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Undeniably Funky Objects

The Air Force can dispute it, but there's no arguing with the profitability the rumors of a flying saucer crash have brought to Roswell, N.M. Now, 50 years after the reports, tourists are snatching up T-shirts, dolls, magnets and other tchotchkes

June 27, 1997|MICHAEL HAEDERLE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ROSWELL, N.M. — This city sits on the sunbaked southeastern plains of New Mexico like a ship afloat in an ocean of grass. At the edge of town, gently undulating ridges stretch to a horizon unrelieved by any distinguishing feature, save the distant blue silhouette of the Capitan Mountains.

As Mayor Tom Jennings says, "We're out here 200 miles from anywhere."

But during the first week of July, as many as 50,000 visitors will descend, braving a drive most often described as endless to mark the 50th anniversary of the Roswell incident. They can expect to endure 100-degree temperatures, rattlesnakes and violent thunderstorms.

They will also spend a lot of money.

Oh, and they'll be looking for aliens.

You see them almost everywhere you look in Roswell these days. Gray-skinned, big-headed, almond-eyed humanoids with four digits on each hand. They line the storefronts along Main Street. In the window of the Pampered Lady, a block from the green-domed county courthouse, a couple of mannequins with alien faces even model ball gowns.

It all dates from July 1947, when a flurry of reports about the crash of a flying saucer on a ranch outside town made it onto the front pages of newspapers around the country. But the story was debunked within days when the Air Force said the wreckage was only a weather balloon. Locals forgot about the whole thing until the early 1980s, when interest was revived with a series of books and articles alleging that the military had covered up an alien visitation.

The Air Force continues to deny there was a saucer crash, and just this week issued a report titled "The Roswell Incident, Case Closed." Three years ago, officials asserted that the alleged saucer debris / weather balloon had really come from a highly classified attempt to snoop on early Russian atomic testing using high-altitude balloons. The latest report adds that "alien" bodies alleged to have been removed from the debris were actually "anthropomorphic test dummies" used in high-altitude test projects from 1954-'59. The Air Force did not explain how or why people might have confused events that happened several years apart.

Never mind. Showtime turned the story into a made-for-cable movie. Fox Mulder is a believer. The Roswell incident even was a key plot device in the 1996 movie blockbuster "Independence Day."

And now, as the half-century anniversary approaches, folks around here have discovered that aliens are good for business.

Ask Stan Crosby, a prosperous oil-and-gas man and a fourth generation Roswellian who has organized the Roswell UFO Encounter '97, a lavish six-day commemoration of the alleged crash.

He is a flying saucer skeptic, but like many of his neighbors, Crosby is a true believer in economic development. "They tell me, 'Boy, what you're doing, Stan, is real great for the community, but I don't personally believe in UFOs,' " Crosby says. "There is still that kook factor associated with it."

That hasn't kept people from making plans to visit between Tuesday and July 6. Roswell's 954 motel and hotel rooms have been booked for months, as they have in towns throughout southeastern New Mexico. Organizers have arranged for portable toilets, extra RV parking and new campsites to accommodate the anticipated flood of visitors. The hospital has laid in extra snake antivenin, while vacation leave for police and emergency medical technicians has been canceled.

This year's celebration will include a major conference of UFO researchers, an expo, an alien costume contest, a glow-in-the-dark golf tournament, an Alien Chase fun run and an 80-mile bike race. Other events include crash site tours, a film festival, a play about a purported biblical UFO encounter, a laser show at the planetarium, and the Crash and Burn Extravaganza, in which contestants build and race spaceship-shaped go-carts.

Tourists will have their pick of a host of extraterrestrial tchotchkes, including assorted T-shirts, Roswell UFO incident mini-cookies (they're "Out of this world!"), Alien Head lollipops, silver-on-black Roswell incident fabric, and alien dolls.

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Given the enthusiasm with which Roswell's businesses have embraced the anniversary, it's surprising that until a few years ago, the city didn't care to be associated with flying saucers. A stronghold of Bible Belt values, it preferred to be known as a center for agribusiness and energy production--and as the home of the New Mexico Military Institute.

But Roswell, whose 48,000 residents make it New Mexico's fourth-largest city, also suffered from an acute inferiority complex when it came to tourism. It lacks the adobe chic of Santa Fe or the boomtown vitality of Albuquerque. Mostly, tourists pass through as they head south on U.S. 285 to visit Carlsbad Caverns.

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