The Strange Case Of David Eshbach


At least once or twice a year someone asks me if I'm related to David Eshbach. "Any relation to David Eshbach?" they ask, with a long, almost sarcastic prolongation of "David." And every time they act startled when I answer. Yes, I am related to David Eshbach. He was my uncle. My great uncle actually. My Dad's uncle. But he was one of those great-uncles that's not much older than your folks on account of how some family members got married late and had kids even later.

Most people have no idea who David Eshbach is - unless you're a conspiracy theorist, a ufologist or a paranormal researcher or one of those kids that's into the skeptics groups. And maybe an occasional fan of Borges. To these geeks my Uncle is a celebrity. No one else has heard of him.

David was born and raised, and spent near his whole life, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Among the Pennsylvania Dutch - the Amish and the Mennonites (which some ignorant folk think are more or less the same thing.) David was Mennonite, which meant you couldn't distinguish him from a normal farmer on account of the way he dressed or the means by which he got around town. The Mennonite women kind of stood out - at least the older ones. But all in all, Mennonites just read their Bible and didn't look at much TV. But they listened to the radio and used electricity to open their cans and to heat the guest room in winter. My Uncle had a tobacco farm and my Aunt (whose name I can't remember right now) made quilts and sold them at the market on Saturdays. Most of their neighbors didn't know that my Uncle was kind of famous in the big cities. In fact I don't think my Uncle knew it too well either.

He did have a short brush with fame when Dryers ice cream ran a tv commercial with him in it. He was endorsing Dryers by saying something like "I can see what's so tasty about Dryers!" and underneath his face were the words "David Eshbach - Paranormal Curiosity". This really pissed off my family - uncle included. But I guess he signed papers and stuff and couldn't really do anything about it. The same Dryers campaign had a commercial featuring Charles K. Johnson - president of the Flat Earth Society, and some famous psychic and I think even Uri Geller.

If you Google "David Eshbach" you'll get about 140,000 hits. But some of those aren't him. If you Google "David Eshbach" and "perception" you'll get about 120,000 almost all of which are him. But don't trust what you read because most of it just quotes each other, and the main sources are kooky ufo nuts and professional debunkers like those skeptics groups that meet at Caltech.

Anyway, my uncle was not psychic or anything like that. He had just trained himself, since a very young age, to do one extraordinary thing that got everybody bent out of shape. When it's described it doesn't even sound that amazing - but when it's observed it is pretty eerie: my uncle had taught himself to see things move which were moving very slowly. Very slowly.

So whenever I tell people about David Eshbach I always preface it with this example that kind of sets the tone of what his particular skill was all about. Imagine staring at the shadow on a sundial. After a few minutes (ten maybe) you'll notice that the shadow has moved. It used to be touching the crack (or whatever) now it's not touching the crack anymore. Right? But there's a difference - a big difference - between noticing that a shadow has moved and noticing a shadow moving. Most of us can't see a sundial shadow moving. There are thresholds in perception that psychologists have studied. Something has to be moving at a certain minimum velocity before we apprehend its motion - rather than deduce its motion from remembering that it used to be "over there." Obviously I can see the second-hand of a clock move. Sometimes I can even see the minute hand move - at least I think I can. But I can't see the hour hand moving.

My uncle said he started by watching snails move when he was about three. By five he could watch sun-cast shadows elongate across pavement in the afternoon. My dad said he used to lay on the ground in the backyard garden and stare at shadows for hours. By 10 he could see the hour hand move on sophisticated clocks. By 20 he could observe a drop of water shrink as it evaporated. By 30 he could see tires deflating, as air was lost through microscopic pores in the rubber. By 45 he could see stained glass windows "melt" as gravity pulled the liquid/solid glass toward the ground in old churches. By 55 he claimed that everything was moving. Bricks in old buildings were compressing. Steel beams in bridges were stretching. He started going crazy.

In 1980 he was tested at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, California. One of the researchers was Russell Puthoff, who was famous for testing Uri Geller in the 1970s. My family has some footage of these tests on old Betamax tapes. There were a whole bunch of tests but the most impressive one was what they called the Clock Test. There were 10 Swiss-made clocks with faces about 10" in diameter. They were all lined up in a row. Each clock had only one hand which made one complete revolution every twenty-four hours. The clocks' movement was not gear driven but rather wheel driven. (Gear-driven devices apparently exhibit a microscopic jerkiness even at extremely slow movements. Wheel-driven devices, by eliminating the intermittent contact of meshing gears, create a fluid motion.) 

Now the trick of this test was this: only one of the clocks was actually running. The other nine were dummy clocks. Each time the test was performed the researchers could route power to whichever clock they wanted to be the running clock. All ten clocks were hung on a wall opposite my Uncle but they were behind a panel so my Uncle couldn't see them. At a certain moment the panel would drop, revealing the clocks, and my Uncle was supposed to point to the clock that was running. This test was performed over 100 times. In every case it never took my Uncle more than 6 seconds to see which clock was moving, with an average reaction time of a little over 4-seconds. In the footage there is even one control test where the researchers ran power to none of the clocks. When the panel drops my Uncle immediately says, "Tricky! No clock is running."

By the early 90s my Uncle lived in total darkness. Or tried to, anyway. He couldn't look at anything. Even the walls of his bedroom were "melting," he said. Everything was moving. There was no stillness. He went nuts. He sat facing a wall which he had paneled in titanium sheet. Even when he talked to you he either had his eyes closed or he was staring at the metal wall.