After losing my way last summer in a tiny town best known as the deathplace of Billy the Kid, I eventually located the right desert highway. Outperforming the alleged aliens who, seventy 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, New Mexico, in one piece:
The City of Roswell invites ufo enthusiasts and skeptics alike to join in the celebration of one of the most debated incidents in history.
History is not what it was.
Alien kitsch at my hotel’s front desk, an alien face on the elevator floor and each elevator button too.
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-nasaRoswell Space Center.
The Roswell story can be found scattered across American culture.
The Roswell story—or, appropriately, its fragments—can be found scattered across American culture. It starts in mid-June 1947 when ranch hand William “Mac” Brazel, a link to a legend of the Old West (his uncle may have killed Billy the Kid’s killer), stumbled upon the debris that propelled him into a legend of a space age that had yet to arrive.
Brazel wasn’t impressed by the “bright wreckage made up of rubber strips, tinfoil, a rather tough paper, and sticks” strewn out there in the desert, but a week or so later he heard that a sighting in Washington State had triggered America’s first proper ufo “flap” and, critically, a $3,000 reward for physical evidence of one of these contraptions. Even then it was a few days before Brazel (who had no phone) “whispered kinda confidential” to the sheriff during a routine visit to Roswell, some seventy-five miles away. The sheriff contacted the authorities at the Roswell airfield, home, perhaps fittingly, to the only unit on the planet then equipped to drop an atomic bomb: there are those who speculate that it was New Mexico’s role—from Los Alamos to White Sands—in so much of the development of America’s nascent nuclear arsenal that (supposedly) drew extraterrestrial observers to the Southwest. It was two humans, however, the intelligence officer Jesse Marcel and a colleague, who retrieved the wreckage from Brazel. On July 8, the base’s commander ordered his public information officer to put out a press release, and that’s what Lieutenant Walter Haut did:
The many rumors regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb Group . . . was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc.
The wreckage had become a disc, the disc became a headline: “raaf [Roswell Army Air Field] Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region,” was the Roswell Daily Record’s headline on a front page, still available for sale across town in formats ranging from T-shirt to magnet.
In the release, Haut also explained that the disc had been inspected, “then loaned by Major Marcel to higher headquarters.” It was there that Brigadier General Roger Ramey let the air out of the balloon by telling the press that the wreckage was a balloon, or, more precisely, what was left of a weather balloon and the radar reflectors it had been transporting. The Roswell Daily Record ’sheadline was bleak: “General Ramey Empties Roswell Saucer.” A “harassed” Mac Brazel, it related, was sorry he had “told” but added 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”—intriguing, but not intriguing enough to be talked about for the next three decades.
But people continued to watch the skies. The suspicion that there might be something up there bubbled away, ginned up by an eager press and spinners—mad, Munchausen, mercenary, or misguided—of tall tales that won a huge following. An obsession fed by an entertainment industry that in turn echoed and amplified the stories that its own creations provoked among the credulous, flying saucers were made all the more believable by Sputnik, Vostok, and Gemini. If we could do it, why couldn’t they? Even Uncle Sam was curious and, with unknown Soviet weaponry also in mind, carried out studies—most famously Project Blue Book—into ufos, only to conclude by the end of the 1960s that aliens were not involved. Many Americans (and not just Americans) disagreed, and it was revealed last December that between 2007 and 2012 the Pentagon ran a secret project (with an afterlife that apparently still continues) to take another look at what might be up there. Its investigations turned up some thought-provoking reports as well as startling video and audio recordings, but the fact that its funding has—so we’re told—been eliminated is pretty good evidence that there is no evidence that anybody green has come calling.
The postwar fascination with ufos attracted the attention of Carl Jung, a man with a weakness for the strange. In a letter to the editor of the New Republic in 1957, Jung essentially conceded that—whatever ufos were—they were real, but the title of his Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies (1958) gives the game away, and its text is high Jung: Platonic months, “spring point enter[ing] Aquarius,” mandalas, manifestations of anxiety about atomic war. But the dodgy old sage was not wrong to spot traces of the spiritual in this phenomenon. The wave of interest in ufos has occasionally curdled into flying-saucer cults, and some of their descendants, despite Heaven’s Gate’s opening to oblivion, still flourish today.
Both the Bible and concerns about the dangers of ufo cults helped inspire “Challenges to E.T.,” a conference held that seventieth- anniversary weekend in the Roswell Mall, a complex most notable for the crashed saucer lodged in the roof of its movie theater, and some way from the goings-on downtown. Perhaps that was just as well. Whatever the underlying reason for this gathering, its focus seemed to be on rejecting “the extraterrestrial hypothesis” in favor of just about anything else outré enough to draw a crowd, from human experimentation to, well, I’ll just quote from the best introductory slide I have ever seen:“Demons and the Pentagon: What the Hell?”
More benignly, belief in powerful, otherworldly aliens has a niche in the catch-all spirituality of our own time, a belief inspired by a notion, however weird, of technology, while satisfying an all-too-human craving for enchantment. The “God gene” is not easy to escape: those who would not normally consider themselves religious appear to be more likely to believe in ufos than their churchgoing contemporaries. Then again, why choose? In one store downtown, aliens shared shelf space with Jesus, Mary, and, if I’m not mistaken, a Hindu deity.
A British speaker at “Challenges to E.T.” did more than most to decode the enduring interest in the Roswell Incident, comparing it with his country’s long-standing fixation with Jack the Ripper: people like a puzzle. I watched the audience at a session elsewhere in town, gripped by a grainy computerized reconstruction of otherwise illegible wording on the piece of paper—the “Ramey Memo”— photographed in the general’s hand as he studied what was either the wreckage from Roswell or, some maintain, a tawdry substitution for the real thing: “Now we come to a really intriguing group of words, which are clearly visible as on the ‘disk’ with discernible quotation marks around ‘disk’ . . . ”
Suspicion of dark doings by the government is as American as dark doings by the government.
But Roswell’s puzzle was meant to have been solved by Ramey. For decades it seemed that it had, remaining largely forgotten until the late 1970s. As recounted in the invaluable UFO Crash at Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth (1997),a work in part anthropological study and in part persuasive forensic debunking, one of the preconditions for its resurrection was a growth in distrust of the U.S. Government (who else would have concealed the wreckage?), a precondition that the U.S. Government did its best to foster. It’s telling that a leading “ufologist,” Stanton Friedman, a retired nuclear physicist no less—has described Roswell as a “cosmic Watergate.”
Suspicion of dark doings by the government is as American as dark doings by the government. The sight of conspiracy theorists being welcomed into a red, white, and blue town is not so very contradictory. Banks and fast food joints advertised their support for the police and the military while street lights were topped with alien head globes but wrapped in Old Glory (July 4th was approaching). And there is something splendidly American about the way that a remote city of fifty thousand not known for very much milks the cash cow that didn’t fall to earth.
A section of downtown had been blocked off. Businesses vied for the best alien (“or patriotic”) window display. Supplementing a distinctive collection of stores—Alien Invasion, Alien Headz, Alien Stop, Alien Zone—were booths offering alien this, alien that, and alien tat. Vendors sold snacks of any description and snacks beyond description. There were pony rides, a water slide (the temperature was in the nineties), an alien costume contest for pets, and an alien costume contest for humans. A man under a canopy invited passers-by to “receive prayer,” while a rival peddled an enlightenment all his own: “The hierarchy of the cosmos and the connection between God, aliens, and man.” Attractions in front of the fine early-twentieth-century courthouse included a welcome tent, the Ten Commandments carved in stone, and a signpost to the planets. Bands played soft rock and Tejano, a borderlands mingling.
A block or two away, at the International ufo Museum and Research Center, much expanded since, oh yes, my last visit in 1995, there was work to be done. Travis Walton discussed his abduction by aliens in 1975, a distressing if dubious story subsequently turned into the unexpectedly entertaining Fire in the Sky, a movie released during the early ’90s abduction boom. Other stars in the Roswell Galaxy spoke on the government cover-up, physical evidence of the crash, and additional matters that, if proven, would change our understanding of everything. Yet a touch of carnival had crept in. A flier (“the alien bodies! wow!”) promoted a workshop hosted by the “alien hunter” Derrel Sims (admission $10).
More than a touch: to be sure, there was a well-stocked library crammed with ufological scholarship, but the gift shop struck a more frivolous note: alien T-shirts, alien sweatshirts, alien sippy cups, alien key-rings, alien pens, alien onesies, alien ashtrays, alien beanies, alien magnets, plush aliens, plastic aliens, blow-up aliens, everything alien except the real, elusive thing. Educational materials lined the walls of the main hall—those photographs that can’t always be so quickly explained away, pictures of “ancient astronauts,” the usual—but a replica of the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still stoodstill nearby, not far from a recreation of that infamous alien autopsy and an engaging display in which a flying saucer whirled behind four forbidding animatronic aliens. The ufo museum, “a 501(c)(3) non-profit educational organization,” may maintain a claim to represent the “serious side” of ufo research, but it subverts that seriousness with a wink and a nod.
Many of those thronging its premises understood that very well. Yes, true believers parted respectfully when Stanton Friedman made his way through his flock and gathered earnestly around Travis Walton. But others seemed less convinced, sci-fi curious perhaps, intrigued maybe, believers even, but without the conviction to take their belief very seriously. They were playing a game they half-hoped was real. Others were just there for the fun, their pilgrimage more Mardi Gras than the Camino de Santiago, four girls in shiny skirts and headphone hairstyles, three middle-aged ladies in “alien” eyeglasses vamping in front of those forbidding aliens as the dry ice billowed. Uncle Sam sauntered around the main exhibition hall on stilts, his presence a salute to the doomed spacecraft’s touchdown into American folklore.
The deliberations weren’t confined to the museum and the mall. The Roswell Daily Record hosted a series of lectures in a conference room behind K-Bob’s Steakhouse. At the city’s convention center, topics included abductees’ civil rights and, the horror, “the origins of the ufo ridicule factor.”
It took more than Vietnam and Watergate to bring a long-lost moment in New Mexico’s history back to life. Possibly it was only a coincidence that, as is noted in UFO Crash at Roswell, tales of crashed saucers were beginning to come back into vogue in the late 1970s, but it was then that the not-always-reliable Jesse Marcel (by now, he said, a believer in ufos, certain that the wreckage “was nothing that came from earth”) gave an interview to National Enquirer, a magazine known for publishing items that could be believed, half-believed, or believed not at all.
Other stories too were recalled: the same issue of the Roswell Daily Record that had featured Walter Haut’s press release had also contained a report of how the “hardware man” Dan Wilmot, “one of the most respected and reliable citizens in town,” and his wife had witnessed “a large glowing” object “zooming” over Roswell on July 2, 1947 (awkwardly a week or so after Brazel had discovered that mysterious wreckage, an inconvenient truth that failed to deter some of the faithful or the fraudulent from treating the two stories as one).
As the Roswell industry grew, clarity shrank.
The Wilmots’ account was at least published contemporarily. Vern and Jean Maltais were not so timely. Two prominent members of the long cavalcade of hoaxers, grifters, pseudo-sleuths, opportunists, attention-seekers, and fantasists who have contributed to the ever-shifting Roswell narrative, they emerged in 1978 to claim that they had been told by a friend that he (and, naturally, given the rich cast of characters who wander in and out of this saga, some archeologists) had discovered alien wreckage (and small alien corpses) in the Plains of San Agustin, New Mexico, or maybe somewhere else. This was enough for Charles Berlitz, a linguist (one of those Berlitzes) and the author of books on Atlantis, the Bermuda Triangle, and other concocted mysteries, and the ufologist William Moore. With the help of research by Stanton Friedman, they published The Roswell Incident in 1980, a farrago of speculation that arguably did more than anything else to turn a spurious crash into a genuine sensation. The most interesting thing about it was how well (very) it sold.
As the Roswell industry grew, clarity shrank, dates blurred, locations went walkabout, saucers changed shape, there was one crash, there were two, the aliens all died, one survived, a local undertaker was asked about the availability of undersized coffins, a “missing” nurse saw more than she should, the military (a mean-eyed, red-headed colonel or captain, a black sergeant) bullied witnesses into silence, evidence was stolen. Documents showing that Eisenhower was briefed were later shown to be forgeries and set off a schism, but were the forgeries created to discredit those who were coming too close to the truth?
As it happens, there probably was a cover-up, of sorts. The U.S. Air Force published two reports in the mid-1990s, just after TheX-Files, a television show that played off (and further popularized) the Roswell myth while weaving it into a dense conspiratorial mix that spread far beyond the small screen, had begun its long run. The first, the exhaustively researched and at times drily amusing The Roswell Report: Fact vs. Fiction, brings a touch of much-missed Mission Control rigor as it cuts through the miasma, both pre-modern and post-, which envelops so much of the Roswell debate. If you’ll forgive the spoiler, its writers found “no evidence of any extraterrestrial craft or alien flight crew.” What they did find “[was] . . . a shadowy, formerly Top Secret project, code-named mogul,” involving the launch of “balloon trains” some six-hundred feet long and laden with sensors designed to detect whether the Soviets had successfully tested a nuclear device (America’s nuclear weapons monopoly only ended in 1949). Given the secrecy that surrounded mogul, Ramey either didn’t recognize the Roswell wreckage or was unwilling to identify it: either way, he left enough of a gap for the conspiracy theories to seep through.
The Roswell Report: Case Closed was a sequel designed to address the question of alien corpses. Rather charitably, it suggests that recollections of these extraterrestrial unfortunates were the result of memories—muddled over the decades—of Air Force anthropomorphic test dummies parachuted from high altitudes over the desert and, separately, two accidents in which Air Force personnel were killed or injured in the late 1950s.
To some, these reports were merely a new twist on an old cover-up. Facts rarely get in the way of a good story or a satisfying cult. The Roswell show rolls on, sporadically spiced up by the rise and fall of ever-more-innovative embellishments and now graced by a hereditary nobility of sorts: at one meeting we were invited to applaud descendants of the principal witnesses, proud to carry a torch that sheds no light. No matter: according to a 2013 survey, roughly a fifth of Americans believe that a saucer crashed near Roswell and the government covered it up. The ufo museum received some two hundred thousand visitors in 2016 and fifteen thousand people reportedly showed up for the seventieth anniversary celebrations.
No pilgrimage is complete without a procession, no Mardi Gras without a parade. On the Saturday night of my visit, we lined Main Street as hot dusk cooled into warm darkness, some in costume, some prudently sporting tinfoil hats, one (your correspondent) clad in a white linen jacket that had already attracted some comments from more casually dressed attendees earlier in the day. At around 9 P.M., the Electric Light Parade began; illuminated floats and illuminated cars coasted by, escorted by a retinue of illuminated aliens and a zig-zagging skater encased in a glowing green saucer. The High Desert Pipes and Drums of Albuquerque brought up the rear, its marchers illuminated and kilted, drums beating and pipes skirling their way through—of course—Scotland the Brave into the New Mexico night.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 7, on page 28
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