Julie Wittes Schlack Click to

Julie Wittes Schlack has written book reviews for the Boston Globe and won a Hopwood Award for fiction.  Her work has appeared in The Literary Review, The Louisville Review, The Dos Passos Review, Eleven Eleven, The Ledge, The South Carolina Review, Tampa Review and others.  By day, she leads the innovation team for a consumer collaboration company; by night she is completing an MFA program at Lesley University.

It was a bright, moonlit Sunday night on March 14, 1966, when Frank Mannor’s dogs began barking frantically. Frank and his nineteen-year-old son Ronnie went outside their ramshackle farmhouse to investigate.  In the distance they saw lights and a faint red glow, “like a cigarette being smoked,” and set off over the rolling farmland to investigate. Frank thought that perhaps a meteorite had crashed nearby, and hoped to find some fragments. Instead, what he and Ronnie saw hovering about eight feet above the swampy ground was an oval object about the length of a car, with a hump in the middle and a light at either end. Its surface was textured and rough, “like coral rock.”  As Frank and Ronnie got closer, the entire object glowed red. Then it went dark. When the pair got to the spot where they’d seen it, the object was gone.

Meanwhile, back in the house, Frank’s wife, Leona, called the police department in  nearby Dexter, Michigan. Three Dexter policemen and two Washtenaw County deputy sheriffs sped to the scene, along with dozens of nearby residents who’d heard about the sightings via the Mannors’ eight-household party line.

I wish I could say that I remember hearing their sirens that night. I don’t, but I could have from our house, halfway between the college town of Ann Arbor and the farming hamlet of Dexter.

Though Frank never saw the object take off, the policemen did. They reported that it made sweeps in the air about 1000 feet up — “like a pendulum,” one said — its lights flashing, first white, then red. As it zipped through the sky, the witnesses described it as sounding like a ricocheting bullet, others like the keening of an ambulance. And most reported seeing three other similar objects join it, then all fly off in a tight formation.  Washtenaw County Sheriff Doug Harvey ordered all available deputies to the scene. Six patrol cars, two men in each, and three detectives surrounded the area and eventually chased a flying object along Island Lake Road without catching it.

At around 1:00 AM, William Van Horn, a civil defense director, and dozens of students watched an object matching Mannors’ description swoop, hover, and fly near the University of Michigan campus, a nearby airport and a local swamp. Starting at 3:50 AM, the Washtenaw County’s Sheriff’s Department started getting calls from sheriff’s deputies in Livingston and Monroe counties saying that they were seeing a formation of four flying objects diving, rising, and flying at fantastic speeds. The Livingston County officials were in turn receiving phone calls from local citizens reporting the same. The Monroe County officials called Selfridge Air Base, northeast of Detroit, and were told that they’d detected some objects over Lake St. Clair, but were unable to identify them. “The Air Base called Detroit Operations and were to call this Dept. back as to the disposition,” the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department log notes, but apparently no call ever came.

For the next seven days, people saw these UFOs again in and around Dexter, Ann Arbor, and the small town of Milan, Michigan. Professor J. Allen Hynek, a Northwestern University astrophysicist who consulted with the military, was sent to Dexter to investigate. “He came into my office,” Sheriff Doug Harvey recounted forty years later. “We went out to the site where supposedly this object came down on the ground. Dr. Hynek in the car said, ‘There is something. We just can’t put our finger on it. We’ve been investigating this for quite a while. ” After speaking with Frank and Robbie Mannors and tromping through the area where they claimed to have seen the object land, Hynek and Harvey returned to Harvey’s office. Hynek went to a private room to make a phone call to Washington, D.C. When he emerged, his uncertainty had vanished.

“It’s swamp gas,” he announced.

Mannors was outraged. He’d been in the army in Louisiana, he said, and seen swamp gas often. This wasn’t swamp gas. But Hynek stuck to his story, and though there continued to be reports of UFO sightings in southeastern Michigan through the next two years, they became more infrequent and suspect.

Still, sitting on the damp grass on late spring nights in 1968, my first year of high school, my friends and I would scan the sky in a hopeful search for unearthly objects.

“Okay, so assuming there are intelligent beings out there, why in God’s name would they come here?” Jeff asked. Though some mistook his tone for arrogance, Jeff was so much smarter than most people that he was just perpetually astonished at what came out of their mouths. “For the weather?”

“Maybe they’re just being neighborly,” Diana offered, “like Andy Griffith. You know, ‘Howdy, friend. Welcome to the galaxy.’”

“Oh, so we should just open the door to the planet, invite them in, and offer them meatloaf?”

Diana looked at me in amazement. “Meatloaf?”

“Isn’t that what you Americans eat? Okay, what, cookies? A beer?”

“Maybe they came to borrow some sugar,” she mused.

“Or maybe they came to be taken to our leaders so they could haul their dumb,
war-mongering asses to another planet.” Though capable of humor, John rarely displayed it.

“Seriously, why would aliens come here, to this planet?” Jeff persevered. “For water? To take specimens?”

“Maybe we’re the only intelligent life forms around, besides them,” I offered.

“God, that’s frightening.”

“They’re much more likely to be some new kind of low-flying bomber or surveillance plane,” John, his deep voice at odds with his slight physique, doggedly stayed on track. “The kind of thing the government will never admit to.”

“Spy-o-rama,” Diana said. She’d recently taken to adding “o-rama” to a wide array of nouns and verbs. I thought she was incredibly witty.

“Maybe they’ve come to watch television?” Jeff offered.

John elaborated. “Maybe watching us is like watching television, like flipping between war movies and Green Acres.”

Diana dreamily suggested, “Maybe they’ve come for a delicious Stuckey’s Pecan Log Roll.”

In Diana and Jeff and John and a handful of other smart, irreverent, and highly political kids, I’d finally found my people. We’d all come from somewhere else; none of us had lived in Ann Arbor for more than five years. We all deplored violence, hated the war, smoked just a little pot, scorned our dim and ancient teachers, mistrusted our young and “relevant” ones, and made damn sure to do well in school nonetheless. Jeff read Alan Watts, Diana read Borges, John read science fiction tomes, and I was enamored of Anais Nin. (Though I’m now the writer, they had much better taste.) And though it wasn’t something any of us had aspired to, we’d been catapulted from outcast status in our respective junior highs to being in the cool kids in high school.

My house, situated on a hill at the end of a dirt road outside of town, had become our default gathering spot, though “house” is an exaggeration. My parents and brother and I lived in the large, bottom floor of a home that an antique dealer, Leroy Darwin, had built for his wife, Mary Lou, just before divorcing her. She lived on the upper floor with their five-year-old daughter, Vicky Lou, whose name she pronounced “Vickaloo,” as if she was an Indian dish. We had only one other house within sight, occupied by Lew and Judy and their daughter, Vicky Lynn, who was also five and could have been Vicky Lou’s brown-eyed twin.

My mother had furnished the apartment with items bought at auction – a giant oak dining room table that doubled as a desk, a giant green leather wing-backed chair, a ramshackle wooden tea cart that my father repainted the color of a tired winter sky. Because the house was built into a hill, the basement had sliding glass doors in the living room, flanked by two life-size ceramic chickens. From the Turkish-print couch, we looked out on a lawn so large that Leroy had to mow it in his tractor. “Lawn,” too, is a bit misleading. It was really just a sloping field with a giant uncultivated meadow to the right of it. The incline was so steep and the patch of trees at the base so dense that when my mother’s 1963 Dodge Dart slipped out of gear, it rolled down the hill and was so thoroughly swallowed by the trees that she reported it as stolen.  The police came, but it was  Leroy who discovered it several days later on his final pass across the lawn.

Forty miles from the Motor City, practically every high school kid with a license also had  a car, and since neither of my parents got home until dinner time, my friends were there most days after school.  With its rural setting and oddball décor, with its abundance of stereo equipment courtesy of my Uncle Herbie and big starry sky outside, that house was the perfect incubator for our emerging sensibility. We were attuned to all that was ironic and all that was deplorable; we loved to ponder the Big Questions and to mock ourselves for doing so.

Our generally absentee landlord, Leroy, a wiry, belligerent guy, was an up-and-comer with the foresight to buy up big tracts of undeveloped land in anticipation of Ann Arbor’s suburban sprawl. He made it clear at every opportunity that he hated Commie hippies, and our neighbor, Lew, was only slightly more tolerant of the long-haired, bell-bottomed peaceniks traipsing in and out of our house.

But their wives were curious. A farm girl from Dexter, now installed in her husbandless house on the hill and living on alimony payments whose generosity reflected Leroy’s desire to show what a big man he was, Mary Lou seemed perpetually baffled about what she was supposed to do. Judy, a townie from Ann Arbor, was as down-to-earth as Mary Lou was dazed.  Out in the sticks, stuck at home with Vicky Lou and Vicky Lynn all day, the two of them would whip up big batches of Snickerdoodle cookies and bring them to us as at dusk. They’d tap on the sliding glass doors when my friends and I were hanging out in the living room, then come in bearing mass quantities of deviled eggs on platters adorned with pastel-colored crepe paper. On weekends or late at night, they’d randomly offer us limp hot dogs in Wonder Bread buns. I realize now that they weren’t much older than us, and perhaps a bit envious of … what? Our unencumbered state? Our certainty? At times, it seemed what they really coveted was our knowledge.

“The South Vietnamese people don’t want us there,” I’d earnestly explain. “This war is being fought for the benefit of Dow Chemical and Bank of America, not for us.”
“Yeah, and the South Vietnamese government is a puppet regime. They’ve slaughtered thousands of their own people,” John would elaborate.

Mary Lou would brush back her hair with a flour-coated hand, and look at us with wide gray eyes. “Really? That’s terrible,” she’d say, with exactly the same tone of genuine distress as I’d told her that we were out of butter.

Judy was more skeptical.  “Who gave you the inside scoop?” she’d ask between drags on her Virginia Slim cigarette. But she wouldn’t listen to our answers; she was more interested in who was singing on that record we were listening to, or why Diana would want to leave Michigan for San Francisco, or how much a nickel bag of pot actually cost. She wasn’t wowed by our worldliness, but she knew privilege when she saw it, and wanted to understand it better.

We already had a well-defined sense of Us and Them by the middle of our high school careers. Leroy, with his bristly crew cut and America: Love it or Leave It sticker emblazoned on the bumper of his Oldsmobile Cutlass, was Them. Sheriff Harvey, with his football player physique and practice of busting hippy panhandlers and cutting off their hair before releasing them from jail (or what the underground press referred to as “Harvey’s Pigsty”) the next morning, was Them. The farmers of Dexter, with their limp and faded American flags hanging over sagging porches and their lack of outrage at their own poverty – they were Them.

But our neighbors Mary Lou and Judy and the two Vicky’s in their tow-headed wildness, were harder to silo. When Vicky Lou started first grade, Mary Lou decided to get out of the house. She enrolled in a poetry class at Washtenaw Community College, and took up with the professor who taught it. He was blind, but had once been sighted. His mass of curly hair and thick, droopy mustache seemed cultivated to resemble Kurt Vonnegut. Only the dark glasses derailed the overall look.  Mary Lou took obvious delight in driving him around town with the top down on her rust-colored Mustang convertible. I’d babysit some nights so she could go out with him, and when they’d come home, she’d insist that I stay and have a glass of wine, then listened with a stillness that may have been fascination, but more likely sleepiness, as he and I talked about whether Catch-22 was the new Catcher in the Rye. She was the only non-jerk in the kitchen on those nights.

Sometimes after Vicky Lou had gone to sleep, Mary Lou would join us as we lay on that vast mowed lawn, gazing up at the sky. And one night, our vigilance almost paid off. A bluish-white disc of light appeared on the horizon at around 8 pm, arcing upward until it was almost overhead, then dropping back down. At first we were mystified, then excited. But the dim and fuzzy light was just that – light – seemingly without mass. Bored within minutes, Jeff concluded that it couldn’t be a UFO, so we went inside to drink hot chocolate and listen to the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The ever-so-slight mystery of the light would be solved the next day when we learned that a new car dealer on Plymouth Road had set up a searchlight to attract people from the tri-county area to see the great new selection of 1969 Chevrolets for themselves.

I remember this specific car lot, because it was adjacent to Elias Brothers’ Big Boy restaurant, a hamburger place that was very easy to find thanks to the thirty-foot tall statue in its parking lot of a big, apple-cheeked, blue-eyed boy with a bizarrely asymmetrical black pompadour. He wore red checkered shorts, suspenders, and a white tee shirt, and held aloft a plate containing three buns separated by hockey pucks meant to evoke hamburgers. “Home of the Original Double Decker” said the sign behind him. Four years earlier, my parents had left Montreal ahead of us to find and furnish our first apartment, and when my aunt, uncle, three cousins, my brother, and I finally arrived in Ann Arbor after about a ten hour drive, this was the first landmark we saw. My car sick brother baptized our new home by violently retching at the Big Boy’s feet, bestowing it with a symbolic value that I grasped even then.

“So what is a light year,” Mary Lou asked shyly one night.

“It’s the distance that light travels in one year,” Jeff promptly answered. “And since light moves incredibly fast – something like 186,000 miles per second – a light year is a really long way away, something like 6 trillion miles.”

“They say UFOs come from places hundreds of light years away,” Mary Lou continued. “How could aliens stay alive for the time it would take to get here?”

John had an answer. “One theory is that their spaceships are complete ecosystems where they can grow their own food and produce their own water and reproduce, for generation after generation.”

“So they live their whole lives in a flying saucer?” Mary Lou asked.

“Sounds great, doesn’t it?” Jeff laughed. “The same people, the same three meals, the same view out the porthole. ‘Look! Stars!’”

“Snooze-o-rama,” Diana offered.

“I dunno,” Mary Lou said off-handedly. “Sounds like my life.”

Though my friends and I looked for UFOs at the end of the 1960s, we were driven more by the casual desire for something new or cool than by real yearning. Life on earth was fascinating enough. We were insatiably interested in ourselves and each other, in music and connection and rebellion, in the big mysteries of existence as well as the smaller, local ones. A serial killer, for example, was raping and murdering brunettes in the area – a two-year period in which my parents were hyper-vigilant about my safety and I blissfully was not. Peter, the red-haired, really nice (and, I realize in retrospect, really gay) classmate seemed to want to go out with me one day, then not the next.

Under cover of darkness, somebody was cutting down Stuckey’s billboards on the stretch of highway between Ann Arbor and Toledo, Ohio.  Stuckeys — a restaurant chain popular in the South and Midwest, and at that time, in Southeastern Michigan — was almost as ubiquitous at highway exits as McDonald’s is today. Perky red italics below the logo invited desperate travelers to Relax, Refuel, and Refresh! Behind the gas pumps, adjacent to every Stuckey’s restaurant was a “world famous” Pecan Shoppe. There you could buy not just tins and boxes of nuts, but nougat-and-nut concoctions so petrified and dense that they put ancient redwoods to shame.

“Who are the Billboard Bandits?” asked the Ann Arbor News sometime in 1969, when the numerous Stuckey’s billboards lining the highway began thinning out. Whoever was cutting them down sent no letters to the media; they left no message beyond the act itself. And somehow, over the course of about a year, they never were caught. Some speculated that they were engaged in some form of corporate warfare, others that these were simple vandals. Though there were far more politically or morally egregious targets out there, I felt a frisson of delight each time another Stuckey’s sign hit the asphalt without the axe men being nabbed.

“It’s definitely a statement,” I said to my friend, Arnie. He was a quiet, quirky guy whose deeply subversive outlook was belied by his short hair, bland expression, and standard uniform of button down shirts and khaki pants. Arnie was another regular after-school visitor, bearing spacy, avant garde LPs he thought I should listen to and love.

“What’s the statement saying?” he asked.

“That our patriotic, artificial, sugary culture is coming down.”

“A-plus, Julie,” he said, smiling slightly. “Give that girl a gold star.” Then we fell back into silence and resumed listening to King Crimson.

I never knew what Arnie expected of me in those visits, if he expected anything at all. I couldn’t tell if he just liked me “as a friend” – lacerating words, though fine in Arnie’s case, since that’s how I liked him – or if he was simply too shy to “make the first move” (another term repeatedly used in frustrated or despairing conversations with close friends, as in “When is he going to make the first move?”). Sometimes I just thought he liked the quiet surroundings of my house, or our record player, or my parents’ jazz collection.

But whatever his motives, Arnie was reliable. He’d join our contingent at local anti-war rallies, hand out leaflets supporting our Student Union candidates for the Pioneer High School Student Council, and author well-researched articles about enfranchised minors or progressive education for our high school underground newspaper, The Foundation of Every State.

“No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors,” he earnestly wrote, quoting Paolo Freire in one of our last issues before graduating.  “The oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.”

We’d had a showdown with Mr. Eastman, the Assistant Principal, over that issue. The first page featured a photograph of a bare-bottomed woman at the top of a stairway, bent over and peering between her legs. Her ample derriere filled most of the frame, and I was inordinately proud of the headline that I’d written to accompany the image: “Looking Back on a High School Education.”

“If it goes out, so do you,” the normally, if falsely, jovial Mr. Eastman declared.  My fellow editors and I, all a semester away from college, having variously been suspended for smoking or walking out in protest of the war, or, in the case of my friend Carol and I, for wearing pants to school in defiance of a dress code, were unwilling to face another suspension.

“So much for being our own example in the struggle,” Arnie muttered as we skulked out of Mr. Eastman’s office. That was as close to being visibly angry as I’d ever seen him. But despite his lack of flash, Arnie seethed inside.

I never knew how much until a slate-skied evening at the end of that year, when he invited me to look at something in the immaculate white Plymouth Valiant parked outside my house. The air was damp, and the creak of the hinge was the only sound as he opened his trunk and pointed. Nestled inside were a gas-fueled power saw, an axe, and a sliver of a Stuckey’s billboard.

In a stand-up routine from the 1980s, comedian Joan Rivers wondered why aliens always chose to reveal themselves only to drunken hunters and farmers. Unlike today, rural people didn’t yet signify The Heartland and all that was right and pure with America. The fashion until the Reagan administration was to typecast them as ignorant crackers, a stereotype shockingly apparent in the derisive tone of the 1966 Life magazine article about Frank Mannors, the Dexter man who set off the first in the series of UFO sightings that year.

“Frank should have been born in the days of Dan’l Boone,” it begins. “Since he wasn’t, he’s on the unemployment. Still, he’s a happy man.” The article goes on to itemize the Mannors’ home – an ancient refrigerator with an external cooling coil on top, an outside water pump and privy, and four junked cars on cinderblocks out front. It paints Mannors as a bad-tempered Gomer Pyle, with none of the homespun wisdom.

“That wasn’t no foxfire or hullabillusion,” Mannors insisted two weeks after his UFO sighting. “It was an object. Maybe it’ll come back if all these people would stay away and we could get a picture and have verication of it. Anybody wants to give me a lie-detector test, I’ll take it.”

Nobody wanted to test Mannors veracity. But Sheriff Doug Harvey believed in it. Forty years later, he’d say, “Dr. Hynek was sent in from the U.S. government. He came into my office. We went out to the site where supposedly this object came down on the ground. Dr. Hynek in the car said, ‘There is something. We just can’t put our finger on it. We’ve been investigating this for quite a while.’ He was on the phone for quite a while, which I found very enlightening. He came out and I said, ‘Well, Dr. Hynek. What do you think?’ He said, ‘It’s swamp gas.’ He tells me one minute he has no idea what it is. And then he makes one phone call to Washington and comes out and gives a statement that it’s swamp gas. Very strange.”

“They did see something,” Harvey told an interviewer. “I’ll believe this to the day I die. Somebody has kept something quiet, and nothing more ever materialized. So we don’t know if it was the government experimenting, or was it really a UFO. I don’t know.”

Jailer Doug Harvey, overseer of Harvey’s Pigpen, short-hair enforcer, head-busting keeper of the peace, is no longer emboldened by certainty. Forty-six years later, he now believes in government cover-ups. He and The Billboard Bandit turn out to have something in common. Arnie is now one of the country’s foremost authorities on the Freedom of Information act. The Sheriff who was an arm of the State has become a Libertarian, alienated from the authorities he once served; the boy I knew who thrived on subversion has become a man who champions transparency and Americans’ inalienable rights.

And what of Vicky Lou and Vicky Lynn? Did they marry at eighteen, surrender to the powerful pull of the familiar, and disappear into silent woods? I don’t know. But as I have become ever more rooted with age, I like to think that their mothers’ unruly curiosity took seed in them, blowing them to new, alien landscapes.