Monday, July 24, 2017

Another Silly Season-Part Two

In 1952 came another silly season, or if you like, another summer of flying saucers, all now sixty-five years in the past. That summer began with an event that is meaningful only in retrospect, for on July 1, 1952, Otto Struve, a prominent Russian-born astronomer, was appointed first head of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, based at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Although the observatory was without any sizable resources at the time, eight years later, with the construction of a radio telescope at Green Bank, West Virginia, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory began what became known as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) under Frank Drake. Carl Sagan, who later co-wrote the story on which the movie Contact (1997) was based, was of course involved for years in SETI. He also testified in 1968 before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Astronautics in their hearings on UFOs. That was near the end of the golden age of flying saucers and many years after the season under consideration here. In other words, I've gotten ahead of myself.

Eleven days after the appointment of Otto Struve to his new position, flying saucers began their invasion of Washington, D.C. The invasion lasted a couple of weeks, from July 12 through July 29, 1952. Unlike the previous invasion, in 1814, there were no bombs bursting in air and no rockets either, while most of the glare was confined to the radar screens at Washington National Airport and Andrews Air Force Base. The invasion otherwise came to naught. There were more sightings, more photographs, more pranks, and more books and magazine articles on the saucers in 1952, but the high point of the summer--and one of the high points of the flying saucer era--came near the end of that season with the first encounter people of Earth had with a being from another planet.

The encounter took place on September 12, 1952. It began when some boys playing football on the school playground in Flatwoods, West Virginia, looked up to see an object streak across the sky, apparently to come to earth on a hilltop above town. The boys set off to have a look, recruiting some others to go with them, including Mrs. Kathleen May, a local hairdresser and the mother of two of the boys. Night was falling when the group reached the hilltop. In the gloom and mist, some saw a glowing object on the ground. That was on their right. On their left was the edge of a patch of woods. There was a hissing sound from that direction. Then Gene Lemon, a seventeen-year-old national guardsman, shined his flashlight on the round and blood-red face of a terrifying creature. Ten feet tall or more, wearing a hood like the ace of spades and a green, skirt-like garment or encasement, the creature came towards them from next to a large oak tree. The creature didn't walk, though. It floated or hovered above the ground. And that was more than enough for the expedition from Flatwoods. Mrs. May and the boys fled in terror down the hill and to their homes. One or two were so sick with fright that they vomited repeatedly through the night. Mrs. May described what she had seen--a creature that became known variously as the Flatwoods Monster, the Green Monster, the Braxton County Monster, and the Phantom of Flatwoods--as "worse than Frankenstein," adding, "It couldn't have been human."

I have a book called The Field Guide to Extraterrestrials (FGtE) by Patrick Huyghe, published in 1996 by Avon Books. It's not comprehensive, but I think you can call it a good representative sample of the sightings and encounters of the flying saucer era. There are forty-nine types of aliens shown in FGtE, from 1896 to 1993. Aside from the sighting from 1896--which took place during the first UFO flap in America--there are five accounts that supposedly preceded the encounter with the Flatwoods Monster, from the alien bodies recovered at Roswell, New Mexico, in the summer of 1947 to an encounter with a frog-like alien in Orland Park, Illinois, on September 24, 1951. Unfortunately for those witnesses (or investigators) who have claimed precedence, all five of those claims from 1947 to 1951 were made retroactively. Only the encounter with the Flatwoods Monster was reported contemporaneously to the actual event. The reports from Flatwoods went out to the entire country within days. Kathleen May and Gene Lemon were even on television a week after receiving the fright of their lives. That was more than any of the other witnesses in the years 1947-1952 could manage. Rapuzzi Johannis may have wanted to be first with his report of an encounter in Italy in August 1947. But his waiting until 1962 to write about it surely casts doubt on his claim. Maybe Silas Newton and Dr. Gee, subject of Frank Scully's book Behind the Flying Saucers (1950), wanted to be first, too. Their story was debunked in almost no time at all. Even decades later, the conspiracy theorists who alleged that alien bodies were recovered at Roswell may have wanted some claim to precedence. But again, their claims were made decades after the fact, and their witnesses--the supposed participants in a vast governmental conspiracy spanning the whole country--are as rare as hen's teeth. There was really only one first, and that was the encounter reported by a woman and a group of boys with the Flatwoods Monster of West Virginia.

Although the summer of 1952 came to an end, the flying saucer era was only beginning, and for the first time, with the story out of Flatwoods, there were reports of alien beings from outer space. (1) That brings up one of the curious things about the study of UFOs in the 1950s, namely that there were at least two camps of believers: In one camp were those who wanted to talk about UFOs only as purely aerial--and presumably purely material--phenomena. These ufologists would not countenance the word, let alone the idea, of "occupants." The other camp was made up of those who let their imaginations wander farther afield, into realms of other worlds, other dimensions, and even into realms of the spirit. (2) As the decade went on, the whole flying saucer phenomenon became more complex and even more inexplicable. The kinds of flying saucers seen by witnesses proliferated. So, too, did the kinds of aliens that reportedly flew them. There didn't seem to be any purpose or meaning. There was no method to the madness of the saucers or their supposed occupants. No amount of data collection, analysis, synthesis, or hypothesizing seemed to be enough to solve the flying saucer mystery or even come close to solving it. Scientific explanations seemed to be up against limits in fact. That left purveyors of non-scientific and pseudoscientific explanations room to work, and work they did, as they already had been doing for years. You might say the flying saucer era was reaching a decadent phase.

To be continued . . .

(1) Author Frank Scully had previously reported on the supposed recovery of alien bodies from three flying saucer landings in the United States in 1949. That reporting was debunked by J.P. Cahn in True magazine in--you might have guessed it--September 1952.
(2) You might say that the aerial or material phenomena hypothesis is analogous to hard science fiction, while the broader, looser hypotheses are analogous to other forms of fantasy. You might want to hold onto that idea of a discontinuity between science fiction and all other genres of fantasy fiction because it's going to come up again.

Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

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