UFO Summit: Experts squabble, fans jeer

The great alien debate lacked the cheesy exaggerations of yesteryear.

By Jack Boulware

Published July 4, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

ROSWELL, N.M. -- perhaps 150 people are shuffling into a ballroom at the Roswell Inn, armed with notebooks, camcorders and varying degrees of patience -- an ill-dressed bunch of locals, crackpots, ersatz researchers and media. Tonight's debate could be called the Clash of the Titans -- the UFO believers vs. the Project Mogul crowd. Was the 1947 Roswell crash indeed an alien spacecraft out for a joyride, or was the debris found by a rancher simply a top-secret military balloon project with human-sized test dummies? The room buzzes with anticipation.

Kevin Randle, former Air Force intelligence officer and co-author of two books on Roswell, plays to the cheap seats. His pro-UFO stance attracts a built-in audience of true believers and adheres to the classic "Release the files!" position about the incident. His books are guaranteed to sell, but he loves the camera too much for many.

In fact, at this moment the high-energy Randle is being interviewed by a camera crew. The Project Mogul balloon explanation, released just a few weeks ago by the Air Force, is "absolutely preposterous." When the sound bites are over and a producer strokes him with a "Nicely done ... thank you, sir," Randle beams and replies, "I tried to be ..." making a gung-ho motion with his fist. Everybody nods. It looked great.

Randle ascends to the dais, where his nemesis, Karl Pflock, is already seated. Pflock has also been researching Roswell for several years, boasting credentials from the Justice Department and the CIA, and has done many recent national TV appearances. Both men scribble in copies of their respective books for fans. While Randle's tomes are hardback with flashy color covers, Pflock's published works are stapled and photocopied monographs. Somebody needs a better literary agent.

The crowd is getting restless. These guys are smelling like prima donnas, chatting and signing away, as if they have all the time in the world, when the rest of us sitting here want to know the truth. A commotion breaks out in the first few rows. Shouting about her five bucks being a waste of money, a gray-haired woman stomps down the aisle and out the door.

"Goodbye," sings out Randle, his pen lifting momentarily from his book. "Don't forget to write!"

But the tension keeps building. "Let's go!" hollers a guy with a camcorder. "What time is it? You should sign them afterwards!" He stands up and shouts, "Is anyone in the organization listening to this? You need to do this afterwards!" The entire room applauds.

Another guy stands up, holding a brochure for the debate: "It says 'Booksigning before the lecture,' so calm down."

Calm is restored, and for the next two hours, Randle and Pflock square off in the arena of Who Has Done Better Research, like two pimpled Ivy Leaguers in the College Bowl championships. The absence of certain facts in the Roswell case does not deter either:

"I have this directly from his daughter, in writing," claims Pflock at one point.

"I fully intended to get this on tape," Randle says later of one key witness, "but then he got sick."

Unfortunately, both men are so careful to appear professional and thorough, the grandiose, obviously specious elements of earlier researchers -- from my point of view, the major and perhaps sole attraction of the entire UFO debate -- are lost. Where are the fudged testimonies, the ludicrous exaggerations, the data copied verbatim from other books without regard to fact-checking?

(My personal favorite of the UFO sub-genres is the Historical Re-creation, in which the writer lovingly re-creates the scene of the alleged UFO sighting, mixing in all known facts and jargon with an irrepressible burst of detail, as in: "Dawn was just breaking on the morning of November 7, 1948. The air was crisp and clear, with a smattering of high-level cirrus clouds that would burn off by mid-morning. Captain Steven St. Elmo-Fire was a pilot with the Arizona National Guard 137th Fighter Squadron, and had logged 2,867.25 hours of flight time, with an impeccable safety record. At exactly 0640 hours he pulled the stick back on his oxygen-equipped F-51D and the sleek silver bird rose gracefully off the cold tarmac at Saguerro Field. His fuel tanks were full. St. Elmo-Fire's breakfast had consisted of the usual: coffee, toast, and a handful of DR-31 aviator roto-compression tablets, designed to counteract the servotrack neuro-relay syndrome, i.e. a force of 5 Gs or more....")

Neither Randle nor Pflock produce such seductive tinsel, but Randle does save the evening from complete boredom by resorting to cheap theatrics. As Pflock rambles on about the Project Mogul balloon construction materials, and how the Scotch tape and wood and foil obviously match exactly the witness descriptions of materials found at the crash site, Randle cuts him off:

"You want some Scotch tape? I've got Scotch tape!" He pulls out a tape dispenser and stretches out a few feet of tape. "Wood? I've got wood." He snaps a piece of wood over his head. "Kite string? Foil?" He shows them to the crowd, then throws it all dramatically to the dais and declares, "THAT'S Project Mogul." The crowd roars with laughter and applause.

Pflock looks perplexed, deboned like a fish in a frying pan. Many people get up and walk out. The debate continues, but it's all downhill now. The two find many points upon which they agree -- the dubious nature of certain witnesses, the credibility of other researchers and, most significantly, the contaminated nature of the entire Roswell case.

Finding out what happened at Roswell is not why people are still driving into town with "Roswell or bust!" scrawled on the sides of their RVs. It no longer matters what happened 50 years ago. All the publicity has made it impossible to discern fact from fiction. The two museums don't care if aliens exist or not, as long as the tourists keep buying up the T-shirts and jars of "Alien Salsa." What matters most, and what will endure long after all the original witnesses and researchers are food for worms, is the quality of human stubbornness, that strength to stick to your convictions, allow little or no room for opposing views, filter in only the information that are essential, pore over the details, think about all of the lies and corruption that prevent your views from achieving final, incontrovertible truth and settle in for a lifetime of simmering, unresolved unfulfillment.

After listening to the debate's continuous stream of UFO minutiae, attempting to connect the dots and solve the puzzle, I give up and wander over with a few UFO friends to the lounge of the Roswell Inn. Three tables are shoved together, filled with chain-smoking veterans of the UFO convention circuit.

"Is it over yet?" barks one middle-aged woman over the flamenco guitarist.

"It's been going on for two hours."

"It's been going on for 25 years," announces another. The table laughs.
July 4, 1997

The Roswell Diaries: Day 1

Next up: Jim Moseley, veteran UFO researcher for over 40 years; the UFO Expo trade show; the all-night rave, held at the actual crash site!

Jack Boulware

Jack Boulware is a writer in San Francisco and author of "San Francisco Bizarro" and "Sex American Style."

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