Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Annual Roswell UFO Festival


By Joel Berliner

The Roswell UFO Festival starts as a search for extraterrestrial life, abounds with tales of mystery and imagination, uncovers a number of historic, artistic and cultural treasures and ends up like an old-fashioned Fourth of July parade, with all the warmth and genuineness of a real Main Street America, with a saucer-eyed twist.

Held every year over the Fourth of July holiday, it invites you to explore the most credible watershed event in the pantheon of UFO encounters, and it lets you discover another, deeper side of Roswell's prominence among science and the arts, American history, folklore and the story of the Old West and the modern age.

It all began at 11:45 p.m. July 4, 1947, when two alien spacecraft were alleged to have crashed over sheep farms just north and west of Roswell. Ranchers who were on the scene were extremely specific about what they saw, and newspapers reported that aliens had been removed from the wreckage of "flying saucers." Twenty-four hours later the official account changed radically: The incident was just an errant weather balloon, evidence was spirited away, stories were changed, threats were made, and the events at Roswell were a forgotten occurrence until the publication in the early '80s of "The Roswell Incident," complete with tales of alien autopsies and government cover-ups. The town was quick to capitalize on the publicity once the story re-emerged, and Roswell soon became ground zero for the full range of intellectual and commercial interest in alien visitation, which makes for a pretty fascinating destination.

As it turns out, there are two UFO festivals, simultaneous and largely coexisting: one by the city of Roswell and one by the originator of the event, the Roswell UFO Museum.

Both have panel discussions and special events, with this last year the city event featuring a concert by members of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead doing a medley of Paul Kantner's science fiction musical epics; the UFO Museum featured acclaimed actor Malcolm McDowell, of "Clockwork Orange" fame and much else, answering questions at length in a spirited public forum.  

The fact that they are separate organizations and that their events overlap adds to the depth of offerings to explore when visiting Roswell and learning about the most notorious incident in modern times of alien visitation, how it came about and the incidental realities surrounding it.

The town itself is somewhat small, and the main activities are at the center of town, at Main and Second streets. This UFO Museum covers the wide ground of alien encounters, with extremely specific exhibits detailing every aspect of the Roswell Incident, from the crashes to the alien autopsies, military interference and threats, governmental cover-ups, disappearing nurses and the subsequent transfers of spacecraft and alien remains to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio and then to Area 51 in Nevada.

Additional exhibits chart a string of alien encounters, alien abductions and a particularly interesting Mayan exhibit showing the ancient influence of alien visitation on art and hieroglyphics. To add spice, there is a recreation of the alien autopsy. Nestled on the streets around the UFO Museum are bookstores with publications on every conceivable aspect of UFO encounters and many T-shirt and souvenir shops, all amid a certain small-town quietude that bursts into activity with each UFO Festival. 

The official town festival is at the Roswell Convention Center about a mile away. There, the branding of Roswell is in full swing, and close to a hundred kiosks inside the hall extol the likes of accounts of alien abduction, entertainment personalities with histories of science-fiction film projects, and the Virgin Galactic exhibit promoting the new age of commercial civilian travel into suborbital space from the Virgin Galactic Spaceport at Truth or Consequences, 100 miles away. 

It is festive and well attended. Multiple food trucks provide sustenance (including the first-rate Bears Barbecue) and there are music and tongue-in-cheek alien costume contests. Lectures take place in the Roswell Museum and Art Center next door, and daily laser shows with space themes take place in the Goddard Planetarium.

It is at that museum next door that another aspect of Roswell unfolds, for Roswell has long been an artists' community, and the Roswell Museum holds an impressive collection of modern and period artists far out of proportion to its setting and location. Rooms with a serious collection of significant art and sculpture by artists like Georgia O'Keeffe and Henriette Wyeth make this museum a joy to discover. The American Indian artifacts exhibit is equally fantastic, very detailed and beautifully organized. More than just a collection of costumes and weapons, it explains the life of the local Indian cultures and displays hundreds of artifacts, headdresses and historic objects to bring Native American culture to life.

The most impressive aspect of the museum, even more than the fabulous art, is Robert Goddard's rocketry garage and workshop reconstructed in its entirety, exactly as it looked, as well as an exhibit of the evolution of his rockets and the history of his scientific journey to greatness.

It is not well known that Goddard came to Roswell in the 1920s with a $25,000 grant from Charles Lindbergh to continue his studies in rocket science after being expelled from Boston for burning down a field, and he chose Roswell for its wide-open spaces and subsequent ability to proceed unobstructed. To wander through his original laboratory and see the rockets he built, by hand, is to discover a chapter of American history whose consequences and benefits we enjoy to this day.

When you add the confluences of Goddard, Los Alamos, Trinity and the Roswell Incident, as well as the SETI radio telescope project just west of the White Sands Missile Range (an official agency looking for radio signals from extraterrestrial life in the universe), we see a pattern of significance that careens from the historical to the astronomical to the surreal and back.

We are guided through the museum by dedicated docent and local scholar Andrew Cecil, whose 70 years in Roswell are a mark of the character and decency of the old-timers. He knows every aspect of each significant work of art, including detailed and fascinating lectures on a collection of modernist art with Indian themes. His knowledge of New Mexico history brings it to life. When we come around to discussing the Roswell Incident, he grows quiet, measuring his words and repeating what other old-timers told me many times during my visit. He knew the people involved, knew their families, and they weren't the type of people to make things up or create a hoax or seek publicity or make fools of themselves.

We take a tour of the important UFO-related locations with Roswell Tours, visiting the hangar where the spacecraft wreckage was taken at the old Air Force base that was once the home of America's first strategic (nuclear) bomber command, but also going past the nearby farm of Kentucky Derby winner Mine that Bird, and visiting the New Mexico Military Institute, a lovely prep school with distinctive castle walled architecture, where Roger Staubach attended high school and gained his first taste of football stardom before making the Dallas Cowboys "America's team."

On the Fourth of July the Roswell UFO festival reaches a climax with the alien costume contest and the Fourth of July parade. Many people in the crowd dress as aliens as well. Alien costume contest winners, floats and antique cars carrying distinguished guests move slowly along the street past throngs of visitors and local residents.

Even this doesn't encompass everything there is to explore about the Roswell area. Carlsbad Caverns is 100 miles south. The hill country west of Roswell holds a series of quaint towns, including Lincoln, where Billy the Kid made his home. When you add that on top of the Trinity test site, the Virgin Galactic Spaceport, the White Sands Missile Range, the Roswell Museum, the historic presence of Robert Goddard and the cultural impact of the Roswell Incident, you have a fascinating and compelling event in a lovely town.

Visiting Roswell this Summer?

Many people return to Roswell every year, but did you know that some never make it back? Although no one really wants to talk about it, it is a well known fact that a great number of the UFO Festival participants simply disappears. They get abducted during the celebrations. A local entrepreneur came up with a solution. The Aardrijk Art Enterprises which is based in Roswell, NM, launched a new product that will prevent any attempt of alien abduction. His Anti-Abduction Jellies are the most effective product on the market so far! The ingredients are kept secret, but the company's CEO is more than certain that the product works. Countless people who already tried the product report that they have not been abducted even once ever since they started using the Anti-Abduction Jellies. To obtain the product contact Heaven Can Wait via the "Comments" section. We will promptly get back to you. 

Dominique Allmon