High Strangeness: July 2017

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Weird UFO Phone Calls -- Part II

I'm in a bit of a dilemma...

As I reported a few days back, I was contacted by a producer associated with the recently-announced History Channel TV show about Project Blue Book, the Air Force's official UFO study project, and Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the subject of my new book, The Close Encounters Man. The producer wanted some information about the "context" of Hynek's involvement with Blue Book, and I gave him a little. When he wanted more I referred him to my agent, and that's as far as it's gone.

Kelly-Hopkinsville: the UFO case that got away.
While I think it's pretty amazing that there are multiple Hynek projects out there, proving that his work and his legacy are more relevant than ever, I am a little nervous that the TV people may be headed in the wrong direction. A quick read of their May press release and their project description on IMDBpro.com shows that they still have some basic research to do. Journalist Lee Speigel himself pointed this out when the Rolling Stone writer who recently reviewed my book cited erroneous information from the History Channel press release in her article. (I don't blame Lee for being as upset as he was--it was an unfortunate oversight by the RS writer, when she could have just asked me for clarification)

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Powers Behind the Throne

The other day I got a nice letter from the daughter of someone I interviewed and quoted extensively in my J. Allen Hynek bio, The Close Encounters Man, and I'm still feeling really good about it.

I first came across the name William T. Powers when I was doing research in the archives at Northwestern University (NWU) in Evanston, IL, where Hynek taught for almost a quarter century. Although Hynek was usually (but not always) careful to maintain separation between his UFO activities and his teaching activities, so it was always interesting to see how much UFO-related material I could find in the NWU files. Seems Hynek was so indelibly associated with UFOs that that side of his career couldn't help but overflow into his academic work.
I also found this in the Northwestern archives. Go figure.

On one of my first visits to the NWU archives, I was looking through a file box filled with Hynek's correspondence, and I was amazed to find folder after folder filled with letters that had been sent to Hynek at NWU by people around the world who wanted to ask Hynek questions about UFOs or to share their personal stories of their involvement in the UFO phenomenon. This was early on in my research, mind you, so I was still getting used to the kinds of stories told by UFO witnesses. I was amazed at the length and detail of so many of these reports, many of which went on for a dozen or more hand-written pages, and many of which were rife with wild speculation and theorizing. After reading some of these letters, I fully expected Dr. Hynek's replies to be curt or dismissive -- if he replied at all.

Well, he did reply, almost without fail, and his lengthy letters to his admirers were unfailingly thoughtful, courteous, and -- surprise, surprise -- interested! As I marveled at Dr. Hynek's letters, I noticed that many of the response letters mixed into the files had been written not by Hynek but by a William T. Powers. And his letters were, if anything, even more polite and respectful than Hynek's own! Who was this mystery man handling so much of Dr. Hynek's correspondence? I had to find out!

Powers' association with Hynek took place in the 1960s, long before CUFOS was formed, so there was nothing in the CUFOS records at all. So I searched and searched until I found a phone number and I made the call. Bill Powers answered, and when I introduced myself and told Bill about the book, he was tickled to death to talk about his work with Allen. Bill and I talked several times over the next few months, always on Skype, because Bill wanted to be "face to face" to tell his stories. He was a wonderful man, always full of good cheer and amazing memories; at one time he referred to himself as "The Powers Behind the Throne," which really cracked me up! And he had some great stories, many of which found their way into my book.

Inevitably I brought up those letters, and asked Bill how hard it was to be so patient with all those people expounding on their baffling experiences and theories. Here's our exchange from the recording:

Me: About the letters to Hynek, did you ever think “I can’t possibly respond to this letter?”

Bill: Well, it made me be honest with myself. I remember one guy in particular, who wrote about his -- he had a concept of almost a perpetual motion machine -- but it was some weird thing, and I read his incoherent explanation of his anti-gravity device, and thought, this is bullshit. Then I thought, now wait a minute, that’s not fair to him. Suppose he is crazy, but suppose he’s right? These are not two things that go together all the time, to be crazy and to be wrong is not necessarily the case. So how can I actually find out if there’s anything to his idea? Well, I ended up buying him (unintelligible) electric (unintelligible) and sending it to him, so he could try out his idea, at my own expense. Why not give him a chance to prove that what he’s saying is true?
I found this attitude amazing. Bill later told me that he and Hynek both felt that if someone had a story to tell or an idea to share, they deserved to be listened to. That principle guided Allen Hynek' work to the very end.

Bill passed away a few months after our last chat, and to this day I feel extraordinarily lucky to have known him. The nice surprise story at the end of all this is that Bill's daughter wrote to me last week to tell me how much it meant to her that I had interviewed her dad for the book. I was pretty happy to hear it, and even happier to hear that when she was a child she saw what she took to be an alien hiding near the Corralitos Observatory in New Mexico where her dad and Dr. Hynek were working... Are you surprised?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

UFO Goofballs

No, I'm not talking about the Roswell Dream Team.

The UFO Goofballs I'm talking about resurfaced this week in a video recorded in 1990, and while their hijinx may be mostly harmless they will still make everyone in UFO world cringe.

There's a lot of cool stuff in CUFOS files, like this amazing drawing of a UFO by the commercial artist who reported it.
I uncovered the video earlier this week, when I appeared on a public TV show in Chicago called "Chicago Tonight," to talk about my J. Allen Hynek bio, The Close Encounters Man. CT is a nightly public affairs program on WTTW Channel 11, and I was slated to go on last, after some Illinois politicians and a Roman Catholic Cardinal, of all people. The producer of the show told me right off that he was a long-time UFO buff, so that put me right at ease, and we had a fun chat and a few good laughs as he prepped me for my interview.

At one point he asked me, "Do you remember an old show called 'Wild Chicago?'" I did not, so he filled me in. WC was a series WTTW produced in the distant past of the 1990s that showcased offbeat people and event in Chicago, and in one episode in 1990, they profiled an organization that called itself "CUFOS," or "The Center for UFO Studies."

What happens when Wild Chicago visits the Center for UFO Studies? Well, it's pretty nutty, as it turns out. CUFOS was a little directionless in 1990; Hynek had disengaged himself from running the organization in the mid-80s, and passed away in '86, and the folks running CUFOS were not yet fully immersed in Roswell fever, so the CUFOS gang of 1990 comes across seeming like a bunch of excited people with not enough to do...

There are at least five CUFOS staffers and volunteers on hand for the shoot, but the man in charge is Dr. Mark Rodeghier, who still serves as CUFOS Scientific Director, who starts the four-and-a-half segment by saying to the reporter, "I suppose like everyone who comes here, you've come to see the alien bodies, right?"

It's a funny moment, and because I know Mark personally I know that he was just trying to keep the tome of the interview light. But that tone takes a beating throughout the segment, as the TV crew seeks out the weirdest and most embarrassing things they can find...

First there's a shot of a tabloid cover taped to the wall that reads, "I was a Slave in a UFO Labor Camp."

Then there's the volunteer who describes himself as a CUFOS "minion" and describes his job in this way: "I'm here to defend the galaxy from intergalactic invasion."

There are random shots of the reporter on the floor playing with tops and mugging for the camera.

Staffers show off various silly drawings of aliens and say things like, "They often have some sort of apparatus around them as well," or, "Often there's communication, but it's telepathic"

The camera pans past some books on a table and comes to rest on one titled, "Round Trip to Hell in a Flying Saucer."

So, yeah... The CUFOS people are clearly trying to keep things light and fun and a bit ironic, but the TV crew isn't exactly in on the joke, so the whole thing just feels weird and unfortunate.

Then there's this very curious statement by Mark Rodeghier:
"One of things people experience is being shown a movie, like a 3-D movie, that's often projected in space, and the aliens look at their reaction to this movie. They often are shown scenes of great terror.or fright or great emotion, Like a woman reported that she saw her husband in a plane, coming to land the plane, and the plane crashed  on the runway."
This quote is almost too bizarre to be believed. Has anyone ever heard of such a thing before? I really have to check it out with Mark!

Watch both videos here.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

UFO Time Travel

The Amazon reviews are coming in for my J. Allen Hynek bio The Close Encounters Man: How One Man Made the World Believe in UFOs, and they are solid. Eleven reviews so far, giving me an average of 4.6 out of 5 stars. Not bad.

What's really interesting to me is the one fairly bad review so far. Bad reviews are instructional, and inevitable, so I'm grateful to this reviewer for sharing his opinions, and bracing me for what may be to come. This person gave me 3 stars, which is really not that bad, but had a long list of gripes. Sadly, in my opinion, he/she started out on the wrong foot by saying, "I do consider myself more informed than your average person in regards to UFO phenomena and/or extra terrestrial visitations," right after saying, "I had never heard of J Allen Hynek before." Now it's true that you can know a lot about UFOs and still have never heard of Hynek, but it's a little silly to say that you're "more informed than the average person" and then admit to that particular ignorance.
That's an awfully big balloon.

Naturally, there's a lot in the review I disagree with, but now and then I can see where the reviewer is coming from. There's one point, however, that is so baffling that I feel the need to address it here, because the reviewer seems to be accusing me of claiming that Dr. Hynek was involved in some kind of bizarre time travel experience.

My book recounts how in the early 1960s Hynek developed a program called Star Gazer in which a high-powered telescope would be launched on a balloon from Holloman Air Force Base in southern New Mexico and taken 15.5 miles aloft to get pictures of stars outside the obscuring influence of the earth's atmosphere. As described in my book, the project failed for various reasons, but the concept ultimately paved the way for the Hubble Space Telescope. On one of the failed test flights, high winds tore the giant balloon from its tether and blew it away. It traveled 100 or so miles to the east-northeast and finally came to earth outside Roswell. When it landed, the wind dragged the balloon along the ground, damaging it beyond repair.

It's not too hard to read between the lines here: if a test balloon launched from Holloman AFB was carried by the prevailing winds to a spot outside Roswell in 1963, couldn't something very similar have happened 16 years earlier, in July, 1947? Now, I don't actually draw that conclusion in my book, because, as I just said, it's not too hard to read between the lines, and I trust my readers to interpret the evidence and draw their own conclusions (and, I think it's more fun for the reader to be able to engage with the book this way).

This reviewer, however, has reached a very weird conclusion. He/she seems to be accusing me of claiming that the Star Gazer balloon launched by Hynek in 1963 produced the wreckage that was found by rancher Mac Brazel in 1947. That's is not at all what I say in the book, because that would be pretty stupid. Here's the reviewer's actual quote:

At some point in the book the author hints at the whole Roswell affair as being not just a weather balloon like the Air Force finally concluded, BUT HYNEK'S OWN WEATHER BALLOON from his high altitude experiments. I mean, what!? The author says Hynek's weather balloon went up, got carried far away and ended up all torn and strewn about a Roswell ranch. He doesn't directly tie it together but the suggestion is that one of the biggest and most talked about events of all time on the topic of flying saucers, ET's, etc was just factually a freaking weather balloon designed and launched by Hynek. Conspicuously missing from all the pages in this book is anything Hynek had to say about Roswell. The man would have said something.. Either in the interest of the reporting of the event itself or in the way of confessing that it might have been his fault. There is zero mention of this except a tiny paragraph hinting that Hynek's lost balloon was the Roswell event. To me, I can't understand how Roswell was left out altogether. Did Hynek have an opinion? We don't know.

Let me be clear: I do not claim in any way that Hynek's balloon was launched in 1963 but landed in 1947. That would make a great Twilight Zone episode, but in the real world it would be impossible. But, because of what happened with Hynek's project in 1963, we know for a fact that a test balloon launched from Holloman--in 1963, or 1947, or 2017, or any year you choose--can be carried by the wind 100 miles to the E-NE and can crash into a heap of debris near Roswell. We know it can happen, because we know it did happen. In 1963.

P.S. Also, we do know Hynek's position on Roswell. It's right there, plain as day, on pp. 331-332 of my book.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

This Means Something

Doug Trumbull (l) and Steven Spielberg making CE3K magic.
It's pretty cool that Sony Pictures is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (CE3K) by re-releasing the film this coming September. Sony's clever trailer for the re-release, entitled "This Means Something," brings back all the thrills and chills I felt when I first saw the film in 1977.

It also brings back the thrills and chills I felt when I was doing research for my book The Close Encounters Man and discovered the true story of Dr. J Allen Hynek's involvement in the film. There are so many enjoyable moments in this story: getting to meet and interview the director of special effects for CE3K, Douglas Trumbull; learning how Dr. Hynek's 6-second cameo appearance in the film came about; unearthing the awkward correspondence between Hynek and Steven Spielberg in which they discussed using Hynek's term for the title of the film; Hynek's descriptions of some of the silly "bloopers" from his cameo scene; the impact the movie had on Hynek's work and on UFO research in general; and, of course, discovering the true inspiration for the French UFOlogist character, "Claude Lacomb," played in the film by Francois Truffaut. For years and years, it has been generally assumed -- and repeated ad infinitum -- that the "Lacombe" character was based on Hynek's pal and partner in UFOlogy, Dr. Jacques Vallee. I had always made the same assumption, because it seemed to make sense, even though both Spielberg and Vallee have kept mum about it all these years. That's why, when I discovered the truth, I pretty much fell out of my chair.

But I'm not going to spoil the surprise here!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Weird UFO Phone Calls

Boy, have I had some weird phone conversations in the past few days...

Yesterday I got a call from a woman who described herself as a "nobody" who had either read my book or read about my book, and wanted me to do something for her. Her story was really confusing and I'm not sure that I got it right, but I think it had something to do with someone she knew -- perhaps her brother? -- who had known or maybe worked with Dr. J. Allen Hynek at some point. This person/brother had gotten the name of another person from Dr. Hynek, and this woman was wondering if I could go through Dr. Hynek's files and find out the identity of that second person. Because, why wouldn't I want to embark on a wild goose chase for a complete stranger?

Usually I don't answer calls from unknown numbers, and I'm not sure why I answered this call, but I'm sorry I did. I told the woman that I couldn't help her, then asked how she got my cell #. The line went dead and I hung up. Later she called again and left an equally confusing voice mail message in which she mentioned that there was another serious matter she would like to take up with me. She also said that if she doesn't hear back from me she'll understand. Which is good, because she's not going to hear back from me.

I also had a weird phone conversation with someone in Hollywood. It started out with a Facebook message:
Hello Mark- My name is Sxx and I'm helping develop a series about Project Blue Book for the History Channel... We're early in the research phase, and I'd love to speak with you to get some context about Dr. Hynek and Project Blue Book. Do you have any time to talk today or tomorrow? Get back to me whenever convenient. Looking forward to chatting– Sxx
Pretty cool, right? I called Sxx back and we talked for a while. Here's how the conversation went:
Him: Can you describe Dr. Hynek's relationship with the Air Force?
Me: *vague answer*
Him: What was the exact moment at which Dr. Hynek changed his mind about UFOs?
Me: *vague answer*
Him: Were there any specific UFO cases that led to Dr. Hynek changing his mind about UFOs?
Me: Yes.
Him: Can you tell me which ones?
Me: Before I can go into that level of detail I'll need you to talk to my agent. Can I have her get in touch with you?
Him: Flustered silence.
Will there be more weird phone calls? I'm pretty sure the answer is Yes!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

UFOs and the Ridicule-Free Zone

In the coming days my biography of Dr. J. Allen Hynek, The Close Encounters Man, may be reviewed in both the Fortean Times and Literary Hub, which gives you a good idea how the book is being received.

I feel certain Dr. Hynek would have wanted my book in every science lab in the world.
As I've mentioned in a couple interviews, I wanted to write a UFO book that you don't have to hide from other people, and these two possible upcoming reviews indicate to me that I've succeeded. I've done dozens of interviews and podcasts now, and they break down pretty evenly between UFO-centric media and mainstream media. And, as fun as it is for me to do UFO and paranormal podcasts and radio shows, it's the more mainstream venues that I really enjoy, probably because I know I'm not just preaching to the choir. I'm reaching a lot of people who may never have given UFOs much thought before, or were interested but never wanted to pursue it because it might be embarrassing.

I was encouraged early on when the book got positive reviews at Vice.com and UnboundWorlds.com Things looked even better when we got this terrific review in Library Review that concluded with this little surprise:

VERDICT Scholastic and casual readers will find this fact-packed biography informative and enjoyable; highly recommended for school science departments.
Holy shit! A UFO book "Highly recommended for school science departments"?? How often does that happen?

I started to think about this even more after the Rolling Stone interview was posted. I was very happy with how the article turned out (even with Lee Speigel's completely justified complaint in the Comments section), but I didn't fully appreciate it until I got this wonderful comment here on the blog:
...Just read the ROLLING STONE piece. Quite good. I'm grateful that cynicism and ridicule are no longer considered requirements for reporters writing about the UFO subject.
I usually play a mental game in which I count the number of times a reporter uses the usual hackneyed cliches such as "the truth is out there" or "conspiracy theorists" or "little green men" in an article.
Didn't have to do that with this one.
That's cool.
So, my Rolling Stone interview created a ridicule-free zone, a space where UFOs can be discussed openly without condescension. Isn't that something? Wouldn't it be wonderful if that was the default setting whenever UFOs were discussed socially or in the media?

The ridicule-free zone was in force in my interview last week on Wisconsin Public Radio, and I guarantee it will be in force when I appear on the July 17 edition of Chicago Tonight on public TV station WTTW, and later this fall when I take part in the Wisconsin Book Festival and Wisconsin Science Festival.

I like being in this space, where my book and I are taken seriously by both UFO enthusiasts and mainstream media outlets.