Roswell Makes An All-Amercan Fortune Off The Saucer Suckers.
By Jim Nintzel
July 14, 1997: IT'S NOT UNUSUAL for a small town to do something special on the Fourth-of-July weekend. City fathers and civic organizations often sponsor fireworks shows, parades, picnics, horseshoe tournaments and the occasional tug-of-war competition to celebrate our nation's birthday.
But not many communities build festivals around the notion that the United States government, in conjunction with an elite military command, has for the last half-century conspired to keep the American people in the dark about extraterrestrial beings who have a sinister tendency to mutilate our cattle and abduct our citizens in order to steal genetic material--and generally in a painful and intrusive manner.
Then again, most towns aren't like Roswell, New Mexico, which has the dubious distinction of being synonymous with UFO crashes and government cover-ups. The charming farming community is the only place where the U.S. military has ever announced capturing a flying saucer.
In July 1947, following the recovery of strange debris from a rancher's field outside of Roswell, military officials sent out a press release declaring the Army Air Force had taken possession of the wreckage of a flying saucer: "The many rumors regarding the flying disc became a reality yesterday when the intelligence office of the 509th Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force, Roswell Army Air Field, was fortunate enough to gain possession of a disc through the co-operation of the one of the local ranchers and the Sheriff's office of Chaves County."
The military quickly retracted the story, later telling an excited collection of reporters the wreckage was nothing more than a wayward weather balloon. Military officials stuck to that story until just a few years ago, when, under pressure from New Mexico Congressman Steven Schiff to explain what really happened at Roswell, the Air Force announced they had covered up the real story: The wreckage was actually from Project Mogul, a top-secret, high-altitude balloon project designed to track Soviet nuclear tests.
The admission did little to sway Roswell investigators, who reject the Project Mogul explanation as just another cover story.
Whatever the truth, Roswell has seized on its unique reputation as ground zero in the hunt for UFOs--and festival organizers have a rousing success on their hands.
At the Roswell Encounter, as last weekend's festivities were dubbed, a soapbox derby was spun into the Crash-and-Burn UFO extravaganza, the all-you-can-eat pancake competition became a flying-saucer-eating contest, and the annual fun run became an Alien Chase, with some runners donning ET costumes. The local art museum presented a UFO quilt exhibit, and a local theatrical troupe performed Ezekiel's Wheels, an original stagework exploring the possibility that Ezekiel's Biblical encounter with a "flaming wheel" may have been an early close encounter.
Main Street's windows were decorated not with patriotic themes, but with images of the now-familiar small grey alien and multitudes of flying saucers, inspired no doubt partly by the best-alien-window-theme-display competition, worth $250 to the winner.
The 50,000 residents of Roswell, from Mayor Tom Jennings to the roadhouse bartenders, seem to have fully embraced their town's curious legend.
"Who's to say it didn't happen?" asked one clerk at the local Target, who was sporting a T-shirt boasting the company logo mutating into the head of a small grey. Shoppers were snatching up all the UFO books, dolls and fashion T's the store manager had the foresight to stock.
The fest also brought the UFO cognoscenti to town, from UFO researchers Stanton Friedman, Linda Moulton Howe and Don Schmitt to abductee experts John Mack, Whitley Strieber and Budd Hopkins. Even Erich Von Däniken, who set the UFO world afire with Chariots of the Gods back in the 1970s, traveled from his home in Switzerland to be a featured speaker at the Encounter.
Because this was the 50th anniversary of the crash, the media took a particular interest in Roswell. In the weeks before the festival, the story ended up on the covers of Time and Popular Science and got airtime everywhere from Hard Copy to The McLaughlin Group. The town also got an unexpected boost from the U.S. military, which released a report in late June suggesting that reports of the recovery of alien beings were inspired by high-altitude operations involving crash-test dummies--a report so hard to swallow that it reinforced the notion of a cover-up among most UFO buffs.
By the time the celebration rolled around, the media were reporting that 100,000 people were expected to hit town. Those estimates proved wildly overstated--ultimately, closer to 40,000 people flocked to Roswell for the Independence Day weekend, bringing with them a fiscal ripple worth an estimated $2 million.
While many of those dollars were spent on motel rooms and in restaurants, the invaders also dropped a bundle on a very large array of UFO paraphernalia. Vendors packed Roswell's community center and nearby streets, hawking T-shirts, books, tapes, jewelry and even jars containing alien specimen remains.
The only obvious flop was out at the alleged crash site, 20 miles north of town, on the sheep-and-cattle ranch owned by Hub Corn. UFO aficionados regularly make pilgrimages to the ranch, wandering for hours hoping to find some sort of remains missed by the military's clean-up.
Music promoter John Brower cut a deal with Corn to have a mega-concert from the impact site complete with live coverage on MTV, but that plan crashed and burned after sponsors got cold feet in the wake of the mass suicide of the Heaven's Gate UFO cult.
But the plucky Brower persisted with his plans to create an alien Woodstock, arranging for campers to rent tents with two cots apiece for a mere $90 a night, payable through Ticketmaster. On Saturday and Sunday nights, Brower had booked several techno bands to perform in a "Crash Site Electronic Exotic and Experimental Music Festival."
Despite the elaborate plans, there were few takers. On Thursday night, only five campers turned up, and most of them were gone by Friday. Adding to Brower's woes, Corn pulled the plug on the rave when the promoter failed to get permits for it.
But while Brower's scheme collapsed, hundreds of people still stopped by the ranch for $15 tours of the site. On Independence Day, a newly installed shrine was blessed by Native American dancers.
Much of the credit for the festival goes to Stan Crosby, a local businessman who first hit upon the idea of playing up the UFO legend in the form of an annual festival. His wife Deon, who serves as director of one of the town's two UFO museums, says Crosby wanted to create a fun and profitable event for the town.
"Stan's main goal is to create a tourism industry," she says. "We've targeted not only the serious people, but the families. People can bring their families and they don't have to feel they're being preached to and they can still be related to UFO and alien activities. It's going great."
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