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A Yankee Notebook

September 19, 2011


EAST MONTPELIER, VT – A few days ago I had to get from St. Johnsbury, Vermont, to Hampton Falls, New Hampshire. Thanks to President Eisenhower’s Cold War concerns (like, where can you land a crippled, nuclear warhead-equipped B-52?), Interstate 93 pointed like an arrow straight toward Manchester, New Hampshire, where I could swing east on another four-lane highway to within two miles of my destination. Beautiful and convenient, but pretty boring. I was trying to save gas by holding the truck to 67, while the traffic roared past at an average of eighty. Quite a difference from the good old days, when what are now called “secondary roads” led me to US Route 3 and Franconia Notch, and thence to the capital district.

The interstate, as it approaches Franconia Notch from the north, climbs toward the height of land near Echo Lake and Eagle Cliffs, and, entering the Notch between those beetling crags and Cannon Mountain, narrows to a two-lane, speed-restricted parkway, the result of an unusual compromise between superhighway engineers and conservationists. Except for its restricted width, it doesn’t much resemble the old US Route 3 that it largely replaces. Still, I couldn’t help but reflect, as I followed the infant Pemigewasset River down toward North Woodstock, on the dramatic event that (many people believe) occurred here on a starry night exactly fifty years earlier.

Betty and Barney Hill, a social worker and Postal Service employee, respectively, who lived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, were returning from a vacation in Niagara Falls and Montreal. I don’t know where they crossed the frontier, but around 10:30 on the evening of September 19, 1961, as they passed through Lancaster, New Hampshire, on their way toward Franconia Notch and home, Betty later said she saw in the sky a bright light that appeared to be moving. Its motion didn’t appear natural; so, just south of Twin Mountain, where the road begins to climb toward the Notch, she asked Barney to stop, both to take a look and drain their dog.

Before continuing what has heretofore seemed a perfectly straightforward account of an encounter between extraterrestrial beings and a plain-as-porridge middle-aged couple, we should make note of a few anomalies in the encounterees themselves. First, the Hills were an interracial couple, quite unusual in the United States fifty years ago. Second, Betty’s sister had a few years earlier mentioned that she had seen a flying saucer. Also, according to one blogger discussing the story, “Betty Hill was a flying-saucer fanatic long before she confabulated her ‘abduction’ fantasy....In fact, Betty's ‘abduction’ confabulation is a fractured retelling of a single classic flying-saucer film from 1953: Invaders from Mars!” She, at least, was already a bit out there.

In addition, these run-of-the-mill tourists – besides traveling heroically late at night with a long way to go – carried with them binoculars and, in the trunk, a loaded pistol. Barney, “worried about the presence of bears,” took the pistol and binoculars with him when he got out of the car. I may be lambasted by true believers for saying so, but it seems to me that the level of the Hills’ preexisting concerns and imaginations was already elevated before the light appeared in the sky.

I’ve known personally only one man who claimed to have seen an unidentified flying object: a “rust-colored, cigar-shaped ship like a wingless airplane fuselage about a hundred feet long” hovering above the rapids of the East Branch of the Ausable River just upstream from Keene, New York. But my friend was a bit notorious for occasionally drawing the long bow, so his report, no matter if true, was never deemed credible. Too bad; I’d have liked to have believed him.

When Barney, who was walking the dog with his binoculars and pistol, saw what he’d assumed was an airliner appearing to descend toward him, he scooted back to the car, got in, and continued south toward the Notch. The Hills kept their eyes on the object, whatever it was, and drove very slowly.

The light, now clearly an aircraft of some kind, with multicolored lights, followed them through the Notch, passing across the Old Man of the Mountains and flitting back and forth. Finally, near Indian Head, it settled down above the highway in front of their Chevy, bringing them to a stop. Barney reported seeing several humanoids looking out of the ship’s windows.

What followed is a confusion of vibrations, buzzing and beeping sounds, tingling sensations, and dulled consciousness. During this time they were apparently taken into the saucer, stripped, and intimately probed. When they regained full consciousness, they found themselves 35 miles farther south. Back home, they found their wristwatches were kaput, their clothes and shoes were slightly damaged and dusted with a pink powder, and their car exhibited strange magnetic properties. A report that Betty made to the Air Force, followed by a telephone interview, resulted in a determination that the Hills had mistaken natural phenomena for something more exciting. A civilian investigative group, however, predictably led by retired military officers, found the story quite credible. Slowly it leaked out, and eventually the Hills were very well known indeed.

The Hills are long gone now, and I dare say the story is hardly on the front burners of our minds these days as we deal with more mundane alien problems of our own. But the State of New Hampshire has this year placed one of its historical markers beside Route 3 near Indian Head to commemorate the abduction of the Hills. It’s clearly an attempt, with leaf-peeping season coming on, to attract the tourists who otherwise travel to Roswell, New Mexico, to indulge their passion for extraterrestrials. See what you’ll stoop to when you lack a broad-based tax to bring in the dough?

Photo by Willem lange