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Childhood UFO sighting and persisting intrigue brought me to Roswell, N.M., UFO capital of the world

May 6, 2005
Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star

I MILL AROUND MY BEDROOM, sorting books and clothes for the next school day. I haven't bothered to turn on the lights--a glow comes from the nearby laundry room. But even without it, I know this space. At 13, I spend most of my time hiding out here.

I look outside, through the room's only window, into a clear spring night. The view never changes: a dark cow pasture straight ahead and to the right, a sliver of highway to the left that's quiet now.

Above, a thousand constellations speckle a smear of black. There is little light pollution in this rural section of Goldsboro, N.C.

Tonight, though, something moves at the edge of the field.

I step toward the window.

A football field away, a dark sphere circled in red lights creeps amid the tree line. It must be the size of a helicopter landing pad.

Like a Frisbee in slow motion, it rotates silently toward the highway.

I stand breathless and still, eyes transfixed. I know what I'm witnessing. Nothing of the Earth looks or moves this way.

Then the spaceship--of course it is a spaceship!--lands. Just short of the highway, it descends into a small clearing among the trees. Out of sight.

I rush to the living room and shout my news. "I saw a UFO! I saw a UFO!" My stepfather shakes his head and laughs.

At school the next day, I share my news with anyone who will listen. My audience is skeptical.

But I don't care. I know what I saw, and I'll search the night sky until my eyes hurt. Devour countless books and movies about flying saucers and little men with slanted, oversized eyes.

I read about abductions and experiments. Hunters sucked into ships and returned days later with bizarre markings on their bodies. Drivers whose car radios crackled and went dead just before a glowing saucer descended in front of them. And fictional (I hope) accounts of women birthing half-alien babies that were snatched away in the night.

I grow sleepless and haunted, a camper on my mother's bedroom floor.

A month later, I'm home alone, and have gone outside after dark to feed dinner leftovers to Angel, our border collie mix. Some 50 feet from the back door, I empty the casserole dish in her bowl.

Something tells me to turn around.

A huge, triangular object edged in red lights hangs silently above the same tree line I can see from my bedroom window.

Chills creep along my arms, even on this humid night.

It is looking at me, I think. Maybe they have been watching me all along. Maybe they want to zap me up and chop me up or make me have one of their alien babies.

I scream, sling the dish and spoon somewhere in the dark grass and run for the house.

Inside, I hit the floor. I have never been more afraid. For minutes, I lay still on the cool vinyl while the fear subsides.

This is too weird. Two in a month? I get up and slink back outside. Look to the sky.

It's gone.
Journey to Roswell

Eleven years to the month have passed. I'm 2,000 miles from my hometown, a passenger in a rented Hyundai Sonata.

The New Mexico desert zips by at 85 mph. Grass and shrubs faded sepia from wind and sun are scattered across a rugged landscape.

The desert holds the grace and intrigue of an enduring artifact.

There is nothing here but land and cattle and an occasional antelope, and this ribbon of highway that must stretch to the edge of the earth.

My friend and I are somewhere south of Albuquerque, flying down U.S. 285. Destination: Roswell, the infamous site of a 1947 UFO crash.

I first heard about Roswell at 13, after my sightings and during my zealous probe of all things extraterrestrial.

The story goes like this: A shiny, silvery, saucer-shaped object plunged into a rancher's field during a fierce July thunderstorm.

Officials from Roswell Army Air Field were called in. They roped off the crash site and spent days clearing wreckage.

Meanwhile, stories spread like desert wildfire.

They'd be remembered in affidavits years afterward: hieroglyphics on strange metal-like debris. An undertaker who got a request for several unusually small, airtight coffins.

A child whose father was ashen-faced and tight-lipped after visiting the crash site. A nurse who went missing after she overheard autopsy details of remains that could not have been human.

The Army Air Field issued a press release, calling the debris that of a flying saucer.

People panicked.

A few hours later, the military issued a new statement. The "recovered" rubble was just a weather balloon.

But tiny Roswell was on the map.

It has since become a kind of holy land for the cosmically curious. One hundred thousand people visit each year.

That was just one of the tidbits my girlhood library scouring turned up. Those details--and my own memories--are on my mind as we speed farther south. Ever since I heard about Roswell, I thought it would be a cool place to see. When I got the chance to go to New Mexico last month, I knew I had to visit.

These days, I laugh off my childhood sightings. "Did I ever tell you about the time when I was 13 and saw a spaceship in my yard? Ha, ha, ha."

People think you're less crazy if you say it in jest. But I can still see a dark sky blotted in red, clear as if it just happened.
Down at the Crash Site Cafe

A green sign says we're less than 60 miles from Roswell. It's barely 10 a.m. and we've made good time.

I wiggle in the seat like a child. Roswell! I'm going to Roswell!

Until now, it was only a story, a vague spot on the map. I imagine lots of hollow-eyed people in aluminum foil hats wandering around their little bullet-shaped trailers. Caravans of fat, middle-aged men guzzling beer and watching the sky.

This is my image of crazy. I guess I've been taught that only insane people see UFOs.

Roswell will prove me wrong.

Finally, a welcome sign. We're here! We're finally here!

At first, Roswell is just another town. Concrete spills across desert; there are chain stores, fast-food joints and a few too many cars. My eyes are peeled for a visitors center.

Then, a boxy little building right on the main drag. Barely inside, I spurt out, "Where's the UFO museum?"

Just three blocks up, a very nice lady answers.

"Oh, I am so excited. Where's the crash site?"

It's 20 miles outside of town, she says. It's just a sign. Do we plan to eat lunch in town? We should try the Crash Site Cafe.

"There's a Crash Site Cafe? That's awesome!"

She hands us a map and highlights the places we want to see, plus four other Roswell museums that have nothing to do with aliens.

We park a block from the UFO center. Out on the sidewalk, I squeal. Laugh out loud. Point. Jump up and down.

The folks of Roswell have an incredible sense of humor.

A brass alien peeps over a store awning. Silver saucers sit atop several others. Green, inflatable aliens peer out of almost every window. Across the street, there's a coffee shop called Out of This World. The storefront is painted in a solar system mural.

Drink machines are covered in space ships and extraterrestrials. Street lamp fixtures are painted with alien eyes. McDonald's Playland is enclosed by a big, chrome disk.

"Look! Look!" I shout.

Crazy has come to Roswell in jeans and a T-shirt; she is a blonde twentysomething with awe in her eyes and camera in hand.

Inside the museum, two older gentlemen offer a greeting.

Hundreds of people from all over the world have visited in just the last few weeks, according to maps covered in thumb tacks and cleared each month.

Amazing.

The first exhibit details an "Incident" timeline. Here I read dozens of affidavits from witnesses who saw or heard or knew somebody who saw or heard.

A model alien gazes from a glass case. There are copies of old newspaper clippings from around the country, photographs and personal accounts. Pictures of purported UFOs.

"That's the one I saw!" I say when I spot a saucer-shaped disk.

Close by is a triangular UFO outlined in red lights. It's identical to the object I saw that second night at my childhood home.

Over the years, my crippling fear wore into mild fascination.

The turning point came some months after my sightings, when yet another nightmare of backyard aliens sent me flying into my mother's room.

I had another dream, I'd said after nudging her awake. What if they come get me? Locks wouldn't keep them out. I bet we couldn't shoot them. We couldn't stop them like a regular intruder.

In a soft, sleepy voice she told me that if they were out there, we couldn't do anything about it. Worrying myself sick wouldn't change anything.

I'm standing at a crash site excavation exhibit as I remember this exchange.

I smile.

Never once had my mother called me a liar or a high-strung adolescent who'd imagined it all.

My friend and I spend an hour downtown, going in and out of gift shops that sell all things alien. Hats, T-shirts, shot glasses stamps and plush and plastic aliens.

I buy a couple of bags of memorabilia. I eat a turkey sandwich at the Crash Site Cafe. It's decked out in murals, alien-head planters and space fabric. Inflatable extraterrestrials hang over each table. Menu items have names like Encounter of the Third Kind and Flying Saucer.

There are a few families and couples among us.

None wear foil hats.
One last stop

We leave the next morning while it's still dark out. Albuquerque is four hours north and we've got a plane to catch.

But there's one last thing I want to do.

We park just short of a tall, rusting metal sign.

For all the controversy and complexity the crash still stirs, its marker is deceptively simple.

UFO CRASH SITE

I mill around cinnamon-colored earth dotted in low, wind-whipped brush. An orange sun rises over the lonely, silent desert.

I am a tiny speck out here. A tiny blip in the universe.

Once I get back to Virginia, I'll ask my mom if she remembers my alien obsession. She does, she'll tell me.

She'll confide that she saw something above the field that spring, too. Dotted in lights, it hovered for a few moments before vanishing in the night. She says she kept quiet because I was already scared to death.

I take a picture of the sign.

What did we see back then? And what really happened on this place where I stand?

Roswell, I think, is not so much a place for answers. Nor is it a centripetal force for nut cases.

Roswell is a one-time destination for a 24-year-old who once saw something and wondered, a place for a grown-up girl who still watches for lights in the sky.

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