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Sunday, October 09, 2005

Saucer Fever in the Berkshires

The three week period that began on June 24, 1947 was a curious time in the history of our country. Whether literal or metaphoric, there was definitely something strange in the air. On the 24th, a pilot named Kenneth Arnold reported seeing nine disk-shaped objects flying across the sky near Mt. Rainier, Washington. At least twenty other persons across the Pacific Northwest reported seeing the same that day, but it was Arnold’s soberly told account and detailed description that drew the most attention, launching the term ‘flying saucer’ into its place in the American lexicon. Over the following days, as media spread discussion of Arnold’s story, others began coming forward all over the country, saying that they too had spotted similar objects. The trickle became a deluge on July 4, as many of the millions of people celebrating Independence Day outside looked up toward the sky and saw something they couldn’t account for.

That day marked the first mention of disks seen east of the Mississippi, as claims of sightings poured in from 28 states. Newspapers across the country had a field day, and the Berkshires were no exception. The Eagle interviewed Dr. John Lynn, a behavioral scientist from Valhalla, N.Y., who attributed the phenomenon to anxieties about atomic weapons. He also compared them to the scare brought on by Orson Welles’ War of the World broadcast nearly a decade earlier- a particularly interesting statement, considering the fact that no one had yet suggested any connection between the saucers and anything extraterrestrial.

Meanwhile, some area residents had already spotted what they believed to be examples of the bizarre objects. A group of four Pittsfield residents, while watching the parade (described as the longest and best to date at that time) observed a disk overhead around 10:45. One of the witnesses, Mrs. Sidney Smith of Pomeroy Avenue, described it as “round, colorless, luminous object with a peculiar rolling motion.” The saucer sped off south, gaining altitude as it went. Reaction among residents who had not seen anything was mixed, as far as can be judged by a random survey of people on North Street on July 7. “I certainly don’t think it’s imagination, not with so many people seeing them,” said a Pittsfield photographer, “It’s either what some foreign government is sending over, or an experiment of our own army.” John Foley of Foley’s Restaurant had a simpler explanation: “Somebody’s got the DT’s.”

By that time, “saucer fever” was reaching fever pitch across the country, with sightings having been reported in 38 states and parts of Canada. By the 8th, similar reports were coming in from Europe, Australia and Africa. That same day also saw national reporting of an Air Force official’s announcement that a crashed saucer had been recovered by the military near Roswell, New Mexico. Though retracted the following day, this press release had already given birth to a controversy that would last more than half a century.

Sightings continued in Berkshire County as well. Mrs. Fairfield Osborne spotted one while staying as a guest at the Stockbridge home of Margaret Cresson, the daughter of famed sculptor Daniel Chester French. Mrs. Osborne said that prior to this she had never heard of the flying saucer phenomenon, but after viewing the strange aerial shape she consulted some recent newspapers and found that the descriptions there matched what she had seen exactly. She told reporters that what she had seen had been a brilliantly illuminated round object “like an automobile headlight in the sky.” The bright object appeared to hover around the top of Mount Everett, about 25 miles away. A few seconds later, it vanished entirely from view. Two similar bright objects were seen by architect Charles Masterson of Crane Avenue in Pittsfield, though Masterson admitted they may have been planes.

Over the following days the wave of interest in the new saucer phenomenon lessened in intensity as reports of sightings began to drop off. Whether this was because the sightings themselves had ebbed, or because by then an organized campaign of derision had been brought to bear in combating what some officials considered a dangerous panic (i.e., one that might interfere with public recognition and interest in more “real” national security threats) and people stopped coming forward so readily, is a debatable point. Various kinds of experts continued to attribute the wave to fears about nuclear warfare, or alternately, as Orville Wright, among others, believed, to government seeded fear-mongering. Most predicted that it would soon pass and be largely forgotten. This was not an unreasonable assumption on their part. Prior waves of unidentified flying objects, like the “mystery airships” widely reported in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, or the “foo fighters” of World War II, though never completely explained, had been filed away in a dusty backroom of the national consciousness. But for whatever reason, this was not the case this time. “Saucer culture,” as one commentator called it, was here to stay, and the UFO phenomenon- whether physical, metaphysical, or sociological- has gone through cycles of greater and lesser interest, but never faded completely.

So, while this was certainly not the last time that a UFO sighting has been reported in the region (nor the first, according to some sources), it is worth noting that the seeds for this as a staple of American subject matter were sown in a space of a couple of weeks- and the Berkshires were very much a part of it, getting in on the ground floor of a most curious chapter of history.