When I was in the sixth grade, the middle school I attended had a special program that allowed students with good grades to miss class time occasionally to take part in a form of “independent study.” The program required that each student choose a topic, research it thoroughly over the course of a year, and ultimately have something to show for their effort to understand the world beyond the classroom. Because of the broad scope of the project, one could potentially study just about anything, though most students chose pretty traditional fodder for kids that age: baleen whales, how clouds form, photosynthesis, and the like.
Of course, I was never a normal kid, as demonstrated by my decision to grow up and write on the internet for a living. I’d love to say I spent some time mulling over my options, but the truth of the matter was, as soon as I was offered a coveted position in the program, I was already sure about my topic: I was going to find out the truth about UFOs.
As an adult, I understand how unlikely it would be that an 11-year-old would be the guy to break this case, but let’s all just agree that the ’90s were a different time. Fox Mulder was taking on government conspiracies left and right every week; surely I could handle just this measly one.
So I first set about researching the topic the way kids did back in the pre-internet age: in the card catalog of my school library. For those of you who aren’t familiar with card catalogs, there was once a time when just finding a book in which to look up answers was an endeavor unto itself. Once you found a card with the title of a book and the author on it, it would provide you with a secret alpha-numeric code you could use to Indiana Jones your way through the library’s dusty shelves until you found it. Then you’d spend however long it took to realize it wasn’t the right book to answer your question, and start the whole thing over again.
My card catalog adventures did prove fruitful, however, and I pored over book after book discussing stuff like Project Blue Book, Project Grudge, the Majestic 12, the Roswell crash, and so forth. As I took notes in my Trapper Keeper, one name kept popping up over and over again: Stanton Friedman.
Friedman was a nuclear physicist-turned-UFO expert, and had been the first civilian to document the site of the Roswell crash as a part of a serious investigation pertaining to alien life. In a UFO community full of crackpots and crazies, Stanton Friedman used a pragmatic scientific approach to the phenomena, as honed through nearly a decade and a half working on classified programs like nuclear aircraft and fusion rockets. In 1968, he was asked to speak before the U.S. House of Representatives on the topic, and he famously suggested to them that the Earth was indeed being visiting by extraterrestrial beings. He also posited that these beings must be using “magnetohydrodynamic propulsion” to get here…which is something I still don’t really understand, but always thought sounded so scientific it had to be true.
Modern-day Alex is pretty confident that alien life must exist out there in the universe, but is less certain they’re traveling here to cut up our cows. Middle-school Alex felt like the unclassified Air Force documents from Project Blue Book (which at the time had already been published for decades) were groundbreaking revelations. I assumed the world hadn’t seen these old library books yet, and here I was, digging through these cryptic tomes of knowledge and uncovering the evidence Earth’s media must have missed—and all it took was a library card!
I rushed home with copies I had asked a librarian to make of the lightly redacted documents I’d found printed in books by—or discussing—my new hero, Stanton Friedman. Every black square over text just confirmed for me that the Air Force, the U.S. government, hell, maybe even the world, didn’t want my groundbreaking discovery made public, so I had to work fast in order to get the news into the hands of the proper authorities: my mom and dad.
To my great disappointment, however, my parents weren’t as shocked by the smudged copies I made of Air Force investigations from the 1950s. For some reason, they seemed to think that just because the books I read had been published before I was born, that I might not be the first person to break this story. Supportive as they were, they were also dealing with a son that stapled a massive U.S. map to his bedroom wall and had begun placing color-coordinated pins on it to indicate what kind of “close encounter” had occurred at each location. My dad, the Vietnam vet-turned-stern businessman, was never particularly soft on us kids, and he explained to me that, in order to solve this mystery, I’d have to uncover something new, and that sort of thing was best left to the grown-ups and folks who didn’t need to be reminded to brush their teeth.
Undaunted, I stomped up to my room, now certain of how I’d spend the remainder of the school year: finding something new to rub in my dad’s face.
The library, I learned, wasn’t a great place to find information the world had never seen before, but I still checked out another dozen books, because I figured I needed a thorough understanding of what had already been covered in order to be the guy to break new ground. Although the independent study program was meant for kids who were theoretically mature enough to balance their research and their normal classes, I demonstrated a lack of any such maturity, doodling about aliens in class and skipping homework in favor of watching old VHS tapes of Leonard Nimoy’s “In Search Of”—a series from the ’70s that is now on YouTube and is absolutely worth your time.
Eventually, though, I grew impatient. I was sick of reading old books about old guys in stuffy military uniforms debunking all my theories before they even fully formed. I was tired of being stuck in math class when I should be climbing the fence at Area 51 and taking pictures with my dad’s Polaroid camera. The reality that I may not actually be able to solve this mystery from Mr. Meskel’s English classroom was beginning to set in, and I was utterly furious that none of these adults could appreciate the stakes of my investigation. After all, who cares about conjugating verbs when we could be susceptible to invasion? Why bother with algebra if any one of us could be abducted next? What were these adults thinking?
And then it occurred to me. There was at least one adult I knew would understand: Stanton Friedman.
I checked in all the books I had for contact information to no avail, went back through the card catalog, and still found nothing. Finally, in an act of desperation, I approached my father about using his computer to aid in my search. As he was a computer programmer, we were early adopters of the home PC and the internet craze, but because it cost a whopping $10 per hour to access the web, it was a strictly controlled resource in our house, reserved only for my father’s work and my older brother creepily talking to teenage girls in chat rooms. Now, however, I needed to know just how powerful this World Wide Web thing could be.
To my utter surprise, my dad agreed and almost seemed happy to help. After a few quick minutes of what seemed a whole lot like magic to me, we found ourselves on Stanton Friedman’s UFO website—complete with contact information so you could report your own UFO sightings or experiences.
This was it. I had the phone number of the one man who would understand my quest, and I was going to convince him to partner up with me and my newfound encyclopedic knowledge of the UFO conspiracy. Kindred spirits in an ignorant world. Stanton Friedman was the key to helping me blow this investigation wide open, and probably my securing a Nobel Prize before I even reached high school.
I sat staring at the novelty football-shaped telephone on the desk in my bedroom, choosing my words carefully and practicing a lower tone to my voice. At the time, it wasn’t uncommon for people to think I was my mom when I answered the phone, but there was no time to wait for puberty to set in, so I’d just have to try my best. Nervously, I picked up the phone and slowly dialed each number, and then it rang.
“Hello?” A nasally voice answered.
“Hi…uh…I’m Alex…I mean…um…can I please speak to Stanton Friedman please? Ahem. Um. Please?” Not very Mulder-like, but it was a start.
“This is he. Can I help you, young man?” He knew I was a kid. GREAT START.
“I’m calling because, well, I’ve been studying UFOs and…” I started to ramble about my investigation to that point, my concerns that my parents weren’t taking the situation seriously, and my intent to join him in the search for alien life in our own backyards. The other side of the line remained silent for the first few minutes of it.
“I’m sorry, son, you shouldn’t be calling strangers without your mom and dad around,” he started to explain, but I quickly interjected that my dad had helped me find his number. He was silent again for a second, and then started talking in a whispered tone of voice.
“OK, but listen, you shouldn’t be calling about these things over open phone lines. You could get your whole family put on a government list. You won’t make any progress in your investigation if they start trying to intervene.”
“Holy shit.” I was 11, but sometimes cursing was still worth it.
“You should get off the line right away. Don’t call again; I’ll contact you.” He hung up the phone. My mind was racing. What had I done? I had just put Stanton Friedman and my own family in danger. The Cigarette-Smoking Man from the X-Files was probably already outside my house in a parked Ford Crown Victoria. I had to move. We had to find a new house and get off the grid for a while. This was serious.
I ran downstairs and screamed what happened to my parents, who didn’t seem nearly as flustered. My dad chuckled as I explained that now Mr. Friedman and I were partners and he warned me that the government was coming to get us.
“Did he actually say either of those things, Alex?” my mom asked.
“Not…like…specifically, but you know how these things work, Mom. You can’t just say it right out!”
“OK, well I’ll keep my eye out for any secret agents and you should wash your hands for dinner.”
In the weeks that followed, my parents, brothers, teachers, and friends all tried to convince me that Stanton Friedman was just trying to give me a bit of what I wanted so he could hang up the phone and get back to doing whatever 60-year-old men did in their evenings, and over time, I began to see what they meant. He hadn’t contacted me and there hadn’t been any FBI agents confiscating my dad’s computer or the stack of books on my desk. Maybe the whole thing had been a mistake. Maybe it wasn’t too late to change the topic of my report to baleen whales.
I came home after school, intent on actually doing my homework for a change instead of updating my close-encounters map, when I found my mom waiting for me in the kitchen, a big brown package in hand.
The package was from Stanton Friedman.
I tore it open to find booklets, papers, and copies of more old, redacted documents. He had sent me a treasure trove of stuff that hadn’t made its way into one of his books yet, or that had, but weren’t in the books my school kept in the library, anyway. This was it. This was the new story I could break. Stanton Friedman had come through for me.
I got an A on my independent study project, though I was only able to include a fraction of the stuff Mr. Friedman had mailed me. I know now that he was just trying to humor a kid that had watched a few too many episodes of the X-Files, and that his finding my address was likely less because of his connections with the government, and more because of using caller ID and the Whitepages.
But for a few weeks in the sixth grade, I was the most important investigative journalist in Torrington, Connecticut, all thanks to some old Air Force paperwork, a nuclear physicist with a penchant for the dramatic, and a mindset that would eventually lead me to a career in writing.
Images courtesy of Proof of Alien Life