©Roy Tompkins

 

Jessie Wade, owner and operator of the Wade Bar in Corona, New Mexico, stood at the door of his empty establishment–perhaps he was drunk–and averted his gaze from the quiet main street up to the vast and starry southwest sky, up into space. Maybe he heard the brief, distant rumbling, or maybe he saw the ribbon of light unfurling toward the earth. Maybe he just imagined he did. Minutes later an abused old pickup skidded to a stop in front of the bar. Jessie's friend, Mac Brazel, leaned out the window, sweaty and urgent: "Something's crashed out on my ranch!"

"You should probably call the military base," Jessie replied.

"Shut down and get out there!" Brazel cried as he sped away.

Jessie didn't go. He didn't think this hubbub worthy of the gas it would take to get out there–WWII had just ended, and rationing was still in effect. A night or two later, Mac came back to the Wade Bar with a boxful of metal scraps and debris to show to his buddies. This wasn't any ordinary metal; it was thin and featherweight like aluminum foil, but strong like steel. Jessie was startled to see the stuff liquefy in the heat of Mac's strong rancher hands, and solidify again when it was dropped on the table.

Mac disappeared for a few days. Not too long after, he was driving a brand-spankin' new pickup truck. Word around town was that he bought a meat locker up in Alamogordo. Strange how he stopped talking to Jessie, and how he would eventually leave town forever. "Especially 'cause since before the crash he never had two nickels to rub together," Jessie Wade would tell his son repeatedly, who would later write his father's story in an affidavit, a copy of which now hangs in the International UFO Museum and Research Center in Roswell, New Mexico. The implication being, of course, that the government paid Mac Brazel for his silence about what he saw out on his ranch that summer night, July 2, 1947.

You have to love a town with a gimmick. Roswell and environs (Carlsbad Caverns and its underground cafe, for instance) is only a day's drive through vast nuclear dump-attracting West Texas desert. The Texas highway patrol is notorious for their no-tolerance speeding policies, but the only smokey I saw during the whole eight- or nine-hour drive was too busy corralling an escaped calf against a stretch of fence along Highway 285 north of Pecos to notice me whizzing by.

I reached southern New Mexico as night fell, and I was watching the clock. At 9:30 p.m., I saw a road sign that said ROSWELL: 30. Makin' good time, oh yeah, have to pee, uh huh.

Drive, drive, drive, la, la, la.

I looked at the clock again: 9:43. Among signs warning not to pick up hitchhikers because there is a prison nearby, another road sign emerged on the horizon. It said, to my shock, ROSWELL: 30. Spooky! Poor civil engineering, or... something more? Oh boy. This was exactly what I was coming to Roswell for.

Conspiracy buffs love to call Roswell "west of lost and north of nowhere." I had pictured the place as nothing more than a few scattered farmhouses and a fence separating the highway from a faraway, forebodingly off-limits military base. But the town of Roswell is a bit more substantial than most small towns that dot the two-lane highways of America, although it's still centered on one main street that serves as the focal point of business and activity. There's even one semi-high high-rise. I had even thought the 1947 Roswell Incident too dark and weird to support a full-blown tourist industry, but the hotel signs joke "Come Crash With Us" and "Aliens Welcome." The International UFO Museum and Research Center is conspicuously housed in an old movie theatre on the main street, and alien heads stare out from the street's ubiquitous souvenir shops.

The next morning, I headed to the museum. It was staffed largely by senior citizens, and junkets of septuagenarians made up a large portion of the visitors. A squealing lady welcomed me as I was still trying to get my bearings, explaining that while there is no admission charge they would love me to sign in and put a push-pin in my hometown in their humongous world map, if one was not there already. The map was a carpet of pushpins. And next to it, behind plate glass, was the dead alien replica used in the Kyle McLaughlin vehicle, Roswell the movie or musical or whatever it was, towered over by a mannequin in scrubs performing the mock autopsy.

If your money is really burning a hole in your pocket, the museum is also the gathering point for tours of the crash sites–yes, there's more than one. Apparently, a UFO exploded in midair and bounced along the New Mexico desert like a skipping stone. At the first point of heated impact, the sand was turned to glass, and after a bounce or two it wedged into the ground, spewing out a controversial number of the alien anorexics. Unfortunately I had blown my money on a Huevos Rancheros with New Mexico Green Chile breakfast earlier that morning at the outstanding Martin's Capitol Cafe, so I had to skip the tour. (Later, however, I followed a sign pointing to one of the crash sites, but after a long and dusty detour leading only to red rocks and cow poop, I gave up.)

 
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