At the end of the 1951 classic sci-fi film, The Thing, the newspaperman, Scotty, warns the world, over the radio, to “Keep looking up. Keep watching the skies.” It was a fictional response to the “flying saucer” that brought the scary vegetable man to Earth. But it was also —- in retrospect — a kind of metaphorical reaction to the fear of Soviet bombers or missiles that might drop death out of the skies. A whole class of cheapie Hollywood science fiction film depended on mythologizing our Cold War fears.
It’s one of the things Hollywood does. So the current fad for zombie movies, with the undead traipsing across the landscape, is an obvious metaphor for our xenophobia and fear of immigration. As for what the twinkly vegetarian vampires are about — your guess is as good as mine.
But that Cold War fear certainly that played into the rise, from 1947 on, when the first modern flying saucer sighting was reported, of extraterrestrial possibilities that became ever more numerous. Like the division of aliens into whites, grays and lizards, there developed three general camps in response to the sightings.
The first are the true believers, those who think — yea, they know — that these sightings are visitations from alien species brought across the cosmos from outer space. For this group, there is no doubt. And further, they are sure the government — a generic term that may refer to the civilian authorities, the military, the CIA, or some trans-national shadow group — is hiding from us the “truth.” They may all have different versions of what this truth is, but they know it is being withheld.
The second group are the scoffers, the unbelievers, the rationalists, who believe — yea, they know — that all the sightings can be dismissed as hoaxes, hallucinations, or the rantings of cranks. The number of cranks and charlatans that come out of the woodwork only provides evidence for the unbelievers. So many of the true-believers seem to be poorly educated and so many of the sightings and abductions seem to take place in back-woods Arkansas or Arizona.
A friend has a nephew, a chubby adolescent whose mother worked in a massage parlor, and who was fascinated with the phenomenon, told us one day, with not a whit of irony, that something had been “positively identified as a UFO.” What can you do but laugh?
Then, of course, there is the namby-pamby middle group that says, these are probably not little green men in space ships, but surely there is something behind all the reports. Perhaps, they say, it is some secret military program, or perhaps it is Russian spy missions.
Let me confess out the outset that I am pretty well ensconced in the non-believer faction, although I will certainly allow that UFOs exist. That is, that there may be things that are unexplained and even perhaps unexplainable. This, to me, is hardly surprising. There is a great deal that human beings don’t know. But space ships from Mars, or Venus, or Tralfamador, are so unlikely as to be dismissible out of hand. Yes, there is an infinitesimal possibility that they exist, but until we have better evidence, I’m happy to ignore them.
And I say that despite having experienced UFOs, at least twice. At least for a while, each time. Once, in Phoenix (of course, it’s Arizona again), I was driving along Van Buren Avenue, west to east, on a Friday before a big basketball playoff game. And to the south, I saw a large glowing object, almost as large as the moon in the sky, but in the wrong place. And I continued to drive, it moved in ways that mystified me. It seemed to be a long way off, but was moving faster than I could have expected from anything hovering, say, over South Mountain or, further south, the Gila River Indian Reservation.
I continued to keep an eye on the glowing sphere as it moved to the west. It left me with an eerie feeling. Perhaps I had been wrong about UFOs. I could feel a kind of electricity buzzing in my spine at the uncanny vision. But then, as I continued and the UFO began to drift behind me, I finally saw “Geico” blazoned on its side as the sphere elongated into the Goodyear blimp. It was illuminated from the inside as an aerial billboard.
It moved faster than I had expected because it was closer than I had thought. Once I knew what it was, I laughed at myself for being taken so easily in. Surely a good deal of sightings must be simple misinterpretations.
My second experience was also in Arizona. Please, no snide remarks. We were invited by some friends to their home in Coolidge, about 40 miles south of Phoenix. They had a house in the desert with almost nothing around them but greasewood, cactus and javalinas. It was a lovely evening with a cookout on an outdoor grill, and some pleasant conversation.
But around 9 p.m., when it had become dark out, my host, a writer and photographer I knew, began to tell me about the mysterious lights in the desert just north of his home. He took me out back of the house and pointed them out.
“They seem to be coming from the old General Motors test grounds,” he said. There is an abandoned facility about halfway between Phoenix and Coolidge, where the car company had a test track. “Notice,” he said, “how the lights move from right to left and left to right and then sometimes, they stop altogether and hover.” He wondered what kind of secret project the government was conducting on the old site. “Nothing moves like that,” he said. “Just stopping and starting.”
Indeed, the dots of light did move one way and then the other, and halting altogether. The mood of unworldliness settled in, and he began talking about how the government had supposedly captured an alien spacecraft — I believe he was talking about Roswell, N.M. — and that he believed the government (again a hazy generality) had reconstructed these craft and were testing them out secretly.
I had a grand laugh. “Those are airplanes landing and taking off from Sky Harbor,” I said. The Phoenix airport.
“No, they can’t be,” he said. They are right over the old proving ground.”
I pointed out that Sky Harbor was in a straight line from where we were in Coolidge, over the proving ground. The planes moved from left to right taking off, right to left landing, and “hovered” motionless when they were flying directly toward us. He was not convinced. I didn’t want to press the issue, so I let it drop. But as we drove home later that night, my wife and I watched those fireflies moving in the air in front of us, and continue to remain in front as we passed the old GM facility and stayed in the north until we reached Phoenix and Sky Harbor, where, of course, they landed and took off.
Belief is the kind of thing that doesn’t necessarily depend on evidence or on mere fact. Mysterious lights are a whole lot more satisfying than Southwest Flight 94 coming in from Toledo.
Sight depends on at least two factors: what the eye sees; and what the brain interprets. Uncounted experiments have shown the unreliability of “eye-witness” accounts and the tricks our brains play on our eyes — as in the video of some jugglers tossing Indian clubs back and forth, during which a man in a gorilla suit passes behind them. Almost no viewers of the video ever notice the gorilla. Invisible, partly because it is too far out of context.
This happened to my wife and me while visiting the Washita massacre site in Oklahoma. It is an out-of-the-way site, visited by almost no one. We pulled into the gravel parking lot and saw in front of us, in the grassy dunes, something that looked like a dinosaur — a huge beast, maybe 20 feet tall, judging by the phone pole next to it. It was lurking there, moving slowly in front of us. We both asked each other what it might be, we both were frightened that it might spot us and head our way. When we turned back to look a second time, it shrunken down to be a cow. Ordinary cow. Ordinary size. How had we been so mistaken? Both of us? A mistake in our perception of the distance, the unusual cream color of the beast and its lumbering gait had tricked our brains into interpreting what our eyes saw as a monster.
Eyes and brains, working together. Seeing is believing? Don’t you believe it.
Further, we believe what we want to believe. We can interpret ambiguous data in a way that reinforces what we expect.
One early fall, when my granddaughters were visiting us in Phoenix, Tallulah Rose, then about 12 years old, was into her UFO phase and wanted me to take her to the Dreamy Draw, a spot near North Mountain that had been built up with a 455-foot long flood dam to keep storm wash from cascading down into the Sunny Slope region of town. There is a park there beneath the earthworks and a long slough where, according to urban legend, a spacecraft had crash landed in 1947. Two versions of the story: In one, it skipped like a stone on a pond and then came down a second time in Cave Creek, about 10 mile north of Phoenix; in the more common version, it was left wrecked at the Dreamy Draw and the government — that hazy nefarious entity, covered the site up with the dam to hide the evidence. Of course, the dam wasn’t built until 1973, but perhaps you put that down to government inefficiency.
To me, the draw, sitting beside the freeway over the mountain, was a fairly ordinary gash in the landscape. But to T-Rose, it held much greater significance. “You can see it,” she said. “That’s where it landed. It’s clear as can be.”
Belief is what it is.