So, it'll probably come as no surprise to you that not only was I a weird and awkward kid, but I loved UFOs. Yeah, shocker.
When I was very young, I was in an organization called Indian Guides. Sort of a latter-day Boy Scouts. Let's not discuss the questionable assumptions about native mythology and culture that were baked into the bylaws. It was 1974. The world was vastly different in ways that are difficult to even grasp from 2018. But my given name in the group was "Sky Man" which was written in a fake cuneiform typeface and embedded in a red plastic arrowhead that I was given after formal induction. Of course, the rest of it was terrible because it was me trying to interact with other boys my age and I had a rough time handling myself half the time.
But they got Sky Man right.
I was big into the sky, night or day. But then I was big into the ocean and wilderness, anyplace where the rules hadn't yet been fully codified or understood. Which is a tough place to be once they've put men on the moon and not found any alien civilizations or dinosaur bones or hidden bases there. I read a whole lot of Time-Life science books and World Book Encyclopedias. I imagined.
And I loved UFOs. And Bigfoot. And Atlantis (not so much Lemuria or Mu). And IN SEARCH OF. Which came along at pretty much the right time. It could have happened earlier, but then I might not have had the personal autonomy to watch it or put the pieces it offered together as well as I did. Anything about UFOs that I found in the library, I'd read. Or I'd wheedle my mom into buying from the B Dalton books at the mall. Then I'd read and read some more. If there was a thing on television, say OVERLORDS OF THE UFO (which you can see on YouTube still), then I was all over it, watching with equal parts wonder and fear and disbelief. It was perfect. It was unprovable. It was tantalizing. Schick Sunn films were my meat and bread (at least until they went full Bible Stories).
It also goes without saying that I saw a UFO. Yup. In a friend's backyard in Southern California. Probably 1978. It went in a very straight line from north to south and the whole thing ran in slow motion. It was bright pink and an uncanny emerald green, lightning streaking from it like the trails of atomic particles in a collider (an image that jumped out at me the first time I saw it.) I'm also quite sure I willed it into being, that much did I want to see one, to be part of this thing, even as a lonely individual.
But like I said before, the seventies were a very different time. You could go into a corner store and there'd be a machine to read your biorhythm for a quarter. Over there by the cash register (rows of cigarettes under the glass), was a partitioned box filled with scrolls of different pastel shades, personal zodiac predictions. Witchcraft, parapsychology, pyramid power, all sorts of moonbat accoutrement, just within reach. CHARIOTS OF THE GODS, anyone? Sure, you want the book or true-to-life documentary? Of course UFOs went along with this.
As did the sense that the government was covering things up. Of course they were. The populace would freak out if aliens landed. Right? We saw that in THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, and it was practically made natural law by CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, the same year as STAR WARS but often overlooked (and arguably had a bigger cultural impact at the time, but didn't spawn an empire to build off that success.) The government was keeping the aliens at arm's length. That was always a subtext.
Even and especially in the end-of-the seventies capstone of UFOlogy that was PROJECT BLUE BOOK. Sort of an anti-X-FILES, BLUE BOOK was meant to once and for all close the works down. There were no UFOs, only Identified Flying Objects waiting to happen. And while I love Jack Webb (and I do, without reservation), even I have a hard time getting through these. They're sitting on my hard drive in .AVI format (thanks Dave!) but I can't watch 'em. They're a pin in one of the balloons of my youth, dig? Nobody likes a buzzkill.
And into the early 80s, we got a lot of that. HANGAR 18 blows the lid off the conspiracy (which some oddly precognitive talk of remote-controlled cars and planes turned into bombs all wielded by Big Government). ENDANGERED SPECIES gave us the government pretending to be UFOs in order to do germ warfare tests on animals and the local populace. Hell, at least the evil government in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS stuck to sleep gas. Now they were out-and-out killing civilians in order to keep the secrets just that. But then, the early 80s were a time of unease and austerity, right? UFO culture reflected that, at least as much as I was keeping in touch with it, consuming the media.
This only intensified as the eighties ran into the nineties. And by then I was spending time on alt.conspiracy in off hours at my desk. Oh yeah, I worked at UCSD in the early 90s, right on the backbone, T1 connection via Ethernet to my desktop mac. Yeah. The good stuff.
Man, how to even describe USEnet to folks who have only started using the internet recently? I could write a whole book. Let's just say 'wild and wooly' but at the same time, a lot more restrained. I suspect because notions of identity weren't so fluid then. People were attached to their addresses, even if pseudonymous. Anyways, the alt. hierarchy of groups was the one where anything went. And often. Daily, even. Alt.conspiracy, as the name suggests, was the place to talk about JFK, UFOs (though they got their own sub-groups if I recall), the Illuminati and oh yeah, the Armenian Genocide of Turkey (yeah, don't ask.)
Now what got passed around on alt.conspiracy was pretty wild, unsubstantiated and un-verifiable stuff. That's okay. It was all in good fun, right? Only in the days of Ruby Ridge and Oklahoma City and the New World, it was being taken more and more seriously. Granted, there had always been a cadre who took this stuff as gospel truth. But then Tony Alamo had been sticking pamphlets under windshield wipers all over LA for a long time. Dr. Eugene Scott had been on TV as long as I could remember and both those dudes were serious as gravity from the thirteenth floor.
But I started to see people in the outside world, you know the "real" world taking this 100% seriously. And their fantasies revolved around the UN taking over America. Around concentration camps and shellfish toxin and germ warfare perpetrated against US citizens. Of course, not a one of 'em had anything to say about downwind testing of fallout from atomic weapons, which was a very real thing in very recent history then. They all evolved fantasies, pretty black ones at that. And those fantasies, like a cuckoo's egg placed in a sparrow's nest, yielded offspring that started to push all others out.
Of course, now this stuff is one heartbeat away from mainstream thought. Which is a real horror, but a subject for another time.
Patient zero for a lot of this stuff was BEHOLD A PALE HORSE, written by ex-navy sailor William Cooper. Much of it got excerpted and posted on alt.conspiracy. Rather, I should say that much of what Cooper quoted and then regurgitated with small changes, was posted on alt.conspiracy. So none of it in particular was new to me. But the way it was being wound into one giant ur-narrative of the secret history of the US was a new thing. (Aside, most conspiracy thought these days tries to do this, creating a sort of meta-history and as a guy who writes fiction, it's pretty easy to pick apart, but arguing with True Believers is a total waste of time.) Now, whether BEHOLD came at the right time or what, I can't answer. But for ill (and for no good) it became sort of the gold standard boilerplate conspiracy. It is also a very thin mask for supercharged "patriot" politics resounding even today, to our shame.
And then came along THE X-FILES. It's a show, honestly, that I never cared for. But boy, did it ever crystalize in the popcult of the time. The government was ruled from within by the hidden and shadowy forces who were selling out humanity to aliens, one abduction at a time. By the time that plot was unveiled, it was beyond old hat. For me. Not for lots of other people.
I will say that there was one kind of bright spot in the tangents of UFO popcult before this, and that was TWIN PEAKS, which flirted with aliens and abductions, but did so in a way that kept things mysterious and inexplicable and utterly alien, barely comprehensible. That was a breath of fresh air (as was its miraculous return last year.) To actually have these experiences feel strange and terrifying and wonderful? Such a relief from the tedium of Evil Government Conspiracy.
But one strain took and the other went underground. Needless to say, my interest in UFOs dwindled to nearly nothing, other than as historical document and pure aesthetics. I'll happily watch just about any piece of UFOlogy, just so long as it dates before the 90s. The form had been too set by then, and not into a shape that pleases me, honestly. I'm well aware of all the truly horrible things done across history to worry about made-up shit.
One other exception to this would be MIRAGE MEN, which was actually able to step out to another atomic shell, as it were and look at the manipulation of both sides: real/not, etc. We're still gonna be catching up to that one for awhile.
Which brings me, finally, to FLYING SAUCERS ARE REAL by Jack Womack. In it, we get a wonderful examination of UFOs before it was decided what they were. Instead of a plaything of far-right politics, and proof that the Evil Government is trying to kill us all, UFOs could be, well, anything. They could inspire sober examination from retired Air Force officials, or crazy art brut examination, if not pleas to the saucer within to appear once more. It's tough to describe the feeling of possibility that this book re-opened.
See, the secret of the UFO is that it's a deeply personal, spiritual, religious experience. It is an attempt to witness something beyond yourself, beyond this fallen world (with all its wonders.) But the UFO got turned into product in order to sell you on fear of the New World Order and how you need to have automatic weapons in your house or that the UN is going to come and liquidate all opposition. It's not an object of wonder any longer, but a talisman of invoked fear.
And sure, it's an object of the grift, perhaps has always been. And sure, some grifts are more…tasteful or forgivable than others. Such is the very nature of America. It's in our very DNA, going way back. Don't forget Ezekiel, babies.
So I'd like to thank Jack Womack for giving some of this back, some of what I'd allowed to be taken from me by the con men and cheats, all desperate to get you to call into their phone pledge line or buy their mimeographed pamphlet or into their looney philosophy. In FLYING SAUCERS ARE REAL is a treasure trove of design and personal mythology and fumbling attempts to put a hand to something that was never meant to be touched by mortals.
But in that attempt, there's the learning.
FLYING SAUCERS ARE REAL is available from places like Amazon and it comes with a very high recommendation.