Signaling the Saucers

Folk Concepts of Outer Space
By Douglas Curran
Abbeville Press, 132 pp.

Broadly speaking, there are two distinct schools of thought on the subject of how best to search for signs of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.

The first is based on the speculation that the physics of the cosmos makes it fairly likely that life will arise on other planets, and at least possible that some such life will develop technology. The strategy, then, is to scan the heavens with radio telescopes, listening for what is described as “a communication.” This requires access to a radio telescope, and hence is the favored technique of a small, but eminently reputable community of astronomers.

The second is founded in the conviction that the earth is visited regularly by technologically superior beings from other worlds. Strategies range from attempting to signal the saucers with surplus runway lights to attempting to contact their superiors on Mars by concentrating very, very hard. Since this requires nothing but an unbridled imagination, it is the favored passion of a loosely connected network of mostly working class, small-town eccentrics from Los Angeles to St. Jovite, P.Q.

Growing out of his photographic exhibition of the same name, In Advance of the Landing is Edmonton photographer Douglas Curran’s documentary account of the more colorful of the two schools – the one that usually receives documentary attention only in the pages of the National Enquirer. For seven years, off and on, Curran roamed the secondary highways of North America in a second-hand Renault, searching out the saucer enthusiasts. The result is a sort of Who’s Who of the continent’s most luminary crackpots.

There is Nodrog, leader of a group known as the Outer Dimensional Forces. He runs the Armageddon Time Ark Base at Weslaco, Texas. Nodrog looks like Santa Claus and sounds like a dubbed science-fiction film: “A.T.A. Base Operation is not interested in UFOs,” he emphasizes, “but, rather, involved in ISOs (Identified Sailing Objects) which are perfect factual Time Ark Service Modules for Time Station Earth.”

There is John Reeves of Brooksville, Fla., who in 1968 was taken by saucer to the moon and Venus. He is pictured with the Venusian flag presented to him as a visitor from earth. Apparently the aliens have no shortage of bedsheets or water-color paints.

There are the members of the Advanced Scientific Development Project, a team that in the early 1970s tried to build a flying saucer (to be powered by a “double vortex” engine that would negate gravity) under the direction of a man who claimed to have been born spontaneously when an extraterrestrial spacecraft appeared over his parents’ house.

The tendency, of course, is to burst out laughing – and, indeed, the book is hilarious from beginning to end. But its real virtue is that there is no harsh edge to the laughter. In less capable hands, the invitation would be to ridicule these folks for their naiveté and simple-minded obsessions, or to denounce them as frauds, the attitude all too often adopted by members of the scientific camp.

But Curran’s handling is a gentle one. There’s no denying that many of these characters occupy worlds that are two parts fantasy to one part reality, but on the whole they are as amiable and benign as one’s daft aunt. Nor are their convictions entirely insensible.

Their fears, it seems, are our fears: nuclear war, terrorism, urban decay, famine, global monetary collapse. Like us, they cannot imagine a political solution to these problems. Unlike us, rather than surrender themselves to the future, they insist that God will intervene in the form of the kindly Space Brothers. A new age will dawn in which all peoples will live in harmony.

Granted, these quasi-religious hopes are grafted to the most peculiar delusions. In the late ’50s, for example, Otis T. Carr assembled a team to construct the OTC X-1, “a four-dimensional saucer that was to be, at one and the same time, completely round and completely square.” Otis offered the craft to the U.S. military for a mere $20 million, but the offer was declined and the blueprints subsequently disappeared.

Quietly, though, Curran makes his point: one might not be able to resist finding it all comical, but one can certainly resist the urge to silence these people. Few of them are charlatans (whatever donations they manage to raise are typically ploughed back into their daffy projects), their beliefs are uniformly well-intentioned, hurt no one and provide meaning and value to what might otherwise be lonely or frightened lives. In a liberal democracy, what is promised is freedom of thought; nowhere is it written that such thought must meet with the approval of scientists.

Without the photographs, however, the book might have been simply an almanac of strange-but-true stories. It is the photographs – all rendered, with the judicious exception of the cover illustration, as family snapshots or small-town postcards, as though taken by a happy Diane Arbus – that make one confront the fact that these are real people with real convictions.

The members of the Aetherius Society in Hollywood (branches also in Canada, Europe, Africa) charge a Spiritual Battery by praying at it in unison. In the event of world crisis, stored prayer energy will be released to defuse the international tension.

The Bond family of El Toro, Calif., are pictured in costumes depicting their past lives on other worlds – looking for all this world as though they’re off to a masquerade party dressed as the Jetsons.

And just as a reminder of the past potency of the spaceship as a cultural symbol, the book is dotted with photos of saucers and rockets that were built purely for laughs and publicity. There is the Space Age Lodge of Gila Bend, Arizona; the Flying Saucer Pie Company of Houston, Texas; the UFO Landing Pad at St. Paul, Alberta (pictured, with perfect timing, while Mother Teresa is standing on it).

Sadly, however, just as the rockets that were built as gimmicks in the space-crazed ’50s and ’60s are now weather beaten and decrepit, so the subculture of saucer enthusiasts seems to be dying. Many of the leaders have passed on (some to positions of authority among the aliens: the late Ernest L. Norman now resides on Mars in his capacity of Moderator of the Universe); many who remain are growing increasingly elderly.

This is a shame, if only because the odds of one of these characters actually contacting alien life, as far as we know, are precisely those enjoyed by the radio

  • Montreal Gazette March 1, 1986