Alcor Ya in the Morning or Tomorrow Never Knows
Right now, I am alive.
I enjoy many things: eating, sleeping, joshing with friends, talking on the phone, contemplating truths. But someday, like all of us, these activities will be taken from me, on the day I die. What will happen then?
My spirit may pass down a black corridor toward a brilliant white light. I may ascend to heaven and commune with dead loved ones, passed-on buddies, late baseball greats. My soul may be reincarnated in an ongoing cycle, reborn on Earth as a trapeze artist, degenerate madman, city council member or cuddly pup.
All well and good, of course, but let's say I don't subscribe to any religious beliefs. Let's say I am declared legally dead, but want to return to life at some point in the future as a newly enlightened version of myself, yet still the same old lovable me.
One thing I could do is have my head cut off and plopped into a vat of liquid nitrogen where it will sit in a storage unit in the back room of a large pink stucco building in Scottsdale until scientists figure out how to thaw it out and bring it back to life.
Then, using advanced DNA technology, I will grow a new body and begin guzzling champagne as I dance pirouettes into sunsets of the future. Alive, I tell you, ALIVE!!
Sure, I could avoid the whole body regrowing business and place my entire person in the deep freeze, but that would run me $120,000. At $50,000 for head only, that's clearly a much better deal. You supply the bread, and the forward-thinking minds at a company called the Alcor Life Extension Foundation will do the rest.
You've probably heard of Alcor.
The cryonics people.
Incorporated in 1972, the nonprofit company is dedicated to freezing folks for future revitalization. A relatively new notion, cryonics was born in a 1964 text by Robert C.W. Ettinger, a Michigan junior college physics instructor, humbly titled The Prospect of Immortality. There are only three or four companies in the world now offering this type of limbo-care (70 total frozen globally) and with 394 members on deck for a taste of the Alcor liquid nitro, this organization is the largest.
Alcor and its staff of six full-time and two part-time cryonicists moved from Riverside, California, in March of 1994 to Acoma Street--that's Acoma Street--in Scottsdale. And, back in the block of mundane offices, businesses and luncheonettes now reside 32 humans in cryonic suspension (that's 13 bodies and 19 heads; no, Walt Disney is not here), awaiting the magical day when they will presumably be overjoyed that they did not foolishly leave that $50,000 to the grandkids.
Whether you feel that cryonics is a profound, entirely plausible way to continue the beautiful pageant that is human life or a load of sci-fi horseshit, you've got to admit there's something pretty intriguing about a bunch of people who have paid good money to be frozen in metal tubes in Scottsdale.
So you would think an actual visit to the place would be some kind of Asimovian field trip filled with bubbling test tubes, eerie chambers and lab-coated science types scurrying through coded entry doors that open with those Star Trek sounds.
And even better than that, heads.
Well, it's not that kind of place, and I'll tell you right now, they don't show you that stuff. Sure, there are the obvious legal reasons, invasion of privacy and so forth, but you still somehow expect to be ushered into a secret chamber and see the on-hold dead there in overgrown test tubes, backlighted by pulsating strobes of green and red that emanate from the diabolical master control panel beneath the imposing portrait of the father of it all, this man Ettinger, glowering Ozlike into the future.
You want to be dazzled, you want to be astonished, you want to utter, What in the name of God . . . in a stage whisper.
Instead, you are met by Alcor president Stephen W. Bridge, a jolly, red-haired fellow whose Opie-esque appearance belies his 47 years. Bridge, who will join the frozen in the back room someday, has been involved with Alcor for 20 years, mostly as a volunteer. For 18 of those years, he was also a children's librarian in Indiana.
The office looks like just that. A couch. A coffee maker. A table with magazines and newspapers. Plenty of light. There is, however, a big white metal tube right by the front door, empty at present, but once the extremely cold home of the still-late-at-press-time Dr. James H. Bedford, the first person put into cryonic suspension. That was back in 1967; while others were enjoying the Summer of Love, Dr. Bedford was slipping into a Winter of Frigid Waiting, ending his "first life cycle."
There was no Alcor back then (the doctor remains frozen at the Acoma Street address). Before that, Bedford's family had to secrete him and his white tube in a warehouse and bribe the liquid-nitro-delivery guy not to tell his company that this particular stop on his monthly rounds was not a licensed medical facility.
A plaque rests atop the tube, revealing information on this pioneer of hopeful reanimation, revealing things his defrosters might be curious to know:
"Dr. Bedford was a serious man of pleasant disposition who made many friends. 'Don't be afraid to wear overalls,' the practical-minded psychology professor would tell his students."
On the walls of the Alcor lobby, there are framed photographs of those in suspension, all apparently picturing them at moments when their lives were good. Black-and-white studio shots of stern men in World War II-era uniforms, color prints of smiling people, intense people, all types of regular-looking Caucasian men and women.
Bridge met most of them prior to their big freeze-downs, and he takes me on a tour, ticking them off.
"There's a writer . . . a computer programmer . . . I forget what she did . . . he was an insurance salesman . . . that's Dick Clair, he was a television writer [his 1978 Emmy for work on The Carol Burnett Show sits in the lobby, too] . . . that's Dr. Eugene Donovan, he was a psychiatrist in Detroit, he got lung cancer . . . she was a retired librarian from Los Angeles . . . Dora Kent, who was a dressmaker in New York . . . he was a TV repairman . . . he was a rock 'n' roll musician who had hemophilia and got AIDS in a blood transfusion."
While you can love and miss and cherish the memory of people who are dead, it is simply the memory that you attach these feelings to. Rarely do you find anyone who feels much kinship with a lifeless body. But in the Alcor mentality, might a future suspendee--such as Bridge--have a different bond with these folks who, to him, might be only sleeping?
"I consider them kind of in between [life and death]," he says. "It depends on how I'm thinking of them. If we're talking paperwork, they're dead. If I'm thinking of them as individuals, I think of them as possibly alive. It's as if they're in intensive care and they're in a coma."
There is a bond here, a belief in a religion that has nothing to do with any kind of god. Indeed, Bridge says he is an atheist, and that most of the Alcor clients, though born as "Jews, Catholics, Methodists and Seventh-Day Adventists," are "not religious."
There was something he said to me back at Bedford's tube:
"He was apparently a real interesting guy . . . who wanted to see the future."
The next future I see is only seconds old, and it takes place in Bridge's office. The Alcor president describes himself as "an explainer and a manager," and he is very good at the former. He should be; he has presented the Alcor spiel to everything from Wall Street Journal to Men's Health to German Playboy to Japanese TV. Freezing bodies is sexy stuff.
I ask him exactly what it is Alcor believes it is doing.
"We don't think we're freezing dead people," Bridge clarifies. "What we think we're doing is being part of a continual redefinition of what 'dead' means. What I think cryonics is is taking people who have been labeled dead according to the criteria we have today, and getting them to a point in the future where the medical criteria for death are different. Medical people in the future may have techniques to revive them from that state, and to fix whatever they were dying from.
"Years ago, they didn't have CPR or heart transplants or 911. Today, we routinely rescue people from several minutes into what we used to call dead. We don't think anything about that now because we have redefined when we label people dead. That's going to continue to occur, and we don't know what the limits on that are."
But, if not the million-dollar question, at least the $50,000 question is: Will it work?
"We don't know yet," Bridge readily admits. "We have 32 'don't-know-yets.' That's the whole point."
Life, death, it doesn't matter. You've got to play to win, and the Frozen 32 have little to lose.
"If it doesn't work, the worst that's going to happen is they'll be dead, but that's what they were going to be anyway; they can't be double dead," reasons Bridge. "And the best that can happen is that they'll be alive again in a really interesting future."
What if it does work?
What if you were to awaken at some unknown point in the future, opening your frosty eyes to a strange new place that is perhaps unfamiliar, even frightening?
Alcor presents a "speculative exploration" of just such a situation in its info-bible handout Cryonics--Reaching for Tomorrow:
"Duane" has succumbed from an "infection" and passes away in a 1997 hospital bed. His wife "Jeannie" is there, as is "Ken." And Ken works at Alcor.
Fast forward 70 years, when "ultrasophisticated microscopic repair devices routinely patrol human tissue" and "indefinite youth and good health are the birthright of everyone."
Which must include, along with the John Lennons, the Martin Luther Kings, the Abraham Lincolns and your mom and dad, the Adolf Hitlers, Saddam Husseins and Richard Allen Davises. But this is about Duane, Alcor member.
Ken awakens to "a gentle touch" on his arm, and that touch is supplied by Ken.
Ken of Alcor.
The Alcor Resuscitation Division, that is!
All Duane knows is that he went to bed because he was sick, just a few days ago. Duane slowly puts two and two together, and Ken tests his memory by asking what year it is.
"No way to tell from my surroundings," Duane says. "This looks like a typical hospital room from 1997. It's probably a reconstruction to protect me from future shock." Ken does not contradict Duane's sage observations.
"What kind of world exists outside that door?" queries Ken.
"Civilization still exists; humanity possesses advanced molecular-scale technology; cryonic resuscitation is legal, or at least, if it isn't, the prohibition isn't strictly enforced . . . And I haven't been revived to serve as transplant fodder or a slave."
Ken laughs at this, asking, "How do you know that?"
"Come on. Ken, we've talked about all this before . . . it would be easier and simpler to make replacement organs from scratch. Similarly, if you want slaves, it's a hell of a lot cheaper and easier to breed them from scratch than to go reviving cryonauts."
Well, yeah. That makes sense. I don't know about you, but I'm impressed by Duane so far; I have trouble remembering what day it is when I wake up from a deep nap state. He proceeds to figure out other facts: There are anti-aging therapies; there is no population problem; and we have "expanded into space," which means there is "no poverty." When Ken tosses a pen that mysteriously curves toward him, Duane easily figures out that they are in a "space habitat, rotating to provide simulated gravity."
Finally, Duane gets around to asking about his family. I really like this part. Wife Jeannie is now 100 years old and remarried, but she still loves him. Their sons are grown. "Ted" "supervises robot construction" and is "building a network of undersea train tunnels joining Europe to Africa."
But what of "Jim"?
Ah, Jim is developing "new ways to mine hydrogen and helium from Jupiter and Saturn." Unfortunately, "Amanda" couldn't make it. She's been "outside the solar system for the last couple of years doing physics research."
Which, in 2067, I'm sure will be a very good place for physics research. Naturally, I intend to report on that, as I will be a sprightly 104. And, with certain anti-aging therapies, a damn good-looking 104 at that.
Back to the present.
Back to Bridge's office, where I find his views on advances-to-be are quite similar to Duane's.
"We're not talking about reviving people as heads on a plate," he scoffs. "Right now, we can all regrow skin over a cut. I think in the next 20 years we will be learning to regrow severed spinal chords, and not long after that we will be learning to regrow missing limbs because that information is in our DNA."
"In the next 50 years, we will learn to build tiny machines that will go inside our bodies, inside our cells and do repairs."
"Overpopulation? That's brainwashing. We're going to have to deal with that anyway, whether cryonics works or not. We don't have an overpopulation problem in the world right now. Well, we have a population problem in Tokyo and Mexico City and Bangladesh, but we don't have a problem in the United States in general. Someday, there will be too many people on the Earth, but right now the problem is bad management. By the time it does become a problem, we will be leaving the planet and living other places."
Certainly, the Bangladesh space program is gearing up for that.
"Somewhere in the next few decades, whether that's 30 years or 120 years, medicine will be good enough where very few people will be dying. And the ones that are will be placed in cryonic suspension right away because the solution to their problem will be just on the horizon."
Bridge characterizes the type of person who would want to join the Alcor club.
"People who in general are pretty optimistic about the future, people that like being alive and want more life. Not people who are afraid of death, but people who see death as an imposition on a good thing rather than concentrating on death as a negative thing itself. I don't see anything positive about not existing."
Alcor has one chap in suspension right now who may beg to differ with that, or may someday be glad to find that the solution to his problem is "just on the horizon."
Actually, it's just his brain that's frozen, partly damaged from the gunshot that he fired into his face when he decided suicide was the only solution to his "problem."
Abiding by the man's wishes, an Alcor representative immediately flew down to Texas, retrieved the brain from the coroner, packed it on ice in a cooler and jetted the thing back to Scottsdale.
I ask Bridge if a brain with a gunshot wound wouldn't make future reawakening, well, something of a sticky wicket.
"Maybe, but he shot himself fairly low in the head." Then, with the never-say-die attitude that is at the core of Alcor, Bridge continues brightly, "It's going to be damaged worse if he's buried or cremated."
Welcome to the back room, the place where questionably late Alcor members go after their blood has been washed out, chemicals have been introduced, after holes have been bored in their skulls so liquid levels can be monitored and temperature probes can be inserted.
This is the place where the bodies and the heads, the "patients," await science to afford them a reprieve from the minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit baths they soak in. Big locks secure the four metal tanks--"dewars" they are called--as well as two large, seemingly indestructible concrete boxes.
The dewars look like an overgrown six-pack with two missing, and the concrete boxes look like concrete boxes. In one dewar alone, there are four bodies and five heads and, for scientific reasons, everyone is upside down.
When Bridge told me this, all I could say was, "Wow."
Sometimes, family members come to visit. "Sometimes, people are intimidated by it, some people think it's perfectly normal," Bridge allows. Once, a sister visited her cryonaut brother, who had been suspended for ten years. She told Bridge she "was the only one in her family brave enough . . . I think she was sad thinking about her brother in here, but I think she felt comforted by talking with us and understanding that this was not a ghoulish kind of place."
If you wish to praise, bury or simply compare inseam sizes with Peter Gilstrap in an electron-based format, modem up our online cousin at: http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com. The bonus: features so hot they can only appear in a digital bitstream!
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.