A man who shipped himself in a crate wants to find the men who helped
Over 50 years after Brian Robson mailed himself out of Australia, emerging on the other side of the world, he is looking for two friends who assisted.
With no email or social media in 1965, Brian Robson lost touch with two friends who took part in a reckless scheme: They nailed him into a crate to ship him across the planet.
Robson, 76, now wants to know what happened to those friends, who aided him when he was 19 and without the money to fly from Australia to London. Over the past week, Irish and British news media outlets have been trying to help him find out.
“It has gone up like a volcano,” Robson said in a video interview last week from his home in Cardiff, Wales.
The effort to help Robson comes as he is publicising a book, The Crate Escape, that revisits his stowaway adventure, which nearly killed him.
Aviation experts stress that low oxygen and extreme temperatures make stowing away extremely dangerous, and often fatal. Robson “was lucky,” said Ross Aimer, a retired airline captain and the CEO of Aero Consulting Experts. “In 90 per cent of the cases, the person never makes it.”
Freight airplanes are particularly hazardous, Aimer said, because the crew has no reason to worry about conditions in the back of the plane.
Robson agreed that stowing away was a terrible idea. “But kids at 19 are quite stupid,” he said.
Pining for Wales
Robson left Cardiff in 1964, when he was 18, to take a job as a ticket inspector for Victorian Railways in Melbourne, Australia.
It sounded like an adventure to him, he said. But he was quickly disappointed. The job was dull, it was difficult to make friends and he disliked Australia. He was soon plotting an escape.
But because the Australian government had sponsored his trip, he’d have to pay back his flight in addition to his return home. Robson said he was making only about 30 pounds a month at the time, and each flight would cost him 300 to 400 pounds.
“If you work that out, that’s two years without living and then you still got to live,” he said. “So I had to find an alternative.”
He decided to stow away on a ship. This failed. He ended up in jail for 12 weeks.
Three months in jail and turning 19 did nothing to make Robson hate Australia less. He said inspiration to “post myself” came from an ad for Pickfords, a moving company.
“They had a big sign up there saying, ‘We move anything anywhere,'” he said. “So I felt, well, perhaps they could move me.” (In 1964, another man, Reginald Spiers, had shipped himself home to Australia from London, although Robson said he learned of this years later.)
A delivery diverted
Robson acknowledged that details of his journey had differed across retellings over the years. But much of his account corresponded with reporting from the time.
Robson purchased a crate that measured 36 by 30 by 38 inches — just large enough to sit with his knees pressed against his chest — and booked passage from Melbourne to Sydney to London.
By then, Robson had, in fact, made two friends, both Irishmen working for Victorian Railways. They decided to pretend he was a mainframe computer, since those were expensive and delicate — important enough to make people heed labels that said, “This Side Up.” Around 11 months after he had first arrived in Australia, Robson climbed into the crate with his supplies: a hammer, a suitcase, a pillow, a litre of water, a flashlight, a book of Beatles songs and an empty bottle he said was “for obvious purposes.”
He said he did not take any food. “I certainly wouldn’t wish to go to the toilet whilst staying in a crate for five days,” Robson said.
Before departure, his friends asked whether he was sure he wanted to ship himself more than 16,000km in a crate.
“It’s too late now to change my mind,” he recalled saying. About 10 minutes later, a truck took the crate to the airport.
If all had gone according to plan, he would have walked free around 36 hours later. Once loaded off the plane, he would hammer out one side of the crate, he said, and “walk home, basically,” at night.
“There wasn’t a great deal of security in London airport back then,” he said. He wasn’t seeking publicity, he added. “All I wanted to do was to get back to the UK and disappear into the other 17 million that lived here and nobody would ever know it happened.”
But well after 36 hours, he was still in the crate. The pain hit him just two hours in. In Sydney, he was flipped upside down for 23 hours. He was placed upright on the next flight, which, instead of going to London, was diverted through Los Angeles.
Conditions were bad. “It’s freezing cold, or it’s boiling hot,” he said. “You’re going in and out of consciousness the whole time, you’re having very weird dreams and you’re not sure whether the dreams are real.” He didn’t have the strength to break out with the hammer.
Robson said he had no regrets, but he did feel that he might die on the journey. “So I had to wait for it to happen,” he said.
But then, after more than three days, he heard the voice of someone curious about light shining out of a computer box. (At some point, while turning on his flashlight, Robson had dropped it.) A man placed his eye against a hole in the crate, shouted and leapt back.
About 30 minutes later, a group returned. Robson recalled staring eye-to-eye with a man through a hole and hearing him say, in an American accent, “It’s not a body, he’s alive!”
The Americans found a stowaway who could not unravel his legs on his own. “I had no control over my body at all,” he said.
It took him several days to recover in a hospital in Los Angeles, almost 12,900km from Melbourne. Robson said he did not have any lasting physical damage. But for the next couple of years, he said, he had nightmares about the crate.
“I suspect the fact that he was offloaded at LAX saved his life,” said Irene King, former CEO of the Aviation Industry Association in New Zealand. Today, full cargo screening would probably stop anyone from getting as far. “A human body in a big box would start some alarm bells ringing,” she said.
Several Australian lawmakers moved to take legal action against Robson, whom one called an “apparently useless young man,” but officials let it go. The American authorities dropped charges of illegal entry after he confirmed his British nationality, Reuters reported at the time. After US officials decided he was not a threat, Pan American Airlines flew him home for free.
“The airline could have returned Mr. Robson to Australia but it had no flight there today,” The New York Times reported that week. “It did have a vacant seat on a flight to Britain where the stowaway wanted to go.”
As for his friends, Robson said that he was now 90 per cent sure that he had located them: One is in Australia, the other in Ireland. He declined to provide more details, saying only that several documentary-film companies were willing to pay for exclusive access to that story.
Written by: Heather Murphy
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES
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