Oh, where have the aliens gone?
Once a staple of summer, as familiar as humidity, the classic flying saucer Roswell types have vanished from pop culture. Instead, we've had different staples: Iron Man, Adam Sandler, Stephen King. We've been brought 31 rich flavors of apocalypse: Dan Brown-inspired apocalypse ("Inferno"), James Franco-filled apocalypse ("This Is the End"), zombie apocalypse ("World War Z"). We've had visitors from other worlds, but when you think of "Star Trek" and Superman, do you really think of little green men?
And yet, at least until that sequel to "Independence Day" arrives, maybe stop watching the skies: You need only look to Chicago.
In a quiet residential home in Norwood Park in the northwest corner of Chicago, in a spare, brightly lit basement with a gray concrete floor — picture yourself inside the interrogation chamber of a Danish detective thriller — the Center for UFO Studies awaits your call. And then awaits some more.
CUFOS is among the longest-operating UFO research organizations in the world; it's been studying UFOs for 40 years, partly defining the way that pop culture thinks and talks about aliens. CUFOS was founded in Evanston in 1973 and has been in Norwood Park since 2010, and here's why I found myself there recently, surrounded by boxes marked "Roswell" and metal cabinets with file drawers labeled "Abductees" and old Air Force UFO investigation files ("Shape: mushroom or light bulb") and bookshelves filled with titles such as "Unexplained!" "UFOs in the 1980s," "Wonders in the Sky" and "Invisible Residents":
I saw a UFO.
Aliens were not involved, nor were probes, crop circles or LSD. I saw a UFO in the literal sense: It was an object, it was flying, and I could not identify it. Of course, it didn't stay unidentified long (I'll get to that in a bit), just long enough that, unlike every other time I have paused to discern what I am seeing in the sky, the solution was not readily obvious. For hours. Never mind that this was around the Fourth of July or that I live near the lake in Rogers Park, a relative stone's throw from the busy Naval Station on the North Shore. Never mind that boorish principle of Occam's razor (the simplest explanation is often the best). Now I had goose bumps; now I understood how a casual glance in the sky could lead to a History Channel alien stakeout.
Goose bumps beat logic.
Here's what I saw: A bright red glowing orb moving above Lake Michigan, east of Evanston. It was cloudy, and fireworks were exploding everywhere. But this was no floating ember. It had mass, a vaguely circular body and a sparkly brandywine hue. As I watched, the object traveled southwest, in my direction. Then it stopped in place for maybe 30 seconds. Then it backed up and receded from view, vanishing behind a cloud.
Calmly, I searched Twitter.
I found several UFO sightings around the Chicago area in the past month, videos of lights in the sky, a doctored photo of a flying saucer over Logan Square (which I wanted to believe, since skinny aliens need skinny jeans). More intriguingly, I found a number of regional UFO sightings that eerily mimicked my own.
I Googled "UFOs Chicago."
The first link was the Center for UFO Studies, which was located conveniently nearby, on a middle-class street in a glaringly obvious building — a blocky, blue modernist home that resembles a shipping container standing on end. This is the home of Mark Rodeghier, CUFOS' longtime scientific director, who is 60 and calm, with a long neck, smallish eyes and a round head. (I told him he looked a bit alienlike himself. He laughed.) He grew up in northwest Indiana and studied astrophysics at Indiana University and sociology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. As for his day job: statistician, specializing in predictive analytics. He's also passionate, eloquent, thoughtful, did not come off like a crackpot and never once brought up the C-word — conspiracy.
He would hear my story.
He explained, leading me into his basement, that CUFOS was headquartered most recently in a Peterson Avenue office building but had to close in 2010 because it couldn't afford to pay the rent. Its vast archives are split between his home and the Skokie home of CUFOS' Webmaster (though Rodeghier kept the juicy stuff). He said the first CUFOS office was in the home of founder J. Allen Hynek, a former chairman of Northwestern University's astronomy department. It later moved to an Evanston storefront, closed during the recession in the early 1980s, reopened in Hynek's home, moved to Glenview and then to Peterson in 1987.
"Anyway, the interesting stuff," Rodeghier said, pointing around at shelves and boxes, neatly arranged in stacks and folders. "Years of abductee investigations, esoteric UFO books you can't find anywhere grouped in alphabetical order within areas, Roswell, physical traces — meaning traces that UFOs leave. Government materials, contactee materials, material on earth lights, natural phenomena, congressional proceedings, master's theses, materials from Project Blue Book (the U.S. Air Force's defunct UFO investigation wing), correspondence, more Roswell, my abduction research notes in this box, Hynek's personal UFO papers."
"Did you see Google?" he asked, meaning the recent Google Doodle celebrating the supposed 66th anniversary of the infamous UFO crash in New Mexico. "That's how rooted the UFO's been in our culture."
We sat at a folding table. He told me about CUFOS: