Scene from a dermatologist’s office, about two weeks ago:
The doctor’s assistant has just led me into the office, handed me the equivalent of a sheet wherewith to preserve my modesty after I take off my clothes. She catches sight of Kevin Randle’s Roswell in the 21st Century, its title proudly visible, amid my stuff.
She: “Is that a good book?”
“No,” I reply. “But it should have been.”
Enter the dermatologist herself. Roswell grabs her attention too. She asks the same question. I give the same answer, this time elaborating: “The author knows more about Roswell than any living person. He’s in a position to write the definitive book. This isn’t it.”
Neither dermatologist nor assistant needs to ask what Roswell is or what’s supposed to have happened there. Might as well ask who Hansel and Gretel were, what happens when children nibble at a gingerbread house. No less than a familiar fairy tale, the Roswell story is a cultural heirloom, a myth that’s come to pervade our nation’s shared consciousness.
Try to name a single other UFO episode of which that can be said.
There’s a difference, of course. Unlike at the gingerbread house, something really did happen in the summer of 1947 at Roswell, New Mexico. But what? For a long time and in various forums, especially on his “A Different Perspective” blog, veteran UFOlogist Kevin Randle has argued for a crashed spaceship. Now he’s far less sure.
“As for me, I find myself drifting toward those who reject the extraterrestrial. At one time I was sure but that was when we had all that robust testimony, much of which is now thoroughly discredited. I have hope that we’ll find an answer, and it might be extraterrestrial, but in today’s world we just can’t prove it” (page 247).
The intellectual honesty evinced by this admission—which involves not only conceding that the answer he once gave was wrong but also that he has no idea what the right answer might be—is one of the book’s great strengths. The other is Randle’s vast knowledge of the subject. He’s indeed the foremost living authority on Roswell, his only possible competitor for this title, Karl Pflock, having been tragically taken from us a little over 10 years ago.
Randle has spent uncounted hours interviewing witnesses, maybe-or-just-possibly witnesses, and others who might have been in a position to shed light on the alleged witnesses and the events they thought they remembered. You don’t have to do more than look at his footnotes to be impressed by the thoroughness of his investigations, the richness of the data he’s unearthed. He has a special advantage, pointed out by Jerome Clark in his review for last November’s issue of Fortean Times: a military background, rare among present-day UFOlogists. This is an invaluable asset in making sense of an episode played out originally in military circles, and Randle makes excellent use of it.
Where Roswell in the 21st Century stumbles is in its presentation. It’s poorly written, poorly organized, and sloppily edited. These are no small defects in dealing with a problem as complex and labyrinthine as the one that goes by the name of Roswell—especially for those who don’t have the author’s knowledge already at their fingertips.
By “poorly written,” I don’t mean that it’s not “gripping” or “thrilling.” Thrills and chills are the last things a serious Roswell book ought to have. I mean that it’s murky where it needs to be clear, vague where it needs to be precise, annoyingly repetitious yet stingy with detail where the details are needed. (Example: “Colonel Thomas J. DuBose, the Eighth Air Force Chief of Staff” leaps out at us on the very first page, but it isn’t until pages 5 and 21 that we begin to get some sense of who he was and what role he played in the unfolding of the Roswell story.)
The book has no index. I know from long experience that preparing an index is a tedious, time-consuming task which (no matter what anybody says) a computer can’t do for you. But it’s a necessity for a story so complicated, with dozens of characters who vanish and reappear before you can commit their names to memory.
[Added March 16: Kevin has kindly informed me that there is an index to the book, posted to his blog last August: http://kevinrandle.blogspot.com/2016/08/roswell-in-21st-century-index.html. I’ve printed it out and inserted it into my copy.]
Less damagingly, but also less excusably, it has no table of contents. So I will provide one, using Randle’s chapter titles:
- Tuesday, July 8, 1947 – 1
- In the Beginning – 28
- Finding the Metallic Debris – 45
- Another Crash Location and Examining the Metallic Debris – 67
- Talk of the Bodies – 86
- The Cover-Up – 107
- The Air Force Investigation – 120
- The Jesse Marcel Conundrum – 143
- The Roswell Slides – 165
- Walter Haut – The True Father of Roswell – 205
- The Final Analysis -229
Appendix A: The Myth of MJ-12 – 248
Appendix B: The Plain of San Agustin Controversy – 319
Appendix C: The Flight No. 4 Controversy – 354
Appendix D: Deciphering the Ramey Memo – 372
A glance at this list will convey the book’s organization problem. The appendixes occupy more than a third of its text, approximately 150 out of 400 pages. Why does Randle choose to relegate material to an appendix rather than let it appear in the body of the book, or vice versa? Sometimes his reasons are clear and make sense. At other times it appears he’s got a pile of stuff more or less related to Roswell that he wants somehow to get into the book, and he’s not quite sure how to do it.
I can see the rationale for making “The Myth of MJ-12” an appendix. The issue is relevant yet tangential. If the “MJ-12” documents are authentic (which seems close to impossible), that would guarantee a spaceship crashed at Roswell. If they’re forgeries, as Randle believes, that says nothing about Roswell one way or the other. So you can’t leave them out if you want to be thorough, yet you don’t want to mix them in with the substantial evidence.
Ditto for the “Ramey memo,” the scrap of paper General Roger Ramey has in his hand as he poses for photographs in his office at Fort Worth Army Air Field, with a pile of junk that’s purportedly the Roswell debris but looks awfully like the remains of a weather balloon. There’s writing on the paper which might (or might not) be relevant, but the resolution of the photo isn’t good enough to allow us to read it. The difficulty, we might think, should yield to present-day computer enhancement techniques. So far, however, nobody’s found a way to do that. The issue is part of the Roswell problem; it can’t be ignored. But like MJ-12, it doesn’t belong in the body of the text.
The same, however, can hardly be said of the persistent recollections of a crashed UFO in the Plains of San Agustin, miles from the ranch where the debris that fell into the hands of the military (and that certainly existed) was found. I agree with Randle that these memories are false. But the question of how they originated and were transmitted, to which I’ll return in the second part of this post, is vital to the Roswell story. If the marginal 2015 fiasco of the “Roswell slides” belongs in the body of the text—I’d have made it an appendix—the San Agustin tradition surely does as well.
So does the discussion of whether “flight no. 4” of the Mogul balloon project was actually launched. Here some background is necessary, for those who aren’t up on the Roswell controversies:
The “Mogul” theory—first floated by the Air Force in 1994, endorsed by Karl Pflock in his 2001 book on Roswell—has long seemed an elegant and persuasive explanation of what fell to the ground at Roswell. I have to admit that I was completely convinced by it, and have at times repeated it as if it were undisputed fact.
According to this theory, the debris wasn’t from an ordinary weather balloon—the people at Roswell Army Air Field would certainly have recognized it as such, even if the rancher who found it on his property didn’t—but from a balloon train launched as part of a top-secret Cold War espionage “Project Mogul.” (Purpose: to detect Soviet nuclear testing.) The secrecy that allegedly shrouded this project nicely explains why even experienced military men were at first baffled by its artifacts, and why they were so quick to hush it up as soon as they realized what they had in their hands.
The problem is that there were a limited number of Mogul launches in the summer of 1947, and most of them were retrieved on the ground at places other than Roswell. The only plausible candidate for the Roswell wreckage is “flight no. 4,” and the diary of a Mogul scientist named Albert Crary—which Randle subjects to a close and in my view convincing textual analysis—seems to suggest that this flight was never launched.
So where does that leave us? I still want to believe the Mogul theory, and hope there’s some way to rehabilitate it. I have to acknowledge, though, that the objections to it are weighty and solidly grounded. (The Crary diary is the principal stumbling block, but not the only one.) The problem can’t be divorced from the enigmatic figure of the late Charles B. Moore, a scientist who worked on Project Mogul in 1947 and much later remembered things about it, like the launching of flight no. 4, that very likely never happened.
Was Moore deliberately lying, perhaps doing the bidding of Air Force or other official (or non-official) debunkers? Or would “confabulating” be a better word for it, the creation of pseudo-facts convenient for the UFO skeptics? If so, what conscious or unconscious motives underlie his confabulations?
Randle never asks these questions, contenting himself with finding ways to dismiss Moore’s testimony. Yet they’re a mirror of the questions that have to be asked about the witnesses on which the Roswell story rests, and which Randle does ask in his chapters on Major Jesse Marcel and Lieutenant Walter Haut. These are, in my opinion, the most interesting chapters of Randle’s book.
This judgment, I hasten to add, reflects my intuition that the Roswell story is in essence the story of a small group of mythmakers, acting in all probability in good faith and without conscious awareness of what they were doing, and the resonance that their creation found in the wider society.
Three questions, in my opinion, lie at Roswell’s heart. The first is a historical question. What was the debris displayed on the floor of General Ramey’s office in the photos taken on the evening of July 8, 1947, by a photographer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram? What was its relation to the materials retrieved from Mac Brazel’s ranch north of Roswell?
If the two were identical, then the mystery is solved. What came down on the ranch was a weather balloon. But then it becomes utterly baffling—not to say inconceivable—that the military authorities at Roswell took the debris so seriously, arranging to fly it to Fort Worth for examination by their superiors and from there to Wright Field in Ohio. Or that they authorized the press release that’s haunted UFOlogy ever since: “The many rumors regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the cooperation of one of the local ranchers and the sheriff’s office of Chavez County.”
(But maybe that really did happen. Sherlock Holmes: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” The quotation appears in grotesquely distorted form on page 246 of Randle’s book and then correctly on page 247—a telling example of how carelessly the book was edited.)
The second question is, to use the lingo of the Biblical studies in which I was trained, tradition-historical. After the initial flurry of media excitement that surrounded the discovery at Roswell in July 1947, the incident sank into near-total obscurity for a full generation. Only at the beginning of 1978 did it begin to re-emerge, and to appear in the 1980 book The Roswell Incident by Charles Berlitz and William L. Moore (no relation to Charles B. Moore). By this time it had taken on the shape we now know, in which the bodies of extraterrestrials were found in the wreckage of their shattered craft. By what stages and through which agencies did the story survive and evolve during those dark 30 years?
Finally, a social-psychological question:
Roswell isn’t the only saucer-crash story ever to circulate. In 1950, Frank Scully’s Behind the Flying Saucers hit the best-seller charts with its tale of crashed Venusian disks in New Mexico and Arizona, and the diminutive but otherwise perfectly human-like corpses of their pilots. The story soon faded; and although it’s true that it was debunked as a hoax in 1952, that by itself is hardly an adequate explanation for its disappearance.
Other crash stories, known only to hard-core UFO aficionados–you can find them in the article “Crashes and Retrievals of UFOs in the Twentieth Century,” in Jerry Clark’s The UFO Encyclopedia–have proven no less evanescent.
While the Roswell story, of the same vintage as Scully’s, has spread and burgeoned uncontrollably—even unto the dermatology offices of North Carolina 70 years afterward. Why?
by David Halperin
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