An Ozark Skeptic Journeys to a UFO Conference

It is nearly impossible to log on to the internet or turn on the TV without seeing a new report about UFOs, now referred to by the U.S. Government as UAPs (unidentified anomalous phenomena). It is worth noting that both acronyms refer to unidentified objects and not necessarily one from outer space.
The Pentagon has official programs investigating UAPs and has briefed Congress on the subject. Earlier this year, the Subcommittee on National Security held a hearing where retired Maj. David Grusch testified the government had retrieved “non-human biologics” from UFO crash sites.
Moreover, it has been hard to avoid seeing the video from a fighter jet gunsight camera showing a gravity-defying, mysterious object darting about at high speeds that caused “excited utterances” from the pilot. 
U.S. Air Force programs, Project Blue Book and its predecessors, investigated over 12,000 UFO sightings from 1947 through 1969 and routinely reported virtually all sightings resulted from swamp gas, atmospheric conditions, or the planet Venus—but some defied explanation.
Certainly, most people are familiar the much-reported flying saucer incident near Roswell, NM, in 1947. Incidentally, the term “flying saucer” generally is credited as resulting from pilot Kenneth Arnold, who reported seeing a formation of nine flying objects he could not identify when he flew near Mt. Ranier in Washington on June 24, 1947. Newspapers quoted him saying "they flew erratic, like a saucer if you skip it across the water.” Later press reports described the strange objects as flying saucers, and soon the term became universal.
Reports of UFOs, and even, humanoid extraterrestrial creatures are not new to the Ozarks. Readers of this column and folks from Howell County are familiar with Buck Nelson, who in the 1950s claimed to have been visited by outer space aliens (and a dog) at his farm north of Mountain View. 
Buck claimed ETs took him on a space trip to Mars, Venus, and the moon. He wrote a pamphlet chronicling his experience and held several space conventions on his farm in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I actually attended his first convention with my mother and stepfather.
Surprisingly, people still talk about ol’ Buck. Last year, I wrote two columns about him and his adventures, and earlier this month, Mountain View held the Buck Nelson and Solar Eclipse Festival. When Buck lived in Mountain View, I suspect few would have imagined the hillbilly Ozark farmer, with a sixth-grade education and an out-of-this-world tale, would become a local folk hero.
More recently, other Howell County residents, well-respected and not prone to prevarication, have shared their own UFO experiences with me. One person, as a teenager in the 1960s, along with a cousin, saw a cigar-shaped object in the southern sky just east of Willow Springs on Highway 60, and says, “[we] watched it for about twenty minutes. It sat over a field not moving, until suddenly it flashed colors and moved horizontally out of sight. No sounds the whole time.” Over sixty-years later, the recollection remains vivid.
Recently, I met a rather erudite writer from back East who said she found it hard to believe any real scientist would be interested in UFOs. I mentioned that J. Allen Hynek, PhD (University of Chicago), the scientific advisor for Project Blue Book, was a professor of astronomy at Ohio State University. She did not seem impressed with my rhetoric, but our conversation raises an interesting point about belief systems.
It seems there is a natural tendency to reject or ridicule any information that does not support a strongly held belief. For example, it you were to tell a Baptist preacher that a Biblical miracle was a fantasy, he would not believe it. By the same token, those who rigidly think UFO stuff is nonsense will explain away any evidence to the contrary. 
I suppose if I had been clever, I could have asked the woman the source of her information that shows all the pilots, astronauts, police officers, and military personnel had just seen swamp gas. But I am not that quick on my feet, and she probably would have just said an ad populum argument proves nothing. In shirtsleeve English: just because many people believe something does not prove the claim is true.
Personally, I have never seen a UFO, but given the numerous video clips, photos, and eyewitness reports, I am curious. When I saw an advertisement for the 36th Annual Ozark Mountain UFO Conference being held in Eureka Springs, AR, on April 12-14, my curiosity spiked. The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs invited me as the featured reader at a literary event the same week, so the timing was good. 
I contacted the conference registration official and told her I had a Missouri Press Association press pass (compliments of the Howell County News) and inquired about obtaining a press pass for the event. She told me I had to apply. I completed a form and submitted copies of the two Buck Nelson articles I had written. The next week I received an email informing me I was approved for a press pass, and admittance to the conference and all events would be free of charge. That settled it—I was going.
A friend of mine, who writes paranormal novels and attended the conference as a vendor last year, told me it was a hoot, and that some drunk showed up wearing a tinfoil hat. Instead of watching the solar eclipse at the Mountain View festival, I headed down I-44 to Eureka Springs, but I did stop in Lebanon and slip on a pair of solar glasses to observe it.
Although my friend’s account might suggest a corny, hillbillyish affair, the program flyer suggested a dramatically more sophisticated event, with an impressive lineup of speakers: a highly credentialled astronomer; a network TV news reporter/producer and college professor; and the U.S. Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer, who manned the radar controls on the USS Nimitz supercarrier during the infamous Tic Tac incident. 
One keynote speaker immediately caught my attention: Nick Pope, a frequent media commentator and former employee of the British Ministry of Defense, as part of the Secretariat (Air Staff), commonly known as the UFO Desk. He has been referred to as the real Fox Mulder (“The X-Files” TV series). The times I have seen him on television, he has been measured and insightful.
There were also three “experiencers” listed as speakers on the program. While there I learned that “experiencer” is a term used to describe a person who has a “close encounter” with a non-human extraterrestrial entity. 
My inquisitive mind wondered what kind and how many folks would attend. To my surprise, over 350 people preregistered, and I suspect, another fifty registered at the conference, and they all looked normal in casual street clothes. Not one tinfoil hat. 
The ratio of men to women was equal; the age range tilted slightly in favor of retirement-aged folks; and included a medical doctor, a commercial airline pilot, and a molecular biologist.
The event was well organized. The conference room had three jumbo screens at the front and the audiovisual control panel at the rear was suitable for a Rolling Stones concert. All the main events were videotaped.
So, if you have ever wondered what happens at a UFO conference, or secretly wanted to attend one, but were afraid of being held up to contempt and ridicule by your friends and neighbors, fear not. You can experience it vicariously through your humble, but intrepid, reporter. 
To be continued.
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