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Baghdad Country Club


Baghdad Country Club

Welcome to a place where even beer runs are a matter of life and death.

By Joshuah Bearman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 10

Joshuah Bearman has written for Rolling Stone, Harper’s, Wired, McSweeney’s, and The New York Times Magazine, and is a contributor to This American Life. He is currently working on his first book, St. Croix, a memoir.

Editor: Alissa Quart
Producer: Olivia Koski
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Research and Production: Gray Beltran
Animations, Illustrations, and Cover: Colleen Cox

Published in December 2011. Design updated in 2021.

Chapter 1

Terminal 2 was a mess, as usual. James was booked on the daily charter from Dubai to Baghdad, a notoriously erratic flight. It was September 2005, and this was the main way to fly into Iraq’s capital from the Gulf. Whether that plane was going to take off—or even show up—was an open question. 

Even in good weather, you’d arrive in the morning at Terminal 2, put your bags through, and wait. The place was dreary; the only food came from a basic sandwich shop and a coffee trolley that occasionally rolled around. If you were lucky, you’d seat yourself in one of the few plastic chairs, sip your burnt coffee, and hope to leave that day. If nothing happened by three in the afternoon or so, someone in a uniform would wander in and say, “Sorry everyone. Try again tomorrow.”

James had already spent three days there when a well-dressed Iraqi named Ahmed sat next to him and struck up a conversation. James was the only white guy in sight. Ahmed spoke excellent English, and to James his blue eyes suggested that he was likely Kurdish. They recognized each other from around BIAP, Baghdad International Airport, and got along immediately. James was a British soldier turned contractor, Ahmed a businessman, and at a certain level of Iraqi commerce everyone who was anyone crossed paths. 

James didn’t want to reveal too much about himself at first. As he puts it, these were the bad old days in Baghdad, and if you didn’t know exactly who you were talking to, it was best to stay quiet. But he found himself with plenty of time to discover that Ahmed had lived in Manchester, not far from where James grew up, in Leeds, and that they had some mutual friends. Ahmed, James realized, was an especially well connected businessman, the kind of guy who knew how to get 50 tractors or 10 tons of copper wiring or a meeting with the president. 

“And I also own Iraq’s duty-free rights,” Ahmed announced. 

“You don’t say,” James replied. “Then maybe you can bring in some booze, mate! There’s nothing decent to drink in country.” 

Since the invasion, eighteen months earlier, alcohol had been hard to come by in the Green Zone, the fortified compound at the heart of the city, which now housed both the Iraqi Transitional Government and American diplomats and soldiers. Theater-wide, U.S. military personnel were prohibited from drinking by General Order No. 1, a policy meant as a gesture of cultural understanding, despite the fact that, for the previous forty years, cities like Baghdad had a vibrant nightlife.

GO-1 notwithstanding, there was an entire occupying force in Iraq, and drinking followed. The Green Zone’s rump of a social scene was informally carried out in containers, tents, and trailers inside one fortified encampment or another. 

James had been coming to Iraq since the invasion, and he had done plenty of grimy drinking in various makeshift quarters. He knew recreation was lacking. Like so much about Operation Iraqi Freedom, the war planners had given little thought to the logistics of leisure. Which meant that, like everything else about Operation Iraqi Freedom, even R&R was ripe for enterprise. 

Another reason alcohol was a rare commodity in the Green Zone was the insurgency, which was raging out of control and making all commerce difficult—especially commerce in something like booze, which was haram, forbidden by Islamic law. Before 2005, you could drink in the open all over the city, but a Shia ascendancy and accompanying violence had changed that. 

Ahmed, it seemed, had access to imported alcohol. “Alcohol is not a problem,” he told James. But he couldn’t get it into the Green Zone, the biggest market. Supply was tragically separated from demand. James realized Ahmed was suggesting they go into business together. 

“I can get you many brands,” Ahmed said. “In volume.” 

“Call me when we’re in Baghdad,” said James. 

They exchanged numbers and went their separate ways. James didn’t think much more of it at the time. He told a few people about the guy he’d met in Dubai, but Iraqis have a saying: One coincidence is worth a thousand meetings. James wasn’t expecting it when, three weeks later, Ahmed called. 

“Are we on, James?” Ahmed said. “Reference our discussion.” 

Not long ago, they were two guys chatting in an airport. Now Ahmed was talking about container shipments full of booze already heading south. That’s how easily deals can be made in Baghdad. 

“We’ll split it down the middle,” Ahmed said. “I’ll take some off the top for expenses.”

Chapter 2

A few weeks later, James was cursing himself for getting into the bootlegging business. He had never handled that much of his own money before—$150,000—much less handed it over to someone he barely knew, in cash. His entire life savings was now denominated in liquor, which he had piled into an 18-wheeler and driven through hostile Baghdad. He wound up circling the Green Zone several times, unsuccessfully seeking entry—wrong badges, wrong checkpoints, wrong turns through the often deadly downtown—and was starting to get nervous when he eventually made it through Checkpoint 18.

Within days, James’s alcohol supply was sold through, at quite a margin. He had doubled his money, and that was just from informal sales through a small rented storefront. Now his ambition grew from accidental entrepreneur to impresario. James liked to talk about how the best things in life just happen to you sometimes. The key, he believed, was being ready to embrace them. He’d seen a lot of people talk themselves out of great opportunities. Not him. Not here. The way of Baghdad was to figure out what no one else was doing and make that your game.

And so James became an extreme restaurateur, opening the only authentic bar and restaurant in the Green Zone. It would be the one place where anyone—mercenaries and diplomats, contractors and peacekeepers, aid workers and Iraqis—could walk in, get dinner, open a decent bottle of Bordeaux, and light a cigar from the humidor to go with it. Patrons would check their weapons in a safe, like coats in a coatroom, and leave the war behind as they wandered past a sign that read:


Chapter 3

Like all institutions in occupied Iraq, the Baghdad Country Club was organized on the fly. James didn’t plan to open a bar when he first arrived there in 2003, with the British Army contingent of the coalition of the willing. He was an active-duty major from the elite ranks—the tip of the tip of the spear, securing Basra and the cities around it.

When his tour was up six months later and he returned to London, James was about to be promoted to a desk job, but at 30, he says, he “wasn’t yet ready for a slow death.” Two months after quitting the service, he was contacted by a friend who had started a security company.

“We’ve got something going on in Baghdad,” his friend told him. “Are you in?”

London felt lifeless to him. James’s first question was “When do I leave?”

Having fought in the South, James was new to Iraq’s capital, which was still a free-for-all, even inside the Green Zone. The war’s poor planning had plunged Baghdad into chaos, from which the Green Zone was an attempted redoubt, a fortified city within a city: four square miles bordered by the tan flow of the Tigris river on two sides and by walls on the rest. All checkpoints were militarized, providing refuge for the thousands of people who lived and worked at the various military bases and private compounds. The perimeter also housed Iraqi political headquarters and the U.S. Embassy.

At the time, the embassy resided in Saddam’s famous Republican Palace and was operated by KBR (formerly Kellogg Brown and Root), then a subsidiary of Halliburton. It was, after all, the first privatized war, and the Green Zone was full of profit seekers: thousands of civilian contractors looking for action in everything from paving roads to oil services to reforming Iraqi school curricula. It was contractors who built the new military bases, who cooked the soldiers’ food and laundered their uniforms. And it was contractors who formed their own parallel informal army, made up of ex–law enforcement and ex-military soldiers of fortune, flooding the country for lucrative PSDs, or private security details.

James knew people from the big outfits like Blackwater, which was quickly developing a reputation as the Wal-Mart of security: high volume and, many thought, poor quality. It was Blackwater that received enormous no-bid contracts to provide security first to Paul Bremer, the head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, and then to the State Department, at incredible cost and with little accountability. Enlisted soldiers were frustrated by the ubiquitous presence of better-paid mercenaries bullying the roads in gleaming armored SUVs and engaging with seeming impunity. Blackwater had been involved in a number of civilian shootings and, like many other contractor groups, would be accused of systematically defrauding the U.S. government. But not all contractors were like that. The companies James worked for were smaller, more focused, and, in his view, more professional. One of James’s first details with Global Risk Strategies, the outfit formed by his friend, was at the U.S. Embassy, securing the inner perimeter with about 500 Gurkhas, Nepalese soldiers known for their fearsome fighting. Later, James provided security for the UN-supported elections.

For James, Iraq held a primal appeal: He liked living in a world without rules, where you made things up as you went along. He fit neatly into the country’s trader environment, and spent a lot of time driving around Baghdad with lots of cash, “finding things that were hard to find.” He was director of intelligence for Global, and part of his job was knowing a wide swath of people: Military and mercenary, Western and Iraqi. And unlike the twitchy guys who drove around in battle mode despite the fact that they rarely went outside the Green Zone’s concrete T-walls—camp commandos, as they were called—James was unafraid to go out into the Red Zone, as everyone referred to the rest of Baghdad.

James bought a contraband moped, a Honda 150, and scooted around Green Zone wearing bespoke suits brought from home. Just because you’re in country, he thought, doesn’t mean your standards have to slip. He was a soldier of fortune, but of a gentlemanly sort. Friends thought James so connected, mysterious, and daring that they considered him the closest they’d come to meeting James Bond in person. He told of having snuck into Fallujah in September 2004, at the height of a frenzy of kidnappings and beheadings, undercover and alone, wearing a dishdasha and a grenade strapped to his leg —all an attempt to rescue a British engineer who was being held by Al Qaeda in Iraq. (The engineer, Kenneth Bigley, was ultimately beheaded.) Back in the Green Zone, James did favors, cashed in quid pro quos, and made quite a reputation for himself in the process.

His chance encounter with Ahmed had now propelled him into hospitality. There had been a couple locales for drinkers early on in the occupation: the Ishtar out at the airport; the Al-Rasheed Hotel (of rooftop-reporting fame during the first Gulf War), with its decrepit disco and illuminated dance floor adorned with the Baath Party star; the Green Zone Café, which offered hookahs and live Arabic music. But by 2004, the Al-Rasheed had been hit with rockets—one volley was fired from a donkey—and now housed a U.S. military cafeteria. Similarly, the Green Zone Café closed after it was blasted by a suicide bomber. And the Ishtar didn’t last, probably because Iraq’s transportation minister banned the sale of alcohol at the airport in 2005.

James was well poised to fill this vacuum. Besides the guarantee of Ahmed’s liquor supply, he knew everyone. He already went to all the parties, and like club owners from New York City to Tokyo, he also knew how to make the party come to him. In Baghdad, success was about relationships. The same was true for the Baghdad Country Club.


Chapter 4

To get anything done in Iraq, you needed to be like James: to know a guy who knows a guy. Still, to build and run a bar in Baghdad, James needed someone with deeper connections than even he possessed. Local connections. He needed a guy who knew lots of guys. He needed Ajax.

Ajax was an Iraqi, a wiry little chain smoker who was trusted by everyone. He had worked as a translator for the Army and had opened several businesses in the Green Zone—a Smoothie King in Camp Prosperity, the Fubi Internet Café, a Laundromat, and a concrete concern, providing 14-foot T-walls to the U.S. military in bulk. After some time in Iraq, James had come to sense that many Iraqis avoided making decisions, because they grew up in a place where the wrong choice could get you killed. But Ajax was different. He thought like an executive.

James began employing Ajax as a fixer. He had the right clearances and knew the right people. He could source anything, an incredible asset in Baghdad, as Iraqi logistics tends to follow the creed of inshallah—it will happen when it happens, God willing. Ajax never took notes but remembered almost everything. He knew the authorities, and he knew the underground. James didn’t want to hear how he did it half the time, but Ajax could solve any problem. Need a generator? Done. A crane? No problem. A flatbed truck? Ajax would have one parked outside the next day. And if the truck broke down, Ajax could get out, lift the hood, and probably fix that, too.

It was Ajax who helped find the villa that would become the BCC. “What’s the first rule of business?” Ajax says now. “Location! And this place was good.” He knew the owner and set up a meeting. Cash was king in Baghdad, where there were still no ATMs. James loaded $200,000 into a plastic sack, took a deep breath, and handed it over.

He would spend almost that much on renovation. The villa looked like a junkyard. It took the crew Ajax assembled about two months to get it ready. Walls came down and a kitchen was installed, along with six backup refrigerators on the second floor in case of war-related supply-chain interruptions. James, a onetime architecture student, had a grand vision of a gentleman’s club in Arabic style. One of his favorite movies was Casablanca, and he’d always loved the idea of Rick’s Café Américain.

In the end, the bar didn’t quite achieve the charm of the film’s arabesque hideaway, but it was as close as James could get under the circumstances. Ajax scoured the markets for matching wooden chairs and tables, a luxury in the Green Zone, where so much was made out of corrugated metal and plastic. They hung local art on the walls. They imported materials from Dubai, and Ajax built a bar made from Italian marble.

Outside was James’s obsession: a walled courtyard of hard-packed mud he would turn into a lush garden. “He was crazy,” Ajax recalls. “He wanted grass out there so badly.” His colleagues made fun of him for his gardening passion, like a horticultural Ahab demanding more sod, watering, kneeling down in the yard every day to feel the soil and monitor the progress of the young blades. “But he got that grass in the end,” Ajax says. It may not have been Wimbledon, but it was green. The first time James turned on the lighting that he’d installed in the surrounding trees, he knew it was worth the effort. There would be one place in the Green Zone where you could sit outside, a cold beer in hand, and watch one of those blistering 110-degree Baghdad days slide into a surprisingly pleasant evening.

That’s just the type of night it was when the first customers showed up for what was supposed to be “a little preview.” It was a Thursday in August of 2006, the start of the weekend in the Middle East, the day before Friday prayers. James let a few people in to check out the new bar. Somehow word got around, and by seven the place was packed solid.

James guessed there must have been 300 people there. It was impossible to move,  and a few hours later the 50 cases of beer they’d put on ice were gone. As was the Dewar’s, Bacardi, and Jim Beam. Ajax was frantically trying to restock the bar. Jodie and Richie, ex-paratrooper friends of James’s, jumped in as reinforcements behind the bar. “It was crazy,” Ajax remembers. “We had to lock the gates.”

By two in the morning, the Baghdad Country Club was nearly dry but still packed. James and Ajax took a break from the crowd and went up to the BCC’s roof. It looked out over a jigsaw puzzle of armored SUVs in every direction. The local cluster of villas that once housed Saddam’s elite was now home to government offices like the Ministry of Environment and the headquarters of the peshmergas—Kurdish militias—whose generals had already started coming by to supplement their regular doses of Chivas Regal.

In the distance, the turquoise dome of the Republican Palace presided over the empty streets of the Green Zone. The last case of Corona was cooling in a tub, and James pulled out two for himself and Ajax. Down below, mounted on a wall above James’s hard-won lawn was the bar’s light-up shingle, commissioned by James in cursive neon over black, flickering the bar’s name, Miami beachfront style. People were already taking pictures in front of it, beers in hand, commemorating the grand opening of the Baghdad Country Club.

Chapter 5

As the BCC took off, Ajax and James could often be seen together around the Green Zone on bar business. Ajax had a new Mercedes and a penchant for $400 loafers imported from Istanbul. Even James, a dandy of the Green Zone, found the shoes excessive. “Where’d you get those?” he would say. “You look like a pimp!”

Considering their business, James thought it wise to keep a low profile. And besides, he wondered, what was the point of having a fancy vehicle when there were speed bumps everywhere? That didn’t stop Ajax from rolling past Baghdad’s iconic Saddam-era sculpture, the Swords of Qadisiyah, in his black CS500, foot on the gas in his fancy loafers, wads of cash in his pockets. “If you saw me and James together,” Ajax says, “you would think that I was the boss.”

After a long day, Ajax and James often unwound on the BCC’s roof, drinking Red Label on ice. They sat perched on cases of hooch, watching choppers fly overhead. They were close friends from two entirely different worlds, bound by an entrepreneurial spirit. Much of Ajax’s own family had already fled Baghdad, but Ajax saw himself as a businessman, and his business was in the city. Before he’d left, Ajax’s father, a former surgeon for Saddam, had arranged a marriage for his son. Now Ajax’s fiancée, a Sunni, was in Egypt with her family; Ajax had sent her there for safety until things settled down back home.

All of these departures unsettled Ajax’s personal life. Already a regular drinker, he became profligate when problems flared up with his distant bride-to-be. He drank whiskey around Americans; with Iraqis he’d fill a glass with arak, an anise-derived national liquor that goes milky with ice. Danny, the bar’s manager, recalls Ajax getting blitzed and causing problems with the staff on more than one occasion. Even in that state, though, he remained in top form. “His business mind never faltered,” Danny says. “No matter how drunk or lovelorn.”

Ajax’s constant presence around the bar was certainly a rarity, as few Iraqis played prominent roles in Green Zone businesses. The BCC was Ajax’s natural environment, though, a place where he could obtain the kind of status and exposure few other locals had. Suspicion of Iraqis was common in the Green Zone, but if anyone disrespected Ajax they were removed from the premises.

Ajax and James had a unique relationship: they were loyal to one another in a place where allegiance was always questioned. Besides James, Ajax was one of only two other people with the combination to the bar’s safe. The second was Heide, one of the bartenders, and for her there was a note inside the safe that provided a number and instructed, “If you have a problem, call Ajax.”

Heide was Ajax’s opposite. Like her wares, she was imported: a 22-year-old blond escapee from Tampa, Florida. The sister of one of James’s friends, she didn’t know James very well when she agreed to come. It takes a certain type of person to sign up sight unseen for under-the-counter work in war-torn Baghdad, but Heide was sick of Florida, where she worked for a real estate company during the Sunshine State’s housing peak. She was restless, and when she got a phone call from Iraq asking if she could be there in two weeks, she hesitated only briefly before saying yes.

She found the whole experience bizarre, starting with the corkscrew combat landing designed to dodge missiles at the airport (where one clock was frozen at 22:43 p.m., perhaps a relic from 2003 when the country was shocked and awed). She was clearly the youngest person on the flight and the only woman. She caught a lot of glances that said, What are you doing on this plane? After her flight hit the tarmac, James quickly put her in body armor and ushered her into the center car of a caravan of three armored SUVs. “Just a precaution, you know?” he said as they embarked on the treacherous drive into town.

In addition to tending bar alongside several Iraqi Christians, Heide manned the wholesale bottle shop that James and Ajax ran out of a guard shack on the property. The shelves stocked the finest spirits the pair could find, which sometimes meant actual quality, alongside gift-store items—T-shirts, mugs, and hats emblazoned with the BCC logo and motto: “It Takes Real Balls to Play Here.”

Heide was especially popular with the BCC’s male-heavy clientele, although she remained oblivious to their advances. “I am just naturally friendly,” she says now. “Later I realized a lot of people probably thought I was flirting with them.”

Indeed, the Baghdad Country Club developed a reputation as one of the few places that a man might meet a woman. Kevin, a Special Forces soldier on his sixth tour in Iraq, routinely violated GO-1 to hang out there. “After working that long and not having fun or getting laid,” he says, “sometimes you at least wanted to see a woman with a drink in her hand.”

While Heide attracted attention, Danny quietly managed the place: greeting patrons, dealing with staff, and running the kitchen. James wanted the menu to be good, which wasn’t easy. Whereas much of the food in the Green Zone was processed, packaged, shipped, and reconstituted, Ajax got fresh produce and meat for the kitchen. Danny got along well with Iraqis, and he made sure to serve the national dish of masgouf—fish with onion and pickles—alongside Western-style bruschetta, salads, and steaks. He brought in a chef named Dino to come up with recipes and marinades. Good fish was difficult to come by in Baghdad, but James knew a guy who knew a guy who could sometimes get trout flown in on Delta Force choppers. And Ahmed’s regular shipments of spirits kept the bar stocked for proper cocktails.

“We never hoped to get a Michelin star,” Danny says. “But we managed to give people the one thing you don’t have in Baghdad: a choice.”


Chapter 6

Over time, the BCC became Baghdad’s watering hole, filled nightly from dinner through the small hours. “It reminded me of D.C.,” says Tim, a State Department employee and patron of the BCC. “I’d usually go for the late shift. Everyone would be there. You knew the scene would be going strong at 10  or 11.”

At its best, the place had something in common with Rick’s Café in Casablanca. But at times it also tended toward the Mos Eisley cantina from Star Wars. It was, after all, a tavern in a war zone. The atmosphere was full of testosterone, and things could take a sudden turn toward trouble. One night, an obstreperous high-ranking officer refused to relinquish his sidearm. On another, “Down Under” came on over the PA and a pack of blotto Australian PSDs went nuts and had to be forcibly removed. (Danny later removed all Men at Work from the bar’s iPod.)

As the charming maître d’, it was Danny’s job to defuse any commotion. And despite his small (and clearly civilian) stature, he was pretty good at it. James thought Danny’s self-deprecating Jewish-guy-with-glasses routine helped him keep people from killing each other or getting out of control. There was, for instance, the time when Tony the Mouse, a notorious Lebanese pimp, showed up in the BCC brandishing his goods. Tony was short, sleazy, and self-confident; Danny noticed him the moment he walked in. Tony tried to dress like the contractors, but his gear was too big. Danny thought he looked like a kid in his dad’s hunting outfit. With him were several Iraqi girls of questionable age, done up in even more questionable makeup, doused in perfume, and wearing what in theory was passable Islamic dress but in material looked more like harem couture. “You smelled the girls before you saw them,” Danny recalls. He intercepted Tony before he even sat down.

“I’m sorry,” Danny said, “but this is not what we’re going for here.”

“Come on, my friend!” Tony whined back. “It’s no problem.”

James had struggled to keep his bar from feeling like a saloon, and surely hookers weren’t going to help. “Listen,” Danny said. “We need to talk about this somewhere else.” He pulled Tony toward the garden. Tony protested, dropping names: I know this person, I know that person, I know James. When Danny was unmoved, Tony whined: “Don’t do this to me!”

“This is not going to be your showroom,” Danny said. “So you need to take these girls out of here.” Politely but firmly, Danny convinced Tony to leave. Danny had tried to be discreet, but in Baghdad you notice when women come and go, and when it was over several people called out, Hey, why did you kick out the ladies? Is this the Baghdad Sausage Club?

Not every incident at the bar ended in laughs. Diplomacy didn’t always work with inebriated mercenaries. One night, a regular named Jann, a six-foot-six Icelandic hulk of a man everyone called Bear, squared off against an American in a checked shirt that clung tightly to his action-figure physique. The two guys were in a dangerously pugilistic state: They were drunk enough to be aggressive but not enough to stagger away from a fight. In seconds, Bear was clutching a knife, serrated for tactical gutting, in his spring-loaded fist.

Danny leaped into the breach, inserting his five-foot-eight-inch frame between 600 pounds of machismo. “Here in Baghdad, we don’t solve problems with violence,” he said.  A little joke to take the edge off, Danny thought to himself. But the American didn’t laugh. Instead, he sent Danny flying. This is what it’s like to get thrown across the room, Danny thought as he landed against the wall. And by just a flick of one arm. What if this guy had punched me?

James was upstairs when he heard the commotion. He sprinted down to find the combatants at the ready, flanked by motivated comrades. He knew this could turn into a full-on brawl, and that would be bad news for everyone. When he was a soldier, James had seen plenty of action, but he had a rule about bar fights: Don’t face two titans brandishing steel. He had to do something, however. “Think this through,” he said, hands open to show he was unarmed. By now, the Iraqi kitchen staff had appeared, industrial cutlery in hand. He waved them off. “You’re gonna get us shut down,” he said to the two men. “I don’t want that. These people don’t, either. And neither do you. Where else would you go on a Friday night?”

The ploy created just enough of a pause for Ali, the senior doorman and a former Iraqi national bodybuilding champion, to separate everyone. James wanted to throw both Bear and the American out, but the fight would only have rekindled in the street, so he and Ali escorted the American and his buddies to the door first.

“I’ll be back!” yelled the American once he realized he was being singled out. He broke loose of Ali’s grip to take a swing at James before the bouncers dragged him away. “I’ll burn this place down!”

James wasn’t worried. After all, what drinker would destroy the only bar in town? The next day, the American did come back, sober, to apologize. “It won’t happen again,” he told James. “I’d like to be able to return for a drink sometime.”

Chapter 7

Such were the hazards of running a club in a war zone, but dicey scenes were surprisingly rare at the BCC. Like Rick Blaine, James tried hard to maintain decorum. He enforced a dress code—no mean feat in Iraq. If James had his way, everyone would have worn bespoke suits, maybe even white tuxedos, but he had to settle for trousers and shirtsleeves. The khaki, cargo-pocketed “5-11” brand of tactical gear worn by most people looked like shit, he thought, but at least he could forbid shorts and frown on T-shirts to keep things a little classy.

While Danny turned out to be something of a diplomat, making a point of knowing everyone who came in and managing awkward scenes, James maintained a distant presence, studiously aloof. There was an aura around him. He knew everyone else’s business, while few knew his.

Rather than fraternize with the barflies, James preferred the company of his own circle. First among them was Bonnie, his girlfriend. She was in Iraq working on sensitive intelligence issues for an agency that, years later, she prefers not to name. Just before the bar opened, James had spotted her at a smoke-filled temporary drinking den in the compound of RTI, a demining contractor. An attractive, professional woman in the Green Zone was hard to miss.

Bonnie, a longtime Middle East specialist, hadn’t planned on an in-country romance. Both she and James knew that emotions ran wild in a war zone, and they saw themselves as exceptions to the rule: coolheaded and rational. So no one was more surprised than they were to be falling for each other, a development made thornier by Bonnie’s security clearance. She and James couldn’t hold hands or really be seen with each other. She was breaking rules just to come by the bar. James, meanwhile, had a wife back home, but they had separated by the time the club opened. They’d married at 27 but had different expectations about life, and hers did not include running a bar in Baghdad.

Around the BCC, Bonnie and James were discreet about their passions. “We would see them there,” Ajax says. “But they always had to hide.” James, no longer in the army and not attached to any contractor, had his own house in the Green Zone, an unusual luxury in a place where most people bunked with 10 other guys and everyone tended to know each other’s business. James’s place had a big wooden door, Arabic furnishings, and art on the walls. It was cool enough that he could store his wine collection there, a nice perk on quiet evenings. “We could disappear,” James says. “And that allowed a fairly normal relationship.” It was that rare place in Baghdad, Bonnie recalls, where they could truly “shut out the world.”

The BCC, itself a retreat, attracted a coterie of regulars to its walled garden. Kevin, the Special Forces soldier, liked the place so much he started volunteering behind the bar. One retired American couple had left their empty nest back home for Baghdad, of all places, and now they repaired to the BCC every day at six to sip whiskey and water. One of James’s friends—who he says lived a lonely and isolated I Am Legend–type existence as the sole inhabitant of the abandoned El Carthage Hotel, deep in the Red Zone, with guns stashed everywhere—used to brave the Baghdad roads alone just to get a chance to sit on James’s grass. 

Reverend Canon Andrew White, whom Danny called the Mad Bishop but everyone else called the Vicar of Baghdad, was the rector of St. George’s, the last Anglican Church in the Iraqi capital, located just outside the the Green Zone. “I loved coming to the BCC,” White recalls. “It was the one place you could relax in that damn city.”

White often brought people to have dinner at the bar. His self-described “ministry of reconciliation and conflict mediation” required that, like James, he remain well connected. He met with coalition forces, local sectarian factions, and insurgents, always trying to play the role of peacemaker. “Some people thought the sun shone out of his ass,” Danny said. “Other people just thought he was an ass.” White’s mission of peace surely seemed quixotic in Baghdad, where it was dangerous for him to appear at his own parish. Still, White had intervened in more than 160 hostage cases, he says, often at personal risk. One mission to save a Brazilian national found White being held in a room with severed fingers and toes lying around the floor. The Mad Bishop got out of that one alive but lost the hostage. (To this day, White wanders around Baghdad in tattersall shirts with a bow tie and glasses, presenting himself as a self-appointed interfaith missionary.)

White’s security people didn’t like him going to the BCC, but then again they didn’t like him going anywhere. As a clergyman, White wouldn’t dance or drink. The dance floor was, in fact, physically off-limits—White had multiple sclerosis, and he walked with a cane. But he loved that it was there, with people mingling from all walks of life. “I went for work, for diversion, and for the food,” he says now. “They knew how to serve up something proper.”

The BCC was filled every night, from dinner through the small hours, with senior diplomats from the EU and the UN sharing the bar with steel workers coming off 16-hour shifts. Mercenaries from Blackwater and Aegis Defence Services sat alongside workers from the Army Corps of Engineers and State Department managers on hardship posts. Contractors would schedule dinners with Iraqi businessmen.

The Green Zone’s many agencies and companies were compartmentalized and competitive, and no one liked to share information, but the BCC functioned like an informal intelligence network. Over a glass of whiskey, patrons might compare notes about contracts or logistics. If you kept your ears open, you knew if there was action in Hilla, a new telecommunications contract up north, trouble on a pipeline. At the very least, James thought, people could take comfort that they were all in the same boat. Baghdad, he imagined, was something like London during the Blitz. There was a siege mentality that brought people together.


Chapter 8

Iraqis have a word, barra, which means “out there,” and came to mean the rest of Baghdad, the bedlam beyond the T-walls. As the insurgency reached fever pitch, Iraqis and Americans alike were terrified that barra would not stay out there but come in here, that the war would breach the perimeter, that the place would collapse and there would be a mad scramble to evacuate, like Saigon in ’75.

To keep the bar adequately stocked so that everyone could forget about barra, James and Ajax had to venture out there themselves regularly. To cross hostile roads in vehicles laden with liquor, James would trade his suit for overalls and body armor, his Glock tucked into his ops vest, an M-4 in the passenger seat, a bag of cash stashed in the back. Fatalism came easy in a place with so many fatalities—if today’s your day, it’s your day, James thought whenever he eased behind the wheel.

Beer for the BCC was a loss leader: It had to be in the bar, but the extraordinary logistics to obtain it were bad for the bottom line. That’s because beer came from downtown. The volume meant size, and size meant you were a target, winding through Baghdad’s warren of confusing streets in an open truck. Proper security, however, disappeared in the face of overwhelming demand.

James couldn’t go anywhere near the area himself, so Ajax was in charge of that department, even though Ajax was Sunni, which put him at great personal risk in Shiite territory. “But I knew my way around down there,” he says. “I could get what we needed.” He knew all the principals in the local booze business, having worked at Habur Gate, the border checkpoint where deliveries from Turkey arrived. “I had the whole supply chain down, man!”

For the first beer run, Ajax stacked an SUV with 20 cases. It was gone within the hour. James called Ajax as he was driving home.

“Can you head back downtown?” he asked. “We’re empty.”

Ajax knew he needed a bigger car. He took his Jeep Cherokee, tinted the windows, and removed the backseats to double the load capacity. The vehicle still wasn’t big enough. By the time Ajax upgraded to multi-axle trucks, the violence was worsening. This created an additional problem, since larger vehicles couldn’t be armored. Sometimes Ajax stationed a guy with an AK-47 amid the beer, hidden in a makeshift turret assembled from cases of Carlsberg or Sapporo. His job was to light up attackers, but Ajax knew he was usually drunk by the time they got moving.

A month after the bar opened, just before Ramadan, some emissaries from the Shiite Mahdi Army alerted Ajax that it would be an unfriendly time downtown, he recalls. Realizing that they wouldn’t be able to restock for a month, Ajax and James mounted nonstop supply missions, bringing in 6,000 cases of beer. It filled the BCC’s storage rooms and the giant containers outside, then had to be piled on the roof until the structure bowed. Apache pilots rerouted their flights over the bar so they could check out the stash.

It might have been the most hazardous beer procurement process in the world at the time, which is why it drove James nuts when Green Zone guys in clean pressed khakis complained about availability or pricing like they were in a grocery store back in New Jersey. “People could get killed for your fucking Corona Light,” he’d tell people at the bar. One day, a contractor suggested to James that he could get beer cheaper himself. “Oh sure,” James said. “Go ahead and drive to Sadr City. See if you can find the warehouse. Make sure you’re armored and locked and loaded, because if anyone sees you, you’re fucking done, mate.”

James himself often braved the deadly Route Irish to pick up Ahmed’s shipments of spirits. The road was a target for snipers and car bombs, resulting in trigger-happy U.S. military personnel and mercenaries. (As late as 2008, U.S. soldiers shot three Iraqi civilians at a checkpoint along the road.) A typical PSD cost basis for heavily armored airport pickup of one passenger was five grand. James had done many such contracted BIAP trips himself. Now he was routinely making the drive in an unarmored vehicle, often alone.

Ajax was a drinker who liked to stay up all night, a combination that left James in lurch most mornings. In addition to IEDs and insurgents, Route Irish had commuter traffic. James really wanted to beat that traffic. Any idle moments stalled in gridlock on the pitted blacktop made you a mark. So by 0630, he’d have a coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other, spend 10 minutes making futile calls to Ajax’s voice mail, and then ease one of the jeeps out of the driveway himself. People thought James was reckless, hitting Route Irish solo and soft skinned. But he preferred going low-profile, and he always double-checked the spare magazines and smoke grenades in his plate carrier as he left Checkpoint 12 heading west, toward the airport.

Route Irish was once a grand motorway though a bourgeois neighborhood, lined with palms. Now the road was extremely dangerous: Drivers were targets. James would hammer up it, hoping to make the seven miles in ten minutes. Such speed was possible but rare. Instead, the drive was often several harrowing hours, with military call signs barreling the wrong way through wreckage to dodge firefights against insurgents, who were known to release signal pigeons from nearby rooftops.

James’s little jeep looked like Iraqi traffic, so he also had to worry about being fired upon by American soldiers or contractors. They tended to be quick with warning shots, and non-warning shots soon thereafter, when any vehicle came within 100 yards. Now on the other end of coalition military muzzles and bad attitudes, James understood Iraqis’ resentment. But having been a military contractor himself, he also understood the fear that goes with wearing a bull’s-eye. The whole thing was a mess. And here he was, threading the needle every other day to pick up some Dewar’s.

As he drove, James would blast music to distract himself, usually whatever was on Armed Forces radio. Everyone had lost friends on that road, himself included. He’d felt the pressure sucked out of the air by massive explosions and braced for the blast that followed. Once he’d hit the T-walls of Checkpoint 1, the gateway to the relative security of the airport, he’d let go a sigh of relief, but even that wasn’t quite safe. He’d seen car bombs go off right at the checkpoint, and he’d jumped out to assist, only to find people he knew on the ground, too far gone for a medic.

Once through the entrance, James would show up at Ahmed’s compound, jittery smoke in hand. Then he’d stack up his supply, and head back out through the checkpoint for the return trip.

Chapter 9

The insurgency reached its peak in the spring of 2007. Everything was more difficult, including the day-to-day operation of the BCC. Maintaining the pantry meant constantly running Baghdad’s lethal gauntlet. Just to get bread, Ajax had to send a guy into the Red Zone—assuming there were no explosions that day and no curfew. Meat, fish, and higher-priced provisions were becoming harder to find.

Worse still, the booze itself was under threat. James had been supplementing Ahmed’s liquor shipments with supplies from dealers downtown, and now they were getting squeezed by the increasingly powerful religious forces. When the BCC’s Jack Daniels supplier was attacked, Ajax was forced to find a new guy, but the new guy had a monopoly, so the price spiked. Stocking the bar was increasingly a matter of life and death. People Ajax knew downtown were getting killed, and even his own people were under fire: Haider, one of his drivers, was kidnapped while at the wheel of a truck full of beer. It wasn’t clear if the attack was religiously motivated or commercial extortion—a brisk business itself—but it didn’t matter. According to James, the militiamen shot Haider in the knees and demanded a $10,000 ransom, which he paid in cash through a middleman. James then spirited the driver out of the country and into hiding. Then the kidnappers asked for another $10,000 for the truck and cargo. James and Ajax decided that if they paid, it would make every shipment a target. James politely declined. The militia was silent for a bit. Then they sent him video of his beer being detonated.

The vagaries of the wholesale market, combined with a rather surprising elasticity of demand at the retail end—people still balked at price increases—gave James headaches. But deeper trouble came from inside the Green Zone, from the local police.

As the bar got more popular, it started showing up in security bulletins as off-limits. At first that did wonders for business: newcomers to the Green Zone were conveniently alerted to the BCC’s presence. And people were especially intrigued that the bar was categorized as outré. When you see people ditching their own security details to line up for your place, James figured, that’s when you know you’ve made it, Baghdad style.

But before long, the police started taking notice. At the time, policing the Green Zone had been turned over from the active-duty military to a contingent of National Guard reservists. To maintain law and order in a fairly lawless place, they took an aggressive approach, and Green Zone residents complained about overzealous enforcement. Automobile infractions seemed like a nuisance compared with the real problems of daily life in Iraq. But the police would regularly set up speed traps and pull people over for not wearing seat belts, though there was neither a traffic court nor an impound lot. Some residents laminated their tickets as souvenirs. “The whole thing seemed silly,” recalls Bonnie, a friend of whose was interrogated for making a U-turn. “The big things are wildly out of control, so you try to control the most trivial.”

The cops, though, saw it another way. “We didn’t just give out tickets,” says a Captain Barrow, the operations officer for the Security Directorate inside the Green Zone. “There was a Wild West mentality out there, and it was causing problems. Our job was to regain some control.” It wasn’t easy. The Green Zone was full of soldiers from all over the world, mercenaries who thought they were above the law, rockets falling from the sky, and suicide bombers penetrating checkpoints. “It was,” he says, “an extremely challenging law-enforcement environment.”

Barrow was nicknamed the Sheriff of the Green Zone, or El Jefe by the Peruvian contractors who worked for his unit. He was one of the first responders on the scene of a suicide blast inside the Iraqi Parliament building. He raided various dodgy contractors he suspected of selling arms without permits, confiscating elaborately tricked-out assault rifles that looked like “something you’d see in a sci-fi video game.” Barrow also saw a lot of what looked like fraud against the U.S. government. For the most part he kept his head down and did his job.

The way the BCC staff remembers it, Barrow was friendly when he first came around the bar. Heide would see him at the bottle shop. Like other police, he got what James called the civic discount on gear and other items. To James, he seemed like your typical small-town-cop type, and James just wanted to keep him at a comfortable distance. 

But Barrow was suspicious of the BCC, and before long he started asking questions about badges and permits. James had tried to keep everything at the bar aboveboard, but soon the captain was dinging him for code violations, even staking out the place for unauthorized visitors. Once, Barrow came into the shop when Heide was working and suggested that the club’s flashlights were stolen. She showed him the paperwork and he left. BCC employees noticed other police poking around, sometimes in civilian clothes, like they were part of an undercover investigation.

Eventually, the police started raiding the bar in full battle mode. “They used really unnecessary strong-arm tactics,” recalls Kevin, the Special Forces soldier who worked behind the bar and once fled out the back door when the police showed up. “They had muzzles in peoples faces, yelling, flex-tying people, confiscating badges.”

As the manager, Danny tried to handle the intrusions as best he could, but customers started getting jumpy. “We went from being the darlings of the Green Zone to pariahs,” he says. “And we racked our brains to figure out why.” There were rumors, of course: that the bar was a brothel, that there was a gambling room, that weapons were being sold out of the back.

There may have been no specific reason. In Baghdad, the lack of planning and oversight allowed people to carve out spheres of perfect influence for themselves, and the police were no exception. Laura, a State Department official who spent a lot of time at the BCC and was there during one of the captain’s raids, heard the soldiers joking to each other that they could never do this at home—just run in, bust up a place, and arrest people for no reason. To James, it seemed like there was no one policing the police. When you have ultimate authority, it’s hard not to use it. If the police fell victim to the allure of power, it was a familiar story in the Green Zone. You could have said the same thing about the entire war.

By now, high-level friends from the embassy were calling James, saying the BCC was coming up in daily briefings. Similar chatter filtered in from Ajax’s fixer contacts. James was traveling a lot then, doing non-BCC business in Dubai, Amman, and elsewhere. After many years, Baghdad was finally weighing him down. He knew his roots were in temporary soil.

Danny and Heide, on the other hand, wanted to invest more in the place. When James went on an extended trip, they bought a pizza oven, and they’d started talking about flatscreen TVs. Not too many—they didn’t want to bathe the place in HD like a sports bar—but enough to show the news or a game. They got a margarita machine. Their minds were set on the next phase of the Baghdad Country Club. But it was all wishful thinking. There would never be any Acapulco Nights with the margarita machine. And to everyone’s lasting regret, not a single pizza rolled off that oven.


Chapter 10

From the beginning, the Green Zone had been a place of in-betweens. Not exactly Iraq, not America, it was an enclave of confused purpose, sanctioned excess, and a hazy hierarchy its inhabitants called the Grey Zone. The Baghdad Country Club began by growing through the cracks of that ambiguity. That was also how it would end.

James was in Amman when the Green Zone police, together with the FBI, descended on the BCC for a final raid. The place was cleared out, and Heide and Danny were faced with the prospect of losing their badges and getting kicked out into the Red Zone.

James, in his British way, thought the whole thing showed poor manners. How would it look, he huffed to himself, if the Americans threw a British national and one of their own citizens to the wolves at a time when that could be deadly? Heide and Danny were given 24 hours to leave the country, and James had to pull strings to get them on a plane.

According to James, Ajax was bullied and then arrested, along with his brother. Over the next few days, the ultimate fixer managed to work his many contacts in the military to get out and get his badges back, but he knew his freewheeling days of business in the Green Zone were over. When he snuck back to the bar again to get the cash box, it looked as though the police had helped themselves to the tequila. Next to the empty bottles, someone had left out the salt shaker.

Back in Amman, James knew he still had $80,000 of inventory at the club. But he had no way to get it. Calling on his old friend Ahmed’s influence at the airports and the assistance of a regional Blackwater honcho, James snuck back into the Green Zone and into the bar under cover of night. He recalls a sad sight: the booze had been confiscated and the place ransacked. Several of James’s connected friends were disturbed on principle, but they advised him that fighting back was pointless. “There’s no clear jurisdiction,” said one BCC regular, who happened to be a State Department lawyer working on Iraq’s legal transition. “Where would you even go?”

All at once, James lost his bar, his garden, and a whole bunch of money. That’s life, he figured—in a way, the BCC had suffered a more appropriate death than if the bar had simply become unfashionable. And besides, the open-ended freedom of the Baghdad he’d known for years was over for everyone. Eventually, the Americans would be leaving the country anyhow. The bar would never survive.

Former patrons are less stoic. Kevin says that it was “just like the powers that be to fuck up the one good thing going.” The Vicar of Baghdad, still at St. George’s  laments the day he heard that the BCC closed: “Now there really was nowhere to run. We were stuck with the war forever.”

But James had other business, in other parts of the world, and there wasn’t time to linger in Iraq and pine over his pub. On his way out of Baghdad, he ran into an old friend at the airport.

“Things are getting hot for us here, too,” he told James. “Time to get out of Dodge.”

The two men stood in the still dilapidated terminal awaiting their hand-written tickets. The friend was meeting his wife somewhere nice, a place with a beach and no mortar attacks. He wasn’t coming back. But James still felt the thrill of life in a conflict zone, where you can make up your history as you go. In a place like Iraq, there was no one to say who you are or aren’t. As thousands of Americans learned, you could go from soldier to businessman overnight. Incompetents had become millionaires. Warmongers had become liberators. Bureaucrats had become nation builders. And a genial former paratrooper had become the doyen of drinking in the Green Zone. Now, on the way out of town, James wasn’t sure when he’d be back. After he and his friend parted ways, he sat down with his bags and wondered what would be next. He figured something would turn up. After all, anything could happen while waiting in an airport.


James did return to Iraq, trading the nightlife business for reconstruction contracts, including fuel supply runs and a job refurbishing a hotel. His and Bonnie’s wartime romance didn’t last. Heide, in the last days of the BCC, did eventually take a shine to a soldier, and when the bar went south she left with her new boyfriend. Danny’s managerial diplomacy landed him a professional job in managerial diplomacy; he now works for an international humanitarian organization. Ahmed runs duty-free operations in Iraq’s major airports, among other things. Ajax left Baghdad for his own safety: Having served as a translator for the American occupation, he hopes to immigrate to the United States. In the meantime, he’s been plying his trade across the Middle East. He was last seen in Beirut. As the last U.S. troops packed up to leave Iraq in late 2011, General Order 1, which prohibited soldiers’ from drinking, remained in force.

Island of Secrets

If John Lane can prove the existence of the elusive tree kangaroo, he just might be able to save one of the last truly wild endangered forests on earth. 

The Atavist Magazine, No. 09

Matthew Power (1974-2014) was a contributing editor at Harper’s magazine, and his work appeared in The New York Times, Wired, GQ, Men’s Journal, Outside, Granta, Slate, and elsewhere. He was included in Best American Travel Writing in 2007, 2009, and 2010, and Best American Nonrequired Reading in 2009.

Expedition Photographs: Dylan van Winkel, Sarah Wells, Matthew Power
Photographs of Tree Kangaroo and Fred Hargesheimer: John Lane
Jungle Recordings: Matthew Power
Tok Pisin Recording: Robert Eklund
Producer: Olivia Koski
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Design and Music: Jefferson Rabb
Editor: Alissa Quart

Published in November 2011. Design updated in 2021.


“The world is apt to judge of everything by the success; and whoever has ill fortune will hardly be allowed a good name.”

Captain William Dampier, on the wreck of his ship HMS Roebuck after discovering the island of New Britain, 1699

In the summer of 2007, John Lane was driving along a rough dirt track on the western end of New Britain, an immense tropical island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, when he noticed a local man who had set up a large cage by the roadside. Lane, a California geologist and explorer who had traveled to New Britain on a research expedition, stopped to take a closer look. Inside the cage was an animal the size of a large raccoon, with a thick coat of soft gold-and-chestnut fur extending to the tip of its long tail. It moved languorously and looked at Lane with deep brown, heavy-lidded eyes set into a gentle face. In its curved claws it grasped a red jungle flower. From a captive specimen he had seen in the botanical gardens in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital city, Lane recognized the animal as a species of tree kangaroo, one of the rarest and most elusive mammals in the world.

Lane was in his early forties, and his day jobs included running a small environmental consulting firm and working as an adjunct science professor at California State University, Chico. His obsession, however, was cave exploration, and during the previous decade he had mounted ambitious caving expeditions in the far corners of the world, including Borneo and Sumatra. But Lane was not a biologist, and his curiosity about the animal went only so far. The villager wanted 1,000 kina for it, about $500. What am I gonna do with a tree kangaroo? Lane recalls thinking. He snapped a few pictures and drove on.

A photograph circulated online. Lane started getting inquiries about it. A BBC film producer wanted to know where the picture had been taken, and several zoologists wrote asking if he had more photographs. The animal, they told him, wasn’t thought to exist on New Britain. Unlike their Australian cousins, tree kangaroos—genus Dendrolagus, from the Greek for “tree hare”—have, true to their name, evolved to live in trees. They are extraordinarily agile climbers, living high in the forest canopy and descending only to forage. Their long tails provide balance, and their powerful legs are like spring-loaded shocks, allowing them to jump from the upper canopy—as much as 60 feet up—to the ground, unhurt.

Today, most of the known species of tree kangaroo are threatened, several of them critically. They are endangered by overhunting and by massive habitat loss as New Guinea’s rainforests are cleared to create oil palm plantations. There are twelve known species, ten on mainland New Guinea and two more in northern Australia. The last known new tree kangaroo species was discovered in 1995 in a remote mountain range on the New Guinea mainland. In the world of comparative zoology, the discovery and description of new species are the building blocks of a career, but from what Lane could tell no specimen of tree kangaroo taken from New Britain had ever been studied.

Although New Britain lies only 50 miles offshore from New Guinea, deep water has always kept the two geographically isolated, and most evolutionary biologists believe the existence of native tree kangaroos on the island to be highly improbable. Even if the tree kangaroo Lane had seen was from the island, the theory went, it was likely the product of ancestors brought there to be used as pets or food by early human settlers arriving in open canoes as many as 30,000 years ago. The ecological term for an animal that has received this sort of human-assisted migratory boost is ethnotramp. The New Britain tree kangaroo could be a species brought from the mainland, or an altogether unknown variety: since no tree kangaroo like it had ever been studied, its provenance remained a mystery.

Lane sent out inquiries to some biologists in the field and received an enthusiastic email from Ken Aplin, a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution and an expert in Australo-Papuan marsupials who had worked extensively in New Britain. Aplin said he’d spent a recent field survey looking for fossil evidence of tree kangaroos on the island, hoping to clarify their origins as native or introduced. Kristofer Helgen, the Smithsonian’s curator of mammals, who has discovered 2 percent of the world’s known mammal species, sent Lane a note that read: “The New Britain tree kangaroo identity remains unresolved. Perhaps you will find some trophy skulls or other samples that will help resolve the tree kangaroo question.” That was all the encouragement Lane needed, and he began plotting an expedition in the hope of doing just that.

New Guinea and its surrounding islands are among the world’s great reservoirs of biodiversity. According to a tally by the World Wildlife Fund, more than 1,000 new species were identified there in the past decade. The vast majority of these were plants and invertebrates—important to science but hard to put on a fundraising poster. New species of charismatic megafauna, on the other hand, are extremely rare. If the New Britain tree kangaroo were somehow a species previously unknown to science, it would be huge news, alone worthy of an adventure.

But Lane began to develop a grander vision for his mission: Perhaps the discovery of the tree kangaroo could lead to the preservation of thousands of square miles of rapidly disappearing wilderness on the island. By some estimates, half of New Britain’s primary tropical rainforest had been lost since the country gained independence from Australia in 1975. An application for Unesco World Heritage status for New Britain’s Nakanai Mountains had been submitted by the nonprofit Conservation International in 2006 but had made little progress toward ratification. “If there were a major discovery,” Lane told me, “it’d kind of be a freight train for conservation. Maybe there would be a greater sense of urgency.” He seized upon the idea of the tree kangaroo as a catalyst to action, an animal that could catch the imagination of scientists, the media, and the world.

Lane called up a friend at the Sierra Nevada Brewery, which is based in Chico and is known for its interest in environmental causes, and coaxed the beer maker into sponsoring his enterprise. During the following several summers, Lane coordinated expeditions into the trackless wilderness of the Nakanai, a largely unexplored range of limestone karst riddled with thousands of caves. Tree kangaroos had been spotted in the region by locals, and the prospect of exploring its vast and uncharted cave network was an additional enticement for Lane. In 2009, he got together a crew of scientists and student assistants from Chico State and hatched a plan to operate the kangaroo search and conduct other biological surveys from a jungle base camp at the edge of a lake that filled an enormous caldera, the cauldron-like center of an extinct volcano. The area is one of the wettest on earth, receiving more than 24 feet of rain annually. In a world that, to Lane at least, seemed to harbor fewer and fewer mysteries, the New Britain tree kangaroo was a concrete example of nature yet to be discovered. He imagined the creature as an avatar of a wildness he wanted both to witness and to conserve.

There were, it should be pointed out, some logistical hitches to Lane’s plan to find a tree kangaroo, not the least of them the fact that he was a geologist, not a biologist, and knew almost nothing about the behavior and habits of genus Dendrolagus. In addition, Papua New Guinea is one of the most remote, difficult, and expensive places in the world to mount an expedition, with few roads and little infrastructure to speak of, and with a population frequently volatile toward foreigners. Terrible weather, impenetrable terrain, malaria, crocodiles, high crime, corrupt public officials: I easily discovered these obstacles after a few minutes of Googling. None of them are likely to be made simpler by having your chief sponsor be a beer company. And yet in the summer of 2011, when I first spoke to John Lane and he invited me to come along on his next expedition, something about the way he described the landscape of the Nakanai silenced my doubts. I booked a $3,500 plane ticket and packed my bags.


The cloud-draped, dark green coast of New Britain rose out of the impossibly blue waters of the Solomon Sea, its march of volcanic cones vanishing into a haze set aflame by an equatorial sunrise. The crescent-shaped island is 14,000 square miles, home to nearly half a million native Papuans and Austronesians who between them speak dozens of distinct languages. In the previous 47 hours, I had traveled more than 12,000 miles on five flights—JFK–LAX–SYD–BNE–POM–HKN. I had crossed both the equator and the international date line to get there.

Scarcely a road or clearing was visible in New Britain’s forested and mountainous interior, where steep valleys carved their way down the flanks of volcanoes. Near the north coast, the mountains eased into plains. The forests morphed from the rugged texture of native canopy into a flat and uniform pattern of green dots. These were oil palm plantations, an economic bonanza and an ecological nightmare. From the air, the landscape seemed like something dreamed up by a computer: nature expressed in binary absolutes. Millions of acres of rainforest in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea have been razed to make way for “green gold.” An acre of mature palm trees can produce nearly three tons of oil in a year, and palms now supply a third of the global edible-oil market. There is an almost limitless appetite for it, in products from soap to chocolate to lipstick to biodiesel.

When we landed at the tiny, oil-palm-surrounded airstrip in the coastal town of Hoskins, a throng of Papuans stood pressed against the airstrip’s fence. I was met by a Papuan driver and piled my gear into a white Toyota Land Cruiser with “Hargy Oil Palms Ltd.” stenciled on the door. Conservation attracts strange bedfellows, and John Lane had taken up with an organization that would otherwise be his natural adversary: one of the largest palm-oil producers in New Britain. One of the very industries that Lane hoped to keep from despoiling the forests of New Britain was also a chief supporter of his expeditions.

Palm oil has a serious public-image problem. Environmental groups have faulted the industry for the massive deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra that is pushing the orangutan toward extinction in the wild. In 2004, some companies and nonprofits got together and created the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) with the goal of creating sustainably produced palm oil. The RSPO now includes enormous multinational corporations like Cargill, Unilever, and Nestlé and environmental nonprofits like Conservation International. By meeting a strict set of environmental guidelines, producers could become certified sustainable. What sustainable really means, and whether environmental groups are participating in a greenwash of the industry or an exercise in realpolitik, is a source of much debate and hand-wringing in environmental circles.

Hargy Oil Palms, as part of its effort to meet its RSPO goals—or at least appearing to—was lending its support to Lane’s expedition. When I asked Lane about this, and whether it represented an attempt to make palm oil seem eco-friendly, he was acutely aware of the irony but unapologetic. “They have a very serious mandate to achieve sustainability,” he told me, “and sponsoring us is part of that. They know that I’ve been critical of their industry in published papers, but working with them is really the best way to have input in what they do.”

We tore off in high gear, the diesel 4×4 roaring and jouncing over potholes as the Papuan driver shouted stories to a pair of industry auditors who had arrived on the same flight. He spoke in Tok Pisin, the creole of Papua New Guinea and the lingua franca of the country’s 860 language groups. I stared out at mile upon mile of perfectly straight rows of oil palms, their fronds spliced into gothic arches, our movement opening up ever shifting lines of perspective far into their shady depths. Dark-skinned, shirtless Papuan men with polesaws harvested great bunches of the bright red palm fruit and stacked them in piles by the roadside.

We drove for several hours, over dozens of bridges that wash out with every rainy season, past sulfuric-smelling volcanic springs boiling up from the ground. There are still dozens of active volcanoes on the island; its former capital, Rabaul, was crushed beneath three feet of volcanic ash in 1994. The town can still be reached only by airplane or boat. We finally arrived at the Hargy Plantation, and a uniformed guard opened a barricade as we drove past neatly cropped expanses of lawn and bushes filled with hibiscus blossoms. John Lane was sitting on the porch of the guesthouse when we pulled up, looking out over a wide sweep of coast far beneath him.

Lane kept his thinning hair cropped close, framing a sun-creased face, ruddy cheeks, and a wide gap-toothed grin. His patter was Northern California laid-back, a sort of stoner deadpan. Knowing New Britain mosquitoes carry deadly falciparum malaria, I asked him what kind of malaria pills he was using. “They’re actually anti-malaria pills,” he replied. “I think you might have the wrong ones.”

As we talked, he stooped to pick up a stick from the ground, balancing it on his forearm. Closer inspection revealed it to be a spike-covered, cigar-sized New Guinea spiny stick insect. The enormous bug tried ineffectually to escape, marching slowly back and forth along Lane’s arm. “We make some of our best insect collections on the lawn right here,” he told me. An iridescent green bird-wing butterfly the size of a paperback drifted by on the breeze.

This was the first time in weeks Lane had emerged from his base camp in the caldera. There, a crew of several researchers and a few students from Chico State conducted surveys and collected insect and animal species. We may live in a world that seems bereft of geographical blank spots, but even through the unblinking gaze of Google Earth, the caldera’s low-resolution satellite imagery was obscured by clouds. “There are less and less of these places in the world,” he told me as we studied an old topographical map of the caldera. It was as close to terra incognita as one could wish for, an irresistible attraction for Lane.

Of course, being off the map is not always best for a nation’s economic survival. Papua New Guinea won full independence from Australia in 1975, and 97 percent of its land is still in the hands of its native tribes. It is astonishingly rich in natural resources—copper, natural gas, timber, palm oil—and yet remains one of the world’s poorest countries, with a per capita GDP of less than $1,500. In the past generation, there has been a massive boom in resource extraction across the country, including a $15 billion Exxon Mobil pipeline project, though little of the new wealth has trickled down to the natives. Official corruption is rife, and the nation’s capital, Port Moresby, is a crime-ridden pit where boomtown contractors stay in $500-a-night hotels and gangs of “raskols”—disaffected youth from the highlands—wreak havoc outside compound walls.

Graham King, the Australian general manager of the Hargy palm-oil plantation, sat drinking tea on the porch with Lane and defended the oil palm industry as an economic necessity for New Britain. “No other cash crop survives here,” said King. “Oil palm is a beautiful fit in this rainfall and soil.” He pointed out that in 2010, the plantation paid out $20 million to 3,500 small oil palm growers in the area, on top of wages to plantation workers of $15 million. “In a developing country, people’s livelihoods are important,” said King. “Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth don’t seem to realize that.” Nevertheless, it is one of Papua’s many paradoxes that the palm-oil industry has become critical to its citizens’ survival even as it has destroyed the environment they inhabit.

All of King’s product is shipped to Europe, and the largest buyers of palm oil—multinational manufacturing giants like Nestlé and Unilever­—claim they will convert to 100 percent RSPO-certified palm oil by 2015. Even the Girl Scouts have pledged to make their Thin Mints and Samoas contain oil derived from sustainable palm-oil plantations. Less than 10 percent of the 50 million tons of palm oil produced annually meet the RSPO sustainability standard, but King wants to be on the right side of history, or at least the market. One of the key RSPO standards, which has made Lane much more comfortable working with King, is that primary forest cannot be touched. This doesn’t at all mean that the forests of New Britain are protected; it just means that Hargy Oil Palms won’t be clear-cutting the forests. They are nevertheless being rapidly destroyed by logging, expanding agriculture, and oil palm operations not following the RSPO guidelines. King swept his hand over the topographical map of the area where Lane’s base camp is set up. “It would take two years and it would be all gone,” he said. A 2008 report in the journal Biological Conservation showed satellite evidence that a fifth of New Britain’s lowland rainforest had vanished between 1989 and 2000. Since independence, perhaps half of the island’s forest cover has disappeared.

Enter John Lane and the mysterious tree kangaroo. Lane is not a policy wonk or a development expert, and he has little interest in being part of the NGO world with its endless meetings and half-measures. His dream role in conservation is the spectacular turnaround, the heroic diving catch, employing mainly a sense of adventure and force of will. If the tree kangaroo were out there, and if he could demonstrate its value to the world, it might be the tipping point to save this place. There was, of course, the small matter of finding the thing. This was Lane’s third venture into the forest of the Nakanai to look for it, and he planned to push himself farther into the unknown landscape than he had ever gone. His take on it seemed to echo the doomed mountaineer George Mallory’s famous words on climbing Everest. “We’re going out there,” Lane told me, “to see what’s there.”

Dendrolagus inustus, the grizzled tree kangaroo (Illustration from Mammals of Australia by John Gould) and Dendrolagus bennettianus, the Bennett’s tree kangaroo. (Lithograph by J. Smit, late 19th century)


The Hargy Plantation covers 25,000 acres, and we followed a dirt road to the plantation’s outermost edge, where the endless lines of oil palms ended and the rainforest began, to begin our search. At the trailhead, a half-dozen “bois” waited for us in the shade, wrestling and goofing around with each other in their native Nakanai. (“Boi” is the Tok Pisin term for a guy; the girls are called “meris.”) They were from the Nakanai tribe and lived in a village of thatched huts near the plantation, where many of their fathers and older brothers worked. They were all barefoot, and chewed buai, a mixture of betel nut, mustard, and lime that turned their teeth bright red. Lane had hired them, for seven dollars a day, to ferry loads of fuel and food along the muddy five-mile trail to base camp. One had carried in a 30-pound car battery for the radio, another a huge propane tank for the stove.

The bois were like teenagers anywhere on earth, loud and anarchic when in a group, and basically indifferent to me. The language barrier was nearly insurmountable, with Lane knowing only a few phrases in Tok Pisin and none at all in Nakanai. One of the better English speakers was a good-natured twentysomething named Daure—pronounced “dowry”—who had become a village hero after being chosen for the national cricket team. Daure taught me one of Tok Pisin’s most useful words, bagarap: damaged, broken, destroyed. It derives from the British colloquialism buggered up and can be used to describe anything from flat tires to geopolitics.

Employing the bois was part of the bargain for being allowed to set up base camp in the forest, Lane told me. The Nakanai tribe communally owned all the forestland that lay before us. The problem Lane faced was getting the tribe to recognize the lasting value of conserving the place. Everyone in the tribe was aware that their forest represented millions of dollars in quick and easy wealth, and the material temptations of modernity are pervasive and ubiquitous. Money, materialism, capitalism: Lane knew he couldn’t shield the Nakanai from the corrosive influences of the developed world. “In the past five years, I’ve seen the rapid Westernization of the landowners,” said Lane. As if to illustrate this, one of the bois walked by, a pair of bootleg “Calvin Klain” underwear showing above his waistband.

We descended along a steep trail, the bois leaving barefoot prints in the black mud. Hornbills flapped overhead, their wings carving a deep whoosh whoosh whoosh through the air. Epiphytes—plants that grow upon other plants to reach sunlight and nutrients—dangled from overhead branches like chandeliers. Understory plants grew head-high where an old-growth tree had recently fallen and opened up a gash in the canopy. The perfectly smooth and multihued trunks of rainbow eucalyptus shot straight through, eight feet across and topping out 250 feet above the forest floor. Those trees are a favorite of pulp companies, Lane explained, and are said to make excellent paper. This was the third time Lane had set up base camp in this spot in the caldera, and each year the jungle swallowed all signs of their presence, the trail erased by crowding plants. There were dozens of water crossings on the walk in, and we scrambled down steeply carved banks and forded knee-deep streams.

On an earlier expedition, Lane had handed out copies of his tree kangaroo photograph and asked several locals to keep an eye out and send him any reports. He had received an email from Angelus Palik, a plantation employee:

For your information tree kangaroos do exist on the island of New Britain. We sighted one adult (female) about 3 km inland from Area 12 next to the Lake Hargy. The adult female escaped and we caught its baby and took it home. We gave the tree kangaroo some sugar cane and banana. Unfortunately it died.

I asked Lane what became of the body of the tree kangaroo joey, which would seem to be a key piece of evidence in the mystery.

“They ate it,” he said.

John Lane looking up at a limestone drainage in New Britain. (Photo by Dylan van Winkel)


As I clambered over fallen logs, I scanned the canopy for tree kangaroos and checked the trunks of trees for their telltale claw marks. Lane told me to keep my eyes on the trail. If I wandered off the route, I could easily fall down tree holes, where hot lava cooling around ancient trees had left deep cylindrical shafts dropping as much as 10 feet straight down. I stared anxiously at the jungle floor, and as we walked Lane told me about himself and his previous adventures. He grew up in the middle of a pack of eight siblings, his father a nuclear engineer who traveled the world with his huge family. They lived in Tokyo when Lane was a child, and by age 7 he would wander for hours around the city, searching its strange alleys and corners totally alone. It was a kind of freedom children are rarely afforded today. He thrived on it.

His childhood gave him a taste for exploration, and he got into caving in his twenties. There was something about caves that captured Lane, perhaps the mystery of going someplace no human being had ever gone. Caving was also what first lured him to New Britain, its limestone karst riven with hundreds of miles of tunnels. Lane had heard of whole rivers vanishing into the island’s fissured earth or shooting out of mountainsides like fire hoses. There were vast caverns home to colonies of bats with five-foot wingspans. Throughout the 1990s, in his quest for places as untouched by man as possible, he had traveled the world on a series of caving expeditions. In Borneo, he descended miles into the Sarawak Chamber, the largest cavern ever discovered. “A quarter-mile wide, half a mile long, and 400 feet high,” Lane told me. “They say you could put four 747s end to end and spin them around.”

He soon led another expedition, to the Gunung Buda (White Mountain) cave system in Borneo, for National Geographic. The massive caves were filled with endemic species and spectacular rock formations. Lane was so inspired by what he saw that he arranged to meet with the Malaysian minister of the environment to preserve the extraordinary site. Eventually, thanks in part to his efforts, the Gunung Buda became a national park.

Through that experience, Lane saw how a big discovery could lead a government to act in the name of conservation. If it could happen there, why not in New Britain with the tree kangaroo? He recognized the differences in the two situations. “Getting things done here is a lot harder than any other place I’ve been,” Lane told me. “I keep thinking I’m getting closer to some solidification of conservation of the area, and then I don’t know. Would it just be a paper park?” But having had a taste of what adventure and exploration could achieve, he’d decided to make a life of it.

This sort of life had its victories, but there were great risks. Things could easily go too far and spin out of control toward the irrevocable. And so they did in 2001, when Lane and a good friend and expedition partner, a 34-year-old archaeologist named Adam Bodine, went “tubineering” with a group of 18 people, riding inner tubes in extreme Class V whitewater down the middle fork of the Feather River in California. Running through a particularly difficult section of rapids, Bodine was tossed from his tube and drawn into a strainer, a barricade of boulders and logs that allows current to flow through but can quickly trap a person. He vanished. “Nothing came out the other side but a shoe and a helmet,” said Lane. He and a few of his companions searched frantically, but after 10 minutes had passed they knew their friend was dead, his body lost beneath the rushing water. Lane was devastated, sobbing as he broke the news to the rest of the group.

Bodine’s death had a tremendous effect on Lane, reinforcing the enormity of the risks that he undertook. It was all an abstraction, he felt, “until shit goes down.” But that abstraction had been made manifest in the worst possible way. Lane returned two months later and spotted his friend’s skull at the bottom of a pool downstream. “He always lived his life at the limit,” Lane told me. “I think he accepted that outcome as a possibility.” It was a matter-of-fact assessment, perhaps a defense that Lane had constructed knowing that such a fate might befall himself as well. Lane had a daughter by then, a fact which underscored the consequences of the risks he took. But he couldn’t entirely withdraw from a life of adventure and found himself soon drawn again to the ragged edges of experience.

In more than a decade of globe-spanning cave expeditions, Lane had had a wide array of close calls: A tiger had paced around his tent in Sumatra; an angry tribesman had brandished a spear at him in Papua New Guinea; he’d stepped on a king cobra in Borneo. There were encounters with crocodiles, bears, pit vipers, kraits, sea snakes, and rattlers. But none were so close as one day in August 2006 when he descended into the Bigfoot cave system deep within the Marble Mountains of Northern California. Bigfoot was an adventure much closer to home, one of the deepest alpine caves in North America. The year-round temperature in the cavern is 38 degrees, and he and his group of fellow explorers made a 300-foot rappel from Bigfoot’s entrance down a series of steep pitches. As he lowered himself to the floor of the grotto, a 400-pound chunk of rock came loose from the wall in the darkness, smashing into his chest and knocking him to the ground. At the same instant, a massive boulder broke away from the rock face and became wedged against the wall directly over his head.

Lane was smeared with dirt and blood and badly bruised, and when his companions pulled him up, they discovered he had fractured his calf bone, the break nearly coming through the skin. The group’s first-aid supplies consisted of two Advil and an elastic bandage. Lane didn’t go into shock, but that only made the pain more acute. Worse, with just one usable leg, Lane knew he could never climb back out the way he had come in, even with his companions’ help. But there was, according to their charts, an alternate route, a quarter-mile belly-crawl through a narrow crevice with the Lovecraftian name Lurking Fear.

Dragging his leg behind him, Lane hauled himself forward through the blackness alone, trying to keep his face clear of the 36-degree stream that half-filled the passage. After a soaked and freezing crawl that seemed to take hours, Lane had to climb a steep rock face, his useless leg dangling as he ascended in his harness. The slightest jostling of his leg caused him agony. “The only relief was knowing that each step was one closer to home,” Lane later recalled. He finally scrambled out to sunlight and reached the group’s base camp. After drinking an entire box of wine to blunt the pain, he fashioned a crutch from a branch and limped five miles back to his car.

The incident frightened Lane and his wife, Anna. Of course, it wasn’t the first time: Lane’s frequent absences from his family had never been easy, but with two kids they had become far more of a burden. Anna had been with him since she was 20 and he was 25. She had fallen in love with his spontaneity and curiosity, his willingness to drop everything and go on an adventure. Despite Lane’s broken leg and the thousand other near misses, Anna somehow remained calm about the physical risks he undertook. She knew that worrying would just consume her but accepted those risks were an inextricable part of who he was. Lane had curbed his expeditions after their first child was born, in 2000, but once their daughter was a little older he had persuaded Anna to let him go off again. Now the agreement was that he would not leave home for more than four weeks at a stretch. Lane loves his family but he’s still drawn to the edges of things. Besides, he told me, after he nearly blew up the entire family with a home fireworks display the previous summer, “Anna was glad I wasn’t home on the Fourth of July this year.” When I asked her what she thought motivated Lane, Anna conceded to me that he remained something of a cipher to her. What made him do what he did?  “I know him really well, and I’m still trying to figure it out,” she said.

Bioluminescent fungi in New Britain. (Photo by Dylan van Winkel)


At 6 p.m. on the dot, thousands of cicadas buzzed in the forest. You could set your watch by them: a pulsing hybrid of subway brakes and jet engines. The sun dropped below the horizon, and the forest gloom deepened. As we stumbled the last mile by headlamp, I spotted a strange light along the ground. On a rotted log there grew a colony of bioluminescent mushrooms, each tiny gill clearly drawn in glowing green. Not long after, we arrived at the base camp, a wide clearing hacked out of the forest, with an enormous tarp strung across poles and tied down with vines. A large banner for Sierra Nevada Brewery hung across the entrance. This would be the staging ground from which we’d stalk the tree kangaroo.

A shout of greeting went up from a group of bois in ragged shorts and T-shirts sitting around a smoky fire of half-green wood hacked from the forest and split by machete. One picked up a burning ember and lit a Spear cigarette, a leaf of local tobacco rolled in newspaper. They all chewed betel nut, spitting the juice in theatrical blood red arcs onto the ground. A noisy card game was played by several bois splayed across a stick bed, and a radio broadcast some kind of screechy, saccharine Papuan tween-pop that made me long for the cicadas. A propane stove held a pot with our communal dinner, a glutinous mass of ramen and canned tuna mixed with gume, a spinach-like forest fern. There were about 10 bois and meris in the camp at any given time, and they were beginning to wear on Lane. They would stay up shouting over card games until 2 a.m. each night, and by sunrise at 5:30 were back at their game, seeming never to sleep.

The bois and the meris weren’t the only people besides Lane at the camp, however. As I strung up my hammock between a pair of trees, a bright light shone directly in my eyes. It came from a headlamp belonging to Dylan van Winkel, a herpetologist from South Africa by way of New Zealand. He was chasing a frog that had hopped along the leaflitter past his laboratory, a tarp strung above a table made of sticks lashed together with vines.

Dylan had joined the expedition with his girlfriend, Sarah Wells, a 30-year-old Brit working toward a Ph.D. in ornithology. They were committed zoology freaks. There was nothing more fun than spending weeks euthanizing skinks or scanning for nesting grebes (diving birds) waist-deep in a marsh. They lived together in Auckland, and Dylan had spent months reaching out to every field-research expedition he could find, hoping they’d be able to join one. Their dream was to get on board with one of Conservation International’s legendary Rapid Assessment Programs, well-funded blitzkrieg species surveys in some of the most remote and biologically rich locales on earth. In Papua New Guinea in 2009, 200 new species were found by CI field surveys, including a species of fruit bat that made headlines around the world for its uncanny resemblance to Yoda.

If Papua New Guinea is the World Series of zoology, in comparison with CI’s rapid assessments Lane’s expedition was the Chicago Cubs of field surveys, underfunded and a bit haphazard. But Lane was Dylan’s most enthusiastic supporter, so that is where the pair had cast their lot. They didn’t know much about New Britain, but there was always that lingering dream that something extraordinary and new would manifest. They certainly believed that they were looking in a good place. They had both taken thousands of photographs, gorgeous color-saturated portraits of the strange, tiny, fluttering, slithering things that populated the forest. “The biodiversity is just huge,” said Dylan. “We’ve been seeing all sorts of crazy-ass insects.”

Dylan was a 25-year-old with a surfer’s build, curly black hair, and a three-week scruff of beard. He told me his ringtone alternated between the themes from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. He showed off his collection of “herps” by the light of his headlamp. That’s herpetofauna—amphibians and reptiles—most of which in New Britain are poorly documented. He had collected dozens and went out frequently at night to spotlight them on the wet leaflitter of the forest. Each one he caught would be euthanized with a shot of pentobarbital, the same drug recently approved for administering the death penalty in Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Florida. With tweezers, Dylan would extract a tiny sample of liver for genetic analysis and preserve the rest of the specimen in alcohol. His “lab” was a stick table covered by a tarp, with stacked Tupperware containers filled with coiled snakes, board-stiff frogs, and vials containing scorpions. He was hoping that some of what he had collected would be new to science.

Sarah had already observed and cataloged dozens of bird species around the base camp, but some of their other collection attempts had been less successful. The wire-mesh lizard traps they’d had Lane climb to place high in the tree canopy had been turning up empty. Dylan gestured to a large bundled net on his worktable. “That’s a mist net,” he said. “It’s for catching birds—or mist.” Sarah sounded discouraged. “I think we need to rethink our strategy,” she said. The one mammal they had managed to trap, a large native rat that Dylan believed was a species new to science, bit him on the finger and scampered off into the underbrush.

Three Chico State undergrads had joined the expedition as well: Heidi Rogers, Alan Rhoades, and Emily Ramsey. Bringing them along was part of Lane’s bridge-building with the university, and they had all been working on their own research projects, collecting spiders, documenting and measuring trees, and enduring the discomforts of camping out in an equatorial quagmire. It had not been an easy transition from civilian life. Heidi had maintained an upbeat demeanor despite being covered head-to-toe with a remarkable assortment of suppurating welts, sores, rashes, and bites. Alan and Emily, both 22, had been together since early high school and were now giving their relationship the ultimate stress test. Emily was a soft-spoken blond ingenue whose panoply of food allergies and intolerances to pretty much anything but white rice had kept her on a near starvation diet for weeks. She had been so sick upon arrival that she’d spent the first three days in camp without leaving her tent. Lane suggested in jest that she was also allergic to dirt, as she was the sole member of the expedition who managed to appear sparkling clean at all times. Her hapless, floppy-haired boyfriend seemed wracked between his innate desire to have a fun jungle adventure and the guilty feeling that he should be a full partner in her misery.

Lane felt that the expedition would build character in the students—that it would add meaning to their existences for them to suffer a little. “They’re going to look back on this all someday and realize it was the greatest experience of their lives,” he pronounced.

Of course, expedition life had its deprivations. For weeks, meals had consisted of the limited possibilities afforded by ramen, rice, canned tuna, corned beef, and the occasional side of sautéed jungle ferns. We also consumed packets of Hiway Hardman biscuits, illustrated with a cartoon of a shirtless truck driver and the pidgin phrase “Strongpela tru!” which managed to be at once igneous and homoerotic. The tuna had a garish maroon cast to it, and the corned beef—the same “bully beef” eaten in the trenches of World War I—slid out of its tin in a coagulated cube of compressed trimmings. The joke around camp was that there were basically two options: cat food or dog food.

There were occasional variations in the meal plan. One afternoon, Mesak Mesori, a shirtless, bearded 55-year-old Nakanai hunter with six-pack abs and betel-red stumps for teeth, marched proudly into camp. He carried a long spear with a tip made of sharpened rebar and was followed by a parade of bois shouldering a pole to which a large wild pig had been bound with vines. The pig had been caught in a leg snare—the wire had cut down to the bone by the time Mesak found it—and he had speared it in the lungs to dispatch it. The camp filled with the smell of burning hair as the bois held the carcass over the fire and then proceeded to butcher it with a machete. Mesak stood over them, gesturing and speaking in Nakanai, and the bois listened to him with respect and took the task seriously. Nothing was wasted, save the dark green gall bladder, which a boy plucked from the liver and tossed far into the forest. One of the bois told me that each part would be given to members of the village according to tribal tradition: the heart and liver to the elders, the eyeballs a delicacy reserved for women. Mesak had told Lane that this was why he had come out to help in his hunt for the tree kangaroo—he wanted the forest to be here for his grandchildren, and he wanted them to know its ways.

I observed to Lane that a bunch of Californian college kids in the middle of a jungle sounded like the archetypical setup of a 1970s exploitation movie. And it did seem as though an F/X crew was on the premises. One morning, Lane woke to find a 10-foot web stitched between the same pair of trees as his hammock, an orb weaver spider the breadth of my palm splayed at its center. There were at least three species of scorpion in camp, and the native amethystine pythons were known to grow to 25 feet. Tiger leeches waited in ambush on the undersides of leaves, squirmed through the eyelets in hiking boots, and crawled to out-of-the-way sites to feed undisturbed. A few days earlier, Lane thought he felt a loose piece of skin on the inside of his cheek and discovered a leech feeding in his mouth. Alan discovered the same while brushing his teeth. One morning, Sarah had felt what she thought was a bit of dirt in her eye. She asked Heidi to take a look and was informed that a leech had attached itself to her eyeball, where it was happily engorged. As the camp gathered around to observe, Sarah maintained clinical detachment while Heidi attempted to pluck it off with tweezers. 

The students, despite their physical afflictions, were lucky to have made it to New Britain at all. Their presence had apparently raised some red flags with the Chico State administration, which was not pleased at the idea of students heading off with an adjunct professor to crocodile-infested volcano territory. Perhaps they had read the State Department’s extensive travel warnings. In any event, the morning of his departure flight, Lane was called in to meet with Chico State president Paul Zingg and the university’s risk manager, who threatened to block the students from participating in the expedition. Chico State is an institution perhaps best known for being ranked America’s number one party school by Playboy in 1987, a title it held for 15 years. When the Office of Risk Management calls something into question, watch out. Lane informed them that Alan and Emily had purchased their tickets on their own and were already en route, laid over in Fiji, and the president ordered Lane to fly to Port Moresby, rendezvous with the students, and escort them directly back to Northern California.

After planning dozens of expeditions full of ego clashes and unpleasant surprises, Lane had developed various coping strategies. This, in part, explained his deadpan affect and seeming inability to get worked up over almost anything. He received the Chico State president’s direct order not to bring the students along with stubborn unflappability. “If you let that stuff get to you, you end up with a nine-to-five as a pencil pusher, stuck in traffic,” Lane told me. There was something in his tone that implied such a fate was the one defeat he really feared. So Lane had simply ignored Zingg’s request and met up with the students in Port Moresby to begin the expedition. And now here they were, deep in the New Britain jungle, far beyond the reach of any administrative consequence, ready to fan out in search of Lane’s elusive quarry.

John Lane, Emily Ramsey, and Nakanai locals at base camp near the Hargy Plantation in New Britain. (Photo by Dylan van Winkel)


On my third morning in camp, we all walked out to a small machete-cut clearing on the shore of Lake Hargy. The volcanic caldera’s lake had filled with millions of years’ worth of rainwater, and the sun burned mist off its glassy surface. From the rough dock of vine-lashed logs the bois had fashioned, I could see 10 feet down through the astonishingly clear water. The lake reaches three miles across, and a ring of forest-covered mountains rose above the far shore. The jagged mountains formed the edge of the Nakanai range, hundreds of square miles of unpopulated, untrammelled country divided by steep gorges and knife-edge ridges, and full of thousands of limestone caves. Lane told me the Nakanai never travel to the far side of the lake. The Nakanai are afraid of the thick mists at higher elevation, which they call “snow,” swirling with malevolent spirits.

Lane’s mission in the region was to search for the tree kangaroo and whatever else he might find. If he came across one of the creatures and by some extraordinary circumstance managed to grab hold of it, Lane and Dylan agreed there was only one option: a massive dose of the barbiturate sodium pentobarbital. To prove the creature’s existence, he would have to kill it. The mystery of the New Britain tree kangaroo seemed to be as much a problem of ontology as zoology. But Lane was not vexed by philosophical questions. He had always been drawn to the unfilled spaces on the map, and he wished them to stay that way. These lost places were a screen upon which he could project his desires. And by that same promise of mysteries to be revealed, most of us had been drawn here by Lane’s mercurial vision.

Lane, Dylan, and I gathered our gear by the lakeshore. Given the limited rations and certain difficulties of our plans, only the three of us would travel into the Nakanai, while the rest of the group continued their research in the forests around the base camp. We carried a machete, climbing harnesses, several hundred feet of rope, a small cookstove, Dylan’s collecting equipment, and a camera trap for identifying animals moving along game trails at night. Lane carried a GPS unit, but it would be of limited use. The only topographical maps that exist for the region were created by the Australians in 1978, and the gradient on Lane’s copy was so coarse that a 200-foot cliff wouldn’t even merit a line. I’d brought a dozen freeze-dried camping meals. Lane and I had jungle hammocks, with rain flies and mosquito netting attached. Dylan would have to improvise, building stick beds with the machete. Considering our remoteness and the extreme topography, I asked Lane why he hadn’t brought a satellite phone. “Sat phones take the fun out of it,” he replied dismissively. “Our lives are soft enough as it is.”

I was beginning to understand the ways Lane elevated improvisation to a life philosophy. On our expedition, there was always some crucial supply missing, some unexpected obstacle to overcome. For example, Lane had planned for us to have a small aluminum rowboat to transport our heavy gear across the caldera’s lake. The boat had been acquired, but it needed to be helicoptered in from the plantation. Despite Lane’s persistent pleading for more than a year, the helicopter pilot had never gotten around to doing it. So we would make do, and that would be half the fun, according to Lane. He showed me the vessel that instead would ferry us the three miles across: a pair of inner tubes to which the bois had lashed a latticework of sticks with vines. The platform was scarcely bigger than a front door, and there were three hand-carved paddles. This didn’t seem terribly safe. Hargy is a lake where crocodiles—which can grow to 20 feet—had migrated inland and now basked along the shore. “I really don’t think they’re likely to come out to the middle,” said Lane.

In Lane’s world, the abstract concept of risk was divided into two subcategories, perceived and actual. The idea of a comfort zone and an individual’s position relative to it is perhaps a peculiarly postmodern preoccupation: whole industries have been developed to remove customers safely from it, after all. Think of bungee jumping, roller coasters, zip lines. Innertubing across a volcanic lake home to crocodiles did the trick for me. But having come so far, I allowed no thought of turning back, and I resigned myself to Lane’s plan. We piled our packs at the center of the raft and clambered precariously aboard. Lane knelt in front, and Dylan and I sat crushed side by side at the rear, each forced to dangle a foot in the water. I stared down at the stick platform, a couple of inches above the deep blue water of the lake. “How many kangaroos do you want us to bring back?” shouted Lane to the crew of students and bois we were leaving behind. The equatorial sun blazed as we pushed off and paddled toward the jungle-covered mountains rising on the far shore of Lake Hargy.

As we paddled, our raft seemed a little society adrift in a wilderness outside of time. Lane recited his litany of corny and mildly dirty jokes to offset the spookiness of our isolation. (“What’s the difference between Mick Jagger and a Scotsman? Mick Jagger says, ‘Hey you, get off of my cloud.’ A Scotsman says, ‘Hey MacLeod, get off of my ewe.’”) After three hours, we reached the far side of the lake, where we dragged the raft through thigh-deep mud to the shoreline and stashed it in the 10-foot grass. There was no trail to be found. Great sails of buttress roots propped up forest giants, and the high canopy cast a cathedral gloom over the forest floor. A strangler fig the size of a house grew from a hillside, its mossy roots a dendritic maze. Lane studied the map and decided to make for what appeared to be a ridgeline rising from the lake edge toward the cloudy heights. We shouldered our heavy packs, and Dylan struck out first, machete in hand, hacking at vines. I gradually picked up on his personal lexicon of Kiwi-influenced slang, generally used to denote varying levels of approval: If he was excited for something, he was “frothing”; if deeply disappointed, “gutted.”

Dylan told me tree kangaroos give off a strong, musky odor, so I inhaled deeply, hoping for a whiff. Instead, I smelled rotting vegetable matter and my own sweat. As ever, I searched overhead for a glint of chestnut fur among the mossy branches. Almost immediately it began to rain, pounding down so hard that it was like being held beneath an open hydrant, the roar so loud we could barely hear one another. We didn’t even bother with raincoats, which would only drench us from the inside with the humidity. The jungle was filled with mutant versions of flora more familiar as houseplants and garden flowers, 10-foot ferns, head-high begonias, and fluorescent-pink impatiens erupting from the rotting crevices of trees. Rattan, that Pier 1 standby, was here a flesh-tearing horror, with stems covered in three-inch spikes and cat-claw thorns lining the undersides of its fronds. My clothes were soon shredded and my forearms bloody with deep scratches.

Dylan stopped frequently to roll over rotten logs, each one like a lottery scratch-off whose jackpot was yet unnamed species of spiders, beetles, and frogs. At one point, he squatted and poked at something on the ground with the machete, a slimy heap of half-digested seedpods. “Cassowary shit,” he said. We all took pictures. Five feet tall and weighing perhaps 60 pounds, the Bennett’s Cassowary is one of the more dangerous creatures in the forest. It resembles a flightless steroidal turkey, with a royal blue neck streaked with red, a mound of shaggy black feathers, and dagger-like spurs on thick legs. The birds can be territorial and will attack humans, leaping and punching with their spurs or head-butting with an ax-like crest of bone atop their skulls. “He can jump up to a meter in the air, and he’ll go for your throat, your stomach, or your groin,” Lane casually observed. He had been charged by one, of course.

The terrain suddenly steepened. We scrambled up the muddy hillside, wedging against roots and grasping at saplings to pull ourselves upward. We seemed to have missed the manageable ridgeline we had spotted on the map and were forcing our way up a drastic incline. As I climbed, I knocked loose a chunk of limestone the size of a basketball, and it smashed 100 feet down the hillside, echoing against the trees. The forest grew claustrophobic, offering nowhere to gain a view outward. With the thick canopy overhead, it became difficult to get the GPS unit to even register a waypoint. Finally, smeared with mud, we arrived at a slightly flat spot and hacked a camp for the night from the vine-tangled undergrowth.

We were at nearly 3,000 feet now, and the air turned chilly and damp as soon as the sun had set. I had decided not to bring a sleeping bag, assuming the tropics would be hot enough at night to make one unnecessary. Within a half-hour, I’d put on all the dry clothes I had, including my otherwise pointless raincoat, and still shook uncontrollably with cold. Lane dug into his pack and tossed me a small packet containing a Mylar space blanket. There was a picture on the package of a smiling woman wrapped in one—presumably not in the euphoric end stages of hypothermia. I found myself constantly glancing upward at the silhouetted branches, looking for some sign in the dripping expanse of foliage: a long dangling tail, a moving shadow, anything.        

From a scientific perspective, of course, stomping through inaccessible rainforest and looking around at random trees is hardly a methodologically sound way of finding a tree kangaroo. Some of the best research on tree kangaroos in the wild has been done by Lisa Dabek, director of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. She used native hunters with tracking dogs to locate the animals, then sent climbers up into the branches after them, until, to escape, the tree kangaroos leaped to the ground, where they were promptly tackled, radio-collared, and released. There are few other ways to make long-term observations. But Dabek’s research and dedication have achieved real results; she persuaded local landowners to create a 180,000-acre conservation area around the heart of the tree kangaroo’s habitat on the mainland’s Huon peninsula. It took Dabek 10 years, and extraordinary cooperation by the native communities, to establish the protections.

That is exactly what Lane would have to do—a long process of diplomacy and trust-building with the local tribes—but it was unclear whether he had the patience for that. Lane was aware of this, of course, but rigorous methodology and slow diplomacy were not his preferred M.O. My own feelings wavered between resentment at having come halfway around the world on a half-assed goose chase and a sense of wonder that we were searching for something rich and strange at the far end of the earth. But there I was, and there was nothing much to do but follow Lane deeper into the jungle. He was out there trying for the big win, the Hail Mary that would save New Britain with one grand and miraculous discovery.

Lake Hargy in New Britain (Photos by Dylan van Winkel)


There is a phrase in Tok Pisin, longpela taim, which means “a long time ago.” And from a long time ago until the present, outsiders have rummaged through this corner of the world for supporting evidence of their dreams. It has filled the popular imagination as a place where desires could be imprinted onto an unknown, “primitive” landscape. This has led to resource booms in copper, timber, gold, natural gas, and palm oil. But it has also spurred far more esoteric and less financially rewarding quests. The blank spaces on its map have beckoned a long parade of entrepreneurs and eccentrics in pursuit of their fantasies, and Lane is hardly the most unusual.

Papua New Guinea’s history with foreigners is filled with both seekers and the lost. Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old scion of one of America’s wealthiest families, traveled there in 1961 to collect tribal art and vanished. There were rumors for decades: He had drowned or had been eaten by sharks or crocodiles or natives, or was living out a Colonel Kurtz–like exile deep in the jungle. A cult of searchers arose, but after 50 years they’ve failed to unearth any solid evidence. Similarly, a retired Australian aircraft engineer named David Billings has spent 17 years, and $100,000 of his own money, searching fruitlessly in the jungles of New Britain for the Lockheed Electra piloted by Amelia Earhart, which took off from the mainland. But these, at least, are quests for something that actually exists.

The Creation Research Society (CRS) stands out even among the many oddball Western groups obsessed with Papua. The CRS bills itself as a “professional organization of trained scientists and interested laypersons” devoted to a version of creationism based on a literal reading of Genesis. The society publishes a quarterly “peer-reviewed journal” that seeks to build an evidentiary basis for young-earth creationism, the Bible-based belief that the planet was created around 6,000 years ago. In March 2006, CRS Quarterly published an article titled “The Fiery Flying Serpent,” by David Woetzel, a New Hampshire business executive and avid cryptozoologist. Woetzel described a 23-day expedition to Papua New Guinea in search of a living, possibly bioluminescent flying dinosaur natives call the ropen.

Woetzel recorded interviews with several natives of Umboi, a volcanic island 40 miles off the coast of New Britain, who claimed to have seen the flying creature. One night, while alone in his camp, he witnessed a “spine-tingling sight”: “a glowing object passing low on the horizon. … The whole sighting lasted for only a few seconds, too brief to photograph it. … [We] spent five nights looking for the Ropen. Our vigils were to no avail, despite the excellent view and our even employing a dead wallaby as bait.”

Lunatic as the CRSers’ quest seems, there was something in Lane’s mission that accorded with the ropen hunters, the Amelia obsessives, the Rockefeller-heads, and all the other seekers after lost things who pilgrimage to this part of the world. But the outsider adventurer who inspired Lane to come here was none of the above. Instead, he was an American World War II reconnaissance pilot, a Minnesotan named Fred “Hargy” Hargesheimer. In June 1943, Hargesheimer had been shot down over the Nakanai range, and an Australian cartographic unit during the war named the newly discovered lake in the caldera in his honor.

By mid-1943, the war in the Pacific was beginning to turn. Guadalcanal had fallen, and the Japanese had been driven from the New Guinea mainland. Their largest outpost in the region was the massive airbase at Rabaul, on the eastern end of New Britain, where more than 100,000 troops were stationed. As a photo reconnaissance pilot, Hargesheimer flew unarmed over Japanese-held territory, his machine guns replaced by a trio of cameras. He recorded the landscape for mapmaking in anticipation of an Allied land invasion and kept a constant lookout for signs of Japanese movement across the island: newly built airstrips, hidden supply barges, troop encampments. Then as now, much of the interior of New Britain was a mountainous wilderness; the only signs of human habitation were found along the coasts.

On the morning of June 5, 1943, Hargesheimer flew his twin-engine, twin-tailed P-38 Lightning, named the Eager Beaver, out over the Dampier Strait. He traced along the north coast of New Britain, searching for Japanese movement. He spotted what he thought was a new air strip in the jungle and prepared for a low-altitude pass to photograph it. His plane quivered, and he watched as his left engine burst into flame. He went into a defensive dive and felt bullets ricochet off the armor plate behind his cockpit. When his second engine died, Hargesheimer knew he had no choice but to bail out. He pulled the canopy release and was sucked out into open sky. Drifting slowly down beneath his parachute, Hargesheimer watched the Japanese fighter swing back around, certain it was coming in for the kill. But the pilot veered away. Hargy came back to earth, crashing down through a grove of eucalyptus trees.

He was banged up, with a deep gash on his head, but alive. He bandaged his wound with parachute cloth and took an inventory of his supplies. He had a small inflatable raft, a machete, a compass, a pistol, a packet of matches, a fishing line and hooks, penicillin, two chocolate bars, and a booklet, Friendly Fruits and Vegetables: Advice to Air Crew Members Forced Down in the Jungle. He was in the middle of a wilderness, 75 miles behind Japanese lines, in a region where tribal loyalties were uncertain and rumors of cannibalism still abounded. And although it was ostensibly the dry season, it rained torrentially every day. Hargesheimer decided to make for the coast, hoping to encounter some friendly natives who would shelter him until he could arrange a rescue.

He walked for 10 days, sucking on his chocolate to make it last, sleeping under a tent of parachute cloth, and struggling through a landscape of steep ravines and difficult vegetation. Finally, he came across a grass-roofed native shelter by a small river and set up a base for himself. He managed to start a fire with his final match, and he lived on roasted freshwater snails and a single fish he managed to shoot with his pistol. He was soon near starvation and crushingly lonesome. What if he had survived the crash only to die a slow death in the jungle?

Finally, after a month alone, he heard voices approaching. Before he knew it, a few tribesmen stood before him. He wished he had run and hid: He didn’t know if they were friendly, and he spoke only a few words of Tok Pisin. Then one of them handed him a letter. It was a greeting written by an Australian coastwatcher, a member of one of the small radio teams that hid behind enemy lines and provided early warnings on the Japanese.

Deciding they were on his side, Hargesheimer followed the natives to their village on the coast. There, they made him a feast of bananas and smoked fish. When he contracted malaria and couldn’t eat for 10 days, a nursing mother fed him every day from a teacup filled with her breast milk. In a few months, he became fluent in Tok Pisin and came to care greatly for the people who helped him. They risked their lives by hiding him. When Japanese soldiers approached the village, the natives hustled him into the jungle. He once had to climb high up in a eucalyptus tree to avoid detection. “At the top I found a mossy nest that had evidently been the sleeping place of some animal,” he later wrote. “It was a perfect hideout.”

Finally, nine months after he was shot down, the coastwatchers made contact with an American submarine, and Hargesheimer and several other stranded airmen were rescued. He sent a telegram home: “Safe and well, regret circumstances prevented answering your letters.” In two weeks, he was back in Minnesota.

After the war, Hargy thought often of New Britain. In 1960, he returned to the town, now called Nantabu. The villagers all remembered him and were delighted that “Masta Predi” had come all the way around the world to see them again. He wept with joy. Later, the villagers performed an elaborate “singsing” for him. Hargesheimer had brought gifts, but he wanted to do more for the people who had saved his life. He ended up building a school nearby, providing a free education to generations of native children. He even moved to New Britain with his wife and taught there with her for several years.

Ultimately, Hargesheimer retired to a vineyard in Grass Valley, California, and self-published a memoir. At 89, he got a call from a caver who lived in nearby Chico. John Lane was planning his first caving expedition to New Britain, and a friend had recommended he contact Hargesheimer for advice. They soon became good friends. Lane promised Hargesheimer he would go to New Britain and try to find the Eager Beaver.

That first expedition didn’t go quite as planned. After losing all their gear connecting through Tokyo, Lane and his companions had trekked with burlap bags to a village near where they thought the crash site might be. They went to an enormous bat-and-spider-filled cave several hours’ hike above the village, but there was no sign of Hargesheimer’s plane.

Lane left a disposable camera with a villager. The manager of the Hargy Plantation offered a reward to anyone who could find the wreckage. Then, three months later, Lane got an email with pictures of the Eager Beaver. In July 2006, Hargy and Lane traveled back to New Britain. Lane hiked in to the site to cut a helipad, and a group of native Kol tribesmen showed up and demanded $70,000 for outsiders to enter their territory. The Kol are nomadic hunter-gatherers, among the least assimilated tribes in New Britain, but luckily Lane and Hargy had a local missionary with them, one of the few white people in the world who speak Kol. They negotiated the price down to 15 cans of tuna, a tarp, and the plastic chair they’d brought to carry Hargy to the crash site.

A group of villagers carried Hargesheimer up to the Eager Beaver. The wreckage was spread over a quarter-mile area down a steep streambed. They found a section of the tail riddled with bullet holes and one of the enormous propellers stuck into the ground like a javelin. Even the cameras that had been mounted to the P-38 were there.

Hargy died almost a year ago, but the school he built in New Britain still exists, and Lane sits on the board of its nonprofit foundation. He was a different sort of person than Lane, but one who had clearly inspired him deeply. Hargy had led a life that was at once a humble service and an extraordinary adventure. Perhaps there was a way for Lane’s own life to encompass both of those things. “When I met Fred, caving sort of went on the back burner, and this became more of a conservation project,” Lane told me. Everything he had struggled with, everything he had hoped to achieve here, had grown from that strange, serendipitous friendship, and with Hargy in mind he would push on no matter how absurdly long the odds appeared.


Day after day, we pushed onward into the depths of the Nakanai. Things were starting to unravel. The landscape itself was our biggest adversary, steep and vicious, the air heavy with decayed vegetation. Dylan hacked a route through a wilderness of bamboo and neck-deep tanglefoot ferns. The ferns were so woody and interwoven, it sometimes took 20 minutes to go as many yards. Stinging caterpillars dropped down on our exposed necks. My waterlogged leather boots were nearly sliced through by vines; they smelled like a damp catacomb. I had an angry rash across my chest, and Dylan diagnosed himself with the early stages of trench foot. We were also running low on provisions, with little remaining but corned beef and Hiway Hardman biscuits, but Lane cheerfully assured us we would be fine with no food for a few days. We hadn’t seen so much as a tree kangaroo claw mark or scat pile.

Carrying our heavy packs also slowed us down. On a high forested ridge, we decided to make a base camp. Hoping to capture a still shot of a tree kangaroo, Lane set up his motion-sensing camera trap every evening, but he only wound up taking inadvertent portraits of himself. One morning I heard a loud rustling outside my hammock and prayed that it was a tree kangaroo rifling through my pack. I sat up and watched as an enormous wild boar crashed its way down the ridge. The forest seemed spooky and echoing, and Lane speculated that this was the domain of the Nakanai’s dreaded one-armed, one-legged Pomeo people of local legend. There was no sign that anyone else had ever been to this place, too far for even the most ambitious native hunters to roam. Lane judged from the map that we were above a series of steep ravines that cut into the heart of the Nakanai wilderness.

Fallen logs held their shape but collapsed into compost at a touch. I could see the jungle’s soil being created before my eyes. On one steep section, I clung to a root, then slipped and fell into a rotten log. Thousands of furious inch-long red and black ants swarmed out, and some stung me, white-hot and electric. I was surprised by the sound of my own screaming, raspy and high-pitched, echoing through the forest as I tried to brush them off in panic. Lane looked up from below me, unconcerned. When I made it down to him, ant bites swelling across my stomach, he gave me a look that seemed to say, Suck it upkid, this is part of the deal.

We stumbled down into a dry creek bed, and I suggested to Dylan that he mark a notch in a fallen log so that we would know where to turn back up the ridge. As he swung, the blade of the machete glanced off the wood and sank into his knee, blood flowing down over his shin in rivulets. Dylan sat down, and we looked at the cut, a wide red smile just below the patella, going nearly to the bone. “Uh-oh,” said Lane, in a kindergarten-teacher voice. “Machete owie.” Dylan seemed unfazed. Part of the grand project with our tree kangaroo hunt, it seemed, was trying to make living itself hard work again. Dylan refused to turn back and wrapped a dirty bandanna around the wound to stanch the bleeding: a machete wound would proffer significant bragging rights back home.

We picked our way carefully over the mossy boulders of the streambed. After several hundred yards scrambling along the ravine, we came to an abrupt stop. The dry streambed dropped over a smooth saddle of rock and plunged straight down for 100 feet into an even deeper canyon. Lane told us we would need to return the following day with our ropes. We turned and began the long climb to our base camp, hundreds of vertical feet above us through the jungle.

Back in camp, the afternoon rains pounded down. Dylan tossed me a little envelope dug from the depths of his pack. It was a suture kit. Illuminating the wound with my headlamp, I used a syringe to wash it with rainwater, trying at least to get the mud out. I grasped the curved needle with tweezers and pushed it through the edge of the wound, then drew the suture through. I repeated this process through the top edge of the incision. Dylan directed me as I went, and I tied the thread into a sloppy but passable stitch, the wound closing like a Ziploc bag. With the next suture I hit a vein, and blood gushed down his shin. I tied it off again, and finally it was closed. “That’s a mean cut,” said Dylan, with a hint of pride. “Wicked!”

We returned to the waterfall in the morning, 200 feet of climbing rope looped over Dylan’s shoulder. Lane tied a secure anchor around several boulders. Despite his often laissez-faire approach to safety, Lane took preparations for the descent seriously. He clipped our line into the anchor and tossed it over the lip of the dry waterfall. One at a time, we rappelled into the abyss, kicking away from the mossy rock face and sliding down the line.

Limestone cliffs rose sheer above us and formed a slot canyon, as vertical gardens of ferns and orchids dripped down. It was like looking up from the bottom of a well. The sky was barely visible as we scrambled down the narrow canyon, and it seemed certain that no human had ever before been in this exact place. I was so lost in my ruminations about the wilderness that I almost ignored Lane’s warning to stop. I looked up and saw that we had come to the top of a second waterfall, probably twice as high as the first, and we were out of rope. It would be impossible to go any further. “I guess that’s the end of the line,” said Lane, looking out at the dark jungle valley below the falls. His voice didn’t sound frustrated or relieved, merely matter-of-fact that his endless search would now turn elsewhere, like Ahab with ADD. I wondered if, for him, it was not as much about finding things as looking for them. Not finding them just meant he had a reason to come back and try again.

An immense tangled tree jutted from the cliffs beyond the waterfall. I tried to will a silhouetted tree kangaroo to climb out along its branches and gaze down from its secret world, indifferent to our presence. Ethnotramp or not. Real or imaginary. I knew that wishing for it to appear was just another form of magical thinking. I knew that just proving the tree kangaroo’s existence was not likely to be the most effective way of saving this wilderness. And yet the forest beyond still seemed to glow with mystery and possibility. I did not want a world bereft of such secrets. I thought of Peter Matthiessen’s Zen-like acceptance when he failed to reach his eponymous goal in The Snow Leopard. “I think I must be disappointed, having come so far, and yet I do not feel that way. I am disappointed, and also, I am not disappointed.” Looking out from the edge, I did not feel ashamed at our failure.

Having literally reached the end of our rope, we turned back up the canyon and scrambled to the base of the first waterfall, where our lifeline of rope hung down. Without it, we would be completely trapped. I attached a set of ascending devices to my harness and clipped into the line, inch-worming my way up the 100-foot rock face. Halfway up it started to rain, a driving vertical torrent, and water began to run down the slick, mossy wall. By the time I pulled myself over the top, the rain was blinding, pouring off broad leaves and filling the dry pools of the streambed. I perched on a log that had braced itself across the ravine.

Fifteen minutes later, Dylan pulled himself up, and by then the stream’s pools had filled and begun to join together, running in a steady flow over the edge. New streams burst in along the sides of the ravine, adding to the fast-rising torrent. The anchor for the climbing line was soon underwater, and the stream below cranked up to a muddy brown roar, cascading over the edge to where Lane was trying to climb up to us. Dylan scrambled up to my log, and we stared at each other, wordless at the chaos that had erupted below. I could not see Lane and feared he had been trapped by the flooding water, maybe swept downstream or pinned against the rock face by the flow. We were both powerless to help him, and we both knew that if he was hurt or trapped, it would take days for us to bring help. I thought of his friend Adam Bodine, drowned years ago. Lane’s adventure-promoting decision not to bring a satellite phone now seemed the height of hubris. A dull panic stirred in my stomach. The water pounded down from above and roared over the falls, the thin lifeline of rope stretched taut.

And then a hand splashed up, followed by another, followed by a waterlogged Sierra Nevada Brewery baseball cap. Lane dragged himself over the edge, stood in the knee-deep flow, and gasped for breath, the water running off him. He whooped, shouting for the first time since I’d met him: “That was epic! Super hairy.” I wondered if this moment of danger and then a last-minute reprieve was what he had been looking for all along.

A Goodfellow’s tree kangaroo in captivity near Kimbe Bay in New Britain. (Photo by Matthew Power)


We were out of rope, out of time, and almost out of food. So the next day we made the long, treacherous descent back to the lake’s edge, where the raft waited. We paddled across the lake through driving rain, the mountains of the Nakanai receding in the distance.

When we returned to the camp, we were happy to find that the place hadn’t devolved into Lord of the Flies in our absence: There had been no nasty breakups or petty acts of violence, and no sticks had been sharpened at both ends. Even so, the Chico State students were more than ready to go home. The bois began breaking down the camp. Dylan and Sarah dismantled their lab and packed the specimens, hoping that something new to science was floating in one of the little jars or stacked in Tupperware. (Lane warned Dylan to be careful bringing specimens back through Australian customs. Last time, a giant cockroach had scuttled out from his baggage and customs had confiscated his penis gourd.)

We all stumbled over the shoulder of the volcano, back to the edge of the known world, the oil palms marching across the landscape in formation. In a few months, there would be little sign that anyone had ever been at the camp in the caldera, save a few collapsed stick beds decaying back into the earth. We were just visitors here, the ultimate introduced species.

I got a ride down from the plantation to the coast, into the little town of Kimbe Bay. Hundreds of Papuans bustled among the stalls of a market. A man tried to sell me a baby crocodile, its jaws bound shut with string. There was a small resort in town that catered to tourists, mostly foreign scuba divers who had come to explore the sunken World War II wrecks and coral reefs. A guard let me in the gate, and I walked down a path lined with bougainvillea and jasmine perfuming the humid air. Far to the back of the grounds, in the shade of a spreading tree, I saw it at last. It was perched on curved ebony claws, crouching upon a branch mounted to the inside of a 10-foot steel cage. Its long and impossibly soft brown-golden tail hung straight down, like the pendulum of a stopped clock. The creature turned slowly to watch me as I approached, its face placid, limpid. Its soft brown eyes looked out at the human world through a grid-pattern of bars. Wherever it was from and however it had arrived on this island, this tree kangaroo was a captive now to the dreams of men. It blinked sleepily, slowly turning and curling up on its branch.

Months later, I emailed Lane at home in California. He was back to the routines of ordinary life—his day job, hanging out with his kids—perhaps feeling as much a captive of the modern world as the creature I’d seen in the cage. He was trying to persuade the university and Sierra Nevada to get on board for another expedition next summer. Lane planned to return to New Britain regardless, despite—or because of—the fact that we had found nothing. The Eager Beaver, the tree kangaroo, the grand and noble plan of turning the Nakanai wilderness into a national park: All his obsessions derived from one prime motive. What Lane really wanted was to strike out in search of lost things in our networked, globalized, utterly found world.

Looking back he still felt, given his crippling budgetary limitations and the elusive nature of his quarry, that the expedition had been a success. He recognized all the things we could have done differently in our search for the tree kangaroo: Hired local hunters with dogs, gone from village to village with photographs, or offered a bounty for its capture. But Lane felt that he had made some progress toward the larger goal, building relationships with the native landowners and the plantation. And perhaps some of what Dylan had collected would be new species to science. “The unknowns, the unexpected, or just bad luck can be debilitating,” Lane told me. “At times I wonder how bad can it continue to get, and sometimes I think about throwing in the towel, but overcoming those situations is extremely empowering.”

Lane’s dream now was to persuade the native landowners to build an ecotourism resort where the base camp stood. He envisioned kayaking, canyoneering, cave exploration, and bird-watching. Tourists would come from around the world to see the Hargy caldera. Of course, the logistics would be formidable. Where would he find the money to construct permanent structures? How would they build at such a remote site, miles from the nearest road? How would they train the Nakanai villagers to run it, given Western expectations of creature comforts? And then there were the crocodiles and scorpions and giant spiders. Lane understood all those things, but he wouldn’t be dissuaded. “It takes time, money, patience, and fortitude,” he said, “but most of all, I have to keep moving forward and trying.”

Next year, he told me, he was going to build a zip line.

In Memoriam
Matthew Power



Simon Lewis was a Hollywood producer on the rise before an accident took his wife’s life and nearly his own.

By Chris Colin

The Atavist Magazine, No. 07

Chris Colin is the award-winning author of What Really Happened to the Class of ’93, which GQ magazine called “essential reading” and the National Press Club selected for its 2004 author awards. He’s a frequent New York Times contributor and a contributing writer at Afar magazine. He’s written about chimp filmmakers, Slovenian ethnic cleansing, George Bush’s pool boy, blind visual artists, solitary confinement, the Yelpification of the universe, mysterious scraps of paper, and more for The New York Times MagazineWiredSmithsonianMother JonesCondé Nast PortfolioVia, McSweeney’s, and several anthologies. He wrote the long-running On the Job column for the San Francisco Chronicle/, was an early writer/editor at, and is coauthor of The Blue Pages. He lives in San Francisco and works and teaches at the Writers’ Grotto, a writers’ collective.

Photographer: Jonathan Snyder is associate photo editor at A regular contributor to Pop-Up Magazine, he has also shot for San Francisco,, and Wired.

Audio Producer: Pat Walters is a producer for Radiolab.

Sound/Video Editor, Fact Checker: Olivia Koski

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

Designer: Jefferson Rabb

Editor: Evan Ratliff

Macbeth Film ClipSimon Lewis

Archival Film Set Photos: 

“LOOK WHO’S TALKING” © 1989 TriStar Pictures, Inc.  All Rights Reserved  

“AGE-OLD FRIENDS” © 1989 Home Box Office  All Rights Reserved  

Simon Lewis’s INK talk can be viewed in full online at or at

Special thanks to: Simon Lewis and the Lewis family

Published in August 2011. Design updated in 2021.

This is a Hollywood story, and it starts simply: A car drives through the streets of Los Angeles. It is March 2, 1994, and behind the wheel sits a man who has found a level of success that eludes the desperate majority here. Simon Lewis is a film producer and, at 35, an accomplished one. His is not a household name, but it is becoming an industry one. He makes light stuff mostly, and brings it in on time.

Lewis’s path to Hollywood began with plans to become a lawyer. At 19, he’d emigrated with his parents and siblings from Wimbledon, in London, to Southern California, and headed straight to UC Berkeley to earn a law degree. But film and theater were his passions. Even as a boy he’d been a natural producer. He read Macbeth at 12 and liked it, so he sat down, took out some paper, and began adapting it into a screenplay. He wrote for eight months. Then, with Rushmore-ian

panache, he found a camera, corralled his classmates, assigned them parts, and convinced them to spend two years shooting. His mother supplied the catering. There were early-’70s

technical challenges. To add the audio, he projected the footage on a wall at his house and recorded his actors speaking their lines in sync with their moving mouths. A perfectionist, Lewis hadn’t wanted to record the rattle of the projector, so he moved his cast outside, into the yard. They spoke their lines into a boom mic while watching the footage through his living room window. Later he’d finagled a volunteer gig running the lights at the local theater, just to be part of things.

With his degree from Berkeley, he’d maneuvered his way into entertainment law, which led to managing talent, which eventually led to producing. Lewis had thick curls and steady, clear blue eyes. He was that special and simple genre of person who does all that he sets out to do.

The Simon Lewis driving down the road on this early California evening does not make complex or particularly profound movies. He makes small and sometimes cheesy movies. In Slipping Into Darkness, from 1988, three snobby college girls fall into a horror-style revenge plot with some biker dudes. InYou Can’t Hurry Love, from the same year, modern-day dating is skewered: video-dating-service antics, lousy matches, true love at last. The New York Times called it “a very dim comedy.”

The paper had no words at all for 1989’s C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D. In it, a science-lab cadaver gets improbably loose early on and a bitchin’ ’80s drum track kicks in. Then a bookish high school student exclaims “Oh,” and his jeans-jacket-wearing buddy exclaims “Shit!” and an insane guitar solo screams. Via lurching plot points, their small town is overtaken by cannibalistic zombie types. Even a tiny poodle becomes a zombie, and the guitar solos keep coming and coming.

It wasn’t Shakespeare, but Lewis was diligent and professional, and people liked him, and he possessed the mysterious Hollywood gene—part drive, part charm, part genius for packaging ideas—that made things happen. Still, it wasn’t until a particularly hokey project fell in his lap in the late ’80s that he hit it big.

The film seemed destined for instant obscurity: a sarcastic baby whose thoughts the audience can somehow hear. It was one of many films then being shot cheaply in Canada in the hopes of bringing in just enough for a small profit. The actors who agreed to star were hardly A-list. John Travolta was a has-been from the ’70s and Kirstie Alley a little-known TV actress. Lewis loved it immediately.

As co-producer he quickly began pushing Look Who’s Talking to be far more ambitious than what the studio had in mind. It was as though a line cook from Burger King had shown up in chef’s whites and proceeded to set each table with the finest silver. Lewis was sweet and politic, but he could play hardball. At one point, about to fly to Canada to begin filming, he simply refused to take a call from executives, sensing that they might cancel the trip—and maybe the project. He got on his plane and made sure the shoot happened.

The real trouble began when filming was finished and TriStar received the final cut. One must mind-warp back to the late ’80s to accept the following truth: The film was too good.

Having planned for a modest release, TriStar suddenly found itself sitting on a potential hit. The studio’s first impulse was skepticism. When Lewis and his fellow producers market-tested an early cut, the assembled viewers responded so enthusiastically that TriStar seemed to think they were plants. The studio decided to conduct its own test at an undisclosed location. The scores were even higher.

Following a last-minute scramble, Look Who’s Talking was released in October 1989 at 1,200 theaters across the country. It was an instant smash, a record breaker. Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, When Harry Met Sally, and The Little Mermaid all came out that year, and Look Who’s Talking beat each of them at the box office; it beat Field of Dreams and Born on the Fourth of July combined.

After Look Who’s Talking, Lewis was never busier. He executive produced an Emmy-winning TV movie called Age-Old Friends and some variety specials starring Howie Mandel. He brought Universal Studios an idea for a don’t-mess-with-nature sci-fi/horror film about a biosphere gone awry. Universal liked it and paid Lewis and other writers to develop the script, though ultimately the project foundered. No matter; Lewis had other irons in the fire. He’d been invited to teach film to grad students at USC, and he had a meeting scheduled with a director and producer at Sony Classics regarding a soon-to-be Nick Nolte film.

But that’s tomorrow. On this night, March 2, 1994, Lewis has an entirely different sphere of his life to celebrate.

He met Marcy by chance—a shared drive to a ski cabin on a vacation with mutual friends—less than two years earlier. By the time they reached Fresno, there had been no question; in a year, they were married. She was talkative and vivacious to his pale British bookishness. On a trip to Hawaii, she sunned on the sand while Simon scrunched into the narrow shadow of a palm tree, bent over scripts. Someone had once predicted Marcy would marry a left-handed Englishman. Simon was ambidextrous. Close enough, they decided. They adored each other.

And now Marcy is in the passenger’s seat. Simon has picked her up from work—at 27 she is marketing director at downtown L.A.’s Music Center—and they are back on the road. The two have been married just five months and are celebrating their first major purchase together: a sleek new Infiniti only two days old. In the way that one splurge begets another, they are treating themselves to dinner at their favorite Italian restaurant. Had Simon paused to tie a shoe before getting in the car, or had Marcy made one more phone call, everything would have ended differently.


It’s hard now not to see that March night unfolding cinematically—as Lewis himself, at a pitch meeting or on a set, might have described it. Random events are inserted into a timeline, actions imbued with meaning. Hollywood is in the business of making sense of things—a ridiculous sort of sense, often enough, but sense all the same. A two-day-old car bearing a young couple to dinner assumes all the hope and innocence of youth. A white ’78 Chevy van, also bought two days earlier, turns on to a tree-lined residential street, and a horrible plot is set in motion.

Around 7 p.m., Simon and Marcy are heading west on Beverly Boulevard, nearly at the restaurant. Marcy mentions that they are close to her boss’s home, which has recently been renovated, and suggests they make a detour to see it. At that moment the white van screams full-speed through a stop sign at McCadden Place. Maybe the driver is thinking he will miraculously thread the five lanes of traffic. Maybe he is too drunk to think.

The van rams Lewis’s side of the Infiniti at 75 miles per hour, bulldozing it sideways across the remaining lanes until it hits the curb. There is nowhere to go but up. The car flies and spins through the air until its path is interrupted by a maple tree on the corner of Beverly and McCadden. It slams into the tree several feet up the trunk, then comes to rest in a nearby garden.

Neighbors will later say they thought it was an earthquake or a bomb. One couple ducks under the dinner table. When they finally run outside, they come upon a scene of chaos and carnage. The Infiniti is scarcely recognizable as a car. The van looks oddly normal at first, except it is upside down, its wheels still spinning. Witnesses see a young man sprinting up McCadden, presumably to find help.

A screenwriter couple—colleagues of Lewis’s, incredibly—are driving to dinner when they come upon the accident. They park and run over. Lewis’s body has been crushed into the collapsed space between the center console, the driver’s-side door, and the steering column. Standing just two feet away, his colleagues do not recognize him.

Moving to the passenger side, they see that neither occupant can be removed without dismantling the car. The wife hands flares to a meter maid who’d been in the area and waits for help. An off-duty paramedic has already called 911. No survivors, he reports.

It takes over an hour and two Jaws of Life tools for the rescue team to splay the Infiniti open. The car still bears dealer plates, and with no access to Lewis’s wallet, the police scrawl “UNK” on the collision report. The driver of the van is a mystery, too. That fellow sprinting up McCadden was not getting help: He was putting as much distance as possible between himself and the newlyweds whose lives he’d just annihilated.

LAPD detectives will eventually discover that the van has been purchased with cash two days earlier. They’ll find an address for the driver, but he’ll have cleared out by the time they get there. California is the nation’s capital of hit-and-runs, and Los Angeles has the most in the state; half of the 50,000-plus non-highway accidents reported to the LAPD the previous year were hit-and-runs. This night a man in his twenties or thirties joins thousands of other motorists who cause accidents, flee, and then slip undetected back into ordinary life.

The extraction team shears the roof and doors off the Infiniti. Marcy’s face has no blood on it; she looks like she is sleeping. Simon, for his part, is shattered in every way possible. When at last they get to him, rescuers are shocked to discover he has a pulse. They slice through his seatbelt, cut off his clothes, and ease his broken body into an ambulance.

Inside his smashed skull, his brain has begun to swell. Ruptured blood vessels leak, causing more oxygen to be needed, thereby causing the swelling to increase and, with nowhere for it to go, to destroy more and more brain tissue. The paramedics slip on a bag-valve mask and flow meter that feeds oxygen into his lungs, but pressure within his skull is skyrocketing. As the team speeds him to Cedars-Sinai, two miles away, blood begins to trickle from his ears.

Later, a doctor will suggest that being stuck in the wreckage all that time might have kept him alive. Because rescuers couldn’t extract and wrap him in blankets, Lewis’s body temperature fell to hypothermic levels. Death went into slow-motion.


Before the protagonist can be remade, he must lose everything. Before the third act must come the twist. And before a once ordinary man starts saying strange things about a river of time and the slope of consciousness, there must first be just the banal awfulness of a mangled body.

Lewis had been crushed. He was hemorrhaging internally, and blood was filling every available space under his skin. By the time he was admitted at Cedars-Sinai—John Doe #584291, birth date 00-00-0000—his body had swollen to twice its normal size.

His brain was in crisis. Intracranial hematoma—the pooling of blood within the head, caused by a vessel rupture—falls into three main types: epidural (outside the brain and its fibrous covering, the dura), subdural (between the brain and the dura), and intraparenchymal (within the brain tissue itself). Lewis had all three. What’s more, it appeared that a full third of his right hemisphere had been destroyed. There was no time to worry about what that would mean. Blood continued to pump throughout his skull, even into the soft tissue around his eye sockets. His eyes bulged black with periorbital ecchymosis—what doctors call raccoon eyes.

The average human carries about 10 to 12 units of blood—a carton and a half of milk, roughly. Forty-five units of new blood would be pumped into Lewis that night. The transfusions washed right through, but they kept his cells alive. The surgeon pumped surgical gel into the body in an attempt to seal the blood vessels and applied compression around the exterior of the body—a series of tourniquets, essentially.

An emergency craniotomy was authorized next, to remove the hematomas from within Lewis’s skull. But he had sustained a massive stroke and slipped into the deepest level of coma possible, the Glasgow Level 3. His body was shutting down.

In the trunk of the Infiniti, police had found a day planner containing names and numbers. Sometime after eleven on that night, the phone rang at the home of Lewis’s parents, in Sherman Oaks. His mother answered.

“Is this … Mrs. Patricia Lewis?” a voice asked.

“Yes, who are you?”

“Are you alone?”

“No, I’m with my husband. Who is this?” she replied.

A pause.

“May I speak to … Mr. Basil Lewis?”

“Not until you tell me who you are,” she said, British willfulness coming on.

Another pause, and then a new voice.

“This is Detective Pearson, West Traffic Division. Marcy Lewis is dead and your son is critical.”

Lewis’s mother is perhaps the toughest of the family: no nonsense, stiff upper lip, all that. She crumbled. Lewis’s father took the phone and listened to the detective. Then he hung up and took his wife’s hands.

“Our son is still alive, and he needs us to be strong for him,” he said softly. They had no idea what that would mean.


Because we saw too many soap operas as kids, or because its contours are improbable, or because we just can’t bear to believe such a thing is real, there’s something otherworldly about a coma. In reality, of course, comas are simply mundane and awful. Loved ones don’t whisper just the right thing at just the right time, causing the patient magically to revive. More often at this level of injury, all that comes is death or a persistent vegetative state. A few hours at level three and doctors assume permanent damage to the brain, should the patient be lucky enough to wake at all. Lewis’s parents sat by their comatose son for four weeks.

Then one day in April, Lewis’s eyes opened.

He looked around without curiosity. He didn’t feel reborn, as the formulation has it; he had no recollection of even having lived before, no sense of self, no sense of there being anybody or anything dwelling within. Nor did he seem to care. A voice from nowhere asked his name. How could a person just born into this world have a name? More compelling was his new conviction that time was somehow a river, and he was somehow in the midst of it, and it was somehow flowing from the future back toward him.

The voice asked again. What is your name?

“Simon,” his mouth murmured, his first word in a month.

“Do you know where you are?”

Less luck with this question. It seemed … a trick somehow. His eyes closed and sleep came over him. Later, he awoke with a sense of threat. His parents came into the room and he told them, “There are monsters in the mountains, but no one must know.” His mother promised to take care of it.

Later, on the way home, Lewis’s father turned to her.

“I’ve just realized something,” he said. “Simon doesn’t know he was in an accident.”

The next morning, his parents hung a sign on the door to room 7123: “No visitors allowed. Do not refer to patient’s wife.”

The days ran together during those first couple weeks. When awake, Lewis marveled at light and shadow, was staggered by the sparkling of the sun on the blinds. At times he felt a kind of ecstasy. Other times he was immobilized in a physical world he didn’t recognize. He saw an object on a wall and eventually came to remember that it was called a clock. But he didn’t know what it did or how time worked.

At one point a nurse offered to give Lewis a bed bath. His jaw was wired shut so he smiled a yes. He thought she’d offered a bird bath. He wondered why she thought he was a bird, but the idea didn’t seem strange. That spring his mother mentioned the Oscars. “What’s that?” he mumbled. He took to watching shows and movies based on children’s books: The Wind in the Willows, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. He was curious about Toad of Toad Hall. He considered Narnia a natural and real place.

Lewis’s grandmother used to complain of loneliness and boredom, of how all she had were the four walls. With the cruel innocence of youth, he would say, he and his brothers joked that she never mentioned the ceiling or floor. But at the hospital he wasn’t bored or lonely. He could achieve neither state of mind any more than a goldfish could.

One night in April, Lewis experienced a strange feeling of deep, ancient memory. It felt familiar, and he found himself recalling, vaguely, a series of visions from his weeks in the coma. They were primal and rudimentary—different from ordinary dreams. The visions returned frequently during his time in the hospital, seemingly born of a mind far wilder than the one he’d known before the accident.

In a moment of thirst I see a hotel in the desert…. The desert … takes me to … a prehistoric settlement in Israel where I’ve lived for many generations.

A town built on the water during Prohibition… I am helping to run whiskey…. At my wormhole between two universes, of the physical and the mind, my boat sails on, now in Southeast Asia.

It’s cold, wintry cold, and I see a zoo with many animals…. I am traveling with a great opera company….

Time becomes a river that I watch, flowing from the boundless horizon of the future to the present.

Weeks out of his coma, he found himself aware of a river again. He was on a boat, rain drumming the cabin roof. A woman stood by his side. He realized she’d been by his side through other memories, too. All at once, sometime before dawn, he remembered Marcy. The feeling was pure joy, a sense of completion.

He couldn’t wait to tell someone the wonderful news. At last a nurse came to turn him.

“I’m married to Marcy!” he whispered through his teeth.

“That’s very nice, Simon,” she replied, then went to phone his parents. The remaining hours of the night were his last with the full happiness of Marcy’s love. He did not question where she was or why she had not been mentioned. In the morning his parents returned.

“I’m married,” he repeated. “To Marcy.”

His mother looked at him and prepared to do the last thing a parent ever wishes to do: She took her son’s happiness away.

“She died, Simon. You were in an accident and Marcy died.”


Lewis was lost in a fog of grief and medical deluge. In addition to his skull, his collarbone, pelvis, jaw, both arms, and all but two ribs had also been crushed. A third of the right hemisphere of his brain had been destroyed. Each catastrophic injury bore its own constellation of crises. One day while Lewis was still at Cedars-Sinai, a doctor-in-training came to conduct a psychological evaluation. Before leaving, he leaned in with some words of wisdom.

“It’s difficult for you to come to terms with this now,” he said, and then brightened. “But you’ll look back one day and see how this experience made you a better, stronger person.”

Lewis was in no shape to confront the suggestion that his wife’s death would improve him. His mother, though, felt perfectly equal to the job. Stepping up to the man, she said, “We hope one day your wife dies this way and someone tells you it’s for the best.”

The days had turned to weeks for Lewis, and the weeks now turned to months. He would move back into his parents’ house that summer, 1994, but that was just the beginning of a seemingly endless medical journey. No sooner would he recuperate from one grueling surgery than he’d be back for another. The months turned to years. His recovery lasted a decade and a half.

He existed in a haze for much of that time—a one-man city of Los Angeles. He slept and he watched the pine trees in his parents’ backyard, sometimes for hours on end; he felt he could see them grow. He slept some more. Occasionally, he went with his mother to appointments, and after a number of years, he began to read and to appreciate movies again. But mostly he just existed, bobbing in and out of consciousness of the world outside his parents’ front door: the Oklahoma City bombing, Princess Diana’s death, the Unabomber, the rise of email and the Internet, Columbine, Monica Lewinsky, cell phones, Bush/Gore. Even 9/11 was an indistinct catastrophe very far from his small, quiet life down the hall from his parents.

In Washington Irving’s famous story, Rip Van Winkle’s epic nap removes him from his life for 20 years. When he finally awakens and makes his way out of the forest, he discovers a world he doesn’t recognize. His wife and friends have died, the American Revolution has been won, and another man now answers to Rip Van Winkle—his son, it turns out. (He’s a little relieved at his wife’s death, and he’s as idle as ever. It’s sort of a weird story.)

Haunting as it is, there’s something tidy about Irving’s tale—the sudden awakening, Van Winkle’s return to his old ways. Lewis’s awakening, by comparison, happened in fits and starts. The fog lifted only gradually. He moved up and down “a slope of consciousness,” as he put it: Some days he neared the lucid peak, thanks to an intense regimen of cognitive therapy. Other days he found himself slipping to murky depths. At one point he could not seem to grasp the concept of a line. At another his mother had to send one of his brothers to deliver a basic explanation: If one person is taller than another, that second person is shorter.

Incredibly, Lewis’s intellect would appear to fully recover over the years, thanks to his relentless cognitive-therapy routine—and the remarkable elasticity of the human brain. (Today his pleasure reading includes articles on quantum theory.) But if his IQ was ultimately shown to be undiminished, his mind wasn’t untouched altogether. Gradually, a thicket of strange new mental quirks revealed themselves, disruptions that shifted the way he processed the world and moved through it.


Lewis recalls his cognitive therapist once presenting him with half a dozen illustrated cards spread out face up in front of him: a broken glass on the floor next to a table, an intact glass on the table, a surprised look on a man’s face, and so on. She asked Lewis to put them into sequence. He stared at them for over an hour. Even after accepting the dubious idea that some kind of order could be imposed on these images, he considered it just as likely that the glass began broken on the floor, then made its way up to the tabletop. It was as if he had lost a connection to linear events.

As the fog lifted in the years after the crash, he began to notice something different about how he himself moved through time. His thoughts were as rational as ever, his recall decent for a middle-aged man. But chronology was scrambled. Remembering that morning’s breakfast presented no difficulty, nor would remembering a conversation from the previous week. He just couldn’t always say which came first. Lewis described his symptoms to his cognitive therapist several years into his recovery. She replied that “flat time” was a frequent consequence of brain injury.

Flat time was paired with another, even stranger, cognitive quirk. Back home one afternoon not long after the accident, Lewis walked directly into a pine tree in his parents’ backyard. His mother brought him to Alan Brodney, a developmental optometrist on staff at Cedars-Sinai. Brodney frequently treats patients with visual impairment caused by traumatic brain injury, and at first he assumed Lewis had simply lost his left visual field, a common consequence of damage to the right side of the brain. Then he ran a test and discovered something astonishing.

Holding up different pieces of paper in the blind area, Brodney confirmed that indeed Lewis saw nothing. But when asked to name the colors of the paper, Lewis got most right. After a slew of subsequent tests, Brodney diagnosed him with blindsight, an obscure and paradoxical condition that might as well have been invented by a screenwriter. Lewis was partly blind—but he could see through those blind spots, albeit without quite being aware of doing so.

The condition was discovered decades ago, and researchers believe it’s something of a workaround in certain traumatized brains. With ordinary vision, visual information follows a sophisticated route from the eye, through the thalamus, to the visual cortex. When injury shuts this avenue down, blindsight can offer a detour: That visual information takes a more primitive pathway through the brainstem. This pathway is typically associated with reflexive behavior and is more prominent in lower mammals, birds, and reptiles.

“It’s not common,”  Mel Goodale told me. Goodale is director of the Centre for Brain and Mind at the University of Western Ontario and a leading blindsight researcher. “You have to have a brain lesion that’s large enough to cause blindness, but not so large to damage the other pathways.”

In one video of a much-researched patient, a man walks down a hallway strewn with debris. Unlike Lewis’s left-field blindness, this patient couldn’t see at all. But guided by his more primitive visual system, he moves to the left to avoid a garbage can, then to the right to miss a camera tripod, navigating the hall as if he can see. With therapy and training, Lewis became similarly adept. He sidestepped trees, though he wouldn’t necessarily see them—not consciously, anyway. As Brodney put it, an array of visual information was bypassing his conscious mind and going straight into his subconscious.

Driven by his strange new conditions, Simon became increasingly curious about his inner world. Upon his discovery of a stash of notes he’d scribbled in the earlier, hazier days of recovery, a rusty producer’s switch seemed to flip in his head. Doctors continued to work on him, but he insisted that his mother set up a computer in his bedroom. Glacially, painstakingly, he taught himself to write again.


Lewis’s first project would be to piece together the story of his accident and recovery. With help from his mother, he began to get in touch with nearly everyone who’d figured into both, from witnesses to medical practitioners. He became a reporter covering his own life—excavating the intricacies of each medical milepost and insurance absurdity with patience and curiosity. He’d been thorough as a producer, but he now had the mystery of those lost years driving his own kind of production.

Lewis didn’t just want an excuse to recount his own miraculous recovery. An obsessively gentle sensibility took hold after the crash, and any suffering in the world seemed to physically pain him. Maybe his writing could help the other 5 million Americans living with traumatic brain injury. To the surprise of Lewis and his family, a book began to take shape.

In 2010, Rise and Shine was published by a small house called Santa Monica Press. It’s remarkably detailed, a punctilious chronology of Lewis’s medical journey and the recovery of his mental faculties. And though the book is not predominantly about his emotional transformation, an impressive candor occasionally surfaces:

So many moments of our lives are beyond expression, but like everything else, there’s an industry of grief experts armed with terminology that talk about “closure” and cleanly defined “stages of grief.” They repeat the cliché that “time heals.” Many people, I’m sure, find comfort in counselors, but I didn’t feel my grief was something I could define, work through on some kind of schedule, and then move on. I still regard the word “closure” as politically correct fiction, an expectation imposed on people who have suffered by those who have not.

The book didn’t shoot to the top of the bestseller list, but it got things moving in his life—including netting him an invitation to speak at the 2010 INK conference in Lavasa, India, a celebrity-thinker-infused offshoot of California’s TED gatherings. It was Lewis’s first significant return to public life since his accident.

In the talk, he described the strange new perceptions that his brain trauma had delivered, beginning at his long perch on the rim between life and death. “After I returned from the hospital … I felt empty and full, hot and cold, euphoric and depressed,” he said at one point, describing his new reality. “The brain is the world’s first fully functional quantum computer. It can occupy multiple states at the same time. With all the internal regulators of my brain damaged, I felt everything simultaneously.”

Standing on the stage was a man bearing a unique operating system. The talk lasted 18 minutes, and at the end the crowd rose for a standing ovation. To Lewis it was a wonderful success—Deepak Chopra was in attendance and invited him to talk at his event months later. (Just a month after the INK talk went online, it had been viewed more than 240,000 times.) More important, it felt like preparation for something even bigger.

It was around this time that I first encountered Lewis. I’d recently written a story for The New York Times about legally blind visual artists. One of them, a traumatic-brain-injury survivor, said there was someone I should get in touch with.

With a few minutes to spare one morning, I dialed Lewis’s number. I didn’t hang up until an hour later. On the other end was a kindly—almost wholesome—Brit who’d lost everything in ways I didn’t like to fathom. He’d surrendered a decade and a half to a grueling, and frequently horrific, recovery. But none of that was what took me aback. It was that at 53, living in his parents’ house minus a third of his right hemisphere, Simon Lewis wanted to make movies again.

Lewis had no illusions about how absurd this sounded. “I know this industry,” he said. “Step out of it for five weeks and you’re history. Step out for more than a dozen years and—” he paused. “Well, I don’t even know what you are.”


A few weeks later, I found myself on the same sleepy, near-silent Sherman Oaks street where Lewis had spent almost every hour since 1994. The man who greeted me bore little resemblance to the mangled figure I’d read about in his book. The bones had healed, his patter was quick and witty, and graying hair covered the horseshoe-shaped scar across his skull. At first glance only Lewis’s slight limp suggested anything out of the ordinary. He proudly lifted his left pant leg to show me his NESS L300, an advanced neuroprosthesis designed for people lacking lower-leg control. Lewis has a condition called foot drop, and at precisely the right point in his gait the device sends electrical pulses to his peroneal nerve. The jolted muscles raise the foot, and he is able to walk with just a minor hitch.

Lewis is a talker. He talks about consciousness a lot—the science behind it, common misconceptions, the plight of those living lower on the slope—but these topics bleed seamlessly into macroeconomics, Obama, or media trends. Eventually, I’d see how this tied into flat time: Without a reliably coherent sense of time to provide order, his ideas sprawl. What’s more, they do so unburdened by the normal categorizing most of us do reflexively. A question about which freeway exit to take might lead to ideas about time travel. It doesn’t always make for efficient freeway exiting, I would learn, but as a general route from A to B the entertainment quotient is high.

At some level, Lewis seemed to have realized this. Throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, the films he’d worked on had mostly been light, even schlocky fare. He does not speak dismissively of them—like many young filmmakers, he was simply someone who said yes to projects, he explained to me, and he had dedicated himself to them. But these kinds of movies no longer appealed to him. What he wanted now was to make an entirely different kind of film: different from walking cadavers, perhaps different from films anyone else had made. But this wasn’t because he’d lost Marcy or because he had a newfound grasp of life’s fleetingness. He wanted to make different movies because he had a different brain inside his skull and a different way of experiencing the world.

“Imagine this in your daily life,” he said to me one afternoon in my rental car. He was attempting to explain what blindsight—essentially, his employment of a reptilian visual system—felt like. “I’m seeing the world, but not consciously. Perceptions are bypassing my conscious mind and traveling straight to my subconscious. As a filmmaker, that’s pretty interesting.”

For most of us, the subconscious is a fleeting state we find ourselves in by accident—that moment behind the wheel, for instance, when we realize we’ve been utterly unaware of the road for the past five miles. As Lewis describes his existence, a small door has essentially propped open that state permanently.

“My entire perception is different: Things that don’t feel … authentic, I suppose, don’t resonate. They almost don’t register,” he told me at one point. He’s come to regard this as a kind of sieve, one that oddly inclines him toward more substantive perceptions and omits the frivolous. The stuff of fluffy ’80s films fell decidedly into the second camp.

As with the blindsight, Lewis’s temporal jumble isn’t so severe as to be crippling. With flat time, time is just flat enough—did he talk to that HBO guy recently, or years ago?—to make things interesting now and then. Perhaps even a narrative asset.

On a certain level, the idea of Lewis returning to filmmaking was as logical as it was baffling. If a storyteller’s job is to make intellectual connections, flat time and a sprawl of ideas sound awfully promising. Meanwhile, if Lewis was walking around with a pipeline from the outer world to his subconscious, that would seem to trump the standard muse. “Picture all the memories from your life as a photo album. Then take out all the photos and shuffle them across a table. That’s my brain,” he told me. “It can be frustrating, but as far as making interesting connections goes, it certainly opens things up in a new way.”

Squint a little, in fact, and you can see signs that Hollywood’s brain is inching toward the trippily meta terrain that intrigues Lewis, betraying a perhaps similar interest in considering consciousness itself. Lewis’s slow reentry into the world of movies coincided with a slew of films—MementoEternal Sunshine of the Spotless MindInception—that delve directly and imaginatively into the kinds of consciousness questions that have come to obsess him. That much seemed promising. And Hollywood certainly churns out story lines about outsiders rattling the status quo, or about miraculous transformations emerging from unlikely circumstances. In Regarding Henry, Harrison Ford’s ruthless trial lawyer becomes kind and loving after taking a bullet to the brain, for instance. But that doesn’t mean the industry actually believes in those stories.

At 53, Lewis lives with his parents. He drives only sparingly. With his infinitely fragmented mind, I pictured him spending weeks digging up an old contact, only to be told by a 22-year-old assistant that Mr. So-and-So was extremely busy these days. The movie business already brushes away roughly 100 percent of the aspiring filmmakers who come knocking. The odds are even worse when a third of your right hemisphere is missing.


Hollywood never calls to tell you your career is over, Lewis told me once. So he had decided to call them and ask. Before my first visit, he’d informed me that he was going to do his best to set up meetings with some of the industry types he’d worked with in the ’80s and early ’90s. Seeing an earnest and kindly widower politely shot down by slick movie people hadn’t struck me as very fun. I’d half-dreaded this part of my visit. To my surprise, Lewis somehow arranged a series of meetings with significant figures throughout the Hollywood firmament, which is how I found myself at the Ritz-Carlton in downtown Los Angeles on a bright Friday morning. Lewis had come here to meet his former colleague David Irving. 

With his prominent eyebrows and clear blue eyes, Irving has the commanding and professorial bearing of a man playing a president in a TV movie. He was on his way back to New York, where he teaches film at Tisch School of the Arts. The two had been young men back in 1989 on the set of C.H.U.D. II, which Irving directed, but this was the first time they’d met for business since.

They found seats away from the piped-in jazz—Lewis’s brain no longer filters ambient noise from the conversation at hand—and commenced a ranging discussion about times past and Lewis’s future prospects. It was as though the two had once taken a road trip together, and Lewis was curious 20 years later whether cars still employed brakes and gas pedals. Irving was laid-back and warm to Lewis’s hands-in-lap earnestness. His answer: yes and no.

The industry bore little resemblance to its early ’90s self, he warned. C.H.U.D. II was made for less than $3 million. Now it would cost $20 million. When Lewis checked out, movies like Speed and True Lies were top grossers—dutifully fast-paced and slick, to be sure, but rudimentary in hindsight. The first feature-length CGI animation wouldn’t come out for another year, and the slo-mo bullet dodging of The Matrix was still half a decade away, to say nothing of a 3-D fantasy about blue creatures on another planet. Securing top stars became ever more essential to getting these massively expensive films made—a salable name abroad could help guarantee the sale of foreign rights, which meant additional cash up front. The distribution model changed, too, and VHS tapes became DVDs.

That was the bad news. The good news: Irving thought Lewis had the innate and timeless talent to surmount all that. “Only one producer in my work ever knew what he was doing—you,” he told Lewis. “You’ve been gone a long time, but there’s a need in the industry for people of your ilk.”

He added that the principles of production had not changed and that Lewis still had many high-level contacts.

“You have it in spades. I could see you working as an agent, a screenwriter, a producer,” he said.

Lewis grinned—but I could see he had something on his mind. Finally he cleared his throat mildly and raised a finger of clarification.

“It’s not just any film I want to work on now. It’s important to me that I find something that feels … true,” he said. He gave a CliffsNotes summary of what true feels like—rooted in that broader conception of consciousness, playing out on less familiar planes.

Irving thought about this for a moment, nodding slowly. “My advice is, take any pictures you can get on now,” he then said. “You can do a dense and more meaningful film later.”

Over the next few days, I joined Lewis for more meetings—meetings essentially designed to inform him whether or not the movie business had saved his place in line. But Hollywood is a strange realm for a fact-finding mission. How do you look for honest answers when nobody says “no,” and “yes” can mean “fuck you,” and a tuna sandwich is Fantastic, just fabulous?

But putting aside the inevitable bromides about Lewis getting back on his feet in no time, it was hard not to notice real doors cracking open for him. At USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the Academy Award–winning documentary filmmaker Mark Jonathan Harris devoted much of a Monday morning to strategizing with Lewis—ideas for getting back into production, possibilities for teaching again at the university. Chris Barrett, head of the Metropolitan Talent Agency, grew emotional talking about the force that was producer Simon Lewis, and pledged to send scripts. Over the phone, Jeff Sagansky, former production president of TriStar Pictures, recalled Lewis’s Look Who’s Talking coup:

“I had a studio budget for $13 million, and you came in and said I can do it for eight, and pay Travolta what he’s asking—a million, I think. The studio said, ‘It can’t be done.’ But the movie became the most profitable picture in Columbia’s history at that point.”

Sagansky didn’t mince words about the health of the industry today. The award-winning studio films Sagansky himself had made at TriStar—Glory, Steel Magnolias—wouldn’t get made anymore, he said, except maybe as independent films. But he went on to discuss how Lewis could make the transition to 21st-century filmmaking.

In all these meetings, Lewis played it straight—no mentions of blindsight or flat time or the prehistoric settlement in Israel where he’d lived for generations. Whatever was going on inside his head, he’d learned to tamp it down when necessary. Indeed, he’d written a meticulously organized book, had put together a wildly successful stage talk seen by hundreds of thousands of people; he could do what it took to make things happen. Still, I found myself oddly relieved when his more unusual symptoms returned later—the unlikely mental associations, the moments in which his subconscious perhaps had the reins. To spend time in Hollywood—meetings, conversations about meetings, Caesar salads in cafés alongside conversations about meetings—is to come away a little desperate for a mightily new orientation, some fresh set of eyes for which the glass is first broken on the floor, then intact atop the table.

Only one question seemed to remain: How would he begin?


At the end of our last meeting of the day, Lewis and I headed back to my rental car and set out for one more stop. A few blocks up from the coffee shop, we turned left on Beverly Boulevard, a five-lane arterial running east to west through neighborhoods with tidy lawns and large homes. At one of the small residential streets we turned right and pulled to a stop. Set back from the adjacent curb was the maple tree that Simon and Marcy’s Infiniti had slammed into 17 years earlier.

I glanced over at Lewis as I cut the engine. In a movie—in one of his movies—this would be where the hero breaks down. But Lewis had never cried in my presence, and he wasn’t doing so now. His feet were flat on the floor of the car and his hands planted squarely in his lap, as they often were. I looked for subtler signs of a reaction—a setting of the jaw, a second’s delay getting out of the car—but he seemed as matter-of-fact as ever. He opened the door, switched on his L300, and in a few seconds we were standing on the corner where it all happened.

It was the overwhelming physics of it all that finally got Lewis talking.

“How did the driver make it as far as he did, across all those lanes? He must have had his foot flat to the floor…,” he began, then trailed off, lost in a grim calculus of velocity and mass.

Lewis does not remember the impact. Marcy was talking about her boss’s renovation, and then Simon was opening his eyes in a hospital more than a month later. We walked to the curb where the Infiniti first hit, then over to the tree, and then to the adjacent garden where the car ultimately came to rest.

Lewis is almost a dozen and a half years into his grief. But he was absent, in a sense, for much of that time. Marcy was buried in her hometown while he was still in his coma. Do his hazier years count against the clock of healing? He keeps mementos of Marcy near though not prominent; a photo of the two remains in the drawer of his bedside table but not on top. He has only recently been able to watch their wedding tape. He wants Marcy to be close but he does not want to prevent himself from moving forward, or to lose himself in despair. He would like to fall in love again.

The sudden death of a spouse would be heartbreaking for anyone, but somehow there’s something particularly awful about it happening to Lewis. If you told the man his shoelaces were on fire, he would look down only after seeing to your safety first. Perhaps because of this, I had treated him like he was brittle at first—a common and ridiculous inversion inflicted too often on those who’ve been injured. In time it became clear that Lewis requires no coddling. And so, as we paced that intersection, I asked about the driver of the van. Maybe he’d left the country. Maybe he was at the Arby’s down the street. At one point, I’d tracked down the couple who’d sold him the van, two days before the crash, 17 years ago. The woman seemed sad to remember the incident—and to remember nothing of the man. “I guess he was the kind of guy that pays cash for a van,” she said.

Lewis, for his part, doesn’t care. Nor does he feel ill will toward the driver. “I just don’t think I feel anger anymore, about anything,” he explained. “I don’t think I’ve felt angry once in the last 17 years, actually. I get puzzled when someone’s dishonest, and I get distressed. But the normal anger that I was capable of before is just gone.”

With a little pressing he conceded that, if the driver was somehow ever caught, Lewis would testify in court. But he said so dispassionately.

“Perhaps anger is a higher-level thing and it’s not present in the subconscious,” he speculated. “If I’m correct that my subconscious is doing a lot of the daily work of my life, it’s not there.”

He and I stayed at Beverly and McCadden for another 15 minutes, then I drove him home to Sherman Oaks, and for the hundredth time I found myself wanting to see what a Simon Lewis film would look like, and hoping it might resemble his own life somehow.


About four months later, in the spring of 2011, a minor media storm broke out, with everyone from Entertainment Weekly to Oprah telling the same remarkable story: a filmmaker builds a career making silly movies, then in a freak accident sustains a terrible head injury that causes him to rethink everything. With his whole-new head, he gets back into filmmaking with a thoughtful, sensitive, anti-Hollywood feature that earnestly investigates nothing less than the nature of our very existence.

The man’s name was Tom Shadyac.

I was stunned. At first glance, the similarities between Shadyac and Lewis were remarkable. Both were born in 1958, both were successes from an early age: Lewis was just 21 when he passed the California bar, and Shadyac was the youngest joke writer on Bob Hope’s staff. Both made their way to movies—but Shadyac to another level entirely, producing such films as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, The Nutty Professor, Liar Liar, and Bruce Almighty. He flew by private jet and lived in a 17,000-square-foot mansion equipped with a full-time gardener and housekeeper, a pool man, a maintenance man, a man to maintain the tennis court, and a house manager, in addition to his business manager, money manager, and career manager.

One day, while bicycling in Virginia, Shadyac crashed and hit his head. The injury paled in comparison to Lewis’s, but he did sustain a serious concussion whose symptoms lingered: terrible headaches, mood swings, and an agonizing sensitivity to light and sound. For a while he slept in his closet, for its total seclusion and darkness. As with Lewis, some new ideas about life began to filter in. Unlike Lewis, Shadyac rolled up his sleeves immediately. Five months after the accident, he began filming I Ama decidedly serious documentary that asked what’s wrong with the world and what we can do about it. In it he consulted Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn, and Noam Chomsky.

Reception was mixed. Critics seemed to like the story behind the documentary more than the thing itself. Roger Ebert called the film “as watchable as a really good TV commercial, and just as deep.” Viewing it, he wrote, “involves the ingestion of Woo Woo in industrial bulk.”

He also, though, conceded the filmmaker’s likability. Shadyac has long, curly hair and looks like a less-goofy version of Weird Al. He had a new approach to living, one he’d begun to pursue even before the accident. He sold the mansion and moved into a 1,000-square-foot trailer home—albeit a trailer home in a gated Malibu community, where units can reportedly go for upward of $2 million.

Shadyac didn’t lack for conviction as he promoted his film. “I feel like I’ve been blessed to be touched by truth,” he said in one interview. He spoke of “a power to these ideas that have animated me … the same power I see in the life of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jesus, Martin Luther King, Saint Francis.” His ideas didn’t sprawl. “Facing my own death brought an instant clarity and purpose,” he says in the film.

I very much wanted to meet this man. He appeared articulate and sensitive, and I thought he might shed some light on Lewis’s story. Part of me even fantasized that Shadyac would reach out to Lewis professionally. I sent him a note, then talked to someone at his agency, who put me in touch with someone at his production company, who put me in touch with the guy who handles journalists, Harold Mintz.

After a few attempts, I got Mintz on the phone. I explained again Lewis’s story, assuming the similarities would be so striking, and Lewis’s story so sympathetic, that the new and reflective Shadyac would ring back immediately. Mintz listened and said he’d explain it all to Shadyac. When I followed up again, he emailed back that Shadyac was too busy to meet but would consider a phone call. This didn’t happen either.

I wrote one more note to Mintz asking whether Lewis’s story had at least resonated when he conveyed it to Shadyac. No reply. I gathered that his focus had turned to his next movie, a biopic about the late comedian Sam Kinison.

So I booked a flight to visit Lewis again. Another man was living a version of his life, and I wanted to hear his thoughts on it.


The drive from LAX into central Los Angeles is a tour of urban restlessness—new billboards and buildings and seemingly new neighborhoods since your last visit, a concrete rainforest that grows 10 feet overnight. But upon entering the sleepy suburban streets of Sherman Oaks, time halts. Save for the newer cars, it could’ve been any decade. Lewis opened the front door of his parents’ home with his usual grin.

He showed me to the living room, and we settled into the wraparound sofa. Immediately, Lewis was leading the conversation in 40 enthusiastic directions—a news item that had caught his eye, some emerging research on intelligence. I wasn’t listening.

While Shadyac was positioning himself these past few months as a remade filmmaker, Lewis had decidedly not been. After those encouraging chats with his Hollywood friends, he had not rushed home to begin adapting his book into a screenplay. He hadn’t reached out to screenwriter friends about possible collaborations. He didn’t schedule more calls and meetings and lunches. I learned that Barrett had sent him scripts to review; Lewis only thumbed through them.

Ever since I got to know Lewis, I’d been waiting for a moment of some sort—an inflection point, I suppose, at which Hollywood would signal its welcome or rejection of this prodigal producer. But another possibility began to dawn on me, thanks to Shadyac: Maybe Lewis hadn’t resolved how much he was willing to welcome Hollywood.

From our very first conversation, he had been clear about his deep desire to make films again. But it wasn’t the same desire he’d felt before the accident; no longer was he single-minded about moviemaking. Since January he’d become wholly consumed by the talk Deepak Chopra had invited him to give on consciousness. For now anyway, this seemed to grab him more than shoving his way into the cracked-open Hollywood door.

As for movies, it was another project that had stoked his passions these past few months, and in fact he’d come to oversee the production of his first film in years. As it happens it was Macbeth, the film he himself had directed more than four decades earlier as an adolescent, long before he came to America. After so many years he had the old reels digitized and overlaid with audio. It was hardly Hollywood, and maybe that was part of the pleasure: a reunion with his earliest, purest love of filmmaking.

I still wanted to hear his thoughts on Shadyac. Asking Lewis for his opinions on anyone rarely turns up anything but praise. In his Jain-like way, he’d be unlikely to point out that your house had been overrun by elephants, lest it come across as insensitive. (His friend, the lawyer Eric Weissmann, lovingly referred to him as “pedantically moral.”) Nevertheless, when I mentioned a quote from one of Shadyac’s interviews—a line about the bike accident knocking him from his head into his heart—something sounding almost like a cynical chuckle escaped from Lewis.

“You don’t have to hit your head to find your heart,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s not where your heart is, anyway.”

Regret washed over him instantly. He explained that he didn’t mean it dismissively, and I understood. It wasn’t that Shadyac seemed insincere; he appeared genuinely and impressively serious in his new sensibility. But it was hard not to notice that his ideas tripped off his tongue—and onto celluloid, and into the publicity machinery—with relative ease. Instinctively or through hard work, Shadyac knew how to package his drama into Drama, helpfully formed into bite-size nuggets. “We set out to find out what’s wrong with the world, and we ended up finding out what’s right with it,” he said in one interview while promoting I Am. As Lewis himself noted, it seemed so … movie-ish.

I Am might have been Shadyac’s departure from the formulaic comedies he’d made till then, but at a meta level the idea behind the film simply followed another formula: Mega-successful, high-living artist finds he’s gone astray, fate intervenes, clarity shimmers, and ta-da, meaning is found. To Lewis’s vastly more complex and ambiguous story, Shadyac’s offered a tighter arc and more straightforward message. In short, Shadyac was the Hollywood version of Lewis. Even Shadyac appeared to recognize the appealing arc of his story. Months after failing to secure an interview, I finally got a call from his PR man, Mintz. Shadyac was still too busy to talk, he said. He also didn’t want to talk about his accident anymore. The story had taken on a life of its own, Mintz said; it had gotten away from him.

Instead of penning his next Hollywood epic, Lewis had been drawn into one more not-particularly-Hollywood pursuit in recent months. Over the years he’d gone and thanked many of the people who’d been there for him after the crash, but he’d never felt ready to do so with those who’d been there right when it happened. A few days before my arrival, he gathered the nerve to call the L.A. Police Department’s West Traffic Division.

He spoke to Detective Lee Willmon and mentioned the crash. To his surprise, Willmon remembered that it was on Beverly Boulevard, then the white van, then a pause when Lewis mentioned his wife. “Was her name … Marcy?” Lewis was overcome. He told Willmon he wanted to come visit in person. On a hot and brown June morning, I met Lewis in front of the station, on a scrubby section of Venice Boulevard. We headed inside, and someone paged Willmon.

He had a kind face layered with years of bad news. The three of us stood awkwardly in a waiting area, amid half a dozen civilians there for mysterious traffic reasons. The place was bureaucratic and joyless, but Lewis was on a gratitude-and-wonder high. He told Willmon how remarkable it had been that he’d recalled Marcy’s name after so many years, and then he told him how so many kind people had given of themselves in the aftermath of the crash. Willmon nodded politely.

“You must come into people’s lives at very profound times,” Lewis mused.

Willmon looked at him. “We come in at sad times,” he said plainly.

He didn’t say much else. He was either a man of few words or a man of few words when survivors of tragic car accidents come to chat 17 years later. Lewis gave him two copies of his book and Willmon thanked him solemnly. He started toward a goodbye then paused.

“I’ve been doing this a long time. A little advice if you don’t mind,” he said. “Find love again.”

Minutes later Lewis and I were back in my car. I glanced over for a read. As always he stared straight ahead, a peaceful smile on his lips, more gratitude and wonder in his bright eyes.

What kind of film lurks behind those eyes? In all my conversations with Lewis, I never managed to extract a plot, a set of characters or even a rough premise for the sort of movie he’d one day like to make. What I heard was more like the haziness that precedes those things in a fertile mind.

“I see character motivations as multidimensional spectra of light that flow upward through each person’s, and each creature’s, slope of consciousness,” Lewis explained to me once. What this meant for filmgoers was even vaguer; he spoke of wanting audiences to “sense the flat time in their subconscious that I feel, experience the single moment in which through all of history we live our lives. The moment in which the present becomes our past and everything is now.”

At times Lewis’s abstractedness seems semi-deliberate and perhaps semi-joyful, a lifelong pragmatist enjoying a fuzzier approach. Other times the fuzziness feels like all he can muster now. If his artistic transformation was taking him from C.H.U.D. II to, say, Charlie Kaufman, I came to think of this as Kaufman’s blue-skying period. Maybe the Eternal Sunshines of the world begin with impossible abstractions and blurry riffing.

The most specific vision he ever shared was an idea for the first scene of a film. It was to be shot through the eyes of a field mouse. Many years ago, he’d spotted the creature atop Yosemite’s Glacier Point. Now, in his vision for the film, the mouse scurries along the narrowest of cliff ledges more than 3,000 feet above the valley floor looking for food, and the scene is somehow overlaid with an 18th-century haiku of Kobayashi Issa:

          In this world

          we walk on the roof of hell,

          gazing at flowers.

In a way, it seemed absurd to speculate about Hollywood when clearly Lewis existed on another plane. He didn’t just have a new, non-Hollywood set of eyes on the world. He had a new, non-Hollywood sense of priority, too. Gone was the boundless tenacity, the hunger—bordering on desperation—required to get movies made, or for that matter any epic undertaking. Instead he had the old Shakespeare adaptations to put together, talks about consciousness to give, quiet detectives to thank. Compassion, ideas, and a penchant for storytelling are theoretically what send a person into movies, but Lewis had found that these could be deployed off-set as much as on. The accident may have given him singular new filmmaking sensibilities. It also showed him that filmmaking isn’t the only thing.


That would have been a fine ending for this story: the Hollywood figure who decides Hollywood isn’t all that. But, of course, that in itself is too tidily Hollywood for real life. As it happens, Lewis and I have one more appointment after our stop at the police station. There is one final twist in his story.

The meeting is with another old friend of Lewis’s, the prominent entertainment lawyer Eric Weissmann. Weissmann has long been a fixture in Hollywood—one story that gets told is his role in green-lighting All the President’s Men for Warner Bros. He had been extremely kind after the accident, Lewis says, and he also might have a thing or two to say about Lewis’s future in the movies.

The offices of Weissmann Wolff Bergman Coleman Grodin & Evall look out over Beverly Hills, with Century City in the distance. We are early for our 3 o’clock appointment, and a receptionist shows us to a conference table with a basket of water bottles and modern art at either end. Lewis sits with his back to the window so his focus won’t get spread out over the streets and buildings below.

At exactly 3 p.m., Weissmann enters the conference room and declares, “Universal has agreed to release Biosphere back into turnaround.” He takes a seat and shakes our hands.

It takes me a moment to remember what Biosphere was. Before the accident, Universal had paid Lewis and other writers to develop a script—a sci-fi film about a large-scale experiment gone off the rails. Evolution gets messed with, somehow, and a menagerie of creepy critters starts eating people’s heads. The project had ultimately gone into turnaround—left for dead by the studio, free to be sold elsewhere for a limited period before reverting back to Universal property indefinitely. Then the accident happened.

A few weeks back, Lewis’s mother had found a copy of the old script and put it on his desk. Prodded, Lewis eventually called Weissmann and asked, idly, whether that limited turnaround period might be extended. Now Lewis—and in time another producer, named Michael Levy—could find financing and some big names to attach to the project and they’ll be in business.

Weissmann spends the next little while outlining details of the situation and chatting amiably about the industry. At one point I ask if he’s read Lewis’s script. It hardly sounds like the revolutionary picture Lewis had long been itching to do. “I sell ’em, I don’t smell ’em,” Weissmann replies.

I look over at Lewis, a man sitting in a Beverly Hills law firm who can still recall sailing, within a coma, in a wormhole between two universes. He’s had two lives, and at this moment two people appear to inhabit his body simultaneously. He is visibly thrilled to be in the game again, beaming more than usual. But what will come of his new orientation to the world, and to filmmaking?

In a way it doesn’t make sense, until I suddenly realize that is sort of the point. If Shadyac represented the Hollywood version of Lewis’s story, Lewis himself is, like the rest of us, living the non-movie version of his own life. He’s survived some agonizingly cinematic scenes—his rise, the accident, the monthlong coma, his rebirth—but then the loose ends have not gathered into an orderly plait. All questions didn’t magically resolve in an explosive third act. Is he returning to the old kinds of movies? Is he carving out a whole new type? In lieu of a clear message, there is ambiguity, murkiness. In lieu of a happy, studio-friendly ending, there is something a little more complicated.

Within three weeks, he will have feverishly updated 40 pages of the script, often outside, behind the wheel of his family’s parked car; afterward he’ll sit and watch the trees. He will go inside and pick up the phone and start making more calls about meetings, and he’ll write some more—notes on turning his book into a screenplay.

Right now, as Lewis sits at a conference room table with his back to Beverly Hills, what life has in store for him isn’t clear. But he seems to accept this. At 3:15 his lawyer friend rises to leave, and Lewis and I drive back through the streets of Los Angeles to his parents’ house.

The Defender


The Defender

Manute Bol’s journey from Sudan to the NBA and back again.

By Jordan Conn

The Atavist Magazine, No. 06

Jordan Conn ( is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The New York TimesSports Illustrated, the San Francisco Chronicle, and on He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Editor: Evan Ratliff
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kathleen Massara
Photographs: Brady Dillsworth (cover), Courtesy of Sports Illustrated
Music: “Block the Ball,” written and performed by Mark Tabron (, “The Ballad of Manute Bol,” written and performed by Kenn Kweder (
Film: Matthew Kohn is working on a documentary about Manute Bol and reconciliation in Sudan. Please contact him directly for inquiries (
Additional Reporting and Sound/Video Editing: Olivia Koski
Special Thanks: Terry McDonell, Sudan Sunrise, Mayom Majok, Chris Ballard, and Beth Ritter-Conn

Published in July 2011. Design updated in 2021.

They always bring up the lion. No matter who’s talking about Manute Bol—teammate, relative, fan, or friend—whenever they tell stories, they inevitably end up at the time he killed the lion. Depending on where it’s told, the story takes different forms. Sitting under a tree one afternoon near the Bol family’s home in Turalei, Sudan, his uncle Bol Chol Bol tells it to me like this: Manute, a towering teenager charged with caring for his village’s cattle, saw a lion running across the pasture, hungry and desperate for blood. The lion leaped, and Bol launched a spear, goring the predator in midair. Bol Chol Bol tells the story with no hint of hyperbole, no knowing smile. This is the Manute his village knew: benevolent, fearless, almost superhuman. 

The version commonly told in his adopted home, the United States—repeated in newspaper articles and by close friends—has Bol catching the lion while it was sleeping. Aware that the animal, which had bedded down close to the cattle, might attack if it awoke, he thrust in his spear when he had the chance. Some fans take the legend even further, claiming he used only his bare hands. That’s the way singer Kenn Kweder tells it as he tours East Coast bars playing “The Ballad of Manute Bol,” a paean to one of the NBA’s most lovable stars. Kweder may have taken some artistic liberties when he wrote the lyrics in the ’80s, but when he starts playing, and drunk college kids start screaming, there is only one truth: Bol wielded his hands as weapons, his strength and savagery and indomitable will rendering nature’s fiercest predator lifeless in his grasp.

When Manute Bol came to the United States from Sudan in 1983, the lion story arrived with him. When he became the NBA’s first African-born player, it served as the perfect anecdote to help Americans understand one of the strangest men they’d ever seen, a man who came from a country lodged only faintly in their consciousness. Bol was tall—seven feet seven inches, so tall he needed to duck his head beneath doorframes and barely had to strain to dunk the ball through the net. So tall he towered over the seven-footers who dominated the NBA. And Bol was skinny—185 pounds when he arrived stateside, so skinny his skeleton looked unprotected by flesh, covered only by skin and spindly muscle, each limb a twig with just enough support to keep the body functioning. Skinny enough that Woody Allen once joked, “Manute Bol is so skinny they save money on road trips; they just fax him from city to city.” Bol was also black, so black to American journalists’ eyes that they devised new ways to say “black”—“a moonless midnight,” “darker than dark,” phrases intended to signal that Bol’s skin color was that of a warrior, a tribesman, from a land unseen and a people unknown. Bol’s was the black of a man who killed a lion.

In the canon of Manute Bol mythology, the tale of the lion is but one volume. The others spring from storytellers scattered across two continents, each emphasizing a different aspect of Bol’s complex and multifarious life. “He had this swagger,” a former NBA player begins, “this incredible stature about him.” Others focus less on Bol’s personality and more on his actions. According to his daughter, “He would do anything for his people.” “I would never say a bad word about Manute,” remarks his agent, “but I’ve got to tell you, he abandoned his family.” His uncle introduces listeners to Bol by speaking about how strong he was as a baby. An American friend starts off by saying how weak he was in his final days. In Turalei, a young generation of boys grew up learning about Bol’s triumphs in a distant land. “He was rich,” a nephew remembers hearing as a child. “He was famous.” To many at home, however, success abroad mattered little. “Manute,” says a fellow countryman, “is Sudan.”

Bol lived a life befitting a man of such an outsized body. At any given moment, you could find him on a basketball court or a television screen, in a congressional meeting or a war zone, in a hut or a mansion. He sometimes gambled. He often boozed. No matter the backdrop, he always worked to ensure that those around him were happy. In time his bonds with teammates on the court, winning games and entertaining fans, would be replaced by one with a young man from his war-torn village, fighting to educate their people and free their homeland. But every moment, he was meticulously crafting the legend of Manute Bol.

Teammates laughed and waited for Bol’s response, but he neither confirmed nor denied the accusation. In the locker room, he wasn’t a cattle tender; he wasn’t an African; he was a basketball player. “Fuck you, Charles Barkley,” he said.

Bol, at the time a member of the Philadelphia 76ers, during a 1990 game (Photo by John W. McDonough / Sports Illustrated)

1. Feet on the Ground

Even Bol’s birth remains shrouded in myth. It happened in 1962—at least that’s what Western records say, though the man himself was never sure—and for his mother, Okwok, it followed the delivery of two sets of stillborn twins. Before Bol was born, the family consulted a local mystic, who delivered a blessing and predicted the birth of a healthy boy. When the boy was born, they called him Manute, which means “special blessing” and is a common name for babies born in the shadow of lost siblings. On the day of his birth, Bol’s uncle likes to claim, the baby’s body was so long that when he breast-fed his feet touched the ground. His height wasn’t surprising. His father stood six foot eight, his mother six foot ten. His great-grandfather, Bol would later say, was seven foot ten. When British colonizers explored Sudan, some devised a name for the tall and dark Dinka tribespeople who populated the southern regions: “ghostly giants.”

While few villagers remember Bol’s childhood athleticism, his willpower and persistence remain the stuff of local lore. Many Dinka boys in Turalei, which lies in Sudan’s predominantly Christian and animist south, endure tribal rituals in which their bodies are disfigured to signify their transition to manhood. Around age 8, their lower teeth are removed. Later, their foreheads are sliced open and lines are cut across their skulls to mark them as Dinka men. But when Bol’s turn came to endure each of the rituals, he fled, walking for days in search of a new home. First he went to Abyei, a region that straddles the border with Sudan’s predominantly Arab and Muslim north. The second time, he went to Babanusa, even deeper within northern Sudan, where he first experienced life as a racial minority. Both times he eventually gave up and returned home, realizing he could no longer avoid the ceremony. The mystic excised Bol’s teeth and then carved his forehead.

Bol’s countrymen, meanwhile, were embracing a rare era of peace. A civil war had raged in Sudan from 1955 to 1972, killing an estimated 500,000 to 1.3 million people and displacing hundreds of thousands more. In his later years, when Bol talked about his childhood, he spoke little of the diseases, militias, and famines that swept through the region, wiping out entire villages. Because he reached adolescence during peacetime, he’d had the luxury of avoiding the life of a soldier. Instead, Bol had other ambitions. As a child, he boasted that he would one day become executive chief, the richest and most powerful man in Turalei, perhaps all of Twic, the surrounding county. He was, in fact, a member of the local royal family, a grandson of the great chief Chol Bol. Manute’s father, however, had been Chol Bol’s second son, so unless Bol proved himself far worthier than any of his cousins, he would have to line up behind more direct heirs to the chiefdom. To Bol, however, these details mattered little. Someday, he told the village boys, he would rule them all.

Before he could be chief, though, he first had to tend cattle. Cows are held in higher regard than are most other creatures in Dinka culture, both as symbols of wealth and as sustenance for life. Along with the other teenage boys, Bol left the village to work in a cattle camp.

It was while honing his animal-husbandry skills that Bol hit his growth spurt. By his late teens, he towered over his tribesmen. One day a photojournalist from a newspaper in Khartoum, Sudan’s northern capital, visited Turalei and snapped a picture of Bol. The photo caught the eye of Bol’s cousin Nicola Bol, who had moved to the capital and had emerged as one of Sudan’s top basketball players. “I hadn’t seen him since he was a little kid,” says Nicola of his cousin. “I never realized how tall he was, but when I saw the picture I thought, Wow, he needs to start playing basketball.” Soon Bol was recruited to play for a police-sponsored team in Wau, a city in the same region as Turalei, near the border between southern Sudan and Darfur.

Bol moved to Wau and started attending practices, struggling to learn the game. One day he rose the short distance required to dunk for the first time, and as he returned to the earth the net caught on his front teeth, yanking them from his gums. A ceremony had made Bol an official Dinka man. Now he was officially a basketball player.

2. Changing the Game

At seven foot seven, Bol didn’t need long to hone his skills enough to be useful on the court, and he soon moved from the team in Wau to a bigger one in Khartoum. In Sudan’s capital, Bol got his second taste of life as a minority—as a tall and dark-skinned Christian in an Arab city where racial and religious tensions ran high. Yet Bol rarely turned the other cheek when people stopped their cars to gawk or called him abd—Arabic for “slave.” As his Arabic improved he tried to integrate, but when confronted Bol usually responded with fists, not words. “I did fight a lot in Khartoum,” Bol later told the Washington Post. “I was bad. I don’t take anything. Sometimes I can say we Dinkas are crazy. That’s what I can say. We don’t give up.”

Basketball would become his escape from all the animosity that surrounded him in Khartoum. In June of 1982, when Bol was 20, Don Feeley, a coach at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, arrived in Khartoum to help coach the Sudanese national team. From the moment Feeley saw the slender giant, he was transfixed. Bol, he knew, could change a basketball game. With that height, perhaps, Bol could alter the course of a whole college program. Feeley pulled some strings and was able to secure promises of scholarships at Cleveland State University for Bol and his friend Deng Deng Nhial. There was only one problem: Bol had never attended a single day of school. Feeley called Jim Lynam, the coach of the then–San Diego Clippers, and urged him to select Bol in the 1983 NBA draft, sight unseen. Typically, a player who’d never performed in front of scouts would have no chance of being chosen by a professional team. But “seven foot seven” was all Lynam needed to hear. He chose Bol in the fifth round, only to have the pick voided because Bol hadn’t officially declared his intention to enter the draft.

Bol and Deng instead moved to Connecticut to enroll at Bridgeport University, an NCAA Division II school with lower admission standards than Cleveland State. Bol arrived on campus several weeks before classes started, and word of his presence soon spread. “I’d been hearing about this guy for a couple weeks,” says John O’Reilly, who played alongside Bol on the Purple Knights. “Then I finally got to campus and saw him, and I just couldn’t believe it. Just this massive body, so much bigger than anyone you’d ever seen.” Another teammate, John Mullin, was scrimmaging in the Bridgeport gym when he first spotted Bol. “He was sitting in the lobby, and when he stood up it was like his body was just unfolding,” Mullin says. “He walks through the door and he has to duck, and then he stands up straight and I couldn’t believe it. He’s just joking and laughing the whole time, completely comfortable in that environment.”

Bol spent a year at Bridgeport, his shot-blocking prowess turning the school into a Division II power. The victories piled up, and Bol became a sensation on small-college campuses around the northeast. Every game—home or away—was packed. Opposing players found their fans cheering against their own school, rooting instead for the giant who loped and laughed down the court, treating jump shots like mosquitoes. When Bridgeport walked out of the locker room, “you could hear the air come out of everybody’s lungs,” O’Reilly says.

Bol used his time at Bridgeport to acclimate to American life. Given access to medical care, he replaced his missing teeth. Given access to pizza and beer, he indulged most every night. He developed a reputation across campus for his dominant play, his effervescent personality, and, over time, his stubbornness. Before his first season began, Bol set his sights on the number 10 jersey, which O’Reilly had previously worn. He begged O’Reilly for it, telling him he’d do anything to get it, but his teammate stayed firm. On the day the players were introduced to the media, Bol threatened to leave the team: “I can’t stay here if I don’t wear number 10,” he told O’Reilly. Eventually, O’Reilly relented. (Years later, when Bol was playing for the Golden State Warriors, a rookie teammate, Tim Hardaway, approached him wanting to wear the number 10. Bol initially refused but then told Hardaway he’d let him have it—for $500,000, his entire first-year salary. Hardaway declined.)

After one year at Bridgeport, Bol decided he was ready for the pros. Some friends and advisers told him to stay in college, to polish his game and improve his draft stock. But Bol’s mind was made up. He needed money, both for himself and for his increasingly desperate family back in Sudan. And there was no money to be made as a college athlete. Because his skills were so raw and his Division II competition so weak, Bol’s advisers were unsure how high he’d be selected in the NBA draft. So his agent, Frank Catapano, arranged for Bol to play with the Rhode Island Gulls of the United States Basketball League, a fledgling minor league that would offer better competition and a chance to perform in front of NBA scouts.

Bol dominated. In only eight games, he proved he could compete with top talent, and the Washington Bullets selected him in the second round of the NBA draft, as the 31st overall pick and the tallest player in league history. (In the first round, two years later, they drafted the shortest: five-foot-three Wake Forest University guard Muggsy Bogues.) “A lot of people thought it was just a publicity stunt,” says Bob Ferry, then the general manager of the Bullets, of Bol’s selection. “But I was dead serious. I thought he could play.”

3. The Pro

Once he arrived in Washington, Bol played the game unlike anyone before or since, making the impossible look easy and the easy seem impossible. Most players could never hope to block a jump shot from more than a couple of feet away—reaching their hands into the sky to meet the ball at its apex—but Bol did it all the time. “No one could shoot over him,” says Hardaway. “We used to funnel guys toward Manute because we knew he would block their shot. You just couldn’t understand how long he was until you got up close.”

And yet Bol tended to be an embarrassment on offense. He struggled with the most routine plays, missing layups, bricking free throws, dropping the ball or allowing it to roll away between his legs. Several fingers on his right, shooting hand were disfigured, the result of a birth defect. “It looked like a claw,” Ferry says. “He couldn’t straighten his fingers, and that really hurt him.”

Still, his coaches were so enamored of his shot-blocking ability that he played regularly as a rookie during the 1985–86 season, setting an NBA single-season rookie record with 397 blocks—the second-highest total, for any player, in league history. He achieved that mark despite averaging barely two quarters per game, in an era when the rules prohibited guarding a zone of the court rather than an opponent, which tended to discourage large players from staying close to the basket. “If he played today,” Hardaway says, “he would be one of the most dominant players in the game.”

Off the court Bol was a sensation, landing endorsements typically reserved for far more established players. Over the course of his career, he signed contracts with Toyota, Nike, Kodak, and Church’s Chicken—Bol, the ads went, “blocks out his hunger with the Manute Bol Meal, featuring one leg and one thigh of Church’s Fried Chicken.” Sportswriters loved him because he always spoke his mind (“I don’t say no words to him,” Bol once told reporters, excusing himself after an on-court scuffle with Bulls center Jawann Oldham. “If I look for a fight, I go to Lebanon or maybe Libya and be a marine.”) Teammates loved him because his blocks covered for their mistakes. He even worked his way into his general manager’s family, eating Thanksgiving dinners at the Ferrys’ home.

Before long Bol had the means to bring his own family to America, inviting his cousin Nicola, who played for the Sudanese national basketball team, and Nicola’s wife, Achuei, to move into his home in Maryland. Bol also became engaged to a Dinka woman, Atong, and he moved her to the States to become his wife. Before meeting Atong, he’d had trouble with courtship. Back in Sudan, Bol had once “eloped”—a term Dinkas use to describe a union that occurs before a dowry is set—but the marriage dissolved when the families squabbled over the number of cows. “People thought that if you married Manute, your life would not be OK,” says Achuei, the cousin-in-law, who became one of Bol’s closest friends. “They thought that because of his height, he would not live long. So he had problems with women. He wanted to marry, but the women’s families always told them no.” Bol was thrilled to marry Atong, a woman unwilling to listen to those who claimed his body was destined for a breakdown. After meeting Atong through Achuei, Bol paid an 80-cow dowry for her hand.

Soon the Bol household was filled with babies, as Atong and Achuei had both become pregnant around the same time. Atong gave birth to a girl, Abuk, the first of her and Bol’s four children. Doctors told Achuei she would also have a girl. Bol, however, thought otherwise. He insisted that he would have a “nephew”—southern Sudanese often use familial labels interchangeably—and the nephew would be called Manute. On this, however, Bol would have to fight to get his way. First, there was the matter of biology. The ultrasound had made it clear: Nicola and Achuei’s baby would be a girl. Second, there was the matter of tradition. Manute was a name given only to children whose siblings had died. Dinkas would disapprove if the couple named their firstborn Manute.

Days before the baby’s due date, Manute delivered his most emphatic pitch. He’d found a way around their concerns, he said, an excuse to give their firstborn the name reserved for a family who’d experienced great loss. “It will be OK to name him after me,” he said, “because I’m going to die young.”

When the labor began, the doctors grew worried. Nothing major was wrong, but a cesarean section would be needed. From the hospital, Nicola called Manute. “Don’t do anything,” Bol said. “Wait for me to get there.” A professed Catholic, he arrived with water, which he’d use to perform a blessing. He sprinkled the water on Achuei, declaring that no C-section would be needed; little Manute was going to come out just fine. The labor progressed without complications. Achuei gave birth to a beautiful baby boy.

Bol lifted the baby into the air, smiling while Achuei sat speechless and Nicola looked on, and then he kissed the boy on the forehead. Nicola looked at Achuei and settled it: “This baby is Manute.”

He’d found happiness in his family, but as Bol’s basketball career continued, his stature with the Bullets decreased. His problems on offense persisted, and he soon became branded as a role player, a guy who could come in for a few minutes and block a few shots but never be a consistent starter. Bol’s playing time dwindled in his second and third seasons, and in 1988 Washington traded him to the Warriors. That summer he found trouble off the court, too. In July he was arrested and charged with DUI in Maryland, and he resisted as police tried to restrain him with handcuffs. When the officers informed him that a court-appointed lawyer would be provided if he could not afford his own, Bol revealed himself to be a quick study when it came to American politics. “You keep your Ronald Reagan lawyer,” he told them, according to the Washington Post. “I’m going to keep my Jesse Jackson lawyer.” He was arrested again for DUI that August. This time he refused the sobriety test by telling the police that God gave him two legs to stand on and he shouldn’t have to stand on one. “Manute’s problem is he doesn’t yet understand the working of this society,” Ferry told the Boston Globe about the arrests. “He doesn’t understand our rules. Remember, he comes from a society where it’s an achievement just to live through another day. Things that are important to us aren’t a very big deal to him.”

4. Mr. Alibi

Bol arrived in Northern California in the fall of 1988 to begin training camp with Golden State. He settled into a modest home in Alameda, just outside of Oakland on the San Francisco Bay. The Warriors’ coach, Don Nelson, had long coveted Bol’s services. Nelson believed he could unlock the potential that a man of such size must inherently possess. One day shortly after being traded, Bol entered the gym with his teammates for a round of two-a-day practices. Some players were still working their way into playing shape, but Bol approached Nelson with a special request. “Coach,” he said, “we have to end practice early today.” When Nelson asked why, Bol informed him that an urgent matter had arisen: He had to get home because the cable guy was coming. Nelson laughed, considered the matter, and addressed his team: “Guys, we’re not going to practice for long today. Nutie has to get cable at his house.”

“There’s no way anyone else in the league would ask something like that,” says Winston Garland, who played for the Warriors at the time. “And there’s no way a coach would let anyone else get away with it.” But Nelson loved Bol. He let him shoot three-pointers, giving Bol the green light if he was open during the Warriors’ secondary fast break. Every time Bol fired a shot from long range, he broke a cardinal rule taught to big men on basketball courts around the world: Tall guys should stay close to the basket. Instead, the tallest of them all fired away, his arms jerking back and flinging forward, the ball launched as if from a catapult. The Warriors often ended practice by running a drill that finished with Bol shooting threes. Sometimes they would run the same drill at the beginning of practice. If Bol made his three-pointer, practice ended right then—no further work necessary. In games, most of Bol’s threes missed, but a few splashed through the net, inevitably followed by riotous applause. “Just a raggedy-ass jump shot,” Rick Mahorn, who played for the Detroit Pistons at the time, describes it. “He’d make it, and you’d just have to look at him like, Ain’t that a bitch?”

Though Bol came to love his jump shot—“He started talking all kinds of shit when he made jumpers, like he was a real ballplayer or something,” Mahorn says—Bol still made his money blocking shots. He turned would-be dunkers away and yelled at them not to try scoring on him again, adopting every shot blocker’s favorite phrase: “Get that out of here!” Occasionally, however, opponents got the best of Bol. They would rise to dunk and he would rise with them, and by some act of skill, athleticism, or sheer luck, the opponent would finish with a dunk over or around Bol’s outstretched arms. “He hated to get embarrassed,” says Garland, “so he was always coming up with excuses.” Maybe another defender had missed his assignment, or maybe someone had blocked Bol’s path to the rim, but always there was something or someone Bol could blame. Soon teammates took to calling him Mr. Alibi: the man with an explanation for everything.

One day in November ’88, the Warriors were playing the Chicago Bulls, and Michael Jordan caught the ball on the perimeter, then drove around his defender and skied for the rim. Bol and seven-foot-four teammate Ralph Sampson rose with him, the fiercest shot-blocking pair in the league taking on the best player in the history of the game. But Jordan kept climbing and then flushed the ball through the basket, sending Bol in a daze toward the bench, where teammates were laughing, eager to hear his excuse. “What happened?” they asked. In response, Bol uttered two words that Warriors players had never heard paired, joined together in a phrase that soon would become ubiquitous on blacktops across America. Eventually, legend would hold that Bol created this saying, though some linguists dispute that claim. Either way, when Bol delivered it in his rumbling, Dinka-inflected baritone, the Warriors players erupted as if they’d just heard the best joke of their lives.

“My bad,” he said. “My bad.”

For the rest of the season, Warriors players said it whenever they made a mistake, always low and guttural in their best impression of Bol. When players were traded the phrase spread, and before long everyone across the league was saying “My bad.”

Bol kept blocking shots and firing threes, and as fall turned to winter a pattern emerged at Warriors home games. Bol caught the ball outside the arc; the crowd screamed, “Shoot!” so he fired away; they gasped as it sailed through the air and then groaned if it missed or erupted if it swished, then went back to waiting for Bol to shoot again. He was still not a great player, nor even a particularly good one. But the crowd noise told you what the stat sheet could not: In the late 1980s, Bol was a star.

Because he was a star, Bol’s phone rang often, bringing praise or requests, introducing him to people eager to be helped by his fame. And because he was a star, Bol was often unfit to answer the phone in the mornings—another night out, another few rounds of Heineken or Beck’s. Bol hated mornings. If a fan approached him at night or even in the afternoon, he would offer a smile, even grinning through jokes about his height if he was in the right mood. His natural friendliness was a source of pride, and he’d worked hard to become a cult figure and fan favorite, shaking hands and signing autographs. Mornings, however, were different. “At that time we flew commercial, so we always had to get up the morning after a game and go to the airport,” says Hersey Hawkins, a former teammate. “People would always come up and want to talk to him, saying things like ‘How does it feel to be so tall?’ and he’d just say, ‘Go away’ and grumble something like ‘Stupid Americans.’ We always laughed when people walked up to him, because we knew what was coming.”

But early one morning late in 1988, Bol’s phone rang persistently enough that he was forced to get up and answer it. He was grumpy, but he listened to the voice on the other end. The man on the phone spoke Dinka. Bol spoke his native tongue at home and with the other southern Sudanese who were scattered around the States, but most of them knew not to call so early. In those days, calls from Sudan were rare. The charges were too expensive, the chances to use a phone too scarce.

Bol hung up, furious. Several weeks later, the man—a representative of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, the southern Sudanese rebels—visited the Bay Area while traveling through the U.S. to gain support for his cause. When the caller arrived, Nicola warned the man not to mention the phone conversation. When they met in person, Bol started coming around. He liked this guy—liked his passion, his ideas. It took a little convincing, but eventually the SPLM rep prevailed. It was time, Bol decided, to join the fight.

Once opponents, Bol and hall-of-famer Charles Barkley later became teammates and friends in Philadelphia. “If everyone in the world was a Manute Bol, it’s a world I’d want to live in,” Barkley once said (Photo by Damian Strohmeyer / Sports Illustrated)

5. A Cursed Land

“When Allah created Sudan, he laughed,” an old Arab proverb goes. Some interpret the saying to mean God was delighted with his creation, while others think it indicates that the Almighty is a sadist. Nineteenth-century British journalist G. W. Steevens seemed to adopt the latter view when he wrote, “The Sudan is a God-accursed wilderness, an empty limbo of torment for ever and ever.”

The country now known as Sudan has roughly three major regions: the Arab and Muslim north, the black and Muslim west (known as Darfur), and the black and Christian and animist south. (Bol’s village, Turalei, lies near the intersection of all three, technically in southern Sudan but not far from Darfur or Arab country.) From antiquity to the 20th century, southern Sudan was regularly pillaged by its northern neighbors, providing Egypt and northern Sudan with ivory, ebony, gold, and slaves. The British arrived in the late 1800s and ruled the territory from 1899 to 1956, first jointly with Egypt and later on their own. The name Sudan derives from the Arabic bilad al-sudan, which means “land of the blacks,” but when the British relinquished control they grouped the blacks of the south and west with the Arabs of the north, granting statehood to a fractious, mismatched, and artificially created region.

On the first day it came into existence as a sovereign nation, Sudan was already locked in the grips of civil war. After a mutiny of southern army officers, pro-government militias composed largely of northerners and Darfuris ravaged the south. The war lasted from 1955 until the two sides signed a treaty in 1972. Peace lasted little more than a decade, and the year Bol left Sudan for America the fighting began anew, with the sparsely armed villages across the south proving to be powerless against the Kalashnikov- and machete-wielding militias from the north. Not long after Bol had arrived in America, he heard that his father had died. He returned to Sudan to grieve with his family, but access to the country’s Dinka-dominated region was barred. Over the course of the war, Bol would later say, he’d lose 250 family members, some dying at the hands of the militants, others sold into slavery or killed by war-induced famine.

Throughout his time in the NBA, Bol had given money to any family member who asked for it. It didn’t matter who it was—always Bol gave. “There is a problem in the Dinka culture,” Nicola says. “Every family member is to be treated the same as your closest brother. Manute never figured out how to have a balance between the American way and the Dinka way.” Despite making contributions to family members in need, Bol hesitated to involve himself in politics, fearful that the government in Khartoum would harm his family or restrict his visits. So for most of the 1980s, the most famous Dinka man in the world stood on the sidelines while his people were slaughtered.

Soon after Bol received that early morning phone call in 1988, he changed his mind. After meeting with the SPLM representative, Bol helped promote a fundraising effort called Operation Lifeline Sudan, which provided aid to refugees across the south. That was all it took for his fears to be confirmed. On his next visit to Khartoum he was arrested, and authorities accused him of funding the rebellion. Bol was released after several hours, but the incident seemed to fuel his eagerness to contribute. Months later, back in Washington, he met with John Garang, the leader of the SPLM rebels.

An electrifying speaker and indomitable warrior, Garang had galvanized the southerners and unified the rebel army. When he spoke in front of crowds, Garang preached Marxism. In his private and professional relationships, he operated as an opportunistic utilitarian. “Garang was an expert in survival—someone who knew how to bend with the wind yet maintain his political objectives, someone who knew how to seem all things to all men,” filmmaker and Sudan expert Peter Moszynski once told the BBC.

Bol was smitten with Garang, who described for him the desolation in their homeland. The SPLM had struggled in its attempts to gain support from the United States, partly due to its leaders’ communist sympathies. While some East African countries lent support to the SPLM, the movement had trouble raising sufficient funds. They needed the richest Dinka to come to his people’s aid, Garang told Bol.

During the next several years, Bol would contribute $3.5 million to Garang’s SPLM. From time to time, Garang would come to Washington and hold clandestine meetings in Bol’s home. They would station guards outside, keeping an eye out for terrorists or spies as they retreated to the basement, where a group of wealthy Sudanese—both Arab and black—discussed politics and war. Bol briefed Garang on popular opinion among Americans, letting him know what to expect in meetings with U.S. officials. “In Washington, Manute was John Garang’s guy,” Bol’s cousin Ed Bona says. “Garang needed Manute.” Bol made secret trips to the war zone, hiding in the bush with Garang and his men, involving himself in the strategy and politics of war.

In addition to his visits to the bush, Bol traveled to refugee camps in Pinyudo, Ethiopia, and in rebel-controlled regions of Sudan. He paid for extra food to be given to refugees, who mostly subsisted on one meal a day of grain and beans provided by aid organizations. As he walked around the camps, Bol saw familiar faces. People he’d grown up with in Turalei were now scattered around—many of the men fighting in the war, many of the women trying to survive in the camps. Turalei itself no longer existed. It had been destroyed, they told him, like many villages across southern Sudan. The stretch of land they once called home was no longer a place suitable for life.

On an early ’90s trip to the rebel-controlled town of Pochala, Bol stopped as he often did among the masses to shake hands. By this point he’d become a legend among the refugees, both for his international success and for his efforts to help Sudan. Children approached, wide-eyed, gawking at the man they’d been taught to revere. Bol reached down and touched a boy, one who’d known Bol’s name for years, who’d heard all about the tall and funny man who had left the boy’s now-empty hometown of Turalei for America. The boy had a shrunken frame and sunken eyes, his teeth grown in different directions, running away from each other as if every incisor and canine had a mind of its own. His name was Victor, he was about 12 years old, and he was often hungry and scared. The boy stood and stared upward. Years later he would still remember the tears in Bol’s eyes, despondent over the boy whose tragic situation he could do little to change. Victor couldn’t possibly imagine that someday the two would meet again, and that it would be he who would change Bol’s life.

6. On the Run

The moment the militia arrived, 8-year-old Victor Anyar was standing in a pasture, caring for his family’s cows. It was sometime in the late 1980s—the years and the attacks all run together—nearly a decade before he would meet Manute Bol in the Pochala camp. In Turalei they had known for days that the murahaleen—the militia men from the north—were coming. The soldiers arrived near dusk, on horseback. 

Victor recalls his father assembling his family into a group, telling them to stay put, stay organized, wait for the killers to pass. He remembers that his father stood still for several moments, until there was an explosion and his father was falling, shot by the soldiers, crumbling to the ground, dead. Victor ran. Away from the village, away from the bullets, away from the father who was dead, from the mother and the siblings who were screaming, whom he would probably never see again. The murahaleen would kill many boys. They would make slaves of several girls. But they wouldn’t catch Victor because Victor was fast, faster than he’d ever been, sprinting away from the horror and deep into the wild, going far from the roads until he could hear gunshots and screams no longer, until the only sounds were the sounds of wilderness, the buzzing and howling and screeching soundtrack of a Sudanese night.

The next evening, lions came. There were three of them, he remembers, a mother, a father, and a cub. The cub approached Victor and began scratching and sniffing his skin. Victor shouted, “Go away!” desperate to drive it on but scared to draw its mother’s ire. Finally he kicked and shouted, and when the lion’s attention lapsed he was gone, running again. He ran until he felt he wasn’t running at all, until his legs seemed to have stopped moving and his arms seemed to have stopped pumping and he was floating, pushed or carried or willed by a force outside his body, until finally he stumbled on other humans, Dinka refugees with whom, at least for the moment, he was safe.

They walked, setting off across southern Sudan a region roughly the size of Texas—toward a refugee camp in Ethiopia, which borders the eastern side of the country. The group included about 20 boys and one adult leader, following marks that had been left in the trees to point the way. Sometimes they encountered soldiers from the SPLA, the SPLM’s military wing, who brought food. “We ate then,” says Victor. “That helped us not to die.”

After three months of walking, they arrived in Ethiopia, beginning their lives as refugees in the Pinyudo camp. There was no school. Victor lived there three years, until one day violence found him again. Ethiopia had long been embroiled in its own civil war, and the fighting spread and threatened the refugees, whose camp shared land with the Anuak people, a minority tribe that had been oppressed by the government and resented the foreigners. One day the Anuak attacked the camp, and suddenly the refugees were running again, tens of thousands of them at once, desperate to break away. As Victor ran, bodies dropped all around him, most with bullets in their backs. The attack on Victor’s village had been chaotic, with everyone fleeing in separate directions, each person looking for different ways to escape. This time it felt more ordered, systematic. Nearly everyone went the same direction: back to Sudan. Soon they reached the border, marked by the crocodile-infested Gilo River.

As the running hordes descended on the river, the crocodiles basked in the sun. The refugees had a choice: Stay behind and wait to be shot, or jump in and risk being eaten. Victor faced a particular problem—he had never learned to swim. He looked on as boys rushed into the water, some bodies going limp in the crocodiles’ jaws. He watched as others asked, “Who knows how to swim?” When a boy mentioned that he could, several who could not jumped on top of him as he entered the water, begging to be carried. But their weight only forced the swimmer underwater, dooming all of them.

Along with several other boys, Victor ran to a less crowded part of the river. A man swam to the other side and tied a rope to a tree, spanning the river with it. Victor grabbed the rope and moved his hands one after the other, inching his way across.

Bol reaches out to block a shot by Dan Majerle of the Phoenix Suns (Photo by John W. McDonough / Sports Illustrated)

7. Big Spender

By the early 1990s, Bol had cashed in. After the 1989–90 season, the Golden State Warriors traded him to the Philadelphia 76ers, and there Bol became a millionaire: His annual salary topped $1.25 million in each of his three years with the team. Much of his newfound wealth went to funding the southern Sudanese rebellion, but Bol allowed himself a few indulgences.

Mostly, he bought drinks—for himself, for his teammates, for friends new and old, for whomever happened to be within his orbit at the bar. “He loved to go to clubs,” says Nicola. “He loved the attention, loved making sure everyone had a good time.” Even when out with teammates far richer than him, Bol insisted on paying the bill. “Sometimes we had to tell him, ‘Manute, we’ve got money, too. It’s OK for us to pay,’” says Hersey Hawkins, a teammate with the 76ers.

On the court, Bol continued blocking shots, launching threes, missing layups. Even if he never became one of the league’s best players, he remained among its most popular. “When you get to the NBA, sometimes you stop looking at basketball as a game and you start looking at it as a business,” says Hawkins. “Playing with Manute, he had a way of taking you back to the times when you just loved to play. Manute made you feel like you would play the game for free.”

“He didn’t have a single adversarial relationship in the league,” says Winston Garland, who’d played with Bol on the Warriors. “When the horn sounded, everybody loved Manute. Before the game, after the game, everybody wanted to be around him.” Everyone except, occasionally, frightened children. While playing for Philadelphia, Bol saw Hawkins’ family in the tunnel after a game, and he reached out his arms to greet the kids. The children cried as he tried to embrace them, afraid of the giant, alien creature they’d encountered. Bol laughed, then grumbled, “Baby Hawks are soft—just like their daddy.”

In Philadelphia, Bol took advantage of his proximity to Atlantic City, escaping for gambling getaways whenever his schedule allowed. Atong once won $465,000 playing the slots at the Trump Taj Mahal. Mostly, though, Bol lost. “Even when he would win,” says Bol’s friend Abdel Gabar Adam, “he would just go ahead and spend the money right there.” Says his agent, Frank Catapano: “He loved to gamble, and he didn’t want to listen to anyone who told him what to do with his money. He did what he wanted.”

Bol, however, saw his vices as tools for good. He used happy hours and gambling trips as diplomatic forums. While living in Philadelphia, Bol made Darfuri and Arab friends, many of whom maintained political clout back in Sudan. Though some Dinkas disapproved, Bol “believed we could all live in peace if we just got to know one another,” says Adam, a Darfuri.

Bol also grew into his role as an activist, emerging as the face southern Sudan showed America. “If I were in the Sudan right now, I would be starving with the rest of my people,” he once told an Oxfam banquet, a scene recounted in Leigh Montville’s 1993 book Manute: The Center of Two Worlds. “I eat good food here in America and I go to sleep at night and then when I wake up in the morning I see something on TV and feel really terrible. There’s nothing I can do. I have about 70 of my people right now homeless in the capital of Sudan. They have no place to go.”

Bol signed with the Miami Heat in October 1993, and he promptly skipped two preseason games to attend meetings about Sudan in Washington. The team fined him $25,000, but donated it to a Sudanese charity. He spoke before Congress, pleading for help and warning of a man who lived in Sudan and plotted death to Americans: Osama bin Laden. How he knew of the then-obscure Al Qaeda leader, at the time just a tiny blip on America’s radar, family members could only speculate. “Manute was like a politician, so he knew all of the secrets,” his cousin-in-law Achuei says. “He knew that Bin Laden was killing people in the south. The government wouldn’t say that Bin Laden was in Sudan, but Manute knew.”

As his activism grew, Bol’s basketball career sputtered. Miami released him in January of 1994. The Warriors awarded him another contract just before the 1994–95 season, but less than a month after the season started Bol crumbled to the ground during a game in Charlotte with torn cartilage in his knee. Eight days later, he underwent arthroscopic surgery.

While trying to rehab his knee, Bol attempted a new profession. He opened a restaurant and nightclub in Washington called Manute Bol’s Spotlight, serving cocktails like Manute’s Slam Dunk and Bol’s Blocked Shot. The restaurant was a joint venture with Deng Deng Nhial, the friend who had moved with Bol to the United States more than a decade before, played for Bridgeport, and stayed in the country. “They didn’t know what they were doing,” says Bona, Bol’s cousin, about the restaurant. “Manute never knew how to manage his money.”

After rehab, Bol spent several months playing for the Florida Beach Dogs in the CBA, a minor league where castoffs and has-beens played for low-five-figure salaries and a chance to keep their NBA dreams alive. He rode buses, flew coach, and never complained when the owner trotted him out to sign autographs. Once, Bol broke curfew the night before a game, drinking until 6 a.m., but the team’s management couldn’t find it within themselves to punish him. He shot all the three-pointers he wanted. “Some players have a long leash,” says Eric Musselman, his coach at the time. “Manute had no leash. We let him do whatever he wanted.” He sat on barstools in Yakima, Washington, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, regaling teammates and onlookers with stories from worlds they’d never know: the village, the bush, the NBA.

Within months, Bol gave up on the CBA. The restaurant went under. He tried playing in Italy and Qatar, but neither country’s league offered an acceptable contract. After 10 seasons in the NBA, Bol had saved between $50,000 and $100,000, Bona estimates. With that in the bank, he drifted back to Khartoum.

8. Stuck

Bol returned to Khartoum for complex reasons, none of them good. His money was largely spent. He’d sold his house in California, and his Maryland home was on its way to being repossessed, so Bol moved in with family who’d been staying at a house he kept in the Sudanese capital.

After years of growing strife, his marriage to Atong had finally disintegrated for good, and she remained in the States with their four kids. Bol’s stepmother had died in a car accident, so he assumed care for his half-sister, who lived in Khartoum. And then there was politics—of both reconciliation and revenge.

As Bol’s NBA career had faded, the Sudanese civil war seemed to do the same. A rift had emerged among rebels of the SPLM, and a coalition of southern leaders split from Garang and negotiated the Khartoum Peace Agreement. The treaty, which excluded Garang and the SPLM, led to increased cooperation between the southern rebels and the National Islamic Front, the northern Islamist movement led by President Omar al-Bashir in the capital. Peace, at least nominally, seemed on its way to Sudan, and Garang, long the south’s unquestioned leader, had been excluded.

So, too, it seemed, had Bol. While he’d once been hailed as a hero, a key player in the future of the new Sudan, he was now ignored. He had no more money to offer, so the attention he’d received waned. “John Garang was a great warrior, a brilliant man, but he used people,” Bona says. “When Manute couldn’t give the SPLM all that money anymore, Garang had no use for him.” The northern government in Khartoum, however, thought they could use him just fine. So Bol went to the capital, where he was given a cabinet post as the country’s minister of youth and sport, treated as royalty by the Arabs who’d once called him slave. “It shocked all of us,” Acuil Malith Banggol, a former SPLA fighter, later told the Independent of London. “He is not a seasoned politician, so he must have fallen prey to nice words and promises. Unfortunately, he did not talk to us about it.” Bol believed the treaty represented a major step forward for Sudan, he later told friends, and he jumped at the opportunity to join a unified government.

One event in the summer of 1998, however, changed all that. On the night of August 20, Manute sat on his rooftop in Khartoum watching bombs drop from the sky. The U.S., he’d soon find out, was attacking Khartoum, lobbing cruise missiles at a pharmaceutical plant American officials believed was involved in producing chemical weapons for Bin Laden. The Clinton administration had finally decided to act against the man Bol, among others, had long warned about. They missed Bin Laden in an attack launched the same day against a training camp in Afghanistan, and later reports would challenge whether the Khartoum factory was up to anything nefarious at all. But for Bol it wouldn’t matter: That night, he would later say, was when the Sudanese government started to suspect he was a spy.

The peace treaty, it turned out, was a farce. Down in the south the killing continued. And with Bol under suspicion and sharia, Islamic law, ruling Khartoum, the government gave Bol a choice: Convert to Islam, or lose the job. Like many from Turalei, Bol had long been a Christian, mixing Catholicism with tribal practices and beliefs. He grew up learning to hate and fear Muslims. Over the years, he’d befriended many of them. Now he’d been willing to work with them. He was not, however, willing to become one of them.

Bol refused the job. There would be no paycheck, no free car, as he’d also been promised. As his savings eroded, Bol sold the house in Khartoum. Still suspecting he was a spy, government officials told Bol he’d be watched and that they would never let him leave the city. His marriage with Atong over, he remarried—twice. In 1998 he married Ajok, a woman from another region of southern Sudan. Later that year he married Ayak, from Turalei. Bol moved into a rental home on the outskirts of the city, paying $200 a month and sharing the space with 14 relatives. He borrowed money from Catapano, his agent, though Catapano now says he never expected to be repaid. Just a few years before, Bol had been a millionaire, fielding calls for help from his countrymen. Now he was the voice on the other end of the line. Rheumatism took hold of his joints. Lacking money for treatment, he lay still, enduring the pain.

Back in the States, Ed Bona awoke one morning to a desperate-sounding mass email, originated among Bol’s friends and forwarded to all those who loved him. It said he was sick—that if he didn’t get help, he would die. Bona called Bol. He wasn’t dying, Bol said; he was stuck, and he needed help to escape from Khartoum. Bona and several friends in Connecticut began a media campaign to draw attention to Bol’s plight. NBC went to Khartoum for a story. A reporter, Declan Walsh, wrote pieces for The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and The Independent. Bona tried to arrange a plane ticket but couldn’t find a travel agency that would allow him to purchase one in America for Bol to pick up in Khartoum. So Bona called a cousin in London, who found an agency that would cooperate and give him a ticket to Egypt. Bol bribed local officials to give him a passport and validate his travel plans. He showed up at the airport just before departure so as not to give the government time to realize he was on his way out of the country.

Someone, however, apparently did realize what was happening, and Bol was removed from his flight soon after boarding it. He didn’t have a ticket, officials said, though their computers confirmed that he did. Bol told the officials that if they didn’t let him on the plane, he would march directly to the Khartoum bureau of the BBC and tell his story. Eventually, the officials relented. Bol, they decided, caused more trouble than he was worth. He got a seat on a later plane, and on July 12, 2001, more than three years after he returned to Sudan, he left.

In Cairo, Bol worked with the American embassy to get visas for himself and his family to travel to the U.S. He succeeded in obtaining his papers and his wife Ajok’s (Ayak would stay in Sudan), but problems arose when Bol tried to obtain a visa for his half-sister Achuil. Though he’d been caring for her since her mother died, Bol lacked documentation to prove he was Achuil’s guardian. In order to reenter the country without it, he had to apply for refugee status.

Bol waited for months to meet with American officials about the request. Sitting idle in Cairo on September 11, 2001, he watched the news and saw the twin towers in flames. When he heard Bin Laden had been responsible—the same Bin Laden he’d spoken to members of Congress about years before—he was crestfallen. Thereafter he would maintain, to anyone who would listen, that it all could have been prevented if the U.S. government had heeded his warnings when he’d first given them.

A few months later, his immigration request was granted. Three years after he’d arrived in Sudan as a dignitary, he returned to America, a refugee.

9. Whatever It Takes

On the day he became a laughingstock, Bol wore red trunks, black gloves, and the hardened stare of a man who cared too little or too much. He’d returned to the States on March 7, 2002, and now, less than three months after his return, Bol had landed another gig competing on national television. This time it was boxing. Once again his size helped him get the job, but now skill mattered little. It wasn’t a sport. It was a freak show.

As the American public would soon come to suspect, Bol was a little desperate. He was living in a spare apartment in West Hartford, Connecticut, paid for by Catholic Charities. Shortly after arriving back in the U.S., he’d met with Bona and several friends to discuss his future. He’d have opportunities, the thinking went, to make money off his name, finding speaking engagements and autograph sessions and taking small-time endorsements to pay bills. With enough money, Bol could not only support his family but also help Bona with the Ring True Foundation, which he’d formed to help Sudanese refugees. They brainstormed ways to get Bol in front of a national audience, letting marketers know he was back.

In March, Fox had aired a special called Celebrity Boxing, putting D-listers and has-beens in a ring to exchange blows. Time magazine called it “the already-legendary newest low point in reality TV.” Naturally, it was a hit. And when Bol was floated the idea of participating in a Celebrity Boxing 2, hejumped on board immediately. “From the beginning, he knew what he was getting into,” Bona says. “Everybody knew what the reaction was going to be. He didn’t care. He thought it would be fun, competing for the fans. He didn’t worry about all that.” Instead, he worried about finding an opponent. Bol suggested Dennis Rodman, the NBA’s hair-dyeing, cross-dressing, flamboyant and foul-mouthed bad boy, who had competed as a pro wrestler after retiring from the league. One of Bol’s friends called Fox, and the network jumped at the chance to have him fight. Fox paid most contestants $25,000, but according to IRS forms the network paid the Ring True Foundation $26,510, and Bona says Bol received an additional $25,000. With Bol aboard, Fox called to ask Rodman to compete. He declined. The network offered an alternative: William “Refrigerator” Perry. Known simply as the Fridge, Perry had been an NFL defensive end, an overweight bowling ball of a man who became a sensation when the Chicago Bears began inserting him at running back. Like Bol, he’d been an oddity as an athlete, talented but unconventional and known for his personality as well as his play.

Upon returning to the U.S., Bol received treatment for his rheumatism, and now he began running, working out to shape up before the fight. He’d long been a boxing fan, going to fights between gambling sessions in Atlantic City. He also loved pro wrestling, with its savagery and theater and comedy all rolled into one. He didn’t just want to win; he wanted everyone who watched to say that Bol and Perry had been the headliners, the fighters who made it all worth the price of admission. Bol, it seemed, was the only person in America who didn’t see Celebrity Boxing as a joke.

The fight lasted three rounds, Bol dominating from the opening to the closing bell. Perry, who’d ballooned to about 375 pounds, threw the occasional punch but spent most of his time shrinking away from Bol’s spindly arms. Bol looked languid, but his reach was too long as he delivered crosses, jabs, and the occasional uppercut. Eventually Perry just cowered in his corner. In the end, Bol won unanimously, and as the fight announcer raised his arm into the air, Bol said he only wished he’d fought harder.

Several weeks later, Bol and Bona went to a Celtics-Nets playoff game in Boston. “We walk in the arena, and Manute almost causes a riot,” Bona says. “They were shouting, ‘You did it! You beat the Fridge!’” Bol laughed and waved and signed autographs, smiling as they chanted his name. Bona called a friend: “If there was ever any doubt over whether or not this was a good idea,” he said, “it’s over now.” Once again, Bol was a star.

From there, the offers picked up. He signed a contract with a minor-league hockey team, the Indianapolis Ice, but when Bol suited up his feet began swelling in the skates, and he changed out of his uniform before the first game ended. He signed a deal to become a jockey at Indiana’s Hoosier Park. He was fitted for silks and weighed in with the other participants, but he never actually sat on a horse. As the public heard more about his money-raising hijinks, he was either called a saint or pitied as a charity case. “I thought it was sad, him turning himself into a spectacle,” says Catapano. He called Bol, saying, “I want to help you out, but I don’t want to make a circus out of you.”

While replenishing his bank account, Bol reconnected with the southern Sudanese diaspora. Suddenly, they were everywhere—from Omaha to Syracuse, Atlanta to San Jose—newly established Americans, brought to the States as refugees. Mostly young and male, popularly called the Lost Boys of Sudan, they would soon be writing books and starring in documentaries. To the Lost Boys, Bol was a god, the man they’d pretended to be while fighting over a basketball in Pinyudo. He traveled around the country speaking to newly arrived groups of them, encouraging them to earn Americans’ respect. (Even if he’d become a professional sideshow, friends say, Bol still followed his own advice, putting maximal effort into mundane tasks and always showing up on time). In the ’80s, Bol had been one the few southern Sudanese living in America. Now, when meetings were held for all of the American residents from the Twic region, thousands of people showed up. Bol met nephews he never knew he had and treated them as if they’d been close for years, traveling across the country for birthdays and graduations. One, Mayom Majok, had lost his father in the war, and when he was ready to marry, Bol made the traditional arrangements.

But the income slowed when the trouble started. One day in 2003, Ajok stormed out of the house during a heated argument. Bol followed, still arguing, until soon they’d both arrived at a nearby police station. The couple were arrested for breach of peace. Then, in February of 2004, after another argument, Bol was charged with third-degree assault. Citing anonymous sources, the New York Daily News reported that Bol had slammed a door that hit his daughter Abuk’s head and then called the police himself. “Things here and things in Sudan are very different,” Abuk now says when asked about Manute’s violence, though she declined to discuss details. “Things that are acceptable in Sudan aren’t acceptable in the U.S.” Cultural differences aside, the incidents cast a pall over Bol’s image.

Bona chided Bol. “I was saying to him, ‘You can’t do this kind of stuff,’” Bona says. “I told him, ‘If you have an argument with your wife, get out of the house, go into West Hartford and have a drink.’”

After the arrests, companies and organizations were reluctant to hire Bol. The income he’d been earning slowed, and then it stopped.

10. Broken

Bol didn’t know the driver was drunk. Maybe he was naive; maybe he was distracted. His attorney insists that Bol himself wasn’t drunk, but on evenings such as this he rarely refused at least a glass or two. It was a summer night in 2004 at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. Bol had just spent the evening gambling and attending a WNBA game. He was alone and unable to drive, arthritis crippling his knees, so he hailed a cab.

“The car is a problem in my family,” Bol once told a friend. “It kills people.” If the war was the greatest threat to the Bol family, perhaps the motor vehicle was the second-greatest. By his count, cars had killed 19 of his relatives. On this night, not only was the driver of the cab drunk, but he was also using a suspended license, speeding down the highway with Bol in the backseat. “Slow down,” Bol pleaded, “or let me out.” The cabbie screamed down Route 2 until he lost control, careened into a guardrail, spun across two lanes, and slammed into a ledge. Bol and the driver flew from their seats then out of the car. Bol lay unconscious. The cab driver went into cardiac arrest; within hours he was dead.

The paramedics’ bodyboards were too short to hold Bol, so they fastened two together, then airlifted him to a hospital, where he was put on life support. He had two broken vertebrae and a dislocated knee. To improve circulation, doctors temporarily fused his left wrist and hand to his abdomen. His face was mangled and his neck was punctured; the flesh from one leg seemed to have all been ripped away.

Bol survived, but he would never be the same. He would walk with a cane and struggle to stand. Once the greatest athlete his country had ever seen, Bol would be turned into just another elder at age 41. He spent months in the hospital, using his wit and perspective to charm reporters who came to hear about the horror he’d experienced. “All the meat in my left hand was gone,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I think the road took it.”

But for the first time in his life, words of desperation had crept into Bol’s vocabulary. “I was wondering, What did I do wrong to God?” he told the Boston Globe. “I’ve gone to war zones before and never got shot. Why is this happening to me now?” His medical bills rose. He had no insurance.

Some of his college teammates organized an alumni game at Bridgeport to raise money for his bills, bringing together ex-players from the area. A friend made replicas of Bol’s number 10 Bridgeport jersey. Bol showed up, and again the crowd swarmed to see him, just like the old days. “Bol was talking his usual bag of junk to everybody,” says John O’Reilly, a teammate, but the energy and infectiousness that once had made him king of Bridgeport’s campus had waned. “You could tell he was in so much pain,” says John Mullin, a college teammate. “He was hunched over. He went from being a guy who was very outgoing and friendly, and it took a little off of him.”

Many of his friends helped, but Bol felt miffed over one person who never even called: John Garang. Even though their relationship had gone cold, Bol had expected well wishes from the leader of his homeland. Back in Sudan, peace talks were again under way, and this time Garang—rather than leaders of rebel splinter groups—was deeply involved. A series of negotiations and diplomatic baby steps led to the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in January 2005, officially ending the war. Pockets of violence would continue to emerge throughout the south among rebel militias, but the violence that had ravaged Sudan for 22 years was over.

Finally, Bol could go home.

He arrived in his former village to a new Turalei, rebuilt by returning refugees, and there he found the boy. The boy he’d met in Pochala, Victor—the one with the gnarled and quarrelsome teeth who’d run from Turalei into the bush and away from the lions only to sit in squalor for more than a decade, who’d emerged from the camp’s sea of misery just to meet and touch Bol—was back. Only he was a man now, and he stood surrounded by children, all of them crowded underneath the shade of a tree. The tree, it seemed, was a school. The boy now had a title: headmaster.

11. Humble in Heart

After Bol’s visit to Pochala in the early ’90s, Victor Anyar had remained in refugee camps for another decade. His daily struggle for survival persisted, and his moments of comfort were rare. Pochala erupted in violence a year after Anyar arrived, so he moved to a camp in northwestern Kenya called Kakuma, Swahili for “nowhere.” In Kakuma they received rations about every two weeks. Usually, it was enough for one meal a day, but often the members of the local indigenous tribe, the Turkana, came to the camp asking for food. If you shared your rations, they treated you well. If you refused, they shot you. Anyar always shared.

At the camp there was a school, but Anyar says he learned little. He made friends, though they were bound mostly by shared misery. He maintained hope that he would someday leave, but the reports from Sudan seemed bleak; as bad as life in Kakuma was, it was paradise compared with Anyar’s home. “Life was strange,” he says.

But one day, the camp hummed with rumors of a new plan to take some of the boys from Kakuma and send them to America, the richest place in the world, a place where they would all live like chiefs—and the place where Manute Bol had made his fortune. Anyar couldn’t wait to get there. Soon the boys were leaving, heading off to parts unknown. They would send letters back to the camp, where Anyar and his friends learned more: You could only marry one wife in America, and in the winters the cold made Kakuma seem like a furnace. As group after group set off to their new home, Anyar kept waiting for his opportunity. Finally, in 2001, he was summoned for interviews. He told his story, explained that in Kakuma he had no family, that he needed the promise of America to build his life anew. There were forms to fill out, then more meetings to attend, and then finally he received word: He would be going to America. After more than a decade in refugee camps, he would have a bed, a full stomach, a home.

Until one day everything changed. There had been an attack, refugees and workers told Anyar, not in Kakuma or Sudan or even Ethiopia but in the one place where there were supposed to be no attacks, where everyone was rich and peace was a given. A plane had flown into a tall building, then another plane into another building. The buildings fell. The world stopped.

U.S. immigration policies tightened, and no more Lost Boys would be admitted—not for now, anyway. In Kakuma, Anyar sat in his hut, defeated. He would never get to see the country he’d dreamt of, never reunite with the friends who’d gone on to better lives. Former refugees were now college students, factory workers, security guards, and fast-food servers—making a life for themselves, enjoying a freedom they’d never known. One would run the 1,500-meter race for the United States in the Olympics. Anyar kept eating grain and beans. He kept pushing through each 15-day cycle, trying to make his rations last.

Anyar finally left Kakuma for Nairobi, hoping to find work there or continue to another refugee camp on the other side of the country. There he met a missionary named Bob Bentley who lived nearby with his wife and two kids, and worked at a local Church of Christ. When Bentley got to know Anyar, he was struck not by his harrowing story—when dealing with refugees, you hear a lot of harrowing stories—but by his potential to become a pastor. “In Matthew 11, Jesus says, ‘I am gentle and humble in heart,’” says Bentley. “That to me described Victor. He wasn’t an academic giant or anything, but he had the heart of a leader, the heart of a servant. And Jesus chose people who were a ragtag bunch.”

Bentley paid for Anyar to have his own apartment and for English classes at the local Christian school. Anyar became a part of the Bentley family and soon was thriving. His English improved faster than it ever had in Kakuma. He no longer had to worry about saving his rations. He was happy, at peace.

But with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, there was suddenly hope for his homeland, and Anyar decided that perhaps it was time to return. Though he’d seen his father shot, he thought maybe other family members were still alive, waiting for him. He asked Bentley to send him back to Turalei.

Anyar arrived and reunited with friends he hadn’t seen since the day the murahaleen came. He found his mother and brother living not far from Turalei, in another village in Twic. But now that he was home, Anyar had to figure out what to do with his new life. A childhood spent bouncing from refugee camp to refugee camp leaves a man with few skills. Where once children had grown up learning to care for goats and cattle, now a whole generation arrived back at their homes unsure of how to do anything. No one in Anyar’s family spoke English, so he began teaching his nephews, the three sons of the brother with whom he’d just reconnected. Every day they sat under a tree and Anyar conducted lessons.

Word began to spread that there was a teacher under the tree. More children came, their parents deciding to give them opportunities most of them had never had. Anyar went to the market to advertise, making sure everyone knew that, in the rebuilt Turalei, education would be available to all. Eventually, Anyar brought in other teachers, who found more trees. Anyar approached the local government and received funding. For perhaps the first time ever, Turalei had an officially recognized school.

That’s when Bol showed up. Bol told Anyar he remembered him from the camps, and Anyar told Bol he needed money. Bol instantly decided to adopt Anyar’s cause. The man who never attended a day of school in his life until appearing in Bridgeport would fund the education of his village’s next generation.

While southern Sudanese in places like Turalei had been rebuilding their homes, the horseback-riding and machete-wielding militias had gone elsewhere, leaving their trail of corpses littered across fresh swaths of land. By 2003, hell had moved to Darfur.

The horrifying news reports caught the attention of Americans, including a pastor in the Kansas City suburbs, Tom Prichard, who in 2004 became the executive director of Sudan Sunrise, an organization dedicated to education and peace in Sudan. Like almost any American who took a serious interest in Sudan, it took little time for Prichard to meet Bol.

It started with $20,000. When Bol approached Prichard with a proposal in 2008, that was all he wanted. Just $20,000 to help Anyar build his school, to give Turalei’s children blackboards, backpacks, a roof over their heads. Prichard jumped on board. He and Bol began making trips to Turalei together, and Sudan Sunrise sent builders to oversee construction and educators to train the local teachers. They would work by day and talk and sip whiskey into the night. Bol’s friends and family from all over Twic would come to sit at his feet, where they would discuss politics and trade stories.

Bol never became executive chief, as he’d once predicted as a boy. But, Prichard says, “everyone treated him like a chief. The other chiefs would all gather around just to listen to him talk.” At night Bol slept like the other villagers, just as he had years ago, in a tukul hut, with cockroaches sometimes falling from the roof and into the beds. For decades politics and war had kept him away from his home. Now he was back, drinking and laughing and building a school, bathing in the sweat that clung to his body in the triple-digit heat, welcoming the critters that invaded his hut. Let the cockroaches fall. Let the wild dogs howl and the mosquitoes buzz. Bol was home, and he was happy.

Mornings, however, remained an issue. On one occasion, Anyar decided to surprise Bol by bringing the schoolchildren to sing a song at his home. Groggy, Bol emerged from his hut to find dozens of singing and smiling kids, there to thank and celebrate the man charged with funding their education. They learned the same lesson the SPLM representative had learned on the phone in 1988. You don’t wake Bol, no matter how important your cause. “Can’t you see I’m sleeping?” he said. “Get out of here.” He waved them away and retired to his hut, only to reemerge hours later eager to play with the kids. Though Bol’s short fuse was legendary, so was his ability to forget an argument. In his playing days, he sometimes indulged in an on-court scuffle, then would be cracking jokes two or three minutes later, leaving his opponent seething. “I never once saw him angry and felt like he actually meant it,” says Matthew Kohn, a documentary filmmaker who traveled to Sudan with Prichard and Bol several times.

Bol was focused on the school, coordinating logistics and serving as a bridge between the village and the volunteers. At some point, he began thinking beyond this one school, thinking beyond Turalei to all of Twic, even all of Sudan. One day he just started saying it: “I’m going to build 41 schools.” He wanted them all over the south and even a few in Darfur and the north. Though he represented a fractured nation, Bol preached reconciliation among religions, races, and tribes. “Manute wanted to do something for every marginalized person in Sudan,” says Abdel Gabar Adam. “That’s very unusual.” At the school in Turalei, Bol insisted, all children would be welcome.

After construction ended on the first building, a sign went up: “Manute Bol Turalei Primary School.” Bol hadn’t cared about giving the school his name—in fact, he even argued against it, albeit tepidly. Prichard wanted to call it that, both because of Bol’s commitment and because it wouldn’t hurt fundraising to attach a famous name to their efforts. Some of Bol’s friends, however, were concerned. “In Dinka culture, you don’t put up any monuments or name anything after someone who is still alive,” says Bob Justin, a close family friend from Turalei. “To name something after yourself while you’re still alive, it’s almost like a sign,” he says. “It’s like saying you’re going to die.”

12. Choice

During his time in the NBA, Bol almost always drank Heineken. Teammates laughed at that. “Heineken, Heineken, Heineken,” Rick Mahorn says. When traveling in Africa, Bol scoffed at the Kenyan and Ugandan beers, deeming them unacceptable to his taste buds. During his stint in the CBA, he’d grown more sophisticated, schooling the youngsters about fine liquor, particularly Grand Marnier.

When drinking with the man who would become the first president of the Republic of South Sudan, however, Bol changed it up. In Salva Kiir Mayardit’s home, they sipped a South African red wine. After the Comprehensive Peace Agreement was signed in January of 2005, the south had gained autonomy and was ruled largely by its own government. A plan was installed to take independence a step further: In 2011, the southerners would vote on a referendum to decide whether to secede from Sudan entirely.

In 2005, former SPLM leader John Garang had been installed as the first vice president of Sudan and, essentially, president of southern Sudan. When Garang died in a plane crash later that year, Kiir stepped into the role. Though Bol’s friendship with Garang had soured, he remained close to Kiir, and the two made a point to meet whenever Bol traveled through Juba, the de facto capital of southern Sudan. While Garang had seen Bol as a pawn, friends and relatives say, Kiir saw him as both an ally and a companion. They would sit in Kiir’s office sipping wine, talking politics and war until 2 or 3 a.m. Kiir belonged to the SPLM, which now competed with several other southern Sudanese political parties, and as the 2010 election approached Bol pledged unyielding support. He believed the SPLM should be given the chance to govern, particularly since they had been the ones who fought and negotiated for peace.

At the end of a trip to Sudan in the spring of 2010, Bol visited Kiir the night before Bol was to fly back to the U.S. The president was exhausted, unable to talk for long, but he made time to discuss politics with his friend. Election season was approaching, and the SPLM was campaigning to maintain control of southern Sudan. Kiir emphasized the importance of the upcoming elections. The southerners needed to elect politicians who would push for the independence referendum. Although popular sentiment leaned heavily toward secession, pockets of southerners believed it was best to remain unified in a new, peaceful Sudan. Bol and the president grew animated as they discussed the challenges that lay ahead for the SPLM. And on the larger points they agreed: It was essential that the party maintain control and push the referendum to passage.

Though he befriended people from across the political and ethnic spectrum, Bol was not one to keep a cool head while talking politics. He knew he was right, and if you were against him you were wrong, and he let you know it, often loudly, leaving some of his friends to swear off political discussions with him altogether. Likewise, if he agreed with you he became energized by your shared beliefs, turning talk into plans and plans into action before the conversation had even ended. So as he sat with the president on this night, scheduled to depart for the U.S. the next day, it took all of 20 minutes for Bol to decide to stay in Sudan and campaign for the SPLM. By helping the SPLM, Bol believed, he would be helping the southerners move toward independence.

In the ensuing months, when friends and family spoke of this meeting, they would say that the president had asked Bol to stay. But Bob Justin, a third person in the room that night, insists Bol made the decision on his own. Either way, the president was happy to have his country’s greatest icon campaigning for his side. He told Bol he would organize and pay for his transport, coordinating logistics for Bol on the campaign trail.

Bol skipped his return flight and hit the road, riding in a truck from village to village, his body jolting each time the truck hopped over craters in the dirt roads. His arthritis worsened as his political efforts intensified. Over the next few weeks, more U.S. flights were booked, and he skipped them all. “I overslept,” he told Prichard after missing a plane. “I stayed up late to watch a game.”

Soon, Bol’s body began to break down. He’d used a cane for years, but as he traveled around the country days passed when he couldn’t walk at all, when the largest man most people had ever seen had to be carried from place to place, a rag doll in the arms of his tribesmen. Still, people flocked to see the feeble and unmoving leftovers of a once powerful man—to hear him talk, to see him smile, to have the opportunity to tell others about that one time they met Manute Bol. Despite his limitations, Bol delivered his message. Handlers would carry him from the car and place him in a chair under a tree, where he would sit and wait for the villagers to arrive. Then he’d offer a charge, urging the onlookers to push their country forward, to vote for the party that had brought southern Sudan to this, her highest point in modern history. Reports circulated of other parties attempting bribery, offering villagers food and money for their votes. “Take their money,” Bol would later recall saying, “but don’t give them your votes.”

Word spread that his arthritis had worsened, so the president insisted Bol return from the campaign trail and seek medical help. The president flew Bol back to Juba and then on to Nairobi, where he could receive adequate care. Bol’s condition improved, and soon he insisted on returning to Sudan. He flew to Juba and then back to Turalei, resuming his political work. His favored candidates were far ahead in the polls. In April, 2010, the SPLM dominated the election, paving the way for the south’s eventual secession. Bol’s state, Warrap, elected the country’s first female governor, a woman Bol had championed. Southern Sudan was on its way to freedom, he believed.

But as the country continued to heal, Bol lay still, wallowing in agony. The pain had once laid deep in his joints; now it rose up to his skin. Rashes stretched across his body, the itching so bad it rendered him once more immobile. Bol returned to Juba, where he refused help from friends and lay in a hotel room, waiting for a flight back to the States to receive treatment in Kansas City. His plane arrived in Washington late, after the last flight had left for Kansas City. Bol checked into a nearby hotel, his body exhausted and drained by the travel and unrelenting pain.

In the morning, Prichard called Bol to wake him. Another morning, another unwelcome interruption of Bol’s sleep. Only this time was different. Bol didn’t yell—he lacked the energy for that. He didn’t bark. Instead he cried. “I can’t go to the airport,” he told Prichard. “I just can’t do it.” Prichard called the hotel manager, who called an ambulance to rush Bol to an emergency room.

Bol lay in the hospital, fielding phone calls and greeting visitors, insisting he was fine. His body told a different story. “He was so incredibly weak,” says Prichard. “He was really struggling.” Bol’s kidneys failed, and he was placed on dialysis. He bled internally, but doctors had trouble figuring out which organ was the source.

One day at the hospital, Prichard sat next to Bol, who rested on his bed, unaware that soon he would die. Talk turned to politics, with Bol gloating over his candidates’ success in the recent elections. They talked about the school, the upcoming referendum, the hope that had emerged after the killing finally stopped. Weak and frail and on the verge of death, Bol offered a feeble smile. “I did it,” he said. “I did it.”

13. At Rest

Wails and songs and prayers erupted early one June morning in Turalei, the village chaotic and disconsolate, shaken by the words they’d just heard. There was a time when it had taken months to deliver a message to their greatest hero, when a woman had to tell a man who had to tell another man who had to send a letter, carried by car then plane then car again, all the way to a suburban home in the United States. Now the news of his death traveled the same distance in an instant. In Washington the doctor told Bol’s cousin. That cousin called Nicola in Juba. Nicola called Bob Justin in Turalei. Justin told the chiefs. The chiefs told the village.

President Salva Kiir arranged to have Bol’s body returned home. Roughly 10,000 people descended on Turalei, arriving from America, from Europe, from all over Twic and the whole of Sudan, to say their good-byes. His uncle Bol Chol Bol examined the body. He poked it. Sure enough it was Bol.

Memorials were held in Washington, at the National Cathedral, and in Kansas City, where members of Bol’s disparate worlds all came to pay their respects. Basketball players told stories from the court. Diplomats told stories from meeting rooms.

Seven months later, in January 2011, the southern Sudanese flocked to the polls to vote on the referendum to secede from Sudan. In London the night before the vote, Achuei says, she had a dream. She was in Turalei, standing under Bol’s favorite tree, and there he was, sitting in his chair surrounded by loved ones, passing the day with laughter and conversation. She awoke the next morning, printed out a southern Sudanese flag, grabbed a picture of Bol, and went to a polling station set up for the Sudanese diaspora. “Manute,” she said as she put her card in the ballot box. “That’s for you. That’s not for me.” With Achuei as his surrogate, Bol had cast the same vote as 98.5 percent of the people who showed up at the polls. He voted yes. Yes to forming the Republic of South Sudan. Yes to the notion that his people should be free.

They would be free, yes, but for the most part they would still be poor, still be uneducated, still be vulnerable to disease and spasms of violence. On the Peoples Under Threat rankings compiled by Minority Rights International, Sudan ranks as the second most dangerous country in the world, just behind Somalia and just ahead of Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the spring of 2011, pockets of fighting erupted throughout the border regions as the northern forces fought to take control of disputed areas before the south was scheduled to declare independence, on July 9. In Abyei, the region Bol visited when he fled from home as a boy, 80,000 people were displaced. About 15,000 of them descended on Turalei. In late June, a renegade militia attacked Turalei on foot, and 11 people were killed. Of the dead, two were Manute’s cousins. Though the south stood on the brink of independence, many across the region were fearful of another war. Only this time, it would no longer be a civil war, just a war between two states. “I hope the international community can stop the war before it starts,” says Rudwan Dawod, a Darfuri activist and former friend of Bol’s. “It’s going to be a war between country and country.”

Looking for a place to stay, many refugees set up camp not far from Bol’s school. The school stands as the village’s crown jewel, the top public school in the region, a beacon of hope for the future of Turalei, of Twic, of the Republic of South Sudan. Here is what that beacon looks like: It stuffs more than 100 students into a cramped and broiling classroom and is staffed by teachers long on patience and determination but short on education and pay—most of whom never graduated high school, none of whom earn more than $3 a day. The headmaster, Anyar, forgets his spelling and pronunciation sometimes, and he knows he needs more education but lacks the means to acquire it. After returning to Turalei, he fathered two sons. In the past year, they both died. He smiles here and there, mostly when talking about his wife, Veronica. “A lot of days,” he says, “I feel sad.”

The school goes months without providing food, until Prichard flies over from America to persuade bureaucrats from the World Food Program to provide daily meals. It goes months without clean water, until a South African engineer flies in from Khartoum to fix the pump in the school’s well. When the rains arrive the campus floods, and the kids slosh their way to class each morning, slapping and dodging disease-ridden mosquitoes. As of July 2011, there were two buildings and plans for a kitchen and five more classrooms, but still many classes take place under a tree.

Bol wanted 41 of these schools. A year after his death, they’re still working on number one.

One morning in April, a few dozen khawajas—the term Dinkas most commonly use for foreigners—came to town. The children poured out of their huts and followed the crowd to the village square, where everyone had convened to gawk at the foreigners and remember Bol. It was a moment for celebration—of Bol’s life, of southern Sudan’s impending independence, of a basketball court that had just been built by USAID. A cavalcade of speakers proceeded to the podium, alternating between khawajas and Dinkas. They extolled the virtues of Bol and preached the importance of sports, saying athletics can keep kids off the street and give them healthier ways to spend their time—the same clichés spouted at youth centers in inner-city neighborhoods across America. A black man shouted Bol’s name in celebration. A white man listed all the ways America had helped southern Sudan. Afterward, the locals began dancing, and soon the khawajas joined them, beating drums and flailing about and moving with all the flair expected of middle-aged white people attempting tribal dance. Representatives from all of the realms in which Bol once operated—the realms of government and nonprofit aid, of sports and education, of Dinkas and khawajas—all of them were here, smiling and shaking hands. The inevitable benign friction that occurs when worlds collide was amplified by the absence of the man who linked them all.

The dancing subsided and the basketball began as the celebration moved from the square to the court and everyone gathered for the inaugural game. Players started dunking—in the land of the Dinkas, someone can always dunk—each slam battering one of the brand-new rims until it sagged from the backboard. And soon after the rim broke, the khawajas were gone, back on their plane, en route to Juba. The villagers scattered, then resumed their daily business, the children playing drums on the khawajas’ leftover Coke bottles, the adults returning to their shops or their homes, a few teenagers shooting around on the limp rim they’d just been given. If you walked toward the edge of the village, away from the market and past a long row of tukul huts, you could see a solitary mound of dirt, the earth piled on top of itself a thousand times over. You’d find scattered flowers and shimmering wreaths, a fence to deter the hyenas and wild dogs. At the head of the dirt pile you would find two twigs fastened together in the shape of a cross.

If you asked around, you’d hear of plans to place a tomb there. But in the moment after the visitors departed, you would find only dirt. Dirt and rocks and the ground, with hawks circling overhead, the sun waging war on all that lies below. There would be no headstone, no sign, nothing to tell whose body rests there. Nothing to say “Here lies Manute Bol.”

They always brought up the lion. Wherever Bol went, even late in his life, they wanted to hear about the time he killed the bloodthirsty predator. Old friends asked him to tell the story again. New friends begged to hear it for the first time. Bol hated it. After all these years in America, all the time he’d spent energizing arenas across the country, all the effort he’d put into securing a future for the people of southern Sudan, people still kept asking Bol about that one damned lion.

One day, late in his life, Bol sat with a group of friends, and this time it was Tom Prichard’s turn. Prichard had grown close to Bol, helping to fuel his passions, so it seemed reasonable enough that he should get to hear about the lion. Bol kept saying that he didn’t want to tell it, that he’d told it so many times he got tired of doing so, that it wasn’t a big deal and didn’t need to be discussed. Prichard kept pushing until Bol responded with a shrug and left Prichard unsure if he was serious or joking.

Prichard never asked again.

Manute Bol’s legacy: The next generation takes to a new basketball court in Turalei in May 2011 (Photo by Jordan Conn)

Before the Swarm


Before the Swarm

Intrepid naturalist Mark Moffett is tracking an ant species on a march toward bug-world domination. What a controversial theory of insect society may tell us about our own.

By Nicholas Griffin

The Atavist Magazine, No. 03

Nicholas Griffin is the author of four novels and one work of nonfiction. He lives in New York City. His next book comes out in 2013.

Editor: Evan Ratliff
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kathleen Massara
Cover Photo and Portraits: Brandon Harrison
Additional Research and Video Editing: Olivia Koski
Ant Photography: Mark Moffett/Minden Pictures
Original Botfly Video: Paul Thomson, Yale University
Special Thanks: The Evolution Store, New York City,

Published in March 2011. Design updated in 2021.

1. Embedded

When I shook Mark Moffett’s right hand, I glanced at his left and noticed it was swollen with a distinct red mound the size of a grape. He followed my gaze. “Have you met my botfly?” he asked, grinning. It was late October, and we were standing outside a research station at the foot of the Sierra Nombre de Dios, in northern Honduras. Or at least Moffett and I were standing: His botfly, a white maggot that had been implanted through a mosquito bite and had grown to three quarters of an inch in length, was apparently dead.

“I could see its breathing tube, but then I banged my hand on a door, and I think I’ve killed it,” he said, sounding disappointed.

“Does it hurt?”

“No … it’s dead.”

“Should it be removed before we head into the rainforest?”

“No,” said Moffett. “I’m waiting for my body to absorb it.”

Moffett, one of the world’s leading naturalists, is 52, red-bearded, barrel-chested, and prone to wearing sandals while walking in rainforests or lecturing at New York City intellectual clubs. He spends most of the year traveling. In his closet at his office in Greenport, Long Island, hangs one tweed jacket and a single bow tie with a pattern of orange butterflies.

He had come to Honduras to, as he put it, “look for critters.” Kathy Moran, a senior editor at National Geographic, says that, “in an age when we’re all used to wearing one hat, Mark needs an entire rack.” Moffett holds a Harvard Ph.D. in entomology, is an accomplished scientist, an award-winning author and journalist, one of the best nature photographers of his generation, and an aspiring comedian. Long ago, he left academia to trudge through jungles, occasionally cheating death, drawn by the odd behavior and extraordinary complexity of some of the world’s most neglected creatures.

The northern Honduran climate is so stifling that even the October cold season is hot. The downpours came every afternoon and lasted hours. Honduras is jaguar territory, but Moffett doesn’t care for big cats. Though he’s been shooting for National Geographic for 25 years, the appearance of feline cubs or baby polar bears on magazine covers makes his eyes roll. Moffett’s favorite creature, the ant, is a lot less lovable. (The bullet ant is among his favorites. It sits at the top of the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, which compares its bite to “firewalking over flaming charcoal with a rusty nail in your heel.”) “Ants,” Moffett tells me, “are melodrama.” They forage and fight, build and destroy. “You can take a box of dirt with a colony in it, stare at it for two weeks, and know the ins and outs of their society,” he says. The fact that ant society is generally dictated by hierarchy and specialization makes it all the more interesting to a man who can’t seem to stand either one.

When Moffett walks, it’s always with his heavy camera, a Canon 5D Mark II, in one hand. It has a short, thick lens and is custom-mounted with additional flashes and batteries. Around his neck is a jeweler’s loupe, a minuscule high-powered magnifier, vital for getting a close look at the tiny specimens he pinches up from the ground. Moffett wanders haltingly, prodding stones, overturning logs, staring up tree trunks, breaking apart rotting wood, snapping dead vines. He’s been known to spend months in the field looking for individual species and then pass entire days sitting cross-legged, waiting to capture a single moment of curious behavior.

Moffett has devoted years to the study of Hymenoptera, the order of insects that includes wasps, bees, and ants. It is a line of work that also kept such men as Charles Darwin and Alfred Kinsey occupied, as well as Moffett’s mentor, E. O. Wilson. Many of the biggest ideas to have rocked science in the past 150 years have come from studying the societies buzzing around us.

On this particular expedition, Moffett is looking for evidence to support a still controversial theory: that ants form superorganisms—colonies that effectively function as a single body. In Honduras he’s in search of two of the most pronounced examples: hyperaggressive army ants, which move in killing columns and bivouac in a living ball on the forest floor, and leafcutters , the agriculturalists of the ant world. The latter, Moffett points out, have been farming on a large scale for at least 12 million years longer than we have.

Last year, Moffett released a book, Adventures Among Ants, to widespread acclaim, lectured across America, including at the Smithsonian, Caltech, and the World Science Festival, and was a guest (for the third time) on The Colbert Report. The media has been dreaming up new names for him: the Indiana Jones of Entomology, the Jane Goodall of Ants, and the Martha Stewart of Dirt. On his Web site he calls himself Dr. Bugs.

Some fellow scientists, however, can have other words for him. The more he crisscrosses the lines separating television, books, lectures, adventure, and biology, the further removed he becomes from the academic world he sprang from. His critics accuse him of passing off observation as science. Reviewing Moffett’s book in the journal Nature, Deborah Gordon, a biology professor at Stanford, wrote that Moffett “wants to be the first to see a new ant escapade and capture it on film, not to test hypotheses.” Another scientific journal critiqued his “chatty paragraphs.” It noted Moffett’s “willingness to dispense with rigor in the face of a compelling tale” and accused him of “storytelling gone amok.” “He earns a living as a photographer, not as an entomologist,” Gordon told me. “He’s not out collecting data to test hypotheses and establish new results. He’s not asking the community of scientists to evaluate the data. There’s a game we play, and he’s not in that game.”

Moffett, however, values his independence above all things. He calls universities places “filled with nervous people.” He survives on book advances, lecture money, grants, and National Geographic assignments. He maintains attachments to Harvard and the Smithsonian; they are prestigious but unpaid. “That way I don’t have to be indentured to anything,” he says. He has often lived without health insurance or savings, juggling television-news appearances, chat shows, Web interviews, newspaper reporters, magazine columns. He also posts videos to YouTube that have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times.

Moffett traverses the boundaries between science, adventure, and journalism, and he believes none should exclude the other. He seems to agree fully with a sentiment expressed by Charles Darwin in 1856, that “general and popular Treatises are almost as important for the progress of science as original work.” And with his latest theory, he intends to prove it.

Moffett believes that a new understanding of ant colonies will illuminate human urbanization. (Photo by Brandon Harrison)

2. ‘Pheidole Moffetti’

Moffett wasn’t always outgoing. Like many biologists who spend their lives devoted to an unloved species, he had an introspective childhood. He was born in the tiny town of Salida, Colorado, and his father, a Presbyterian minister, remembers Moffett giving individual names to the ants and insects that passed through their backyard. “Through graduate school, I was very shy and reclusive,” Moffett says. He credits the change to his camera. “Once I learned to tell stories with pictures, I found that people would be interested in me in a natural way, and I would flow into the kinds of stories I tell now.”

During his preteen years, his family moved to Wisconsin, and he started attending meetings at the Wisconsin Herpetological Society, a place populated, he says, by “a mixture of serious scientists and bizarre amateurs.” Max Nickerson, the eminent herpetologist who founded the society, says Moffett was “the youngest member—easily.” The majority were master’s candidates. Moffett was 12 years old.

Three years later, his father left the church and became a career counselor at Beloit College, near the Illinois border. Moffett, never one to let classes interfere with his education, dropped out of high school and began to work casually as a research assistant to the college’s biologists. Liberal Beloit turned a blind eye to his missing diploma and let him enroll. Determined to be an autodidact, he avoided any courses that coincided with his interests, roaming from German to psychology, music to anthropology. To this day, he’s never taken a class in entomology.

His first break came at 17, when Nickerson invited him on a species-collection research trip to Costa Rica. Because he had once caught a black-tailed rattler by himself in Arizona, and perhaps because of a dearth of volunteers for the role, Moffett was given the job of snake wrangler. While biologists with long poles wrested poisonous vipers from trees overhanging rivers, Moffett would stand in the water beneath and catch them. He used one hand to break their fall and the other to grab for the backs of their heads to avoid being bitten. He felt so at home in the jungle that he kept a wild pet in his tent, a Hercules beetle the size of a man’s fist. It ate a banana a day and kept him awake at night with its heavy breathing. Nickerson was soon surprised to find his teenage apprentice pursuing his own fieldwork on insects. It was, he says, “the sort of experimental design I’d expect from a master’s candidate.”

By the age of 20, Moffett’s name was already appearing in scientific publications for work he had done chasing lizards, snakes, and butterflies across Central and South America. Still, Moffett’s heart remained with his “unloved ants,” an affection that had been cemented when he read a book called The Insect Societies, by Harvard professor E. O. Wilson. He still remembers it as “an awesome book full of arcane mysteries.” On a whim, Moffett wrote Wilson and asked if he might visit the world’s most famous entomologist. Wilson replied simply, “Come by.”

If Wilson was surprised to see Moffett when the young man tapped on his office door, he didn’t let on. One was a Pulitzer Prize winner, the other a high school dropout with a few academic citations. Moffett’s first words were “Hi, Ed.” Until he enrolled at Harvard, Moffett wouldn’t realize how presumptuous his behavior had been. What was important was that the great scientist shared his enthusiasm. “It was like being with another boy who loved ants,” remembers Moffett.

Wilson encouraged Moffett to apply to Harvard’s biology department for his Ph.D., and then selected Moffett as his only graduate student for seven straight years. What Moffett hadn’t learned by avoiding entomology classes he discovered instead in the lab and out in the field. The University’s Museum of Comparative Zoology housed the department, and it was home to the world’s largest collection of ants. Moffett would open compartments at random, searching for a species interesting enough to study. In the corner of one drawer, he spotted an ant whose enormous major workers, the heavy lifters and warriors of the colony, measured 500 hundred times the size of their minor colleagues. He eventually gave the ants their common name, marauders. Their main habitat was in South Asia, an area ideally situated for Moffett’s traveling tastes: hot and cheap.

Moffett left for India the moment he received his first research grant. Most scientists would drift back to their academic home after a few months; Moffett stayed for two and a half years. After three months at Harvard, he left again. Though he admits that the university contained a few “marvelous pools of positive energy, including Wilson’s lab,” Moffett says he spent as little time there as possible. “I’d already figured out that I could live in Asia for six months on $100,” he says. From abroad, he mailed fresh articles to Harvard, balancing remote research with mainstream academia.

Moffett was following in the footsteps of his mentor, Wilson, a man so closely associated with fieldwork that he titled his autobiography Naturalist. Recently, Wilson was asked if there was anyone he considered an intellectual heir. He replied, “I’m especially proud of Mark Moffett. He’s a real naturalist, more than I.” Wilson even named an ant species Pheidole moffetti. According to the professor, its genus is both “dominant and hyperdiverse.” According to Moffett, it’s simply “a bigheaded ant.”

But Wilson’s status as a grand old man of science was achieved in part by tempering the naturalist impulse with the rigors of a university existence, something his protégé has little tolerance for. Moffett admits to problems with “pretty much all authority.” “To have someone tell me what to do in biology never made sense to me,” he says. “I don’t like exams. I don’t like giving exams, and I don’t like meetings.”

National Geographic’s Kathy Moran points to this as “perhaps the one weakness” in Moffett’s diverse career. As a biologist who taught himself to tell stories, a photographer who understands narrative, a man who can entrance audiences, he is obviously a teacher. Moran points to the fact that had Moffett stayed within academia, “he would already have a generation of scientists generating buzz” on his behalf. Wilson, at 81, has certainly benefited from the rise of his disciples to scientific prominence. Moffett chose to find his community in places more remote.

3. Shot From an Inch Away

As a grad student, Moffett thrived in the field. His lodgings in Sullia, India, had no running water, electricity, or toilet, but he was delighted to be on the ground with the marauders. To document his observations, he began taking photography seriously. He spent time with a species of swarming ants and immediately noticed something about them that seemed peculiarly Indian: Minor workers hitched rides on the back of the giant majors like mahouts and their passengers being ferried by elephants.

Moffett bought a book on how to shoot supermodels and shrank the process down to ant size, using three $15 flash attachments that jolted him with electric shocks. He’d received a small grant from the National Geographic Society, and Moffett, saving money by pushing his luck, mailed six rolls of film to the magazine and asked if they could be developed on his behalf. In response he received a Telex announcing that a staff writer was coming to India to meet him. As Moffett recalls, the cornflakes at the hotel breakfast in Bangalore cost more than he spent in a week.

The magazine had developed the photographs on the off chance that Moffett had produced a single usable frame, and the prints soon found their way to Mary Smith, a National Geographic editor who had worked with Jacques Cousteau, Jane Goodall, and Diane Fossey. She fell in love with Moffett’s work; he was, she said, the only person who could make ants “look glamorous.” Moffett was baffled by the attention, since he hadn’t seen the developed photographs. To his surprise, he was made a National Geographic photographer, and he has taken pictures for the magazine for 25 years. (Moffett photos have appeared in several anthologies of the magazine’s best work.)

Moffett’s success as a photographer springs from a combination of technique, patience, and doggedness. No matter how aggressive the species, most of his photographs are taken from an inch away. He has spent hours sitting in dirt or dangling from a rope tied off against a tree branch, 100 feet up in the rainforest canopy. Sometimes he’ll stand six feet from an ant hill, binoculars pressed to his eyes, losing track of his surroundings. In Thailand, he once crawled after a trail of ants for hours, until he bumped his head against the foot of a bull elephant. It stared at him, blinked slowly, and moved away.

Elephants aren’t the most dangerous thing Moffett has run into. In Iran he was part of a group of American biologists who had been targeted by kidnappers. But the group was running late, and a bus of Italian tourists was seized by mistake. “It was our loss,” he says. “They were fed well, kept in a very interesting mountain habitat, and released in a few days.” Searching for the world’s most toxic frog—a side project—in Colombia’s Chocô region, Moffett hired a suspected narcotics trafficker to lead him into a rainforest valley. Not far from what Moffett describes as a “slimy coastal town,” he found himself negotiating between his armed guide and the valley’s residents, the latter carrying blowpipes.

In his 1994 book The High Frontier, Moffett recounts attaching his harness to a tree by using a crossbow to shoot ropes around the limbs. Suspended at 150 feet, he lost control of his line and cartwheeled into a surprise discovery—an ant’s nest. During a rapid descent from the canopy in a rainstorm, he was electrocuted by his own camera equipment. As Wilson once said, “I don’t know how he’s still alive.”

A leafcutter worker transporting a leaf with smaller ants aboard to defend against predators.  (Photo by Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)
Moffett photographs a researcher inserting transmitter in viper in Tam Dao, Vietnam.  (Photo by Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)

4. Nature’s Risks

For safety as much as for company and cost, Moffett occasionally coordinated his perpetual fieldwork with biologists from other disciplines. One such companion was the herpetologist Joe Slowinski, a cobra specialist and the founder of the herpetology department at the California Academy of Sciences. The two biologists had become friends during a lecture stint Moffett accepted at the University of California, Berkeley, and they bonded over their mutual fascination with “disrespected creatures.” Slowinski called Moffett “bro.” Moffett believed they looked alike. They shared a passion for intrepid research, and Moffett would later write that he was captivated by the fact that Slowinski’s “habitual expression of sheer uninhibited wonder was matched by a precise and agile mind.” Over pizza at La Val’s in Berkeley in the summer of 2001, Slowinski invited Moffett to be part of a team that would conduct a general species inventory in the mountainous region of northern Burma.

In early September, the group began their walk near 1,400-foot Machan Baw village, an old British outpost, with a plan to climb to 10,000 feet. From the beginning, Moffett says, the journey was “tough going.” It was monsoon season, and the trails had turned to mud. Every evening they would pick leeches from their legs; every morning they would spit tobacco juice onto their skin to keep the bloodsuckers away. Moffett remembers that the rain puddles they walked through “were red with blood.” Slowinski, the expedition’s leader, was the only biologist who stuck with shorts and sandals.

Slowinski grew increasingly frustrated. Most of his energy had gone into coordinating food and research supplies. He suspected he’d been overcharged, while Moffett suspected his friend was being worn down by minutiae and the trail of bickering biologists, “each one with his own agenda.”

A week into their trek, when the team was still treading through subtropical forests, a Burmese field assistant returned to camp with a small cloth bag. As he passed the bag to Slowinski, he told him it contained a harmless Dinodon snake. Slowinski, like Moffett, had always been inclined to examine a specimen up close. He reached in and removed his hand, a thin gray snake attached to the tip of his finger. “That’s a fucking krait,” he said.

Moffett watched as Slowinski examined his finger closely, trying to determine if the tiny fangs had fully punctured his skin. The herpetologist knew that a krait’s poison is 15 times more potent than a cobra’s—the safest thing to do this far out in the jungle would be to cut the digit off. Slowinski opted not to. Within the hour, he realized he had made a serious error.

When Moffett thinks back now, he knows that both of them were comfortable “accepting the risks in nature.” Slowinski had been bitten in the field before, and sometimes a snake can bite without injecting toxins. Years before, when Moffett had been studying marauders, he had sat on the head of a fer-de-lance, a snake even more poisonous and many times larger than Slowinski’s krait. Moffett had jumped up, and the terrified reptile had hurled itself away from him.

Slowinski gathered Moffett and the rest of the biologists together and explained what would happen to his body if the neurotoxins spread through his system. They radioed for help as Slowinski advised them how to keep him alive. His mind would remain sharp, he explained, even as his body began to shut down. Moffett listened as his friend described how he would first lose control of his arms and legs, until he’d be forced to signal with a toe. Then he would appear comatose, and they would have to do his breathing for him. It was September 11, 2001. Their radio operator had heard the news from New York and Washington and had kept it to himself. They waited for a rescue helicopter to arrive. “Much of the time,” Moffett would write, “was spent in simple exhausted witness,” standing over Slowinski’s body.

The biologists stared at the sky. It rained heavily all afternoon, and the last hope of a helicopter rescue disappeared. Moffett and his fellow biologists continued massaging Slowinski’s heart for hours after he died. I asked Moffett if he changed his behavior in the field after what happened. “It’s not worth the trouble in life to become panicked about things,” he said. Then he paused. “We’re surrounded by the wondrous all the time.”

A trap-jaw ant prepares to catch its prey, in Tiputini, Ecuador.  (Photo by Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)

5. When the Small Idea Is Big

The path Moffett chose has precedents, albeit from another century. Like all biologists, he’s an admirer of Charles Darwin. But he is a disciple of Darwin’s great rival, Alfred Russel Wallace. The two 19th-century giants had traveled separately and arrived at their theories of evolution simultaneously. To Moffett’s mind, however, Darwin had it easy; family money enabled him to devote himself to his ideas. Wallace, like Moffett, was lower middle class and spent a lifetime scrambling to support his calling as a naturalist—working as a civil engineer, teaching mapmaking, grading government examinations, and editing the work of lesser colleagues.

A hundred and fifty years later, Moffett has sought richer possibilities without wandering from the naturalist’s path. Yet the more he has insisted on creating his own world, the further he’s moved from the strictures of modern science. In his published work, for example, he doesn’t present a single idea at a time. In Adventures Among Ants, Moffett took the unusual step of including, by my count, nine hypotheses. He writes of the origins of army ant attack strategies and ponders how the practice of slavery among species in California might have originated as a form of food hoarding. Woven into his adventure narrative rather than explicated in peer-reviewed papers, his hypotheses have mostly been ignored by his fellow scientists.

Moffett, however, desires to be more than just an adventurer or a scientific journalist with a camera and a Ph.D. from Harvard. These days he isn’t merely looking to discover new ant species, though that’s always a pleasure. He wants to change the way humans regard our own world, and he wants to do that by pushing his mentor’s ideas into uncharted realms.

E. O. Wilson began his career by observing insect societies, and in his 40s he pioneered the idea of using those societies to help explain humankind. Among his most original, and most controversial, suggestions, laid out in 1975’s Sociobiology, was the idea that evolution plays a strong role in our own social organizations. According to Wilson, after hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution, we aren’t so much a tabula rasa as an accumulation of inherited experiences. He argued that there were limits on how much our behavior could be altered. At a time when America was passing from free love to disco, he argued that free will was partially an illusion. Though he devoted only the last chapter of his book to humans, Wilson was accused of biological determinism, as if humans shouldn’t be considered part of nature alongside the ants, wasps, and termites.

Thirty years later, Moffett is taking Wilson’s reverse anthropomorphism a step further and using ants to explain the design of our urbanized world. It’s Moffett’s contention that all societies, be they ant or human, follow the same rules as they grow in size and complexity. Highways and infrastructure, public health and safety, market economics, assembly lines and teamwork, division of labor, warfare, slavery and terrorism—all tend to emerge among ants, as they do among humans, not because of genetic similarities but because their vast societies require them.

It is both a fresh idea and a simple one. The 21st century is marked by ever increasing urbanization: 79 percent of Americans live in towns or cities, while China has 150 cities with more than 1 million people, all of which are still growing. When it comes to organizing millions of individuals, however, we’re rookies. Ants are the veterans.

A hundred years ago, a predecessor of Wilson’s at Harvard named William Morton Wheeler was considered one of the great scientists of his day. Among his contributions was the idea of the superorganism: the notion that in species such as ants, a colony should be considered a single being. Among other varieties, Wheeler concentrated his studies on the army ants that Moffett and I are pursuing in Honduras. The workers act as brain cells, Wheeler surmised, roving for intelligence; the queen is the womb; soldiers are the hands that defend and attack. Superorganism theory was forgotten until the 1970s, then resurrected, co-opted, and debated.

Moffett is looking to move beyond simple metaphors about ant colonies developing like organs in bodies, and he has adapted the superorganism concept to his own ends. A colony, Moffett believes, is fundamentally like an organism because it behaves as an absolute, unbreakable unit with a common identity. Ants literally wear this identity in the form of pheromones, as a scent. It signifies to their colony mates that they are connected to one another and simultaneously implies that all other organisms are foreigners to be avoided or attacked. The arrangement is similar to white blood cells that combat bacteria and other intruders in our bodies based on the absence of a recognizable biochemical stamp.

One particular species, Moffett believes, is leading the superorganism theory into new territory: the Argentine ant. Argentines are the only animal species other than humans that have learned to manage societies with billions of members. They have turned their superorganisms into what some scientists, including Moffett, call supercolonies: Argentine nests have expanded by territorial conquest across four continents, devastating other ant species along the way. When they reached the United States by steamer in the 1890s, there wasn’t a true competitor in sight. A hundred and twenty years later, the unimaginatively named Very Large Colony of Southern California has approximately 1 trillion members. It is one of four Argentine-ant colonies in the Golden State, and they are constantly warring with one another; each one derived from a separate, tiny colony back in Argentina. In Southern California, biologist David Holway of the University of California, San Diego estimates that the Argentine wars claimed as many as 30 million lives last year, between two of the colonies alone. Their bodies lie three-deep in piles in San Diego suburbs, hidden under the grass of mowed lawns.

The Argentines’ taste for warfare is aided by a key evolutionary adaptation. Instead of producing queens that fly off to form new colonies with new identities, they gamble on related queens that remain and breed together. In an average colony, a queen takes flight, mates midair with a male from another colony, and quickly looks for a place to establish her own nest. Once settled, she makes no decisions, focusing exclusively on the task of producing offspring. Her workers feed her, clean her, and dispose of her waste. And when she dies, the colony dies with her.

The Argentines’ outrageous success depends partly on their production of broods that can mix freely with one another: The ants, despite being born of different mothers, still consider themselves kin. Moffett contends that with this strategy, Argentine ants have rewritten the rules of life. “What it means is that their colonies have broken the usual ant cycle of birth and death,” he told me. “In a way, they’ve learned to never die.” Holway has spent ten years of his life studying Argentines and has written nearly 50 papers on the subject. “At a supercolony level,” he says, “they’re essentially immortal.” The genetic differences within the vast colony are small, and those tiny variations don’t prevent the ants from recognizing their common identity as the colony expands—even as, in the case of the Very Large Colony, it has expanded for more than a century. The ants’ loyalty applies only within their own society, however. Other Argentines are as much of an enemy as any other species of ant. (The species also evolved another specialty: Because of the rigors of their Argentinean habitat, they adapted to fight all day long. They have formed an army that never sleeps.)

In his description of supercolonies, Moffett again finds himself running afoul of at least part of the scientific establishment. Stanford’s Deborah Gordon sums up the opposition: “There is no functional supercolony of Argentine ants, no single giant colony stretching for miles, much less across the globe.”

Holway counters that Moffett’s is an unusual but valuable perspective, based in part on his desire to explore beyond the academic realm. Moffett considers his theory a parallel to human experience. “Imagine coming to this world,” Moffett says, “and looking first at a group of a dozen Bushmen around a campfire, then going directly to China with its population of over a billion. You’d think there was something fundamentally different between the two, but a child could be taken from one society to the other and survive without a problem. The key for the Argentine ants remains the strength of their identity, the ability to recognize their own society despite living miles apart in different environments and never having met.” Concludes Moffett: “The Argentines are just as versatile as we are.”

A leafcutter ant cutting a papaya leaf, Guadaloupe.  (Photo by: Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)

6. Empire State

Back in Honduras, Moffett was looking to observe the superorganism phenomenon in two collections of ants that hadn’t yet had to face the Argentine menace: leafcutters and army ants. Though climate change could expand their horizons, the Honduran rainforest remains too tropical for the Argentines’ tastes. When night fell, we spent an hour sweating our way up toward the cloud forest to a leafcutter nest Moffett had identified the day before. He estimated it contained around a half-million ants, a modest community in Moffett’s experience. In daylight the nest had been quiet, but Moffett suspected the ants would be hard at work at night. He moved around it with his flashlight, explaining the leafcutters’ agricultural life. The scene looked like a football stadium after a late-night game—thousands pouring out into the darkness, lit as if by floodlights.

With the beam of his flashlight, Moffett followed a column returning from a tree 60 feet away. If you were a leafcutter, he said, you’d be humping the equivalent of 750 pounds of vegetation. That would be a weight lifting record, except that instead of holding it for a few seconds, you’d have to jog three miles, including straight down the side of the Empire State Building. Luckily, once the ants reached the ground, their colleagues had cleared a vast highway to ease their progress. The roads leafcutters pave through the middle of the rainforest are wide and smooth, with sharp, well-defined curbs. Humans often mistake them for man-made paths and follow them into the rainforest, only to find themselves lost.

The ants don’t eat the leaf segments they carry. Instead, they chew the foliage into a mulch, and that mulch is fed upon by a fungus—the ants’ true food source. The nest works to keep the fungus properly fed, watered, and free of pests, making leafcutters the only creature other than humans and a few termites to farm on such an elaborate scale. Moffett explains that as ant societies grow larger, the need for organization and specialization increases. Among the ants are specialists in hygiene, sanitation, road building, defense. There are ants that carry a strain of bacteria to fight off pests that attack the fungus, and those that use their mouthparts to manually groom the crop. Traffic regulations are introduced in the larger colonies, where ants keep to one side. To follow the trail, they need a chemical scent. The smell is strong: One milligram of pheromone would be enough to lure a column of workers around the world multiple times.

A heavy rain began to fall without any warning drizzle. The rain itself was the signal, no chemicals necessary. The leafcutters dropped their cargo and, in a stream, poured toward the safety of the nest. Moffett stood looking down at the abandoned leaf segments.

While many biologists confer only with their colleagues, Moffett explores freely across disciplines. When he wanted to challenge the belief that leafcutters must be in constant communication while they harvested leaves, he turned not to other myrmecologists but to Henry Ford’s biographer, who explained that once efficiency had been established, Ford deliberately designed his factories to maximize productivity and minimize communication. Moffett believes leafcutters evolved to behave similarly.

Moffett also corresponds with Luis Bettencourt, a theoretical physicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, who, with his colleague Geoffrey West, created the field of urban science, developing rules and formulas for our own ever expanding cities. West and Bettencourt can predict, for example, exactly how much electricity a city of 1 million will need to sustain itself or the surface area that a city of 500,000 devotes to transportation. It doesn’t matter whether the city is in South Korea, Germany, or the U.S.—according to West, “Every city is the same.” He argues that “every other creature gets slower as it gets bigger. That’s why the elephant plods along. But in cities, the opposite happens. As cities get bigger, everything starts accelerating.” West applies the principle to humans, but Moffett believes that ants, too, abide by it. Basiceros singularis are Ecuadoran ants, hunter-gatherers that live in small groups of a dozen, including their queen. They move only a tiny bit faster than their prey: snails. Yet in larger groups, as with leafcutters and army ants, the speed of their movement and productivity is stunning. “To me it’s obvious,” Moffett says. “Any New Yorker has much more in common with a leafcutter society than with any primate society. Chimpanzees don’t have traffic pileups or public-health issues. They don’t need to organize assembly lines to make their food. Leafcutters do.”

An argentine ant (bottom) grabs the leg of a fire ant during a battle.  (Photo by Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)

7. The Hunt

We were not alone at the research station. Every once in a while as we walked through the rainforest, a flash would suddenly go off, and Moffett would grin. Three young Honduran biologists, part of the big-cat conservation group Panthera, had been setting camera traps for jaguars along the jungle paths.

The field biologists were working 18-hour days in rain and mud. Moffett sympathized. He knew exactly what it was like to go without a hot meal for months. While treating them to dinner one night, Moffett used what he calls his “ice breaker.” During our walk, he’d gathered a couple of trap-jaw ants. Their mandibles are controlled by trigger hairs activated by any object brushing against them. They snap shut at 145 miles an hour, the fastest muscle action of any animal on the planet. Under threat, such as sitting on a dinner table and being prodded by a bearded naturalist, the ant will deliberately dip its head and snap its jaws shut, launching itself backward to escape. If they were human, they’d be setting records for the high jump at 44 feet and the long jump at 132 feet. The laughing biologists plucked the from their dinner plates.

After dinner, Moffett was invited by the team’s young herpetologist, Mario Solis, for a walk in the rainforest in search of poisonous snakes. Solis carried three flashlights. “Once,” he said, “I had to make it down the mountain with just the light from my telephone.” Though Moffett was 52 and Solis still in his 20s, the age difference melted away through common interests. The two men would pause behind me, seeing what I missed: wolf spiders spread across a leaf, milk and rat snakes looping from trees branches. At one point, a tarantula shot across the trail. “They’re fast,” I said. “They have to be,” said Moffett, “otherwise the females eat them.”

The two men shared stories as they walked. Solis talked about setting a camera trap and feeling a sharp pain in his hand, then recoiling to see an army ant scout cutting into his skin. He looked ahead and saw that the green jungle in front of him was turning black. Tens of thousands of ants were rushing through the undergrowth, plant by plant. Army ants can travel at five miles per hour in columns of millions. Solis turned and sprinted down the jungle path.

Solis promised us that his team would keep their eyes open for army ants during the next few days. Moffett smiled at me. “They’re out here somewhere,” he said. He wanted me to share the excitement. As a scientist, he’s unlikely to gain anything from finding yet another army ant column, but as a man who appreciates stories, he wanted me to have one of my own. The science of entomology is driven by statistics, but for Moffett its as much about emotion.

In a sense, Moffett is caught in a trap of his own making. By maintaining his independence, he has to move at an extraordinary pace: researching, writing, photographing, and making appearances to earn enough money to continue his work. He calls it “a marginalized existence in one way.” His best hope for stability—a grant or book advance large enough to allow him an extended period of study and reflection—would come much more easily had he stayed in academia. But his aim is discovery, not stability, and each journey into the field builds to the next. In just six months in 2009, he worked in India, Panama, Bhutan, Yemen, Mauritius, Hawaii, and Madagascar.

Moffett has a simple rule for travel to foreign countries: Never look at what the State Department is recommending, otherwise you’d never go. For instance, the day he landed in the Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, 14 men were murdered on a local soccer field, victims of a drug war between rival gangs. On our last day together, he was still anxious to share with me the experience of witnessing an advancing army ant column. We searched at dawn, on either side of the afternoon downpour, and were out again in the dark. When we returned to the cabin, one of the Honduran biologists, Sandra Pereira, passed Moffett a vial. It had a pair of army ants in it. We leaped into her small silver Honda and bumped our way down a dirt road until we could cross the Rio Corloradito and double back to the foot of the mountains where she had collected the specimens. The town we drove through was poor, consisting of a few shops selling sodas, flour, and tinned foods. The buildings were made of concrete blocks and lit by bare lightbulbs.

Heading back up toward the mountains, we stopped by the last farmhouse before the land rose sharply and the rainforest took over. Dim light leaked from its windows 100 yards away. We left the headlights on and walked the path, looking for the ant column. The sides of the road were covered with barbed wire and thick vegetation, and I could see that Moffett was frustrated by the long odds against finding the bivouac. By this time, the ants would have created their living fortress for the night, impeccably ordered. The queen would lie at the center, surrounded by her unborn brood. The ants creating the outer layer would be the oldest—female pensioners are always the first line of attack or defense.

Pereira seemed nervous, odd since she often spends weeks at a time in dense jungle. As the de facto translator, I told her in Spanish not to worry, that with army ants, as long as you see them coming, you can get out of the way. “I’m not worried about ants. We’ve had two murders around here recently,” she said, pointing toward the light coming from the farmhouse. “And the suspect, he’s a lodger in that house.” Moffett tramped back to the car, shaking his head, and proposed a final early morning search.

Perhaps Honduran army ants have a sense of humor. The next morning, when we returned from our final hunt, the security guard looked sheepish. An army ant column had passed through minutes after we’d left. He had stepped away from his guard post and watched as it was engulfed. Generally, the ants are welcomed by home owners. Their assaults are easy to spot: The rest of the rainforest runs before them, and they’re escorted by ant birds, which pick off those that take to the air. The insects enter in a stream and cleanse the property. Scorpions, spiders, lizards, and frogs are attacked and dissected, their bodies passed backward along the column. Moffett once witnessed a legless grasshopper being shipped to the rear. For days afterward, he dreamt of being passed limbless through an ant column.

After missing the army ants, Moffett was moved to act. “Does anyone have an old-fashioned razor blade?” he asked. I knew what he wanted to show me. He still had the vial containing the two army ants, their pincers sharp enough to puncture human skin. The mandibles cross to form a fishhook once they pierce and are almost impossible to remove. That’s why the ants continue to be used by certain South American tribes (and certain American naturalists) to close wounds in the absence of a needle and thread. Moffett carved a small slice into his hand with the razor blade, grabbed the army ant, and snapped its jaws shut on his skin.

An army ant major worker biting Moffett’s finger, Barro Colorado Island, Panama.  (Photo by Mark Moffett / Minden Pictures)

8. The Endgame

Life became more complicated for Moffett in 2008 when, at 50, he married. Marriage is normally a strain for field biologists. Either they wed other biologists and risk competition or are drawn away from fieldwork by the needs of families who demand a more regular life. Moffett’s wife, Melissa Wells, is a rare exception. She’s a health care consultant, and she’s entirely supportive of Moffett’s work. In fact, she often joins him in the field as an assistant and videographer. Moffett calls her “fluid and fearless.” At his lectures, he sometimes drags her out of the audience and makes her share horrifying anecdotes about how he almost got her killed in Africa or South America.

When Moffett spoke at the 2010 Boston Book Festival, he was paired on the podium of the Trinity Church Sanctuary with Dan Ariely, a best-selling author and behavioral economist. Ariely specializes in how human irrationality can override logical thought. Irrationality, he contends, is a deeply ingrained part of human behavior, rendering us less individualistic than we suppose. Ariely’s is another discipline catching up with work pioneered by Wilson in the 1970s—namely, that our free will might be on a tighter rein than we suspect. For instance, according to Ariely’s experiments, humans tend to cheat in equal measure regardless of their sex, nationality, and other factors. The bugs in our moral code that compel us to be dishonest are not cultural, in other words. They are an outgrowth of being human, controllable but also inevitable. Ariely’s talk reminded me of something Moffett once told me: As much as he admires ants, he’d said, he is relieved to be human. There is still room in many of our societies to pursue our own dreams. Not so the ants. There is one absolute rule in ant life—you can never leave the colony. As T. H. White put it in a 1958 short story, for ants “everything not forbidden is compulsory.”

But that doesn’t stop Moffett from seeing shades of humanity in them. When, in Boston, he explained his belief in ant patriotism, their division of the world into us and them, Ariely was barely a step behind. He turned to the audience. “I could give half of you red T-shirts and half of you blue,” he said. “We know that within two minutes you will start to feel morally superior to the other side.” Together now, they were on a roll, and Moffett was embracing territory that his mentor Wilson had only tiptoed into. “We come from hunter-gatherer groups,” said Moffett. “We are in a very awkward social situation, living among millions where we haven’t before.… We’re learning how to do this for the first time.” Is it really so foolish to look to those who’ve been dealing with similar problems for millions of years?

Having seen Moffett in the field full of sweat-soaked enthusiasm, and having twice watched him lecture to large crowds, it struck me that he never changes his style. The last time I visited him, we discussed his ideas on supercolonies. This time, he said, he was shaping them into a journal paper. He also mentioned that he had just signed a contract to write an article for Scientific American, a magazine with a reputation for mixing the popular and the academic. I had thought that, if and when he reentered the competitive arena of academia, that entrance would be loud. Instead, he talked quickly but calmly as he attempted to dismantle Gordon’s ideas challenging the existence of Argentine supercolonies. It made me think of Moran’s prediction that soon Moffett will be “vindicated as a big-idea guy.”

In December 2010, to finish a trip that had taken him from Honduras to Botswana and Tanzania, Moffett traveled north to Harvard for a meeting of the EO Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Moffett sat across from the 81-year-old Wilson, part of an international group of biologists and anthropologists committed to preserving diversity in the service of conservation. He felt a sharp pain in his left hand. To his amazement, his presumably dead botfly had decided to emerge. His fellow scientists gathered around to watch the maggot break through the skin of Moffett’s hand.

One had a smartphone and recorded the scene. Moffett later posted it to YouTube; within days over 300,000 viewers would share his experience. At the time, a Brazilian anthropologist asked Moffett why he hadn’t smothered the maggot with Vaseline and had it removed. “What kind of statement would that be for biodiversity?” asked Moffett. He placed it carefully in a vial of moist soil and gave it to the museum’s curator of ants. In early 2011, Moffett would be back in Boston to give a lecture at the Harvard Travellers Club, and he hoped to visit the fully formed adult fly.

My Mother’s Lover


My Mother’s Lover

A true story of romance, war, and two families’ search for the man who bound them.

By David Dobbs

The Atavist Magazine, No. 05

David Dobbs ( writes features and essays for publications including The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Wired, and The Guardian. Several of his stories have been chosen for leading science anthologies; most recently, his much-discussed feature “The Orchid Children,” was included in Ecco/HarperPerennial’s Best American Science Writing 2010. He is now writing his fourth book, The Orchid and the Dandelion (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), which explores the genetics of temperament—and the idea that the genes underlying some of our most troublesome traits and behaviors also generate some of our greatest strengths and accomplishments.

Additional Reporting and Sound/Video Editor: Olivia Koski

Fact Checker: Kathleen Massara

Copy Editor: Sean Cooper

Photographs: War photos, by Norman Zahrt (when Zahrt pictured)

Photo of author and his mother by Herman Dobbs

Designer: Jefferson Rabb

Music: Nicholas Thompson

Editor: Evan Ratliff

Special thanks to: the Zahrt Family, Alice Colwell, Cynthia Jane Dobbs, Allen Dobbs, Ann Dobbs, Herman Dobbs, Sarah Violet Kerrigan, Kathy Hall, Jimmie Holland, Chris McDermott, Maryn McKenna, Adam Rogers, and Steve Silberman

Published in June 2011. Design updated in 2021.

Twenty Questions

The February after my mother died, my brother, Allen, left his New Mexico home and boarded a plane for Honolulu. He carried a backpack that carried a rosewood box that carried our mother’s ashes. The next day, on Maui, he bought six leis and rented a sea kayak. With the leis in a shopping bag and our mother’s ashes in his pack, he paddled into the Pacific.

That day nine years ago was the sort one hopes for in the tropics: warm and balmy, with a breeze that pushed cat’s paws over the water. Beyond the mouth of the bay he could see rising plumes, the spouts of humpback whales gathered to breed. He paddled toward them. When he was closer to the whales than to the shore, he shipped his oar and opened his pack. He pulled out the box and sat with it on his lap, letting the boat drift. He watched the distant spouts. Without any prelude, a whale suddenly but gently surfaced about 30 yards in the distance and released a gush of air. It bobbed, noisily breathed, and dove.

Allen wouldn’t get a better cue. He lifted the leis one at a time and dropped them onto the water. They formed a loose, expanding circle around him. He turned the latch on the box and opened it; the contents looked denser and darker than he expected. They shished and gently rattled when he tilted the box. He had traveled a long way to bring her here, but there wasn’t much to return. Five pounds of hard ash. He tilted the box and poured her into the sea. Evelyn Jane Hawkins Preston Dobbs, as if eager to get there, dove straight for the bottom.

Four months earlier, she had been lying in a bed in Houston’s Methodist Hospital, where decades before she and my father had trained as physicians and where she had given birth to four of her six children. She had long been fearsomely strong. Tough? we used to joke. Our mother’s so hard you can roller-skate on her. Now she struggled to breathe. Her once thick hair lay thin and dank. Tubes fed and drained her. Purpura stained her skin. She was 80 years old and had been sick for most of the previous decade—breast cancer, hip replacement, bowel obstruction, pelvic stress fracture, arthritis, pulmonary fibrosis. She’d had enough. “A stroke,” she said. “Why can’t I just have a stroke and die?”

Allen, an emergency-room doctor, stood at the head of the bed holding her hand. “Mom, I hate to say it. But a fatal stroke is about the only thing you don’t seem at risk of.”

“Damn it, Allen, I’m a doctor, too,” she said. “I’m quite aware of that.” Allen looked at us helplessly. Until then it had seemed as if the world would need her permission to finish her. Now she had given it. She closed her eyes. Allen shuffled. No one said anything. After a while she said, “Children, I want to talk about later.”

“OK, Mother,” said Sarah. Sarah was the fourth of the six children, the one who lived nearest to her and had done the most to look after her. “What about later?”

“When I’m gone,” she said, “I’d like to be cremated.”

This was new. In the past, she had talked about getting buried next to her father, who was in a leafy cemetery in Austin.

“OK,” said Sarah.

“And I want you to spread my ashes off Hawaii. In the Pacific. Will you do that for me?”

“Sure, Mom,” said Allen. “We can do that.” My mother smiled at him and squeezed his hand.

“Mother?” Sarah asked. “May we ask why the Pacific?”

She closed her eyes. “I want to be with Angus.”

We children exchanged glances: Had anyone seen this coming? Heads shook, shoulders shrugged.

What we knew of Angus was this: Angus—the only name we had for him—was a flight surgeon our mother had fallen in love with during World War II, planned to marry after the war, but lost when the Japanese shot him down over the Pacific. Once, long ago, she had mentioned to me that he was part of the reason she decided to be a doctor. That was all we knew. She had confided those things in the 1970s, in the years just after she and my father divorced. I can remember sitting in a big easy chair my dad had left behind in her bedroom, listening to her reminisce about Angus as she sat with her knitting. I remember being embarrassed, and not terribly interested.

I was interested now. Even 30 years before, her affair with Angus had been three decades old. Now, 60 years after he had fallen into the sea, she wanted to follow him.

“Of course,” said my brother. “We’ll do that for you, Mom.”

A week later, seemingly on the mend, she was sent home to the elder center where she lived. For a week or so she continued to gain strength. But then she started to have trouble breathing, was admitted to the home’s care center, and, on her second day there, suddenly stopped breathing. Despite a standing do-not-resuscitate order, the staff tried three times to revive her, to no avail. The doorman told me later that when the ambulance arrived and the medics rolled her out, she was “blue as can be, Mr. Dobbs. Blue as can be.” The hospital, too, tried to bring her back, and they were still trying when Sarah arrived. By that time, our mother was brain dead but alive and could breathe only with a tube. Exactly what she sought to avoid. Sarah gathered her strength and told the nurses that this was against her mother’s wishes and she must insist they remove the breathing tube. “It was like jumping off a cliff,” she told me later. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It was harder than pushing out a kid.” The nurses called the doctors. As they pulled out the breathing tube, my mother bit down on it. Sarah screamed, “Oh my God she’s fighting for life!” The doctors assured her that this was a common reflex and tugged it free.

Then they left. Sarah sat next to the bed and put her head next to my mother’s and held her hand. With the tube gone, her breathing slowed. Sarah cried against her neck. It took about 10 minutes. Finally, the room was quiet.

An hour later, my brother, sitting in his car on the side of the highway in New Mexico, called me to tell me she had died.

“So it wasn’t a stroke,” he said after we’d talked a while. “But at least it was fast.”

“Have to admire it,” I said, laughing. “Mom always got pretty much what she wanted.”

Or so a child likes to think.

By the time Allen got her to Hawaii, three months had passed. After the memorial services in Texas, I returned to my home in Vermont, where the coldest winter in a generation had the place in a lock. When I opened Allen’s email describing the ceremony he had fashioned, I sat at a desk overlooking the North Branch of the Winooski River, frozen three feet deep and topped by three feet of snow. I read my brother’s email, looked at the pictures, looked out my window, read his email again. I wondered how much you could discover about a person 60 years dead when all you knew about him was that his name was Angus, likely a nickname. I’d had three weeks to ask my mother such things before she died—three decades, actually—but had not. Now, with the snow outside and Hawaiian light sparkling in my head, I picked up the phone and called my mother’s cousin Betty Lou.

“What do I know about Angus?” said Betty Lou, repeating my question. Betty Lou has a beautifully soft north Texas accent. She was down in Wichita Falls, Texas, where she and my mother had grown up together, sometimes in the same house, much as sisters.

She took a deep breath. “Well, there’s not a whole lot I knew about Angus. But I knew his real name was Norman, I’m pretty sure it was, and he came from Iowa. He was divorced. They met in San Antonio when he was stationed there awhile. She was out of her head with that man. At one point, when he got stationed to Hawaii, she followed him clear out there for a while. He ended up getting sent way out in the Pacific—Guam, Iwo Jima, somewhere like that—and got killed right near the end of the war.”

“How’d she find out?”

“Somebody in his outfit wrote her. Letter actually got there after the war ended. And that letter, David, just about destroyed your mama. She could not be consoled. Weeks. I’ve never seen anybody grieve like that. Before or since. She did eventually pick herself up and go on, because you knew her, David—your mama was a strong woman. She even scared me sometimes. But I’m not sure she ever got over losing Angus.”

“You remember his last name?”

“Best I recollect, was Z-something. Zert, Zaret, Zart. Something like that.”

“You sure it started with a Z?” I asked. “That could make things a lot simpler.”

“I hope so, David. Because beyond that it gets pretty dang complicated.”

It took me about 20 minutes online to find a copy of the World War II Honor List of the Dead and Missing, State of Iowa. The book was just scanned pages, not digitized, with the names listed alphabetically by county. All I had to do was scroll down to the end of each county’s listings, past the Adamses and Joneses and Moores and Smiths and Thompsons. There were not too many Zs. I found him about halfway through the book, at the end of the listings for Johnson County:


The M meant he was missing.

I started searching genealogy sites for anyone in Iowa named Zahrt. Every time I found someone, I sent an email saying I was seeking information about a Captain Norman E. Zahrt, who was a close friend of my mother—sometimes I phrased it as “a dear friend of my mother”—who according to a letter she received was either killed or went missing in action toward the end of the war. I sent about a dozen of these emails and got a few replies, all negative. After a couple weeks, I opened my email one morning and found a new response:


What a surprise to get an email from you. Yes, my father is Norman Zahrt. My mother is Luella. Norman and Luella had two children: David born Sep 37 and Christy born Jan 40. I have attached a file which I presume you can open. It is Norman’s graduating medical school class. Please let me know whether or not you can identify Norman.

I don’t have words to describe the mixed emotions that come to me when I revisit this issue. I’ve come to learn that in the process of growing up one accumulates scars. And that the challenge is learning to own your scars, and live them.

You can imagine that this inquiry fills me with questions.

I didn’t have to imagine the questions. He listed 19 of them:

1. What prompted this search?

2. How long has the notion of this search been ‘brewing’?

3. What brings you to the point of finding Norman’s descendants and asking these questions?

4. What is your mother’s name?

5. What was your mother’s occupation?

6. Do you have a picture of her you could share with us?

7. Are you certain that Norman and your mother met in San Antonio?

8. If so what was your mother doing at the time in San Antonio?

9. Was your mother in the military?

10. Was she assigned to Hawaii?

11. Did she travel to Hawaii with the express purpose of seeing Norman?

12. Did your mother affirm that Norman was divorced, or did you receive that information from a secondary source?

13. Who was Norman’s friend who wrote to your mother after the war?

14. Is Norman’s friend still alive?

15. Can we reach Norman’s friend?

16. Is your father still alive?

17. Can you tell us a little bit about your father?

18. Did he know that his wife wanted to be with Norman?

19. What else can you tell us about your mother?

As you can imagine this is, to say the least, an interesting surprise. My sister and I would like to entertain a continuing exchange with you, but this is probably enough to begin with.


I had never seen a note at once so prosecutorial and generous. I dithered for days. Finally, I wrote and answered all 19 of his questions as best I could.

When David, along with his sister, Christy, responded, they did so with an openness that showed they really did want to own their scars. My mother posed as big a mystery to them as their father did to me. We began a long collaborative search—dusty records, strained recollections, tree-shaded graveyards—that ends, for lack of a better marker, with the story I’m about to tell you.

Angus and Evelyn Jane on arrival in Hawaii, 1944

San Antonio

For years my mother wore a gold locket. When I was a boy, I liked to pull it up from inside her blouse on its chain, tugging it up from between her breasts so I could squeeze the curved button that ran along one edge and make the curlicued gold cover, heavily sprung, pop open to reveal a photograph of my mother’s grandparents. On an elegant chair sat her grandmother and namesake, Ivy Evelyn Stone, a formidable-looking woman wearing a full skirt, a fuller blouse, and an immensely confident expression. Next to her chair stood her husband, Gene, a railroad engineer in their hometown of Wichita Falls. Especially in Wichita Falls, a railroad town, this was a high-status position then, like that of an airline pilot 50 years later. He is dressed in suit and tie, hair slicked, with his hand on the back of the chair.

I viewed this portrait as a fair representation of the distant world from which my mother came: a stable, solid existence full of aunts and uncles and her mother and father and grandparents all living toughly but carefully in the high bright sunstruck towns of north Texas. The picture agreed with the steady, accomplished, morally sturdy person I and many others knew my mother to be. But it hid the fact that she came from a world that moved violently beneath her feet.

When my mother was young, her grandmother Ivy Evelyn, the one in the locket, was about the only person in her life that moved steadily, trainlike, along predictable lines. My mother’s own mother, Clara Lee, ran fast and wobbly. In Wichita Falls, she earned a reputation as a rounder, meaning she got around. Soon after finishing high school, Clara Lee moved to Dallas, where she met and married George Hawkins, an 18-year-old busboy who shared her notion of a good time. This notion quickly produced my mother, Evelyn Jane, but it did not produce a steady marriage. They split within a year. Clara Lee took my mother back home to Wichita Falls, and Clara Lee’s mother soon found herself tending young Evelyn Jane, first occasionally, while Clara Lee went out, and then full-time, when Clara Lee fled alone back to Dallas. Ivy had barely finished raising Clara Lee to adulthood. Now she was raising Clara Lee’s 2-year-old.

My mother proved a cheerful, obedient girl—an ardent student popular with her schoolmates and lively and memorable enough to appear in a novel (If Wishes Were Horses, now long out of print and unobtainable) that a childhood friend wrote a couple decades later. She grew up keenly aware of what constituted proper behavior. Dark remarks about her mother stung. Yet, soon after she graduated high school, she got serious with a local man named Carroll Preston, and within a year she married him. She was 19, and he was only a year older. In some ways, this marriage seemed to reject Clara Lee’s errant path for Ivy’s straighter track. The story about my mother’s wedding on the society page of the Wichita Record-News, October 8, 1940, mentions her mother only at the very end. Still, soon after the wedding she became pregnant. Preston tried to make a go of it, working at a restaurant, but there are hints she found him boring, and they soon divorced.

And so at 22, Evelyn Jane Hawkins Preston found herself in a position remarkably similar to the one her own mother had occupied two decades prior: She had a high school degree, a young daughter, a divorce, no husband, and few work prospects, and she lived with her parents—who, after an interval of almost 20 years, had remarried each other. This actually made Clara Lee’s sixth marriage and George’s fifth, for they had both married promiscuously since their divorce. This marriage, however, would last almost 25 years, until George died in 1967.

That my mother’s parents steadied only after letting others raise her must have chafed. Yet my mother made the most of it, letting Clara Lee help raise Lynn and, in an elegant Oedipal coup, enjoying some time with her father, whom she adored. A picture from this period shows my mother dancing with her father before a Christmas tree: she trim and pretty in a dark dress, he dapper and nimble in a pin-striped suit. Somewhere off-camera, presumably, Clara Lee tends Lynn.

It was about this time, in 1943 or early 1944, that my mother took a job at one of the cafeterias at Kelly Air Force Base, just outside San Antonio. The war was in full roar, and the base was growing rapidly, with pilots and crews training for the Army Air Forces.

Sometime in 1943, one of those crews brought Norman Eldridge Zahrt to Kelly. Norman had arrived in Texas the year before, bringing his own overstuffed baggage. Born January 5, 1915, he was almost six years older than my mother. He had lived a fairly ordinary boyhood in Marengo, Iowa, where his parents farmed corn. He did his share of farmwork, fished, and shot photographs, publishing at least one, of a tornado spout, while in high school. He was strikingly handsome and known for surprises. He surprised his family, for instance, by becoming the first Zahrt to attend college, at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, 30 miles southeast of Marengo.

He surprised them again in the middle of his senior year by eloping with Luella Sprague, who had graduated as valedictorian at Marengo’s only high school and was attending a teachers college in Iowa City. During their Christmas vacation in 1936, Norman and Luella drove 200 miles west to Elk Point, South Dakota, a border town suited to a quick wedding. David, their first child, arrived exactly nine months later. Luella dropped out of teachers college. Norman finished his bachelor’s and then startled everyone further by entering the University of Iowa medical school. Christy, David’s sister, followed the year Norman got his M.D., 1940.

n the fall of 1942, when Norman was starting an obstetrics residency, he was drafted by the U.S. Army Air Forces. He went to Florida for basic training and then, over a 14-month stretch beginning in January 1943, to several Texas air bases. He fetched Luella, David, and Christy from Iowa, and they settled in Houston, where he sometimes worked at Ellington Air Force Base. David and Christy remember the house being on Houston’s western outskirts so Norman could easily travel west to San Antonio. Sometime that year he met my mother.

If Luella felt any foreboding at all this change, it would have been hard to separate from a wariness natural to her experience. Her father died two weeks before she was born. Her mother died when she was 3 years old. When she was 9, her adoptive mother died.

Now, in January or February of 1944, when she and Norman and the kids had been in Texas for just over a year, Norman informed Luella that he was going to Mississippi. There he would train as a flight surgeon for the Air Forces’ Fourth Emergency Rescue Squadron, or 4th ERS, a new sort of outfit that would specialize in rescuing pilots shot down over water. It was hazardous duty and would pay accordingly. He would train for three months in Gulfport Mississippi, then head for the Pacific. In March he put Luella and the kids on a train to Iowa and moved east. About that time, he wrote his best friend from college, Don Reese, that he was trying to arrange for his lover, a woman named Evelyn Jane whom he had met in San Antonio, to follow him to Gulfport. When they could not pull that together, they turned their focus to Hawaii. My mother, aided by an acquaintance of her father’s who was in the Army Air Forces, secured a job in Oahu, where the 4th ERS was to move in July. To get the job, she had to sign a contract promising to stay for a year. She left for Hawaii that summer, probably June, by way of Seattle.

She was chasing a man with two small children. And she was leaving her own 3-year-old, my half-sister Lynn, with the very parents who had abandoned her 20 years prior.

A radiant domesticity, October 1944


Of their time in Hawaii no letters survive, nor diaries, and Angus’s military records are skeletal. But there are pictures, and the pictures tell a tale.

Angus had time to take a lot of them. The 4th ERS found themselves mostly idle in Hawaii, waiting for planes coming from the West Coast and then for the Allies to take and secure the bases in Guam, Saipan, and Iwo Jima that were the 4th’s ultimate destination. Angus performed physicals on the men and taught swimming—something, as a fellow medical officer in the unit later said, it seemed it might be useful to know.

Dozens of his photos now occupy an album my mother left in a box full of other things so varied and trivial that my sister almost tossed the whole lot. The leather cover is crumbling, and the thick pages have browned, but the photos, corner-mounted, remain sharp and clear. Amid pictures of buddies in flight suits, of Angus smoking in the bubble of a gunner’s window on an Army plane, of men playing cards, of a tired-looking Angus reclining bare-chested in a plywood easy chair, are pages and pages of Angus and Evelyn Jane.

They look like newlyweds. One photo appears as if it could be a snapshot of the day my mother came off the boat. It bears no date but carries a distinct air of arrival. She and Angus are walking down a sidewalk still patchily wet in the Hawaiian sunshine, as if a shower has just passed over. My mother, who liked to dress up, looks sharp in a tailored trench coat and sunglasses. She carries a newspaper under one arm and smiles cheerfully but with a slight wariness, as if the picture is a bit more than she would like on the record. Close beside her—there isn’t an inch between them—walks Angus. He wears his khaki uniform and leather jacket. He beams.

If my mother looks a bit recalcitrant in that photo, she seems to have lost all such reservations by October, the date on the back of a series of 10 photographs of the couple playing with a half-dozen puppies on the front lawn of a ranch house. Several photos show one or the other of them holding a puppy, and a handful of photos show both of them with the puppies, first standing and playing with one wiggly, short-haired pup, then sitting on the grass playing with the entire litter. A house stands conspicuously behind them. While it’s possible that this was someone else’s house and someone else’s puppies, no one looking at these pictures would think so. They reek of an effort to record a happy domesticity. They are family portaits. Of course, they probably were not living together; it’s hard to see how Angus would have been allowed to live off base. Yet the two of them certainly seem, to use a phrase of delicacy my mother would later favor, familiar with each other.

Other shots show Angus and Evelyn Jane with a merry group of young men and women in bathing suits playing croquet on a wide lawn, with palm trees beyond; posing on a porch, with my mother looking particularly lovely; and in a scandalous, highly posed shot, with the two of them lying on the beach on their sides, propped up on their elbows and facing each other. They gaze out at the sea, but they are all but pressed against one another in the sand: a half-roll and a juicy smooch and they’d be Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster.

They look good, even marvelous in some of these photos. Yet, in others an anxiety seems to pervade. They had to know that their time together would end in war. And they had left kids behind. You can’t find a single photograph here that looks the same when you view it with that in mind.

Around the time these photos were taken, Angus wrote Leulla asking for a divorce.

One later photograph looks very much like the one of her arrival yet utterly different in its subtleties. Again they walk down the street, again a sailor passes behind. This time, though, palm trees rise in the background. Angus wears his summer khakis with no jacket, and a soft garrison cap has replaced the billed crusher he wears in the earlier picture. His tie is tucked into his shirt placket. My mother also wears a khaki suit, skirted. It bears above the left breast an insignia that seems to be wings. She has got herself into something, some auxiliary outfit supporting the USAAF. She’s doing her part.

So what’s different? They look hot and tired, and where before perhaps an inch separated them, now a foot of tense emptiness stands between. Angus, hidden behind aviator sunglasses, walks slightly in front and to one side. He manages a defiant dignity by looking straight at the camera. But my mother turns an ashen face away from both Angus and camera. She looks distinctly as if she wishes she were somewhere else. Was she suddenly feeling ashamed? Had she and Angus been fighting? Had the regrets latent in the earlier photographs broken into the open? Or had the rolled-up papers in Angus’s front pants pocket—awkward to carry but apparently too important to discard—brought bad news?

Bad news found them at least twice in Hawaii. The first time was in late November, when Luella wrote Angus refusing the divorce. Whether Norman told my mother of this setback no one knows. The other ill tidings arrived in December, when the Army Air Forces ordered the 4th ERS to Saipan. Angus would ship out in January. Evelyn Jane, having signed on for a year, would remain in Hawaii—her lover 3,000 miles west, her daughter 3,000 miles east—another six months.

Angus, deployed in Saipan

To War

The Fourth Emergency Rescue Squadron sailed from Oahu on January 19, 1945, aboard the USS President Johnson, a transport ship that had been around since 1903. It stopped at Midway, then, dodging Japanese subs on the way, reached Saipan, in the Mariana Islands in the far western Pacific, on February 6. According to a surgical tech’s account, the Johnson arrived with 10 female crew members: “seven WACs, two WAVES, and one Nurse, all pregnant. We just couldn’t avert everything.” The 10 women took the next ship home. The men met their duty.

If Norman craved adventure, the deployment almost surely answered. The Emergency Rescue Squadrons had been formed in the summer of 1943 to consolidate the Army Air Forces’ prior efforts to rescue air crews shot down or forced to ditch. In Europe, the ERS units worked out of the United Kingdom and, later, Italy. In the Pacific, they hopscotched west and then north along the long curve of coral archipelagos—New Guinea, the Philippines, the Marshalls, the Marianas, and finally Iwo Jima—that the Allies took to secure bases in their slow, bloody push toward Japan. Taking these islands required some of the war’s most horrific battles, indeed some of the most savage fighting the world has ever known. Hundreds of thousands died. The battle of Iwo Jima alone killed almost 7,000 American servicemen and some 19,000 Japanese. During this push, the ERS units played a small but critical role. Before their arrival, 80 percent of the Allied pilots shot down in the Pacific theater died or were taken prisoner. Once the Emergency Rescue Squadrons began working out of their far Pacific bases in 1944, they rescued more than half of the downed pilots, saving several thousand men. Angus’s unit alone, in the roughly 200 days it spent at Saipan and then Iwo Jima, flew 862 missions, rescuing 577 airmen.

The ERS crews relied heavily on two planes. One was the B-17, the flying fortress that was the war’s busiest bomber. The B-17 could fly up to 2,000 miles, and pilots and crews loved it because it could keep flying after suffering extraordinary damage. Dozens of these planes flew home with huge holes torn by anti-aircraft fire or enemy fighter planes. One survived having most of its nose torn off. Another famously had its tail section all but severed in a collision with an enemy fighter yet still made it back to base, where the tail collapsed on landing. B-17’s also ditched well, floating up to half an hour, whereas the B-29’s and B-25’s that shared bombing duties in the Pacific usually sank in seconds. The B-17’s used by the rescue squadrons were adapted at the factory to leave the bomb-bay area largely empty. Each carried under its belly a 27-foot lifeboat that could be dropped by parachute to downed airmen.

The rescue squadrons also flew the Catalina PBY— a flying boat. The Cat’s wings and engines sat atop its boat-shaped fuselage, allowing the plane to land and take off in seas with waves as high as six feet. The PBY served well as either patrol plane or light bomber. Several squadrons’ worth, the Black Cats, were painted flat black to hide them from radar and anti-aircraft gunners when dive-bombing Japanese ships at night. Like the B-17, the PBY had enough range to support distant bombing missions. It carried a crew of eight, some of whom manned heavy machine guns in the plane’s nose and sides if the plane encountered fighters.

Rescue could be dangerous, dirty work. In the Pacific, the crews typically flew in support of the endless sorties of heavy bombers and support fighters that were attacking Japan every day. As the warplanes neared their targets and began taking fire, the rescue planes would hang back and circle, monitoring their radios for word of downed planes. If a B-17 found a crew in the water, it would drop its boat, then radio for a ship or submarine to rescue the pilot. A PBY might do the same or attempt a direct rescue.

These attempts were always risky, as the PBY was slow, lightly armed, and not terribly sturdy. Even successful rescues could be harrowing. One such rescue, for instance, occurred in March 1945, when a Navy Corsair fighter-bomber was shot down just 300 yards off the island of Koror, a thousand miles east of the Philippines. A Navy PBY piloted by a lieutenant named Fred Hopkins went in for the rescue, despite heavy anti-aircraft fire from shore. As Hopkins descended, a round of flak slammed the bottom of the plane so hard that Hopkins turned and headed offshore, expecting to have to ditch the plane. When his crew found they weren’t holed, he circled back and landed near the downed pilot as artillery shells exploded so close they threw water onto the plane. The crew tossed the swimming pilot a line, but the plane’s tail passed over it and tugged it from his hands. Hopkins spun the plane around for another try, but again the line slipped the pilot’s grasp. Finally, Hopkins drove the plane practically right over the downed pilot. The crew leaned out of the gun blister and hauled the bleeding pilot in by his life jacket, and Hopkins spun the plane into the wind and took off. They got the pilot back to base alive.

By the time the 4th ERS reached Saipan, Angus and his mates had heard such stories and plenty more with sadder endings. The Allied advance had taken enough territory from the Japanese that everyone knew what might await a crew shot down and captured. One PBY crew had been downed, captured, tortured, and then, as a spectacle to raise morale for the Japanese, dragged one at a time before the assembled troops, made to kneel, and beheaded with swords. This is why even pilots who didn’t know how to swim ditched at sea rather than on land.

Angus and his mates lived first in tents, then in plywood huts. The photos Angus mailed to my mother—most of them two-inch-square prints, a few blown up larger—show him and his buddies first building and then living in these large, open barracks. He sent shots of his mates playing cards and posing in combat garb and flight gear—Angus wearing full leathers with a fur collar, a bulky parachute, and a Mae West life vest, a .45 automatic on his hip. He took many shots of long, photogenic B-29’s with hyperfeminized mascots painted near the cockpit: Long Distance, a lounging, gowned brunette talking on a telephone; Heavenly Body, a bikini blonde astride a 500-pound bomb; Battlin Betty III, a Grable likeness curled atop a crescent moon. On the back of a two-by-two-inch print of a B-29, Patches, adorned with an absurdly leggy hillbilly blonde, Angus had written:

28 April 45


“It ain’t necessarily human” —

look at the angle on that – uh – er – –


The angle of which is indeed most improbable.

Angus, perhaps enjoying extra privilege as both a captain and a doctor, received a corner area in the barracks, with room for a plywood writing desk and easy chair. The album holds a notable quartet of photos of Angus sitting in that chair. In one he reads. In another he smiles groggily. In a third he appears to sleep. In the last, he looks as if he’s tiring of either the photos or the photographer or the war or everything. On the wall behind him in these photos, tucked into a strap in his hanging suit bag, is a large print of a brunette in pinup pose. She reclines, apparently on a bed or couch or floor, with her arms up and bent so that they frame her face, her hands gently holding her wrists on the cushion just above her head. Within this tiny two-by-two-inch print, the pinup occupies less than an eighth of an inch square. I had to use a loupe to tell whether the woman was wearing a blouse. I had to use a magnifying glass and a bright flashlight to see that she was my mother. 

It’s not clear how often they wrote. Mail moved slowly—weeks to clear the censors, miles, chaos, and bureaucracy between Saipan and Oahu. Later, when my mom had returned to San Antonio, the letters, three or four weeks old, came every week or two. For six months, though, separated from both lover and daughter, she had only the mail with which to bind what she hoped would be a new family. Apparently, nothing in Angus’s letters made her doubt those hopes. Yet the war promised to stretch on endlessly.


Pushing the Japanese across the Pacific had required enormous savagery and persistence. No amount of firebombing—the USAAF was incinerating thousands, even tens of thousands of civilians a day now—seemed to weaken Japan’s resolve. Almost no one knew about the atomic bombs that would soon fall and speed the war’s end. By June, when my mother sailed back to the States, the Allies’ plans called for five more months of heavy bombing followed by a massive ground invasion. Most people expected the war to run into 1946.

On July 22, Angus wrote my mother asking if she had gotten back to San Antonio yet. He complained of heat, dust, bad food, thirst, of never getting enough water, of waking during a sudden storm to try to catch rainwater with the tent flaps only to have the rain stop as soon as he was outside and wet. He bemoaned “the 2-3 inches backwards you slide in this sand with each step, which makes me very tired.” All that, he wrote, “coupled with an extreme lethargy from the heat, I guess, left me pretty depressed. There’s nothing very good about this letter, I guess. It’s about as lifeless as I feel.”

Three days later, in the first hours of July 25, Angus was with the 4th ERS detachment at Iwo Jima when a call came in for a B-17 search and drop. Amid especially heavy bombing on the 24th, with hundreds of bombers igniting firestorms in multiple cities on the Japanese mainland, a P-51 pilot had been hit and bailed out near Lake Hamana, a coastal bay 150 miles west of Tokyo. The 4th readied a B-17 to find him.

Angus was not on flight duty that night. He was free to stay on base. B-17’s often flew without flight surgeons anyway, since they never picked anyone up. But the commotion either woke him from sleep or rescued him from its pursuit, and he gathered his gear and cameras, donned his flight suit, and joined the crew of nine aboard a B-17 known as Jukebox 21. Since he had no functional role, he was, in technical and bureaucratic terms, a passenger.

The crew aimed to hit the coast near first light, find the pilot, and drop him a lifeboat. A U.S. submarine, the Peto, lurked nearby ready to fetch him. Jukebox 21 cleared the runway at 0245 hours and headed almost dead north toward Lake Hamana, 750 miles away. At 225 miles an hour, it would reach the coast in about three and a half hours. The crew didn’t have to worry about enemy fighters—the Japanese Air Force had by then been decimated—but they surely expected anti-aircraft fire, and given the bombing the area had suffered lately, they could expect the anti-aircraft crews to be inspired. Only a month before, the Allies had firebombed the city of Shizuoka, just east of Lake Hamana, and destroyed more than half the city, killing over 10,000.

But Jukebox was well-maintained: a sturdy plane crewed by experienced men and a pilot who’d flown a full tour in Europe before joining the 4th in Iwo Jima. It was a good night to fly, dark but clear. And it was always a relief to climb from the heat of the islands into cooler air.

They called in right on schedule on their first two hourly radio checks, at 0345 and 0445. But at 0545, Jukebox neither called nor responded.

The 4th ERS waited several hours, then sent 12 planes on a search for them. For two days, in rotating flights out of Iwo Jima, Angus’s squadronmates and other crews searched for them, systematically working grids between Jukebox’s last radio position and Hamana Lake. No one found a thing. Months later the unit’s commander, William Lindsey, wrote the father of Jukebox’s radio operator, Sergeant Charles Hurn, that “the disappearance of this plane has always been a complete mystery.” It was the 4th’s worst loss of the war, and its last. Three weeks after Jukebox went missing, Japan surrendered.

Jukebox 21, with personnel from the Fourth Emergency Rescue Squad on board, goes missing

Personal Effects

My mother had moved back to San Antonio in June, and in the days just after the war ended, as she readjusted to life with her mother and father and daughter and cousin there, two letters reached her from Iwo Jima. The first was Angus’s of July 22, lamenting the heat and sand. “I love you very much,” he reassured her. “I miss you always, but not acutely, for the demands of my environment haven’t given me time to think of it too much.” The second letter, arriving a week or two later, was written by one of Angus’s squadronmates. It informed her that Angus’s plane had disappeared, that a two-day search had turned up nothing, and that the crew were now presumed dead.

With this letter, the last she would ever receive from or about Angus, my mother became a survivor of the unfound. 

Luella’s notice came through more official channels, and it came faster. She was informed in early August that Angus was missing. Later, she may or may not have received the sort of letter that Commander Lindsey had written in October to Charles Hurn’s father, explaining that the crew were presumed dead. She did receive, in October, $500 worth of war bonds that Norman owned, along with his last paycheck, for $209. Luella, who had moved to Iowa City earlier that year, responded with a change of address and a note saying that it was “reasonable, almost a certainty, that my husband had more money than this amount.” She asked Lindsey to please help her find out where it was. Conceivably, she suspected my mother had it. Lindsey wrote back saying no other funds were found or known of.

Then, around Thanksgiving, the Army quartermaster’s office sent something more substantial: Angus’s footlocker, which contained the personal effects he had left in his bunk area. The accompanying inventory listed four pairs of khaki pants, seven khaki shirts, two ties, one pair of boots, and one pair of eyeglasses; one medical-notes zipper case, one medical manual, and one Basic History of the U.S.; one set of dominoes; one record player (broken); one box of camera attachments, the camera having gone missing with Angus; and one “bundle miscellaneous.” Did that miscellany include the pinup photo of my mother? Did it include her letters? It seems reasonable, but far from certain, that Angus’s cabinmates removed all of that before someone packed and sent his things. One hopes so.

When Luella received the footlocker, a year had passed since she had refused Norman’s request for a divorce. She had refused on the advice of a lawyer who essentially told her, “Not now. It’s a war and he’s half a world away. Let the war end. Let another year pass. If he still wants a divorce then, fine. But not now. It’s a war. Everybody’s crazy.” This proved good legal advice. Had they divorced, Luella would have lost substantial death benefits for both her and her children, who went to college on them. And had Angus lived, it might have proved good marital advice. But as it was, even as Angus’s personal effects made it harder for Luella to leave him behind, her refusal to release him earlier allowed Angus to now leave her yet again. Having been abandoned three times by her parents, Luella had now been thrice abandoned by Norman, as well: when he volunteered for the rescue squadrons, when he fell for my mother, and when he fell from the sky.

Luella was not alone, however. She had David and Christy, now 9 and 5, to care for. And soon she had a new love, her husband’s old college friend, Don Reese.

Reese had grown up in Turin, Iowa, and met Norman at the house of a fraternity they both joined at the University of Iowa. Though he did not attend medical school afterward, Don took a pre-med curriculum alongside Angus. It was then that he met Luella through Angus. Meanwhile, he already had a love of his own: a young woman named Nell, whom he’d known since he was a boy. In Don and Angus’s last year at college—the same year Angus married Luella, and perhaps inspired by that union—Nell began to press Don for marriage. Don’s parents objected, and he balked. He and Nell remained at this impasse when Don graduated and took a job in Chicago.

A year later, still at odds, he convinced Nell to move to Chicago for the summer so they could be near each other. She did and found a job at the Bon Air Country Club. Family accounts of that summer are vague. According to one, they spent a lot of time quarreling over Don’s continued fence-sitting. One evening late in August, soon before Nell would have to return to school, Don arranged to pick her up after work. He parked across the street from the Bon Air and waited. After a while, Nell emerged and started across the street. For whatever reason—distraction, tension, emotional confusion, fatigue, the late hour—she failed to notice an oncoming car. As Don watched, the car ran over Nell, killing her instantly.

Three years later, not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Don enlisted in the Navy. For four years, he served as a medical corpsman on landing craft in the Pacific, undersupplied and overwhelmed, struggling to patch together Marines torn to bits in the beach landings. When the war ended, he was discharged and returned to Iowa City. There he learned that Norman had died. Returning to old haunts, he ran into Luella right about the time she received Angus’s footlocker. They married the following October.

According to David and Christy, Don and Luella seemed always haunted by the ghosts of their lovers as well as by things never said or done. Back in 1944, for instance, it was Don to whom Angus had written to tell of his hopes of bringing my mother with him to Gulfport. Did Don ever tell Luella that he had known this? Whether shared with Luella or held close, his knowledge of Norman’s affair, and the complicity it created, had to prove an awkward weight, and only one among many. Don and Luella were, says Christy, an affectionate couple, but they carried burdens and resentments that rose not so much from each other as from the losses they had suffered. “We grew up in anger soup,” Christy later recalled. My mother, of course, was a key ingredient.

In their house, says Christy, the name Norman Zahrt was rarely heard. “We learned,” says Christy, “that you just didn’t bring it up.”

Luella was doing the best she could to forget Norman. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, someone else was trying to dig him up.

Angus in flight, in one of dozens of photos he sent Evelyn Jane in Hawaii and then Texas

Until They Come Home

Norman was one of tens of thousands of World War II soldiers, sailors, and airmen missing when the fighting stopped. In the months and years after the war ended, a section of the Army quartermaster’s office called the Graves Registration Services began a relentless effort, which continues even today, to locate them. One of the GRS’s first steps was to send crews to Japan to find crash sites. Using local interviews, archeological excavation, forensic exams, medical and dental records, and Missing Air Crew reports, they sought to find and identify the bodies of those missing.

In the early summer of 1946, a GRS team working near Hamana Lake learned that a B-17 had crashed there on July 25 the previous year. Locals said they had buried ten crewmen nearby. The team searched the area and found only a bit of a propeller and a few random parts—enough to know they’d found a B-17 but not to identify it.

A year later, another GRS team returned and found more wreckage, including three engines. The serial numbers conclusively identified the plane as Jukebox 21. They also found ten badly decomposed bodies buried in shallow graves. The bodies showed no bullet holes, blade marks, or other signs of attack. Many had crushed ribs and shattered bones in their hands, feet, and lower legs—injuries common in violent crashes. Locals in the area confirmed that the plane crashed on July 25, 1945, amid heavy anti-aircraft fire. Graves Registration concluded that Jukebox was downed by anti-aircraft fire and that the crash killed all aboard.

But the excruciatingly difficult task of identifying the dead remained. GRS could not simply say that the ten bodies found near Jukebox 21 were those of the ten crewmen listed in the plane’s missing air-crew report. They had to definitively identify each.

By this time, the GRS had established a large cemetery and forensics center in Yokohama. There they examined each of the bodies found near the Jukebox crash site and compared them with medical and other records for the plane’s crew members. They quickly identified six of the ten, but they felt enough doubt about the other four that they left them unidentified; they became Unknown Bodies X-408, X-412, X-415, and X-416. The skeletons of X-408 and X-416 were fairly complete, with a few bones missing from hands, feet, and lower legs. Scavengers or the crash impact had reduced X-412 and X-415 to fragments of skull, jaw, torso, and upper legs.

Graves Registration wrote the families of the six identified airmen and sent their remains home. It did not contact the other four crew members’ families, which included Norman’s. For a year, the four bodies lay buried in Yokohama while the GRS, in triage fashion, worked through more-promising cases.

In autumn 1948, however, the Service reexamined Norman’s file and lit on two pieces of information that the first examiners had either lacked access to or failed to notice. One was a record of distinctive dental work that Norman had received while in Saipan and were thus missing from the dental records made at his military induction. The other was a note in his medical history, probably easy to overlook, that as a boy he had broken his collarbone. With these two bits of information foremost, the GRS reexamined the forensic-exam files of the four unknowns remaining from the Jukebox 21 crash site. The file showed that Unknown X-408’s forensic exam the year before had shown a long-healed break in the left clavicle—and dental work matching that described in Norman’s dental record. A series of double-checks, sign-offs, and bureaucratic confirmations made it official: Unknown X-048 was Captain Norman E. Zahrt.

The letter notifying Luella reached her during her third Christmas with Don, in 1948:

Zahrt, Norman E.
SN 01 700 783

20 December 1948

Mrs. Luella Zahrt
617 Rundell
Iowa City, Iowa

Dear Mrs. Zahrt,

We are desirous that you be furnished information concerning the resting place of the remains of your husband, the late Captain Norman E. Zahrt.

The official report of burial has been received and discloses that the remains of your husband were originally buried at Yakute, Arai-Machi, Hamana-Gun, Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, but were later disinterred by our American Graves Registration Personnel, properly identified, and reinterred in Plot USAF, Row 23, Grave 1129, United States Armed Forces Cemetery Yokohama #1, Japan, located at Yokohama on the island of Honshu, Japan.

The report further indicates that these remains have now been casketed and are being held at the United States Armed Forces Mausoleum, Yokohama #2, Japan, pending disposition instructions from the next of kin, either for return to the United States or for permanent burial in an overseas cemetery.

There are enclosed informational pamphlets…”

James F. Smith
Major, QMC
Memorial Division

Major Smith asked Luella to promptly complete a Request for Disposition of Remains so the quartermaster could send her the body.

Luella, ignoring the many questions raised by this letter, wrote the quartermaster to ask just one: Given that she had remarried, was she still next of kin? The quartermaster replied that she was not: Her remarriage gave Norman’s parents the sole right to designate his final disposition. She would hear no more from the Army.

Angus’s father, who meantime had moved to Long Beach, California, asked that Angus’s body be sent to Golden Gate National Cemetery for burial. The casket arrived in early July. On July 18, 1949, almost four years after Norman was killed, Norman’s parents stood across from a color guard and a chaplain and buried their son. Perhaps understandably, Don and Luella, once Norman’s best friend and wife, did not attend.

“There were any number of reasons not to go,” said Christy, decades later. “It was a long way from Iowa, of course, and you didn’t just pack up four people and fly in those days. It was probably far beyond our means.

“Besides, my mom was still mad at him. I guess she figured she had already buried him.”

Herman Dobbs, Evelyn Jane (center), and Jimmie Holland, a friend


My mother knew nothing of all this. Not being kin, she received nothing from the government, and Norman’s family knew nothing of her identity and likely wouldn’t have told her anything if they had. But she was not sitting around waiting for mail. She was studying medicine.

She had enrolled at San Antonio’s Trinity College in the fall of 1946; she burned through the curriculum in three years and then entered Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine in September 1949. She was a 28-year-old single mother with an 8-year-old and no parental support, but she was a far more focused person than she had been five years before. She had become the woman that both her Baylor classmates and everyone who met her later knew: smart, funny, and charming, as always, but also immensely disciplined and not one to cross.

She met my father during her first year at Baylor, where he was one class ahead of her. He came from Hempstead, Texas, a small town west of Houston, and was seven years younger than she. He was tall, handsome, shyly funny, and one of Baylor’s sharpest students. They fell in together a year after she graduated, in 1953, when they were both interning in St. Louis. They married three years later and soon had Allen, the first of five children. For a time they must have seemed a couple blessed—two smart, attractive, agreeable young doctors spawning a passel of bright kids. Yet somewhere my mother’s second shot at happiness went awry. My father, while enormously talented and beloved by many of his patients, lacked any knack for self-promotion or pricing. He stayed busy but was only modestly prosperous compared with his more mercenary peers. My mother, meanwhile, reveled in her rise through Houston’s medical culture. She was elated to make the Who’s Who one year and kept that dark blue volume prominently shelved among her counseling-room reference books. She began to resent my father’s seeming lack of ambition even as he grew uneasy with her own excess of it. Their fights grew more frequent. Over time and with each battle she grew louder and he quieter. Finally, he fell silent: His long work days mashed together so thoroughly that when he moved out, we were so used to not seeing him that my mother actually got away with waiting several days to tell us. They divorced in their 17th year.

My mother tried to take this stoically, but it showed. She often looked tired, and she was more likely to cry if one of us acted stubborn or mean. If I raised my voice, she would either lay into me with trembling jaw or, worse, sit down and wipe her eyes with her fingertips and say in a cracked voice, “Oh, Davey, I don’t see why you insist on being so … so … hateful about things. Why are you so angry at me?” Once, furious at my brother and me for some adolescent idiocy, she hollered us into the car, backed it squealing onto the street, slammed it into gear, and floored it. A few seconds later, we reminded her that she had forgotten something—I don’t remember what, but it was essential to her mission. She hit the brakes so hard, we did a one-eighty. Around us rose the smell of burnt rubber. My brother and I faked smiles of thrilled, cocky pleasure. But we did not speak, lest our voices crack with fear.

Amid all this, there’s a danger of missing how much fun my mother was and how much love she created. She played the piano (moderately well), played bridge (gleefully), punned (ruthlessly), and sang, exuberantly, in the church choir, the kitchen, the shower, the car—at every excuse. She liked to garden. She didn’t do it often, but on those occasions when as a boy I would seek her out and find her standing out front pruning the rose bushes or sitting in the backyard planting monkey grass, she seemed at peace. Some of this was the warm relaxation brought by working outside. But as a father now myself, I suspect that some of the happiness I sensed at these moments was the incomparable pleasure of being sought and found by one’s children. I had first to search the big house, nine rooms on two floors, then yell out the back door. On hearing her distant response, I am running. I let the screen door slam and fly through magnolia shade until the bright sun along the driveway slows me and I find her sitting at the edge of her rose garden. She wears old jeans, a green smock, and pale blue gardening gloves. The pruning shears, laid aside, bend but do not flatten the stiff blades of the Saint Augustine grass. She looks up, and with the back of her sleeve she pushes her black curls from her forehead and gives me a wondrous smile. She delightedly says my name. This smile will embarrass me at other times. But now it completely drives from my head whatever inspired this search only moments before. She smiles that radiant smile, and when she asks me what brings her the pleasure of this visit, I can’t recall what I’ve come to her for. Clearly this.

My mother’s romance with Angus formed a pivot on which her life turned. She credited him with inspiring her to pursue medicine, and with this new focus she moved from a self-destructive course to a life more disciplined, elevated, and rewarding. Her affair with him, even as it indulged her mother’s brand of impropriety, lifted her from the gravity of Clara Lee’s example. But it took an enormous toll. It undermined the lives of Angus’s widow and children for decades. And to my mother, Angus—the one love she lost to bad luck rather than failed effort—remained forever the idealized lost chance. His death took from her not just any happiness she might have found with him but also the ability to find peace with someone as gentle as my father. Angus had opened a door to happiness that, once closed, shut her out forever. The sound of it slamming echoed a long time.

And not just for her. Christy Zahrt once visited me in Vermont, driving all the way from Nevada to do so, and after a long afternoon at my backyard picnic table, excavating our past, she said, “Sometimes it’s hard to get your head around this. Everybody ended up married to somebody they wished was somebody else. Don married Luella but wished he was married to Nell. Luella married Don but wished she was married to Norman. Your mom married your dad but wished she was married to Norman. And your dad was the only one who didn’t know about any of this, and he ended up wishing he’d married someone else anyway.”

When I stopped laughing, Christy said, “We’re obviously not siblings—we can’t be, because Norman died way before you were born. Yet I feel as if somehow we are.”

I said I’d been thinking the same thing.

“Except, of course, if Norman and Jane had stayed together,” she said, “you wouldn’t be here.”

I had thought of that, too.

Given how different my parents were, their marriage would almost certainly have failed even without Angus in my mother’s past. Yet I believe my mother resisted that failure more ferociously and took it more bitterly, and blamed my father all the more, simply because my father was not Angus. My father was kind, smart, funny, strong, generous, and handsome. But he was not restless, daring, or self-absorbed. He did not exude the narcissist’s glow. After he left, my mother hinted at her resentment by telling us the fragment of the Angus story we possessed at her death. Her tale boiled down to this: She’d known real love once, by God, but lost it.

My mother and me

Finding Angus

One afternoon a few weeks ago, when I was scrolling through the photographs for this story, my 9-year-old son, looking over my shoulder at pictures of Evelyn and Angus in their youth, asked me if I thought that telling this story would be OK with my mom. I told him I thought it would. I had once asked David Zahrt how he felt about this story going public. “The past is approved,” he said, “and the future is open”—another way of saying we must own our scars rather than wish them away. And to my mind, my mother had told us twice that she was finally ready to release her past, and thereby own it.

The first tell was her request that we put her in the Pacific. She had to know this amounted to a public declaration. I think that’s why she looked so relieved when she asked us to take her to Angus. It’s work, hiding these things.j

The other tell was the locket—the one holding the picture of her grandparents. About a year before she died, my mother sent the locket to her cousin. Betty Lou found it unsettling. The locket seemed a fitting thing to share, yet the timing made Betty Lou worry that my mother was declining and that this gift represented a good-bye.

That locket had held the same picture for almost a century. Yet when Betty Lou pressed the button and the locket popped open, she did not see the photograph of her grandparents. She saw a photograph of Angus.

Had my mother kept Angus’s picture behind that of her grandparents all those years? We agreed she must have. It’s not as if she would cut out his picture and put it there just to send to Betty Lou.

So it appears she had carried Angus with her all that time. It had been there when as a boy on her lap I tugged it up from between her breasts so I could look at it. Instead of Angus, of course, I had seen my mother’s grandparents. She had put them there because she loved them. But she had also put them there to cover and protect Angus’s memory: one past to cover another, just as she built one life to encase an earlier one.

A decade ago, I began chasing Angus as a way to better know my mother. A year ago, I went to see him. I did this partly as a way of once more visiting my mother, of drawing from her, in my mind at least, the smile she had once given me in the garden. To make sure Angus did not slip away yet again, I carried all the information needed to find him: the name of the cemetery, his grid, row, and plot number. I had built an empty half-day into the end of a Bay Area business trip. When I finished my work, I got out my phone, opened Google Maps, and found the big national cemetery at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. It would be a two-hour walk across the San Francisco hills.

For April it was warm. Sometimes I would reach the top of a hill and see the bridge shimmering in the heat and distance, bigger each time. As I walked, feeling myself growing both excited and tense, I told myself that I was excited to finally meet Angus and tense because I had not yet worked out what I wanted to say.

I found the cemetery down by the water, just as the map showed, along one shore of the lovely old fort called the Presidio, and walked through the stone gates. To my right rose the bridge. Before me opened a broad rolling landscape of precisely laid rows of white headstones. A couple hundred yards up the driveway stood a visitor center. Attached to the building, right next to the door, was a little box that said “Grave Finder.” You turned a ratcheted wheel to the last name you were looking for and it would give you the grave location. I turned it to Z—but found no Zahrt. I checked everything and did it again. No Zahrt. I stood there like an idiot, alone and dumb amid thousands of silent headstones, and tried to figure out what was amiss. Either the Grave Finder had the wrong information or I did. I walked back so I was among the gravestones and again opened Google Maps on my phone. Again I checked my entry for the grave information. And then, knowing what was coming, I Googled “Golden Gate National Cemetery.” And I found that, behold, the Golden Gate National Cemetery is not the national cemetery that lies at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. That cemetery is the San Francisco National Cemetery. The Golden Gate Cemetery is eight miles south, in a place called San Bruno.

I looked at my watch. My plane was leaving in three hours. I would have to visit Angus another time. For now, surrounded by dead strangers, I could only sit in the grass and laugh. My sister Cynthia laughed, too, when I called her later and told her the story.

“That man,” she said, “is simply not to be found.”

A month later, contriving another business trip and taking another long, warm walk, I finally found Angus, on a bright slope in San Bruno. The Golden Gate National Cemetery sits surrounded by strip malls and big-box stores and six-lane suburban boulevards. Yet its gentle rolling expanse and the well-kept severity of its close-mown grass offer dignity and peace. Norman’s stone stands near an oak tree among the graves of others buried in 1949, none of them killed in the war. Many of the stones designated these men as “Son of” or “Husband of.” Some had the names of wives, buried there, too, carved into the reverse side. Norman’s contains no mention of family.

I sat for an hour, thinking of him lying here for 50 years while my mother thought he was still in the Pacific. When we granted her wish and flew her to Hawaii to join him, we instead left him far behind. Now she was slowly dispersing in the Pacific while he lay buried neat and deep in San Bruno; it would take a lot of time and rain to bring them together. If we had saved some ashes, I could have sprinkled some on his grave. But we had not, and I did not want to leave a picture that would just get thrown away. My mother would not have liked that. So I took some photographs and walked past a few thousand headstones and past the big-box stores and back to the train.

Later, at home, I made a two-inch-square print of Angus’s resting place. I found the photograph my brother had emailed me from Maui years before, showing our leis floating over my mother’s ashes, and I made a two-inch-square print of that. Then I opened my mother’s crumbling photo album and slipped the pictures into the two remaining empty sets of corner mounts. I considered pulling those mounts off and pasting the photos closer to one another. But I thought, No: My mom had glued those holders in that way, and I shouldn’t change it. This was as close as I could get them.

My mother’s long-kept photo album

Piano Demon


Piano Demon

The globetrotting, gin-soaked, too-short life of Teddy Weatherford, the Chicago jazzman who conquered Asia.

By Brendan I. Koerner

The Atavist Magazine, No. 01

Brendan I. Koerner is an award-winning journalist and the author of Now the Hell Will Start: One Soldier’s Flight From the Greatest Manhunt of World War II (Penguin, 2008), which he is currently adapting for Spike Lee. He is also a contributing editor at Wired whose work regularly appears in The New York Times, Slate, and many other publications. Find him at or on Twitter @brendankoerner.

Editor: Evan Ratliff
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Special Thanks: Susheel Kurien, who is currently working on a documentary about the Calcutta jazz scene; Naresh Fernandes, author of a forthcoming book about jazz and Bollywood; Jehangir Dalal, who generously shared his Weatherford-related correspondence; Amba Kak, our Calcutta correspondent; Bradley Shope of the University of North Texas; Peter Darke and Ralph Gulliver of Storyville; the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; the University of Missouri-Kansas City Library; the Chicago Public Library; the William P. Gottlieb Collection at the Library of Congress; and Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Published in January 2011. Design updated in 2021.

1. Calcutta, 1945

The man they called the Seagull was lost in a thunderous solo, his vast hands skipping across the piano keys as his rhythm section strained to keep pace. Sweat pooled around the collar of his white sharkskin suit, but Asia’s greatest jazz star was too juiced on highballs to mind the monsoon broil. He just rocked back and forth on his three-legged stool, attacking the tune.

Beneath the unadorned stage at the Winter Garden, an open-air nightclub at Calcutta’s Grand Hotel, hundreds of young bodies moved to the music. There were American GIs in crisp tan uniforms, British Tommies blotto on gin, and Anglo-Indian girls looking for love, all illuminated by lanterns strung from the columns and arches that ringed the dance floor. Waiters in starched red jackets darted between the whirling patrons, carting off the remnants of chicken dinners and baked Alaskas.

But one American soldier wasn’t joining in the mirth. He stood motionless at the foot of the stage,  snarling. By his side was his unusual pet, recently liberated from the forests of Assam, more than 500 miles to the northeast: a young sloth bear the size of a Siberian husky, with a heavy chain draped around its neck.

The soldier had a problem with the color of the pianist’s skin. And he decided to make his opinion known by turning his pet into a missile.

“Here, Teddy!” he shouted as he chucked the bear toward the stage. “Here’s your brother!”

The bear slammed into Teddy “Seagull” Weatherford and, startled by its sudden flight, sank its claws into the pianist’s coat. Scraps of fabric flew about the stage like confetti as the dancers froze and gawked.

The bear continued tearing its way through Weatherford’s clothes until the thickset pianist finally cast off his ursine assailant. Weatherford was tempted to leap into the crowd and pummel the jerk who’d tossed the poor beast, but he kept his cool. Such loutish behavior would be unbecoming for a man of his status.

And so despite his tattered coat and lacerated flesh, Weatherford sat back down at his piano and resumed playing. Dancers grabbed their partners and trays of drinks made the rounds as if the bear attack had only been a dream. No racist son of a bitch was going to make Weatherford look the fool in Calcutta.

This was his town. Calcutta belonged to Teddy.

Teddy Weatherford (right) aboard the SS President Hoover with violinist Joe McCutchin.

2. The Count Basie of the Far East

The Lower Circular Road Cemetery in Calcutta, where esteemed British soldiers and diplomats were once laid to rest, is in appalling shape. Cracked tombstones lie hidden beneath clumps of scraggly vines, and piles of pulverized red brick litter the muddy ground. Genealogists who scour the plots for an ancestor’s grave often discover that it has vanished entirely, lost to decades of neglect.

In one of the cemetery’s most forsaken corners, a large crypt shows traces of having been ransacked by thieves. Its granite lid has been pried loose, allowing armies of insects free passage in and out of the vessel. The marble headstone is overgrown with weeds, which must be hacked away in order to read the inscription:

In loving remembrance of TEDDY WEATHERFORD Died 25th April 1945 A WONDERFUL PIANIST AND FRIEND. May his soul rest in peace.

Weatherford usually receives no more than a skeletal paragraph in jazz histories. His Wikipedia entry is thinly sourced and error-ridden; his music is almost entirely absent from the Internet. He is the sort of figure whom scholars typically dismiss with a single, damning noun: footnote.

But in his heyday, Weatherford was a giant of American music, a singular artist who was revered on both sides of the Pacific even before the advent of jet travel. When he died in the waning days of World War II, 40,000 grieving Calcuttans lined the city’s streets to watch his flower-strewn casket pass. Back in the U.S., the nation’s leading black newspaper, the Chicago Defender, mourned the untimely demise of the man they called the Count Basie of the Far East:

Well known throughout the Far East where he had spent the last 20 years, Teddy came to Calcutta from Shanghai, China shortly after the Jap invasion there. Since the outbreak of the Pacific war, resulting in thousands of American troops being stationed here, Weatherford had become a byword among GIs. Nightly both white and colored soldiers accompanied by the Anglo-Indian version of the bobby socks girls crowded the dance floor at the Wintergardens, for Teddy’s band produced the best jitterbug music out here. Tall, dark with a thick head of bushy hair he also presented one of the most colorful spectacles in this city of many races as he and his attractive Anglo-Indian wife moved from place to place.

Weatherford was more than just a romantic troubadour. He was the quintessential embodiment of the American dream: Born into desperate circumstances, Weatherford leveraged an innate talent and an appetite for risk into a kind of success that his forebears could never have imagined. But to find it, he would have to abandon his native land and seek his fortune a world away.


3. Millionaire Town

In the earliest years of the 20th century, there were few places in America more outwardly prosperous than Pocahontas, Virginia. The town’s streets were lined with elegant homes boasting ornate metal facades custom-manufactured in the foundries of St. Louis. An opera house played host to traveling Broadway productions and the very best in vaudeville entertainment. A few miles away, just across the West Virginia state line, lay the Victorian mansions of Bramwell, an enclave so affluent that it was known nationwide as Millionaire Town.

The money flowed thanks to the abundance of coal, mined in Pocahontas and hauled off to power the textile mills of the Carolinas, the steel plants of Ohio, and the giant excavating machines just beginning to dig through the Isthmus of Panama. The local mine had opened in 1882 and was purchased in 1891 by the Norfolk & Western Railway, of which the Pocahontas Coal and Coke Company was a subsidiary. The company specialized in a strong-arm business tactic: purchasing coal from the region’s other mines at heavily discounted prices. Mines that refused to play along were denied access to the Norfolk & Western’s routes to key markets such as Cincinnati; Durham, North Carolina; and the bustling ports of eastern Virginia. It was a supremely profitable racket for the men atop the railway’s hierarchy.

The men who actually liberated the coal from the earth, by contrast, risked life and limb for the slimmest rewards. Central European immigrants and African-Americans worked side by side in the Pocahontas mines, harvesting fuel with pickaxes and sticks of dynamite. They were paid in scrip redeemable only at the overpriced company store and treated to a single communal bath each week. Their homes were wooden hovels located on the town’s rural outskirts, where hungry panthers occasionally preyed on small children.

To transport the coal from the mine’s bowels to the surface, miners piled it onto tramcars that wobbled toward the iron doors separating the pitch-black tunnels from the outside world. Stationed just inside these doors were trapper boys, sometimes just four or five years old. Their job was to open the doors to let the trams pass, as well as bring some much-needed ventilation into the mines. They worked 12-hour shifts in near total darkness for roughly seven cents a day. Among their ranks was an African-American boy named Theodore Weatherford.

Weatherford was born in Pocahontas in 1902 or 1903, in the kitchen of the shack owned by his father, Jack, a veteran miner and the son of slaves. Sent to work as a trapper boy when he was barely old enough to speak in full sentences, Teddy exhibited early affinities for both music and mischief. “He was musically inclined from the start, and he wouldn’t stay at home,” one of his brothers, Sam Weatherford, would recall years later. “We never knew where he was. He worked on the tramway up to the mine, all the boys did, but he got the boys in a band to play music. Then he started playing himself.”

The Pocahontas mines where the Weatherford males toiled were notoriously lethal. In 1884 the town was the site of what remains one of America’s worst mining disasters, an explosion that claimed the lives of all 114 men on duty. Despite the ensuing cry for stricter safety measures, fatal accidents occurred with alarming regularity. In one 1901 incident, at least 13 men were killed and 25 severely injured by fire and poisonous fumes. Eight of the dead were mine officials who rushed into the tunnels to assist with the rescues, only to be overcome by blackdamp gas and then eaten by giant rats. Five years later, another 21 men were incinerated in a massive explosion that caused the earth to tremble miles away.

A similar tragedy, though, may actually have saved Teddy from a life belowground. In 1907, Jack Weatherford was nearly killed in a mine explosion. The accident left him blind and deaf, unable to provide for his family. So young Teddy was sent across the state line to Bluefield, West Virginia, to live with his much older sister, Lovie Poindexter. Fortunately for Teddy, Lovie’s husband was not a miner but a train brakeman for the Norfolk & Western—a relatively lucrative job for African-Americans at the time—which meant that Teddy could be spared further labor in the mines. His new home, located near the Bluefield rail station, contained an upright piano, and Lovie gave him his first formal lessons. It didn’t take long for the pupil to eclipse the teacher; Teddy, as it turned out, was blessed with the ability to play by ear.

Weatherford sharpened his skills by striking up a friendship with an older boy named Maceo Pinkard, with whom he spent countless hours trading piano riffs. (Pinkard would later move to New York and become famous for penning the classic tune “Sweet Georgia Brown.”) In his teens, Weatherford also briefly attended the Bluefield Colored Institute, where he learned the basics of music theory before dropping out and joining a popular Bluefield dance band. Playing gigs above a local pharmacy, the band developed a following among the town’s ragtime lovers, who thrilled to the percussive style of play Weatherford had developed. “Teddy didn’t have to have no band around him,” recalled one of the pianist’s childhood friends. “He could make as much music with just a drummer or a saxophone player as any 12- or 15-piece band.”

Weatherford soon earned a promotion to a traveling band headed by a saxophonist named Ben Harris. The group was a so-called territory band, an outfit whose circuit primarily consisted of minor and midsize towns starved for decent music. Weatherford’s first foray out of Virginia’s coal country took him west, to the banks of the Illinois River, as the band wended its way north through the dance halls of Peoria—and, in 1920 up to the cultural mecca of Chicago.

There, the budding pianist’s fortunes took another unexpected turn. Harris took gravely ill upon hitting town, and his band disintegrated. At 17, Teddy Weatherford suddenly found himself in America’s second largest city, unemployed, friendless, and 500 miles from home.

A young Teddy Weatherford. “Teddy didn’t need to have no band around him,” a friend recalled.

4. Chicago

Chicagoans who concerned themselves with matters of moral hygiene believed that Prohibition would kill the city’s jazz scene, thereby saving countless young girls from the scourges of psychosis and sexual degeneracy. In 1921 an organization called the Illinois Vigilance Association reported that no fewer than 1,000 Chicago girls had been driven to prostitution through their exposure to jazz music. The group highlighted one particularly sordid tale of an innocent girl gone wrong:

She was born in Chicago of good parents who exhausted every resource on her behalf. Although but 18 years old when brought into court, she had been frequenting jazz dances for over three years. Beginning when less than 15 years of age in the more expensive dance palaces of the north side she gradually drifted down to rougher ones on the west side. The same type of music was played in all the halls. This sex-infuriating music, combined with other conditions, led to her first indiscretion. This was followed by a life of promiscuity, the act often taking place in the halls and corridor of the building in which the dance was held. She finally met a man at a certain hall, ran away with him, and was subsequently deserted. When arrested she was living in a disorderly flat with Negroes.

Other anti-jazz activists characterized the music as Bolshevik in nature, likely to expose Chicago’s youth to the toxic ideals of Communism. But once the clubs were deprived of their ability to profit from the sale of booze, the moralists hoped, the jazz fad would be replaced by more wholesome entertainments. “The brainless messes of jazz which have so frequently been served up to us in the past could only, as we have always felt, appeal to jagged [drunk] patrons,” declared a Chicago Daily Tribune editorial in August 1920. “There is a connection stronger than alliteration between jag and jazz. If the producers have come to a realization of the fact, we can look forward to the theatrical future with a stronger hope than ever before.”

Yet the moral renaissance was not to be, as Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson ceded the city’s nightlife to the rum-dealing underworld in exchange for bribes. The Republican mayor also enjoyed cozy relations with Chicago’s growing African-American community, which had helped him win election in 1919, after the city had been scarred by a bloody race riot. Thompson had every reason to avoid upsetting his electoral base, so he turned a blind eye to the rapid proliferation of Prohibition-bending jazz clubs around State Street, Washington Park, and other South Side neighborhoods.

As a result, when Teddy Weatherford was cut loose in Chicago, he had no trouble finding piano work in a series of seedy cabarets. Drunken patrons sometimes lunged at each other with butcher knives, but the teenage Weatherford got the chance to earn some money and hone his skills. He quickly gained minor renown not only for his playing, but also for his oversize personality; an inveterate prankster with a love for hooch, Weatherford was a magnet for attention. He soon caught the eye of the trumpeter Jimmy Wade, who was putting together an orchestra to play the recently opened Moulin Rouge Café on South Wabash Avenue, and who had already recruited a star violinist named Eddie South. Located in an old chop-suey joint and owned by a mobbed-up Frenchman, the Moulin Rouge evoked the bordello feel of its Parisian namesake: walls lined with red velvet wallpaper, balconies flecked with gold leaf. Its tuxedoed staff was known for its tolerance of hip flasks and for generously providing covert tipplers with glasses of soda or tonic.

Though located in a decidedly white part of town, the Moulin Rouge was eager to hire black musicians, the better to attract a large mixed-race crowd. Weatherford was soon hailed as one of Chicago’s top pianists, alongside Earl Hines and a mysterious virtuoso who went only by the name Toothpick. When the legendary Jelly Roll Morton arrived in town in 1923, he was said to be floored by the young Weatherford’s skill.

The fortunes of Wade’s band were tied to those of the Moulin Rouge, which often made for rough times. The café was temporarily shuttered after a raid by federal liquor agents in 1922. Two years later, its facade was destroyed in a firebombing blamed on a rivalry with competing clubs. So when a bandleader named Erskine Tate came to poach Weatherford in 1925, the pianist was happy to shake free of the troubled joint.

Tate’s orchestra had a steady gig at a 1,300-seat movie palace called the Vendome Theater. It was the city’s foremost black cinema, having been installed in a former German-American cultural center for the exorbitant sum of $250,000. The Vendome anchored a four-block stretch of  State Street known as the Negro Great White Way for its surfeit of popular clubs, the fame of which spread so far that many Southern blacks arriving in the Great Migration were convinced that, as one put it, “State Street would be heaven itself.”

Unlike the raucous clubs where Weatherford had made his name, the Vendome catered to an upscale black clientele—doctors, lawyers, and businessmen who were guided to their private boxes by finely attired usherettes and who puffed on Cuban stogies inside the theater’s oak-lined smoking room. As the Vendome’s house orchestra, Tate’s group was responsible for providing live accompaniment for the theater’s silent movies and for keeping the patrons entertained during intermission. The 10-piece orchestra was considered among Chicago’s best. Weatherford had been chosen right around the same time as an equally lauded up-and-comer, a young New Orleans–born cornetist named Louis Armstrong.

Weatherford and Armstrong played together under Tate’s direction for a year, during which the orchestra cut two sides for an early jazz label called Vocalion Records: “Static Strut” and “Stomp Off, Let’s Go.” The former includes a hard-driving solo by Weatherford that, even at a mere 15 seconds, is enough to reveal his prodigious talent.

Things were moving fast for the pianist, who had yet to celebrate his 23rd birthday. Weatherford even tried his hand at songwriting, usually opting for tunes that revealed his bawdy sense of humor: One of his best-known songs was titled “Oh Gee, Oh Gosh, I’m Married But I’m Loving Some Other Girl.”

Still, Weatherford was getting restless. Armstrong, growing in musical stature, soon left the Tate band for a spot at the Sunset Café, one of Al Capone’s main joints. And Weatherford, for all his success in the competitive world of Chicago jazz, began to feel he wasn’t receiving his proper due. As his bandmate Preston Jackson would later recall, Weatherford had a powerful thirst for recognition, one that could never be sated until he was considered a pianist without peer. He also possessed a curiosity about the world, and he was envious of his friend Earl Hines’s travels out to Los Angeles as part of a barnstorming Dixieland band.

So when Weatherford met a smooth-talking bandleader named Jack Carter in 1926, he was open to suggestions for an alternate career path. And Carter offered up an option that Weatherford had probably never imagined: the Far East.

Since 1924, Carter had been leading a cabaret show in Shanghai—a mixture of song, dance, and comedy, all performed by African-Americans like himself. The Shanghai audiences loved it, and now Carter was preparing to take the show on the road to Southeast Asia. He had come to Chicago in search of fresh talent. Carter assured Weatherford that he would be treated like a king as the band sailed from port to port throughout the South China Sea.

To the chagrin of Chicago jazz fans, the former child coal miner decided to indulge his taste for adventure. “Teddy Weatherford has flown the Vendome nest and his destination is China,” the Chicago Defender’s music columnist announced in September 1926. “Teddy, old boy, you fronted us, but they all come back.”

Weatherford (at piano) playing with Jimmy Wade’s Syncopators, the house band at Chicago’s Moulin Rouge Café.

5. Piano Demon

Critics and compatriots rarely stinted on superlatives when describing Weatherford’s talent. “A hell of a pianist… I hear Fats Waller and I tell you it’s Weatherford,” raved the New York Amsterdam News. The Chicago Defender dubbed him “the piano demon,” while Louis Armstrong lauded his former bandmate as “awful good.” Others described him with phrases like “Champ of the ivories,” “an immediate sensation,” or “the world’s greatest jazz pianist.”

Any discussion of Weatherford’s much-admired musicianship began with his most valuable asset: his gargantuan hands, which earned him the nickname Seagull owing to their winglike dimensions. Big hands can be a jazzman’s curse. While it is obviously beneficial to be able to stretch across a great many keys, meaty fingers tend to be clumsy fingers. But Weatherford combined reach with precision; even when sprinting across the entire keyboard, he never got sloppy. Each note rang full and true.

Those mammoth hands also enabled Weatherford to develop a uniquely physical style of playing. When he first hit Chicago, stride piano was just beginning to supplant ragtime. Stride relied on the left hand to alternate between a walking bass and chords, leaving the right hand free to dazzle with melodic flourishes copped from multiple genres: the rapid arpeggios of classical, the soulful licks of blues. Weatherford was an early master of stride, and he used his powerful hands to lean into the tunes, pounding the keys with a nimble ferocity normally reserved for drummers. The result was a sound often mistaken for the work of two pianists playing in tandem. Legions of admirers tried to imitate Weatherford’s aggressiveness, with mixed results—it was his particular genius to play with both gusto and grace.

Weatherford was also a showman, having cultivated a flair for drama while playing small-time joints in Bluefield. Those territorial audiences expected to hear standards they knew and loved, so it was up to each band to make popular songs like “Memphis Blues” and “King Porter Stomp” its own without messing up the good-time vibe. Over six feet tall and built like a tank, Weatherford was a commanding presence. He could lay back in the cut and build a little tension before bursting forth with a Paganini-like display of virtuosity. Whether playing alongside scantily clad cabaret dancers or in front of swanky diners eating by candlelight, he always made the crowd feel as if it had gotten its money’s worth. That gift for performance would soon turn Weatherford into an international star.

Teddy Weatherford at the keys.

6. The Imperial Circuit

When Weatherford finally landed in Shanghai in the autumn of 1926, having sailed across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco aboard the SS Tango Maru, the Chinese metropolis was on the verge of a bloodbath. Chiang Kai-shek, head of the military forces of China’s ruling Kuomintang (KMT), was attempting to solidify his control of the nation by laying siege to Shanghai, then under the rule of the warlord Sun Chuan-fang. At the behest of Communist Party officials, the city’s trade unionists had decided to support the KMT, which they believed was interested in ridding China of foreign influence and bettering the peasantry’s sad lot. 

Desperate to hang on to the jewel of their small realm, Sun and his generals resorted to a campaign of terror against Shanghai residents suspected of KMT sympathies. “The executions have been terrifyingly informal,” an English journalist wrote. “Pickets and agitators, including ignorant coolies and spectacled students, are quickly beheaded wherever they are found intimidating shopkeepers or scattering Cantonese leaflets. A runner is sent to summon the execution patrol, which comes up with the headsman swinging his bared blade. The culprit is forced to his knees as the soldiers keep the crowd back. A moment later his head is being fastened to a wooden cage, which always is ready, and nailed to a pole for the contemplation of the populace.”

When the city’s defenses finally broke in the spring of 1927, Chiang wasted no time betraying the trade unionists. Paramilitaries allied with the KMT massacred thousands of civilians suspected of Communist ties, and strikers were gunned down indiscriminately as they took to the streets. Shanghai became a police state, and political rabble-rousers frequently disappeared.

Yet the tens of thousands of foreigners who called the city home—and for whose entertainment the Jack Carter Orchestra, with Teddy Weatherford on piano, had been imported—caroused right through the violence. Cloistered in sections of the city reserved for non-Chinese and protected by thousands of American and British troops, these American and European expatriates enjoyed lives of supreme comfort, awash not in blood but in money generated by any number of shadowy schemes, notably the burgeoning opium trade.

Shanghai abounded with leisure opportunities for the fortunate denizens of the international precincts. Elegant dinners and dances were a nightly ritual, often followed by bouts of slumming. An American journalist with a racist streak and a taste for vice described some of the entertainments available to the foreign residents, commonly known as Shanghailanders:

You drifted into one of those cabarets, an hour or so before midnight, you chose your table not too far from the floor, and you looked them over: the pretty Chinese girls in their slit silk dresses and with too much rouge on their soft cheeks; the glorious Russians with their décoletté evening gowns—Chanel and Molineux models, if you did not look too closely…. And you bought your ticket and danced with them, and if you invited one of them to your table, you had to pay something extra and the girl had apple cider that turned into champagne on your chit. But if you wanted to go home with her, she would have to ask the management first…. And you might wind up in “Blood Alley,” where you went to get as much local color as possible, among the drunken soldiers and sailors of the armies and navies of the world.

Obsessed with hipness and style, the Shanghailanders fetishized black jazz musicians. The Jack Carter Orchestra thus commanded a handsome price for its show, which provided a slickly packaged taste of African-American culture—or, more accurately, what foreigners expected African-American culture to be. The show’s star attraction was Valaida Snow, a 22-year-old Tennessean trumpeter and singer who was widely considered the female Louis Armstrong. After belting out a version of “Ol’ Man River,” she would be joined onstage by a comedian named Bo Diddly, who would sling jokes before dueting with Snow on a song called “Black Bottom.” Snow would then cap the evening with an early version of crowd surfing: at the end of a manic tap-dancing number, she would leap onto the dance floor, fall to her knees, and wriggle her way through the stunned audience. The routine rarely failed to bring down the house.

Teddy Weatherford was supposed to be a minor player in the revue, but music aficionados couldn’t ignore the tall, powerfully built young man who elicited such full-throated chords from his instrument. Fellow musicians were enraptured by his skill at the ivories, even though he had but a single solo in the Jack Carter show. Word of Weatherford’s prowess quickly spread.

The band’s Shanghai engagement was scheduled to last just ten weeks, but it wound up stretching well into 1927. Then the ensemble set off for Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, where they’d booked a stand at the Oost Java Restaurant, an open-air club on the city’s main square. It was the first time an African-American group had played Batavia, to the immense delight of the city’s young Dutch jazz fans, who had previously had to make do by playing scratchy ceramic cylinders on beat-up Victrolas. They descended on the Oost Java for the Jack Carter show only to discover that, for the first time ever, the club would be charging a hefty cover fee. To add salt to the wound, the club erected a bamboo fence along its perimeter to prevent nonpaying spectators from catching a glimpse of the Americans.

But some brave fans would not be denied their first exposure to authentic live jazz. They clambered up the square’s trees and watched Weatherford’s piano magic from afar. They swung so hard to the band’s hot sound that several nearly tumbled to their deaths.

After rocking the Dutch youth, the Jack Carter Orchestra sailed north to Singapore, where it headlined at the fortress-like Adelphi Hotel. Wealthy British merchants and the women who loved them went bonkers over the show, leading the local English-language newspaper to ponder the band’s appeal:

What is the secret of these coloured artists’ success? Surely it is that they are entirely un-selfconscious. While white performers may be worrying as to whether they are “getting over,” the originators of jazz just let themselves go. It is said that these artists never offer a dance in just the same way two nights running.

The Jack Carter Orchestra traveled up the Malay Peninsula and finally wrapped up its Southeast Asian barnstorming in 1929. Carter and Snow decided to return to the United States, but Weatherford declined a ticket home. There was still money to be made in China.

The Canidrome, a large dog track and casino in Shanghai, where Weatherford played to crowds of international revelers.

7. Paris of the Orient

By the time he arrived in Shanghai in the summer of 1933, Langston Hughes was already a seasoned traveler. The esteemed writer had spent much of the previous year trekking across Central Asia after an ill-fated attempt to make a movie in Moscow. He had spent nights in sheepskin yurts on the Eurasian steppe, communed with Jewish poets in the Uzbek city of Bukhara, and gotten tipsy on cognac with oversexed Tajik soldiers. If nothing else, Hughes was certainly a fair bit tougher than the typical man of letters.

But the chaos of Depression-era Shanghai startled Hughes. He was shocked by the degradation and vice on display at every turn—the haggard streetwalkers angling for johns, the beggars mutilating themselves to bolster their earning power, the heavy carts pulled by coolies in lieu of oxen, the constant kidnappings of anyone who looked capable of shelling out a few yuan for ransom. Yet amid all the criminality flourished an artistic culture like no other in the world, one that embraced both ancient opera and the hottest jazz.

Hughes needed a Virgil to guide him through the highs and lows of Shanghai. Teddy Weatherford was more than happy to oblige.

The Seagull’s star had risen considerably in the four years since the Jack Carter Orchestra disbanded. “Stiff-necked Britishers and Old China Hands from Bombay to the Yellow river swore by his music,” the starry-eyed Hughes would later write. “A big, genial, dark man, something of a clown, Teddy could walk into almost any public place in the Orient and folks would break into applause.”

At the time of Hughes’s visit, Weatherford was the main attraction at the Canidrome, a colossal dog track and casino located in the French-controlled quadrant of Shanghai’s International Settlement. The Shanghai police had cracked down on the import and sale of opium in the early 1920s, a move that only pushed the enterprise into the French Concession, where Chinese authorities held little sway. The city’s Mafia, the powerful Green Gang, controlled this narcotics trade through a front business called the Three Prosperities Company. The gang’s head honchos, Pockmarked Huang and Big-Eared Du, split the company’s $50 million annual revenues with the various foreigners who helped smuggle and store their addictive merchandise.

The Canidrome, the main attraction in the French Concession, was owned by the Tung Vong Company, a partnership between the millionaires Mr. Tung (the fat one) and Mr. Vong (the skinny one). The ruling KMT had long maneuvered to shutter the place as an affront to Chinese morals, since so many native-born gamblers blew their meager savings on the Canidrome’s greyhound races and nightly lottery. But the Green Gang made sure that vice remained on offer in their territory, to the joy of jazz fans, who flocked to the Canidrome’s baroque ballroom to hear Weatherford play.

Weatherford drove Hughes around Shanghai in his car to let him see for himself why the city was known as the Paris of the Orient. They cruised up and down the Bund, the bustling district along the Huangpu River where European-style edifices loomed over stately waterfront parks. Hughes would occasionally jump out to explore the grimy alleys that echoed with the sounds of clattering mah-jongg tiles and caged fighting crickets.

But Hughes seemed less impressed with Shanghai than with his chauffeur. “Sitting beside the big, dark, hulking musician in the car, I thought how fascinating it must be to be a band leader like Weatherford, making music all around the world,” he would later recall. “If I were a performer, I thought, and could play or sing or dance my way to Hong Kong and Singapore and Calcutta and Bombay, I would never go home at all.

“But I was not a performer,” Hughes lamented, “only a writer.”

Hughes also caught a glimpse of Weatherford’s sybaritic lifestyle, with its deluge of alcohol and gorgeous groupies of various races. Among Shanghai’s biggest jazz fans were young White Russians who’d fled their homeland a decade earlier after the Bolshevik revolution. Occupying the bottom rung of Shanghai’s expatriate pecking order, these exiles took the jobs no other whites would. The women, in particular, often wound up staffing the city’s numerous houses of ill repute, where 8,000 Russians provided sexual services for paying clients. But a few girls avoided this fate by latching onto the American jazzmen they worshipped. Weatherford collected Russian girlfriends with ease, as did various other musicians who passed through his Canidrome band. Their sexual abandon had predictable consequences: Band members paid frequent visits to one Dr. Borovika, a former German fighter pilot turned physician who was a master of treating venereal diseases.

The musicians and their women, both wives and groupies, formed a bohemian community amid the colonial elegance of 1930s Shanghai. Hughes recounted the typically boisterous scene at the house of one of Weatherford’s sidemen, which he visited just four hours before he was scheduled to depart for Japan:

It was eleven o’clock when we got there. Other musicians with their White Russian girls or Japanese wives were gathered by that time, having highballs and awaiting us. The one Negro woman in the group, wife of one of the bandboys from Harlem, said that fried chicken wouldn’t amount to anything without hot biscuits, so she went into the kitchen to make some.…

I could smell the chicken cooking in the kitchen where the colored wife was busy with the biscuits, and assorted Japanese and White Russian females were all cooking too, drinking and chattering away like mad. Everyone was in high spirits, so it took quite a little time to get anything done. Anyhow, the chicken certainly did smell good! But I looked at the clock and both hands were past high noon.…

“Teddy, man, I’m gonna have to go.”

“Asaki, how about that bird?” Teddy bawled. “Shenshi, Kiki, Tamara, what you-all doing out there? This man is hungry!”

The girls started setting tables—a big table and two or three smaller ones in the front rooms, as there were more than a dozen people. Said Teddy, “If I had me a piano, I would beat out some blues.” But there was no piano, so Teddy and the rest of the folks just kept on mixing highballs and um-ummmm-mm-m-ing at the wonderful smells of chicken frying in the kitchen….

At half past one there on the far edge of Shanghai, Teddy and I were climbing into his car, each of us with a sizzling drumstick and a buttered biscuit, on the way to my hotel, miles off near the Bund.… With greasy hands I rushed up the stairs of the hotel and started throwing things into my bags. Teddy gathered up my typewriter, books and such items and took them down to the car, then came rocking jovially back to see if he could be of further help. It was then about two-thirty P.M. I still had to pay my bill! When I stumbled panting into the car with a string of ties and two pairs of shoes in my hands, and we headed at top speed for the pier, I just barely caught the last lighter going out to the ship anchored offshore in the Huangpoo, flags flying and steam up for sailing. I left Teddy waving on the docks with the whole backdrop of Shanghai behind him.

A few months after Hughes departed, Mr. Tung and Mr. Vong sent Weatherford on a recruiting mission to America. Like Jack Carter before him, Weatherford was charged with finding more black musicians willing to satiate the Shanghailanders’ appetite for African-American culture.

Weatherford arrived in Los Angeles on January 6, 1934, where he met a trumpeter named Buck Clayton, leader of a crackerjack band that was desperate for work. (They had recently concluded a disastrous gig at Club Ebony, during which their crooked manager had gambled away all of their wages.) Sweetening the pot was Clayton’s girlfriend, Derby, a beautiful dancer who’d appeared in such Hollywood musicals as Roman Scandals and Murder at the Vanities. She was eager to come to China and join the show.

Weatherford signed up Buck Clayton and His Harlem Gentlemen for the Canidrome and booked passage back to China on the SS President Hoover. Days before the ship set sail, Buck and Derby married at a ceremony hosted by Duke Ellington and held on the Paramount Studios lot.

Clayton’s band was an instant hit in Shanghai, attracting Madame Chiang Kai-shek and her entourage of silk-clad beauties on opening night. (Madame Chiang’s sister later insisted on taking tap-dance lessons from the group’s trombonist.) The show began as patrons wrapped up a 17-course meal, and it included Derby’s interpretation of a traditional Russian peasant dance.

Weatherford, meanwhile, took clever advantage of his new situation. “Teddy was playing four different nightclubs each night, so he could only play with us on one number before he would have to leave for another club to be in time for his show there,” Clayton would later recall. “He would play one half hour in each club, running from one club to the next, but at the end of the week he had four salaries coming to him.”

Weatherford depicted in his trademark white suit.

8. Harlem Gentlemen

One night in November 1934, as Clayton milled about the Canidrome between sets, a Russian girl approached him for an autograph. As he leaned down to sign her piece of paper, she grabbed the monogrammed handkerchief from his coat pocket and ran off. Clayton thought nothing of the matter until the following evening, when he spied the girl at one of the ballroom’s tables. She was accompanied by a large, rough-looking American who refused to sit down as the show began. As he led his band through its first number, Clayton couldn’t help but glance at the standing man.

“Turn your eyes the other way, you black son of a bitch!” the American yelled over the swelling music.

Clayton descended from the stage to confront the man. Moments later, the bandleader was on the floor, having been sucker-punched in the face. A melee ensued as the rest of the band converged on the American instigator, a Marine- turned- gangster named Jack Riley. The plumpest of the Harlem Gentlemen sat on Riley’s chest while the rest of the band rained down blows. All the while, the band’s pianist remained onstage and kept playing, making some in the audience think that the brawl was part of the show.

The Harlem Gentlemen’s beat-down of Riley turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory: The next morning, Mr. Tung and Mr. Vong received a telegram from a contingent of American expats threatening to attack the Canidrome with machine guns if Buck Clayton and His Harlem Gentlemen were allowed to return. Neither they nor their patron Weatherford would ever play the ballroom again.

The Canidrome brouhaha occurred just as Shanghai’s freewheeling Jazz Age began drawing to a close. The Japanese had bombed the city in 1932, allegedly in response to anti-Japanese rioting. Tens of thousands of Chinese had been killed, and the ensuing cease-fire, brokered by the League of Nations, allowed several Japanese army units to be stationed in the city. Those units had since kept busy harassing Shanghai’s Chinese residents, and everyone knew that the Japanese were angling for a casus belli. The Japanese in the city frequently complained about minor slights to their national honor, such as stones tossed at Japanese schoolchildren. It was only a matter of time before they hit upon an excuse to invade.

How a Japanese conquest might affect the city’s nightlife was anyone’s guess, so American musicians were faced with a tough choice: Stay and risk imprisonment or worse once hostilities commenced, or abandon the city they’d come to love.

Harlem-bred trombonist Ernest “Slick” Clark, a frequent Weatherford sideman, elected to stick it out. He went on to become a bandleader at the Paramount Club, a job he held onto even after the Japanese assumed control of the city in 1937. But after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese decided to send Shanghai’s American residents to internment camps. Clark spent the next two years subsisting on cracked wheat and enduring regular beatings, until he was allowed to sail home aboard a Swedish passenger ship.

The Seagull, however, glimpsed the clouds on Shanghai’s horizon. Soon after the Canidrome fight, he packed up and left China for good.

Weatherford in Paris, where he dazzled attendees at the 1937 International Exposition.

9. Springtime in Paris

Weatherford may have lost his cushy Shanghai gig and his White Russian groupies, but as an artist and a showman, he was just approaching his peak. He’d had a taste of celebrity in China, and now he was looking for a new place that would appreciate his sizeable talents. His first stop was Singapore, where he crossed paths with a saxophonist named Roy “the Reverend” Butler.

A teetotaling Chicagoan who had also been globetrotting for years—first through Brazil and Argentina, then to Paris—Butler had eventually settled in Bombay, where he played in a band called Crickett Smith’s Symphonians. The band was touring through Singapore in the summer of 1935 when its pianist suddenly quit. Desperate for a replacement, Butler followed up on a bit of local gossip regarding a spectacular pianist who was wowing crowds at the palatial Raffles Hotel. When Butler went to check out the show, he was elated to discover that Weatherford, an old friend from Chicago, was the buzzed-about musician.  Butler asked his acquaintance to join the Symphonians on their forthcoming trip to the Dutch East Indies. Lured by the promise of higher wages, Weatherford readily agreed. The reconfigured Symphonians did a brief stint in Java and then returned to Bombay with Weatherford in tow to begin a fresh season at the jewel of the city’s nightlife: the Taj Mahal Hotel, located by the temple-like Gateway of India arch on the waterfront.

The Taj had two venues where patrons could hear live music: the upstairs ballroom, where tuxedoed orchestras entertained diners who consumed dishes like Filet de Beckti Cecil Rhodes, and the downstairs Harbour Bar, which attracted a rougher clientele hungry for hot jazz. Always keen to earn multiple paychecks, the inexhaustible Weatherford shuttled between the two, playing with the Symphonians in the early evening and closing out the bar at night. Before long, he was packing the house wherever he played.

Weatherford honed his showmanship in the Harbour Bar, entertaining British soldiers and sailors who craved good times before they set off for distant malarial outposts. To impress these men, Weatherford would sip a drink with one hand while playing with the other, never skipping a beat or losing a decibel’s worth of volume. Such were the benefits of having been blessed with hands the size of gull wings.

Weatherford also adopted a uniform that would become his trademark: a white sharkskin suit, usually accompanied by a broad-brimmed hat. It was a dandy look, one that might seem ill-advised for a man of Weatherford’s considerable girth, but it turned out to have an odd charm.

Weatherford was once again a star attraction, and word of his talent crossed continents. In early 1937, he was invited to perform at the International Exposition, to be held in Paris that spring and summer. He set sail for Marseilles in April, taking with him one of his most prized possessions: a piano accordion that had set him back a reported $1,000.

Parisians had fallen madly in love with jazz in the ’20s, and numerous African-American musicians had since settled in the bohemian Montmartre neighborhood. The expo brought over scores more jazzmen, enough to fill the city’s clubs with joyous sound for weeks on end. “I have just spent a week in Harlem—but it only took me a few hours to get there and back,” the British jazz critic Leonard Feather wrote that summer in the jazz fanzine Melody Maker. “Lenox Avenue was called the Rue Pigalle and the bands worked for francs instead of dollars.”

When Weatherford arrived in town, he was whisked from party to party, playing his accordion for the likes of the fabulously wealthy Rothschild clan. He met a cartoonishly rotund jazz lover named Hugues Panassié who owned a small record label called Swing. A longtime champion of Weatherford’s old bandmate Louis Armstrong, Panassié was instantly smitten with the pianist’s skill and begged him to record some sides for Swing. Weatherford, momentarily abandoning his entrepreneurial instincts, agreed to do so for free and spent two summer days in the studio with Panassié, playing solo.

The resulting cuts, a selection of standards like “My Blue Heaven” and “Tea for Two,” reveal an artist in top form. Weatherford plays with his typically heavy touch, yanking out a torrent of sound from his piano—it occasionally seems as if Panassié had added a second piano track. But there is also something undeniably mournful about those Swing recordings, as if Weatherford had developed a pensive streak after so many years as a highly paid vagabond.

Not content to simply commit Weatherford’s genius to wax, Panassié also used his clout as founder of a jazz appreciation society, the Hot Club de France, to secure his hero a solo concert at the prestigious École Normale de Musique de Paris:

Smiling in his characteristically modest manner Weatherford seated himself before the keyboard and my what a delightful treat the capacity crowd of 800 music lovers were in for. Weatherford’s ease and grace, skill, technique and versatility is extraordinary. His superb executions of classics, of the old masters, and modern jazz music was simply divine. His attentive and appreciative audience was spellbound while he played and prolonged applause rocked the auditorium at the termination of each composition.

When Weatherford returned to Bombay, his international stardom was too great to be wasted on a mere sideman. And so Crickett Smith’s Symphonians was transformed into Teddy Weatherford and His Band, featuring exactly the same personnel.

10. The Wizard We All Know

Weatherford was accorded the royal treatment in Bombay. He was given lavish quarters at the Taj Mahal, with all meals included, and the considerable money he earned performing could be spent on whatever luxuries struck his fancy. Maids and butlers could be hired for a pittance, and expert tailors created exquisite garments for next to nothing. Roy Butler referred to the band’s life in Bombay as “a millionaire’s vacation with pay and passage.”

Weatherford was prepared to live it up for as long as he could. But a saintly Indian hero was about to ruin his fun: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

In 1935, in response to the strengthening Indian independence movement, the British Parliament passed the Government of India Act. The act gave India’s individual provinces much greater political autonomy than ever before. Unfortunately for Bombay’s tipplers, the provincial government that ran the city was deeply sympathetic to Gandhi’s dim view of liquor: “Those who take to drinking ruin themselves and ruin their people,” the Mahatma had written. By 1939, prohibition had descended upon Bombay, to the great detriment of the Taj Mahal’s coffers.

Unlike the Moulin Rouge during Prohibition, Bombay’s most venerable hot spots abided by the liquor ban. With the Harbour Bar dry and the ballroom’s meals stripped of their accompanying claret and scotch, Weatherford decided to take his act on the road. The band headed down to Colombo, the capital of the island of  Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), to play a long engagement at the Galle Face Hotel.

Ceylon’s leisure class had a deeply chauvinistic vision of African-American culture, which visiting black musicians were expected to live up to. Weatherford was already accustomed to tingeing his band’s show with racial stereotypes: At the Taj, the musicians’ stage patter was patterned after the exaggerated slang of Stepin Fetchit. But the Colombo audiences wanted Weatherford to provide even more minstrelsy. And so the opening-night party at the Galle Face Hotel, held on July 29, 1939, was called Plantation Night; the invitation featured Sambo-style caricatures wearing overalls and picking banjos. To flesh out the show’s racist theme, Weatherford led a number in which he and three bandmates dressed like those caricatures and sang spirituals as the Plantation Quartet. It was an undignified venture for a man whose music had recently enthralled the cream of Parisian society, but Weatherford didn’t seem to care as long as the hotel paid him on time. The love of money had always been his major weakness as an artist; he usually chose pleasing crowds over taking risks.

Weatherford returned to Bombay and the Taj Mahal Hotel in January 1940, to tremendous acclaim. The evening’s program for his comeback concert lauded him as “The Wizard we all know,” and the kitchen honored the man by adding Poires Glace Weatherford to the menu. The Taj Mahal’s owners seemed to hope that Weatherford would see the wisdom in sticking close to Bombay, which appeared to be safe from Japanese attack.

But the band decamped for Colombo once again, though this time its stay was brief. While performing at the Galle Face Hotel, Weatherford received a telegram containing an irresistible job offer: a slot as musical director of Calcutta’s Grand Hotel.

Weatherford and the “Deep South Boys,” a routine he felt compelled to develop in Ceylon. 

11. The Winter Garden

Passengers arriving at Calcutta’s main train station in 1943 often witnessed a disturbing sight: hordes of emaciated men, women, and children stooped over at the waist, carefully inspecting the ground alongside the tracks. Every now and then, one of these gleaners would reach down to pluck a few errant grains of rice from the mud. With great luck, a person could find just enough food to sustain himself for another day. But such luck was hard to come by in the midst of the Bengal famine of 1943, which would eventually claim 3 million lives.

Like so many famines throughout history, the catastrophe in Bengal was largely man-made. Prior to the start of World War II, the vast majority of the Indian province’s food came from Burma, one of the breadbaskets of the British Raj. But when the Japanese conquered Burma in 1942, eliminating Bengal’s grain supply, the British had no emergency plan in place.

The inhabitants of rural villages perished in droves, and the survivors were often too weak to bury the dead. Those with the strength to flee headed for Calcutta in the hope of finding relief. But anyone expecting salvation in the big city was quickly disappointed. There were few government handouts to be had, and the rice available on the black market had been marked up 500 percent. All the newcomers could do was forage, beg, or steal. Otherwise they died on the Calcutta sidewalks, their rotting bodies an ever-present obstacle for pedestrians throughout 1943.

Yet for the city’s elite, for whom life revolved around whiskey and cricket, the famine had little impact. The American journalist Eric Sevareid, who passed through Calcutta as a war correspondent, was disgusted by the great disparity between the city’s haves and have-nots:

In the Calcutta stock exchange, enormously fat brokers dozed in their deep leather chairs, surfeited with their heavy lunches; they sprawled out with their feet apart, their snoring mouths wide open. You went down the stairs and sidestepped to avoid a totally naked Hindu who was foraging with his head in the garbage pail. You stepped over the frail, white-swathed bodies of women who lay on the sidewalk in front of your hotel, dying quietly with their babies clutched to their breasts.

From his penthouse suite at the Grand Hotel, Teddy Weatherford was one of those comfortably isolated from the horrors of Calcuttan street life. He regularly held court in his lavish quarters, where he kept a piano to entertain guests who were served highball after highball by a coterie of hangers-on.

The years were starting to catch up with Weatherford, however: He was nearing 40 when he first arrived in Calcutta. He had spent most of his adult life chasing pretty young things and romancing the various female singers who passed through his band. Soon after he came to Calcutta, though, he finally met a woman he wanted to settle down with: an olive-skinned Anglo-Indian beauty named Pansy Hill.

She might have been a patron at the Grand Hotel’s Winter Garden club one night and found herself smitten by the large black man in the white sharkskin suit. Or maybe they met at one of the elegant teas or cocktail parties that dotted the city’s social calendar—Hill’s father was a prominent university professor, and so his offspring would have been expected to make the rounds from parlor to parlor. Whatever the story behind the crossing of Weatherford’s and Hill’s paths, however, their courtship was brief. On April 9, 1942, the two were wed at the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus on Dharmatala Street. Weatherford had only been in the city for about six months.

Back in the U.S., such a marriage would likely have been a legal impossibility, given the prevalence of anti-miscegenation laws. But interracial couplings were the norm in Calcutta, where Englishmen often took up with Bengali women. Beyond that, the city’s music scene was dominated by artists with biracial ancestries—Anglo-Indians, of course, but also Goans, who typically carry large dollops of Portuguese blood. In such an environment, no one batted an eye at Weatherford’s blackness—he was simply an American. When asked whether his Calcuttan hosts ever exhibited racial prejudice, Weatherford replied with a quip: “They treat us white folks fine.”

Weatherford returned the favor by employing a multiracial band. The war had curtailed the supply of African-American musicians, so Weatherford started hiring from the city’s pool of Asian talent. His best sideman at the Grand Hotel was a Burmese guitarist named Cedric West, who had escaped from Rangoon just before the Japanese took the city in March 1942. He hired a Nepalese trumpeter named Pushkar Bahadur Buddhaprithi; to spare audiences the embarrassment of trying to pronounce that name, Weatherford had the young man play under the pseudonym George Banks.

Weatherford also tapped passing American servicemen to sit in with the band. Roughly 15,000 African-American GIs had been sent to South Asia to build the Ledo Road, a 465-mile military highway that stretched from Assam to the China-Burma border town of Wanting. When these soldiers wanted to go on leave, their only option was to head for Calcutta: Though there were 11 American R&R camps throughout India, the Calcutta complex was the single one set aside for blacks. It was located in Howrah, just across the Hooghly River from Calcutta proper, and it was an absolute dump—a collection of canvas tents perched atop mud, within spitting distance of the bloated corpses that regularly floated down the river during the famine. Black soldiers did everything they could to avoid spending time there, and that meant passing their vacation hours at the Winter Garden.

Those who could sing or play were welcome to come onstage with Weatherford, and occasionally the Seagull would unearth a future star. The great blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon got his start in this manner, filling the open-air club with his melancholy baritone. And the saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, who would later become a mainstay of Duke Ellington’s band, recorded several numbers with Weatherford while serving in the Army.

But the scene at the Winter Garden wasn’t always pleasant. Unlike in Bombay, cheap liquor was everywhere in Calcutta, and soldiers had few compunctions about getting blind drunk while on leave. Bloody dance-floor fights were commonplace, as the Goan saxophonist Ruben Solomon recalled:

Americans had more money to spend on the girls, so all the girls would be with the American soldiers and none with the British tommies. As soon as a set of Americans would come in the British would watch them, then suddenly, for no apparent reason, there would be a free-for-all, bottles, chairs, the lot. We would be ducking and Teddy would stand and shout, “Okay boys, fighting music!” And we would go into something very two-beat—tarah, tarah, crash, bang—as long as we could. Suddenly you would hear the MP’s’ whistles and everyone would converge on the dance floor. A few bodies would be taken out.

The Grand Hotel band played constantly, and not just at the Winter Garden. It was also featured on regular broadcasts hosted by the Armed Forces Radio Service, which transmitted Weatherford’s music to listeners throughout India. In towns and villages hundreds of miles west of Calcutta, many residents heard their first strains of jazz thanks to Weatherford’s radio work. Many who fell in love with the genre would always credit the Seagull.

Yet as he basked in the limelight, Weatherford’s music took a turn for the worse. Happily married, handsomely paid, and frequently inebriated, he found his creative energy flagging. The crowds of soldiers and party girls who packed the Winter Garden each night demanded feel-good hits, and Weatherford obliged by having his band deliver faithful renditions of mainstream fare: Frank Sinatra, Glenn Miller. At the same time, Weatherford and his band produced dozens of records for an Indian label that had a manufacturing plant just outside Calcutta. To critics, these songs sounded lazy and uninspired—nothing more than quick cash-ins on Weatherford’s fame. Jazz connoisseurs who were familiar with Weatherford’s earlier recordings passed harsh judgment on these lackluster sides: Where the Seagull had once sounded like a man ahead of his time, they remarked, he now sounded years behind.

Perhaps the drop in creativity could be attributed to mere fatigue: Weatherford was now more than a decade older than the new generation of jazz trailblazers back in the U.S. Sensing that he couldn’t keep playing forever, he had started making plans to fade away gracefully. Despite having been a star in Asia for nearly two decades, Weatherford intended to return home one day. He told one of his trumpeters that he planned on saving some money to open up a snack bar. At the rate he was raking it in at the Grand Hotel, it wouldn’t take long.

Calcutta’s Grand Hotel

12. Home

Weatherford had certainly done plenty to earn an early retirement. More than just a musical talent, he was a brilliant entrepreneur, an artist who cleverly capitalized on the world’s first crush on African-American culture. Time and again, he had uprooted his life for a chance at better pay and greater renown. In that way, Weatherford was a forerunner not just of the global march of Americana, but also of the millions of highly skilled knowledge workers of today who bounce between capitals as if borders scarcely exist. Back in the States, his old pals Louis Armstrong and Earl Hines had shaped the future of American music, paving the way for budding jazz giants like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Thelonious Monk. But Weatherford had opted for a life of adventure abroad rather than one of influence at home.

Though he was born into abject poverty, the Seagull traveled the world inside a cocoon of utmost privilege. He entertained a colonial elite that retreated into decadence as Asia disintegrated around them. Holed up in ballrooms packed with gin-soaked Brits in ascots or white satin gloves, Weatherford was largely shielded from the suffering of the continent’s masses—people with whom he’d once had much in common. He provided the soundtrack for the last gasp of empire.

Now that the colonial era was finally coming to its inevitable end, it was time for Weatherford to reinvent himself again—as a family man and restaurateur back in his native land. But carelessness would doom those idyllic plans.

Though the Grand Hotel was a high-class establishment, guidebooks warned visitors not to consume the tap water in the hotel’s rooms. Weatherford was apt to ignore those instructions when drunk, however. And he was drunk quite often.

On April 20, 1945, Weatherford complained of feeling ill with abdominal pains and diarrhea. He was immediately rushed to Presidency General Hospital, where his symptoms worsened over the ensuing days. As he fought for his life, news emerged that Calcutta was in the early stages of a cholera epidemic, rumored to have been caused by the disposal of diseased cats in the Hooghly River. Antibiotics had entered the medical arsenal a few years earlier, but Presidency apparently had none on hand. Without them, Weatherford stood little chance: He passed away on the morning of April 25, 1945.

The funeral procession for Asia’s most beloved jazzman took place the next day. Tens of thousands of Calcuttans of all races turned out to watch Weatherford’s funeral cortege as the Seagull’s body was transported from the hospital to Lower Circular Road Cemetery. His death pushed the war news off the front pages of Indian newspapers.

Yet, for all the adulation Weatherford received in death, it didn’t take long for his legacy to fade. The piano from his Grand Hotel suite was allegedly passed between Calcuttan musicians, who considered the instrument a sacred reminder of the man who had spread the gospel of jazz. But it eventually disappeared, and it may well have ended up as kindling.

Shanghai’s jazz scene, meanwhile, was virtually extinguished during the Japanese occupation, and the Red Army’s 1949 triumph guaranteed that it would never be revived. And as the European colonial empires crumbled, so too did the decadent expatriate culture that had embraced Weatherford and his music. Jazz survived in Colombo, Calcutta, and Bombay, but American musicians essentially disappeared from those cities’ club scenes. They were succeeded by the Goans and Anglo-Indians who’d learned their craft from Weatherford and his cohorts. Many of these artists would eventually ply their trade in Bollywood, infusing the Indian film industry’s soundtracks with the subtle strains of American jazz.

As for Pansy Weatherford, there were rumors that Teddy had left her some property in Bluefield, West Virginia, and that she moved there after the war, along with her sister and brother-in-law, a former American soldier. But no one could say for sure what had become of her.

In 1970, an Indian jazz lover named Jehangir Dalal set about trying to piece together part of Weatherford’s fading legacy. He placed a classified ad in the Calcutta Statesman:

Teddy Weatherford—Would friends of Teddy’s and musicians associated with him please urgently contact Jehangir Dalal, c/o M.N. Dastur, 12/3 Ballygunge Park Road, Calcutta-19.

Dalal received numerous letters from acquaintances of Weatherford’s, though few were able to provide meaningful details about the Seagull’s career in India. Many wrote just to express the love and admiration they had felt for “good ol’ Teddy.”

A month after placing the ad, however, Dalal received a brief letter from the northwest London neighborhood of Harlesden. “Dear sir,” it read:

I have just received a letter from a friend of mine enclosing a cutting of yours from the Statesman regarding my late husband Teddy Weatherford.

Will you please let me know what you want to know about my late husband.… I would be very much obliged if you would reply to me as I am anxious to know what you want to know.

Yours faithfully,

Mrs. Pansy Weatherford

Dalal wrote back immediately, explaining that he was a historian keen to ensure that Teddy’s story would not be forgotten by future generations of jazz fans. He simply wished to know more about Weatherford’s travels throughout Asia, about the various musicians, both minor and famous, who had passed through the Seagull’s bands. Would she be so kind as to share her recollections of the great man—and perhaps shed some light on how she had spent the past quarter century?

Pansy Weatherford never replied. 



The robbers had a crew of two dozen specialists, a stolen helicopter, perfectly designed explosives, and inside information on a $150 million cash repository in Stockholm. The inside tale of one of history’s most elaborate heists, and the race to unravel it.

By Evan Ratliff

The Atavist Magazine, No. 02

Evan Ratliff is the editor of The Atavist Magazine. His writing appears in Wired, where he is a contributing editor, The New YorkerNational Geographic, and other publications. He is also the story editor of Pop-Up Magazine, a live event.

Dean C.K. Cox is a Sweden-based editorial photojournalist and documentary photographer primarily covering former communist countries of central and eastern Europe, central Asia, the Caucasus and northern Europe. His work has appeared in The Associated Press, The New York Times, Time, and countless other publications. He is currently completing a longterm documentary project on Belarus

Editor: Katrina Heron
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kathleen Massara
Translator: Madelene Lind, Eriksen Translations (
Special thanks: Gordon Platt; Surveillance footage and evidence photos are courtesy of the Swedish International Public Prosecution Office.

Published in January 2011. Design updated in 2021.


On the bright afternoon of September 2, 2009, two men sat on a bench in Stockholm. One was medium height with a reddish-blond beard and sunglasses. He wore a gray suit with an open-collar shirt. The other, a squat man with dark hair and an olive complexion, had on a green military-style jacket. The bench was one of a half dozen along a marina on the north end of Skeppsholmen, a small island situated where the fresh waters coursing around the city begin to mingle with the Baltic Sea.

Connected by a single bridge to Stockholm’s mainland, Skeppsholmen offers a picturesque spot to conduct sensitive business. It’s home to Stockholm’s Museum of Modern Art, which draws just enough tourists that a group of conspirators can remain unremarkable and undisturbed. Across the water to the southeast, the two men could just make out the upraised arms of passengers careening down a roller coaster.

A third man arrived, parked his car behind the museum, and walked toward the boats. He was at least six foot three—associates referred to him as the Tall One—and wore, as he often did, white slacks and a long-sleeve shirt. He was meticulously groomed and carried himself with the confidence of a well-connected businessman. At the waterfront, he paused and glanced at the scattered afternoon visitors. Then he strode over to the bench and sat down between the two men.

Annika Persson, an undercover officer with the Stockholm police, had followed the tall man down from his car and then strolled along the docks, 25 feet away. She was posing as a local resident out for an afternoon walk, and she’d brought along her small black Schnauzer as a prop. The three men seemed deep in conversation. If they noticed her, they didn’t show it.

Of the trio, the Tall One was the only man Persson could positively identify. His name was Goran Bojovic, and he was a 38-year-old first-generation Swede whose parents had emigrated from Montenegro. He owned a construction firm that was based in Estonia and lived in a quiet part of the city, above a combined café and furniture store owned by his parents. His criminal record consisted of a few traffic tickets. Still, the organized-crime detail at the National Criminal Investigations Department, known by its Swedish initials RKP, had long suspected him of being more than just a businessman.

Recently, those suspicions had turned more urgent, and the RKP had bugged his car and phone. On August 27, the Serbian foreign ministry, through diplomatic channels, alerted Swedish authorities that Bojovic had made contact with a man whose name would prick up the ears of any RKP officer: Milan Sevo, a former Stockholm Mafia figure who’d relocated to Belgrade, where the Serbian police monitored his calls. Serbian authorities had overheard Bojovic enlisting Sevo’s logistical help for what they gleaned was a major robbery to be carried out in Stockholm. The Serbs knew neither the time nor the location of the planned crime, but they did pass along two significant facts: The heist would take place at a large cash repository, and it would involve a helicopter. The Swedish police had placed Bojovic under surveillance in late August.

Persson tugged the dog in the direction of Bojovic and his companions. The men kept their voices low, and she couldn’t make out their conversation. But she did manage to sneak a closer look at their faces. She recognized the man with the “South European complexion,” as she would later describe him, as an acquaintance of Bojovic’s. The man with the beard, however, was unfamiliar.

After five minutes, the three men stood up and shook hands. Bojovic and the man in the military jacket left in Bojovic’s car. The bearded man passed within a few feet of Persson on his way to the parking lot. He climbed into a Peugeot and departed alone.

Persson walked to her own car and started to follow him. Just off the island bridge, worried that her pursuit might be too obvious, she radioed a surveillance vehicle waiting nearby. Her partner tailed the Peugeot across town to a commercial district on the eastern end of Stockholm, where the bearded man walked into an office building. That was as far as the police went with the lead. The Tall One had met with dozens of people during the weeks they’d been tailing him, and the gregarious businessman’s network seemed to include hundreds of people. As one investigator complained about Bojovic, “He has 500 contacts in his phone; if he walks down the street, he’s stopped every five meters to talk.” The police didn’t have the resources to chase after every person with whom Bojovic shared a bench.

The officer added the Peugeot’s license plate to the surveillance report. He noted that the owner lived in Ljusterö, a wealthy coastal area to the north of Stockholm.



Bojovic, meanwhile, drove to the airport and flew to Belgrade. From there he hopped to Montenegro and then Thailand, with the RKP in virtual pursuit. They continued to track his phones, amassing volumes of cryptic, seemingly coded conversations and SMS messages pointing everywhere and nowhere at once. The Tall One was clearly scheming about something; he’d enlisted Sevo to help him hire a Serbian “pilot” for “a project” and given him a $20,000 advance. But not all was well. The pilot seemed to be backing out, and Bojovic wanted the money back to hire someone else.

“But has he said definitely no?” he asked Sevo one afternoon.

“Not totally. But he hasn’t been in touch. Fuck it. He made his point…. We have these other two, one in Switzerland. Now they are looking for the other person, to see if they want the job, straight up.”

“You know what? I called a school here and asked what it costs, you know, to learn,” Bojovic suggested.

“Good title if nothing else,” Sevo said. “You can say, ‘I am a pilot.’”

“Yes, yes.”

“Not, ‘I am the cook,’” Sevo joked.

“Well, I’m the waiter!”

Back in Sweden, Bojovic was in constant communication with a man named Charbel Charro, a first-generation Swede with dual Syrian citizenship. Charro had served time for theft and other crimes and was now working as a PE teacher at a school in southern Stockholm. On the phone, Charro seemed wary of surveillance. “It’s dangerous for you to talk to the guy down south,” he told Bojovic.

Leif Görts, a 52-year-old prosecutor in Sweden’s International Public Prosecution Office, followed the surveillance with a measured eye. Under the country’s legal system, prosecutors collaborate closely with police as they conduct investigations, and Görts had been the one to request the wiretaps on Bojovic at the end of August. A small, wiry man with a shaved head, he’d spent years working on financial cases, and he had built a reputation as someone who could win complicated fraud and money-laundering convictions. The robbery would be his first organized-crime case with the RKP. “This seems legitimate,” the cops had said when they brought him the information about the helicopter plot from the Serbian authorities. And Görts trusted them, even if the helicopter idea sounded a bit far-fetched. When it came to robberies in Stockholm, almost nothing was too spectacular to believe.

In fact, ambitious heists had become a kind of specialty criminal industry over the past decade, turning the country into one of the robbery hotbeds of the world. With a population of a little over 9 million, Sweden accounted for a tenth of the robbery losses in all of Europe; the period between 1998 and 2004 had witnessed 224 large-scale assaults on the country’s cash-distribution systems. In Finland the total for the same period was four. Lately, Sweden’s armed-robbery racket, once run by local gangs with colorful names like Fucked for Life and Brödraskapet, “the Brotherhood,” had been taken over by internationally sourced networks of freelance experts. They included ad hoc collections of drivers, explosives makers, and muscle assembled to execute increasingly intricate and violent plans , often involving inside information and heavy weapons.

The organized-crime division of the RKP had made disrupting those networks a top priority, and now they had a chance to head off a large robbery before it happened. For Görts, however, the surveillance had evolved into a kind of catch-22. These guys aren’t stupid, he thought. They know we’re wiretapping the phones. They know we can bug them. They are planning delicate, complicated crimes. He could bring in the suspects, keep them for a few days, and accuse them of conspiracy. But he wouldn’t be able to make the charges stick. Görts and the police had no option but to wait for the plot to become real.

Leif Gorts, prosecutor


On September 9,  Bojovic finally seemed to set the plan in motion. “This is done,” he told Sevo on the phone. “We don’t need to look anymore.” The RKP concluded that Bojovic had finally found his pilot. Piecing together opaque clues from the transcripts, they thought they knew the date of the robbery, Thursday, September 17, and the location, a cash depot at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport.

In Sweden the transport and storage of hard currency is handled not by banks but by three private companies. Each controls the cash from end to end—operating fleets of armored cars, doling the money out to ATMs, rounding up currency from banks and retail firms, and counting and storing it in cash centers. The largest of the three was G4S, a UK-based firm with operations around the world. Panaxia Security, a homegrown company, operated the cash center at the airport.

The location offered what the authorities assumed would be easy escape routes. And Sweden’s criminals had shown an affinity for airport-related targets. In 2002, three men dressed as maintenance workers and armed with assault rifles walked onto an Arlanda runway in broad daylight and robbed a plane that had just arrived from London. They took $7 million in cash and left behind a fake bomb to delay their pursuers. Four years later, masked men rammed through a gate at Gothenburg’s airport and made off with a million dollars.

This time the RKP would be ready. They mobilized SWAT teams and placed police helicopter crews on high alert. The pilots were prepped to intercept what were expected to be savvy, heavily armed assailants equipped with their own helicopter. The police also quietly informed Panaxia’s security director, on the condition that he not share the information with colleagues at other companies.

Then September 17 arrived and…nothing. And nothing is going to happen, Görts began to conclude. Maybe the too-obvious surveillance had scared Bojovic into hesitating. Maybe by “this is done” he had actually meant that he’d called the robbery off. More likely, the plot was a red herring from the beginning. 


The distance between Myttinge, a forested area dotted with farms and cabins along Sweden’s eastern coast, and downtown Stockholm, to the southwest, is approximately 25 miles. A helicopter can make the trip in 10 minutes, and in 2009 the two Stockholm police helicopters based there routinely did so. The police choppers were kept in Myttinge partly for their protection but also to provide rescue coverage to the sparsely populated archipelagos to the north. The base itself consists of a single metal-roofed hangar. It is easy to spot from the road: Its driveway is flanked by a large cylindrical fuel tank and a circular concrete landing pad painted with a white, 10-foot-wide H.

At 2:30 a.m. on September 23, just under a week after the false alarm at Panaxia’s airport depot in Stockholm, police pilot Anders Johansson and his partner, on duty in Myttinge, returned from their final routine flight of the evening. They refueled the helicopter, rolled it into the hangar next to its blue-and-white mate, and shut the automatic door. After locking up the personnel exit on the side of the building, they set the alarm, and at 20 minutes after 3 a.m. repaired to their bunks in a building a few hundred yards up the road. Neither noticed anything unusual.

Two hours later, however, a bulky man came running up the driveway toward the hangar. He was wearing dark pants, tennis shoes, and a light-colored jacket. His face was covered with a black balaclava, and bundled under each arm was a plastic box with a red blinking light on top. When the man reached the hangar’s personnel entrance, he stuttered to an ungraceful stop and deposited one of the boxes on the ground. Then he sprinted across the tarmac to the other end of the hangar, stopped, and set down the second box. Even free of the boxes his running appeared labored. He returned to the personnel door, pulled out a hatchet, and smashed the numbered entry pad several times before lumbering back the way he came.

At the end of the hangar’s driveway, the runner turned east and continued up the darkened road. Once around a curve, he stepped a few feet off the asphalt into a patch of tall grass behind a bush and picked up a gasoline canister. He pulled off his balaclava and cotton gloves, dumped them on the ground along with the ax and a small flashlight, and poured gas over the pile. Then he dug a small red plastic lighter from his pocket and set the whole thing ablaze. Satisfied, he tossed the lighter and plastic canister toward the fire, stepped back on to the road, and continued on his way.

Around the same time, two police officers patrolling in their car near Västberga, a neighborhood in the southwest of Stockholm, noticed a pair of black-clad men walking next to the E4 freeway. There was no parked car in sight. Suspecting that something was amiss, the police pulled behind them and ordered them to stop.

One of the officers frisked the two men, who had no IDs and were wearing heavily layered clothing, and found two chains and several small padlocks. One of the men confessed that he and his companion had been out chasing a gang who had attacked a friend’s younger brother. They’d parked their car on the other side of the freeway to avoid detection and brought the chains and locks as weapons. When they found their supposed adversaries, he said, they’d realized they were vastly outnumbered. They’d run away and ended up near the E4.

It was an odd and implausible story, and the cops called in the canine squad to search the area. They suspected that the pair might be burglars. But when nothing more nefarious turned up, the officers dropped the men at their car and phoned in a report.

One hundred miles north of Stockholm, a heavy knife sliced through the canvas wall of a small commercial helicopter hangar in Norrtälje. Two men peeled back a four-foot flap, stepped in, and flipped on the lights. In front of them sat a red-and-white Bell 206 JetRanger helicopter atop a small wheeled cart. Developed by the U.S. Army and produced by a Canadian manufacturer, the Bell 206 was a multipurpose bird suitable for everything from traffic reports to medevac. Simple to fly, it was often used for pilot training.

One of the men pressed a button to open the hangar door. They rolled the cart out onto the concrete landing pad outside and climbed into the helicopter. The pilot checked the gauges and then held down the starter button on the throttle. Military radar picked up the craft taking off from Norrtälje at 4:43 a.m. It had rained the previous day, but now the clouds had lifted. The lights of Stockholm were visible in the distance.

Police helicopter hangar, Myttinge


It was an hour before dawn on Wednesday morning at the G4S cash depot, a dull, blocky six-story building just off the E4 in Västberga. The September air was crisp and still. A few armored trucks idled at the loading dock, awaiting the cash they would carry out on their morning deliveries. The day would be among the busiest of the month for the depot. The unofficial national payday was coming up on Friday, and the Västberga depot was at its peak level of cash storage: around 1 billion Swedish kronor, roughly $150 million.

Västberga was just one of five large G4S-operated cash centers in Sweden, themselves a tiny speck in the company’s galaxy of international operations, which range from bodyguards to immigration detention centers to alarm systems. After Walmart, G4S is the largest employer in the world, with nearly 600,000 workers in 110 countries. In Sweden, responsibility for safeguarding the company’s cash centers fell to 29-year-old Johan Petersson, director of security for the cash-handling division. Petersson, athletic and blond, had spent eight years in the Swedish army, serving in the Balkans as a military police officer and rising to the rank of captain. Three years ago, he’d moved to the private sector, succeeding in tailored shirts and cuff links as much as he had in fatigues. Defending against the robbers was, in a way, a kind of military operation—only with more action. The company suffered at least one robbery attempt every month. But the Västberga depot, where Petersson was based, had never been targeted.

From a distance, the depot was easily distinguished from the surrounding warehouses, with a 20-foot pyramid skylight jutting up from the lower section of its roof and a round, rotating G4S sign on the higher end. Five stories tall in front, with two belowground floors visible from behind, the building had once been an ambulance-dispatching service. When G4S had taken it over in 2006, they’d been forced, from Petersson’s point of view, into some undesirable design choices. The main vault where money was stored was located on the second floor, belowground from the front of the building. But the cash room where money was counted was on the sixth. The two were connected by a small elevator. In the cash room, staffers retrieved bins sent up from the vault and carried them to counting machines atop long tables. They fed cash from the bins into the machine, recorded the amounts, and packed it into trays to be sent out to ATMs.

At just after 5 a.m., a few of the 11 staffers working the overnight shift in the cash room had returned from a smoke break. Among them was Oskar Lindgren, the group leader for the night. Lindgren, a 35-year-old bachelor, had been a G4S employee since 2002 and lived close enough to the depot that he usually walked to work. Before G4S he’d had a job in a bingo hall. He had started his 12-hour shift at 7 p.m. the previous evening, prepping for his team’s arrival at 10, and been frustrated to find that two of them had called in sick while another had stayed home with an ill child. Otherwise the night seemed quiet. Things were running smoothly enough in the cash room that by early morning, when a woman called up from the vault asking to leave early, Lindgren let her go. He was outside the cash room near the atrium, a wide interior shaft descending to a fourth-floor patio and capped by the pyramid skylight above. Lindgren recorded the employee’s clock-out as 5:15 a.m., although later he would peg the time at no later than 5:10.

As he walked back to the cash room, which required passing through a security airlock between two heavy doors, Lindgren heard the sound of the atrium windows rattling. At first he didn’t react: Delivery trucks, he knew, began hitting the streets at that time of day. But when the noise persisted even into the windowless cash room, he asked his colleagues to shut off the counting machines so that it could be heard better. A few of the staff had a running joke about robbers descending on the cash depot from above. Maybe this was it, one of them deadpanned.

At 5:16 a.m. in the alarm center three floors down, one of the security staffers on duty called the G4S emergency line to report that the walls of the building were vibrating. Then the security cameras on the roof were switched on, just in time for a white helicopter flying in low and fast to be visible on the monitors. It looped around and came by a second time before climbing out of sight above the building.

Seconds later the pilot of the Bell 206 JetRanger skillfully guided the helicopter in at an angle, illuminating the black roof with the chopper’s front light. He set it down gently on the rubber surface, in a tight space between the glass pyramid and the building’s edge; a few feet to the right and his rotor would have slammed into a concrete wall. Three masked men climbed out and calmly assembled their gear. To the stunned guards watching the cameras from the alarm center, “it looked like they do this every day.”

Two of the men unstrapped a pair of ladders that had been attached with zip ties to the helicopter’s skids. The other pulled a sledgehammer out of a long canvas bag and began bashing a corner windowpane in the pyramid. After a half dozen over-the-shoulder shots, the glass gave way. The men lowered the first ladder 20 feet down to the fifth-floor atrium balcony. It had been measured to fit.

The G4S roof


Inside the well-insulated cash room, the counters still couldn’t pin down the source of the noise, and Oskar Lindgren decided to go back out and investigate. He asked a staff member to hold the inner door of the security airlock while he returned to the atrium. Upon opening the door at the far side, Lindgren could see into the interior courtyard. Two ladders were now propped against the opposite side of the atrium, and he saw a man dressed entirely in black, save for a pair of white shoes, standing on the shorter one. Then he noticed another man waiting on the floor below. Both men wore what looked to Lindgren like black motorcycle helmets. What are they doing there? he wondered. No one had told him there would be unauthorized personnel in the building.

The sight of broken glass snapped Lindgren back to reality. He sprinted through the airlock and into the cash room. “It’s for real!” he shouted. “They’re here!” The staff looked back at him, dumbfounded. He ran to the wall and triggered the panic alarm.

Company protocol called for staff members in the cash room to secure the area and remain inside. John Petersson had designed the steel doors for both the airlock and a secondary entrance, and he had them custom-made by a small Swedish blacksmithing company. Each was intended to withstand an assault lasting 15 minutes, which was plenty of time for the police to arrive. Now, as a precaution, Lindgren ordered the staff to send what money they could down in the elevator and to padlock the rest in the room’s metal cages. Then he gathered the employees in a corner of the room, where they would wait for the police to arrive.

Out in the atrium, one black-clad man had climbed down to the fifth floor and then, using the second ladder, back up to the windows of a sixth-floor office adjacent to the cash room. The panes were made of bulletproof panzer glass, and he abandoned the sledgehammer after taking a few futile shots. Instead, he stuck against the glass what looked like an empty wooden picture frame, cut precisely to the window’s dimensions and covered in putty adhesive. The frame was lined with a mixture of ethylene glycol dinitrate and nitroglycerin that was commonly found in Polish-made dynamite. The man ran a wire out from the frame, triggered an electric detonator, and watched the window explode into the room. The three robbers then grabbed their gear and climbed up and into the office. They smashed through its simple bolt lock and found themselves standing in front of the cash room’s side entrance, barred only by Petersson’s steel door.

In the cash room, staff members began to panic. One woman sank to the floor crying while colleagues tried to comfort her. There was no protocol for this, Lindgren realized. Pacing back and forth with his mobile phone held to his ear, he told the guards in the alarm center that the employees were afraid for their lives. Should they stay put and risk getting blown up or executed? Or should they make a break for an exit and risk encountering the robbers? Before he could get an answer, another explosion rippled through the building, and the phone went dead. To the guard on the other end of the line, it felt like time had stopped.


Just before 5:20 a.m. that same morning, a black 2008 Audi station wagon owned by a 34-year-old TV producer named Alexander Eriksson was driving south on Tegeluddsvägen, a street in eastern Stockholm. Eriksson had worked on and off for TV4, one of the four major Swedish networks, and was well-known in the media industry. He ran his own production company and was considered a skilled cameraman. Eriksson also had a helicopter license and his own chopper, both of which came in handy for aerial shots on location. He’d worked on TV hits like Expedition Robinson, the Swedish version of Survivor, and just a few weeks ago he’d returned from Malaysia, where he’d worked on TV4’s Celebrity Jungle, a reality show in which B-list actors and washed-up athletes voted each other off the program.

Eriksson was known to be personable but peripatetic, with a taste for adventure that had occasionally gotten him in trouble. He’d struggled with cocaine and amphetamines before kicking both habits a few years earlier. Recently, however, he’d begun balancing production gigs with a second job, as the marketing manager for a wind-power company funded by his uncle, and the long work hours he typically kept had gotten longer. A colleague had noticed that Eriksson looked worn out when he returned from Malaysia, and that he was fueling himself on Red Bull. Eriksson’s ex-wife, with whom he had two children and had recently reconciled, worried that he’d put himself under so much pressure that he risked a relapse.

Now, speeding down a road damp from the previous day’s rain, Eriksson’s Audi approached the kind of unlit intersection prone to accidents at night. The driver slowed to a careful crawl. A rusty white 1980s Toyota eased out into the intersection from the right. The cars came together lightly, with the Toyota’s front bumper planting the slightest kiss on the Audi’s tail.

The two cars stopped. Two men got out. The Toyota’s front bumper had a scrape barely discernible amid the rust. The Audi’s damage, as an accident expert would later describe it, looked like something that might happen in a parking lot. The driver of the Toyota, a tiling contractor named Marcus Axelsson, calmly took several pictures of the damage with his cell phone. The photos were time-stamped 5:22 a.m., September 23. The two men climbed back into their vehicles and drove off.

Twenty-five miles to the northeast, in Myttinge, the two police helicopter pilots were awakened in their barracks by a call from headquarters. The G4S alarms had alerted the local authorities, who now relayed to pilot Anders Johansson the key details about the robbery in progress: helicopter, cash depot. They needed police choppers as quickly as possible. “Be prepared for armed assailants on the roof,” they warned Johansson. The helicopters would have time to foil the robbery or at least set off in pursuit of the perpetrators. The pilots rushed to the car and gunned it the 500 yards to the hangar.

After Johansson had leapt out, run past a barrier up the driveway, and rounded the corner of the building, he noticed what looked like a shoebox sitting outside the personnel door. A red light flashed on top. He stopped and turned. “There’s a bomb!” he said to his partner. Backing into the driveway, they saw the second box at the far end of the tarmac. For a moment they hesitated. Johansson considered whether they could get the helicopters out without triggering the bombs. Then he glanced at the tank sitting behind them, full of 6,000 gallons of combustible jet fuel. There could be more bombs attached to the hangar doors. He and his partner sprinted back to the car, turned around, and sped out to the main road. Just beyond the curve, they passed a small fire burning in the woods.

Ten minutes down the road, the pilots saw a fire truck driving in the opposite direction. A local resident had seen the fire in the distance and called it in. The pilots turned around and followed the firemen, who quickly extinguished the small, odd grass fire. They found a pair of half-burned gloves, a singed red lighter, and a black balaclava that had avoided the flames entirely. The pilots sat in the car a safe distance down the road from the hangar and waited for the bomb squad to show up.

Atop the G4S cash center


The first explosion had mangled some of the metal around the handle, but the steel door to the cash room remained intact. Now the robbers pulled out a second charge, a 12-ounce Coke can filled with nitrate crystals. A magnet was affixed to the bottom, and the men stuck it to the door just above the handle, where the lock still held fast.

This time the staff members inside felt the shock wave roll over them. Steel shrapnel buried itself in the wall 15 feet down the room from where they sat. Nobody seemed hurt. But Lindgren decided they couldn’t wait on protocol any longer. “We’re leaving now,” he announced. Lindgren led the crew out through the vault’s main exit. A set of stairs took them down to a 10-by-10-foot airlock outside the second-floor vault. An employee inside, fearing that whoever was knocking at the door had already been taken hostage, refused to let them in.

At 5:38 a.m., 30 seconds after the last employee passed through the emergency exit, the side door to the sixth-floor cash room gave way to a third explosive charge. The first of the robbers, wearing a flak jacket and a paintball helmet over a black balaclava,  strode menacingly into the room. He gripped a Kalashnikov in his gloved hands, his right finger on the trigger, and walked deliberately to the end of the room, scanning it from side to side. When he reached the counting machines and found them deserted, he turned back toward the cash cages. Another robber, a handgun holstered on his belt, followed him in.

Down in the security center on the third floor, the two guards had taken shelter under a desk, fearing that the upper floors of the building might collapse. They could no longer reach Lindgren on the phone and assumed the worst. The robbers, they figured, would be assaulting the alarm center soon enough. The guards had no weapons and no idea what to do. So they crouched and watched on the security monitors as the robbers dropped a pile of empty mail sacks on the floor, pulled out a circular saw covered in black lacquer, and got to work. 


Johan Petersson’s ringer had jolted him out of bed at 5:18, just after the helicopter made its first pass by the G4S building. His nighttime security officer was on the phone from the company’s offsite emergency headquarters. When the officer announced that the Västberga depotwas under assault by men in a helicopter, only his tone of voice kept Petersson from assuming it was a joke. Oh shit, he thought. The young security director dressed quickly and grabbed his laptop on the way out the door. He lived only five minutes from the cash center, and he arrived on the scene at 5:35.

The first local Stockholm police, from a station near the depot, had arrived nine minutes into the robbery. But as they approached the building, they encountered chains lined with caltrops—metal crow’s feet designed to puncture car tires—stretched across the roads leading up to the building. They got out of their cars and established a command post 650 yards away, at a gas station. Caltrops themselves could be moved, but they were a sign that whatever was going on inside G4S had been planned by professionals. Officers in heavy tactical gear gathered to plan an approach to the depot on foot. The organization and firepower of the robbers, however, seemed to have left the command post flummoxed. From the ground, the officers could hear explosions going off somewhere in the high floors of the depot. No police helicopters had arrived, and no one gave an order to storm the building. On the Baltic Sea, Swedish fighter jets were put on standby but ordered not to take off.

Near the loading dock, a G4S employee fleeing the building called the company’s security center to describe the scene. “That was a real fucking bang!” he said after one explosion.

“Are the police on site?” the operated asked.

“Police on site… I can only see one patrol.”

“One patrol?”

“One or two wimps with fucking pistols!”

“Yes, OK. Some more will probably arrive.…”

“I sure hope so.”

Petersson located the command post and asked to speak to the commanding officer. When one cop brushed him off, he tried another. “I am the chief of security,” he insisted. “I have a laptop, I can tap into the CCTV.” After finally convincing an officer to let him in, he dictated details of the robbers from the live security cameras, which at present were showing three masked men standing outside cages filled with bricks of cash. The roof was deserted. “They have a Kalashnikov. They are wearing gas masks and vests.” The staff members in the cash room, he now knew, had escaped to the second floor. But they were crowded into the airlock outside the vault. Petersson wanted the SWAT team in there to protect them. On the cameras, he could see that there were no bombs obstructing the entrance.

Up on the sixth floor, one of the robbers was bathed in a cascade of yellow sparks as he carved into the cages’ padlocks with the saw. Five seconds on each one and it fell to the floor. He laid down the saw, and the three men began methodically filling gray canvas postal sacks with bricks of cash from the red plastic bins inside. The saw, still running, buzzed in circles like an angry upturned insect.

Soon the robbers seemed to sweat and stumble. “Even the criminals expected the police were going to do something,” Petersson remarked later. They’d taken 15 minutes to enter the cash room, and after several minutes their money collecting grew more haphazard. They hopped from one cage to another, leaving bins of cash untouched and accidentally kicking piles of bills onto the floor. At 5:41 the man with the holstered pistol made an uncertain move toward an unmolested cage, backtracked, then dropped his empty sack and hustled away. It was time to go.

The helicopter had been hovering above the building, with a view of the roads surrounding the depot and of the spectators taking in the scene. When the men reemerged at the atrium, the pilot guided the chopper back down to the roof. Two of the robbers dragged several sacks out using hand-sewn straps and set about pulling them up the ladder; the third hauled his sacks up using a rope with a carabiner affixed to the end. At the top, the men piled the sacks into the back of the waiting aircraft.

The robbers had been in the building for 24 minutes, and now they were straining to port their take, most of it in heavy packs of 500 kronor bills, down and up two ladders. One slipped and cut himself, and his blood dripped onto the bottom step. Then, almost precisely 30 minutes after they landed, the men retreated, abandoning bags of cash at the base of the ladder as they scaled up to the chopper. They grabbed the last of their haul from the roof and jumped in. The moment the doors clicked shut, the helicopter lifted off.

The police watched helplessly as the Bell 206 withdrew into the breaking dawn, its flight captured by nearby gawkers on their cell-phone cameras. The assault teams continued to hold back. “Are there still explosives in the building?” an officer asked the stunned Petersson. I don’t know what the problem is, Petersson would later remember thinking. This is the elite team of the police. This is your job.

Just before 7 a.m., the first SWAT team entered the front door of the building using Petersson’s access card. Petersson trailed a few feet behind, directing them through the hallways. They found the cash counters hiding safely in the second-floor vault, having finally convinced the staff inside to let them in. A few minutes later, a second tactical team rushed the building with a handheld battering ram, preparing to force their way in through the same door. A news photographer snapped a picture as the officers poised to smash it in; by noon the photo would be splashed across newspapers and Web sites worldwide. Just out of the frame, as the glass shattered, Petersson’s deputy had tried to explain that the door was already unlocked.

Johan Petersson, G4S director of security


Witnesses later recalled seeing the helicopter push off to the southwest, and a few minutes later the pilot set it down in a gravel pit not far from Norsborg, near the city’s rough southern suburbs. One or more of the men climbed out before the helicopter quickly lifted off again and started flying north to Lake Mälaren, an hour outside Stockholm.

Two men out for an early walk on a trail in the lakeside park heard a helicopter either hover above or land atop a large patch of grass near the shoreline at Kanaan Beach. After a few minutes, they heard speedboats roar off into the lake. A year later, locals walking through those woods would still wonder if the G4S money might be hidden nearby. But given Sweden’s interconnected waterways, a boat on Lake Mälaren Lake could access dozens of marinas or even navigate out to the ocean.

From the lakeside, the helicopter flew to a heavily forested park near Täby, a small town north of Stockholm. The pilot descended into a meadow near a track, killed the engine, opened the door, and walked away. On the floor, he left a pile of plastic zip ties and a Garmin handheld GPS unit.

A half hour later, at five minutes to seven, a bearded man in a charcoal suit and open-collar shirt wandered into the Täby McDonald’s. He approached the counter and asked if he could borrow a telephone. When the clerk handed him one, he called a taxi company, told the dispatcher his name was John, and ordered a car to central Stockholm.

At the hangar in Myttinge, the bomb-disposal teams turned a water cannon on the blinking containers, blasting them apart. On closer inspection, they appeared to be cheap plastic toolboxes with red LEDs wired through the lids, powered by standard nine-volt batteries.

Inside the TV4 newsroom in Stockholm, reporters were riveted by the robbery. They’d been covering it almost nonstop since it started. Around lunchtime, a new bit of info came over the wire: The helicopter used in the heist, police had determined, had been stolen from Norrtälje, well north of the city. One staff reporter, Fredrick Malmberg, suddenly remembered that a producer he’d worked with in the past named Alexander Eriksson owned a helicopter up in the same area. If it was Eriksson’s that had been stolen, Malmberg would have a scoop. He called Eriksson on his cell phone and asked if he’d heard the news about the robbery. Eriksson said he hadn’t, that he’d been up late preparing a marketing presentation for the wind-power company. In fact, he was in the car on his way to the meeting, to which he was already late. In any case, he said, his helicopter couldn’t have been the one stolen: It was being repaired.

Kanaan Beach


At 7 a.m., the prosecutor Leif Görts spoke on the phone with an officer in the RKP’s organized-crime squad. “Get dressed, comb your hair, and get down here,” she told him. “And put on the TV while you do it.” A local news crew had captured live pictures of the helicopter as it lifted off from the roof and was replaying it in a near constant loop. They did it, Görts thought. Goddamn it, they did it.

There were two international story lines: the robbers’ guts and the police department’s incompetence. “I’ve never experienced anything like it!” an overexcited Stockholm police spokesman blurted to a Swedish newspaper. It didn’t help matters that an enterprising reporter had added an embarrassing but untrue detail, soon included in every story—that the fake bombs in Myttinge had been labeled bomb on the outside. What to international audiences appeared farcical was to the Swedish media an outrage. “It’s just embarrassing that criminals can knock out the police with tricks from a book for boys,” the columnist Lena Mellin wrote the next morning in Aftonbladet, a national daily.

The thieves were likely disappointed as well. Three assailants, a pilot, at least one explosives expert, a fake-bomb messenger, multiple street teams to delay police—a crew large, sophisticated, and well-funded enough to plan a $150 million robbery—had only gotten away with 39 million kronor, or about $6.5 million.

Those were the same facts that Leif Görts, co-prosecutor Björn Frithiof, and the two heads of the police investigation had to work with when they sat down to begin the pursuit. Instantly, catching the robbers became Swedish law enforcement’s highest priority, and the job was transferred out of the Stockholm police department to the national authorities who’d been tracking it before it happened. Dozens of the RKP’s best officers were assigned full-time to the case. I’ll never be in a position like this again in my life, realized Görts. I have all the resources of the police at my disposal.

The robbers, as fastidious as they’d been in their planning, had left a fair amount of evidence behind. The police found spiked chains on five roads around the depot. Inside, a forensics team recovered blood from the ladder. They’d also found potential DNA traces, on the zip ties used to secure the ladders, and on the sledgehammer and an unused frame of explosives. At the helicopter’s final landing site, the police recovered the GPS device, with the previous night’s destinations programmed into it. Investigators scoured the area and then, based on a tip, commandeered the security tapes from the local McDonald’s. When they interviewed that morning’s clerk about the bearded man who appeared on the video at 6:55 a.m., he told them the man had borrowed a phone and ordered a taxi.

All of those leads would take weeks to chase down. The most important question now was what to do about Bojovic. The RKP had kept up surveillance on the Tall One even after the mid-September false alarm. Now Görts and his colleagues scanned the transcripts and noticed Bojovic chatting with Milan Sevo right up to September 23. Then the conversations stopped—until 8:13 a.m. the morning of the robbery, when the onetime Stockholm Mob boss sent Bojovic a three-character message:



Jonas “Jocke” Hildeby was riding a commuter train the morning of the robbery, listening to the live reports on his handheld radio. A 27-year veteran of the police force and the RKP, he was unsurprised by the event. There’d been rumors of a big robbery in the works. Now things would get busy.

Hildeby has close-cropped gray hair, and his typical uniform consists of jeans, sneakers, and a tracksuit jacket. His particular skill is geographical profiling, and he is often employed in serial murder and rape cases. “If a psychological profiler is telling you who you are looking for,” he liked to say, “my job is to tell them where to look.” Nowadays, geographical profiling often centers on cell-phone analysis. At the RKP, Hildeby held the title of investigation analyst. He was part of a seven-person team, which included two programmers and a former academic, charged with untangling the “where” of complicated crimes.

By the end of the first day, Hildeby had in hand a list of all the calls passing through the cell towers within range of the depot that had been made within several hours of the robbery. Fortunately for Hildeby, the robbers had chosen a time of day when most people were asleep. He and his team built a database of the telephone traffic, which eventually included 18,000 telephone numbers and over 300,000 calls. Then they turned the investigation into an elaborate math problem.

The key to understanding the cell-phone data emerging from any type of criminal conspiracy, Hildeby knew from previous cases, is finding a closed circuit. Even the dumbest perpetrators watch enough movies to know to use untraceable prepaid phones. But any group sophisticated enough to execute a robbery like this one would know something else: to use those prepaids only to call other prepaids. What Hildeby’s team was looking for was a set of phones that stayed within their own miniature network. “If you get one cell-phone number, you can build it out,” he said. “That number is speaking to three numbers, and they are speaking only to certain others.” Eventually, the circuit closes in on itself.

After four days of sifting, the team identified a closed circuit of 14 phones, all of them disposables, and many of them used around the time of the heist. The phones had called only each other in the weeks leading up to the robbery. And after the morning of September 23, none of them had been used again. Hildeby and his team meticulously traced each phone’s call history, then used the cell-tower information to determine where each call was made. Cross-referencing the locations against dozens of call times allowed them to speculate on how each step of the robbery had been coordinated.

2:55 a.m., Myttinge: Phone 1, near the police heliport, calls the organizing phone—phone 5, waiting at a rendezvous point—to report the return of the police chopper from its routine flight.

3:13 a.m., Norrtälje: Phone 2, outside the hangar where the helicopter used in the heist was stolen, checks in with phone 5.

3–4 a.m., Västberga: Phones 8, 11, 12, and 13, on the ground near the G4S depot, coordinate among one another and report back to phone 5 that they are standing by with caltrops and chains.

4:38 a.m., Norrtälje: Just before the stolen helicopter lifts off, phone 2 alerts phone 5 that the hangar has been breached. Five minutes later, phone 2 is airborne, en route to the rendezvous point.

4:43 a.m.,  gravel pit and Kanaan Beach: Phones 3 and 7 call in from the post-robbery landing sites that the locations are clear to receive the chopper and payload.

4:43–5:02 a.m., rendezvous point: Phone 5 joins phone 2 on the helicopter, along with the other men and the equipment for the robbery.

5:13 a.m., Myttinge: Phone 1 confirms to phone 5 that the fake bombs are in position. The stolen helicopter departs the rendezvous point for G4S, a few minutes away.

5:18–5:50 a.m., G4S: While the robbers are inside, phone 4 communicates with ground teams about the situation outside the cash center.

5:40 a.m., Kanaan Beach: Near where witnesses report hearing boats on the water, phone 7 makes one last call to phone 2, aboard the helicopter, before communication within the circuit ceases for good.

Layered on top of one another, the cell traffic created a map of the crime from start to finish. Hildeby’s, however, was a map without faces. None of the phones had been left behind, and the police didn’t know who had used them. 


Finding the pilot seemed the obvious place to start. As of September 2009, 552 people in Sweden held active helicopter licenses. It wasn’t an impossible number to investigate, but it would take significant legwork. Also, the pilot could easily have come from outside the country; Sevo had mentioned a candidate in Switzerland. But the investigators had to start somewhere. They began sifting through the database, cross-referencing it with criminal records.

 Norrtaälje is 42 miles from Stockholm—a significant distance from the robbery’s target. It seemed odd that the robbers would be familiar with it. So the investigators also checked the list for licensed pilots who’d used the same base. One showed an address in Ljusterö, not far from Norrtälje: Alexander Eriksson. In fact, Eriksson’s own helicopter was stored at the same heliport in Norrtälje where the G4S bird was stolen.

The 34-year-old TV producer was an unlikely choice to be the getaway pilot in one of history’s most daring robberies. He lived with his ex-wife and children in an upscale neighborhood among the posh archipelagos along the northern coast. His father ran a successful investment company. The younger Eriksson had been arrested twice in the past decade, on a drug charge and a gun-possession charge, but both were minor offenses carrying no jail time. He seemed to be a harried but well-employed family man who’d been trying to keep himself clean.

Indeed, the investigators might have passed Eriksson over entirely. But one officer, noticing the address on his helicopter registration, happened to remember a detail from the surveillance reports on Goran Bojovic. The meeting on Skeppsholmen, the bearded man, the Peugeot—hadn’t it also been registered to an address in Ljusterö? Görts went back and reran a check on the car. It was registered to Eriksson’s wife.

A licensed helicopter pilot had sat down with Bojovic on September 2, shook hands, and gone on his way. A week later, Bojovic had been wiretapped saying, “We can stop looking.” Two weeks after that, the helicopter was stolen from a commercial depot near where the pilot kept his own chopper. For Görts and his colleagues, it was one coincidence too many. It came as little surprise when interviews revealed that Eriksson had trained on, and occasionally borrowed, the Bell 206 JetRanger used in the robbery.

The investigators weighed the option of leaving both Bojovic and Eriksson on the street for a while, tailing the two men to see if either led them to the money or to other conspirators. But they couldn’t afford another slipup. If one of the suspects somehow escaped the country, they might never get him back. At a meeting on Friday, September 25, the team decided to be aggressive. On Sunday evening, they arrested Bojovic at his apartment. He’d been driving a new BMW around town, and in his closet they found a bag containing 118,000 kronor.

The next morning, the police stopped Eriksson at Stockholm’s international airport, checking in for a flight to the Canary Islands.


“You must be kidding!” Bojovic said when his interrogators told him that he was suspected in the G4S heist. “That’s idiotic.” He knew what this was really about, he said. He’d read in the news that police suspected people from the former Yugoslavia, perhaps the notorious Pink Panther jewel-thief gang. “Sure, I am a Yugoslav. I am from Montenegro,” he told his interrogators. “But hell, not all of us are criminals.” During days of questioning, Bojovic did little but spin stories about his construction business and ask for a lawyer.

Eriksson, on the other hand, seemed to be talking freely. And why wouldn’t he? He’d never heard of any Goran Bojovic. And besides, he had an alibi. He told the interrogators that he had, embarrassingly, had a drug relapse the night of September 23. As a result, he’d gotten into an accident right around the time of the robbery, at the other end of Stockholm. The man he’d swapped information with, Marcus Axelsson, would have the time-stamped photos to prove it. Eriksson didn’t mention visiting the McDonald’s in Täby But when the interrogators revealed that they had evidence he’d been seen there—indeed, the man in the store’s surveillance video was clearly him—he suddenly recalled that, after colliding with Axelsson, he’d ended up at a hazy late-night party near Täby. It ended with him having to order a taxi, having somehow left his car back in downtown Stockholm.

Under the Swedish justice system, accused criminals cannot trade information for lenient sentencing or immunity, nor can prosecutors promise leniency to flip the accused. Görts and his colleague Björn Frithiof had no leverage on Bojovic or Eriksson. But they had enough evidence to keep the pair locked up while they tried to identify the rest of the robbery team.

Charbel Charro, Bojovic’s onetime close associate, had for years been on the list of the hundred or so top criminals in Stockholm. That meant the police could roust him at their pleasure. On the night of September 27, four days after the robbery, two local patrol officers noticed Charro and three friends pulling up in a car outside a club called Café Opera and decided to do just that. They questioned the passengers, found nothing suspicious, and inspected the trunk. Inside, one of the officers noticed a July 2009 receipt from the Phone House in Malmö, in the far southwest of Sweden. It showed the purchase of five Sony Ericsson prepaid phones and five SIM cards with consecutive numbers. The officer pulled out his own cell phone and took a photo of the receipt, then returned it to the trunk. The police let Charro and his friends go. In their routine report of the stop, the officer listed the prepaid-phone and SIM-card numbers.

The next day, an officer working on the case noticed the report on Charro. Hildeby had known Charro for years, dating back to when the investigator worked patrol and Charro was just a troublesome teenager. The list of SIM-card numbers on the receipt caught his eye. Was it remotely possible? He typed the numbers into his team’s database of closed-circuit phones and got a hit. The officer showed the information to Görts. “What number is it?” Görts said, suddenly jumpy. “Goddamn it, it’s phone number 2! Where did you find it?”

“It was in Charbel Charro’s trunk,” the officer said.

“Charbel Charro?” Görts asked.

“Yeah, the guy who has been meeting with Goran Bojovic.”

The database match showed that one of the phones on the list had not only been used during the robbery but had also been used inside the helicopter. Hildeby traced the histories of the other phones. Three had been used in the previous month in a second closed circuit the investigators identified. And Charbel Charro had been using one to call his mother. Several days later, the police picked him up in Norsborg, not far from the gravel pit where the helicopter made its first stop after the robbery.

By early October, forensic results were slowly putting the investigators on to other members of the conspiracy. DNA from the gloves and lighters at the Myttinge fire implicated a 23-year-old named Nemanja Alic, a newsstand vendor with an affinity for American gangster films. DNA traces on a rubber band used to secure the detonator wires matched that of a man named Mikael Södergran, who had a previous explosives conviction in Sweden. Once the police had identified him as a suspect, they discovered that Södergran, a friend of Charbel Charro, had been using one of the phones from the Phone House receipt.

The blood found on the ladder at the G4S depot, meanwhile, identified an even more notorious figure: a 31-year-old Iraqi-born Swede named Safha Kadhum. In 2000, he’d been part of a crew that stormed the Swedish National Museum just across the bridge from Skeppsholmen. Arriving at closing time, the thieves had brandished automatic weapons and made off with two Renoirs and a Rembrandt while elsewhere in the city two cars exploded. They’d used similar spikes and chains to those found around G4S and departed by speedboat with the estimated $30 million worth of art.

The police captured Kadhum and seven other participants after the robbers sought out a ransom for one of the Renoirs; Kadhum served two years in prison and was released in 2006. The other two paintings weren’t recovered until five years later, when the FBI caught Kadhum’s two brothers trying to fence the Rembrandt in a Copenhagen hotel room.

This time, Kadhum had been the trigger man; his DNA was found in five places inside G4S, and an analysis of the surveillance tapes pegged him as the man with the Kalashnikov. And he was on the lam again. In mid-January 2010, after a tip-off from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the RKP finally caught up with him in the Dominican Republic. Ten masked Dominican police rushed Kadhum and a fellow Swede as they went to dinner in a small resort town near the border with Haiti. The next day, Swedish authorities put Kadhum on a private plane back to Stockholm. 


By the summer of 2010, Görts and Frithiof had charged 10 suspects. These included the two men with chains who were stopped near Västberga the morning of September 23 and two more who were arrested for staging the traffic accident that Eriksson used as his alibi. Eriksson, it turned out, had loaned his Audi to a friend the night of the robbery. The friend claimed to have returned it, but there was reason to believe he hadn’t. Phone records showed that both Eriksson’s friend and Marcus Axelsson, the man driving the Toyota, had ties to Bojovic and Charro.

The joint trial began in early August and lasted six weeks. Because the courthouse had a flat roof, which security officials believed invited a helicopter landing, the proceedings were conducted in a makeshift courtroom in the basement of the Stockholm police headquarters. Two Swedish tabloids each sent a reporter to cover every minute of the trial. Some of the G4S staff on duty the morning of the robbery mingled with the accused’s relatives, who disrupted proceedings by shouting the men’s innocence.

The prosecution’s case against Bojovic and Charro relied almost entirely on Hildeby’s phone work. The geographical profiler produced a 300-page report laying out in excruciating detail how the planners had communicated. The transcripts of the wiretaps of their “social phones,” as Hildeby called them, showed little direct connection to the robberies. But the volume of calls on the prepaid cells—the “robbery phones”—showed the extent of their planning. “We were just sitting there, so bored. Phones this, phones that,” Linda Hjerten, the reporter covering the trial for Aftonbladet, said. “And then the light bulb went on and we realized what they were doing, which was very clever.”

At first both men denied owning the robbery phones. But Hildeby’s analysis showed that every time two of the robbery phones had been used, it had been within a few feet of Bojovic and Charro’s own cell phones. When asked on the stand about this extraordinary coincidence, Charro was forced to revert to a joke. “I don’t know,” he said, “maybe someone was following me.”

Bojovic, meanwhile, exuded composure as the prosecutors confronted him with surveillance video and transcripts, along with Google searches for Bell helicopters that he’d conducted in the weeks leading up to the robbery. “It’s dangerous to cut and paste,” he told the court. The discussions with Charro and the Serbian, Sevo—a longtime family friend, he said—were about construction projects. They’d been desperately seeking a crane operator for months and had even put up some money for a Serbian guy who didn’t work out. Bojovic recalled that the man looked so much like Tom Cruise in Top Gun that he’d started calling him the Pilot.

The oddest twists in the case, though, involved Eriksson. His father spoke to any outlet that would listen, arguing that the evidence against his son had been manufactured. It was “inconceivable” that Alexander would commit the crime, he told police, given that his son already had a good income and the ability to rely on his wealthy father. “We have never skimped on our kids,” he said.

Representing Eriksson was Sweden’s most famous and flamboyant criminal defense attorney, Leif Silbersky, a kind of Swedish Johnny Cochrane. Silbersky, 71, had written two dozen crime novels in addition to representing a roster of Sweden’s most famous accused—including, recently, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. During Eriksson’s case, the lawyer argued that his client wasn’t trained to fly helicopters in the dark and produced a teenage witness whom the prosecutors had interviewed but left out of their disclosures to the defense. The witness testified that she’d seen the helicopter flying low after the robbery and the pilot had looked nothing like Eriksson. The defendant himself, meanwhile, offered an elaborate account of a night out on a memory-obliterating drug binge, the drugs bought from dealers he refused to identify, based on calls made from a phone he said he’d thrown away. All of which culminated in his mysterious arrival at the McDonald’s in Täby.

The prosecution, however, had plenty of trump cards to play: Eriksson’s DNA was found on the GPS device and the zip ties used to attach the ladders to the helicopter. When Eriksson argued that the samples must date from the last time he’d borrowed the chopper, prosecutors called a witness to describe a log book that showed he hadn’t flown it since June 2008. Another witness testified that she’d been a passenger when Eriksson flew successfully in the dark. But most damning of all was the meeting on Skeppsholmen. Confronted with Annika Persson’s testimony, both Eriksson and Bojovic were forced to admit that they had met—and their memories didn’t appear to line up. Eriksson claimed that he’d been talking to the supposed construction executive about a wind-power project. Bojovic said that Eriksson had wanted to buy cocaine. And then, of course, there was the matter of Eriksson’s multiple, coincidental connections to the stolen helicopter. “Barn i huset,” Görts told the court, employing a Swedish idiom describing someone who is familiar enough with a location to come and go as they please. “He is like a child in the house.”

In early November, the court handed down the verdict. Alexander Eriksson was found guilty of stealing and piloting the helicopter and sentenced to seven years in prison. Safa Kadhum also got seven years for storming the depot with an assault rifle. (Faced with DNA evidence, Kadhum claimed that he had been forced into the crime to pay a debt and he’d thought the depot would be empty of people.) The Tall One, who had already been sentenced to four years in prison for an unrelated arson—a crime the police had connected to him using the wiretaps—got another three for planning the G4S robbery. Charbel Charro, his co-planner, received a five-year sentence, based largely on the phone analysis of Hildeby. Neither of the planners could be definitively placed in the helicopter. The explosives expert, Södergran, also got five years after barely contesting the charges. The two men who staged the traffic accident were sentenced to less than two years apiece.

The men who’d been detained on the morning of the robbery carrying the chains and locks, meanwhile, were acquitted. The police hadn’t seen any caltrops on them, and possessing chains wasn’t proof enough that they’d set others on the street. Nemanja Alic, the gangster-film fan accused of placing the fake bombs, made perhaps the greatest escape. He’d argued away the DNA evidence by saying he’d loaned his gloves to someone else and had handled plenty of lighters in his job at the newsstand. He was freed in part on the basis of a gait expert who testified that an ankle injury would have prevented Alic from running like the man on the Myttinge surveillance tapes.

The outrage surrounding the robbery prompted the Swedish parliament to pass a law designating cash depots protected facilities. A few of Johan Petersson’s guards were now allowed to carry weapons and search cars parked around their buildings. Petersson ordered a new steel door from the blacksmithing company, this one designed and tested to hold up under a 30-minute assault, and had fencing and barbed wire installed on the roofs of all G4S depots. But he wasn’t optimistic about future police responses. “We have our police to protect the citizens,” he said. “I told them, You don’t need to bring your SWAT team and your police cars to our cash center next time if you aren’t going to do anything.”

Lake Mälaren


In mid-November,  Leif Görts sat in his office in jeans and a white V-neck T-shirt, paging through the dozen large binders containing nearly 10,000 pages of documents about the case. He’d spent almost every working hour with the G4S robbery over the past year, and now after a couple weeks off he was preparing for hearings on the defendants’ final appeals. That would mean retrying the entire case before a higher court. He’d quit smoking 15 years ago but found himself, in times of high stress, popping nicotine gum like candy.

In the end, he calculated they’d likely caught fewer than half the perpetrators. The investigators still retained hope that the money could be found, but Görts’s experience in money-laundering cases told him it could easily have passed through Russia into Swiss bank accounts or, perhaps more likely, been used on drug shipments. And even if they found part of the money, at this point there would be no way to prove that the unmarked cash had originated at G4S. “It was the best money to steal,” said Görts, and the robbers knew it.

They also knew “what the floors looked like, the windows, the doors, what they had to blow up,” Görts added. “It’s clear that some information was loose and it was given to them.” Interviews with the G4S staff had failed to turn up an inside source, but the RKP was still actively searching, suspecting that perhaps a contractor or temp had sketched out the measurements. One lead investigator suggested that the building’s plans could have been floating around Sweden since 2006, waiting for the right team to utilize them. He admitted a grudging respect for how the criminals had put the heist together. “For this constellation of people, to get them to do the right thing at the right moment, that’s interesting,” he said. “Getting to our police helicopters to put the bomb traps there, stealing the helicopter, having other people coming from Stockholm with ladders and explosives, and creating this car accident for the alibi: Everything is happening at the same time. And that’s what I think is quite good—logistically.”

With Bojovic and Charro in prison, the investigators could at least be confident that the immediate planners of the robbery had been locked up, if not perhaps the mysterious forces that had backed them. Of course, the prosecution had identified only one of the men who entered G4S itself—or at least, so said the court. Görts pulled out a notebook and flipped to Charro’s mug shot. “As a lawyer, I would say we only know what the hard-core evidence leads us to,” he said, angling his head down to look knowingly over his glasses. Then he flipped to a still from the G4S surveillance footage showing a balaclava-wearing robber in profile. Görts tapped his finger over the man’s ample nose, which bore a striking resemblance to the one in the mug shot. “One can speculate,” he said. The third robber at the depot that night remained at large.

Mostly, Görts remained baffled by Eriksson. The prosecutors had delivered evidence showing that he was struggling financially. He’d sunk deeper into debt than he’d let on to his family. Yet even with the financial incentive, and even though they’d managed to paint Eriksson as a man with a taste for dark thrills, it didn’t really add up. “He’s a smart guy. He has a wife and two kids. He is very much appreciated for his work,” Görts said, popping another piece of nicotine gum. “He had it all, but then he fucks it up. You would need a psychologist to understand it.”

Görts himself is moving on to a position with the European Union, where he will be part of a group working to increase cooperation among prosecutors and investigators across the continent. Recently, Swedish criminals had branched out to cash robberies in Finland and Denmark. “We know from experience there are a group of people in Sweden that are prepared to take part in actions like this,” Görts said. “Some say 200. There’s no science in that number, but they are still around. If they are given an opportunity, they will do it again. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of this.” 


On February 16, 2011, an appeals court in Stockholm returned its verdict on the case of the accused plotters and participants in the G4S robbery. Alexander Eriksson and Safa Kadhum were punished for gambling on an acquittal: The court increased both of their prison terms by a year. The rest of the sentences, for Goran Bojovic and others, remained intact. Nemanja Alic, the man accused of planting the bombs at Myttinge, had his own acquittal upheld.

In March, Eriksson, Kadhum, and Bojovic appealed their sentences to the Supreme Court. Eriksson’s lawyer Leif Silbersky suggested that at the final stage—Eriksson’s last chance to avoid his lengthy prison term—his client would be presenting entirely new evidence of his innocence. One local tabloid reported that Eriksson’s family planned to hire private detectives to help track down the real helicopter pilot.

For the authorities, the appeals court decision opened up the possibility that, with little now to lose, one or more of the robbers might choose to tell their version of the events that night. As for Görts, he’d already grown weary of the case that swallowed a year of his life. “This is the end, and that’s nice,” he said. “I’ve been chewing this gum for a long time. There’s no taste left in it.”

The Instigators


The Instigators

Retracing the forces behind the Egyptian revolution.

By David Wolman

The Atavist Magazine, No. 04

Award-winning journalist and author David Wolman is a contributing editor at Wired, a former Fulbright journalism fellow and a winner of the 2011 Oregon Arts Commission individual artists fellowship. He is the author of two works of nonfiction. His third book, The End of Money, will be published in February.

Editor: Evan Ratliff
Designer: Jefferson Rabb
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kathleen Massara
Illustrators: Ben Gibson and Jason Oldak
Portrait Photographer: Julia Gillard
Infographics: Erik Steiner, Spatial History Project at Stanford University
Translators: Wiam El-Tamami, Mandi Fahmy, and Sharaf Kamal Al-Hourani
Inline Extras, Additional Reporting, and Video Editing: Olivia Koski
Music: Jefferson Rabb
Special thanks: Sysomos, who provided crucial data for the Visual History infographic.

Published in May 2011. Design updated in 2021.


At around 11 o’clock on the chilly morning of February 10, Ahmed Maher was walking toward Tahrir Square in Cairo. Egypt’s revolution had been raging for more than two weeks, and the 31-year-old civil engineer was at the center of it. Maher, a founder of the activist group April 6 Youth, had joined forces with other opposition parties to urge tens of thousands of everyday Egyptians into the streets. They had flooded the square on January 25, been pushed back by police, and then retaken the ground on January 28, demanding an end to the 30-year regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Two weeks later, they were still waiting for it.

Maher’s phone rang. It was a fellow activist. “My friend,” the caller said. “You must come and meet me. You must come and meet me now!”

“OK,” Maher replied calmly. “Where?”

The man told Maher to get in a taxi and head east. As the car wove through downtown and out past dense neighborhoods capped by minarets, Maher received further instructions: The destination was an office of the Ministry of Transportation, near Cairo International Airport. He also learned the alleged purpose of the rendezvous, which he relayed to an acquaintance in a text message:

I’m now going to a meeting with ministers, talking with them about how Mubarak will go. But it’s top secret.

Maher’s caller was a man named Wael Ghonim. A Google executive who had played a key role in mobilizing turnout for the protests, Ghonim had been thrust into the center of the revolution a few days earlier. Detained by police on January 27, blindfolded, and denied communication with the outside world, Ghonim was finally released 12 days later. Hours after he was freed, he had given a heartfelt television interview that inspired thousands more Egyptians to pour into the streets for the first time in their lives.

The revolution seemed reinvigorated. As quiet replaced the state-sponsored violence inflicted on demonstrators at the beginning of the protests, many prominent Egyptians called for the activists to vacate Tahrir Square so the economy could get moving again. Even the international media were eager to nudge the narrative, looking for signs of Cairo’s return to normalcy: traffic jams, ATMs dispensing cash, cargo-laden street vendors. Ghonim’s release, and the outpouring in response to his interview, changed that.

Still, Maher needed to be careful. As long as Mubarak hung on, there was no telling what the regime—or even one cold-blooded member of the secret police—might do. Maher had been a target of the state security apparatus for the past three years, forced underground before and after protests organized by April 6 Youth, or A6Y. He’d been arrested and tortured, as had many of his peers. “I need to be able to move fast,” he told his wife, Reham, explaining his regular absences from family life. “If you want me to be safe, you must leave me alone.” He slept at a rotating collection of locations: inside his beige 1986 Fiat, on a couch his parents kept in storage, on the floor of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights.

Now he was alone as he stepped out of the taxi and entered the Ministry of Transportation building. Everyone was waiting for him. On one side of the table sat Ghonim, a coordinator with the National Coalition for Change (the political group led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei), and a friend of Ghonim’s whom Maher didn’t know. On the other side sat three men. He recognized only one: Ahmed Shafik, the former Air Force Commander whom Mubarak had named prime minister on January 29 in an attempt to placate the protestors.

The man beside Shafik extended his hand toward Maher. “Mahmoud Wagdy,” he said flatly. Maher froze, then aborted the handshake. As Cairo’s former head of prisons and criminal investigations, Wagdy had overseen the incarceration of Maher, hundreds of bloggers, opposition political candidates, and activists.

The third person, a burly man dressed in a black suit, didn’t introduce himself but kept his eyes fixed on Maher.

Ghonim’s default bearing is amicably chatty, and this day was no exception. When Maher arrived, Ghonim was already delivering broad-stroke statements about how all citizens must work together to protect Egypt and build a brighter future. Shafik responded with a string of similar sentiments, absent specifics. He mentioned nothing about Mubarak leaving power.

Maher suddenly realized that this was not a meeting to arrange for Mubarak’s departure. A6Y, together with other opposition groups and the protesters in Tahrir Square, had refused to negotiate with the government until Mubarak was gone. Now Maher found himself at the negotiating table. Was it a trap? Even if Wagdy didn’t have henchmen waiting outside for Maher, word that he had met with the government could decimate A6Y’s credibility with protestors—and possibly undercut the revolution itself.

Maher sat silently with his arms crossed, avoiding eye contact with Wagdy. Finally, Shafik addressed him directly.

“Why aren’t you smiling?”

“There is nothing to smile about,” he replied.

Shafik tried to warm him up with small talk, joking about Maher’s shaved head. It was a subject Maher himself often laughed about. During the protests, he wore a ski hat. “My head can be quite shiny,” he had told a friend with a wink. “That doesn’t exactly help when you’re trying to go unnoticed.” But the joke didn’t work here. Maher sat expressionless.

Wagdy also tried to warm him up. “Why are you so quiet? I hear that you are this wild revolutionary!” he said, turning to the man in the black suit. Maher would later learn that this man was the chief scorpion himself: General Hassan Abdel Rahman, director of the State Security Investigative Service, the organization that directed the arbitrary monitoring, detentions, and torture of opposition-group members.

When the meeting concluded, Maher shook hands only with Shafik. “This isn’t what we came here for,” he said to Ghonim before turning for the exit.

Maher jumped in a taxi and headed back downtown. He was frustrated but hopeful. It was clear from the meeting that Shafik was acting independently of Mubarak, a sign that the regime was fracturing. The military, he realized, might already be readying for a formal takeover of the government. This hypothesis gelled with a tip Maher had received just hours prior; a midlevel army official had told him Mubarak was on his way out. That prediction hadn’t come to pass at the meeting, but Maher could tell things were getting close. After the meeting, he sent me this text message:

Mubarak will go now. LOL.



I first met Maher in 2008, when I traveled to Egypt to see firsthand how the country’s young political activists were using Facebook. At the center of that movement were Maher and A6Y, a then newly established opposition group that was using online organizing to gain members and jump-start small protests. I wrote about their efforts for Wired magazine, but not long afterward a kind of opinion backlash began to form in the West. Pundits declared that the success of April 6 Youth would be fleeting and that technologists had inflated the importance of social media in the world of political activism. A6Y’s brand of activism was mere slacktivism, they chided; changing the world is about more than accumulating “friends” and “fans” online. The idea that the tiny buzzing of A6Y on Facebook could loosen Mubarak’s grip on power seemed preposterous.

Back in the States, I followed the tribulations of April 6 Youth through press releases about the latest arrests of bloggers and protesters. But Maher and his colleagues pressed on, gathering supporters and waiting for the conditions that might spur them, and Egyptians in general, into action.

Then, on January 25, 2011, the revolution began.

Through the weeks of protests, violence, and triumph, I, like many people captivated by the Arab Spring, was glued to my television and computer monitor. But I was also following on my phone, through the occasional bulletins from Maher and others on the scene who were pulling strings imperceptible to the rest of the world.

After Mubarak’s ouster, it would become almost hackneyed to call the revolution a leaderless one. “All of Egypt was as one hand,” people on the streets of Cairo would tell me later. “There was no one, two, three, or five individuals. There was everyone.” One investment banker sounded more like a flower-power peacenik: “It was every class, every religion, every age. It was truly incredible.” There were martyrs, of course: More than 800 people were killed during the uprising, primarily by baltagiya, the regime’s hired thugs, with blows from truncheons, sniper fire, or random shots into crowds. But there weren’t leaders. “No one was a hero because everyone was a hero,” Wael Ghonim tweeted just after the revolution.

The Egyptian revolt lacked a figurehead like a Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The uprising, however, was not nearly as spontaneous as it might have seemed. Resentment against Mubarak had been building for years, even decades, and the country’s well-organized labor movement gained strength, power, and influence as the protests continued. But the revolt was also the culmination of years of plotting and daring and experimentation by activists organizing in the virtual world. Most Egyptians don’t have access to the Internet, and a third of the people in the country can’t even read. Yet the very idea of a leaderless, politically neutral uprising was conceived, nurtured, and brought to fruition by young activists using the new digital tools suddenly at their disposal.

Ahmed Maher was one of the engineers behind the tectonic events in Egypt. In mid-March, I caught a plane back to Cairo to find out what, exactly, he and A6Y had done.

Ahmed Maher, April 2011 (Photo by Julia Gillard)


Maher grew up in a humble apartment in a rundown area of Maadi, a suburb of Cairo. He is the eldest of three children. His father worked for the state-owned El Nasr Automotive Manufacturing Company, and his mother worked at a nearby school.

Young Ahmed rarely played soccer outside in the streets with other kids. His world was books. On trips to Alexandria to visit his mother’s family, he would spend hours in the print shop run by his grandfather, not far from where the new Library of Alexandria now stands. He loved comic books, science fiction, The Adventures of Tintin, and a popular series for preteens called The Five Adventurers, about a group of adolescent detectives who race around Egypt cracking cases the police can’t solve. Maher’s mother recalls a doctor suggesting that she limit her son’s reading, to give his eyes a respite. At night, Maher would read under the covers with a flashlight.

As a young student, when Maher failed to rank first in a subject, he would attempt to hide his report card from his parents, even though his mother worked at the same school. He was a sensitive boy, she says, and although he is quiet and rarely talks about emotions, he is very much that same person today. “When he speaks passionately about something, you can see his eyes well up with tears,” she says.

The family got their first PC in 1998, when Maher was attending a local university, studying engineering. He had wanted to be a doctor, but when his high school exit exams fell just shy of the scores needed to go into medicine, he turned to engineering. “I was disappointed at first because I didn’t really like math, but I reshaped my mindset,” he said. “If I am going to be an engineer, I thought, then I will learn to like it.” Doctors, he concluded, just read information and act on standard practices. Engineers get to read, organize, and innovate.

By now, Maher had begun frequenting cybercafes, playing online games and visiting chat rooms under the alias Ghosty, a nod to his reputation for quiet. He eventually stumbled on the blogs of outspoken political activists like Wael Abbas and Shahinaz Abdel Salam. But there was no eureka moment. His political awakening was more akin to the mixing of ingredients that, due to their chemical makeup, become volatile. His father was openly critical of Mubarak: The regime had closed the plant where he worked, forcing him to take an early retirement. When Ahmed opened his own engineering business, he quickly saw that his prospects were determined not by the marketplace or talent but by connections (which he lacked) and bribes (which he could not and would not pay). He was also disheartened by simple statistics: A quarter of Egypt’s young people were unemployed, in a poor country managed by one of the world’s most corrupt governments. As he thought about engineering, he realized that bridges, buildings, tunnels, and schools—no matter how well designed—don’t get built without a government that invests on behalf of its citizenry. A civil-liberties attorney in Cairo named Gamal Eid told me that Maher was just “a regular guy who became fed up with corruption and gained the courage to act against it.”

In the fall of 2004, Maher began logging onto Yahoo Groups and other forums to read about the anti-Mubarak group Kefaya, Arabic for “enough.” He started attending weekly demonstrations and was soon volunteering for the secular, liberal El Ghad party, led by Ayman Nour. Nour won about 7 percent of the vote in the 2005 presidential “election,” whereupon Mubarak had him imprisoned on trumped-up charges.

In April of 2006, Maher was arrested during a sit-in supporting a group of judges who were calling for a more independent judiciary. He was imprisoned for two months. “If you’ve never been arrested, the fear of arrest persists,” he later recalled. Once it had finally happened, though, the fear vanished. His mother, however, burst into tears when she learned of her son’s incarceration while watching television, and she urged her husband to convince Ahmed to tone down his activism. Maher’s father listened attentively but did nothing of the sort. Soon, when his mother realized there was no sense in trying to change her son’s mind, both parents quietly lent him whatever support and financial assistance they could.

During his two-month incarceration, Maher sometimes slept 20 hours a day, waking only to eat, use the restroom, and read Mickey Mouse comic books. He says he can fall asleep almost instantly, even if he’s sitting in a chair or curled up sideways on floor tiles in a dilapidated office. The joke among fellow detainees at Cairo’s Torah Prison was that Maher landed himself in jail so that he could catch up on his sleep.

The following winter, Egypt’s national soccer team reached the finals of the continental championships, and a Facebook fan page for the team grew to 45,000 people. Maher and his fellow activist Egyptians suddenly saw the social network’s potential as a tool for mobilization. He was captivated by the idea that a Facebook group is inclusive and egalitarian. It gives participants the power to reach out to all other members at any moment, from anywhere.

But then what? Could a virtual gathering on Facebook influence real-world events? Or would it only lead to talking in circles? Maher decided to find out.

In March of 2008, Maher and a woman named Israa Abdel-Fattah created a Facebook page called April 6 Youth to support an upcoming workers’ strike in the Nile River delta city of El-Mahalla el-Kubra. They sent out emails inviting people to join, urged participants to change their profile pictures to the A6Y logo, and inundated Facebook news feeds with protest-related information. In virtual space, they conjured a new reality: The strike was not a one-time expression of grievance; it was a movement. Within three weeks, the Facebook group had grown to more than 70,000 people. When the day of the strike finally came, the A6Y mobilization helped build turnout in both Mahalla and Cairo. What was destined to be an unnoticed workers’ strike—in a town no one outside Egypt had ever heard of—became an explosive street riot that attracted international media attention and embarrassed the regime.

Soon after, government officials announced that Mubarak was considering blocking Facebook. At the time, damming access to a popular website looked like the typical paranoia of an authoritarian state; none of the activists imagined that a government would (or even could) completely sever Internet access and silence cellular networks. Eventually, the regime backed off its threat.

Buoyed by the success of the strike, Maher and his fellow organizers tried to hold a follow-up rally in May in downtown Cairo. This time the security police were ready. The street where the activists planned to gather was cordoned off, and the tiny trickle of protesters were picked up one by one. Agents of the regime had also taken extra steps to cripple the demonstration in advance. Telecoms were told not to connect calls between anonymous subscribers, essentially eliminating communication between activists who made a habit of switching their SIM cards. The government also temporarily raised wages, hoping to neutralize one of the primary grievances that had fueled the riots in Mahalla. Meanwhile, security officers had been prowling online, joining the Facebook group under fake names and creating bogus pages to slander Maher.

Three days later, Maher was driving to work in his blocky Fiat, which he had nicknamed Zazua. As he neared his office, a crew of police officers ambushed him and surrounded the car. Maher tried to gun the accelerator, sending one of the men jumping back and wincing, but Zazua was pinned between too many vehicles. The officers pulled him out, blindfolded and handcuffed him, and threw him into the back of a van. At the New Cairo police station, one of the officers began punching him, yelling “This is for what you did to my arm, you fucking bastard!” Maher figured he must have been the one he’d hit with the car. Way to go Zazua, he thought.

Maher was then transferred to a state security facility at Lazoghly. The torture lasted about a day and a half. The agents stripped him and covered him with oil—a method for dulling the visible impact of blows—punched and slapped him, dragged him across the floor, and threatened him with electrocution and rape.

When he was released, Maher went to his parents’ apartment. They didn’t know that he had been arrested, and he would have preferred to return to his own apartment to sleep. But his mother had been sick with cancer, and it was her birthday. After climbing the stairs to the eighth-floor apartment, he sat stiffly in the corner on an orange couch, head cocked to the side, wearing a turtleneck sweater to hide the bruises on his neck.

“Are you OK?” his mother asked.

“Yes. I just slept funny.”


Since A6Y had formed in 2008, Egypt’s security police had been monitoring the activists’ Facebook pages, trying to glean intelligence or even sabotage dissidents’ anytime-anywhere assembly. Maher took to calling Facebook the “underground headquarters of the resistance.” The government’s infiltration efforts occasionally created confusion, but in most cases they were laughably transparent. The giveaway was that the saboteurs’ Facebook profiles were nearly blank: few friends, no photos, no wall posts. They had created ciphers, not people. Activists also put plans to a vote within Facebook, which served as a filter on the fake activist’ contributions to the discussion. The ideas voiced by saboteurs would quickly become outliers, forgotten along with other, more pedestrian bad ideas.

Maher and other core members of A6Y’s inner circle called themselves El Matbakh, the Kitchen. They would sometimes take their communications outside the visible Facebook discussion areas and wall postings into cloistered online chat spaces or smaller Facebook groups. Offline, a small inner circle, referred to as “the coordinators,” began meeting monthly at clandestine locations or on the Cairo Metro. In June of 2008, I read a news item about the group and began corresponding with Maher. A few weeks later, I was making plans to meet up with him in Cairo and shadow the group during a protest attempt on the beach in Alexandria.

They chose July 23, the public holiday marking the nation’s 1952 revolution and an end, of sorts, to monarchical rule. Crammed into one of two minivans with the protesters, I watched Maher hurriedly type and send text messages to scouts on the beach who were looking for a location that wasn’t already crawling with police. We eventually unloaded, and the rabble-rousers, many wearing matching A6Y T-shirts, began assembling a kite decorated to look like the Egyptian flag.

But the seaside demonstration was over as quickly as it started. Plainclothes security officers quickly descended on the small gathering and, speaking calmly at first, worked to disperse it. Before long, they were shouting and shoving. One of Maher’s closest confidants, an animated English-speaking banker named Waleed Rashed, turned to me. “Those trucks,” Rashed said, pointing to two army green vehicles speeding past us on the road. “They are coming for us. It is a U-turn there,” he said, pointing to the north. “You must go now.” When I saw the trucks slow to make the looping left turn and head back down to our spot on the beach, I walked away.

That night I learned that some members of the group were later tackled in the street, the police yelling, “Where is Ahmed Maher?” A handful of A6Y members were detained, including Maher’s younger brother, Mostafa. The next day, they grabbed Ahmed as well.

The Mahers’ mother, coincidentally, was already in Alexandria. Her younger sister had recently died; now she learned that her sons had been arrested. (She had not even known they were in Alexandria. No one had. The morning Ahmed left Cairo, he had told his wife he was going to work as usual.)

Maher’s mother went to the police station, wearing all black as if in mourning.

“My sons are here in Alexandria for my sister’s funeral, and you have arrested them!” she shouted at the officer, demanding that they be released.

“Who are your sons, ma’am?”

“Ahmed and Mostafa Maher.”

“Ahmed Maher? He is the leader! The leader of a bunch of criminals! We have all kinds of files on him!”

The officer refused to let her see or contact her sons. She finally managed to find a sympathetic prosecutor, who told her he would do his best to ensure they were treated well. Quietly, he also told her that Ahmed and Mostafa were heroes. “Egypt needs more like them,” he said.

The Maher boys were released within days. Neither had been tortured. I returned to the U.S. to write about the quashed protest. I admired their courage, but the whole thing felt like a prank. At that point, it was hard to imagine Maher and A6Y toppling much of anything.


After the crushed Alexandria protest, Maher and his cohorts regrouped. By the fall of 2008, A6Y was becoming fairly well known in Egypt, at least among the young. Much of that success traced to Maher’s quiet leadership and organizational acumen, combined with the magnetic force of some of A6Y’s more vocal personalities, like Waleed Rashed and a tech-savvy 19-year-old blogger named Mohamed Adel. But it was Maher’s vision that propelled them forward. “He made the bridge from online to offline organizing,” says Sherif Mansour, a senior program officer with Freedom House, a human-rights group in Washington, D.C.

In person, Maher displays a soft-spokenness that can be mistaken for shyness, until you notice how closely he’s concentrating on a conversation. To spend an afternoon, or even a few days, with Maher is to watch him listening. “Everyone says I am so calm, but it’s not that way to me. It’s not calm inside my head,” he told me. “But I make things happen suddenly, so many people are surprised by what I do—that this quiet person did these things.” The Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas told me that Maher “is a velvet fist in a velvet glove. He always avoids clashes with people.” His aura of decency, coupled with his regular-guy street cred, only increased after he was tortured, drawing more young people into A6Y.

Yet while the group’s eagerness for regime change crystallized in online conversations, it was clear to everyone in the Kitchen that they needed to learn more about effective street organizing. So A6Y’s leaders turned again to the Internet, this time for a crash course in the history of nonviolent opposition. The April 6 crew read about the U.S. civil rights movement, studied the writings of Gandhi, and, most critically, connected with the organizers of Serbia’s Otpor student movement.

In 2000, Otpor had helped overthrow the government of Slobodan Miloševic with adroit application of nonviolent protest strategies. The campaign had worked so well that Otpor organizers launched a training program for toppling, or at least upsetting, incumbent governments. It is called Canvas, for Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies. Foreign Policy magazine dubbed it “Revolution U.” In the summer of 2009, A6Y’s Mohamed Adel flew to Belgrade for a Canvas session. Slightly pudgy and disheveled but quick-witted, Adel had been blogging about politics and government corruption since he was 16. “I had to tell people about what I saw in my village,” he told me. In Belgrade, Adel met activists from all over the globe, building relationships with like-minded organizers in Tunisia, Algeria, and elsewhere in the Arab world.

Back in Cairo,  shared what he had learned: Design demonstrations that put the authorities on notice in unexpected ways. Use art and humor, and stay focused on issues that resonate with the masses. Plan events on public holidays. When you do take to the streets, bring water so you don’t pass out; carry a flower to symbolize peace and the lid of a pot or garbage bin to protect against batons; wear comfortable shoes for standing and running, a scarf to shield against tear gas, and leather gloves to protect hands from tear-gas canisters. Wash tear gas from your eyes with soda. Most important of all, don’t treat the police like enemies, because they are not enemies. If any of your fellow protesters look like they might be losing their cool, or if they commit acts of violence, surround and isolate them.

Just as A6Y was establishing itself as a political force and expanding its demonstration tactics, however, the organization faced internal chaos. Maher kept getting fired from jobs: employers would get a visit from state security soon after hiring him and decide that the risks weren’t worth it. At one firm, agents seized Maher’s desktop computer. At home, Maher faced pressure from Reham, who did not like the fact that whenever her husband wasn’t working, he was off at meetings, hiding, or in jail.

That summer a few of the group’s newer members began showing up at A6Y meetings, commandeering the conversation with moronic arguments about how using technologies like Google and Facebook was wrong because they were built by American companies. (Despite the billions of dollars in aid from Washington, Egyptians—like many people in the Arab world—have reactions ranging from skeptical to resentful toward U.S. involvement in their affairs.)

Maher, Adel, and others quickly identified the newcomers as state security plants. “They were just foolish kids,” says Maher. But before the organizers could weed them out, these foolish kids managed to hack into many Kitchen members’ email accounts, which they then made public. They even dug deep enough into Maher’s inbox to find my correspondences. In one tabloid article that Maher remembers, he was accused of collaborating with a Mossad agent identified as David Wolman.

The Kitchen responded with a counter-hack. Adel put together a dummy Facebook page that appeared to contain scandalous information about Maher and A6Y. In fact it was a data trap: To view the information, users had to input their email addresses and passwords. Adel collected their logins and showed them to A6Y’s followers. Maher realized that this kind of online threat was arguably more dangerous than the security forces breaking up street protests or throwing people in jail. Foiled protests could serve to reinforce peoples’ anti-regime convictions, whereas sowing doubt on the Internet about A6Y’s authenticity could undercut support from its base. Much of the battle between state security and activists had moved online.

In the fall of 2009, Maher and his crew began sketching plans for a demonstration against police brutality to take place on January 25, a holiday that honors Egypt’s police. Opposition groups and young activists considered the holiday something of a sick joke, as if Mubarak was making it mandatory that they celebrate state-sponsored torture, intimidation, and graft. But January 25 also offered an optimal occasion for protest: Instead of enjoying a day off, the cops would have to deal with demonstrators. This meant the activists could force the police into what the people at Revolution U called a “dilemma action.” If the regime aggressively thwarted the protest, it would underscore the message of the protesters. If it gave the activists a generous berth, they’d be free to transmit their message.

The activists gathered at a meeting place announced online: the Journalists’ Syndicate. They would do the same a year later, meeting at the General Prosecutor’s building. Both times the result was the same: the January 25 protest fizzled, broken up by police at the gathering point before it could gain momentum. They drew barely a flicker of coverage from domestic and international media. Nevertheless, the A6Y activists decided to make Police Day protests an annual event. Maybe next year, Maher thought, they could attract more people. “You need the perfect conditions,” he had once told me, “a time when people are receptive to being active.”



On June 6, 2010, a 28-year-old businessman named Khalid Mohamed Said was seated in a cybercafe in his hometown of Alexandria. According to witness accounts, two local detectives entered the second-floor establishment and began beating him. They slammed his head on a table before the owner told them to take the fighting outside. They pulled Said out to a building entryway where they kicked him and smashed his head against an iron gate until his body went limp.

Official reports of the incident alleged that Said was a drug dealer wanted by police for weapons possession. He died, the authorities claimed, after resisting arrest and trying to swallow a bag of marijuana. But activists were quickly convinced that Said was killed for posting a video showing local police divvying up marijuana they had recently seized. It wasn’t just activists, though. People all over the country, many of whom had no interest in politics, were appalled with official explanations they believed to be lies.

After Said’s family was called to the morgue to identify his body, a photograph of his horrifically mangled face was posted online. The image was too shocking for young Egyptians not to share. Mohammad Al-Anwar, a 22-year-old medical student from the city of Zagazig, later told me that Said’s murder was somehow different from other episodes of torture or murder at the hands of the regime. “Maybe it was because he was a well-known and educated guy with many friends. And the picture. I mean, he was so completely disfigured. I don’t know what it was exactly, but it spread like fire.” A 24-year-old woman I spoke with in Cairo welled up as she recounted what happened to this man she’d never met. “He was this good-looking guy who by all accounts was liked by everyone.” It was painful, another woman told me, to think that Egyptians had let their country devolve into the kind of place where this could happen.

It wasn’t the photo alone that was spreading but also a Facebook page erected in Said’s honor. A number of online memorials were posted, including one created by members of A6Y, but one in particular became a meeting place for tens of thousands, and soon hundreds of thousands, of Egyptians. A month after the murder, the page had 180,000 fans. They convened to vent, connect, pay tribute, and, although they may not have realized it at the time, unite. The page was called We Are All Khalid Said, and the title alone spoke to the sense among Egypt’s educated (but often unemployed) youth that the corrupt state of the State was now everyone’s business.

The person who created We Are All Khalid Said chose to go by the moniker El Shaheed, the Martyr. The page’s content was welcoming and interactive, with emotionally forthright conversations and a seemingly limitless string of thought-provoking comments and links. It encouraged visitors to share news, videos, and photographs about injustices suffered at the hands of Mubarak’s security forces. And its creator took pains to keep the page as casual and unpolitical as possible, using, for example, the Egyptian Arabic of the streets rather than the classical Arabic usually reserved for writing. The posts were drenched in earnestness:

We will triumph because we have no agendas, because we don’t understand politics and negotiations and the dirty games of give-and-take. We will triumph because our tears are heartfelt, because our love is instinctive, because our dreams are legitimate … and because hope has now possessed every one of us. We will triumph because Egypt is above all.

A few weeks after the murder, people organized vigils to honor Said. Dressed in black, they gathered by the corniche in Alexandria, facing the Mediterranean, and on the banks of the Nile in Cairo, to observe an hour-long “silent stand.” Under a Mubarak-era law, any unsanctioned gathering of more than five people could lead to police custody or jail time. By standing at least 10 feet apart and staring out at the sea, the participants were not, technically, assembling.

Just after midnight on July 8, the mysterious man behind We Are All Khalid Said sent an email to Ahmed Maher using the alias Khalid Said. He began by praising the work of the A6Y:

You and Kefaya were the first people in Egypt to wake up and hopefully, God willing, this awakening will continue and we can do something to change this country because we all have the same goal.

He then complained about a newspaper report crediting A6Y with organizing the silent stands. His objection, he said, arose from the fact that he’d worked hard to use We Are All Khalid Said to “attract many non-political people who do not want to feel that I am a political person, or that this community is part of a political organization.” But then he offered the hint of a pledge:

If you would like to, consider me someone who is preparing a generation of young people to join you or anyone else afterwards… I want us to be one hand and to continue each other’s work, so that we don’t get into conflicts and our positive efforts to change Egypt end up turning negative.

 Maher responded immediately, praising “Said” for his mobilization efforts and apologizing for the misinformation in the papers, adding that the error was not the fault of anyone within A6Y. (Egypt’s media, at the time, tended to tie any activities conducted by young people to the A6Y.) But Maher also pointed out that A6Y’s involvement had helped magnify the demonstrations. And because members of the group had been studying up on strategies for nonviolent protest, they were able to help direct the crowds to minimize conflict with the police. Then he added:

This leads us to an important point: maybe we can have a declaration between us, agreeing to consult, collaborate, and coordinate together, so that young people will not be so scattered and afraid anymore during these protests.

Without coordination, Maher explained, people brave enough to head into the streets often have to return home just as fast, having achieved nothing “because one dumb officer shooed them away like flies.”

At 3:13 a.m., “Said” sent a reply. “I can’t begin to describe how happy I was when I read your e-mail,” he wrote. He appreciated that Maher was sensitive to the tone he was striking with the Facebook page. Police brutality, human dignity, freedom—these are universal issues, not political issues. “Said” did not want the agendaless brand of We Are All Khalid Said to be contaminated by an open connection to a political group. Still, Said pointed out,

You have probably noticed how [on the Facebook page] I am gradually moving them away from this fear [of politics] and subtly inserting some political subjects.

The two activists would trade a few more brief emails; Maher then suggested they continue the dialogue via either Gmail or Yahoo chat. “Said” closed out the exchange:

Anyway, I think we can really help each other and benefit from one another. Our goal is one.

I’ll try to be online around midnight.

But I only have Gmail.

While Maher and the pseudonymous organizer continued chatting for months in the online world, offline Maher had found an employer willing to serve as a kind a benefactor. Mamdouh Hamza was a well-known liberal activist in Cairo and the owner of Hamza Associates, a major architecture and engineering firm behind famous projects like the new Library of Alexandria. A friend had told Hamza about Maher’s job troubles. “I hired him without an interview,” Hamza told me later. “I was determined to protect this young man.”

The steady paycheck meant Maher could focus on plotting. On December 30, 2010, “Said” wrote Maher in a chat session, suggesting that they “collaborate on a crazy idea”:

Maher: Oh really? Crazy people are the ones that create change.

Said: January 25th is “Police Day.” We want to celebrate it.

Maher: Cool.

Said: [Showcasing] positive examples and negative examples of police behavior.

Maher: We celebrated it last year.

Said: Really? Send me any links so I can see what you did.

They conferred about what kind of demonstration to conduct, and Maher reiterated the idea that the police were especially “pissed off” to have to work on Police Day. Said wrote back, “I can energize people to participate.” But he needed Maher’s expertise with information dissemination, publicity, and details about how to evade the police. It was soon settled: We Are All Khalid Said would endorse and advertise a January 25 event, while A6Y would coordinate the logistics.

In the first weeks of 2011, emotions in Egypt were smoldering. On January 1, a bombing of a church in Alexandria killed 21 people and injured almost 100 more. Many Egyptians believed the attack was launched by the regime to incite anger between Muslims and Christians. (An investigation is still under way.) Regime change was also fresh in people’s minds because of speculation that Nobel laureate, and local hero, Mohamed ElBaradei might run for office. Next was Tunisia, where protesters had successfully ended the 23-year reign of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Ahead of the January 25 event, A6Y set up a control room in an apartment owned by Maher’s boss, Hamza, in an old building downtown. As news of the revolution in Tunisia spread, a public discussion emerged on We Are All Khalid Said about giving a Tunisian-style gift to the Egyptian regime.

By January 14, Egypt’s Twittersphere began to fill with chatter about the uprising. One microblogger wrote, “Dear people watching Arabs Got Talent. There’s a better show going on called Tunisia’s Got Freedom. Watch that.” Two days later, another popular microblogger, 24-year-old Gigi Ibrahim, posted this: “The black and white days are coming, there is no grey.” Others kept directing and redirecting followers, friends, and digital passersby to “a Facebook event page for a revolution in Egypt: Don’t forget to RSVP…” On the 17th, Ibrahim again: “A MAN IN #EGYPT SET HIMSELF ON FIRE CHANTING AGAINST STATE SECURITY IN FRONT OF PARLIAMENT AT 9:00 AM TODAY #Sidbouzid #Revolution attempt?”

That same day, Maher sent “Said” a note after a meeting with other opposition groups:

There have been some suggestions for a protest at the Journalists’ Syndicate, but I’m not convinced. But in today’s meetings to coordinate for January 25, the idea of marches was widely accepted. They will begin in local areas, culminating with a central event in Cairo.

The problem is how to gather when they [state security] can strike any place that we announce. If the organizers started gathering by surprise—and that’s easy enough to do—how do we gather people and continue marching?

There is also a disagreement on the gathering point: Tahrir Square or the Ministry of Interior. Tahrir is easy for the police to lock down, and would be hard to storm if we had less than 5,000 people with us.

Maher detailed how protests in Tahrir over the past few years had been stifled by police who were able to “scatter” people before they could get there.

Two days later, Maher wrote “Said” with another update. “Imagine this,” he wrote. On January 25, various groups of protesters would gather in local areas and then converge on Tahrir. Different opposition groups—ElBaradei supporters, Ayman Nour’s El Ghad party, etc.—would be responsible for the different parts of the city. They would invite people from the neighborhoods to march with them; they would maintain contact with the command center; that would hand out fliers; they would make masks with Said’s face on them; and they would not carry banners associated with political parties—only the Egyptian flag. Their demands: better wages, resignation of the Interior Minister, and an end to the emergency law that gave police free rein to terrorize without consequence. They would also flood Facebook with simple explanations of the protesters’ demands and guides to nonviolent protest tactics—a how-to straight out of the Canvas playbook.

A week before Police Day, a 21-year-old Cairo University student named Alya El Hosseiny was at home, sitting on her bed with her notebook computer, reading about Tunisia’s toppled dictator. She happened upon the Facebook event page for the January 25 demonstrations and decided to post on Twitter about it. “I looked around and couldn’t find an existing hashtag,” she told me later via email, referring to the handles that allow Twitter users to follow every post about a topic. “So I just made up something short and sweet. I thought it was temporary, until I found out everyone was using it”:



On the morning of January 25, 2011, Maher was driving around the Cairo neighborhood of Mohandessin. He had been in hiding for days. When he left his apartment a few days prior, Reham asked where he would be heading for the protests. Maher shrugged and said they were still sorting out details.

Maher was wearing a thick pullover sweatshirt with gray patches, a raincoat, a scarf, and a ski hat. Zazua, Maher’s car, has black trim, a thick coating of dust, and a broken triangular window by the driver-side mirror. The car is decorated with two small black fists, the emblem of A6Y and of just about every other solidarity group of the past 100 years: one on the rear windshield, the other on the fuel-tank door. At around 11 a.m., Maher headed toward the square in front of Mostafa Mahmoud Mosque, which sits almost in the middle of one of the area’s widest and busiest thoroughfares, Gameat Al Dowal Al Arabia, or Arab League Street. An array of smaller streets shoot off from it like spokes.

The coalition of anti-Mubarak groups had chosen Mostafa Mahmoud as one of four major landmarks in the city that would serve as initial gathering places. From each, the respective groups would march to Tahrir Square. “It was just like in the movie V for Vendetta,” Maher recalled, referring to the moment in the film when thousands of Londoners march on Parliament.

It was a little after 11:30 when Maher drove past the front of the mosque. Peering out the window of his car, he could see that it was crawling with plainclothes security officers, as well as a lineup of black-clad riot police.

Good, they’re here, he thought, before driving away.

A few days prior, A6Y operatives had announced on Facebook and in newspaper advertisements that a rally would take place outside the mosque after midday prayer, at around 2 p.m., on January 25. Located in a well-to-do neighborhood, Mostafa Mahmoud was exactly the kind of place the police would expect middle-class kids playing around on Facebook to congregate for a demonstration.

The mosque was indeed the protest location, but for the A6Y protestors and the crowds they hoped to rally, it was merely the end point of a larger plan. Shortly after noon, eight groups of about 20 A6Y veterans were dispatched into the back alleys of the shaabi, or working-class neighborhoods, not far from the mosque. From there they would lead, and grow, a series of disparate marches that would converge and arrive en masse at Mostafa Mahmoud. This time it would be impossible for the authorities to pick protesters off individually as they turned out for the main event.

To execute the plan, each unit would linger in the area of Mohandessin until the unit leader received a call with instructions about a precise starting point. The fewer people who knew the exact geography, the less chance state security agents had to intercept or disrupt them. Only Maher and the march coordinator overseeing the eight units knew the starting places. The A6Y team had examined Google Earth images of the city in advance and sketched out routes. Eventually, the narrower streams through the back alleys would meet up and make their way down Arab League Street before arriving at Mustafa Mahmoud.

At 12:30, Maher made three calls. The first was to the operation coordinator, who then dispatched the eight units to their starting points in the shaabi neighborhoods. Then Maher called the protest coordinators in Alexandria and Port Said.

“How’s it going over there? Are you ready? OK. Let’s go.”

As they moved through the narrow alleys, the protestors chanted slogans—“Long Live Egypt! Long Live Egypt!” and “Bread, Freedom, Human Dignity!”—and cheerfully urged people standing in shops and doorways and looking down from balconies to join in.

Just after one o’clock, Maher drove back to the mosque to find hundreds of people gathered. They appeared to be everyday Egyptians from off the streets, responding to the newspaper announcements or word-of-mouth invitations from friends and neighbors. Within an hour, their numbers had swelled to a few thousand. It was fast turning into one of the biggest rallies in Cairo’s recent history, and it hadn’t technically started yet. The scene was electrifying but chaotic. None of the people gathered had been versed in the tactics of nonviolent protest. The crowd was eager to take action, or at least to go somewhere.

Maher jumped up on the railing of a fence and began shouting.

“Just wait! My friends are coming! More people are coming!”

A few people in the crowd recognized him and began repeating the message. To his relief, Rashed, the ebullient spokesman of A6Y, was also there. Maher and Rashed managed to convince everyone to sit down. At one point, Maher guessed that there were as many as 7,000 people surrounding the mosque and spilling out onto Arab League Street. Then he got a call from one of the A6Y leaders guiding the streams of marchers through the shaabi. The eight units had converged and were nearing the overpass that would deliver them to Arab League Street and the mosque.

“Maher!” he heard shouted into his phone. “We have 10,000 people!”

Maher couldn’t believe it. A few minutes later, he got another call from another of the group leaders. Maher covered one ear to block the noise of the crowd.

“We must be 15,000 people! We are nearing the bridge!”

It was 2:20 before the marchers began arriving at the square in front of the mosque. From his perch on the fence, Maher looked out at an almost incomprehensible scene: A ribbon of humanity stretching down Arab League Street as far as he could see.

People began shouting, “Akheeran! Akheeran!” At last! At last! Maher wandered among them, slapping hands and hugging friends. But triumph was usurped by concern: The crowd could splinter at any moment. Maher, Rashed, and other members of A6Y knew that the protest would have the greatest impact if the massive gathering stuck to the plan and headed to the heart of the city, combining forces with the other protest battalions. They locked arms to make a perimeter around the marchers, trying to keep people on course. Periodically, they broke off and sprinted to the front of the pack. Their goal was to keep everyone pointed toward what would soon affectionately become known as the Republic of Tahrir.


By evening there were tens of thousands of people in the square. The police eventually blocked bridges across the Nile, preventing additional protesters from the west from entering Tahrir. But critical mass had already been achieved. By that time, says Rashed, it was “like a war zone.” Members of A6Y and other activists groups that had helped choreograph the march were running through the side streets of downtown, trying to escape the rubber bullets, police batons, and tear gas. On Twitter, there were strobelike reports of pandemonium: “Tear gas!!” “Eyes burning fuck.” “Police is throwing rocks at us.” “Someone badly injured in his leg.”

By nightfall, after protesters had taken up positions in Tahrir for what would become a kind of siege in reverse, Maher and other members of the Kitchen were back in the control room. Their careful planning had paid off. No one had predicted such enormous turnout, but they knew their next steps. January 25 was a Tuesday, and by the next morning they were hurriedly making plans for an even bigger demonstration on Friday, using social media to spread the message but also getting taxi drivers to talk about it, jotting down details on banknotes, and telling anyone who would listen that this giant event was about to take place. They even branded it: the Day of Rage.

Much as they had for the Police Day “celebration,” they advertised the January 28 protest by using event pages on Facebook. Maher and “Said” also put together a document titled “Everything You Need to Know about the Day of Rage.” They wrote it in Google Docs so that once it was up it could be edited by the masses, much like a Wikipedia entry. “Who We Are,” the document begins. “We are Egypt’s young people on the Internet.” It then runs through the basics: why they were protesting, their demands, demonstration places and times, and, perhaps most critical, demonstration instructions emphasizing calm, unity, and level-headedness. “If you’ve never been in a protest before, don’t stand in the front,” the document instructed. “Leave the front lines for those who are more experienced in leading protests and marches so there is no confusion in decision-making.” The guide was appended to the Facebook event page for January 28, which, of course, was administered by We Are All Khalid Said.

By the 28th, the campaign of violence orchestrated by the regime was coming to a head. The young blogger Mohamed Adel was grabbed on the street and beaten up. Maher, meanwhile, was racing around the neighborhood of Imbaba, a poor area in Giza, again trying to keep thousands of marchers on course. Microblogger Mahmoud Salem tweeted that afternoon: “I am ok. I got out. I was ambushed & beaten by the police, my phone confiscated, my car ripped apar& [sic] supplies taken #jan25.”

And then, just before 6 p.m., Egyptians were cut off from the world and from each other. The country’s major Internet service providers were ordered to shut off their networks, rendering websites hosted in-country inaccessible and preventing Egyptians from using email, Facebook, Twitter, and other social-networking services. Mobile-phone networks also went dark, except for anonymous, pro-Mubarak messages sent by the regime.

For many Egyptians, blocking Internet and cellular communications was the last straw. If they had been reluctant to step out into the streets, now they were compelled to—it was the only way to be in contact with one another. For the protest architects, though, the outage meant hurried contingency plans and workarounds. Someone from the Kitchen ventured out to purchase a satellite television for the control room so the group could receive news from beyond. A few locations had also escaped the blackout because of obscure ISPs or international dial-up numbers. Local blogger Sarah Carr found herself with an intact connection, and her apartment quickly filled with friends, and friends of friends, eager to get word out to friends and family.

The Internet blackout was matched by more intimidation, detentions, and beatings. On February 3, after representatives from various opposition groups dispersed following a meeting at Mohamed ElBaradei’s villa, all of the A6Y members who attended the meeting were picked up by police. That same night, security police came the closest they would come to grabbing Maher. Two minibuses pulled onto El Tawfikia Street and stopped in front of building No. 1, which houses the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, one of the bases of operations for opposition organizers outside of Tahrir. Hamza, Maher’s boss, was in the crowd standing across the street when it happened.

Plainclothes officers entered the building and climbed the stairs. They apprehended about 10 people, including the Center’s director, and ushered them downstairs and into the minibuses. According to Hamza, the authorities were also shouting rumors that the people being arrested were from Hamas “and that they have come to burn Cairo. They were kicking [the activists] and hitting them.” A6Y had been using an office just one floor down from the Law Center. Al Jazeera reporter Elizabeth Jones, who had embedded with the A6Y organizers for a documentary, was also briefly detained and then released. Later, her television footage would provide a window into how the group had managed to continue coordinating their part of the revolution from the control room amidst the chaos.   

Maher had just returned from his one respite from the revolution: a small party to celebrate his daughter’s third birthday. As he walked around the corner onto El Tawfikia, he saw soldiers standing post at the entrance to the Law Center and a few people walking out of the building, their hands bound. “Some young people standing downstairs signaled to me to leave quickly, but I didn’t understand. Suddenly, the soldiers noticed me and started running to try and arrest me,” he said. “I ran from them through the side streets. I went home to Tahrir Square to spend the night there because it was the safest place in Egypt.”


Meanwhile, Wael Ghonim was missing. Based in Dubai, Ghonim had arrived in Cairo before January 25 to participate in the protests. He wasn’t just any Egyptian citizen returning home to join his people, however. He was also the mastermind of We Are All Khalid Said. On January 28, he disappeared. The regime may have been after him because he had been openly running the fan page for Mohamed ElBaradei or because the secret police had uncovered his other identity. Ghonim had a contingency plan in place so that if he were detained, one of the few people who knew he was the administrator of the Facebook page would go public with his secret. It was by way of this plan that Maher learned the identity of his co-conspirator. He thought back to a conference about blogging that he and Ghonim had attended in Qatar. During the sessions, Maher had been trading live chat messages with the man he knew only as “Said,” not knowing that he was seated just a few feet away. At one point during a break, Ghonim had casually asked Maher what A6Y had in store for Police Day.

Now Amnesty International, opposition leaders in Egypt, and executives at one of the richest companies in the galaxy were negotiating for Ghonim’s release. When he was finally freed on February 7, he agreed to a television interview on the popular Dream TV program 10 O’clock. When the host asked him to respond to accusations that it was the protesters, not iron-fisted government ministers, who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of activists throughout Egypt, Ghonim broke down. “I want to say to every mother and father who lost their son: I am so sorry, but it’s not our fault,” he said, fighting back sobs. “I swear to God it is not our fault. It’s the fault of everybody who was holding on to power and refusing to let it go.”

Maher was happy to see his collaborator released but worried about the consequences of a misstep from the newly famous Ghonim. The revolution had been in a precarious lull: By now, Mubarak had made nontrivial concessions, the public was getting tired of revolution-induced economic paralysis, and high-profile people like billionaire businessman Naguib Sawiris were saying that the protesters had underestimated their achievements. “They should declare victory,” Sawiris told The New York Times, and go home.

Ghonim’s release reinvigorated the protesters and the general public alike, but his stardom, not to mention the shock of his time in captivity, made the situation fragile: What if he lost his head? If Ghonim had been coerced or somehow convinced to renounce the protests, or if he even made a comment significantly out of sync with the coalition’s public statements, the movement could be fatally crippled. Maher had to reach him.

Through a professor whom both men knew, Maher conveyed a simple plea to Ghonim, the man who had been his invisible collaborator for months: Stay on message. Mubarak had to go, and the protestors wouldn’t leave Tahrir until he did. Ghonim agreed.

The next day, a Tuesday, Ghonim spoke to the crowds at Tahrir. The media had its new narrative thrust, and demonstrators nationwide were galvanized. Maher, meanwhile, was tapping away on his smartphone and his white notebook computer in the control room. A6Y’s leaders were churning out press releases, taking interviews with journalists, and coordinating with activists in Alexandria, Port Said, Suez, and elsewhere. That day, Maher sent me another text message:

We will organize a great demonstration on Friday in all of Egypt.

They called it the Friday of Departure. That Thursday, Maher got the call from Ghonim to join the secret meeting at the Ministry of Transportation, where he had to face down some of the very men who had hunted him.

The next day, Maher parked Zazua downtown and started walking toward Tahrir. As he passed an electronics shop, he looked in and saw Vice President Omar Suleiman giving a live address. Maher popped into the store just in time to catch the crux of the message: Mubarak was gone.


Saturday, March 19. Maher and Reham walk hand in hand past the elementary school in Maadi where earlier in the day they had cast their ballots. Maher wears a black T-shirt and Reham a pink headscarf. She is eight and a half months pregnant. (Her doctor gave her a due date of April 6.) Today’s referendum is a vote for amending the constitution or scrapping it entirely. The lines extending out of the polling station are long, but the atmosphere is festive. Young people snap photographs with their cell phones, and voters exiting the school building inspect the ink on their fingers. A few people recognize Maher but not many. “More women than men,” he says, a fact that Reham affirms with a teasing nod.

Since the revolution, Maher has been busy. Yesterday he smoked cigars with the Cuban ambassador and tried to sit still for a photographer from The Washington Post. He has also had meetings recently with British Prime Minister David Cameron, the head of the British Parliament, officials from the European Union, and ambassadors from more than half a dozen countries. He had to turn down an invitation to the U.S. embassy because of exhaustion. Recently, when he showed up at the swanky Cairo Marriott for a meeting wearing his typical long-sleeve T-shirt, sneakers, and cargo pants still stained with mud from Tahrir Square, a hotel staffer looked him over and asked what he was doing there. Maher took some satisfaction in saying that he had a meeting with Ahmed Zewail, the revered Egyptian scientist and Nobel laureate. Soon Maher will fly to Spain, where he will speak about his experiences, and, after that, to Qatar, New York, and the salons of Paris. “Do you tweet?” one Western journalist recently asked him. “Do you blog?” “Are you Moses?” (Answers: Yes. Yes. No.) For other members of A6Y, the situation is similar: a whirlwind of travel, queries from publishers, speaking gigs, and discussions with academics and activists from Athens to Boston, all eager to put together a postmortem of events that to most of the world appear to have sprung from nowhere.

The night before the referendum, Maher and a handful of people from the Kitchen gathered at an outdoor café near Cairo’s stock exchange. Maher sat with his briefcase resting on his lap, doing more listening than talking. Someone had a laptop that was passed from person to person every few minutes. Rashed, the boisterous A6Y spokesman, started teasing Maher. A woman had told Rashed that she wanted to marry a man like Maher. Standing up for theatrical effect, Rashed asked, “What do the rest of us have to do? Is it the bald head? Is that the secret?” he said, prompting laughter from the group.

At one point, I asked Rashed if he ever thought they would be here, celebrating the end of the regime. When we had met in 2008, during the brief protest on the beach that day in Alexandria, things hadn’t exactly gone so well.

“That was a great day. The greatest day,” Rashed said.

I asked him what he meant, but he was simultaneously looking at the A6Y Facebook page on the laptop, smoking shisha, and chiming in to two other conversations. So I asked again. How exactly does a demonstration that attracts almost no curious passersby, ends within minutes, and results in beatings and arrests for a handful of participants qualify as a great day?

“Because of this day, we know we are an important group. They came for us right away. Why? Because we are a real problem for them. Thanks to that day, people all over Egypt and outside of Egypt—they know us. They know of this group that is against the government and that we are dangerous to the regime.” That fierce crackdown, said Rashed, provided invaluable advertising and showed the activists that they were powerful. He paused for a moment before repeating his conclusion. “It was a great day.”

Maher agreed. It wasn’t merely that the regime had revealed how worried it was about A6Y and about activities as innocuous as flying a kite-flag. That day in Alexandria, Maher told me, showed that A6Y was “a political force to be reckoned with, just like any party or political organization in Egypt.” Before, he said, A6Y was seen as just a bunch of kids playing around online. What had looked to the outside world like a failed protest was in fact a crystallizing moment that transformed A6Y from small-time protesters into full-fledged insurrectionaries.

A little before midnight, the Kitchen dispersed; there was still a curfew on in Cairo between 12 and 6 a.m. Even today the political situation in Egypt remains unstable. Protests continued well into April, often relating to wages or objections to figures from the old regime who’d retained power or had not been charged with any crimes. A standoff at Cairo University between students and administrators appointed by the former ruling party has yet to be resolved, and on April 9, the military used force to break up a protest in Tahrir, killing two people and injuring dozens. “We have much work to do,” said Maher.

The day after the referendum, Maher’s plan was to go to work and try to be a civil engineer for at least part of the day before leaving for a series of meetings in the evening. After that he had to take Zazua to the mechanic. The car needed a new muffler and replacement glass for the broken window. This was no time to run into car trouble.  The baby was due any day.