The Philadelphia Experiment – Reflections

I drove up to Clarksburg, West Virginia, on Monday, September 6, 2004.  I spent Tuesday through Saturday morning immersed in the decades-old files of Gray Barker, impresario of the Three Men in Black, the Philadelphia Experiment, and other myths and legends almost too numerous to list.  “Gray Barker knew too much about all of them,” runs the blurb on the CD case of Bob Wilkinson’s brilliant documentary “Shades of Gray”; and I suppose he did.  Too much, and possibly also too little.

On my way out of Clarksburg I stopped by Flatwoods, in Braxton County.  On a nearby hilltop, in 1952, seven of those whom Barker always thought of as his West Virginia neighbors were terrorized by a seven-foot “monster that walks like a man, a creature from the blackest memory of your fears,” floating just off the ground beside a luminous landed object.  This incident, still never really explained, was what gave the 27-year-old Barker his start.  (The above-quoted prose is from the first chapter of his They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers.)  But there was nothing to see in Flatwoods beyond a sign at either end of town reading Welcome to Flatwoods – Home of the Green Monster. The Monster Festival held in 2002 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary—a leaf out of Roswell’s tourist-attraction book, complete with “Monster Museum”—had left no trace.  Other, I suppose, than the sign.

Each night I spent in Clarksburg I wrote in my diary, reflecting on the things I’d read, seen, heard during the day.  I thought of the insights David Houchin, curator of the Barker Collection, had shared with me.  “Houchin remarked to me yesterday,” I wrote on Thursday, September 9, “that the quest for truth and the quest for meaning take us in two different directions, for true reality usually is not meaningful.  Perhaps one function of mythology is to overcome the split, either by denying it or by transcending it.  The UFOlogists seek a truth with meaning.”

On Tuesday the 7th I wrote:  “The nature of myth is to find mystery where none genuinely exists, as a projection of some mystery that cannot be addressed if it remains in its proper place.  If I write a book on UFO mythology, the aim must be not to minimize the mystery but to relocate it.  (Hypothesis: the ‘alien’ is death, which is utterly alien to our conscious existence, and yet is bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh.)

Yet I had my reservations.  “There is something not quite accurate in comparing, as I often do, the UFO mythology to the Greek mythology.  The latter is the consensus mythology of a vital and creative culture; the former, the shared fantasies of a marginal group of misfits—including extremely bright misfits, like young Dave Halperin!—which dwells continuously on the edges of popular culture, intermittently penetrating the center.  I put the negative case in the starkest terms, and can imagine flipping it around: that the UFO mythology survives because it represents, in extreme and indeed crazy form, something within the American psyche to which it can intermittently appeal.  It does not exert more power than it does, because it is so obviously in conflict with consensus reality.

I probably already have the dubious distinction,” I wrote near the end of my stay, “of knowing more about Carl Allen than practically anyone in the world, with the exception of Jim Moseley, Robert Goerman, and perhaps a few others who have had the honor of knowing him.  I can imagine the horror of William Moore when he finally tracks down the enigmatic Carlos Allende, and discovers him to be a tiresome and persistent lunatic who will not leave him alone.  And yet how many tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars did Allen’s fantasies earn for Moore?  (I really must find a video of ‘The Philadelphia Experiment.’)

What in retrospect is most remarkable is the keen enthusiasm—the heady sense of discovery—that Allende’s original demented letters evoked in M.K. Jessup, and also the way in which his jottings in the margins of Jessup’s book piqued the curiosity of the Navy officers who got hold of it.  The story is very suggestive of Joe Gould [to whom I devoted my last post]: that somewhere in the babblings of the fringe, among the ragged edges of the society, are cryptic hints of the web that lies beneath all seeming reality.  It is a variant of the Freudian perception that it is precisely the jumbled, the chaotic, the inexplicable that provides the ‘royal road’ to understanding what is most essential about the human being.”

And on Wednesday, September 8:  “In an adrenaline surge this morning, I conceived the inspiration that a good book, fiction or non-fiction, might be written about the interactions and mutual delusions of the three key players [in the saga of the Philadelphia experiment]: Carl Allen, M.K. Jessup, and Gray Barker.  But then the skepticism settles in: who are these people but three pathetic losers, all of them thirsting to do great things, but without the capacity, position, or materials to do anything.  Except create a mythology!

And, in truth, are we not all pathetic losers, yearning for a significance that is beyond our grasp and that life itself may not offer?  So these three may be, precisely in their failures, figures who have the power to teach us about our own yearnings and delusions, and help us answer the ancient question: what is a human being?

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