“Monday, September 6. Well, I am on the road. … It is not quite the sparkly, sunshiny day I had imagined. It is overcast, drizzly, warm and humid.” Just the sort of day to set forth on a nearly 400-mile drive from North Carolina to Clarksburg, West Virginia, and into the past.
It was exactly seven years ago today that I left on my trip to visit the Gray Barker Collection at the Clarksburg-Harrison Public Library, where I would be privileged to sift through the private files of the man whose mythmaking had shaped my adolescence. The man who, with his book They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, introduced the Men In Black into our national folklore. Who’s been made the subject of two documentary films, each of them setting out to unravel the human enigma that was Gray Barker.
The man who died of AIDS in 1984.
I had some idea what I’d be getting into. A couple of weeks earlier I’d had a long phone conversation with David Houchin, the genial curator of the Barker Collection. There were files, David said, of Barker’s correspondence with Morris K. Jessup, author of The Case for the UFO and The Expanding Case for the UFO, another UFOlogist whom I’d never known—he died under peculiar circumstances in 1959, when I was eleven years old—but whose story had long intrigued and baffled me. For it was Jessup who’d been contacted by one of the all-time mystery men of the UFO realm, known variously as Carlos Allende and Carl Allen. This “Allende” or “Allen” was a gypsy, it seemed, with knowledge of things that went beyond ordinary human experience. He’d written to Jessup, a string of extraordinary letters. Then he vanished … “Oh yes,” David assured me. “We have all sorts of letters from Carl Allen, too. Folders full of them.”
Letters from Carl Allen? The enigmatic, the unknowable Carlos Allende? Unbelievable! I packed my bag; I brought my car into the garage for inspection. I was on my way.
“So what am I hoping to find?” I wrote in my diary entry for 9/6/04, which lies open before me as I type these words. “I don’t know; and a quest without clear expectations has an element of excitement, an element of youthfulness, that in one’s 50s one begins sorely to miss.”
I listened to WCPE, North Carolina’s classical music station, until I got past Greensboro. Then the signal turned blurred and staticky; I began to listen to the tapes I’d prepared for myself. I heard a recording of the Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast—the one that in 1938 had sent people screaming, in panicky terror, out into the night. (“Gripping; and vastly more so when coming over the speakers that I normally use for NPR news broadcasts.”) I heard an interview with businessman and private pilot Kenneth Arnold, given a day or so after June 24, 1947, when Arnold spotted nine unknown silvery objects flying over the Cascade Mountains of Washington and thereby inaugurated the modern UFO era. I heard a tape recording that I’d made in January 1964, of several hours of conversation with the naturalist and “crypto-zoologist” Ivan T. Sanderson, who’d been a friend of Morris Jessup’s and whose recollections—so I’d hoped—might contain a clue to what I and my fellow-UFOlogists had come to call “the Allende mystery.”
On the tape, Sanderson reminisced about Jessup. He spoke fondly of Jim Moseley, another remarkable person whom I’ll talk about in a subsequent post. He urged me to get a literary agent for my UFO writings—a piece of advice I was able to take only several decades later. (I was sixteen at the time.) He warned me against Gray Barker.
“In the final extract from the interview, Sanderson was talking about the Flatwoods Monster [who’d terrorized seven residents of Flatwoods, West Virginia, on the evening of September 12, 1952], and giving grudging praise to Barker’s investigation of it. This came on as I was approaching Flatwoods on I-79. It is a stunningly scenic area, which appeared to its best advantage in the late afternoon sunlight, as the skies cleared after a long cloudy drive. West Virginia is a very beautiful state, and also a very poor state; and the mountains will account for both.”
Not long afterwards I checked into my motel in Clarksburg. My plan was to show up at the Barker Collection early the next morning.
(To be continued.)