“I can prove it to you, if you like,” I told Sandford that night. “I can absolutely prove it to you. Would you like me to do that?”
# # #
John Sandford was the closest thing I had to a neighbor, and I sensed that I owed him something for what he’d done for me over the years. I’d been less than candid, quite a bit less, but I felt it was safe enough to tell him now.
Not that, in Sandford’s opinion, he’d done much. Despite being blind, he’d steered away the occasional stranger who came to his door asking too many questions about the area. I’m not sociable, and living in the woods suits me fine, but it’s been useful to have someone like Sandford living fairly close—half an hour’s walk, in this case—to provide just the right amount of misdirection when necessary. He understood how I felt, or thought he did, and I owed him something, especially at this point. His sight had faded away years ago, before I arrived here, and I could tell that the rest of his body was fading away too. He knew it, of course, and had told me that his children were making arrangements to move him to a “home”—a word he spat out angrily and a little sadly. He’d gotten along quite a while with having frozen meals delivered every week, but I knew from an occasional remark that he’d been having some sort of trouble with them lately.
We both had phones, but I never bothered to call. He always heard me on the path, long before I reached his door, and always seemed glad to have the company—and someone to share a drink or two with, although I declined as gracefully as I could every time.
As usual, I took a careful look around before I sat down, and as usual, everything was in its place. There was a bottle and a squat glass, half-full, on a table on one side of his chair and a radio on a rolling cart on the other. Through the kitchen door I could see a sleek K-cup brewer on a counter. He didn’t need eyes to pour a drink or make coffee. Beyond those few things, there was nothing else of note aside from a wall full of books. I wondered whether he sometimes ran his fingers over the spines, recognizing them from their width or the texture of the binding.
Over the years, Sandford and I had talked about dozens of different things, or rather he’d told me—history (he’d been a professor at a nearby community college), politics, even sasquatch and the like. He’d once been fascinated by the creatures, he’d told me—this was the Pacific Northwest, after all—but had given up hopes of anyone’s ever finding one. “You can’t find what’s not there,” he’d concluded. But UFOs were something else, and naturally I paid attention to what he had to say. He’d mentioned early on that his parents had known Kenneth Arnold, and that’s what had led to his interest. He couldn’t read any more, of course, but he kept up on the subject thanks to what he heard on the radio. He knew that most of what he heard was nonsense, he assured me—”crazy stuff”— but he could filter that out, leaving what he was pretty sure was the truth.
It was a very odd coincidence. I could tell him things about UFOs myself, although I’d been careful not to. But now it was time to make good on my debt. And there was no longer any danger. As he’d pointed out more than once, he’d gone from being an old fool to being a blind old fool. I was in a position to tell him things that I knew he’d find meaningful, but no one would ever believe him if he were to repeat them.
# # #
“Years ago,” I explained, after we’d chatted a few minutes, “I was involved unofficially with some scientists who were looking at the things pretty carefully. And what they were doing was unofficial too. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of the study group called the Invisible College—Hynek, Vallée, those people—but this was even more invisible.”
At the mention of the names, Sandford smiled and nodded vigorously.
“Over time, and after looking at quite a bit of material, this group I’m talking about—they never gave themselves a name—became convinced that UFOs were real. UFOs or UAPs, or whatever they’ll be called tomorrow. Like you’ve pointed out once, most reports were nonsense, or so fragmentary as to be useless. Or outright hoaxes, like those early airship sightings. But “most” is a relative term, and the remainder added up to a large number, given the resources these people could draw on. And that remainder formed a kind of pattern. Or patterns, really.”
I told Sandford that he’d be disappointed to hear that the scientists couldn’t make up their minds about the “flying saucers” Arnold had seen in Washington State in”47, although I was pretty sure they were alien craft. “But the odd thing is that ten days later—July 4—the crew of a United Airlines plane flying over a little town in Idaho sighted what the group felt sure were real. The crew and the passengers watched them, five of them, for several minutes.
“Then Roswell came along a few days after that. This group I’m talking about decided that the Roswell event was real, too, that a UFO really had crashed, and I’m sure they were right. If the ship’s trajectory had been a little flatter, it would have ended up in the Pacific. Given the fact that 70 percent of the earth’s surface is covered with water, it was their guess that over the centuries quite a few had disappeared like that. Of course, the government covered things up, and by the time the truth started coming out, the facts were hopelessly muddled.”
We both knew that “muddled” was just fine, from the government’s point of view.
I explained that the group started looking back farther, a lot farther, and the patterns became clearer. There was the “Wheel of Ezekiel” in the Bible, for instance, and tantalizing reports by Plutarch and Pliny. And so on and so on, for more than an hour, until the light had faded from the windows and Sandford’s attention had begun to flag.
I cleared my throat.
“Anyway, this group came to the conclusion that the earth had been visited regularly, that maybe the planet had been “seeded” with life in the first place, although of course there’s no way to be sure. And they thought the visits were of all kinds. Some were military surveillance, some simply seemed to be visits by the curious, some seemed to be hunters, some were scientists, and some were damaged craft that had flown wildly off-course and crashed. Quite a few were engaged in things beyond the group’s comprehension, bizarre things. They were all kinds, and they came from all over. And they were common. Are common.
“Now, I’ve talked a lot tonight, John. But— I can prove it to you, if you like. I owe you that. I can absolutely prove it to you. Would you like me to do that?”
He nodded, but started to remind me that there was no way he could see whatever I was going to show him.
I told him it didn’t matter, so he sat there, waiting expectantly, alert, his sightless eyes wide. But as I began pulling off the mask, he flinched. He was dismayed by the sound, I could tell. In any case, Sandford suddenly looked like a frightened old man.
“I’m going to pull my chair up closer now,” I told him, and I did, the wicker creaking and groaning as I got up and moved the chair and then sat down again.
“Now hold your hand out.” He hesitated again before he finally did so.
“It’s all right,” I assured him. “I’m just going to take your hand in mine.”
I did, and then I leaned forward and guided his hand to my face. He flinched at the first touch and pulled away, his face even paler in the pale light, his sightless eyes wide, his mouth stretched open. But then he raised the hand back toward my face, tentatively, and I let him touch me again, feel my face, one side to the other.
“John,” I said, “It’s been a long evening. Take care.”
I got up, moved the chair back, and walked out the door. There was no moon that night, and the sky was overcast, so it was dark beneath the pines. But “dark” is a relative term, of course, and I could see perfectly well.
Grove Koger is the author of When the Going Was Good: A Guide to the 99 Best Narratives of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure, Assistant Editor of Deus Loci: The Lawrence Durrell Journal, and former Assistant Editor of Art Patron.