It’s beyond clichéd to talk about the Internet as a world of information at your fingertips. All the same, it’s also totally true. It’s hardly surprising that such a watershed innovation in the transfer and dissemination of information would quickly come to be seen as a boon—and one of previously unimaginable importance—for persons and organizations with decidedly unorthodox opinions and agendas, the missionary urge to share them, and no preexisting apparatus for doing so on such a large scale. If you can read a book, you can build a website. And if you build a website, sooner or later someone will come knocking.
Naysayers might argue that the value of the Internet relative to traditional repositories of the printed word is offset by the proliferation of porn sites, triple-XXX pop-ups, dodgy spelling, the confusion of fact with oft-repeated fiction, and the dubious credibility of endless sources of information that can’t quite be followed back to the wellhead. And, in so arguing, they have some valid points.
But the naysayers needn’t concern us today. What concerns us is all the weirdness roiling around out there in Montana cyberspace—shunned texts and UFO sightings and everything else. A lot of this information is only accessible in its online form, and we’re all greased up to jump in after it.
A Note on the Methodology of the Strange
It wasn’t always so easy to get word out about crop circles or UFO sightings or anything else, you know. Before the advent of the Internet, many of the same Sasquatch-spotters and UFO contactees who now preside over slick websites had to run their cottage information services out of lonely post office boxes scattered across the country. Routinely ignored or, even worse, held up for ridicule by the mainstream and linked only by address books and circular mailing lists, it must have been a lot easier to feel like a lone voice crying out in the wilderness back then. Nowadays, of course, you can run down the contact info on a dozen UFO abductees or download a dozen crop circle photos faster than you can get help with your income taxes.
All skeptical reportage of the weird and the wonderful in Montana and elsewhere owes a debt to Charles Hoy Fort, the son of mildly prosperous Dutch merchants born in Albany, New York in 1874. A world traveler and prolific writer, Fort first made a reputation as a forceful critic of scientific orthodoxy in his 1919 tome, The Book of the Damned, a highly readable—though occasionally perplexing—polemic against what he perceived as the scientific community’s arrogant dismissal of events and phenomena that didn’t fit neatly into the established body of learning.
In thrusting his celestial teleporters and rains of blood and frogs and other weather anomalies in front of the gaping reader, Fort outlined a worldview that was an early kissin’ cousin to the crusading outsider mentality particular to many of today’s UFO hunters and online conspiracy theorists. Look at these facts, they seem to cry, And dare deny that there’s more between heaven and earth than is dreamt of in your philosophy!
Fort wasn’t always right on the mark; among his never-published writings are two lengthy manuscripts marshalling evidence for a sinister empire based at the South Pole and the idea that life on Earth has been carefully manipulated throughout history by events and beings on Mars. But when he died in 1932, he became a fittingly imperfect patron saint of outsider science. Right up until the end, he was fond of saying “To this day, no one can decide if I am a scientist or a humorist.”
And so we hope the spirit of Charles Hoy Fort is with us as we plunge through the rabbit hole and into the Montana Conspiro-sphere, one keystroke at a time. Our goal: to give you, with tenderness, gentle humor and, above all, a skeptic’s penetrating eye, an overview of current and historical weirdness in Montana as viewed through the curvature of the Internet lens. We don’t officially believe, we don’t officially not believe—we officially don’t not believe. And away we go.
Metaphysical Graffiti: Crop Circles in Montana
Whether or not you believe in extraterrestrial life is immaterial. If you’ve ever even considered the idea, at some point you must have asked yourself: What do they—or would they—want from us, anyway? One possible answer (just for starters, and one that has always enjoyed some cultural popularity in TV and the movies): to communicate. And to be on Led Zeppelin boxed sets.
If Charles Fort were alive today, he’d be doing back flips over the whole idea of crop circles. Skeptics and true believers alike have long been fascinated by these numinous glyphs and complex geometric patterns pressed into the golden tabulae of wheat and barley fields worldwide—by whom or what, no one can say with any certainty. From their first recorded appearance in the British countryside in the 1970s, crop circles have gone on to become a bona-fide worldwide phenomenon, appearing on every continent except Antarctica and, although relatively recently, right here in Montana. If extraterrestrial visitors to this planet did (or do) in fact wish to communicate with us using ancient symbols—albeit symbols largely subject to arcane interpretation—or a common language of Euclidean geometry, they couldn’t have hit closer to home than the food we eat. By the same token, detractors are quick to point out the suspect nature of “extraterrestrial” messages that appear, conveniently enough, in the dead of night in remote rural areas with few people about to interrupt the work of a few committed hoaxers. Still, the highly-publicized claim by two British drinking buddies, in 1991, that they were the parties responsible for hoaxing the most famous of the British crop circles—including the ones on the cover of the Led Zeppelin albums—has done little to stanch the profusion of new specimens popping up all over the world every month.
Wherever they appear unclaimed, crop circles mobilize fervent believers as well as skeptics and detractors to collude and refute each other’s opinions in debates that are rarely paid much heed by the broader public. When a crop circle appeared in a field near Whitefish last August—for the third time in four years—you probably didn’t read much about it in the local news. But Internet crop circle monitors were on the scene like blinking lights on a fleeting spaceship, with researchers calling from as from as far away as England to interview pilot Gilbert Johnson and other parties involved.
Johnson, a pilot since 1957, first spotted the formation during a routine flight on August 15, 2000, and by his own admission didn’t think much of it until he returned to the scene at the insistence of photographers and a videographer who wanted to document it. The gregarious aviator, whom we were able to track down at his home in Kalispell, hardly struck us as the X-Files type, but he practically strobes with enthusiasm for what he saw: “Boy, that was a humdinger. That thing was beautiful. I thought it was fake—that someone did it overnight, a bunch of kids, but this thing was so...whoa ho ho, man! The wheat was pushed down and rotated slightly at about a five or ten degree angle. Smooth, counterclockwise, three arms coming out with little round circles in them. I don’t see how anybody could have done it. I mean it was just unbelievable. I tell you, nobody could tell me it was just a bunch of kids.”
Some peculiar effects were reported during the flights. One of Johnson’s passengers, a Whitefish convenience store owner, reported that a fresh battery for her video camera—which should have provided juice for hours of filming—was drained after only 20 minutes. Johnson himself confirms that his Cessna 172’s navigation systems registered a magnetic anomaly above the site.
“Now, don’t make a big deal out of that,” Johnson continues, “But I made one pass from south to north, circled it and took some pictures, did a teardrop turn and came back over it at 500 feet. I was watching my compass to see if we had an anomaly, and we’d just passed over it when the compass turned about 15 degrees. That was enough to shake me up a little bit, you know, that something was there.”
Subsequent returns resulted in aberrations of 10 degrees or less. The formation stood for perhaps a week before the farmer harvested it, but two weeks later another configuration appeared in a second stand of wheat some 200 yards to the south. Johnson describes the second pattern as smaller and less elaborate, though still significant. He’s reluctant to put forth any theories of his own concerning who or what created the patterns in the wheat, but remains unwavering in his assertion that in both cases the designs looked far too elaborate and exquisitely rendered to simply be explained away by earthbound hoaxers.
“That first one—whatever did it put some time into it. When I talked to that lady who called me from England, I asked her, ‘You guys do the investigations of these things—what have you found out? Who’s doing it?’ And she said, outside of a couple farmers and a couple kids, nobody knows. They really don’t know! Now, I don’t know anything that will help anybody, except that I know what I saw, and it was beautiful.”
Saucers over Suffolk: UFOs cruise the prairie
The recent calling cards of the Circle Makers notwithstanding, any UFO enthusiast can tell you that spaceships have been violating Montana airspace for years. Hundreds of strange sightings have been reported to various agencies in Montana, the majority of them since 1952, when the United States Air Force launched its infamous “Operation Blue Book” to investigate and catalogue reports of unidentified flying objects.
The USAF discontinued Operation Blue Book in 1969 with some 700 out of 12,618 sightings still officially “unexplained.” Citizens and law enforcement officials wishing to report UFO sightings are now encouraged to do so first with local authorities and then any number of newer organizations, including the National UFO Reporting Center (NUFORC), a Seattle-based institute “dedicated to the collection and dissemination of objective UFO data,” in continuous operation since 1974. Until recently, a British organization called the National Investigative Committee on Aerial Phenomena (NICAP) fielded similar reports. Aviators with encounters to share are referred to the National Aviation Reporting Center for Anomalous Phenomena (NARCAP). Even the protocol for making such reports comes with its own impressive acronym: CIRVIS, or Civilian Instructions for Reporting Very Important Sightings.
In March, 1967, a trucker driving near Belt reported a “dome-shaped object, emitting a bright light” that landed in a ravine next to the highway and retreated when he got out to have a closer look. Three years earlier, in August, 1964, witnesses in Brekkens Corner spotted a craft resembling a “burning haystack” that rose from the ground and shot away south. In1952 two USAF enlisted men in Yaak watched for almost an hour as two small, varicolored lights circled erratically and became black silhouettes at dawn. In August of 1950, the general manager of a Great Falls baseball team shot several hundred frames of two silvery, oval-shaped discs with rotating rims zipping across a cloudless sky in broad daylight. The 16mm film was handed over to the Air Force and, according to NICAP analyst Francis Ridge, later declassified and released with many of the most conclusive frames apparently removed. The remaining—and still intriguing—footage has since appeared in numerous films and TV specials.
Sightings have continued apace in recent years. According to the online database of NUFORC, 90 reports of unidentified flying objects have been filed in Montana since 1973. On December 28, 2000, a Havre man reported that his daughter had woken him at 4 a.m. to witness a rapidly brightening light, cloaked in haze, that illuminated the entire sky before “blinking out” as though it had never been. The light returned later the same evening as the man was letting his cat out, appearing to him this time as a “sideways white neon light, with a blue spike-like thing on top.” The man was able to snap a few photos, but the light disappeared before he was able to retrieve his parents’ video camera.
Even more recently, a 50-year old Whitehall resident was shoveling snow from his driveway when, spurred by the sensation that something was watching him, he looked skyward to see a “cylindrical, silver/white, shimmering” object the size and shape of a Greyhound bus hovering not far from his house. In his testimony, the shaken man described the craft as having “Bullet shaped ends...like [those] of a .25 or .32 caliber slug,” and noted that its performance and handling far exceeded the capabilities of a fixed-wing aircraft—at least, any aircraft he’d ever seen.
Yep, Montanans see a lot of UFOs. In fact, an online list of “Top 300 UFO Hotspots” rated by the ratio of total unexplained UFO and humanoid reports to county population lists two Montana counties in top 20 positions. Wheatland County, at number 11, boasts seven sightings for a 1990 population of 2,246, or 31.167 per (statistical) 10,000 persons. Sitting almost as pretty at number 18, Judith Basin’s five reports for a population of 2,282 give the county 21.911 sightings per statistical 10,000 inhabitants. By contrast, Cascade County—home of Malmstrom Air Force base, a reputed favorite with cruising extraterrestrials—trails at number 92, with the significance of its impressive 75 reports absorbed by a proportionally larger 1990 population of 72,691.
How They Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
As intriguing to many of us—and life-changing to some—as these numerous sightings are, they all pale in significance alongside the queen-mother of all Montana UFO incidents, an extraordinary set of events which reportedly took place near Lewistown in 1967. Early on the morning of March 16, a maintenance crew of the USAF’s 341st Missile Wing working on one of the Echo-Flight Minuteman launch silos near Winifred and Hilger, about 15 miles north of Lewistown, reported seeing strange lights repeatedly streaking overhead, changing directions, and returning at high speeds. An airman stationed topside at the Echo launch control capsule (LCC) also spotted the lights and notified his Flight Security Controller, a non-commissioned officer who immediately phoned Deputy Missile Combat Crew Commander Robert Salas, who was stationed at the Oscar-Flight LCC some 20 miles to the southeast. Taking it to be a joke—albeit one in very poor taste—Salas told the agitated officer to call back if the lights came any closer. A few minutes later, the NCO called again. In a 1996 testimony given to UFO researcher Jim Klotz, Salas recalls a “clearly frightened” man shouting his words into the phone: “Sir, there’s one hovering outside the front gate!” “One what?” Salas replied. “A UFO! It’s just sitting there! We’re all looking at it. What do you want us to do?”
The terrified NCO had enough time to report that one of his men had been injured approaching the unident-ified object before he went off the line. As Salas was reporting the exchange to his commander, an alarm klaxon sounded and a “No-Go” light and two red security lights lit up on the Commander’s station, indicating problems at one of the missile sites. More alarms went off. Within seconds, Salas asserts, six to eight of Echo-Flight’s Minuteman missiles were lost to a “No-Go” (inoperable) condition.
A number of eyewitness testimonies, fastidiously-researched reports and declassified Air Force documents concerning the Echo-Flight incident—and dozens of related incidents in Montana from 1950 to the present—can be viewed online. According to the materials we surveyed, extensive testing both on-site and at the Boeing Company’s Seattle laboratories in the wake of the incident failed to produce a satisfying explanation of the source of the electromagnetic pulse that apparently disabled the logic couplers of ten Minuteman missiles in as many seconds that morning in 1967. As an Internet user, you are free to make as much or as little of the information as you like. The Air Force, for its own part, has steadfastly maintained that no reported UFO incident has ever compromised national security. What are you going to do? Call them up and ask pretty-please?
Well, yes. For what it’s worth, we called the Public Relations office of the 341st Missile Wing to gather information for this story—twice. On the first occasion, a public relations officer politely responded to our vague inquiries by telling us that any UFO-related incidents in Cascade County should in the future be reported to the sheriff’s department. When we called back to inquire about the events of March, 1967, an affable sergeant told us he’d never heard of such a thing but would look into it and get back to us later in the afternoon.
He never did.
Conspiracies 2001: HAARP, weather control and the chemtrail connection With the Cold War mostly an unpleasant memory and a full-scale nukefest between Russia and the United States less likely than it might have seemed in 1967, the idea of flying saucers compromising national security by fiddling with our missiles—and the military primly declining to un-ring the rumor bell with a plausible explanation of its own—in retrospect seems grimly humorous. Considerably less humorous is the body of research that has accreted around two alleged government conspiracies du jour, both of which currently enjoy much popularity in Montana cyberspace: the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) and the phenomena which theorists refer to as chemtrails.
For conspiracy tyros: HAARP is a joint project of the United States Navy and Air Force based in Gaukona, Alaska, designed to manipulate the Earth’s ionosphere—one of our many protective layers for safe sex with the sun—ostensibly for improved Extreme Low Frequency communication with submarines and other halfway peaceable purposes. Conspiracy theory says: It’s an apparatus for controlling the weather and a weapon for concentrating the destructive power of the Gaukona facility’s multi-gigawatt ionospheric heater, a death ray for boiling the upper atmosphere and bouncing electromagnetic waves of varying frequencies back to Earth wherever it’s aimed.
Not surprisingly, many theorists link HAARP to chemtrails—feathery clouds they see spreading out from otherwise normal-looking airplane contrails and blending together to form milky mare’s-tails that persists for hours. What’s in a chemtrail? Barium salts and aluminum oxide, theorists say, and maybe even biological agents—a hazardous miasma for which believers offer several distinct (though by no means mutually exclusive) explanations: 1) a quick fix for global warming, using aluminum particles to reflect a portion of the sun’s UV radiation while still allowing heat to escape; (2) thinning the herd with biological agents (an older theory concerning mass inoculation against possible future biological attack seems largely to have been abandoned); (3) weather control (see also HAARP); (4) making the atmosphere more ductile for certain kinds of radio emissions (see also HAARP), and many more. Now then: one of the most fascinating aspects of conspiracy theory is its power to make strange bedfellows out of groups that might otherwise want nothing to do with one another. Chemtrail research, to cite but one example, strikes an arc reaching from the radical Right to the activist Left on the political spectrum, galvanizing its proponents around the common touchstone of suspicion. Where the ultra-Right sees secret government operations and the advent of the New World Order, the Left—broadly speaking—sees secret government operations, possible environmental cataclysm and a massive exclusion from the decision-making process. Both sides admit to frustration, fear and feelings of impotence. And both sides have seized upon the Internet as both a forum and a mirror for their opinions. Type in “chemtrails” as a keyword on any large search engine and see what we mean. Customize your search by adding a second keyword: “Montana.”
If you take the time to study the findings of HAARP harpers and chemtrail sleuths—which you should, if for no other reason than for the sake of Fortean skepticism—you might find the findings very scary indeed. Chemtrails, especially, differ qualitatively from the other conspiracies described in this article in that anyone, having first familiarized himself with research presented on the Internet, can step outside and either agree, dissent or postpone a decision based on seemingly observable phenomena. Granted, popular rumblings of government conspiracy—real and imagined—are as old as government itself. To keep things in perspective, we contacted Rob Balch, a professor of sociology at the University of Montana whose experience with group psychology includes extensive, first-hand experience with the Heaven’s Gate cult. Balch confesses a fascination with the Internet’s potential as a supercharged rumor mill and, astutely, he brings up a historical anecdote illustrating some relevant perils: the Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic of 1954.
Over the course of March and April of that year, public hysteria over tiny pit marks in the city’s automobile windshields swelled to a fever pitch, with possible explanations ranging from hatching sand fleas eggs to fallout from hydrogen bomb tests in Nevada. At the height of the epidemic, Seattle’s beleaguered mayor even sought the help of then-President Eisenhower. It was later revealed that the pitting was merely ordinary wear caused by grit on the roads—wear, apparently, which nobody had bothered to notice before.
“Normally when people get in their cars they’re looking through their windshields,” Balch explains, “But as a result of the rumors they started looking at their windshields. Some of these conspiracy theories, I think, have the same effect.”
Which is not to say that chemtrail research or collections of Internet “fact” supporting or debunking any of the events or phenomena described here should be pooh-poohed or dismissed out of hand. It’s just important to remain vigilant of where we get our information—and mindful of the different lenses through which we view the world.
That’s just something to think about as you look to the skies.