“It was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” says Brian Robson — in what, as you’ll soon see, is a staggering understatement.
At the age of 19, overcome with homesickness yet unable to clear his debts and pay his airfare home, he convinced a couple of pals to nail him into a wooden crate and send him home as airfreight from Melbourne, Australia to Cardiff, Wales.
Robson was a skinny kid and figured he and his suitcase could fit into a box 3’ by 3’ by 2’ for the 36-hour journey. He drilled a few air holes and packed provisions: one pint of water, five cookies, a pillow, a hammer, a flashlight, and a bottle to pee in. After marking the crate “Fragile” and “This Side Up,” his pals hammered down the lid and wished him luck.
Naturally, things began to go wrong almost immediately.
Offloaded by careless freight handlers at the Sidney airport, Robson spent 22 hours upside down, sliding in and out of consciousness. “I spent most of my time, if I be truthful, in trying to control myself, i.e. calm myself down, because I didn’t know if I was dreaming it,” he recalls. “Was it a nightmare? Was I really there? And in between all that, of course, I couldn’t breathe properly half the time. I couldn’t move... Most of the water had spilled out.”
He was then loaded onto the unheated cargo hold of a Pan Am flight that had been diverted to Los Angeles. There, five days after leaving Melbourne, he found himself on solid ground and shone his flashlight through the air holes, alerting ground staff to his presence. There was a bit of an uproar involving the police, CIA, FBI, airport officials, and a judge. But it never got ugly. “Nobody was mad at me,” he recalls. “They just thought, ‘Oh, it’s this silly kid getting himself into trouble.’” Eventually Pan Am flew him home to Wales, first class.
There are many astonishing aspects of “The Crate Escape” as it was dubbed. For a start, as near as I can discover, no alcohol was involved. (What are the odds?) Also, nobody seems to have considered for one instant that this kid could be a terrorist and should be detained in Guantanamo. Why? Because this was 1965, decades before 9/11 put us into a constant state of hypervigilance.
And this wasn’t the first time such a stunt had been tried. The year before, an athlete named Reg Spiers caused a sensation when he successfully airmailed himself home from England to Australia after his wallet was stolen. What made him try it? Having once worked in a cargo area handling live animals shipped in crates, he told reporters, “I thought, “If they can do it, I can do it.”
My point (and I do have one) is that we tend to judge the looniness of ideas by their social context. Many regrettable incidents begin with the thought, “If they can do it, I can, too.” Social context can also lead us astray in the other direction, causing us to scoff at ideas that should be no-brainers. Take seatbelts, for instance. Today they’re routinely worn by 86% of Americans and are credited with saving a million lives worldwide. But back in the 1960s they were new and weird and (does this sound familiar?) viewed as an infringement of personal freedom.
Opponents — who often cut the seatbelts out of cars they bought — insisted that crashes were safer when you didn’t have to unclip a restraint to get out. While it’s true those who haven’t buckled up are 30 times more likely to exit the vehicle during a crash, their departure usually involves being flung headlong through glass onto pavement, with exceedingly unfortunate results. Despite all the evidence of lives saved, when a Michigan lawmaker introduced a mandatory seatbelt law in the 1980s he got hate mail comparing him to Hitler. A fellow politician called the bill “a pretty good lesson in mass hysteria created by a corporate-controlled media” adding that if they didn’t squash this madness, they’d soon be outlawing smoking. Gadzooks!
As you may have noticed, cigarettes haven’t been outlawed, but they are now banished from many places where they were common when I was a kid. Rich had teachers who smoked during class. I recall sitting in the loge section at the back of movie theaters so my parents could light up during the show. Sixteen years ago, when Rich and I moved to Spain, some of our favorite bars and cafes were so smokey we could hardly see across the room. That was normal then. It isn’t now.
But then, the concept of “normal” has always been a moving target. Our ancestors ran around naked eating raw meat from animals they’d killed in the wild. (I’m talking all the way back, not anybody I’ve known personally from my family tree.) No doubt there were Stone Agers who strenuously objected to the idea of clothing as an infringement on their personal freedom and thought the whole idea of cooking meat was just a bunch of newfangled hooey. And cover your feet? Are you nuts?
One of the side benefits of the pandemic (yes there are some!) is that we humans have taken a hard look at this whole “cover your feet” concept and decided to jettison 5000 years of increasingly stiff, uncomfortable dress shoes in favor of sneakers, Uggs, Crocs, and slippers. According to people who track such things, modern footwear is being redesigned as we speak to have wider, thicker heels, more bouncy padding on the insoles, and greater overall stability. Now that’s a new normal I can live with!
As we stride into the future in our comfy new shoes, we’ll find it’s changed considerably since Covid-19 began ruling the earth. But some things remain eternal. People will resist any change until it becomes embedded in our way of life, and then they’ll resist changing that. Politicians will blame the media for everything. And kids will continue to do incredible stupid things. If they’re lucky, they'll survive to be scolded and sent home, serving as a welcome reminder that sometimes the world can be kinder than we ever imagined.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Spain and currently living in California.
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