Thanks to New Criterion's Andrew Stuttaford, now we know what devout UFO-logists were up to on the latest anniversary of the appearance of a well-identified flying object that turned up one sweltering day in the high desert.
"After losing my way last summer in a tiny town best known as the deathplace of Billy the Kid," Stuttaford writes in the March issue, "I eventually located the right desert highway. Outperforming the alleged aliens who, 70 years before, had allegedly crashed their alleged spacecraft nearby, I swept past a welcome sign decorated with -- in honor of a cow town's real and imagined pasts -- cattle and a flying saucer, and reached Roswell, N.M., in one piece."
"The city of Roswell," announced the welcome sign, "invites UFO enthusiasts and skeptics alike to join in the celebration of one of the most debated incidents in history."
Clearly history ain't what she used to be if the existence or nonexistence of a pile of scraps turned out to be one of its most debated topics. Lincoln-Douglas this debate never was. Instead it proved a mix of circus sideshow and local chamber-of-commerce promotion. What a strange interlude between "Twilight Zone" episodes and what might be called the country's first outburst of post-nuclear phobias.
A photo by Stuttaford shows alien kitsch at his hotel's front desk, and notes that there is "an alien face on the elevator floor and each elevator button too." Enough should have been more than enough, but it seems Americans still haven't learned where to stop when it comes to wretched excess: "Applebee's held itself aloof, but Arby's was ready to 'welcome' unsuspecting aliens. A little green matador graced the walls of a Mexican restaurant, and the striking architecture of one local McDonald's paid tribute to a saucer that never was. Downtown, an immense metallic construction with a pointed rocket nose turned out to be an old grain silo, a disappointment dispelled by a $2 'black light spacewalk' in a nearby souvenir store, the not-exactly-NASA Roswell Space Center."
How in the world, or rather in the space-time continuum, did this fad ever get started, and how will it end, if ever? Your guess is as good as mine.
But this much I can be sure of by personal experience as a public information officer in Uncle Sam's army, where an order is still an order: On July 8, 1947, when the commander of the base told his PIO to put out a press release on the much disputed matter, that's just what Lieutenant Walter Haut did. "The many rumors regarding the flying disc," it proclaimed, "became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb Group ... was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc."
What a typically modern transmogrification and inflation of what was an illegitimate news story in the first place: "RAAF [Roswell Army Air Field] Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region," read the headlines on the Roswell Daily Record's front page, and if you're so moved you can buy a reproduction of it in forms ranging from T-shirts to refrigerator magnets. Anything for a buck. For there's still one born every minute in this land of the free and all too gullible.
In his press release, Lieutenant Haut said the aforementioned disc had been duly inspected, "then loaned by Major Marcel to higher headquarters." But it was higher headquarters that let this scrawny cat out of its torn bag by telling the press that this celebrated hunk of junk was only a balloon, or rather the remains of a weather balloon plus the radar reflectors attached to it.
You could almost sense the air of disappointment when the Roswell Daily Record had to announce that "General Ramey Empties Roswell Saucer." Mac Brazel, the innocent local who discovered the mysterious fragments, said he was sorry he'd ever spread the story in the first place. But he felt obliged to add in his own defense that "he had previously found two weather observation balloons on the ranch, but ... what he found this time did not in any way resemble either of these ..."
But hope, or rather self-delusion, springs eternal among the UFO-logists, and so they go on peering expectantly at the night sky waiting for the next big story -- or at least the next big rumor -- to break. And when or if it does, then this story, myth or just rumor will surely spring into its eternal life once again.
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.