The Sightings

Note: This article was published Feb . 17, 1985 in the Kansas City Star Sunday magazine.


“The planet Venus, which is now 26 million miles from the earth . . . has been taken by credulous correspondents in various parts of Kansas for a fully equipped airship cruising among the clouds within a mile of the earth’s surface. These correspondents, with more imagination than astronomy, have telegraphed stories to various Kansas City and St. Louis newspapers describing the monster . . . Some of the correspondents say that this harmless planet, which is the nearest neighbor of earth, is an airship for the British War Department, spying through the country for fortifications. Friday night members of one family in Kansas City, Kan. declared that they saw the strange craft of the air with the blazing beacon light. The story passed from mouth to mouth and last night hundreds of people of the city viewed the planet with awe, and the question on every lip was: ‘Have you seen the airship?’ Many of the people actually believed that it was an airship. It disappeared from view about 9:30 o’clock.”from the Kansas City Star, March 28, 1897.

A source of eternal frustration in my life is that I never have seen an unidentified flying obect.

My father-in-law, a sober-minded designer of oil field equipment, once saw a group of them from an airplane — three little white objects that hovered at a lower altitude and then shot out of sight. One of my cousins, a serious girl brought up in a no-nonsense Protestant ranching family, was chased down a dirt road by shining disc as she returned from organ practice at the Methodist church. A Kansas City acquaintance, who operates his own business and has never been accused of having spontaneous hallucinations, once observed a multi-colored globe hovering high above his parents’ house.

So why not me? I grew up on a farm in Texas, where the eternally flat horizons and huge skies are perfect for celestial observations, and even though UFOs love to visit farms and scare the livestock, we never had a single extraterrestrial visitor when I was growing up.

Our farm was near a Navy base where jet pilots were trained, and even though UFOs like to hang out near airports and military bases and give traffic controllers a hard time, the most aerial excitement I can remember came from periodic visits by the Blue Angels and the occasional luckless pilot trainee who crashed his jet in an open field.

You might think a childhood appetite for the science fiction of H.G. Wells and the fantasy novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs would have qualified me for at least a perfunctory visit by friendly aliens — a symbolic nod of appreciation from fellow creatures of the universe.

But no.

Now I find myself in Missouri, smack dab in the heart, it turns out, of UFO country. Missouri and Kansas have long histories of UFO sightings. Just ask Ted Phillips.

Ted Phillips runs a photography studio in Reeds Spring, Mo., and has spent much of his time as a researcher for the Center for UFO Studies. Ted has scanned more newspaper microfilm in this state than have some historians. He has compiled reported sightings from as long ago as 1857.

His catalog of 1,619 Missouri sightings includes the case of a Bates County duck hunter who saw an airborne circular object in 1875; that of two young women who saw and heard an airborne, oval, humming, metallic object east of Warsaw, Mo., in 1902; and 30 reported “airship” sightings in 1896-97 (a very good year for UFOs, incidentally).

Drawing of an 1896 airship

A wave of airship sightings swept the country in 1896-97, well before Kittyhawk, and many of the reports came from this region. One of the most notable came from Leroy, Kan., where a rancher and retired member of the Kansas House named Alexander Hamilton claimed that an airship operated by six “jabbering” and strange looking occupants descended into his cow lot, abducted a calf and left the animal’s head, legs and hide to be discovered the next day. (Sadly, The Encyclopedia of UFOs has declared the incident a hoax.)

The “modern” age of UFO sightings began in World War II, when some pilots reported seeing tiny balls of light called “foo fighters” flying singly and in groups. Since the late ’40s there have been periodic national waves of sightings, the most recent in 1973 — the year of numerous reported sightings in southeast Missouri and the year law enforcement agencies in Missouri, Kansas and other Midwestern states began reporting a rash of unexplained cattle mutilations.

Phillips says Missouri has had more UFO sightings that have left physical trances than any state in the union and he estimated Kansas would hold an honorable position somewhere in the Top 10.

Assuming I might never see a UFO, I decided to do the next best thing. Talk to those who had.

“There’s a million, million planets up there and there’s gotta be one like earth somewhere,” said Ronald Johnson. “We can go up there. Why can’t they come down here?”

Ronald Johnson and his sheep dog

Johnson, 29, has done a lot of thinking about this since that night in 1971 when he walked out to the sheep pen behind his parents’ house at Delphos, Kan., to feed the lambs. From behind a shed he heard a noise he described as a rumble or the high-pitched whine of  tires on the highway.

He saw an airborne object emanating a “white light like a sun.” Johnson’s white sheep dog was with him, and he said they both seemed immobilized by the object.

“It looked just like a toadstool, so bright it could blind you,” Johnson recalled. “It hovered there and then took off.”

The object left behind a ring of dehydrated soil that reportedly glowed after the object’s departure and caused his mother’s hand to go numb when she touched it. UFO researchers, including Ted Phillips, visited the farm. Air Force officers did too. Philip Klass, a career UFO debunker, went to Delphos and discounted photographs that allegedly captured the ring’s glow because the glow looked like light from a flash bulb. A reporter from the National Enquirer came out and, according to Johnson, his parents were paid $5,000 by the grocery store tabloid because of the allegedly persuasive nature of the sighting. (The Enquirer once maintained a reward fund for supposedly convincing UFO reports.)

The Delphos ring

In the following years Johnson said he was plagued by nightmares and was given nerve medication. Curiosity seekers flocked to the farm and made nuisances of themselves. The object returned two more times, he said, once burning out the electrical wiring in the farm house. Not long after the first sighting, the young lambs gave virgin births, he said.

Phillps determined that the dehydrated soil was inexplicably moisture-resistant, but Johnson has stranger stories about the ring — if you carried a transistor radio inside the circle, it would stop playing; for a few years after the incident, nothing grew inside the circle except hard toadstools.

Like other UFO observers, Johnson has had to put up with his share of ridicule and criticism, but he is convinced of what he saw: Extraterrestrial intelligence.

“The ones who refuse to believe it . . . are scared,” he said. “They’re just scared. Before that happened I never did believe in saucers. That changed my mind so fast it wasn’t even funny.”

In 1978 six members of the Sturgill family near Jenkins, Mo., were witnesses to an unexplained daylight farm sighting that left enough convincing evidence for Phillips to put it in his High Strangeness File.

Family members first observed a white object about 200 feet from the house one morning. After breakfast, farmer Marlett Sturgill, thinking the object was some sort of debris, prepared to take the tractor out to haul it away. Suddenly the object — which appeared to be a disc without wings or visible engines — rose from the ground, rapidly ascended at a steep angle and joined a larger cylindrical object with a black stripe down its side that seemed to hover in the sky. Just as suddenly, the objects disappeared from view. Today, Sturgill declines to speculate on the nature of the objects he and his family saw.

“I never gave it no thought, but it makes you wonder how it could go up without any sound,” he said. “I don’t know what it was, but it was something.”

The object had left a circular dehydrated area and three smaller circular areas where the soil was compressed and dry. When the grass grew back it was a darker color than the surrounding grass. As usual, the curious sought out the farm.

“They were here by the hundreds,” Sturgill said. “They just dogged us to death.”

Through the years UFO phenomena have produced a steady source of headlines for grocery store tabloids, “contactees” who discovered there was money to be made publishing books and giving lectures about their alleged meetings with friendly aliens, several government investigations that have failed to provide a convincing explanation for sightings of UFOs and a host of theories — everything from a conspiracy theory that says UFOs are actually government vehicles emanating from secret underground installations to one that contends that UFOs are demonic in nature.

“It gets totally ridiculous when you study the whole phenomenon,” said Harley Rutledge, a physics professor at Southeast Missouri State University who became a believer in UFO phenomena when he did research on the outbreak of sightings in southeast Missouri in 1973.

“The skeptics, I don’t really care what they think,” Rutledge said. “I know what I experienced.”

But what he saw encourages skepticism from even the most open-minded UFO researchers. He claims to have made 149 personal sightings — including many from his yard in Cape Girardeau.

“The UFOligists didn’t believe you were supposed to have more than one or two in a lifetime,” he said. “That has to sound like a ridiculous claim, but I won’t back down from it. But then again, I haven’t seen anything for years and I don’t know if I ever will again.”

Rutledge’s observations were made at night and in daylight and included discs, unexplained lights, a bullet-shaped craft that changed colors and what appeared to be a huge craft passing over the airport in Farmington, Mo.

Rutledge no longer does UFO research, but his belief in extraordinary airborne objects is firm. He compared any attempted study of UFO phenomena to quicksand. “You go deeper and deeper, you know these things, but nothing ever comes of it.”

Phillips puts it another way: “It’s like the murder mystery that has no ending . . . I don’t want to sound too skeptical because I believe something real is going on. I just don’t know what. I am as put off by the skeptics as the true believers.”

I guess all of this leaves me somewhere between the skeptics and the believers. Some students of UFOs have devoted lifetimes to their study but the unanswered questions merely grow in number. As Lucius Farish, who publishes the UFO News-clipping Service in Plumerville, Ark., said: “I’ve been studying them for 28 years and the more I learn the less I know.”

Now, as I periodically scan the Midwestern skies and ponder the conviction with which people have told me of their brushes with the paranormal, I think of something Ronald Johnson said in describing the lingering effects of his own experience: “Sometimes I catch myself look up in the air.”

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