A recent Boy Scout camping trip took Jason, Scott and me to a part of Virginia where I spent several years of my youth. But then, what else is new; by now the boys are doubtless getting tired of me saying, “I used to live here.” So far I’ve used that line when visiting the Eastern Shore, Lynchburg, Middlesex, Matthews, Lunenburg and now Mecklenburg. Sometimes I forget just how much I moved as a kid.
Anyway, in this case we saw not only Victoria, where I spent my middle school years and one year of high school, and Chase City, where my grandparents lived, but also South Hill, where I arrived on this planet right around the same time as an extraterrestrial visitor…maybe.
In a fun little museum that spotlights vintage dolls, model trains and local wildlife (!), I was admiring an enormous HO-scale train layout when I came across a display that didn’t seem to tie in exactly with any of the three themes of the museum. Featuring a complete article from a magazine called UFOs and Flying Saucers 1968, it recounted an incident that briefly put South Hill on the national map with ufologists, curiosity-seekers and the US Air Force. Even though I’d heard the story a few times growing up, this was the first time I’d seen any documentation beyond mere word-of-mouth, so I took a photo of the display to help me search out the magazine online.
The only remaining piece of the cover was the title, but once again, the internet came through for me and I tracked down an image of the full cover.
So anyway, the gist is that a South Hill warehouse manager leaving work in the wee hours of April 21, 1967 saw an object more less resembling a large water tank on four legs resting in the road, and when he shone his headlights on it, the object took off with a blinding flash of white flame. Subsequent investigations revealed a strange depression and scorch marks burned into the surface of the road where the reported object allegedly sat. Having produced physical markings, the sighting is elevated to what we’d call a Close Encounter of the Second Kind, as opposed to the more common (and more easily dismissed) visual sightings of the First kind.
Here’s a brief article that appeared back in the day:
While I wasn’t able to unearth a digital version of the magazine article (with photos of officials investigating the odd marks on the road), I was thrilled to find the complete original case report filed by the US Air Force officer assigned to catalog the sighting for “Project Blue Book,” complete with witness accounts, diagrams and the works.
A decades-long government investigation into UFO sightings around the country, “Project Blue Book” also inspired a TV show I used to love, “Project: UFO” (renamed to eliminate confusion, or because “blue book” sounds like it would be about used cars). It was a curious show; trading on the sensationalized UFO-mania of the era, it showcased “amazing” spaceship model work to draw in the Star Wars crowd, but with Jack Webb producing, it was performed in the same no-nonsense, procedure-bound style as “Dragnet.” Typically there were three investigations per episode, two of which would invariably end in “logical” explanations (hoaxes, optical illusions, weather balloons and the like). After a while it got to be unintentionally hilarious, seeing highly-detailed spaceship models hovering before us as plain as day to illustrate a witness account, only to have the investigating officers declare, “What you saw was a trick of the light, caused by swamp gas.” Ah, but then there was always a third investigation that would end up “unexplained,” just to toss us conspiracy nuts a cookie so we’d come back again next week. The Joe Friday-like USAF officers weren’t about to admit it was a real flying saucer, but then they couldn’t definitely say it wasn’t, either.
Imagine my pleasure, then, on discovering that “Blue Book’s” final ruling on the South Hill sighting is “unexplained.” As a kid, I lived for this kind of thing: not so much the confirmation of things extraterrestrial or supernatural (because hey, if science ever agreed Bigfoot or aliens were real, they’d just become part of the boring world of known facts, and lose their allure), but rather the admission that experts (ie: grown-ups) do not and can not know everything (“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio…”).
Over the years, I mostly lost interest in UFOs. I remember a few years ago trying to watch a nine-part series on Youtube that traced the history of UFO sightings over the millennia, and somewhere around episode six I gave up, realizing I don’t really care if they’re real or not, because even if they are, what difference does it make? Consider: if you were writing a UFO-themed screenplay, Act 1 would revolve around spooky sightings of alien spacecraft by heroes and heroines who are disbelieved and scoffed at. Act 2 would see their claims verified as a horde of invading saucers assault the Earth and lay waste to civilization. In Act 3, we’d either beat them or go down fighting, but the point is in “real life” we’ve been stuck in Act 1 since Bible times (when “Ezekiel saw the wheel.” ) It’s always “I saw this, I saw that, I talked to aliens, aliens abducted me, aliens killed my cow, the government’s covering it up”, yadda yadda. But it never goes any further. After thousands of years, all the alleged ETs are doing is watching us, or at worst playing pranks on random rednecks; they’re not scouts for an invasion force or they’d have attacked by now. And if they’re just tourists, then let ’em come. They’re not hurting anything.
The weird part is I once experienced a sighting myself. Sometime around 1973 in the small town of Saluda, VA, I was watching a show on TV (surprise!) when the electricity went out in our house. A glance out the window showed the power had also failed in all the other houses on our block and across the street, as well as the traffic light at the intersection two blocks away. There was one light, though, coming from behind the house, about 100 yards away, bright and round and hovering maybe 35 to 50 feet off the ground. Not sure for how long, but long enough for me to notice it, get up, walk to the back window and stare at it. And then suddenly, it shot off and upwards very fast at an angle, and once it was out of sight, the power came back on. I told the story a lot as a kid, to the point where I later decided maybe I’d made it up, but I asked my Mom a few years ago, she said, “No, that happened and I was terrified.” So there’s that.
And that’s cool. In the end, I like my UFOs mysterious and unexplained, and it’s fun to know my birth town was once (and may still be) one of the great historical “hot spots” for ET activity. However, I confess it’s a bit disappointing to learn the actual date of the sighting was some two years and a couple weeks after my birth. The idea that a flying saucer and I may have showed up at the same time seemed to explain so much…