When the opportunity to work toward devising a laser afforded itself, the lights suddenly went on and the bells started ringing. The level of my excitement is hard to describe. – Theodore Maiman, Inventor of the first working laser
Mike Muckerheide could pinpoint the day he fell in love with lasers: July 7, 1960. On the evening news, a bright, thin beam was ignited into life with silvered mirrors and ruby crystal, burst through quartz tube and impaled the tiny slab of a razor blade.
Eight-hundred-forty miles away, Mike, a 30-year-old lab technician, watched the spectacle flicker before him on a black and white television screen, and awakened to a new life. It was as if that beam had sailed out of the network news studio in Manhattan, crossed over three states, two Great Lakes, the boot of Ontario, and half of Wisconsin just to land inside his brain. Like the world, he had just been introduced to the laser, and neither of them would ever be the same again. From that moment on, Mike developed one singular passion that would drive the rest of his life: a passion for building lasers. Who would have guessed that a poor boy from the middle of Dairyland would eventually have experiments on NASA space shuttles, own several U.S. patents, work with the U.S. Department of Defense on top-secret military projects, and come to be respected by some of the greatest laser minds in the world…all without a formal college education?
Indeed, Mike Muckerheide was an extraordinary man, driven by the light of lasers; driven, at times, near madness. Yet, it wasn’t the lasers that nearly drove him crazy: it was the handful of people who knew, like Mike, what wonderful – and horrible – things this new science promised, and who wanted the knowledge that was locked inside his head. It wasn’t just the government, NASA, and great, independent researchers who came calling; there were also the Soviets and the homegrown terrorist wannabes.
September 2004: a Delta airlines plane was heading for Salt Lake City International Airport on an evening flight from Dallas, Texas. Five miles from the city, the Boeing 737 started its descent into a routine circular formation in preparation for landing. Suddenly, a flash of intense, bright light blasted through the cockpit windshield and pierced the eyes of the crew. The pain was excruciating. The pilot could hardly keep his hands on the controls. Where had the light come from and would he be able to land the jet safely?
December 2004: news reports began to circulate about a memo issued by the FBI and Homeland Security Department warning that “…there is evidence that terrorists have explored using lasers as weapons.” In particular, it expressed concern that lasers might be used to blind pilots during an approach to an airport. Indeed, by the end of the following year – 2005 – there had been nearly 300 verified laser incidents involving pilots in the U.S.
After listening to the news reports, retired FBI agent Tom Burg and I wondered: “If Mike were here, what would he say?” Of course, we already knew the answer, because we had heard it before in the hours of interviews with him. He would have said, “What most people wouldn’t believe in the 1970s is all coming true.” With a deep-in-the-gut anger he would have added, “I tried to tell them, and they wouldn’t believe me.” Mike would wonder what had taken the modern terrorists so long to figure it all out, and what was the government doing to avoid a catastrophe? It had been nearly 30 years, and only now was the world awakening to the horrible possibilities of it: Terrorists using laser beams to blind pilots and air traffic controllers; hand held laser weapons to blind soldiers; and, for the distant future, people, planes and buildings that would simply disappear, as if zapped into a huge Bermuda Triangle. These weren’t new ideas. If anyone had wanted a primer, they could have found it in the hidden details of an old FBI case.
Tom knew all the details of the case; at least the exciting parts: about the wire tap at the state capital, the threats on Mike’s life, and the list of CIA names confiscated in Chicago from a Wisconsin assemblyman’s dinner jacket. Together, we were gathering up all the pieces of the fascinating case, and the equally fascinating character of the self-made laser scientist, to capture it in a book. The FBI/Homeland Security memo had just added one more “I told you so” to Mike’s oddly twisted story.
Tom and I had started on our journey nearly two years earlier. “I hope he’s well today,” I said to Tom as he negotiated his car onto Highway 10 out of Stevens Point, heading east. We’d been on the road for nearly an hour and we still had a long drive ahead of us to get to Port Washington. “Well, you talked to him yesterday. He sounded all right, didn’t he?”
“Yes, but I think he’s been having a lot of bad days because of the cancer treatments. When he called to cancel our meeting last week I got a little worried. I know this is something he really wants to do, so he must have been feeling pretty bad.”
Tom, the eternal optimist, shrugged it off. “I’m sure he’ll be fine.”
Wisconsin is no land for sissies. Its winter’s bite can sting with bitter cold and crippling snows. We picked a good day for traveling. The early January sky was an icy blue, the air snappy and the roads dry. There was little traffic as we glided effortlessly through small towns and farm country, the congested areas ahead of us in the Fox Valley and the greater Milwaukee area.
To while away the time we talked about Mike, the laser conspiracy case, and his remarkable career. I recalled my first meeting with the scientist. It was 1991, some thirty years into his life with lasers. He was working as Research Director of the laser laboratory at St. Mary’s Hospital in Milwaukee. He was a distinguished, medium built gentleman, with a square face and a balding head. The shiny patch of fairway on his crown was surrounded by a half circle of closely cropped hair that was fading from brown to gray. He had bushy, inverted Nike logos for eyebrows, and a mouth that disappeared into a long, thin line.
He was very pleasant, quick-witted, and unwaveringly confident. I remember that we walked down a long, scrubbed-clean hospital corridor into an isolated area, and from there into a large room where a simple contraption of metal and glass occupied the center of my attention. The shape reminded me of a boxy, darkroom enlarger positioned sideways. It sat on a table maybe four feet long, at eye level. Mike told me it was a laser and with apparent eagerness he showed me how it worked. He dimmed the lights, manipulated a switch, and viola! In front of my eyes danced a ghostly image, a hologram of someone – I seem to remember it was Mike – suspended in mid air. It was magical.
For various reasons the article I hoped to write back then about the FBI case didn’t work out. Neither did a book project we discussed. Not because we didn’t try. Mike mailed me voluminous envelopes full of documents over the course of a year, and occasionally called to see how the book was coming along. “I really need you to sit down and let me interview you,” I kept insisting. He had quickly, very colorfully described the case to me on my visit to St. Mary’s. Sounding truly frustrated, he always begged off. “We will…it’s just, it’s just incredible right now. I’m very busy, very busy with something right now.”
After a year of delay, I decided I was wasting a lot of time getting nowhere, and stopped pursuing the story. I would learn much later our project had become derailed when Mike took on additional work in secret weapons research for Desert Storm. I wondered if something else would derail our efforts this time.
Mike lived in the beautiful, historic town of Port Washington on a steep bluff 200 feet back from a dizzying plummet to the waters of Lake Michigan. As if a reflection of his own life, days at his Wisconsin home were blessed with breathtaking beauty and cursed with terrifying storms.
I was apprehensive when we pulled up to his ’80s Colonial house. It had been several years since I’d seen him last. He was then a strong and robust individual. Now he was seriously ill and fighting for his life with every ounce of his dwindling energy, trying to accomplish a few more of his endless goals. Would he be the skeletal remains of the man I remembered?
Tom parked in the driveway next to a large motor home: an uncommon yard ornament, and probably not one appreciated in this upscale community. We had been told that the garage door would be open when we arrived. We should enter the house through there.
Mike saw our arrival and called to us: “Come on in.” We followed his voice and found him sitting in an easy chair in the living room angled into a corner near patio doors that looked out over a wide expanse of lawn that seemed to float off and into the distant water.
Mike motioned for us to take a seat. I positioned myself directly facing him in an upholstered chair near a bookcase filled with scientific manuals and scrapbooks of professional memorabilia sharing company with a bottle of holy water and a bust of the Virgin Mary with a tear in her eye. Tom stationed himself on a nearby sofa beneath framed displays of NASA commendations and space exploration souvenirs.
There was humor in Mike’s voice despite all he had been through. In just the past year-and-a-half, he had endured the death of his beloved wife and his younger sister while fighting his own long and difficult battle. He was getting aggressive treatment, however, and was still living alone. He talked optimistically about the laser research he was developing at a small, private lab nearby.
Mike had aged gracefully, I noticed, despite his condition and the emotional challenges of the past year. Though he had to hobble to his destinations with the help of a walker, he did not appear as frail as I had anticipated. In fact, at 72, he still cut a solid, imposing figure with a personality to match. He possessed a no-nonsense drive to keep plunging head.
He was refusing strong pain medication to keep himself alert enough to finish his various projects. As well, he had dismissed the daily oversight of hospice nurses because “all they wanted to talk about was what kind of casket I should buy,” he said, adding, “I know where I’m going. I don’t need to talk about it all the time.”
What he did want to talk about were the events of his life, his career and the FBI case.
Tom and I had barely settled in when Mike began to tell his story. For the next four hours we had a hard time keeping up with the rambling dialogue.
“In 1969 I went to the Pentagon to meet with them. I figured out how to use anthrax and bubonic plague in the mail…I gave it all to [Secretary of Defense] Melvin Laird. Then I went to meet with this guy named Emerson…And Emerson gave me this letter to give to a guy named Wilson at the University of Wisconsin, but I never did because when I got back home my lab had been broken into and the cops who looked at it said, ‘This is not normal the way this was done’.”
Before we knew it, Mike was veering in a new direction. “I can’t remember why this happened, but I went to meet with one of these Posse guys in a thicket, and I was full of ticks when I got home. So I took a shower, a cold shower, to try to get them off.”
And then: “I went to an attorney friend of mine with the intentions of getting a patent for this device to protect policemen and firemen. Today it’s called a dazzler, and for some reason this attorney wrote to J. Edgar Hoover about it and he got a letter back from J. Edgar Hoover saying he was interested but there wasn’t any money to support this technology. Then about two years later a couple of them with money went to the feds and they got funding. But I wasn’t big enough.”
To our relief, about midway through, Mike’s cockatoo Peppy began to sing from his cage for the first time since our arrival, and temporarily sidelined the oration.
“My wife Pat used to come down in the evening in a robe and he’d go, ‘Pretty Girl,’ and whistle. He has a 38 word vocabulary and has a song he sings, Mary Had a Little Lamb, and he gets it all mixed up.”
It’s just a breather, though, and he’s off and running again.
“I found the first letter I ever wrote to NASA the other day…”
Mike was like an overturned vessel, with memories flowing out like an uncontrolled oil spill. My handwritten notes were an indecipherable mess of scribbled names and technical terms. I was relieved to be using a tape recorder, but constantly worried that it wasn’t doing its job, especially since Mike’s words frequently slid off into a whispered mumble. Was the microphone close enough? Did the machine quit when I didn’t notice? Did I remember to push the record button when I changed tapes? After two days of interviews, Tom and I began to realize how extensive the project ahead of us would likely be. Not only was the case itself complex, but so was Mike. He would be labeled a genius by many of his friends and associates, not because of what he knew, as much as for how he knew it: lacking any degrees beyond a high school diploma, he had found a respected place in the laser field through trial and error, not overlooking heavy doses of self drive and hard work. His devotion to Catholicism, family, country and career had been molded by a lifetime of experiences still to be understood.
“I feel like we’re trying to put our arms around a gorilla,” a rather dazed-looking Tom said at the end of our visit, and in time we knew the gorilla would grow.
Knowing that Mike suffered ill side effects from his treatments, and not knowing his treatment schedule, I suggested that he call me whenever he felt like talking. The calls began about three weeks later.
The first one came as a pleasant surprise: I hadn’t known if he would follow-up or not. Even more pleasant was listening to him. Unlike the man Tom and I had visited in Port Washington, whose words were pinched from physical discomfort, Mike’s phone voice claimed a calm, airy quality. Since he always called me on days when he was feeling good, I came to know him as someone with great humor and genuine concern. Across the miles of fiber optic cable, years were peeled away to reveal his boyish enthusiasm. It was the voice of the younger Mike, the cancer-free Mike, who called.
We talked every two or three weeks. I always tried to be prepared to pull a thread of thought from our original interview, knowing that all the facts were there and just needed coaxing into clarification. I wasn’t always successful since Mike had his own agenda for calling. Sometimes he wanted to discuss something relevant to our discussions that he had just seen on one of the news channels, or to add some little fragment of personal history he’d suddenly remembered. In some ways, it was like digging up soil that hadn’t been disturbed in years: sometimes a kernel of detail would mysteriously pop loose from its dormancy and grow something interesting.