A Mostly True Story|
by Glenn Campbell
To understand how I was drawn to Area 51, you need to know a little about my background.
UFOs and I have had a long relationship. They helped me through an awkward adolescence. One of the first grown-up books I read was Frank Edwards' Flying Saucers -- Serious Business. From this book, I learned about the sightings, the crashes and the government cover-ups. I then began to read everything I could find about UFOs. At the same time, I read a lot of science fiction, and the goal of both pursuits was pretty much the same: escape. Although I professed an interest in alien cultures and hoped the aliens would help mankind with its problems, what I really wanted was for them to take me away.
Around the middle of high school, I started to change. I stopped being a math and science nerd and started being a psychology nerd. I read a book about Freud, and this lead to many interesting explorations on the nature of human consciousness and the vagaries of perception. I began to see that most of the UFO evidence could be explained by human psychology alone. Human memory wasn't like a camera that faithfully recorded a scene and preserved the image forever; it was a more dynamic and imprecise process that involved the witness's feelings, wishes and history. Since virtually all the UFO evidence eventually came down to human testimony, I saw that there really wasn't much to go on. Like an imaginary playmate, I left UFOs behind.
I became, instead, a Skeptic. UFOs were not real; all religions were false; all psychics were charlatans; and haunted houses didn't frighten me a bit. I believed the pronouncements of C. Sagan, who said, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof." If I did not have positive proof for something, then it did not exist. I believed in the scientific method, and I saw myself as completely rational. When I found that other people had irrational beliefs, I tried to enlighten them, figuring that reason would improve their lives. Time after time, this got me into a heap o' trouble. I came to understand that people with irrational beliefs don't like to have their beliefs challenged, and they would rather kill you (or fire you, or accuse you of something you didn't do) than accept any change in themselves. I became, by necessity, a closet Skeptic, scoffing quietly to myself but not daring to speak my views in public.
Before I go on, I must take a moment to apologize for my Skeptical period. It is another of the addictions I am recovering from.
What I failed to understand was that Skepticism itself was a religion, with its own set of sacred tenets taken without proof. One of these assumptions is that the world would be a better place if only the irrational beliefs of the public were debunked. If we could disprove all religion, then reason would take its place; most wars and discrimination would be avoided, and people would begin to live together in harmony. If you believe that, then I have a perpetual motion machine I can sell you. A dedicated Skeptic, like J. Randi, spends his career disproving the claims of psychics, not realizing that for every one he shoots down, there will be ten others to take his place.
Another fallacy of the Skeptics is that you need scientific proof for something before it becomes real or worthy of attention. Life is too short for scientific proof, and if you try to live your life like this, then it is going to be a very rigid and impoverished one. The scientific method is concerned with the testing of ideas, but the Skeptics never talk about where those ideas come from. Sure, you need to test an engineering concept rigorously before building a bridge upon it, but until this need arises, ideas don't need to be proven. To make the scientific method work, somebody has to be creative to begin with. Somebody has to make the conceptual leap that bread mold might kill bacteria before the principle can be tested. To create those breakthrough ideas requires a certain amount of blind faith. You have to be willing to explore, fantasize, wonder and wander for a while without judging. If you scoff at every lamebrained idea that comes along then you are never going to recognize the one lamebrained idea that might work.
Skeptics often refer to something called Occam's Razor when trying to debunk some far-out claim. Occam said that if there are two explanations for some phenomenon, the simplest theory is usually the correct one. When analysing a UFO sighting, given the choice between a complicated alien invasion and deluded human perception, Occam would suggest that human failure is to blame, because that is the simplest explanation. Unfortunately, history has shown that Occam's Razor is baloney (excuse me, bologna) and has lead to many fatal errors. Take the shape of the world. If you talked to an Indian, walking across the desert before the coming of the White Man, and you told him that the earth he was standing on was actually round and suspended in space, he would say you are full of peyote. If the Indian applied Occam's Razor, a round earth would make no sense; it wouldn't be the simplest explanation. We now accept that the world is round (if indeed it is) because we have learned a lot of other concepts to support it, but to the Indian, the earth is solid and flat beneath his feet, and within his universe, that is all he needs to know. To him, Occam's Razor is a convenient rationalization to help him avoid ideas that he just can't handle right now.
Even if you accept that the Earth is round, Occam's Razor doesn't help you explore it. Occam would have never predicted that there was a whole other continent between Europe and Asia. Even Columbus couldn't accept it, because it wasn't the simplest explanation. Throughout human history and our own personal lives, exploration messes us up like that. Just when we think we have everything all worked out, reality throws something unexpected at us, something that doesn't fit into our neat theories. We find, then, that our theories were hopelessly näive and that there is a whole other dimension to the universe that we hadn't considered. This is why it is so dangerous to be an ideologue. If you commit yourself totally to a theory, be it Skepticism or conservatism or social darwinism or any other "ism", then you are not going to be prepared for contradictory information when it comes in. The real world defies all theories. When you visit someplace like Area 51, you can have some ideas to begin with, but then you need to stop, look and listen. You have to lay aside your theories and let the world teach you what is really going on.
* * *
My Skeptical period lasted for many years. I became a computer programmer, which is an ideal career for a Skeptic. The refreshing thing about computers -- once you get the damn things running -- is that they always do what you expect. Every input generates the expected output, without variation. You may occasionally have a paranormal experience where the program does something totally unexpected, but in the end there is always a rational explanation: It is always something you did or something you overlooked, often compounded by some other error. If only the real world was this logical. As a Skeptic, I assumed that it was, which is why I had so many heaps o' trouble. Gradually, however, I began to come around. Instead of trying to debunk all that was irrational, I began to accept the wisdom of the great philosopher J. Lennon: "Let It Be."
I spent most of my programming career at a small company in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that made specialized software for international banking. I don't even remember how long I worked there: somewhere between four and eight years. (It was another big block of missing time.) The company collapsed once or twice during my tenure, and at one point it got down to just me and the boss, who actually understood what the software was supposed to do. He ran out of money to pay me, but I still wouldn't quit. I lived in the office and ate microwave dinners. My only recreation was insane weekend trips to Paris, Munich, Caracas, Seattle, Las Vegas and anywhere else I could get a cheap airfare. I honestly don't know what kept me going.
In the end, I got a big block of stock, and I was gracefully eased out, being not quite the right personality for the new, respectable company where programmers didn't have cots in their offices. I sold my stock and didn't look back. In 1992, I had enough money in mutual funds to keep me going for a few years and now had the freedom to follow my muse. First, I did a lot of traveling. I traipsed around Europe, Australia and South America, mostly on the cheap and mostly using the frequent flyer miles I had accumulated on my earlier weekend trips. Then I bought a small 1978 Datsun truck camper (a very small RV, later to be called the Toilet Truck) and wandered around North America. Of course, I drove the Alaska Highway, which was a bit anti-climactic. It was like driving through Northern Minnesota, but more of it, with bigger mosquitoes. One stop, however, was relevant to my later life.
Just after passing through the tiny town of Tok, Alaska, my engine started smoking. I turned around and landed at a garage on the edge of town. My engine had run out of oil and been destroyed. It took ten days to locate a new engine and replace it. For ten days, I was trapped in Tok, a town of only a few hundred souls in the boreal forest about five hours from Anchorage. I stayed in my camper in the back of the garage and had only my bicycle for transportation. I biked all around Tok, near and far, and discovered more than meets the eye. Tok is the sort of crossroads that you hardly notice when passing through, except that you can get gas there and you have to make a decision about which highway to take. A big-city snob like myself would call it nothing, a grease spot on the map populated by hillbillies with no place better to go. That's how it looks when you scream by on the highway, but on my bicycle, I saw a different side of Tok. The place had some depth and texture, and I found plenty of things to do.
Although far from civilization, Tok was amazingly self-contained. There was a public library, a bakery, restaurants, general stores and people who seemed friendly and sane enough. There were no big chain stores, but people had ways of finding whatever they needed. An engine for my camper was found just outside of town, from a junkyard that accumulated vehicles all year long for just this kind of opportunity in the summer. Everyone in Tok was a pack rat, and much of their stock was stored in the yards around their houses. (Since snow covers the yards most of the year, the stockpile is only noticeable in the summer.) What you would call junk when passing by was actually people's strategic reserve of screws, wires, coils, motors, tubing and other resources that might be required at a later date. Tok residents didn't need Wal-Mart; they had it in their front yards.
In my camper, I worked on my computer on a now forgotten writing project. There were no distractions, just me and my ideas. This was summer, so I went to sleep in sunshine and woke up in sunshine. When my engine was finally fixed, I was almost sad. I had survived ten days in Tok, and the experience wasn't so bad.
Now I know that I was näive. If I had stayed six months, I might have gotten a better picture of what a place like this is really like.
* * *
In my journeys across the country, I searched for all things weird and wacky. In the Pacific Northwest, the topic was Bigfoot, and I never passed a Sasquatch gift shop without stopping. In Texas, I visited a shrine to Judge Roy Bean, the renegade Justice of the Peace who had no real conception of law, only his own power. I also braked for jackalopes, giant concrete gophers and quirky museums run by semi-insane proprietors. I camped in some remote places, marveled at the blanket of stars overhead and began to think about UFOs again. I was older now, and I wasn't afraid anymore. UFOs were weird and wacky, and I no longer felt that I needed to make a judgment about them. I remembered reading an article in Business Week magazine about a lonely spot in the Nevada desert where people gathered to see UFOs on a regular basis. That was the sort of place for me, but I had lost the article, and I wasn't sure where in Nevada to go.
While visiting my cousin in Wyoming, I happened to mention to her my amusement with UFOs, and she gave me a xeroxed article by a friend of a friend, M. Lindemann. This article about government UFO cover-ups was something new and unique to me, because it took a scholarly tone, and strangest of all, it had footnotes and references. I had never before seen a UFO article with footnotes, which specified where each piece of information came from. This started the wheels going in my head. If you collected data about UFOs in a disciplined way, and presented it in an annotated format like this, then you never had to take a personal stand about whether you believe. You could let the data tell the story, and however it all came out, for or against, the conclusion would eventually write itself. The fact that UFOs were so dubious on the surface made them all the more intriguing to apply a disciplined methodology to.
Secretly, I had never really dismissed UFOs altogether. I just felt that the noise-to-signal ratio was so high that any signal was impossible to detect. I also believed that UFOs, even if they existed, were simply not relevant to our life on Earth. Even if aliens are circulating in our atmosphere, it is obvious that they are keeping a low profile and are not interfering in our world in any big way. And even if they were interfering, there is probably isn't much we could do about it given their superior technology. "Let It Be," could be translated here into, "So what?" Regardless of what the aliens may be doing, you still have to live your life here on Earth, according to Earthly rules, without expecting the aliens to do anything for you.
In my youth, I wanted the aliens to rescue me. Now, I saw that it couldn't happen and shouldn't, because my problems are my own to work out, without supernatural intervention. When Lindemann's article got me interested in UFOs again, it was without any expectation of rescue and without any judgment that alien contact would be good or bad for mankind or that it was even necessary. UFOs were just an amusing mystery that challenged my idle brain and that now seemed approachable. I called it a Scooby-Doo mystery: something to fill a Saturday morning and nothing more.
Lindemann also produced a book and video, and when I got back to Boston, I ordered them. The book was a series of interviews with UFO researchers and claimants and it took the approach that I would take: It wasn't making judgments; it was simply recording the words of these people as raw data, which the reader could then do what he wanted with. There can be lot of value in raw data beyond what it was originally collected for. Apart from the underlying veracity of the claims, there is also a folkloric value to these stories that does not depend on truth. Regardless of the reality of UFOs, the telling of UFO stories is driven by human needs. The nature of human perception is that it never captures the whole picture of something complex, only the part if it that is significant to the viewer. How people view UFOs tells you something about human culture and the human mind in that particular place and time. Each generation and each society has its own particular brand of UFO stories, and by collecting and studying them, you learn something about the people who are doing the telling.
Lindemann's video was a bit less disciplined. The trouble with television is that it deals mainly in soundbites, which are a very poor form of raw data. The only part of the video that I remember was the segment on Area 51. It showed people gathering in the evening at the "Black Mailbox," the highway location mentioned in the Business Week article. This was a rancher's mailbox that happened to be the only landmark on a lonely stretch of highway, just across the mountains from a secret military base. A character named Sean M. declared enthusiastically that even on a bad night you were guaranteed to see at least one or two UFOs, and on a good night, "the sky literally rips open with these things." Sean said that Wednesday night was the best night for viewing, and he mentioned the appearance of an "Old Faithful" UFO that would materialize over the base every Thursday morning at precisely 4:50 am. I think I possess a pretty good bullshit detector, and I thought I could smell Sean's bovine fecal material even on VHS, but at least he was being specific. This was something I could check out. The next thing I wondered was whether the UFOs observed Daylight Savings Time and the time of Old Faithful sprung ahead or fell back when the clocks changed in April and October.
I suspected that the UFOs did observe Daylight Savings Time, because the claim here was that these were alien craft being test-piloted by humans as part of some sort of technology exchange program. With more research, I learned what the complete claims were and where they came from. The gathering of watchers at the Black Mailbox was mostly the doing of R. Lazar, a reclusive thirtyish math-and-science geek who appeared on a Las Vegas television station in 1989 to claim that he had worked with alien flying saucers at a secret military facility. His job, he said, was to "reverse engineer" alien craft -- that is, to figure out how they worked based on the hardware itself, presumably so humans could reproduce the technology. This story created a minor sensation in Las Vegas and in the national UFO subculture, but at the time it didn't get much attention beyond that.
Lazar was a scientist. I knew he was a scientist because some photos in UFO magazines showed him wearing a white lab coat. In one picture, he was seen explaining flying saucer propulsion systems on a blackboard, wearing the lab coat and looking very knowledgable. He also wore glasses and looked kind of nerdy. Obviously, the man had credibility. Apart from the accouterments, however, Lazar's story was unusually restrained and detailed for a UFO claim.
Until Lazar, most of the UFO stories I was familiar with fell into one of two broad categories. First, there was the typical roadside UFO sighting. You know: "I was driving along Route 157, when I saw this bright light...." Such experiences may or may not be followed by involuntary abduction and painful anal probing, which only comes out under hypnosis and isn't covered by most medical plans. The other kind of story was more personal and benign: "The aliens invited me into their spaceship and gave me a message to give to mankind." In the latter case, the contactee often gains a remarkable amount of information from the 15 minutes he is on the craft, being able to describe the structure of Venusian society and how they live in peace and harmony. (Venusians, I should point out, are always easier to get along with -- and better looking -- than Martians, who are very conniving and manipulative and can never be trusted.) In the first kind of story, the witnesses are left dazed and bewildered; in the second kind, they write books and form religions and are not averse to accepting donations in support of their mission.
Lazar's story was neither. He claimed to be a small cog in a very big governmental machine, who saw some details but who didn't know much about the big picture. Lazar, it appeared, wasn't selling anything, and he seemed to be genuinely distressed and annoyed by all the attention he was getting.
Lazar's story went like this: In 1987 and 1988 [?], he was employed on an intermittant basis by a government entity, which transported him by plane to the air base at Groom Lake and then by a bus with blacked-out windows to a facility marked "S-4". (Whether it is "S-4" or "S4," without the dash, is a semantic debate I won't get into here.) There he entered a cammouflaged hangar built into a hillside, and inside the hangar were about a half-dozen [?] flying saucers of a clean, metallic design, each with slight variations. Over the course of several visits, under strict security, he was allowed to examine one of these saucers and learn how it operated. He was amused to find that although the saucer had chairs inside, they were too small for a human operator. Consistant with other secret compartmentalized programs (which we know exist), Lazar was told only what he needed to know to complete his work. He was not told the purpose of the program, how the saucers came to be here, or what his ultimate duties would be.
To provide some background on the saucers, Lazar was allowed to read some briefing documents in a guarded room. These craft, it turned out, were constructed by aliens from the fourth planet orbiting the star Zeta 2 Reticuli. According to the documents, these aliens had interacted with humanity throughout its history, and they were scheduled to return to Earth on a certain date. (Unfortunately, the date was in coded form in the documents and Lazar couldn't figure it out.) The documents referred to human beings as "containers" and said that the aliens had intervened in human evolution on several different occasions. In the course of his work at the S-4 facility, Lazar did not meet any aliens, but he may have seen one out of the corner of his eye. In the hangar, his movements were closely controlled, and as he walked down a corridor, he was supposed to keep his eyes straight ahead. However, as he passed a door with a window in it, he caught a glimpse of a small gray figure, apparently addressing two larger humans. Lazar acknowledged that his sighting was so brief that it was hard to draw any conclusions from it. He said it could have been an alien or perhaps a very short human.
Lazar came to understand the propulsion system by which these craft operated, but he saw one fly on only a single occasion (at least close-up). The saucer was sitting on the tarmac outside the hangars, and when it was activated, it silently rose a few feet, then gently set back down again. Lazar learned that the saucers were tested on Wednesday nights, a period selected for the low activity in the area.
Within the outline of the story I just gave you, there was an enormous amount of detail, consistant with the memory of a person who actually experienced these things. For example, Lazar could describe extensively the appearance and workings of the saucer's propulsion system, which had supposedly been the main focus of his work, while other things that he had only brief exposure to were recalled with less detail. The "engine" of the craft was deceptively simple and was based on the special properties of "Element 115," an esoteric material in the upper reaches of the element chart that did not occur naturally on Earth but that Lazar contended was stable enough to be handled.
Although sworn to secrecy, Lazar could not resist telling some of his friends in Las Vegas about his work. This included J. Lear, a rabid UFO believer whose wild stories about alien conspiracies at Area 51 Lazar had initially dismissed. To try to view the tests, Lazar, Lear and several other friends made a Wednesday-night visit to the remote highway closest to Area 51 (near the aforementioned Black Mailbox). They saw and videotaped unusual lights in the sky, but unfortunately they were also interdicted by a Sheriff's duputy. He did not arrest them but demanded ID, and this information was apparently passed to military security guards. This incident resulted in Lazar losing his job and being threatened by government thugs. He never again returned to Area S-4.
Lear, who was never one to keep secrets, alerted the media, specifically newsman G. Knapp of local CBS affliate KLAS-TV. Initially, Lazar agreed to appear in silhouette in a news report broadcast in April 1989. His former employers knew it was him, however, and as the threats against him grew, he felt that had no choice but to come out of the closet and tell his full story to save his own life. This happened in November 1989 in a series of special reports by Knapp on the KLAS nightly newscast, under the title, "UFOs: The Best Evidence." This series was an overview of the history of UFOs, from Roswell to the present day, culminating with an interview with Lazar, as himself, recounting the outlines of his story. Although no other TV station or newspaper picked up the story, a local phenomenon was born. On AM radio, talk show host Billy G. became the standard-bearer for Lazar's UFO claims and for the movement to make the government open up. Lazar appeared on Billy's radio show several times and filled in the details of his claims. Wednesday-night bus tours were organized to bring Las Vegans to the Black Mailbox to watch for alien craft, and supposedly many sightings were made. The phenomenon continued through the Winter of 1989-90 and into the Spring, when articles started to be published in the national UFO media.
Most national UFO researchers were not kind to Lazar. Prominent UFO pundit S. Friedman, probably the best-known living ufologist next to J. Vallee, investigated Lazar's claimed educational credentials and found them to be bogus. After some phone calls from his home in Canada, Friedman concluded that Lazar had not attended M.I.T. or Cal-Tech as he had claimed. He was not a "scientist" but a fraud, Friedman announced. Vallee also interviewed Lazar and said in his book Revelations that he did not believe him, based on details Lazar gave about his work environment[?]. Lazar's credibility took a further hit in mid-1990 when he was arrested for "pandering," a charge relating to his operation of a makeshift brothel in Las Vegas. (Although prostitution is legal in some rural parts of Nevada, it is not in Las Vegas.) Lazar plead guilty to the charges and was placed on probation. At about the same time, a purportedly leaked government memo came into the hands of UFO researchers. Ostensibly circulated within the military in response to the KLAS report, it said that Lazar had worked on the Nellis Air Force Range in a minor capacity but had never been to any "forward areas," meaning Area 51. Around this time, Lazar dropped out of sight. He withdrew from the media and from association with the UFO believers, who he had earlier described as nutcases (an accurate assessment that counts in his favor).
By the time I got interested in Area 51 in 1992, Lazar had been pretty effectively discredited, but there were still watchers at the Black Mailbox reporting alien craft. One article in the MUFON UFO Journal caught my interest. Written by Dr. R. Boylan, it described in detail the objects he observed over Area 51 in April 1992. Boylan recounted seeing dramatic lights in the sky engaged in extreme stair-step manuevers that he said couldn't possibly be earthly craft. The "Dr." in front of his name I figured was worth something -- maybe fifty cents at least -- and in combination with Sean's claims on the video, it gave me enough to investigate. I wrote to Lindemann and asked him for the location of the Black Mailbox, and he wrote back that it was on State Highway 375, milepost 29.5. Then I booked an airline flight to Las Vegas, to arrive on a Wednesday afternoon.