It Came From Outer Space (Maybe)

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.

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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.

 

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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:

 

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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 could be naughty, I guess).  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 wad 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…

 

Anniversaries and Hurricanes and Twisters, Oh My

Well, this blog is long overdue for an update again, so I’ll try to recap some recent adventures in digest form.

First up, Laura and I celebrated our 25th (!) wedding anniversary at the end of August with a trip to Boston, marking our first trip together away from the kids in 15 years.  (Thanks to Laura’s mom for minding the home front!).  We’d had vague plans to return to Nova Scotia, where we honeymooned way back in nineteenmumblemumble, but with all we’ve had going on this year, plans just never came together.   It’ll happen one day, though.

Anyway, Boston’s always been on our “someday” list, and it turned out to be a very enjoyable visit.  Of course, we took the Virginia heat with us: highs were in the 70s before we arrived and after we left, but the entire time we were there, the city suffered record heat (upper 90s). That seemed fitting, given that our wedding day was also a sweltering record-setter, but such was probably small consolation to the people of Boston.  (Sorry, folks).  The heat wave meant the Bunker Hill monument was closed to visitors out of safety concerns (it’s basically a giant chimney) but it was still an interesting place to see, especially since I’d just read James Nelson’s account of the battle, With Fire And Sword, earlier this year.  Other than that, we got to see all the historic sites on our list, including a walking tour of the Freedom Trail with a costumed guide and a visit to “Old Ironsides” herself, the USS Contitution.   Then we just concentrated on attractions that would keep us  indoors, like the truly remarkable Museum of Fine Arts (where I fell in love with Van Gogh’s Houses At Auvers) and the very impressive Public Library, where a free tour highlighted the architectural genius of Charles Follen McKim (who I was interested in from his designs of NY’s old Pennsylvania Station and the Agricultural Building at the 1890 Chicago World’s Fair, as featured in Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City) and murals by John Singer Sargent.   And of course we fit in a lot of great seafood, though we broke the rules a bit and skipped the Italian restaurants;  all that heavy fare just didn’t appeal in the heat.

library

We skipped the rental car and used Lyft, which quickly started adding up, but once we got a gander at what passes for urban planning in Boston, we were happy not to have to navigate those byzantine streets, deal with the crazy drivers or try to find a place to park.  Between that and staying at an AirBnB, this was our “Internet Age” vacation.

On our return, we celebrated Grace’s 10th (!) birthday, another reminder of how fast life’s speeding by.  Grace continues to be a source of great joy in our lives, of course, and I think she had a good time on her big day, which she shares with her fish, Ballou (who’s only 1).

Then it was time to start fretting about Hurricane Florence, advertised as the worst weather event since Noah gathered the animals.  In the end, it bypassed us completely in favor of hammering the crap out of the Carolinas.  We spent one night camped out downstairs in the room furthest from any trees, but about 2AM I woke up to dead silence and a general feeling of foolishness.  VCU closed for two days out of an abundance of caution so I got a four-day weekend, but all we ended up with were intermittent showers.

twister

Just when we thought we were in the clear, though, what was left of the storm swung North and sparked seven tornadoes in the Richmond metro area, an unprecedented occurrence here. The most powerful of them touched down about two miles from our house in the parking lot in front of our favorite pizza shop, damaging a gym and flipping over a car before crossing all six lanes of Hull Street and demolishing a furniture store and a flooring warehouse, the latter sadly resulting in a fatality.  Good Minnesotan that she is, Laura’s twister radar was up and she crammed herself, the kids and several visitors into the laundry room until things died down, while I obeyed VCU’s (seemingly endless) alerts and stayed put in my office.  For once I was glad it’s in a basement.

Anyway, that should bring us more or less up to date.

Interlude in Vegas

Last week saw me at InfoComm for the first time in six years, and in Las Vegas for the first time in 16.

The show itself was fascinating as always, showcasing all the latest gee-gaws in production, presentation and display technology for live events, schools, churches and so on.  In particular, video displays seem to have no limits to how big, how thin and how sharp they can get.  In that respect, Vegas is a logical host city for the event, with all the gigantic video billboards dotting the Strip.  Just outside my hotel window I had a never-ending cycle of ads for Jennifer Lopez’ live act, a nightclub called “Jewel” and the bizarre, cycling animation that served as a “masthead” atop the Cosmopolitan hotel.

The trip out took about 8 hours all told, followed by a shuttle ride from the airport that ended in a fender-bender and a walk the rest of the way to my hotel (Bally’s).  I was ready to take the accident as an ill omen, but then who should come puttering past but Elvis himself, all 300 pounds of him in a white, sequined jumpsuit with high color and cape, and riding on a “Rascal” scooter.  That’s when I knew everything was going to be alright.

rascalelvis

I’d forgotten a lot about the town in the 16 years since my last visit.  For one, the smoke in the casinos.  Cigarette smoking is so out-of-favor now in the US that it’s hard to believe I  used to work in an office where folks would light up right at their desk, and eat at restaurants that didn’t even bother with smoking and non-smoking sections.  Vegas is still firmly stuck in that Yesteryear, with folks puffing away at the slot machines day and night.  I noticed a “Smoker’s” area in the airport that came complete with slot machines and figured it was a brilliant move, since a Venn diagram showing “smokers” and “gamblers” would probably have about a 90% overlap.

The other thing I was reminded of was the “showgirl waitress” uniform.  Whether it was cocktail waitresses in the casinos or waitresses in burger joints or sports bars made no difference; if they were on hotel property, they had to prance around in a teddy, period.  This rule seems iron-clad, irrespective of whether you’re 20 or 50, heavy or thin, college co-ed or mother of eight.  Because, hey, hiring someone based on their physical appearance would be sexist, right?  But now that you’re on the payroll, get into that teddy.  Frankly, I felt pretty bad for these gals, given that the male staff wasn’t asked to wear leather briefs and fishnet t-shirts.  But who knows, maybe they’re cool with it.  The Paris hotel even had a girl dancing on the bar.  I’m pretty sure I’ve only seen that in movies before.  From the 60s.

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I guess I lucked out with the hotel room; Bally’s ran out of single rooms with King-size beds so I got a double with two Queens for the same price.  Just outside my window was the “Eiffel Tower” with a clear view of the Bellagio’s twice-hourly fountain show, which seemed like a good thing until I tried to go to sleep, and had to listen to those jets of water shooting off to the tune of Celine Dion belting out the “Titanic” theme at about a thousand decibels.

I opted to take the Monorail to the Convention Center, which was pretty cool.  Lots of interesting sights out the window, like a golf course that I understand has actually been closed for 6 months but is still watered and maintained so as not to scare off hotel guests with a view of it.  The plan is to tear it up and put in a man-made lake for visitors into boating and skiing.  Take that, Lake Mead.  Way off by itself (it seemed) was the Drumpf Hotel, trying desperately to look more impressive and important than everything else with giant gold lettering, which seemed apropos.

The heat hovered between 100 and 107 but the old saw is true; it’s not the heat but the humidity.  I found it pretty tolerable.  Along the sidewalks every now and then were these misting “showerheads” to keep you cool; I avoided them at first because I didn’t want to get wet, but eventually realized I wouldn’t, anyway.  The water they shot out evaporated immediately, creating a sort of cool fog.  If they did the same thing in Richmond, I’d come out sopping wet.

While I was in town, the Golden State Warriors finished off the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA finals and the Capitals beat the Golden Knights for the Stanley Cup, so there was plenty of betting going on, I’m sure.  Certainly there was a lot of yelling at TVs in the restaurants, especially with the hometown team in the mix and playing in an arena just down the street.  I’ve never been that into sports, but it was easier to feel the excitement in a place where everyone in the room is a potential winner or loser.  On the other hand, it was vaguely depressing to realize no one in Vegas probably ever enjoys sport for it’s own sake, since it all comes down to wagers.  Anyway, it was cool to see lot of Caps fans walking around and feel a bit closer to home.

On the walk to the monorail, I saw a poster for Wayne Newton’s “comeback show.”  I’m not sure how old he is at this point, but by now he’s had so much surgery he looks like Jack Nicholson as the Joker, with his mouth in a permanent smile and one eye apparently unable to open.  Barry Manilow did a little better job of finding a promo picture that made it look like his age is still in the double digits.  I also saw ads for shows starring Donny and Marie, Rich Little and something called the “Australian Bee-Gees,” so basically if you were a big deal forty years ago or can do a reasonable impersonation of someone who was, you’re a potential Vegas headliner.

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I didn’t spend much time on the slots, but I did spot a fun machine with graphics of Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman, and that claimed a couple of bucks.  Mostly I spent time at a virtual Blackjack table.  “Virtual” because the dealer was a lady who exists only as a video recording, but the money involved was all-too real.  After doubling my stakes the first night, I was hooked, then of course it was all downhill from there.

Much ado was made about a party hosted by an AV vendor, but once I got there it was too crowded and noisy for me, so I lasted all of ten minutes.  Just in general I think I’m not the Vegas type.

All things considered it was one of those trips where you’re glad you went but the best part is getting home.  I tend to most cherish time spent at home.  So naturally it’s off to Summer Camp in a week.

Summer Adventures

Late June/early July saw the Morefield clan on a loooong car trip to Missouri for Laura’s bi-annual family reunion.  To make it more manageable, we broke it up with stops along the way, notably in St Louis to see the famous Gateway Arch:

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Later we took Jason to visit the St Louis Chess Club and Scholastic Center, which was really impressive compared to anything similar here in Richmond (which is, basically, zilch).  Lots of boards to play on downstairs and up, weekly classes and lectures, a nice chess-themed restaurant next door and just across the street is the World Chess Hall of Fame.  Jason was pretty excited to visit the very room he’d seen in the live stream of the US Championship back in April.

 

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Some friendly staffers agreed to sit down for a blitz game or two with Jason, then he got a real treat when Grandmaster and four-time US Champion Yasser Seriawan showed up to join them for a few rounds of bughouse.

While this was going on, Gracie and I took a walk around the block before settling down to a game of our own at one of the tables lining the sidewalk outside the Chess Club.

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From St Louis, it was on to Tan Tar-A Resorts at the Lake of the Ozarks, where apparently I was too busy relaxing to bother taking any pictures.  But anyway it was good catching up with family we hadn’t seen in quite a while, even if the temperatures were generally brutal.

On the way back, we broke up the ride again with a stopover in Louisville, KY and a trip to the Derby Museum.

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After all that time behind the wheel, I was ready to chill at home, but Laura and Jason had only a day to unwind before hopping a train to Philadelphia for five days at the World Open 2016. Jason managed to win 7 of 9 games for a fourth-place finish in the Under 2000 division, and pushed his rating up to 2015, placing him at “Expert” status.

At this writing, the boys and I are gearing up for a week at Boy Scout Summer Camp, so the fun’s not over yet.  I just checked the weather forecast to make sure we won’t be melting under a hot sun, and the good news is it looks like that won’t be a big concern.  The bad news is that’s because we’re supposed to get rain 6 out of 7 days we’re there, and most of that involves thunderstorms.  Yippee.

 

 

 

OBX 2015

The first week of this month, we enjoyed a relaxing week in the Outer Banks with Grandma and Grandpa.  We managed to get the same house we had 3 years ago (even though I was convinced for some reason it had been razed by a hurricane in the interim).  The chief appeal here is the direct access to the beach, and the ability to watch the sun rise and set from the comfort of the deck.

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As an avid sky-watcher, I found plenty to look at all week, though the highlight was probably the electrical storm we got to watch one night as it lit up the skies a few miles away.  Living in the tree-filled suburbs, you don’t often get a feel for the true size of a storm, or the play of lightning from cloud to cloud, but with a miles-long unobstructed view of the storm out over the coast, it’s like the world’s biggest fireworks display.  Sorry I couldn’t manage any photos for here.

The kids enjoyed the water all week, even though for the most part they couldn’t wade in too far due to treacherous rip tides.  After Labor Day, the lifeguards packed up and left for the year.

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Collecting shells was a popular passtime. This week I was trying to organize the garage and found a collection of shopping bags filled with shells the kids (and I) had picked up over the course of the week.  It probably weighs about ten pounds.  I’m pretty sure we left a few on the beach, though you wouldn’t know it from that pile.

shell-hunting

Grace was easily the biggest beach bum, angling for walks with Grandma every chance she got.  Somehow every “walk” ended up getting her wet.  Meanwhile the boys were just as content hanging out inside, playing video games and watching untold hours of “American Ninja Warrior” repeats.  But when we did get Jason out on the sand, he seemed to have a good time.

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For the grown-ups, the trip was largely about food.  Laura and I made sure to get out to our favorite spot, Kill Devil Grill, as often as we could, and over the course of the week we ate way too many Duck Donuts (and yet, somehow, not enough of them).  I even broke down and tried fish tacos at one eatery, and found they’re surprisingly a lot better than they sound.

I went in with vague plans for seeing the Wright Memorial again, or climbing Jockey’s Ridge early one morning, or maybe even a horse sightseeing tour for Grace.  But by silent consensus we all seemed to agree to just relax and recharge, instead.  It helped that most kids had to return to school that week, so after the holiday Monday the crowds diminished considerably, and things were comparatively quiet. We even fit in a little birthday party for Grace, who turned 7 (gulp!) that Wednesday.

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Thanks for the fun, OBX.  See you next time.

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