The unidentified object
What people tell are the facts of the story, sticking to the facts lest they seem crazy, lest they seem to want something, want the facts to be something or mean something.
At 10:37 on a Tuesday night in March in 1966 the phone rang in the basement of the funeral home. A 22-year-old man picked up the receiver and said hello. Hello Funeral Home, he said, and the woman on the other end hesitated. There was static in the phone.
He was waiting for Civil Defense calls, calls about Russian spies or nuclear attacks or invasions or student uprisings. Though mostly he just got calls for the normal everynight deaths that seemed to stack up around holidays and weather changes. He played cards with friends or solitaire, waiting with the keys to the ambulance and looking out the little block or windows letting out into the parking lot.
What is it? he said.
It looks like a UFO, she said.
Unidentified Flying Object, she said, even though she knew that wasn’t the question. She was very calm about it. She didn’t want to seem crazy.
They could see it from the girl’s dorm, from the window on the second floor, hovering and ringed in lights. The thing had red lights and white lights that turned to blue lights and it hovered past the yard and the trees and over the hollow of the arbor. The girls stood there in white nightgowns and colored pajamas and stared at it, up in the sky.
What is it? someone said and someone said, A UFO.
The house mother found them there, 17 girls standing in waves of talk and silence. Someone came and got her, said she should come. What is it? she said, getting up, but the girl just shook her head and raised her eye brows. You should come, she said.
Not that there was anything she could do or should do, not that there was anything to be done, but they felt the need to inform an authority even if just to join them looking out at the sky. She stood there with the girls, watching and wondering and then she thought she should tell somebody. It seemed like there ought to be an authority. She called the police, who told her to call the fire department. She called the fire department, who told her to call the Civil Defense people.
He drove over in the ambulance and a girl met him at the front door, leading him around to the back where the girls parted to let him up to the middle of the window. They weren’t hysterical. He'd thought they'd be hysterical but they were just standing there. He saw it rise up from the ground and stay there and lower back down. White lights on the right and red on the left.
Do you really think it’s a UFO? someone said.
What else could it be?
What does it mean? someone asked and someone said Unidentified Flying Object, but that wasn't really the question.
He called the Army and they told him to call the Air Force. He called the Air Force and they put him on hold. He waited, sitting on the bottom bunk in the dark room with 17 girls looking out into the dark. He cupped the phone between his ear and his shoulder and waited and felt, he thought, very calm. It wasn’t like there was anything he could do or, really, anything to be done. One of the girls said There it goes, and the lights rose up again and moved off, getting smaller and closer together and disappearing over the line of trees.
The Air Force sent a man. He took interviews and soil samples and samples of leaves. He showed his credentials saying he was an expert and held a conference where he concluded it was nothing. Natural gasses or swamp lights. No one believed him but then no one had any better idea or other expert. The Air Force man stuck with facts and said it was nothing and after all if he'd said it was something, that something was out there or meant something, they'd have said he was crazy. So it was, it seemed in the end, nothing.
The girls posed the picture later, with their hair curled and lights on and a smiling blond pointed out at what we can’t see, out of focus out the window at an empty spot in the sky.