Straight Lines

13. The Ballad of Captain Crunch

Written by: Mike Agranoff
© 1988 Mike Agranoff

Told by: Mike Agranoff
Recorded live in concert at Bound for Glory, Ithaca, NY on October 5, 2014.

I've always included recitations like this in my performances. "Captain Crunch," AKA John Draper, was a real phone hacker in the 70s. The anecdote of how he got his "handle" is sort of true. But the events of the story and the motivations of the character are figments of my warped imagination. (Sort of like the legends that were concocted about Jesse James and Wyatt Earp by hack writers of the 19th century. I plead guilty to being a hack writer of the 21st century. But unlike my predecessors, I make no claims of veracity of the story) I wrote this shortly after the breakup of AT&T, and over a decade before the common usage of cell phones, email, chat rooms, listserves, social media, and even the Internet. In some respects, it shows remarkable prescience of things to come.

You tell of the Robin Hood legend, the thief with the heart of pure gold,
The Lone Ranger and Tonto and Zorro and al of those other brave heroes of old.
You sing of Doc Hoiliday and old Jesse James and the infamous wild Dalton bunch,
But alone, at the top of the list of those names is the man that they call...CAPTAIN CRUNCH.

Now perhaps you might laugh at this curious name. He sounds like no prince among thieves.
And well you may ask how it is that he came to be reckoned with such greats as these.
Well, he robbed from the rich, the richest there was, though he took not a penny of plunder.
And were not for him, we'd be bent 'neath a burden We never could get out from under.

He never went armed with a pistol or sword. He carried no longbow or quiver.
It wasn't his style to go buckle his swash, Stop a coach and cry, "Stand and deliver!"
His weapon — an Apple computer. His bullet, it was an I.C.
His old trusty gun was a soldering one, His target — The Phone Company.

"Blue-boxers", they called us, and "phone phreaks", and less polite nicknames as well.
Applying the knowledge we picked up in college In order to rip off Ma Bell.
We'd breadboard electronic circuits Out of old Army surplus I.C.'s,
And make beepers and tooters to fool their computers And get all our phone calls for free.

For us, it was mostly the challenge, a game between Ma Bell and us.
They'd close down a loophole, or put up a block, or give us a new code to bust.
And we all got P.C.'s and modems and broke into their internal system,
And scrambled their data and tied up their trunk lines
And did all kinds of stuff* that just pissed 'em!

But 'twas more than a game for the Captain. He had a real axe to grind.
An old clerical error by Ma Bell had left him with feelings that were less than kind.
They'd harassed him with bills for long distance calls, for calls that he never had made.
And 'twas only after they shut off his service he took up the blueboxers' trade.

He learned the trade well, and soon made his name, when he Found that the switching code locks
Could be broke with a tone from a whistle that came In a Captain Crunch cereal box.
He would dial up an 800 number, and before the phone rang at all,
Give the whistle a blast, dial the number he wanted, and never get charged for the call.

You might say that he'd found his true “calling”, discovered where his talent lay.
I remember the time that he pulled off a feat That still stands as a legend today.
From a pay phone in Grand Central Station, dropped a dime, and his signal he hurled
Via satellite, cable, and microwave relay and talked to himself round the world!

I never met him in person. I never knew his true name.
Don't know what he looked like or where he called home, but I counted him friend, just the same.
All I knew was his voice and his renegade soul and his tireless quest for perfection.
And I met him along with the rest of that crew At the North Manitoba Connection.

Now, the North Manitoba Connection was a central Canadian exchange.
A juncture of trunk lines from provinces north with a side effect that was most strange:
Through a quirk in the system that Bell never planned, (If they even knew of it at all)
Those who knew how could use the exchange As the ultimate free conference call!

You could dial up a code any time, day or night and converse with whoever was there.
'Twas the permanent floating blueboxers' convention with membership from everywhere.
There was Iggy from Fargo, and "Sparks" from Detroit, and the Swenson boys out of St. Paul.
And we'd jabber** for hours, swap jokes, or talk shop, or just listen, say nothing at all.

It was sometimes so crowded, you just couldn't think. But one night, at a quarter to three,
There were only the three of us on the exchange The Captain, and Lenny, and me.
Now, Lenny, he was our inside man, an R&D tech at Ma Bell.
He had access to codes and computer net links, and hints of new products as well.

And he told us, "They've made a big breakthrough on a miniaturized personal phone.
The bandwidth's been squeezed and the lines megaplexed till we each could have one of our own.
And the unit's so small, it could fit in your ear or be surgically placed in your head."
Said I, "I'd remove it to go on vacation!" "That would be illegal!" he said.

A pregnant moment of silence... Then he said, with a sputter and cough,
"George Orwell's 1984 is at hand! How the hell could you turn the thing off?
You could never hang up, leave the phone off the hook, or be out of the reach of Big Brother.
Except that with old Ma Bell at the controls, It would be more like 'Big Mother'!"

"Once they convince the American public to give the contraption a try,
You might as well take what's left of your privacy, smile, and kiss it goodbye!
They'll put ads on TV, shove it down all our throats As only the Phone Company can!"
"My God!" says Lenny, "What on Earth can we do?" Says the Captain, "I have a plan!"

"Have you ever heard of a gremlin? That creature of legend that lurks
In the bowels of a system as complex as this And makes sure the damn thing never works?"
"No such luck!" replied Lenny, "They've got the bugs out. They've run all the kinks through the mill.
They finished a field trial, did not see a glitch." But the Captain said, "Oh, but they will!"

"Lenny, help me get into their system. We'll show those old bastards what for!
The entry code's secret, that much I know so we'll have to go in the back door.
From the trash bin, go get the printouts, the results from the latest field test.
Leave them in the phone booth on 12th Street and Main, and I will take care of the rest!"

Then he dropped out of sight for a couple of months. We heard nothing from Lenny as well,
Till the phone rang one night with a call from his wife with a pretty sad story to tell.
Seems they found him one day after work in the lab with his nose where it didn't belong,
And threatened to take him to court if he didn't spill out every thing he'd done wrong.

Now Lenny was never the strongest of men, and who knows what they threatened to do?
But they wrung out of him every secret technique, every blueboxer's trick that he knew.
Then they fired his ass, left him out on the street. Turned their energies in our direction.
And their very first act was to be to shut down The North Manitoba Connection.

That news hit us hard. It's surprising to find How important these little things are.
'Twas as if they had bulldozed the house you grew up in, or shut down your favorite bar.
And us phone phreaks are hermits, for the most part, 'cept within our own little clan.
And the Exchange was the bridge 'tween'twixt our personal islands, our one link with our fellow man.

On the evening the shutdown was scheduled, The entire contingent was there.
We didn't talk much; there was not much to say. Just a feeling of gloom in the air.
Then one at a time, as the lines each were cut, one voice, then another went dead.
And more than one throat was constricted with tears as our last goodbyes, they were said.

Then abruptly, my phone became silent, with a silence can only be known
By the deaf, or survivors of nuclear blast, or a man with a dead telephone.
To the silence, I whispered, "Forever farewell!" though I knew that no one could have heard.
And the silence replied in a voice that I knew, "Well, 'forever' is so strong a word!"

"Hey Captain! My God! Where are you? How you been? And where've you been gone all this time?
And how did you manage to tap in my circuit after they pulled out the line?"
"Better not ask how I am," he replied, "and better not ask where I've been.
Suffice it to say that I've fixed it so that When they locked you out, they locked me in!"

"You might say that I'm no longer a part of your world, No longer reside on your plane,
But the trillion connections twixt billions of phones Form a system complex as man's brain.
And now I am part of that system: A meld of computer and mind.
You could say I'm the Phone Company's conscience, and I'll see to it they toe the line!"

"Gotta go now, can't keep this line open much more." And his voice faded out to a hiss,
And I sat in the dark, a dead phone in my hand, left alone contemplating on this:
In a way it is fitting, the way he would choose, And things worked out just as they should.
He's gone to blue-boxers' heaven: Tapped into the system for good!

Well, you know the rest of the story. The facts are no longer in doubt.
Perhaps you subscribed to the personal phone when the newfangled thing first came out.
And the thing never worked, or would scream in your ear or hung up in the middle of calls.
But now you all know, that was just Captain Crunch Grabbing old Mother Bell by the balls!

It's been a few years since they closed the Exchange, when the Captain set off on his own.
We've since seen divestiture, Sprint, MCI, and the ten dollar Japanese phone.
When I ring up his line, a recorded voice tells me, "This number's no longer in service."
But I know he keeps vigil, and I know he keeps watch, and I know he still makes Ma Bell nervous.

And now sometimes when listening to answering machines, or sometimes when I'm on hold,
A voice will come through to me, faint, but distinct, a voice I remember of old.
And you tell me it’s leakthrough from some other line, but I know it' him talking to me.
It's old Captain Crunch keeping watch on Ma Bell. The soul of the Phone Company

*Originally, "And did all kinds of shit that just pissed 'em!*
** Originally, "And we'd bullshit for hours, swap jokes, or talk shop..."
Changes from original text to render recording suitable for airplay.