Always there’s been somebody the UFOlogists have loved to hate. When I was a teen-age UFO investigator, this was Harvard astrophysicist Donald H. Menzel, arch-skeptic of the 1950s and 60s. Menzel died in 1976; his spot was taken by science writer Philip Klass. Like Menzel, Klass produced multiple books on the UFOs-are-bunk theme, but in 2005 followed Menzel into the next world. Who will take his place, I wonder?
Or is the pattern of culture that made a Menzel possible, and after him a Klass, now gone forever?
The anti-UFOlogical careers of these two men show curious parallels. Both debuted with books—Menzel’s Flying Saucers (1953), Klass’s UFOs—Identified (1968)—which in a paradoxical way asserted that UFOs were real. Not as spaceships, of course. Rather, as an unrecognized or insufficiently recognized class of unusual, if not downright anomalous, natural phenomena. For Menzel these were temperature inversions, atmospheric phenomena akin to mirages. Klass argued for a peculiar, little-understood form of ball lightning. The UFOlogists, Klass said, deserved science’s respect and thanks: they’d called attention to the phenomenon and amassed impressive evidence that it existed. Only the gratuitous and irrational corollary, that the UFOs were extraterrestrial spacecraft, had discredited their sound case for UFO reality.
Menzel, similarly, drummed across the message: flying saucers are real, people have seen them, they are not what people thought they saw. A mirage, he insisted, is a real thing, “not a hallucination like a pink elephant.” Two people looking at it will both see it; it will appear on film. As Klass was later to do, Menzel took an independent stance somewhere between the believers and the unthinking debunkers. He could be as critical of Air Force explainers-away as he was of interplanetary-spaceship proponents—in his first book.
But then things changed. By the time Menzel published his second book, The World of Flying Saucers (co-authored with Lyle G. Boyd; 1963), he’d shifted to advocating the straight Air Force line. His original one-size-fits-all solution was abandoned. What UFOs were had receded into the background of his interest; all he now cared about was what they were not. In his 1953 Flying Saucers he’d given a long quotation from the vision in the first chapter of the Biblical Book of Ezekiel, with an explanation in terms of atmospheric phenomena. He affirmed Ezekiel’s reliability as a witness; he heaped praise on the prophet as a “first-rate scientific observer.” (Or words to that effect; I am quoting from memory.) In the second book, if I recall correctly, the same Ezekiel was dismissed as primitive and superstitious. The positive argument had evaporated. Only the negative was left.
Klass followed a similar trajectory. In the numerous books that came after UFOs—Identified, the ball-lightning theory was quietly dropped. Apparently the scientific community had been less than enthused over it, the UFO community vehemently hostile. (I was an exception. Just before I went off to college, I investigated a string of sightings that took place on one evening in August 1965, in my home town of Levittown, Pennsylvania. They fit Klass’s hypothesis perfectly.)
From then on Klass’s line turned to straight debunking, usually though not invariably mixed with ridicule. Any half-way dispassionate observer is bound to ask: why? What did it matter to him? Why, having given up the positive side of his case—that UFO sightings testified to a phenomenon of genuine scientific interest—didn’t he just forget the whole thing? Did he have no other interests to occupy his time? Had he become addicted to the media attention? Or—this is obviously the alternative I prefer—was there something about UFOs that had him emotionally hooked, that wouldn’t let him go?
And the same question can be asked of Menzel.
Veteran UFOlogists, who remember the days when Menzel occupied the office of Lord High Debunker, have spoken of what a nasty man he was, how dogmatic and opinionated, how contemptuous of anyone who dared disagree with him—on UFOs, at least. Visiting the Gray Barker Collection in Clarksburg, West Virginia, nearly eight years ago, I was stunned to find correspondence from Menzel that showed an entirely different side of him. Correspondence, indeed, that made me wish I had known the man.
These were letters from Menzel to a boy named Norman—I won’t use his last name, since I don’t know what his current feelings are on UFOs and I don’t want to embarrass him. I remembered Norman. I’d corresponded with him myself back in 1963-64, when I was the 16-year-old director of the New Jersey Association on Aerial Phenomena (NJAAP, for short). Norman, a few years younger than myself, was also a “director,” of something called the “R_____ Observatory” in Philadelphia. That was part of the UFO subculture of those days, for teens and “tweens” to organize tiny groups and give ourselves official-sounding titles. We learned very quickly to write letters that made us sound almost like real grown-ups.
I went into Philadelphia once to visit the boys—typically, there were no girls—of the R_____ Observatory. I was not impressed.
But the Bah-humbug Scrooge of the flying-saucer world, Professor Donald H. Menzel, evidently was.
Not by Norman’s UFOlogy. By Norman himself. There was more to Norman, Menzel realized, than the “flying saucer nonsense” he urged Norman to forget about. Norman must apply himself instead to his classes in science and mathematics. That way he could grow into the “good scientist” Menzel believed he was capable of becoming.
Of course Menzel was displeased when Norman wrote proudly to say that a Philadelphia radio show was featuring him and his UFO researches. (Teen UFOlogists were sometimes able to get that kind of press, back in those days.) I’m afraid I cannot congratulate you, Menzel answered sternly. As far as the great doctor was concerned, this was encouragement in the wrong direction. But when Menzel was visiting Philadelphia for a conference, and Norman wanted to get together, Menzel proposed a plan. Let Norman meet him at the train station; they would walk together to Menzel’s hotel, and talk as they walked.
At which point, reading Menzel’s letters in the Barker Collection, I nearly slid off my seat. Could I remember anyone, from my 25 years in academia, who would have been so generous to a raw young boy, so willing to spare his time and attention? To a graduate student, yes; to one of his undergrads, maybe. Not to a kid, a stranger to him, who couldn’t have been more than 13 or 14. Kind of a wacko kid, moreover, as the world would have viewed him, devoted to a hobby that defied all Menzel’s ideas of rationality.
I wish I had photocopied Menzel’s letters while I was in the Barker Collection. I wish I knew, actually, how they got there. I suppose Norman, who told me back in ’63 that Gray Barker and Donald Menzel were both among his correspondents, at some point sent them to Barker for some reason I can’t guess. They etched themselves in my mind, as powerfully as anything I saw in the Barker archive. In my diary I wrote about their astonishing warmth and kindness, the paternal interest that Menzel seemed to have taken in Norman. “I recall,” I wrote, “that Menzel, in one of his letters to Norman ____________, condoles with him over the death of the father of one of his fellow-UFOlogists.” Didn’t matter what side of the divide you were on. Death and grief were things to be respected.
And in yet another letter, on which I took no notes and can quote now only from memory, Menzel explains his distaste for the UFOlogists, at least those who (like Barker) had made a name for themselves in the field. “I hate liars,” Menzel wrote to Norman; and I remembered, reading these words, how young Dave Halperin—Director, NJAAP— hated liars also. My devotion to the wannabe “science” of UFOlogy was an expression, however confused and distorted, of my contempt for lies and deceit, my passion to strip them away and let truth be acknowledged.
Me and the man I loved to hate—brothers under the skin? My UFOlogy and his anti-UFOlogy, expressions of kindred spiritual impulses? I never would have believed it.