We met in Cleveland in June 1964, and again in June 1965. 1966 too; but by that time I’d dropped out of the UFOlogy scene and so I missed the great Congress of Scientific UFOlogists held in New York City in June 1967. It’s one of the great regrets of my mostly well-spent youth.
We returned to Cleveland last weekend, for the 50th reunion of the 1965 Congress. There were five of us at the reunion. Scientific UFOlogists are as mortal as everyone else.
It was only last weekend that I was reminded why we gave ourselves that title. There had been UFO gatherings before 1964, notably the conventions at Giant Rock in the California desert. But those were “contactee” events. Their stars were people like George Adamski and Dan Fry and George Van Tassel, who told preposterous stories of having been “contacted” by benevolent aliens from Venus or Mars or Saturn, most of whom looked like uncommonly handsome humans of the Caucasian variety and came bearing messages of peace and good will. We “objective researchers” wanted nothing to do with such nonsense.
It was sometime in 1963 (or perhaps late 1962) that three teen-age UFOlogists came up with a brilliant idea. Why couldn’t the nation’s objective, scientific UFO researchers have a convention of our own?
I wasn’t one of the three. They were Allen Greenfield of Atlanta, Rick Hilberg of Cleveland, and Dale Rettig of Glenview, Illinois. That’s Dale sitting next to me under the marquee on the photo above. (I’m at the far left, with the glasses.) He passed away last September. Next to Dale sits James W. Moseley, sometimes called “the Voltaire of American Ufology” and sometimes less flattering names, whom we lost to cancer in November 2012. At the far right is Michael Mann, who I hope is alive and well and happy. I haven’t heard anything of him for years.
How to convey to young people today, the Facebook generation, for whom air travel is a ho-hum part of life and emails are old-fashioned and postal mail–well, forget postal mail, that’s just for junk and bills and magazines–how to convey to them the excitement and wonder of your home mailbox in the early 1960s? That was where you heard from your friends who didn’t live nearby, whom you might never hope to meet face to face, but who were the ones on your wavelength, who shared the awareness to which most people were oblivious, that we were being visited by strange craft whose pilots might mean us well or perhaps ill, and whose mystery demanded investigation.
Although I didn’t yet know the phrase, I thought of us as something like an “invisible college,” of exceptional teenagers who’d turned away from the standard adolescent fare of parties and dates and dances to devote ourselves to the pursuit of truth. (Between the 1964 and 1965 Congresses, I started getting invited to parties and finally asked a girl out and to my surprise she said yes, and I discovered that kind of stuff wasn’t so bad either.)
And now that college was taking on visible form, meeting in Cleveland, a long Greyhound bus ride away from my home in the Philadelphia suburb of Levittown. As the long, brutal winter of 1964 melted into spring, my excitement grew. I was in eleventh grade; I’d begun looking into The Canterbury Tales. I’d read how, when April arrives with its “sweet showers,”
” … longen folk to goon on pilgrimages …
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende …”
and I felt that “longing,” and in my mind I put “Cleveland” in place of “Canterbury” and imagined all my fellow-UFOlogists “wending” thither, where we would delight in each other’s company and push the solution to the great enigma a few steps closer, and know there was a place where we counted and could feel ourselves doing important things.
The Congress came and went, and I was disappointed. With expectations like that, how could I not have been? We were only human beings, only kids, many of us; and even the grownups, I discovered, had no exceptional insight or wisdom unavailable to my parents and teachers, who mostly thought UFOs were bunk.
I enjoyed the 1965 Congress a lot more. And then I went to college; and although the Congress continued to assemble nearly every year, no longer in Cleveland and no longer in June and it came to be known as the “National UFO Conference,” I didn’t come back for 50 years.
And then, perhaps spurred by Dale’s death, Rick and Allen organized the 2015 reunion.
They were at the reunion. So was Tim Beckley, whom I’d known from the old days–he grew up in New Brunswick, New Jersey, not far from me–and who’s come to be known as “Mr. UFO.” Also a gentleman named Bob Easley, in his late 60s like the rest of us, whom I hadn’t met before (he started going to the Congresses in 1966, the year I stopped) but whom it was a pleasure to get to know.
We had meals together. We gave presentations for the public. A very small public–perhaps a dozen or so came to hear us, a far cry from the 1960s Congresses, where crowds of hundreds packed into sweltering auditoriums to hear from our youthful lips the latest about the UFOs.
I spoke last Saturday afternoon, not about UFOs, but about what it felt like to make a long distance call one frigid February night more than 50 years ago to Dale Rettig’s home in Illinois, where he and Allen and Rick had gathered to plan the 1964 Congress. Nowadays long distance calls are routine. Then they were expensive, infrequent. You thought twice before placing one. I couldn’t have phoned from home, or my father would have hit the ceiling when the bill arrived. Instead I provided myself with a tall stack of quarters and stood shivering in a phone booth a mile from my house, while I heard for the first time the voices of fellows I’d known until then only from their typewritten letters.
Also last Saturday, we heard a presentation by Tom Wertman, director of the Ohio branch of the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), which has taken the place of the “scientific” UFO organizations of my youth. He told us about a case of the most extraordinary interest, which I’ll post about next week.
What did I learn from the reunion?
Mostly this: that we’ve turned out OK. Ripened, matured, which I suppose you’d expect after 50 years but still it’s a wonderful thing to see when it’s happened. We’re all more solid, more interesting, more vital people than we were at 15 and 16 and 17. We’ve all acquired some measure of wisdom. In some way I can’t quite convey, the UFOs had a lot to do with that.
We’re not all believers, in the way we were 50 years ago. I know I’m not. Yet for all of us the UFOs remain important. Otherwise we wouldn’t still be doing this stuff. We wouldn’t have shown up in Cleveland last weekend. Rick Hilberg and his wife Carol wouldn’t be publishing Flying Saucer Digest, which is quite possibly the last hard-copy saucer zine in the world. (Six issues for $10.00; write to R. Hilberg Publications, 377 Race Street, Berea, OH 44017.)
At the reunion, Rick spoke of the “wonder, awe and dreaming” that the UFOs evoked within him many years ago. They still do. You had only to see his eyes light up with tender warmth when he spoke those words, to realize how much they do and how much that means to him.
The UFOs may or may not be real. The wonder, awe, and dreaming certainly are. I’m looking forward to our 75th.
For background on the “National UFO Conference,” and many wonderful photos old and new, check out https://nationalufoconference.wordpress.com/.
by David Halperin
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