It was dark when the airliner limousine reached La Guardia Field. I had intended taking an earlier plane. but DuBarry persuaded me to stay over for dinner.
We dropped into the Algonquin, next door to True's office building. Halfway through dinner, I asked John what he thought of the space-travel answer.
"Oh, it's possible," he said cautiously. "The time and space angles make it hard to take, but if we're planning to explore space within fifty years, there's no reason some other planet people couldn't do it. Of course, if they've been observing us for over a century, as those old sightings seem to indicate, they must be far ahead of us, at least in technical progress.
Later on, he said thoughtfully, "Even though it's possible, I hate to think it's the answer. Just imagine the impact on the world. We'd have to reorient our whole lives---and things are complicated enough already."
Standing at the gate, waiting for my plane to be called, I thought over that angle. Assuming that space travel was the solution-which I still couldn't believe-what would be the effect on the world?
It was a hard thing to picture. So much depended on the visitors from space. What would their purpose be? Would they be peaceful or hostile? Why had they been observing the earth so intensively in the past few years?
I could think of a hundred questions. What would the space people be like? Would they be similar to men and women on earth, or some fearsome Buck Rogerish creatures who would terrify the average American-including myself?
It was obvious they would be far superior to us in many ways. But their civilization might be entirely different. Evolution might have developed their minds, and possibly their bodies, along lines we couldn't even grasp. Perhaps we couldn't even communicate with them.
What would be the net effect of making contact with beings from a distant planet? Would earthlings be terri-
fied, or, if it seemed a peaceful exploration, would we be intrigued by the thought of a great adventure? It would depend entirely on the space visitors' motives, and how the world was prepared for such a revelation.
The more I thought about it, the more fantastic the thing seemed.
And yet it hadn't been too long since airplane flight was considered an idiot's dream. This scene here at La Guardia would have seemed pure fantasy in 1900 - the huge Constellations and DC-6's; the double-decked Stratocruisers, sweeping in from all over the country; the big ships at Pan-American, taking off for points all over the globe We'd come a long way in the forty-six years since the Wright brothers' first flight.
But space travel!
The gateman checked my ticket, and I went out to the Washington plane. It was a luxury ship, a fifty-two-passenger, four-engined DC-6, scheduled to be in the capital one hour after take-off. By morning this plane, the Aztec, would be in Mexico City.
The couple going up the gangway ahead of me were in their late sixties. Fifty years ago, what would they have said if someone had predicted this flight? The answer to that was easy; at that time, high-school songbooks featured a well-known piece entitled "Darius Green and His Flying Machine." Darius, it seems, was a simple-minded lad who actually thought he could fly.
Fifty years. That was the time the Air Force had estimated it would take us to start exploring space Would Americans come to accept space travel as matter-of-factly -as the people now boarding this plane? The youngsters would, probably; the older ones, as a rule, would be a little more cautious.
In the oval lounge at the rear of the plane, I took out the file of old sighting reports. Glancing through it, I saw excerpts from nineteenth-century astronomical and scientific journals and extracts from official gazettes. Most of the early sightings had been in Great Britain and on the Continent, with a few reports scattered around the world. The American reports did not begin until the latter part of the century.
The DC-6 rolled out and took off. For a few minutes I watched the lights of Manhattan and Greater New York twinkling below. The Empire State Building tower was above us, as the plane banked over the East River. We climbed quickly, and the familiar outline of Manhattan took shape like a map pin-pointed with millions of lights.
Any large city seen from the air at night has a certain magic, New York most of all. Looking down, I thought:: What would a spaceman think, seeing this brilliantly lighted city, the towering skyscrapers? Would other planets have such cities, or would it be something new and puzzling to a visitor from space?
Turning back to the old reports, I skipped through until I found the American sightings. One of the first was an incident at Bonham, Texas, in the summer of 1873.
It was broad daylight when a strange, fast-moving object appeared in the sky, southwest of the town. For a moment, the people of Bonham stared at the thing, not believing their eyes. The only flying device then known was the drifting balloon. But this thing was tremendous, and speeding so fast its outlines were almost a blur.
Terrified farmers dived under their wagons. Towns-people fled indoors. Only a few hardy souls remained in the streets. The mysterious object circled Bonham twice, then raced off to the east and vanished. Descriptions of the strange machine varied from round or oval to cigar- shaped. (The details of the Bonham sighting were later confirmed for me by Frank Edwards, Mutual network newscaster, who investigated this case.)
Twenty-four hours after the Bonham incident, a device of the same description appeared at Fort Scott, Kansas. Panic-stricken soldiers fled the parade ground as the thing flashed overhead. In a few seconds it disappeared, circling toward the north.
Until now, I had supposed that the term "saucer" was original with Kenneth Arnold. Actually, the first to compare a flying object with a saucer was John Martin, a farmer who lived near Denison, Texas. The Denison Daily News of January 25, 1878, gives the following account:
In the file, I saw a memo DuBarry had written:
"I would take the very early reports with caution. For instance, the one on August 9, 1762, which describes an odd, spindle-shaped body traveling at high speed toward the sun. I recall that Charles Fort accepted this, along with other early sightings, as evidence of space ships. But this particular thing might have been a meteor - meteors as such were almost unknown then. The later reports are more convincing, and it is also easier to check the sources, especially those from 1870' on."
From 1762 to 1870, the reports were meager. Some described mysterious lights in the sky; a few mentioned round objects seen in daylight. Even though they were not so fully documented as later ones, one point struck me. In those days, there was no telegraph, telephone, or radio to spread news rapidly and start a flood of rumors.
A sighting in Scotland could not be the cause of a similar one two days later in the south of France.
Beginning in 1870, there was a series of reports that went on to the turn of the century. In the London Times, September 26, 1870, there was a description of a queer object that was seen crossing the moon. It was reported as elliptical, with some kind of tail, and it took almost thirty seconds to complete its passage of the moon. Then in 1871, a large, round body was sighted above Marseilles, France. This was on August 1. It moved slowly across the sky, apparently at great height, and was visible about fifteen minutes.
On March 22, 1880, several brilliantly luminous objects were reported seen at Kattenau, Germany. Sighted just before sunrise, they were described as rising from the horizon and moving from east to west. The account was published in the British Nature Magazine, Volume 22, page 64.
The next report in the file mentioned briefly a strange round object seen in the skies over Bermuda. The source for this account was the Bermuda Royal Gazette. This was in 1885. That same year, an astronomer and other witnesses reported a gigantic aerial object at Adrianople, Turkey. On November 1, the weird apparition was seen moving across the sky. Observers described it as round and four to five times the size of the moon.
This estimate is similar to the Denison, Texas, comparison with an orange. The object would actually be huge to be seen at any great height. But unless the true height were known, any estimate of size would be guesswork.
On March 19, 1887, two strange objects fell into the sea near a Dutch barkentine. As described by the skipper, Captain C. D. Sweet, one of the objects was dark, the other brightly luminous. The glowing object fell with a loud roaring sound; the shipmaster was positive it was not a meteor.
In New Zealand, a year later, an oval-shaped disk was reported speeding high overhead. This was on May 4, 1888. About two years after this, several large aerial bodies were sighted hovering over the Dutch East Indies.
Most accounts described them as roughly triangular, about one hundred feet on the base and two hundred feet on the sides. But some observers thought they might be longer and narrower, with a rounded base; this would make them agree with more recent stories of cone-shaped objects with rounded tops seen in American skies.
On August 26, 1894, a British admiral reported sighting a large disk with a projection like a tail And a year after this, both England and Scotland buzzed with stories of triangular-shaped objects like those seen in the Dutch East Indies. Although many officials scoffed at the stories, more than one astronomer stuck to his belief that the mysterious things might be coming from outer space. Since planes and dirigibles were then unknown, there was no one on earth who could have been responsible for them..
In 1897,. sightings in the United States began to be more frequent. One of the strangest reports describes an incident that began on April 9. Flying at a great height, a huge cigar-shaped device was seen in the Midwest. Short wings projected from the sides of the object, according to reports of astronomers who watched it through telescopes.
For almost a week, the aerial visitor was sighted around the Midwest, as far south as St. Louis and as far west as Colorado. Several times, red, green, and white lights were seen to flash in the sky; some witnesses thought the crew of this strange craft might be trying to signal the earth.
On April 15, the thing, whatever it was, disappeared from the Midwest. But on April 19, the same object - or else a similar one - appeared over West Virginia. Early that morning the town of Sisterville was awakened by blasts of the sawmill whistle Those who went outside their homes saw a strange sight. From a torpedo-shaped object overhead, dazzling searchlights were pointing downward, sweeping the countryside; The thing appeared to be about two hundred feet long, some thirty feet in diameter, with stubby wings and red and green lights along the sides. For almost ten minutes the aerial visitor circled the town, then it swung eastward and vanished.
The next report was published in the U.S. Weather Bureau's monthly Weather Review. On page 115 in the
March 1904 issue, there is an account of an odd sighting at sea. On February 24, 1904, a mysterious light had been seen above the Atlantic by crew members of the U.S.S. Supply. It was moving swiftly. and evidently at high altitude. The report was attested by Lieutenant Frank H. Schofield, U.S.N.
On July 2, 1907, a mysterious explosion occurred in the heavens near Burlington, Vermont. Some witnesses described a strange, torpedo-shaped device circling above. Shortly after it was seen, a round, luminous object flashed down from the sky, then exploded. (Weather Review, 1907, page 310.)
Another cigar-shaped craft was reported at a low altitude over Bridgewater, Massachusetts, in 1908. Like the one at Sisterville, it carried searchlights, which swept back and forth across the countryside. After a few moments, the visitor rose in a steep climb, and the searchlights blinked out.
There was no report for 1909 in America, though an odd aerial object was sighted near the Galapagos Islands. But in 1910, one January morning, a large silvery cigar- shaped device startled Chattanooga. After about five minutes, the thing sped away, appearing over Huntsville, Alabama, shortly afterward. It made a second appearance over Chattanooga the next day, then headed east and was. never seen again.
In Popular Astronomy, January 27, 1912, a Dr. F. B. Harris described an intensely black object that he saw crossing the moon. As nearly as he could tell, it was gigantic in size - though again there was no way to be sure of distance from him or the moon. With careful understatement, Dr. Harris said, "I think a very interesting and curious phenomenon happened that night."
A strange shadow was noted on the clouds at Fort Worth, Texas, on April 8, 1913. It appeared to be caused by some large body hovering motionless above the clouds. As the cloud layer moved, the shadow remained in the same position. Then it changed size, diminishing, and quickly disappeared, as if it had risen vertically. A report on this was given in the Weather Bureau Review of that year, Number 4-599.
By 1919, dirigibles were of course well known to most of the world. When a dirigible-shaped object appeared over Huntington, West Virginia, in July of that year, there was no great alarm. It was believed to be an American blimp, though the darkness - it was eleven at night - prevented observers from being sure. But a later check-up proved it was not an American ship, nor was it from any country possessing such craft.
For some time after this, there were few authentic reports. Then in 1934, Nicholas Roerich, head of the American-Roerich expedition into Tibet, had a remarkable experience that bears on the saucer riddle.
On pages 361 and 362 of his book Altai Himalaya, Roerich describes the incident. The expedition party was in the wilds of Tibet one morning when a porter noticed the peculiar actions of a buzzard overhead. He called Roerich's attention to it; then they all saw something high in the sky, moving at great speed from north to south. Watching it through binoculars, Roerich saw it was oval shaped, obviously of huge size, and reflecting the sun's rays like brightly polished metal. While he trailed it with his glasses, the object suddenly changed direction, from south to southwest. It was gone in a few moments.
This was the last sighting listed before World War II. When I had finished, I stared out the plane window, curiously disturbed. Like most people, I had grown up believing the earth was the center of everything - life, intelligence, and religion. Now, for the first time in my life, that belief was shaken.
It was a curious thing. I could accept the idea that we would eventually explore space, land on the moon, and go on to distant planets. I had read of the plans, and I knew our engineers and scientists would somehow find a way. It did not disturb my belief in our superiority.
But faced with this evidence of a superior race in the universe, my mind rebelled. For years, I had been accustomed to thinking in comic-strip terms of any possible spacemen-Buck Rogers stuff, with weird-looking space ships and green-faced Martians.
But now, if these sightings were true, the shoe was on the other foot. We would be faced with a race of beings
hundred years ahead of our civilization - perhaps thousands. In their eyes. we might look like primitives.
My conjectures before the takeoff had just been idle thinking; I had not really believed this could be the answer. But now the question came back sharply. How would we react to a sudden appearance of space ships, bringing that higher race to the earth? If we were fully prepared, educated to this tremendous adventure, it might come off without trouble. Unprepared, we would thrown into panic.
The lights of Philadelphia showed up ahead, and a thought struck me. What would Philadelphians of 1776 have thought to see this DC-6 flying across their city at three hundred miles an hour? What would the sentries at Valley Forge have done, a year later, if this lighted airliner had streaked over their heads?
Madness. Stampede. Those were the plain answers.
But there was a difference now. We had had modern miracles, radio, television, supersonic planes. and the promise of still more miracles. We could be educated, or least partly prepared, to accept space visitors. - in fifty years we had learned to fly. In fifty years more, we would be exploring space. Why should we believe such creative intelligence was limited to the earth? It would be incredible if the earth, out of all the millions of planets, proved the only inhabited spot in the whole universe.
But, instinctively, I still fought against believing that the flying saucers were space ships. Eventually, we would make contact with races on other planets; they undoubtedly would someday visit the earth. But if it could be off . . . a problem for later generations to handle...
If the disks proved American guided missiles, it would be an easier answer.
Looking through the Project "Saucer" report Dubarry had loaned me, I read the space-travel items, hoping to find some hint that this was a smoke screen. On page 18, in a discussion on Mars, I found this comment:
Reports of strange objects seen in the skies have been handed down through the generations. However, scientists believe that if Martians were now visiting earth
without establishing contact, it could be assumed that they have just recently succeeded in space travel, and that their civilization would be practically abreast of ours. This because they find it hard to believe that any technically established race would come here, flaunt its ability in mysterious ways over the years, but each time simply go away without ever establishing contact."
There could be several answers to that. The Martians might not be able to live in our atmosphere, except in their sealed space ships. They, or some other planet race, could have observed us periodically to check on our slow progress. Until we began to approach their level of civilization, or in some way caused them concern, they would probably see no reason for trying to make contact. But somehow I found a vague comfort in the argument, full of holes though it was.
Searching further, I found other space-travel comments. On one page, the Air Force admitted it was almost a certainty that space travelers would be operating from planets outside the solar system. But on the following page, I discovered this sentence: "Thus, although visits from outer space are believed to be possible, they are thought to be highly improbable.''
What was the answer? Was this just a wandering discussion of possibilities, badly put together, or was it a hint of the truth? It could be the first step in preparing .America for a revelation. It could also be a carefully thought-out trick.
This whole report might be designed to conceal a secret weapon. If the Air Force or the Navy did have a secret missile, what better way to distract attention? The old sighting reports could have been seized on as a build up for space travel hints.
Then suddenly it hit me.
Even if it were a smoke screen, what of those old reports?
They still remained to be answered. There was only one possible explanation, unless you discarded the sightings as lies. That meant discrediting many reliable witnesses - naval officers, merchant shipmasters, explorers, astronomers, ministers, and responsible public officials.
Besides all these, there had been thousands of other witnesses, where large groups had seen the objects.
The answer seemed inevitable, but 1 held it off. I didn't want to believe it, with all the changes it might bring, the unpredictable effect upon our civilization.
If I kept on checking I might find evidence that would bring a different explanation for the present saucers.
Dubarry had put another group of reports in the envelope; this series covered the World War II phase and on up to the outbreak of the saucer scare in the United States. Some of it, about the foo fighters, I already knew. This was tied in with the mystery rockets reported over Sweden. The first Swedish sightings had occurred during the early part of the war. Most of the so-called "ghost rockets" were seen at night, moving at tremendous speed. Since they came from the direction of Germany, most Swedes believed that guided rockets were the answer.
During the summer of 1946, after the Russians had taken over Peenemunde,
the Nazi missile test base, ghost
But there was a puzzling complication. Mystery lights, and sometimes flying disks, were simultaneously reported over Greece, Portugal, Turkey, Spain, and even French Morocco. Either there were two answers, or some nation had developed missiles with an incredibly long range.
By January 1947, ghost-rocket sightings in Europe had diminished
to less than one a month. Oddly enough, the
various times - have never been released. Nor has the Air Force released this observer's report on the object's size, which Project "Saucer" admitted was more accurate than most witnesses' estimates.)
About the seventeenth of May 1947, a huge oval-shaped saucer ten times longer than its diameter was sighted by Byron Savage, an Oklahoma City pilot. Two days later, another fast-flying saucer was reported at Manitou Springs, Colorado. In the short time it was observed, it was seen to change direction twice, maneuvering at an unbelievable speed.
Then on June 24 came Kenneth Arnold's famous re port, which set off the saucer scare. The rest of the story I now knew almost by heart
When the DC-6 landed at Washington, I had made one decision. Since it was impossible to check up on most of the old sightings, I would concentrate on certain recent reports-cases in which the objects had been described as space ships.
As I waited for a taxi, I looked up at the sky. It was a clear summer night, without a single cloud. Beyond the low hill to the west I could see the stars.
I can still remember thinking, If it's true, then the stars will never again seem the same.