The Crate Escape

In which I include a 75-year-old man's email address and ask you to contact him, but only if certain conditions are met. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

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If your name is John or Paul, and you’re Irish, and you lived in Australia in the 1960s, and you once helped a guy pack himself in a crate so you could ship him as cargo to London, and he’d save the cost of an airline ticket, he’d like to hear from you.

His email address is: brianpms@hotmail.com.

I suppose some context is in order for the rest of us.

Call it the folly of youth. Or perhaps, rash action with incomplete information (spoiler alert, on that one).

Or else: Big, stupid, crazy things young people do, in order to save an amount of money that later seems quite small, given the risk.

But our tale begins in in July 1964, when a 19-year-old Welshman named Brian Robson traveled to Australia for a railway job.

Upon arrival, he didn’t like the job. Apparently, he didn’t much like Australia.

He ran afoul of the law—“false pretenses” was the charge—and spent five months in an Australian jail. When he got out in April 1965, he wanted only to return home to Wales.

But, he’d had an agreement with the railroad that he had to stay in Australia for two years, or else he’d have to reimburse the cost of bringing him there in the first place.

The roundtrip flights would have added up to £700 (the equivalent, if my math is right, of about $16,000 today). He was making £40 per month. So, Robson came up with a plan.

Actually, I feel like that should be in quotes: “a plan.”

He got the idea to ship himself home. The idea involved a very small crate. And, he recruited his two friends—John and Paul (no Ringo, I guess).

How small a crate? An absurd 3 feet x 3 feet x 2 feet, according to the BBC, which created a diagram to show what that would have looked like. I don’t know exactly how tall Robson was, but it meant he had to sit with his knees folded to his chest.

Sure, he conceded, it would be cramped, but it would “only” be for about 36 hours. They nailed him inside, equipped with:

  • a suitcase,

  • a pillow, blankets, and “several biscuits”

  • a water bottle,

  • a book about the Beatles, to pass the time,

  • an empty bottle (to deal with latter stages of the water-drinking process),

  • a flashlight, and

  • a hammer to smash his way out upon arrival.

John and Ringo (sorry, Paul) covered the crate with labels reading “Fragile,” “Handle With Care,” and “This Side Up,” and paid the fee to ship Robson from Melbourne to London.

"Unfortunately,” Robson, now 75, told the radio show As It Happens, “the whole thing went wrong."

Where to begin? First, it turns out nobody cared about the “Fragile” and “This Side Up” labels, as the CBC reported:

There seemed to be an endless number of stopovers, and the airport crews didn't pay much attention to the crate's labels. At one point, Robson says he was left upside down on a tarmac, literally sitting on his head for 24 hours because there wasn't enough room in the crate to turn around.

He considered breaking free and abandoning the whole scheme.

"I played with the idea for a few seconds and convinced myself, look, you've done all this. You cannot embarrass yourself now. You're going ahead with it and that's it," he said.

Even worse, as perhaps anyone who has ever lost luggage might be wondering, the crate was incorrectly shipped to the wrong destination.

The trip took five days, not 36 hours, and Robson wound up not in London, but Los Angeles. He was so weak by the time he heard American voices (yelling about a dead body in a crate) that he couldn’t move or speak.

He was detained in California for a little while, then deported back the UK—in first class on Pan Am, he now says.

At the time, his story made worldwide headlines. He says he refused to name the friends who helped him for fear they’d get in trouble.

Now, however he’s written a book about the whole thing. Title: The Crate Escape.

In his media appearances, he says he’d forgotten John and Paul’s last names, and he’s hoping that publicity from the book will help him find them.

(Given the passage of time and the fact that his only reading material during the trip was a book about the Beatles, I do wonder if he remembers the first names correctly, but he says he’s “99 percent sure.”)

Now for the kicker. It turns out that the entire adventure wasn’t just dangerous and foolhardy—it was completely unnecessary.

I give you: the May 18, 1965 edition of the Australian newspaper, The Age, which reported that the Australian government had already planned to deport him to the UK, for free.

As an immigration official told the paper at the time:

“Due to an unsatisfactory record in his short time in Australia, and as there seemed little prospect of his successful settlement, Robson was to be offered repatriation to Wales.

Before this decision was conveyed to him he apparently left Australia. Had he reported to the department after leaving gaol [jail] in Brisbane in April, as he should have done, Robson would now be home.”

Not only that, but John and Paul, or whatever their names were, apparently discovered this fact not long after they’d packed him in the box and shipped him off to London. By then, of course, it was too late.

But John and Paul, all is forgiven. Send Robson a note. It’s 56 years later, and he says he’d like to buy you a beer.

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7 other things worth your time

  • Got to tell you, it takes a lot to get me legitimately angry at news stories. These two did it:

    • First, an Army sergeant raped two women, months apart, in 2017, including the wife of one of the soldiers he commanded. He wasn’t prosecuted, for reasons I can barely understand. Predictably (sadly), which I can say as an ex-military lawyer: He followed up by raping his own teenage daughter last year. After a plea deal involving all three crimes on March 30, he’s now doing 13 years in military prison—which is a lot, but not nearly enough, especially considering that the max punishment for a single rape in the U.S. military is life without parole. (Army Times, SCOTUSBlog)

    • Separately, but sadly a similar theme: A Boston police officer was accused of child sexual assault in 1995, but the department dropped charges, and he actually worked on child sex assault cases. Eventually, he became the president of the Boston police union. Now? He’s facing 33 counts of abuse of kids as young as age 7, including the daughter of the child he originally allegedly assaulted in 1995. (Boston Globe)

  • “The Twin Cities metro area was under a curfew and hundreds of Minnesota National Guard troops were in the streets to attempt to keep the peace on Monday night, a day after a Brooklyn Center police officer fatally shot a 20-year-old Black man during a traffic stop.” The shooting itself, seems to have been the result of a police officer who somehow confused her service pistol for a TASER. "Whether it be carelessness and negligence, or a blatant modern-day lynching, the result is the same. Another Black man has died at the hands of police," said the head of the NAACP. (USA Today)

  • New workplace perk: Use your vacation benefits during the pandemic, and get paid a bonus for doing so. (WSJ, $)

  • We live in the future: Order a pizza from Dominos in Houston, and you can choose to have it delivered now by a 100% self-driving robot. (The Verge)

  • Silver lining alert: As a result of Covid, many of us learned to clean the way we probably should have been all along. (Bloomberg)

  • Thank you to my wife. A few months ago, I was all, “Hey, we should ride out the pandemic on a welcome visa in Barbados,” and she wisely said, “OK great, why don’t you make the arrangements,” knowing there was a high probability I wouldn’t actually follow through. Now, with sincere sympathy for the people who live there, “volcanic ash is coating streets and surfaces on Barbados, and the air is full of ash particles and the smell of sulphur,” as a result of the La Soufrière volcano on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. (Travel Weekly)

  • Presented without comment, because I’d like to end today with a smile.


Thanks for reading. Photo from Pixabay. It’s not the actual Pan Am airplane that Robson flew on, obviously; people could only see in black and white back then. (My wife thought that was funny.) Anyway, if you’re not a subscriber, please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter—with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers.

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