Saturday, June 16, 2012


     Most people never experience a supernatural, paranormal, or UFO event.  They may be true believers in religions which claim that angels, demons, and other supernatural beings exist, yet they themselves make no claim to having interacted with such beings.  They're content to credit the testimony of others who say they've had this kind of interaction, without ever having it themselves.  Practical, down-to-earth types like handworkers, businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, and civil servants -- types, that is, who deal with the real world day in and day out -- let more mystically-inclined types supernaturalize for them.  Nor do they see ghosts or flying saucers, though they may believe others can.
     What, then, does someone like me, who not only prides himself on being as practical and down-to-earth as they come but who firmly disbelieves all things supernatural, paranormal, and space-alien, do when he sees an unidentified flying object?  Not just a UFO glimpsed for a second out a plane window, but a UFO hovering for several minutes above his stopped car on a chilly, chrystal-clear, November night in 1972?
     I and my former wife were living with our ten-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son in Davidsonville, Maryland, where a year and a half earlier we'd bought a stately but run-down old farmhouse from a family who'd owned it for generations.  Since then we'd scraped, sanded, or burned off the accumulated layers of paint and paper on walls, ceilings, and floors, doing out best to return them to their original condition.
     We did most of the work ourselves.  My wife tackled the interior walls and ceilings, while I sanded the floors, through as many as ten layers of paint, down to the magnificent Georgia heart of pine planking they were made of.  I also scraped, chlorine-washed, primed, and double-coated every outside wall.
     For special work, we hired local craftsmen.  Our carpenter replaced rotted-out exterior ornaments and missing or broken parts in the house's twenty sets of window shutters with copies he himself made.  Our mason rehabbed the four brick chimneys and reopened or rehabbed five of the original seven fireplaces.  We modernized plumbing and wiring throughout and added a new bathroom.  The project was a once-in-a-lifetime labor of love.
     Moreover, I was enjoying of of the most productive and successful periods of my career and was suffering none of the stress, anxiety, or psychosis typically associated with space-alien hallucinations.  I'd recently been promoted to tenure, had my first book accepted for publication, and returned with my family from a splendid year in Germany as a Fulbright professor.  I was putting the finishing touches on my dream house.  Why would I want or need to imagine I was seeing a UFO?
     I didn't imagine it.  It happened, just as undeniably and unmistakably as anything in my conscious life ever has.  I'd taken our babysitter home and started the two-mile return drive to our house.  Earlier in the evening my wife and I had been to a Davidsonville Civic Association meeting that ended around nine, where I'd had nothing to drink.  All my faculties were in excellent working order.
     Driving through a stretch of woods, I noticed a light above the leaf canopy ahead.  Slowing, I peered up through the windshield to see what it was.  Just then the woods opened into farmland, and I found myself staring at the strangest object I've ever seen.  I stopped, turned off the engine, and got out.
     The object was hovering several hundred feet almost straight above me, though judging its height and size was impossible because I'd never seen anything like it and had no basis for comparison.  It consisted of a kidney-shaped underside of bright orange light, inside of which five circular rings of bright yellow light were rotating clockwise at approximately ceiling fan speed.  The circles looked identical in size and equidistant from each other within the orange light.  Four of them were in the oval of the main part of the kidney to my left, one was in the bulge of the kidney that protruded slightly to my right.  All seemed to be symmetrically arranged within the kidney, creating a sense of balance and harmony in their overall spacing.
     The object made no noise I could hear.  It simply hung there silently against the moonless, star-filled sky, its yellow rings turning more like decorations or ventilators than propellers.  I stared a long time, possibly twenty or thirty seconds, before reacting in any way I remember.  My first reaction, or impression, when it came, was unequivocal.  I said to myself, That thing is man-made.
     Perhaps I got this impression from its symmetrical, ornamental look, which struck me as more human than alien, as something created more for psychological effect than for serious space travel.  I thought it might be some kind of elaborate hoax.
     Yet its uncanny ability to stay aloft noiselessly and motionlessly except for the yellow circles might well have justified my seeing it as non-human.  Why, given the total unfamiliarity and oddness of what my senses were registering, didn't I give more weight to that possibility instead of so quickly rejecting it?
     Part of the answer, I think, lies in the culture of realistic, scientific, evidence-based rationality I was raised in.  My mother was born in 1900 to an American family whose males had been college-educated for generations.  She and one of her three sisters were encouraged to get college degrees for the first time in the family's history.  My father was born in 1903 in Germany to a similarly well-educated family.  There was never a doubt I and my brother would go to college.
     My mother's family favored the liberal arts, which in those days meant studying math and science as well as literature, history, and foreign language at the college level.  My freshman and sophomore years at Amherst, where I enrolled in 1953, consisted of grueling requirements in english, history, foreign language, calculus, physics, and general science that inclined me toward a major in science till I ran afoul of a math elective I had to either drop or fail.  Since grade school I'd been taught to think critically and base my arguments on solid evidence.
     Part of the answer was also that the cold war with the Soviet bloc was in full swing, and the likelihood of secret military research, especially on intelligence-gathering aircraft, was great.  Since the object floating above me didn't seem at all hostile, I assumed it might be some kind of U.S. military vehicle.  This was reinforced a few minutes later, after it disappeared, when I recalled that one of the ring of antiballistic-missile Nike bases circling Washington was located in Davidsonville not a mile from where I'd stopped the car.  The UFO might have been linked in some way to the Nike base.
     Of course that possibility didn't preclude it's being an extra-terrestrial spaceship investigating terrestrial weapons, a thought that actually did cross my mind when I got back in the car to drive home after the UFO was gone.
     Yet even the weirdness of the way it left didn't shake my initial judgment it was man-made.  After hovering over me for a couple of minutes, during which I tried unsuccessfully to figure out what it was, it started moving toward Annapolis, ten miles east.  After following a straight path for a few seconds, it abruptly changed course to another straight path.  It zigzagged slowly back and forth like this several times, as though searching for something.  As it receded, the orange and yellow light from its underside gradually narrowed to a thin streak in the distance.  Nothing of its upper structure, if it had one, ever became visible.
     When the streak was just above the horizon, it made several quick zigzags, darted north at tremendous speed, and vanished.  Whether it went over the horizon, turned off it lights, or was simply too far away to see was unclear to me.  Its zigag movements and final burst of speed were so bizarre that to this day, despite my strong feeling it was man-made, I'm not absolutely sure it was.
     I've never discussed or described any of this before, mainly because I've never considered it worth talking about without corroborative explanation, which has never come to light.  Corroboration of a limited kind came the next day, when the local Annapolis newspaper reported that two state policemen had seen a kidney-shaped object with orange and yellow lights the night before near Severna Park, Maryland, fifteen miles north.  Though I never really thought I'd gone wacko and dreamed it up, I was relieved to learn the troopers had seen it too.
     I've decided to rehash what happened that night forty years ago in this post because I want to clarify in my own mind its relevance to my philosophical materialism.  Though I didn't choose to be a materialist till almost fifteen years after the sighting, which had no influence on that choice, I'd been predisposed from childhood toward the realism, rationalism, and moderation that dissuaded me from believing I was seeing something extra-terrestrial in Davidsonville and that also later drew me to materialism.  I think this predisposition came from the following sources.
     In addition to the open-minded, science-friendly family background that early on shaped my non-religious, evidence-based worldview, I grew up in the hardscrabble Vermont backwoods, where most of the neighbors thought of nothing but their next crop or meal and were asleep every night by eight for morning chores at four.  Because my family didn't have to work our fifty-five acres for a living, we were spared the brain-numbing drudgery of subsistence-level dairy farming that almost everyone else in the village was chained to.  But the rural poverty surrounding me taught me its lessons anyway.
     The first was that life was cheap, dangerous, and replaceable.  Many of the farmers fathered up to a dozen children, sometimes with a series of breeder wives, to provide enough manpower to work the farm and cover any gaps caused by infant, childhood, or adolescent mortality.  They also slaughtered most of their male calves, pigs, and chickens for food or cash and often worked their horses to death, leaving them to rot where they fell if the stench was far enough from anyone's house to tolerate.  When a barn-cat population got too large, new litters of kittens were summarily bagged and drowned.  Dogs and puppies were constantly being run over by cars, trucks, tractors, and wagons.
     The second, contradictory lesson was that survival alone mattered.  Enough food for man and beast was laid away in summer supposedly to last the winter, but often it didn't.  Some winters the ribs of the livestock jutted grotesquely from their skins, and at times my playmates next door had nothing to eat but sprouted potatoes from the cellar bin.  Their house was freezing cold most of the winter because their father refused to waste firewood in the main furnace.  The only warm room was the kitchen, whose wood-burning stove of course went out at night.  The kids slept two or three to a bed, huddled together for warmth under threadbare old horse blankets.  One of them remembers always being cold in bed in winter and vowing never to be so again when he grew up.
     The final lesson was to fend for yourself.  Short of killing or stealing, any means of improving your own lot was acceptable.  No one else could or would take care of you;  you had to take care of yourself.
     These harsh and unsentimental lessons of the impoverished individualism I grew up with in the Vermont hills merged with the skeptical, science-based rationality of my family's more affluent and liberal culture to create in me a mindset that scoffed not only at putative invasions from outer space but at any kind of supernatural or paranormal claim.  Undeniable proof of something's factualness and explicability was to me the sine qua non of taking it seriously.
     No such proof for my UFO ever materialized.  For out-and-out miraculous, magical, and supernatural events it never does, except in the imaginations of zealots and fanatics and the scams of frauds and liars.  But my UFO sighting wasn't like that.  It really did happen in time and space.  But the notion that the orange and yellow kidney would someday reappear in interstellar glory and confirm the existence of intelligent beings elsewhere in the galaxy was to me never worth talking about.
     So, unless it does, in repeated, unmistakable ways to a great many other human beings, I'll happily continue dismissing it as an altogether human contrivance.  One of the great strengths of philosophical materialism is its skepticism regarding all unexplained human apperceptions.  When confirmed by trustworthy witnesses as genuinely empirical events that actually did or could happen independent of particular perceivers, as mine with the UFO was by the two troopers, such apperceptions are always the result of material facts that are either artificially (humanly) or naturally (randomly) caused.  When not so confirmed, they too often become the stuff religions are made of