The recent, unexpected passing of Charles Heebling and the subsequent discovery of his “third-floor journals” are finally shedding light on an intriguing and relatively unknown area of scientific research.
The facts about Heebling’s death, at 38, have been accurate, though sparse: an unfortunate collision with a speeding milk truck, Heebling, on foot, just a few blocks from his home, chasing after a cat. The popular media chose to focus on these details and largely ignored his potential contributions to science. Heebling’s dedicated research—concentrated primarily on motivating cats to literacy—was scarcely mentioned in his obituaries, and was later dismissed by some as “unorthodoxed” and “fringe science.”
As a veteran investigative journalist, I hoped to dig deeper and evaluate the evidence objectively. I was surprised how efficiently I was stonewalled—for nearly a month—by Heebling’s widow, Marnie. She appeared just once, and very briefly, on a local news channel the day of Heebling’s death. Asked to comment about her husband, she opened the door only slightly, wagged a finger around her earlobe in a pantomime of “cuckoo,” and shut the door again.
The following day, I began a volley of telephone inquiries, all of which were met by an answering machine. But it was the Heebling’s posthumous message on the device that fanned the flames of my curiosity. One may be immediately impressed by the late Charles Heebling’s deep, clear baritone instructions in the first half of his message:
“[unintelligible] Dr. Charles Heebling; I’m unable to answer your call at the moment.”
There is no evidence to show that Heebling was—or had any reason to refer to himself as—a doctor. He had no background in science or medicine, no PhD or honorary doctorate. When I checked with his last known employer, Super Sounds Stereo of Creve Coeur, Missouri, they graciously produced his original job application which revealed Heebling had nothing more than a high school education and one year of junior college; and that he had worked at several other retail electronic outlet stores before joining Super Sounds Stereo.
The second half of Heebling’s answering machine message, however, is far more intriguing. “If you are a speech-challenged species and are trying to leave a message, please make some noise or tap out your return phone number so that I can reach you as soon as possible.”
It was the latter part of this haunting message, and several more unanswered phone calls that finally prompted me to go directly to Heebling’s home.
I arrived at 4664 Pershing, a three-story Victorian mansion on a charming and quiet elm-lined neighborhood on the outskirts of St. Louis, and knocked repeatedly on the front door. After a prolonged shuffling from within, the door opened, just enough for me to see a small, thin women with long, unwashed blond hair. I recognized her as Marnie Heebling.
“Are you the removal man?” she asked.
Before I could correct her, she reached down, hefted a large, heavy cardboard box and thrust it into my hands. “I don’t see a truck,” she continued. “You’ll need a truck for everything on the third floor.”
I informed her that she had mistaken me for someone else.
“Well, someone is supposed to come and take all this nonsense away,” she said.
I asked if I understood correctly that she was disposing of all her husband’s personal items.
“I’m keeping the floral couch and the chest of drawers, but everything else is going.”
I had just begun to implore her to grant me an interview when a squat bulldog suddenly pushed his snout between Mrs. Heebling’s ankles and sniffed at the air outside.
“Mr. Gums!” she said, closing her knees and forcing the dog backward. “No,” she said flatly, “I’ve already said all I’m going to say. I have to keep an eye on Mr. Gums. Can’t worry about letting him get loose.”
I asked again imporingly, but she would not be persuaded.
“No,” she said again, and closed the door to just a crack, just enough for me to see her eyes and her dirty blond bangs.
I was still holding the heavy brown cardboard box and inquired about its fate.
“That’s the first thing I want out of here,” she said. “I’d be obliged if you left in on the curb on your way out.”
Instead of arguing further, I departed from her doorstep, but instead of disposing of the mysterious brown box, I took it back to my apartment where I could unseal it privately, without interruptions. Inside the box was an array of variously-colored spiral notebooks. As I began to randomly scan the pages and observe dated entries, I quickly realized I’d inadvertently become the recipient of Heebling’s personal journals.
The journals were jumbled within the box, It took me some time to arrange them chronologically and begin to analyze the contents, which I have come to call “the third floor journals” as they appear to have been composed entirely in Heebling’s third floor attic sitting room/laboratory.
The journals begin suddenly in March, 2013. Heebling may have been contemplating his pet theories (and theories on pets) for some time, but appeared to have been prompted to keep a written record after an inciting incident that, unfortunately, is only hinted at in this cryptic initial entry:
March 15, 2013
Well, that was odd. And what would Mr. Peepers do with the window sash cord if, as he requested, I could take it down from the blinds and put it within his reach?
During the next week, Heebling forgoes journal entries and begins a series of tallies. There are no notations accompanying these numbers, they are simple sets of five—four straight lines and a diagonal strike across.
There are seven of these, totaling 35. One can assume that when the total sets of five reached a number that satisfied his suspicions, Heebling felt the need to begin journaling again, underscored by another series of tallies and this entry:
March 23, 2013
III….three times again this morning.
What is it that Mr. Peepers is trying to tell me?
Little is known about Mr. Peepers. There are no known photos of the cat; Mr. Peepers disappeared after Heebling’s death, and there is nothing to indicate the cat was recovered. But it may be safe to assume that Mr. Peepers was the Heebling’s family housecat, not an animal acquired specifically for scientific studies.
Unfortunately, Heebling, who appears to have been naïve to the methodology of basic scientific inquiry, never describes his subject’s age, breed, coloring, or condition.
In early April, Heebling received a seminal piece of correspondence from an unknown party via the Internet. The precise contents of the email message and the sender remain unknown, but the incident made a deep impression on Heebling. He described it at length the day he received it.
Monday, April 1, 2013
I have received an intriguing email that almost missed my attention entirely as it was sent covertly and directly to my spam folder, where I rescued it this morning. The sender’s address is unfamiliar to me. There is a photo embedded within the email, depicting an orange tabby, lying prone adjacent to a Monopoly board, ostensibly pondering the properties and deeds. There is a caption in arresting capital letters beneath the photo that reads:
“MY MY…IT SEEMZ I OWNZ THAT TOO.”
I was stunned, of course, but naturally skeptical. I immediately fired back an inquiry to the sender to find out if this was a direct and accurate quote from the cat in the picture and also invite further discourse about what level of education the cat had attained, but my inquiry was returned as “undeliverable.” This gives rise to another possibility—that the cat wrote to me directly and has been unable to duplicate its email proficiency, Whatever the case, it seems too awesome an idea to fathom at the moment.
“What hath God wrote?” (sic)
Heebling doesn’t mention the email for several days, but clearly it was preying on his mind, as he returns to the topic four days later.
April 5, 2013
Unable to sleep. Haunted by the Cheshire grin, the boastful cat playing Monopoly, the sarcastic remarks, the inability to engage in further discourse. Is the cat unable to respond, as I first surmised, or merely mocking me? Or blocking me?
Heebling gave the mysterious email considerable thought and wrote again a few days later. It is here that Heebling first begins to speculate—in a larger sense—the possibilities of cat literacy.
April 9, 2013
“…if cats can express frustration about a complex board game like Monopoly, what is preventing them from expressing these same thoughts—about these and other matters—more articulately by employing proper spelling, grammar, capitalization, subject-verb agreement, and tense forms?”
Heebling’s observations begin to crystalize into theories rife with far-reaching implications.
“…perhaps then,” Heebling opines, “the problem does not lie in verbal ability, but in competent motivation and training.”
In a longer entry a week later, Heebling expounded further, clearly on the precipice of his grandest theories.
April 16, 2013
[Cats] appear to have a lot of free time on their hands, and more than enough free hours to study. They should, I think, be able to work a little bit of spelling exercises and sentence parsing in between naps, eating and chasing after bits of yarn. I think it’s safe to assume that the dilemma has developed by a combination of subpar time management (the cat’s time management, and yes, also mine) and our own nation’s unwillingness to dedicate ourselves to feline literacy education.
There are interspersed in these writings, many personal notes about Marnie—some unpleasantness between them regarding an unpainted drainpipe in the back of their yard—but Heebling finally returns to his theory about cats.
“…but I, for one, would not invest the time unless I believed cats were really serious about it. Motivation is a sizable hurdle. It seems to me that giving cats a reason to excel is essential. Why would they study unless they felt confident that there was no limit, that they could indeed aspire to become doctors, lawyers, and firefighters?”
The margins of Heebling’s journals during this period betray a feverish desire to arm himself with tools to begin his task, including “plenty of sharp pencils, pens, notebooks, flashcards, a fake rubber mouse, and approx. 200 yards of knitting yarn.”
Catnip is also included on the list but followed by an anxious series of question marks (a total of five). We cannot be certain whether Heebling actually employed, or intended to employ catnip in his studies, although he is clearly anguished by the temptation:
“…yes, it is legal,” Heebling writes, in a subsequent entry. “It’s readily available and inexpensive. But is it morally correct to artificially stimulate the feline senses during this scientific inquiry? Above all, my work must be taken seriously.”
Soon after this entry, Heebling begins to actuate ideas for experiments. He also described some aspects of his third floor sitting room turned laboratory.
April 20, 2013
Set up laboratory in the sitting room third floor attic room of our home. Because of the distance between this room and the first floor kitchen, it would behoove me to have an automatic coffee maker up here. Marnie has refused my request to remove the coffee maker we have in the kitchen. Plan to price coffee makers tomorrow. Litter box already in place. Now that I have Mr. Peepers with me exclusively on the third floor, Marnie has renewed her urging that we purchase a dog. I despair sometimes that she understands the nature of my work or its importance.
Heebling’s next entry includes a list of further requisites.
April 23, 2013
Micro cassette recorder
Pulp-free orange juice
It seems likely Heebling did not intend all these items for his scientific research. This is underscored in a separate entry:
April 30. 2013
“Have recently begun to confuse scientific purchases with Marnie’s household grocery requests. These have become frequent and exasperating,and it must be noted that these detours and extra steps slow the river of productive scientific inquiry.”
His frustration, however, provides catalyst for change. It is during this same period Heebling vacated his position at Super Sounds Stereo, remarking:
“My only regret is that I’ve not done this sooner. One other regret is that I left before availing myself of the employee discount that would have saved $17 dollars on a coffee maker and even more on headphone equipment I might have adapted. In research, every penny is precious. Must be more careful, plan my moves more efficiently.”
Although there is much revealing information that can be found in Heeblings journals (vis a vis scientific theory and grocery lists), his actual experiments are troubled with misfortune and also short-lived in comparison. He rails at length, for example, about his frustrations regarding an ill-fated personal listening motivational device for cats.
“After purchasing used floor model speakers from Super Sounds Stereo, I managed to jerry-rig a prototype of small headphones for cats, that would enable them to listen to repeated, self-actualizing messages:‘You are a smart cat…. You are a clever cat… you can be the cat of your dreams.’
But I can find no investors for the I-Pawed (patent pending), an mp3 player specifically designed for cats. No market, they say. Yet in the United States alone, there are no less than 37 million households with cats. That’s 74 million cat ears. Could there have been a lack of faith in my prototype? I’m the first to admit there’s a problem with the headphones. They are small enough, but getting them to fit comfortably over the fold-ears common to most cats, let alone keeping them on an unmotivated cat for extended periods of time is difficult and will require technical refinement (or a more docile cat; but that remains a last resort). Irregardless (sic), this will take serious financing. I must add that a little more encouragement and less snide remarks from would-be developers would prove helpful.”
It is unclear from the journals if Heebling abandoned the cat headphone idea. Nonetheless, he continued relentlessly in his theories, spurred on by information he gleaned via the Internet.
“Exhaustive Internet research on this topic has proved fruitful. According to one Web expert [unnamed]: ‘Cats are always trying to get our attention, so the first thing to remember in teaching cats to talk is to only respond when they speak clear words.’
There have been occasions recently when I believe I may have heard Mr. Peepers mutter something like “lidder box.” But I conceal my enthusiasm and do not reward him. When he articulates this clearly, however, I will gladly turn the key on a tin of sardines.
But the most astounding and controversial of Heeblings entries appears the following month.
May 3, 2014
There is a theory I am beginning to ascribe to (first purported on the Internet) that ‘cats may hide their practicing of words; and when you run in they stop and pretend they were just making cat noises.’ [source unknown].
My own transcriptions of recordings made with Mr. Peepers appears to confirm this.
It is Heebling’s first mention of any audio recordings. Explaining that he has provided his cat with a miniature set of flash cards containing polysyllabic words, affixed to its paws with Scotch tape, he provides a “transcript” of a “recording” (although it’s important to emphasize here that no actual recordings are extant):
May 4, 2013
2:00 pm flashcard session
Participants: Myself, Mr. Peepers
Event duration: 18 seconds
Cat: (indistinguishable, tape interference) Mmmm…marginal.
Me: What was that? Marginal? Did you just say marginal?
Cat: (displaying cat shyness) …..mmm …mmm.. “purring” (reverting to typical cat noises).
If Heebling’s transcripts are to be believed and are accurate, they are stunning in their implications. It is around this same time, however, that Heebling began arbitrarily adding “Dr.” to the front of his name. It appears on copies of some cancelled checks I was able to obtain from his bank and local grocer. Heebling also began signing off on his own journal entries in this way:
Dr. Charles Heebling
There are no documents or transcripts to prove or disprove Heebling’s doctorate. It would be premature, therefore, to judge Heebling’s ideas or work in relation to his alleged education. In mid-May of 2013, Heebling betrays a new frustration with his flash card method.
May 19, 2013
Have been working with Mr. Peepers on gerunds and modifiers, mostly. No progress to report. Also, finding it is difficult to remove Scotch tape and cat hair from cardboard flashcards for reuse. It is also difficult to remove Scotch tape from paws without considerable protests from [the cat]. M. Peepers also demonstrates distaste for the headphones no matter how motivating the messages.
Wondering if Sir [Alexander] Fleming faced these frustrations when he was so close to discovering penicillin. He should try working with a cat, I can tell you. And I wouldn’t mind being called ‘Sir’ either.”
Heebling did not journal for the next few weeks. What comes next, however, is a flurry of entries that suggest excitement about some new prospect. A mere two nights before his death, Heebling tantalized with this remark:
“No champagne corks will pop tonight. But perhaps it is not too early to start chilling the icebucket.”
Was Heebling close to success? It’s difficult to determine. Since Heebling often mixed personal details into his journals, it’s not known if he was speaking metaphorically (anticipating a great scientific discovery) or literally about “champagne corks popping,” since the Heeblings were also observing their 14th wedding anniversary that same evening. There is also mention of crackers and onion dip in the margins, further frustrating interpretation.
Undeniably, however, Heebling was steeling himself for some intense experiment, as his final journal entry, written the night before his untimely death, illustrates so vividly:
May 20, 2006
My heartburn flares and drowsy numbness pains my legs. Tomorrow is the big day for Mr. Peepers, a big leap for me, and a giant leap ahead for science.
I must now confess my skills are lacking in metallurgy, creating Excel spreadsheets, and replacing printer ink. However, I have been feeling more confident about my skills as an electrician—after successful replacement of ceiling fan in Marnie’s shower—and feel that I will not falter when it comes to proper wiring, even with the necessary amount of lubricant this project requires. Last minute checklist: 1) attend to loose window sash cord. 2) double check connections on blow dryer. 3) Change litter.
Peepers remains at the far end of the sitting room, but dry and docile. Strike that. Should say nearly dry. And only 20 percent docile. But there are still five hours until dawn. At any rate, zero hour is nigh.
At times like this, I can only reiterate the stirring words proclaimed on that powerful and moving motivational poster that hangs on the north wall of my sitting room. The cat in crisis, clinging to a single bar, limbs stretched to their limits, making that universal appeal to humans and cats alike. “Hang in there, baby.”
Drr. (sic) Charles Heebling
These are the last written words of Charles Heebling. Some surmise that Mr. Peepers may have proved an unwilling participant, and this may well be the underlying cause of his rapid escape from Heebling’s lab the morning of May 21. On that morning, Heebling, in bathrobe and slippers, was witnessed on Pershing Street chasing after a cat that we can now assume was Mr. Peepers. On the cusp of what might have been his greatest scientific breakthrough, an ice cream truck veered into Heebling’s frantic path and ended his dreams.
Nothing remains of Heebling’s experiments. I became so personally absorbed in his journals that I failed to take quick action that might have obstructed the removal and incineration of the contents of his third-floor laboratory and study. The inventions, experiments, and alleged tape recordings might have bolstered the theories laid down in his journals. But it was not to be.
When I returned to 4664 Pershing the following morning to attempt to preserve these items, Marnie Heebling opened the door just wide enough to tell me that everything had been carted away to the trash heap, leaving us with a frustrating enigma in the annuls of science.
The official inquiry into Charles Heebling’s life and work is now long past, the scientific journals on this matter are closed, yet no one has been in contact with the one remaining voice who may—or could be compelled—to speak the truth about Heebling’s diaries.
In this regard, I have been personally unsuccessful to date. But I still slow down at each alley, dumpster, and shelter, seeking that opportunity. Ever curious.