When I pulled into the Holiday Inn Express around 4:15 pm, it was 103 degrees. The marquee read "Aliens Crashed Here in 1947. Now it's your turn." I had my reservation but there wasn't a hotel room left in almost the entire state. 50,000 - 100,000 people were expected. 30,000 tent sites were set up.
Like any good extravaganza, the 1997, citywide celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the flying saucer crash outside of Roswell, New Mexico, was complex with many moving parts and players. Extreme Americana sewn up with odd and otherworldly seams made a Big Top worthy of a circus only Ray Bradbury might conjure.
In this case, the locals set up the Big Top, and the the circus rolled in, infiltrating every nook and cranny of what one local teen described to me as a nowhere town. Roswell, spelled backwards, is Llewsor. Loser! That teenage, cowtown humor unfolded after a short gig in a dark bar just before a patron, who had lost her way, fell through a dropped ceiling panel onto the pool table. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My first gig was for Mayor Tom Jenning’s kickoff cocktail party at the Spring River Golf Course. The landscape glinted in the setting sun and my performance paled beside the, wow, powerful, majestic Mariachi Tenampa. I loved that early green and gold evening and those gracious, master musicians during what felt like the last, relaxing touch of familiar civilized life.
The overall event during the first week of July, was called ROWELL UFO ENCOUNTER ’97. The major producers were the City of Roswell, the Roswell Chamber of Commerce, the Roswell Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Roswell Daily Record.
As with most circuses, there were big rings, some main events, and a multitude of side shows.
The two big rings were the UFO Conference, held in the Pearson Auditorium at the New Mexico Military Institute, and the UFO EXPO at the Roswell Convention & Civic Center. I bought half a table at the Expo for my CDs and slipped over to the Conference at every free opportunity.
Pretty much everyone who was anyone in the serious world of UFOs was at the Conference including Stanton Friedman, Bob Dean, Bud Hopkins, Whitley Strieber, John Mack, and Erich von Däniken. It was truly a star-studded cast.
As for the Expo, well, it was a mishmash of alien and flying saucer crafts, toys, books, food stuff, people with tales to tell and theories to promote, and of course, my little spread of CDs which did not exactly attract much attention. That being said, it turned out that there really wasn’t that much attention to attract.
It was like this. In the booth to my right, was a compact, sinewy man with a shock of white hair, aggressively thrusting out fliers while sounding off, “I am not of this world! Jesus said, ‘I am not of this world!” His partner was a lithe woman in a full black cat suit including a cap with little ears and black whiskers greased across her cheeks, gracefully pawing the air. My booth partner to the left was a level headed man selling I can’t remember what but something practical. We rolled our eyes at each other on more than several occasions.
The artist, Rod Skenadore, appeared, introduced himself, and pulled up a chair. He talked with me about Earth Changes, trees, his life as a Sun Dancer and Medicine Man. I played him my song, Golden Needles. He taught me a ceremony to perform with shreds of tobacco to connect us across miles and years.
There were puppet shows and magic acts. There were many, many, many people from the press. In fact, several of us determined that there were more media people than there were general attendees and figured that the media was responsible for booking most of the hotel rooms. Nowhere near the expected attendance was met.
More reps from the press than shoppers stopped by. The attendance shrank daily but the press hung in. A local NPR affiliate interviewed me for their Sunday night show. The attractive, young Steve Friedman, who wrote a GQ column called “The Single Guy”, interviewed me briefly and complimented me on my singing at the mayor's golf course reception. I complimented him on his complexion. Classic. The upstanding David Galloway interviewed me for what I think was an early iteration of the Houston Chronicle online and bought a copy of my CD to add to their website. To put what online then meant into context, the big tech at the Expo was an AOL live chat session throughout the week.
My favorite interview was with Brit journalist, Tony Barrell, who was writing an article for the Sunday Times Magazine, and having a no holds barred blast at the festivities. His enthusiasm was contagious. He bought a copy of Souvenir which, come to think of it, was my only full CD to date, and sent me the Times article when it was published. A total pro.
Ah, and then there was the roaming film crew shooting what was to become Six Days in Roswell, Roger Nygard’s mockumentary extraordinaire. Although I can’t say that they interviewed me, Rich Kronfeld did shove his mic in my face at one point asking the inevitable question, “Do you believe?!” I was speechless, (rare!), but managed to snap some cute shots of the crew in a comeback.
As for the side shows, they were everywhere. Alien heads were everywhere. All of the signage in town referred in some way, shape, or form to the flying saucer crash, including the signage at the New Mexico Military Institute. One of the Christian church marquees read, ”Aliens? Maybe. God? Definitely!"
There was a UFO Cycling Classic, a 5K/10K Alien Chase, light shows and such at the Goddard Planetarium, a ribbon cutting for the new International UFO Museum and Research Center, and the Roswell Jaycees sponsored a time capsule burial at the William F. Brainerd Plaza. That plaza has since been removed and I can’t help but wonder what happened to the time capsule.
The costume contest was out of this world. Although the contest was not just for children, the children were adorable in their tiny, homemade imaginations. But then, the entire week was like walking through a costume parade. One day, on Main Street, I passed two zebra striped cloth centaurs with alien heads talking with an, I guess, normal teenager on the sidewalk. That sort of scene was around every corner.
Did I say it was hot? Some days hit 107º. The crowds shrank daily.
I’d booked as many gigs as I could come up with. Many of those were outside. I played at the aforementioned Coffee Bar, Peppers Grill and Bar (owned and operated by the fab Roe brothers). I played at some outdoor area set up by Parks and Rec, to several children hosing each other down on the lawn under the tent. The roaming film crew hung at the back, filming my performance. I’m pretty sure that I performed at a football field. More than once. I know that I played other places, but honestly, I can’t remember where. Except for the hangar.
I have the former mayor, Tom Jennings to thank for so many things including, probably, landing in Roswell at all, and certainly for many of my gigs. One of those gigs was on the 4th of July at the Roswell International Air Center.
The Roswell Daily Record, first to report the crash in 1947, sponsored the banquet in the hanger that allegedly stored the retrieved craft debris at what was then the Roswell Army Air Force Base. It wasn’t really the original hanger but close enough.
It was one hanger among many and they all looked the same to me and the entire center seemed deserted but someone finally flagged me down and guided me into the cavernous interior. It was totally cool but the sound was a mess and I couldn’t find anyone who knew the order of the evening’s programming.
An airplane hanger is not designed for musical acoustics. I couldn’t hear myself on the stage and no one could hear me. I worked out a program order with another scheduled musician, pulled the sound guy from the roaming film crew, and enlisted the GQ writer to be my ears at the back of the hanger. In the end, anyone who wanted to listen moved up to the edge of the stage and that was that. I did miss dinner but only because I wasn’t eating ostrich that year.
I suppose you could say that I opened for Whitley Strieber, because he took the mic when I was through. He began with comments about the noise in the hanger, ahem, and then proceeded to go on and on and on even as the weather changed and lightning flashed and thunder clapped. Well, then it rained like all get out. The hanger leaked. Huge puddles formed on the floor and I helped the Encounter organizer, Stan Crosby lift wires off the floor. By the end of Strieber's talk, the hanger was effectively flooded and everyone ran for the door. Needless to say, no CD sales but the Mayor, once again, made up some difference in an appropriate, generous way.
Before leaving the hanger, I did meet an Indonesian yellow streaked bird of some sort who was perched on its man’s shoulder. Naturally, I had to meet the bird, Rodin. It’s man said that it bit strangers and gave me hard, fast rules of procedure before transferring Rodin to my right finger. “Not near the face!” In no time, Rodin had worked his way up my arm, onto my chest and was grabbing my lips and teeth and regurgitating onto my shoulder and neck. The man's girlfriend was astounded. She said that it had taken months for the bird to be that intimate with her or the man's mother. Rodin then moved on to Streiber and proceeded to kiss him as well. It was all quite exciting.
Mayor Tom, his charming wife, Mia and I climbed into a 1942 Ford Jeep and drove through deep and muddy puddles to our cars. On my way back to the hotel, I navigated flooded streets while spotting glimmers of attempted fireworks.
Other close encounters included a sit down with Stanton Friedman. I was able to thank him for his interviews with many of the 1947 witnesses and for helping me to write my song which, of course, he couldn’t have done without having interview Major Jesse Marcel and his son.
I can’t remember the hotel where many of us congregated and mingled but there, I was chatting up some fellow who was asking me about my song. I mentioned that I’d quoted Jesse Marcel, Jr.’s account and the man said, “Hey! He’s my cousin! He’s right over there. I’ll introduce you!” He did and I spent the next couple of hours palling around with Jesse, who was an MD in Helena, Montana, and Lance Strong Eagle Crawford who’d delivered a talk at the conference on Indian cultural beliefs in relation to Extraterrestrials. My kind of fun.
Later, Jesse asked me to grab my guitar and bring it up to his hotel room. I did and from the desk chair sang some of his own words back to him, his wife, Linda, and a couple of their kids all nestled together in the king size bed. It was a spine tingling, beautiful moment. Almost eerie. He loved the song. I loved singing it to him.
In the end, UFO Encounter ’97, turned out to be more of a love fest than a circus. The big rings and side shows felt more like campfires under big enchanted skies.
So what if I didn’t make back my expenses? Big deal that I toted home boxes of CDs. Actually, I am not at all so cavalier. Money is important. A little too important. But money is just a symbol and form of energetic exchange, and the energy in Roswell for that 50th anniversary was pretty darn special. Special because of all the good souls, interesting, funny, weird and wonderful people connecting all around town stirring up frissons of captivating energy.
That’s probably the sort of thing that’s been attracting other worldly beings.
©2021 Suzanne McDermott (All Rights Reserved)
Read Part 1, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.
Next week, I'll tell you about the song growing up through its first twenty-five years. Make sure you're subscribed in the sidebar.
Listen to The Roswell Incident on YouTube, iTunes, Spotify.