Close Encounters of the Lone Star Kind
Pamela Colloff’s extra-terrestrial experiences.
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In 1973, when Palacios Mayor W. C. Jackson invited extraterrestrials to visit Texas (“No one has ever made those fellas welcome,” he told reporters), his hospitality came almost a century too late. Long before anyone had heard of Roswell, flying saucers were first spotted in Texas in 1878, according to local legend, and first touched down here in 1897. In fact, Texas can boast of having some of the most compelling evidence ever uncovered of alien visitors—such as Aurora’s crash site, Lubbock’s mysterious lights or Dayton’s close encounters. Texas has also bred its share of peculiar UFO devotees, such as Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite, who was born in Spur and had his first spiritual vision while walking along a Galveston beach, as well as some members of the Republic of Texas, who reportedly believe that the Marfa Lights are proof of a subterranean energy grid that the Pentagon is trying to tap into with alien technology. MUFON, the world’s largest UFO investigation organization, is based in Texas, as is NASA, which oversees an intergalactic radio signal monitoring program called SETI, or the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.
1878: Denison, Texas
Thanks to a long-forgotten nineteenth-century farmer named John Martin, unidentified flying objects were first described as “saucers” here in Texas. According to the article “A Strange Phenomenon” that appeared in the
Denison Daily News on January 25, 1878, Martin was hunting when he saw “a dark object high in the northern sky.” The news account states that “the peculiar shape and the velocity with which the object seemed to approach riveted his attention, and he strained his eyes to discover its character. When first noticed it appeared to be about the size of an orange, after which it continued to grow larger.
“After gazing at it for some time,” the article continues, “Mr. Martin became blind from long looking and left of viewing to rest his eyes. On resuming his view, the object was almost overhead and had increased considerably in size and appeared to be going through space at a wonderful speed. When directly over him it was about the size of a large saucer and was evidently at great height.”
Although Martin clearly saw a “saucer,” Idaho pilot Kenneth Arnold is widely—and incorrectly—credited as the first person to describe an unidentified flying object as such. Arnold ushered in the post-war wave of UFO hysteria in 1947 when he told a local reporter, and in turn, the Associated Press, that he had seen an object in the sky over Washington’s Cascade Mountains that “flew like a saucer would if you skipped it across the water.” Arnold’s account coined the term “flying saucer,” although that honor rightly belongs to Texan John Martin, who had spotted one 69 years earlier.
1883: Marfa, Texas
According to Apache legend, the ghostly flashes of light that appear in the night sky of West Texas are the incarnation of the wandering spirit of Apache Chief Alaste, who has haunted the Chinati Mountains since his execution at the hands of Mexican Rurales in the 1860s. White settlers first noticed these lights, now known as the Marfa Mystery Lights, in 1883 when rancher Robert Ellison was driving his cattle a few miles east of Marfa. He and his companions spotted flickering lights along the horizon and feared that they were Apache camp fires, but when they searched the area the next day, they found no traces of encampments.
Since that time, people have flocked to what is now Route 90, nine miles east of Marfa, to try to spot the lights, which have appeared in white, pink, yellow, green, and blue hues to the east of the Chinati Mountains. Sometimes the lights dance erratically, while other times they remain motionless, slowly brightening with intensity. Skeptics believe that the lights are simply car headlights skimming across the mountains, but that would not explain sightings in the last century, or the fact that the lights often move in circles or zig zag formations. Others have argued that the lights are nothing more than ball lightening, reflections, mirages, swamp gas, or static electricity, but scientists have not been able to prove that any of those phenomena could happen in West Texas terrain with such regularity. According to local folklore, the lights are believed to be many things: Alaste’s spirit, the reflections of Spanish gold, the hidden treasures of Pancho Villa, “brujas” (witches) who are learning to fly, and most recently, UFOs.
1897: Aurora, Texas
On April 17, 1897, six years before the first plane was flown by the Wright brothers, an “airship” visited Aurora, Texas. After having been spotted sporadically in the Midwest, the illuminated, cigar-shaped craft was next seen in North Texas—first in Denton, and then in Weatherford, Corsicana, and Stephenville. The editor of the Stephenville newspaper claimed that the airship hovered so close to the town that he was able to yell out a request for an interview, which the extraterrestrial pilot denied.
Moving on to Aurora, the airship reportedly circled the town square, crashed into a windmill, and exploded, leaving behind the pilot’s charred body and a note written in indecipherable hieroglyphics. According to an article published in the Dallas Morning News two days later, the pilot was thought to be “a native of the planet Mars.”
Rumors about the airship persisted, and in 1973, a team of UFO buffs and television crews descended on Aurora to see if they could substantiate the story. Some Aurora elders claimed to remember the close encounter, while most of the town’s 300 residents emphatically insisted that it was an old hoax designed to revive Aurora’s declining fortunes. The incident may always remain a mystery, however, since a district court blocked an effort to exhume an Aurora grave that some believed held the pilot’s body. According to local legend, the grave was marked only by a headstone bearing a cryptic insignia: several small circles drawn inside the Greek letter delta. The stone has since disappeared.
Related Links: Planet X! We’re Waiting for You! When the flying saucers land, Ray Stanford and his space cadets will be there. by Stephen Harrigan
1948: Laredo, Texas
Gossip circulated throughout the ’50s that several officers from an air force base near Laredo were instructed on July 7, 1948 to cordon off a remote strip of land where an extraterrestrial aircraft had crashed. Rumored to be a large disc, it had supposedly flown over Albuquerque at around 2,000 miles per hour before crashing into the West Texas desert, where it was then recovered by government agents. One variation on the story claimed that the badly-burned inhabitant of the craft was significantly shorter in height than the average human and had unusually long arms.
In 1978, a man claiming to be a former Air Force photographer sent reporters photos of a severely burned body inside some wreckage—pictures that he claimed he was instructed to take of a wrecked experimental aircraft outside of Laredo during the summer of 1948. The singed “alien” in the photo, quickly dubbed “tomato man” by the press because of his extremely large head, is probably a human pilot who was killed when his plane crashed and burned. The pilot’s noticeable lack of hair and enlarged head are thought to be a result of the fire.
Government papers now indicate that the Air Force was experimenting at that time with V-2 rockets, nicknamed “foo-fighters,” hence the crashed experimental aircraft that the photographer was instructed to document. One unresolved question is whether the pilot was actually a man or a monkey; the latter would explain the rumor that the pilot was short in stature with extremely long arms.
Related Links: The New Mex Files Did a flying saucer and its cosmic crew crash-land near Roswell fifty years ago? This month, terrestrial tourists can entertain that alien notion. by Anne Dingus
1951: Lubbock, Texas
Before Buddy Holly put Lubbock on the map, the Lubbock Lights gave this Panhandle town national fame. On an August night in 1951, several college professors sitting outside on a porch saw a formation of blue lights fly quickly overhead. They waited to see if the lights would return, and later that evening, they observed the lights again. That same night, a Lubbock woman also spotted the blue lights as she was taking her laundry off a clothesline. The lights, she later told Air Force investigators, framed the tail end of an enormous, “winglike” craft. A few days earlier, an employee of the Atomic Energy Commission saw the same type of aircraft in Albuquerque—a “wing-shaped” object with blue lights at its base. By the end of August, there was another sighting of the object in Matador, Texas, about seventy miles north of Lubbock, as well as photographs of the blue lights taken by Texas Tech freshman Carl Hart, Jr.
Before the lights disappeared two weeks later, dozens of people in North Texas reported seeing blue lights darting from one end of the horizon to the other. An investigation into the phenomenon for Project Bluebook—a 1950s and ’60s Air Force study into the possible existence of UFOs—came up with two explanations for the sightings. One theory was that the lights were plovers, West Texas birds with shiny white breasts that could have reflected the city’s glow as they flew overhead; another theory was that the lights were actually a result of Lubbock’s newly-installed mercury-vapor street lamps that gave off a bluish haze. However, neither of these explanations accounted for the lights’ immense speed or their sudden disappearance.
The Air Force ultimately categorized the Lubbock Lights sightings under the inconclusive heading “unidentified,” making it one of the most famous—and widely witnessed—UFO incidents in history.
1957: Levelland, Texas
Not far from where the Lubbock Lights were seen six years earlier, residents of Levelland, Texas, reported ten UFO-related incidents during the course of several hours on November 2, 1957. The first close encounter took place around eleven o’clock in the evening when farm workers Pedro Saucedo and Joe Salaz saw a giant, brilliantly-lit object fly over their truck. As it passed overhead, the truck’s headlights and engine went dead, resuming to normal only once the craft had disappeared. Saucedo reported the incident to Levelland police, who received a call an hour later from Levelland resident Jim Wheeler. Eight miles from the original report, Wheeler said that his engine and headlights had failed as he approached a brightly lit egg-shaped object in the road. Once the craft had ascended into the sky and disappeared, Wheeler was able to restart his engine.
Sheriff Weir Clem and Deputy Pat McColloch drove along Route 116 searching for the glowing object when finally, at 1:30 a.m., they spotted an enormous, egg-shaped craft that looked “like a brilliant red sunset across the highway,” according to Clem. It “lit up the whole pavement in front of us for about two seconds,” he said, and then it disappeared. Throughout the night, the Levelland police department continued to receive calls describing a similar bright object that caused lights to dim and car engines to shut off.
The Air Force investigated, speculating that the incidents were examples of ball lightening. However, Dr. J. Allen Hynek, the Air Force’s primary UFO investigator at the time, recanted this conclusion in later writings. “I am not proud today that I hastily concurred in Captain Gregory’s evaluation as ‘ball lightning’ [as the explanation for the Levelland sightings] on the basis of information that an electrical storm had been in progress in the Levelland area at the time. That was shown not to be the case,” wrote Hynek. “Besides, had I given it any thought whatsoever, I would have soon recognized the absence of any evidence that ball lightning can stop cars and put out headlights.” The Levelland sightings remain unexplained.
1975: Seguin, Texas
The world’s largest UFO organization, the Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), was originally founded in Illinois in 1969 after the Air Force abruptly ended Project Bluebook, its study of the possible existence of UFOs. Continuing where Project Bluebook left off, MUFON went about researching, investigating, and compiling reports of UFO sightings in an attempt to resolve the question of whether or not UFOs exist. In 1975, MUFON relocated to Seguin, where it resumed documenting UFO sightings, alien abductions, crop circles, and animal mutilations throughout the world by using the organization’s vast network of inve stigators.
Now considered to be the preeminent UFO authority, MUFON hosts an international symposium each year, publishes its own magazine and 312-page investigator’s manual, and is frequently called upon by writers from the X-Files and Unsolved Mysteries for script material. MUFON’s charismatic 76-year-old founder, Walt Andrus, and the organization’s vast resources—such as a museum filled with rare UFO photos, stacks of declassified government documents, and a database containing thousands of investigators’ methodically researched reports—have drawn everyone from German physicists to Hollywood producers to Seguin.
Related Links: Alien Contact Our fearless reporter survives a close encounter with UFO investigators. by Helen Thompson
1980: Dayton, Texas
On the night of December 29, 1980, on a remote road 40 miles outside Houston, restaurant owner Betty Cash, her friend Vicki Landrum, and Landrum’s 7-year-old grandson, Colby, were returning home after a night out when a large, glowing, diamond-shaped aircraft spurting flames descended from the sky and hovered above the roadway in front of them. When they got out of the car to take a closer look at the object, which made a loud roaring noise, they were soon forced to return to the car because of the intense heat emanating from the craft. Cash claimed that as she grasped her car’s hot door handle, her wedding ring burned into her hand. Soon thereafter, the mysterious aircraft flew away along with a swarm of black Chinooks, or military helicopters.
Cash, who had remained outside the car longer than the Landrums, was admitted to a local hospital as a burn victim. All three passengers manifested different symptoms of what appeared to be radiation sickness, such as burns, blisters, nausea, rashes, severe headaches, sore eyes, and hair and fingernail loss. Cash was later diagnosed with breast cancer and Landrum developed severe cataracts. ”I’ve never believed in UFOs, ” Mrs. Cash later told reporters. “I was the first one to laugh.” But, she added, “I was terrified. Now I’m afraid to look up.”
Two theories swirled around the incident: either the object was an experimental military device which had gone haywire on a test flight or, some speculated, it was a recovered alien aircraft which the Air Force was trying to fly. Cash and Landrum hired a lawyer, who filed suit against the government for $20 million in damages. The case dragged on in district court for several years and called upon the testimony of officials from NASA, the Air Force, and the Army and Navy, before being dismissed in 1986 because no governmental agency owned or operated any aircraft fitting Cash and Landrum’s description. To this day, there is no conclusive explanation of the night’s events.