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A flying saucer, built out of metal screens, domes and rods, sits outside of the State Theatre in Falls Church, Virginia.
Outer-space UFOs (or at least facsimiles of what they MIGHT look like) outside the State Theatre in Falls Church, Virginia, which was showing the movie "Alien Autopsy" at the time. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. October 24, 2014. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive, Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

“And a fire come out at night”: UFOs, space exploration and folklife

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As we head into the July 4th holiday this week, I am gearing up to celebrate a tradition in my house since the mid-1990s: the annual re-watch of Roland Emmerich’s, Independence Day. If pressed, I don’t know that I’d be able to pinpoint why I love it so much, but I don’t think we really need a reason to love the things we love. We love some stories because they’re told well, we love others because they remind us of a specific time in our lives, and we love still others because they star beloved eccentric actor Jeff Goldblum. Ahead of this year’s re-watch, I headed over to the movie’s Wikipedia entry to see if I could glean any new trivia. The first movie was actually released on July 2 instead of Independence Day, as one might expect. This is also the same date that the invasion starts in the movie. Reading a bit further, I noticed that the second movie was released twenty years later, on June 24th.

Normally, these two dates wouldn’t mean anything to me, but over the past year I’ve been looking up unusual and little-known holidays and “awareness days” that I could use as jumping off points for digging into the American Folklife Center’s 7 million+ items, and it just so happens that those two dates share the distinction of “World UFO Day.” Why the two separate days? Well, those days are linked to the early days of modern UFO lore. June 24th is the date pilot Kenneth Arnold first wrote about seeing nine unidentified shapes speeding through the skies near Mount Rainier. It was the first widely reported UFO sighting in the United States in the modern era and coined the term “flying saucer.” July 2nd is the date of the supposed crash of an alien vessel on a cattle ranch in Roswell, New Mexico. For this reason, World UFO Day can be celebrated on either date. If it wasn’t already clear from his filmography, Roland Emmerich clearly knows his UFO lore.

A mural depicting little green men (and women) with large black eyes, and wearing tie-dye clothing, adorns the side of a restaurant in North Dakota.
Outer-space-themed wraparound art on wall of the Space Aliens Grill & Bar in Fargo, North Dakota, a city on the state’s eastern border with Minnesota. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. October 3, 2021. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive, Prints & Photograph Division, Library of Congress. 

Since I already had aliens on the brain, I decided to dig around and see if I couldn’t unearth some relevant AFC collections. I set out to find personal narratives of folks who fell on both ends of the debate. I turned first to the Center for Applied Linguistic’s American English Dialect Recordings. The collection, which includes 405 audio recordings made over the span of 42 years, was part of a project aimed at “revealing distinctions in speech related to gender, race, social class, education, age, literacy, ethnic background, and occupational group (including the specialized jargon or vocabulary of various occupations.” I had previously stumbled across a story in the collection about Bigfoot, and figured another journey through the 350 digitized recordings might turn up one or two focused on extra-terrestrial visitors. I was not disappointed.

My favorite of these is from a 59-year-old white male in Arkansas. The man, known in the files as “S,” turned to writing songs and stories after a severe hand injury left him unable to work. He loved writing science fiction, including stories about flying to the moon. The fieldworker interviewing him asked about rumors around alien visitations (time stamp 13:25), prompting the following exchange:

S: Well, I saw them. I saw a space ships. People make me out a liar but I saw several.
F: In Mississippi or here?
S: No, here, right here. I believe in ’21 I saw seven over there on the 21. One come down and turned right there turned and looked at me. When I was shining lights at it when it was coming down. I had a big old five cell flashlight and and I was shining them. You know back and forwards like that trying to get him to come down. I wanted to talk with them. Well one did, it come down and just come down and set there and turned just gradually turned. And just run off. I was standing there looking at it.
F: What did it look like?
S: It looked like – well it was made in the bottom of it like it was turned it turned just like looking at it. And that leader had a big red light. And it was flashing. And then around the bottom of it looked like a fan blade do. It went the opposite direction. And it was fire shooting out of it, out of the fan blade, like a blaze.
F: You say it was a saucer top?
S: It was round, but behind it now was the ship. This was just the bottom of it, behind it was but you see the edges in the dark. But the front of it was just like gold. A gold color. Sort of like magic. And a fire come out at night. I don’t know where it come from. I was out there and looking at it. But nobody’d believe it. You know.
F: No, it’s hard to.
S: You tell somebody something like that, “oh well, I know no such thing come from outer space.” And I been watching seven of them come in down. Like a ball of fire. But you take a star if its coming down, the farther it gets to earth the smaller it gets. Til it burns up. These things when you see them the closer they get, the bigger they get. It wasn’t like something burning up, it was a ship. When it’d get down close to the ground it looked like it just disappeared. Just vanished. So but this one time it didn’t, come around and [unintelligible].
F: Did you stay there for a while?
S: Yeah, it just turned real slow.
F: Did you feel like heat or anything?
S: No, it was off a ways. But it just gradually went off. Just like beauty.
F: Make any noise?
S: Didn’t make a bit of noise. No noise at all. Me, I’m maybe some kind of nut, but if they’d come down, it’d tickle me to death to just talk to them. I wouldn’t care what they’d look like. But I know they ain’t going to look like me. But I wouldn’t be a-scared, I’m not a-scared of nothing. I’d walk right out there and welcome them in my house. And talk with them. I mean I’m not scared of something like that. Never was scared. Even back when I was a kid, I’d walk when it was dark at night for miles and hear stuff all in the woods, didn’t bother me. I was wondering what it was, bothering me. But it never did scare me.

One of the things I love most about this exchange is the way “S” refers to what he saw, using phrases like “sort of like magic,” and “just like beauty.” The event holds no fear for him, only wonder and awe, and he is left with an intense curiosity and desire to sit down and talk with the visitors. There is none of the initial fear that is found in another story from the same collection, this one from a 13-year old boy in West Virginia.

At the 3:16 time stamp, the boy – identified as “I” in the transcript – describes what he and his friends thought was a UFO encounter during an overnight stay out at their treehouse:

“We kept seein’ this light, goin’ up. And we went, you know, we kept lookin’ out there at it, then, ah, finally, it started comin’ up the bank, heck, you know that was when UFOs was, you know, supposed to bein’ seen, and we thought it was UFOs.”

He shares that he and his friends were armed with a BB gun, rocks, and knives and were ready to fight back against the light they saw in the dark woods. Luckily for all involved, the boys realized what the light was before they had any cause to use their weapons: a man out walking with a flashlight. “I” begins to say that the man was hollering and started talking to them, but we never learn what he had to say to them, as the fieldworker immediately followed up by asking “I” what food he and his friends usually took with them on camping trips.

In contrast to “S” and “I,” who clearly found alien encounters possible, Ruth Holbrook of Traphill, North Carolina was not convinced they existed. In an audio recording found in the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project, research team member Patrick Mullen interviewed Holbrook about folk medicine and local legends. The following exchange takes place at the 9:28 mark of the audio recording:

Ruth: There are no ghosts.
Patrick: People tell a lot of stories about them, though.
Ruth: Well, you can make ‘em up. […] They just make ‘em up, like these flying saucers. The UFOs they have now.
Patrick: Just put that all, lump all that together.
Ruth: Yeah. If there’s a UFO, Uncle Sam knows what it’s for.
Patrick: You think so?
Ruth: Yeah, I do. And if he don’t know what it’s for, it’s too close to the end of time for ‘em to try to find out.
Patrick: You mean it might be from outer space?
Ruth: I don’t believe there are any outer space, anything, any more than the heavens. The moon, stars, and places like that. I don’t believe there’s any life up there. Or that it is, angels.
Patrick: Nobody’s proved it, one way or the other, that’s for sure.
Ruth: They say they’ve been to the moon, well I didn’t see ‘em go. And I didn’t see ‘em up there, for I looked good.
Patrick: You didn’t watch that on TV?
Ruth: What?
Patrick: The moon landing.
Ruth: Oh yeah, I watched that on television, but you can make pictures any way you want to.
Patrick: You don’t think they were really there?
Ruth: No I don’t.

Holbrook made it clear that she was not a believer in the paranormal, supernatural and otherworldly, beyond what she read in her Bible. She had no patience for ghost stories, beliefs about “planting by the signs” or tales about UFO sighting. Holbrook was by no means the only informant in the Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife collection to express such disbelief, but she was the only one who specifically called out things like the moon landing and UFOs.

The next story I came across is from the digital collection “Tending the Commons: Folklife and Landscape in Southern West Virginia.” The collection contains excerpts of sound recordings, over 1000 photographs, and several digitized manuscript items selected from the larger Coal River Folklife Project collection. The Coal River Folklife Project was one of several large-scale field surveys conducted by the Center between 1976 and 1998. This one documented traditional customs and land use in West Virginia’s Big Coal River Valley.

A man in a red plaid shirt sits in a chair in his living room, telling a story. His left hand is raised, his hand demonstrating an element of his story.
Howard Miller, telling a story about his hounds. Lyntha Scott Eiler, photographer. April 22, 1995. Coal River Folklife Project collection (AFC 1999/008)

On April 22, 1995, folklorist Mary Hufford was interviewing resident Howard Miller about his hound dogs. Miller had lived in Drew’s Creek his whole life and had spent much of his free time hunting in the surrounding forest. Over the course of the interview, Miller talks about the differences between hunting fox and racoons, the dangers of hunting in an area that is peppered with old mineshafts, and even the sounds that squirrels make when they are scared. Following Hufford’s prompt of “can you just recall some of the most interesting hunting times that you’ve had? Or one of your favorite stories?” Miller shares a few examples of times when he got turned around in the woods. “You get turned around ‘til you don’t know which way to go when you can’t see,” he says. “You can’t see more than thirty feet of a night.”

He then launches into a story about one time when he was able to see in the middle of the night:

“Well now I’m gonna tell you another one, what happened to me. I’ve not told it many times. I was up here one night by myself, about twelve, one o’clock in the morning. It was dark, no stars, no nothin’, and I was following the dogs around the hill, and it was muddy. I was walkin’ around the strip road, and I had to watch where I was stepping through this mud and dodging the mud and gettin’ to the drier places. All at once it was daylight. So I looked up to see what happened, and there was a light about that big, goin’ drifting right up the hill. And when I looked and seen it, it just faded out. And I’d been in the Marines, and know what airplane lights looked like, and it was too big for that. It was at least a foot and a half across and I was fairly close to it. There was no noise, no sign, no nothin’, except that one light, and it gradually went out, just like you would turn the lights out on a car, and they would just gradually go out. I don’t know what it was. Didn’t scare me or anything, dogs didn’t pay no attention to it. But it was complete daylight, like the sun was shining. That was about 1966, I believe.”

When asked what he thought it might have been, Miller responded “I don’t know. If they is any such thing as a UFO, that’s what that was.”

Miller takes care to point out that the dogs “didn’t pay no attention to it.” Similarly, nothing else in the forest seemed to be bothered by the incident, either. There is no mention of the squirrels, which Miller had pointed out make certain noises when they are scared. And Miller himself reports the story in a matter-of-fact way, making it clear that he wasn’t scared. I found his detail about being in the U.S. Marine Corps particularly interesting, as it provided a frame of reference for his knowledge of aircraft and seemed to serve as an additional character reference, for those who might doubt his reliability.

Of course, Howard Miller is not the only former service member whose UFO stories are found in the Library’s archives. For those stories, I turned to the repositories of the Veterans History Project (VHP) at the American Folklife Center. Established under Public Law 106-380, the VHP “collects, preserves and makes accessible the firsthand recollections of U.S. military veterans who served from World War I through more recent conflicts and peacekeeping missions.” While none of the servicemen were interviewed with the specific aim of discussing UFOs, the topic came up in relation to some of their experiences, both here in the states and overseas.

In an interview with Howard Ragan Winters (Airman Second Class, U.S. Air Force), interviewer Michael Willie asked him about where he was stationed after basic training:

Howard: After I left Chattanooga I went to New Mexico, a town called Roswell.
Michael: Heard of it.
Howard: Yes. That’s where the UFOs were supposed to have been spotted. That happened a few years before I was stationed out there. I was at Walker Air Base

The conversation turned to other topics, including the types of aircraft that Winters serviced, before Michael Willie briefly returns to the topic of Roswell’s claim to fame.

Michael: Did you ever see the flying saucer? Was there any talk about that?
Howard: There was very little talk. They didn’t think it was funny out there. And I met a lot of folks in town, civilians. They wouldn’t talk about it. They just didn’t say a whole lot. I’ve read about it and everything.

A UFO sighting over Mississippi was casually dropped into another VHP interview with Nick Stabile, Jr., who served as an Airman Second Class in the U.S. Air Force. [Timestamp 18:55]

“I was in Greenville, Mississippi, and we’d get up in the middle of the night to march. And we’re marching, you know, and I look up in the sky, and I saw these – and I actually witnessed UFOs. Yeah, I did. I’m not kidding. The reason I know is they didn’t fly like an airplane. Airplane flies like this, you know. They went like this, you know, square. They summoned the fighter planes after them, and they just flew off into the sunset. That was cool. I enjoyed that.”

The Veteran’s History Project also includes an interview with Adelard Dusseault, Airman First Class in the U.S. Air Force, who served during the Korean War. Though he originally enlisted with the hopes of being a pilot, Dusseault ended up being sent off for meteorologist training at Chanute Field, where he learned to read the different cloud layers, plot winds, and encode weather transmissions. One of the items he worked with were weather balloons, specially weighted to help determine wind patterns. In 1955, after stints at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida and another base in Iceland, Dusseault was sent to Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas. [Time stamp 50:05]

“Another strange thing there was […] there was a lot of secrecy back then. They – I wouldn’t say secrecy. They just wouldn’t tell you what you were doing. You suspected, but there was an operation there they called it – it was – well, it was run by General Mills. And I’m not sure what that meant. But it was like balloons into the stratosphere. It was much higher than we – much higher than aircraft could fly. You know, and never knew why. You didn’t question it. You know, you just did what you did and plot your work and they’d come in and they’d (handle) their balloons mostly at night. And you knew the people. You know, they were nice guys. They were civilians. But it’s an interesting thing to come, you know, like 50 years later. I was looking at – I was watching the History Channel or whatever and they were talking about the UFOs and how a big part of the UFOs were these supposedly, these weather balloons and I could really believe that now because they’d be so high up, it would be dark on earth – you know, on the ground, on the earth. But when you got up into the stratosphere, you were still under the influence of the sun, and that’s what you could probably see, you know. They could see weird things happening. So that was interesting but in hindsight.”

Finally, the collection of retired Lt. Colonel John Franklin, Jr., who served in the U.S. Army, includes both an audio recording of an interview, as well as several typed excerpts from Franklin’s memoirs. One of these manuscripts focuses on two separate incidents he experienced over the course of ten years. In the first, Franklin and the Chief Forward Air Controller (known by the moniker “Mother”) had just left the Senior Officer’s Mess and were, admittedly, drunk. While walking, the two men spotted something in the sky overhead:

“There was a bright light which rapidly went straight up from close to the horizon, without a sound, until it reached a great altitude, made a sharp right turn, and shot away toward the horizon. I called it to Mother’s attention and asked if he could identify what it was. He stated that he had flown or seen almost everything the Air Force flew and he never saw something that could accelerate so quickly straight up without a sound and make that type of turn and “go like a bat” toward the far horizon. For a number of minutes we watched, wondered and debated. We both finally agreed that what we saw could only be classified as a UFO. He said he would make inquiry when we went on duty in the morning and see what he could learn.”

The next day, while discussing the phenomenon, one of their friends sitting nearby laughs and points out that what Franklin and Mother had seen was a helium-filled weather balloon that was released into the sky each night at exactly midnight. Mother, as an Air Force pilot, was teased for not already knowing this, and Franklin mentions that the two of them “quickly became known as the UFO kids.”

A black-and-white photograph of a U.S. Weather Bureau balloon being released into the sky.
U.S. Weather Bureau releases a balloon into the skies above a large field. Photographer unknown. Between 1909 and 1920. National Photo Company Collection, Prints & Photograph Division, Library of Congress.

Years later, now a civilian, Franklin had another amazing experience:

“I was at the bottom of a canyon in the Lost Park Wilderness Area in Colorado with a number of my Scouts on a packpacker. It was a beautiful clear night, and I was sleeping under the stars with no tent or tarp to block my views. At some time during the night, I awoke and looked down the canyon. At this point, the canyon was perhaps a 100 yards wide, with cliffs rising more than a hundred feet high on each side. When I woke up, framed between the canyon walls, was a large, metallic disk that covered a wide area of the sky, almost from canyon wall to canyon wall. It was flickering all over with hundreds of moving areas of light and dark, like a million small flashing lights or fireflies flickering all over it’s surface. It was weird, like nothing I had ever seen before, and there did not seem to be a sound that I could hear anywhere. I laid there watching it, fascinated, for a number of minutes, wondering what it could be. I remembered my Nam UFO experience. But unlike that time, (a) I was sober and (b) it hung motionless in the sky, doing nothing but flickering and shining like nothing I had ever seen. After a few minutes of awe and wonder, I realized, the moon had come up while I was asleep, had framed itself between the cliff walls, and the gentle breeze was blowing the aspen leaves, causing movement on the surface, but the strangest of all was that it framed itself so that there was not a limb or anything to break its surface to affect the aura that I had seen.

The next morning, I sheepishly told my scouts about my experience and how I had spooked myself out. One of my older scouts started laughing, and I acknowledged that it was a rather dumb reaction on my part, in letting my imagination run away with me when I woke up. He said he was not laughing at me; that he had awakened and seen the same thing and had the same reaction I had, but was too embarrassed to say anything about it, because it had scared him so badly.”

The stories contributed by Franklin and Dusseault bring us full circle back to the debate around just what fell to Earth on that cattle ranch outside of Roswell. I think it’s fair to say that both men would fall on the side that maintains that the items spotted in the skies are exactly what the government said they were — balloons launched into the stratosphere to monitor the weather and enemy movements. Others, like “S” might be more inclined to side with those on the other side of the debate and say that it was evidence of contact by extra-terrestrial intelligence. Still others, like Ruth Holbrook, would likely deem the debate itself ridiculous. Regardless of your feelings either way, I think we can all agree that the stories themselves are fascinating to listen to, as they provide insight into humanity’s spirit of curiosity and adventure.

Before I leave you, I will mention one more item from the American Folklife Center that I think fits with the theme of UFOs and outer space. Instead of being an extra-terrestrial visitation to Earth, though, this one pertains to something humanity sent hurtling out into space.

In 1977, NASA was making preparations to launch two unmanned spacecraft – Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 – with the mission of exploring Jupiter and Saturn. On board, in addition to cameras, digital recorders, and other instruments intended to send data back to Earth, the spacecraft were going to carry copper-plated records with recordings of Earth’s music and languages. Scientist Carl Sagan was in charge of the team putting together this important playlist. He, in turn, sent a letter to Alan Lomax, asking for his help in selecting the music that would be sent into space. Music, he writes, that will be “representative of all humanity and music which represents the best of humanity.”

Letter from Carl Sagan to Alan Lomax.
Letter from Carl Sagan to Alan Lomax regarding the Voyager Golden Record. June 6, 1977. Alan Lomax Collection, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Many of the recordings selected for inclusion on the Voyager Golden Records come from AFC’s collection of ethnographic recordings. Copies of the Voyager records are currently on display in the Library’s new David M. Rubenstein Treasures Gallery. A boxed set of the recordings is also available for listening in the American Folklife Center’s reading room. While there, researchers can also view the original letter from Carl Sagan to Alan Lomax, which includes the following statement:

“Under its protective cover the flight record will have a probably lifetime of a billion years. It is unlikely that many other artifacts of humanity will survive for so prodigious a period of time; it is clear, for example, that most of the present continents will be ground down and dissipated by then. Inclusion of the musical selections on the Voyager record ensures for them a kind of immortality which could not be achieved in any other way.”

It is a sentiment that is both humbling and inspiring, and feels at the heart of the work we do here at the Center — preserving the experiences of humanity, with the hope that these stories live on beyond our individual memories.

Further Reading


  1. What a delightful rumination that starts with a topic that some might dismiss as frivolous and then deftly closes with the moving reflection on the work of AFC: “It is a sentiment that is both humbling and inspiring, and feels at the heart of the work we do here at the Center — preserving the experiences of humanity, with the hope that these stories live on beyond our individual memories.”
    Thank you!

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