In Roswell, in need of coffee and a bathroom, we stopped at McDonald’s. I ordered a cup of Newman’s Own and opened out my wallet.
“Fifty-three cents please,” the cashier said.
Fifty-three cents? Where in the United States does anyone sell coffee for 53 cents? Back in 1978, in a nice restaurant, my grandfather loudly complained about paying 50 cents for his coffee. He expected his cup to cost a dime, but the rest of the family understood that 50 cents was the going rate.
But that was 35 years ago. Now, here in Roswell: 53 cents.
As I waited for my cup, another customer approached and placed some change on the counter. “I’ll have the senior coffee,” he told the girl.
Senior coffee? I looked down at my receipt. Sure enough, the cashier had charged me the “senior” price for my coffee, with no ID required. Roswell surely was a place of bizarre happenings.
Roswell is famous as the town in the-middle-of-nowhere, New Mexico, where something happened in 1947, on an isolated ranch just outside of town. Exactly what happened, no one knows, or at least no one is telling. Many believed—and still believe—that a UFO with three or four aliens on board crashed and burned on the scrubby plains outside of town. The official story from the U.S. military was a crashed weather balloon. The “Roswell Incident” has made this small city, located 200 miles from anywhere else, an unlikely destination. Like many others, we had come to Roswell to find out what happened back in 1947. The senior coffee was—I guess—a bonus.
To get answers, we turned to Dennis Balthaser and his UFO Tour, which, as he informed us, is the #1 Attraction in Roswell on TripAdvisor. He’s not so popular at Roswell’s International UFO Museum and Research Center, which has banned him from the premises. I wasn’t surprised when Dennis told us of his banishment, as he struck me as a man of strong opinions. Sometimes battles rage bigger and longer in small communities than large ones, because the combatants can’t disappear into a crowd.
Dennis spent more than two hours driving us around Roswell and out to the former military base where the military might have packed some aliens off to another facility in Dayton, Ohio.
The Roswell Incident occurred on a July night in 1947 when something fell out of the sky. Rancher Mack Brazel found debris from the crash when he went out with his teenaged neighbor to check on his sheep. He took some of the material back to his shed and then brought a few pieces to show his neighbors, the Proctors. They suggested that the debris could be the remnants of a spacecraft and told him he should bring the material to the sheriff.
A strange series of events followed. Major Jesse Marcel, an intelligence officer for the 509th (Atomic) Bomb Group which was based at Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF), went out to the ranch to investigate. The Roswell Daily Record, via a military press release, reported as a flying saucer. But as higher ups got wind of the crash, the story changed. The next day, the Air Force announced, in a second press release, that the saucer was actually a weather balloon. To read the entire story of the incident, check out the UFO Museum’s description.
The flying saucer story was quashed and forgotten. The citizens of Roswell didn’t want to make trouble. World War II had just ended. After pushing back Hitler, the military enjoyed unsurpassed support and respect. Best not to ask too many questions. Nine years earlier, Orson Welles’s radio broadcast, “The War of the Worlds,” had caused hysteria and panic, with many believing that the fictional drama was an authentic news report. Why stir up that pot again?
But then came the 1960s, when everything was subject to questions. In Roswell, residents began to share stories. Mack Brazel had been warned not to talk, and didn’t. But the radio station owner said he’d been told that his broadcasting license would be pulled if he reported on the incident. The local mortician said that the Army had called to inquire about the availability of child-sized coffins. The sheriff’s two daughters recalled hearing death threats made to their parents. As the years went on, various military personnel sworn to secrecy began to talk about what they remembered, mostly fragments and bits of information. Lots of secrecy. Boxes put on planes. Heads without noses, and slits for mouths. Shiny materials that could be crushed into a ball and then spring back into their original shape.
Dennis is a man obsessed with finding the truth. Somebody knows something, but those somebodies won’t with be with us forever. Many have already died, taking their Roswell secrets with them. Dennis encouraged us to go the Museum, take in more information, and make up our own minds. We shook hands and headed over to the museum on North Main Street.
The Roswell UFO Museum mostly consists some hokey alien figures (fun for photos) and walls covered with newspaper clippings. Much of the information echoed what Dennis had told us. But at the Museum, I learned that 1947 had been the summer of UFOs.
On June 24, pilot Kenneth Arnold reported seeing some kind of disc flying at supersonic speeds in the vicinity of Washington’s Mount Rainier. His report received widespread media coverage. In the following three weeks, people reported hundreds of UFO sitings all over the country, including a report in Milton, Massachusetts, near my hometown of Weymouth.
These UFO sitings came on the heels of reports from wartime military pilots of seeing glowing orbs floating in the sky, phenomena that were dubbed “foo fighters.” Pilots initially believed that these “foo fighters” belonged to the Germans—that they were some kind of flare or secret weapon—but after the war, German pilots revealed that they too had spotted the orbs.
What were the foo fighters? An official panel reported that they might have been electrostatic phenomenon, but they didn’t really know. Was the Roswell Incident the culmination of a UFO hysteria that created a UFO out of thin air? Did one story beget another until we arrived at a grand finale? Or were the UFO sitings that summer—and the foo fighters–the explorations of extraterrestrials who had discovered Earth, and the Roswell crash their grand finale?
I don’t know if a UFO landed outside of Roswell. But after my visit to this off-the-beaten track locale, I’m convinced that something happened in Roswell and that the military didn’t want the public to know exactly what. Extraterrestrials? Maybe. Experimental weaponry or devices related to the atomic bomb, or which monitored Soviet activity? Possibly. Could the alleged bodies have been human, disabled children or adults? Sounds far-fetched–and I don’t want to start any rumors—but 1947 was the era of the Tuskegee Study, in which scientists knowingly allowed syphilis to progress unchecked in hundreds of black men so that they could study its effects over time. Anything’s possible.
Then again, maybe it was a case of too much coffee. At 53 cents a cup, it’s easy to keep on drinking.
According to this 2013 NBC News report, “After 66 years, the Roswell UFO Incident belongs to the ages,” the final report from the U.S. Air Force, in 1997, stated that the wreckage came from balloon-borne experiments used to monitor Soviet nuclear blasts, and that the bodies were probably crash dummies used to judge the effect of high-altitude falls. (Both Dennis and the UFO Museum, however, point out that such dummies weren’t invented or used until several years later).
Every July, Roswell hosts the Roswell UFO Festival, which packs this town of 50,000 people with 20,000 guests interested in everything from pure fun to serious research about UFOs.
Another UFO-related event is the Experiencers Speak conference, which is a gathering of people who believe they have been abducted by UFOs. In 2013, the conference was held in Portland, Maine (See Portland Phoenix article, “Alien abductees gather in Portland“).
Exeter, New Hampshire, the home of UFO abductees Betty and Barney Hill, is taking a page from Roswell and trying to develop its own UFO tradition, with the Exeter UFO Festival.