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."

One of the things that few people know about (and this is why the UFO kooks like him) was that twice in his life - once when he was 15 and once when he was 53 - he saw a single cloud in the sky that was not billowing. Most clouds billow so slowly that the average onlooker doesn't notice. My father remembers when David was 15. They were in New Mexico on vacation. My dad said Uncle David was staring at the sky with a weird look on his face. He pointed to a cumulus cloud and asked my grandmother, "What's that?" My grandmother told him it was a cloud and David shook his head. "It's not a cloud", he said.

Then in 1984 he saw it again in Tokyo. This time he was old enough to articulate what he was seeing. He described the cloud as "frozen". Everybody else just saw a cloud drifting by, but my Uncle insisted that it was not natural. It wasn't billowing. He said that both sightings really scared him because he was seeing something man-made masqueraded as a cloud and he was the only one who could notice.

There is one feature about David Eshbach that no one but a handful of people know about. When I was about seven or eight years old my folks sent me to stay a summer in Lancaster county Pennsylvania with my Aunt and Uncle. I flew on an airplane for my first time then. That's a pretty scary thing for an eight year old to do all by himself. But I got used to it pretty quick. And the stewardess - which is what you called them back then - was pretty, and she kept smiling at me and bringing me things and so I guess I had a pretty good time.

Pennsylvania was hot that summer, I remember. And some of the houses were damp. I'll never forget that smell. In fact there were two rooms in my Uncle's house that smelled like old papers, or like an old, damp bookstore. In these two rooms my Uncle had newspapers piled what seemed to be all the way to the ceiling - or so it seemed to me back then not being too tall and all that. Before I left for Pennsylvania my mother had told me to stay out of those rooms. Naturally, then, I had to see what was inside. And it was just papers.

One afternoon when my Uncle was in town and my Aunt was gossiping with the neighbors, I got curious over a stack of newspapers which were all the same. I mean a hundred or so identical copies of the same edition of the same paper. Determined to count how many copies of the edition my Uncle had bought and stacked, I dug through the stack and discovered at the bottom a small, black notebook which immediately bewitched me. It was one of those composition notebooks you get in college, with the black and white random-looking pattern on the binding. On the front of the notebook, where normally there's a white box where you're supposed to write something, someone - probably my Uncle, I thought - had glued a picture, a drawing actually. It was a drawing of a man's head and he was staring right at you with his eyes barely open. Over the man's head was written the word "GAZING" in all capital letters. I remember being enchanted, somehow frightened by this picture. It seemed like magic to me. Like the guy on the cover could see me.

Needless to say I looked through the notebook and found that it was full of writing in my Uncle’s unmistakable hand. I wasn’t interested in what it said, and besides, I couldn’t read most of his handwriting (and the handwriting is unusually small.) It was the cover that caught my imagination for the first few years. I buried the notebook under a stack of newspapers in the room and every summer I would find it again and stare at it and daydream about who the man on the cover was. Sometimes, if I stared at it without blinking long enough I could swear that his eyelids closed all the way, but I'm certain that was just a young boy's imagination. Though the drawing looked nothing like my Uncle, its expression reminded me of him. David was prone to “napping” with his eyes open - barely open. We were always told not to disturb him when he did this. He would always do it sitting in the same handmade oak chair. He carried this chair around from room to room - whichever room he decided to “nap” in. Sometimes he'd carry it into the woods to take a nap out there. None of us kids were allowed to sit in that chair, and I never remember seeing any of the adults sitting in it either. I never believed he was really sleeping. What I found out later confirmed this.

Eventually, when I turned ten or eleven, I began to browse the contents of the notebook and found that they were just as strange as the cover. The notebook was full of illustrations in pencil, technical drawings of levers and gears and such. Lots of newspaper clippings leafed between the pages, and some articles from magazines glued in. Most of the pieces of paper in the notebook were old and brown and stiff, the way old newspapers get. It was difficult to read and so it took a long time. I could make it through ten or so pages and then have to leave it for next summer - in the meantime what I had read would brew in my head all year and get exaggerated by my imagination. Each year I came back to the newspaper room and found the notebook in exactly the same spot I had left it. I wondered if my Uncle even knew it was there any more. I remember on time, the day before I was about to leave back to California I put the notebook in its regular place but paid really close attention to exactly how I'd laid it. I noticed that the upper right hand corner of the notebook was barely covering the raised hand of some politician on the cover of a newspaper, and the bottom left corner of the notebook was perfectly in line with two small dark stains on a different newspaper that was protruding from further down in the pile. When I cam back the following summer the notebook had not been moved even a fraction of an inch.

I had thought of many ways which I might come into ownership of this book. I thought of stealing it. Even of stealing it one page per year so no one would notice anything (this was absurd, the notebook was about two hundred pages long). Asking my Uncle was out of the question. He wasn't the kind of guy you could really talk to. I thought about having my parents ask him for me but decided not to. I resigned to never having it for myself.

I never told my Uncle (or anyone else in my family) that I was reading the notebook. I thought somehow that it was the wrong thing to do. I didn’t want to get “caught”. Eventually I read the whole thing in small pieces. Its contents were a mixture of stories and prescriptions, the exact nature of which I will detail further on.

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. My Uncle eventually died a few years after my Aunt did. Martha was her name. Now I remember. When I heard that he'd passed on I was especially sad that I'd never get to visit the tobacco farm again and that I'd never see the strange notebook or be able to figure out what the contents all meant.

But then something completely unexpected happened. When David passed away in 1997, my folks were contacted by some guy in Pennsylvania and they were told that my Uncle had bequeathed to me a small wooden chest, and a key. To me. I couldn't imagine why my Uncle - who'd never spoken more than a dozens words to me - would have left me a chest. Of course I imaged that the chest contained the notebook. But either way, I was on a plane as fast as I could. At the very least I thought I might be able to get into the newspaper room before his sons and daughters started cleaning out the place and I might be able to rescue the notebook.

When I got to the farm the house was empty. The family and a few neighbors had cleaned it out. I asked on of the cousins about the newspaper rooms and she laughed and said it took two days to get all those papers out of the rooms. "What did you do with them all?" I asked. "Threw 'em out, of course!" She said. "You threw away everything in the rooms?" I asked. "Heck yeah. There wasn't nothin' but papers to the ceiling, and termites." Termites? I thought. Do termites eat newspapers?

I was given the metal chest and the key and was told that Uncle David really liked me and all that. They all seemed to think nothing strange about it. I guess I felt like the only person there who didn't know he liked me. I had dinner with them, said goodbye and got a cab back to the airport. I didn't open the chest until I got home.

The chest wasn't as small as the man who called my folks had made it out to be. I was expecting something just the size to hold a notebook. Like a small wooden box. This thing needed two hands to carry and I had to check it in on the flight home. But when I got back to North Hollywood the first thing I did was slip the key into the lock and turn it. And the chest opened.

The chest was full of stuff. Stuff I'd never seen before. It was stacked neatly. I pulled each item out in the order it was placed - or reverse order, I guess. And looked each thing over carefully before the next. In the trunk were a series of photographic plates of grass and shrubs, in fact two seemingly identical plates of each picture. Each plate measured five inches square. There was a blueprint for a wooden chair identical to the one Uncle David used to nap in, a half dozen lead cuckoo clock weights, a small paperback copy of Alex Kaskin’s Winning With the Irregular Queen’s Gambit Declined, a framed print of Dali’s Disappearing Bust of Voltaire with the twin maidens which compose the bust circled in black marker(!). There was an ivory set of Mahjong tiles (no dice, tokens or stands) and four plain white empty envelopes with the name of a season written on each one.

The two remaining items were the strangest of all. The first was a photographic plate carefully removed from a very large book. It was the photograph of a painting. The painting made no sense at all. It looked like it was supposed to be a landscape but only with the help of forgiveness to the painter. Below the photograph were the words “Example of phenomenological realism - 1614, anonymous”. Realism? At the time I thought it was a joke.

The last item in the chest was the notebook.

In the course of the years that followed, I can say with certainty that no other book has had as much an influence on my perception of the world as my Uncle's notebook. To a casual observer, it appears at first to be an unorganized hodge-podge of short essays and comments on news items. No reader would find anything coherent or relevant in its pages. Just like the eclectic contents of the wooden chest, the contents of the notebook seem to have no theme that hangs them together. But this isn't true, I don't believe. Well, in fact I know it isn't true. When taken all together, and through repeated readings and prolonged digestion of its contents, the notebook emerges as a kind of guidebook on how to perform a special kind of seeing or what my Uncle called "gazing".

The notebook can be pretty much divided into three main themes or veins. One vein which is disjointed and spread over 200 pages instructs the reader in a meditative posture for the practice of gazing. The second vein - if you can really call it a vein - is composed of diatribes and observations which my Uncle came to believe as a result of practicing gazing: short essays on paintings, clockbuilding, chess, Mahjong, optics, 3D cinema, lenticular printing, autostereoscopy and you name it. Mostly to do with vision and with hearing - though heavy on the visual. And the third vein are autobiographical accounts of his experiences while gazing. This third part, the autobiographical accounts, constitutes the bulk of the notebook. They're intermingled with detailed descriptions of how to get to certain spots in the Pennsylvania countryside that's best for gazing. A lot of it reads like instructions for a treasure map of sorts.

There are a few interesting anecdotes about hunting and firefighting too. In one story my Uncle tells about his hunting buddies and how one of them - a particularly boastful one - was always borrowing shotgun shells from him when they were out hunting. So one evening before the hunt, my Uncle emptied a dozen or so shotgun shells and replaced the shot with navy beans. The next day, sure enough, the guy asks him if he could borrow some shells. My Uncle reluctantly agreed and gave him one of the shells filled with navy beans. When the grouse rose the sight of the white beans flying through the air was hilarious to the other hunters, but the guy shooting was the only one who couldn't see the beans and so he didn't know why he kept missing. All day long the hunter kept asking my Uncle for shotgun shells and all day long my Uncle gave him the rigged shells. By the end of the day the "great hunter" still hadn't gotten his first bird while all the rest of the party were nearly at their limit. My Uncle - and the other men - apparently took great pleasure in hearing the excuses which the boastful hunter made all day.

Oddly, the notebook has nothing to do with my Uncle's ability to see things moving slowly. Even though this ability is clearly a visual thing, the notebook's contents are an exploration of an entirely different dimension of visual perception. Just for kicks I've selected some random passages from the notebook, and before I tell about my personal experience with gazing I will reprint the passages here to give the reader a sense of its randomness and initial opacity. This is a pretty fair sample of its 200+ pages - including the clippings. Even though much of the notebook's contents are quotes from other sources, the passages I've included below are in my Uncle's voice. Where my uncle’s handwriting becomes illegible I have inserted bracketed blanks [----] or supplied my own interpolation, but only where I'm pretty certain I'm right. Any anachronisms, misdates or misspellings are his, and there are quite a few. I have learned to regard his “mistakes” as deliberate subtleties.

----

[pg. 4,   B.E]

... Up past Owlbridge road where the creek turns south for near half a mile. It's in that part where's the best place to watch. Come from the west because the other side is property. Find a spot that's low but don't hide [----] the miller who lives in [----] house east on the other side takes the bend for an oxbow and crosses over and comes down sometimes and if he can't see you clear he might take you for trouble. Be friendly if you see him or his two boys. It's quiet here and from the north end of the creek bend you get a long view down. The water runs away from you so the angle is good. You don't need a chair here. Twice here at around dusk I saw two men, or what I took to be men, with their backs to me walking backwards on the water upstream but never getting closer. Like they were treading in place. They were closer to the east bank but close [enough] to center. But most of the time I saw nothing because trees are sparse. They don't talk, just move.

[And another passage, pg55-56 B.E.]

It wonders me how did the doctor get this if he didn't already have Horowitz' book like he says. Here it is before the doctor took it as his own hand. [Here my Uncle has copied two passages, one from a book on chess openings and a second - nearly identical - presumably from "the doctor". The book from Horowitz appears to be Chess Openings: Theory and Practice by I.A. Horowitz published in 1964. I pass over the passages here. B.E.] I showed the doctor the monk at the T-bend about a week before the lumber wagons parked there permanently. All of us, Isaac and Harlan too, were there. He's partial to salmon eggs and periwinkles.

[And another, pg. 110 B.E.]

... Go east past the row of shagbarks until you come between the last two. When you're in the middle between them look south, a right angle to the windbreak and make a straight path into the timber. Thirty-seven paces in the thick and you find the iron sleeves. Might need to feel about for them a while. Lost my bearing here two or three times in fall when the leaves are thick and the ground damp. You get used to it how the trees look when the spot's right. Use the awl and the spoon and clean out the sleeves. Hands on the seat and push the chair in until the brass pegs touch. The legs should fit snug in. Push the chair down straight. If you don't push straight it'll stick. All four pegs need to touch the same. If you did it right the chair won't rock. You can't use this spot most Wednesdays in summer on account of Oak Creek Camp got kids playing up there.

If you brought food eat it now. Let out the crown rest and do all your fixing up like before. Have the chin bar in your hand before you sit. Don't put the chin bar in the bag with the [----] or it will knock into the crown rest. Use a different bag or carry it out. When you're sat you see the three big pignuts and a hackberry that's a ways smaller but closer up. Go from left to right and it's between the second pignut and the hackberry that's where she is. If it's too windy you won't see her and you won't know what to listen for. If there's no wind she don't talk. The air needs be right and its better if the weavers and nuthatches are out. They make her Ts and Ss.

[And another, pg. 115]

...I hammered two steaks some 20 feet apart in the middle of the V made by the rill and the trunk. The stakes are high so hunters don't run into them, but hammered deep so no one takes them out. One stake is more mushroomed on the end, that's your sight stake. I painted the tip white at first but the paint kept coming off so I hmmered [sic] it that way. Line the sight stake up with the other one and walk away from the sight stake 20 feet and take your spot there. Both stakes should be in line from where you're at now. You can't use a chair because you got to sit low here. From your spot turn clockwise a right angle and sit down. Sit upright. Gaze just above the cluster of black chokeberrys. This one takes time and your back might get sore but if you're patient it'll appear. Its hind legs are in the chokeberrys and it's tail comes up behind where the swamp oaks make their shadows. It's head is in the willows to the left just above the trunks.

----

You get the idea. My Uncle's writing is very small and sometimes I find it's easier to use a reading magnifier. He packed a lot of info in the 212 pages of the notebook. As you can imagine, one of the greatest obstacles for me was to learn what the heck a "pignut" and a "nuthatch" and all the rest are. He wrote about trees and birds and geographical features like they were common knowledge. You can look them up online and get a sense of what they look like but it's still very hard to identify them in person, even if you have some kind of fieldbook with you. At least it's hard for me. When I got the notebook in 1997 I spent hours in libraries looking at atlases. Today there's better internet sites for this kind of thing.

 

To be continued...