RACHEL, Nev. — In a tent full of flying saucerphiles, a startling announcement suddenly emanates from the doorway: "There's something in the sky!"
The reaction is instantaneous. Telling UFO buffs there's something in the sky is like shouting "Fire!" in a crowded theater.
The saucer believers stampede outside into the sunny desert, scanning the heavens for an alien craft. Some see it, some don't.
Finally, a beefy guy with a flowing beard zeroes in on the otherworldly object through a pair of high-powered binoculars: "It's a . . . it's a . . . it's a Mickey Mouse balloon."
Heads drop and hearts sink. Another false alarm at "The Ultimate UFO Seminar," held last weekend in this tiny southern Nevada town, site of a rash of weird aerial phenomena and even weirder stuff on the ground.
"Please don't make fun of us," pleads a 31-year-old Orange County woman at the start of the conference. "We're taking a serious, scientific approach to this."
Then, after begging anonymity, she confides that short, gray aliens regularly abduct her and once stole her ovum to breed a "hybrid child." She knows this because the space creatures showed her the half-human, half-alien youngster when it was 5 years old.
She also says that unmarked black helicopters sometimes follow her around Newport Beach.
Remarkably, as the two-day seminar progresses, her tale actually becomes hard to dismiss. It turns out to be one of the sanest stories told.
Other "UFOlogists" link aliens with Adolf Hitler, the JFK assassination and AIDS. They talk about mysterious cattle mutilations and secret tunnels connecting Nevada to San Diego and New York. And they insist that creatures from the Zeta Reticuli star system are conspiring with humans to form a one-world government.
Their proof is a combination of mainstream media accounts (a 1958 New York Times article about UFOs buzzing Washington, D.C.; a CNN segment on close encounters with American military personnel), eyewitness testimony and wild conjecture.
John Lear, airline pilot and disinherited son of the Learjet family, is the first speaker. Among his revelations (for that handful of folks who don't read International UFO Reporter or the Weekly World News): The military has been hiding alien spacecraft at the nearby Air Force training range since 1947, and President Eisenhower lied about going to the dentist in 1954.
Ike was actually off striking a deal at the first alien-Earthling summit: The extraterrestrials handed over a few saucers and we relinquished "grazing rights," allowing aliens the freedom to periodically abduct and experiment on humans and cattle.
When President Kennedy later threatened to expose the accord, he was, of course, assassinated. The gunman, according to Lear's analysis of the Zapruder film, was Kennedy's limousine driver.
After JFK, Presidents have been told only that, yes, the military is working with aliens in Nevada, "but that's all you need to know."
At the end of Lear's talk, the few skeptics in the crowd pick apart the tale. One scoffer, snickering that Lear "must have broken the sound barrier one too many times," acts out President Clinton's briefing:
\o7 "OK, Mr. President, we need to go over a few things. UFOs are real and the Air Force is working with space aliens and flying saucers in Nevada."
"That's it. Nothing you need to know about."
"Oh. OK." \f7 *
By midnight Friday, about half of the 200 people at the seminar have drifted next door to the Little A'Le'Inn. The tavern, a converted trailer, is big enough to hold the entire population of Rachel, which is nothing more than a speck on the map (well, \o7 some \f7 maps) between Las Vegas and Morey Flats, site of one of the biggest underground A-bomb tests in history.
The UFO business has been a boon to the Little A'Le'Inn, which assumed its current name in 1990 to cash in on the sightings along Highway 375. Alien bumper stickers, doormats, cigarette lighters, hats, T-shirts, earrings, paper-towel holders and other trinkets are all on sale. Menu items include Alien Burgers (not made from mutilated cattle) and a potion called the Beam Me Up, Scotty (Jim Beam, 7-Up and a splash of Scotch).
But proprietors Joe and Pat Travis seem to genuinely believe in interplanetary tourists. Several have even visited the tavern, they say: One looked human but was definitely from outer space because he sat near the inn's four slot machines for an entire day without eating, drinking or using the bathroom.
Other extraterrestrials, according to informed sources here, give away their true identity by consuming mass quantities of strawberry ice cream and green Jell-O.
When their alien bellies are full, they hop into saucers and streak through the sky. In recent years, thousands of spectators, including TV crews and newspaper reporters, have witnessed the baffling, glowing objects that seemingly zig and zag above Rachel.