

Jad:

"What if..."

 

Ed:

"As it falls..."

 

Jad:

"That bullet curves down towards the Earth..."

 

Ed:

"In just the same as the Earth is curving..."

 

Jad:

"Away from it?"

 

Robert:

In this scenario...

 

Ed:

The bullet that we've shot will keep falling and falling and falling, but the Earth keeps falling and falling and falling away from the bullet, so the bullet falls forever, the Earth curves forever, the picture never changes.

 

Jad:

So the bullet then does what?

 

Ed:

The bullet is in orbit. Hundreds of years before Sputnik and other satellites, Newton has invented the satellite. On top of that, he said, when he see rocks like the moon that are not falling, the reason we think they're not falling is because we misunderstand. Really, just as the gun launched a bullet on Earth and it goes and never falls, God... who is presumably a terrifically strong pitcher... launched the moon around the Earth at just such a rate that that would continue in its circle around us forever. This is a perpetual dance. The partners are bound together but they never come close and they never break up, either. It's this endless round.

 

Robert:

From which there is no escape.

 

Ed:

What Newton did is take the moon out of the domain of poets and musicians... the golden orb and this kind of thing... and lasso it to the same rules that we use here on Earth.

 

Jad:

What he showed was that, in a very real way, there's no separation between us and the heavens.

 

Ed:

The same set of laws does govern anything. "It's one universe and I've explained it all."

 

Ann:

Once you figure out the laws of gravitation, then you can send spacecraft to...

 

Jad:

Mars...

 

Ann:

Jupiter...

 

Jad:

Saturn. Anywhere.

 

Ann:

Out there...

 

Jad:

If you're a Radiolab listener from way back you might recognize that voice. That's Ann Druyan.

 

Ann:

Hi.

 

Jad:

One of the first stories we did, actually, I interviewed her about working on the famous golden record. You remember this.

 

Robert:

Sure.

 

Jad:

The idea at the time was to put this record on the Voyager capsule, send it into space, and on the record would be all these sounds that represented us.

 

Ann:

A kiss, a mother first words to her newborn baby, Mozart...

 

Jad:

In any case, Ann was the one who was in charge of choosing all the sounds to put onto that record. She and Carl Sagan worked together on that project. Here's the thing: we stopped our story as the rockets took off, but obviously that was just the beginning of the story. The Voyager capsules, right now, are about to make a kind of escape that Newton could have only dreamed of.

 

Jad:

Our producer [Lim Leavy 00:36:10] has been-

 

Lim:

Sorry, I just turned my headphones up way too loud.

 

Jad:

Has been following this story.

 

Lim:

Ow, ow.

 

Jad:

Just turn it down.

 

Jad:

Okay, so pick it up where we left off.

 

Lim:

The point of the mission wasn't really to deliver this record. It was to go out and look at all the planets in the outer solar system. Starting in 1977, these two little spaceships...

 

Ann:

Two spacecrafts, Voyager 1 and 2...

 

Lim:

Went racing away from Earth snapping pictures.

 

Ann:

Every time Voyager would reach another planet, all of the Voyager people would get together, go into the imaging room, and see the pictures come from the outer solar system.

 

Lim:

Do you remember seeing them?

 

Morab:

I remember as a child seeing them in Life Magazine. I was seven when the Voyager was launched.

 

Lim:

This is [Morab 00:36:58].

 

Morab:

I'm Morab [Opher 00:36:59], professor at Boston University.

 

Lim:

As a grownup, she became part of the Voyager team.

 

Morab:

All the pictures that as a kid you look at the books and to see how Neptune looks, how Jupiter looks.

 

Ann:

Just a complete revelation.

 

Morab:

Saturn...

 

Ann:

The image of Saturn.

 

Morab:

Technicolor...

 

Ann:

Like pink and...

 

Morab:

Reddish...

 

Ann:

Turquoise color...

 

Morab:

Yellow and...

 

Lim:

And those rings. Just spectacular. They could see active volcanoes on one of the moons of Jupiter.

 

Ann:

Finally, that vision of Neptune, of this blue jewel...

 

Lim:

Really blue.

 

Morab:

It's all came from Voyager. We had no idea how they looked like before Voyager.

 

Lim:

Neptune was the last big, cool planet, and it was the last thing that they were supposed to photograph. After that...

 

Morab:

The cameras were going to be shut off to save energy.

 

Lim:

But..

 

Morab:

Carl Sagan convinced them to turn Voyager back to Earth and take a final picture.

 

Lim:

So, on Valentines day 1990, one of the ships slowly rotated so it was facing back to Earth and it snapped a picture.

 

Ann:

One last picture.

 

Jad:

Describe it.

 

Lim:

It's mostly empty. It's pretty dark. You can see streaks of light coming from the sun. And then... you honestly wouldn't notice it if it wasn't pointed out to you... down in one corner...

 

Jad:

Kind of suspended in a sunbeam...

 

Morab:

There is a very small dot of blue.

 

Ann:

A pale blue dot. That was us.

 

Lim:

In Carl Sagan's words...

 

Ann:

"Everyone you never knew, everyone you ever loved, every superstar, every corrupt politician, everyone in all of history, everything, the sum total... Think of the rivers of blood that have run so that one indistinguishable group could have momentary domination over a fraction of that pixel."

 

Lim:

It was one of those really rare images...

 

Ann:

Every single day who take that pale blue dot so deeply to heart.

 

Lim:

It was a complete reframing.

 

Morab:

After that, the cameras were turned off.

 

Lim:

But here's the thing: the ships kept going, drifting through the darkness. Even though they weren't taking pictures anymore, they were using their other senses: little instruments that detect how many particles are around, what the temperature is... They were hurtling through this empty space really fast, measuring, sending that data back, and scientists like Perov were there listening and waiting.

 

Jad:

For what?

 

Morab:

It was not clear.

 

Lim:

But they knew at some point these capsules would get to the edge.

 

Jad:

The edge of what?

 

Lim:

The solar system.

 

Jad:

The solar system has an edge? I thought it was just a big spiral.

 

Lim:

It has an edge. It's like a bubble.

 

Morab:

See, the sun has a wind. Every star has a wind, but the sun has its own wind...

 

Lim:

That blows out through the solar system.

 

Ann:

It's very fast.

 

Morab:

It can be between 400 to 800 kilometers per second.

 

Lim:

Anyway, it flows out from the sun, past all the planets, and it keeps everything else out.

 

Jad:

Oh, so it's like blowing up a balloon?

 

Lim:

Yeah.

 

Jad:

The wind gives it a shape.

 

Lim:

Right. So these little things are cruising out towards this edge, wherever it is. Scientists don't quite know where it is or what it is. The guys in the control room are pinging the ships like, "Hey, what's up? What do you see?" They ships are like, "Nothing." "How about now?" "Not much." "Now?" "Nothing."

 

Jad:

How long before they actually see something.

 

Lim:

14 years.

 

Jad:

Oh man, that's like driving through Kansas but like a million times worse.

 

Lim:

But, there comes a day...

 

Morab:

End of 2004...

 

Lim:

Where they stop listening for a while because NASA only has so many antennas and they have to use them to listen to everything. So, for a while the Voyager team is like, "Okay, you guys over there can use the antennas. We're going to lunch."

 

Jad:

Yeah, I mean it's not like anything is happening.

 

Lim:

"Nothing is happening anyways, it's been 14 goddamn years."

 

Jad:

"Knock yourself out."

 

Lim:

"It's cool." They come back a few hours later, start listening again, and...

 

Morab:

It's happened very sudden.

 

Lim:

Everything is totally changed. All of a sudden, boom.

 

Morab:

The speed of the wind dropped from around 380 kilometers per second to 100.

 

Lim:

Instantly. Just all at once.

 

Morab:

Instantly.

 

Lim:

Then everything out there started to get messy.

 

Morab:

Very turbulent. Much more turbulent than before. Particles are also behaving a very different way. The fields are very weird.

 

Jad:

The fields?

 

Morab:

The magnetic field.

 

Ann:

Just like the sun has a wind...

 

Morab:

The sun has a magnetic field as well.

 

Ann:

The field starts at the sun and then curves out in this graceful arc through the solar system.

 

Morab:

How the sun rotates creates what people call a ballerina skirt.

 

Lim:

You know a skirt will flair if you spin around real fast?

 

Jad:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Lim:

That's apparently what this field looks like. But way out there it seemed like the skirt started to fray, maybe tear a little. Threads had broken off and seemed to be floating around on their own, not connected to anything.

 

Jad:

What does this all mean? If the fields are breaking down and the wind is dying down... You said the wind is what actually creates the space of the solar system, does this mean we're out?

 

Lim:

No. I thought that was what was happening, but no. It's not out and it's not quite in. It's in the edge of the bubble.

 

Jad:

In the edge?

 

Lim:

Yeah. But it's not a thin edge, it's a thick edge.

 

Jad:

So the edge isn't just a line that you cross, it's a place.

 

Ann:

While we listened, the two Voyager ships moved through this edge for several years.

 

Morab:

Then something very interesting happened. The wind on Voyager 1 stopped.

 

Jad:

Completely stopped?

 

Morab:

Yeah.

 

Jad:

So now we're out?

 

Lim:

No.

 

Ann:

No.

 

Lim:

I mean...

 

Morab:

This is what people thought. But the other measurements...

 

Lim:

Like temperature and number of particles, the magnetic field...

 

Morab:

Doesn't tell us we're out of the bubble. Nature surprised us again.

 

Ann:

Now we think there's a place at the edge of our solar system...

 

Morab:

Right at the edge...

 

Lim:

The edge of the edge...

 

Ann:

That's utterly still. No wind at all. A pause.

 

Morab:

People are calling it a stagnation layer and there is a big discussion as to why this layer exists and how thick it is.

 

Ann:

And by how thick it is, she means when will it end? Because once we get past this...

 

Lim:

Has anything ever crossed this boundary before?

 

Morab:

No. This will be the first manmade object to leave any star. Voyager was right there, smiling, touching that boundary.

 

Ann:

You only do those things first once, like your first kiss and your first taste of alcohol. Your first time driving a car. Your first time you see the oceans. These things open up a whole new world. The first time out of the solar system...

 

Jad:

So when is it going to freaking happen?

 

Lim:

It might've happened while we were talking.

 

Morab:

We're thinking now, any moment now, next couple months, or three years from now, four years from now. It's close.

 

Lim:

Every day I open my Google alert for Voyager and I look and see if it happened today, because if it happens before this show goes out I'm going to be pissed.

 

Jad:

Every day?

 

Lim:

Yeah.

 

Jad:

Is it the first thing you do in the morning?

 

Lim:

No. Like, the third thing.

 

Jad:

All right, quick update. In 2013, NASA announced that Voyager 1 had finally left the heliosphere. But it turns out it is really hard to tell for sure, and scientists are still debating whether it is in or whether it is out. You can find out more about that debate at radiolab.org. Thanks to producer Lim Leavy, Morab Opher of Boston University, and Ann Druyan.

 

Sally:

Hi Radiolab. This is Sally calling from Melbourne, Australia. Radiolab is supported in part by the Alfred P Sloan foundation, enhancing public understanding of science and technology in the modern world. More information about Sloan at www.sloan.org.

 

Jad:

Hey, I'm Jab Abumrad.

 

Robert:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

Jad:

This is Radiolab, and today we're talking about...

 

Robert:

Escape. In this last story, I have a feeling that this guy actually does make it through. This is a true, honest escape, but he does it in the most original and most unusual way.

 

Jad:

Here with the story is our producer Shaun Cole.

 

Shaun:

The story starts in the late '50s. There was this little boy in Richmond, Virginia named Joe [Engressia 00:46:37] Jr. He's seven or eight years old and he's sitting at home dialing various numbers on his parents' telephone, just to see what happens.

 

Phil:

He was on a long distance call to information... 555-1212 and just an area code.

 

Shaun:

This is Phil [Lapsley 00:46:52]. I first heard Joe's story from him.

 

Phil:

And he heard, very faintly in the background, a tone, and he just started whistling along with it and all of a sudden he heard a ker-chink and the call went away.

 

Shaun:

It turns out that the tone in the background of the phone and his corresponding whistle was 2,600 Hertz.

 

Phil:

Musically, it's about seventh octave E.

 

Jad:

So he has perfect pitch?

 

Shaun:

Yeah, and he was weirdly smart, as you'll soon discover.

 

Shaun:

Anyway, he thinks to himself...

 

Phil:

"That's very odd. That happened once. I wonder if it would happen again."

 

Shaun:

Does it again...

 

Phil:

He didn't even know what it was at the time.

 

Shaun:

But he does it again and again.

 

Phil:

He didn't think it was particularly useful for anything. He does talk about walking past somebody at a payphone when he was seven or eight years old and having the phone call disconnect on the person.

 

Robert:

That's like having super powers.

 

Shaun:

That really is.

 

Robert:

Which means he could be a walking bomb. He could go to Grand Central Station, where there are many people sitting in phone booths, and he could make them all lose their phone calls and no one would know.

 

Shaun:

Right. But it was more than just a cool trick for him. This discovery was the beginning of a kind of escape.

 

Joybubbles:

What were you scared of when you were little? I bet something scared you, because there were things that sure scared me.

 

Shaun:

That's Joe.

 

Joybubbles:

I don't remember how old I was, but...

 

Shaun:

It's all we have left of him, in fact. He died in 2007. But he left behind hours and hours of records of his voice: phone recordings. As you listen to them...

 

Joybubbles:

I was afraid something might happen if I crawled out the bed, [inaudible 00:48:31] books on the floor and kissed it.

 

Shaun:

You pretty quickly realized that the little boy in that room who was playing with the phone was kind of desperate. He went to this Catholic school for the blind.

 

Robert:

Was he blind?

 

Shaun:

We was born blind. And when he was there...

 

Joybubbles:

Back in the fall of 1955...

 

Shaun:

Things got pretty bad.

 

Joybubbles:

A lot of the nuns whipped me and my sister really hard and shook us. Only one did the sexual abuse. She used to have me get on the table. Then she would get up on the table and lie down. She did the bad touching.

 

Shaun:

Things were pretty bad at home, too.

 

Joybubbles:

Daddy would slam mother and break things and there would be lots of scary sounds and stuff at night. Sometimes I'd hug my phone up close and listen to the dial tone. The soft hum of the dial tone was always there.

 

Phil:

It's a nice, warm tone. It never yelled. It never fought.

 

Joybubbles:

What a wonderful thing a telephone is.

 

Phil:

It was a nice way for him to comfort himself.

 

Joybubbles:

Especially during those long nights.

 

Jad:

How did the whistling thing he was doing...?

 

Robert:

How did that help him?

 

Jad:

Yeah.

 

Shaun:

It takes a few steps to explain, but it turns out that that tone was the keyword in a hidden mechanical language that controlled the phone system. He wasn't supposed to be able to hear it at all, in fact. It was an internal signal, probably bleeding over from another line.

 

Phil:

When a long distance line was idle... when there was no call on it... this tone would be played continuously.

 

Shaun:

Basically, the tone means that the line is free and silence on the line means there's someone trying to make a call. Say you're in New York and you want to call LA. You pick up your phone...

 

Phil:

The circuit has got this tone on it marking the circuit as idle.

 

Shaun:

You dial the LA number and at that point your line...

 

Phil:

Takes away the tone for just a moment...

 

Shaun:

It goes silent. And LA goes, "Ah, New York wants to make a phone call," and then LA drops its tone and the New York and LA machines talk to each other.

 

Shaun:

So that's one discovery. Another discovery is that you can dial a phone by just tapping the hook switch, that little button where you hang up. Tap that three times, dial the number 3 seven times, dial the number 7. Then Joe thought, "Wait... Pulses, tones..."

 

Phil:

"Maybe if you were to make little bursts of tone..." so something like...

 

Joybubbles:

For six... for two...

 

Shaun:

As Joe demonstrated on a web show called Haxor Radio.

 

Joybubbles:

For nine...

 

Phil:

If you were to do something like that, maybe you can actually dial a call.

 

Shaun:

And you could.

 

Joybubbles:

[inaudible 00:51:25]. That's how you actually make a call.

 

Shaun:

That's exactly how the phone system used to send calls back and forth. That was its language.

 

Phil:

That's right. Joe learned how to speak telephone.

 

Shaun:

Which is amazing. I think that's amazing.

 

Jad:

But isn't he just dialing the phone with his lips as opposed to using his fingers?

 

Shaun:

True, but Joe made one more little discovery that would change his life forever.

 

Phil:

If you first dialed a number like long distance information... 555-1212... the telephone company doesn't charge for calls for information.

 

Shaun:

What he figured out was that once you get the operator on the line, if you then whistled to disconnect...

 

Phil:

But only for a little bit, only for a second or two...

 

Shaun:

The line nearly disconnects but it doesn't all the way. It sits in this limbo waiting for instructions, waiting to be used. And you can...

 

Phil:

Reroute your call by whistling the digits you wanted to dial...

 

Shaun:

And make a free call.

 

Phil:

Because the phone company thinks that you're still connected to information and its not charging for that.

 

Shaun:

It was like having an unlimited plane ticket to anywhere. Joe could call anywhere he wanted for free.

 

Phone Operator:

This is a telecom announcement.

 

Shaun:

And explore...

 

Phone Operator:

The number you have called is not connected.

 

Shaun:

And Listen. So he started calling all over the world, even broken number numbers just to hear the different voices.

 

Phone Operator:

Please check the number before calling again.

 

Robert:

I used to do this, by the way.

 

Jad:

Did you really?

 

Robert:

My sister and I would get on the phone. We could call information... that was a free service... and we said, "Hello information, can you please put us in touch with Toronto?" And then we'd get the Toronto operator. Then we'd say, "Toronto, could you please get us in contact with Churchill, Ontario," which is way up north. Then the Churchill lady would come on. I'd say, "Could you please us in touch with [inaudible 00:53:14]?" which is some Inuit place, and they'd transfer you to the northernest place. We'd be talking to a person in the Arctic for nothing. It was the sense of going long distance for free.

 

Shaun:

Now imagine that you're a blind kid doing that in an abusive home. You can't even run away.

 

Phil:

I think the phone represented freedom. It represented a place that was under his control. He could be an expert in it. It was a place that he could do all sorts of things that maybe he wasn't so easily able to do in real life.

 

Jad:

So what happens next?

 

Shaun:

Things get a bit better for Joe as he gets older. His mom takes him out of the Catholic school once she finds out the nuns are beating him. He never told his parents about the sexual abuse. He gets more and more savvy with the phone. Then finally he goes off to the University of South Florida, where he starts showing off.

 

Phil:

It started out that Joe told a student that he could whistle a free phone call and the student said, "No you can't," and he said, "Want to bet?" They bet a dollar and Joe whistled a long distance call for him. Before long, there were crowds of 40 kids who were following him around wanting to see him do this parlor trick.

 

Shaun:

Then he whistled up this one particular fateful call.

 

Phil:

He was trying to whistle somebody in New York, which is area code 516, but instead had wound up in Canada, which is 514. You can see, if you're whistling calls you could easily get off by one or two beeps. He wound up talking to an operator in Canada and the operator in Canada put his call through to New York, but then managed to listen to the call and the student was talking about the wiz kid who put the call through for him. Telephone company security ended up tracing it back to University of South Florida.

 

Shaun:

It was just a gossipy operator who told on him.

 

Phil:

Well, gossipy or security conscious, depending on how you view it.

 

Shaun:

Fun-ruining, that's how I view it.

 

Shaun:

So Joe is busted. He nearly gets kicked out of school and the whole thing causes just enough of a stir that people found out.

 

Phil:

The local school newspaper wrote an article about it and it got picked up by a wire service. Next thing you know, there are newspaper articles and publicity and...

 

Shaun:

Here's the weird thing. As news travels...

 

Phil:

"Did you see the article about the blind kid in Florida who can do this?"

 

Shaun:

It turns out Joe wasn't alone. There were all of these other Joe Engressias out there hacking the phone system, too.

 

Phil:

"You mean I'm not the only one? There are other people who are interested in this as well?"

 

Shaun:

They weren't whistling. Some of them would use these machines called blue boxes that would make the tones. A couple of kids actually modified a toy whistle from a box of Captain Crunch. Because Joe got caught, they all started to find out about each other.

 

Phil:

That ended up being the focal point for a whole generation of phone phreaks.

 

News Announcer:

This is NBC Nightly News.

 

Jad:

Phone what?

 

Shaun:

Phone phreaks.

 

News Announcer:

Phone freaks will tell you that phone phreaking began with a blind young man named Joe Engressia. One thing that he discovered was that he could whistle his own calls.

 

Phil:

Before long, people were calling Joe Engressia and a network starts to form. Then the phone phreaks started finding broken, vacant number recordings... for example, you dial a non-working number and you get the usual telephone company recording:

 

Phone Operator:

You have reached a non-working number.

 

Phil:

It turns out that some of those were broken in such a way that the volume level was very low, and if multiple people called the same number they could talk. Teenage kids would call and it turned into a party line. Kind of an annoying one, because you had this announcement that was repeating every 30 seconds, but it still allowed teenage kids to talk to one another.

 

Jad:

Wow. So this is it: he found his tribe, basically.

 

Shaun:

Yeah. He would call the conference lines and talk with them about phones and phreaking and everything, but that really wasn't what he was after.

 

Phil:

I think it's interesting because... Say you're a lonely kid and you start playing around with the phone, or you start playing around with Scrabble, or whatever it is. You get really obsessed about some thing, right? Through the magic of that thing, you end up meeting other people. You have a choice to make at that point. Choice one is embrace the community. Choice two is, "That's nice. It's great that there are other people and I get some stuff from that, but I've found this thing... my telephone, my Scrabble set, whatever it is I'm obsessed by, and I'm still obsessed by it." It seems to me that he made the choice to go for the thing.

 

Shaun:

It's not that he didn't like the community, but he was still searching for something.

 

Speaker 24:

Esquire Magazine. 1971.

 

Phil:

March of 1971 is when he moved to Memphis.

 

Speaker 24:

Reporter. In that month, he had done very little long distance phone phreaking from his own phone. He had begun to apply for a job with the phone company.

 

Phil:

He went there intending to "Get a job and be a man," as he put it.

 

Speaker 24:

And he wanted to stay away from anything illegal. Engressia, quote, "Any kind of job will do. Anything as menial as the most lowly operator. That's probably all they'd give me because I'm blind."

 

Steven:

He wanted to be a telephone. He wanted to take his lunchbox to work. He wanted to get a paycheck. He wanted to take his lunchbox to work. He wanted to be a real person like everybody else.

 

Shaun:

This is Steven Gibb, one of Joe's best friends.

 

Steven:

He lived in a couple places. The first one was... just imagine skid row. It was. He woke up one morning when the heat went out. He stepped on a dead, frozen rat because he ended up sleeping in his coat. That's all he could afford.

 

Shaun:

He can't get arrested in Memphis. He can't get a job to save his life, so he decides to get arrested, literally by doing this very, very elaborate public phreak where he gets a bunch of his phreaking friends on a conference call and he starts dialing up foreign embassies...

 

Steven:

Like the armed services in Moscow...

 

Shaun:

And pretended that he was calling as a radio host and that all of his friends were his studio audience.

 

Steven:

"Hi. This is so and so from this radio show. Do you have time to talk and be on the air with us today? Oh great!"

 

Phil:

Because he wanted to stay on the phone line so that the phone company could trace him, because as says, "They're not really speedy."

 

Steven:

He wanted to give them a lot of time to catch him.

 

Phil:

Two weeks later is when he walked out the door and the FBI came up said, "Josef Engressia?"

 

Jad:

And why did he do this? Because he was trying to get the phone company to pay attention or something?

 

Shaun:

That's right.

 

Robert:

In the hopes that he would get a free meal in jail?

 

Shaun:

No, in the hopes that he would get a job.

 

Jad:

With the phone company?

 

Shaun:

That's right.

 

Robert:

What a weird way to go about it.

 

Shaun:

Amazingly, it worked.

 

Robert:

Really?

 

Shaun:

Yeah. He got four job offers. All phone jobs.

 

Phil:

He got a job at a little independent Millington Telephone Company and he started cleaning telephones. Anything from cleaning phones to servicing equipment.

 

Speaker 24:

Any kind of job will do.

 

Shaun:

But any kind of job wouldn't do.

 

Phil:

He really didn't like it.

 

Shaun:

It's that kind of thing where you realize your lifelong dream and then you think, "Wait, I can dream anything I want. I can dream bigger than this."

 

Phil:

So in 1975-

 

Steven:

In '76...

 

Phil:

Whatever. He moved to Denver.

 

Shaun:

Denver, where every dream is in reach. Paid for by the Committee to Promote Denver.

 

Steven:

He started hobnobbing with all the telephone guys and going to the public utilities commission and that's when he started working for Mountain Bell.

 

Phil:

Mountain Bell Telephone.

 

Shaun:

That's when he started phreaking for the Man.

 

Phil:

He worked as a network troubleshooter.

 

Shaun:

At this time he had such an intimate knowledge of all the little flicks and pops of the phone system that he could...

 

Phil:

Tell from those noises what was going on in the network, how your call was being routed... if there was a problem somewhere along the line what the problem was.

 

Shaun:

Maybe even where it was strictly from listening.

 

Phil:

Strictly from listening.

 

Shaun:

This was listening to the dial tone times nirvana.

 

Joybubbles:

Now it should go through.

 

Shaun:

He demonstrated his powers on the New York radio station WBAI. There was a show called Off the Hook...

 

Joybubbles:

That good old ring... Now the stick flick, that one. Now it'll answer briefly. Now it'll go funny. Now it'll stay like that as long as you want to stay on it. A nice sound. (singing)... Oh, it drops off on number five ESS, I forgot.

 

Jad:

Wow, he's like a Jedi master.

 

Shaun:

Yeah, he's made it.

 

Shaun:

So he quit.

 

Jad:

What?

 

Shaun:

Gave up the job for his friend.

 

Jad:

But it sounds like he finally got what he wanted.

 

Shaun:

I think he became the master of the world that he had escaped into, but he never really dealt with the world that he had escaped from.

 

Robert:

Meaning what?

 

Shaun:

That little boy, that broken little boy that he was, still needed a kind of fixing in a way that wasn't going to be... No job is going to solve that.

 

Shaun:

So he moves to Minneapolis on June 12, because 612 was Minneapolis's area code, and he basically becomes a kid again.

 

Steven:

Everything he did from that point on, other than his phone, had to do with children.

 

Shaun:

He'd visit with children who were terminally ill. He'd just visit with children in general.

 

Steven:

I've got a recording at home... in fact I was listening to it last night before I came interview. I was laughing and giggling because all these little girls were coming up and they were saying, "Hi, hi."

 

Girls:

Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi.

 

Steven:

I could hear the parents in the back saying...

 

Parents:

Don't sit on all of his stuff.

 

Steven:

"Don't sit on his toys." He actually starting talking about more to me about his being abused and missing out on his childhood. He was at a seminar, an uplifting seminar, and the instructor said something on the order of... I'm paraphrasing... "Tell me how you feel right now!" And he screamed and yelled and threw up his arms and said, "Joy bubbles!"

 

Shaun:

In that moment he decided that he would actually go by that name: Joybubbles.

 

Jad:

You mean he changed his name?

 

Shaun:

He legally changed his name to Joybubbles, all one word. It was around this time that he decided and announced that he wasn't going to be an adult any more.

 

Steven:

His old name and his past was gone and he wanted to be five years old.

 

Shaun:

Five years old forever. Then he started doing this.

 

Joybubbles:

Gosh, it's May already. I'm glad you've called Stories and Stuff. This is your storyteller, Joybubbles, here in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

 

Shaun:

Those recordings I mentioned in the beginning, they're all from this show that Joe recorded every week. He called it Stories and Stuff, and instead of broadcasting it he'd record the episodes to an answering service and you'd call a number and listen to it on the phone.

 

Joybubbles:

Hello kids and chidults. I think that chidults is part child and part adult.

 

Joybubbles:

Hello, hi, and hello. This is Stories and Stuff.

 

Joybubbles:

You've reached Stories and Stuff. This is Joybubbles here in Minneapolis. That's all one word: don't you dare split. Joybubbles.

 

Shaun:

This may be too armchair-psychoanalytical, but it really feels like it's the kind of show that he needed to hear when he was a kid. The new five year old was trying to go back and say something to the five year old from the early '50s: something akin to, "It's okay. In the end it's going to be okay."

 

Joybubbles:

There is help. If you'd like an imaginary friend, a bunch of them come that are looking for somebody to love and play with and talk to. All you have to do is any quiet day, just get quiet and ask for one. Know that they kind you like will come. They'll be with you for as long as you want them, as long as you need them, for lifetime and beyond.

 

Robert:

Thanks to producer Shaun Cole.

 

Jad:

And to Steven Gib and Phil Lapsley, who has now finished a book on phreaking.

 

Jad:

I'm Jad Abumrad.

 

Robert:

I'm Robert Krulwich.

 

Jad:

Thanks for listening.

 

Phone Operator:

Message for new.

 

Phil:

Hey kids, this is Phil Lapsley in Bangalore, India. Here goes. Rabiolab is produced by Jad Abumrad. Our staff includes Ellen Horn, Soren Wheeler, Pat Walters, Tim Howard...

 

Speaker 28:

Flynn [Osaro 01:05:55], Lim Leasy, and Shaun Cole...

 

Speaker 29:

With help from Dylan Keefe, [Brenan McMollen 01:05:58], and Raphaela [Benin 01:05:59].

 

Speaker 28:

Raphaela Benin. Special thanks...

 

Speaker 29:

To Jeff [Spurgen 01:06:03]...

 

Speaker 28:

Rachel Morrison...

 

Phil:

Robert [Finestein 01:06:05], and everyone...

 

Voices of Outro:

Everyone...

 

Phil:

At [inaudible 01:06:08].com.

 

Speaker 28:

Thanks guys.

 

Speaker 29:

Buh-bye.

 

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