Aliens at the dinner table

My family didn't argue about politics or religion; our major source of contention was UFOs

By Keith A. Spencer

Senior Editor

Published July 1, 2018 7:30PM (EDT)

 (Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)
(Getty/Photo Montage by Salon)

Normal families argue about politics, or religion. For mine, it was aliens. Namely, the question of whether or not they were real. We weren't a particularly religious family, and everyone was a liberal or a progressive — but to paraphrase Tolstoy, I suppose every unhappy family is unhappy in its own alien way.

Every time my grandfather was in town from Menlo Park, UFOs would hover over our dinner table conversation. It boiled down to dogma: My grandfather was a believer. My dad wasn't. The rest of us were agnostic.

My grandfather wasn't the textbook definition of a UFO-hunting crank. He had a PhD in psychology, and had previously worked at Stanford Research Institute as a technical writer. You could probably classify him as an intellectual, or a bohemian, or both. He was the intellectual product of the robust postwar social welfare state; after serving as a pilot in World War II, he leveraged the GI Bill to finish his degree at UC Berkeley, taking a detour in France to study at the Sorbonne. Later, he got a Stegner Fellowship (named for novelist and professor Wallace Stegner) to study writing at Stanford, and got deep into the Bay Area playwriting world; a couple of his plays were produced at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco back in the 1960s.

Still, his childhood, spent on now-paved-over orchards in Mountain View and San Jose, had been somewhat repressive. He famously loathed his stepfather, whom he believes his mother married for security; one of his early memories was of walking outside one day to find his stepfather burning his wooden blocks in a pile with some raked leaves. "You didn't need those childish things anymore, did you Jimmy?" he asked my grandpa, who watched with tears.

"I understood Hitler, I understood fascism because I'd seen it in my stepfather," he told me once. Getting drafted into the war was personal for him. Somewhat symbolically, he became a pilot — attaining a sort of freedom in a third spatial dimension that many dream of — and flew a bomber in the Pacific theater.

A much darker memory my grandfather recalls is hearing his stepfather and his stepfather's friends coming home from going "snipe hunting" — which, in their parlance, meant driving up to Tehama County, north of Sacramento, and trying to shoot Native Americans. Based on the historical circumstances, it is likely that this was his idea of a sick joke played on his step-son; still, it is unsettling.

For someone who had struggled against familial totalitarianism, California was a fortuitous place to have been born. Even before the counterculture revolution of the Sixties, my grandfather found a release valve in the avid bohemian Beat culture of the Bay Area. Ken Kesey moved in next door to my grandparents in the late 1950s, on Perry Lane in Menlo Park; Kesey was settling in to graduate school at Stanford, also to study under Stegner, who famously hated him and his writing.

In need of a job, Kesey reached out to my grandfather, who at the time worked as an orderly at the Veteran's Affairs Hospital in Menlo Park. As a night-shift guard in the mental ward, Kesey would meet and befriend a host of people upon whom he would base his characters in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest": Big Nurse, McMurphy, Chief Bromden — all were real people in the Menlo Park VA. My grandfather recognized all the caricatures once the book came out, and so did they: they promptly fired Kesey. My grandfather may be the only person left alive who personally knew the people that book was based on.

When the hippie movement arrived, it was a relief. "I had been waiting for the hippie movement my whole life," he mused to me. The formal, staid, middle-class mass culture of the 1950s didn't do it for him; he divorced my grandma and settled into a hippie lifestyle. It was then, I think, that the conspiratorial threads that converged on pseudoscience came together for him.

Around the same time, my grandfather took the M.A. at Stanford and left the PhD. He told me he was frustrated by the number of Christian text and religion classes he would have had to take to graduate. He had no interest in religion, and detested it — or at least, the Earthly variety. He took a job at Stanford Research Institute (SRI) as a technical writer, translating the scientists' words into readable technical prose. Here, his path crossed with that of Russ Targ, a physicist who took a keen interest in studying whether extrasensory perception was possible.

The Soviet Union was rumored to be conducting research into parapsychology, specifically ESP and "remote viewing" — meaning the capacity for someone to "see" events on the other side of the world, using only their mind. Congressman Charlie Rose, then a North Carolina Democrat, said in a committee meeting, "[remote viewing] would be a hell of a cheap radar system. . . if the Russians have it and we don't, we are in serious trouble." Likewise, a mind-reading Soviet spy would be a quantum leap for the Soviets, one that the Defense Department couldn't risk. The Pentagon invested.

Targ's research projects in the early 1970s involved studying remote viewers as well as testing for ESP. Targ would use cards — likely Zener cards — to test subjects as to their psychic abilities: hold one up, ask, "what card is this," and relay the answer. If a subject consistently scored higher (or lower) than random probability would dictate, it was a big scientific hint for ESP.

For his part, Targ was always a believer in his work. While outside scientists were skeptical, Targ held fast to his belief that SRI researchers found at least one psychic whose abilities were repeatable. My grandfather was on Targ's side. He recalled their routine visits from one particularly hard-nosed, skeptical general. "When the general walked in and watched from behind the one-way mirror, suddenly all the ESP scores would dip," he told me. "And when he left, they'd recover." If you believed that extrasensory perception was possible, I guess it's not too much of a stretch to think that extrasensory interference exists, too.

My grandfather's interest in ESP then extended outside of his workplace. In the mid-1960s, in the wake of the Free Speech Movement, Free Universities began springing up around the United States. Free colleges were a new idea, rooted in the Human Potential Movement and the precepts that education should be free and accessible, and have a diversity of ideas that extend far beyond the academy's bounds. In the Bay Area, the Midpeninsula Free University was one of the largest and most successful; looking back through its course catalogs, one gets a taste for the culture of the Bay Area at the time: there are classes in "The Magic Mushroom," "Jungian Astrology," "To Follow the Wild Goose" ("explorations in bird-watching," the instructors write), and my personal favorite, "Hands." ("Hands — what they have to tell us: shapes, textures, lines, movements . . . do you know a good way to make prints? I don't know very much, so bring books, palmists, and lots of hands," instructor Selah Chamberlain wrote.)

One course catalog lists my grandfather as the teacher for a class in "Extra Sensory Perception." Prospective students are told they will have a chance to "develop their skills," and the entry notes that the teacher's sister is a highly talented psychic. (He has never mentioned this to us; I only know because of the course catalog.)

The Human Potential Movement, which coexisted and sprang from the 1960s counterculture's fount, holds that all humans have an extraordinary, untapped, even limitless potential within them. The notion that ESP might be real, and that people like Targ would endeavor to discover if humans had such untapped potential as extrasensory perception, attests to the movement's sway back then.

In other words, my grandfather's unorthodox views on parapsychology, as well as Targ's, weren't entirely their own faults. They were living in the halcyon days of the Human Potential Movement, and believed in our abilities to transcend the shackles that bound us. Was it that hard to believe in ESP? Or, in turn, UFOs?

As a skeptical beat-turned-hippie who had lived through Vietnam, Reagan and Nixon, my grandfather had little trust in the government, and had seen how they treated whistleblowers and those who studied unorthodox subjects — people like Targ. And he says he'd known other pilots in World War II who'd seen UFOs — foo fighters, as they were known then.

Hence, the idea that The Man was hiding evidence of UFOs was totally feasible. And so, through the 1980s and 1990s, when my family would visit him in his Woodside, California, cabin, the classic Modern Library editions that lined his shelves were displaced by paperbacks with lurid, all-caps titles like "The Day After Roswell" and "The Case for the UFO." To me, they looked tawdry and vulgar in contrast to the more serious volumes, the Henry James and Carlos Castañeda and Alan Watts and Abby Hoffman books on shelves above.

My grandfather had rejected Catholicism when he was very young; coming out of the haze of the hippie era and fighting off wartime PTSD, he had embraced meditation, and a few practices from Eastern spirituality that he kept with himself still. But UFOs, I think, became his real religion. During our visits, my father, the consummate scientist, would grill him for hours on the burden of proof necessary to verify that UFOs were real. "I would believe it if there were hard evidence, say, discovery of materials whose elemental composition were unlike anything on Earth," he said, "or made of isotopes in ratios that we didn't have here." In rebuttal, my grandpa would rattle off stories of sightings or encounters. Their arguments would last hours.

I wasn't a believer in UFOs, but some of the Human Potential Movement, it seems, had rubbed off on me. Our family had internally conflicting views of whether we'd been visited, but we all believed in space travel — that it was, on its own merit, a good thing. Maybe it was our collective obsession with science fiction, but somehow I was brought up with the expectation that humans would one day travel to the stars. It seemed inevitable.

In the way that a family's specific convictions can feel universal to a child, I thought everyone thought the same way. During my junior year of college, I remember sitting at my eating cooperative's dining room table when this came up in conversation. "I'm sure humans will one day travel to the stars, and visit other planets," I said.

Multiple people burst out laughing.

That's when I realized this belief, in the inevitability of space travel, wasn't dogma. I quizzed my friends on why they didn't think humans could, or should, travel to the stars. "Look what we've done to Earth," one opined. "I don't think we're ready to go to another planet." That was hard to argue with.

My family is obviously weird, but I don't think we're unique in thinking that we're going to travel to the stars someday. It's the basis of all kinds of sci-fi series, notably "Star Trek." Plenty of scientists express the same view, using the same language of inevitability. "If we do not destroy ourselves, we will someday venture to the stars," so sayeth Carl Sagan. Space colonization is not just an American or an imperialist thing, either. Soviet rocket scientist Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky famously said, "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot remain in the cradle forever."

I've pondered over my family's spacefaring dogma for years. Should mankind venture to the stars? Do we deserve to? Should billionaires lead us there?

To the last point, definitely not. But to the first, I think you have to go back to the Human Potential Movement. If you think that humans — and particularly those of us guided by the search for knowledge, curiosity and compassion, rather than wealth, exploitation and power — have values and beliefs and lives that are worth preserving, than space travel might be perceived not as an imperialist quest but as a conservationist mission. Gene Roddenberry was quite prescient in this regard: the United Federation of Planets of "Star Trek" exemplifies the best post-scarcity, post-capitalist view of a spacefaring civilization, a universe free of poverty guided by human potential and organized democratically and without corporations. Ridley Scott's "Alien" movies presage the worst dystopian outcome, and one that currently seems more present: spacefaring driven by corporate profit. Which universe would you rather live in? Hint: "Alien" and its sequels are horror movies.

We are, to our knowledge, the only sentient form of matter in the universe — we are the universe pondering itself, to paraphrase astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson. Someday, the Earth and all its life will be destroyed when the Sun expands to engulf us; long before then, numerous, regular asteroid impacts will make extinct the majority of life every hundred million years or so. If we want to keep exploring and cataloguing and studying without interruption, I suppose we'll have to leave the planet someday, bringing along the bountiful life that Earth provides — provided we don't, as Sagan said, destroy ourselves.

Humanists today, both those on the left and some liberals, tend to believe deeply in the ability for all humans to achieve their true potential. Movements like universal healthcare, free college and free childcare — and careers like social work, teaching, studying science or the arts — are rooted in this belief: that we, as a species, are good, do good things worth preserving, and deserve to be happy and live fulfilled, curious lives. If we do go to the stars, we should bring that with us.


By Keith A. Spencer

Keith A. Spencer is a social critic and author. Previously a senior editor at Salon, he writes about capitalism, science, labor and culture, and published a book on how Silicon Valley is destroying the world. Keep up with his writing on TwitterFacebook, or Substack.

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