Ghastly Beyond Belief, Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman’s wonderfully weird book of science fiction quotations, relates an amusing anecdote involving skeptic Isaac Asimov.
Asimov once penned a novelization of the sci-fi flick Fantastic Voyage (the story of a submarine miniaturized for a mission inside a human body). He recalled his daughter’s reaction to the film’s ending, in which the crew members escape from the patient’s body and return to their normal sizes, leaving their vehicle behind.
“Won’t the ship now expand and kill the man, Daddy?”
“Yes, Robyn,” I explained, “but you see that because you’re smarter than the average Hollywood producer. After all, you’re eleven.”1
Funny how kids sometimes see straight to the heart of things. I notice this often when talking with my five-year-old son.
Recently, on a long evening walk, I told my boy the whole story of flying saucers in the 20th Century, starting with the case that started it all: pilot Kenneth Arnold’s 1947 sighting of a “chain, which looked to me like the tail of a Chinese kite,” of objects that “looked something like a pie plate that was cut in half.”2 (Hear Arnold tell his story in this radio interview recorded the day after his sighting.)
“These objects more or less fluttered,” Arnold said, in another interview. He added,
When I described how they flew, I said they flew like if you take a saucer and throw it across the water. Most of the newspapers misunderstood and misquoted that too. They said that I said they were saucer-like. I said they flew with a saucer-like fashion.”3
As I described what happened next, my son hung on every word. He eagerly followed the dominoes, as the Arnold sighting made national headlines, and gave rise to the media concept of “flying discs,” or “flying saucers.” He followed as I described how those headlines ignited the public imagination — creating the flying saucer hysteria of the summer of ’47, with its hundreds of flying saucer sightings across the USA (including a forgettable flash in the pan in Roswell, New Mexico). I explained how this led to an ecology of UFO subcultures, from cult leaders to skeptics, Contactees to Abductees, investigators to hoaxers. I told him about cases solved. I told him the unlikely tale of Roswell’s eventual resurrection as a pop culture phenomenon.
We even covered Mothman.
At the end of this long, long story, my son walked on in thoughtful silence. Then he stopped, and turned to me, and asked, “But Dad… what were those boomerang things the first pilot saw?”
Bingo! That is the exact right question — not only for flying saucers, but for all weird mysteries: “How did this legend get started in the first place?” Never mind the edifice of later embellishments. Never mind the decades of escalating yarns and rhetoric. The place to look first and hardest is always the origin of the story. If the foundation is rotten, it doesn’t matter how imposing the structure built upon it may appear.
Surprised into laughter, I smiled down at my son and ruffled his hair. “Exactly!” I said. “That’s the question! And do you know what? I don’t know the answer. I’m not sure that anyone does. Some people think that pilot really saw balloons, or secret airplanes, or even birds.”
We walked on, hand in hand. “It’s a mystery,” I said, as we took in the sunset and the evening breeze. “Maybe one day, you could be the one to solve it.”
- Gaiman, Neil and Kim Newman. Ghastly Beyond Belief. (Arrow Books: London, 1985.) p. 325
- Kenneth Arnold interviewed by Bill Berquette. June 25, 1947. As hosted at Konsulting.com. http://www.konsulting.com/audio_clips.htm Retrieved Feb 14, 2011.
- Kenneth Arnold interview, broadcast April 7, 1950. Sagan, Carl. The Demon-Haunted World. (Ballantine Books: New York, 1997.) p. 70. (This audio is reproduced in Wendy Connors’ A Primer in Audio: Ufology 1938 -1959. An Audio Retrospective in American Ufology. 2003.)