Strange Skies

Jerome Clark. Strange Skies: Pilot Encounters with UFOs. Citadel Press, 2003.

Herein Jerry Clark tells the stories of some well-known and some lesser known cases of pilots encounters with UFOs. It is by no means an uncritical study, and Clark does not join the queue, for example, of those who would try to repackage the Mantell case as a 'genuine UFO'. The comments on tales of aircraft being shot down or abducted by UFOs are generally sensible. Sometimes the reader can go further than Clark, for example in the Kinross case involving a plane crash, the suspicion that some secret US aircraft was involved somewhere along the lines is pretty inescapable. The strange tale of Hunruth and Wilkinson and their connection with Adamski and Williamson provides a sort of noir comic relief

How ever, the bulk of the stories are presented as unexplained UFO cases, and as recounted counted here many seem very puzzling indeed. Of course other versions sometimes tell different stories and several of these cases have been subjected to detailed 'sceptical' analysis by Klass and others. Of course Clark is by no means obliged to accept such explanations, but surely he should let readers be aware of their existence, and perhaps argue against them point by point, rather than just ignore them.

Pelicanists and other sceptics might point out that Clark often takes the language witnesses use in their descriptions (or ufologists' glossing of them) very literally, and fails to come to grasp with the problematic nature of human perception, memory and narration.

To be frank neither the ETH nor simple misperception seem very plausible explanations for what is recorded here: for example many of the images that are described represent a past age's idea of 'alien spaceships'. See for example the Chiles-Whitted 'double decker rocket ship' (one can almost visualise the SF pulp mag cover from which that image came). Try as one might, the idea of a 'magic technology' which goes flying around buzzing aircraft makes no sort of sense. Surely a technology capable of interstellar travel would be able to learn everything about the earth it needed from far out beyond the Oort cloud, or could use nanotechnological probes which would hide in the household dust, and not have to get in the way of the air lanes.

Equally, though there some stories from later years, the vast bulk of the cases recounted here come from the 1940s and 1950s. With the huge increase in air traffic since, surely the bulk of the cases should come from recent years? There are a number of possible clues: for example most cases come from a time when a high proportion of pilots would have had war experience, when it would have been vital to think of any ambiguous stimuli in the sky as a possible enemy aircraft. The human perceptual process appears to have an inbuilt tendency to interpret any ambiguous stimuli as a possible predator. so UFOs become a new scientific version of the universal predator.

This early post-war period with its adapting of bomber design for passenger transport, was the start of civilian air transport: still a pioneer field, and flying was still a 'wondrous experience' rather than a dull routine. Just as the open road had its headless horsemen and phantom hitchhikers, and the sea had its phantom ships and sea serpents, so the new domain of the air had its own images reminding the traveller that this was a liminal zone of wonders and prodigies.

At times Clark seems to grasp some of the complexities; for example he reports a case in Puerto Rico in which crowds of people reported aircraft being abducted or otherwise swallowed up by a huge flying triangle. No aircraft were reported missing, and he accepts that nothing of the sort could have taken place, so what did people see? Perhaps this is a modern version of the old tales of armies clashing in the night sky.

The more literal-minded might consider that if pilots reported encounters with objects that behaved like ultra-high performance aircraft, then that is what they saw. At least some of these stories probably reflect encounters wtth a variety of experimental craft. Lovers of science fiction and political thrillers will no doubt be able to provide all sorts of more exotic non-ETH alternaticcs.

The core of this book, and of Clark's vision, lies in the peroration towards the end:
"If life is evenwhere, as many astronomers are convinced it is, and the galaxy is teeming with advanced civilizalions, it more be more becomes reasonable to expect visitors from elsewhere than not to. If this proves to be so, then perhaps future generations will see Alfred Loeding, the probable author of the pro-ETH estimate of the situation, as one of the great visionaries of the twentieth century - a prophet like so many others, without honour in his time. Maybe the pilots and other credible observers who reported cigars, discs and other ostensibly unearthly craft will get their due, their intelligence and good sense no longer dishonoured by patently inadequate efforts to transform their experiences into trivial misidentifications.." (p217)
See what this is saying? First there is the proclamation of faith in the ubiquity of technological modernity and of endless technological progress. The galaxy is not full of philosophers, poets, theologians, artists, to say nothing of forms of alien 'intellectual activity' which no human being could ever grasp. No, it is full of Americans; the American way is the cosmic way. At last I understand why Clark treats his New Ufology period as a sort of heresy, equivalent almost to pissing on the flag. It was a period of doubt in the future of the American way, a loss of faith every bit as traumatic as that of the priest who finds he can no longer say mass.

Counterpoised against that is Clark's populist proclamation of the wisdom of the folk versus the knowingness of the intellectual elite, playing the part of William Jennings Bryan against Carl Sagan's Clarence Darrow. Its not the simple clash between reactionary old fuddy duddy and wise savant that the movie portrayed, but something more complex: whether socialists and radicals should believe that the masses should learn from an enlightened elite, or that the elite should go down into the fields and factories to learn from the masses. No coincidence that Sagan came from the city and Clark from the country. As with music, in ufology Clark looks to the folk as a source of authenticity. Remember his objections to "the cult of librarianship in Ufology"?

As a country boy, Clark's vision of modernity has always had an equivocal tone: his early UFO essays include several promoting dubious UFO hostility stories, and in his new ufology phase he lamented the disenchantment of the modern technological world. Later he became a half believer in the genetic nightmares of Budd Hopkins. Like many young people from the American heartland Clark lost his childhood faith at high school and college, but cannot fit quite into the cold, disenchanted modern world either. The solution, the ET visitants, signifiers of the ubiquity of the modern technological way, manifest themselves in our environment as sources of transcendent wonder. The pilots and others who witness them, give not such much testimony as a testament. The transcendent truth to which they testify, the gospel they proclaim is that life, our form of life, symbolically our future will live long and prosper. That is why the ETH is Clark's "candle in the dark". -- Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, first published in Magonia 83, December 2003.

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