In the Name of Research I Visit the International UFO Museum, Part 3

[highlight highlight_type=”italic” color=”yellow”]Part three in a series of posts on subjects found in the book Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine. For part two click here.

We are still in Roswell, New Mexico, at the International UFO Museum and Research Center, at 114 Main Street, but now we are no longer loitering on the sidewalk and have made it into the lobby

You know how it is when you are going some place new and far away and you kind of try to picture in your head what that place will look like and at the same time you don’t so you’ve multiple sometimes wildly diverse variations on a theme that morph and meld and reconfigure themselves? Or maybe that place is so unimaginable that its physical world synonym is the distant cloud traveling with you down a boring stretch of interstate, a cloud which is so blankly without distinguishing features that it is nothing but “distant cloud”?

International UFO Museum lobby
International UFO Museum and Research Center Lobby, 2008

If you’ve seen photos the imaginary experience is different, because your scrapbook mind has a page devoted to, say, Hoover Dam, and on that scrapbook page is the image of Hoover Dam that is most iconographic for you.

My scrapbook page was more a matter of names and ideas than any vision of a place. Since I was working on Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine, and was focusing myself on things UFO (though not all things UFO, Odile’s story being her own, not an amalgamation) for sake of the long haul writing of it, I was visiting Roswell and had first and almost only in my mind the character Odile and the fact of her UFO sighting that was nowhere near Roswell but I’d managed to work in a national panorama as backdrop to the initial relation of her story, the arid west the sunset against which she would see that UFO, though she was on urban ground in the east. For the next five years I would drink out of a UFO mug I purchased at Roswell that first trip in 2006. Would pour my coffee and sit down at the computer with my votive UFO mug, the area around my desk quietly decorated with a few choice UFO souvenirs. (And then there was me, the dreamer of Odile.) Just as with Unending Wonders of a Subatomic World (or) In Search of the Great Penguin I’d surrounded my desk environment with all things penguin. (And then there was me, the dreamer of the Great Penguin.)

As they say, the travel to wherever it is you’re going, however, is half the adventure, a portion of the developing process for what will eventually be your personal memories that take place of the iconographic photo or the nebulous cloud.

The physical build up to Roswell in 2006 was partly the developing process of a long drive through that anxious state-of-being that is Texas, the glare of which never fails to suck all my precious bodily fluids out through the windshield so though I’m only half-way through I’m a near empty leather wallet bereft of succulent hope.

Texas Dinos

Texas turned into New Mexico, and when it seemed, despite the fact we were in New Mexico, that Texas would never end, there appeared roadside before us Poor Boys Metal Art and whatever expectations I may have had as to Roswell were happily reinforced. Had I wanted UFOs through the filter of Esalen, I would have gone to Big Sur. Admittedly, that was beyond my financial reach or else I’d be writing not only about Roswell but about Big Sur as well.

Poor Boys Metal Art Palm Trees, Raptors, Cactus and Cows

We were now in for-better-or-worse, for-business-and-pleasure UFO land.

Poor Boys Metal Art Aliens

Poor Boys Metal Art, New Mexico, outside of Roswell
Poor Boys Metal Art Aliens

We were still about an hour out of Roswell and had some driving to get out of the way but the path had been greased by the silent salutations of Poor Boys Metal Art, and the landscape was altering. Entering dusk, Texas now absent, I was reminded of the arid desert of my Richland youth, a town built for the purpose of the Hanford Project which cooked up the plutonium for Fat Man.

So much space, lots of space, ample territory for the growth of the mythos of Roswell’s crash landings and its aliens.

The Last Stretch Toward Roswell, New Mexico

Night was by the time we reached Roswell. We drove past the darkened facade of the museum. We drove past the UFO-themed McDonalds. We ate (elsewhere). We got sick (see part one). We got up in the morning and on the spur of the moment, having just learned of it through hotel literature, we went to the Roswell Art Museum which has a gallery devoted to the collection of past residents Peter Hurd and Henriette Wyeth and alone worth a trip of some thousand plus miles.

They also had a replica of Robert Goddard’s rocket workshop.

The father of modern rocketry, from 1930 to 1941 Robert was blasting his high-altitude rockets into the Roswell skies from Oscar White’s ranch, ten miles east of Roswell in Eden Valley, his reclusive eye on the moon.

For eleven years, Roswell had rockets raining down on it. The town knew but understood Goddard wanted not much ado and left him to his devices, his gasoline, his liquid oxygen, his nitrogen. No doubt, there still must have been talk in the barber shop, the beauty salon, the saloons, at the seed and feed. Did no one worry they might be beaned? Perhaps the desert felt a little deprived when the rockets ceased to fall.

Roswell has been both a sheep ranch and military town. It is home of the New Mexico Military Institute, founded in 1891, an academic school with a military framework which has been in the business of producing both civilian and West Point fodder. In 1941, the year Goddard’s rocket tests stopped at Roswell, the Roswell Army Air Field was established on land acquired from rancher David Chesser. After WWII, the 509th Composite Group, which had been formed at Wendover Field, Utah, the very same bombers responsible for dropping Little Boy on Hiroshima and Fat Man on Nagasaki, were assigned to Roswell. Look up Paul Tibbets, who piloted the Enola Gay from which fell the hell of Little Boy, and you’ll easily find a picture of him standing before the Enola Gay at Roswell. Charlie Sweeney, pilot of the Bockscar from which descended Fat Man on Nagasaki, also was at Roswell, training people for “Operation Crossroads”, the same Bikini Atoll atomic tests at which had been Walter Haut, one of the two who dreamed up the International UFO Museum, a bit of history which I’ve already covered in part two.

And I’m thinking, no wonder that as we neared Roswell I felt a strong Richland déjà. At the time, I didn’t know about the history of the 509th as I wasn’t that interested in Roswell per se, just in the alien mystique that drew its tourists.

When I was about twenty-two, for Halloween I put on a plastic bag, wrapped my arms and head in aluminum foil and, though I was aware I was more flammable than a match, I went out partying as a 1950s circa D movie alien girl. A little nervous, I stayed clear of people with cigarettes, but the attire was a success, and by success I mean that it remained intact, which is good, because I wasn’t wearing anything under it except for some underwear. That costume would have fit right in with the Roswell alien mystique. Stepping through the doors, I was greeted by a carved wood alien dressed in a jumpsuit that reminded a little mmore of Elvis than Forbidden Planet.

I used to have a flash-blight photo of me in that costume. Someone dressed as Spiderman had swept me up in his arms.

International UFO Museum lobby
International UFO Museum and Research Center Lobby, 2006

Beyond the alien greeter/guardian was this disco saucer by artist Sharon Engelstein, part of a 1997 installation called “On the Beach at Galveston”.

International UFO Museum & Research Center, Lobby, 2006
International UFO Museum and Research Center Lobby, 2006

And there were more aliens. Rough sawed wood aliens, and plastic inflatable ones, and artwork depicting aliens and UFOs. Whatever I had expected of the International UFO Museum and Research Center, I had not anticipated all the alien art with which a good portion of the museum is bedecked.

Is the down-home naive folk art ambiance a part of a structured plan? I think so, but back in 2006 the museum had plans for a new home, across from the McDonalds, which would be a futuristic palace. In parts one and two, you’ve already seen the exterior of the International UFO Museum and Research Center as it looks now. If you examine the photo above showing the guest registration desk, to the right you’ll see representations of what was projected at the time as the future museum.

In 2008 the plans appeared on the internet in this form.

[column_one_half_last]The Architectural Record reported the new museum was to be an 18,000-square-foot, one-story building of “mostly rectilinear concrete volumes, a warped plane cants from the west elevation and soars nearly 90 feet above the main entry. This surface, which will likely be gel-coated fiberglass, folds over on itself while a funnel-shaped hole connects the top and bottom facets.”

Kevin Schopfer, designer, described the building’s concept as “a found object emerging from a file cabinet, kind of like information hidden in a drawer somewhere,” intended to represent a purported government cover-up. The funnel on top represented a time traveler’s shortcut wormhole. Inside would be a large flying disc hanging from the ceiling in the lobby.

Ground was broken in 2010, and green balloons released in celebration. Then in 2011 it was announced that there would be no new $25 million home for the UFO museum which attracts $57 million each year to the state in tourists.

The $2 million plot of land would be sold. The museum had secured an option to buy the property on which it was currently located, was now planning to renovate that structure and perhaps buy neighboring buildings.

Maybe downtown Main Street Roswell was in a financial panic over the prospect of the UFO Museum moving six blocks down the road. Maybe they looked around at the exhibits and realized that something would be lost in the translation if they were moved to a super-duper museum with a wormhole funnel. Maybe they decided that if it isn’t broke, you don’t fix it. Maybe they realized the color scheme of their furniture and the new museum would clash. Except there are some oranges in the picture of the futuristic UFO museum that will never be, and these orange-yellow-tan-mustard-brown chairs would have fit in well.

International UFO Museum, Lobby, 2006
International UFO Museum and Research Center Lobby, 2006

Here we begin to migrate out of the lobby and into the pegboard meat of the museum. The wood cut-out alien that stood below the Blodgett alien portrait in 2008 is, I think, the same that was next the Sharon Engelstein diso saucer in 2006.

International UFO Museum and Research Center Lobby, 2006

Alien painting by Nathan Blodgett, International UFO Museum
International UFO Museum and Research Center Lobby, Alien portrait by Nathan Blodgett

This is a close-up of the Nathan Blodgett painting of an alien, which is a sure child pleaser because there’s a lot of text hanging from the walls at the International UFO Museum and Research Center and most kids haven’t much use for text, they’re going to go straight for the images. Like Blodgett’s of the sainted alien with the halo around his or her head. And those wood carvings and wood cut-out aliens and the plastic blow-up doll aliens. Admittedly, after taking in the environment, both inside and outside, that’s pretty much what I was there for as well. Or turned out to be there for it. Enough alien art was hanging from the walls that I wondered what the criteria was for entry and whether the artists paid for the matting and framing or if the museum did. It made me wonder if they get hundreds or thousands of alien art sent to them a year from all over the world. And if they do, to have even just that would make for a very interesting museum.

Now, before we continue into the museum, you must pin on a map from where you are visiting. As you can see, the map shows people hail from all over the world. You also register at the desk. General admission price is $5. Kids 5 to 15 are $3. Military and seniors are $3.

International UFO Museum and Research Center
International UFO Museum and Research Center Lobby, 2008

The next part in this series, we examine the evidence at the museum.

[highlight highlight_type=”italic” color=”yellow”]Click on the book to read a FAQ on Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine and maybe even purchase.

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Juli Kearns

Juli Kearns is the author of Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine and Unending Wonders of a Subatomic World (or) In Search of the Great Penguin. She is also an artist/photographer, and the person behind the web alter of "Idyllopus Press".

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