LA Times Magazine on Bob Nelson

LA Times Magazine on Bob Nelson

Joined: September 17th, 2004, 5:17 am

January 1st, 2010, 12:10 am #1

The LA Times magazine did an article on Bob Nelson. It will be coming out January 3. For those who don't subscribe to the Times, it should be made available online in February. I'll post a link then.

Bob and I got the article today. It was fair and, I think, interesting for non-cryonicists to read.
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Joined: December 6th, 2009, 5:20 am

January 6th, 2010, 3:59 pm #2

http://www.latimesmagazine.com/2010/01/hope-on-ice.html

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January 2010
Hope on Ice
Robert Nelson turned to technology to beat the Great Inevitability, and then technology turned on him

You can be clinically dead. Legally dead. Technically dead. And still, you could be merely...mostly dead. Or so says Robert Nelson, arguably Californias pioneer on, as he delicately puts it, reanimation.

Hes not a physician. In fact, he has absolutely no background in science or biology. But for more than 40 years, this retired L.A. electronics repairman has plunged himself into a war with death.

Imagine, Nelson says with the excitement of a man whose elusive lottery ticket just hit big, if I had told a caveman one day there would be rockets traveling to the moon, hed think I was a weirdo! Well, thats what people have always thought of me when I talk about cryonicsthat Im some weirdo. But Im not.

Cryonicsthe act of freezing a body at the moment of death in hopes of perfect preservation until science finds a cure for the cause of terminationhas always been Nelsons baby. He was president of the first Cryonics Society of California, launched in 1966, recruiting some 200 believers. He was a media darling, peddling the topic to the likes of Life magazine, Regis Philbin and Phil Donahue. And he was first to freeze a decedent.

Eventually, Nelsons beliefs would drain him emotionally, break him financially, ruin his marriage and sink him into a nasty lawsuit filed by survivors loved ones, who called him everything from a swindler to a man against God.

The hurt ran so deep he refused to discuss his cherished beliefs for two decades. But time has softened his stancewell, time and the attention of Hollywood, suddenly anxious to bring Nelsons tale of death on ice to a theater near you. It feels like divine intervention, says Nelson, in an ironic nod to the supreme being hes allegedly trying to outwit. Its not normal for me to talk this way, but I have to think its all being orchestrated by a higher power.

Blame it on the fates, as well, for that day back in 1966, when Nelson was racing his Porsche down the Ventura Freeway listening to Tony Bennett on the radio, and a deejay broke in: Hey, does anyone out there want to live forever? If so, call the Life Extension Society... He recalls it vividly: I almost jumped out of my pants.

He had just finished reading a brand-new book, The Prospect of Immortality, by a man considered the father of cryonics, Robert Ettin­ger. A trained physicist and mathematician, Ettinger theorized death didnt have to be the end. He suggested that the moment your heart stops, you may be legally dead, says Nelson. But really, youre just a little dead.

This sort of dead state, so the reasoning goes, comes the moment the heart stops, when the brain is still fresh, and the bodys cells havent deteriorated. Freezing a newly expired body could then halt deaths decay. And wouldnt that give science the time to conquer mans ultimate foe?

The biggest misconception about cryonics is we want to freeze dead bodies and bring them back to life, says Nelson. That cant be done. We simply want to stop the dying process. The question then is not, Is this person dead? but Can this person be revived?

In those early days, the thought consumed Nelson, compelling him to that first Life Extension Society meeting, held at an L.A. home with all the charm of the Bates Motel. Helen Kline was kind, elderly and a passionate believer. More friendly facesMarie Sweet, Russ Stanley, Marcy Johnsonfollowed. Among them, no white coats, no doctors. These were ordinary people, he says. Exactly like me.

Renaming themselves the Cryonics Society of California, the group declared Nelson its president. And within weeks, his zest for the subject landed him speaking engagements and interviews. Membership swelled, and more cryonics groups appeared across the country.

Then in January 1967, Nelson got the call that changed his life. Please, Im desperate, said the voice, belonging to a Glendale mortuary owner. Ive got a man here who wants to freeze his father. He wont leave. And I dont know what hes talking about!

Dr. James Bedford, a respected psychology professor, had terminal cancer. With two weeks to live, cryonics was his last option. He ordered his son, Norman, to make the arrangements. No matter that Nelsons society had never frozen so much as a stray cat and that they had no means to store a body once it was frozen. Nelson agreed, spurred on by the man hed come to befriendRobert Ettinger.

It was worth a shot, says Ettinger, who, at 91, still recalls their excitement. At some point, youve just got to do it. Plus, as Ettinger would say to Life afterward: If it all turns out to be a pipe dream, what have you lost? Youre dead anyway.

So Bedford donated his body to the Cryonics Society and promised to bequeath them $300,000. But for Nel­son, along with Ettinger and friend Rob­ert Prehoda, a physiologist and cryonics enthu­siast, the question was simply...Now what?

When the inevitable happenedBedford diedNelson and company did the best they could. They bought a containerthe shipping box for a traditional casketlined it with plastic and thick blocks of Styrofoam. Then I got this pickup truck, filled it with 500 pounds of dry ice, loaded up the container and drove to the convalescent home, Nelson says. Well, after we had Mr. Bedford all packed up on ice, we called Norman to come take his dad.

But take him where? Well, the Hope Wig Factory in Phoenix, actually, where owner Ed Hope, a staunch Ettinger fan, had been welding his own airtight version of cryonics containers behind his warehouse.

Still, young Bedford didnt see how he could ever retrieve his fathers frozen corpse.

So, here I amI have this container with Mr. Bedford, says Nelson. Its full of ice, weighs hundreds of poundsand Norman is not coming to get it.

Nelson and his buddies had no choice but to load the deceased back into their truck and keep him, temporarily, in a friends garage. His friends wife, who apparently hadnt been told a frigid body would be stored in her garage, objected. Bob, his pal said the next morning, a womans screams audible in the background, youve got to move him. So the Bedford container was taken to another members garage in Topanga Canyon. Ten days passed before Bedfords son was able to retrieve his father.

They rendezvoused in San Diegos Balboa Park; no one seemed to notice Nelsons crew pulling a packed casket container out of a truck and sliding it into the hearse Norman Bedford had rented for his trip.

And after that?

I have no idea, Nelson says. I never heard from Bed­ford again. And we never got that $300,000 his dad promised.

Youd think that experience would have prevented Nelson from ever freezing the dead again. But it didnt.

Eight months later, Marie Sweet died. Then founding member Helen Kline passed. Neither left behind funds, forcing Nelson to beg his associates for donations to buy cryonics capsules from the wigmaker.

Kline and Sweet sat on dry ice, resting in the garage of a sympathetic mortuary owner, Joe Klockgether, who ran Ren­aker Mortuary in Buena Park and often let Nelson use his property to prepare and store his patients.

And so it went for nearly a year. Then Russ Stanley, the cryonics groups official record keeper, died. He bequeathed the society $10,000, enough to buy land at Oakwood Memorial Park in Chatsworth and build an underground vault to store iced remains in perpetuity.

Eventually, Nelson also negotiated his way into two cryonics capsules from Hope. Each was intended to hold one body, but faced with limited resources, Nelson stacked his collection of cold corpses. Sweet, Kline, Stanley and another man, Louis Nisco, shared the first capsule. And by the end of 1973, three others shared the second capsule, including the body of a seven-year-old girl, Genevieve Delaporte, whose desperate father begged Nelson to take on his little girl after she died of cancer in the summer of 1971. Delaporte had no money, like every one else, but Nelson refused to turn down the broken­hearted father.

Nelson knew he was in over his head, maintaining seven frozen corpses in a vault underneath the Chatsworth cemetery. He had no fundsand oddly, no support from his fellow cryonics members. His wife of 13 years signed off on a loan to give him extra cash for his cause, but that turned out to be the end for us, he says. My marriage failed. And I was just drowning.

And thats when the liquid nitrogen capsules stopped working. I kept trying to repair them, to put more liquid nitrogen in them, Nelson says. But they were like the first car ever built, really. They were antiques, made by a wigmaker.

Nelson painfully decided to stop repairing the first capsule in 1971, allowing the bodies to defrost and decompose within the airtight capsule. But for years, he fought to keep the second going, mostly because it held little Genevieve.

He kept up his faithful watch, until his mom fell ill in 1975, taking him out of town for several days. He returned to find the second capsule in trouble. It took 15 minutes to get the guts to touch it. And when I did, it was hot, he says. I just fell to my knees and cried.

Nelson swears he contacted surviving family members to let them know. The relatives say Nelson never even sent a note about the capsule failures, and they never knew their loved ones were left to spoil. Nelson resigned from the Cryonics Society in 1977. And in 1979, several of the relatives filed a joint lawsuit against him, even naming Klockgether a codefendantmostly because he carried a well-financed insurance policy, Nelson reasons.

The trial portrayed me as a guy trying to crucify Christianity, says Nelson. They claimed I said heaven doesnt existI can bring you back, all I need is your money. It was brilliant.

The defense attorney, paid with funds Nelson got by selling his beloved Porsche, argued his client made no money through his cause. Still, the jury ruled against Nelson and Klockgether, awarding the families $800,000. The jury couldnt separate Bob and I, says Klockgether. But I can tell you, there was nothing illegal or immoral going on. Bob was a very dedicated person.

Nelson withdrew from the spotlight, remarried and lived quietly for 25 years. Then, as fate would have it, a reporter for National Public Radios This American Life came upon a paper­back Nelson and cryonics follower Sandra Stanley penned in 1968. It caught Holly­woods eye, and producers battled for the rights, throwing around dollar figures and directors. Even Leonardo DiCaprio was mentioned by one zealous agent.

In the end, the movie rights went to Errol Morris, director of the Oscar-winning documentary The Fog of War. Zach Helm, who penned Stranger Than Fiction, is writing the screenplay.

Its the story of the ultimate dreamer, Morris says of his untitled cryonics movie project. Were talking about the deepest hopes of mankindthe prospect of winning against death. Its a great tale. And this will be a Hollywood ending for Bob.

And Nelson? He still dreams that someday, the mostly dead will be restored to life. The lifespan of man compared with the ions of time is but a microsecond, Nelson says. But if we should learn through Gods reve­lation to extend that a few more microseconds, Im sure He wouldnt mind.

Tina Dirmann is a crime author, entertainment journalist and commentator whos never too busy to go mad refurbishing a house.
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Joined: October 6th, 2004, 6:46 pm

January 6th, 2010, 7:30 pm #3

Sounds like a great movie
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Joined: December 6th, 2009, 5:20 am

January 8th, 2010, 8:03 pm #4

Seriously though, why not more cryonics in the movies?
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Joined: October 6th, 2004, 6:46 pm

January 8th, 2010, 10:05 pm #5

Dreams destroyed.
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Joined: October 9th, 2009, 9:26 pm

January 10th, 2010, 4:51 am #6

Perhaps I'm still traumatized over Francis Ford Coppola directing Jack.
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Joined: April 30th, 2006, 1:38 am

January 12th, 2010, 2:07 pm #7

Of course, I saw it more than 20 years ago; I might not have the same opinion of it, now. As I vaguely recall, my date thought it was "boring."
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Joined: October 9th, 2009, 9:26 pm

January 12th, 2010, 11:02 pm #8

For example, I like to distinguish between art films, such as Koyaanisqatsi (presented by, yet again, Francis Ford Coppola) vs Baraka - I hated Koyaanisqatsi because it insinuated that progress is futile. Now here's the funny thing. Though I DO appreciate good science fiction, my dad is a heck of a lot more into it. I'm pretty sure he's witnessed every book/movie in existence, and the Syfy channel - what a ridiculous name change - is on most of the time at my house. Nevertheless, if I sat down with him and began discussing cryonics in a real life context, I'm pretty sure he'd look at me like I'm nuts.


Yet I digress. My point is that I shall probably check the film out.
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Joined: April 30th, 2006, 1:38 am

January 13th, 2010, 2:05 pm #9

I am mostly ignorant about the art of film-making, (and most other forms of artistic expression!), but the two films Enoonsti mentioned seem like they would be "boringly fascinating." Seriously, after only a little bit of research, these films do seem as though they might be very interesting. Thanks to Enoonsti.
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