The town of Roswell, New Mexico, has gone through major changes since the years of the mid-XXth century, when it was barely a spot in the map marking a small cattle ranching community whose open plains and remoteness once appealed to Robert Goddard –the father of American space travel– who was on the lookout for a safe place to conduct his rocket experiments without the fear of blowing someone’s property to Kingdom Come. The US Army thought along the same lines, when they also selected it as the home of the first nuclear air bombing squad in the world (the 509th Bomb Group) not too far from the White Sands test site, where they were testing the V-2 “wunderwaffe” recovered after the defeat of Nazi Germany.
But now the association with outer space invoked by the name “Roswell” does not come from neither Goddard’s pioneer engineering nor from Hitler’s weapons of vengeance. It comes from the most famous case in the annals of UFO history, which the New Mexican town has learned to embrace in order to become the ‘Flying Saucer Capital of the World’. And all of that was possible because of a man called Stanton Friedman, a nuclear physicist and lecturer who was the first to dig up and bring up the Roswell saga to the public’s attention. That is just a small part conforming the legacy of Stan Friedman: a tireless investigator and searcher of the truth who unfortunately passed away yesterday, May 13th, just after returning from yet another speaking engagement.
If UFOlogy was like the opera, then Stan died like Enrico Caruso: doing what he loved and leaving behind shoes too big to fill.
[Memo to the Roswell public council: A statue at the center of the town is the very least you could do]
My only chance to meet the legend and put that notch on my UFOlogical belt came in 2016, when I went with my friend Greg Bishop to the International UFO Conference. One morning when we decided to check out the vendors’ room before heading out of the conference hotel in Scottsdale, Arizona, we saw Stan sitting all alone along with a pile of his books, like he’d done countless of times on many different venues all across the United States and Canada, his adopted home; he wasn’t even a speaker that year and he seemed perfectly okay with it, always willing to shake hands, sign an autograph or answer the questions of whoever wished to approach him.
I must shamefully confess that, despite the awe of seeing the man in person, the first thing that came to mind was how his balding hair, the bushy and mischievous-looking eyebrows, combined with his famous beard and the somewhat protruding ears, gave him almost the appearance of a fantasy character. The 80’s child still inhabiting my head thought of Engywook, the wise old gnome living at the foot of the Sphinxes who shares his hard-earned knowledge to Atreyu so the young hero can complete his quest.
“You wanna say hello?” Greg asked me and I nervously nodded, standing behind while my friend, who had coincided with Stan on previous events, made the introductions; Greg mentioned something about Bill Moore, who had been one of Stan’s old colleagues back when he started investigating the Roswell case, which piqued the seasoned researcher’s interest. On the spur of the moment I gave him one of the signed posters we had printed to promote Greg’s book It Defies Language! (for which I had designed the cover); “a small token of appreciation,” I said, which he graciously accepted without seeing too terribly excited. I casually mentioned to Stan how it struck me as incredibly synchronistic the way he had first managed to hear about Jesse Marcel, the key witness in the Roswell case, after filling in as a last-minute guest for a local television show in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1978, and striking into a casual conversation with one of the station’s managers who suggested Stan to contact one of his ham radio pals, who claimed to have “handled one of those flying saucers way back then.” The rest, as they say, is UFO history.
Stan listened attentively but then interjected, because to him there wasn’t anything ‘magical’ about his discovery of Marcel and the first leads into the Roswell story, but merely a case of being in the right place at the right time while armed with enough knowledge to understand the significance of this historical revelation. That was good old Stan for you: He would politely listen to what you have to say, but he wouldn’t necessarily agree with you, especially if your theories about UFOs started to deviate too much from his prime interest, which was a) that some UFOs were more than likely visitors from another star system; and b) that the US government knows a whole lot more about them than it tends to admit publicly, which is why he coined one of his famous terms, ‘the Cosmic Watergate’. To someone like Stan –who was a jewish kid from New Jersey when the hordes of the Third Reich started devastating Europe– ‘fate’ and esoteric undercurrents could never beat the hard work and the scientific research which helped the Allies beat the Nazi war machine. Which is why he might have decided to put in the long hours (and years) looking for scientifically-grounded arguments for a nuts-and-bolts explanation of unidentified flying objects, and the occupants reported by witnesses.
Yes, Stan didn’t mind if you disagreed with his ideas regarding Roswell, MJ-12 or Marjorie Fisher’s ‘Star Map’ which kickstarted the association between the so-called ‘greys’ and the Zeta Reticuli II star cluster, so long as you presented solid arguments against them, instead of just using lazy dismissals. Always up for a good debate against the “nasty, noisy negativist” skeptics and the scientists who saw little use in giving serious attention to the UFO mystery, he butted heads many a time on the public arena with the likes of Philip Klass, Carl Sagan –and old schoolmate of his at the University of Chicago– and Seth Shostak, the head of SETI (“Silly Effort To Investigate” as he used to call it). Granted, he probably over-emphasized his title of ‘nuclear physicist’ during those engagements, but that’s because he knew his adversaries used to put more stock on academic credentials than the actual weight of his points; and also because he wanted to remind his adversaries that he knew first-hand about security clearances and classified research better than most.
He also didn’t shy away from exploiting the chinks in the armor of personalities from the ‘Believers’ camp as well, which is why Bob Lazar and the people who promote his story will probably have few kind words to say in memory of one of the longest-running researchers in the UFO field…
Yes, you can agree or disagree with Stan’s opinion about UFOs, but what you *cannot* do is overlook the man’s legacy: the countless times he gave his presentation “UFOs are Real” at college auditoriums and public townhalls all across America. The constant reminding to the public that they have a right in demanding to their appointed leaders more transparency in what they may or may not know about this confounding mystery. His championing of the UFO cause against debunkers who take the “it can’t be therefore it isn’t” attitude instead of taking a closer look at the actual data. He used the TV spotlight not for vanity or financial gain, but as a tool to bring awareness to the public and seek more information from potential witnesses.
Such is the contribution to this field from a man who just didn’t know the meaning of the word “retirement.”
Despite the fact I don’t happen to agree with his interpretations with regards to the nature of the phenomenon, overall I see in Stanton Friedman a humanist who above all hoped that mankind would one day rise above the childish pettiness which keeps ‘tribal warfare’ as the main activity of our species, and saw in UFOs a beacon that could shake us up of our collective stupor, and inspire us to seek a better future outside our planetary cradle. The same nuclear energy that could wipe us out of existence could also be used to reach for the stars.
Listening to his traditional holiday specials at Binnall of America gives Stan the image of the endearing aging uncle who kept repeating the same old anecdotes over and over during Thanksgiving. You smile and slightly roll your eyes while you sip your wine, because you’ve heard the story so many times you know exactly when the punchline comes; and yet deep down you are still waiting for that punchline because you’re smart enough to appreciate Thanksgiving wouldn’t be the same without it.
Farewell and God bless, uncle Stan. You will be sorely missed at our table.