Roswell two decades later
First printed in 1997 …
The truth is out there, so is the hype. Roswell, New Mexico is like Mayberry, except that Floyd the Barber saw aliens being loaded into body bags when he was 21.
Driving west on a lonely interstate towards New Mexico, the monotony of the highway is broken by late night talk shows on AM radio. One show, hosted by Art Bell, live from Roswell, the new UFO Capital of the World, adamantly defends the pro view that a spacecraft crashed in Roswell 50 years ago. On another show, host Jim Bohanan declares the whole event a hoax, even as his next caller mentions that the newest Roswell book features a foreword by Strom Thurmond. “I don’t care if Strom Thurmond wrote the foreword to the Book of Genesis,” Bohanan retorts.
The whole UFO/Roswell issue is a button-pusher, and who better to help form opinions than the worldwide news media, hundreds of whom converged on Roswell, New Mexico last week. Event ’97, a week long festival, celebrated the 50th anniversary of an alleged UFO incident in the desert outside Roswell. The Roswell celebration was of secondary importance last week on CNN, only behind a real crash landing on the Red Planet (formerly described as angry, but now, scientists tell us, it’s just rusty).
Tourist dollars are huge, and as soon as one crosses the Texas border into New Mexico the hype is apparent. In Carlsbad, over 50 miles to the south, but along the road leading to Roswell, an RV-sized bull outside of the Sirloin Stockade has been dressed with a gray tarp over its head, complete with aluminum foil antennae. Our cross-dressing bovine is only the tip of the iceberg.
Once the periphery of Roswell comes around the bend, it’s non-stop visual puns: each storefront along Main Street has some kind of alien icon beckoning visitors to spend some time inside. (Okay, a few curmudgeonly businesses closed their doors and left town, but they’re the exception.) The Hair Salon, its entire storefront covered in foil paper, promises an out-of-this-world alien do. The local pawn shop has a sign on its front door offering to sublet the owner’s house for $150 a night. Traditional cowboy outfitters have mounted an alien doll on the horse that adorns their roof. Is that a sombrero on an alien at the local greasy spoon? The Church of Christ offers a sermon on the subject with the marquee caption: “Aliens? Maybe. God? Definitely.”
Press estimates called for 20,000 to 100,000 visitors for the week. Partial attendance figures for the museum alone were (July 2) 2,759, (July 3) 3,155, and (July 4) 6,719; hardly Woodstock-esque, yet comfortably crowded when it came time for running the gantlet of the convention expo or cruising Main Street.
At the Coffee Bar, two blocks down Main from the International UFO Museum and Research Center, handmade kaleidoscopes await customers at each table, while the smoke filled air is only exceeded in density by the dust storm that blows across the scrub brush desert into town every evening.
As in any bureaucracy, the wheels of permitting grind slow (two months lagtime), and a rave/concert scheduled for the Hub Corn crash site on Saturday night draws local news reports of threatened illlegal assembly fines ($300) and jail time (90 days in the poky) for the owner. The event was cancelled, thanks in part to the weather. A similar cold shoulder is faced by the Coffee Bar’s effort to stage their own outside rock show with local groups. Is it any surprise geographically stagnated rockers with an alien twist would name their group Mutilated Cow?
On Friday night, a monstrous electrical storm rips through Roswell, shutting down power in parts of the city of 48,000. A group of prominent researchers and UFO-logists having a supper banquet in a hangar at Roswell’s former Air Base (the base purported by eyewitnesses to have housed the 1947 UFO overnight) can only point in momentary darkness to the violent storm as cosmic proof of their assertions. According to the legend, it was a similar severe storm that caused the actual 1947 UFO crash.
Meanwhile, back at my motel, a power surge knocks out the lights for a minute, and fries the Free Press Houston Mac Power Book. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Roswell seems ripe for exploitation, yet the town itself is amazingly affordable, with most of the town’s 1000-plus motel rooms going for under $50, and other amenities, such as Roswell street maps, being given out free. One local television station logo is represented by a spaceship that floats over the silhouette of a small town, zapping it a la ID4, only to have the image twirl around and morph into the station call letters.
The local media hints in their newscasts at the possibilities of Oprah, or Bruce and Demi, or Bob Dylan being seen — however no confirmation follows. Does Roswell realize how generic a Planet Hollywood would look on the main strip next to the UFO museum?
McDonald’s, Arby’s, and Wendy’s?
As hard as we gazed, we saw no celebs. (In the last month, the only celebs your never-abducted scribe saw were Rudy T. at the Bookstop on W. Alabama, and Edward Albee at a greasy taqueria on Richmond.) And yes, Elvis played his first gig, opening for Hank Snow, after signing with Col. Parker, in, you guessed it, Roswell. No amount of squinting in the dry sun will block the perception that Roswell The Town is the only celebrity worth ogling.
Joe, who waits tables at one of the local Denny’s, has never served the $2.99 special so fast as this week. While outside vendors and convention floor dealers have paid from $50 a day for the floor, to $600 a week for the street, to hawk goods, Joe finishes his menu suggestions by offering customers one of his $5 alien heads, stamped out of stainless steel, with your choice of a choker or dog-tag style chain. A Roswell native, Joe relates what his grandparents told him long ago: “Don’t let anybody tell you something didn’t happen.”
Around the corner from the UFO museum, Mario’s restaurant lists its only vegetarian dish — yogurt and fruit — as the “Alien Dish,” as if to say, we only eat meat here (and if you drove in through the Panhandle you know whence it came).
A locally produced radio commercial urges the consumption of Blue Bunny (We have Blue Bell, they have Blue Bunny.) ice cream. Only the image most likely to pop up with that brand name is of a stiff rabbit in the kitchen’s freezer.
It’s an image not too far removed from the dead preserved alien that Army intelligence officer Philip Corso claims to have accidentally seen while said corpse was being transported from Roswell to Wright Field in July of 1947.
Corso’s book, The Day After Roswell, follows the military cover-up from Corso’s point-of-view as he took over the Roswell files while heading up the Army’s Foreign Technology Development program at the Pentagon in the early ’60s. To hear Corso tell the story, it was all about maintaining military superiority over the Communists, who along with the Americans were trying to advance the military secrets that were appropriated from the Germans at the end of W.W.II.
“After Roswell,” Corso writes, “We weren’t just one step ahead of people wanting to know what really happened, we were a hundred steps ahead, a thousand, or even more.”
Perhaps the general public will eventually glimpse the truth between blinks of reality and romanticism, where it lies stranded between the dull scientific research at the VLA radio astronomy observatory, located 217 miles away, west of Socorro, and the grave of the infamous Billy the Kid, north of Roswell in Ft. Sumner.
The consciousness of America in regards to our post-terrestrial future can be seen in constant weather updates from Mars, available on the Internet or network news.
So what’s so hard to believe about a little UFO crash in the desert?
— Michael Bergeron