(For part 1 of this post, click here.)
Suppose a man you don’t know very well–you didn’t know him at all, actually, until he sat down next to you at the counter of a crowded diner and the two of you fell to talking–were to tell you that 20-plus years ago he had a neighbor named Barney. This Barney, he tells you, had terminal cancer, and he pitched in to help Barney’s wife take care of the dying man. And Barney spoke to him of having been years earlier in close proximity to a crashed UFO, the “contaminated air” around which he blamed for his present illness.
Would you believe your new-found acquaintance? If so, would you take the next step and believe Barney?
“Barney’s” full name was Grady L. Barnett, Barney to his friends. He’d lived in Socorro, New Mexico, and worked as a soil conservation engineer for the federal government. He died in 1969, aged 76. His helpful neighbor was one Harold Baca, who at the beginning of the 1990s responded to an ad that UFOlogist Stanton Friedman placed in a Socorro newspaper requesting information on Barnett.
When Baca answered Friedman’s ad, he presumably knew what kind of information Friedman was looking for and could easily have fabricated or embellished his story accordingly. (He might well have helped nurse the dying Barnett, yet not heard anything from him about a UFO.) Still, what he told Friedman–and afterward Kevin Randle, who conducted a telephone interview with him in June 1991–sounds believable enough, as long as we don’t take that second step.
Baca’s testimony is one of the many presented and discussed in Randle’s flawed but important new book on Roswell. It’s important for me since, if Baca really did hear these things from Barnett, they must have originated before 1969. They carry us back into the dark three decades of the Roswell tradition, those years between 1947 and 1978 when the complex and entangled stories bound up with Roswell were silently growing beneath UFOlogy’s collective radar. None of the UFOlogists, far less the general public, had any notion they existed.
Barney Barnett, for the non-Roswell-obsessed among us, is the central figure in the subset of traditions that cluster around the Plains of San Agustin in western New Mexico. (About 200 miles west of Roswell, but some link between events in the two locales is often posited.) He first emerged into the limelight in October 1978, nearly 10 years after his death, when a couple named Vern and Jean Maltais approached Stan Friedman to relate a story they’d supposedly heard from Barnett many years earlier, they couldn’t recall exactly when. Later, interviewed by UFO authors Charles Berlitz and William Moore, they remembered the date of the conversation as February 1950.
Barnett’s story, as relayed by the Maltaises, appears in chapter 4 of Berlitz and Moore’s 1980 book The Roswell Incident. It’s told by Barnett in first person, which seems odd. Usually, outside of Victorian novels, when you relate a story somebody else has has told you, you speak of the original narrator as “he” or “she,” not “I.” However this may be, Barnett is supposed to have told the younger couple that “I was out on assignment, working near Magdalena, New Mexico, one morning when light reflecting off some sort of large metallic object caught my eye.” It was about a mile away across the desert. He went to have a look.
He wasn’t alone, it turned out. The crashed disk, 25-30 feet across, was already surrounded by a group of people who introduced themselves as archaeologists from an Eastern university. They’d stumbled across the disk by accident, just as Barnett had. “I noticed that they were standing around looking at some dead bodies that had fallen to the ground.” There were other corpses inside the disk.
The bodies, said Barnett (quoted by Vern Maltais), “were like humans but they were not humans. The heads were round, the eyes were small, and they had no hair. The eyes were oddly spaced. They were quite small by our standards and their heads were larger in proportion to their bodies than ours.” At which point Jean Maltais put in that Barnett had “repeated several times that their eyes were small and oddly spaced.”
Small eyes–that sounds all wrong. This is because we know from the cover of Whitley Strieber’s Communion, published at the beginning of 1987, that UFO aliens have oval eyes, preternaturally huge. But in 1978 (or 1979, or whenever Berlitz and Moore interviewed them), the Maltaises would have had no inkling of this. Their image of the ET would surely have been informed by Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, released in 1977 to enormous box-office success. These cinematic aliens’ eyes are slightly larger in proportion to their faces than an adult human’s would be, but the difference isn’t very striking. And, as you can easily see by doing an image search for “close encounters alien,” “oddly spaced” wouldn’t be a bad way to describe them.
So the smallness of the aliens’ eyes, so inappropriate from our post-Communion perspective, might be but doesn’t have to be an indicator that this detail goes back to Barnett himself, and thus to a pre-1969 stratum of the tradition. The Maltaises, in the late 1970s, might easily have filtered their recollections of what Barnett had once told them through images from the great hit movie of the era.
(And I need to mention a caveat with regard to Baca’s story of nursing the terminally ill Barnett. Barnett’s reported complaint, that the toxic atmosphere around the UFO was responsible for his cancer many years later, might reflect Cold War anxieties about nuclear radiation. But to me it sounds more like an echo of Agent Orange and its effects on the GIs exposed to it in Vietnam, which first came to public awareness after Barnett’s death, in the later 1970s.)
Randle discusses these testimonies and others in his appendix on “the Plains of San Agustin controversy.” His conclusion: “The story of a crash on the Plains is single witness with a number of second-hand testimonies that prove Barnett told the story but not that it was true. … Until and unless something else is provided, all that we have is Barney Barnett telling friends and family an interesting story, and that is all it is.”
I concur with Randle’s belief that nothing UFOlogical happened on the Plains of San Agustin. I disagree with his implied judgment that the story, as a story, is therefore a matter of small importance. For me, what’s important about Roswell is the development of the tradition–legend, myth, whatever you want to call it–and the human impulses that shaped this evolution. The layers of narration and meaning are for me what’s vitally important in the accounts attributed to Barnett, and I’m frustrated that it seems so difficult if not impossible to sort them out in any satisfying way.
Randle’s book offers other data that feel like flashlight beams shining feebly into the pre-1978 murk. On page 141, he quotes Tom Carey and Donald Schmitt’s Witness to Roswell with regard to Glenn Dennis, the young (in 1947) Roswell undertaker who contributed so much to the story as we know it: “we know of witnesses who have told us that Dennis had told them about his run-in at the base long before Roswell became a household word.” This is intriguing but too vague to be useful.
Yet more intriguing is a document, quoted on pages 93-94, that I’d never heard of before I read Randle’s new book–a passage from a typewritten, never-published memoir by Inez Wilcox, wife of George Wilcox, the Roswell sheriff to whom Mac Brazel brought the debris he discovered on his ranch:
“One day a rancher North of town brought in, what he called a ‘FLYING SAUCER’, there had been many reports all over the United States by people who claimed they had seen a FLYING SAUCER, the rumors were in many variations. The saucer was from a different planet, and the people flying on it, were looking us overf [sic]. The Germans had invented this strange contraption, a fromible [? “formidable”?] weapon. Other tales, that one had landed and strange looking people all seven feet tall or more walked from it, but quickly departed on sighting any on looker [sic]. All the papers played the story up, and many people searched the skies at night to catch sight of one. Since no one had seen a flying saucer, Mr. Wilcox called headquarters at Walker Air Force Base, and reported the find. Beofre [sic] he hung up the telephone almost, an officer walked in. He quickly loaded the object into a truck and that was the last glimps [sic] any one had of it.
“Simultaneously the telephone began to ring, long distance calls from News papers [sic] in New York, England, France Government officials, Military officials, and the calls kept up for 24 hours straight. They would speak to no one but the Sheriff. However the officer who picked up the suspicious looking saucer, admonished Mr. Wilcox to tell as little as possible about it and refer all calls to Walker Air Force Base. A secret well kept, for to this day, we never found out if this was really a FLYING SAUCER.”
The typescript is undated, and Randle supposes this passage could have been written any time before Inez Wilcox’s death in the 1980s. I suspect it’s much earlier. Wilcox anachronistically refers to Roswell Army Air Field as “Walker Air Force Base,” as it was renamed in January 1948. She gives no hint of the base’s closing in 1967. This accords with her speaking repeatedly of the “flying saucer,” never once using the term “UFO” which had almost completely supplanted it by the end of the 1960s. On the other hand, some substantial length of time–“to this day”–has plainly elapsed since the events she’s describing. I’d guess a date in the late 1950s or early or mid-60s to be most suitable.
What does Wilcox mean by the “tales” of “strange looking people all seven feet tall or more” emerging from a landed saucer? I have to admit that I got all excited when I first read this, thinking she was referring to a lost variant of the Roswell story in which the UFO pilots were giants rather than pygmies, and had landed their craft rather than crashing it. Closer reading persuaded me that I’d let my own imagination run away with me. Surely she’s talking in this sentence, not about anything supposed to have happened at Roswell, but of the flying saucer “reports” and “rumors” from other parts of the country.
Yet her speaking of giant aliens underscores what she doesn’t speak of: diminutive beings found dead within the crashed saucer at Roswell. (Which she seems to remember as having been a single intact object, not a pile of debris.) If any rumors of this kind had come to her ears from her own town, from Glenn Dennis or anyone else, surely she would have mentioned them. Wouldn’t she?
A few faint beams of light–and the darkness of those fertile, creative years from 1947 to 1978 enshrouding them all around. Can it ever be penetrated?
I don’t know. But I’m not prepared to give up trying.
by David Halperin
Learn more about David Halperin on LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/davidjhalperin
Connect to Journal of a UFO Investigator on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/JournalofaUFOInvestigator
and Find David Halperin on Google+
Don’t have time to keep checking my blog? Sign up for my monthly email newsletter, with summaries and links to the past month’s posts, plus oldies-but-goodies from the archive.