The Levelland Whatniks
The night after Thanksgiving, I met up with a group of my high school friends. During a discussion when someone mentioned, for some blurry reason, the artist Pablo Picasso, I hummed a few bars of a song. The song is somewhat obscure, but the lyrics are clear: "Women would turn the color of the avocado when he [Pablo Picasso] would roll down their street in his El Dorado." One of my friends seemed a bit startled that I, with my total lack of musical knowledge, knew of this song.
What's really weird about this story is that the next day I sat down to watch a movie, Repo Man, that I'd gotten for my birthday three months earlier. That song is in there, shortly after a mechanic delivers a line about how coincidences are really a manifestation of the fact that the entire universe is connected on some deep, psychic level.
So imagine my surprise when I saw an article on MSN asking whether or not military satellites could jam garage door openers. A few days earlier, during my tireless efforts to keep you, the reader, informed on the insanity that is the UFO phenomenon, I'd read an article from 1957 about a New York man who claimed that the Sputnik satellite was opening and closing his garage door from space. Does this prove the mechanic right, that coincidences permeate the universe in service of some greater power? Maybe. Maybe not. But it certainly gives me a good opening to begin talking about the Levelland Whatniks.
The insane garage (or for those of you from New Jersey, "car hole") claims of the New York doctor were one of the first great UFO-related tales of 1957. They especially serve to illustrate the mindset of the time: Every red-blooded American at the time was terrified that the Reds and their tiny bleeping satellite had the power to wreak electronic havoc on the entire world. And I mean terrified.
Remember how for a few months, everyone on the face of the Earth put their mail through the microwave to kill anthrax spores? My sister worked at a CD store then, and while stocking an album by heavy-metal band Anthrax, she made the mistake of saying their name out loud. There was a stampede for the door. Multiply that fear by ten, and that's how paranoid people were about the Soviets.
And this is the stage upon which the inhabitants of Levelland, Tex., acted their parts. Paul Saucedo (or Saucido, depending on which account you read) was driving home from work one day when his car failed. The headlights went out and the engine died; a few minute later, the truck started normally and he continued his drive. However, at his destination, he made a claim that was greeted with the electrifying terror reserved today for shouting "bomb" at an airport: He claimed that a strange object had flown over his car, causing the failure.
The object rose from a nearby field wreathed in a yellow-white light. Estimated at 200 feet long, it traveled across the road at about 700 miles an hour, leaving behind a trail of smoke and flames. That's when the car died, and as soon as the thing was out of sight, it started again. This flying thing later gained a number of different names: the Whatnik, the Ghost Rocket, so on and so forth.
We'll get to what Saucedo, the driver, thought in a minute. The townsfolk were convinced that a UFO, quite obviously of outer-space origin, was cruising the town and ruining the electrical systems of cars. That day, four more reports came in of a UFO causing electrical failures in automobiles; years later, the total had grown due to backdating (people claiming in, for example, 1965, that in 1957 they'd been in Texas and a UFO had busted up their cars).
For his part, Saucedo didn't think it was a UFO. He thought it was some sort of new rocket or missile being tested by the military. Remember, this was the Cold War; our government was testing crazy weapons in every town in every state. The fact that the object left a trail of smoke and flames certainly makes it seem a bit abnormal to our modern concept of sleek, silent, floating-and-hovering spaceships.
But if it wasn't a UFO, what caused Saucedo's vehicle to poop out on him? Well, upon further investigation, he'd had the truck in for service the day before, and the mechanic left a broken piece in the engine, which shattered, shorted out the electrical system, and killed the car. Unless UFOs can break metal parts from long range, there is, and let me be absolutely, unequivocally clear on this, no reason to believe in anything other than a perfectly human explanation to this.
I know the UFO enthusiasts won't concede even this point to me. I get the impression they view me as a sort of vulgar Don Quixote. But let's imagine for a moment that the world was a softer place, that my pretty friend wasn't leaving for the West Coast, and that the UFO enthusiasts would listen to reason. If so, I'd still have to explain the other four witnesses that reported their cars stalling.
Their names were James Long, Jim Wheeler, Jose Alvarez and Frank Williams. For some reason, they are considered witnesses of the highest caliber; any analysis of the Levelland case is likely to refer to them with words such as honest, sincere, truthful, sober or reliable. The fact that prisons are filled with honest, sincere, truthful men notwithstanding, the UFO enthusiast neglects to mention that all we know about what happened to these men comes from a phone call each of them placed to a UFO investigator.
They were never interviewed by the police, the Air Force or other reputable sources; we have but their claims, telephoned to a single UFO investigator, on which to hang their veracity. Let me call forth all of my powers of understatement and say that I feel this is insufficient justification to take their word for it.
So what do I think happened? Well, we've established that the United States was in the grip of absolute, bone-jarring fear of the Soviet Union. Throw in one guy who claims a UFO stopped his car, and that's a soup sure to breed hoaxes, false claims, simple misunderstandings and paranoia-induced misidentifications.
Let me put it this way: I have a car, and it acts oddly, say, twice a year. There were, let's say, 10,000 people in Levelland. There are 365 days in a year. That means, assuming that car breakdowns are evenly distributed around the year, there should be 54 people whose cars are behaving oddly. Assume that when their cars break down, about 10 percent look up, see something odd in the sky, and become convinced space aliens want to make them late for supper. Assume that there are one or two people willing to hoax local townspeople, and you've got the Levelland sightings.
Saucedo's car broke for purely human reasons. His description of the object, which not even he believed to be from outer space, sounds only remotely like what modern UFO enthusiasts claim flying saucers should look like. The other witnesses are unreliable at best and were never properly investigated. America was in the grips of a wave of fear and paranoia.
I hate to be needlessly combative, but UFO enthusiasts, you're going to have to come up with something with a bit more meat on its bones to convince me of space monsters.
Be seeing you.