News & Politics » Feature

UFO Hunters

The Center for UFO Studies, Where Volunteer Investigators Try to Separate the Science From the Fiction



The telephone is ringing and Mark Rodeghier, working late, is the only one around to answer it. "Tell me something about that Savannah case for the nightly news," says the caller, a reporter for a Georgia television station. Rodeghier is perplexed. "What Savannah case?"

"C'mon," the reporter says. "I thought you guys were supposed to know about all this. Everybody here is talking about the UFO they say landed in a farmer's field south of Savannah. We're checking it out. Hasn't anyone else called you?"

It's a logical question, considering that this is the Center for UFO Studies and Rodeghier is the center's scientific director. Located in a cramped office on Peterson Avenue near Western, the center is a national repository of books, videotapes, audiotapes, and thousands of files detailing individual reports of unidentified flying objects and contacts with alien beings.

"It hasn't made the national news," Rodeghier tells the Savannah reporter, "so it hasn't filtered back to us. We'll look into it."

The center has a national "investigator coordinator" in Mobile, Alabama, named Bob Boyd. "If we get some good cases, we'll send them on to him and he'll make a determination about who to send out to investigate," Rodeghier explains. Now phone calls go back and forth; as it happens, an investigator has just moved to Savannah from Pennsylvania. Boyd eventually tracks him down. He'll interview eyewitnesses, examine the landing site in question, and check for any physical evidence in the form of soil depressions, or patches of grass that are dehydrated or burned.

Another report to add to the list. "There's always something going on around here," Rodeghier quips.

For an outsider, finding the center is almost as difficult, I would imagine, as collecting evidence of a UFO in Savannah, Georgia. Locating the address on Peterson--2457 west--is easy enough, but once you get there what you find is a travel agency that seems to specialize in trips to the Philippines. The block is filled with low-rise storefronts. There's a mortgage company on one side and a children's playhouse on the other. The street traffic is constant, because Peterson is a major thoroughfare, but sidewalk traffic barely exists.

It's an unlikely area for one of the nation's two major centers specializing in UFO research. Go on into the building (the times I've been there, I've only spotted two other people and both were coming out of the travel agency, brochures in hand) and eventually you'll come to room six at the end of a long, narrow hallway. There's a simple nameplate that says "CUFOS" on the hardwood door.

Mark Rodeghier answers the knock. He's a tall, sandy-haired man with a boyish face, a 34-year-old sociology student who is working on his doctorate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and has a part-time job as a computer consultant. He can devote about 20 hours a week to UFOs, his consuming passion.

The whole of the center is packed, almost floor to ceiling, with boxes, metal files, and bookcases that have been pretty haphazardly dropped into three small rooms totaling 500 square feet--it's all about the size of an efficiency apartment or a very small one-bedroom.

Rodeghier apologizes for the mess. The center just moved here, an exercise that reminded everyone of just how much stuff they've acquired. For example, five years ago the center was given the complete files of the late National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena, including the original reports of the Socorro, New Mexico, landing of 1964 and 1961's Betty and Barney Hill abduction, two classic UFO cases. When NICAP went defunct in the late 1970s, only the Center for UFO Studies, or CUFOS, and the Mutual UFO Network, or MUFON, in Seguin, Texas, were left to investigate UFO reports.

"People call our center because they want information, or because they have a sighting," Rodeghier says. "These days we don't get very many. We probably get five or ten a week, one or two a day."

They often come in clusters. Late last winter there was a wave of UFO sightings from around Belleville, Wisconsin, some 17 miles south of Madison. There were even reports of people who'd boarded spaceships. Such episodes tend to feed on themselves, and among the center's tasks is to weed out the sightings that spring from hysteria or an urge to get in on the fun. The Belleville wave subsided in early spring. The original report was made by two police officers who said they'd seen strangely behaving lights--and whatever the lights were showed up on the Federal Aviation Administration's regional radar in Aurora. That made it what the center calls "a radar-visual case."

With Rodeghier now is George Eberhart, the center's librarian. He knows not only what's inside the center's books but also where they are.

For anyone doing serious research into UFO phenomena, the center's library is a treasure trove. For instance, Time-Life Books, in doing a series on mysteries of the unknown, has been exploring the center's material for months.

Virtually every book written about UFOs is on these shelves. Asked for the rarest book, Eberhart picks a signed copy of Pioneers of Space by George Adamski; it's a 1949 novel that takes the reader on a trip to the moon, Mars, and Venus. By 1952, Adamski was claiming that a long-haired man from Venus with the name of Orthon was dropping in regularly and taking him back to Venus to visit the folks. By 1955, Adamski had written another book, Inside the Space Ships, in which he claimed actually to have visited the moon, Mars, and Venus.

Eberhart says no UFO student has ever taken Adamski seriously. "It's the Adamskis of the world that cause us a lot of trouble," he says. "People begin to think all UFO reports are a little wacky. They're not."

Eberhart sports a full, reddish-brown beard. He's wearing a "Late Night With David Letterman" T-shirt. At 37, he is an editor for the American Library Association, and he manages to give 15 to 20 hours a week to the center. Come here in the evening if you want to find somebody.

Eberhart takes his share of telephone calls when he isn't researching UFO reports or compiling records. "One function we have at the center is just telling people that what they saw other people have seen too, even if it's just an airplane that behaved very weirdly. We perform a social function, too. Nobody knows where to report UFOs. The Air Force doesn't take them. These people are kind of scared to talk to the police and newspapers. If they hear about the center and they just want to talk about something weird they've seen, we'll talk to them."

"They may not necessarily be UFOs," he says of the sightings that are called in. "They're reports of lights in the skies and that may or may not be a real UFO. About half the time just from talking with them we can tell if it's a case worth following up on, because most of the time they say 'It kind of moved strangely,' or 'It flickered around,' and we figure that's a satellite, or maybe it was a star. Even if it might not have been, it's not worth sending an investigator way out to Aurora to find that out. All our investigators are on a volunteer basis and it takes up a lot of their free time to do that."

To become a CUFOS investigator, it's necessary to pass a test administered by Bob Boyd in Mobile, Alabama. The test comes in the mail and it's open-book--"We just want to make sure people can figure out where to go to find an answer if they need to," Eberhart says. "If they can't answer a question about how to approach a physical trace, if they can't answer a question about how to tell the estimated distance an object might have been from the observer, then they should at least know where to look. They need to know how to do their research, and that's where the center comes in. We can help in any research."

The Center for UFO Studies has about 40 volunteer investigators around the country--"which is pretty thin," Rodeghier admits. "However, we can count on most of them to do a good job. We used to have over 100 about eight years ago."

That number might climb soon, given the renewed interest in UFOs. This year alone, three books have been published and reviewed favorably in such august publications as the New York Times. The books--Light Years, Intruders, and Communion--all deal with tales of alien visitations, a subject that has generally found expression only in supermarket tabloids under headlines such as "My Baby Is a Venusian Love Child" or, my favorite, "Elvis Seen Aboard UFO."

The center was founded in 1973 by J. Allen Hynek, a Northwestern University astronomer. A photo of Hynek is taped to the wall next to the light switch. Whether you are starting the day or closing up the center at night, Hynek is there for inspiration.

In the photo he is white-haired and fatherly, his beard and mustache slightly scruffy, the bifocals clearly showing in his wire-rimmed glasses. He's pictured in front of a large pale telescope that contributes a note of scientific solemnity.

A quotation from Hynek appears in every issue of the CUFOS bimonthly magazine, the International UFO Reporter. For example: "We should not accept the word of those "authorities' who claim, without having done the testing, that UFOs and IFOs [identified flying objects] are the same. There is a story told of two monks in medieval times who got to arguing about how many teeth a horse has. So, in true medieval fashion, they consulted the works of the great authority Aristotle. But nowhere could they find that he had said anything about horses' teeth, and so the argument was never settled. Meanwhile, in the field just outside their windows some horses were grazing. It never occurred to the monks to go out and find out for themselves, which would have been the truly scientific method. No, they had to depend on authority and were helpless when authority failed them. Let us not emulate them, but find out for ourselves."

From 1948 to 1972, Hynek was a consultant to the U.S. Air Force. For most of that time the Air Force was conducting its celebrated Project Blue Book, a CIA-supported investigation into UFO encounters that logged over 12,000 cases by 1969 and ultimately dismissed 90 percent of them as natural phenomena (though several hundred sightings could not be explained away). But not everything Hynek lent his expertise to was so prestigious. During the mid-70s he sat on a blue-ribbon National Enquirer panel that examined reports of UFO sightings made to the newspaper and awarded $5,000 for the best UFO story of the year.

When Hynek founded the center, he was well aware that respectability for his subject matter would be a long time coming. "He wanted it to be a real scientific organization, with paid scientists on staff, that would investigate a few sightings every year, that would not have public members, would publish things for the public to read but would basically be a scientific institute," Rodeghier says. "He found out, unfortunately, that those plans were too grandiose. So, we evolved into the group we are today."

When Hynek died last year in retirement in Scottsdale, Arizona, many people felt the center died, too. "We get calls from the media all the time saying "We thought you guys had closed.' Well, we're still here," Rodeghier says.

In the past 14 years, the center has collected more than 20,000 reports of UFO sightings. If you think you've seen a UFO, the center has a set procedure it suggests you follow:

Round up all the witnesses you can.

Take a lot of pictures. Try to get background or foreground detail in the pictures.

Immediately afterward, write down as many details as you can remember. Include the time of day, duration of the sighting, details about the UFO (its behavior, color, shape, direction, estimated size), as well as your own thoughts and emotions. Get the names and addresses of the other witnesses.

If the UFO touched down, protect the ground and don't disturb it. Take photos from outside the area as documentation.

And report the sighting promptly, whatever the time of day, to the Center for UFO Studies.

When she was 12 years old, Liz White-Karaffa, a Chicago publications editor, was playing outside her Moline, Illinois, home one spring evening when she saw a circular, silvery object hovering overhead. "It stayed there for a long time, just hovering over the whole neighborhood," she says. "All the kids outside saw it."

White-Karaffa ran inside her home to get her mother, "but she never came outside. She kept telling me it was nothing, to forget it, that it was probably an Air Force experiment or something."

Mostly, she remembers the green and white lights that rimmed the object, and she recalls how it didn't act like an airplane or a helicopter. "It would move sideways, very sharply and very quickly. Then it went away."

The kids went back to playing and the object returned. "By now I was really scared because I figured it was a spaceship and it was going to land and take us." Again she pleaded with her mother to come out and see it.

"She told me to stay outside and play. Nobody believed us." Nobody took photos, but the next day the Moline newspaper ran a story. "My mother brought me the newspaper and said, 'Look, you were right. Here it is.' Somebody had drawn an artist's rendition of what the thing looked like."

A CUFOS volunteer recently checked the Air Force records for White-Karaffa. "The Air Force still lists it as a UFO," she says.

White-Karaffa doesn't normally talk about her sighting. For years she never mentioned it, even to her best friends. "I figured you just don't tell people you saw something because no one would believe it. Now I don't care if people think it's strange. I'd like to know what it was."

In 1958, Carl Jung published Flying Saucers, a Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Sky, an inquiry into the psychology of the persons who were then reporting unidentified flying objects in such numbers. It was an era when mankind felt itself menaced by intangibles--by the cold war, the hydrogen bomb--and Jung argued a correlation. To Jung, UFOs were fear objectified--they were "a modern myth."

The staff at the Center for UFO Studies considers Jung's explanation little more than an interesting footnote. I suspect he was onto something. His short book reminded me of some things I have never been able to figure out--such as the remarkable paucity of material evidence, even photographs. Why are farmers' fields so often the landing site of choice? Why don't the UFOs ever come down on Lake Shore Drive, in Red Square, in Paris?

"If we could answer that, we might know what UFOs are," says George Eberhart. "At this point, we don't know what they are and we don't know what their agenda is. If indeed UFOs are extraterrestrial, it's possible that they don't want to be making overt contact. They may want to remain UFOs so they can move about our skies or our countries more freely.

"On the other hand, maybe they don't even care, maybe they treat us as inferior-type organisms, like we might treat a cockroach. There would be no need to make contact with a cockroach. We're just kind of there."

OK. But if they're not extraterrestrials, what can they be?

Rodeghier tackles this one. "First of all, are they really flying objects? Despite the fact that it surely appears in some cases there are objects there, since we don't have a piece of one and all we have are witness reports, and a few good photos, and some traces on the ground, you can't say that they're necessarily objects, particularly metallic objects, anyway. But what else could they be?

"As hard as it might be for us to believe, they may be some kind of strange psychological quirk, or some faulty perceptual process that we have in our brain, that not only causes UFO sightings but causes sightings of other strange things--not so much ghosts, but sightings of strange animals, perhaps. Just sightings of things that aren't supposed to be there."

He muses for a moment. "Of course, why they fall within certain patterns, I don't know. But if you go back further in history, you'll find that there were UFO sightings that weren't disk-shaped. In the 1800s, they were shaped like dirigibles. They were called airships."

In 1897, there was a wave of airship sightings in the United States. "There is some doubt now whether there really were airship sightings. It may actually have all been a media hype," Rodeghier says.

Eberhart is less certain. He's looked into those reports and figures about 80 percent were faked.

"It started in California in November of 1896. And people were reporting what they called airships, but a lot of times it was just a light in the sky," Eberhart explains. "It would be a nocturnal light--that's what we would call it. If they reported it yesterday, it would have been a UFO report. Since it was 1896, it was airships."

Flight was in the news then, just as space travel is now, and according to the newspapers of the day everybody and his brother, it seems, knew someone who was working on an airship.

"The wave traveled from California in 1896 gradually across the country, and by April 1897 it was really making the papers in New York. The governor of Kansas, allegedly, on the statehouse steps of Topeka, saw an airship in the evening around April 1st or 2nd," Eberhart says.

There were sightings in Nebraska. There was even a photo supposedly taken in Rogers Park, then a separate community north of Chicago. The photo purported to show an airship hovering over a train station on Touhy Avenue. "The rival newspaper got ahold of it and exposed it as a hoax," Eberhart says.

Rival newspapers in nearly every state cooked up stories about airship sightings, but by the end of 1897 these reports had trickled away. "It was, at best, an unfortunate time for ufology," Eberhart says. "Whenever you have a hoax of that magnitude, it makes it difficult to take any report very seriously. That's what happened with the airship hoax. A lot of people began to believe that UFOs were all hoaxes."

The actual history of UFOs is difficult to trace. The farther back you go, the harder it is to know what to make of anything. Back in the Middle Ages, chronicles reported three moons being spotted in the sky. What could they be? They could have been an optical effect, and they could have been three UFOs. We can't tell.

"From about 1650 on, mentions began appearing in scientific literature and you can take those reports as fact," George Eberhart says. He begins to recite dates and places: 1809 in New England, 1892 in Poland.

Throughout the 1700s, a British journal, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, reported a number of sightings by amateur astronomers who saw strange, slow meteorites that took five minutes to cross the sky.

In the 1800s, these reports continued to be published, now in such journals as Nature and the Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Eberhart believes these lumbering meteorites might have been early UFOs.

One January afternoon in 1878, a Texas farmer by the name of John Martin saw a disk-shaped object fly across the sky at great speed, and he told a local newspaper that it looked like a saucer. Here was the first flying saucer, so described. Today, ufologists would call it a "daylight disk."

Eberhart says the 19th and 20th centuries are fertile fields of research. He has compiled an extensive bibliography of UFO cases. His chronicles include three meteors flying in echelon, observed by the crew of the USS Supply in 1904. In 1914 in South Africa, where there were hardly any planes around, weirdly behaving biplanes were reported. "But there was war fever and people thought the Germans were up to something," Eberhart comments.

Another famous sighting was the daylight disk reported by explorer Nicholas Roerich in Tibet in 1926.

Toward the end of World War II, lights were reported over Germany by Army Air Force pilots who nicknamed them "foo-fighters" after the French word for fire, feu. Says Eberhart, "These lights followed their aircraft and behaved intelligently. They saw so many of them they thought it was a German secret weapon and they reported it as such."

It turned out, he says, that Germans also reported these things, thinking they were an American secret weapon. The same lights reportedly were seen over Japan in 1944-45 and later during the Korean War.

In 1946, a wave of UFO sightings swept Sweden. What are the Russians up to now? everyone wondered. The Swedish press nicknamed these UFOs "ghost rockets."

"The U.S. military sent Jimmy Doolittle secretly over there to investigate those things, thinking it was perhaps a Russian involvement there," Eberhart says. "It prefigured the whole government secrecy about UFOs."

In this country, the really big wave of sightings was touched off by an airplane pilot named Kenneth Arnold.

On June 24, 1947, at 2 PM, Kenneth Arnold, a professional pilot for hire, took off in his personal plane from the airport in Chehalis, Washington, and headed for Yakima. He left an hour late, his trip delayed by a search for a Marine Corps transport aircraft that apparently had gone down near the southwest side of Mount Rainier.

After taking off, Arnold decided to help look for the plane. He flew directly toward Mount Rainier and soared to an altitude of 9,500 feet. He made a westward sweep of the high plateau from which Mount Rainier rises, searching ridges for the Marine transport. Unsuccessful, he turned above the town of Mineral, dipped his plane, and approached Mount Rainier again at an altitude of 9,200 feet.

The air was so smooth, he later said, he felt like he was coasting. Then a bright flash struck his plane. To the north of Mount Rainier, Arnold said, he could see a chain of nine peculiar-looking objects flying from north to south at about 9,500 feet. They were crescent-shaped, and the flash was their reflection of the sun.

They rapidly approached Mount Rainier. Arnold assumed they were jet aircraft. Every few seconds, two or three would dip or change course slightly and catch the sun, which gleamed off them once more.

He thought they flew like geese, in a diagonal line as if linked together. They seemed to hold a definite course, though swerving among the mountain peaks.

Arnold later described the objects as moving like saucers skipping across water. Reporters shortened this description to "flying saucers" and the nickname stuck.

The Air Force concluded that the objects were a mirage. Arnold died earlier this year, the 40th anniversary of his reported sighting, maintaining to the end that he'd seen nine UFOs.

Let's pause. I should explain here that I am a skeptic. I've never been bewildered by anything in the sky, and when I hear stories such as these I always look for the discrepancies and ulterior motives.

Mark Rodeghier is standing in the library at the Center for UFO Studies. "This is a really bad book," he explains, holding out a copy of They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers. It was written in 1956 by one Gray Barker, and it introduces a staple of modern-day ufology--dark-skinned, Oriental-featured men, short in stature, who wear sunglasses and drive black Cadillacs and harass UFO witnesses and researchers. I have met no one at the center who fails to snicker at the concept. To them, the men in black, sometimes called MIBs, tarnish the dignity due UFOs.

A better discussion of men in black can be found in John Keel's Our Haunted Planet; it's a 1971 book that tells us more about Kenneth Arnold. Keel is a veteran of UFO/occult literature. He writes that in 1947, before Arnold's encounter near Mount Rainier, "Ray Palmer, editor of Amazing Stories in Chicago, had commissioned Arnold to investigate the puzzling Maury Island affair," which began, according to Keel, when "a 'donut-shaped object' had rained 'slag' onto a boat near Maury Island [in Puget Sound]. Pieces of that slag had killed a dog aboard the boat and slightly injured a boy, the son of Harold Dahl, who was piloting it."

Keel's account continues: "Early the next morning, according to Dahl's story, a 1947 Buick drove up to his home and a black-suited man of medium height visited him. This man, Dahl said, recited in detail everything that had happened the day before as if he had been there. Then he warned Dahl not to discuss his sighting with anyone, hinting that if he did there might be repercussions which would affect him and his family. Since Dahl and the others had not yet told anyone of their sighting, and since UFOs were still publicly unknown (Arnold's sighting over Mount Rainier and the attendant publicity did not occur until three days later), Dahl was naturally nonplussed by his strange visitor. This was the first modern MIB report."

Here's what struck me when I read Keel's explanation about the origins of MIBs: as an agent of Amazing Stories, Kenneth Arnold had been talking to Harold Dahl three days before he reported his own UFOs. Could Arnold have invented his own amazing story?

Rodeghier shrugs. "The Kenneth Arnold story is fairly well accepted as true, at least true that he thought he saw something. No one has suggested he made it up."

There are those who flat-out don't believe in UFOs. In the fall 1986 edition of the Whole Earth Review, an article by John Keel appears under the title, "The Man Who Invented Flying Saucers." Keel leads off this detailed story with modern myths--Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, the search for Atlantis, and writes: "But the man responsible for the most well-known of all such modern myths--flying saucers--has somehow been forgotten. Before the first flying saucer was sighted in 1947, he suggested the idea to the American public. Then he converted UFO reports from what might have been a Silly Season phenomenon into a subject, and kept that subject alive during periods of total disinterest. His name was Raymond A. Palmer."

Yes, Ray Palmer of Amazing Stories. When you really start looking into ufology, a lot of the same names keep popping up. Palmer printed several stories about unidentified flying objects, under headlines such as this one in September 1946: "Earth Slaves to Space."

In 1948, Ray Palmer started another magazine called Fate, a digest-sized publication printed on cheap paper that would carry UFO reports in every issue. The first issue alone devoted 44 pages to flying saucers.

The Center for UFO Studies has a link to that tiny periodical. Jerry Clark, editor of CUFOS's bimonthly International UFO Reporter, is assistant editor of Fate, which now has a monthly circulation of 140,000.

Clark, a thoughtful man who comes across as very bright and knowledgeable about UFOs, describes Fate as a Reader's Digest of the paranormal. Mostly, though, he doesn't like to talk about it.

People do invent stories, and the center does uncover hoaxes. Some spectacular stories about close encounters, flying saucers, and weird beings were nothing more than practical jokes.

Jerry Clark spends a lot of his time researching reports of sightings to see if there is any truth to them. He talks about a famous tale in ufology, a strange encounter in Le Roy, Kansas, in 1897, which he uncovered as a hoax:

"There was a farmer named Alexander Hamilton and he testified that he, his son, and a hired man, about 10:30 at night on April 19, 1897, had heard a calf bawling. They ran outside thinking it was rustlers, or an animal nearby disturbing the livestock.

"They went out there and they discovered a rope around the midsection of the calf and the rope led up into the sky and the calf was caught in the fence. They looked up and there was a huge, cigar-shaped object, with a sort of cab underneath it. And inside the cab they saw six very strange looking creatures.

"They tried to cut the rope but they couldn't, so they finally let the calf loose. They saw the airship and the calf sailing away.

"The next day, Hamilton went looking for his calf. He found it on a neighbor's property. There was the butchered remains, but there were no footprints anywhere around. The implication was, the occupants of the airship had butchered it and dropped the remains on the ground.

"This was published in the local paper with two long affidavits attesting that Alexander Hamilton was a longtime resident of the county, one of its esteemed citizens. So, if this is all you knew about the story it would seem real impressive, and in fact it was published in some UFO books as an early, impressive UFO case."

Clark had long wanted to look into this episode. In 1976 he sent a letter to the local newspaper in Yates Center, Kansas, asking for anyone who knew anything about it to contact him.

He found Hamilton's granddaughter, who said the family often talked about the tale but didn't know whether it was true. And a woman from Wichita wrote to say her mother had always wanted to tell her story about the Hamilton sighting.

"The mother's name was Mrs. Shaw and she was quite old. I got a letter from her telling about that day in April 1897. She had been in the Hamilton house. She had been a friend of Hamilton's daughter.

"Alex had pulled up to the house in his buckboard, and when he was walking into the door, chuckling, he said to his wife, "Well, the boys and I have really fixed one up.'

"It turned out they belonged to a local group called the Ananias Club. Ananias is the Bible's most famous liar. This was a group of the leading citizens in the county who would get together and make up a big story to top the big story that had been told last week. Alexander and the newspaper editor got the idea to make up this story about an airship and these aliens kidnapping this calf. They got these other guys who were members of the club to sign an affidavit saying it was true.

"In 1897, this story was published all over the world," Clark says. "After that, the club dissolved because there was no way to top a story that fooled the whole world.

"Anyway, this is representative of those early stories. You have the tall-tale tradition. And it was also respectable for newspapers to invent stories in their own offices just to fool the readers, for a laugh. Many readers recognized that they were being put on and they weren't offended the way modern newspaper readers would be."

George Eberhart has been listening to this. He interrupts. "Lest you go back and think that all pre-1945 [sightings] are newspaper hoaxes, that's not the case because a lot of them appeared in scientific literature. There were also very good reports by sea captains, by astronomical observers that made their way into the scientific literature."

I ask them how they can be sure that what they're getting today isn't bogus. "For one thing," Clark says, "we can investigate the reports. Hoaxes are not a major problem. They're there, but they comprise maybe 1 percent of the total. The majority of people are sincere. The question isn't about their sincerity, it's about whether they really saw what they say they saw."

Eberhart is more direct: "People don't take the time to invent hoaxes today."

If people aren't inventing UFOs, what are they seeing? Mark Rodeghier has his own explanation. "UFOs could be a natural phenomenon, like ball lightning. Often after lightning hits the ground--usually not in Chicago, but in tropical areas where there are more lightning strokes--there will be formed nearby a ball about the size of a softball. The duration can last up to several minutes, and it doesn't go up very high."

Watching from a distance, an observer might mistake a ball of lightning for a craft that is landing, or hovering.

UFO debunker Philip Klass believes that most UFOs are really twin-engine aircraft, small planes with lighted advertising messages, weather balloons, subsuns (a subsun is the reflection of the sun off a very thin layer of ice crystals in the atmosphere; it can be seen from an airplane or mountaintop), or just plain lies.

Neither Rodeghier, Eberhart, nor Clark has ever seen a UFO. "But," says Eberhart, "we've talked with many people who have seen them, and consequently our treatment of the subject is based on the people we've talked to who are very credible witnesses."

Which brings us to wonder, how does one become a UFO expert?

"There's no normal route," says Rodeghier. "I got involved with Dr. Hynek and just gradually built up my interest and my knowledge. It's pretty hard to know a lot about UFOs if you just read the books, without then actually looking at real cases, talking to other experts, and getting a flavor just like you would in any subject. Graduate school is not just an education in reading and researching but also an indoctrination into the techniques of the field. There is something like that here."

Eberhart admits to a fascination from childhood. "I've always been interested in the fringe areas of science, and UFOs are about as fringe as you can get." He was around 12 when he started reading up on them. "And that's the best way to learn about UFOs."

Clark is perhaps the most thoughtful in his answer. "There are problems special to ufology, just because of the nature of what it is. It's not a formal subject. It's a subject that's not entirely respectable. It's less unrespectable than it used to be, but still, you're not taking courses in ufology in college, there are no PhDs in ufology. It's really an amateur's pursuit. Anybody can call himself an expert in ufology and just about anybody does. So there are all kinds of fruitcakes going around and spouting ridiculous nonsense that all of us have to answer for. People who are hostile to the subject will take these people and say they're representative of the subject.

"There is also a vast literature and 95 percent of it is just crap," Clark says. "It's interesting from a sociological or folklore point of view. It's representative of a strange collection of folk beliefs in the space age, but there is a small serious literature done by serious amateurs, some of it by scientists and other academics who have brought their own training--astronomy, psychology, meteorology, or plasma physics--to bear on the problem of UFO sightings.

"Essentially what we're involved in might be described as a holding action, that we're intelligent, conservative, have a sense of what scientific evidence is, what you have to bring to bear to impress the scientific community. What we're doing is collecting information until the scientific community changes its attitude and is willing to turn around and look at what we have."

Clark continues, "We can't really do the job without the facilities that the scientific community has at its command. Laboratories, funding."

Eberhart interrupts. "SWAT teams to get out there when actually a UFO lands to gather the physical evidence, if any. We have to wait until the weekend at best." His point is that the CUFOS staff and investigators are all volunteers at the mercy of regular jobs.

Clark glances at Eberhart and gives him a look somewhat like a father silently chastising a teenage son for butting into the conversation. He looks back, and continues his monologue.

"This is a shoestring operation," Clark says. "There's no money in it. There's really nothing in it except a fascination with a very interesting and neglected scientific question, whose implications are pretty astounding. If it is true that extraterrestrial visitation is going on, that's about as important as anything you can imagine. And there is a large body of evidence that is certainly suggestive of that, that no one has been able to explain away, that skeptics and debunkers have consistently misrepresented or dealt with inadequately. The longer this thing goes on the better the evidence gets and the more I'm convinced that we are onto something important.

"Even if in the end it turns out that it's not extraterrestrial visitation," Clark suggests, "at the very least we're dealing with something unknown.

"If, for example, UFOs don't represent physical visitation from elsewhere, they could represent some extraordinary psychological phenomenon that has not been written up in the literature of psychology or perception, because the reports we're dealing with simply cannot be explained in terms of psychology as we understand it. So, we're dealing with an extraordinary psychological phenomenon. However, what complicates it is the physical evidence."

We are not talking about any old physical evidence here, we're talking about crashed saucers and bodies of little men. Back in May, CUFOS found itself the recipient of a very bizarre document, which led to its being contacted by scores of interested ufologists and journalists trying to sort out the facts.

This is the "MJ-12" document, the "MJ" supposedly standing for "Majestic" and the "12" for the number of advisers to the president ordered by Harry Truman to investigate two mysterious incidents of the gravest national importance. In ufology circles it's simply "the document," and it purports to be a National Security Council briefing prepared for President-elect Eisenhower on November 18, 1952. It claims that twice UFOs crashed in the southwest, leaving not only bits and pieces of strange metal but, in one case, the bodies of four aliens.

About three years ago, the document supposedly arrived, in a plain envelope with no return address, at the home of Jaime Shandera, an associate of Bill Moore's. Moore and Stanton Friedman wrote the 1980 book The Roswell Incident, which attempted to prove that in 1947 an alien spaceship had crashed near Roswell, New Mexico, and that the bodies of four aliens had been recovered and were still being stored somewhere by our government.

Moore released the document just this past May. Over the summer, the MJ-12 document was written about in the New York Times and the London Observer and was discussed on ABC TV's Nightline and 20/20. CUFOS furnished me with a copy for this article. It looks as though it was typed on an old manual typewriter. It's stamped "Confidential." The pages have been photocopied so many times they're a little blurry.

The document is certainly entertaining. Who can say if it's authentic? Clark, Eberhart, and Rodeghier observe that even if the document is fake, the story of the crashed saucers is not necessarily false.

I tell them I find the whole story hard to believe--crashed saucers, little men. If it were true, some investigative reporter would have it by now.

Rodeghier says he has an answer to that. "You just read a book about it. Let's assume the story is true. You read a book and you don't believe it. The secret is so large it keeps itself."

Clark contends that the story has been leaking for years and "even ufologists didn't believe it. It was just too ridiculous. It became more credible to ufologists in the mid-1970s when Bill Moore and Stanton Friedman began looking into it." Friedman is a former nuclear physicist who now lives in Canada and devotes his time to UFO research.

By the time Moore and Friedman had finished their interviews for The Roswell Incident, they had 30 sources--local reporters who covered the story, the Air Force official who was first on the scene, farmers in whose fields the UFO debris reportedly was scattered.

"The official explanation was that a weather balloon crashed," Clark says. "There's no question that something really unusual, metallic, with strange writing on it, crashed at Roswell. Air Force officers were freaked out over it, there was a great deal of secrecy about it. The Air Force scared everybody and got them to agree not to talk about it.

"This was the early days of the cold war. People didn't question the government," Clark says. As for the four bodies, Clark says, "If this was an extraordinary vehicle, it was probably piloted by someone."

Are aliens from another world routinely visiting our planet?

"The easiest thing to say is, quite frankly we don't know," Eberhart answers. "If we said yes, there are aliens, we'd really be fooling ourselves. Certainly the evidence points in that direction, that some UFOs are extraterrestrial. It's certainly true when they come down and abduct people. But whether the person claiming the abduction is actually seeing actual aliens, that's the question.

"In terms of the nonabduction cases, certainly the objects reported don't behave like any aircraft that the world has ever seen. So in that sense, they certainly seem extraterrestrial."

British researchers call them UAPs (pronounced waps) rather than UFOs. That's short for "unexplained aerial phenomena." Ball lightning might be a UAP.

Clark says UFOs are met with skepticism comparable to the attitude that greeted meteorites 200 years ago. "To the scientific community of the 18th century, it was clear that meteorite sightings couldn't be true because there are no stones in the sky," he says.

"Scientists were coming up with exotic explanations for meteors--people were liars, they were mental cases, and even when they couldn't say the person was insane, or dishonest, the scientists said these people were ignorant and so they couldn't really make reasonable judgments about what they were seeing in nature."

Rodeghier has an analogy for the scientific community and UFOs today: "The exact analogy is this: How do scientists disavow UFO sightings today? They do it in a more sophisticated fashion. Two ways:

"They think people are misperceiving, they're ignorant about the sky, ignorant about their environment, they're just not good observers.

"Most people think UFOs are alien spacecraft, so the scientific community would say it's too far to get here. And if they could, they would get here maybe once in 10,000 years."

OK, let's say aliens are real. Why do they always look humanoid, almost but not quite like us, short, small-boned, very pale. They're never described as green slimy things or anything really much different.

"There are biological reasons why an intelligent life form would not look exactly like us," Rodeghier says. "They don't have noses, for example, they have little slits there. They don't have ears."

Eberhart interrupts: "Look at it this way. If it was an intelligent blob of jelly, how is a blob of jelly going to pick up a pipe wrench? How are you going to get a blob of jelly to construct an automobile? You can't really. Imagine an intelligent blob of jelly. Fine, let's say they have a supersophisticated intelligence. How do they build spaceships to take off from their planet? You say, I don't know. I say, fine, they probably can't because they can't manipulate their environment--they're blobs of jelly. It's been hypothesized that the only intelligent life form would have to be humanoid."

Clark offers his own theory: "It's not the appearance of these creatures that raises the question. Biologically, zoologically, they could look like this. The question is, how valid are the reports? What we do have is a body of reports and all we can deal with are the reports. What we've been talking about here is purely speculative because we're not the Center for Extraterrestrial Studies. We're the Center for UFO Studies. We're studying reports, what people say they have seen, and that's all we can deal with.

"We do know that these people who have these experiences, for the most part, are sincere and sane. They believe it happened to them. The question that concerns us is, what really happened to them? Did what they think happened to them really happen?"

The best two photos ever taken of a UFO were snapped by Paul Trent on May 11, 1950, in McMinnville, Oregon. A disk-shaped object flew over Trent's home while he and his wife were watching. Blowups of both photos are on file in the CUFOS library, along with copies of many other UFO-related snapshots.

The McMinnville photographs were studied by commercial photographers for Life and by the U.S. Air Force. In the late 1960s, astronomer William Hartmann of the University of Arizona analyzed the McMinnville photos for the University of Colorado. This was on behalf of the Condon Report, the Colorado study, commissioned by the Air Force, whose eventual conclusion was that extraterrestrial visitors did not exist. This judgment prompted the Air Force to end Project Blue Book in 1969.

Yet Hartmann had concluded: "This is one of the few UFO reports in which all factors investigated, geometric, psychological, and physical, appear to be consistent with the assertion that an extraordinary flying object, silvery, metallic, disk-shaped, tens of meters in diameter, and evidently artificial, flew within sight of two witnesses. It cannot be said that the evidence positively rules out a fabrication, although there are some physical factors, such as the accuracy of certain photometric measures of the original negatives, which argue against a fabrication."

"For every attempt to debunk the existence of UFOs, we can find evidence, like the McMinnville photos, when something just can't be explained away," Rodeghier says.

He's sitting at a small table in the library at the Center for UFO Studies, which is a tiny room. After hearing their arguments, and listening to the research they've done, what I'm most amazed by is that they work out of these cramped quarters.

"The center has never been in quarters much bigger than this," Rodeghier explains. "In fact, we were once located in Hynek's home."

The rent here is $400 a month, which is paid from money donated to the center. Mostly, the center is supported by people who subscribe to its magazine. A subscription is $25 or more a year, and there are about 1,000 paid subscribers, who are called "associates." Director Steven Spielberg is an associate and has contributed "generously" to the center.

The late Jackie Gleason was another CUFOS associate. "He was very interested in the subject of UFOs because he saw them on two separate instances," Rodeghier says.

There is a ten-member CUFOS board of directors that decides how best to use the center's money and resources, whether to allow access to authors doing UFO research, whether to continue investigating a particular sighting.

Now and then, the center gets involved in a money-making project. In 1978, its name appeared as scientific consultant for a two-record set called Factual Eyewitness Testimony of: UFO Encounters, put out by a Chicago group, Investigative Research Associates Inc.

Currently, some volunteers are examining whether the CUFOS files could be turned into radio scripts and marketed.

There is no paid staff at the center.

There is also no duplication of the CUFOS library and its extensive files of UFO reports. Asked if the library has any monetary value, Eberhart answers: "It's only valuable to a collector and most people out there aren't collectors. If we couldn't sell it, it wouldn't be worth anything. The case files are worth the paper they're printed on and that's deteriorating. Getting a good insurance value is impossible.

"But collectively, especially if it turns out the UFOs are extraterrestrial and everyone admits it, this would be worth millions and millions," he says, his voice deepening, his hands spreading wider.

Rodeghier interrupts. "That's why we're hanging in here."

Statistical evaluations of UFO sightings show that men see more UFOs than women by a factor of two to one. It could be that men are outside more often, or out more late at night.

People under the age of 30, in general, see more UFOs.

As for abductions, well, now and then they reportedly happen, but if you're over the age of 40 you're probably safe. Reported abductions by aliens are a hazard of youth. Mostly young children get abducted, followed by young adults, and often it's the same people being abducted and taken into space, freed, and then abducted all over again. After the age of 20 instances of abductions decline, and the drop is precipitous beyond 40.

The public's belief in UFOs has continued to rise, Rodeghier says. "About 54 percent believe in UFOs, according to the latest census data."

Clark adds: "The more education one has, the more likely you are to believe in UFOs. Disbelief is associated with a lack of education."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Marc PoKempner.

Add a comment