Transcript

324:

My Brilliant Plan
Transcript

Originally aired 01.26.2007

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

Michael had been in the business for over 35 years, and he never had a customer like this one. Michael designs and sells tombstones. And this customer, who we're not going to name for reasons that will become clear the further into the story I get-- we'll just call him Mr. X-- Mr. X is what they call in the funeral business a pre-needs customer. Pre-needs is basically a polite funeral business way to say he wasn't dead. He was buying a plot and a tombstone before he needed them.

Michael

You know, he explained that this was for himself, and he said he had some special requests that he wanted on the memorial. So I obviously asked what they were, and we started going through it. He wanted his picture on there. He also wanted to know if he could put his son's names on and their pictures, and he would also like to put their dates of death.

And at that point, I say, "oh, I'm very sorry for your loss." And that's when he says, "no, they're not dead." And I was slightly speechless for a moment because I'm trying to figure out what's go on. Is he trying to tell me that he's going to kill them? Or is it-- what's happening? You know.

And so we proceeded slightly further in the conversation, and he basically takes out a sheet of paper and hands it to me. And I start reading it, and he said, "this is what I want on the monument."

Ira Glass

And what did it say?

Michael

Well, I wish I had it and saved it. It was really very blunt, to the effect that, "my two sons stole money from me." And it kind of broke his heart. In his eyes, they were not alive any longer.

Ira Glass

They were dead to him.

Michael

They're dead to him because of something they did to him.

When I first read it, it didn't even click. And then I read it again, and I looked at him and said, "are you serious?" And he said, "yes." I said, "OK." I said, "it's pretty strong." And he said, "that's what I want."

And the cemetery wouldn't allow him to put it on there in that way. And you need to, you know, kind of soften it up a little bit.

Ira Glass

And I should say now, this monument is actually standing. The guy still is alive. The monument is standing in a cemetery right now, and it has his picture-- kind of a big picture of him at the top, and his name, and date of birth, and then blank for the date of death-- and then underneath it there are pictures of two of his sons. Then it says, "in memory of." And it says each of their names and the date of death. And I guess those are the dates when they broke his heart and became dead to him.

Michael

Exactly.

Ira Glass

And then underneath-- let me just ask you to read the text of what it says underneath. And leave out their names.

Michael

OK. It says, "I'll never forget"-- and someone's name-- "and"-- someone's name. "Even in death, these two people put an everlasting mark on my heart. Money will come between family no matter how close you are. Even in death, I still feel the pain."

Ira Glass

I called this guy. I talked to him. In fact, I've talked to him a couple times, and he didn't want to come on the radio or anything. And he explained that in his mind, this was the perfect plan. Because basically, he could finally get the last word.

Michael

Yeah, and it's cut in stone. That's a saying around here. It's permanent. It's there forever, for eternity.

Ira Glass

Now, when I talked to Mr. X about all this, he told me that he carries around photos of the monument, and he shows those photos to people. He likes seeing their reactions. He says that he visits the monument every five or six weeks, polishes it up. He has a fantasy of his sons coming to his funeral and seeing the monument for the first time. He pictures the looks on their faces.

But the problem with this plan-- and Mr. X is the very first person to admit this-- the problem with this plan is, who wants to wait until they're dead to get the satisfaction? You know? On the other hand, if they find out now, while he's alive, then they might get mad, they might argue. And that would defeat the whole point of the whole thing. He wouldn't get the last word. And Michael sees another problem with Mr. X's plan.

Michael

Maybe they're just going to look at it and go, "oh, he's crazy. Who cares?" You know what I mean?

Ira Glass

Oh, wouldn't that be horrible for him?

Michael

Yeah. And then they'd just walk away.

Ira Glass

That would be the worst case scenario, that they would see it and just shrug.

Michael

And it wouldn't surprise me if they spotted the monument-- I'm almost thinking that if the sons saw that, they would probably try to remove their photographs, at least, which they could do. They could break them or remove them. Because I think he was even concerned about that.

Ira Glass

Oh, he was?

Michael

Yeah. I think he might have been going to leave some money somehow set up in a trust or something to take care of replacing them or something like that if something happened to them.

Ira Glass

You know, in the end, this is the problem with Mr. X's plan: all of eternity is stretching in front of Mr. X, and in that time, somebody can deface the tombstone, or a great, great, great, great, great, great grandson can decide that it is embarrassing, this tombstone, and have it removed.

Well, today on our show, we have stories of people who put together what they think are brilliant plans, and then all sorts of things that they didn't really account for finally get to them. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Our show today, My Brilliant Plan, in two acts. Act One, Mr. Adam's Neighborhood. That act is a simple story involving a money-saving, information-getting, life-embracing plan that just had one thing, one little thing going against it, and that is where it was happening. Act Two, Tragedy Minus Time Equals Happily Ever After. In that act, an 11-year-old child makes up a plan, a completely unlikely kid's plan, the kind of plan that no adult would ever think could work. And then the kid sticks with that plan into his 20s, into his 30s, into his 40s, into his 50s. He sticks with this plan for so long that somehow this fantastically unreasonable plan becomes, decades later, somehow suddenly rather reasonable. Stay with us.

Act One. Mr. Adam's Neighborhood.

Adam Davidson

It does seem absolutely crazy now. I mean, the idea of going out and renting a house in Baghdad today, it would be instant suicide. But back then, in 2003, it was such a different place. I had friends who would go jogging in this track at Baghdad University. I'd go shopping every day. And I felt totally safe. I would wander-- I can remember there would be these angry protests-- and I would wander into these protests of hundreds of screaming young men and interview them, and felt no fear. I don't think I was irresponsible. I had an awareness things could get out of control.

But having a house seemed like the smart move. It seemed like the clever, safe move, because we'd be off in the city somewhere, invisible. It seemed so much smarter than being in one of these big compounds with lots and lots of foreigners that was like easy pickings for any insurgent.

Nancy Updike

And just lay out the finances. How much were you paying in rent? And what were the costs of this place?

Adam Davidson

Well, here's how I figured it. It was $14,000 every three months' rent. I knew I needed a staff, a couple security guards and a cleaning lady. So let's say with them it's $5,000 a month. We had five or six bedrooms. I had one British journalist who was committed to a little over $2,000 a month. Marketplace was going to throw $1,000 a month in, so I really only needed $2,000 a month.

Nancy Updike

Marketplace was your employer at the time.

Adam Davidson

My employer at the time was going to give me $1,000 a month, Marketplace. So all I needed was to make $2,000 a month and I had three bedrooms.

Nancy Updike

It seemed like a no-brainer.

Adam Davidson

It seemed like a no-brainer. You know, I started asking myself, "is it ethical for me to actually make money?" You know, "I'll probably rent each of those bedrooms out for over $1,000 a month. So at the very least, maybe I won't pay anything, and maybe I'll even make money."

Nancy Updike

Given everything that happened in later months, I just can't help but laugh at this moment in time when you were feeling guilty at how you were going to be taking advantage of other people by making a profit, which you obviously never were able to do.

Adam Davidson

No, I'm still paying off. I'm actually still-- I think I've got my debts, because of the house, down to about $4,000 now.

Nancy Updike

Are you kidding? You still have $4,000 worth of debt from this house?

Adam Davidson

Yeah, which I owe my mom because she lent me the money. But yeah, I still owe $4,000 from the house, and it's-- you know, I left it two and a half years ago.

Nancy Updike

How much have you paid off between when you left and now?

Adam Davidson

I came back, like, $22,000 in debt.

Nancy Updike

Oh my god, Adam.

Adam Davidson

Yeah. Which means my entire salary, plus Marketplace's expenses, plus $22,000 went into that place.

Nancy Updike

But let's go back before the debt, before everything that would happen later. Just talk about what it was like in the beginning, because in the beginning, the house did seem to work like you wanted it to.

Adam Davidson

Yeah, I mean, in the very beginning everything seemed to be working pretty well.

Nancy Updike

Working pretty well how? How would a typical day go?

Adam Davidson

You know, a typical morning is everyone goes out and reports their story. But in the evenings, everyone comes back and we would just have these lovely dinner parties. We would have friends over for dinner from the hotels. People would come over, or from the other newspaper, radio, or TV houses would come over. And the wine tended to be pretty awful, but the beer was good, and you could get hard liquor. And it was just really fun. And word would get out.

One of the things I really loved about the house is the entire time I was in the house, the US was occupying Iraq. And you would go to these kind of formal settings, and you'd meet these US occupying officials, and they were so tight-lipped, so on-message, so incapable of communicating. And so the ones I liked I'd invite over to the house. I mean, I genuinely liked them, but also we'd get them a little drunk on wine. We'd tell them, hey, tonight everything's off the record. And we'd get real information.

I mean, that was how I found out that, even within the CPA, even within the US occupational forces, all these people running Iraq, people realized this is a disaster. We were getting this public message from the White House and from the folks in Iraq that everything's going really well, we just don't know it. But we'd get these people over to our house, they'd have some wine, and they'd be like, "oh, it's so much worse than you know."

And I liked hanging out the Iraqi staff, the guards and drivers. It was really fun. One of the guards was a sheik of a tribe, and I would sit with him and learn tribal law, and how do you resolve conflicts. One of our nighttime guards had a small business. He had a little stationery shop, and I would learn from him about these new taxes that Shiite militias were charging, and the business people who were in favor of the resistance against the Americans.

But also, I didn't like all of our staff, but I liked a lot of our staff. I went to many of their houses for dinner, which is a big deal Iraq to have a guest for dinner.

Nancy Updike

And all the time you were also learning Arab.

Adam Davidson

And I was learning Iraqi Arabic. But it wasn't even just to learn. It was just fun. You know, we would-- I don't know. They were just funny, cool guys. I liked a lot of them.

Nancy Updike

And then, at some point, things started to go wrong. What first just started to kind of break down?

Adam Davidson

The truth is, things were going wrong from the very beginning. It was just a very slow process of realizing it. I mean, one of the things, I had a translator who I was very close to and a driver I was very close to. And we are all good friends, so I get the house and before we even move in I say, "hey, I need security staff." So my driver and translator say, "oh, have we got the guys for you."

Nancy Updike

"He just happens to he related to us."

Adam Davidson

Yeah. So my driver-- let's call him Faras-- so Faras, my driver, says, "listen, my wife's father, you know, he was in the army. This is a guy who's a trained security man. He is hardcore." I hire him sight unseen. I say, "sure. He sounds perfect." [? Abu Rasheed ?] is going to be my nighttime guard. [? Abu Rasheed ?] shows up. He's this short, very overweight, late 50s guy. Walks in, first question: "where do I sleep?"

Nancy Updike

That is not a promising start for the nighttime security guard.

Adam Davidson

And he didn't seem to know how to use a gun, and I didn't have the guts to fire him. So he stayed on throughout.

Then my translator proposed his uncle, first to be a driver for some of the people who lived in the house. But on the first day he went out with one of my friends, it turned out he spoke no English whatsoever and didn't know Baghdad at all because he was from Najaf. He actually was kind of a big, tough-looking guy, kind of growly. He seemed to know how to use a gun. But then I learned the reason he had moved to Baghdad from Najaf was his father was the leader of the Baath party in Najaf, and Najaf is the capital of the Shiite world. It is the most anti-Baathist part of Iraq. At the time, there were death squads going around killing former Baathists, and so--

Nancy Updike

He needed to get out of town.

Adam Davidson

He needed to get out of town, and he came to our house to be our guard. Because, when you're an American in Baghdad, it always helps to also have a former Baathist Shiite guy in your house who is on the run from death squads.

Nancy Updike

Guarding your house.

Adam Davidson

Guarding your house. So very quickly there was a lot of competition. The driver wanted more of his relatives and fewer of the translator's relatives, and vice versa.

Because we were the one place that was filled with a constantly shifting array of freelancers-- people who needed drivers and translators-- we ended up being a gathering point for all these different Iraqi drivers and translators for hire. And someone would come and work with a guest for a few weeks, and then they'd just sort of hang out and wait for the next guest. And it took me way too long to realize that these guys were form-- the different drivers and translators, I mean, there could be days where there was a dozen or more-- they were forming different alliances. They tended to mostly be Shiite because they all knew each other. There was a few Sunnis, but mostly Shiite. But they'd be from different neighborhoods, from different tribes. They'd have different backgrounds. So there would be factions fighting each other, and there was just a lot of manipulation, a lot of anger.

The hardest thing: I really wanted to fire a few people. I felt they weren't doing their job. And I never could. I got to know them all so well. I knew how desperate they were, how poor they were, how much they needed the money. The average government ministry employee was making $20 a month. And every problem that came up I dealt with by throwing money at it. So I didn't like the guards, but I didn't fire them or cut their pay. I hired additional guards. The guests weren't buying enough food, I would pay more money for more food.

I remember one day-- the house came with this kind of old, cranky generator that always had a lot of problems. That was another big money drain. We were constantly hiring people to come fix it. So it dies, 4:45 PM, before the big Eid, which is a week-long holiday. Nothing's open. No stores are open. Everything's closed. And we drive like crazy. There's one store open. They have one generator. And the guy, the salesmen or the owner immediately knows.

Nancy Updike

He knows exactly what's going on.

Adam Davidson

He knows I need this generator.

Nancy Updike

He's got you.

Adam Davidson

He charged me like $5,500, way more than I want to spend, but I just shelled the money out immediately. Then we had to hire a guy with a truck to carry the thing with one of these giant cranes, and then to take away the old generator, and to install the new generator. And then we had to hire a team of electricians to plug it in. I don't even remember, it was several hundred dollars.

We had two refrigerators when we started. They both broke. The microwave broke. So I had to buy new fridges. I had to buy new microwaves.

And my financial account-keeping was ridiculous. I had a drawer. When people paid me money for staying in the house, I'd throw it in the drawer. When there was an expense, I'd take it out of the drawer. But then I started putting my own money. Like, Marketplace would wire me my salary and I'd start putting that in the drawer. And I just was not in any serious way keeping track.

I remember there was a moment-- and this should have been a big warning sign; this should have been the sign I need to get out-- I remember spending an afternoon looking at bed and breakfast management software. There's actually an amazing number of software programs for people managing beds and breakfasts.

Nancy Updike

You're in the middle of a war zone looking at software to help you manage the house that you had originally decided to rent in order to make your life easier and cheaper.

Adam Davidson

Yes. And all the software was like $500. I decided not to do it, but I should have.

But the thing that just, when I think about it even now, two and a half years later, I just get tired, what I think of is closing the door to my bedroom, closing my eyes, and someone is knocking at the door.

Nancy Updike

Bringing you a problem.

Adam Davidson

Bringing me a problem.

Nancy Updike

Journalists or Iraqis?

Adam Davidson

Journalists and Iraqis both. They would come to my door, they'd knock on my door.

[KNOCKING SOUND]

"Adam, Abu Faisal has left his truck here for three days. He's only leaving his truck here so that no other driver will come, but I want my cousin, who's a driver, to come. You have to tell Abu Faisal to leave."

So I go to Abu Faisal. "Abut Faisal, why is your truck here?"

"Oh, my truck's here just for you, Adam. It's just so I can be here. I want to be ready to go at 3:00 in the morning. If there's a problem, I can come rescue you and take you away."

How do I resolve that? I don't know who to trust. I don't know what to deal with. But I'm the guy who's going to solve it.

[KNOCKING SOUND]

"Mr. Adam, you have given Abu Faisal the last four guests to drive, but my cousin, Abu Enmar, is a better driver than him, and he has a nicer car, and he knows Baghdad even more better than Abu Faisal. Why don't you let him drive?"

"Mr. Adam, Abu Faris is telling us that you said that he can take $10 from every driver because he's managing the drivers now. Is this true?"

"No."

"Well, then you must tell Abu Faris."

"Just don't"--

Nancy Updike

Don't give him--

Adam Davidson

"Just don't give him the money. Don't give him the money."

And then the journalists.

[KNOCKING SOUND]

Knock on the door. "Adam, hey, sorry to bother you, man. Hey, do you know who in the press center handles questions about embeds?"

"Yeah. Um, hang on. I'll get you his cell phone."

And then I close my eyes.

[KNOCKING SOUND]

"Adam, the internet's down again. Can you look at that?" Or, "Adam, the generator's not working and I don't know how to talk to the guard because he doesn't speak English. Can you tell him that we've got to get the generator working?"

[KNOCKING SOUND]

"Adam, man, we're running low on water."

"Yeah, can you get water, actually? Because I don't think you've gotten water."

"Yeah, but hey, man, I'm on deadline. I've got to"--

"All right, just tell your driver to get water."

"Well, my driver doesn't know where to get water, and he doesn't know what kind of water."

"All right, all right. I'll take care of it."

Nancy Updike

So here's the package of things that were happening in the house: steadily worsening security, proliferation of unexpected costs, lack of reliable accounting, and all of this stitched together with a kind of cheery American can-do spirit that completely underestimated the magnitude of what you'd taken on. Now, that all sounds very familiar.

Adam Davidson

Yeah. I mean, I do think that my experience is a reasonable metaphor for the overall American effort there. You know, I chose the wrong staff. I chose the wrong strategy to think about this as a business. I had the wrong stance in terms of security.

And the bombings increased. We'd hear more and more bombing. We'd hear more and more about bombings that killed people. There was a few very big car bombs. And as things got worse outside, things got more frenzied inside. And we-- I mean, I remember we shifted from beer to hard liquor. We started drinking more heavily. We started drinking to get drunk. I know that there were people in the house-- in Iraqi pharmacies, you can just walk in and buy liquid Valium-- I never did, but other people started swigging liquid Valium. There were people who were smoking a lot of hash, which I never did, but there were other people doing that.

I think that's a combination of things. I mean, I think part of it is the outside got worse. We were living in a much more dangerous environment. So obviously, it just causes tension. Optimism was plummeting. If the first six months or so after the fall of Baghdad it was reasonable to think, "you know, things aren't going that well, but someone's going to figure it out, it's going to get back on track," it no longer seemed reasonable. It seemed pretty clear that things were going to get worse and worse and worse. And obviously they have.

Nancy Updike

So this is actually the point in your stay in Baghdad when I went to Baghdad to report there for about a month. And you were excited about your house. You showed me all around the house. And I saw you, over the course of this month, get scared. And it seemed like a few things happened in rapid succession that really spooked you.

Adam Davidson

There were some specific things that happened to me, personally. One thing is I had a leading tribal sheik whose tribe is in Anbar province, whose tribe is one of the tribes fighting the Americans. And I thought of him as a good friend, and he was my escape valve. I'd already worked it out: if things get really bad, he was going to smuggle me out of the country and take care of me. And two people came up to me, two separate people came up to me and said, "you know, that sheik who you're friends with, he's telling people you're a CIA agent.

Nancy Updike

Oh my god.

Adam Davidson

Which for many parts of Iraq, that's a death sentence. You don't want anyone to think you're a CIA agent. I now think that he was actually showing off, but it's a weird way to show off since it put my life at risk. So that was very scary.

Then this driver, the driver who wanted to be the head driver of our house, he had left his big SUV in our driveway. And because the other drivers got mad, I forced him to take the SUV out. And the driver community, the foreign press driver community in Iraq was small enough, the way I put it together now, he felt kind of humiliated that he got kicked out of my house. And so he didn't want to tell other people that he left because I told him to. He told people, "oh, I left because Adam's house is under surveillance and the insurgents are going to attack it." I don't think that was true, but I was getting-- people were telling me that. And it's pretty terrifying when people start telling you your house could be attacked.

And in a weird way, the scariest thing was this: I was at the Hamrah Hotel having drinks with some friends and I had to go home, and I got a cab. And I got in the cab. And I speak Arabic pretty well. I was telling him where my house was. And it was a cab driver, I've never seen this guy before in my life. And I'm telling him where my house is, and he says, "oh, you mean Mr. Adam's house." And I just found that absolutely chilling. This man I've never seen before, doesn't know I'm Mr. Adam, knows where Mr. Adam's house is.

Nancy Updike

Because up to this point, you'd thought-- your security plan was to sort of fly under the radar.

Adam Davidson

Right. The whole point of the house was, if there's some insurgent who wants to kidnap or kill an American journalist, he's going to go to the hotel. I'm going to be off in a neighborhood somewhere. He doesn't even know where I am. So to find out--

Nancy Updike

That a random cab driver--

Adam Davidson

That a random cab driver knows where my house is, knows that there's a Western journalist named Mr. Adam living in this house, that means a lot of people know that. And that means that if there's an insurgent out there who wants to kidnap or kill an American, why go to a hotel which has all this security when you can just go to this house? And that was really terrifying to me.

And then a bunch of other things happened. This was about the year anniversary of the war. I think people were very fed up. It's right around the time where it just felt like the whole country was sort of realizing, oh, man, there's just no hope.

Nancy Updike

And then the Mount Lebanon Hotel--

Adam Davidson

The Mount Lebanon Hotel bombing, which I think was the first day you were there.

Nancy Updike

And I remember you were talking to Iraqi kids-- there were some young boys who were playing around there-- and they were saying, "oh, the Americans did this. The Americans."

Adam Davidson

Yeah, everybody. It was this weird thing where--

Nancy Updike

I mean, "the Americans had bombed the hotel." This is what they were saying.

Adam Davidson

That the Americans had bombed the hotel. I remember there was this huge crater. There were car parts everywhere in this crater. It was so obviously a car bomb.

Nancy Updike

But everyone was saying it was an American RPG.

Adam Davidson

And everyone was saying it was an American missile. And I remember one guy saying, "if this had been a car bomb, you'd see car parts. Why are there no car parts?" I'm like, "but there's nothing but car parts." He's like, "oh, no. That's from a different car."

Nancy Updike

And there was sort of an angry crowd.

Adam Davidson

It was the first crowd of Iraqis angry at us. Not angry--

Nancy Updike

About the bombing.

Adam Davidson

About the bombing and telling us about it, but angry at us. That felt scary.

And then, one of my friends, who's like a much more seasoned war correspondent, sat me down and said, "because you've had all these American officials at your house, this house is a legitimate military target."

Nancy Updike

Because you were bringing people from the Coalition Provisional Authority. You were bringing soldiers.

Adam Davidson

We were bringing the occupational forces to our house. And we were one of the few unprotected places in Baghdad where people had seen American-- could have seen. I don't know if anyone did see, but could have seen American officials.

Nancy Updike

And when this guy who said this to you, did you think, "you know, I was thinking of myself as separate from the occupation and other people. Iraqis are sort of mistaking me as being part of it?" And did you realize, "oh, wait, I'm part of this in some way that I hadn't understood up until now or I hadn't wanted to see or accept?"

Adam Davidson

I certainly started to get that that's how Iraqis perceived. I think for all my difference-- learning Iraqi Arabic, living in the city, becoming friends with Iraqis, traveling the city-- you know, I misread the place pretty badly. I ended up making some really bad calls.

And it's also funny. Like, we don't get Shiites and Sunnis and Kurds. We don't get the difference between a kind of poorly educated Shiite who lives in Sadr City as different from a middle class Shiite who lives in [? Qadisiya. ?] These are all things completely lost to the Americans. But to the Iraqis, they don't get us. You know, they don't get that some Americans are Republican loyalists, and others are anti-war activists, and others are journalists who really want to just know the truth. Just like we don't understand them, they don't understand us.

Ira Glass

Adam Davidson with Nancy Updike. Since returning to America, Adam joined the staff of NPR's daily news programs. He now covers the global economy for them. He wrote about his house in Baghdad in Harper's Magazine.

Coming up, when the plan you invented for yourself at 11 years old ends up dominating the rest of your life. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Two. Tragedy Minus Time Equals Happily Ever After.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's show, My Brilliant Plan, stories of plans that arrive in a flash of inspiration, and then what happens to them.

We've arrived at Act Two, Tragedy Minus Time Equals Happily Ever After. OK, so there's this guy and he has a very simple problem: he wants to see his dead father again. And he comes up with what is possibly the world's most complicated solution to this problem. It's so complicated that to fully understand his solution, you would need to master the following disciplines.

Ron Mallett

Ordinary calculus, or multi-variable calculus, differential equations, partial differential equations, vector analysis, vector calculus, matrix analysis, tensor calculus, group theory, and, oh, Green's functions.

Ira Glass

Right, and that's just the math. You also need to know physics, theoretical mechanics, electrodynamics, quantum mechanics and general relativity. If you know all of these things, you'd be able to get what he's done, which is to take the first baby step in maybe getting to see his father again. OK, here it is, his invention.

Ron Mallett

Omega is equal to g times row divided by a times cq. This is the key equation.

Ira Glass

Josh Gleason explains this very complicated and brilliant plan, and what all this means.

Josh Gleason

Actually, even before you understand the math and the physics and the seemingly impossible goal that Ron Mallett has spent more than 50 years trying to achieve, you need to understand something much simpler, which is how much Ron loved his dad, Boyd Mallett. Lots of 10-year-old boys feel like there's nothing their Dad can't do, but in Ron's case, there was hard evidence. He wired their train set to obey voice commands. At parties in their Bronx apartment, he'd rig the toilet so that when someone opened the lid, music would play. He had helped wire the new United Nations building in Manhattan, but his main job was fixing TVs and radios.

Ron adored his father so much that he says his day only really began in the evenings when his dad came home from work. He'd meet him at the subway and carry his toolbox home.

Ron Mallett

As the oldest son, I felt like the heir apparent, and he treated me that way. In fact, as I got older, he would actually take me and show me the parts of the television set. I can remember him telling me about the yolk that was supporting the television tube and everything. So he was actually grooming me to be part of his world. So that there was just, for me, this aura around him. It's like a prince around the king.

Josh Gleason

On the night of his parents' 11th wedding anniversary, after a party at their house, Ron woke up to the sound of his mother crying. He wandered into his parents' bedroom and saw his father lying dead on the bed. He'd had a massive heart attack. For Ron, this was almost impossible to comprehend. He was 10 years old. It was like Superman had just died.

Ron Mallett

I don't know. It's so hard to describe the feeling of anguish and total loss that I felt, even then. It was just like he was the most important thing in my life. He was the center of my universe. So, if he had said, you know, "will you come with me," and I knew that that would be the end of everything for me, I would have gone gladly without even a second's hesitation.

Josh Gleason

Ron became a different kid after that. He stopped being interested in friends or school. He stopped caring about pretty much everything. The only thing he wanted to do was read. His dad had introduced him to this series of comics called Classics Illustrated based on classic books. And it was one of these comics that led to his big plan, the plan that would become the focus of his life for the next 50 years.

The comic was The Time Machine, based on the book by H.G. Wells, and Ron remembers the moment he first saw it on the rack at the drugstore. On the cover was a picture of this guy working on a futuristic machine that had wires and tubes coming out of it. And there were a bunch of tools laying around, the same tools that Ron's dad had used. In fact, the picture looked incredibly similar to one Ron had of his father working behind a giant TV set.

Ron Mallett

And I still remember reading those words that were in there on the first page of it, saying that time is a kind of space and we can go forward and backward in time just as we can in space. And that hit me. I mean, that hit me so hard. I knew immediately what that would have to mean, that if you had a machine that could travel forward in time and backward in time, then, with that machine, I could go back in time, when my father was still alive. I have to say, that was the defining moment, besides my father's death, of my life, was seeing that comic. And I remember getting it and reading it cover to cover again and again and again. And I felt, this is it. This is it. This is the key. This is the thing that I have to do. I have to find a way of building a time machine. And that became my goal. It became my total obsession.

Movie Character 1

Fascinating. What is it?

Movie Character 2

This is only a small experimental model, of course.

Josh Gleason

Ron saw the movie version of the book five times.

Movie Character 2

To carry a man, a larger edition is needed.

Movie Character 1

To carry a man? Where?

Movie Character 2

Into the past or into the future.

Josh Gleason

He always sat fifth row center, always alone. He recognized from the moment he got his idea that it had to be a secret. Like I said, he'd read a lot of these Classics Illustrateds, including some based on Shakespeare.

Ron Mallett

I knew Hamlet. I actually knew what it meant when people thought that people were crazy. And I knew that that was not a thing that you wanted to have people know about you, and I thought people would think that this was crazy.

Movie Character 2

First, let me tell you how it works. Here, in this compartment, you see the saddle where the time traveler sits. Forward pressure sends the machine into the future, backward pressure into the past.

Josh Gleason

So Ron started building his time machine on the sly, down in the basement. Not even his brothers knew what he was doing. He figured if he could build a machine that looked exactly like the picture on the cover of the book, it would work. He would go back in time and warn his father that he was going to die if he didn't take care of his heart problem.

He went to the junkyard and started collecting things: tire rims, a bicycles seat, anything that looked like the stuff on the comic book cover. He raided his dad's old equipment, picking out wires, vacuum tubes, an old radio chassis. For weeks he'd rushed home from school so he could work on the time machine. Finally, he was done.

Ron Mallett

I thought that this was going to work, because you know, if I plugged it in, just like my father when he would work on the sets-- when he plugged it in, it worked-- this was going to work. And there was a cord and I plugged it in, and it was nothing. I was disappointed. But the thing is, is that that's when I began to think, you know, I've got to read the story again. That's when I decided to go to the real book. Because I figured, well, maybe there's not enough details in the Classic Illustrated, so if I go to the original book, it'll have more detailed instructions.

Josh Gleason

This is the part of the story where kids like you and me and kids like Ron part ways, because most kids would give up at this point, but Ron didn't do that. Instead, he became even more determined to figure out a way to build a time machine. He struggled through the adult version of Wells's book, and this was a kid who had pretty much given up on school. He began spending his lunch money on science paperbacks at the local Salvation Army. This left him eating so little and getting so scrawny that he eventually became anemic, and his mom had to start packing him lunches.

Here's the other unusual thing about Ron. He's the rare person whose life was shaped almost entirely by books, one after the other. In fact, nearly every big change in his life, every major decision, can be traced directly to something he read. When he was 12, for instance, he found a copy of The Universe and Dr. Einstein. He had heard the name Einstein before, and the book had a picture of an hourglass on the cover, which he knew was a symbol for time.

Ron Mallett

For me, the notion of time was abstract. But then, in this book, it actually represented-- this is going to sound like a very simple thing-- but it represented time by a symbol: t. That was the next important thing in my life, because here was an articulation. It made time no longer an abstract concept. It made time an object. And what it said in the book was that-- which, I didn't understand the equation, now don't get me wrong. I didn't understand the equation, but I understood that Einstein said that time could be changed by motion. So you asked, why didn't I think it was crazy. It was because everyone said this great genius Einstein, you know, he knows everything, if he says time can be changed, then time can be changed and a time machine is possible.

Josh Gleason

The equation he's talking about here is called the Lorentz transformation, and Ron treated it like some holy mantra. He wrote it all over his school notebooks. Needless to say, he wasn't very popular. In fact, he had no friends at all. He was a nerd who couldn't even hang out with other nerds.

Ron Mallett

In the school, there would have been other nerds, but I was an African American kid. I was not in the upper-- I wasn't in that income group where I would have been able to run with the white nerds of the-- you know what I'm saying? You see what I'm saying? You have to remember, we're talking about the '50s here. And the white community had the key club and the science club, and I was not a part of any of these groups.

Josh Gleason

Ron forced himself to study math and electronics, all in the service of the time machine. When he finished high school, he immediately enlisted in the Air Force so he could go to college on the G.I. Bill. He trained as an electrical engineer and read whatever he could get his hands on, anything that seemed like it might help him figure out how time worked, even books he really had no hope of understanding, as if he could absorb them by sheer force of will. Eventually, he learned enough to realize that he was on the wrong track. It wasn't electronics he needed to know. It was something called quantum mechanics. He needed to become a physicist.

He got his PhD and became a tenured professor at the University of Connecticut. And somewhere along the way, he figured out how to talk to women and got married. But all this time, he never forgot about the time machine. You'd think that the more he learned, the more ridiculous his idea might seem to him, but the opposite happened. Every shred of information he collected seemed to confirm that time travel may be possible.

While he felt comfortable telling his wife about his dream, he never told anyone at the university. Already he was worried about being taken seriously in the physics world as an African American. But to be a black physicist obsessed with time travel, that seemed like a double whammy he could never get away with. Since he couldn't do out-and-out research on time travel, he became an expert in the next best thing: black holes, which had been shown to twist time. But after a couple decades studying cosmic solutions-- worm holes, cosmic strings-- his plan was stalled, and Ron was getting discouraged.

Ron Mallett

It's great if you have a way of harnessing a worm hole or a black hole or cosmic strings, but these are things out there. I wanted something that would be in a laboratory, something that would be a device, something that was close to the time traveler in The Time Machine. So that was the problem, and I didn't feel like I was getting closer to that. And it was driving me to distraction.

You might say it was sort of a desert period. If you looked at what was happening in my professional life, I mean, I was publishing, I got my professorship. But if you looked at what was happening to me inside of my personal life, I was beginning to emotionally shut down. I began thinking I had been wasting all of my life, that this goal of the time machine was not something that was achievable.

Josh Gleason

Even his wife, Dorothy, who had been supportive of his obsession all these years, couldn't console him.

Ron Mallett

I would come home and she would ask me how things were going, and I would just simply say, OK. And then I would go up to my room to go to bed and lay there all the rest of the night, and not talk to her.

Josh Gleason

And think about what?

Ron Mallett

And actually just think about how wasted my life felt, how what I was doing just wasn't meaningful, and just that I just failed myself. And I just-- you know, I was listening to old Simon & Garfunkel songs.

Josh Gleason

Like what songs?

Ron Mallett

Oh, you know, "Hello Darkness, my old friend. I've come to talk to you again." You know, things like that.

[MUSIC - "THE SOUNDS OF SILENCE" BY SIMON & GARFUNKEL]

Ron Mallett

You have to remember, here I am, from 11 all the way up through the service, all the way up-- I mean, my identity is wrapped up in this thing, this time machine. I mean, that's my identity now. To lose that dream was now like losing my identity. Because my identity-- if I don't have this goal of the time machine, then what do I have? And that was it. It was like, nothing.

Josh Gleason

He hadn't built a time machine, but all the years of trying to build it had basically accomplished the same thing: it let him live in the past. He imagined the scene over and over, what it would be like to see his father again. He'd knock at the apartment door, 11B, and see this young guy, now both shorter and younger than himself, and calmly tell him that although he knew it sounded crazy, time travel was possible. He'd mention Einstein and use TV as an analogy, how sending pictures through space wasn't all that different from sending people through time. And then he'd show him family photos. He'd say, "this is your family in the future."

Ron Mallett

"One of the things I'm trying to tell you is that you are not in these pictures, later pictures. And the reason why you're not is the reason why I'm here." And I would say, "you know, I know that you're going to have a hard time understanding or believing this, but I am your son. I am your son. And I come from another time. And I'm here to tell you that you are going to die, and you're going to die in the near future. And that's why you're not in these pictures. These are pictures of your family without you. And the reason that you're not is because of the fact that you smoke two packs of cigarettes a day, you don't take care of yourself, you've got a very weak heart. If you change, you will live. And that's what I've come here to tell you."

And the thing is, is that I would hope that I would convince him of that, but I also know that there's a chance that he might not believe me. I also know that one of the other things I would tell him, which I know that I never had a chance to tell him when I was a child, is that I loved him. And of course, just the physical thing of seeing him real and alive and hearing that voice again that I only heard, can really remember from audio tapes, just to hear that again.

[TYPING SOUNDS]

So what you're going to see here are four intersecting laser beams that will be making up a ring laser, but you'll be seeing-- how many layers were you able to get?

Assistant Scientist

One, two, three, four.

Ron Mallett

You were able to get four layers?

Assistant Scientist

Yeah.

Ron Mallett

Oh, fantastic.

Josh Gleason

When he was 57, Ron finally made his time machine, or at least a model, anyway. He showed it to me in his lab in the woods, and the fact that it exists at all is sort of surprising. Through most of his 40s, he got more and more despondent. His marriage had broken up and he'd basically given up on the time machine. To give himself something new to focus on, he married again and concentrated on his new family. But then heart problems forced him to take a medical leave from the university. He realized he couldn't stand the thought of dying without giving the time machine one last shot. He threw himself again into research.

Ron Mallett

if you look up through here, you actually can see down through the center of the square. That's where the neutron would be coming up through.

Josh Gleason

Ron worked for weeks and weeks solving hundreds of equations by hand, using number two pencils on legal pads, sometimes for 15 hours a day, and ended up with a four-page paper which presented that equation you heard at the beginning of the story. Omega is equal to g times row divided by a times c cubed, which basically says that light, not just matter, can affect gravity, which could lead to a twisting of time. This model is the practical result of his math. It's about the size of a blender, a cylinder with four layers of red light beams shining through it. The idea is that the small, high intensity rings of light can actually alter gravity within the machine, sort of like a spoon stirring coffee in a cup. And as Einstein said, when you alter gravity, you affect time.

To test the machine, you drop in a neutron, like dropping a sugar cube into that same cup of swirling coffee, and see what happens. This is only a small experimental model, of course. To carry a man, a larger edition is needed.

Ron published his findings. And even though the idea was only a theoretical basis for a time machine, nowhere near the actual thing, it turned out that people were really, really interested in time machines. The magazine New Scientist ran a cover article on him. After more than 40 years of working in secret, Ron was finally out of the closet as a guy who was seriously studying time travel.

Ron Mallett

When that came out, I remember turning on my email-- I was used to getting a couple of emails every day-- I remember turning it on one day and it was lit up. I mean, it was like hundreds of emails from all over the world. And I started getting interviews from everywhere asking about this new work that I was doing. Even though other people were accepting of it-- and I have to say, it's even now I feel like, you know, they really aren't carting me away. [LAUGHING]

Josh Gleason

Finally, he presented his work before other physicists at the Third International Association for Relativistic Dynamics Conference in Washington, DC. In the audience was Bryce DeWitt, a contemporary of Einstein's and a physics giant, who had helped pioneer a new approach to quantum mechanics. After his presentation, Ron told the physicist about his father and why he was so interested in time travel.

Ron Mallett

What I didn't expect-- DeWitt asked a technical question with some of the other people, but then when the question and answer period was over, he actually said, to the whole audience, he said, well, "I don't know whether you'll ever see your father again, but he would have been proud of you." And I have to tell you,--

Josh Gleason

Is that not something you had thought of before?

Ron Mallett

I wouldn't have thought of it just in that way. But you know, I would have. But it's one thing when you think about, well, you know, I'm proud of what I've done, or my father might be proud of-- it's a whole different thing when it's someone totally independent of you. DeWitt's statement was a validation to me of my life, because here was this great man saying, "your father would be proud of you." I mean, it was like, to me, it couldn't get better than that.

Josh Gleason

But something else happened at the conference, too. DeWitt had said this other thing, that he didn't know if Ron would ever see his father again. And Ron started to puzzle over that, over why DeWitt would say that. And then he sort of sheepishly realized something he'd never taken a moment to think through, which is that his time machine would never work, at least not the way he wanted it to. Maybe he'd be able to stir up time inside the machine, but if Ron followed his own equations to their logical conclusion, the furthest he'd ever be able to go back is the moment the machine was first switched on. So he wouldn't be able to return to the 1950s to save his father.

Weirdly, Ron says he wasn't devastated when he realized that. For most of his life, he'd held on to this plan he invented as an 11-year-old. He turned himself into a scientist, sacrificed his marriage, and worked in secret for decades. And finally, in his 50s, without him ever really noticing, the plan he made as a boy got replaced with a more adult plan, one based on an adult's understanding of what was actually possible. So by the time he found out he'd never see his father again, he didn't need to.

Ira Glass

Josh Gleason in Portland, Maine. Ron Mallett has a memoir about his dad and his research called Time Traveler.

Credits.

Ron Mallett

I wasn't in that income group where I would have been able to run with the white nerds.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.