On an isolated hillside on the planet earth, six bipeds in white jumpsuits are looking up at the sky. It is night, a clear night in early November with a rising, waxing moon, Orion in a nose dive on the western horizon, and a stunning field of stars swathed by gauzy traces of the Milky Way.
The uniforms of the bipeds undulate in and out of visibility in the darkness, like pale fish sighted in murky water. It is somehow reassuring to remind myself occasionally of the obvious, that my companions are native-born earthlings and that I am less than twenty miles away from my house in Austin. The nature of our business here makes such thoughts particularly warming, for it is just conceivable that tonight may be the night when the members of Project Starlight International (PSI) succeed in their goal of establishing contact with a UFO.
Yes, it is night when all possibilities are reverberant, waiting in the wings. From my reading, I know what to expect: a bright elliptical object with the luster of a pearl, peopled by “entities” who could answer to any number of descriptions: little bipeds four feet tall with silvery skin, twelve-foot giants in diving suits, beings my size with glowing eyes shaped like wraparound sunglasses, maybe with claws, or cauliflower ears, bald humanoids with emaciated rib cages and booties and jock straps, hairy creatures with broad chests that seem to be supported by cross-beams.
But there will be plenty of room for speculation in this story. Right now there is the empirical presence of Ray Stanford and his associates rolling back the roof of the four-foot-high white brick building which serves as an observation area as well as a kind of toolshed for PSI’s $25,000 worth of equipment designed specifically to catch any neighboring UFOs in a crossfire of unshakable documentation.
After the roof is rolled back and Stanford has mounted a telescope-laser-video camera complex on a remote-control pan-and-tilt head, he begins an explanation of the equipment for my benefit. I follow as best I can, but in the darkness my notes must feel their own way. Stanford shows me a magazine sensor about twice the size of a pencil box which contains 90,000 wires—I write it down—“90,000 wires”—but my eyes and my attention are elsewhere: they drift uncontrollably upward and notice with suspicion a flock of moonlit birds swooping silently overhead, the strobe lights of an airplane, the afterimage of a meteor, signs in the sky that can be read either as false alarms or omens…
“We wear these suits for two reasons,” Stanford says. (It is daylight, a day earlier. My notes are impeccable.) He lifts his arms so I can assess his uniform to the fullest effect: it is a white jumpsuit bought right here in Austin at a uniform supply shop. Above the left pocket the initials of Project Starlight International form an interlocking logo that is stitched into the fabric. The two reasons he and his staff wear the jumpsuits are (1) safety-white will reflect the heat from infrared radiation, a possible component of a possible UFO laser, and (2) general aboveboardness.
“We don’t want to decoy UFOs. This is naive, it’s stupid. It would be stupid to assume that we could, say, make them think that there’s a disabled UFO on the ground.”
“If they’re intelligent, I’m not going to try and play games. We’re not going to wear black and hide in the bushes. This isn’t a game; it’s a dangerous undertaking. That’s one reason we wear name-tags out there—should we be killed, people will at lest be able to identify us.”
“What we’re doing is unique.” Stanford goes on, while I try to suppress an image of him and his crew lying strewn and smoldering in their jumpsuits on a charred hillside surrounded by molten electronic equipment. “No one else in the world is doing this. We want to get quantitative data and test the hypothesis that UFOs can communicate.”
“You see, we can’t rely on verbal reports to give us any more information than we already have. I’m not saying we’re going to solve the UFO mystery, but if we have a sighting we’ll have enough evidence where we’ll turn a few scientific heads.”
Stanford shows me a letter of encouragement from famed UFO skeptic Philip Klass, as well as plaudits from famous UFO believers like J. Allen Hynek, then breaks into an elaborate account of the differences in propulsion between elongated and saucer-shaped UFOs, something about “subatomic particles accelerated to relativistic velocities.”
Stanford is a small, tight, lithe man, the kind of person who doesn’t burn off energy so much as recycle it, so that he gives the impression of being a compact, self-contained organism, a charged maverick particle.
His appearance, especially his gaunt, ascetic’s face, is not out of keeping with his line of work since, besides being a prominent ufologist, Stanford is also a prominent psychic, a medium through whom certain beings called the “Brothers” offer their opinions on such topics as the contents of the Fatima Letter, diet, the identity of Christ, premarital sex, and virtually anything about which the members of the Association for the Understanding of Man (AUM), the organization founded to harness Stanford’s powers, want to know.
AUM boasts a membership of about 850 people, each of whom pays $25 a year in dues, buys and promulgates the organization’s books and tapes, and subscribes to its journal. This money and some generous donations give AUM enough operating capital to sponsor speakers like Uri Geller, lease a semi-posh suite of offices in an Austin building so new no one has put up the little white letters on the directory board, and engage in one of the most serious UFO research projects being conducted in the world.
AUM is pursuing UFOs principally because Stanford is, and Stanford is primarily because he has always seen them. He downplays the role of his psychic energies in this regard. He’s just lucky, and almost fanatically vigilant. “He just takes the garbage out at the right time,” Doug Johnson, an AUM staffer and an editor of the Project Starlight International journal, tells me.
As a high school student in Corpus Christi, while he was watching Truman Bradley solemnly speculate behind his desk on Science Fiction Theater and building the multiple-stage rockets that would win him the Texas Academy of Science’s research award, Stanford observed a flurry of UFO appearances: a disc hovering behind a flock of pelicans over Oso Bay, orange-vermilion objects that stretched themselves out into parabolas. He even built a primitive light circle on Padre Island out of old oil drums.
“Since 1954 I’ve been able to sense that UFOs are around,” he says, still reluctant to connect the sightings and his own psychic abilities, and especially reluctant to have the rigidly scientific Project Starlight International associated with the wide-open subjectivity of AUM’s other activities.
“I believe that UFOs are a technological rather than a psychic phenomenon.”
He shows me an album of UFO photographs, leaning over me while I thumb through it and providing a very specific gloss for each picture: where and when and by whom it was taken, atmospheric conditions, cross-referenced sightings, and, if the picture is inauthentic—as many of them are—the method of fakery.
Each page of the album shows a photograph, generally hastily taken and badly cropped, of a lake, a row of roofs, the ground seen from an airplane, each with a flying saucer somewhere in the frame either surprisingly sharp or blurry enough to suggest nothing more than a smudge. The persistence of these images is a shade unsettling; when the evidence, some allegedly authentic, some decidedly fake, is arranged like this, in sequence, it produces in me an archetypal fear of invasion.
Stanford’s wife Kitty-bo comes into the office to remind her husband that they are supposed to eat Mexican food tonight. At 23, she is fourteen or fifteen years younger than Stanford and so demure and quiet that she seems to be continually skirting the edges of the force field he produces. She wears her hair in a single long braid that bounces off the oversize collar of her jumpsuit.
Most of the rest of our visit is concerned with great events of the PSI past. Unfortunately all of the nine observations that have taken place since 1973 came before PSI had its detection equipment. The sole hard data for any of these sightings is a photograph revealing a light trail in the night sky with two abrupt 90-degree kinks in its path, like an unfolded paper clip. The most spectacular sighting, Stanford says, came on October 12, 1974, when Charles Hickson, one of the two Pascagoula, Mississippi, men who were allegedly taken aboard a UFO two years ago, was visiting the site of Stanford’s invitation. A bright orange object somewhat smaller than the full moon appeared on the horizon, illuminating the hillside opposite and setting off in Hickson, a sort of vindicated calm: “Well, I’ll be . . . ”
Stanford commands an impressive repertoire of other UFO reports. There is the case of the Italian movie audience who, coming out of a theater (it was not a science fiction movie), espied some humanoids foraging outside their craft in a soccer field. The earthlings pelted them with rotten cabbage and they took off. There is the surprisingly strong testimony of Antonio Villas-Boas, a Brazilian farmer, who claimed to have been spirited aboard a flying saucer and forced (well, induced) to have intergalactic intercourse with a womanlike creature who gurgled with pleasure. Then there’s Snippy the Horse, whose mutilated carcass predates recent “unexplainable” atrocities to farm animals by nine years. And is the government really suppressing the fact that there are non-indigenous subterranean bases on Mars? And did or did not Alan Shepard, stepping out onto the moon’s surface for the first time, report back to Houston (over the air!) that he saw a beautiful sphere sixteen inches in diameter which he was subsequently ordered to put into the LEM and take back to earth? Huh?
I return home with a copy of Stanford’s book Fatima Prophecy, several UFO paperbacks, a PSI publication with plans for building a simple UFO detector, the PSI journal and newsletter, and spend the evening boning up.
Fatima Prophecy is, for the most part, a verbatim transcription of information given to Stanford acting as medium. The transcripts include interpretations of the alleged apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary at Fatima and other places. There are some interesting UFO correlations—the “sun” standing still at Fatima has all the characteristics of a UFO sighting, and the BVM herself, as revealed in a series of photographs of her apparitions at Zeitoun, Egypt, resembles a sort of one-dimensional electronic holy card, as though Somebody Up or Out There is fabricating icons. (When I ask him, Stanford is enthusiastic about the possibility that extraterrestrials might be behind traditional miracles. “I’m not totally convinced the disc at Fatima was a UFO, but it sounds a heck of a lot like one. Why shouldn’t UFOs be involved in religious activities?”
Fifty-one per cent of the American people, says Mr. Gallup, believe in UFOs. Gerald Ford and Nelson Rockefeller have confided to The National Tattler that they are also among the faithful. There is no question, of course, that UFO sightings can be accounted for by dozens of atmospheric conditions, by satellites, weather balloons, and planets, or that the majority of reports and sightings are obvious misapprehensions and publicity stunts. And yet, and yet . . .(I’ve always wanted to write that sentence.) There are Famous Unsolved Cases: Betty and Barney Hill, whose encounter with a flying saucer was the subject of a recent TV movie; Charles Hickson and Calvin Parker, the Mississippi abductees; the Socorro, New Mexico, landing of a craft that left obscure indentations in the ground from which the existence of a sophisticated craft could be extrapolated. These cases may be true or they may not be. Ray Stanford believes they are, and most of the American public seems to prefer them to be, including me, sort of. Actually, I’m content so long as nobody proves that they don’t exist. If the Loch Ness monster turns out to be an oil slick, if the abominable snowman is really an optical illusion caused by an allergic reaction to yak fur, I don’t want to hear about it, and I bet Gerald Ford doesn’t either.
According to Jung, UFOs are an extension of the mandala symbol, “the symptom of a universally present psychic disposition” to discover the existence of a higher power that binds humankind to itself. UFOs are, then, emissaries from the great radiant myth of our god. It’s a rich and warming thought, but it’s not half as much fun as believing that Antonio Villas-Boas got raped by a spacewoman.
I call Alan Shepard to find out if he really did see a glassy sphere on the moon. He won’t talk to me. “Tell him if he doesn’t call back I’ll print the story as true,” I tell his secretary. He doesn’t call back. I can see him snickering at his desk, upon which the sphere is sitting as a paperweight. NASA can’t or won’t help me out either. They suggest that the sphere was actually one of Alan Shepard’s golf balls seen by an astronaut on a later flight.
The next morning I find Stanford looking at slides in the AUM offices. These are slides not of UFOs but of inspirational sunsets and fields of flowers and majestic peaks. Stanford and his staff are choosing the cover for AUM’s new compilation of his readings, a book called Speak, Shining Stranger.
“I’d like to get away from this sun-beam-type thing,” Stanford says. “It looks like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans.”
He settles instead on a picture of a water lily.
“Yes, we’ll use that. The water lily is very symbolic; it floats on the waters of the mind, its roots go down to the water for nourishment. That’s what we want.”
The rest of the staff isn’t much impressed with Stanford’s choice, especially with the way he wants to wrap the picture around the spine of the book, destroying its fearful symmetry. But Stanford is quietly emphatic: the objections recede like a tide.
Jerry Johnson, PSI’s equipment engineer, a pale, red-headed person who looks like one of the neighborhood kids who used to come over to learn how to stick a straw through a potato on Mr. Wizard, calls on Stanford to show him the two intercom units he has put together for the site. Stanford indicates his approval and orders another. Johnson is paid for his electronic work; most of the five or six people milling around the offices are on the payroll as well, but AUM and PSI are the kind of organizations that seem to have no trouble attracting volunteers.
“When we need them,” Stanford points out, “we can easily have twelve to fifteen people out there working at the site. A lot of people come up and want to go out to the site now that we have all our fancy equipment. That’s one reason we keep our location a secret. People call up all the time and say, ‘Hey, I saw a UFO!,’ as if I’m going to go out there and look at it. It’s probably just Venus anyway.”
There is little chance that Venus will be mistaken for a UFO tonight. Its light is refracted in all the acceptable ways, its surface flushed with color that is just barely perceivable. It is not one of those nights when you can look up at Venus and, in response to it, palpitate with serenity yourself. No, tonight I watch it closely, a little warily, half expecting it to pop out of its moorings and jump out indiscriminately across the sky.
Yes, it is true—I am just a bit afraid. This morning I saw, in the back pages of Stanford’s UFO album, a riveting photograph of a little creature with elaborately muscled legs and a sunken non-human, non-simian chest, with a face Stanford swears looks like Lee Harvey Oswald’s. In the picture the creature is being led away by two men in trench coats while a woman, her face expressing a full spectrum of horror and humor and revulsion, looks down upon it. Stanford tells me he’s met a man who has seen this being. It is no longer alive and is presently lying in state in a tub of formaldehyde at an Air Force base in an undisclosed country.
It is a night for contemplating the dark underside of UFO research. The secret location of Project Starlight has been well-chosen: we can see the aura the lights of Austin cast upon the hills to the east, but except for an occasional airplane there is nothing to disturb the isolation of the site, which was given to PSI by an anonymous donor.
The demonstrations begin. Ray Stanford walks away from the building, far enough away for the last luminescent traces of his uniform to disappear, but not before he has thrown a switch on the magnetometer, a machine that looks, as just about everything in this gadgetorium does, like a stereo amplifier. Out there, near one of the four sensors buried about the site, Stanford throws a Frisbee with a small metal rod taped to its underside. Immediately the magnetometer responds with the kind of eerie beep you might expect a humanoid to produce if you pinched one. The instrument beeps as long as the object is in motion. The sound even resonates to the degree of wobble. (The evidence is not especially flattering to Stanford’s prowess with a Frisbee.)
What is the point? There is a good deal of evidence that UFOs operate with some sort of magnetic propulsion, or at least create strong magnetic effects in the areas they pass over. When an object with a strong magnetic charge and an anomalistic flying pattern (this excludes airplanes) comes near enough, the magnetometer squeals. The sound is simultaneously recording on a cassette tape and cross-referenced with a Universal Time Data readout.
There’s more. Stanford leads me downslope into the center of the light circle, which consists of 91 150-watt spotlights forming a ring 100 feet in diameter. Until recently, all of the lights were activated by a sequencer Stanford and his wife made out of an old record turntable, an instrument that has been superseded by a solid-state sequencer put together by Al Mouton, a solid-state engineer from Motorola and a PSI fan.
The lights flash on and off in a sophisticated sequence that is not immediately discernible. It’s a hypnotic effect: the sudden flare-ups of light all around us accompanied by the soft click of the sequencer give the impression that the circumference of the circle is impenetrable.
The light circle is here because UFOs have reportedly been attracted by such things in the past. As they are now, the lights can be manipulated in a number of different ways, including a dot-dot-dot pattern which is a crude form of pi, a concept dear to the humanoid heart. But on that day not too far off, when there is cash to install a central computer, PSI will be able to use the light circle to flash mathematical patterns and binary data to any spacecraft in the area, even read and duplicate its light-pulsations.
Back at the building Stanford is upset. “Uh oh! Now I want this understood: this machine was left on pause, which can ruin a machine! This is what happens when people who don’t know what they’re doing mess with this equipment. These are not toys to play around with. We’re scientists!”
The machine in question is one of three video recorders, each of which has a different function. One is hooked up to the video camera mounted on the laser and is used to record the video appearance of the “event.” Another one records the output from the photomultiplier. Stanford has explained it to me twice, but I still don’t know what it is the photomultiplier does. And the third video recorder plays, through the laser, a transmission tape to the UFO. This tape contains video data which, when assimilated and interpreted by the aliens, will produce a still picture of the PSI site as it appears in daytime. Onto this picture has been superimposed a hypothetical flying saucer, with two-way arrows connecting it to the most visible instrument of the site, the lasertelescope complex. The implication for the extraterrestrials is that we down here on the ground are interested in having a little tête-à-tête, assuming they have têtes.
Other pictures transmitted to the UFO show old friends Betty and Barney Hill and their dachshund Delsey, and Charles Hickson (who Stanford suspects, on the evidence of the October 1974 sighting, is being followed by his former abductors).
“It’s really a simple idea,” Stanford explains.
This video data is transmitted to the UFO by means of the laser, a demonstration of which is forthcoming. The laser can provide a video readout of the UFO for the PSI people as well as transmit information to the spacecraft. The pan-and-tilt head can be moved up and down and sideways simultaneously by means of the remote-control “joystick,” but it still takes the skill of an anti-aircraft gunner to strike the UFO with the laser beam.
“Everybody out of the way of the laser,” Stanford shouts as he pulls off a cardboard “Shield” that says “Danger” and activates a 10-second warning signal. The body of the laser glows pink and, though from our position behind it we cannot see the beam, we can make out a red dot 100 feet or so in the distance.
But it is of course necessary to see the beam, and so Stanford takes me around in front of and a little to one side of the laser.
“Come a little closer,” he tells me.
“Ray, be careful,” Kitty-bo says, explaining to me that the laser could put my eye out.
“I can see it fine from here,” I say.
“Just a little closer,” Stanford coaxes, and the beam gradually becomes more definite, becomes the cartoon space ray I’ve been watching in science fiction movies all my life. Dust particles swim in the pencil-thin beam, like undissolved sugar in a glass of strawberry Kool-Aid.
Let us review the purpose of all this equipment, which is known collectively as UFO/VECTOR (UFO/Video Experiment Console for Transitional Overt Response). Let us postulate a UFO hovering over the hills west of Austin looking for action. As soon as it is sighted, the PSI crew, each in a white suit, each with a penlight in his or her pocket, will scramble. They put on their radiation goggles; the magnetometer bleats; the light circle flashes pi pi pi; from three coordinated camera positions 35mm still telephoto pictures are taken; video signals are recorded; video data is transmitted; through the photomultiplier photos are, uh, multiplied; a soon-to-be-installed gravitometer records any gravitational effects the spacecraft might be producing; a parabolic dish with a microphone attached records the sound.
At the very least, even if the UFO doesn’t send a message back, its passage overhead will be documented to an unprecedented degree, all documentation correlated by Universal Time Data. At the very least, it will be The Most Significant Day in the History of the World.
But until that happens it’s mostly kind of boring out here, and for someone without Stanford’s manic zeal and prescience it must at times seem fruitless. Sometime in the future PSI will have a permanent building on the site staffed 24 hours a day, but for now an average of five or six nights a week is all that can be devoted to the project. But surely even part-time UFO tracking must get tedious. Where is the TV so we can watch Space 1999, where are the Hershey bars, the beer, the card decks? Nothing doing, these people are vegetarians, they eat sesame-seed candy bars from the health-food store, they wear their seatbelts when they drive, and throw the Frisbee only when they want to hear the magnetometer perform. Could it be that the crossbreeding of AUM and PSI has produced a new strain of scientist monks, an electronically equipped apostleship?
Most of the crew is leaning now with one elbow on the low open roof of the building. Bob Dunnam, a tall, lanky real estate salesman, is talking about the Hickson sighting. He has a smooth, soothing voice that as often as not trails off before the end of a sentence.
“I turned around and was absolutely stunned. There was a beautiful orange glow about three-fourths the size of the full moon. Just extraordinary. All of us were unprepared.”
He tells about another sighting that occurred last month. “There was a tendency among some of us to see a weather balloon or something and get excited and then of course Ray would jump on us and tell us to get sharp. Well one night we were looking over, oh gosh, right above those trees over there and saw a brilliant strobe at an extraordinary speed. We said, “Ray, what’s that over there?” and he said, ‘That’s a UFO dammit! Film it!’ But it seemed that just when we keyed into it, just as we had our cameras ready, it responded and disappeared. It went right straight up and turned off like a rheostat.”
“When UFOs are white there is no earthly light that can duplicate it,” Stanford rhapsodizes. “And they act weird, they just don’t conform—colors, manners, everything.
“At the Hickson sighting I was too surprised to have any fear. Only afterward when I thought it might be landing in that valley did I have weird thoughts. You know, if a UFO should land out here and a door opened and we were summoned aboard, I have to admit I don’t know what I’d do. I’ve seen UFOs that have left me shaking like a leaf over an hour afterward. And I’ve seen others that were exhilarating, peaceful.”
A plane passes over, its red and green lights blinking, its engines giving off a soft, hollow drone.
“That’ll be the 9:45 flight from Midland-Odessa,” Stanford says.
“You’ll get some planes that’ll see our light circle and turn back and check it out,” Dunnam adds.
Stanford walks to a phone that is hanging on a post some yards away and, having directed that a folding chair be brought to him, dials the number of a colleague in California.
Kitty-bo (I know I should ask her how she got that name, but there is a certain mood to be observed here) tells me how she and Ray met. She had joined a study group at AUM which he was teaching and “I just had this feeling we were going to get married. So the third time I saw him I said, ‘Ray, are we going to get married?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I guess so.’ I mean there hadn’t been any amorous advances or anything.”
This conversation somehow modulates into a discussion of a famous humanoid photograph. A man who had taken a snapshot of his daughter in an open field discovered, when the film came back, that hovering in the background there was a twelve-foot being dressed in, or consisting of, a larval-looking spacesuit.
“I’m getting goose bumps just talking about it,” she says.
Me too. A meteor wafts a short distance across the sky. Over the phone Stanford is saying, “Four hundred people … at a carnival … they looked up in the sky and there was this object!”
It’s cold, and I’m the only one out here without a white suit to protect me from infrared rays.
Stanford hangs up the phone after a 45-minute discussion, has Kitty-bo get his sweater from the car (he puts it on under his jumpsuit), and turns to Doug Johnson: “Doug, we want to write to the ornithological society to get a recording of a saw whet owl.” It seems that over the phone he has learned certain UFOs have produced sounds remarkably similar to this particular bird’s call.
Johnson makes a note, Stanford goes back to the phone for another hour-long call. By the time we begin putting the equipment back into the building and get ready to leave it is well past midnight.
“We’ll spend a lot of nights out here when nothing very significant happens,” Dunnam says, “but one night like the Hickson sighting or last October’s sighting makes it all worthwhile.”
Ray Stanford is waving a check in the air, a check for $2000 someone who has heard about PSI sent in unsolicited. But this is not the only cause of Stanford’s excitement this morning.
“Remember I told you there was a possibility we might be killed doing this? Well, did you hear the news this morning? It happened Wednesday night!”
Well, not exactly. It seems that seven forest service employees in Arizona saw a UFO land near them. One of them, Travis Walton, who, it was revealed later, is an amateur ufologist, walked toward the craft despite the warnings of his friends and was promptly knocked down by a blue beam. The other six freaked out, left the scene, and returned later to find Walton gone. (As of this writing Walton has reappeared, five of the witnesses have passed lie-detector tests, and the affair, says Stanford, is building up into an interesting case.)
As we drive out to the site Stanford discusses another recent occurrence, one that happened in Texas a week or so ago, involving a farmer near Boerne who claimed that an oval object hovered over one of his cows, floated it up, and engorged it.
The purpose of this trip to the site is to provide Don Sassano, a local ABC cameraman, with some footage to send into the new morning show Good Morning, America, which is planning a spot on PSI. By daylight the site has all the force of a dispelled nightmare: it is rather corny, all that bright blue accessible sky, the recognizable earth creatures scurrying over the rocks, the vistas unimpeded by curtains of darkness. Returning from the site the other night I had nearly jumped out of my seat when the headlights illuminated a deer on the side of the road. That reaction seems silly now, but how much more prodding would my imagination have needed for that deer to become a spaceman?
Sassano has instructions to film a wide shot from across the valley of the PSI staffers milling around. It won’t be much of a shot, just a squat white building surrounded by five people in white suits, all washed out in the bright noon sunlight. It may not be much to photograph, but there is something about it. It is a perfect place for a UFO to land. Perfect. Already it has the ring of history.
Wouldn’t it be great, wouldn’t it be only fair, Sassano and I speculate as across the valley Stanford and his crew pretend to check their instruments, wouldn’t it be worth at least a Pulitzer Prize if a flying saucer flew over right now within range of his camera? It would be something for Sassano to be able to tell his new baby, born on the day Travis Walton disappeared in Arizona, that his daddy had been there when Ray Stanford, calm and somber, secure of his place in an expanded history, walked over and shook the hand of a creature from outer space.