ROSWELL, N.M. - Something happened here, that much is certain. Something crashed outside of town. It even made the local paper on July 8, 1947: "RAAF Captures Flying Saucer on Ranch in Roswell Region." Next thing you know the military swoops in, cordons off the area, gathers up the mysterious debris, flies it out of town, covers the trail with a story about a weather balloon.
Believers say the saucer came from outer space and several aliens were killed.
Who knows? All the evidence is gone. Not a scrap of wreckage remains. No extraterrestrial corpses preserved in formaldehyde. No photographs of the aliens, the shattered craft or the debris that was scattered over nearly a mile of ranch land.
Yet thousands come here from all over the country, all over the world. They come seeking the truth of Roswell, where a tale of an alien landing first dropped out of science fiction and into the daily paper.
The visitors troop through the two - yes, two - UFO "museums," each featuring a thing atop its building that looks like a giant electric fryer. At one museum they peer into a glass case containing a dummy alien the color of concrete and Gulden's mustard. At the other they gawk at a room-size mock-up of a spaceship crash.
Hundreds pay a local rancher up to $15 to look at a spot about 30 miles north of town that might or not might be where something crashed. But there's no there there. Just a dry creek bed, a rocky embankment, mesquite, sagebrush and the four winds. If anything was there 50 years ago, it is long gone, vanished beneath a cloak of official secrecy.
"The Roswell Incident," you see, is nowhere and everywhere. Its tangible remains disappeared long ago, yet its grip on the American imagination is stronger than ever. Listen for its echoes in books, movies, television, the Internet. What a story. What a powerful one-two punch: the scientific/mythological appeal of UFOs coupled with the ever-dependable suspicion of government.
Like a religion, Roswellian mythology explains the unexplainable. The aliens have been here. The aliens are our salvation or our doom. We cannot be sure because the government lies. One must have faith. The millennium is upon us. Lights in the night sky are freighted with great meaning.
Last month 39 people in California were serious enough about the mystical portent of UFOs to bet their lives on it. They drank lethal cocktails of vodka and barbiturates so they could leave their bodies and reach a spaceship they believed was trailing the Hale-Bopp comet.
The Heaven's Gate suicide manifesto never mentions "The Incident" by name, but notes these Roswellian details: "It seems that we arrived in Earth's atmosphere between Earth's 1940s and early 1990s.
"We suspect that many of us arrived in staged spacecraft (UFO) crashes and many of our discarded bodies ... were retrieved by human authorities (government and military)."
Before dismissing the folks in Rancho Santa Fe as so many sad, misguided souls, consider this item from our Roswellian Zeitgeist: Newsweek took a poll last year and found that 49 percent of Americans believe the government is hiding evidence of alien landings.
Forty-nine percent. President Clinton did only one point better in his re-election.
At 50 years of age, the "The Incident" has become an American article of faith, or lack of it. Maybe the World War II generation wasn't ready to see our government through a glass darkly. Fifty years ago most folks probably figured a government secret was for your own good. For good reason. Such secrets won the war, no?
Now we have seen Vietnam, Watergate, Iran-contra, Ruby Ridge, Waco, Whitewater and an endless parade of assassination-conspiracy theories. We have seen the government dissemble about Persian Gulf syndrome and poison gas in Iraq. Government secrecy has a different meaning today.
In Roswell, the "museum" gift shops sell a sticker showing a gray extraterrestrial stamped "CLASSIFIED" across the face in red, framed by the words "THE GOVERNMENT IS LYING." Put that on your car and show the world you're clued in. Perhaps you'd prefer a T-shirt. Check the Internet under "alt.conspiracy" for this offer: "Anyone interested in conspiracy wear??? Would you like to own apparel to commemorate your favorite conspiracy and let the government know that you know? (ROSWELL, JFK, THE MOON LANDING, PEARL HARBOR, WATERGATE, WHITEWATER, ETC.) ..."
Ah, nothing like a good conspiracy to put things in order. Such stories pull meaning from chaos, dispel the terror of randomness. The conspiracy might be sinister, but at least it has a purpose. The chance act of violence, the lone gunman who kills for reasons known only to himself - that's really scary. Randomness defies the meaning of everything.
Now we stand on the threshold of the millennium - the turning of four digits on an earthly calendar, nothing more. Yet religious prophecies suggest this must mean something.