Jim Heffernan column: The serious business of flying saucers
Flying saucers were very big news when I was growing up in the years following World War II.
I see that UFOs (unidentified flying objects) are back in the news. U.S. Navy pilots filmed them in 2019, but the Navy kept the encounters under wraps until recently, according to The New York Times. Now, the Pentagon is going to release a full report next month.
Well, if you saw it in The Times, it must be true.
I have a long history with unidentified flying objects, more commonly known in my ever-lengthening lifetime as flying saucers. They were very big news when I was growing up in the years following World War II. Flying saucers were being spotted zooming through the heavens all over the place, including here in the Northland. This paper even ran a photo of a couple of them hovering over Moose Lake, which turned out to be faked, much to editors’ embarrassment.
One clear summer night about then, when my family was vacationing at a lake cabin in northern Wisconsin, my father, older brother and I were standing in the yard just after sunset when suddenly either my father or brother exclaimed something like, “Lookit that,” pointing skyward. Something flashed across the firmament right over the lake. They both saw it.
The object disappeared so quickly, I missed it. But there’s no question they saw something. My father was not given to embracing fantastic notions of the supernatural or extraterrestrial, but the incident resulted in increased interest in flying saucers in my family. Interest, but not really belief.
The only flying saucer I ever saw was in a movie, “The Thing from Another World,” which usually was billed simply as “The Thing.” It was so frightening to me, I regressed in my psychological/emotional development at that stage in my life. I was about 10 and had been used to staying home alone in the evening when others in the family were out.
No staying home alone after “The Thing” lumbered into my life aboard a flying saucer imbedded in the Arctic ice, dynamited out by U.S. Air Force personnel at a remote, snow-swept base, where it proceeded to attack all living things, killing and drinking the blood of sled dogs and going after humans. Yikes. Plus, it was impervious to things like gunfire because it was vegetable, not animal. Oh the horror.
I got so scared I started to go to church with my mother, organist and music director of our church, in the evenings to gatherings like the weekly Prayer Meeting in the church parlors. She played an upright piano (of course the piano was upright — it was in church) for hymn singing between extemporaneous praying by the audience, and lengthy readings from the Good Book.
It was attended mainly by about a dozen elderly men and a few wives whose idea of a roaring good time might be sitting around re-reading Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. One time, a guy read lengthily from the begats, which describe who’s related to whom in the good Old Testament. I think the preacher might even have holy rolled his eyes at that.
I was the lone child there but I didn’t care. It beat staying home alone worrying about The Thing coming to my house and drinking my blood.
Of course I grew out of it, but news of flying saucers always gets my attention and reminds me of “The Thing from Another World” and how it scared the living daylights out of me as a kid. (There’s a better word than “daylights” but this is a family newspaper.)
Segue now to the 1960s when I was working at this newspaper as a general assignment reporter. The nice thing about general assignment was that you would get involved in different things every shift. I worked nights and could end up covering everything from boring government meetings like those of the city Charter Commission (at least nobody read the begats) to dashing off to a house fire to get the scoop firsthand for the morning’s readers.
So one evening the city editor assigned me to cover a speech on flying saucers (we covered a lot of speeches) by an astronomer who had been invited to visit Duluth by Frank Halstead, the who was in charge off the old Darling Observatory at 910 W. Third Street, west of downtown. Halstead was a respected astronomer.
Well, the guest astronomer appeared before a respectable crowd in a downtown hall and started out with what sounded like a serious speech on unidentified flying objects, but soon he changed his demeanor to more resemble a gospel preacher, invoking the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel and his vision of wheels rolling in the heavens.
Many people might remember the song, “Ezekiel Saw a Wheel A-Rollin’ Way in the Middle of the Air.” The so-called astronomer was talking about THAT Ezekiel and claiming the wheels Ezekiel saw were actually our flying saucers. And God was sending them back today as a warning to sinners and prophesying the coming End Times starring The Beast. Whew. Well, at least it wasn’t The Thing.
I was flummoxed about what to do. It sounded crazy but I didn’t want to return to the paper without a story. Nevertheless, I felt I couldn’t put that nonsense in the paper. I’d noticed that Halstead was inexplicably absent from the speech, so I telephoned him. He’d had dinner with the speaker and realized he was a religious zealot and not a serious astronomer at all.
I didn’t write a story.
Finally, years later, recalling my family’s encounter with the UFOs over the northern Wisconsin lake, for Christmas I gave my brother a book titled “Flying Saucers: Serious Business.” He immediately said he wanted to return it unread.
“I thought you liked flying saucers,” I remonstrated.
“I don’t like them THAT much,” he said.
Jim Heffernan is a former Duluth News Tribune news and opinion writer and columnist. He maintains a blog at jimheffernan.org and can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.