Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle I Am Going to Outer Space

By Kim Mellen

JULY 13, 1998:  Jessie Wade, owner and operator of the Wade Bar in Corona, New Mexico, stood at the door of his empty establishment -- perhaps he was drunk -- and averted his gaze from the quiet main street up to the vast and starry southwest sky, up into space. Maybe he heard the brief, distant rumbling, or maybe he saw the ribbon of light unfurling toward the earth. Maybe he just imagined he did. Minutes later an abused old pickup skidded to a stop in front of the bar. Jessie's friend, Mac Brazel, leaned out the window, sweaty and urgent: "Something's crashed out on my ranch!"

"You should probably call the military base," Jessie replied.

"Shut down and get out there!" Brazel cried as he sped away.

Jessie didn't go. He didn't think this hubbub worthy of the gas it would take to get out there -- WWII had just ended, and rationing was still in effect. A night or two later, Mac came back to the Wade Bar with a boxful of metal scraps and debris to show to his buddies. This wasn't any ordinary metal, it was thin and featherweight like aluminum, but strong like steel. Jessie was startled to see the stuff liquefy in the heat of Mac's strong rancher hands, and solidify again when it was dropped on the table.

Mac disappeared for a few days. Not too long after, he was driving a brand-spankin' new pickup truck. Word around town was that he bought a meat locker up in Alamogordo. Strange how he stopped talking to Jessie, and how he would eventually leave town forever. "Especially 'cause since before the crash he never had two nickels to rub together," Jessie Wade would tell his son repeatedly, who would later write his father's story in an affidavit, a copy of which now hangs in the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico, with the implication that the government paid Mac Brazel for his silence about what he saw out on his ranch that summer night, July 2, 1947.

You have to love a town with a gimmick. Roswell and environs is a reasonable long-weekend trip from Austin (Carlsbad Caverns, with its underground cafe, is less than an hour south). Not a bad drive either -- I love the nuclear dump-attracting, Old West vastness of West Texas. I realize that Texas cops are notorious for their no-tolerance speeding policies, and not that I nor The Austin Chronicle advocate speeding, oh no, but let's just say the only highway patrolman I saw during the whole eight- or nine-hour drive was too busy corralling an escaped calf against a stretch of fence along Highway 285 north of Pecos to notice me whizzing by.

I reached southern New Mexico the night of the last Seinfeld and the season finale of ER, a night which seemed to capture the imagination of many Americans. Actually, I wouldn't have minded getting to a hotel in time to catch the shows, so I was watching the clock. It soon became apparent that arriving in time for Seinfeld was a lost cause. At 9:30pm (Mountain time, for those of you used to lusting after man-boy Noah Wyle an hour earlier than the rest of civilization), I saw a road sign that said ROSWELL: 30. Good, I thought. I'll make it for ER.

Drive, drive, drive, la, la, la.

I looked at the clock again: 9:43. Among signs warning not to pick up hitchhikers because there is a prison nearby, another road sign emerged on the horizon. It said, to my shock, ROSWELL: 30. Spooky! Poor civil engineering, or... something more? Oh boy. This was exactly what I was coming to Roswell for.

illustration by Roy Tompkins

Conspiracy buffs love to call Roswell "west of lost and north of nowhere." I had pictured the place as nothing more than a few scattered farmhouses and a fence separating the highway from a faraway, forebodingly off-limits military base. But the town of Roswell is a bit more substantial than most small towns that dot the two-lane highways of America, although it's still centered on one main street that serves as the focal point of business and activity. There's even one semi-high high-rise. I had even thought the 1947 Roswell Incident too dark and weird to support a full-blown tourist industry, but the hotel signs joke "Come Crash With Us" and "Aliens Welcome." The International UFO Museum and Research Center is conspicuously housed in an old movie theatre on the main street, and alien heads stare out from the street's ubiquitous souvenir shops.

The museum is staffed largely by senior citizens, and senior citizen junkets made up a large portion of the visitors too, at least the day I went. One staffer egregiously greets you as you're still trying to get your bearings, explaining that while there is no admission charge they would love you to sign in and to please put a push-pin in your hometown in their humongous world map, if one was not there already. The map was a carpet of push-pins. And next to it, behind plate glass, is the dead alien replica used in the Kyle McLaughlin vehicle, Roswell the movie or musical or whatever it was, towered over by a mannequin in scrubs performing the mock autopsy.

If your money is really burning a hole in your pocket, the museum is also the gathering point for tours of the crash sites -- yes, there's more than one. Apparently, a UFO exploded in midair and bounced along the New Mexico desert like a skipping stone. At the first point of heated impact, the sand was turned to glass, and after a bounce or two it wedged into the ground, spewing out a controversial number of the alien anorexics. Unfortunately I had blown my money on a Frank Sinatra Memorial Huevos Rancheros with New Mexico Green Chile breakfast earlier that morning at the outstanding Martin's Capitol Cafe, so I had to skip the tour. (Later, however, I followed a sign pointing to one of the crash sites, but after a long and dusty detour leading only to red rocks and cow poop, I gave up.)

The gutted-out theatre walls of the museum are painted black and splattered with white to look like stars. There are side rooms with continuous looping talking-head documentaries about the Roswell Incident. The exhibits resemble giant elementary school science projects -- not entirely a bad thing for those of us who can always get behind a good diorama. I'd recommend the walkman tour, since the exhibits are all a bit too text-heavy for my tastes -- scarequotes are used to charming excess (which, of course, you'd expect in an exposition of conspiracy theory and paranoia) -- e.g.: These are "stills" from the movie Roswell.

The focal point of the museum is a Roswell Incident timeline, with a nice crash test dummy which the Air Force claimed was what the hapless witnesses really saw at the crash site. There are lots of other meta-exhibits, too, about all kinds of UFO and alien visitation phenomena. A flyer that explains what to do if you have a close encounter of the first-through-third kind reads like the back of an auto insurance card:

"Get witnesses; the more you have the more believable your story will be."

"Take photographs if you are able."

"Call the authorities."

Among blowups of crop circles, I heard a woman whispering to a group of Japanese tourists, "Do you believe?" and they just stared back at her, not understanding the English.

A lonely wall towards the back by the restrooms was covered with children's crayon drawings. Again, I expected something a lot more sinister: creepy art-therapy portrayals of the cold, gray, blank-eyed, small-mouthed creatures stealing the children away at night. In actuality the works were touching and sweet; it seems they were commissioned by one Mario's Pizza, so pizza was an overriding theme, along with benign, happy, archetypal little green men (all with antennae), space shuttles, and other objects of childhood fantasy. Their aliens said things like, "I come to eat the perfect food pies," and "Take me to your leader! Ho ho ho!" One work featured this dialogue:

Kid: "Want some pizza?"

Alien: "Huh?"

Others were captioned "UFO Welcome to my planet" and "Beware of an explosion by an alien!" and an ambiguous "I am an alien I am going to outer space," which, you know, if you think about it, could be the words of either an otherworldly visitor or the lament of the artist his/herself. Deep!

I can't say I derived similar enjoyment from the adult's art exhibition, all neon airbrushed New-Agey scenes of unusually proportioned space princesses amidst rainbows, the head of Einstein floating through a supernova, and wolves. Lots of wolves. Presiding over this dreck is a statue of the museum's mascot, the Roswell Alien Life Form, "RALF" for short. RALF, like the kids' crayon drawings, is decidedly un-sinister; he's an endearing, cuddly toddler version of the disturbing, anal-probing memory stealers. But RALF did get in my head; he made me want to buy souvenirs.

One exhibit called "Ancient Cultures and Their Connections to Extraterrestrial Life Forms" includes speculation about the Palenque Astronaut, the Mayan tomb lid engraving which depicts what people interpret as a being in a spacesuit -- might he be unhuman?! -- playing with knobs and levers in a vessel launching up to the heavens. Now, I don't know anything about Mayans, but all I got out of it was what looked like a little dead dude reclining amongst a bunch of symbols that could mean anything. The accompanying text lauds the Mayans for their advanced knowledge of math -- they invented the first symbol specific to zero -- and astronomy. "Perhaps their obsession with the skies was a result of extraterrestrial beings taking these people under their wings -- literally." Yeah, must've been aliens, 'cause how else could these savages come up with this stuff on their own, without the aid of them white, civilized folk?

Still, we're all prone to gee-whizzing ourselves into naïve, maybe dangerous, conclusions. We take bits and snippets -- scraps of metal, a Coke bottle falling from the sky, tales from the long dead passed on in an oral tradition akin to a children's game of telephone -- and create worlds of meaning from them, and collectively add layers to what we Do Not Know, creating a stunning and beautiful canyon of myth. Is the Roswell Incident a government cover-up? A government-engineered red herring? A red herring gone bad and then covered up? God bless the obsessed, the conspiracy theorists who have organized the snippets into a coherent story. But, like Jessie Wade, I'd prefer to stand underneath the immensity of the night sky, of our collective smallness and stupidity (being a little sloshed might help), and just enjoy the scenery west of lost and north of nowhere.

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