ET Go Home The UFO crowd reminds me of an encounter I had with some New Jersey state troopers back in the early 70s. I'd hitchhiked up to the Watkins Glen festival with my buddy Terry to see the Dead, the Band and the Allman Brothers. It was a very unsettling experience. An estimated 600,000 people showed up for this weekend event. It was late in the game for freakdom and drug culture, a time of nascent Woodstock nostalgia tinged with the fresh memory of Altamont, acid laced with speed in abundance. All three bands were at the top of their form. The Dead peaked there, and should have called it quits on the spot. I'd been following them for some number of years at that point, they were the first rock band I ever saw, but I never made the slightest effort to see them again after that, and stopped listening to them entirely once I heard the Ramones.
Anyway, this incident with the cops occurred on the way back to South Jersey. We were hitchhiking, doing pretty well considering that neither one of us was really in any way coherent. Terry was about 6-foot-4 and kind of chubby. He giggled a lot. I was the speedy end of the pair, 5-11 and 125 pounds, hair hanging halfway to my ass. We'd gotten a ride down as far as the George Washington Bridge from a bunch of Krishnas who fed us some awful brown rice glop and wisely decided to interact entirely with Terry, who was amenable to their line of crap. Fat, smelly hippies gave us a ride as far as Exit 5 down the New Jersey Turnpike. The van was full of flies and I was glad to get out. I was crashing hard off three days of acid and speed, starting to get a little irritated with Terry's vanilla attitude and constant giggling.
As we walked along the shoulder, far too twisted on dope to figure that our best bet for a ride lay on the exit ramp or beyond, I extracted the largest goddamn booger I have ever seen from my right nostril. It was a classic meth booger. This thing was huge, the size and shape of a decent escargot, streaked with blood. I held my finger out to Terry.
"Ever seen one this big?"
"No." Terry giggled nervously.
"I'm going to put it on you!" I said, laughing maniacally as I began to chase him down the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike. He screamed like a little girl and fled. I kept chasing him, howling like a werewolf until we heard the siren. A state trooper screeched to a halt just a few feet ahead of us, gumballs flashing. I flicked the monstrous snot into the grass off the shoulder and attempted to look sane.
The trooper climbed out of his cruiser real slow and languid, Southern style, chewing gum and wearing mirror shades, just like me. I figured we were in for a hard time. He stretched a little, taking his time. Terry kept shifting from foot to foot and swaying back and forth. I felt like a busted television set, all snow and ghosts, but I had a knack for appearing sober when confronted by agents of The Law.
"What have we here?" the trooper drawled as he approached us. "What are you boys doing?"
"Going home from a concert, sir." I replied.
"Uh-huh. You carrying any drugs?"
"No sir," I said. "We don't believe in drugs."
"Then what was that you threw into the grass, there?" His mirror shades locked onto my mirror shades, and for just an instant the acid resurged and I caught a glimpse of infinity. It didn't look pleasant.
"Nothing, sir," I said. Terry stifled a laugh. I wanted to kill him.
"Let me see your eyes." I took off my shades, trying not to look like Charles Manson. He turned to Terry. "What's that little dance you're doing there? You nervous?"
"No, sir," Terry replied. "I'm just tired."
"You two boys stay here." The trooper walked back to his car and got on the radio. A few minutes later, two more patrol cars pulled up. The three officers conferred among themselves, and the two new arrivals set to examining the grass alongside the highway, squatting and running their hands through the greenery. I kept waiting to hear an exclamation of disgust, but it never came. They found nothing. The first trooper drove us over to Rte. 130 and advised us, "Don't be here when I come back." We weren't.
A few years back Dr. John Mack pretty much torched his creds as the Golden Boy of Harvard's psychiatry department when he came out as a xenophiliac and issued a book entitled Abduction, chronicling his experiences treating patients who claimed to have been molested by the Little Grays. He's made a specialty of this practice. Maybe it'll become a new branch of psychiatry, like substance abuse treatment. I doubt it will ever acquire the celebrity cachet associated with addiction specialties, though: the Grays seem to avoid the likes of David Bowie and Darryl Strawberry in favor of people who actually work for a living.
Mack has another book out, and it's awful. In Passport to the Cosmos (Crown, 320 pages, $24), he attempts to make the case that the abduction phenomenon is an evolutionary prod designed to curtail the human species' tendency to behave like Homer Simpson. He fails, miserably. It's a testimonial to the incredible corruption of the medical establishment and Harvard University that this mediocrity is permitted to practice psychiatry and retains his position as a professor at that institution. Contradictions and bad science abound in this tedious tract. He attempts to liken the abductee experience to shamanic practices, and yet dismisses out of hand any experience related to the use of mind-altering agents. He gives credence to the most preposterous encounters with the space brothers without even considering the possibility of a Stage IV sleep disorder or Michael Persinger's microseizure theory.
John Mack is either an active agent or a dupe of those forces intent on constructing a new quasi-religious instrument of social control out of the UFO/abductee phenomenon. Given his curriculum vitae, I'm inclined toward the former. This book contributes nothing whatsoever to the discourse on this subject and should be shredded to manufacture decent toilet paper for the impoverished citizens of the former Soviet Union.
Joel Achenbach, a staff writer for The Washington Post, has done a terrific job of reportage on the more serious end of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. His recent Captured by Aliens (Simon & Schuster, 415 pages, $25) is a lucid presentation of the difficult work being done by authentic scientists unconcerned with attaining celebrity status. The book is a clear and sober account of the history of exobiology and related pursuits and the often infuriating obstacles presented by shortsighted government beancounters on the one hand, and hysterical UFO cultoids on the other. It is also a loving tribute to the late Carl Sagan, to whom celebrity came naturally and gracefully as a consequence of his chosen vocation of making astroscience accessible to the masses.
Captured by Aliens is by far the best book yet on the subject of the possibility of extraterrestrial life. Achenbach's sharp wit and solid science combined with his compassionate approach to the quirky characters attracted to the field make for a perfect book with which to arm oneself against the arguments of yahoos and gazoonies enamored of the Little Grays and their minions. It is the perfect beach book for summer 2000.
The Little Grays are at best a mirage and at worst a fiction. It stands to reason, then, that fiction might better convey the deeper meaning of the abduction experience than any attempt to present this phenomenon as "fact." Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Olen Butler has written a touching, richly comic novel exploring the deeper meaning of the phenomenon in heartfelt human terms, Mr. Spaceman (Grove Press, 223 pages, $23). The flyleaf summarizes the basic plot as well as I could:
"The night before the turn of the millennium, a tour bus bound for a Louisiana casino is suddenly beamed inside a spaceship hovering high above the Earth's surface. As its twelve passengers emerge nervously from the vehicle, they come face-to-face with the being who has brought them aboard, a sixteen-fingered zoot-suited alien named Desi. Over the course of the next twenty-four hours, Desi will seek their help as he readies himself for the final phase of the mysterious mission he has traveled across the galaxies to fulfill."
It's a first-person narrative told from Desi's point of view, and the voice that Butler provides for this creature is outstanding. Desi is powerfully empathetic and hungry for the emotional richness to be found in even the most mundane human experience. His speech is peppered with slogans gleaned from advertisements. He has a human wife, a former hairdresser from Alabama named Edna Bradshaw, and a cat. His struggle to avoid being deified by the humans he chooses to reveal himself to is very touching, as are his responses as he reviews the human stories he has collected over the years.
There are odd resonances with underground filmmaker Robert Downey's wonderful Greaser's Palace, but this work is clearly Butler's own, a virtuoso piece in which he freewheels through many diverse and deeply moving human voices as Desi recollects his experiences with humanity. The resolution is a fine twist, wholly unexpected and completely logical.
What you see by the side of the road is largely dependent on what you expect to see. I stopped hitchhiking in 1976, but that's another story, for another time.