Sunday, December 20, 2009

Walter Sullivan and the Blink

In less than a 1973 millisecond, Walter Sullivan performed a feat on the level of atom-smashing in The New York Times. Science blinked, but quickly regained composure before its rusty armor developed another crack. After all, the debate was over, and those little flaws were always so dangerous to the established order. The mere thought of allowing sunlight's ultraviolet rays in to destroy the carefully groomed molds and fungi of settled and organized science, whose honored and hoary proponents assured us would guide humans forever, almost always sent shivers up the highly educated spines attached lovingly to closed minds.

But 1964 is the place to look first. Oh yes, 1964 was a fascinating year. In addition to the Socorro UFO, news stories and rumors of other UFO landings, close approaches and evidence consumed public interest.. The world of organized -- that is, "respectable" -- science also had something to crow about in '64, with publication of the book, We Are Not Alone. Written by Walter Sullivan, then science editor for The New York Times, Not Alone was well-received and regarded as quite thoughtful and scientifically accurate regarding the possibilities of intelligent life in the universe, and how we would deal with its discovery. Not only does this sound like Dr. Carl Sagan material, indeed, Sagan was quoted throughout Sullivan's book.

What wasn't a part of the book's extensive index, however, were the terms, flying saucers, unidentified flying objects or even UFO. Science editor Sullivan, already revered as the author of several informative books, explored extraterrestrial theory via the safety of mainstream thinking -- that is, again, respectable science. In fact, if one takes a quick look at the words of various columnists and reporters specifically writing for The New York Times in the sixties, there was considerable ridicule and dismissive prose about the UFO phenomenon. Not that this was unusual then, or now, in publications whose publishers and editors consider some things just too strange to take seriously.

So Sullivan's book became a fast award-winner and time passed. 1965 arrived and, as in 1964, intriguing UFO reports continued to pop up in the news. Early In August, writing in The Washington Post, reporter Howard Margolis advised: "The latest flurry of flying saucer reports -- if experience continues to hold -- will be forgotten in a few weeks by everyone except the people who saw them, the Air Force, and the devotees of the cause." Unfortunately, Margolis also swallowed the Air Force explanation that Jupiter and a few stars were responsible for thousands of UFO reports in the western U.S. during the summer, unaware or uncaring that investigators determined that these heavenly bodies were only visible from the opposite side of earth during sighting activity. Over at The Times, and this is purely my speculation, a skeptical Walter Sullivan was, nevertheless, watching quietly with care.

By March of 1966, something of a crescendo was reached when abundant UFO reports surfaced in California, Ohio, Illinois and, particularly, Michigan, for this was the home state of then-Congressman Gerald Ford, and while his office was besieged by a multitude of anxious citizens looking for answers, Ford began demanding a congressional investigation. The media "balance" could hardly have been more apparent, for while some news services reported about UFO sightings in deadly earnest terms, others treated the very idea of UFOs absurdly. One such was The New York Times itself, home of Walter Sullivan, which featured a humorous column by Russell Baker entitled "Salvation Through Flying Saucers" on March 29, 1966. Yet, somewhere in the background, I suspect, Walter Sullivan's impression of the universe continued to evolve.

During the first week of May, 1966, perhaps in an attempt to allay public concerns, former defense secretary Robert McNamara announced that there was no proof that UFOs existed. Within just days after McNamara's peculiar declaration, a new Gallup Poll revealed that some five million Americans believed they had seen UFOs, and ten times that number -- nearly half the U.S. population then -- thought that observers saw something real, though not necessarily flying saucers, and were not victims of imagination. Even as the Gallup Poll emerged, the Dept. of Defense announced that a search was underway to fund a scientific study of UFOs -- ultimately involving the University of Colorado and its eventually disastrous project.

Getting back to Walter Sullivan -- he was destined to take his popular book to prime time television, but first TV airwaves became notoriously fouled in May by the presentation of CBS-TV's one-hour special entitled, "UFO: Friend, Foe or Fantasy." Narrated by Walter Cronkite, this anti-UFO propaganda piece deteriorated so quickly into nonsense and negativity that when TV Guide (May 28, 1966) featured three letters from viewers commenting on the show, all were negative. If this was a cross-section of national viewer reaction, the program clearly fooled almost nobody and both TV Guide and CBS must have received a lot of "hate" mail.

Frankly, I did not know what Walter Sullivan was writing about as the years progressed since 1964, but in October of 1966 ABC-TV presented its homage to Sullivan's volume, also entitled "We Are Not Alone." Dr. Carl Sagan and several other respected scientists contributed extensively to the hour's premise about the possibility of extraterrestrial life -- and, of course, this involved evidence suggestive of everything but those troublesome UFOs.

I was not a regular reader of The New York Times, but seven years later, on October 17, 1973, I happened upon a fresh copy containing an article by Sullivan himself, entitled "Strange Radio Pulses Reported by Moscow." Now, as any tabloid reader can tell you, the Russian press has distributed so many wild claims over the years that one hardly knows truth from fiction from could-be. Nevertheless, Sullivan apparently received reliable information and had decided to impart what little he knew, cautioning that the signals may simply have originated from some mundane source.

However, the Russian report wasn't nearly as interesting as Walter Sullivan's other subject matter woven within the story. This brilliant writer, author of an award-winning book which clearly offered a positive case for extraterrestrial life somewhere else -- devoid of references to UFOs which would signify possible visits here and now -- acknowledged the incredible in his column, apparently not even raising an eyebrow:

"Amid reports from at least six American states that unidentified flying objects had been seen and even been visited, Moscow reported last night the detection of radio signals that may have originated with another civilization."

This was an astounding statement from a man whom, as far as I know, had spent virtually no time as a proponent of UFO existence. Yet, after mentioning more about the Russian radio signals, he smoothly returned to UFOs, not even attempting to flag a change of subject:

"An Ohio report, by the Associated Press, concerned a woman who phoned the police 'hysterically' to say that an oblong object had landed in a field and killed two cows. The police investigated but were unable to confirm the account."

Wow! Yet, hardly content to let things stand, Sullivan then quoted from a new UPI report about "two shipyard workers" in Pascagoula, Mississippi (the case of Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker, as we would later learn) who claimed a UFO abduction. No-bull science writer Sullivan then explained that former Air Force chief UFO consultant Dr. J. Allen Hynek of Northwestern University and Dr. James Harder of the University of California had questioned the men and conducted hypnosis sessions with them, and that the two believed the alleged abductees were telling the truth about their terrifying experience involving a physical examination by UFO entities. Further, Sullivan advised, Hynek had long insisted that the government should take such reports seriously. No laughs, no ridicule, no jokes here. Sullivan displayed matter-of-fact for all it was worth.

Sullivan may well have written more about UFOs before or since, but the main point here is that people change and, when allowing themselves the chance, so do science people. Bless Walter Sullivan, for he must have been a rare individual indeed to dare wear an open mind -- an inordinately open mind -- on his shoulder. Then, as now, publicly embracing the UFO issue in the company of the scientific community, even a little, is not always healthy for one's professional career. Expanding upon Dr. Hynek's familiar statement, science is not always what scientists do, nor is science writing always what science writers do.

For me, to discover the eminent Walter Sullivan casually and seriously weaving and crafting incredible statements about UFOs and the people involved with them into what would otherwise be just another article about Russian claims was a phenomenal moment, no more, no less. In a flash, Sullivan forced science to blink, and whatever words arrived on the scene the next day or the next week didn't matter because his literary freeze-frame image, in the words of the newspaper industry, had gone to press and was put to bed. And that's a --30--.