Born Yesterday (Part Two)
I live in another world, where life and death are memorized - Bob Dylan
The UFO sightings occurred across several Ohio counties the evening of December 14, 1994, but it's come to be called the "Trumbull County incident." It's not especially special as these things go, except for the witness of multiple police departments, the chase response of multiple police units and their dispatch recordings.
I've got a visual on it! I'm east on Old [Rt.] 82 with a visual on it by the 'S' curve! I can see a large red, blue and green light. I am going east on Liberty. This thing's going so fast, there's no way I can keep up with it. When I pulled in Liberty I could see it in the distance, but I got closer and it started moving.
I'm almost to Brookfield, I just pulled off and have it under binocular observation, and there is definitely a structure there, 429. What you saw... I can see an upper structure off the main part of the lighting.
When Sergeant Toby Meloro of the Liberty Township Police Department caught up with the object, "Everything shut off in the vehicle":
I didn't understand what was going on. My car completely stopped. That's when the light hit the vehicle. I stood outside. I was a little bit dumbfounded; I didn't know what exactly it was. I had to shield my eyes. All I could see was white light; it seemed to be more intense in the centre of it. It was huge. I've never, never seen anything that could compare to this. And the thing that was very strange was there was no sound." After hovering above Meloro and his patrol car for 30 seconds it moved off, and "as soon as it started moving off my car started back up; the radio kicked in.
It moved into Brookfield Township, where Lieutenant James Baker climbed the highest point, an old radar tower, to better see the source of the the flap on his police radio. He saw three objects in a triangular pattern, "with the centre light being raised above the other two. Oddly enough they were changing colours simultaneously, from red, yellow, blue and green; all lights would change at the same time." Baker told dispatch "I got 'em right here, I'm looking at 'em.... They're sitting stationary, I got three of 'em." Earlier, another officer had reported that he couldn't see anything except a white light that looked like Jupiter or Sirius, and joked "You might try getting a little more rest during the day." Baker radioed, "If they are those planets those guys were talking about, then they're planets with Christmas lights on." And added, "This is weird - oh my God, I hope that's a plane."
Assessing Baker's sighting, Astronomer James McGaha said "It's exactly what you would expect for a bright star or planet low on the horizon." Meloro's intense bright light was "very likely a fireball." That his car shut off and restarted "was just a coincidence and had nothing to do with this whatsoever."
McGaha's rationalizations, and those of everyone whose guiding principle is it can't be, therefore it isn't, are not particularly unreasonable when considered on their own. But that's to distort the integrity of the event, which is never on its own, and to ignore patterns of events and whatever they may imply. (The car draining of power, and suddenly restarting, is such a pattern it's become a pop culture trope.)
For years after he signed on in 1948 as scientific consultant to the US Air Force's Project Sign, which became in turn Projects Grudge and Bluebook, Astronomer J Allen Hynek employed the same method . Initially, he thought "the whole subject seems utterly ridiculous," and debunked cases by coming up with a "'commonsense explanation for each new [case]," as he writes in The Hynek UFO report. "I stress the word 'each,' for there was no attempt to look for patterns; each report was regarded as though it were the only UFO report in the world":
This made it easier to find some individual explanation, even though it was sometimes far-fetched. It might even be stated as a theorem: "For any UFO report, when regarded by itself and without reference to similar or related reports, there can always be found a possible commonsense explanation, even though its probability may be small."
Hynek followed this course most notoriously (and perhaps under an Air Force directive) in the Michigan "swamp gas" case of 1966. (As an aside, it's instructive to consider how the press and the public's mood has changed in 40 years. Hynek was excoriated for his snap debunking, upon which he soon started backtracking, and "swamp gas" became a metaphor for the improbable commonsense whitewash. It's as difficult to imagine such an outcry today as it is an actual, official response to a UFO event.)
The late and respected British UFOlogist Gordon Creighton wrote, "We dream of a logical Universe; what if it isn't logical at all, but a vast surrealist nightmare?" It may be near that, but it's at least logical enough that we can, in the course of our day, make mundane assumptions about what we might expect. It's unlikely that our assumptions will be confounded, but then the exceptional will always be unlikely. Or rather, when exceptions cease to be unlikely, then they become our new assumptions. Absurdities are the result of trying to make the seemingly impossible fit a closed logical system. A "scientific method" that hasn't been humbled by ineffable experience will go loping off into foolishness as it tries to hold it all together.
My grandmother was born in England in 1896; the year x-rays were discovered and Gugliemlmo Marconi patented his device for "wireless telegraphy." Her own grandmother would have been a young girl when Cambridge Professor Adam Sedgwick and "gentleman-scientist" Roderick Murchison characterized the "Heroic Age" of Geology and introduced concepts of Deep Time to modern Western minds. (Though the world and everything which encompasses it may have been no more than 6,000 years old to the mind of a pre-modern Western, we should note that traditional peoples have often held profound sense of The great stretches of prehistory were first plotted and described, and often given parochial British names - Cambrian after "Cambria," what the Romans called Wales; Devonian after Devon, in southwest England. One of his summers in Wales, Sedgwick introduced his student Charles Darwin to field work.
The British Isles, we should already know, is a weird place. But it is also unusually old. Many strata which elsewhere would have been subducted beneath new rock lies exposed and readily studied; one reason why it accounts for so much of the early field work. More than 400 million years ago the Devonian Period saw the land colonized by complex creatures of soft tissue that come down to us as fossil imprints of either bone or chitin. Devon today is home to ancient mysteries and unaccountable dreads, such as the discovery of 100 sheep slaughtered last year in ritual fashion on the moor. ("All of the bodies had been arranged in a satanic star shape on the floor or laid out in a circle with their necks broken.") The mutilations, crop circles, "Devil's footprints" and anomalous beasts cannot all be accounted for by Necrominocon-chic and Led Zeppelin album art. The Irish knew the "Good Folk" were already there before they arrived. And Loch Ness only stirred with a plesiosaur-like cryptozoid after Aleister Crowley's occult workings in Boleskine House on the Loch's south shore.
The history of prehistory is barely two centuries old. I knew someone, who knew someone, who predates it. You probably do as well. Of the four and a half billion years before consciousness came upon us, what might have been here that could not have been captured by a fossil?
We've been burning coal since the bronze age, but it's only since 1699, when Oxford naturalist Edward Lhwyd described fossilized plant structures found in Carboniferous strata, that it's been of academic interest. And even then, Lhwyd thought that the plants had grown within the rock, washed through crevices, not that the rock itself was the carbonized remains of ancient biomass. We've been burning crude oil in quantity for less than 200 years, and may be close to having expended half of the Earth's recoverable deposits, and for some there is still uncertainty about what exactly it is and where on Earth it comes from.
Cambridge lecturer Douglas Palmer, in his recent Prehistoric Past Revealed, writes that "typically, species only persist for, at most, a few million years. Human-related species such as Neanderthals only survived for 300,000 years before becoming extinct without evolving into a new species."
In geologic and even biologic time we're not so long out of the trees. We still sport vestigial tails; "wisdom teeth" that don't fit our smaller, modern jaws; hair that "stands up" on the back of our necks as a threatened large mammal might to make it appear larger to a potential threat. Our wise men can hear reports of strange lights in the sky and say it's the planet Jupiter, while wise men, not so many generations ago, knew Jupiter as the god Marduk.
Traditional peoples excepted, we have lived unaware of Deep Time until practically this time. Perhaps we've become conscious to it because we are, as a species, on the verge of reentering it. With increasing frequency we read headlines of new milestones set, drawn to a measure we didn't even know existed just two centuries ago. Average planetary temperatures are near a million-year high, and increasing. A million years ago, Australopithecus was supplanted by Homo Erectus. If the Earth has the grace of another million years to sustain complex life - a debatable and optimistic assumption - our descendants will be at least as different from us as we are from our first upright hominid ancestors. Whether they're returning to the trees, functioning on a level we can usually only imagine, or something entirely other, they won't be us. (And by our ingesting plastics and preservatives that "switch off" vital parts of our matrilineal, Mitochondrial DNA, no less than by our Venusian -worthy climate-sculpting, we may be deciding the issue for them.)
Hynek, 10 years after the "swamp gas" episode, said "I have come to support less and less the idea that UFOs are 'nuts and bolts' spacecrafts from other worlds. There are just too many things going against this theory. To me, it seems ridiculous that super intelligences would travel great distances to do relatively stupid things like stop cars, collect soil samples, and frighten people. I think we must begin to re-examine the evidence. We must begin to look closer to home."
I believe UFOs represent a phenomenon which is more a subject of Deep Time than of Deep Space. As are we. Except we haven't been here nearly as long.