Master’s Thesis Excerpt Invasion!
In Roswell, New Mexico, An Atomic Boomtown Gets a Makeover
Roswell, New Mexico has few southwestern charms, no spectacular views, and little to distinguish itself from the hundreds of other western cities perched doggedly across the American desert. Roswell is an unremarkable grid of straight roads lined with fast food restaurants and steakhouses and bungalow-style homes. It is a former Air Force town, with well-tended golf courses, well-watered lawns, rectangular carports, and squared-off American sedans. Indistinct strip malls creep outwards from the intersection of the town’s two main streets, and if you follow either road a mile or so, the irrigated lawns give precipitous way to sagebrush, tumbleweed, and cracked dirt. Elderly men with close-cropped hair travel purposefully through the Roswell streets. The mercury sometimes hits 100 degrees at midday, and the breezes that blow through town smell vaguely of manure.
Roswell would be an entirely ordinary Western town, that is to say, if not for the fact that it is also the site of America’s most infamous alleged alien spaceship crash. In July 1947, the story goes, a ranch foreman who lived 85 miles northwest of Roswell came across a field littered with what looked like aluminum foil, rubber strips, cables, balsa wood sticks, and tape-like materials inscribed with strange hieroglyphics. The rancher, Mac Brazel, drove into Roswell and informed the Chaves County sheriff, who phoned the authorities at the Roswell Army Air Field, the military base near town. Two intelligence agents drove to the pasture, examined the wreckage, returned to the base, and instructed their public relations officer to distribute a news release proclaiming that the military had gained possession of a “flying saucer.” The next day, however, the military issued a statement explaining that the object Mac Brazel had found was only a weather balloon.
After this brief flurry of national attention, Roswell sank back into its desert obscurity, and remained that way until 1978, when a rumpled, slightly rabbinical-looking man named Stanton Friedman happened upon the scene. Friedman, a professional ufologist (you-fologist) who makes a living tracking down UFO reports, had met a former military intelligence officer who claimed that he had handled materials in Roswell that were unlike anything he had ever seen. Friedman passed this news to the National Enquirer, which published the first article about Roswell’s rumored spaceship crash. The story began to spread, and over the next 20 years, the mother-tale of Mac Brazel’s debris spawned at least a dozen books, a made-for-TV movie, a faked “alien autopsy” video, countless tabloid magazine articles, and numerous mentions in movies, television shows, and the print media.
All of these accounts of the “Roswell Incident” follow the same basic story line: Mac Brazel found the wreckage of a spaceship, the military recovered the craft and the bodies of its extraterrestrial crew, and removed the evidence to a secret research facility in Ohio, or perhaps Chicago or California. The military, the stories say, performed autopsies on these scrawny, four-foot tall “humanoid creatures” with large hairless heads, slanted eyes, and gray skin. Witnesses, often anonymous, came forward to recount how they knew someone, usually long dead, who encountered the spaceship debris or alien bodies, transported them to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, or saw them at their final resting place at Muroc Air Force Base in California. Deathbed confessions abound: “We were lying in the back of my pickup truck, buck naked, drinking beer, and having a good ol’ time,” said one dying trucker who claimed he saw the crash, “when all hell broke loose.” The government, according to these accounts, has gone to great lengths to destroy any documentation of this crash, silencing witnesses and confiscating all of the physical evidence.
By the time I first visited Roswell in July 1997, such crash-and-cover-up stories had transformed what was still a dusty New Mexico town into an international tabloid sensation. Roswell was preparing to welcome 50,000 visitors to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the “crash,” and as I drove down Main Street towards my hotel I could discern cardboard renderings of Roswell’s signature alien face – eggshaped, hairless, with dusky, slanted eyes – in nearly every store window. Signboards in front of local establishments offered a dizzying array of alien come-ons: tourists could “Crash With Us” at local hotels, eat the “Best Alien Chicken in Town,” or frequent any number of “Alien Friendly” establishments. My favorite sign stood in the parking lot of a seafood restaurant. It explained, simply, that “They Came for Fish.”
We all came for something. For a few July days, the city was overrun with pilgrims looking for evidence of aliens and with bemused news crews, toting their cameras and their cynicism, searching for new angles on New Mexico’s Graceland-in-the-desert. I had traveled to Roswell on a quest as well, and long after the festivities were over I would continue to drive the 200 miles from my family’s home in Albuquerque, hoping to catch a glimpse of something in Roswell’s Cold War past that would explain its present incarnation as a UFO mecca. How was it, I wondered, that one of America’s most pungent conspiracy theories came to bloom in this barren desert strip? I traveled to Roswell, like the ufologists, searching for evidence that this alien, yet strangely ordinary place had indeed been invaded. I was not looking for extraterrestrials, however, but for a story far more insidious and powerful. I was searching for the remains of a small town that had been overrun by a large nation.
On my first afternoon in Roswell, with the heat hovering over the city streets, I met with a man named Elvis. We arranged to speak in the cool recesses of the Historical Society of Southeastern New Mexico, a dead cattleman’s house a couple of blocks west of Roswell’s main intersection. The brick building had been preserved in Victorian splendor, full of dark wood furniture, oriental rugs, and the distinct odor of dust and furniture polish. Upstairs, beyond a wide staircase, past an exhibit of World War II uniforms and up a much steeper and narrower set of steps lay the town’s attic archives. Among boxes and stacks of yellowing papers, the town’s aging history buffs congregated to file and clip and catalogue evidence of the town’s more terrestrial past. Elvis Fleming, who runs the archives, is a retired history professor from Eastern New Mexico State University, and he looks as academic as a historian named Elvis can in this corner of New Mexico. Which is to say he looked pretty much like everybody else – clean-cut in a plaid cotton shirt and blue jeans – and talked pretty much like everybody else, in a modified West Texas twang.
Roswell’s modern era began, Elvis explained, on the morning of July 16, 1945, when a few early risers in Roswell witnessed an unusual flash in the western sky. The first atomic explosion illuminated a swath of western sky a mile wide. It was so bright that Elvis’ mother, who lived 30 miles east of Roswell over the Texas border, could see her shadow cast on their adobe garage as she went to retrieve water from their well. The army announced the next day that an ammunition magazine had exploded at the testing grounds at Alamogordo, 100 miles west of Roswell, and the locals quickly forgot about it. Only when the Enola Gay bombed Hiroshima three weeks later did the people of Roswell realize what they had seen.
Founded by Texans in the 1860s as a small trading post at the crossing of two southeastern New Mexico cattle trails, Roswell had been a “sleepy little cowtown” of 13,000 still reeling from the collapse of cotton and cattle prices during the Great Depression. “There was very little outside money here,” remembers Morgan Nelson, a ruddy, straw-hatted cotton farmer and former state senator who also met me in the archives one July afternoon. “We were fairly well isolated in those days, because we didn’t have any big highways.” The town was about 95 percent Anglo, with a small, segregated corner, dubbed “Little Chihuahua,” reserved for the Mexican cotton pickers and sheepherders. Although it was the largest population center in southeastern New Mexico, Chaves County contained considerably more sheep than people.
The story of Roswell is in many ways the quintessential story of the American West. Despite the region’s reputation for “rugged independence,” the relationship between the American West and the rest of the world has always been a rather codependent arrangement. “The West,” writes historian Richard White, “possessed an extractive economy that depended on outside markets, outside capital, and, most often, skills and technologies imported from the outside.” In Roswell, the equation worked like this: one quarter of Chaves County’s acreage was (and still is) government-owned. Most of the remaining land was (and still is) owned by large corporations or wealthy individuals, much of it leased to local ranchers for grazing. Ranchers fattened their cattle on this land and then herded the cows and sheep north to the railroad lines, which brought the livestock to markets in the Midwest. Cotton farmers shipped their crops east to the national markets. Dependent on outside money, land, and markets for its economic survival, and Roswell lurched from boom to bust to boom and back to bust.
In 1941, when the army opened a small airfield at the south end of Main Street, the living became at bit easier. At war’s end, the military expanded its operations in Roswell. The 509th Bombardment Group, the only atomic flying squadron in the nation, flew in on their B-29s to man what would become the largest Strategic Air Command (SAC) base in the world. Morgan Nelson had just returned from the war in Europe when the 509th arrived, and he came home to a town that was almost unrecognizable. Roswell had embarked on a construction boom of immense proportions, with every house, apartment, and motel in the area filled to capacity. “Houses were built all over the countryside,” he remembers. Commercial electricity and running water, telephone lines and paved roads had begun to spread throughout the county.
Thus began Roswell’s nuclear bonanza. “We were in boom times,” says Ernestine Williams, a soft-spoken, white-haired former schoolteacher who is one of Roswell’s best sources for lore of the non-UFO variety. Roswell now boasted air-conditioned buildings, modern schools, and residents from all over the country who had the kind of spending money the town’s natives had only dreamed about. “I’d been teaching on a ranch and had children who came to school hungry every day. The Air Force kids had too much of everything,” recalls Williams, who was one of the first teachers hired to teach at the new base school. “I had taught ranch kids who were geared to the tempo of horses and cows. The Air Force kids were geared to the tempo of planes.” After the B-29s landed in Roswell, everything began to move faster.
By 1947, as the SAC settled into town, the town’s population had increased threefold, employment had grown 400 percent, and the federal government was spending an average of one million dollars a month in Roswell. When Mac Brazel found his “flying saucer” in July of that year, Chaves County still contained more sheep than any other county in New Mexico. But it also contained more bomber pilots than any other place on earth.
Even Roswell’s flying saucer incident illustrates just how quickly this isolated community had become linked to the nation’s postwar economy and culture. The first famous UFO of the Cold War appeared on June 27, 1947, when Kenneth Arnold, a pilot flying his private plane over Washington State, reported that he had seen nine disk-shaped craft making undulating motions like a “saucer skipping over water.” On June 30, the Roswell newspapers – which now gathered much of their information from national wire services like the Associated Press – published an article about what would become America’s first “flying saucer” sighting. By July 2, the Roswell papers were running wire stories every day reporting saucers, “fluttering washtubs,” “white hot stovepipes,” and all sorts of other household objects. In a two-week period, newspapers across the country reported 850 separate sightings.
Mac Brazel, the rancher who found Roswell’s wreckage, was as insulated from the nation’s popular culture as anyone could be in 1947 – he spent most of his time alone on a massive sheep ranch 85 miles from Roswell, without telephone or radio. Still, he managed to learn of America’s first Cold War UFO scare when he traveled to the nearest bar, heard the news, and began to wonder whether perhaps the stuff he had found in his field might be a flying saucer. And after Brazel reported his disk on July 8, the information spread just as quickly across the nation and back to Roswell. The day after Brazel reported his debris the Roswell Morning Dispatch published a photograph of the town’s sheriff fielding phone calls about the saucer. The calls, the paper said, came from as far away as London.
It is impossible to imagine such a rapid-fire turn of events consuming Roswell even seven years earlier when the atomic bomb was a distant dream. But the Bomb, and the Air Force, changed everything in Roswell: the pace of life, the economy, the culture, the state of mind. When I first visited Roswell, I had expected that I would hear stories from those days of alarm, of panic, of a constant hum of anxiety accompanying life at the Cold War’s ground zero. I had, in my mind, concluded that Roswell’s saucer incident was some spectral reflection of the disquietude of the early atomic age, which surely must have disrupted the town’s psyche in every way. And so, on my first day in Roswell, I asked Morgan Nelson, who had fought in World War II, to tell me how he had felt about the dawning of the atomic age. “The bomb? It was great,” he responded. “It kept me from getting killed.” I asked Ernestine Williams, the schoolteacher. “I had five brothers at war,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh good, the boys are coming home.’” I asked Walter Haut, the officer who issued Roswell’s “flying saucer” press release fifty years ago, and who had earlier participated in the atomic tests on Bikini Atoll. “A bomb is a bomb is a bomb,” he said. “If you’re under it when it goes off, you die no matter how big it is.”
The splitting of the atom brought prosperity, amenities, and growth to the people of Roswell, and they received the bomb with equanimity – or at very least they moved quickly to bury their anxieties under a layer of atomic cheer. In the years after Hiroshima, articles ran in the Roswell papers nearly every week reassuring Roswellites about the safety of radiation exposure and the wonders of atomic energy – “Bomb Exposed Cows Have Normal Calves,” said one headline; “A-Bomb Production Gave New Tools to Battle Cancer,” said another. In 1947, the airfield replaced its “drab, oval base license tags” with a more “colorful” license plate with a mushroom cloud at its center. The 509th named its base newspaper “The Atomic Blast” and placed an atomic cloud on the masthead; it named its softball league the Guinea Pig League,” because of the 509th’s participation in atomic testing; it held beauty contests to name an “Atomic Queen.” And when the army announced in the late 1950s that it would construct 12 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile silos in Chaves County, one local businessman unveiled plans to build the “Del Norte Sheltered Shopping Center.” The development, never built, was a ten-acre, members-only subterranean facility offering housing, recreation, and shopping “in near normal conditions” for 8,000 of Roswell’s 40,000 residents in the event of a nuclear attack.
Certainly, a “sheltered” shopping mall made more sense to a place like Roswell than establishing a nuclear-free zone or waving “No Nukes” signs at the airfield gates. In a town so dependent on the Cold War for its survival, pacifism was, in the words of one local newspaper, “impractical sentimentalism.” The few anti-nuclear protesters who ventured into town over the years encountered chilly stares. “Some people,” says former mayor William Brainerd, “you just mention the word ‘nuclear’ and their eyes roll back and they go into a trance.” Not the people of Roswell, however. Their intimate relationship with the government’s nuclear programs did not allow them such luxuries.
Roswell citizens certainly knew that a large portion of the nation’s capacities to deliver atomic weapons lay five miles south of town at the air base. They were aware that the planes that flew overhead with so much power and vibration that their houses shook – the B-29 superfortresses and the B-36s and later the B-52s – were sometimes loaded with atomic bombs. They also knew that these secret missions occasionally crashed, and ranch families would watch the military pick up the bodies and airplane pieces. Locals knew that if they wandered onto the wrong section of airfield, they would be accosted by armed military police. Schoolteachers would inform children that their fathers had left on missions no one knew a thing about. “We would have a drill and wouldn’t know why,” recalls Ernestine Williams. “A group would be gone, and we wouldn’t know why.”
Roswellites would read newspaper accounts of an “Atomic ‘Super Secret’ Cavern” in Albuquerque, which the army dismissed as a “fantastic” fib. A few months later, the newspapers would report that the cavern did in fact exist – it was the home of Sandia Laboratories, the newest of the nation’s nuclear facilities. But secrecy, was not, in those days, necessarily a sign of conspiracy: after all, the government’s best kept secret, the atomic bomb, had ended the war and brought boom times to the region. “People had a sense of personal identity with the government,” says Elvis Fleming, because so many people in Roswell worked for the military. “Finding fault with the government would be finding fault with yourself.”
This explains why, according to the ufologists, it took 50 years for the truth about Roswell’s spaceship to leak out. When the Air Force announced, on the day after the story of Roswell’s saucer hit the papers in July 1947, that Mac Brazel’s strange debris came from a weather balloon, the people of Roswell accepted the story without question or complaint. How could they do otherwise? In Roswell, they supported the government that supported them.
Roswell is a place of endless sky. A bolt of lightning cuts from horizon to horizon, from ozone to desert floor. It is no wonder people see UFOs here: despite a couple of ten-story buildings, the town’s capacious sky is its most distinctive landmark. The region’s major industries all came to Roswell because of this immense expanse of sky and desert – the ranchers and farmers came for its open range; the atomic scientists for New Mexico’s isolation; the military for its quiet airspace. The aliens, ufologists say, came to spy on the top-secret installations. And the ufologists and tourists now come seeking the “truth” about the aliens. The New Mexico desert has seemed so full of nothing that it has become an inviting tableau on which to project a nation’s dreams, its secrets, its most puzzling memories.
Everyone has taken advantage of Roswell’s physical attributes, offering, in return, infusions of much-needed cash. But even in the heat of its Cold War boom, Roswell’s enthusiasm for outside money had always coexisted with a quiet suspicion of outside power, particularly federal power. Grazing leases on federal lands, after all, and government programs that subsidized farmers and ranchers, and missile silos and testing sites and airfields, all required meddlesome bureaucrats sent from Washington to enforce rules made in Washington. “Westerners,” writes historian Richard White, “regarded the federal government much as they would regard a particularly scratchy wool shirt in winter. It was all that was keeping them warm, but it still irritated them.” And so while the Roswellites willingly accepted each gift from the government, they did so, even in the best of federally-funded times, with a grain of resentment.
And when federal booms turned bust, the resentment could turn to outright hostility. In 1965, after two decades, the Air Force announced that Walker Air Force Base had been included a list of military bases scheduled for closure. The base, the Air Force said, would close completely by June 1967, taking with it thousands of families and millions of dollars. Ernestine Williams remembers that the Air Force made the announcement on December 7, 1965. The teachers canceled the Christmas program they had planned, and the schoolhouse flew into anarchy. “I don’t remember whether we even ate supper or not.” From that time on, she recalls, children were leaving constantly, and by the second year there were only seven students in a building that had once educated hundreds. The government had loved them and lavished them; now it would leave them.
No sooner had the announcement of the closure been made then the theories began to fly about why the government would act with such faithlessness. Some Roswellites, mostly Democrats, believed that the ultraconservative John Birch Society, which had set up a Roswell chapter in 1964, had driven the Air Force away. “When the Air Force officers were in town,” Elvis Fleming remembers, “the John Birchers would hassle them, try to accuse them of being Communists.” Many Roswell Republicans, on the other hand, believed that President Johnson closed the base because Chaves County had voted heavily for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Johnson, they say, ordered the closure to punish a town that had the audacity to vote against him in his own political backyard. Local Republican William Brainerd recalls that when the military made the closure announcement, the town’s mayor placed a call to General Curtis LeMay, who ran the Strategic Air Command. “This was Curtis LeMay’s favorite base,” Brainerd remembers. “When the mayor called to see if LeMay could block the closure, the word was that the order came straight from the White House.”
Neither theory, however, stands up to scrutiny. Chaves County did not in fact vote for Goldwater – the Arizona Senator lost to Johnson by 200 votes. Nor did the John Birch Society seem to figure in the Air Force’s decision. The most probable explanation that I could detect was, sadly, the least exciting – Walker Air Force base was included on a long list of defense facilities across the nation scheduled for closure. New Mexico’s senators simply did not have the political clout – nor did the sparsely populated state have the electoral power – to keep Roswell off the list.
It is, of course, human nature to look for meaningful explanations where there are none, to ascribe one’s misfortune to someone else – preferably a clandestine group of someone elses – rather than to random chance. In Roswell, nearly everyone believed that some sort of political vendetta had fueled the Air Force’s departure, despite the fact that bases all over the country were closed at the same time. We may never know the exact reasons the government left. What is clear, however, is that Roswell was prone to conspiracy theories long before the ufologists came to town. The closing of the base merely crystallized Roswell’s dormant suspicions into something more potent, creating fertile ground for the more outlandish, otherworldly stories that would follow.
The closure produced the cataclysm for Roswell that the atomic bomb never had. It devastated the town. Within two years, the population fell by a third, schools and businesses emptied out, and buildings became vacant and stayed that way for years. “You couldn’t sell or even give your house away,” recalls Morgan Nelson. Roswell experienced one of the first major base closings of the Cold War, and it remains one of the smallest cities ever to undergo such a massive closure. Without soldiers spending their money, most of the town’s businesses quickly wilted away. “When the 509th Strategic Air Command flew out of here,” says Ernestine Williams, “it left a hole you could not imagine. It was just like the bottom dropped out of the world in Roswell.”
The military did leave one final legacy of its Cold War munificence. When it left, the Air Force deeded the abandoned airfield facilities to the city government. Desperate, city leaders sent out rafts of letters hoping to attract industries to the abandoned hangars and airstrips. Marketing cheap rent and a desperate labor force, the town sold its empty space to anyone who might inject some life into the town’s dried-up economy.
Something Happened Out There.
If the story of Roswell were a Western, it would go like this: everything was looking hopeless, and then the ufologists came riding into town on their trusty rental-car steeds, wielding their suspicions and their book contracts. In 1978, Roswell’s first full-time ufologist, Stanton Friedman, became persuaded that a spaceship crashed in Roswell, and the National Enquirer published the first article to that effect. In 1980, the first full-length book on Roswell appeared, followed by a string of other accounts. In 1991, Fox TV’s Unsolved Mysteries aired a segment on Roswell that was seen by hundreds of thousands of viewers. Roswell hit the media big-time.
It was then that the people of Roswell realized that, as quickly as the last boom ended, a new one might begin. Where they once lived off the government’s presence, some Roswell citizens concluded that they could now profit from its conspicuous absence. “Something happened out there,” Roswellites young and old began to say, “I don’t know what.” What they did know was that as the story swelled, more and more UFO buffs began wandering into Roswell. The town that had accepted the government’s weather balloon story without question in 1947 began to embrace the crash-and-cover-up story just as enthusiastically.
By 1993, the story had gained such momentum that the late Congressman Stephen Schiff, a well-respected Albuquerque Republican, felt compelled by a barrage of constituent requests to ask Congress’ General Accounting Office to examine Air Force records on the matter. The GAO concluded that too many records were missing to conclude anything about Roswell’s flying saucer. The Air Force, goaded by the growing chorus of accusations, also examined its files. It released a report in 1995 explaining that Roswell’s wreckage was neither a spaceship nor a weather balloon, but was instead a research balloon deployed as part of Project MOGUL, a top-secret Cold War campaign to detect Soviet nuclear detonations. Two years later, the Air Force followed up with another report which said that Roswell’s gray “humanoids” were in fact experimental crash-test dummies dropped into the New Mexico desert from airplanes. The military’s protestations, predictably, fueled allegations of a further government whitewash and prompted a flurry of news stories. Soon, what had begun as a trickle of rumpled science-fiction aficionados searching for the “truth” became a regular stream of television crews and then a torrent of sightseers, spending their dollars all over Roswell.
Even before the ufologists rode into town, Roswell had begun its economic recovery. It filled the old Air Force buildings with industry, luring a blue-jeans factory, a fireworks manufacturer, the world’s largest mozzarella plant, a lollipop maker, a cookie factory, and a bus company onto the former base. It filled many of the 4,000 empty houses that the military families had left behind by advertising in eastern newspapers for retirees. The police department even instituted a practice of pulling over suspicious Winnebagos to offer potential retirees welcome baskets and tours of the town. But it was the ufologists who put Roswell on the map.The depressed town people used to drive through without stopping on the way to more popular tourist spots like Carlsbad and Ruidoso became a destination unto itself.
Roswell has created an industry from the inconclusiveness of the past in the same way it once made its living from the bright atomic future. The town now sells memory in the same way it once sold open range and empty skies. “I saw a flying saucer once,” says Morgan Nelson. “I came back from Portales late one night, a cold January night, and I saw some lights moving around in the sky very erratically. It looked like a searchlight playing against the clouds without a beam.” Nelson chuckles. “I’ve told it so much, and it gets better all the time.” So too do the 50-year-old memories of many of the Roswell witnesses. The “minimal” amounts of debris first mentioned in 1978 have now grown to “airplane loads,” even multiple huge “debris fields.” The tin foil and tape of the early accounts have been transformed into exotic metals and fiber optic materials. Roswell’s shady past has been transformed into hard currency.
By 1997, as the town planned a 50th anniversary extravaganza to celebrate the crash, UFO tourism was pumping $5 million a year into the city’s economy. Visitors could buy $10 alien T-shirts and $3 refrigerator magnets; they could suck on a tube of “alien air” for only $5. They could pay $15 to run in the “Alien Chase” footrace or to enter the “Alien Days” costume contest, judged by the mayor, who wandered through town in a silver alien get-up. For $25, they could visit one of the alleged crash sites, an unremarkable stretch of sagebrush and sky now adorned with a couple of stone pillars, a bench, a commemorative plaque and some porta-potties.
All this in a place where there is, literally, nothing to see. No aliens, no spaceships, nothing. Simply a story, a rumor, a patchwork of recovered memories, drifting invisibly through the desert troposphere. “Rock and dirt, that’s all they can say about it,” said one Denver aircraft engineer who had come to the anniversary celebrations with his son and who sat next to me on a school bus the town had commandeered to bring visitors to the “crash site.” “I wish there was something to look at, an impression of a spaceship, or something.”
To fulfill that very need, Roswell in 1992 opened the non-profit International UFO Museum and Research Center in an abandoned movie theater on Main Street. Given the absence of concrete relics, the museum’s exhibits instead consist entirely of framed newspaper accounts, replicas of spaceships and aliens, paintings of “visions,” and photographs of indecipherable dots in the sky. The museum’s founders – all prominent Roswell businessmen – are unashamed to admit that in opening the museum, they were looking not for the truth, but for a way to bring tourists to Roswell. As former mayor William Brainerd, one of the forces behind the museum, explains it, “I think the UFO stuff is like any politician. ‘I don’t care what you say about me as long as you spell my name right.’ Roswell is known nationally where it wasn’t before.’” The truth may be “out there.” But it is beside the point in boomtime Roswell.
In 1997, the “Santa Fe Bite Size Cookie” company, situated at Roswell’s reconverted Air Force Base, began to sell their otherwise humdrum sugar cookies as elaborately boxed “Alien Cookies.” These were the same round cookies they had always sold, now billed as saucer-shaped. “I’ve been making alien cookies my whole life and I didn’t know it!” exclaimed one local woman upon seeing them. Roswell, like the cookie manufacturer, has repackaged itself. The Santa Fe Bite-Sized Cookie (conceived, ironically, in Albuquerque), has become the Alien Cookie. An old movie theater became a UFO museum. The federal government that showered its favors on Roswell in the postwar years became the abusive, sinister power that perpetuated the cover-up at any cost. Roswell, the depressed ex-military town, is now Roswell, tabloid sensation and tourist trap. Roswell has given itself a makeover, and it now sells itself to the media as enthusiastically as it once offered itself up to the government.
But sooner or later, Roswellites know, this latest boom may go bust. Roswell has been a ranching and farming town struggling for survival in the national market, a Cold War boomtown at the mercy of the federal government, an industrial town laboring for companies from somewhere else, a tourist town full of tourists from somewhere else. Roswell has always depended on the kindness of strangers. And if some convincing explanation debunks Roswell’s saucer story; if another, more compelling tale crops up in some other dusty place; if Americans simply lose interest in UFOs, the money can always leave them. “This is going to be like the 509th Strategic Air Command,” Ernestine Williams worries. “This is going to fly out of here any day.” Leaving Roswell with the same abandoned runways, the same stretch of dirt and sagebrush and strip malls and sky, the same elusive memories, the same vague smell of manure.