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…

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