Around 1960, some friends of the family gave me a few old books, introducing me to both science fiction and UFOs at the same time. As I remember they were Expedition to Earth by Arthur C. Clarke, The Isotope Man by someone I forget, and The Truth about Flying Saucers by Aime Michel. I was not totally unfamiliar with SF, but Expedition to Earth had a grabbing power that started something. The Isotope Man...well...it was free. Then there was the other book.
The Truth about Flying Saucers turned the conversation onto U.F.O.s. One of the visitors made some disparaging comment about the sort of people who see flying crockery, to which my father remarked "Oh I don't know. I've seen one."
This is a major mind stopping statement, considering its source. Dad is one of science fiction's mortal enemies. For years he thought S.F. stood for "scare fiction" -- probably still does -- and determinedly went around trying to save me from its mind-rotting effects. ("Why do you read scare fiction? It's all rubbish." "What sort of science fiction stories have you read to make you think that?" "None. I don't read rubbish.")
When I was in my last year of high school, Dad threw out -- among other things -- all my issues of Fantastic Four magazine. (I had them from issue 9 to one-hundred-and-something. Even at the time I realised they were going to be valuable someday, but could not have guessed at the prices some of them command now. Reading comics catalogues today can be a painful experience.)
Dad put in long hours at work every day, except -- it seemed -- Fridays. At bang on 6:30 I would hear two things simultaneously: the theme music for Doctor Who, and the sound of Dad's car coming down the drive. (This cannot be totally true, as I did see some of the Hartnell episodes of Doctor Who -- just never enough to be totally clear about the story lines.) It is too bizarre to expect him to cut work once a week solely to stop me watching Doctor Who. (Fantasy sequence: My father at the end of the day, with a workmate. WORKMATE: "Boy what a day. What do you say we go down to the pub and sink a few, Max?" DAD: "No thanks Bill. I have to get home and stop my son watching Doctor Who.")
Even when I had started working, but was still living at home, he raised the cost of my board after finding a science fiction book I had bought. ("If you can afford wasting your money on rubbish you have enough to pay more for your keep.")
And this man saw a flying saucer about the time I was about two years old?
He had looked up in time to see something dart between two clouds. The man who was with him exclaimed "Now I've seen everything. Now I've seen everything." This particular thing was "as big as the Queen Mary", red on top, and white underneath. (Or maybe white on top and red underneath. I checked with Dad before writing this, and he is not sure any more. It was a long time ago.)
Neither of them reported the thing. In 1952 you did not report flying saucers if you wanted to keep being regarded as normal. For all they knew, they had seen the one true space ship from another planet, and reporting it was essential to prevent global doom. The world was just not going to find out from them.
UFO reports of the saucer variety were about five years old at that time. Not too many people had claimed meeting the pilots, although by the time the decade was out UFOs were mostly crewed by tall, blond, long-haired (even if male) Venusians, who wanted to tell us nuclear war was a bad idea. Venus remained the favourite home port up to and beyond the time it was discovered that the surface of planet two was a good place to melt lead. Not until after Barney and Betty Hill's experience did UFOnauts became big-eyed, slit-mouthed humanoids who kidnapped vast numbers of people one at a time, and covered the fact with bad hypnotic blocks.
Before 1952, Dad was not merely sceptical about UFOs -- he flat-out disbelieved in them. How did he take such a major shakeup of his belief system? Easy -- he just did not let it affect him. ("Maybe there is life on other planets, and maybe things do visit us. But it doesn't change anything does it? Life is still the same. So why bother about it?")
Perhaps Dad was prepared to ignore the paranormal, but it fascinated me. Astrology, numerology, palmistry and such were obviously rubbish. UFOs, ghosts, sea serpents, ESP, the Loch Ness monster, yetis, and such deserved a serious look. So I figured at the time. My scepticism has expanded somewhat since then.
Time passed, and 1965 rolled around.
This time I was the one who saw something in the sky, along with a substantial portion of the city (then town) of Devonport, Tasmania. It was the same week the first Mariner probe flew past Mars, finding no canals, but photographing a series of meteor craters while artfully missing all the volcanoes. (Mars was thus considered geologically dead. Hearing this, all the newspapers reported there was no life on Mars, apparently figuring that dead was dead. No scientist argued the point.) I was coming home for lunch, when I noticed two motionless points of light in the sky -- like Venus in the early evening, only multiplied by two, and high in the noon sky. This was not too unusual. Passenger aircraft taking off from Pardoe Airport often caught the sun like that as they headed for the mainland. As they receded, the "Venus" effect would dwindle to a tiny sharp dot, which would vanish totally inside a minute or two. These two particular lights sat totally motionless and unchanging for half an hour. Then one of them went out! It did not dwindle of move, it just went out like a dimmer switch had been turned. (This piece of behaviour bugs me to this day.) Then another one came on, lower in the sky. It suddenly started to zoom faster than anything had a right to, towards the remaining light higher in the sky. Lacking the convenient theodolite Kenneth Arnold had in 1947 (when he started the whole "flying saucer" craze to start with), I cannot guess how far away they were. It just seems to me that such a velocity should have been impossible even for anything fairly close. Then both points of light faded away at the same time -- even the one in mid-zoom -- and did not reappear. There was no sonic boom.
A report of the lights appeared in the newspaper the next day, minus the part about the sudden motion. It seemed as if I was the only person who had watched them long enough to see that.
At night, still in the same week, my dog had just been let out to visit the back yard. As she was coming back into the house, the entire neighbourhood was lit up by a vivid blue-green light. Shadows of tree branches shot across the lawn, indicating that the source of the light was moving across the sky at high speed. It became incredibly bright, and went out. The whole thing did not take very long. Just enough time for me to go "What the --!" and look up...by which time it was gone. Only the dog had seen it -- she had looked straight at it, turning her eyes into brilliant blue-green discs -- but she was not talking.
If aliens are watching us from up close, the best way to do it would be with some sort of stealth craft, at night, with the lights switched off. All night sightings could be avoided if the aliens could just keep their manipulative digits off the light switches. (Do you suppose Douglas Adams struck the nail on the head with his Teaser theory?) What I (almost) saw that night had nothing to do with running lights. With sudden brightness like that, it was more like something exploded.
Similar lights at night were reported above Burnie, a city a little further to the west, and were explained in the newspaper as meteors. Which is reasonable enough and all very well, but the Burnie sightings did not happen the same night. What is so special about the northern coast of Tasmania that meteors burn out in the sky above it on nights two or three days apart? (I kept a diary in 1965. I tried to look it up while writing this article, but could not find the thing. I know it is here in my flat. I keep all my diaries together, but the ones I can find only start in 1967. The one place the diary can be, it isn't. I know I still have it. I remember re-reading it about five years ago. It can't be anywhere except where I keep the other diaries. Except it isn't! I hate it when things like this happen!)
I have never seen anything unusual in the sky, before or since that week.
Then came 1974.
In 1974, I photographed a UFO.
This happened in a west-bound train, somewhere between Adelaide and Perth. Beyond the window there was nothing, and lots of it all the way to the horizon. Although the said nothingness had been rained upon recently, making it greener than normal, it was still a boring journey.
In addition to lots of time, I had an 8mm movie camera and an interest in special effects. The motion of the train gave an interesting look to the lack of scenery outside, but not enough to justify the price of the film. A little something extra was called for.
(I shall refrain from saying, right here, what I did. Take a look at the photograph heading this article and make a guess. A link to a page that explains all is at the foot of this one.)
I fished out my Instamatic, and took a still photo while things were still set up -- but only one. Without motion, the image looked nowhere near as impressive as the movie version promised to be.
The free film from Agfa arrived some weeks later. With it came a letter explaining that a laboratory accident had destroyed the film of my Perth trip, and please accept the enclosed freeby as compensation. It brought to mind UFOlogist cries about cover-ups. Had my UFO been too realistic for someone?
(On cover-ups -- one official took to answering the question as to why the Air Force covered up UFO sightings with "To keep our budget small.." For years the UFOlogists claimed the cover-ups were to avoid world panic...although they have been telling people all along without causing world panic yet. By June 1988 however, the Australian UFO Bulletin was saying "There was, and still is, a fallacy that the public would panic.... No, the reason for the cover-up is much more ominous than that. ...Stanton Friedman shot very close to the mark when he said the single most significant aspect of UFOs from any government's point of view, is their potential to be adapted for military purposes." The article went on to speculate that both the USA and USSR had captured alien technology, but not enough to reproduce it, and needed to keep secret how much or how little they actually had. Agent Mulder would have felt at home reading all this.)
My own paranoiac notions in 1974 were not helped when I got around to collecting my still photos, and found Kodak had printed every single one except the UFO shot. (They did, however, process the negative concerned when asked to.) The explanation was that the picture was so fuzzy it was thought not to be worth printing. Interesting statement. Especially as one of the pictures thought worth doing was of pollution off the shore of Burnie, Tasmania. It had been taken from a light aircraft over the Bass Strait looking straight down. It was like an abstract, consisting of murky blotches of colour, and nothing else.
Another possibility has come forward in recent years. Somebody who likes taking photos of naked ladies tells me a number of his films also met "accidents" in the laboratory -- resulting in his learning to develop his own films. When a ship hit the bridge in Hobart many years ago, a man took a photograph as the span with cars on it dropped into the drink. He handed the film in for developing, and then spent weeks of fighting to get it back. He won in the end, and the photograph finally appeared in the papers. Which raises an alternative possibility for things often explained by conspiracy -- namely theft! Probably even by fellow believers. I wish now I had made more noise when my film did not come back from the developers.
Not a lot happened on the UFO front for some years.
Came November 1987.
Graeme Watt of the Australian Skeptics and John Auchetll of the Vic UFO Research Society presented their respective points of view at a room in the YWCA. Photographs were used. It seemed to me that rational explanations offered for the more unexplainable and blurrier shots were needlessly complicated.
Auchetll brought up the topic of computer analysis of photographs. (I had heard of this, and how on one occasion it had turned an impressive UFO into a Cessna aircraft.) I was intrigued. With examples, Auchetll showed that certain UFO photos were fakes, and how certain others seemed more authentic than ever.
After the talk I approached him with my UFO photograph. (No, I do not
go everywhere with the thing in my wallet. I had retrieved it from a collection
of old shots before leaving home.) It is difficult to remember what is
now a two year old conversation, (this part of the article has been retrieved
from another piece I did for the Australian Skeptics in 1989 -- don't you
love cut and paste function in word processing?) but I know I brought up
the sad fate of my movie film, and asked more about computer analysis.
Auchetll knew how to get it done, minus such things as the aforementioned
accidental loss of the evidence. Curious what an impartial analysis of
my photo would reveal, I handed it over. Right up front I admitted it was
a fake -- first mistake.
I know I gave my address -- I remember Auchettl writing it down. There is a vivid memory of him writing it on the back of the photograph. Memory lies. As it turns out, he did no such thing.
In my post office box there arrived a membership form for the Victorian UFO Research Society. I hadn't asked for it...but what the hell. I joined, duly received a few copies of the Australian UFO Bulletin, and let the membership lapse. No news of the photo in all this time.
I had lost Auchettl's address in the morass of printed material in my home, and it was quite a while before I had the brain-wave of looking it up in the UFO Bulletin. Whereupon the address I wrote down that evening in 1987 suddenly resurfaced. (Ever notice how hard it is not to find missing things when you no longer need them? There must be a paranormal explanation to explain this sort of thing.) I wrote away asking if I could get my photo back, and what any outcome of the analysis had been.
Back came the photograph, in March 1989, with interesting lines and
arrows added. They improved the overall look of the thing immensely. The
accompanying letter said (with spelling and capital letters faithfully
"Dear Mr Barnes,
"RE: COMPUTER TEST ENHANCEMENT ON FAKE UFO PHOTOGRAPH.
"Many thanks for your letter dated the 23 Feb 1989 that was received
via our P.O. BOX Number.
"A letter with information on your photograph was dispatched on the
4th May 1988 to the address supplied to me by you on that night, but within
10 days we had the said correspondence returned to us with a "Wrong Address"
attachment, and therefore by normal practice by the Society, no further
effort was made to follow up, and find the new address as this has proven
in the past to be a very time consuming process.
"A full computer test was carried out by the U.S. Scientific LAB for
us, and as indicated to you on the night, a 76 Test enhancement process
cost the me, $150.00 Australian.
"The results are now available on request for the above sum made out to my name and sent to either of the above addresses, if you wish to have them made available to you.
"I might just say they were not very impressive and unfortunately rather wasteful, never the less they were done for you.
"A copy of the Photograph is now in our DATA BASE for future reference and indexed.
"Please find enclosed the ONE original photograph you supplied.
"Unfortunately you address was not on the back of the photograph, as if it was we may have been able to dispatch the original back a lot sooner.
"My apologies for all the marking , this was necessary for the shipment and identification process in the U.S.
"Many thanks for your enquiry and assistance and I look forward to a
future reply in anticipation."
For the record: My postal address had been the same for ten years at this point! Further, I worked in the same post office that would have returned the letter. (If it managed to get that far. The envelope which finally did return the photo had my correct box number on it, but no suburb at all. But for the post-code, I would not have received this either.) Maybe there had been an error in writing down my address to begin with? I turned the photograph over.
The words "ID by owner as a fake" glared back at me. No address at all.
"ID by owner as a fake"? With that written on it, the analysers are going to write back and say "No, he's lying. It's genuine!"? Impartial analysis, obviously.
According to the smaller envelope enclosing the photo, the analysis had been done on an IBM/XT 1000, with a 10 meg hard disk, using an MS DOS Delt Visual Enhancement Program. GW Basic. This might sound impressive to someone who knows nothing about computers, but I am writing this on an IBM clone with a 32 meg hard disk, and which can also run GW Basic. I am not bragging (well, maybe a little), but my machine did not exactly bankrupt me, and from the description could do anything theirs could.
So where did that $150 figure come from? Maybe they are paying off very expensive software? An unmentioned hardware addition for scanning the photograph, which cost more than the $180 I paid to get mine? (1996 update, written on an even newer machine while the aforementioned computer is still present, unused and taking up space, so obsolete the second hand stores refuse to even look at it: My new flatbed scanner -- used to get my photo into this article -- set me back $1095 last year. What sort of scanner the UFO society used and how expensive it was when they bought it may help account for the fee.)
Perhaps such answers would be forthcoming with the report, but as much as I would like to know what it says, I do not want to shell out $150 to find out. Especially not for an analysis of something with "Fake" subtly written on the back. (It would be amusing if the computer explanation turned out to be wrong...but $150!)
That same year I wrote an article for the Australian Skeptics, who said they would use it, but are still sitting on it to this day.
And so things stand in 1996. Except more recently I was looking into the sky when a passenger aircraft flew between two clouds. The clouds looked incredibly far away, yet I could count the portholes on the aircraft. If I had never seen a passenger jet before and did not know what size one is, I would have said it was about the size of an ocean liner. How big was the thing Dad saw in 1952, really? And when all is said and done, what the heck was it anyway? It is a vivid picture in my mind, but is it the same as Dad's mental picture?. (There is a UFO report of a woman seeing a something in the sky, with portholes behind which things were looking back at her. There is another report of a man seeing something he describes merely as being like a really bright star. The reports are by husband and wife, who were looking at the same thing.)
Dad says the thing he saw slowed down between two clouds, as if slowing to look around. I have flown light aircraft, even flown between clouds. From the ground it might seem logical for something emerging from a cloud to stop for a moment to look about, but when you are up there, given the field of view you have, there is really no need, even if you could.
Asking Dad for more details is not much help. So many years after seeing the thing so briefly, all he remembers is something big, white, red, and fast.
Globe lightning has come to attention in more recent times. Do plasmoids come in disc shapes and multi-colours? Or was it a probe from Alpha Centauri or somesuch after all? Perhaps a secret government project with a working Dean drive, still classified even now? Maybe a time machine investigating a UFO sighting first reported in print in a 20th century science fiction fan magazine? (And if so are the time travellers going to return my missing diaries?) It had to be something. But what?
One of the nice things about fiction is that it usually has nice tidy endings. Which is more than you can say about life.