The early 80's was an especially bad time for science television. Popular shows such as Real People and That's Incredible had no quorums about broadcasting anecdotal accounts of everything from ghosts, big foot, UFOs and psychic phenomena. Also, things such as the Bermuda Triangle, Noah's Ark and Peruvian ground drawings where getting TV specials attributing all sorts of fanciful claims to them. Fortunately however, two televised events would happen that would forever change my world view. One was the PBS broadcast of the mini-series Cosmos, and the other was a guest appearance on That's My Line by a funny little magician.
James Hydrick first appeared on That's Incredible in 1980. I am almost certain that I had seen this episode because this series had been deemed required viewing from my peers in my 6th grade class. Everybody watched That's Incredible, and then we would talk about the amazing things we had seen the night before the in the quad of the middle school.
This was Piedmont, CA, where as the new kid from a nearby Oakland elementary school I was pulled aside by a snooty rich punkass and reminded that, "we don't skip in Piedmont". I digress.
Hydrick was not only a psychic and could demonstrate psychokinetic abilities, but he also claimed it could be taught to others. He even had a exclusive martial arts academy in which he would teach this art to children. It was powerful stuff. He could move pencils and turn phonebook pages, just by using his mind. It all seemed very sincere and genuine to my 11 year old brain. However, all of his self-described mystical training could not prepare him for the likes of James Randi.
It seems like James Randi has always been a colorful little old man with a beard, but his 1956 appearance on the Today Show suggests otherwise. As the Amazing Randi, he was a stage magician, escape artist, and mentalist. In this early live black & white TV appearance, a young beardless, Randi is lowered, underwater, in a small steel-cased coffin for 102 minutes. Although such an exercise does require a skillful command of slow, controlled breathing, the secret of pulling off such a stunt of successfully was mostly in the performance; the vessel easily had enough oxygen to sustain himself for this amount time (more so because Randi was such a small man leaving more room for air). It was essentially a scam. But what separated him from a con-artist was these actions had been cloaked under the umbrella as "entertainment". All parties, Randi, NBC, and the general audience understood this. What really bothered Randi was when some charlatan used these same methods of deception and, then claimed that they where true abilities of mystic phenomena.
Although he always hated the term "debunker", Randi spent most of his life exposing charlatans, con-artists, shady faith healers, and, most notably, a popular mentalist from Tel Aviv named Uri Geller, who claimed he could bend spoons with his mind. Randi had strong convictions. So convinced that that all of these folks that where making claims of physic abilities where either self deluded or downright dishonest, that he decided to put his own money on the line. He carried with him, at all times, a check for $10,000 to anybody that was able to successfully demonstrate their own physic abilities under agreed controls. This would come to be known as the "Randi Challenge", and after years of donations through his non-profit organization (JREF) it would later be called, "the Million Dollar Challenge". This prize remains unclaimed.
Randi must have been less than impressed when he first watched clips of Hydrick on TV. After all these were simple parlor tricks that would have been in the arsenal of a well trained magician such as himself. Randi extended an invitation to take his challenge, and Hydrick accepted.
James Hydrick appeared on That's My Line seemingly confident that Randi's personal check would shortly be in his possession. After a brief intro and some questions about how he came about discovering how he had such powers, he was asked to begin the demonstrations.
Hydrick, wearing a brightly colored Asian jumpsuit, and sporting a mustache that reminded me of Doug Henning, approached a small table. He gently placed a pencil on the table's edge carefully positioning it so that about half of the pencil stuck out over the floor below. After some silly martial arts style stretches, he rolled his eyes up and seemingly began to concentrate. The studio audience fell silent. And then, as if by magic, the pencil rolled itself back fully on the table. The crowd applauded, and I was convinced that I had just seen some kind of miracle take place.
He was even more dramatic after he approached a phonebook that had been placed at another small table. He requested that host of the show inspect the phonebook and then leave it on the table, opened to the page of their choosing. The stretching antics seemed more extreme this time. Finally, he crotched down in front of the table, and again began to concentrate. Again, the studio fell silent. After a few tense seconds, the impossible happened; the page seemed to turn by itself. This time there was a combination of gasps and applause.
I was amazed! He seemed to live up to his promises. Perhaps there was a greater power at work here. Maybe this was something that science could never explain. I fallen for this hook, line and sinker.
Then, James Randi was invited onto the stage. I had no memory of seeing this curious little man before. He was there to perform a simple experiment to determine if the claims of James Hydrick were true. He produced his check for $10,000 out of his breast pocket that he was willing to forfeit if this was actually the case.
Randy himself would not be making the call. He invited a small panel to decide if Hydrick did actually deliver the goods. Two had a background in science and the third was from a psychic institute in LA.
Briskly, Randi approached the first table with the pencil. He immediately discounted the value of scrutinizing this trick too closely. It was too difficult for controls, he explained. It was a large studio with many drafts. He demonstrated how easy the pencil was easily moved by duplicating the stunt himself. So he quickly shuffled over to the phone book.
"We need to rule out the possibility of blowing, see". Randi pulled out a brown paper bag and arranged the contents evenly around the edges of the phonebook. I was amazed. It was too simple, too elegant. Blowing could be the means of the page moving, of course, that makes sense, but what control does one employ to rule this possibility out? Styrofoam packing peanuts.
For the next 50 minutes (it was cut down for broadcast) Hydrick would do his funny stretches, kneel down in front of the phonebook and styrofoam, roll up his eyes and begin to concentrate... But this time, the pages did not move. He would then stand up, give some lame excuse, "the lights and packing material are creating some sort of static electricity field" and repeat this process. The page remained motionless. Hydrick, now frustrated and embarrassed, finally gave up.
As the show was ready to wrap up. Randi approached his panel once again, and one by one asked them if they had seen any demonstration of psychic ability that evening. In turn, each one responded, "no, I have not".
It was 1981 and I was now a skeptic.