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Metro Pulse Out There

Are space aliens kidnapping Knoxvillians? Some say they have firsthand experience.

By Mike Gibson

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  "Bob" (not his real name) was a grown man in his mid-30s, employed locally in the computer industry, when he came to the chilling realization that the nocturnal apparitions that had visited him intermittently since early childhood might be indicative of something other than just a robust imagination.

"I don't want to be one of these people who sits around and says 'Oh, I was abducted by aliens," says Bob, now 40, speaking to a reporter—a friend of a friend—via phone under the promise of anonymity. "But there were definitely some very strange things that happened to me, things that don't have any easy, logical answers."

Born in rural Illinois, Bob says his experiences began around age six, when dream-like flashes—blinding lights coming through his bedroom windows, small gray creatures standing next to his bed—started haunting his sleep. These surreal visitations—melded ambiguously with both dream and reality in his pre-pubescent consciousness—occured at times only weeks apart. And the morning after each encounter, Bob noticed that his mother seemed disturbed, pale, sometimes literally trembling with concern.

"My mom seemed to know more of what was going on than my dad," he remembers. "I don't know why, but she would ask me things like 'Are you okay? What happened last night?'"

The experiences stopped around age 10, says Bob, only to resume in his late teens when he was an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee. The first recurrence was perhaps the most bizarre instance yet, as the 19-year-old student stumbled home from a Fort Sanders party drained and dizzy-headed in the wee hours of the morning despite having left the gathering sober shortly after midnight.

"When I got to my apartment it was around four a.m. and I didn't have any recollection of the time in between," Bob says. "I didn't wake up in the gutter, so to speak—I had only had one or two beers. I wasn't bruised or anything, but it was very disturbing.

"As I thought about it, bits and pieces started coming back—very fuzzy memories; walking down the street and seeing a light in the sky; wondering what kind of star it was and it getting closer and closer; a shaft of light coming down."

A private person and reluctant witness, Bob has never joined any organizations devoted to the study of UFOs or alleged supernatural occurrences, and only grudgingly began to research other unexplained encounters, fearing that the accounts he read might color his judgment. But over the years, he has learned that his experiences closely parallel those of the so-called UFO abduction phenomenon.

Call it extra-terrestrial intervention, pre-millennial hysteria, or simply so much cultural static in the information age, but UFO sightings and fixations with all things otherworldly are seemingly ubiquitous nowadays. Sightings-oriented television programs crowd the cable TV airwaves. Discussion pages litter the Internet's vast cybernetic ocean. UFO investigation networks can be found in practically every state in the union.

Even in bucolic Tennessee, a well-grounded Bible Belt stronghold hardly known as a breeding ground for New Age loonies and jabbering conspiracy nuts, UFO aficionados maintain an active if sometimes low-key presence.

As an adult, Bob's recollections became more vivid, if only slightly less baffling. Memories of his nocturnal visitors grew sharper: "They were short with smooth gray skin, a lot like the drawings you see people make on the TV abduction shows, short with a little slit for a mouth, big almond eyes. Their heads weren't as bulbous as some people draw them, but they definitely look a lot like those pictures."

Bob's last encounter came in 1991, when he awoke to the glare of what seemed to be car headlights—unlikely, given that he occupied a third floor apartment. His next conscious moment came hours later, when he awoke again and found himself naked and splayed atop his bedclothes. Over the next several weeks, he gradually reclaimed halting remembrances of floating above his mattress as two of the small creatures approached him from either side, and then of lying on a gray metal table as several of the soot-complected humanoids surrounded him, gently urging him to continue sleeping in voices that seemed more mental suggestion than physical enunciation.

And belated conversations with his mother and brother (his father died when he was a child) revealed that they, too, remembered, with considerable trepidation, both the small gray beings that had entered their home, and Bob's subsequent nighttime disappearances.

"It was very disconcerting asking my mother about it, because we had always been close, yet this was something she just did not want to talk about," says Bob. "Over the years, she has admitted that the creatures even came into her room on some of the nights they took me away, but I suspect she knows even more than she's letting on. My mom is not one of those people who calls the Psychic Friends Network or believes in crystals. She's an agnostic, with a college degree—which I think may make it more difficult, to know the natural world operates on a series of laws you can understand, then having something strange that challenges that."

A 47-year-old Chattanooga electrical contractor, Ross Fox is a state section director for the 30-year-old Mutual UFO Network (MUFON), probably the oldest and largest active UFO group with some 5,000 members worldwide. The state body claims just under 100 constituents, and Fox says that until a few years ago, now-dormant Knoxville hosted what was perhaps Tennessee's liveliest chapter.

"Knoxville was pretty active for some time," says Fox, an affable, folksy, but well-spoken father of two grown daughters. "Membership ebbs and flows. People get interested for a while, then drop off. It's a hobby, you've got to remember; we're not getting paid for this."

Fox says most MUFON members are educated professionals, inquisitive folks with probing intellects and a lingering sense of guileless awe—sparked by childhood love affairs with sci-fi novels and comic books and flying saucer matinees—at the boundless wonders locked behind the stars. No more than half of the members claim to have had a "close encounter" of their own.

"I grew up in the '60s, at the beginning of our space program," says Fox. "I loved astronomy and science in general, so it all came pretty naturally to me. I love watching The Learning Channel and Sightings. Our members are all pretty similar in interests and backgrounds; we're curious-minded people who love to watch and listen and find out about strange stuff."

One of the chief missions of MUFON and other, similar groups—the British UFO Network (BUFOS), the Seattle-based Center for UFO Reporting, North Carolina's Center for the Study of Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (CSETI), to name but a few—is to investigate and record alleged sightings. MUFON's international headquarters staffs a 24-hour hotline, and refers each call to the section director nearest the report.

And investigators like Fox or Nashville section director Curt Hughey, a systems analyst and six-year MUFON member, freely admit that many of the reports are hoaxes, shabby frauds perpetrated by brazen attention-seekers. Hughey was once called to investigate a Lebanon, Tenn., antique shop, where the owner was displaying in his storefront window what was ostensibly the mounted head of some freakish alien species killed by a passing motorist. Hughey dispatched another local MUFON member, who found the head implanted with glassy eyes and ill-positioned molars, covered with hair remarkably similar to rabbit fur. The storeowner, meanwhile, was strangely vague on the details of his exotic trophy, forgetful as to the specifics of its purchase and mounting.

And Fox's most recent probe, involving a Chattanooga woman who claimed to have been abducted, yielded a story more suited to a bad TV pilot than a person solemnly moved by a life-changing encounter. "The more she talked, the more I was convinced it wasn't real," Fox says. "Too much stuff sounded like she had just watched a UFO movie."

"Some I find credible, and others I think they need to take their medication," says Jim Moore, a Nashville-based newspaper reporter, former MUFON member and longtime UFologist. "Usually the ones who don't want to talk about it much are the ones I find most credible."

Those are the people, like Bob, who can shake even the most rigid skeptics with their unblinking conviction and clear-eyed, consistent detail. Hughey, a soft-spoken, unflappable sort, counts himself among those MUFON members who have had their own brush with unexplained celestial phenomena. A former Californian, Hughey was living in Los Angeles with his first wife in 1969 when he saw what he believes was an alien craft.

"'We were driving one night, and the road was pretty empty," he remembers. "All of a sudden we saw a huge glowing ball, about 12 feet in diameter, with fog all around it. It went directly over our car and then over the one car in front of us. It couldn't have been more than 50 or 60 feet above the ground."

The most provocative incidents are the abduction reports, many of which are inexplicably linked by a number of recurring details—bedroom visitations, sudden flashes of light, "missing" segments of time, interactions with gray-skinned beings with enormous eyes and pear-shaped skulls. Some of the more dramatic accounts include memories of anal probes and sperm samplings, even (allegedly) medically-verified "phantom" pregnancies.

"I've seen doctors' reports that said 'Yeah, they're pregnant'," says Moore. "Then overnight, the fetus is gone. The reports I've encountered have been surprisingly varied in certain respects; for instance, some people remembered that their captors reveled in inflicting pain, while others were considerably more benevolent."

Hughey recalls a particularly compelling recent case, involving a rural Middle Tennessee woman living in an old trailer staked on some backwater void mid-way between Murfreesboro and Nashville. According to Hughey, the woman's alleged visitations were so obviously terrifying to her that she eventually abandoned the trailer and moved back to her parents' South Florida home.

"She stayed with some friends for a little while, and they were pretty skeptical," says Hughey. "They were like, 'We don't think she's seeing anything.' Then one night, they woke up and saw a big bright ball hovering in the field outside their door. That put the fear of God in them.

"What hit me most was this woman was such a simple, country type of person, not someone who kept up with this kind of stuff. But her story matched other investigations we'd done pretty closely. This lady was deadly serious."

But no matter how lucid and plausible the stories, no matter how much stone-faced insistence and placid credibility is exhibited by the tellers, UFO reports still inevitably tweak our staunchest skeptic's instincts, our deepest suspicions that somebody somewhere isn't playing it straight. And with good reason, given that despite mountains of anecdotal evidence and (as some will claim) reams of previously inaccessible government files, these rampant extraterrestrial brushes have apparently escaped broader public recognition with a regularity that fairly screams dramatic license.

And many UFO proponents only fuel the fires of skepticism through their espousal of any number of Byzantine conspiracy theories, a convoluted web of international as well as intergalactic intrigues that link alleged UFO sightings to sundry government plots and cover-ups and geo-political machinations.

"Hawk", a Knoxville photographer (who also chooses not to reveal his given name) relates the fascinating but seemingly improbable tale of a UFO discussion group that disintegrated when its president met a sudden, mysterious end. Hawk was a member of the group, which convened at local civic centers and cafeterias for about two years.

He remembers that the organization's discussion leader, a man he calls "Jack," was a charismatic sort; Jack quickly assumed the role of president shortly after moving to Knoxville from another town. "At times he would be very vehement when we would suggest something contrary to his vision for the group," says Hawk. "It was always, 'No! We have to do it like this.'"

In 1996, Jack died in a car accident, and Hawk says the ensuing week was marked by a number of disquieting revelations. "The police NCIC report was crazy," he relates. "It said he had a visa from another country issued through Hong Kong, something only a fairly important government employee would have. He didn't have a driver's license, but he had a gun permit."

Hawk claims a group of bogus UT security personnel later attempted to gain entrance to the city impound lot and Jack's badly-damaged car (they left before the ruse was discovered.) And in possibly the most bizarre twist, Hawk says several discussion group members visited Jack's home and were met by a man who claimed to be the father of the deceased. After directing the visitors to a local funeral home, the "dad" was never seen again. The mortuary, meanwhile, held no record of Jack.

"I suspect he may have been working for the government, maybe trying to see what we knew," Hawk says ominously, apparently oblivious to the fact that a Knoxville UFO supper club seems an unlikely target for infiltration. "I personally think he's not even dead."

With the implacably sage demeanor of a learned uncle, Jim Moore is a veritable Renaissance man. A newspaper reporter on and off since the 1950s, he says his widely divergent career also includes high-level design for the U.S. government (his degree is in aerospace engineering), a stint as a political consultant, and a long-running association with the Phoenix Association, a research foundation that examines the possible role of low-frequency radiation in various inexplicable phenomena.

Today, he hosts a popular Nashville cable access show, The Omega Report ("Lots of UFO stuff, New World Order reports, and government cover-ups. We predicted the Oklahoma bombing three weeks before it happened."), while writing for a local weekly paper, The West View.

His knowledge of UFO history—the infamous 1947 Roswell incident, in which an alien ship is believed to have crashed and been salvaged by the military; a 1953 UFO "buzzing" of the U.S. Capitol that landed on the cover of Time magazine; the late-1960s Russian Phobos III space probe that allegedly photographed a cigar-shaped craft—is near encyclopedic. But the longer you listen, the more his elaborate but often outrageous conspiracy yarns gnaw at the foundations of credibility.

"My personal opinion is that a lot of these abductions are by the military," reasons Moore, who claims to possess documented proof of many extra-terrestrial sightings, long-buried records now accessible through the Freedom of Information Act. "They implant suggestions so people think they've been taken by UFOs."

He further posits that a 1963 summit between U.S. officials and alien visitors at Holoman Air Force Base in New Mexico was captured on film, and that subsequent efforts to release the footage were squelched; that a former NATO colonel, now a lecture-circuit regular, has laid bare a long-standing effort to conceal a centuries-old history of clandestine human/alien summits.

But compounding the perplexing enigma that engulfs Moore and other such self-styled challengers of the unknown is both his obviously keen intelligence and his unflagging self-belief, a firmly girded certitude that extends even to his own perceived skepticism.

"None of this New Age channeling crap for me," Moore snorts contemptuously. "A lot of alleged experiences are based on something so flimsy, it could be anything. I'm from Missouri; show me some evidence!"

The question remains, however, as to whether these varied efforts at unraveling the profligate mysteries of the universe represent authentic phenomena or simple fun-house reflections of mankind's boundless curiosity. It's a query that may not be answered for generations to come.

Knoxville clubowner Kevin Niceley, however, offers his own childhood "close encounter" for public consideration, as well as an outlook that seems to balance curiosity with a certain serene acceptance of our humble earthbound lot.

A Dandridge native, Niceley remembers one evening in 1972 when he, his parents and three brothers were strangely drawn to the balcony of the pre-Civil War mansion that was their home. "Something was out there," he says. "This great big silent orange globe hovering in our yard. And that's the last I remember. It wasn't like we said, 'Oh, there's an orange thing. Let's go back to bed.' None of us remember anything after that."

It was years later before family members dared broach the subject, at last quelling one another's lingering uncertainty as to the "realness" of the event. And to this day, Niceley still has star-soaked nighttime visions—perhaps related, perhaps not—of sailing over tiny Dandridge in a vessel that rivaled his wildest childhood imaginings.

"I see aerial views of the town, as if I were looking down, flying over," he says, recalling his dream with matter-of-fact grin. "I don't know. I think maybe there are a few things we just weren't meant to figure out."

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