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Man seeks pals he once persuaded to ship him around the world in a crate

Brian Robson returned to London in May 1965 after he was found inside a shipping crate in Los Angeles. He shipped himself C.O.D. to England from Australia in an attempt to return to his family in Cardiff, South Wales, but ended up in Los Angeles by mistake. (AP Photo)

In May 1965, Brian Robson was miserably homesick after working nearly a year in Melbourne, Australia, but he couldn’t afford a plane ticket home to Wales.

Forlorn and desperate, he came up with a madcap idea: He could fold himself into a crate and ship himself via airfreight to London for a fraction of the fare.

That’s how 19-year-old Robson ended up inside a wooden crate with his suitcase, a flashlight, a Beatles songbook, a pint of water and an empty bottle to hold his urine. He persuaded two friends in Melbourne to nail him in, and he figured he’d be home in 36 hours.

As one might imagine, that’s not what happened. Instead, 92 hours and more than 8,000 miles from where he climbed into the crate, Robson ended up in Los Angeles and made headlines around the world when a startled airport cargo worker peered through a knothole in the crate and spotted the teenage stowaway. He was in such bad shape, he needed medical attention.

Now, 56 years later, Robson, 75, has written a book about his misadventure titled “The Crate Escape,” which will be released this month. He said he has also signed a movie contract with a British production company.

After decades of relative anonymity, Robson said he decided to put himself in the spotlight again for his harebrained scheme in part because of something that has been nagging at him for years: He wants to track down the two Irish pals who sealed him inside the crate and called a truck to take their cash-on-delivery cargo to the airport.

Paul and John (Robson doesn’t recall their last names) worked with Robson as ticket collectors at the former Victorian Railways in Melbourne, he said.

“We’d all been hired at the same time and met on the flight from the U.K.,” recalled Robson, who grew up in Cardiff, Wales, and lives there today.

“In 1964, I was looking for an adventure, and the Australian government was looking for workers,” he said. “I signed up out of stupidity, thinking that I could stay for the two years they asked me to commit to. But when I arrived there, I wanted to go home immediately.”

Robson said he was unimpressed by the “rat-infested hovel” he lived in, and he couldn’t stomach the food.

“The first meal they gave us was some sort of liquid with a lump of fat in it,” he said. “It was horrible. I told John and Paul, ‘I’m not staying here.’ ”

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He soon learned that he didn’t have much choice.

Robson was told if he didn’t fulfill his two-year commitment, he’d be required to reimburse the Australian government for his airfare to Melbourne and he’d have to pay for his own ticket back to the U.K.

“I made about 30 to 40 Australian pounds a week, and the airfare home would have cost me between 700 and 800 pounds,” he said. “There was no way I could come up with that kind of money.”

Robson figured he was stuck. He attempted to stow away on a ship bound for Britain, but he was caught and sent to jail for 10 weeks, he said.

Then 11 months after his arrival in Melbourne, he saw something interesting while he was with Paul and John.

“There was a sign up for a removal company in the U.K. that said, ‘We move anything anywhere,’ ” recalled Robson. “I told my friends, ‘Well, they can move us.’ ”

His friends laughed, but Robson kept thinking about it and couldn’t sleep that night, he said.

“I thought, ‘This has to be possible — if this company can move things, well, why can’t I?’ ” he said.

The next day, he hatched his foolhardy plan: He would buy a crate, and his friends could send him through freight on a direct flight to London.

“At first, they wouldn’t agree to help — they thought it was too dangerous,” said Robson. “But I soon talked them into it.”

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On a May morning, he got into a crate measuring 36-by-30-by-38 inches that he had purchased for 5 pounds, he said. He situated himself next to his suitcase and hung his flashlight on a nail inside.

At 120 pounds and 5-foot-7, it was a tight fit, Robson said.

“I took along a pillow, a hammer in case I needed to break out, a pint of water and an empty jar,” he said. “I didn’t take any food because a human that eats has to relieve himself.”

At the last minute, Robson decided to bring a Beatles songbook. He said that John and Paul nailed the top onto the crate and labeled it “Fragile! This Way Up! Handle With Care!”

“But, of course, none of that happened,” he said.

After he was flown in a turboprop plane from Melbourne to Sydney, Robson said, he had to sit upside-down in the crate with his suitcase on top of his head for 22 hours until he was loaded into what he thought was a 707 jet.

He was relieved when he heard the roar of the engines in the jet’s cargo hold, because he thought he was finally on his way back to Britain.

But Robson was unaware that because the flight to London was full, he’d been loaded onto a Pan Am flight and routed through Los Angeles.

“It was horrific. I was hallucinating in the cargo hold because I couldn’t breathe properly,” said Robson. “It was pitch black and there was no air pressure. All of my joints and muscles seized up. What was it like? It was as near to death as I’m likely to get.”

Still, he said, he wasn’t tempted to use his hammer to break out of the crate while in the plane. “What would be the point? I’d have been in the hold of an airplane with nowhere to go,” he said. “I’d probably have been worse off.”

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When the plane landed at the Los Angeles airport, he had been curled up inside the crate for nearly five days.

He tried to check his wristwatch for the time but dropped his flashlight as soon as he turned it on. “Because of my cramped position, I couldn’t control my muscles,” he said. “The beam of the flashlight went through the crate slits, and two airport workers saw the light. I knew then that I was in the States because they were speaking with American accents.”

One of the workers peered through a knothole and shouted, “There’s a body in there!” Robson recalled. “I’ve never seen anyone jump so far in my life,” he said. “The FBI and the CIA were called in, and that’s when they opened up the crate and got me out.”

Robson, who was too weak and dehydrated to walk, was taken to a Los Angeles hospital, where he stayed five days. Doctors told him that if he had continued to London inside the crate, he wouldn’t have survived the flight, he said.

Robson could have faced charges of illegally entering the United States, he said, but officials instead chose to send him home to Wales, where he had wanted to go all along.

“Pan Am flew me home first class, and I had a nice meal on the plane,” said Robson. “My parents were extremely pleased to see me, and they were also extremely angry that I did what I did. Then the press showed up, so I didn’t leave the house for a week.” News reports at the time said he was still weak and limping when he arrived in London.

Although he won’t divulge personal details about himself, Robson said that once the publicity ended, he went on to have a family and lead a quiet and happy life in the U.K. He retired at age 60, but decided three years ago to write a book after a film company approached him about doing a movie, he said.

Robson said he hopes the renewed interest in his crate caper will lead to a reunion with his two Irish friends. “I look upon this as a silly teen prank gone wrong, that never should have happened in the first place,” he said. “I have no desire to go back to Australia, but I’ve been around the world many times since then.”

He laughed when asked how he prefers to travel these days. “Let’s just put it this way,” said Robson. “I will never again get into another crate.”

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