Watch the Skies
The year is 1973, I’m 7 years old and on an adventure, at least it was an adventure to me. We were driving south from Missoula Montana and headed for Sheridan Wyoming to visit my maternal grandfather who was in the V.A. hospital there. It was late summer and the sun had just gone down. The prairie was pure gold and ran to the west up against a row of black mountains. Through the windshield to the south the sky was turning that strange shade of gun metal blue, the first edge of twilight chasing the sun away. High up above were a few thin, feathery clouds. Those clouds caught some angle of the sun that turned them a cotton candy pink. This topography was new to me. I had never been anywhere where there weren’t visible mountains in every direction. The road was so black it looked as if it had been laid out with a paint brush, straight as an arrow and disappearing into the far southern horizon.
We were in a black ford pickup, my sister Shannon and I squeezed between my Dad who was driving and my mom in the passenger seat. This was in an era before seat belts or car seats were even a passing thought. I sat on the heels of my Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers and took in the magical new land all around me. My sister had her head on mom’s lap, sound asleep.
Mom and Dad talked back and forth about things I didn’t have much interest in at that age. I mostly ignored them and tried my best to remember everything. I’ve been blessed with a great memory, and can recall minute details of things and experiences that should have flushed out long ago, instead they’re still there in some corner of my mind waiting for me to pull them out, blow the dust off, and smile.
It was in this dusky evening setting that I first noticed my Dad staring at something. He adjusted in his seat and pulled himself forward until his chest was almost resting on the steering wheel. He squinted at something far to the southwest. “Hmmm…what is that?” My mom said, “What is what Gary? What are you talking about?” He pointed, I saw something on the horizon for a fraction of a second before it was gone. “It’s not there now. It seemed too low for an airplane. It’s gone now, it must’ve turned.” He relaxed back into his seat and they started talking again. A few minutes passed and he tensed again. “Now it’s over there…what in the hell is that?” My mom saw it this time too, and I saw it clearly for the first time. “It’s just an airplane, Gary, probably flying straight at us.” In my peripheral vision I could see Dad settle back slightly. “Yeah…” he said with uncertainty, “...probably.” The tension in the cab was elevated, and I could see my mom was watching it too, but trying her best to explain this…thing, away. On the horizon it looked to be about the size of a small pea held at arm's length away, and it was not lit up, nor was it not lit up. It was about the tone of buffed stainless steel and stood out starkly against the darkening cobalt sky.
“Gary, watch the road…”
“I am, I’m just curious about that thing.”
“It’s probably an airplane…”
“I’ve been watching it for 3 miles and it hasn't moved.”
“Then it’s probably a blimp or something.”
We drove on further and as the evening deepend, the thing stood out even more sharply. Then it was gone. There was no motion, no fading out, no quick blur, gone, and in that same instant it reappeared perhaps five miles away, instantly.
“What in the hell is going on?’ my dad asked.
“Gary, you’re scaring Todd, but really he was scaring her, and she was already scared to begin with. Dad began to drive slightly faster, the anxious energy making it into his foot.
“Slow down Gary, you’re going to kill us or hit a deer.” He listened to her advice for a few seconds and slowed. We all watched the thing in the sky, then as it had done before, it was instantly gone and then reappeared 5 miles away in a new location. Now my mom was truly nervous.
“What is that?” she asked. There was no denying what we were seeing, and it defied all conventional explanations. It was there, then it wasn’t, and then it was…instantly.
I could feel the mixture of wonder and fear grow by the minute as this thing appeared and reappeared 10-12 times. Dad’s speed increased, tension grew, conversation turned into excited snipping. At one point my mom told me to lay down, as if by not seeing what was going on it would somehow exempt me from any potential consequences. I snuck my head up and looked over the dashboard at it over and over. “Damn it Todd, lay on the seat” but my curiosity was too much. I had to see, I had to know.
We pushed on for thirty minutes while this went on, scanning the sky and internally telling ourselves that it was somehow explainable, but it was not.
“Gary, turn on the radio, maybe there’s something about this on there.” Dad turned the radio on and it was dark enough for me to see the glowing green numerals and lines that formed the dial. I watched him move the red needle back and forth through the A.M. stations catching bits and pieces of cattle market reports, pieces of songs, bits of canned laughter etc, but nothing he could hone in on. Finally, after 10 minutes of fiddling with the radio, he found a local station that held. It was a country music station. We drove along in the twilight listening to some country crooner’s voice waving in and out through the static and other stations trying to cut in, until finally it cleared a bit. The talking had stopped, mom and dad were intent on watching whatever it was that hung in the sky, appearing and disappearing randomly. Then the radio went quiet mid-song.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it has been reported that strange lights have been seen in the sky over the immediate area, and after contacting government authorities we have been informed that what you are seeing is nothing to be concerned about. There is a weather experiment being conducted in the area, and what you are seeing is nothing more than weather balloons.”
I could tell that my mom and dad didn’t believe that explanation. I was only 7 years old and even I knew it was a lie. In the years since that night, virtually every sighting in the world has the same few explanations. Weather balloons, swamp gas, Venus, misinterpreted aircraft, rocket launches gone bad, or satellites. There is always a handy explanation for the unexplained, always. It’s been 50 years since that night, and I still watch the sky constantly. I want to believe.