Aug. 16 marked the second consecutive year that the International Fortean Organization, based in Baltimore, held its annual FortScape conference at the Holiday Inn in downtown Cumberland.
"It's always good to come up to the mountains and get grounded," said William Fellows, a quantum physicist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. His presentation, "White Gold of the Ark," argued that the Ark of the Covenant was a high-tech communications device given to the ancient Egyptians by "the Visitors."
Founded in 1965 by sibling science-fiction fans Ron and Paul Willis of Alexandria, Va., INFO is dedicated to "the baffling and often hilarious universe of anomalous phenomena" in the tradition of Charles Hoy Fort (1874-1932), a journalist, iconoclast and skeptic of established science whose life's work was the collection of scientifically inconvenient oddi
ties. He assembled his voluminous clippings into four remarkable books: “The Book of the Damned” (1919), “New Lands” (1923), “Lo” (1931) and “Wild Talents” (1932). (Tarcher/Penguin brought all four back into print in 2008 in a single volume titled “The Book of the Damned,” alongside a new biography by Jim Steinmeyer, “Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural”)
Speaker Orion Foxwood neatly summarized Fort's philosophy when he told the assembly of several dozen people: "Curiosity didn't kill the cat; it liberated the cat."
To open the meeting, moderator Larry E. Arnold, author of “Ablaze!: The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion,” noted two choice examples of Fortean phenomena in that week's newspapers: Dozens of passers-by in the Bronx, not waiting for a tow truck or crane, together lifted a 5-ton school bus off a critically injured pregnant woman; and the Mineral County, W.Va., commissioners discussed an inexplicable bad odor that had plagued residents of a Wiley Ford neighborhood for five years.
Later, Sue Swiatek, director of the Virginia chapter of the Mutual UFO Network, discussed the flap over the "Montauk Monster," which might or might not have washed ashore on Long Island in July; and the story that had made international headlines just the day before FortScape, the quickly discredited press conference in Georgia claiming a Bigfoot body had been preserved in a freezer.
All four news stories, the attendees agreed, would have intrigued Fort; they also demonstrated that Fortean topics are of interest to a mass audience, not just the fringe.
The day began with two talks that especially might have pleased Fort for their combination of meticulous research and disdain for the party line of mainstream science. In "Freedom of Information: The New U.K. UFO Files," the nationally known UFO researcher Robert Swiatek of Fairfax, Va. - who, by day, is a U.S. patent examiner -- reported on a half-century's worth of secret documents finally released by the British government in 2005, and available at
http://www.nationalarchives.gov/uk/ufos/ <http://www.nationalarchives.gov/uk/ufos/> . He showed transparencies of many of these documents as he talked about them.
An Air Force veteran with an engineering background, Feindt carefully talked the audience through his argument, displaying many of his own drawings. "It's really simple," Feindt said. "It's physics all over the place."
The good news, Swiatek said, is that the documents prove hundreds of UFO investigations, however cursory, were conducted in Britain through the decades, even as the government officially argued that nothing was to be gained even from investigating. The bad news, he continued, is that we now have hundreds of pages of gnomic summaries of intriguing firsthand accounts for which there apparently was no follow-up whatsoever. The large stack of formal questionnaires "insulting in their brevity" is cumulatively depressing, a record of opportunities missed, Swiatek said.
None of these documents, however, involves sightings by RAF personnel or other government employees, Swiatek said, suggesting those were handled separately and have yet to come to light.
In the ensuing question-and-answer session, Swiatek was asked about government documents relevant to the Stephenville, Texas, UFO sightings of January 2008. He replied that radar reports from the extremely cooperative Federal Aviation Administration corroborate the witnesses' accounts and show that F-16s were close behind the objects as they headed toward President Bush's ranch in Crawford -- though the local air base, he added, refuses to release any information at all.
Swiatek also was asked about the much-publicized comment of former NASA astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, during a July 2008 radio interview: "I happen to have been privileged enough to be in on the fact that we've been visited on this planet, and the UFO phenomenon is real."
"I have a lot of respect for Ed Mitchell," Swiatek replied. "He's one of my heroes." Unfortunately for the cause, Swiatek continued, Mitchell has delved so deeply into New Age mysticism, as discussed in Mitchell's book “The Way of the Explorer,” that he has little credibility left in the aerospace establishment. Swiatek also is frustrated by Mitchell's refusal, or inability, to identify the officials from whom he supposedly received his secondhand information.
The next speaker was Carl Feindt of Claymont, Del., on "Underwater UFOs and USOs: Best Evidence." USO stands for Unidentified Submerged Object, and Feindt's website, www.waterufo.net <http://www.waterufo.net/> , includes an extensively annotated list of 1,124 sightings of UFOs involving movements of water or snow, the earliest in the year 1067 and the most recent Dec. 18, 2007. (Of the 1,124, only four were in Maryland: one at Loch Raven Reservoir in Towson in May 1953; one at Brighton Dam in Montgomery County on Sept. 30, 1960; one in Severna Park on Feb. 23, 1967; and one off Ocean City on Dec. 15, 1990.)
Feindt theorizes that these flying craft are surrounded by a protective magnetic field, shaped like an apple. This, he said, would explain witnesses' varied descriptions of the displacement of water when UFOs enter, leave or hover above its surface - from "bulges" and "dimples" to "boiling" and "geysers." In short, the appearance of the water's surface is a function of the height of the craft, Feindt said. Similar movements of topsoil, plowed earth, rocks and vegetation have been reported beneath hovering UFOs, Feindt said.
Before the conference adjourned, INFO President Phyllis Benjamin reported that a FortFest at Sea cruise of the Caribbean in December would include a nighttime visit to the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, a chupacabra hunt and a visit to a place where a cow magically appears and disappears.
The next INFO conference will be in March 2009 at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. For more information, visit http://forteans.com/ <http://forteans.com/> .
Andy Duncan is an assistant professor of English at Frostburg State University with 12 years of full-time journalism experience. His short fiction has won two World Fantasy Awards and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best science-fiction story of the year. He blogs at http://beluthahatchie.blogspot.com.</i>