The One Time I Produced 'Fake News' (I Was 13 Years Old)
Later this month, the Pentagon is expected to release a long-classified report on whether or not it has evidence that UFOs exist. Decades ago, our Senior Political Analyst Howard Wilkinson released an extra-terrestrial report of his own, as he retells in this "Tales from the Trail" column from 2017.
I write this in the form of a confession.
The bad news is that I was once guilty of creating fake news.
The good news is I was only 13 years old.
Back when we were kids, growing up on the east side of Dayton, my buddy Mike and I put together a whopper of a scam that was meant to prank none other than the U.S. Air Force – specifically, Project Blue Book, the Air Force's long-standing program to investigate reports of unidentified flying objects, or UFOs.
Reporting sightings of strange things in the skies was all the rage in the 1950s and 1960s.
And over the 22-year life of Project Blue Book, the Air Force had reports of 12,618 sightings, almost all of which were easily debunked.
I regret to say that Mike and I were among those who reported sightings, or at least tried to in a very elaborate manner for a couple of 13-year-olds.
We lived only a few miles from the Air Force base. It seemed, in those days, that everyone in the neighborhood worked at one of three places – Frigidaire, the National Cash Register Co. (NCR) or Wright-Patterson.
It was commonly believed among the kids of the neighborhoods that a surviving Roswell alien was living in a vacant hangar at the base. He was saved from the supposed crash of a UFO near Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. The Air Force said it was a weather balloon. The true believers insisted it was a flying saucer from outer space.
At any rate, this supposed Roswell alien was said to have been brought to Wright-Patterson to be poked and prodded and somehow nursed back to health.
We kids actually believed this stuff. Then there was a man in the neighborhood who drove a truck that made deliveries into the confines of the air base. He spun a tale that the neighborhood kids bought hook, line and sinker – that he had actually seen the alien; and that he had seen him on the base's golf course, playing a round of golf with some high-ranking officers.
Yes, we were gullible.
We also were very much aware of Project Blue Book, and liked the idea of having the official investigation of UFOs so close by.
So, in a fit of juvenile insanity, Mike and I decided to create our own UFO sightings and see if we could get them entered into the record at Project Blue Book.
We decided we were going to make photographs faking UFO sightings.
Mike's dad owned a Polaroid instant camera, which was a rarity in our neighborhood in those days.
Film packages for Polaroids were a bit expensive, but we used a portion of our earnings from our lawn-cutting service (a thriving business) to buy up as much of it as we could at Roll's Drug Store.
We gathered up about a half dozen Frisbees and bought a cheap painting set at a downtown art store.
Then we set to the task of painting the Frisbees to look as much like UFOs as possible, with dots around the rim to simulate UFO landing lights.
They were rather good, if I do say so myself.
On a bright, sunny day in the neighborhood, we hauled out the Polaroid camera and the painted Frisbees and went to work.
One of us would fling the Frisbee at such an angle as to make it look like it was flying high above a garage or some power lines. The other would snap a Polaroid shot.
Some were pretty blurry, which was not all bad. Others did not even remotely resemble a flying saucer. Those were rejected immediately. We were not aiming for photographic perfection, just a reasonable degree of believability.
After we had four or five decent Polaroid shots, we started hiking down the railroad tracks that led us eventually to the main entrance of the base, the one civilians could use when they had business there.
We marched up to the guardhouse, where we found a weary-looking staff sergeant on duty.
Sergeant, we are here to report UFOs sightings over East Dayton! We have photographs! We must inform Project Blue Book!
The sergeant gave us a knowing smile as we handed him our Polaroid "evidence."
Hmmm….very interesting, gentlemen. You say these were shot over Pursell Avenue and Taggart Street? Very unusual. I will take them and make sure they get to the right people.
We gave the sergeant our best imitation of a property military salute and turned tail for the trek back home, laughing our fool heads off the whole way.
We repeated this process, with new sets of Polaroid shots, at least three times, as I recall. Always with the same result – a promise from some poor non-commissioned officer that he would pass our discovery on to the proper authorities.
It was a business that couldn't last – buying this expensive Polaroid film was cutting deeply into the cash flow of our lawn-mowing business.
I have no idea what happened to our handiwork. It could be sitting in a dusty file somewhere in the Air Force archives. Or (more likely) it could have been deposited immediately into a circular file.
All I know is that there were 701 sightings that remained "unidentified" when Project Blue Book shut down in 1969.
Nonetheless, that was my one and only experience creating "fake news."
I was done with that business forever.
This story first ran in December 2017 and has been updated.