Saturday, January 27, 2007

I Was A Teenage Ufologist

A few weeks back I found something that really summoned up a lot of old memories. I was moving a long-forgotten pile of books deep in the bowels of my parent’s basement when it out it came, fluttering down from the midst of the clutter like the dry husk of a long dead moth. It wasn’t some crinkly old love note or a photograph of a now-distant friend. No, it was nothing remotely so sublime. It was a faded old Polaroid print, doubtlessly taken on a muggy, long evening of a muggy, long Kentucky summer sometime around 1995. The subject? A barely visible contrail, photographed without the benefit of any kind of zoom, which I was convinced, at the time, showed the “tell-tale donut-hole shape” of a super high-tech pulse condensation engine. I had, of course, at the mere age of 13, captured incontrovertible proof that the government was secretly test-flying the mythical “Aurora” supersonic recon jet over suburban Louisville at 7 o’clock in the evening.

Of course, it wasn’t so much the Aurora that I was after. I had fatter mice to catch than even the most secret Skunk Works planes. You see my friends; I have a confession to make: I was a teenage ufologist. Through the rigorous study of vastly illuminating scholarly works like “Time Life’s Mysteries of the Unknown”, “Unsolved Mysteries”, and, somewhat later, the writings of J. Allen Hynek, I had learned that aliens from other planets, likely near the Zeta Reticulus system, had been visiting Earth for years. The government was either unwilling or unable to deal with the threat, so it was up to citizen investigators like me to document what cases we could and look for truth in the evidence we were able to gather.

Towards these noble ends I taped a few photocopies of UFO pictures to my bedroom wall (as well as a cartoon depicting Dr. Edward U. Condon being carried off by aliens) and typed up “files” about certain cases on my old word processor. (My first real computer was still 5 years away in 1995.) I would sit out in the yard at night, binoculars in hand, waiting to capture incontrovertible proof of an alien spacecraft with my zoomless Polaroid camera. These are not my proudest memories.

I was a pretty smart kid, and I think that’s how I fell prey so easily to a few creepy stories and my own active imagination. That is to say, I was able to concoct conspiracy theories and narratives about alien encounters that sounded plausible to me. (You should’ve heard my theory about how the flu shot was actually a trick to implant people with nanorobotic GPS beacons.) Between my own hypothetical exercises and the influence and reinforcement of countless books about UFOs (most of which repeated the same few stories) I had myself pretty convinced that I was on to something. It probably didn’t help that my older next door neighbor* believed not only in UFOs, but ghosts and yetis to boot. We spent no small amount of time comparing notes.

Looking back, I’m not cognizant of any particular time that I just stopped believing in alien abductions and the like. There’s honestly a bit of a gap in my memory between when I was really, really into it and when I thought it was hokey. I’m sure some it had to do with my older brothers, who introduced me to work of James Randi and even CSICOP at a fairly young age. (Though much of that didn’t really “take” until later, obviously.) Still, despite the good intentions and sage advice of my brothers, I have to say that no small amount of credit goes to a pair of unlikely sources: Ruth Norman and David Ritchie.

Ruth Norman may be better known to some as “Uriel”, and she’s the founder of the Unarius Society, an alien contactee cult based in California. It was while reading a story about her in “Mysteries of the Unknown” (where else?) that I first hit a UFO tale that I found a bit too much to swallow. Indeed, soon I decided that the entire contactee phenomenon, wherein a victim is abducted repeatedly over a long period and given revelatory knowledge by his alien chums, just didn’t make a lick of sense to me. After all, most “abductions” follow a fairly similar archetype, but contactees vary wildly in their claims. In my mind the persuasive strength of alien abductions lay in their similarities with one another, ergo divergent contactee stories were suspect. On the other hand, seeing these weirdo contactees attract followers was really disconcerting. I mean, people can’t really be bamboozled into believing something so plainly dumb as a contactee yarn with absolutely no proof. Can they? Well, surely I’d never believe some flight of fancy with nothing but anecdotes to back it up. Would I?

David Ritchie may be less well-known, but he’s the author of “UFO: The Definitive Guide to Unidentified Flying Objects and Related Phenomena”. As I recall, I received this book as a birthday gift, and found that it really gave me pause for thought about the my uncritical enthusiasm for UFOs. Mind you, Ritchie is no skeptic. Far from it. According to the author notes in the above work, Ritchie thinks that “UFOs are a ‘paranormal, occult phenomenon’ closely linked to …ESP, hauntings and demonic possession.” While Ritchie endeavors to construct a framework by which UFOs are related to everything from fairies to Sasquatch, what he did for me was illustrate exactly how similar the UFO phenomenon was other stuff that I was “too smart” to buy into. (Sasquatch was for hicks. UFOs were sciencey and therefore obviously real.) Slowly I began to realize that I was deriding Bigfoot buffs for the exactly same kinds of errors of thinking that I was guilty of.

I don’t want to give the impression that I had some sort of great epiphany in a single afternoon, but it gave me enough pause for thought to get me really thinking (over the course of a few months) about how I had come to believe the stuff I thought about UFOs. It came to be my first education in critical thinking, years before I even knew what critical thinking meant.

For those of you who want a gander at Mr. Ritchie’s book, it’s available on Amazon here.

*The neighbor I mentioned, Bill Kendall, was nonetheless a great guy and an endlessly good friend. The countless afternoons I spent with him and his wife Cora are among my fondest memories. He passed away several years ago and is missed with heavy hearts by all who knew him.

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