GULF BREEZE, Fla. — As a hotbed of flying saucer sightings, this small town long ago earned its dot on the map--perhaps even the intergalactic map.
Nearby are five major military bases, including one where explosives are tested, and the skies overhead are often chockablock with blinking lights and fiery flashes. Reports of UFOs--Unidentified Flying Objects--are as common here as powdery white beaches and tourists with third-degree sunburns.
But now something more ominous seems to be hovering over Gulf Breeze, casting a long shadow over the once good-natured UFO hubbub. Three weeks ago, local police made a routine traffic stop and came up with six young soldiers, AWOL from their top secret Army posts in Augsburg, West Germany. According to friends, the soldiers had come here to witness the end of the world.
The soldiers are gone, whisked away by a team of CIA and FBI agents that swooped down on Gulf Breeze faster than swamp gas rises. Speculation as to what the GIs were up to, and why they came to Gulf Breeze, has caused a sensation here.
A Pentagon spokesman said the six were members of something called the End of the World cult. Mention was made of The Rapture, when some Christians believe the saved will be taken to heaven, as was a mission to kill the Antichrist. There also were reports that the group was preparing to ascend to heaven via spaceship.
"This was once known as a quiet bedroom community," complains Jerry D. Brown, the chief of the town's 15-officer police force. "But a lot of people are laughing at us because of this UFO business, and now this is what we're getting--weirdos, nuts, people we don't want here."
Visits from mysterious strangers, from Earth or any other planet, are unwelcome in Gulf Breeze, an upscale community of 6,000 residents proud to be an alternative to many of the tourist-hungry beach towns along the "Redneck Riviera," that stretch of scenic Gulf shore from the Florida Panhandle to New Orleans.
Not only is the town's reputation under siege, but both Brown and the mayor, Ed Gray III, believe the UFO hysteria was touched off by a clever hoax perpetrated by a local home builder.
"It's all negative for the community," says Brown. "And the only one who has gained is Ed."
"Ed" is Ed Walters, an affable, wiry man of 44, well-known in Gulf Breeze for his custom-built homes, his active role as a high school band booster and for his playful imagination.
Now Walters' renown has expanded beyond this city's two square miles with the publication in March of "The Gulf Breeze Sightings." Co-authored by Walters and his wife, Frances, president of the high school PTA, the book relates in diary fashion what the couple says were several months' worth of close encounters with four-foot gray aliens who sometimes speak Spanish. The visits supposedly began in November, 1987.
Due chiefly to notoriety attending Walters' accounts, the Mutual UFO Network, a national organization that tracks strange celestial activity, picked neighboring Pensacola to hold its annual convention. Just a week before the six AWOL soldiers showed up, busloads of MUFON conventioneers toured Gulf Breeze, where they traipsed through the back yards of people who have reported sightings, stopped off in Shoreline Park to eyeball a swirl in the grass that not everyone believes was made by beavers, and gazed hopefully skyward over Pensacola Bay.
And, of course, there were T-shirts. One shows an alien family, back on their home planet, with the youngsters lamenting: "My folks went to Gulf Breeze and all I got was this lousy T- shirt."
For many locals, however, UFOs are no joke. "It was bright blue, and it had several smaller lights around it," said Louis F. Martin, 66, an Air Force retiree who, with his wife, Mary, was sitting under the tall pines in Shoreline Park on a recent Thursday morning. "I never told anyone but my wife here because I didn't know what people would think. I didn't want to look like a fool."
"But now," adds Mary Martin, "a lot of people are coming forward."
Indeed, Duane Cook, editor and publisher of the weekly Gulf Breeze Sentinel, estimates that in the past 2 1/2 years, he's heard of UFO sightings from at least 200 people, including his parents. "I don't buy the visual hysteria bit," he says.
Links between the AWOL soldiers and Gulf Breeze's reputation as a UFO spaceport are intriguing, but vague. All were assigned to the 701st Military Intelligence Brigade. Each of the six--five men and one woman--had top-secret clearance in a unit charged with providing U.S. defense forces with secure communication and conducting research into "other electronic phenomena," according to the Army. Walters says he heard that the group had come to contact him.