Thursday, February 24, 2011

My Autumn of Aliens, or Why a Swiss Hotel Clerk Owes Me $1.25 (Plus Tax!) – Part 2

“A mild curiosity about UFOs can turn into a destructive obsession. For this reason, I strongly recommend that parents forbid their children from becoming involved. Schoolteachers and other adults should not encourage teen-agers to take an interest in the subject.” from Operation Trojan Horse by John A. Keel
So my course was determined. I had to own a copy of Chariots of the Gods? no matter if the cost was equal to six comic books and a package of Wacky Packs (the preferred currency of the day…) 

Now of course, living in Dunmor, Kentucky, my only access to paperbacks were what happened to be in drugstores in the surrounding area. Even though the sought-after tome had been a bestseller, it had been out a couple of years, and that meant a trip to an actual bookstore. So the next time my mom made the fifty-mile trek to Bowling Green, Kentucky I was ready. Not even the always tempting stock of Aurora monster models at Woolco could distract me from my quest to secure the knowledge of ancient astronauts.

Grabbing the book from the wire rack in the bookstore I discovered that von Däniken had authored more than one book – Gods from Outer Space, The Gold of the Gods (which had awesome gold embossed letters in “the font” – but I knew I needed to start at the beginning, more advanced studies could naturally follow. Paying a grand total of $1.31 I left the store as a possessor of great knowledge. The photo section in the center of the book alone confirmed that my purchase was wise, and I wasted no time diving into the text.

And things were going fine until I hit Chapter 4: “Was God an Astronaut?” Being a good little Southern Baptist boy meant that I was no stranger to Sunday School, and Training Union, and Wednesday night prayer meetings, and revivals in the spring and fall, and church camp for a week in the summer and so on. I was totally hip to some ancient mythological Egyptian or Mayan “god” scootin’ down to Earth on a space scooter, but the mere suggestion that GOD could be anything other than, well, GOD was deeply disturbing to me in a way I couldn’t articulate.

Fortunately, I was soon able to resolve this conflict by using the same method that mankind has used to resolve religious contradictions and conundrums throughout history – I ignored it. Skipping over the chapters on biblical matters, I found myself back in the realm of faraway lands and religious beliefs not endorsed by my mom and dad – more comfortable territory. And although I was firmly convinced that aliens may have tampered with the history of mankind, the disturbing feeling I came away with in regards to any biblical hanky panky by alien angels sapped my desire to follow-up with any of von Däniken’s other books. Instead, I refocused my attention to current alien intrusions.

"That's the way it was" in 1973!

And the media of the day was only too glad to oblige me. Even though the massive wave of UFO sightings in the fall of 1973 began to subside, magazine and book publishers were only cranking into gear. Weekly Reader, the small magazine distributed to grade-schoolers kept the weirdness torch burning bright, but my biggest discoveries of 1974 would be the wonderful little book, Living Monsters: True Stories of Real Monsters by Ann Marie Drozd and the Gold Key comic book UFO Flying Saucers.

Living Monsters was pure B.S, but it was wonderful B.S.  Basically it was a quick cash-in book for kids that drew from the seventies craze for UFO and mysterious beasts. Ms. Drozd took a few bare facts about bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, etc. and turned them into short "gotcha" stories.  While not great literature, it did introduce me to two concepts that I loved dearly and still do to this day.

Weekly Reader and school book club books, all purchased
"off budget" of course!
The first was the cover story – “Mothman.” While the story in the book had more in common with “hook killer” urban legends than with the bizarre incidents and sightings that took place in Point Pleasant, West Virginia in 1966 and ’67, the big concept of “Mothman” got under my skin and burrowed deep into my psyche. Just the idea of the big bugman became a favorite of mine and remains so to this day.

The other story that got me was “Momo: The Missouri Monster.”  Basically it was the story of bigfoot sightings in Missouri and Illinois, but this one connected with me because those were both border states to Kentucky, which meant the odds of Momo in showing up in Muhlenberg County were much better than those of his northwestern cousin making the cross-country trip. And even better was the tidbit that Momo sightings were tied in with UFOs. Because, as everyone knows, alien mysterious hairy primates trumps plain ole Earth-based mysterious hairy primates any day of the week!

On the funny book side, Gold Key had some of the most erratic and nonsensical publishing schedules of any comic book publisher, and the title UFO Flying Saucers had only squeaked out three issues between the years 1968 to 1972. But after the UFO wave of 1973, the title returned and managed to keep a pretty regular schedule through the rest of the decade.

UFO Flying Saucers #4

The first issue I encountered, in the fall of 1974, featured a not-too-accurate but still chilling portrayal of the Pascagoula, Mississippi abductions from October of 1973. While the earlier issues had mainly focused on visual sightings of UFOs, the sheer number of occupant encounters from the 1973 wave gave the comic book plenty of creepy material to draw from, and Gold Key’s stilted artwork and strangely detached style of writing made the stories even more effective.

Looking through the back issues now, pretty much every major UFO case from the 1940s to the 1970s was adapted into the pages of UFO Flying Saucers (with the exception of the Antonio Villas Boas case, but since that one is all about boinking an outer space babe, I can see why they let it slide…) The comic book also inspired me to start my own career as a “UFOlogist” as I compiled records of sightings – mostly drawn straight from the pages of the comic book and supplemented by a few tall tales told to me by schoolmates.

So here I was, amateur UFOlogist, monster hunter, true believer. As the seventies continued, so did my love for this wacky stuff.  Little did I know that I was on a collision course with a disappointment of cosmic dimensions, but that’s what we’ll be getting to in Part 3.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

My Autumn of Aliens, or Why a Swiss Hotel Clerk Owes Me $1.25 (Plus Tax!) – Part 1

Before I launch into this entry, a disclaimer of sorts: This blog entry is about weird stuff.  I mean really weird stuff.  Not just funny books, or scary movies, nope, we’re talking about UFOs, bigfoot and other such foolishness (or foolishness perhaps not?)

Yes, I admit I love reading about this stuff. Do I believe in all of it? I didn’t say that. I said I love reading about it. If you mention that you’re into this stuff people tend to automatically think you’re (1) crazy, and (2) that you must believe all the popularized stories – extraterrestrial invasion, abductions, probes (ouch!), Roswell, etc. etc. While number one may be the case, number two certainly is not the case. It’s kinda like the reaction I used to get when I mentioned I enjoyed watching Professional Wrestling –  It’s all fake!”  Well, yes, perhaps a good portion of it is, but what does that have to do with my enjoyment of it?

UFO writer, researcher, and yes, B.S. artist, Gray Barker used to say, “I believe in everything and I believe in nothing.”  And that very zen statement pretty much sums up my current feeling on the subject. But there was a time that I truly did believe, with no disclaimers…

1973 was the year that aliens invaded America.

Sure, the “modern UFO age” began in June 1947 with private pilot Kenneth Arnold’s sighting of several mysterious objects flying at supersonic speeds over Mt. Rainier blah, blah, blah ad infinitum. But when the little alien buggers really took over and let their presence be known was in 1973, culminating in a mass orgy of WTF-ness during the months of October and November of that wonderful, screwed-up year.

It was the year of the year that a Vice-President would resign over scandal; that the word “Watergate” would enter our language, lead to the resignation of a President, and forever and change the way Americans thought about politics; the year the U.S. pulled combat troops out of Vietnam; the year of the OPEC oil embargos and gas lines; and the year of Yom-Kippur War between Israel and Egypt which we now know brought the U.S. to very brink of using nuclear weapons in the Middle East.  In other words, it was a VERY scary time to be an adult in America – everything that had falling part since the sixties suddenly seemed to be shifting into overdrive.

And then, just to spice up all this worry and stress, came the aliens. America had experienced UFO waves before, most notably in 1947, 1952, and 1965, but we had never seen anything like the year of 1973. Concentrated mainly in the southern and eastern U.S., reports of mysterious lights, strange aircraft performing impossible maneuvers, and best of all, sightings of all manner and variety of creatures – ranging from dwarfs, to reptilians, to hairy giants were popping up like some type of cosmic whack-a-mole game. (This was the “good old days” of UFOology before those wimpy-ass, little “Greys” became the accepted norm for saucer pilots). It’s hard to imagine what it was like now, but during the peak period of August to November that year UFO reports were on the nightly TV news, both local and national, several times a week.  And these weren’t just “here’s a funny story” fillers, they were quite often lead stories.

None of those panty-waist Greys in Mississippi, no sir!

I suspect that for many adults it was just one more sign that America was going to hell on a sled, but to be a kid, especially a ten-year-old boy who was already hooked on science fiction and fantasy, it was an awesome experience. Here was some anxiety that I could relate too. Incomprehensible wars in the “Holy Land” or political scandals in Washington were not something I could dig, but the chance to see a flying saucer taking off from a nearby pasture, or to be kidnapped by eyeless, claw-wielding alien-robots – that was the stuff of exciting times and exquisite nightmares.

At this point I can’t remember for sure when I first got turned-on to the notion of UFOs. My first exposure to the concept may have come much earlier (and in fact I have some vague memories of seeing the TV show The Invaders during its original run of 1967-68), but the magic autumn of 1973 was when the obsession took hold. And the pop culture machine of the time was only too happy to encourage me and millions of others. 

With most of my allowance going to my growing comic book addiction, I had to be very selective about what paperback books I bought. At that time most paperbacks cost between 75 and 95 cents – the equivalent of three to five comic books!  But I had discovered a method of getting around this budgetary problem thanks to the Weekly Reader and Scholastic book clubs. Since these were paperback books that were ordered through school I had managed to hoodwink my mom and dad into believing they were all “educational” books that I needed for school.  Nevermind that the selections I was making were limited to all titles related to the paranormal, monsters, Peanuts comic strips, or science fiction and fantasy.

Although this plot covered anything that was available through the book clubs, there were a lot of really cool looking books that were beyond my means.  Fortunately, the bookmobile that would visit our school every few weeks (Dunmor Elementary was a very small school – library? Ha!) kept a good supply of the latest paperbacks on UFOs, ghosts, bigfoot, the Bermuda triangle, and so forth.  And they were easy to spot.

1970s Paranormal Books with "The Font"

In the early seventies books about the paranormal were all the rage, and somewhere along the way block letters with shadows became the “official font of foolishness.”  I think Bantam Books may have been the first publisher to use this typeface, but many others followed. Even the Christian publisher that was printing Hal Lindsey’s books of Biblical prophecy (y’all remember the U.S. being wiped out by nuclear attack in the 1980’s don’t you?) jumped on the block letters bandwagon. I learned pretty quick to look for that type of lettering on the spine of a paperback book and creepy goodness would follow.

 But even with the bookmobile subsidizing my connection to weirdness, there were some books that appeared to be so important, the knowledge contained within so earth-shattering, that I must own them!  That was the case when I discovered an ad in a UFO magazine for Chariots of the Gods? by former Swiss hotel clerk (and convicted embezzler) Erich Von Däniken. Electric batteries thousands of years old ?! Cave drawings of ancient astronauts in space suits?!?! Landing fields for alien spaceships in South American deserts?!?!?! Holy crap, this was a book that most be owned!  I would need to consult the knowledge contained within over and over again!

However, the cost of this important tome was a whole $1.25!  But of course that just spoke to the value of the knowledge. I must secure a copy! 

Little did I realize that I was heading for the first spiritual crisis of my young life and eventually a spectacular fall from faith that would take me twenty years to overcome.  But we’ll get to that in Part 2…

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Mr. Sandman, bring me a slithering, gibbering thing…

I love really wacked out dreams. The weirder the better – even if they turn into nightmares that’s okay. If the subconscious is running wild it’s worth the cold sweats and twisted covers. And last night paid off in spades…

Maybe it was the apocalyptic winter storm that was marauding across the Midwest last night, maybe it was repeated listening to the Louvin Brothers’ album Satan is Real last week, or perhaps it was the viewing of a Roy Rogers movie right before bedtime (those singin’ cowboys will get you every time), but last night was a lulu.

All night long I was swinging between Keelian visions of Mothman and shadow people and Lovecraftian slithering, gibbering, mind-blasting horrors. What does it mean? I’ll leave the interpretations and symbolism to others. I like to think it just means I’ve got some weird stuff in my noggin’, and it’s a blast when it all comes spewing out at once.

He sees you when you're sleeping...

Here’s the one dream I remember the most vividly:

I was in a very large movie theatre. The lights were dim, but you could still see fairly well.  I thought I was alone at first, walking up one of the aisles. Suddenly, I hear a voice behind me.

“Cough drop,” it says.

I look back and see a man, hard to make out, but he kind of resembles the old comic book horror host, Uncle Creepy.  I say, “I don’t have one,” and start walking faster.

“Cough drop,” the voice says again.

“I said I don’t have one!” not looking back this time.

Suddenly the man comes speeding past me, too fast to make out.  As he passes me, he shouts out, “IT’S TOO LATE!”

Looking back I see a slimy, amorphous blob that is gaining on me fast, making obscene sucking and slurping sounds. I take off running and wake up in a panic.  After a minute to re-orientate myself to reality, I think, “Good one…”

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Lewisburg, Kentucky – Gateway to Adventure!

Let’s talk about drugstores. Yes, that’s right, drugstores. There was a time, not that long ago, when drugstores were full of wonderment and delight – doorways to all sorts of exciting worlds and  mind-expanding adventures, and it had absolutely nothing to do with pharmaceuticals.

I think about this every time I walk into the massive crackerboxes of crap that pass for drugstores now days. (Usually built at the busiest intersections possible to maximize traffic clusterf*cks and if possible, on ground where historic buildings previously stood – but I digress…)  Even though these miscarriages of modern architecture are ten, twenty times larger or more than the drugstores of my youth there is nothing in them you really want, stuff you need and have to have sure, but nothing that you want.

It didn’t used to be this way. Not only was going to the drugstore each week something I looked forward to with excitement, but any chance I had to go into a previously unexplored drugstore was even more exciting. The attraction of these pharmacies of yore, could be primarily expressed in terms of three – magazines, paperback books, and comic books.  Maybe you could find these in newsstands or bookstores in them there “big cities,” but out in the rest of America, drugstores were where it was at. For me, my primary source during the formative years of my life was Gower’s Drugstore in Lewisburg, Kentucky.

Like a lot of smaller towns in America, Lewisburg had been an “Average Deal” (not a “Big Deal” just “Average”) in the days of passenger railroads, but by 1972 the days of folks traveling by rail in western Kentucky were long gone.  The “main” street of Lewisburg was about three blocks long with the businesses still stuck in decaying building that all faced the train tracks and the empty field where the depot had once stood. In addition to the drugstore there was a bank, a barber shop, a hardware store, a feed store, and a few other businesses and that was it.  For a supermarket we had to drive another 10 miles to Russellville.

Although my parent’s original plan in having me take piano lessons was to make me the next Liberace (but without being gay, which of course, they had no concept of anyway…), the real result was that it fed my growing and eventual lifelong addiction for comic books, monster magazines, Mad magazine, and science fiction paperbacks. My piano lessons were on each Tuesday in Russellville, on the way there Mom would always make a stop in Lewisburg to go to the bank and drugstore. And that’s where my downfall began.

At Gower’s Drugstore they had wooden shelf racks (much like what magazines are typically displayed on today). The top section was magazines, the bottom section was paperback books stacked vertically with their spines facing out, but the middle section was all comic books. The very first comic book that I can remember buying with my own money was Flash #210 in September of 1971 – purchased at Gower’s of course. Although I loved it and re-read it many times, for some reason the funny book bug didn’t get a bite on me.

American history according to funny books! 

But the bug got another chance in the following April when I bought Justice League of America #99 and from then on I was off. Piano lessons didn’t really matter; it was getting to Gower’s each week to see what new comic books were on the stands. I had to have that fix! And even if I couldn’t afford to buy everything, there would be those days when I could at least look through, or maybe even read whole issues that I didn’t purchase.

Early on I realized that Jack Kirby's work was just too much for me.  His stuff was just too powerful and totally creeped me out in a way I couldn’t understand. I very rarely worked up the nerve to buy any of his books, but I looked at them. (Of course, now he’s my favorite comic book artist of all time, ah youth…) I can still vividly remember standing in Gower’s reading Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth #1 every week until it disappeared from the shelf.

But even though the local drugstore brought wonderment and joy it also brought frustration.  Comic book and magazine distribution back then was crazy and unreliable.  Even though I was in Gower’s every week, it was not unusual to miss issues, just because they never showed up for sale. This drove a kid crazy, because back then if you missed an issue it was gone, daddy-o. The only hope you might have finding a back issue was trading with someone else, or the coverless, three for a quarter packs you could pick up at country markets (and there’s a whole blog comin’ about those babies). That’s why anytime I had the chance to duck into a “foreign” drugstore I took it.  It was better than hopping over the Berlin Wall to check out the types of shampoo available in the West, you never knew what treasures you’d find. 

Not me, not Gower's, not 1973, but you get the idea...

This catch as catch can method of distribution also shaped my buying habits in a big way. For example Grower’s Drugstore never had a copy of Famous Monsters of Filmland on the shelf. So I was reduced to buying only the occasional issue when I would find one at a drugstore in Russellville or Greenville. My friend John Hudson’s regular drugstore was the one in Greenville.  They did carry FM  (but not every issue of course, grrr…), so his collection of monster magazines quickly exceeded mine.

The “golden age” of Gower’s came to screeching halt in the spring of 1975. One week I walked into Gower’s and noticed there was nothing new on the shelves. The books were the exact same ones as the week before. The next week it was the same. The next they were still the same. Panic really had me in grip its by this point, so I had to ask what was going on. They explained they were changing distributors and the new ones hadn’t started showing up yet. In the meantime I had to find another source and started frequenting drugstores in Russellville that I had only hit occasionally before. Even though Gower’s eventually did get some new product on the shelves, the bloom was off the rose. I had moved on.

Finally, all the comic books, magazine and paperbacks disappeared from Gower’s. In just a few years Gower’s would relocate out on the main highway that runs through Lewisburg, next to the new IGA supermarket and across the road from the new Lewisburg Bank building. Nowadays when I drive through Lewisburg on my way to visit my parents I pass right by these businesses without giving them a second thought. Now Lewisburg is just a small rural community where you make sure to slow down a bit and not get caught in the local speed trap, and perhaps stop for some gas and cup of coffee at the convenience store. But there was that time when it was my own private gateway to adventure.