Chapter 6: Crash
“Up above, aliens hover, making home movies for the folks back home...I wish they’d swoop down in a country lane, late at night when I’m driving. Take me aboard their beautiful ship, show me the world as I’d love to see it...” - Radiohead
July 2nd, 1947: A lightening storm gathers two days before the fourth of July ripping open the sky with its fireworks. Static light paints the sand white, bathing a quarter of the view in supernatural angelic glow. Above, three-quarters of the world huddles in darkness, stars obscured by nature’s intentions. The storm knocks confused birds, old electrical wires, a flying saucer, and three aliens from the sky.
Or so the story goes.
The Little Red Engine that Could and I approach the legendary town of Roswell with sluggish tenacity. I intended to drop into town, visit the UFO museum, and buy a few out-of-this-world souvenirs. Now, it seems a mechanic visit is in order. The poor car simply has lost her oompf; seven hours after leaving Tuscon, she climbs hills like an out-of-shape resolution chaser. On the desert flatlands, she reaches 65 mph, but not without occasional hiccups (conjunctivitis of the coche?). We pass a highway sign—35 miles until Roswell—and she gives up altogether. A million potential crash sites stare us down as we coast to the side of the highway and I learn that this is how the world ends: without a bang or a whimper.
“Ok, fuel was low,” I mutter to myself.
It’s my fault. I was waiting to get to a town before lugging out the 30-pound jugs of biodiesel to fill up. No such luck. I have to do it in the middle of nowhere. From the driver’s seat, I check the rearview mirror and wait for an endless row of semis to pass. When finally I escape the car’s shell, I sprint to the trunk, chest heaving in anxiety. I remove 5 gallons of Tucson’s finest biodiesel along with a funnel, carry them over to the Little Engine’s side and begin pouring. All the while, I mumble a redundant prayer: It’s just low on fuel. It’s just low on fuel.
Faith goes to bat as I crank the ignition and listen to the Little Red Engine that Could squeal and holler, struggling to get fuel into the engine. Finally comes a deep roar, a signal that the car has come back to life. We begin rolling down the desert highway, slowly.
Finally, Roswell appears without fanfare, a rather indescript downtown evoking 1950s Main Street. We make our way past the town center, and an alien landscape emerges. McDonald’s appears in the shape of a flying saucer; cardboard alien billboards announce “Aliens Welcome” and post office mailboxes morph into Star Wars characters. Flying saucers have been a business boom for the little town, a boom that began with the opening of the Roswell UFO Museum in 1992. UFOs have single-handedly built the economy, fueling a Main Street that goes boldly where so many towns have gone before: into the great predictable expanses of hotels, fast food chains, traffic, and strip malls. Proud of its central role in creating Main St, Inc., the UFO Museum boasts from its website, “Prior to the UFO Museum, there were no alien eyes on lampposts, no spaceship logos for local car dealers, no city of Roswell logo and branding campaign including a spaceship, no documentaries on the Incident or television programs with the Roswell name.”
The UFO Museum, and its revenue-boost to the community, inspired the opening of a local Home Depot, Super Wal-Mart, Hobby Lobby, Sam’s Club, PetCo, and Famous Footwear. I’m always a little off put by people’s excitement over box stores. Starbucks recently opened a store in my little Indiana town, a source of pride: “Did you hear we got a Starbucks?” people ask. From Roswell to Brownsburg, I live in a perpetual state of tongue-biting, never once saying, “Did you hear Starbucks got you?”
Amidst the monochrome of corporate America, I select one of many cheap hotels, planning to figure the car situation out tomorrow. I register in the rental office where Jerry Springer plays on an old black and white TV. Then, I drive around to my room. Emerging from the car, I step into a small river of vegetable oil. Unable to believe what I see, I get back inside and try to restart the car. She just whimpers, refusing to turn over.
I’m certain that a vindictive Chevy or a whimsical Toyota would have left me stranded in the middle of the desert, no qualms about it. Not my faithful Volkswagen companion: despite the discomfort, she carried me safely into town, all the way to a hotel.
Our bond is sealed.
The downing of the Little Red Engine that Could has one potential culprit: the fuel system. It’s a hazard of the trade; biodiesel tends to clog the fuel filter, necessitating frequent replacement. So, come daylight, I set out to find the needed part. Reality soon sets in. I rely on that little red car for everything. She is closet, kitchen, cafe, and library and that’s not mentioning the obvious—she takes me everywhere I need to go. From Autozone to Checkers to Napa, I enter three hours of desert concrete hiking, a journey that teaches me an important lesson: culturally and geographically, Roswell is closer to Texas than to the Southwest. This town is firmly entrenched in the Land of American Cars.
A tall, overweight gentleman with a horseshoe mustache taps at his NAPA computer screen, asking the usual questions: “What kind of car? Year? Make?” and receiving less-than-usual answers: “Volkswagen. 92. Jetta.”
“Let me see...”
“Oh, it’s diesel,” I add.
The disbelief in his voice challenges me, but I nod with certainty.
He tells me point plank: “I can tell you right now we’re going to have to order that part.”
“When will it come in?”
“1-2 business days.”
Mentally calculating hotel fees and walking miles, I sigh aloud before saying, “Let’s go ahead and order it, but what if it’s not the fuel filter? Is there anyone around here you’d recommend to work on my car?”
“Umm...well...not really. Folks here don’t drive that kind of car. You’d have to take it to the Volkswagen dealership in Amarillo.”
“How am I going to get it there? It won’t start.”
“Good point. Let’s hope it’s the fuel filter.”
*The delay affords me the opportunity to visit Roswell’s preeminent tourist destination, the UFO museum, containing artifacts and historical information about the military’s supposed recovery of an alien spacecraft. The first exhibit features newspaper clippings of tumultuous days in 1947 when residents of Roswell opened their daily papers to not-so-daily news. On July 8, they saw a stunning headline: RAAF (Roswell Army Air Field) Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region!
With nonchalant prose, the article begins like minutes from a business meeting: “The intelligence office of the 509th Bombardment group at Roswell Army Airfield announced at noon today that the field has come into possession of a flying saucer.”
It goes on to detail the only witness account reporting a strange flying disc near the time of the crash. In a testament to America’s age of innocence, the article describes the witness, Don Wilmot, as “one of the most respected and reliable citizens in town.” Being such a model citizen, we are induced to believe Wilmot’s claim that he and his wife saw an oval-shaped object like “two inverted saucers faced mouth to mouth.” Soon thereafter, the saucer allegedly began shredding bits of metal over the desert flatlands before slamming into the lower northern slope of the Capitan Mountains fifty miles west of Roswell.
On July 8th, it was a flying saucer. On July 9th, it was a weather balloon. Side by side on white particle board, newspaper articles give witness to a flip-flop of political proportions. The army officially changed stories, and witness stories miraculously metamorphosed as well. The rancher who found the debris, W.W. Brazel, said, “I am sure what I found was not any weather observation balloon.” By the time the army and the press got done interrogating him, he was ready to dismiss the story altogether. After all the hype and hysteria, he said, “If I find anything else but a bomb, they are going to have a hard time getting me to say anything about it.”
The museum gives additional credence to the cover-up theory by displaying information about Dr. Lincoln La Paz, an astronomer and meteor expert. The army hired La Paz in September 1947 to try to “determine the speed, direction, and trajectory of the craft before impact.” On the museum wall, a large white sign with black print contains La Paz’s famous assessment of trying to investigate the Roswell Incident. Roswell had become “a Sea of Reluctant Witnesses,” a sea that added fuel to the conspiracy theory fire.
Back on earth, dozens of human bodies push past me to get closer to the yellowing newspaper clippings. Next to alien dummies in the corner, a young couple gropes one another, seemingly unaware of the display behind them. I decide to get away from the crowd and enter a dark theater in the center of the museum. Here, documentaries about the flying saucer crash play on repeat. The Roswell Incident had faded into near oblivion, the domain of a few passionate UFO buffs, until the 1990s when the TV program Unsolved Mysteries brought it back for public consumption. Host Robert Stack, in his tan trench coat, looks steadily into the screen and promises America the truth.
Both onscreen and on the record, impressive figures have risked their reputations speaking about the crash. Lieutenant Walter Haut, who was in charge of public relations for the army during the 40s, penned a sworn affidavit before dying in 2005. He asserted that the real materials from the crash were recovered by the army and remain in a hangar to this day; these “materials” included not only a craft but alien bodies. Hometown hero Edgar Mitchell--an astronaut who flew on the 1971 Apollo 14 Moon Mission--believes whole-heartedly in Roswell’s shadowy past. In a radio interview, he claimed that old-timers still vividly recall a strange silence and secrecy around the crash and their “whispers in his ear” have convinced him that there is life on other planets, that aliens have visited the earth, and that something did indeed crash in the desert surrounding Roswell.
It wasn’t the fuel filter: shipped 200 miles from Amarillo, the new engine part added unforeseen pounds to my carbon footprint in vain. After detaching the cylindrical canister from a seeming dozen tubes, I inserted the new part. Ignition turned, the Little Red Engine that Could hiccuped and heaved and hoed, trying to get fuel to the engine.
Next possibility: fuel pump. My tour of Roswell auto parts stores recommences and again, no one has what I need. Back at Napa, I ask the same moustached man, “Can you order it?”
Puzzled stumblings and intermittent “please holds” follow.
“We can’t seem to find it,” he says finally. “You better call Volkswagen.”
A VW technician tells me without hesitation or sympathy: “We don’t make that part anymore.”
“What? How do you stop making a part for cars that are still out here?”
Damn you! The Little Red Engine that Could has done her part, vastly outliving the competition and purring like a matriarch tiger after seventeen years. She’s been a loyal purveyor of brand image, but now, she’s been betrayed by her maker.
“I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“So, what am I supposed to do? I’m stuck in Roswell.”
“You can bring the car here so we can rebuild the fuel pump.”
“How much would that cost?”
“Ok, next option?”
“You could get one from a junkyard.”
I hang up the phone and fall into despair. I’ve been offered two impossible solutions: somehow get my car to Amarillo and have the fuel pump rebuilt for $3000 or find a fuel pump for a Volkswagen Ecodiesel at a Roswell junkyard, a possibility rendered void by the fact that only 40 were ever produced in the U.S. From a lonely hotel room, I grapple with the possibility that my search for hope and change could end a mere two states from where it began. I pull the yellowing hotel curtains to the side and rest my elbow on the chained-to-the-floor TV. There she is, my sad little car. Her previous owners pampered her to no end, her exterior waxed and her interior bathed in endless vinyl sunscreen. The result: a glimmering black interior and a shiny fire engine red exterior that never betrays her true age (17 which is at least 80 in human years.) She keeps chugging along like a teenager, a painting of hope taped to her passenger side window, a lady liberty emblem hanging from her rear view mirror. The emblem is engraved with the French word Liberte, literally translating to freedom. Yes, freedom. The open road. Closed to us two unlikely lovers today.
As the alien stories coming out of Roswell got stranger in the 1990s, the government decided to respond.
“Okay, okay,” they said. “Something did crash into the desert that day.”
Ufologists waited with baited breath. Here comes the admission--there is extraterrestrial life. They crashed into the desert. We’ve been using their technology to build...ur...the stealth bomber.
“Actually,” the government interrupted, “It was a complex weather balloon, part of a top secret program called Project Mogul. We were sending high altitude balloons into space with ultra-sensitive microphones that could pick up sound waves generated by Soviet Atomic tests. When a couple of them crashed into Roswell, they appeared unlike anything people had seen at the time.”
A collective release of breath followed amongst the UFO community and Roswell Crashinistas: “No,” they cried! “You lie!” (Little did they know that their mantra would soon be stolen by Senator Joe Wilson who yelled the phrase during Obama’s address on health care). The UFO Museum documents the skepticism towards the government with a few questions: Wouldn’t Air Force personnel who were in on the “secret” be able to recognize a Project Mogul balloon? Why then did they initially claim they had found a flying saucer? Why did Mac Bazel, who had recovered other weather balloons, say that there was no way this could be a weather balloon? Why had the government tried so hard to silence witnesses if it was just a weather ballon?
They seem to have a point: Project Mogul wasn’t much of a secret. The display shows articles about the project from local newspapers (the balloon’s purpose then was said to be researching cosmic rays). Some of the articles even list rewards for people who find such balloons.
Amidst the UFO Museum and Research Center’s long and detailed history of the Roswell Incident, room by room, wall by wall, I feel overwhelmed. Films and documentaries play on random repeat, for hours at a time, but I leave the museum more confused than when I entered. I arrived with the conviction that “the truth is out there,” but I leave with the contention that the truth is...well...unattainable.
Into the streets and back into UFO mania, I enter a shop called MarsChild. A big gray alien face with bug eyes invites me through the door. I browse the shop a bit before asking the clerk what’s been on my mind since the beginning of my hike around Roswell: “What do people who live here think about all this alien stuff?”
“Most people in Roswell hate it,” he responds. “They keep their heads down and don’t want to talk about it. People like us enjoy the business aspect of it.”
After a few exchanges, the man introduces himself as Richard. I feel an immediate kinship to him as I often do with men who share my brother’s name.
“So...is believing a business strategy?” I jab.
Richard laughs and shakes his head before ringing up a customer.
With most, the store’s owner maintains a comfortable silence. The tourists ask few questions, purchasing gag gifts for the folks back at home, while the business owners pocket a living and call it a day. Alien keychains, alien postcards, alien t-shirts, alien bottle openers, alien boggle heads: Roswell has cornered the market on Chinese-made plastic extraterrestrials. The store itself is falling into disrepair, an incompetent landlord to blame. Water marks show through the ceiling; a hole with chipped hanging plaster indicates recent disaster: “It ruined 100 t-shirts and of course the landlord won’t pay for them. That’s how it works around here.”
Without the aliens, it’s hard to see what locals would have to hold on to. When the most recent customers exit, Richard’s demeanor changes: “Look,” he says, “there is no way that was a weather balloon.”
I meet his eyes and challenge, “How do you know? Were you there?”
His response is immediate.
“No, but my aunt passed three years ago at the age of 100. She was an adult working at a local bank in 1947.”
Richard explains that he never asked her about the flying saucer crash, but finally gathered up the courage near the end of her life. At a family barbecue, he asked her: “Just tell me. Do you think a flying saucer crashed in July 1947?”
She dropped her fork and looked him straight in the eye: "Yes, it happened. And I don't ever want to say another word about it."
Richard looks around the store as though making sure no one is listening: "Back then, after WWII, people were real patriotic. When the government or the military, someone in uniform told you to do something for your country, you did it."
After purchasing my own alien memorabilia, I head towards the door. Richard’s intensity has passed. He has moved on to dusting off alien-faced coffee mugs. Outside, a light drizzle has begun and I hear the rumble of an oncoming thunderstorm. I walk quickly back to the hotel, stopping only to snap pictures of cardboard aliens. When I reach the hotel and see my car still sitting sadly in front, I feel helpless.
I don’t even turn on the TV when I get in. I plop down on the bed and and try to pass the time. Alien love stories begin forming in my head. A green creature comes beaming down to my hotel door. He’s not much to look at but he’s a great communicator and exudes a certain je-ne-sais-quoi. We teleport to the flying disc-shaped McDonald’s for dinner. Neither of us care for the food (in fact, he doesn’t eat at all), but he tells me that the surroundings make him feel at home. We stroll a starlit town while his pet R2D2 mailbox follows us around chirping endearing nonsense all evening. Unwilling to let the night end, my alien date tries to get me to go back to his place, but I refuse to leave my car behind. With the wave of his webbed hand, he breathes life back into the Little Red Engine that Could. We go coasting away into the sky, outwards past the Milky Way.
Oh, and we live happily ever after.
The resurrection of the Little Red Engine that Could does not exactly follow that narrative.
It begins instead with a knock at the door.
A woman enters the room and begins exchanging towels and emptying garbage cans. We make small talk.
“What are you doing in Roswell?” she asks, pulling wet towels off the bathroom floor.
“Well, right now, I’m stuck. My car is broke down.”
“That one right out there?”
She pauses mid-routine to point.
“Yeah, the fuel pump broke and VW doesn’t make the part anymore. I don’t know what to do.”
Then something happens that only happens in movies.
“My husband works on cars,” she says. “I could have him come by and look at it if you want.”
“Really? That would be great.”
Then she pauses as though realizing something awful. The light coming in through the curtains illuminates her hair and I can see where the home salon dye job ends at her roots. She suddenly looks old. Tired.
“Could you make sure not to mention the guy next door?” she asks nervously. “You know, I talk to him sometimes. My husband is real jealous.”
“Of course,” I say. “Why would I mention it?”
She shrugs and fumbles in her jacket pocket for a cigarette before going outside and smoking, looking blankly at the sky.
When her husband makes it over to the hotel, he brings with him a gruff demeanor that says very little. He gets down to business in a hurry.
He pops the hood, tries to turn the engine over a few times, pokes and prods at a few strategic locations. Finally, he agrees: “It’s the fuel pump.”
I tell him the sad prognosis: “We can’t get the part. VW doesn’t make it anymore.”
He seems unphased by the dilemma.
“No problem,” he fast talks: “Here’s what I can do: I’ll run a relay pump under the car. They cost about $50 at the auto parts store. You buy the part and I’ll put it in for $150.”
“Yeah, but we’ll have to get it over to my place. My buddy can tow it for $30.”
My humble contribution to the depressed local economy (unemployment went from 4.3% in 2008 to 7.4% in 2009) has now extended beyond alien tourism. The tow truck, however, is not what I expected. A rusty old Dodge Ram appears and the men tie my car to its hitch with a chain and a rope. I find myself thinking, “What the hell am I doing?” Then, I’m paralyzed by the next thought: “What other choice do I have? Wait on my alien date to appear?”
Three hours later, I hear my car humming outside. I throw open the door and shout, “YOO-HOO” and see the mechanic smiles for the first time. After spending most of the afternoon underneath my car, black car sludge forms a working man’s makeup on his face. A smile, yes. A conversation, no. He is a man of few words, but I imagine he understands that he has helped me out of a hell of a situation. In our consumption-driven society, our most basic impulse is to “just get another one.” This constant up-sell/upgrade trashes perfectly good items while creating a dearth of people skilled in keeping old machines kicking. As I drive away, I see a hotel cleaning lady and her mechanic husband waving me onwards. I’m vaguely aware of how little we truly know of one another’s lives, the safe non-disclosures we maintain to protect from vulnerability. Mostly, I’m just thankful that a handful of folks still live on the fringe, making things work rather than throwing them away.
More Book Excerpts:
Chapter 1: Running on (Almost) Empty
Chapter 5: Arivaca
Chapter 7: The Fourth Wave