November 27, 2011

Area 51 Revisited


When I was a kid in the early seventies, I got wrapped up in the UFO craze as quickly and easily as I got wrapped up in Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Bermuda Triangle, and any other such phenomena that might come along. I took all of it as proof, I think, that the world—in spite of all outward appearances—was still harboring some magic and mystery and “high strangeness” (as Jack Webb called it in the opening narration to the TV show Project UFO). When you’re growing up in northeastern Wisconsin, well, you need something like that.

            I never missed Project UFO or In search Of. I went to see every Sunn International documentary that came through town. I subscribed to UFO Reporter magazine and had dozens of books on the subject (some wackier than others). Even thought I saw something once, but in retrospect I’m guessing it was just some streetlights. I always kind of hoped I’d be abducted just to see what it was like, but no such luck. It made perfect, hopeful sense to me that not only were there advanced extraterrestrial civilizations out there, but also that they would see fit to visit Earth on such a regular basis.

            Although I was well-versed in the details of the 1947 Roswell Incident by the time I was ten or eleven, it wasn’t until a few years later—around the time the movie Hangar 18 was released—that I became aware of Area 51.

            By now of course the name and the legend surrounding the secret military base in the Nevada desert have permeated the culture, but back then it was even more mysterious. Almost a myth. People weren’t even sure if it existed or not. That somehow made it all the more believable that the government not only had the wreckage of an alien spacecraft, but the bodies of real live (well, dead) aliens stored away there.

            It might have been because I was getting older and my interests were drifting in other directions, but the Area 51 myth never grabbed hold of me the way it might have when I was younger. Not only were my interests changing, but the world was changing, too. After being exposed to so much corruption and sneaky business in the highest levels of power, I considered something like Area 51 as child’s play, greeting it not with awe and wonder, but with a shrug and a “yeah, probably.”

            Later still, sometime in the late eighties I’m guessing, Area 51 had been not only discovered and photographed—it had become a tourist attraction, the nearby town cashing in with alien-themed diners and storefront UFO museums. And in response the government finally came out and admitted that yes, the base existed, but insisted it was secret because it was a development and testing area for top secret experimental aircraft. That’s why the kooks camped out nearby saw strange lights in the night sky. It wasn’t a UFO landing strip—the military was testing out new planes. Being in a rationalist period at the time, I was willing to accept that, just as I was willing to accept the argument that Lee Harvey Oswald worked alone. Neither story interested me terribly much. I’d given up on UFOs by then. I had no doubt that there were other life forms out there, but I was hard pressed to see any reason why any of them would feel compelled to visit Earth. I still loved movies about alien invasions, but no longer expected to see the real thing anytime soon. So I hobbled on through life and Area 51 became an increasingly less interesting cultural outpost.

            Well that’s not strictly true. I wasn’t interested in what was happening at the base itself, but I was fascinated by the sub-culture that had grown up there, and the saucer kooks who camped out around the perimeter of the base. But in time it seems even those people—the hardcore saucer kooks anyway—got bored and shifted their attention to a new secret government base where things were really happening. Area 51 was for tourists.

            Well, my friend Don’s reading a new book by journalist Annie Jacobsen, and decided to fill me in.

            After all these years in the public subconscious, and with the base itself having become another roadside attraction, it seems the time was right to finally get the real story. The result was Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top-Secret Military Base. Don, who’s a level headed fellow with a sharp critical eye, tells me it’s a solid bit of research and investigative journalism, and approaches the subject in a very sober manner without any of the wild-eyed arm flapping you so often get in UFO books. The story Jacobsen tells, however, is pretty nutty.

            Don knows I can’t read the book, so he passed the Big Surprise along to me. I was so delighted, I’m now going to repeat it here. So if you’d like to read the book or you simply don’t care to know what the Big Surprise is, you might want to stop reading now and come back next week, when I won’t be revealing anything major.

            The story actually does begin in Roswell, where something that wasn’t a weather balloon really did crash in 1947. What’s more, as the rumors claimed, there really were strange little humanoids on board. And the base known as Area 51 really was built in the desert to store and study the wreckage in a top-secret environment. But it wasn’t because it was a craft with visitors from another galaxy. That would’ve been too easy.

            No, see—and this is no secret—just as the U.S. snapped up Nazi scientists after the war to work on the space program and other things, the Soviets snapped up their share of Nazi scientists. It’s also no secret that the Nazis were developing some surprisingly advanced aircraft, at least on the drawing board. Stalin brought these scientists and engineers on to continue their research. One of these projects was a funny-looking Stealth drone aircraft, which could be controlled remotely.

            Well, Stalin, he was a funny guy. He—or someone close to him—had an idea. The craft was far in advance of anything the US military had, so if people saw it they might be convinced it was from outer space or something. And if you put a couple of “aliens” on board, you could start a nationwide panic. So he got himself some deformed (or surgically altered) midgets, see?

            Only problem was, the damn thing crashed. And well, the rest is history. It had to be kept a secret, not simply because the craft was an illustration of Russia’s technological superiority, but also because it was feared that if the “medically-altered midgets” bit got out, it would also come out that the U.S. had been doing their own bit of unethical experimentation on people who hadn’t exactly given their consent.

            So there you have it—an experimental Nazi-engineered Soviet aircraft and some deformed midgets, all as part of an elaborate prank. The storyline is surprisingly similar to that of a mid-seventies thriller I love dearly called Wild Card. But if you ask me, a plain old flying saucer would’ve been much more believable. But this is the way the world works, ain’t it?

            What I find really funny about all this was that in the end Stalin did indeed get his nation-wide hysteria out of Roswell, though it was less a panic than a craze. Instead of terrified mobs running wild through the streets, we got Invasion of the Saucer Men and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. So I think it’s time we all lifted a glass and said, “thank you, Joe Stalin!”


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.