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An Arizona man captured by a flying saucer as six witnesses look on? Surely, the 1975 UFO abduction of Snowflake woodcutter Travis Walton had to be the most incredible event in the annals of UFOdom.
Either that or the most elaborate variation on the old "my dog ate my homework" excuse the world had ever heard.
Well, whatever it was, Paramount Pictures has just spent nearly $20 million bringing this heaping helping of pie in the sky to the big screen. Titled Fire in the Sky, the saga of the circumstances surrounding Travis Walton's did-he-or-didn't-he cosmic joyride opens nationwide March 12; actor D.B. Sweeney (The Cutting Edge, Eight Men Out) portrays Arizona's most celebrated space cowboy.
While certainly fantastic, the bare bones of Travis Walton's "abduction" were fairly simple. So simple, in fact, that (with minor variations) this recipe has set the tone for dozens of cosmic kidnapings-come-lately that continue to fill grocery-store scandal sheets and tabloid TV shows to this very day. Simply take one UFO-curious victim, dump him or her in an isolated location, sprinkle liberally with "missing time" and let the skepticism begin.
Driving home after a day of logging in the Sitgreaves National Forest on November 5, 1975, the 22-year-old Walton and six other crew members spotted an eerie yellow light glowing through the timber near the rugged mountain road on which they were traveling. Ignoring warnings from his co-workers, Walton jumped out of the truck and ran toward the saucerlike object that was producing the light because (as he would later explain) he wanted to get a better look at the UFO.
He was not to be disappointed. As it turned out, the inhabitants of the extraterrestrial RV were apparently every bit as interested in getting up-close and personal with Walton.
So interested, in fact, that the star-trekking snowbirds rolled out the red carpet in the form of a bolt of blue light that hurled Walton ten feet backward, knocking him to the ground. Quickly deciding they'd seen enough of this cosmic welcome wagon, the other loggers immediately fled the scene in the truck. When a few of them returned to rescue their pal a few minutes later, it was already too late. In Elvis parlance, Travis Walton had not only left the building--he'd left the planet, as well.
Not to worry, though. In the early-morning hours of November 12, seven days later, the dazed, hyperspaced hitchhiker staggered out of the woods near Heber and straight into UFO immortality with a fantastic tale of how he'd been used as an intergalactic guinea pig during a five-day game of "Doctor."
In addition to Paramount's soon-to-be-released sci-fi epic, the Walton legacy now includes an autobiographical 1978 paperback, a novelty 45 rpm record by an Albuquerque folk singer and, most recently, a "Saucer People" trading card on which a trio of stereotypical UFO flight attendants subjects Walton to a "nightmare exam."
When reporters show up at his modest Snowflake home today, Travis Walton shows only slightly more enthusiasm for those visitors as he did for the bug-eyed captors who whisked him to stardom 17 years ago. Suspicious, guarded and apprehensive, the laconic Walton gives the distinct impression he wishes he'd called in sick that fateful day so long ago.
"My way of handling [the abduction] has been to kind of push this thing into the background," says the tall, redheaded father of four, now a purchasing agent for a wood-molding firm. "For a long time, I wouldn't talk about this with the media. We never discuss it around the house."
As a pioneer in his field (his was the first UFO kidnaping case to be reported while the victim was still missing), Walton says he was ultimately besieged with so many telephone calls from other "abductees" that he was forced to discontinue his telephone service for ten years.
Asked about the recent rash of UFO abductees, extraterrestrial rape victims and other survivors of space shenanigans who regularly fill the couches of Oprah, Phil and Geraldo, Walton shrugs good-naturedly.
"If what they're saying about the number of abductions is true, this is amazing," says Walton, smiling slyly. "I try not to pass judgment on other things that are going on, but I do have to say that it's my perception that there's a whole lot of nonsense out there, too. There's certainly a core of reality here, but frankly, this seems to bring out a lot of crackpots."
Despite his skepticism toward the claims of other "abductees," Walton grows vaguely hostile when the slightest shadow of doubt crosses his own version of the 1975 excursion.
Nor is he particularly eager to play poster boy for UFO space travel. When a photographer innocently asked Walton to look toward the horizon during a photo shoot in a windy wooded area near his home, Walton puts his foot down. Evidently fearing the photo will make it appear he's awaiting the second coming of his abductors, Walton calls a halt to any more photos and retreats to his home across the street. End of interview.
Not surprisingly, Walton's fantastic tale was not without its detractors. In fact, when Walton's crew members reported his disappearance to the local law, officers originally suspected the UFO story was simply a bizarre cover-up for Walton's possible murder.
But few critics were as vocal as Philip J. Klass, Walton's most severe doubting Thomas. Then senior editor of Aviation Week, Klass investigated the case more thoroughly than any other debunker, credibly discrediting the alleged abduction at length in his 1983 book UFOs: The Public Deceived.
Among Klass' more interesting revelations were the fact that some members of Walton's family were reportedly obsesssed with UFOs and had frequently talked of being abducted prior to Travis' experience. In fact, Travis would later admit to watching a made-for-TV movie about another UFO kidnaping less than three weeks before he himself disappeared. Furthermore, many observers were puzzled that no one in Walton's family seemed particularly upset that he'd vanished, even when Walton's older brother Duane assured everyone his younger sibling was simply lost in space.
As bizarre as the case was, Philip Klass even provided a possible motive. According to the investigator, Walton's 27-year-old boss was seriously behind schedule on his logging contract and may have hoped to use the UFO hoopla as a loophole to get out of his obligation. (Reached for comment, the former logging boss, Mike Rogers, dismisses Klass' theory as "bullshit.")
"If the incident was not a hoax, then the UFO had behaved as if it were following a script prepared by Mike Rogers and Travis Walton," concluded Klass. "There seemed to be too long a string of 'remarkable coincidences' for the UFO abduction to be true."
The National Enquirer apparently disagreed. The tabloid (which, not so coincidentally, had funded the series of polygraph tests that "proved" the logger's story) subsequently deemed Walton's experience the most authentic UFO story of the year, and rewarded him with a $5,000 prize for his astounding yarn.
Although some residents of Snowflake and surrounding towns had a hard time swallowing Walton's story 17 years ago, today many of those skeptics are having a harder time believing anyone--let alone Hollywood--is still interested in Snowflake's dubious claim to fame. (Because the real Snowflake didn't match up with the director's image of the town, the film was shot in Oregon.)
"They made a movie about that?" Sitting on a stool at Bill's Bar in downtown Show Low, one of Travis Walton's former high school classmates takes a swig of her beer and stifles a yawn. "That's old garbage."
A random sampling of other townspeople seems to echo the sentiment that Paramount has indeed made a space mountain out of a molehill.
One of those is the former Navajo County sheriff who headed the Walton investigation, a man who still contends there are holes in the abduction story. In spite of the fact that James Garner (the film's biggest "name") is playing a character loosely based on himself, Marlin Gillespie can barely contain his ennui. Now on the Navajo County Board of Supervisors and living in Holbrook, Gillespie says he seriously doubts he'll make the hour-plus drive to the nearest theatre in Pinetop to see the film when it's released.
"I guess I'm interested in seeing it," he confesses. "But I'll probably just wait until they put it on