At age twelve-going-on-thirteen, I had a terrible secret. That was why I became a UFO believer upon reading Gray Barker’s They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, with its wild tales of the “three men in black” who pay unwanted visits to those who’ve solved the flying saucer mystery, and terrorize them into silence.
Gray Barker, as I found out many years afterward, also had a terrible secret. I’m pretty sure that’s why he wrote the book.
(I probably should put Barker’s “terrible” secret inside quotation marks. You’ll see why, in a minute.)
My genuinely terrible secret was this: that my mother, suffering from a heart condition, wasn’t just a “semi-invalid” as we called her. Her illness was terminal. Imperceptibly, inexorably, she was withering and dying.
It was a secret I kept above all from myself. Only in flashes, soon to be denied and forgotten, did awareness leap out at me. The same was true, I believe, of my mother. She might gaze wistfully upon a photo of her taken five years earlier, and reflect: how I’ve declined! How the arms, once plump and healthy-looking, had become withered and stick-like … And then she put it out of her mind, because the disease’s process was so slow that day to day you couldn’t see any difference. So you could forget about it, pretend it wasn’t happening
And I, her only child, looked at the photo and looked at her now, and saw—but didn’t see. Saw, but didn’t understand. Saw, but would not believe.
My father saw and understood, and knew what was coming. But he didn’t speak of it. None of us spoke. We didn’t dare. And perhaps we didn’t have the words.
In the fall of 1960, when I was in eighth grade, I read They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, with its theme of enforced silence about a dreadful secret. That I believed, because I knew from experience it was true. And if the men in black were real, the flying saucers must be real also. Q.E.D. Elementary, my dear Watson.
I became a teen-age UFOlogist. I remained so for the next five years, until I left for college. By that time the unthinkable, the unsayable had happened. My mother had died. At age 46.
Gray Barker died at the end of 1984, at age 59. By that time my ties with the world of UFOlogy were tenuous, to say the least. I didn’t hear about his death until four years afterward, in a telephone conversation with an old friend from my UFOlogist days.
My friend said: “He died of AIDS.”
Here was a new dimension to the mystery of Gray Barker—a man far more enigmatic than the disks he pursued with a sort of half-sincerity, even while writing poems about how “the UFO is a bucket of shit.” By the 1980s I’d developed a sense of historical perspective, and knew it wasn’t accidental that the legend of the “Bender mystery”—the silencing of Albert K. Bender by the men in black, in the fall of 1953—took shape during the McCarthy years. But in the secret of Barker’s being gay, well known to the UFO cognoscenti, lay a clue to his personal investment in the legend he did so much to shape.
They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers, fantastic as it is, has a power and an authenticity that Barker never could reproduce in his other writings. That must be another part of the puzzle of why it so convinced me. The book was the true story of Barker himself, and his own “terrible” secret. It spoke to a young boy saddled against his will, as Barker was, with a secret very different but no less awful.
(Barker’s secret was “terrible” and “awful,” of course, not in any absolute sense but in the context of West Virginia—where Barker was born, where he spent all his life—in the middle of the last century. Today, I’d like to think, it would hardly need to be secret at all. But even as I write these words, I know I’m kidding myself, at least for most places in this country. We’ve not yet reached that stage. Maybe in another generation …)
The book spoke in disguise, in indirection, with narratives and images that seem light-years removed from their latent meaning. But speak it did—and not just to me. Apparently it reached the best-seller lists when it appeared in 1956, though I don’t imagine for very long. And here’s a minor mystery: how was it possible for a best-seller to have vanished from popular awareness only four years later? I never met anyone, who wasn’t personally engaged in UFO research, who’d ever heard of They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers.
The three men in black, you see … the amnesia they leave behind them …
I’m only half joking. Not joking at all, as long as we’re willing to see the three men as representations of psychological processes.
And Gray Barker, their creator, managed to infuse something of the dread he must have lived with every day into the mainstream of the society that had wronged him, would have persecuted him if it had known him. That spat upon his true self. That would have made him a pariah, had he dared to live that self openly.
Amazing, isn’t it, the world of UFOs?
And the meanings you find, once you penetrate beneath their masks.