One of this newspaper’s claims to fame, and surely one of its most indelible impacts on popular culture, is the story of Kenneth Arnold.
Without our reporting 70 years ago, the UFO you imagine when you close your eyes would probably look pretty different than it does. So too would “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “E.T.” and countless other movies and television shows, comics and cartoons.
Admit it: Even though we have no blueprints or specs of what an alien spacecraft looks like, we all likely imagine it saucer-shaped and gray, moving horizontally, fast as can be and just too darn fast for our eyes and brains to make sense of it. Popular culture based much of that description on Kenneth Arnold’s sightings near Mt. Rainier in 1947.
Arnold landed in Pendleton and told an East Oregonian reporter about what he saw, the Associated Press picked it up and lent it credibility and the immortal phrase “flying saucer.” Arnold’s sighting helped spur supposed sightings across the Northwest and the world, and the idea of unidentifiable flying objects hasn’t left the human imagination since.
You can believe Arnold witnessed something out of this world, or you can believe it was some trick of the eye or secret government experiment. But there is no dancing around the fact that the explosion of UFO culture helped prove that humans love to believe in mystery, that we relish it and build on it, and that we love to debate it and make art about it and tell stories about it.
Think back on 1947. It was much closer to the Wright Brothers’ first flight than to today’s era of unmanned drones.
Sure, Da Vinci had sketched flying machines in his journal hundreds of years prior, but human beings had only recently figured out how to take to the sky safely, and very few people had actually done it. It was still mysterious and strange and a marvel beyond the comprehension of many.
Add to that another World War, which had also taught us about other kinds of marvels — planes that bomb and shoot. It introduced us to weapons so terrible and destructive that they too were hard to comprehend, though they proved there was technology out there so powerful and so complex that nearly anything was possible.
It was in this moment of technological advancement and aviation experimentation that Kenneth Arnold touched down in Pendleton and touched off the modern UFO craze. The sky was a tinderbox of mystery and hope and fear — and we were all looking up. We were flying, by god. Which begs the question, was someone else flying, too?