Tuesday, October 27, 2009

(Don't) Send in the Clowns

You don't forget that first letter to the editor when you're a teenager -- you know, the one that actually saw print in a newspaper, one of those paper thingies with ink on every page? Maybe you're old enough to answer the question, what's black and white and read all over? That's correct, it's a. . .well, I guess nobody really cares much anymore.

My first letter appeared in a newspaper during the summer of 1965, precipitated while interesting UFO sightings seemed to engulf the world and its news services. The reason for my literary outburst was a feeling of incredulity when I read of a UFO flying over the Azores with a curious ability to literally stop cold a weather station's electromagnetic clock. Time may not have stood still, but the clock apparently did. Nevertheless, during this period when UFOs were seen over Portugal as well as the Azores, an obligatory official explanation was soon thrown out to the anxious media like a soup bone to a starving dog pack, and all were enlightened with the knowledge that a "research balloon" launched from India was responsible! Surely, I post-adolescently editorialized, weather station personnel would know if balloons could stop their clocks, otherwise why should this become a news event?

As it was, 1965 was already a very big year for international UFO reports, and people all over the United States reported an abundance of strange sights in the skies. The Air Force and Project Blue Book, stressed by the sheer volume of reports, insisted to inquisitive reporters that all was well -- after all, they had their own time-worn (nevertheless, misleading) statistics to "prove" it, and frenzied newspaper editors gobbled up any officially-flavored numbers they could get like turkey buzzards at a decaying road kill feast.

The thing is, UFO reports weren't progressing quite the way skeptics and debunkers expected. For example, when thousands of people in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Kansas began seeing bright lights and defined objects zipping across summer skies in late July and early August of 1965, Air Force spokesmen came to the rescue of cool heads by explaining that wide-eyed UFO observers were probably misidentifying not only the planet Jupiter -- frequently the culprit whenever doubt needs to be introduced -- but also the stars Aldebaran, Rigel, Capella and Betelgeuse.

Unfortunately, much of the national press couldn't be bothered to report soon thereafter that all of these heavenly bodies were only visible from the other side of the earth during times of UFO activity. Despite a lack of substantial follow-up in the media, at least some news services took the opportunity to listen to witnesses such as an Air Force weather observer in Oklahoma, who assured one and all that he had watched objects exhibiting apparent structural features.
Broadcaster and writer (the late) Frank Edwards, famous for his UFO interest, couldn't have said it any better when he entitled his best-seller, Flying Saucers: Serious Business, quoted from an official statement about the phenomenon. And "saucers" were on America's mind, especially because reputable accounts of UFO landings and ground evidence began to surface. UFOs had reached a level causing reasonable concern for the U.S. public, if not downright fear on the part of some.
Then, during the first week of September, 1965, an event of extreme significance occurred in Exeter, New Hampshire as a young man named Normal Muscarello walked home on a lonely road from his girlfriend's house, long after dark. Suddenly, a large object with red lights appeared and seemed to pursue the frightened teenager. The story is related in detail in John G. Fuller's classic book, Incident at Exeter (also excerpted in Look Magazine in 1965), but suffice it to say that the boy eventually convinced a police officer to return to the scene with him that night, whereupon both -- and other area witnesses, as it turned out -- witnessed what may have been the same huge object rising silently from a field near the road, and then. . .
And then. . . here it is, almost 45 years later. Muscarello joined the Navy soon after his UFO event, became an adult and died much too soon in 2003, still haunted by his UFO experience -- or maybe the word is affected, not haunted. Whatever the word is, it wasn't good, because Muscarello and other witnesses never found the explanation they wanted and probably needed more than even they realized. One thing's for sure, the explanation wasn't Jupiter and it wasn't Betelgeuse.

So, these days I raise an eyebrow now and then, and I'm a little dismayed. I think back upon the days of the "Giant Rock" contactee-lovin' UFO meetings in California of the fifties, and all the considerably more serious UFO conventions which became commonplace in the sixties and seventies, and which survive to the current day. At least these sober attempts keep the UFO issue out there, alive and kicking for the media.

What concerns me, however, are the tribute sites, and I refer to solid-ground places, not Web sites -- locations of historic UFO events land-marked and turned into profitable "cash cows" by locals. These ventures didn't really bother me until I read several news stories about the "first" UFO festival in Exeter last September 5, noteworthy for laughs, good times, good food and refreshments, sales of all sorts of "UFO" nonsense, contests, posters drawn by children (who had a really, really nice time. . .) and -- well, you get it. It was apparently like a neighborhood circus or a cavalcade of weird field day exhibits or something. Bah. Humbug.

On one hand, I understand how this presumably annual affair will serve as an X-marks-the-spot designation for one of the most famous UFO incidents ever, and I know there are people who truly wish to honor experiences retrieved from fading memories and powerful writing related to that September night so long ago, so many surreal light years ago.

But the circus atmosphere? Aliens to laugh over, and spaceships to draw for prizes? Where are Dorothy and Toto? The Scarecrow and Cowardly Lion? Was Barney invited? Shouldn't they attend? Should we? What of the science, what about the horror, the shock, the missing time and confusion, repressed agonies and inconceivable intrusions upon mind and body? What about wounds that even time can't heal because the wounds, at least intellectually, continue for close-encounter UFO witnesses? Are cakes and pies and ice cream cones the solution, as children colorfully draw monotonous alien faces on sidewalks? Yes, but in these economically strapped times, some might say, towns and cities need the cash derived from these fun events and. . .

Shall we have ocean cruises with drunken parties to commemorate the disappearance of young pilot Frederick Valentich at sea after a possibly terrifying UFO-related disaster? Might we "celebrate" the Cash-Landrum incident (whether UFO territory or conventional) with microwave-radiated chicken dinners? Shall caterers be hired to bake cakes and provide food entertainment at homes where presumed UFO abductions have come to horrifying light in the minds of alleged abductees? For a proper remembrance of the Travis Walton abduction, how's about an annual pickup truck tailgate party in the woods, a green event featuring folks chasing one another around with chainsaws?
Why not an annual fishing derby in the Pascagoula River to keep the memory of Hickson and Parker's UFO encounter alive, with an appearance by the newly-infamous "Balloon Boy's" family and a special trophy awarded to the fisherman most likely to experience a mental breakdown after catching the biggest fish? Let's consider an annual dog show to mark the anniversary of Barney and Betty Hill's terrifying experience, where people can judge dogs that most resemble the Hills' favorite canine, Delsey.

Could we note the UFO-involved/not UFO-involved plane crash of Capt. Thomas Mantell with a race car destruction event at a racetrack somewhere in Kentucky? How about the fifties Lake Superior incident where radar showed a huge UFO and pursuing military aircraft merging, with neither craft nor two-man crew ever seen again? Surely, that's worthy of an annual lakeside volleyball tournament, spotlighting children's drawings of dedicated pilots in fear for their lives.

Have we lost our minds?

It's discouraging enough when we can't get scientists to give the UFO issue a second look, and it's head-hammering outrageous when we see events begging for a serious investigation turned into clown shows. I, for one, don't intend to attend such affairs, only to be asked by some 10-year-old attired as a space alien, why did the UFO cross the road?* Halloween only comes once a year, and notable UFO incidents would best be commemorated in the halls of scientific inquiry, not on street corners or sidewalks.

(* Um, to get to the other side, yuk, yuk. . .)