Comeback Would Top Them All

Times Staff Writer

It stands 10 feet tall and gives off a loud, gasping hiss from its nozzles and gauges.

It looks like a giant thermos, but sounds like a cappuccino maker.

And it's now the resting place of perhaps the most talented hitter in baseball history.

But not the final resting place, not according to officials at Alcor Life Extension Foundation. If their predictions about cloning and cryonics prove true, Ted Williams, who retired from baseball nearly 43 summers ago, will one day make a jaw-dropping comeback.

Just before he died last July, the 84-year-old Hall of Famer apparently signed a piece of paper authorizing Alcor to ship his corpse here to be frozen -- or cryonically "suspended" -- then stored upside down in this stainless-steel tank full of liquid nitrogen until cures are found for the heart and brain ailments that ended his life.

Williams signed the paper privately, in the presence of his grown son and a daughter. But a daughter from a previous marriage made the paper public, insisting that her father's real wish was to be cremated and sprinkled off the Florida Keys.

A nasty fight ensued. Hard words were exchanged, strange accusations aired -- including one of DNA-harvesting for future profits. The eldest daughter even filed suit in Citrus County, Fla., trying to retrieve her father and transfer him from ice to fire.

Finally, last month, the sad custody battle ended. The siblings announced a few days before Christmas that they had reached a deal. The eldest daughter would let her father stay at Alcor in exchange for a sum of money and a batch of autographed bats.

None of the siblings or their lawyers will comment publicly on the deal. But son John Henry Williams insists that his father's final wishes have been honored.

"Anyone who really knew my father, or who was really close to my father, knew that he made his own decisions his entire life," John Henry says. "He was very stubborn, always had his own opinion, and no one could make him do anything he didn't want to do -- for instance, like wearing a tie."

John Henry said his father put great faith in the future.

"He was very into science and believed in new technology and human advancement and was a pioneer. Even though things seemed impossible at times, he always knew there was always a chance to catch a fish -- only if you had your fly in the water."

Asked if he believes his father is coming back, the son heaves a sigh.

"I believe," he says. "I believe. I believe that one day my dad will be back."

Days after the deal was struck among the Williams children, there was no sign of anything different here at Alcor. Like every other day at the foundation -- a palm-festooned warehouse behind Scottsdale Airport -- a feeling of ongoing suspense, of perpetual stasis, hung in the air.

Williams -- who hit .406 in 1941, a feat still ranked among the greatest in sports -- is one of 55 people to have chosen the frozen limbo of Alcor over the cold finality of the grave, says Dr. Jerry Lemler, president and CEO of Alcor. Nearly 100 people worldwide are said to have been frozen by a handful of organizations, Lemler says, and another 1,000 are pending.

But Alcor is the leader, the center and the Cooperstown of the burgeoning cryonics movement.

Founded in 1972, Alcor claims more members than any other cryonics organization and counts among them James Bedford, said to be the first man ever frozen back in 1967.

Williams' stainless-steel tank, or Dewar, stands alongside Bedford's and the rest -- opaque, vacuum-sealed, undistinguished. Lemler says he can't point out exactly which Dewar holds Williams because confidentiality agreements prevent him from even confirming that Williams is on-site.

When pressed, however, Lemler fixes his gaze on one tank and raises his eyebrows.

"You should be able to figure it out," he says.

Many people view death as something to be avoided. Alcor members take that instinctive aversion a step further. To cheat death, they seal it up, flash-freeze it, forestall its attendant decay. Without decay, they believe, human bodies may someday be like well-preserved engines, capable of taking a jump-start from some unforeseen spark.

Many of Alcor's members -- whom the foundation terms "patients" after they die -- are less private than Williams. They let themselves be photographed and give permission for their pictures to be displayed in the lobby after their deaths.

Beneath each picture, a gold plate bears the patient's name and the dates of his or her "first life cycle." Each patient's face, meanwhile, bears a look of anticipatory triumph. Behind the shy smile, a single thought seems to lurk:

I'll be back.

Some pay as much as $120,000 to join Alcor, which is a nonprofit and tax-exempt foundation, and the money is seen as more than just down payment on resurrection. It's an investment in a deeply held belief, gaining considerable momentum these days, that humanity will inevitably vanquish its archfoe, the aging process.

"I truly believe," Lemler says, "that the first generation of people whose only certainty in life will be taxes, who will not have to face death, at least not by disease or old age, are crawling, if not walking, the planet."

He stops.

"I just don't think I will live long enough to see that day."

So the 53-year-old Lemler expects to endure the discomfort of death, the inconvenience of it all, and enter Alcor's "patient bay." He makes a point each day, therefore, to walk down the hall from his office and visit the room in which he'll spend that lonely interlude between lives.

"To energize the juices," he explains. "I'm going to be one of those pictures you saw when you came in here. I'm going to be one of those people in the tanks, in the Dewars, and I'll want someone out here speaking for me when I can't speak for myself."

A board-certified psychiatrist with a thick beard and thick glasses, Lemler says he's opted to preserve only his head. Most Alcor members choose this mode of suspension, he says, which takes less room and costs less money -- $50,000, compared with the $120,000 for full-body suspension.

The hope, Lemler says, is that once-dead heads -- or, more precisely, brains --can be retrofitted onto new healthy bodies, possibly clones of the originals.

Alcor's newest arrival was a head-only suspension. In fact, Lemler says, gesturing toward a steel tank smaller than the one containing Williams, the man arrived only days ago.

Lemler steps over to the tank and lifts the lid. A foamy cascade of fog curls over the side, like steam from a pot of soup. As the fog dissipates, a red wrinkled head becomes hazily visible.

The man, who lived in Beverly Hills, fell and broke his hip not long ago, Lemler says. He healed, briefly, then died in a convalescent home. Hours later Alcor's team of paramedics were at his bedside, chemically preparing him for embalmed hibernation.

Cryonic suspension begins with the infusion of 14 chemicals designed to slow death's metabolic processes. Paramedics pump the heart to circulate the blood and distribute the chemicals, a procedure that looks like CPR, though all precautions are taken to make sure the patient isn't resuscitated.

"That would be horrific," Lemler says.

Speed is key in cryonics, Lemler says, which is why Alcor recently signed a contract with a network of paramedics nationwide. (The foundation already employs a staff of seven surgeons throughout the U.S. who are on call 24 hours a day.) The faster a person is pumped with chemicals and packed in ice, the better off he'll be when defrosted.

"But we can't do anything to hasten a person's death," Lemler says. "No matter how much we want to."

Deep-freezing people in the middle of the desert, Lemler concedes, makes for some unintended irony. But, he adds, freezing is a slight misnomer. Although Alcor uses liquid nitrogen to keep patients at 320 degrees below zero, bodies aren't so much frozen as turned to glass.

"We don't give hydrogen and oxygen molecules time to combine," he says. "If they can't combine, you can't make water, and without water, you can't make ice."

Ice, he says, would destroy cells and tear internal organs.

Alcor stores patients upside down in case of leaks in the liquid nitrogen. The feet or neck would thaw first, the brain last. The brain must be preserved at all costs, Lemler says, because the brain is the seat of the self.

"While a strand of hair certainly contains DNA, and a copy of that person could be made, it still would not be that same person," he says. "Our contention is that the essence of the self is contained within the thoughts, feelings, hopes, wishes, fantasies and so forth, contained within the human brain."

Critics of Alcor say the foundation takes solid scientific principles and spins them into false hope.

"It's highly unlikely anybody's ever coming back," says Lee M. Silver, a professor at Princeton University's department of molecular biology and the author of "Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family."

Yes, Silver acknowledges, scientists have been successfully freezing and thawing human embryos for 11 years. But the process took decades to discover and refine, and all embryos frozen before that discovery and refinement are worthless.

"They weren't frozen right," he says. "Maybe there is going to be some way in the future to preserve the brain. Unfortunately, [Alcor technicians] aren't going to have done it right."

Lemler prepares potential members for the possibility that cryonics won't work, along with other uncertainties. He tells them they may come back different. Perhaps as a dimwitted clone. Perhaps as a pale specter, with no memory of a past life. He describes the worst-case scenarios, and the best -- that they will return as the person who now greets them in the mirror each morning.

"The most logical conclusion," he says, "is probably going to be somewhere between those two extremes."

Besides the large payment upon death, Alcor charges $400 in annual dues. Members can change their minds and back out any time before they die, and only forfeit the $25 handling fee.

Every new member is given a box to fill with photos or videos, diaries or letters, anything to jog the memory "on the other end." The boxes are stored a mile below ground in a Kansas salt mine. Some members ask for extra boxes and stuff them with belongings, as if packing for a prolonged move.

Richard Clair, for instance, former writer for "The Carol Burnett Show," crammed 19 boxes with memorabilia, including tapes of shows he wrote. He also left his Emmy with Alcor. It sits in the lobby, waiting for him to walk up and reaccept it.

News of Williams' arrival set off a surge of interest, to which Alcor is still adjusting. Last year the foundation got 5,000 hits a day on its Web site; this year the number reached 600,000.

Membership has jumped too. It stands at 611, a 10% increase from January last year.

To prepare for the eventual onslaught of new arrivals, Lemler says, Alcor's board of directors recently approved plans to expand the patient bay.

Loved ones may occasionally visit the patient bay for a few private moments. Some leave cards and flowers.

Fans, however, are not allowed. Those who want to see Williams must wait for the comeback. They might take heart in the knowledge that coming back was a specialty of "The Kid."

"He was always coming back," John Updike wrote in a famous 1965 tribute.

"Back from Korea, back from a broken collarbone, a shattered elbow, a bruised heel, back from drastic bouts of flu and ptomaine poisoning. Hardly a season went by without some enfeebling mishap, yet he always came back, and always looked like himself."

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