28.4.13

FIRST READ - ED RUPPELT

Peter Rogerson continues his personal reminiscences of the iconic UFO books of the 1950s that influenced the early generations of ufologists, and whose ideas still cast a long shadow over today's researchers and writers. 

Edward J Ruppelt. Report on Unidentified Flying Objects. Victor Gollancz, 1956.

This was one of the first UFO books that I read in what was to become my long UFO book reading and buying career. It was taken out from Flixton Library, one of the many borrowed on my dad’s library tickets, as I found that the stuff in the kiddie’s library was for, well, kiddies. Flixton Library was a magnificent 1930s building, with lots of books, armchairs, a reading room and reference library, everything having a feel of scholarship and calm. How sad that it has now been relegated to an unstaffed room attached to a swimming baths! [It appears that the old library building is now used as the band-room for the Flixton Brass Band, so it’s still serving local culture. – JR]

Edward Ruppelt had been head of the US government’s Project Bluebook in 1952/3 and this book was the result of that involvement. It looks as though either he or his ghost writer chose to emulate Donald Keyhoe, and the book was written in the first person, almost diary-like fashion. For the not quite twelve-year-old schoolboy Peter Rogerson, I have to say it seemed dull compared with Keyhoe’s breathless prose. One reason was that it essentially covered the same ground.

A few years later I bought the Ace paperback edition, and at seventeen it had a rather different impact; it seemed to be evocative of warm summer nights in the American Midwest, where strange lights and silvery objects would skim across the twilight, redolent of space and freedom.
Edward J. Ruppelt
Looking back again, I see this as an attempt at a serious look at the subject as it was over 60 years ago. Many of Ruppelt’s tales were of strange lights seen by pilots, and of dramatic military encounters. Some of the things seen, from hindsight, were almost certainly experimental jet aircraft, unfamiliar to the lower ranks such as Ruppelt. The book contains accounts of classics such as the Lubbock Lights, which were probably reflections off low flying plover, though Ruppelt, having gone with that explanation originally, later claimed that he knew the real answer but was not able to reveal it. Years later this explanation turned out to be moths rather than plover reflecting the street lights.

Ruppelt did not go in for tales UFO landings in general. Indeed he claimed that these were all put in the waste paper basket; this does not actually seem to be true though. There is one landing report in the book, that of the Florida scoutmaster Desverges, who claimed to have been burned by a landed UFO. On investigation, his background began to look more suspect, and he did not help his story by adding more and more to it - in one version he saw a creature too hideous to describe, in another he fought three grey suited aliens. On the other hand Ruppelt found it difficult to explain burnt grass at the site.

Most people reading this book would have come to the conclusion that Ruppelt was leaning towards the ETH, though he clearly understood that there was none of the real physical evidence that would have been needed to allow an official endorsement of such a position. Ruppelt however felt that the answer would not be long in coming, “ I am sure that in a few years there will be a proven answer” coming from space research and various scientific advances.

But the ‘proven answer’ never came, and by 1958 Ruppelt was becoming more sceptical, his journalistic forays into the contactee world, constant badgering from Keyhoe and general ill health may well have contributed to this, as perhaps did the disenchanting effect of time and distance. The revised edition of this book (my copy of which disappeared into the vaults of ASSAP) published in 1960 took a much more sceptical line. By the time it was published Ruppelt was dead from a heart attack at the preposterously young age of 37.

Now nearly sixty years after this book was written, there is no ‘proven answer’. When I read this and other similar books in the mid-1960s, the idea that ufology would be around when I grew up seemed absurd. At that time I had become very much a convert to the ETH, and I suppose that I imagined that ‘They’ would have landed by then. Here we are, and still have no answer, and many of the once dramatic looking stories, with the benefit of hindsight, and what we now know of perception and memory, are much less impressive. The ETH that people like Keyhoe and his supporters in the Air Force believed in looks hopelessly naïve, its technology already that of a dead age.



We would be delighted to hear from Magonia Review readers about the books that first influenced their interest in ufology, forteana, psychical research and the other topics which we cover in this blog.


2 comments:

  1. I think I became aware of UFOs in the 1980s through TV shows like Clarke's Mysterious World and free cards in PG Tips.

    My mum has always been a voracious reader and had a dozen or so books like Berlitz' Bermuda Triangle and Moody's Life After Life. There were also standard books recounting UFO encounters and I read them all. Part works like 'The Unexplained' cemented the fascination.

    As a credulous teenager, I took Berlitz at his word and believed everything in the book and particularly liked the glossy image pages. Having read it several times, the moment came when critical thinking emerged and a passage stood out as bunkum. It involved the thoughts of a missing pilot from Flight 19 or Valentich and I realised that nobody could know that. At 14 or 15 I was disillusioned.

    It switched me off the subject as it was like a betrayal and an epiphany that not everything in hardback books was accurate, honest or even plausible. In a way, it led to my scepticism of the reporting and promotion of UFO incidents.

    Ironically, a similar moment occurred reading a pot-boiler book by Jenny Randles and possibly Peter Hough. I can't recall the book title, but I think there was an account that was presented uncritically and thus another aspect of ufology was consigned to mistrust. When I say 'ironically,' it's because in recent years I've found the thoughts and research of Randles very interesting and they inform some of my own understandings.

    The outcome of these moments has been to instil a healthy scepticism of any and all commentators, authors and claimants in ufology and Forteana. Everyone has an Achilles’s Heel in these fields and, in recognising that fact, we should accept the inevitability that we'll have our own blind-spots.

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  2. Lawrence29.4.13

    Thanks for this insightful review Peter and for the reminder of just how Ruppelt's views of the phenomena changed over time (easy to overlook this), as is the case I suppose with all of us who are ETH skeptics. One wonders if and how Ruppelt's views would have continued to change had he even made it to forty! Perhaps he would have lost interest altogether...

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