The key to every good mystery? Merchandising
Part I of II
by Douglas Messier
ROSWELL, NM — History is filled with many unanswered questions. Did Atlantis ever exist? What about those mysterious creatures rumored to inhabit the American northwest and a cold lake in northern Scotland? Are they real or ancient myths that people continue to believe despite all evidence to the contrary?
As interesting as those mysteries are, there is an even bigger one. Is there intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe? Have we ever been visited by beings from other worlds?
Roswell answers both questions with a resounding yes.
Aliens stare back at you as you drive through the New Mexico city. An alien with a thin body and big head holds up the sign for the Dunkin’/Baskin Robbins franchise. Statues of aliens are scattered along Main Street. Stores advertise alien t-shirts and other souvenirs of your visit.
They’re not saying it was aliens, but it was aliens who crashed in a spaceship near here 75 years ago next month. The crash was covered up by a government fearful of how fearful people would become if they knew the truth. A coverup that went to the highest level of the United States government that continues to this very day.
Or so goes the story told by the International UFO Museum & Research Center. Located in an old movie theater in the center of the city, the museum recounts the alleged recovery of the damaged alien ship and bodies — three dead, one clinging to life — in a series of timelines and exhibits. There is a display of a supposed alien autopsy. There is even a model spaceship with the aliens standing in front of it that periodically erupts with smoke and indecipherable alien language.
The fake spaceship is the sort of thing that might frighten small children. Or make them giggle. I certainly got a laugh out of it. Overall, the museum is designed to create a sense of wonder (what if aliens really did crash?) while making you question whether the whole thing is an elaborate hoax designed to attract tourists from all over the world. (Based on a display that shows the origins of human visitors to the museum, it has worked very well.)
The entrance fee is reasonable enough: $5 for adults, $2 for children. Where the museum probably makes most of its money from the gift shop. The key to every great mystery is the merchandising. Images of aliens have been slapped on everything from golf balls to beach towels, soccer balls and oddly shaped lamps. Shirts, baseball caps, beanies and pendants will let everyone back home that you’ve been to Roswell.
The museum didn’t sell me any souvenirs. Nor did it really sell me on its story. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Much more than what I saw there. A spaceship. Bodies. Some sort of physical evidence would help.
Don’t get me wrong. Something did happen outside Roswell in 1947. But, as with all good UFO stories, it’s difficult to separate facts from fiction. There are things we do know with some degree of certainty.
It all started with rancher William Ware “Mac” Brazel, who in late June or early July 1947 found the wreckage of something on his ranch about 75 miles north of Roswell. There were a lot of reports about flying saucers being seen in American skies at the time, so Brazel thought this might be part of one.
The debris — sticks, tinfoil, rubber strips and thick paper — weighed all of about 5 lb (2.3 kg), Brazel told the press. There was no sign of metallic components associated with any known aircraft of the time. He alerted the local sheriff, who contacted the nearby Roswell Army Air Field (RAAF) to investigate what the rancher had found.
Here we have an essential element of the story that would spawn conspiracy theories for decades: a government that couldn’t keep its story straight. RAAF put out a press release that read, in part:
The many rumors regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the cooperation of one of the local ranchers and the sheriff’s office of Chaves County.
The flying object landed on a ranch near Roswell sometime last week. Not having phone facilities, the rancher stored the disc until such time as he was able to contact the sheriff’s office, who in turn notified Maj. Jesse A. Marcel of the 509th Bomb Group Intelligence Office. Action was immediately taken and the disc was picked up at the rancher’s home. It was inspected at the Roswell Army Air Field and subsequently loaned by Major Marcel to higher headquarters.
The Roswell Daily Record made the recovery its top story on the front page of its July 8, 1947 edition with a spectacular headline that today would be called clickbait.
RAAF Captures Flying Saucer On Ranch in Roswell Area
No Details on Flying Disk Are Revealed
Roswell Hardware Man and Wife Report Disk Seen
Another story on the front page was headlined:
Roswellians Have Differing Opinions On Flying Saucers
While the good people of Roswell excitedly speculated about the crashed flying saucer, RAAF decided to shoot the whole thing down. Instead of a flying disk, Brazel had found a weather balloon, the Army informed the press. The Corsicana Daily Sun ran a story accompanied by a picture of the aforementioned Maj. Marcel with remains of the balloon.
Disk Craze Continues
Army Disk-ounts New Mexico Find as Weather Gear
Clever headline. But, this latest explanation only raised more questions than it answered. Brazel had previously found the remains of two weather balloons on his property; this didn’t look anything like what he had seen before. The rancher was confused by the explanation, and exasperated by the attention he had brought on himself.
“I am sure that what I found was not any weather observation balloon. But if I find anything else besides a bomb they are going to have a hard time getting me to say anything about it,” Brazel told the Roswell Daily Record.
There the story stood. A rancher discovered debris on his ranch. The Army was probably covering up something, but in all likelihood it wasn’t aliens. The Cold War with the Soviet Union was heating up, so the secrecy might have been perfectly justified.
The Legend Begins
The Roswell story faded into obscurity in the decades that followed. From 1952 to 1969, the U.S. Air Force ran Project Blue Book to investigate UFO reports that continued to be made by the public. The program concluded that the unidentified objects were neither extraterrestrial nor a threat to national security. A growing group of amateur UFOlogists were dismayed.
Interest in the Roswell crash was revived in the late 1970’s after retired Maj. Marcel gave an interview to UFOlogist Stanton Friedman claiming the material that Brazel had recovered had come from a crashed alien spaceship.
Not everyone believed the story. In a Dec. 8, 1995 edition of the “KowPflop Quarterly”, Robert G. Todd accused Maj. Marcel fabricating or exaggerating details of the incident as well as his educational and military background. Nothing the man said could be taken at face value, Todd said.
Whatever the truth, the interview open a floodgate of interest in the largely forgotten event. A 1980 book, “The Roswell Incident“, by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore professed to blow the lid off a decades-old government coverup of the crash of an alien spaceship outside Roswell. Witnesses came out of the woodwork with reports about alien bodies. Books, movies and television shows followed as UFO believers began to visit Roswell to see where it all happened so long ago.
Marcel’s son, Jesse Jr., told his father’s story in a 2008 book, “The Roswell Legacy: The Untold Story of the First Military Officer at the 1947 Crash Site.” He co-authored the story with his wife, Linda. Stanton Friedman, who re-ignited interest in the Roswell crash, wrote the book’s forward.
“This book documents the recovery of debris from the crash of an extraterrestrial craft and how the Marcel family became forever linked to the event. It details what the debris looked like, how it greatly differed from that of the ‘weather balloon’ that was supposedly recovered, and the physical characteristics that prove it could have only come from a technology that was not available in the 1940s (or, perhaps, even now),” according to the book’s description on Amazon.com.
A Deep Cultural Impact
The museum does a good job of demonstrating how the Roswell incident has seeped into American popular culture over the past 40 years. “Roswell High“, a young adult book series, chronicled the lives of three alien teenagers going to high school in the New Mexico city. The series spawned two TV adaptations, including one whose fourth and final season will premiere on The CW on June 6.
The Roswell crash featured prominently in “The X Files” TV show. “Futurama” won an Emmy for a time travel episode in which the employees of Planetary Express are the aliens who crashed outside the New Mexico city. A similarly themed “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” episode, Little Green Men, has the show’s three Ferengi — Quark, Rom and Nog — crashing outside Roswell in 1947.
Kyle MacLachlan, who battled aliens on television in David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks“, starred as Maj. Marcel in the TV film titled, “Roswell: The UFO Coverup”. The movie, which co-starred Martin Sheen and Dwight Yoakam, went full-on with the whole aliens crashed in the desert plotline. It received good notices even from reviewers who didn’t buy the premise.
The same year the movie was released, the U.S. Air Force attempted to put the whole controversy to rest with the release of a report, The Roswell Report: Fact versus Fiction in the New Mexico Desert. Three years later, the USAF released a sequel, The Roswell Report: Case Closed, to mark the 50th anniversary of the most famous UFO crash it says never happened.
Designed to quell conspiracy theories, the reports only seemed to fuel them. It didn’t help that the story appeared to change again. First, it was a flying disk. Then, it was a weather balloon. Now, the Air Force admitted it was a weather balloon, but not the kind you might think.
The 1994 Air Force report determined that project MoGUL was responsible for the 1947 events. MoGUL was an experimental attempt to acoustically detect suspected Soviet nuclear weapon explosions and ballistic missile launches. MoGUL utilized acoustical sensors, radar reflecting targets and other devices attached to a train of weather balloons over 600 feet long. Claims that the U.S. Army Air Forces recovered a “flying disc” in 1947, were based primarily on the lack of identification of the radar targets, an element of weather equipment used on the long MoGUL balloon train. The oddly constructed radar targets were found by a New Mexico rancher during the height of the first U.S. flying saucer wave in 1947.
And what about the alien bodies that were reportedly recovered?
Air Force activities which occurred over a period of many years have been consolidated and are now represented to have occurred in two or three days in July 1947. ‘Aliens’ observed in the New Mexico desert were actually anthropomorphic test dummies that were carried aloft by U.S. Air Force high-altitude balloons for scientific research.
Riiight, cried the skeptics. That’s exactly what the government involved in a five decade coverup of an alien crash, wouldn’t it? C’mon, show us the bodies. Show us the ship. We know you’ve got ’em at Area 51. Why are you hiding them? What are you afraid of?
A Final Verdict
In the end, my visit to Roswell provided no definitive proof that four aliens crashed near Roswell 75 years ago. Maybe it happened; or, more likely, it was a clumsy government coverup of a more mundane program the military didn’t want the Soviets to know about. I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure. Or, more accurately, we’ll never get an explanation that will silence the skeptics and conspiracy theorists.
One thing is clear: interest in the Roswell Incident won’t fade away anytime soon. It’s a damn good story that can’t be definitively proven or disproven. As long as there’s the possibility a spaceship crashed here in 1947, and suspicions about the government’s constantly shifting explanation persist, Roswell will have a thriving tourism industry built around something that might never have actually happened.
Roswell is hardly alone in this. Loch Ness is a lovely body of water, but without reported sightings of a mysterious creature lurking in its murky depths, it’s just another large lake in the Scottish Highlands. What’s wrong with a little mystery for the tourists?
Interestingly, interest in UFOs has been revived as the 75th anniversary of Brazel’s discovery approaches. The revival has nothing to do with anything that happened in Roswell. It involves much more recent sightings and the government’s willingness to reveal some of what it knows. But, that’s a story for the next installment in this series.
Coming up in Part II: Tic Tac Oh! A Modern-day UFO Mystery