On Sunday night, CNN’s jack of all trades, Morgan Spurlock, is showcasing MUFON (Mutual UFO Network) on his “Inside Man” show.
Well, CNN, here’s the thing: tell Morgan I got there first.
Last summer, I went to Las Vegas to attend a MUFON Symposium, where I trained to be a UFO Field Investigator.
Unlike Morgan, I didn’t have a team of TV producers working with me. Unlike Morgan, none of the MUFONers knew I was writing about it. I just did the work and attended the symposium along with everyone else. It’s my oddball style of journalism. I’ve written about a Furry Convention, The Holy Land theme park, and an NYC Swinger’s club among other places.
(I’ve also worked for CNN and wrote about that too. I still have friends working there, which is why I find this MUFON coincidence kind of interesting.)
So, before you tune into Morgan Spurlock’s show, how about checking out my story first?
A pasty pack of UFOlogists sweat under the desert sun at the Las Vegas Marriott, triangulating a mock UFO crash site on the front lawn. We all have “Field Investigator” badges pinned to our damp clothes or dangling from lanyards. This is official, laminated proof that we are here to learn UFO evidence collection techniques under the instruction of MUFON (Mutual UFO Network) Star Team Deputy Director, Fletcher Gray. His eager, pit-stained assortment of students is laser-focused on the task at hand. We are unfazed by the fact that this well-manicured resort green is generally reserved for less extraterrestrial pursuits, like giving Bar Mitzvah speeches or groping boozed up bridesmaids.
We try to keep track of our coordinates and case numbers on our MUFON Evidence Collection sheets, but we are an unskilled bunch. Arguments ensue. Some jackass forgets that you always begin UFO crash site triangulation from the south end and we wind up re-doing it three times. Scowling under her sun visor, fledgling Field Investigator Sue is fed up. She grumbles, “They don’t wanna hear what I have to say,” and storms off the mock UFO grid; which is just pinned lines of hot pink string, a couple PVC pipes, yellow crime scene numbers and an old satellite dish yanked off of someone’s roof. Frankly, I don’t understand the significance of the satellite dish. It isn’t particularly evocative of visitors from other planets. If anything, I worry that someone is missing out on a boxing match or Japanese porn right now.
Amidst the squabbling and re-measuring, the only thing more constant than the steady streams of perspiration trickling over shoulder blades and into ass cracks is the endless interruptions from the class know-it-all. He’s an expert on hazmat suits, warp drives, Jimmy Carter and getting a Geiger counter at a discount. The MUFON slogan is “Others Talk…We Investigate” but nobody told this loudmouth motherfucker. I can only imagine what an asshole he is at cocktail parties. So nobody complains when grouchy Sue suddenly announces that we all need to get out of the sun and drink some water. Sure, the loudmouth may know about bargain Geiger counters, but Grouchy Sue knows Nevada heat. We’re grateful. It’s almost noon and we’ve been training to become UFO Field Investigators since 7am.
Our class has been diligent in fulfilling the MUFON mission, “Scientific Study of UFO’s for the Benefit of Humanity” among the palm trees just outside of Lamonts Gift & Sundry Store. In addition to techniques to outwit the Feds by switching out UFO evidence packed sim cards with family vacation photos, we’ve learned about gauging magnetic fields and detecting UFO radiation, skills which fall under “Car Analysis”. The assumption here is that when a Field Investigator has a UFO sighting, that person will most likely be in a car. Apparently, aliens don’t often visit humans who take public transport. Add this to the list of drawbacks to not having a car, toped only by my inability to get a chalupa at the Taco Bell drive through at 2am.
I see a beat up truck parked outside and assume this is our radiating vehicle. Not so. Instead it is a virtual “car” constructed on another part of the lawn with the same hot pink string as the UFO grid. We start out with special apps like the Theodolite and Teslameter. This is good information, but we’re still just playing with our phones. We want toys. Then the instructor breaks out a cool piece of equipment called the Rad Meter that makes a “whisk whisk” noise and there is excitement all around. The Rad Meter is a big hit. One guy asks if the Rad Meter is tax deductible. Another guy hogs the Rad Meter and needs to be reminded that, “Investigation is a team sport.”
Under Grouchy Sue’s guidance, we shuffle under a plastic tent, chug water and make small talk. In this environment, small talk has nothing to do with sports and everything to do with the perils of misidentified UFO’s. According to Fletcher, some of these can be military aircraft, especially since “that dingaling is sprouting his feathers in North Korea.” But even more problematic are Chinese lanterns. They actually managed to shut down Britain’s x-files unit, as too many documented UFO sightings were just these flaming, flying decorations. The consensus is that while the Walmart ones are not particularly effective, others look remarkably like UFOs. Someone makes a lame joke about the cheap quality of Chinese made Chinese lanterns. There is muted laughter until Fletcher adds solemnly, “Chinese lanterns are the enemy of MUFON.”
Conversation shifts to our Field Investigator badges, which state our names, hometowns and Star Team status. There is some irritation over the stars. While I have no star (deservedly so) some people are official members of the Star Team and expected to get stars on their badges. They are pissed off. So pissed off that some of them take it up with Director Jan Harzan at the registration station. An affable guy, he has a pack of star stickers that he is willing to share. But these stars are not “official” enough. A couple UFOlogists are annoyed that others got pre-assigned stars while they got stuck with this “fake shit from Staples or whatever.” I seem to recall a Dr. Seuss book with a similar storyline.
While the badges were provided by MUFON, we were told in advance to provide our own suntan lotion, water, sunglasses and a hat for Field Investigation Training. The instruction to bring a hat clearly made the biggest impact. I’m glad I brought my shitty cowboy hat with decorative trim. Because no joke—the UFOlogists are serious about their headgear. While there are no actual tinhats, our classroom on the JW Marriott lawn is a startling collection of flower-festooned, sequined, mesh, canvas, straw, safari-style, bent, squashed and embossed hats.
Jeanette wears a bucket hat with a stuffed squirrel attached to the brim. Dinah’s head is a mass of pink rhinestones sparkling on her ball cap. Marc from England wears his Panama hat at a rakish angle. But by far, my favorite UFOlogist is Pat.
Pat has fashioned her own hat out of the blue MUFON folder and fastened it to her head with bobby pins, looking like an A-frame house.
Pat cackles and has the kind of loud, throaty voice that promises late nights and good times.
Pat lights up a cigarette by the No Smoking sign.
Pat smears sunblock all over her face, not rubbing it in all the way, like she just fingerpainted herself with Elmer’s glue.
Pat just don’t give a fuck.
Now, I may not know anything about alien life forms but I do know this: Pat is my people.
Because here’s the thing: I didn’t tell any of my fellow Field Investigators this, but I came here on a whim. I never had an interest in anything ET related. Don’t give a shit about crop circles or interstellar travel. I’ve never even seen “Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind”. No. I was hungover, doing laundry in the dreary basement of my New York apartment building and looked over at the corkboard. Normally, it’s just littered with ads for used Ikea furniture and dog walking services. But that day, someone had posted a “MUFON 44th Annual Symposium: Science, UFOs & The Search for ET” brochure. I did a bleary-eyed double take. I was intrigued. I untacked it. Upon further review, I discovered they’d teach me how to be a UFO field investigator for an extra 99 bucks.
You throw in the fact that this was all taking place in Las Vegas and I couldn’t redeem my frequent flyer miles fast enough. Of course, I wasn’t really sure how I was going to explain my presence to the other attendees, who presumably wouldn’t have similar hungover laundry day stories.
This comes up during lunch break. Three other Investigators and I have chosen to eat lunch together at the Promenade Café overlooking the Rampart Casino. The windowless air has that very Las Vegas aroma of stale cigarette smoke, spilled booze, cheap cologne and air conditioner condensation.
After placing our orders, we begin “sharing experiences.” In the MUFON world, “an experience” is a wholesale term that can mean anything from seeing a UFO, being abducted or pointing to an alien implant in your arm. First up is Dave, who tells us about his reoccurring dream of being carried off by a Bigfoot tribe when he was seven. Everyone at the table takes this in stride except me, who always assumed Bigfoot traveled solo.
When I admit that I’ve never had an experience, Coyote tells me I’ve probably had one, but just didn’t realize it. That’s about to change. Everyone is agreed that while I’m here, my eyes and ears will become open to “higher strangeness.” And as we chew our chicken sandwiches and corned beef hash, we determine that’s why I’ve come here. Furthermore, that’s really why the four of us are at this table, in this dumpy café next to a casino full of people who are shitfaced at noon. We were brought here by fate, by an unseen force, for a reason.
“Everything you do, every connection you make, no matter how small or insignificant, can have profound repercussions,” says Coyote. She goes on to relate a story about giving a broke artist and his friend a place to stay for the night back in the early ‘70s. She didn’t really want to at first, but took a chance. The next morning they left a note of gratitude that she’s kept all this time, and re-reads periodically. Because years later that artist found great fame and fortune. His name was…Dale Chihuly. “So you see, you never know the consequences your actions have.” I choke on an ice cube. Not sure why she’s patting herself on the back for this one. Seems to me that Coyote owes the world an apology if she has any cosmic blame in unleashing that glass blowing abomination and his aggressively unpleasant “art” on the unsuspecting public. If only Coyote had booted Chihuly’s ass out on the street and sent him on his way maybe we’d never be subjected to his hideous, candy colored bullshit.
After lunch, we’re off to The Grand Ballroom, where Kathleen Marden, Director of Abduction Research begins class by reinforcing MUFON lingo. These people are not referred to as “Abductees” they are “Experiencers”. There’s an Abduction Investigation Question Guide with prompts like, “Have you awoken from sleep with a memory of abduction and blood on your pillow?” “Do you recall being on board a craft or inside an unfamiliar building?” And finally, what may be the most important point in this guide: “Please give a list of the prescription drugs or chemical substances you were taking at the time of your experience.”
Kathleen explains that common details reported by Experiencers include the phenomenon of lost time, unexplained bruises and waking up in someone else’s nightclothes. This sounds more like the morning after a heavy night of partying in Las Vegas than an alien abduction to me. But I’m still game to play the Experiencer in our Mock Investigation Scenario. Kathleen has been kind enough to set it up in “Choose Your Own Adventure” fashion. There are two options:
1. You are headed to an important family business meeting in Colorado Springs and see a humanoid creature near a “stunning vista of craggy snow capped mountain ridges” and a “peach colored light in the sky.”
2. You take a limousine to a UFO crash site and see “an Apache Indian standing beside the road with his motorcycle.” You believe he was sent by extraterrestrials to guide you to their base.
While I appreciate the attention to detail and Bob Ross-style landscape description of the first scenario, I am drawn to the motorcycle riding Apache Indian. Does he talk to me? Or does he just point; silent, noble and proud, in the direction of the ET base? Is he a modern motorcyclist in leather chaps or does he look like Geronimo?
Intrigued, I put my acting skills to use and start making bullshit up using scenario 2 as a guide. I think I’m doing a pretty good job describing my alien experience until I spend too much time on the Apache Indian’s chiseled cheekbones, his long, shiny black hair blowing in the breeze, his big, soulful eyes, his bare, sun-kissed chest under his distressed black leather motorcycle jacket. At this point Star Team Deputy Dale gently interrupts, telling me that the attractiveness of the Apache Indian was really not the focal point of my alien abduction. Although I secretly disagree, I nod, gracefully accepting his criticism of my experience. Investigation is a team sport.
After training day is over, some aromatic creep in sweatpants nudges me and asks if I’d like to grab some drinks at the casino and “share experiences.” The phrase sounds suspiciously like a MUFON pick up line now, and I hotfoot it to the safety of the Rampart Buffet. I need the comforting Las Vegas cliché of glittery grandmas in pink high heels complaining about the salty soup to their half-deaf husbands with dyed black hair and gold chains. But of course, it’s impossible to avoid the MUFONers. There are over 500 of us here: making repeat trips to the $14.99 buffet, or wet and glistening by the pool or putting little plastic aliens in the tip jar at Starbucks or drinking Guinness at the Irish pub. So instead of the rustling of USA Today newspapers, all over the resort you hear animated stories about wormholes, Chupacabra, secrets of the Anunnaki and Ecuadoran UFO’s. Maybe this is what Coyote meant when she said I may have seen something and not realized it. What if UFOlogists have always been surrounding me, but I just didn’t see their badges?
After dinner I sneak off to Bar 221, where I meet George and Helen. They’re here because George had a UFO sighting back in 1967. Helen has never had an experience, but slaps his back and says, “Do you think I’d let him come to Vegas alone? No way!” George proceeds to share his experience after which Helen slaps his arm and cracks, “And this was the best the aliens could do? You?” She laughs as he frowns, irritated by her sarcasm. I realize how much this matters to him. Investigation is a team sport. So I tell him he isn’t alone, that almost everyone here has had an experience. George smiles. I listened. I didn’t laugh. He gives me a hug when they leave. Investigation is a team sport.
It seems like the phrase, “We Are Not Alone” has a double meaning here in the MUFON world. Of course it means we are not alone in the Universe. Other life forms are out there. Have they visited on vacation? Do they want to colonize Earth? But it also means MUFON members are not alone with their experiences.
They can be together in an understanding environment where no one thinks they’re insane. That echo from the next dimension? What did it sound like? Your trip through a wormhole in Times Square? What did it look like? The symposium guide says it’s time to “engage the unknown” so why the hell should you keep your telepathic alien encounters hidden? As for scientific proof–strange, eerie night noises recorded on tape, fuzzy photos of hovering objects in the sky–those are very important to some. But mostly the stories themselves, the willingness to tell them and be believed are proof of connection; faith in something few people see.
Later that night I pass by the front desk and hear the clerk give out the resort phone number. It’s a bunch of 7s. “Yep,” she says, “This is Vegas. We love lucky number 7 here!” I realize how perfect Las Vegas is for a UFO symposium. A bizarre outpost in the desert, filled with people who want to believe. A place where clocks don’t exist and time slips away. A city of flashing lights, odd noises and travelers hoping for the jackpot experience. Believing in luck is like believing in strange phenomena. Once in a while you might get a bit of proof that luck exists. Like the billboard out front of the Rampart Casino with a massive photo of a smiling woman and the caption: “OLIVE HIT 5 ACES AND WON!” We want to believe that we could be next: A Winner. An Experiencer. Proof of unseen forces at work with help from Lady Luck or Space Brothers or Dale Chihuly.
I look over at a bachelorette party huddled in the lobby. They’re glittering in skin tight dresses, teetering on sky high heels and clutching champagne bottles. They’re woo-hooing and toasting and posing with penis paraphernalia. I wonder what the aliens would think of these shiny humans. Maybe we’re all Field Investigators who are “reconstructing circumstance” but UFOlogists just strive for more accuracy. They want truth in a way that this sparkling pack of pretty bachelorettes does not. Unlike Fletcher Gray and his safely guarded sim cards, they will snap photo after photo, deleting the unflattering ones, the double chins, the closed eyes, cropping out stomach bulges and erasing blemishes. They will not remember this night truthfully. They will not reconstruct circumstance with accuracy. They will document this night as they wished it were, not as it was.
I head to the casino and find a slot machine I hadn’t noticed before called “Alien.”
This is for me, I think. This alien-themed slot machine is here for a reason. I will win. It’s fate. An unseen force. The glowing machine dares me: “Don’t be afraid to win big in the Alien Hunt Bonus.” I’m not afraid, I think. Not of Reptilians or Bigfoot or contracting food borne illness from the $14.99 buffet. I will win. Just like Olive. I believe.
I slide in a dollar.
I hit the button three times.
C’MON C’MON C’MON!
It’s game over in 20 seconds.
On the last day of the symposium, some UFOlogists are waiting by the Marriott entrance for the Top Secret tour bus headed to Area 51. A few of them wearing their Field Investigator hats, others are “sharing experiences” or talking about alien-themed artwork and books they’ve purchased from MUFON vendors. They are smiling, excited, curious. But most of all, they are together.
Investigation is a team sport.
Whether extraterrestrials are our Space Brothers or Alien Invaders, whether they come in peace or to implant weird shit in our bodies, I don’t know.
But in my window seat on the red eye back to New York, I look at the moon with a loneliness I’ve never felt before. I want to make contact. Visit me, damn it. In this desert city, I’ve acquired a new thirst. If they are out there, I want to meet them, whoever they are. I look into the night sky and think:
I am here.
I am human.
I am ready.
…and I have the perfect hat.