(CNN) — Nearly 50 years since an alleged UFO was sighted at Roswell, New Mexico, a new CNN/Time poll released Sunday shows that 80 percent of Americans think the government is hiding knowledge of the existence of extraterrestrial life forms. — 1997 CNN / Time Poll
Whether it's the truth or a pipedream of conspiracy-fearing paranoids, the Roswell Incident, as the story has come to be known, is a part of late- 20th-century U.S. folklore. — Robert Kolarik
Though it was not to be dubbed an "incident" until long afterward, an unusual series of events began to unfold in early July 1947, the details of which have become so obscured by more than a half-century of mythologizing that even the mainstream press has difficulty distinguishing the truth from the fiction of it anymore.
In the public mind, the so-called Roswell Incident now occupies the same curious limbo between belief and disbelief that was once the sole domain of conspiracy theories surrounding the JFK assassination. In both cases we have been fed so much contradictory information from so many different quarters that it no longer seems reasonable to expect we will ever know what really happened.
Suppose there were indisputable evidence that extraterrestrial beings visited this planet at some point in recent history. That discovery alone would be among the most significant events of all time, forever changing humankind's view of itself and its place in the universe. Suppose further that it could be proven, as some people claim, that the U.S. government purposely withheld this profoundly important information from the public for some 50-plus years. The social and political fallout would shake the country to its core.
Nothing of the sort has been proven, not even remotely, yet 80 percent of the American public admits to believing these things to be true. Why? The answer may be that in Roswell we've found the perfect myth for our age, replete with supernatural beings whose elusive comings and goings hint of an unseen world beyond day-to-day reality and a melodramatic struggle between forces of good and evil that mirrors our gravest concerns about the tendencies of modern life. The mythopoeic elements of the Roswell story are more compelling than the facts, which, given their due, only lead back to what is ordinary and familiar -- that which we yearn to transcend.
A myth in the making
I can't claim to be an expert on Roswell. Some people have spent half a lifetime researching the subject, and they can speak better than I to its intricacies. But there are aspects of the story to suggest that the events in Roswell more than five decades ago weren't nearly as mysterious or earthshaking as we've been led to believe. Anthropologists tell us that myths and legends can be born from simple errors in observation, from misinterpretations of mundane events. With that in mind, perhaps it would be productive to review the basic facts of the case, for once -- the few facts that remain undisputed, that is -- with a folklorist's eye; to look at Roswell as a myth in the making.
Let me begin with an observation. We would not be referring to Roswell as an "incident" today if the U.S. Air Force had not made a public pronouncement based on the discovery of unusual debris in a remote pasture on July 8, 1947 and then reversed its story. Everything hinges on those conflicting statements.
The "incident" had actually begun two days earlier when a rancher named Mac Brazel drove to Roswell with two cardboard boxes containing what appeared to be aircraft wreckage -- albeit made from strange materials and decorated with even stranger markings -- and showed the contents to the local sheriff. The sheriff called officials at the Roswell Air Army Field, who dispatched intelligence officers to scoop up the debris and ship it off for analysis.
Twenty-four hours later, the Air Force issued a press release declaring it had come into possession of, and I quote, "a flying saucer" (Roswell Daily Record, July 8, 1947).
Later that same day, in a statement made on a radio news broadcast by Brigadier General Roger Ramey, the Air Force retracted its previous announcement, now declaring that the debris found in Brazel's pasture was the wreckage of "an ordinary weather balloon" (Roswell Daily Record, July 9, 1947).
A bit of historical context: No one had ever heard of "flying saucers" until just two weeks earlier, when the phrase was coined in a newspaper headline.