Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Ragged Pieces of 1969

The Vietnam Era touched the lives of every American in some small or large way. In 1969, while I served in a large Texas Air Force hospital as an enlistee and former object of the military draft, the Vietnam influence evidenced its long reach in another way.

For months prior to enlistment, I had stayed in touch with two newspaper reporters who produced some nice articles about UFO activity in Central New York. One day in '69 I suddenly received a letter postmarked from a military facility in (then) West Germany. The writer, to my surprise, was my former contact from the Syracuse Post-Standard. He, too, ended up in the military, in the Army. I never did learn all the details of that quick transformation, but he did admit that while with the newspaper his articles about UFOs elicited more response than anything else he ever wrote about.

Months later, my second surprise occurred as I was reading an issue of Airman, the Air Force's monthly magazine. Airman, which I assume still publishes, distributed Air Force-wide, was a great looking monthly, its glossy appearance rivaling anything on the newsstands. Glancing at the editorial staff list, I became instant knock-me-over-with-a-feather material because an editor's name displayed prominently was familiar -- he was the other reporter I knew from back home, formerly with the Syracuse Herald-Journal, who now wore Air Force captain's bars and played an important editorial role for this major magazine.

So, today I'm looking through the few things I've found from 1969 in the files. There's really nothing worth scanning this time, but a few things merit comment. For instance, there's a note with information likely gleaned from APRO, NICAP or both (and certainly available in the mainstream reference sources) about a dramatic daylight UFO encounter in March by the pilots and crew of an Air Force KC-135 flying over Southeast Asia who reported a "giant black metallic cylinder suspended in the sky." The primary witness was Col. Robert M. Tirman, a flight surgeon stationed in Thailand. Tirman said the "huge" object hovered in a vertical position at an approximate altitude of 15,000 feet, at an estimated distance of two miles. After a spirited conversation between the pilot and co-pilot heard by Col. Tirman, the pilot initiated a closer approach to the object, appearing as a cylinder suspended in the sky. The crew speculated that it might be a weather balloon, but soon discarded that explanation, and the thing disappeared (in some manner) after several minutes.

But the bigger news in 1969 is Dr. J. Allen Hynek's outrage as the University of Colorado releases "The Condon Report," highly negative and dismissive of the UFO subject -- and a controversial product of project infighting and dishonesty to its very roots as a significant percentage of unexplained UFO cases were simply ignored.

A few more letters from Congressman James Hanley occupy my files, responses to UFO-related letters I continued to send him. At one point I've sent him a copy of the book, UFOs: Yes! by Dr. David Saunders, a scientist unceremoniously fired from the Colorado project because he didn't fit in with the misguided "UFOs: No!" crowd. Rep. Hanley assures me he will read the book. I suspect he did.

Friends at Sheppard AFB in Texas, according to another note I scribbled, told me of a June 12 morning news report from either KTRN or KNIN radio (Wichita Falls). The local police station received a call from a town resident reporting a UFO the previous evening, and in turn the police phoned the base about it. The Air Force sergeant taking the call allegedly replied, "Your job is to chase burglars, not watch the skies!"

As 1969 neared completion, I returned to Central NY on Air Force leave and was invited by WSYR-TV's (late) Denny Sullivan to guest on his daily variety show, a program I had appeared on a couple of years previously. His co-host for the week was the late comedian and singer, Lou Monti, who used me as a comedic punching bag for his good-natured sarcasm when I first walked on stage for the interview (memorialized for posterity by Wendy Connors' "Faded Discs" project -- ain't digitalization great stuff?). While at the studios, popular women's program host Kay Russell -- truly a pioneer among television's ladies of broadcasting in the U.S. -- "found" and invited me on her WSYR show, too, a radio program, so I ended up doing the two shows on different days, causing my brief leave to become more of a media event than a vacation. I had a great time and made extensive notes about the guest shots. The thing about WSYR is that it had a long and proud history on the airwaves and was a major broadcast power in Syracuse and Central NY because it encompassed a TV station and both strong-signal AM and FM radio stations.

I did insist that both Sullivan and Russell keep my Air Force relationship out of the conversation, but Denny Sullivan did "slip up" and reveal it on the air. However, in reviewing my old notes (it truly is incredible how some events remain with you forever, while others slip away promptly), I read that the two of us actually had quite an argument or disagreement just days prior to my appearance over this issue. He saw no reason not to tell his audience about my Air Force ties, while I, typically, was scared to death because this was hardly an era where military people could proudly proclaim, "I'm military and UFOs are real and I'm going to tell the world on TV and radio, darn it!" So Denny Sullivan, a military veteran, won that round -- and with the passing years giving me pause to think, maybe that wasn't such a bad thing after all.