Benson Saler, Charles A. Ziegler, and Charles B. Moore. UFO Crash at Roswell: The Genesis of a Modern Myth. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1997.
When Donald Menzel called flying saucers a “modern myth,” he meant it as a put-down. When Carl Jung did the same, he meant it as a badge of honor, with no necessary implication that UFOs don’t exist. When the authors of UFO Crash at Roswell call the famous 1947 crash “a modern myth,” their purpose is to claim it for the academic domain of anthropology and folklore, which takes such things as myths and legends and folktales as its proper territory.
In this they mostly succeed, although, as often happens with matters UFOlogical, the questions they pose tend to be more compelling and thought-provoking than their answers.
Of the book’s three co-authors, Charles A. Ziegler and Benson Saler are–or were, at the time of its publication in 1997–professional anthropologists. (Saler is now emeritus at Brandeis University. I don’t know whether Ziegler is still in the field.) The late Charles B. Moore was an atmospheric physicist, added to the team not because he had anything to say about Roswell as myth, but because his recollections of his participation 50 years earlier in what for him was the “New York University balloon project” make a seemingly persuasive case for what Ziegler and Saler take as established fact. Namely, that the debris found by Mack Brazel on his ranch north of Roswell on June 14, 1947–they’re quite sure of the date–was the remains of a balloon train sent aloft ten days earlier in the service of a secret Cold War espionage project that went by the name of “Mogul.”
If you’re new to Roswell’s daunting cluster of problems, as I was when I first read this book some 15 years ago, you might want to read it together with Karl Pflock’s Roswell: Inconvenient Facts and the Will to Believe (2001). Pflock, like the UFO Crash authors, thinks a Mogul balloon train was the factual nucleus of the Roswell story, out of which everything else grew. But Pflock is–or was, until his life was tragically cut short–himself a UFOlogist. He understands and conveys the ambiguities of the historical record; he’s able to appreciate the intellectual seriousness of the spaceship-crash advocates even while disagreeing with them. Ziegler and Saler, as good anthropologists, try to be dispassionate toward the “traditors,” oral and literary, to whom we owe the Roswell story. A disagreeable whiff of lofty contempt for the “UFO buffs” and “true believers” seeps out nonetheless.
The first two chapters are Ziegler’s. After presenting what he regards as “the myth’s historical core,” he summarizes in sequential order six “versions” of the story as it had come to be known in the late 1990s, each of which supposedly rests upon and develops its predecessor. The earliest of the Roswell books, Charles Berlitz and William Moore’s The Roswell Incident of 1980, is his “Version 1.” Then come the fabricated “MJ-12 report” (1988; version 2), Kevin Randle and Donald Schmitt’s UFO Crash at Roswell (1991; version 3), Stanton Friedman and Don Berliner’s Crash at Corona (1992; version 4), the second Randle-Schmitt collaboration, The Truth About the UFO Crash at Roswell (1994; version 5), and Pflock’s Roswell in Perspective (1994; version 6).
Each of these “versions” is analyzed according to the source of each of its features, inserted in parentheses into Ziegler’s summaries. Genuinely historical details are marked with an “H”. Those that are basically historical but in some way distorted are “HD”. Those that are carried over from previous crash stories like Frank Scully’s, or from beliefs pervading the UFO community, are “P” and “B” respectively. Those incorporated from earlier versions or innovated in the new version are “V-1”, “V-2,” and so forth.
Obviously, Ziegler has done his homework. His analysis has nevertheless a superficial feel, restricted as it is to the plane of the published Roswell literature, leaving aside the oral traditions that antedate The Roswell Incident and didn’t stop evolving when the Berlitz-Moore book appeared. To be sure, he’s got sound methodological reasons for doing this. The years before 1978, when the first informants on the crash began to come forward, are a vast darkness, silent as the Sphinx. Try to sketch out a sequential development of themes and details for this period, and you wallow in guesswork. Still, it’s hard to escape the sense that the most vital and creative part of the story’s development has happened entirely off his radar.
Ziegler is alive to the problem of the “oral traditors” and their relation to the “literary traditors”–his preferred nomenclature over “witnesses” and “authors”–and provides an earnest though muddled treatment of the issue in the “Transmission Process” section of chapter 2. What he doesn’t attempt is what Pflock does in his 2001 book, and Kevin Randle in last year’s Roswell in the 21st Century: zero in on the principal “oral traditors” and see what can be known of what they said and when.
Thus, Pflock devotes a chapter each to Frank Kaufmann and the mortician Glenn Dennis. Randle does the same for Major Jesse Marcel and Lieutenant Walter Haut. By contrast, Kaufmann gets two mentions in the index to UFO Crash at Roswell, one of them in an endnote, the page incorrectly given. (It should be 182, not 184.) There’s one page reference for Haut. Glenn Dennis, IMHO the most important of the group, isn’t in the index at all.
He does turn up in Ziegler’s discussion, though not by name. It was Glenn Dennis who claimed to have been harassed and threatened by a red-haired military officer in the base hospital of Roswell Army Air Field, where the corpses of the ETs were being examined. “The red-headed captain told me, ‘There was no crash here. You did not see anything. … You don’t tell anybody you saw anything. If you do, you’ll get into serious trouble. … Somebody’ll be picking your bones out of the sand.'” That was what Dennis told Randle in November 1990; and in an affidavit reprinted in Pflock’s book, dated August 1991, Dennis calls the captain “a redhead with the meanest-looking eyes I had ever seen.” Also present–quoting the affadavit–was “a Black sergeant with a pad in his hand who said, ‘He would make good dog food for our dogs.'”
Here Ziegler makes an important point. The threatening redhead crops up in another “oral traditor’s” account of what he and his family supposedly witnessed when he was a boy of five, on the Plains of San Agustin, about 200 miles west of Roswell. There was a crashed spaceship. Four aliens, three dead and one alive. “It wasn’t very long before the military types showed up,” this man, whose name was Gerald Anderson, told Randle in February 1990. “There was a captain … he had red hair. He was an asshole. He threatened everyone with the most incredible things you could possibly believe… First off, he told my father that if he repeated this he would see to it that he would spent his entire life in a military prison and he would never see his children again.”
So was this the same man, in the Roswell base hospital and on the Plains of San Agustin? Wildly unlikely. Also unlikely, however, that the shared detail is coincidence. Ziegler is surely right: this is a case of the folk-narrative process of displacement (“transferral”) of details from one context to another.
Pflock also notes the resemblance, explaining it through the influence on Anderson of Dennis’s story as told in a TV documentary (“Unsolved Mysteries”) about a month before Anderson spoke with Randle. Ziegler, less plausibly, suggests the influence went the other way. The crucial point is that the “oral traditors” intuitively felt the menacing man’s red hair to be a significant detail, equally appropriate for the open desert of western New Mexico and for the inside of a military hospital.
At this point Roswell becomes part of a wider web, and as far as I’m concerned the real inquiry begins.
“In European and American folklore,” says Ziegler, “redheaded people are traditionally thought to have fiery tempers.” This isn’t the half of it. As far back at the Middle Ages, Judas Iscariot was believed to have been a redhead. So, often, were Jews (and, according to the learned but exceedingly bizarre British antiquarian Montague Summers, also vampires). In his 1945 memoir Black Boy, Richard Wright remembers Southern black children taunting the red-haired son of a Jewish shopkeeper (I am quoting this from memory):
A Jewish head”
–which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, and must have been adapted from a taunt-rhyme I remember as, “Red head / Ginger bread / A nickel for / A ginger head.” I saw this jingle in print many years ago, and was sure I could find it on the Web, but no luck Googling. (Though the opening appears in a story published around 1900, and there’s a business in Wichita, Kansas, called “Redhead Gingerbread Custom Creations.”)
Nor can I find the source of a Jewish tradition I recall reading or hearing about long ago, that Haman, the raging anti-Semite of the Book of Esther, had red hair.
Was the red-headed captain of Roswell lore understood, unconsciously or half-consciously, to have been Jewish? Glenn Dennis’s pairing him with a black sergeant might then express a fear of minorities in American society being invested with uniforms, put in positions of power. This is not to say that Dennis was anti-Semitic or racist in any conscious or explicit way. With no ill will toward anyone, he may have plugged into certain anxieties in the culture around him, unwittingly transforming them into his memories of once-upon-a-time-in-Roswell.
But could there be more?
In an article on “Judas’ Red Hair and the Jews,” summarized at http://jhom.com/topics/color/judas.htm, the late art historian Ruth Mellinkoff speaks of an “age-old dislike of red hair” which she traces back to ancient Egypt, where red hair was connected with “the evil god Seth.” A quick Google search leads me to an authoritative-sounding website, “Ancient Egypt Online,” which speaks of Set (Seth) as “one of the most ancient of the Egyptian gods … a storm god associated with strange and frightening events such as eclipses, thunderstorms and earthquakes. He also represented the desert and, by extension, the foreign lands beyond the desert. His glyph appears in the Egyptian words for ‘turmoil’, ‘confusion’, ‘illness’, ‘storm’ and ‘rage’. He was considered to be very strong but dangerous, and strange.
“He was thought to have white skin and red hair, and people with red hair were thought to be his followers. He was associated with the desert (which takes its name from the Egyptian word ‘dshrt’ – the red place). He represented the fierce dry heat of the sun as it parched the land, and was infertile like the desert.”
So perhaps–if you’ll allow me a heavy dose of speculation–something ancient and primordial is manifesting itself in the red-headed captain, who appears to one “traditor” in the desert and promises another that “somebody’ll be picking your bones out of the sand.” Something not quite archetypal, perhaps, but on the verge of it.
Which brings us to the essential question. If the Roswell story is a myth, it must convey meaning. What?
by David Halperin
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