“Montana UFOs and Extraterrestrials,” by Joan Bird. Riverbend Publishing, Helena. Paperback, 230 pages. $14.95.
By DAVID CRISP - The Billings Outpost
Before my wife and I were married, we were driving back to Nacogdoches, Texas, after a picnic at Oil Springs late one afternoon when we saw a distant object slowly ascend into the sky, the way a weather balloon might. Then it did something no weather balloon has ever done: It came to dead stop, then took off like a jet airplane, disappearing into the distance.
UFO? Well, it certainly appeared to be an object. It was flying. And it was unidentified, at least by us.
But was there anything more to it than the bright confusion of a late afternoon, compounded by youth and susceptibility? Such unanswerable questions lie at the heart of “Montana UFOs and Extraterrestrials,” a new book by Joan Bird that takes a detailed look at reports of space aliens and flying objects in the Montana area.
Ms. Bird, who has worked as a conservation biologist and earned a doctorate in zoology and animal behavior, falls squarely into the camp of those who believe that odd occurrences in Montana skies may be attributable to visitors from other planets. Moreover, she finds the federal government perfectly capable of doing its best to hide evidence that she is right.
Her claims cannot be casually dismissed. This 230-page book is extensively documented, with a five-page bibliography, hundreds of footnotes, interviews with eyewitnesses and a respectable amount of skepticism about some of the more outlandish tales. Ms. Bird also is a writer compelling enough that she sounds sober and restrained even while relating jaw-dropping stories that pull the reader through the pages.
She begins with Montana’s most famous UFO sighting: a 15-second film made by Nick Mariana of flying discs near a baseball field in Great Falls in 1950. He showed the film to audiences in Great Falls before sending it to the Air Force for analysis. The Air Force concluded that nothing of interest was going on the film and also was the apparent source for a dismissive article in Cosmopolitan magazine.
Mr. Mariana sued for libel and claimed that the Air Force removed the most persuasive footage from his film before returning it to him. Debate over his film reverberated for years, in part because Mr. Mariana stuck to his story and because he could not be simply written off as a crank: He was a veteran, had a degree in journalism, was general manager of the Great Falls minor league baseball team and host of a popular radio show.
Today, his story lives on in the current name of the Great Falls team: the Voyagers, a team marketed with an alien mascot and a showing of Mr. Mariana’s film.
Other Montana stories of UFO sightings are less well known but more disturbing. Ms. Bird has found what she calls “convincing evidence” that UFOs have deactivated nuclear missiles in Montana, evidence that she says “belongs in our Montana history texts, in our American history texts, and in our world history texts.”
For example, she says that in March 1967, UFO sightings were reported near two missile sites close to Roy. For the next 24 hours, missiles at both sites were shut down with malfunctioning guidance and control systems. An investigation could determine no reason for the shutdown, she says.
Other chapters deal with better known, if less persuasive, phenomena. Ms. Bird has a chapter on crop circles, which she says have been reported as far back as 1686. She has a chapter on a Canyon Ferry sighting in 1964 that even she says appears to have been a hoax.
She concludes with two fascinating, if not entirely persuasive, accounts of face-to-face encounters with aliens, one in North Dakota and one close to Helena. In North Dakota, the 12-year-old son of a farmer reported finding a spaceship manned by aliens in a remote valley in 1932. He and his brother were invited aboard by aliens who could, supposedly, speak German, English and all other human languages.
The tour of the spaceship convinced the boys that the aliens had peaceful intentions but were concerned about humans’ capacity for destruction. One of the boys said he had several more encounters with aliens over the years and eventually wrote a book about his experiences, “UFOs Are with Us: Take My Word.”
In the Helena case, Udo Wartena reported a similar experience in 1940, which he described in a letter to former astronaut and U.S. Sen. John Glenn. There is no indication that Sen. Glenn responded to the letter.
So what is a perennial skeptic to make of all this? One is bound to wonder, for instance, why so many of Ms. Bird’s stories take place decades ago, a time when UFO interest was high and a post-war America was open to suggestions of international – and intergalactic – conspiracies. Why, in a time when practically everyone carries a camera around, do UFO reports seem less prominent? Perhaps, as Ms. Bird suggests, modern technology has made faking UFO sightings so easy that it is much harder to break through the noise.
Whatever one’s take on UFOs, Ms. Bird’s advice seems harmless enough: Don’t trust the government; pay attention to the sky; keep your mind open to possibilities outside ordinary human experience; rely on evidence rather than the opinions of others.
All of this shows up in a surprising way in one of the reasons Ms. Bird gives for the prevalence of UFO stories in this state: Montana newspapers have been unusually open to UFO stories over the years. In researching her book, she spent an impressive amount of time mining old newspapers for stories.
Perhaps reporters in rural states like Montana are just more eager than in other places to report stories that don’t involve drought, funerals or cattle prices. Or perhaps, as Ms. Bird says, “It’s possible that, at least in Montana, people are more open to hearing such news.”
If so, that ought to be good news for her interesting and unusual book.