Aug 5, 2022

Escape

This episode originally aired in 2012.

An all-star lineup of producers — Pat Walters, Lynn Levy, and Sean Cole — bring you stories about traps, getaways, perpetual cycles, and staggering breakthroughs. 

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

Now sit back, relax and enjoy what we hope will prove to be a welcomed Escape.

Episode Credits:

Reported and produced by Pat Walters, Lynn Levy, and Sean Cole

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LATIF NASSER: Hey, it's Latif. This week we are rewinding to an episode from about a decade ago, before I was actually on staff. But it's an episode I know so well. It's as classic an episode of Radiolab that there is, with a cast of all-star producers: Pat Walters, Lynn Levy, Sean Cole. Man, it's good. And not only is it a kind of a timeless episode, but it being August, the fact that people are maybe going on vacation or just trying to get out of the heat, you know, people getting away from their lives, felt kind of a natural rerun to play. So I hope for you that this episode, Escape, helps you slip away from whatever it is you need to slip away from, even if only for an hour or so. Enjoy.

 

[RADIOLAB INTRO]

 

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Tired of the everyday routine?]

ROBERT KRULWICH: Ooh!

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Ever dream of a life of romantic adventure?]

ROBERT: Yeah.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Want to get away from it all?]

ROBERT: Yeah!

[ARCHIVE CLIP: We offer you escape!]

ROBERT: What is this?

JAD ABUMRAD: Shh. Just wait.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Escape. Designed to free you from the four walls of today for a half hour of high adventure.]

JAD: Okay, so this is an old-time radio show from the 1940s, late-'40s.

ROBERT: I figured that.

JAD: Called Escape.

ROBERT: Uh-huh.

JAD: It always starts the same way, you know, with ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: We offer you escape!]

JAD: ... that phrase. I love how they say it. And here's what's great about this show, and why it seems like a good way to start this show, our show, is that immediately after they say that phrase?

ROBERT: Yeah.

JAD: They then present you with a scenario from which there seems to be no escape.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: You are hanging by your fingertips on the sheer face of an ice cliff.]

JAD: Like, here's one.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Suspended a thousand feet above instant death, with your strength running out, and with no chance for escape.]

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: There's a million of these.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: You are aboard a Chinese junk run aground off the coast of Borneo.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: You are lost in the London fog.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: You are a passenger aboard a submarine.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: You are the subject of an experiment.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Nazi agents ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Nameless terrors ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Gigantic department stores ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: No escape!]

ROBERT: Ooh! [laughs]

JAD: Wait, one more. One more just for kicks.

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

ROBERT: [laughs]

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

ROBERT: Escape!

JAD: It's like the best story ever!

ROBERT: That's true.

JAD: So, you ready?

ROBERT: Okay.

JAD: This hour ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: We offer you ....]

ROBERT: Three bizarre scenarios.

JAD: True stories ...

ROBERT: Of people ...

JAD: And planets ...

ROBERT: Trying ...

JAD: Yearning ...

ROBERT: To ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: Escape!]

JAD: Will they make it?

ROBERT: And if they do, what are they escaping to?

JAD: Okay, enough of that. I'm Jad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert.

JAD: This is Radiolab. And to start, let's talk about escape artists.

ROBERT: Because why not, right? I mean, this is an escape show.

JAD: Exactly.

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

JAD: And our first story is kind of a Houdini story. It comes from our producer Pat.

PAT WALTERS: Yes.

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

ROBERT: Little Houdini, right?

PAT: Yeah. I heard this story from my friend Ben.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Hello.

PAT: Like, months ago.

BEN MONTGOMERY: How are you, brother?

ROBERT: Ben, your journalism friend.

PAT: My journalism friend, yeah.

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

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

BEN MONTGOMERY: In Only, Tennessee.

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

BEN MONTGOMERY: Chris Gay.

JAD: That's his name?

BEN MONTGOMERY: Yeah.

CHRIS GAY: Did y'all interview my brother and everything?

BEN MONTGOMERY: Yeah, we talked.

CHRIS GAY: Everything come okay?

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

PAT: You know, nickname...

BEN MONTGOMERY: But ...

PAT: He was a very little Houdini.

BEN MONTGOMERY: A short little guy.

PAT: Maybe 5'5".

BEN MONTGOMERY: You know, 140, 130. Like, his prison uniform was pretty baggy on him. He was wearing a white ball cap, and he's got a big smile stretched across his face.

CHRIS GAY: Escaping? I think it's actually addicting, I think.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Addictive?

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

PAT: How many times have you escaped?

CHRIS GAY: Probably about 13.

BEN MONTGOMERY: 13?

JAD: 13?

BEN MONTGOMERY: 13.

JAD: Out of jail?

BEN MONTGOMERY: Yeah.

CHRIS GAY: And I'm fortunate to—all 13, I made all 13.

JAD: Wow!

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

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

BEN MONTGOMERY: [laughs] I'll go ahead and call him that, yeah.

CHRIS GAY: So I got away from them and ...

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

BEN MONTGOMERY: He has escaped every way you can imagine.

CHRIS GAY: Slipped my handcuff off and went through the air ducts. Went out the back—in between the razor wire—jumped the fence. Pulled all my clothes off except my boxer shorts. [laughs]

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

CHRIS GAY: A zipper thing. Made a handcuff key out of my zipper.

BEN MONTGOMERY: He scrambled out windows. Ran out doors. Climbed over walls.

PAT: Snuck under walls.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Drilled through them.

PAT: He's faked suicide.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Twice.

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

BEN MONTGOMERY: Covering his clothes with pepper.

CHRIS GAY: Bunch of pepper.

PAT: Another time, he didn't have any pepper, but ...

BEN MONTGOMERY: He had found some roadkill.

CHRIS GAY: It stunk. It did smell like a skunk.

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

PAT: Pretty good at hiding, too.

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

PAT: Once he hid in a grave.

CHRIS GAY: It was a shallow grave.

PAT: Beside a dead body.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Another time he ...

PAT: ... ended up on a college campus someplace outside Atlanta.

BEN MONTGOMERY: And he hid out on top of an air duct for two days until the coast was clear. [laughs]

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

BEN MONTGOMERY: There's never a record of him assaulting anyone.

CHRIS GAY: No. I refuse to do it.

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

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

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

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

BEN MONTGOMERY: This was a few years ago in 2007.

PAT: Ben got a press release.

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

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

CHRIS GAY: Said my mom was—was dying.

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

BEN MONTGOMERY: He was going to see his mom to pay his last respects.

CHRIS GAY: I didn't expect her to live very long.

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

CHRIS GAY: When I get down there I run off the road.

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

PAT: Jumps out of the truck ...

CHRIS GAY: Just as I was running toward the house, they start—they jumped out of the cars and running toward me.

BEN MONTGOMERY: And just before he makes it inside, they chase him into the woods.

PAT: And he disappears without seeing his mom, who would end up dying before he could see her.

JAD: Oh.

PAT: A few days later, Chris turns up in Daytona Beach.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Driving a tour bus that belonged to Crystal Gayle.

JAD: The country singer?

BEN MONTGOMERY: Yeah.

JAD: He stole Crystal Gayle's tour bus?

BEN MONTGOMERY: In Tennessee.

JAD: And then drove it to Florida?

BEN MONTGOMERY: Yeah.

PAT: So you get this press release and you think what?

BEN MONTGOMERY: I thought, "How do you miss with a story like this?" [laughs]

PAT: So Ben writes this story for the newspaper.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Big news.

PAT: And pretty soon ...

[NEWS CLIP: Tonight, a luxury tour bus that normally carries ...]

PAT: TV news people are on it.

BEN MONTGOMERY: It took off.

[NEWS CLIP: He's an escape artist, and something of a folk hero.]

PAT: And soon Chris something of a folk song, literally.

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

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tim O'Brien: [singing] ... of Christopher Daniel Gay.]

PAT: Pretty soon, a famous Hollywood director ...

BEN MONTGOMERY: ... bought the rights to the movie.

CHRIS GAY: They were originally trying to get Johnny Depp to do it but they ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tim O'Brien: [singing] They said his heart was just as big as his head.]

JAD: [laughs]

PAT: It's perfect.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Now here's the underdog making a run for it for what seemed at that time to be really good intentions. And part of me thought, you know, "This is awesome, but it's also [bleep]."

PAT: I mean, there's gotta be more to this story.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Absolutely. Who is this guy, really? And why does he keep running?

[GPS: Approaching destination on the left.]

PAT: You want to tell us where we're going?

BEN MONTGOMERY: We're going to Buckeye Bottom Road to talk to Terry Gay.

PAT: Terry is Chris's older brother.

BEN MONTGOMERY: He says he can tell us the whole story about how they grew up. Here we are.

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

BEN MONTGOMERY: There are some junk cars off in the woods.

PAT: We find Terry hanging out with a couple buddies, drinking some beers.

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

PAT: And we start talking about what it was like when they were kids.

TERRY GAY: You know, we lived in a little bitty trailer down there.

PAT: He points off into the woods across the street.

TERRY GAY: On this land.

PAT: It was Chris and Terry. They had a little brother named Eddie who went by Cotton. And then there was Leann.

LEANN GAY: Leann Gay.

PAT: The eldest.

LEANN GAY: I'm his older sister.

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

LEANN GAY: We grew up like mountain people, you know?

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

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

PAT: But you can't live on plums, and ...

LEANN GAY: A lot of days we would be hungry.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Leann remembers lying in bed one night, and she couldn't go to sleep because her hunger pangs were so bad. And Terry said, "Here, this'll help ya," and he ripped up ...

LEANN GAY: A little thing of notebook paper.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Gave it to Leann. He said, "Just chew it up real good and swallow it and it'll help you."

PAT: And for Chris and his little brother Cotton, those were the good days, because ...

LEANN GAY: When my daddy and her separated ...

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

BEN MONTGOMERY: Terry and Leann went to live with mom. Chris and his little brother Eddie ...

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

BEN MONTGOMERY: And the dad ...

TERRY GAY: Dad, he really wasn't, you know—I don't guess ...

LEANN GAY: He just wasn't no provider.

PAT: He wasn't around very much.

LEANN GAY: Uh-uh.

BEN MONTGOMERY: I mean, he was a deadbeat dad, yeah.

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

LEANN GAY: He'd tell them to go—if they was hungry to go steal from churches.

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

CHRIS GAY: We would go down there, and he got where he started making us fight each other. And if we fist fought each other, the winner got something to eat. You know, he was mean.

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

CHRIS GAY: He had dogs. He'd sic his dogs on us.

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

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

JAD: And they were 10 and 11 at this point?

BEN MONTGOMERY: 10 and 11.

JAD: Man.

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

TERRY GAY: They started out with bicycles, and then they went to, I guess, four wheelers and motorcycles.

PAT: It was all stuff with wheels.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Chris remembers going with Cotton to sit on a bluff.

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

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

TERRY GAY: And they went to, I guess, four wheelers and motorcycles and cars, and gradually got bigger and bigger and bigger.

PAT: Until one day when Chris was 17 ...

BEN MONTGOMERY: ... he stole a semi.

PAT: Didn't even really know how to drive it.

CHRIS GAY: But I climbed up inside it. The keys was in it, so I started it up.

PAT: And from there, there was really no looking back.

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

CHRIS GAY: Yep.

BEN MONTGOMERY: A semi.

CHRIS GAY: Yep.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Bulldozer.

CHRIS GAY: Yes.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Skid steer.

CHRIS GAY: Skid steer.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Tractor?

CHRIS GAY: Backhoe. [laughs]

BEN MONTGOMERY: Anything that flies?

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

PAT: The point is ...

BEN MONTGOMERY: This is his life for more than two decades.

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

[NEWS CLIP: Called a Little Houdini, who had police on the run in six states.]

PAT: But then one night something happened that seemed like it might break this loop forever.

BEN MONTGOMERY: He met a girl.

CHRIS GAY: Yes. Yes.

PAT: Her name was Missy.

BEN MONTGOMERY: She was waiting tables at a little campsite diner, and he thought she was cute.

PAT: And Missy ...

MISSY: He's a smooth talker, I'll give him that. [laughs]

BEN MONTGOMERY: Yeah.

BEN MONTGOMERY: She liked the way he talked.

MISSY: I was taken right off the bat.

PAT: A few months later ...

MISSY: I got pregnant with my daughter, and me and him ...

PAT: Moved in together. And for a while, life was really good.

CHRIS GAY: We still had a little money in the bank, and I was working good for Gregor Construction. Had a good paying job running that bulldozer. And I was actually going to school to get my safety license.

MISSY: We had a nice trailer, and it had a refrigerator.

PAT: Did you like it?

CHRIS GAY: Yeah. Oh, yeah, I really liked it.

MISSY: As a matter of fact, I was talking to my daughter last night.

CHRIS GAY: I became real close with my daughter.

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

CHRIS GAY: That right there was the ...

MISSY: It was the best moments and days of ...

CHRIS GAY: the happiest days of, I think ...

MISSY: Mine and his life.

CHRIS GAY: ... ever, I think.

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

MISSY: We were going right through the middle of Nashville, and ...

PAT: Chris says, "Look, I gotta tell you something. I stole something."

CHRIS GAY: I stole a Bobcat tractor.

PAT: "From my construction job."

CHRIS GAY: I sold it.

MISSY: To make ends meet.

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

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

PAT: [laughs] A Big Mac?

MISSY: Yes, I did. [laughs]

BEN MONTGOMERY: But it was only funny for a little while.

PAT: A couple of days later ...

CHRIS GAY: Somebody told on me.

PAT: He got arrested.

MISSY: He stayed in jail for about two years, and ...

PAT: And then escaped. I don't know how, exactly.

BEN MONTGOMERY: But before long, he stole again.

PAT: And ended up back in jail again.

MISSY: And ...

BEN MONTGOMERY: And Missy?

MISSY: I stayed by his side.

PAT: Again.

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

CHRIS GAY: I just hated being locked up.

PAT: "Hated being away from you guys."

CHRIS GAY: I didn't want to be away from my kids, and I didn't want to be away from Missy.

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

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

PAT: What kind of work were you doing?

MISSY: Worked on a sanding line, sanded rocking chairs.

BEN MONTGOMERY: And Chris meanwhile was thinking about his next escape.

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

BEN MONTGOMERY: ... stinking of roadkill ...

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

MISSY: I stayed with him.

PAT: Again. But this time ...

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

PAT: You were keeping tabs on him.

MISSY: Yes I was.

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

MISSY: You know, I was trying. Trying more or less to make him do right.

PAT: And it seemed like it was working.

BEN MONTGOMERY: But then one night ...

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

MISSY: Next thing we know we heard a loud beating at the door. Well, you know, I jump up and he jumps up, and the next thing I know he was moving that kitchen table and sliding it out. Next thing I know, he raises the rug up off the floor. He jumps down and then he says, "Cover it back up." So I covered it back up, put the table back, and answered the door. And they came in and they walked all around the house and—and they left.

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

MISSY: Yep. He was stayed up under the floor the whole time and they were walking over top of him.

PAT: Wow.

MISSY: You know, I guess it was more or less I was young. I knowed, but I was also in denial.

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

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

BEN MONTGOMERY: The next morning it's Halloween.

MISSY: Her daddy looked at her said, "Well baby, I'm going to work. I'll see you this afternoon. When I get home, we'll get your outfit on you and we'll go trick-or-treating up in Nashville." And that afternoon, Danielle was sitting on the back step, and she was just sitting there in a white t-shirt. And I ask her, I said, "Danielle, what are you doing?" "I'm waiting on my daddy to get home, Mama. He said we're gonna go to Nashville and we're gonna go trick-or-treating." I said, "Okay, he'll be back in a little bit." And she sat there and she sat there, and he never came home that night.

BEN MONTGOMERY: You—I don't really hear—like, I don't hear a lot of bitterness from you.

MISSY: No.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Is that accurate?

MISSY: Yes.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Why?

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

BEN MONTGOMERY: Yes, ma'am.

MISSY: Is that what you're asking me?

BEN MONTGOMERY: Yes, ma'am.

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

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

MISSY: Yes, I did.

CHRIS GAY: I should've been there for my kids.

BEN MONTGOMERY: Yeah.

CHRIS GAY: It'll take a lifetime of making up for what I've done.

JAD: So what do you make of this story, Pat?

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

MISSY: People live with how they grew up.

PAT: If you ask Missy, she says ...

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

PAT: But when we asked Chris, he said ...

CHRIS GAY: It's in my mind I'm gonna change. And I'm not only gonna change, I'm working to change.

MISSY: Really?

PAT: Of course, he has said that before.

MISSY: Truthfully?

PAT: What's different this time?

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

JAD: Wait, is he saying that he's gonna ask them to keep him jail?

PAT: Yeah.

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

PAT: Which made me think, I don't know, maybe?

JAD: And Ben, what do you think?

BEN MONTGOMERY: I don't think there's any way that Chris changes. I think he's, you know, unfortunately, doomed to stay in this cycle. Which sucks, you know? I'm sort of ashamed that I have that opinion.

PAT: Why? I mean, why do you think you feel that way?

BEN MONTGOMERY: I mean, my dad was pretty similar to Chris in many ways.

PAT: Really?

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

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

BEN MONTGOMERY: In some ways, you know, I'm sitting across the table from my own father.

PAT: Which doesn't give him a lot of hope.

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

PAT: And a couple of weeks ago, Ben got a letter from Chris. Can you just—can you read it for me?

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

JAD: So he's staying.

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

ROBERT: Thanks to our producer Pat Walters.

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

ROBERT: We will return to Escape in just a moment.

JAD: Hey, I'm Jad Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. And today ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: We offer you escape!]

JAD: We're talking about escape.

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

JAD: And in our last segment we met a guy for whom, well, the escape itself became a trap.

ROBERT: But now we're gonna take our escape motif to a much bigger scale.

JAD: Yeah.

ROBERT: And we're calling this, by the way ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The outer limits.]

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

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

ED DOLNICK: Yes, I hear you booming.

JAD: Ed Dolnick is his name. And he told us a story about ...

ED DOLNICK: So this is Isaac Newton's story, for the most part.

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

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

JAD: Which isn't true, I was told. Right? Isn't that hypocryphal?

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

JAD: Oh, really?

ROBERT: Oh!

JAD: Because Newton, according to Ed ...

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

ROBERT: [laughs]

ROBERT: Not what I would call a modest guy.

JAD: No. But ...

ED DOLNICK: At any rate ...

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

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

ROBERT: So this is kind of an enforced summer vacation.

ED DOLNICK: [laughs] Right.

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

ED DOLNICK: He's 21, 22.

JAD: Okay.

ED DOLNICK: Newton goes home to his mother's farm.

JAD: Mom is like, "Cool, now you can help me on the farm." But ...

ED DOLNICK: He says no.

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

ED DOLNICK: A bunch of textbooks.

JAD: And he locks himself in his room.

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

JAD: I mean, what was he doing in his room? Was he sitting there with a thousand giant textbooks?

ED DOLNICK: All that's known is that he did this.

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

ED DOLNICK: He came out with how gravity works, how light works, how rainbows work, how the tides work. And then, having done all that ...

JAD: In a [bleep] summer he did all this?

ROBERT: [laughs]

ED DOLNICK: Yeah!

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

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

JAD: And just to set this up ...

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

JAD: You know, pick up a rock, let go, it falls.

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

ROBERT: Like the moon. Which doesn't fall, it just floats there.

JAD: So one could conclude that the moon has its own separate set of laws.

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

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

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

JAD: And one of the things they saw ...

ED DOLNICK: ... was that the moon wasn't this mysterious, heavenly body that they see. It was a big rock. A regular, lumpy, potato-ish rock.

JAD: Uh-oh. People were like "Huh."

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

ED DOLNICK: If the job of a rock is to fall, and if the moon is just another rock ...

ROBERT: Why doesn't it fall down?

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

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

ROBERT: But it pays off.

ED DOLNICK: And here's the set up: you've got someone standing in a big field with a gun that he's about to shoot. And next to that person with this gun is a person holding in his hand a bullet.

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

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

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

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

JAD: At the same time.

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

JAD: Well, I mean, that's ...

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

ED DOLNICK: So this is a hard riddle. And the answer is ...

JAD: Well, wait. Why is it such a hard riddle? Because I would think that the bullet you drop is just gonna hit first. The gun's gotta go all the way.

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

ROBERT: Really?

ED DOLNICK: That's an experimental fact.

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

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

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

ED DOLNICK: And that's as far as Galileo took it.

ROBERT: Yeah.

ED DOLNICK: Newton looked at that and he said something smart.

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

ED DOLNICK: "Perfectly flat field that goes on forever."

JAD: "No. We're on the Earth, and the Earth is round."

ED DOLNICK: And what roundness means is that the ground curves away below horizontal.

ROBERT: So really what's happening is that as the bullet is shooting across the field and falling to the Earth, the Earth at the same time is very gradually curving away from it.

JAD: Now of course, most guns, you know, they don't shoot the bullet very far, and at that short distance the field is still pretty much flat.

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

ED DOLNICK: "Just the right gun."

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

JAD: "What if ..."

ED DOLNICK: "As it falls ..."

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

ED DOLNICK: "In just the same as the Earth is curving ..."

JAD: "Away from it?"

ROBERT: In this scenario ...

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

JAD: So the bullet then does what?

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

ROBERT: From which there is no escape.

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

JAD: In other words, what he showed was that in a very real way, there's no separation between us and the heavens.

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

ANN DRUYAN: And once you figure out the laws of gravitation, then you can send spacecraft to ...

JAD: Mars ...

ANN DRUYAN: Jupiter ...

JAD: Saturn. Anywhere.

ANN DRUYAN: Out there.

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

ANN DRUYAN: Hi.

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

ROBERT: Sure.

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

ANN DRUYAN: A kiss. A mother's first words to her newborn baby. Mozart.

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

LYNN LEVY: Okay.

JAD: The record thing.

JAD: And our producer Lynn Levy has been …

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

JAD: ... has been following this story.

LYNN: Ow!

JAD: Yeah, just turn it down.

LYNN: Yeah.

JAD: Okay, so pick it up where we left off.

LYNN: Okay, so, like, the point of the mission wasn't really to deliver this record. It was to go out and look at all the planets in the outer solar system.

JAD: Mm-hmm.

LYNN: So starting in 1977, these two little spaceships ...

ANN DRUYAN: Two spacecrafts, Voyager 1 and 2 ...

LYNN: Went racing away from Earth snapping pictures.

ANN DRUYAN: And so every time Voyager would reach another planet, you know, all of the Voyager people would get together, go into the imaging room, and see the pictures come from the outer solar system.

LYNN: Do you remember seeing them?

MERAV OPHER: I remember as a child seeing them in Life Magazine. You know, I was seven when Voyager was launched.

LYNN: This is Merav.

MERAV OPHER: I'm Merav Opher, professor at Boston University.

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

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

ANN DRUYAN: You know, just a complete revelation.

MERAV OPHER: Saturn.

ANN DRUYAN: The image of Saturn.

MERAV OPHER: Technicolor.

ANN DRUYAN: Like pink and ...

MERAV OPHER: reddish.

ANN DRUYAN: Turquoise colors ...

MERAV OPHER: Yellow and ...

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

ANN DRUYAN: Finally, that vision of Neptune, of this blue jewel.

LYNN: Really blue.

MERAV OPHER: It all came from Voyager. We had no idea how they looked like before Voyager.

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

MERAV OPHER: The cameras were going to be shut off to save energy.

LYNN: But ...

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

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

ANN DRUYAN: One last picture.

JAD: Describe it.

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

ANN DRUYAN: Kind of suspended in a sunbeam ...

MERAV OPHER: There is a very small dot of blue.

ANN DRUYAN: A pale blue dot. That was us.

LYNN: In Carl Sagan's words ...

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

LYNN: It was one of those really rare images.

ANN DRUYAN: Every single day I would hear from people who take that pale blue dot so deeply to heart.

LYNN: It was a complete reframing.

MERAV OPHER: After that, the cameras were turned off.

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

JAD: For what?

MERAV OPHER: It was not clear.

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

JAD: The edge of what?

LYNN: The solar system.

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

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

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

LYNN: That blows out through the solar system.

ANN DRUYAN: It's very fast.

MERAV OPHER: It can be between 400 to 800 kilometers per second.

LYNN: Anyway, it blows out from the sun, past all the planets, and it keeps everything else out.

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

LYNN: Yeah.

JAD: The wind gives it a shape.

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

JAD: And how long before they actually see something?

LYNN: 14 years.

JAD: Oh, man. That's like driving through Kansas but, like, a million times worse.

LYNN: But, there comes a day ...

MERAV OPHER: End of 2004.

LYNN: Where they stop listening for a while because NASA only has so many antennas, and they have to use them to listen to everything.

JAD: Mm-hmm.

LYNN: So for a little while, the Voyager team's like, "Okay, you guys over there can use the antennas. We're going to lunch."

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

LYNN: Nothing's happening anyways. It's been 14 goddamn years.

JAD: Knock yourself out.

LYNN: You guys? It's cool. And they come back a few hours later, start listening again, and ...

MERAV OPHER: It happened very sudden.

LYNN: Everything is totally changed.

JAD: Really?

LYNN: All of a sudden? Boom!

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

LYNN: Instantly. Just like all at once.

MERAV OPHER: Instantly.

LYNN: And then everything out there started to get messy.

MERAV OPHER: Very turbulent. Much more turbulent than before. Particles are also behaving a very different way, and the fields are very weird.

JAD: The fields?

MERAV OPHER: The magnetic field?

LYNN: So just like the sun has a wind ...

MERAV OPHER: The sun has a magnetic field as well.

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

MERAV OPHER: And how the sun rotates creates what people call a ballerina skirt.

LYNN: You know how like a skirt will flair if you spin around real fast?

JAD: Mm-hmm.

LYNN: That's apparently kind of what this field looks like.

JAD: Huh.

LYNN: But way out there, it seemed like the skirt started to fray, maybe tear a little. Threads had broken off and seemed to be floating around on their own, not connected to anything.

JAD: So what does this all mean? I mean, if the fields are breaking down and the wind is dying down, you said the wind is what actually creates the space of the solar system, does this mean we're out?

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

JAD: It's in the edge?

LYNN: Yeah. But it's not like a little, thin edge, it's a thick edge.

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

LYNN: Yeah.

ANN DRUYAN: And while we listened, the two Voyager ships moved through this edge for several years.

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

JAD: Like completely stopped?

MERAV OPHER: Yeah.

JAD: So now we're out?

LYNN: No.

ANN DRUYAN: No.

LYNN: I mean ...

MERAV OPHER: This is what people thought. But the other measurements ...

LYNN: Like temperature, number of particles, the magnetic field ...

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

ANN DRUYAN: So now we think there's a place at the edge of our solar system.

MERAV OPHER: Right at the edge.

LYNN: The edge of the edge ...

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

MERAV OPHER: People are calling it a stagnation layer, and there is a big discussion as why this layer exists and how thick it is.

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

LYNN: So has anything ever crossed this boundary before?

MERAV OPHER: No. This will be the first man-made object to leave any star. And Voyager was right there, smiling, touching that boundary.

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

JAD: So when is it gonna freakin' happen?

LYNN: It might've happened while we were talking.

JAD: Gah!

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

LYNN: Every day I open my Google alert for Voyager and I look and see did it happen today?

JAD: Do you really?

LYNN: Because if it happens before this show goes out I'm gonna be pissed.

JAD: Every day?

LYNN: Yeah.

JAD: It's the first thing you do in the morning?

LYNN: No. Like, the third thing.

LULU MILLER: This is Lulu now. So it's been years since that piece first aired, and Merav, did it cross over?

MERAV OPHER: It did! It did! It was 25th of August, 2012, the Voyager went across.

LULU: Wow! So it was just a few months after.

MERAV OPHER: So it was just after.

LULU: After that.

MERAV OPHER: Right. It was really, really close.

LULU: And what did it find?

MERAV OPHER: It's still.

LULU: It's still?

MERAV OPHER: Yeah. All the particles that come from the sun disappeared.

LULU: Hmm.

MERAV OPHER: It's really like an edge and you're entering to the realm of interstellar medium that is, you know, the stuff that comes from other stars. If you could put it in sound, you will see a lot of turbulence and then when you cross the edge it's much quieter.

LULU: Oh, so it did find an even deeper quiet.

MERAV OPHER: Right. Right. Yeah.

LULU: I do really like to just think about and imagine that little spacecraft out there, floating in the stillness and that silence.

JAD: Hey, I'm Jab Abumrad.

ROBERT: I'm Robert Krulwich.

JAD: This is Radiolab. And today we're talking about ...

ROBERT: Escape.

JAD: Escape.

ROBERT: And in this last story, I have a feeling that this guy actually does kind of make it through. This is a true ...

JAD: Yeah, I think he does.

ROBERT: ... honest escape. But he does it in the most original and most unusual way.

JAD: Here with the story is our producer Sean Cole.

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

PHIL LAPSLEY: He was on a long distance call to information. You know, 555-1212 and just an area code.

SEAN: This is Phil Lapsley. I first heard Joe's story from him.

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

SEAN: And it turns out that the tone in the background of the phone and his corresponding whistle was 2,600 Hertz.

PHIL LAPSLEY: Musically, it's about seventh octave E.

JAD: So he has perfect pitch?

SEAN: Yeah. And he was weirdly smart, as you'll soon discover. Anyway, he thinks to himself...

PHIL LAPSLEY: "That's very odd. Well, that happened once. I wonder if it'd happen again."

SEAN: Does it again ...

PHIL LAPSLEY: He didn't even really know exactly what it was at the time.

SEAN: But he does it again and again.

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

ROBERT: Wow! That's like having super powers.

JAD: That really is.

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

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

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: What were you scared of when you were little? I bet something scared you, because there was things that sure scared me.]

SEAN: That's Joe.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: I don't remember how old I was, but ...]

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

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: I was afraid, you know, something might happen. I crawled out the bed, found books on the floor and kissed it.]

SEAN: ... you pretty quickly realize that the little boy in that room who was playing with the phone, he was kind of desperate.

JAD: Really.

SEAN: He went to this Catholic school for the blind.

ROBERT: Was he blind?

SEAN: He was born blind.

ROBERT: Wow.

SEAN: And when he was there ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: Back in the fall of 1955 ...]

SEAN: ... things got pretty bad.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: A lot of the nuns whipped me and my sister really hard, you know, and shook us. Only one did the sexual abuse. She used to have me get on the table, and then she would get up on the table and lie down and she did the bad touching.]

SEAN: Things were pretty bad at home, too.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: Daddy would slam mother and hurt her and break things, and there would be lots of scary sounds and stuff at night. Sometimes I'd hug my phone up close and listen to the dial tone. The soft hum of the dial tone that was always there.]

PHIL LAPSLEY: It was a nice, warm tone. It never yelled. It never fought.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: What a wonderful thing a telephone is.]

PHIL LAPSLEY: It was just a nice way for him to comfort himself.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: Especially during those long nights.]

JAD: And so how exactly did the whistling thing he was doing ...?

ROBERT: How did that help him?

JAD: Yeah.

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

PHIL LAPSLEY: And when a long distance line was idle, when there was no call on it, this tone would be being played continuously.

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

PHIL LAPSLEY: The circuit's got this tone on it marking the circuit as idle.

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

PHIL LAPSLEY: Takes away the tone for just a moment.

SEAN: It goes silent. And LA goes, "Ah!"

PHIL LAPSLEY: "New York wants to make a phone call."

SEAN: And then LA drops its tone, and the New York and LA machines talk to each other. So that's one discovery. Another discovery is that you can dial a phone by just tapping the hook switch, that little button where you hang up. Tap that three times, dial the number 3. Seven times, dial the number 7. And so then Joe thought, "Wait. Pulses, tones ..."

PHIL LAPSLEY: "Maybe if you were to make little bursts of tone—" so something like ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: [whistles] For six. [whistles] for two.]

SEAN: As Joe demonstrated on a web show called Haxor Radio.

ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: [whistles] For nine.]

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

[ARCHIVE CLIP, radio host: Are you whistling that over the phone?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: Yeah.]

SEAN: And you could.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, radio host: I'm impressed.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: That's how you actually make a call.]

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

PHIL LAPSLEY: That's right. Joe learned how to speak telephone.

SEAN: Which is amazing. I mean, I think that's amazing.

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

SEAN: Yes. True. But Joe made one more little discovery that would change his life forever.

PHIL LAPSLEY: See, if you first dialed a number like long distance information, 555-1212, the telephone company doesn't charge for calls for information.

SEAN: So what he figured out was that once you get the operator on the line, if you then whistled to disconnect ...

PHIL LAPSLEY: But only for a little bit, only for a second or two ...

SEAN: The line nearly disconnects, but it doesn't all the way. It just sits in this kind of limbo waiting for instructions, waiting to be used.

JAD: Huh.

SEAN: And you can ...

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

SEAN: And make a free call.

PHIL LAPSLEY: Because the phone company again thinks that you're still connected to information, and its not charging you for that.

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

[ARCHIVE CLIP, phone operator: This is a telecom announcement.]

SEAN: And explore.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, phone operator: The number you have called is not connected.]

SEAN: And listen. And so he started calling all over the world, even broken number numbers just to hear the different voices.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, phone operator: Please check the number before calling again.]

ROBERT: I used to do this, by the way.

JAD: Did you really?

ROBERT: My sister and I would get on the phone. We could call information—that was a free service.

JAD: Yeah.

ROBERT: And we said, "Hello, information. Can you please contact us with Toronto?" And then we'd get the Toronto operator. And then we'd say, "Toronto, could you please get us in contact with Churchill, Ontario?" Which is way up north. Then the Churchill lady would come on and I'd say, "Could you please us in touch with [inaudible]?" Which is some Inuit place. And they'd transfer you to the northern-est place. We'd be talking to a person in the Arctic for nothing.

JAD: Wow!

ROBERT: It was the sense of going long distance for free.

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

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

JAD: So what happens next?

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

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

SEAN: And then he whistled up this one particular fateful call.

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

SEAN: It was just a gossipy operator who told on him.

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

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

PHIL LAPSLEY: [laughs]

SEAN: So Joe's busted. He nearly gets kicked out of school, and the whole thing causes just enough of a stir that people found out.

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

SEAN: And here's the weird thing. As news travels ...

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

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

PHIL LAPSLEY: "You mean I'm not the only one? You mean, there are other people who are interested in this as well?"

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

PHIL LAPSLEY: That really ended up being the focal point for a whole generation of phone phreaks.

[NEWS CLIP: This is NBC Nightly News.]

JAD: Phone what?

SEAN: Phone phreaks.

[NEWS CLIP: Phone phreaks will tell you that phone phreaking began with a blind young man named Joe Engressia. One thing he discovered was that he could whistle his own calls.]

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

[ARCHIVE CLIP, phone operator: You have reached a non-working number.]

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

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

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

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

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

JAD: Hmm.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: Esquire Magazine. 1971.]

PHIL LAPSLEY: March of 1971 is when he moved to Memphis.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: Reporter. In that month, he had done very little long distance phone phreaking from his own phone. He had begun to apply for a job with the phone company.]

PHIL LAPSLEY: Yeah, he went there intending to "Get a job and be a man," as he put it.

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

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

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

STEVEN GIBB: He lived in a couple places. The first one was, you know, just imagine skid row. I mean, it was. You know, he woke up one morning when the heat went out and he stepped on a dead, frozen rat because he ended up sleeping in his coat. I mean, that's all he could afford.

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

STEVEN GIBB: Like the armed services in Moscow.

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

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

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

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

PHIL LAPSLEY: Two weeks later is when he walked out the door and the FBI came up said, "Joseph Engressia?"

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

SEAN: That's right. That's right.

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

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

JAD: With the phone company?

SEAN: That's right.

ROBERT: What a weird way to go about it.

SEAN: And amazingly, it worked.

ROBERT: [gasps] Really?

SEAN: Yeah.

PHIL LAPSLEY: He got four job offers.

SEAN: All phone jobs.

PHIL LAPSLEY: So he got a job at a little independent Millington Telephone Company.

SEAN: And he started cleaning telephones.

PHIL LAPSLEY: Anything from cleaning phones to servicing equipment.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: Any kind of job will do.]

SEAN: But any kind of job wouldn't do.

PHIL LAPSLEY: He really didn't like it.

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

PHIL LAPSLEY: And so in 1975 ...

STEVEN GIBB: In '76.

PHIL LAPSLEY: Whatever. He moved to Denver.

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

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

PHIL LAPSLEY: Mountain Bell Telephone.

SEAN: And that's when he started phreaking for The Man.

PHIL LAPSLEY: So he worked as a network troubleshooter.

SEAN: And at this point, he had such an intimate knowledge of all the little clicks and pops of the phone system that he could ...

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

SEAN: Maybe even where it was.

JAD: Wow!

SEAN: Strictly from listening.

PHIL LAPSLEY: Strictly from listening.

SEAN: This was listening to the dial tone times nirvana.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: Now it should go through.]

SEAN: And he demonstrated his powers on the New York radio station WBAI. There was a show called Off the Hook.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Engressia, Jr.: That good old ring. Notice the click. That one. Now it'll answer briefly. Now it'll go funny. See, now it'll stay like that as long as you want to stay on it. It's a nice sound. [singing] Oh, it drops off on number five ESS, I forgot.]

ROBERT: [laughs]

JAD: Wow, he's like a Jedi master!

SEAN: Yeah, he's made it.

ROBERT: Yeah.

SEAN: So he quit.

JAD: What?

SEAN: Gave up the job for his friend.

JAD: But it sounds like he finally got what he wanted.

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

ROBERT: Meaning what?

SEAN: That little boy, that broken little boy that he was, still needed a kind of fixing in a way that wasn't gonna be—you know, no job is really gonna solve that.

ROBERT: So ...

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

STEVEN GIBB: Yeah, just everything he did from that point on, other than his phone, had to do with children.

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

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

[ARCHIVE CLIP, girls: Hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi, hi.]

STEVEN GIBB: And I could hear the parents in the back saying ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, parent: Don't sit on all of his stuff.]

STEVEN GIBB: ... "Don't sit on his toys." And he actually started talking a little more to me about his being abused and missing out on his childhood. And he was at a seminar, an uplifting seminar, and the instructor said something on the order of—I'm paraphrasing—tell me how you feel right now. And he screamed and yelled and threw up his arms and said, "Joybubbles!"

SEAN: And in that moment, he decided that he would actually go by that name: Joybubbles.

JAD: You mean he changed his name?

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

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

SEAN: Five years old forever. And then he started doing this.

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

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

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joybubbles: Hello kids and chidults. I think a chidult is part child and part adult.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joybubbles: Well, hello. Hi, and hello. This is Stories and Stuff.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joybubbles: You've reached Stories and Stuff. This is Joybubbles here in Minneapolis. That's all one word. Don't you dare split it. Joybubbles.]

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

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

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Bowen Wang. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Natalie Middleton.]

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