Originally published in UFO Matrix magazine.
In 1999 McMenamins Pub and Breweries began renovating a large hotel in downtown McMinnville, Oregon, and company historian Tim Hills began looking into the local history of the area to see what interesting details he could uncover.
At the Yamhill County Historical Society he came across a copy of the front page of the McMinnville Telephone Register from June 8, 1950, featuring two photos taken about a month earlier by local farmer Paul Trent. These would become internationally known in the UFO world as the Trent photographs. They are still considered to be among the clearest and best early UFO photographs, and have stood up to rigorous analysis with modern day methods.
Tim Hills: ‘I never knew of the photos or sighting, but started researching the case. I talked with several longtime residents who shared details and context about the Trent sighting and photos (including Phil Bladine, the local newspaper publisher who decided to print the photos in 1950). As the story began to unfold for me, I realised the 50th anniversary of the case was approaching and thought I couldn’t let it pass without some kind of ceremony or at least acknowledgement.’
And so, at exactly 7.30pm on May 11, 2000 (almost 50 years to the exact minute the photos were taken!) Bruce Maccabee took to the stage at the newly opened Hotel Oregon for what was intended to be a unique, one off event. Bruce, an ex U. S. Navy Research Physicist, had studied the Trent photographs for years and concluded that they were most likely genuine. Mr Maccabee’s presentation drew a much larger crowd than expected. In fact, so many people turned up that the dining room set aside for the event proved too small and the crowd spilled out onto the rest of the first floor. While most attendees were local, others came from as far as Florida, Tennessee and California.
Inspired by this interest, McMenamins decided to hold another event the following year – and every year since. As the event grew in size, the venue had to be upgraded. UFO Fest is now held in the much larger community centre a few blocks from Hotel Oregon. In May 2011, thanks to the amazing support from McMinnville residents and the local community, the festival just celebrated its 12th year.
Walking down 3rd street at lunchtime on Saturday, it seemed as if half the McMinnville population had shown up. Many people had dressed as aliens, had dressed their dogs up as aliens, or at the very least donned a pair of antennae on their heads. The time and effort that went into many of the costumes and make up showed that this town was serious about partying at its UFO festival.
But what about the serious side of the UFO subject? Assuming that the Trent photos are genuine, are we any closer to an official explanation about these types of experiences and encounters? Are we earthlings forever bound by our clichéd perceptions of little green men? Are we simply more comfortable treating the subject with humor or even ridicule?
Tim Hills: ‘Having both serious and fun components at the UFO Fest was not really something we consciously planned. It evolved from the fact that McMenamins has logged a lot of time with lodging, dining and special events and have a pretty good reputation for serving up fun/interesting family fare. So, it was only natural to us to consider adding a costume parade, musical acts, an old-time radio theater production, and costume ball. What WAS foreign to us, though, was staging ufologists. It quickly became clear that unless we maintained a serious, respectful presentation of the speakers, the entire event would collapse into silliness and quickly disappear. In several instances, we wouldn’t have been able to get some presenters to even accept our invitation to come speak had it not been for past speakers’ assurances that the festival truly is committed to treating the subject in a respectful and scholarly manner’.
On Friday night I attended the first lecture of the event with a skeptical and semi-bemused attorney friend. We attended Bob Salas’s presentation of his experiences at Malmstrom Air Base in Montana in which an unidentified flying object disabled ten ‘Minuteman’ nuclear missiles on two separate occasions in March 1967. My friend became more interested as Bob backed up his words with official documents obtained using the Freedom of Information Act as well as other research. Perhaps the most damning evidence was a document he produced from one source together with a copy of the same document released under FOIA with the pertinent sentence relating to the UFO missing!
A more comical high point was Bob’s admission that after years of keeping schtum about his UFO encounter, he finally decided to speak out after he thought he read about it in Timothy Good’s ‘Above Top Secret’ book in 1994. After submitting FOIA requests, he went on ‘Coast to Coast’, the largest syndicated radio show in the US. He told the listeners about ‘Oscar’’ Flight (his missile flight command post) and his UFO experience, but later realised that the event in Timothy Good’s book was actually another encounter altogether regarding UFOs and nuclear warheads at ‘Echo’ Flight! As Bob said, ‘Oh well.. too late now.’ The rest is now (fortunately) history.
The second speaker of the event was longtime UFO researcher and cryptozoologist, Stan Gordon. Stan is a vanguard of the old school and his tireless research into the subject started at the ripe old age of ten. Stan’s lecture was split between his ‘baby’ – his decades long research into the infamous Kecksburg crash in his home state of Pennsylvania in December 1965 – and his work with Bigfoot sightings. Over the years, many witnesses from all backgrounds have found their way to Stan, and he has built up a thoroughly convincing case for a major UFO crash retrieval and subsequent cover up at Kecksburg.
What is fascinating to me is that so many of Stan’s witnesses – including some of the ones with the most explosive information – only appeared many years after the event. It’s worth considering that it can take years – even decades – to piece together a clear version of a major UFO event, particularly with a full blown military/agency cover up such as this one.
Stan finished his lecture with many accounts of Bigfoot sightings. I found Stan to be a consummate gentleman and tireless researcher; and I find myself wondering how much longer we will have researchers of this caliber to present their findings at such events?
With a few hours between lectures, it was off to the marquee outside the hotel for some food and drink followed by the alien costume parade. Downtown McMinnville becomes a riot of color, cheer and eccentricity. The speakers at this year’s event were paraded through the streets in open top cars, a fitting reward for making the journey and all the hours of unpaid work that goes on behind the scenes for researchers.
Can there be any other subject as compelling as ufology – with its potentially cosmic revelations – that is largely in the hands of unpaid, civilian researchers? I have no doubt this subject is investigated by governments and the military, but we are not privy to this information for the most part. It is left to the likes of Bob Salas, Stan Gordon, and Paola Harris for their largely uncompensated work on behalf of all of us, and to present their findings in books and at events like this.
Paola Harris was the third speaker at this year’s UFO Fest. Paola began her career in ufology in 1980 as assistant to the godfather of the subject, Dr. J. Allen Hynek. She began her presentation with what could be considered some of the best UFO photographs in existence today, as if to say, ‘OK this is real, now can we get on with what’s next?’
Paola delivered an animated talk on the protocols of exopoltics and the ramifications of accepting alien life into our society and culture. She also touched on her groundbreaking work uncovering the Baca/Padilla Case – a previously unrecorded 1945 UFO crash near San Antonio, New Mexico.
I tracked down Paola and she is very adamant about her role.
Paola Harris: ‘One hundred years from now, if university kids are going to have to do a paper or research project, I’ve provided them with the first hand resources and witness statements’.
LC: What do you make of the novelty factor here?
Paola Harris: ‘It doesn’t bother me because attention is being given to the subject, but the outside world looks at this and can’t get away from the ridicule factor’.
I am reminded of a lecture from 2009 when long time UFO Fest friend and nuclear physicist, Stanton Friedman, proclaimed with some passion that we need to take this subject a lot more seriously. There appeared to be an amusing irony (I’m sure not lost on Stan) as he delivered his message to an auditorium of guests wearing antennae, bug eyes, and tinfoil hats.
Event organiser Tim Hills says ‘It has been interesting and fun to watch the cross-pollination of the festival’s two components. That is, some people who come only to watch the parade end up checking out some of the speaker presentations. And, at the other end of the spectrum, many from the serious, scientific crowd who come just to attend the speaker presentations, end up wandering out to see the parade and maybe hang around for the costume ball. As a result, there’s been quite a bit of blending between the two seemingly distinct audiences, and both end up tending to learn and have some fun’.
I think the weekend can best be summed up by a quote taken directly from Paola’s lecture. Projected on the large screen for us all to see was a letter written to her from Allen Hynek in the eighties. In large handwriting along the bottom of the letter are the words ‘laugh, laugh, study, study’.
I think UFO Fest ultimately manages to embody Hynek’s sentiments perfectly.