Saturday, December 23, 2006

Flying Saucer Boy

Comcast Cable's On Demand is showing the 1956 science fiction movie Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers on its Free Movies section. I'd seen it about five years ago but today I took another look.

I like the naïve earnestness of Hugh Marlowe as the leading man, Dr. Marvin. Everyone trusts the military to do the right thing, and they look to Dr. Marvin for guidance, and for their weapons development. That's why they call it science fiction, obviously. The special effects by Ray Harryhausen, even in our era of CGI, are still entertaining. The reviewer for commended the sound effects, but they were actually annoying.

This is a very paranoid film done in a paranoid era. That's part of its appeal to me. America was facing down the Soviet Union in a tense standoff, arms proliferation, nuclear bombs, and all of that sort of worrisome stuff. So a threat from outer space had a lot to do with how we were feeling at the time. The flying saucer men were stand-ins for our real external enemies.

Mom took my buddies and me to the movie on my birthday in 1956. She dropped us off and let us sit through 2 ½ showings before coming to pick us up. I think it was because Allen's mom called and asked where the hell he was, and wasn't that damn birthday party over yet? Mom was probably preoccupied, as she often was, by whatever it was the preoccupied her. I never knew.

The subject of flying saucers came up the next day when Allen and I were kicking a ball around in my back yard. We talked about the movie and I said, "Do you think flying saucers are real?" We'd heard a lot about flying saucers--my dad was interested in the subject--but Mom said that people were "seeing things," or "just nuts" when they said they'd seen them. Allen said, "Sure they're real. They fly over us a lot. Like that one, right there."

I looked east into the afternoon sky and saw a large object, which for the life of me, looked like my mom's steam iron flying overhead. I watched it for a short while and it vanished. For a few years I told the story of how I'd seen a UFO and when I said that people would perk up, but groan or laugh when I said it looked like a big steam iron. So I didn't tell the story after a while, and I really only thought of it on occasion. Like when I read in Fortean Times years ago that one of the shapes of UFOs reported by people is, you guessed it, a steam iron.

As an adult I've spent a lot of time thinking about how I thought as a child, hoping to discover why I think the way I do as an adult. I had a really active imagination, fueled by TV science fiction shows and Flash Gordonserials. I read science fiction comic books, and juvenile science fiction novels. As my third grade teacher, Mrs. B., told me the year after I'd moved on from her class, "I thought you'd be on Mars by now." So my mind was bent toward that type of sighting.

Allen, my childhood buddy, was also a trickster. He liked to do things to fool me. Perhaps when Allen pointed to the sky I was primed to see a UFO and wasn't disappointed.

The problem is I had a nine-year-old's mind, and I'm trying to figure it out with my now-adult mind, putting myself in my back yard over 50 years ago, looking up in the sky. I don't recall any sound coming from the object. I realized years later that it could not have been a commercial airliner because that wasn't then, nor is it now, the flight path to our airport. It's too near the mountains. If it had been a helicopter or private plane I think I would have heard something. Was it a hot air balloon? Not very common in those days. Not even these days.

I also know nowadays that the power of suggestion is just that, power. It's easy to make someone believe something when they want to believe it. And memory, as we all know, is the trickiest thing of all and most easily fooled.

As an adult I don't believe in flying saucers. They've been reported now for almost 60 years, and even when people try to sell me on the idea I don't have much patience. No one has come up with any real physical evidence. If you see lights in the sky and instantly translate that into visitors from outer space then you out-imagine me. If, in what's left of my lifetime, a flying saucer lands on the White House lawn and little gray guys step out waving, then maybe I'll believe there are such things.

And as for the little gray guys, don't even get me started on what I think of people who claim to have been abducted by aliens and given anal probes or transmitters implanted in their nostrils. Put down your DVD sets of The X-Files and come back to earth, folks.

For all of that, childish imagination, the power of suggestion, the flying saucer movie I'd seen the day before, my dad's belief in flying saucers, newspaper stories, Allen's statement, "They fly over us a lot," I keep wondering: I did see something. So what did I see in the sky over the east bench of Salt Lake City fifty years ago?

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