A Saucer Scorned

updated 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 10/31/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

STATELY AND PLUMP, 80-YEAR-OLD Loretta Proctor ponders the cosmos from a recliner in the yard of her remote cattle ranch 60 miles northwest of Roswell, N.Mex. "I know there's something out there," she declares, gazing at the afternoon skies. Revered as an oracle by UFO true believers, Proctor is among the last surviving witnesses to what has become known as the Roswell Incident, a central legend of flying saucerism. In 1947, the story goes, an alien spaceship crashed near Roswell. Then, to prevent nationwide panic, the U.S. military hid all the wreckage—as well as the bodies of several extraterrestrials.

The story has grown to near-epic proportions, fertilized no doubt by almost a half century of government evasion and silence. For years the Air Force insisted the alleged UFO was nothing more than a weather balloon. Now it has finally decided to make public what it says really happened. After a six-month study, the Air Force issued a 23-page report on Sept. 8 admitting that, yes, a strange flying object did fall to Earth 47 years ago—but it wasn't some sort of spacecraft. Nor was it any ordinary weather balloon, the Air Force says. Rather it was a very special balloon used in a top-secret project to spy on the Soviet Union. Moreover, the report deadpans, "there were no alien passengers therein."

"They're still pulling the wool over our eyes," scoffs Proctor, who over the years has told her tale to Popular Science and Unsolved Mysteries as well as to countless UFO researchers. "It's just a cover-up." She knows what she saw, the white-haired widow insists. "As far as I'm concerned, it was a UFO. I don't think it was anything they had here on Earth."

Whatever happened near Roswell began on June 14, 1947, in a stretch of grassland, where ranch foreman William "Mac" Brazel stumbled on some debris: a tangle of rubber strips, paper, sticks and tinfoil. A couple of weeks later he showed a pencil-size piece of the material to two friends, Loretta Proctor and her husband, Floyd (who died in 1985). "We tried to burn it [it wouldn't ignite]," says Proctor. "We tried to cut and scrape at it, but a knife wouldn't touch it."

As it turns out, 1947 was a signal year for unidentified flying objects; scores of sightings were reported, mainly in the West. "We'd heard there was a $10,000 reward for anybody that found a UFO," says Proctor. So Brazel took his discovery to the authorities, eventually reaching Maj. Jesse Marcel, the intelligence officer at Roswell Army Air Field. Given the seemingly exotic materials, Marcel was convinced this was debris from a saucer. The news swept through the base—and beyond. Roswell Field's press officer, Lt. Walter Haut, on orders from the commander, put out a news release that sparked a flurry of hysterical headlines around the country. But within hours, military brass issued a hasty retraction. The UFO, they said, was nothing but a weather balloon. Brazel's debris, in the meantime, was impounded.

The Roswell Incident was largely forgotten for the next three decades—until Marcel, by then a civilian, resurrected it in a 1978 interview with the National Enquirer. The story unleashed a torrent of-tabloid articles, books and television programs, most espousing a dark conspiracy theory. After stashing the Roswell debris, so the story went, government scientists had been surreptitiously analyzing the material—"back engineering," the expression goes—and using it as a basis for creating stealth bombers, fiber-optics communication systems and other technology.

Meanwhile, plain, pragmatic Roswell (pop. 45,000) has become a mecca for saucer-eyed pilgrims from as far away as Russia and China. Some have come to pay homage to Mrs. Proctor, whose fleeting contact with the space relics—plus the fact that she has outlived Brazel and Marcel—have made her a tourist attraction. Today most visitors to Roswell take in downtown's two-year-old International UFO Museum and Research Center, which has drawn some 36,000 paying customers and is the busier of two area repositories of extraterrestrial lore. (The other is the Enigma UFO Museum, a former video store six miles out of town.)

"The merchants' association is starting to call us the anchor of downtown," says the museum's president, Walter Haut, 72, the same Air Force lieutenant who fired off that first Roswell press release in 1947. He has stocked his 4,000-square-foot establishment with extensive photo exhibits "documenting" saucer sightings, as well as with screening rooms showing videos on the Roswell Incident and even a model of a dead alien on a hospital gurney. "I think there are a lot of things out there we can't explain," says museumgoer Yan Manriques, 33, of Cloudcroft, N.Mex. "Just because we can't explain it doesn't mean it doesn't exist."

It is this constituency that drove Rep. Steven Schiff (R-N.Mex.) to press the Air Force into resolving once and for all the Roswell Incident. "I started getting letters alleging that the military was covering up," he says. Air Force investigators say they traced Mac Brazel's pile of debris to a top-secret but short-lived Cold War brainstorm called Project Mogul, based at Alamogordo, 90 miles west of Roswell. The point of the project was to send up enormous balloons bearing acoustical gadgetry to eavesdrop on nuclear tests in the Soviet Union. Before launching the big balloons, the strategists would launch smaller balloons hauling foil-covered radar reflectors on balsa-wood frames to gauge the speed and direction of prevailing winds. It was the wreckage of those contraptions, they say, that Brazel found.

And the tales of spaceships and extraterrestrial corpses? "Utter trash," says Albert C. Trakowski, 74, the now-retired Air Force colonel living in Falls Church, Va., who led Project Mogul and was consulted for the investigation. The radar reflectors, he adds, were manufactured not on Mars or Venus but at a New York City toy factory.

But why couldn't Brazel and the Proctors burn or cut the material? Charles Moore, 74, a feisty physicist who served as the chief engineer for Project Mogul, has a more down-to-earth explanation than wondrous alien technology. "Some of the balsa wood was soaked in glue, like Elmer's glue," he says. "It's a casein product [a protein derived from milk] that just won't burn at all." Moore, who lives in Socorro, N.Mex., adds that the glue made the wood "a little bit stiffer and less easy to dent than ordinary balsa."

Despite the Air Force report, Trakowski doubts he has heard the last of the Roswell Incident. "This won't lay it to rest," he has said. "People believe what they want to believe in." That much seems certain. Though not a believer himself, Congressman Schiff, for one, is skeptical of the Air Force findings because of the "less-than-upfront" way the military has handled the matter for 47 years. Consequently, he has pushed for further inquiry by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the Congress. "One member of the House came up to me," Schiff says, "and said, 'Let me know what you find out—my wife believes in UFOs.' "

Loretta Proctor would be pleased to hear that. She says she has seen strange lights in the sky several times in her life. "If you get out here at night and set a while," she muses, glancing heavenward, "you'd be surprised how much stuff is up there."

RICHARD JEROME
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Roswell

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