Between the summers of 1978 and 1979 Andrew and I lived in New Mexico for ten months, punctuated by one round-trip Back East sometime in-between. I can’t remember precisely when the sighting took place, whether it was in 1978, on our first trip out, or in 1979, on our return, but it was on Interstate 40 Westbound soon after it enters New Mexico.
Dusk was falling and the highway empty. Scrubby desert to either side with no habitations or other signs of human life. If I remember right, some curves and topography seemed to be starting to relieve the long stretches of straight-arrow driving over nothing but flatland, so that blue-grey shadows contoured the expanses of sagebrush and tumbleweed, the ground dipping down into little arroyos and dropping out of sight from time to time. Although I’m usually extremely unobservant, I think it was I who spotted it first: a large dark-grey, low-flying, boomerang-shaped object gliding noiselessly across the highway. But ”gliding” makes it sound too leisurely: this craft moved with purpose, as if it knew exactly where it was going.
Andrew and I were instantly agog: had we just seen a UFO? We weren’t so far from the fabled Roswell, New Mexico, home of the 1947 Roswell Incident, and the book or the same name, which had just been published that year. Rumors and conspiracy theories about alien invaders were rife, some of them too far-fetched even for our receptively paranoid imaginations. We’d heard that the military had covered up evidence of UFO’s over the years, and that ultra-top-secret installations such as Area 51 were conducting some kind of nefarious experimentation on captured alien spaceships. We were driving through no-man’s land, controlled by the U.S. military on both sides. We’d seen signs warning motorists not to stray off the highway, but I can’t remember if they explained why, whether it was a test site or a firing range or simply off-limits to civilians—don’t ask, don’t tell. We strained our eyes into the twilight but there was no longer anything to be seen, just millions of grey dots in the gathering gloom.
There was no Internet in those days, or we would have looked it up as soon as we got back to Albuquerque, to find out whether other people had also spotted something of that description in the area. But other, more immediately pressing tasks faced us upon our return, such as attending the next planning meeting to oppose the construction of the proposed national nuclear waste storage facility, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), to be located near the Carlsbad Caverns in Southern New Mexico—not far from Roswell, as it happens. So we didn’t think further about what we had seen over the Interstate that evening until a few months later, when we recognized it in a newspaper photograph with a small accompanying news clip: it had been one of the new Stealth aircraft, possibly the precursor to Grumman’s Stealth Bomber (the B-2) or one of the two Have Blue demonstrators, prototypes of Lockheed’s Stealth Fighter (the F-117). Both turned out to have been in secret development in 1978-9 and one must have been being test-flown right at the time we happened to be driving through; no UFO from a distant planet, but, in its secret development and deadly payload, something equally mysterious and perhaps more threatening to the human race.
Living in New Mexico, one felt the presence of the U.S. military at all times. It was one of the state’s biggest employers and responsible for a large proportion of its GDP. It also owned or controlled huge expanses on land in this poor, sparsely populated state. It was all very well to protest the nuclear weapons and the military-industrial complex Back East, but in New Mexico—well, one was in the belly of the beast. This was the home of Los Alamos Laboratories, host to the Manhattan Project; of Grants, “Uranium Capital of the World,” where hundreds of mostly-Navajo uranium miners had developed lung cancer from rampant radon exposure; of Sandia National Labs, operated by Lockheed-Martin for the U.S. Department of Energy; and of the White Sands Missile Range, at whose Trinity test site, on July 16th 1945, the first atomic bomb was detonated, in the open air. As anti-nuclear activists, we had good reason to be paranoid.
For all its overbearing omnipresence, the military kept its operations in the state well under wraps. As it turned out, Andrew and I had indeed seen an Unidentified Flying Object, and it was only through a news leak that it was identified before the military was ready to unveil the finished product. I suspect that many rumored UFOs are, in fact, secret military projects under development, stealth-flying under the radar of public scrutiny. Perhaps some of those conspiracy theories weren’t so far-fetched after all, just mistaken in projecting their anxieties onto aliens.