Transcript

354:

Mistakes Were Made
Transcript

Originally aired 04.18.2008

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

We first broadcast today's radio program a year ago. And just that week, a politician did something that you almost never see a politician do. He apologized for something, and it seemed completely sincere. This was Republican Congressman Geoff Davis from Kentucky. And he'd written a letter to then presidential candidate Barack Obama, it said-- I have this here.

"Dear Senator Obama, On Saturday night I gave a speech in which I used a poor choice of words when discussing the national security policy positions of the presidential candidates. I was quoted as saying, 'That boy's finger does not need to be on the button.' My poor choice of words is regrettable and was in no way meant to impugn you or your integrity. I offer my sincere apology to you, and I ask for your forgiveness. Though we may disagree on many issues, I know that we share a goal of a prosperous, secure future for our nation. My comment has detracted from the dialogue that we should all be having on legitimate policy differences and in no way reflects the personal and professional respect I have for you. Sincerely, Geoff Davis."

OK, right? Nice job. Nice job. The same week that he issued that apology, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were actually getting a lot of criticism in the press, and from the public, for making what seemed like the typical kinds of non-apology apologies that politicians always make. In this case, it was Obama for comments that he had made about small town America. You may remember. And Hillary Clinton for saying that she flew into Bosnia under sniper fire. But that didn't really happen.

With Clinton, especially, her apology seemed to be very pro forma. She regretted the error. She did not seem very sorry. She didn't actually seem to understand why her memory lapse would be troubling to voters. It didn't seem like she felt like she'd actually messed up. Mistakes were made. You know?

Anyway, that same week that all this happened, I was interviewing this guy for the radio show about something else. And somehow, we got on the subject of this apology business. And he has two daughters, and they were both around 13 years old. And he says that whenever one of his daughters does something to the other, and he tells them to apologize-- you know, as the parent-- usually, the apology is fake. Usually, it's pro forma.

It's basically the kid version of a politician's non-apology apology. And what do you do with that?

Derek Jones

Because how do you make somebody actually feel sorry for something they don't feel sorry for? There they are, and you're like, "Say you're sorry, say it like you mean it." And they don't mean it. And they're not going to. They don't yet have the empathy. Trying to explain to one of them, look, the way your sister feels is, they go through life, they share with you, and then when you aren't generous with them that makes them feel-- you're trying to explain it like this. And you can see the look in their eye, like this cold, steely look.

Like, I hear what you're saying, I hear your little fable. I'm just not buying it. And I don't know. They'll do lip service to it. They'll kind of sigh and shrug and, in a sense, allow that, perhaps, that's the case. And then they take another shot at the apology.

Ira Glass

But as a parent, don't you feel like, well, OK, if all I'm going to get is lip service, at least I'm going to get the lip service. At least they recognize--

Derek Jones

Yes, sir.

Ira Glass

-- a moral code.

Derek Jones

Even if your heart's not in this, I want to watch you go through the motions. This is what people do when they really are sorry.

Ira Glass

See, but that makes me feel more sympathetic to politicians or to this act which actually, usually fills me with contempt. I feel like, well, at least the politician is pretending and acknowledging, yes, there is a moral code. They don't feel sorry, but they'll acknowledge that someone should feel sorry. And I feel like, well, if that's what we're going to get out of our politicians, well, OK. I guess it's not what I want, but I can kind of live with that.

Derek Jones

Well, I don't know if you are familiar with all the details of that Bible story about David and Bathsheba. It's almost this funny modern politics story, right?

Ira Glass

No, I don't know this one.

Derek Jones

Oh, OK. Well, so here's King David, powerful king of Israel. And he basically commits adultery in office. He sees a woman that he can have because of his power, who's not his wife, and arranges her to come to the palace and has his way with her. And then, the story's going to break. Her husband's going to find out. And he, in a very modern way, tries to quell the story, quash it, before it gets out.

He has her husband sent to the front lines of battle, where he gets killed. He does everything he can to hope that he can just actually hide it. He does not feel sorry about it. And he really digs himself in deep. And time goes on. And a prophet becomes aware of this, divinely, and comes to confront David on it. And what does he do? He tells him a story. He gets him engaged in this little fable about somebody who has a pet lamb, a poor man with a pet lamb that he loves like a pet. And that a rich man goes and gets that lamb and prepares it for a meal.

Because of his power, he's able to-- the poor man's like a serf who lives on his land, so the rich man is just like, hey, I'm--

Ira Glass

I'm taking that.

Derek Jones

Yeah. Because everything you have is mine. So it's this really awful thing of something that someone else valued very highly, was valued very low by the rich man just because of his power. But Nathan's not telling him this story like it's a fable. He's telling him like, this is happening in your kingdom. What are you going to do about it?

David gets all enraged on behalf of the victim and says, bring him here. We're going to do justice on him. We're going to see this done right. We're going to bring that rich man here, and we're going to punish him to the full extent of the law. And so David is demanding justice for the perpetrator. And the prophet looks at him and says, you are the man. And that does it.

Then David really gets it, and he comes apart. And he has a very genuine apology and repentance. But he does really end up paying for it. And he's a much better king afterward. And so if you could sit down Clinton or Obama-- and I don't know, you'd have to do something like that maybe.

Ira Glass

What's sad is that they both know this story. They're always talking about how they're always going to church.

Derek Jones

Yeah. That's a good point.

Ira Glass

They've already heard this story.

Derek Jones

Yeah. You wonder if one of their pastors will sit them down, tell them that story and then say, you are the man.

Ira Glass

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. Today on our show, "Mistakes were made." Stories of people apologizing in that way that amounts to not apologizing at all, not accepting responsibility for everything they've done.

Our show in two acts. Act One, You're Cold as Ice. Act Two, You're Willing to Sacrifice Our Love. Stay with us.

Act One. You’re As Cold As Ice.

Ira Glass

Act One, You're Cold as Ice. Many scientific advances begin with amateur enthusiasts. Or is that enthusi-ests? What I'm talking about are people who form little groups to explore new scientific ideas like robots or computers. This story is about a group like that and the guy who led them. Sam Shaw tells the story.

Sam Shaw

It was the 1960s, the decade of the first heart transplant and the first working laser. New antibiotics gave the Surgeon General such a jolt of confidence he announced to Congress that the time had come, and I quote, "To close the book on infectious diseases." It was against this backdrop of high-flying optimism, that a Michigan college professor named Robert Ettinger wrote a book posing a simple question, what if death itself was just another disease, generally fatal, but not necessarily incurable?

His theory went like this. If you could freeze somebody at the exact moment of clinical death, maybe, just maybe, in 50 years or 100 years or 1,000, the doctors of the future could bring him back to life. This was cryonics or cryonic suspension. And groups of enthusiasts began to spring up here and there, which is how Bob Nelson got involved.

Bob Nelson

I was on the freeway in a traffic jam, very common here in California, and it came on the radio that there was going to be the first meeting of the Suspended Animation Group at Helen Kline's house. I remember going there thinking that I'm probably not going to be allowed in, because I'm not a scientist. But at least I'll get to see some of the scientists. And I went in, I was allowed in, and I came out voted president.

Sam Shaw

Bob had no medical or scientific training whatsoever. Hadn't even finished high school. He was a 30-year-old TV repairman with a wife and three kids. But he was charming. The kind of charm where you like him, because he lets you know in 100 ways that he likes you. After a few hours with him, he's hugging you good-bye. And Bob sincerely believed that cryonics was going to save millions of lives. And that belief was infectious.

He did some press, local TV and radio. Turned out he was a really good salesman.

Bob Nelson

And it did. It took off like a cyclone. It was stunning. I remember once going into a restaurant. And I was at the urinal, and I overheard two guys talking, saying, "You know who that is? That's the guy that freezes people." And the other guy said, "Why does he do that?"

And I thought it was just bizarre to be in that situation where you are famous for something that you don't know quite how it happened.

Sam Shaw

The members of Bob's group weren't experts. They were just fans of an idea. As you'd expect, many were older people, some of them sick and thinking about their own deaths. They set up a nonprofit, the Cryonics Society of California, and before long, they'd drafted a lineup of scientific advisers. At this point, nobody had actually been frozen yet. And the scientists set one condition for their participation. That nobody try. Not yet.

They wanted to take things slow, conduct research, publish papers. And that was fine with Bob. Until he got a call from the son of a psychology professor who was dying of cancer, a man who couldn't wait for the research to pan out. His name was James Bedford. Dr. Bedford wanted to be frozen, and he wondered if the Cryonics Society could help him. So Bob says he got on the phone with the godfather of the movement.

Bob Nelson

Well, I called Robert Ettinger that night, and I told him what had happened. And he said, "Oh my god, this is the biggest thing that's happened in the cryonics program." And so Ettinger said, "We need to go ahead and do it." And I said, "But, we'll lose the scientific advisory council." He said, "Maybe not all of them. And if we do, we'll get them again." He said, there's nothing that will push the program of cryonics forward than the freezing of the first man.

Sam Shaw

Were you right? Did you lose them?

Bob Nelson

Absolutely. Lost every one of them the next day.

Sam Shaw

So Bob assembled a team of doctors to carry out the freezing. Though when Dr. Bedford died on January 12, 1967, they were all caught off guard. Dr. Bedford's nurse had to run up and down the block collecting ice from the home freezers of neighbors. Cryonics was still just a theory, and the proceedings had the slightly manic quality of a local theater production, forced to open a couple of weeks early.

A half a year later, when a member of their own group turned up at the morgue, wearing a medical bracelet saying she was supposed to be frozen, Bob wasn't much better prepared. Her name was Marie Sweet. And among the things she left when she died, there was a photograph someone had taken of her 27 years earlier, along with a handwritten message. It said, "This is as I wish to be restored."

Bob called a couple student embalmers with access to equipment at the mortuary college. And they performed the freezing the only place they could, in the Cryonics Society office, on two desks pushed together and covered with a sheet.

Bob Nelson

I was a nervous wreck because I'm thinking, I don't know how many violations I'm committing here. For example, a dead body legally can only be moved by a mortician. And then I had no idea if I was committing any violations by having the body up in our offices and putting her in ice there and then carrying her down the stairs. It was all just really peculiar.

Sam Shaw

One challenge with cryonics is that the freezing process itself can do a lot of damage to the body. Living cells are full of water. And when water freezes, it expands like a house in winter where the pipes burst. To minimize the damage, Bob and his team replaced the blood with special chemicals, a process called perfusion. Meanwhile, they packed ice around the head and body, a lot of ice.

The goal was to get Marie into a giant stainless steel container, cooled by liquid nitrogen. A cryonics buff in Arizona had started building capsules for exactly this purpose. That's where Dr. Bedford ended up, sent there by his son after the first freezing.

But it wasn't clear where to send Marie. The Cryonics Society had no place to keep a frozen body. For all they knew, centuries might pass before she could be thawed out and brought back to life, which is to say, they needed someplace really permanent. That was going to cost a lot of money.

Marie Sweet's husband managed to scrape together a few hundred dollars, that's it. And the society was broke. What the society did have was a lot of enthusiastic members, all of them hoping to be suspended. Bob figured he'd let them decide whether to keep Marie frozen. It wasn't a very tough room.

Bob Nelson

They all said, yeah, yeah, go ahead, Bob. Go ahead. Oh, OK. I should have said, well, is anybody going to help here? Or is it just me? But it turned out, it just me. And then it got to the point where I began to realize that this was me. I had the power, the decision, to say, OK, we're going to give up on Marie, which we should have done in hindsight.

But I kept thinking that it's going to work. So it just seemed that it was worth going just a little bit further. I never intended with Marie Sweet to forever keep her in preservation at my own expense. No. I just felt for a while to see what happened next.

Sam Shaw

This very reasonable position led Bob into a lot of very unreasonable decisions over the next few years. Decisions he's still explaining, decades later. And what happened next is that another member of the society died.

Bob Nelson

Now Helen Kline-- let me preface by saying-- was, for me, very special. This was the lady that introduced me to the concept of cryonics. She was the one that had that first meeting. She just, somehow, put a spell on me. I just loved her.

Sam Shaw

The society already had one body on its hands and no real plan of action. Like Marie Sweet, Helen Kline had died more or less penniless, leaving no funds to pay for a proper cryonic suspension. But the truth is, Bob liked these people, and he didn't want to let them down. And who knew? Maybe cryonics would be huge, and there'd be money in it some day.

Once again, Bob put the question to the group. And once again, they all agreed. Their friend deserved a shot at a second life. So Helen Kline followed Marie Sweet to a mortuary in the city of Buena Park, where Bob had jerry-rigged a temporary storage container, basically a wooden box lined with polyurethane.

Bob Nelson

Actually, what the wooden box is when they ship a casket, it's the outer box, the wooden box that they ship them in. And we would put styrofoam on the sides and on the top. And they make excellent refrigeration units.

Sam Shaw

In other words, a giant cooler filled with a lot of dry ice. The problem was dry ice is expensive. So he made what seemed like a simple decision at the time.

Bob Nelson

We had a container with a lady in dry ice already. Didn't cost anymore to put this little lady in there. Once we put Helen Kline in-- she was a tiny little thing, and so was Marie.

Sam Shaw

Maintaining the cooler was a big job, but Bob didn't really see an alternative. Every week or so, he put hundreds of pounds of dry ice in the back seat of his little vintage Porsche and drove two hours from Woodland Hills to the mortuary in Buena Park, where the bodies were stored. Not in some state of the art permanent facility, remember. Here's Joe Klockgether, the mortician at the facility.

Joe Klockgether

It was in the garage that I had them. So I have to say the storage facility because when you say storage facility, you think of something much neater. But it was the garage. But it didn't make any difference, really, except that, oh, you kept them in a garage. That doesn't sound good.

But, yeah, I was anxious to get them out of here. Bob, come on, let's-- I got to use my garage. I got things I want to do. I don't want to keep doing this here. And I don't want to play around with the health department.

See, there's a term, temporary storage. They don't really clarify what temporary means. But you or I know, temporary doesn't mean forever. Temporary, you know. Something should be down the road. You should have some kind of a date.

Sam Shaw

It was at this point, with Bob dodging Joe Klockgether, and Joe Klockgether dodging the health department, that a third member of the society died unexpectedly. Russ Stanley, a man in a position to solve all of Bob's problems.

Bob Nelson

Russ Stanley used to call me at home every night and drive me nuts on the telephone for an hour, sometimes two hours. I couldn't get rid of him. Telling me about every little thing that happened everywhere in the country about cryonics. To him, there was nothing else in life but cryonics. And assuring me always that when he died, the society would be in good, good shape.

Russ used to always say, "I'm loaded. I own my own house." So I expected him to leave a couple hundred thousand dollars or something.

Sam Shaw

But had he left that much money?

Bob Nelson

He left his money to his next door neighbor, who was his ex-lover, a Mr. Coco. Mr. Coco hated cryonics. So he called me about three or four days after we had Russ in dry-- we put him in the container too. So now we got three people in this dry ice container. It was big. I couldn't put any more in there. But I figured, well, this was going to save the day.

But Mr. Coco said, "Russ Stanley directed me to give the Cryonics Society $5,000 now, and $5,000 in three months."

Sam Shaw

It was enough money, at least, to solve Bob's most pressing problem. To get a legal place to store the frozen bodies he was keeping in the garage. So he bought a plot of land and built a vault in a cemetery in Chatsworth, 30 miles north of LA. A 15 by 20 room, dug like a bunker into a gently sloping hillside. Now only needed were stainless steel capsules to hold the bodies into perpetuity.

Bob Nelson

But as luck would have it, we got a call from Mrs. Bowers.

Sam Shaw

Mrs. Marie Bowers was a housewife from Detroit. A few years back, her father had died. And she'd arranged to have him frozen by Ed Hope, the same guy who was storing Dr. Bedford in Phoenix, Arizona. Her father had spent a year and a half there in a one-man capsule the size of a standard water heater. Now, as it turned now, Marie was in a fix of her own.

Bob Nelson

She couldn't pay the storage that Ed Hope was charging. She couldn't pay the liquid nitrogen. And she says, I owe him $1,500. And her exact words, she says, "He threatened to kick the effin' capsule out into the street." So she called me, and I went, wait, well, hmmm. Boy, if I could put a couple of people in that capsule, if I could get them all in there-- I didn't know if four people would fit in one capsule-- boy, would that solve my problem. And it would solve her problem.

And again, that's probably the only thing that I am somewhat ashamed about. That I didn't tell her, that I was going to put three more people in there.

Sam Shaw

Why didn't you tell her?

Bob Nelson

I don't know. Probably fear.

Sam Shaw

Were you afraid-- was there part of you that was nervous if you did tell her that she might not go for it?

Bob Nelson

I wasn't worried about that because she had no alternative. She had nowhere else to go.

Sam Shaw

So why not tell her? What's the risk?

Bob Nelson

Well, I didn't think it was necessary to burden her with that. The complex problem of her dad being coupled with other people might have been a problem for her, I don't know. Maybe it wouldn't have been.

Sam Shaw

The capsule arrived at the mortuary in Buena Park in the spring of 1969. And Bob was there to greet it. A cryonic container is basically a giant thermos, one steel tube inside another with a vacuum in between. So long as you added liquid nitrogen once every few months, the tank stayed really cold.

These containers weren't designed to be open and shut again. So when the time came to add the extra bodies, Bob had to improvise. He drained the liquid nitrogen and had a welder open the capsule with a blowtorch. They spent most of the night unsealing the tank and arranging the bodies, which they wrapped head to toe in Mylar. Joe Klockgether was there too.

Joe Klockgether

Here again, I'm just kind of helping him because it's here. And I'm curious too. Anybody be'd curious, just to see.

Bob Nelson

I was feeling excited and nervous because the question was, would we be able to orchestrate the arrangement of these bodies inside that container successfully?

Joe Klockgether

Well, first of all, you have to see how much room was in there. Just to move-- because of the configuration of the container, well, it was round, of course, but just to get it to fit right. These people were frozen. And when they were frozen, it might have been, could have been, maybe an elbow out, so you might have to turn them another way to get the other one to slide beside him. I mean, it was cramped. Yeah, it was cramped.

Bob Nelson

I had to have gloves on because the body is like steel. And 300 degrees below zero, it's like holding a pot that's 300 degrees above zero. You can't do it. And it took probably a couple of hours to get them so that everyone was comfortably arranged.

Sam Shaw

Then they sealed the container back up. It was that simple. Bob told two confidants about the welder and the four bodies in the tank. Otherwise, he kept it a secret. He'd done what he felt he had to do. And for the moment, what he felt was relief. He'd steered the car back onto the road, secured a working capsule for the four people in his care, and a legal vault to keep it in. From here on out, he'd be practical and businesslike. No more soft-hearted exceptions. No more pro bono freezings.

But the capsule Bob had pinned his hopes on needed round-the-clock attention. When you're dealing with equipment that's supposed to last hundreds of years, you want the kind of engineering that goes into building a space capsule. This was not that.

Bob Nelson

We had to keep a pump, an electronic pump, pulling the vacuum 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. At Chatsworth, the temperatures got up to over 100, 110 sometimes. And that was death to these vacuum pumps. They couldn't take that heat. The pumps would burn out and need to be replaced, and it just got worse and worse and worse. I was there, I would say, virtually every day.

Sam Shaw

After Bob opened up the tank, it was never quite the same. The vacuum was shot, and the liquid nitrogen would boil away to nothing. Bob was constantly refilling the tank with coolant at a few hundred bucks a pop. Sometimes, he wrote checks from his personal bank account. Sometimes the checks would bounce.

Meanwhile, he was flying around the country giving lectures, showing off artist's renderings of the futuristic cryonics facility he planned to build. Appearing on radio and TV talk shows. Regis Philbin, Phil Donahue.

Newscaster

What exactly is the perfusion process?

Bob Nelson

The perfusion process--

Sam Shaw

Here he is on a local LA newscast.

Bob Nelson

-- protecting the patient, biologically, for the cold temperatures that he is going to be exposed to.

You ever seen or heard of the movie Three Faces of Eve? This is the Two Faces of Bob Nelson. The dual role of my life was to, on the one hand, be a spokesman for cryonics and then, on the other hand, was my nightmare responsibility of keeping this antique capsule running.

Sam Shaw

The publicity worked. It attracted new people to be frozen, some of them with the ability to pay for it. Then, in July of 1971, Bob got a call from a Canadian man named Guy, the father of a seven-year-old girl dying of a rare kidney cancer. One day, everything was fine. The next day, doctors were telling him his child had weeks to live. The way Guy saw it, it didn't matter if cryonics was a longshot. Bob Nelson presented the only slim hope his daughter had left.

Guy didn't have a lot of money, but he managed to fly Genevieve to California, where he got her admitted to a children's hospital. Bob remembers meeting her there.

Bob Nelson

She was sitting on the bed, and her dad was with her. And she always had the expression of-- it was so sad, so, so sad. Because she knew how sick she was. She knew she was dying, and she didn't want to.

Sam Shaw

Did her parents talk to her about the idea of being frozen?

Bob Nelson

Yes. They did. And she didn't seem to have much of an opinion one way or the other. Because it still meant that she had to die. And she didn't want to leave her sisters and her family. She wanted to go back to school.

Sam Shaw

Bob knew he shouldn't be performing another free suspension, but he couldn't help it. He had a daughter of his own, just a couple years older. He went to see Genevieve a lot. One day, she made a request.

Bob Nelson

Genevieve only spoke French, so the mother would interpret. Her mom said, "Mr. Nelson, Genevieve wants to ask you a question." So I said, "What?" And she said, "Did I know where Disneyland was?" And I said, "Yes, I do. Matter of fact, my buddy Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse work there." And so she told Genevieve that and Genevieve, ooh, like that.

And I said to her mom, "Why, is--" She says, "The doctor said that it'd be OK for her to go because sitting here is not good for her." I said, "I can't believe it." So I said, "Tell Genevieve, could she be ready to go to Disneyland tomorrow morning?"

We went the next morning to pick up Genevieve and drove to Disneyland. And we got her in a wheelchair and pushed her around. And she got in the tea cup and the different things with my young daughter. And then, at one point, she was in one of these little kid turtle game, I think it was. And her mom says, "Mr. Nelson, Genevieve wants to ask you another question." And I said, "Sure, what would that be?" And she said, "Would I learn French so that she could talk to me." And I said, "I will do that, just for you."

Sam Shaw

For a little while, it looked like Genevieve was improving. Then one morning, Bob was back at the hospital.

Bob Nelson

Guy was sitting on the bed, and he was holding her. And I stopped, I knew this was a sacred moment. So he looked up, and he said, "Get the nurse, I think Genevieve has passed." And so I got the nurse and, sure enough, she had passed.

So he put her back on the bed, and then it was all business. It was critically important to get her temperature down. That's the most important thing about a cryonic suspension is that once the heart stops, the temperature has got to drop. Nothing is more important than that.

They packed her in ice and put her in what's called a body bag. It's a plastic bag that they put ice on the bottom. And then they lay her on that and then totally cover her body with ice and put her on a gurney and put her in the hearse. So within an hour and a half, she was on the mortuary table, receiving a perfusion and having her temperature further lowered.

Sam Shaw

According to Bob, Guy hoped to raise $10,000 to pay for a capsule, but he just couldn't manage. He had a pile of medical bills and two other kids to worry about. So Bob found himself back in the same fix, short on funds with a couple of bodies in temporary dry ice storage. He did the only thing he knew how to do. In 1972, Bob arranged to take custody of a cryonics patient named Steven Mandell, who'd been frozen and sealed in a capsule in New York. It was the Marie Bowers capsule all over again.

He opened it up, added Genevieve and another woman he'd frozen, Mildred Harris, and welded it shut again.

By now, the first capsule was breaking down more or less constantly. And Bob had hit a wall. The way he describes it, it's as if he was the captain of a sinking ship, throwing cargo over the side to stay afloat. He couldn't save them all, and so he'd come to a decision. He would let the first capsule fail. This much is clear, he kept it a secret.

The second capsule was practically as bad as the first. Constantly malfunctioning, boiling off liquid nitrogen. But Bob kept it going. Then a few years later, he had to leave town for a week. He paid a groundskeeper $100 to babysit the capsule, and the pump broke. And when the groundskeeper called a company to fix it, they never showed.

Bob Nelson

I came back, drove up to the vault, looked at the capsule. There's a nozzle that comes out of the capsule that has steam, visible, because the liquid nitrogen is evaporating away. And when I drove up and I looked, that steam wasn't there. So I just didn't want to acknowledge what that meant. But the test was to go and touch that pipe. And if it was cold, then there was some hope. That meant that it was still cold inside.

And then, going through my mind, what if it's hot? What if those bodies have decomposed? So I walk up to the capsule. I put my finger on it. And it was like touching a hot frying pan. It was the most painful, emotional experience of my life. I had failed that little girl. I promised her dad. And she was gone.

Sam Shaw

Bob says he immediately flew to Montreal to tell Genevieve's father in person.

Ira Glass

In Montreal, though, is where this story really starts to get interesting. And that's coming up in a minute from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program, Mistakes Were Made. Sam Shaw's story about Bob Nelson continues.

Bob has just discovered that a second freezing capsule has failed. Liquid nitrogen has leaked out. And he says the first person that he went to tell was the little girl, Genevieve's father.

Bob Nelson

So he met me at the airport, in a little snack shop, coffee shop. He was right in my face, instantly. "What happened?" And I tried to tell him as gently as I could. Then, when he pressed me, "How many days? How long?" I said, "I don't know. Three, four, five? I don't know." And what he said just totally blew me away. He said, "Well, I guess we'll just have to start it up again. And continue on." And I said, "OK."

I think I should have fought it out with him right there, but I didn't. I turned around and walked away. Cowardly, I think. He was shook. He left, and I could see his face was red. He was upset.

Sam Shaw

Next, Bob says he flew to see Terry Harris, whose mother, Mildred Harris, was in the second capsule with Genevieve and whose father, Gaylord, was also in the vault.

Bob Nelson

And he met me at the airport and introduced me to his wife. I told him what happened. And he just said, "Oh. Well, did you fill it up again?" I said, "Yeah." So he essentially said the same thing that Guy said.

Sam Shaw

Did he understand what it meant?

Bob Nelson

It's almost like he didn't care. I mean-- let me take that back. Not that he didn't care. No, it was more like, oh well, far enough into the future, they'll be able to fix that too.

Sam Shaw

A few days after Bob told me his story, I talked on the phone with Genevieve's father, Guy. He was polite, and I must say very patient with my questions. But he didn't want to be interviewed on the radio. The memory of Genevieve's death and suspension was just too painful. He said, a little ruefully, that the whole idea of cryonics might be a moot point anyway given the state of the world. The way things were going, even if the science panned out, there might not be a future to return to.

And then he told me something else. That meeting at the airport Bob remembers so vividly, Guy said it never happened. So next I contacted Terry Harris, and I told him Bob's version of what transpired.

Sam Shaw

Terry, as you know, Bob tells this very detailed story about coming to tell you that the capsule--

Terry says Bob never told him about the failure of the capsule. He had to hear about it from an article in a California newspaper that his aunt sent him in Des Moines.

Terry Harris

They said in the article that the machinery had broken down, and it was just incredulous. I just couldn't believe it. So I called Bob, and he reassured me that everything was fine, and the paper was just trying to generate sensational readership. And so, I never saw him. I just talked to him on the phone at that point.

Sam Shaw

Right. So there was never a time when Bob flew out and met with you at the airport?

Terry Harris

No. That would have been the right and honorable thing to do. And I wish it had occurred. But it's just not accurate.

Sam Shaw

Terry Harris was in his early 20s when he met Bob Nelson. He'd lost both his parents in a span of three months, and cryonics had seemed like this great thing he could give them in return. He sometimes imagined what it would be like when they were all reunited as a family, in some distant, dream-like future. It gave him hope. And then everything had gone so wrong.

So I called Bob, and I told him about my conversations with Guy and Terry. He was shocked, and he stuck to his story. Later that day, he sent me a long pained email, calling the situation "a heart-wrenching predicament." He called Terry Harris a liar. But Guy was another matter. Bob said he was devastated that Guy didn't remember their talk in the Montreal airport. He wondered if it was possible that Guy had repressed the memory.

Then I spoke to him a few days later, and he offered this take.

Bob Nelson

I would say this about that. That if Guy said that I never came to the airport in Montreal, then he's right. I have to concede that it's possible that what happened-- because I've been mulling this over for the past few days-- it's possible what I'm remembering is going through this scenario with him over the phone.

Sam Shaw

Yeah. When you talked about it, it sounded so vivid. You remembered being in a sandwich shop.

Bob Nelson

Well, in my mind, I must have been over it a thousand times, what it was going to be like to face him, to talk to him. And it was just the horror of my life because it just-- so anyway, I have to agree that most likely, I didn't go to Montreal.

Sam Shaw

To be clear, Guy says he never heard from Bob at all. No visit, no phone call, nothing.

Sam Shaw

I'm just wondering if, when you look at that memory, that seems like it was a faulty memory, if it gives you any pause and makes you wonder whether there are other parts of this set of memories that you have that may also not be totally trustworthy.

Bob Nelson

Other parts. Such as?

Sam Shaw

Well, such as Terry Harris.

Bob Nelson

No. Sam, I'm never going to budge one speck from that. You need to believe what you need to believe, Sam. I'm only telling you what I-- there would be no reason for me to make up that I went to see Terry Harris and [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. That's not part of the story. That isn't important to my story.

Sam Shaw

But don't you think that there might be a reason why it would be important for you to believe that you went out and had those conversations with them face to face?

Bob Nelson

How do you defend yourself-- I don't know. How do you defend yourself against something that's not true? I don't know.

Sam Shaw

What's clear is that Bob's convinced he did right by Terry and Guy. And Terry and Guy are equally convinced that he didn't. If it sounds like Bob's harder on Terry than he is on Guy, there's one more thing you have to understand. When the truth about the two failed capsules and the nine bodies in the vault finally came to light, when all those hard decisions Bob had made on the fly became sound bites on the 10 o'clock news, there wasn't just a public reckoning, there was a trial.

Terry and his brother were two of the plaintiffs, and they won to the tune of $800,000. The half they actually collected came out of mortician Joe Klockgether's malpractice insurance.

In 1979, the Harris brothers flew out to California to meet an attorney who led them to the vault at Chatsworth along with a local TV news team. By that point, Bob had washed his hands of the Cryonics Society. He was dead broke, and his marriage had fallen apart. And he just walked away.

And for the first time, Terry saw the reality of his parents' situation with his own eyes.

Terry Harris

Well, the door in the facility was made of steel. And it was then chained and padlocked closed. The chain was rusty, and there was grass growing around that door where before it wasn't. And our attorney brought a pair of bolt cutters and removed that lock and chain. And slid the door back. And we went down. And you could just see that there was a piece of equipment here and there. And the capsule lid open.

It was unbearable. Just unbearable. And I was just numb. Just numb. I couldn't look inside that capsule, but I just backed away when I realized that there were just remains inside. We had brought flowers, and so we laid them there by the capsule. And then I just went up the stairs and left.

I felt guilty because I should have been there night and day, which, of course, isn't very realistic. But at the time, I felt very guilty.

Bob Nelson

Here's the entrance. This is the management office over here. It looks identical to the day that I was here 40 years ago. This little shack was here. This chapel was exactly the same. OK, now over here on the right--

Sam Shaw

Bob and I drove out to the cemetery in Chatsworth on a sunny afternoon in March. We spent about an hour wandering the grounds, Bob pointing out landmarks and citing names and dates like a breezy tour guide. He said it felt good to be back.

Oakwood is a really beautiful spot, a rolling park surrounded by jagged sandstone hilltops. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are buried there. And the cemetery staff will point you to the gravesites of a half dozen lesser stars. But none of the groundskeepers we talked to had ever heard of a cryonics facility there. And really, it's no surprise. Where the vault used to be, there's just an empty swath of grass. No padlocked opening. No monument or plaque.

Bob Nelson

See where the ground rises up over here? This is where the vault is. They've put two benches right here.

Sam Shaw

Bob says all but two of the people he froze are still sealed in the vault, now covered over with sod. But the cemetery management tells a different story. They say the bodies were all disinterred years ago, which leaves one final question. Again, Terry Harris.

Terry Harris

I have no idea where my parents are.

Sam Shaw

You have no idea where they're buried now?

Terry Harris

No. No. The management of the cemetery said, "Well, they're gone." And I said, "Well, what do you mean, gone?" And he said that one day a big pickup truck came up there and disinterred them and took them away. And he said he didn't have any legal permit to do that. They didn't provide anything. Now doesn't that sound outlandish to you?

Sam Shaw

This is where all Bob's secrets and lies about the bodies finally led. To Terry Harris making phone calls, writing letters, combing through legal documents. Somewhere, he figured, there had to be a record, a clue that would tell him what had become of his parents. He's never found it.

Cryonics carried on without Bob Nelson. And all these years later, when people in the field tell Bob's story, they call it the Chatsworth Disaster. On cryonics discussion boards, he's been labeled a murderer. Though, of course, all the people he supposedly killed were dead to begin with. When Bob talks about those years, he says he's gotten a bad rap. He genuinely seems to feel bad about failing Genevieve and her family and for dragging the mortician, Joe Klockgether, through the trial.

But just as emphatically, he'll tell you that his main mistake was caring too much. That the secrets he kept were necessary to keep the project going. And, above all, that the people he froze had donated their bodies under the Anatomical Gift Act.

Bob Nelson

--which meant that they donated the body to the Cryonic Society of California. And according to my attorney, we could grind them up for hamburger if that's what we wanted to do. We were given the right, by the state of California, to carry on research and do whatever we wanted in the perfection of suspended animation.

And so, we just felt that there's no need to be telling other people. I could have just locked that vault up and not told anybody that we had stopped putting liquid nitrogen in there. That probably could have gone on until today. But at some point, I had to settle back down to reality.

Sam Shaw

Bob says a lot depends on your perspective. If the science of cryonics pans out, it will be possible to look at Genevieve and Mildred Harris and Helen Kline as casualties of progress. Or, as Bob calls them, frozen heroes. Bob's not a rich guy, but he's managed to save $28,000 to pay for his own freezing at the Cryonics Institute in Michigan. He thinks his odds of re-animation are pretty good.

And in the end, that's the thing that sustains him. The hope that someday, in 50 years or 100 or 1,000, he'll wake up in a world he barely recognizes. A world where Chatsworth wasn't a disaster, but the first imperfect battle in the war that saved us all.

Ira Glass

Sam Shaw lives in Brooklyn. Bob Nelson is writing a memoir about his years in cryonics, called Frozen Heroes and the Ice Nap. He's looking for a publisher.

[MUSIC - "SO SORRY" BY FEIST]

Act Two. You’re Willing To Sacrifice Our Love.

Ira Glass

Act Two, You're Willing to Sacrifice Our Love. So when one of the contributors, Sean Cole, heard that we were doing a show about people who were apologizing without fully apologizing, he let us know about this poem which is basically that in a nutshell. Most of the time, Sean is a reporter for the Public Radio show Marketplace, but he is also a published poet.

Sean Cole

So the poem's by William Carlos Williams. And it's a poem that's taught a lot in all sorts of poetry classes everywhere and, particularly, elementary schools, which is where I heard about it. And the way it was taught to me was that it was an actual note that William Carlos Williams left for his wife. I always imagine it sitting there on the kitchen table, waiting for her.

Ira Glass

Right.

Sean Cole

And it's called "This Is Just to Say." "I have eaten the plums that were in the ice box and which you were probably saving for breakfast. Forgive me. They were delicious. So sweet and so cold."

Ira Glass

What's funny about the poem is that he never really apologizes.

Sean Cole

He never apologizes. He says, forgive me, which is kind of a command. And so I feel like it's like, oh, you know, I ate the plums, and that was a bad thing. But I'm not sorry I did it. You know?

Ira Glass

It's interesting to me that it makes you mad.

Sean Cole

The thing that really breaks my heart is that she was saving them. And when he says "probably saving them for breakfast," he knew she was saving them for breakfast. There's no probably about it. They lived together.

Ira Glass

Now this is a poem that is often imitated?

Sean Cole

Imitated. Spoofed. By many a poet. It's kind of become a game among poets, to write a version of "This is just to say." My favorite one is by a poet named Kenneth Koch.

Ira Glass

OK, let's hear him.

Sean Cole

"I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer. I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do. And its wooden beams were so inviting." "Last evening we went dancing, and I broke your leg. Forgive me. I was clumsy, and I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor."

Ira Glass

That story has everything, that last one.

Sean Cole

It really does. It's an entire novel in three lines.

Ira Glass

So my favorite of all the variations on this is written by a student named Andrew, maybe it's pronounced Vech-ee-oh-nay?

Sean Cole

Veck-ee-oh-nay maybe.

Ira Glass

Veck-ee-oh-nay maybe. And could I ask you to read that? It's called "Sorry, But It Was Beautiful."

Sean Cole

"Sorry I took your money and burned it. But it looked like the world falling apart when it crackled and burned. So I think it was worth it. After all, you can't see the world fall apart every day."

Ira Glass

That's the work of sixth grader Andrew Vecchione from a book by Kenneth Koch about teaching poetry to kids, in which he has them write their own versions of "This Is Just to Say." The book is called Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? Sean Cole says the poetry book of his that is easiest to find-- and he's assured me that it is not easy at all-- is called ITTY CITY.

We asked some of our regular contributors to do their own variations on the poem. Here they are.

Sarah Vowell

"This Is Just to Say," by Sarah Vowell. I carved your name, not mine, into the arm of dad's chair. Sorry you were punished. But the wood was so gummy, and my knife was so sharp.

David Rakoff

"This Is Just to Say," by David Rakoff. At our wedding, I disappeared briefly to have sex with your sister up against the back of the Portosans. What can I say? The chardonnay was so fresh and cold and I, so full of love and a sense of family. And I said, I'm sure one day we'll laugh about this. Well, by one day, I meant that day. And by we, I meant me. And by laugh, I meant laugh.

Starlee Kine

"This Is Just to Say," by Starlee Kine. One, I chose the other girl. I'm sorry. It's not just that I'm more attracted to her. It's also that she is more interesting. Two, I used your dog as an excuse to pick up girls at the dog park, which is especially tacky since I'm your boyfriend. Please forgive me. I'm really bad at being in a relationship, and I'm pretty sure I told you that when we first got together.

Jonathan Goldstein

"This Is Just to Say," by Jonathan Goldstein. This is just to say I have eaten the fruit of knowledge, but nothing happened. Not a word. No lightning or volcanoes, not even a drop of rain. So I was just wondering, are you there?

Shalom Auslander

"This Is Just to Say," by Shalom Auslander. One, I'm sorry you are overweight and drinking and feeling like everything in your life is doomed to failure. But this is probably why mom said I was her favorite. Two, it sucks, little doe, that I hit you with my car, but at least you weren't alive to watch the hunters shoot your children. Three, he was a trouble maker, OK? And didn't know when to shut up. Still, we never would have killed him if we'd known he was the Lord.

Heather O'neill

"This Is Just to Say," by Heather O'Neill. Dear Mom, This is just to say I forgive you for eating all the plums, the apples, the pears, and even drinking the last of the orange juice. I forgive you for emptying Dad's bank account and for painting stars on our station wagon right before you got in and drove away. I forgive you for leaving us without even saying good-bye. Your plans were always so sweet, so delicious, and so cold.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Sarah Koenig and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind and Emily Youssef. Music help from Jessica Hopper.

[SPECIAL ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, where you can still get tickets to this live show that we are going to be bringing to your town. Thursday, April 23, we're doing a live show and beaming it around the country to movie theaters. It features Mike Birbiglia, Dan Savage, Starlee Kine, David Rakoff, Dave Hill, a brand new cartoon by Chris Ware. And a special musical guest, the great Joss Whedon. And if you recognize his name, I need not say more about that.

Live, Thursday, April 23. And then, by popular demand, we have added an encore on May 7. Anyway, tickets at our website, www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who reminds you, don't mess with him.

Bob Nelson

I am loaded. I own my own house.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.