In 1997, John Silveira wrote a joke classified ad in a tiny publication called Backwoods Home Magazine asking if anyone wanted to travel back in time with him. A lot of people took him seriously. What do you do when everyone wants you to fix the worst mistakes they’ve ever made.
Lynn Levy is a producer for WNYC’s Radiolab.
Animoto see the video we produced with Animoto below!
ALEX GOLDMAN: Hey, this is Alex.
PJ VOGT: And this is PJ and from Gimlet this is Reply All, the show about the Internet.
ALEX: This week we are bringing you a story that came to us from Lynn Levy…
LYNN LEVY: Hello.
ALEX: … who you might know if you listen to a little radio show called Radiolab.
LYNN: So, I’m bringing you a story that is only a like little bit about the Internet. It’s mostly about human foibles, which there are a lot of on the Internet, so that’s good right?
ALEX: Wow, you’re really setting us up to fail here.
PJ: It has a sufficient amount of Internet.
LYNN: It has what I perceive to be an acceptable amount of Internet.
ALEX: Well I think we perceived it too or otherwise this collaboration never would have happened.
PJ: You never would have gotten into this room.
ALEX: You never would have gotten into this exclusive club.
LYNN: Thank you for having me. So the story kind of starts with this ad in a magazine called Backwoods Home Magazine in 1997. Backwoods Home Magazine is published in Oregon, rural Oregon. And it’s published out of the back of a Subway sandwich shop.
PJ: Wait that’s their one distribution point?
LYNN: That’s where they make the magazine.
ALEX: And is it still coming out to this day?
LYNN: It is. It remains a published magazine to this very day. It’s like a lot of tips for home canning and how to make your own bow and arrow and what to do if the apocalypse comes. It covers all those things.
PJ: Is it really what to do when the apocalypse comes?
LYNN: It’s not limited to what to do when the apocalypse comes. But it would be useful when the apocalypse came.
ALEX: There’s like a survivalist component.
LYNN: There’s a survivalist vibe to it. So this magazine is about to, basically it’s late at night, the magazine is about to go to the publisher. The guy running the magazine, Dave, says to his friend, John, “John we have extra space in the magazine, I screwed up. We need some stuff to fill space.” And John says “Again, dude?! Alright, I’ll put something in there, why don’t I place some personal ads?” So he places some personal ads. He places one that’s like “Crazy poet looking for drunken sassy lady for lifetime of adventurous fulfillment.” That’s not quite right.
PJ: Was he the crazy poet in this formulation?
LYNN: He was the crazy poet in this formulation. And then he places another one. And the other one is like “Wanted…”
JOHN SILVEIRA: “Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. PO Box 322, Oak View California 93022. You’ll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. Safety not guaranteed. I’ve only done this once before.” That was it.
LYNN: So very short and sweet, drops it into the magazine.
JOHN: I was expecting maybe two dozen responses to the personal, and I was expecting maybe three or four responses that I thought I might find funny to the time travel ad.
LYNN: He was hoping to find a girlfriend so he really wanted people to answer the personal ad. But he thought like maybe three or four people will read the time travel ad and respond and that will be fun to read. But when he went to the post office…
JOHN: There was this tsunami of letters filling up the P.O. Box
LYNN: They were almost all about the time travel ad. People were really, really into it. And they had all kinds of questions. From the basics…
JOHN: “How are we going? Why is it danger? Why do we need weapons? What kind of weapons should I bring?”
LYNN: To the smallest nitpicky-est details…
JOHN: “Will there be toilet paper or do I have to bring my own?”
LYNN: There were people with these kind of elaborate back stories…
SIVEIRA: “We saw your ad recently while here in jail. We are all felons and would like to go back and not get caught. Can you get us back in time from where you are or do we need to travel to California? If so, that might pose a problem since we are stuck here for a while. But maybe you could go back and change things for us.”
LYNN: And people who, I mean, who knows what some of these people were up to.
JOHN: “Yes, I want to time travel to 1984. My time machine was stolen and I am stuck in 2010. Thank you.”
LYNN: John expected things to taper off after a while, but they really didn’t. The letters kept coming. He got more and more responses from like almost every state, all these different countries.
JOHN: From every continent, including Antarctica.
LYNN: This little ad from the back of this little magazine had clearly escaped its humble beginnings.
JOHN: It became an Internet meme.
LYNN: The Internet…
ALEX: Oh, I’ve heard of that.
LYNN: …had found his ad. Somebody had put his ad on the Internet.
ALEX: My understanding was that it started with the YTMND site.
LYNN: Yes, that seems to be true.
PJ: What’s YTMND?
ALEX: So this is an aside that’s so worth telling.
ALEX: In the late 90’s early 2000’s, do you remember there was a movie in which Sean Connery is like a professor and he’s teaching young black men how to write poems and shit?
PJ: No, but I know that movie archetype. I didn’t know Sean Connery did one of those.
ALEX: So he did one of those and at the end of the movie he says one of them “You’re the man now dog!”
PJ: Nooo, noo that’s bad. I mean that’s a bad thing for them to have done.
ALEX: So this guy created a website called YTMND.com. You’re the man now dog dot com, which was a still image of Sean Connery with the text “You’re the man now dog” superimposed over it and an auto-playing version of that quote.
[YOU’RE THE MAN NOW DOG PLAYS ON LOOP]
PJ: I feel like this is what people who hate the Internet think the Internet is.
ALEX: So essentially the guy who made the Sean Connery website, he made that site into a community called YTMND where people could upload the same kind of thing, an image with some text over it and music underneath it. And that’s where John’s ad ended up. So it’s time traveler dot YTMND dot com. Loading site. And then it’s…
[TAKE IT TO THE LIMIT PLAYS]
PJ: I don’t get the music.
ALEX: Whoever put this up here imagined that this is what the guy who wrote the thing was like.
PJ: He was like this song?
ALEX: He was like this song. And if you look at this, there’s a picture of a blond haired, mulleted guy, next to the original ad. The PO Box is blacked out and then it’s “Take it to the Limit” and I don’t know who sings this song, but alright.
LYNN: So John tells me that he’s seen this ad in a bunch of different places on the web, that the way that things do, it kind of made its way from place to place to place. And he says, eighteen years after he first placed this ad, the letters are still coming. His PO Box keeps filling up. It seems like a lot of people who write back to him get the joke kind of. But some take it really, really seriously.
JOHN: Some of them were people that asked me to go back in time and there would be like, “My son committed suicide, would you go back to such and such a night and stop him.” Or “My daughter was killed in an auto accident, would you go back to the day before and stop it?”
LYNN: While I was on the phone with him, John was pulling letters out of his pile and reading them to me.
JOHN: Here’s another one that’s interesting. It says, “To whom it may concern, I have read your advertisement to ‘go back in time’” and that’s in quotes. “I am extremely interested in this, and would not even require payment. I will not need a weapon and in fact would like to travel back to 1991 or previously to change the events leading to the death of my husband, for which I am in prison. I don’t care about my safety. In fact if I cannot change the events of the past, I would prefer not to even survive. Please contact me by return mail with further information about this possibility.”
LYNN: I found these letters so interesting. I just kept thinking about them. Each one seemed like a window into somebody’s life story, but there’s only a little bit of it in the letter. Like this woman in prison, what made her write? What did she think was going to happen?
LYNN: Um. Okay Robin can you hear me ok?
ROBIN RADCLIFFE: Yes ma’am.
LYNN: Okay, can you just introduce yourself so that I can record it, say who you are and where you are and maybe a little something about yourself?
ROBIN: Okay my name is a Robin Radcliff and I am at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah.
PJ: Why Robin is in prison and what she would go back in time and do, or undo, after the break.
PJ: Alright, back to the show.
ALEX: So Lynn, before the break you introduced this woman named Robin who’s in prison. Who is she?
LYNN: Yeah, so Robin, she’s in prison in Utah. She had served about 17 years of a life sentence when she first saw the time travel ad.
LYNN: And did you think like, okay twenty percent this is real, like thirty percent? Seventy percent?
ROBIN: Actually, I thought maybe twenty percent, I thought, somebody just probably putting it in there, just to get mail.
LYNN: But twenty percent, that little sliver of possibility, it got to her.
ROBIN: It just stuck there and I was like, I couldn’t get it out. Once it got in I just couldn’t get it out. I couldn’t sleep right after that. I didn’t want to eat. Then I said I have to respond. I had to write, you know, it’s just something that I needed to do.
LYNN: After you wrote the letter, how did you feel? Did you feel relief or hopeful or like…
ROBIN: After I wrote it I felt a little giddy.
LYNN: Just giddy at the thought that maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe she might be able to undo the worst thing she’d ever done. See Robin is in prison because of the part she played in her husband’s murder. According to her, it started with a mistake.
ROBIN: I made the mistake, and it was a horrendous mistake, of I met someone and I committed adultery.
LYNN: That mistake set into motion this kind of chain of events, which is complicated, but basically Robin and her boyfriend, the guy she cheated with, took out a hit on Robin’s husband. They hired a couple of hit men. They decided to have him killed. And Robin’s job was to go to her house, go to the window in her daughter’s bedroom, unlock it, prop it open, and the hit men would come in through the window. So they showed up. They came through the window. She went to the living room, kind of stayed there, and then they went into her husband’s bedroom and just bashed his head in.
ROBIN: I know the exact moment I could’ve changed everything. All I had to do was go to my daughter’s bedroom, close the window.
LYNN: They came in through the window.
PJ: She sounds sorry, but why didn’t she stop it when she could stop it?
LYNN: Yeah. Well okay, the media painted one kind of portrait of Robin. They said she was kind of this scheming, money-hungry wife who was trying to get her husband’s insurance policy. It was like a hundred thousand dollar insurance policy. Robin doesn’t see it that way. She says that’s totally ludicrous. It was not her motive.
LYNN: So then Robin, why didn’t you do anything to stop it?
ROBIN: I don’t know. I have questioned myself on that so many times in all these years. I have laid awake nights without end, sat up all day, sat on, sat there and how, who, how could I’ve done this, umm. Where was my mind? Where was, what was I thinking? What I was not thinking? It’s the worst moment of my life.
LYNN: Now Robin wouldn’t use this as an excuse but I don’t know, it’s helpful to know the context. She had a tough life. She had a tough childhood. She tried to kill herself when she was twelve. And at the time of the crime, she was at a particularly low point.
ROBIN: My daughter and I were pregnant at the same time and I was terrified of everything.
LYNN: She says that she was being abused by her husband. She had been on a bunch of medication to deal with depression. She had just gone off her medication. So it was definitely a dark, dark time for her.
ROBIN: I talked to one of the people I knew then, a lady I worked with, and she said, “we didn’t even recognize you, you know, it was like you were a zombie.”
LYNN: There’s always this question in time travel fantasies, of sort of where to drop in. Like if you had a really good friendship and it went awry, it went sour and you wanted to go back and save it. You know would you go back to kind of the last knock-down, drag-out fight or would you go back further to the time that your friend was sick and you said you would bring her chicken soup and then you forgot? You didn’t bring her chicken soup. Or you know, is there something else, were there like little times along the way where you said something, maybe you didn’t even know that was the thing that was going to blow it all up but if you could go back there, you could fix it all. You have to pick a place. And in Robin’s place, even with all the problems she was having, the problems with her mental health, the abuse that she says she was suffering, she didn’t want to go back and fix any of that. She wanted to go back to the moment that she opened the window.
LYNN: I thought you might say you’d go back to the point where you decided to cheat on your husband and then none of this would’ve unfurled, you know?
ROBIN: At first that’s what I originally wrote, and I was like, God, then there would be nothing.
ALEX: What does she mean “there would be nothing?”
LYNN: I think what it means is because of the affair, I mentioned before, she got pregnant. And she had a son who she gave up for adoption. But who she’s really proud of, really glad she brought into the world.
ROBIN: My son is, I only know this because my daughter has found my son. He became a nurse practitioner working with the elderly And he’s an advocate for the elderly so that they are not abused and so he contributes to society.
LYNN: And where is he now?
ROBIN: He lives in Texas. I don’t want him to, I didn’t want him to be raised being passed from family to family with a parent, a mother in prison. I wanted him to be raised with two parents that could raise him in a home that he didn’t have that stigma. So he doesn’t know me at all.
LYNN: Did you ever think to respond to that woman in jail and just say that, “I’m sorry this isn’t real?”
JOHN: I don’t know. I think I just, I don’t like to let people down.
LYNN: A story like Robin’s wasn’t what John signed up for. This ad was something he dropped into the magazine at the last minute, late at night, without a second thought.
JOHN: The ad wasn’t placed there to have people ask me to save them from jail, or keep a loved one alive, or anything like that.
LYNN: He hasn’t closed the PO Box. Even if, at this point, he doesn’t always want to read the letters.
JOHN: The women in the office wanted to read ‘em. I said “You can read ’em, I don’t want to hear anything about ’em.”
JOHN: Yeah. And then I’m hearing from across the building, “John, you’ve gotta read this. John, this woman is saying this and that.” And I’m yelling back, “Rhoda I don’t want to hear it. I just don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear what that woman has to say because I can’t do anything.” I mean it hurts me to think that I can’t do anything for these people. And I feel like I’ve let people down.
PJ: Do you think there’s something about him, he seems like strikingly unqualified to do the job he accidentally gave himself.
LYNN: Well I don’t know why you think that he’s any less qualified than anyone else. I’m not qualified to do that.
PJ: But do you think that there’s anything about, besides the fact that he’s a person who likes jokes, is there anything about him that made him the person who did this?
LYNN: He’s not qualified. But if there’s anything that makes him qualified, he seems to me like a tremendously regretful person. I mean he at least knows what regret means. Not that he could do anything about it.
PJ: Did he want to go back?
LYNN: Mm hmm.
LYNN: If you thought about if it was real, where, what would you, where would you go if you had time travel?
JOHN: I’d like to go back in time, this is my first choice, I would like to go back in time to when I was a little boy, or young teenager and talk to my self…
JOHN: …and convince myself that I am from the future, that I am myself from the future, and I’m gonna give you a few tips. And I would tell myself not to worry about my dad who is an alcoholic and abusive and he scared me. And I probably, I should have…I was sixteen or seventeen before I stood up to him.
LYNN: Man, if you could just go back in time with your therapist to when you were, what’s a good age for that? 10? Just get right in there and wipe out all those neuroses before they really have a time to get their claws in, that would be a good use of time travel.
JOHN: Yeah, it would be! I’d try to clear up all the doubts and insecurities I had then. That would be the first thing. Second thing would be, go back and see dinosaurs.
LYNN: I actually had sort of a weird thought the other day thinking about this piece, which is, like the standard response to time machine questions is like, go back and change something, which I’m surprised that more people don’t want to go back and relive something good. Like whatever the moment in your life when you were like, this feels great.
PJ: It just feels like it hurts. Like that idea hurts.
LYNN: But what if you could, PJ if you could like keep that moment in a box next to your bed on a loop and anytime you wanted you could just dip back into it for a little pick me up. Wouldn’t that be nice?
PJ: I don’t think, I think it would be like a hot shower that you couldn’t get out of. Or that like getting out of would get worse every single time. Don’t you think?
LYNN: Yeah and then you’d just be stuck there.
PJ: Yeah. You’d like find me sitting on the couch with cobweb drool all over my face like, yeah. I guess I just wouldn’t come back.
ALEX: I don’t have a specific, there’s not a specific moment that I would go back.
PJ: You literally, your son was born a month and a half ago.
ALEX: I fainted! I mean I would faint again! I’m not against it.
Reply All was hosted by me, PJ Vogt with Alex Goldman. We were produced this week by Chris Neary, Tim Howard, Sruthi Pinnamaneni and edited by Alex Blumberg. Matt Lieber is the band you discovered in high school long before everybody else did. Our show was mixed by the Reverend John DeLore. Somebody actually made a movie about John’s classified ad called Safety Not Guaranteed. It’s on the Internet. It’s pretty good. You should check it out. And if you’d like to see some links to the websites that we mentioned in the piece, you can check out the article that Alex wrote to accompany it. It’s at Digg.com. Special thanks this week to Peter Frick-Wright, Lizzie Vogt, Lina Misitzis, and Angela Johnston. Our theme music was by the Mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Our ad music was by Build Buildings. You can find us at itunes.com/replyall or at replyall.limo. Our website was designed in partnership with Athletics. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.
SEAN CONNERY: Yes. Yes! You’re the man now dog.