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Last resort letters aren't exactly a secret, but most of us haven't heard of them. Journalist Ron Rosenbaum came across them because he's got a Google alert that brings him any news story with the phrase "World War III" in it. He's written about nuclear war on and off for decades. And news came across the Google about a BBC documentary that details what these last resort letters are all about. Ron explained.
On every British nuclear submarine, there's a safe. And then within that safe is another safe, and within that safe, the inner safe, is a letter from the British prime minister. And every new prime minister that comes into office is required to handwrite this letter and seal it. And the letter instructs the submarine commander what to do when the homeland has been wiped out by a nuclear attack.
In other words, Britain's destroyed. And maybe it's better if you hear this in a British accent. This is from the BBC documentary. The letter tells the sub commander--
--whether to retaliate or not if Britain is already a smoking, irradiated ruin, and they're dead. It's a system peculiar to the British, and emulated by no other nuclear nations.
You write, with all due respect for our British cousins, this seems, well, insane. The old-fashioned pen and ink on paper quality of it all somehow makes the system seem like it emanated from a 19th century madhouse.
It's so absurd. It's Kubrick territory. It's Dr. Strangelove territory. I mean, I can't imagine, you know, someone writing, "Dear Mr. Submarine commander, I'm dead. Everyone you know is dead. We're all radioactive ashes. Here's what I'd like you to do. Number one,--"
Rosenbaum says that the letter poses some immediate practical questions. If the whole country was just destroyed, how would the sub commander know who killed them and where to target his bomb? Does the sub commander have to show his letter to anybody else? If he's the only one reading the letter, what's to stop him from substituting his own judgement for what's on the paper?
And it raises a few broader questions. If the purpose of a nuclear deterrent is to convince your enemies that if they destroy you, you're going to destroy them, doesn't it undermine the whole point of having nuclear weapons in the first place to publicize the fact that there's a secret letter that very well might say no, don't retaliate?
Which, Rosenbaum says, gets to the moral paradox that is at the heart of all nuclear doctrines.
If your nation has been wiped out by a nuclear strike, is there any point in retaliating and killing tens, hundreds of millions of innocent people when the threat to retaliate has already failed?
Right. You've been annihilated.
Yeah. Your nation's been annihilated. Is there any point in killing millions out of pique, vengeance, or is it justice? You know, I was at this conference of generals and admirals in July, and I actually made a point of asking them, what's the point of retaliation? And they all recognized that this was a difficult question, but they all said that well, to talk about it invites attack. Because you're undermining the threat of retaliation by even discussing your Hamlet-like doubts and dithering about whether you'd retaliate.
And so then why have a letter? Why let people know there's a handwritten letter that might say, oh, don't launch the missiles?
It doesn't make any sense. Why did they make the existence of this letter known?
Ron Rosenbaum contacted the British Defense Ministry and was told essentially that the letter was a fail-safe, almost a formality. If Britain were destroyed, somebody was going to need to issue an order to launch those nuclear missiles. The letter is that order.
But of course, this is what they would have to say, even if it's not true, to make the threat seem credible. And you really need all the theatrics of the two safes and the personal handwritten note for all that, you know? And remember, no one knows what's in the letter. It's sealed. Or-- maybe this is something that's maybe better to hear in a British accent. As the BBC puts it--
History will never find out, because nobody knows what's in the prime minister's letters of last resort, and they're destroyed unread by the cabinet office when the premiership changes.
Rosenbaum believes that most people, faced with the choice of ordering genocide after the threat of genocide has failed, would not launch the missiles. And one of the few people who've had their finger on Britain's nuclear button, have ever talked about this publicly, a former defense minister named Dennis Healy, says in the BBC documentary--
I realize I would find it very, very difficult indeed to agree to use a nuclear weapon, and I think most people would. Because most of the people you've killed will be innocent civilians.
Which brings us back to the question, why do it this way? What's the advantage of a secret that's inside a safe, inside another safe, deep below the surface of the ocean? A secret sealed away where nobody can get to it?
Well, Rosenbaum found himself asking a very similar question while researching a very different subject years ago. He spent ten years writing a book about Adolf Hitler. And he said that when he was researching that, some of the evidence that he's heard about-- there was stories, for example, of a hypnotherapist report on Adolf Hitler from when Adolf Hitler was in a sanitarium after the first World War-- that supposedly explained why Hitler wanted to conquer the world. And this was, supposedly, again, sealed away in a safe deposit box in Switzerland.
And Rosenbaum has a theory about the appeal of that kind of thing.
It allows us to believe that certain truths do exist. There's an explanation for Hitler, but it's locked away in some safe deposit box beyond our grasp. So it gives us a feeling that this is not some numinous, irretrievable mystery. We could explain Hitler, if only we had found the right safe deposit box.
To follow your logic, then the advantage of having this letter with the order locked away in a box inside another box-- what it does is that you don't want your enemy to know that you're not going to launch those missiles, but you don't want to think for yourself that you are. So it lets you believe both things. It lets two truths exist at the same time.
Yes, I suppose that's true. It allows us to have it both ways.
From WEBZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.
Today on our show, Contents Unknown. Stories of truths, big and small, that are locked away. Sometimes the most exciting thing about these truths is knowing that they're out there, the answer exists, but you don't know it.
Our show today in three acts. Act one is about the truths contained in America's mini storage lockers. No kidding. Act two is about the truth of an entire empire 1,400 years ago. Act three is about truth wiped away from inside someone's head. Stay with us.
Act One. Needle In A Crapstack.
Act one. Needle in a crap sack. Self storage units. There's a lot of them. 2.35 billion with a B square feet in the United States, according to the Self Storage Association. That, in case you're wondering, is 7.4 square feet of self storage for every man, woman, and child in this country, meaning all of us, all of us, could stand inside self storage at the same time.
And when people do not pay their self storage bills after the facility tries to collect through all the normal means and fails, often the contents of the storage lockers get auctioned off.
Jon Mooallem went to some of those auctions in Northern California. They're a big exercise in guessing at the unknown.
This morning, a little after nine, a crowd of a few dozen prospectors is already waiting in the fog outside Bridgehead Self Storage, an hour east of San Francisco. The auctioneer, a guy with the briskly mustache named John Cardoza, runs a company called Storage Auction Experts. Today he'll go to six different storage places in three different towns and auction off upwards of 50 units. The crowd will follow him for nine hours.
Hey Ricky? Go ahead and open up this one too, please. We've got two of them open.
Here's how it works. A unit's door is rolled open. No one's allowed to step inside or open any boxes or touch anything at all. The mob just stands there, sweeping their flashlights around, making educated guesses about what's inside. They crane their necks, contort their bodies, or step up on little folding stools they brought for a better look into the nooks and corners. "You gotta get all up in there, like a proctologist," one guy explains.
I spoke to a giddy-looking woman in the crowd about what she saw.
There is an unusual-shaped box that is behind these old mattresses that are leaned up, and the mattresses did not lean all the way up against the wall. So I kind of was really trying to look behind there and see. So that's what drew my attention to it, right there. So hopefully it is what I'm thinking it might be.
What are you thinking it might be?
I don't know yet, but I have something in my head, yeah.
I couldn't get her to even say it out loud. She didn't want to jinx it.
Locker number A80, the one out here. The one out here. Here we go, ladies and gentlemen. How many dollars? Can I get $50 start it?
It's informal. The auctioneer stands right in front of the open locker. People raise their hands to bid. Most of them are regulars. They all know each other and are here to make a modest second income. They resell what they buy on eBay or at flea markets.
They have their niches. One guy does antiques. Several are into tools. One loves anything military.
But they all know the stories of blockbuster hauls, too. The hippies who, for $225, bought the unit of a Sacramento rail yard heir several years ago and found a stockpile of silver coins inside.
In 2007, a guy in Southern California bought Paris Hilton's storage locker when she fell $200 behind on the rent. He resold it to another guy who set up a website called Paris Exposed and charged $39.97 for a virtual tour of the contents. There were topless photos in there, ones people hadn't seen yet.
A more common scenario, though, goes like this. You spend several hundred dollars on what turns out to be cheap halogen lamps, cassette singles by Heavy D & the Boyz, and a couple of bent mattresses. Then you've got to spend the rest of your day shoveling all that crap to the dump, which charges you more money to throw it out.
People think you find, like, diamond rings and stuff, and everybody's doing this for a decade.
That's Christine. She's here with her friend Lois. They say for every good score, there are plenty of disappointments.
All you find is other people's porno, stuff that goes along with that, nasty clothes that smell like mildew, dead rats.
Oh, definitely dead rats.
And you know how long it's been there, and [UNINTELLIGIBLE].
With such a great likelihood of failure, you have to give yourself an edge. And everybody's got their own arsenal of tricks.
What do you look for when the door opens?
Cobwebs. Seriously, cobwebs. That stuff hasn't been moved in a long time, so you know no one's gone through it.
Cobwebs tell you the renters didn't have a chance to whisk away their valuables before the manager locked them out.
When it looks like a unit's been churned over, you see upside down furniture, boxes crushed on boxes. It just indicates either low quality, or they took what they wanted out of there before they knew they were losing it. So you're not going to get anything.
That's Dave Lewis, a stick-thin guy with a beard. He's wearing a denim work jacket that's way too big for him. He looks like a precocious kid in a smock. Dave's been going to auctions off and on for most of his life.
But you know, you see a unit that's neatly stacked and organized, thought went into it, certain brand names or a tendency for a lot of the items in there to be brand or quality items versus, say, just generics or that kind of thing-- so people tend to print really nicely, and just the level of organization goes into some of them lets you know, hey. Somebody took the time as value here.
And the kinds of boxes matter, too. Crisp, brand new moving boxes, good. Rat-bitten old diaper boxes, not good. A plasma TV box is almost guaranteed not to have a plasma TV in it, but it tells you something about the income bracket you're dealing with.
No unit's a sure thing, Lois tells me. Every once in a while, one breaks your heart.
I know one guy, a story I heard a few years ago. This guy-- they opened a huge unit, and it was all boxes packed neatly, and they all said "Fragile Crystal" on the side. He bid up to $500 or $600 or something on that. And when he emptied it, it was all just a bunch of garbage that belonged to someone named Crystal.
I haven't seen him for a while either, come to think of it.
Still, the game is the same for everyone. You're trying to analyze what you can see to get a sense of what you can't. Dave makes it sound a little mystical, even. As soon as the door opens, he starts building a profile of the renter in his head, really trying to get to know the person.
This looks to me like somebody who did in-home daycare. Beanbags, a number of individual tubs that have crayons, chalk-- you know, not enough for one kid, about enough for 20. So it probably, in my estimation, this should not go anywhere over a hundred.
Although there is some Star Wars sheets right there, so you might have the fanatic collector who notices that or something. You never know.
You can see if a lot of people are interested in it, see how long it's taking them to look. They're trying to find something to draw themselves into buying it. Something to say, buy me.
That's Mike DeHaas. He's not like Dave at all. He's not like anyone else here. Mike doesn't fantasize or make projections about what can't be seen. The stacks of anonymous boxes, the big, enticing furniture shapes draped over with blankets. To some bidders, these just mean more chances to win.
To Mike, they're traps, a mirage. His strategy is the anti-strategy. He just bids on what's visible. When the door rolls up, Mike quickly tallies up the value of everything he can see and definitively identify in the unit, and then bids based on that and only that.
It could be a piece of art, it could be a coin, it could be a baseball card, it could be a toy, it could be an old military item, it could be a piece of clothing. You just never know. So I look at everything realistically. I've just had a rough life and I've been through a lot of things that most people shouldn't, so I don't see things like, you know, I see it for what it is. Two plus two is four. That's how I describe everything, and that's how I see it. So I don't do this with a lot of hope. I do it realistically.
Mike's buying at auctions and reselling at flea markets around the state full time, just barely supporting his girlfriend and two little kids. I keep noticing Mike far away from the rest of the crowd, staring at the ground with his hood pulled over his head and a Maglite flung through his belt.
Mike's got a history with these storage places. He tells me his parents did a lot of drugs his whole childhood.
And he got to the point where we ended up homeless and put everything into a storage unit. And instead of trying to save our storage unit, they spent all the money they had on more drugs, and kept repeating that process, so we lost our unit. I've had a whole 10 by 30 just gone one day. My whole life up until the age of 15. Everything before my parents lost because of their drug habit. So it was rather disappointing and things like that.
And that's why what I try to do is make sure like anything personal, especially baby photos, baby books, things of that nature, I try to put it all in a box and give it back to the office, and they will return it to the people. Because it makes me feel a little better.
We got to get to the next one because there's bad parking.
Where is this?
On San Miguel.
When we reach the sixth and final storage facility of the day, San Miguel Mini Storage, a short, barrel-chested Asian guy shows up, turning heads. Darren, someone whispers.
Well, I came back here because I scored last time, so I'm going to come back again, see if I can score again.
Last time Darren came to an auction at this place, he found a big box of jewelry buried in the back of a unit. He made 40 grand from it, or 400 grand, maybe. The number changes as the story gets told and retold and passes into legend.
This helps explain why, when we get here, the crowd's suddenly tripled in size. There's close to 100 people here now, because word's gotten around that San Miguel Mini Storage is the kind of place where Darrens happen.
But not today. There were 27 units to auction here, and one after the other, the doors went up, and none looked even remotely like a Darren-maker.
[? Last chance today. Here we go now, locker--
To be honest, the afternoon has blurred together in a model of obsolete computer monitors, dusty sweatpants, vacuums, and bingo cards. I remember seeing a black bedazzled sombrero somewhere, the kind that Three Amigos wore. I remember a big box of snack food-- "Chicken Ranch Flavor-Blasted Goldfish," they were called. Those are starting to feel like really fun memories now.
The sun's set. The temperature's dropped. The hardcore veterans are all feeling crappy and disappointed. And then--
Oh, [BLEEP] [BLEEP]
This last unit, a 10 by 25, is a cartoonish mound of junk. It's such a jumbled, ridiculous end of the long day that all the jaded old-timers have perked up. They're almost enjoying it.
Oh my God. Shopping carts?
Was this a family?
Is that a shrunken head right there?
Wow, what's in the back?
I ask Mike if he sees anything here worth bidding on. Everyone's just baffled.
Oh, there's nothing to describe here. I don't even know what to use as a word. An abomination.
It's like a wall, right? It's like a wall of stuff with something behind it.
It's a wall of-- somebody was really desperate, and in a big hurry to unload wherever, their garage, their house, whatever, they shoved it all in.
And when they opened the door, stuff just spilled out of the bottom. A bunch of books and a camping chair. There's a pizza stone. There's books about U-boats, boxes. It looks as though someone had a bulldozer inside the unit and just pushed everything all the way to the front. And behind there, people are saying they see a giant Santa Claus.
Someone shouts out the name of a bar to head to. A man tells his girlfriend, "Go use the bathroom. Let's get out of here."
The auctioneer starts the bidding. Some people are actually raising their hands.
Now 325 now 350 new blood now 375. Now 400.
It gets competitive.
Now 425. 400, 425, now 450. Anybody else? 450? Sold them out. 425.
The winner turns out to be Dave and his girlfriend Linda for $425 plus fees. They own his giant pile of tetanus now. And the weird thing is, they're thrilled.
Behind this could be anything.
Wait, wait, wait. We have to get a full explanation on this. Because you understand that this was very controversial unit. So you knew right away you wanted this one?
I did, as soon as I knew that there was a hollow spot behind there. That could be-- could be nothing. They could have been just idiots. And Dave says they took the good stuff out. But who's going to pay $225 on a unit every month to store this? There could be motorcycles, jet skis, a car. Could be anything. It could be nothing. We could've just flushed $485 down the toilet. So we'll see.
You want to just climb over the--
I do, I do. But I don't have a flashlight.
I think I can--
Dave clambers up, sidestepping a not totally empty jar of Red Raspberry Smuckers and an electric carving knife.
What is it?
Uh-- OK, I don't-- there's nothing like a motorcycle, or-- but for everyone that thought the back half of this unit was empty, they were absolutely dead wrong. This thing is about four feet deep and going all the way about 15 feet back. In fact, I see three more shopping carts, books, boxes, bags, a seven foot tall Santa-- oh, I'm telling you. There's no telling here. This is one huge heap.
No motorcycle? Boo!
If he feels defeated, though, he's trying not to let on. He and Linda start freeing things from the mass, including bags of recyclable bottles. And Dave especially is trying to put a good spin on whatever they find.
Yeah, this is, I don't think it's any kind of a special wine. It looks like Charles Shaw Cabernet Sauvignon 2001. OK, see, we found two bottles of one unopened wine, a 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon, a 2005 something else. So we may have somebody's wine collection in here, too. See now, this is the kind of stuff I like to see. This offset seeing those recyclables.
Gradually, though, the bad omens stack up.
I almost hate to comment on this, but I know what it is. Methamphetamine. Not the actual stuff, but this is what people do when they're on meth.
Can you describe what it is?
I guess somebody thought they would improve on the wheel. Yeah, it's a bicycle that somebody thought that they could try to take coat hangers and make a bunch of spokes out of, and then wrap it around the tire, it looks like to try to keep the tire on the rim.
And I just, somebody's got to be on drugs to do this. I've seen it way too many times. You come across something like this where you see somebody's done something to it that absolutely makes no sense. I mean, they've basically made the bike unrideable doing what they tried to do to it. So I would be willing to bet that this person had a drug problem.
And that's how I leave them, scrabbling through the unit in a floodlight in the cold. Maybe they lost. Maybe it was a draw. Dave says it'll take a week to sort everything out.
Jon Mooallem is a contributing writer for New York Times Magazine.
Coming up-- when you lose your memory in India and you're searching for whatever clues you can find to reconstruct who you are. What's the protocol they use to help you? And yes, incredibly, this happens enough that there is an informal protocol of sorts, in some places. That's in the second half of our show from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.
Act Two. He Shapes Ship Shapes By The Sea Shore.
This American Life from Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme. Today's program-- Contents Unknown. Stories of people having to guess at the mystery of what is inside all sorts of various things. We've arrived at act two of our show.
Act Two. He Shapes Ship Shapes By the Seashore.
All right. I'm going to say two words to you now. Byzantine Empire. Quick! When? Who? Where? What?
Yeah, me neither. But I look it up. The Byzantine Empire is basically the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which broke off. It existed from around 300 AD to the 1400s.
And archaeologists thought they knew most of the big things that you'd want to know about the Byzantine Empire decades ago. So much so that by the 1950s, they'd bulldozed Byzantine sites to get at stuff that seemed more interesting underneath it, Greek and Roman stuff.
And then everything changed. Our whole understanding of the Byzantines changed. And the way we got to this new understanding starts with one shipwreck. Adam Davidson tells what happened.
Fred van Doorninck does not do anything on a lark. Except one thing, once.
In 1961, when he was in archaeology grad school, he took a break and went to Turkey, put on some scuba gear, and checked out a 1,400 year old shipwreck off the coast of the tiny island of Yassiada.
Fred Van Doorninck
At the very beginning, I just thought this was a summer of adventure. But slowly-- well, not too slowly. I think by the second year, I was hooked.
Hooked on Yassiada?
Fred Van Doorninck
Yes. Because this ship was a great mystery, you know? It needed to be put back together, and it all needed to be explained.
It was surprising that Fred, of all people, took this on, since Fred, by his on admission, is not a water guy.
Fred Van Doorninck
I have a throat that when one little drop of liquid hits it, it closes. And I never enjoyed diving one minute.
Fred used to come up from almost every dive with blood in his mask.
That's George Bass, Fred's research partner in what would become a 50 year exploration of this one Byzantine ship. Speaking of the Byzantines, George remembers a grad school trip to Greece this way.
I didn't even get out of the bus at Byzantine churches. I just found them so boring. I found everything about the Byzantine period just awful.
So a guy who hates diving meets a guy bored by the Byzantine Empire. Naturally, an academic buddy movie ensues in which two men find that the path to happiness lies in diving and studying the Byzantines.
And along the way, they create an entire new field-- underwater archaeology. Because they were the first archaeologists to thoroughly excavate a ship on the seafloor. George remembers diving and seeing Yassiada for the first time.
It was a mound of jars, amphoras, two-handle jars, we call them amphoras, and it stood maybe three feet high, something like that.
So there's no ship, there's no--?
No ship. In the Mediterranean, in fact, most of the oceans of the world are filled with shipworms, or marine borers, mollusks that eat wood.
Like water termites?
Like water termites, exactly.
You guys must hate those water termites more than anything in the world.
Oh, yes, very. We yet only the part of the ship that's sunk down into the sand. So we're always hoping that a ship that we excavate has fallen onto one side, that we will learn more about it.
Ships are symmetrical. You find one side safely buried in the sand, you know what the other side looks like.
Now remember, these are the first diving archaeologists. Scuba had only been invented in the 1940s. It was so new they could only stay on the seafloor for 20 minutes at a time. Imagine trying to excavate some ancient pyramid or something, and you can only go there and work for 20 minutes, and then you have to leave.
And in those 20 minutes, George and Fred had to solve problems nobody ever faced before.
An ancient hole on the seabed, the wood is very fragmentary. And so if you sweep with your hand to get the sand away, a little piece of wood, not bigger than two playing cards put together, for example, that's just going to float away. So we had to figure out some way to keep it all intact while we mapped it.
I thought of knitting needles. I couldn't find any. A Turkish colleague suggested bicycle spokes. We ended up buying more than a thousand bicycle spokes, sharpening one end of each one, turning with the other end over so we could pin to the seabed every little fragment of wood we found.
Oh my God.
So at the end we have, like a butterfly on a piece of cardboard all pinned down, we have thousands of sharpened bicycle spokes driven through every wood fragment all the wreck, holding it down while we map it.
This bicycle spoke thing became standard practice, although now they have higher tech ways of doing it. A lot of stuff George and Fred figured out along the way became standard.
Another thing they were the first to do? Reconstruct an entire ship from its fragments on the ocean floor. At that time, nobody knew what Byzantine ships look like. I asked Fred about this.
I mean, frankly, even though you've done it, it still seems impossible to me.
Fred Van Doorninck
Well, it almost was impossible. I'm fond of saying, if they had been one less fragment of the ship down there on the seabed, I wouldn't have been able to put the pieces together. There was just barely enough evidence to reconstruct the shape and dimensions of the ship.
And another part of this was that when this ship sank, it came down on bedrock, and then slid further down the slope, and the stern end of the ship came into sand and made an impression of itself into the sand.
Incredibly that impression, held in place by some wood fragments, stayed intact for nearly 1,400 years. In order to figure out what the hull looked like, Fred had to invent a way to measure the dent in the sand. He built this contraption using a protractor, some string, and a flashbulb. Seriously. Again, that's a technique still used, although in much improved form, today.
So huge triumph. 1967. Fred's figured it out. He knows what the ship looks like, and he writes it up, understandably proud, as his PhD thesis.
Except a few years later, a friend sees it, someone who knows more about ships, and says--
Fred Van Doorninck
You know, Fred, your ship would never have gotten out of the harbor. It's simply hydrodynamically unsound.
Fred's mistake? Although he had the back half of the ship almost perfect-- that's where most of the wood fragments came from-- he had just extended the lines forward to estimate the front of the ship. But since he didn't know anything about ship engineering, he got it wrong.
Working with a colleague who built scale models, it took Fred 15 more years to get the drawings right and ready for publication. Since Fred's not one to brag, here's George.
What Fred did did not just allow to see what the ship looked like. It actually revolutionized all of our ideas about ancient ship construction. I mean, it was incredibly important. It wasn't just saying, this is what it looked like. Because he found out that the ship was built in an ancient manner below the waterline and in a modern matter above the waterline. In other words, it's a transitional ship in a transitional period, between the ancient and modern world.
By the way, this is the George and Fred partnership. Fred does the endless, meticulous scholarship. George is certainly also a scholar, but he's the better diver and the better salesman. George traveled the world talking up Fred's work, spreading the gospel of nautical archaeology, and raising money to keep Fred hunched over tiny fragments of wood and pottery for 50 years.
The partnership worked. By 1982, Fred figured the ship out. As far as he could tell, the wreck was a routine merchant ship. A bit ho-hum, he called it. It was time to move on.
He was wrapping things up at the site in Turkey. But just as Rush Hour was followed by Rush Hour 2, just as Lethal Weapon 2 led to Lethal Weapon 3, the Fred and George franchise was not over yet. Right when they thought they'd retire, they got pulled back in for one last caper-- their biggest caper yet.
Fred got surprise news from some of his interns.
Fred Van Doorninck
Oh, Fred, you have to come and see what's been discovered. And I'm taken to this store room where there were some Turkish college student interns in there, cleaning these amphoras. And they were discovering graffiti on them, inscriptions on them.
And you thought there weren't any, right?
Fred Van Doorninck
No. And we had looked for inscriptions on them. But the growth, marine growth on them, had concealed these inscriptions.
The inscriptions were cryptic. Just some initials in Greek and some symbols. To figure out what they signified, Fred went on what would become his very last dive. He went down and brought up hundreds of amphoras, those jars.
And this led to a series of discoveries that changed how scholars understand the Byzantine Empire. For starters, they realize that the amphoras were made in uniform sizes, with uniform-sized mouths and uniform-sized stoppers. This showed that the Byzantines were using sophisticated mass production techniques more than a thousand years before the Industrial Revolution. They were way more advanced than anyone realized. The parts were uniform so that different components could be made all over the empire at different factories.
And then Fred cracked the inscriptions, which revealed something surprising.
Fred Van Doorninck
We finally realize from an inscription that the captain of the ship was a priest. And in the seventh century, there were a lot of priest sea captains, because the church owned a lot of ships.
So it's a ship owned by the Christian church, transporting supplies for the military. What Fred thought was a ho-hum merchant vessel turned out to be the key to understanding that the Byzantine church and the Byzantine army were far more intertwined than anyone knew.
In fact, Fred believes, on the day they ship sank in 626 AD, the church had lent the ship to the military to get supplies to troops who were fighting the Persian empire. It was the final year of one of the longest and most exhausting wars in the ancient world. The church's involvement and those mass production factories were part of this remarkable military supply chain that Fred helped uncover. In part because of that industrial sophistication, the Byzantines, who controlled much of modern day Turkey, Eastern Europe, parts of Italy, all the way to Spain, defeated the Persians, who ruled over present-day Iran and most of the Middle East.
And at the very moment Yassiada sank, Muhammad was forming the armies that would, a few years later, lead to the Muslim takeover of much of the weakened Persians' territory. Then those Muslim armies started fighting the Byzantines, Christians, in wars that would continue for centuries, and of course feel pretty relevant today.
By the time he was done, Fred had figured out not just what the ship looked like, and who owned it, and what it carried, and what it was doing the day it sank, but how that ship fit into the global politics of the day.
Fred Van Doorninck
And that took 50 years.
Fred Van Doorninck
Well, I guess, yeah. That's right. That's pretty depressing. I mean, I will spend some time today working on finishing, solving that puzzle.
You're working on Yassiada today, 50 years later.
Fred Van Doorninck
Yes. Every day I spend a little time on that project.
The interview was over. I left the studio. And then Fred turned to George while the tape was still rolling.
Fred Van Doorninck
Didn't seem like 50 years, anyway.
Adam Davidson is part of the Planet Money team at www.npr.org/money.
Act Three. The Answer To The Riddle Is Me.
Act Three. The Answer to the Riddle is Me.
We close our show today with this true story from David MacLean.
On October 13, 2002, I woke up in a train station in Secunderabad, India with no passport and no idea who I was or why I was in India.
I lost my memory. I lost it along with Fred Flintstone, Marge Simpson, Jack Bauer's wife in the first season of 24, Saleem Sinai in the late middle sections of Midnight's Children, Guy Pearce in Memento, Geena Davis in A Long Kiss Goodnight, Jason Bourne, and scores of sitcom characters who were bonked on the head, only to regain everything with another sizeable bonk.
I went to India as a Fulbright scholar. I worked out of university of Hyderabad. I had a small rooftop flat right next to the elevator engine. At first I thought it was a hell of a score, but these apartments are all over the city, and they're illegal, not included in the original building plan. It was incredibly hot, and the elevator engine squeaked and screamed as it lugged people up and down the building. But I did have the entire roof to myself, and could sit out there and watch kids all over the neighborhood flying kites from other rooftops.
I was settling down to do my work. I became a member of a library. It had a friend named Veda, a local grad student, and we had dinner together nearly every night. I was taking my anti-malarial drug, Lariam, every Thursday, just like my doctors told me.
One weekend in early October, I got really sick. Veda brought a doctor over to my flat. The doctor took my temperature, my blood pressure, palpated my stomach, gave me three injections. I asked the doctor what was in the injections, and he said, "medicine." I spent the next two days thrashing in my damp bed in fever dreams.
Veda called me in the morning of October 12. He had nicknamed me hero. "Hello, Hero. Are you up for some dinner or something?" I had no idea who he was. He spent the next five minutes trying to draw my memory, but as far as I knew, he was a stranger. I explained to him that he had the wrong number, and then hung up.
On October 13, 2002, I woke up in a train station in Secunderabad with no passport and no idea who I was. When I say that I woke up, I don't mean I was on a bench passed out and woozily came to. I mean all of a sudden, I was aware of my surroundings.
I was standing on the train platform staring at a monitor. People were pushing past me. Train announcements in another language were coming out of static-filled speakers. There were crowds of women in burkas standing near a stall where a man was making omelets. Massive trains would sound their massive horns before they trundled out of the station. And I suddenly was in the midst of all of this.
At that moment, staring at the monitors, I was a blank sheet that had just been rolled in the typewriter. No backstory, no motivation, no distinguishing characteristics, no real idea what I even looked like.
A man came up to me. He was wearing a uniform. He had a peaked cap and carried a long stick. He wanted to know if anything was wrong. I panned down from the monitor to his face. He was a little older than I was, but not much. His moustache was new and seemed uncertain if it would stay. Mostly, though, his face was kind.
I said to him, I have no idea who I am. Some chamber of emotion was unlocked in me and I started to cry. Blubber, really.
The policeman pulled a little away from me. He spent a moment considering his strategy, and finally decided on "There, there. Please calm down. I'm used to this situation. You foreigners come here to my country and do your drugs. I've seen this before many times." He pointed to a patch on his shoulder. "I'm here for you. I'm a tourist officer. Now, do you have a passport?"
I shook my sobbing head. "I think I slept in a room with monkeys last night."
"OK. Now do you have in your possession a wallet?"
I reached to my back pocket and pulled out a leather wallet stamped with an image of a cowboy with guns drawn. I was delirious with happiness. I open the wallet and there was my New Mexico driver's license. "That's me!" I shrieked as I shoved my finger on the square inch picture.
The officer took my wallet and put it in his pocket. "OK," he said. "Let's get you somewhere else."
I don't remember what happened next. My memory of that day and the next is a string of Christmas lights where only a few are lit. There's no sense to be made of which lights are lit, and you can flick at the dead bulbs as long as you want. They're not coming back on.
The officer told me his name was Rajesh, but I could call him Josh. He explained that it would be easier for me, since I was an American, to call him that. I thanked him.
We went through my wallet and found an internet cafe membership card. We went into a cafe that had the same logo. We got into my Hotmail account. By what means I was able to remember my internet address and password, I can't answer. All I know is that I send an email to my parents that contained the following information.
One. I was sorry for being a drug addict and for being such a terrible son.
Two. I was in trouble, but I should be OK soon, since the police were helping me.
Three. I would be home soon, and would work really hard to be a better person and earn their respect back.
Josh took me to a guesthouse which the police use as a safehouse for troubled foreigners. A Chinese woman ran the place, and she was known for being good with lost sheep tourists. The three of us sat down in our living room. White marble tile, creaking wooden furniture, and a shrine in the corner with a young man's picture on it. She gave me a glass of flat Sprite and she told me her story.
Her son had been traveling in Singapore when some bad men had injected him with drugs. He overdosed. She never got to see his body. They sent his ashes to her in a cardboard box. She wept as she told me this. "You do not understand what you are doing to your mother when you put these drugs into your body." She grabbed my hands and squeezed hard. I cried right back at her.
I was a drug addict, and I was breaking my mother's heart. I swallowed the narratives that they had given me. My brain was empty and famished. I'd taken anything.
Josh, the woman and I sat down and tried to remember my parents' phone number, which hasn't changed since 1977. It took six hours for me to remember the first phone number I'd never learned. The woman dialed and handed me the phone when it was ringing. My mother answered. I started crying at the sound of her voice. I recognized it. I couldn't picture her, but that voice I knew. "I'm so sorry, mom. I didn't mean to do this to you."
"David, you didn't do anything. We got your email. Are you safe?"
"I'm in a guesthouse. Josh and this woman are helping me. I don't have my passport, but I'm going to get to Delhi and come home. Can I come home?"
"Of course you can come home. You said there's a woman helping you? Let me talk to her."
"I'm so sorry I've been out of touch for so long. I've been a terrible person, an awful son."
"David, we talked last Tuesday. What's the woman's name?"
"She wants to know your name."
"Mrs. Lee," the woman said. "Is that your mother? Let me speak with her."
Mom worked at a software company in Marion, Ohio, and one of her coworkers was married to a woman from Hyderabad. Mom told Mrs. Lee that she was going to get the phone number for this coworker's family and have them come over to help.
I was put to bed before the sun set. I didn't sleep. The room begin to twist. It didn't behave. One corner of the ceiling would be too close. Another would be miles away. The blankets itched. I was afraid to drink the Sprite. Birds flew onto the balcony and looked at me dismissively.
I knew suddenly that if I left the room, I would walk into a wide, pink kitchen, and there were crackers on the cupboard, and if I went into that kitchen and pulled the crackers down from the cupboard and said something, said something specific, a sentence, something that was totally, feignlessly me, then I'd be all right.
I knew that as soon as I said it, all of my loved ones would flood up from the basement and the other rooms where they'd been hiding. They would grab me and celebrate me and hold me in their arms.
I stood at the door of the small room in this guesthouse in Secunderabad and was ready to enter into the arms of all of those people who loved me and knew me. I just needed to remember what I was supposed to say. It was right on the tip of my tongue.
I stood at the doorway for over an hour trying to remember. I would open the door a crack and peer out, looking for where all my loved ones were hidden, then bang the door closed. I did this enough times for Mrs. Lee to get freaked out and call my mom's coworker's family.
I lay back down and tried to remember. The room was getting worse. There were voices. I flipped the mattress over to find where they were coming from. They alternated between giving me hints as to the phrase I was supposed to say and mocking me for not knowing it already. "Isn't that just like you?" they'd scold.
I was sweating. I'd wet myself. Two men walked into my room. I'd never seen them before. They were both in their early 60s. One man had a silver beard and a Pompadour. The other had a thick mustache and jet black hair and an overgrown Beatles mop top. They both had dark South Indian complexions.
"I'm Mr. Desappa and this is Mr. Sampson. Your mother summoned us here to help you."
I looked at the two men looming over me. "This isn't going well at all," I said.
Sampson helped me up while Desappa flipped the mattress back over. They laid me down and knelt on the floor beside me. "You'll be OK. Jesus loves you." They began to pray.
The men stayed all night, praying and laying their hands on me as they prayed. I'm not sure when they called the ambulance.
The next day I came to again. Bruises on my wrists from the restraints. I was in the mental institution, Greenlands Mental Facility. Dirty walls, small table, glass of water, drawn cloth curtain.
A doctor with a receding hair line sat at the edge of my bed making notes in a file with a pen that wasn't cooperating. He kept scribbling in the margins to get the ink to flow.
The doctors put me on Haloperidol, an anti-psychotic, so my hallucinations slowed, and I quieted enough to be unstrapped. I was doped up on enough Valium that I was able to have visitors.
Veda rounded up every American he knew, figuring I'd be more comfortable surrounded by them. These visitors acted like they knew me. They called me Dave, so I played along. They brought me newspapers and cigarettes. I had never smoked a day in my life, but I started chain smoking in the mental institution.
The the only thing I would consume other than cigarettes was curd rice. The nurses brought it to me in heaping platefuls. The Valium and Haloperidol made me affable. The nurses claimed I was the most entertaining psychotic they'd ever had.
At this point, you know more about me than I did at that moment. Those days where I was fed heavy meds through an IV, people treated me a certain way, and I became the kind of person who is treated like that. All I had to go on for my identity was the reactions of the people around me. I assembled a working self out of the behavior of others.
The truth, or at least what my family, the State Department, the Fulbright Organization, and I have determined as the truth is that the psychotic break, the hallucinations, the amnesia-- it all was an extreme side effect of the Larium, the anti-malarial drug that was a prescription of choice in those days. It's got a reputation for doing things like what happened to me, as well as much worse.
I started taking the drug a month before leaving, as prescribed. My mother says that she could tell I wasn't acting normally before I left, but she chalked it up to the stress of preparing for a year in India
When my parents walked into my room in the asylum, a motor spun inside my brain. I recognized them, and through them, I recognized myself. I wasn't sure of the details of my life, but my parents defined the broad particulars. We hugged, the three of us making a tent over the bed with our bodies.
I told my mom that I was sorry. She told me that she was sorry. My dad pushed his glasses up and rubbed his eyes. My sister Betsy had put together a box for me. In it were two dozen cookies and an array of pictures of me from different times of my life. Me in a kilt, me at the beach, me with a dog, me standing on a station wagon smoking a cigar, me with my sisters, me with my arms around different women. Whoever I was, I couldn't keep a straight face for a photograph.
My parents told me where they were saying. They said it was too nice for them, but the restaurant was good and didn't serve them anything too spicy for breakfast. They said I needed to stay for another night at Greenlands, and then I'd go home with them to their hotel, and then we'd get on a plane for the U.S. They said that Sally was excited to see me and that Ann was planning on coming to Ohio for a visit.
These names mean as much to you as they did to me. My parents said them like they were people I knew and loved, so I nodded and said I was excited to see them.
They checked me out the next day. My dad hailed a rickshaw and the three of us piled into the backseat, me in between the two of them.
In Ohio I met Sally, who was my dog. I talked to Ann, my girlfriend, on the phone. I recognized the dog, but not Ann's voice. We hadn't been dating for very long, and my parents didn't have any pictures of her. I had no idea what she looked like. She seemed nice. She seemed like she cared about me.
Those days spent in my parents' house, I mostly stared at pictures, trying to recapture anything of who I was. I developed a system. I would look at the picture and imagine this character of me. Then I would place this character I had developed into these settings. I would imagine the jokes that were told. I would imagine how the character of me would feel. I was gathering information on this character of me all the time.
Ann came out on Halloween weekend, and even when I picked her up at the airport, even when she kissed me, I wasn't sure I had the right woman. We spent the weekend hiking with my parents. We had sex that first night of her visit, and she was still a stranger. I could not remember her or any details of our relationship. It was wiped clear.
She was in love with me. I tried the memory trick of placing the character of me in a relationship with her, and it didn't fit. I couldn't conceive of myself loving her. Sometimes I think that forgetting her with the cruelest thing I've ever done to a person.
I called her a week later and broke up with her. Ann isn't her real name, by the way. She asked me to change it for this story.
I flew back to India on November 20, a little more than a month after the incident. I wasn't entirely stable yet, but I was terrified that the Fulbright Organization would pull my funding if I gave them too much time to mull my psychological condition. I figured the best way back to health was to act like I was healthy. I put on a placid professional exterior while inside I was a full martini glass placed on a rubber ball.
It wasn't until I was on the connecting flight into Hyderabad that I realized I had no idea of where I lived. I panicked as we were touching down. I figured I'd get a cab. I just had no idea where to tell the driver to go.
Instead, Veda was waiting for me at the airport. I didn't recognize him, but by that time, I recognized the look of someone recognizing me. It was a skill I had developed in Ohio. I'd forgotten that I had emailed him my flight details.
He clapped me on my back and said, "The hero returns!" He gave me a bag full of toothpaste, ramen, and milk. "Enough to last you for a day," he said.
We drove through the city. It was 4 AM and silent. We made turn after turn until we ended up in front of a tall building that looked like all of the other apartment complexes. Veda took me up the elevator and then up a short flight of stairs. He handed me a keyring. "OK then, hero. I will be off. I can get some sleep before the kids start causing terror."
"You have kids?" "I will call you on your mobile, and we can go for some dinner at your favorite place."
I grabbed him, and I learned that Veda didn't like to be hugged.
I opened the door. Nothing. The road, the building, and now my apartment. Nothing was jogged, jostled, or loosened in my memory. I was alone, and lonelier than I thought it could be in a room filled with things that I'd selected.
There were books. I opened them and found my handwriting in the margins. Still nothing. I had read these books. Now I had to read them again. But why bother? If I lost my memory again, all that work would be futile.
The city started to wake up, and the sounds of bicycles, car horns, and newspaper wallahs rose up to me on the roof. I lit up a cigarette to fight the tension building in my chest. If it was going to happen again, I would throw myself off the roof.
I stubbed out the cigarette and opened the door to an apartment furnished with the possessions of a stranger.
David MacLean fully recovered all his memory, except for the year proceeding his illness. The story is an excerpt from a book of essays that he's writing about losing his memory and memory loss. He's looking for a publisher.
Our program was produced today by Sarah Koenig with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, Lisa Pollak, Robyn Semian, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Production help from Brian Reed. Seth Lind is our production manager, Emily Condon our office manager. Our music consultant is Jessica Hopper.
This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, at the WBEZ offices in Chicago, there's a safe within a safe, and inside that, written by hand, some programming ideas Torey has for our show for the year 2111.
I'm dead. Everyone you know is dead. Here's what I'd like you to do.
I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.