Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

EssayNovember 6, 2022

Essay on Sunday: Something that wasn’t the moon

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Stories of strange sightings and alien abductions illuminated Ashleigh Young’s childhood and family lore. Was none of it real?

He was lying on his back under the clothesline, looking up at the Oamaru sky, which was a deep blue. Then he saw them. Shining ball bearings shooting up from the earth, and light shimmering across a powerline. The boy shouted to his family, who dropped their cutlery and pushed back their chairs from the lunch table and rushed outside. Together they watched as the objects clustered above them in the sky and slowly circled one another. How far up? Maybe 40,000 or 50,000 feet. The boy’s father had been a pilot in the war and knew about such distances. Then the silver balls zipped downwards with astonishing speed – just astonishing speed – back to the earth, and disappeared. 

“Well, I don’t want to burst your bubble,” my brother JP messages, after my other brother, Neil, has repeated this story about my mum’s brother, Uncle John, “but I seem to recall a story about some Russian space debris landing in that area around 1973. A farmer found one of the silver balls.”

“This wasn’t space debris,” Neil messages back. “These balls were speeding all over the place! They were also hovering and slowly circling each other.”

“OK! I believe you. I believe.”

In these conversations it sometimes feels like we are in a sort of craft ourselves, rushing through clouds, emerging into clearings, going on ahead, until clouds engulf us once more. We’re certain! Then we’re doubtful. Then we’re certain again.

But I look it up afterwards and JP is right. There’s a photo from a 10-year-old news story in which a farmer holds a space ball in his arms – it’s mottled brown, burnt-looking, the size of a beach ball maybe. The farmer’s name is Dennis O’Sullivan and he looks delighted, like this was something he lost long ago and at last he’s got it back. The 20-kilogram titanium alloy ball with strange markings dropped into a turnip field on his farm in Ashburton in April 1972, when he was 17, and he picked it up and drove back to his house in a truck with the ball sitting in his lap. The police came and took the ball, and it was tested at a laboratory in Christchurch to see if it was radioactive (it wasn’t). There were five other metal balls, all falling onto paddocks from Lake Aviemore to south of Ashburton. Six years later, further balls arrived, this time in a paddock in Eiffelton, but these were revealed to be just sea floats that some jokers had burnt with a blow torch.

The original metal balls had broken off the Russian spacecraft Kosmos 482, which was aiming a probe at Venus but fell to pieces before it even got out of low earth orbit. Most of the damaged craft is still up there, going around and around and expected to fall back to Earth sometime around 2025. Russia didn’t want to know about it, and didn’t want Dennis’s ball back, or any of the others that fell onto the South Island, scorching crops and leaving deep dents in the earth, so they were returned to the farmers who’d found them. At one point Dennis tried to sell his one on eBay for $500,000 but no one wanted it. “How do you value something like this?” Jesse Mulligan asked the treasurer of the Ashburton Aviation Museum, Owen Moore, in an interview about the space balls last year. “Well, you don’t really,” said Owen. “You just have it.” Maybe Dennis’s one is still just sitting in his lounge. He just has it.

“Could be worth a visit,” Neil messages. “I would like to see the ball.” 

Then JP sends us an image of the oil painting Voice of Space, by Magritte. The painting is disturbing – those three huge disembodied jingle-bells, hovering expectantly over lush green pasture. It’s familiar but I can’t remember where I’ve seen it. The little slits in the jingle-bells look like puppets’ mouths, like hostile versions of Bert and Ernie, about to speak.

JP says that my dad saw a UFO once, when he was flying near Whanganui. It was just him in the plane. He had to report the sighting to the civil aviation authority. “I don’t think he wanted to make a fuss about it. He was fairly sure it was a drone of some sort – but a massive one.” I want to ask my dad about it, but we haven’t really spoken properly in ages, and it doesn’t feel quite fair to ring him up only to ask him about a UFO, or a drone.

Uncle John, my mother’s brother, seemed an almost mythical figure to me when I was young. He made a living playing country music on the other side of the world, on a stage with a sparkly silver curtain behind him. In a black-and-white photo in a gold frame that sat on top of the piano, he wore a cowboy hat over his wavy blond shoulder-length hair and he held an acoustic guitar. After thinking about the scene my brother Neil described – the blue day, the shining spinning objects, the boy crying out, the family abandoning their lunch to come and look – I decide to call Uncle John. He has moved back to Oamaru, where he grew up, after many years in Ontario. 

In preparing for the phone call, I google him, because it has been a long time since I have seen him or spoken to him, or any of my uncles. His bio note on the Nashville record label Lamon Records says that he is “affectionately known as the Kiwi with the golden voice.” Who are these affectionate knowers? One of his more recent songs is about the dairy industry polluting South Island rivers. The video for the song features Uncle John in a leather jacket and cowboy hat kneeling on the stones beside a river, guitar at his side, one hand stretched out to the water as the lyrics scroll past. “The signs that warn of toxins, never heard of as a child, sayin’ don’t go near the water, for your waters there have died.” His deep singing voice has an occasional country hiccup to it. The video is terrible and magnificent.

“l have such vivid memories of that day,” Uncle John says on the phone, on a crackly line, when I ask him what he saw on the day of the space balls. “I was lying under the clothesline on my back on a Sunday – beautiful clear blue sky, I remember that. And I saw these eight or so silver balls, shiny as shiny could be, flashing up and all goin’ round in circles. It was so fast. We saw vapour trails all the time and these were way, way beyond any sort of vapour trail from a plane.”

“Incredible, incredible,” I keep saying. I am not a good interviewer, and I’m delaying bringing up the Russian rocket. 

“They stayed up there in that circle for maybe three minutes at the most. I was yellin’ and screamin’ at everyone, ‘Come out, come out!’ They were havin’ lunch or somethin’. So they all came flying out the door, Neil and Heather and the old man.”

That’s Uncle Neil and Aunty Heather and my granddad. My mother must have been there somewhere, too, running out into the yard, but I’ve asked and she has no memory of the spinning silver balls. I gather my courage and try to tell Uncle John about the Russian space craft – that maybe what he had seen, in fact, were metal pieces that had fallen off as the craft failed in its attempt to get a probe to Venus. But my suggestion feels feeble; it’s no match for the strength of Uncle John’s memory, and he goes on.

“I was just thinking, oh my God. And I had 20/20 vision. Gee, what a fabulous thing. They were 50,000 feet up I’d say, but I can tell you, I could see it. They darted off in all directions, just as they formed, and at such speed it could not have been aircraft of any sort. As l say, l have never forgotten this moment.”

He also tells me about a time when he was working in a shearing gang. He was coming home for the day, cruising up Ardgowan Road in his Mark 1 Zephyr. “I felt this funny feeling.” He looked up and he was being followed, he said, by several flying craft. “They wouldn’t leave me. Here’s another one on the right! Six in total. I sped up.”

“I sped up,” remembers Uncle John. (Image: Getty)

Before he sets off to play a gig in Christchurch, he suggests I read Chariots of the Gods, a 1968 book which hypothesises that aliens made ancient structures (“Let us enter the new world of the improbable with an open mind and bursting with curiosity!” writes Erich von Däniken, before mounting an argument that ancient maps of Earth were drawn by aliens). But this is the most I have spoken with Uncle John in a long time and although it is about Russian space balls (or is it?), it’s deeply enjoyable. I report back to my brothers. JP remembers reading Chariots of the Gods in Oamaru, in Uncle John’s old bedroom. “It’s fairly well debunked, I’m afraid to say.”

Neil notes that it’s interesting how Uncle John, in his account, attributes agency to the space balls – “They’re not just plummeting out of the sky like debris, they’re circling and zipping in different directions.” And he has a point, there: I suppose it’s possible, somehow, that what he saw wasn’t the Russian space junk after all, but something else. 

My brothers and I also talk about a recent news article which says that some photos and videos of UFOs that have been leaked from the Pentagon are legitimate: they were taken by navy personnel, and no one knows what they are, other than their shapes: “a sphere”, “an acorn”, “a metallic blimp”, and so on. “The Pentagon are throwing up their hands and saying that the cranks were right after all,” messages JP. “But does this mean we also have to get on board with all that Area 51 stuff? Where do you draw the line?”

“I was onboard with the plan to rush Area 51,” Neil says. “There just needs to be a critical mass of people taking the fences.”

“Well,” says JP, “I’m sure it would’ve been fun. I just wouldn’t have wanted to make small talk with all the other people beforehand.”

Growing up in the 80s and 90s, I preferred stories of UFO and alien sightings to stories of abduction. Alien abduction stories demanded a lot from the reader, in terms of a willingness to believe, and they sometimes felt a little repetitive – the subject paralysed, the creatures carrying out medical procedures (“It’s bigger than any needle that I’ve ever seen!”), the subject returned to their home traumatised and afraid to go to sleep again, their life falling apart over the months and years that followed.

Although I liked those stories fine, I preferred the ones about people whose cars suddenly shut down on highways – usually American highways, long and lonely – followed by a strange light coming over the vehicle. Stories of pilots whose aircraft were surrounded, suddenly, by fast-moving objects. Or stories set on remote farms, with a dog barking into the darkness until someone went outside to investigate and was stunned by a very bright object in the sky. The object would land, small figures would come out – spadelike heads, the eyes massive and glowing, a shimmer coming off the bodies. The hapless farmer would fire a shotgun and the creatures would scurry away, but they might return later to peer through a window. Authorities would probably suggest that what the witness had seen, in fact, was just an owl. (This owl explanation was forever ruined for me when I read Communion, by Whitley Strieber, who theorised that his owl memory was a false memory, as if his brain simply could not process the true horror of what he had seen.) 

Alien abductions were a common theme in the 1980s. (Image: Getty)

Such accounts prompted such cold, electric fear in me – even if the creatures seemed harmless enough, just wandering around, having a look. I realise that the thing that really moved me in these stories was that the person who claimed to have seen the UFO or alien was so alone. Not many people would believe them. The witness would be ridiculed, laughed at, cut off; soon they wouldn’t speak of it again, not even to their children and grandchildren. I wanted to be someone who believed, and – even if I was only reading a book or watching a documentary – someone who might help a witness feel less alone in what they had seen.

My friend Sarah and I, aged seven or eight, once stood out on the veranda looking at the skyline on the other side of the valley in Te Kūiti. It was twilight, and the lights of houses and streets were on, and the tiny bright T of the Easter cross was lit up. We could smell the dew on the grass, dew on the trampoline. It took us a while to see what we were seeing over there on the hill. A craft, hovering in the darkness, preparing to land. Beside it were multiple other crafts that had already landed and were waiting for the other to join them. Sarah and I clutched each other’s goosepimpled arms, screamed, and ran inside.

My parents were reclining on the La-Z-Boys in front of the TV. “What’s going on?” my mother asked.

That question frightened me. I sometimes heard one of my parents ask it late at night, when I was in bed but still awake. Perhaps they had heard a noise outside, or there had been a strange phone call, or something in the house had gone wrong. The question “What’s going on?” was frightening because the person who asked it, an adult, was flummoxed, and maybe a little afraid too, because they had no answers. What was going on? It could be anything.

We told them what we had seen, but it was only JP who came back out with us to investigate. We pointed across the valley and to the hill with its flickering lights, and as we looked, the electricity I had felt began to fizzle, because I could tell that JP couldn’t see what we were seeing. He said something like, “I think that’s houses,” and went back inside. Sarah and I stayed looking for a while in the dark, trying to get our excitement back, until eventually even Sarah, too, expressed her doubts. I could see it too now: the landed crafts were houses; the hovering craft was simply another house, slightly higher up. I refused to acknowledge this. How humiliating it was when things turned out to be ordinary. 

It must have been sometime later that Sarah and I made a recording of ourselves telling a scary story about aliens. The tape recorder had a function that would play your voice back in slow motion, making the voices both hilarious and monstrous – that was how aliens sounded, we figured. When we listened back to our story in slow-motion, we laughed our heads off. I don’t remember the story we told, only certain phrases, such as “They saw the bright lights of the city” and “It was a full moon that night”. After dark, we hung the tape recorder over the window ledge and out the window, where JP – whose bedroom at this time was in the caravan next to the house – would hear the voices. Then we set it playing. I remember the feeling of the thin cord in my hands as I held the recorder over the ledge, and the sound of our deep alien voices creeping out into the air, into the trees. A few minutes later JP appeared at the window, his face pale. “That scared the bejesus out of me,” he said and he was laughing but I could tell he was rattled.

I was often trying to get my friend Sarah to have UFO and alien experiences with me, and she with me. I think I realise now why that was, and it was something to do with the reason why I also loved stories in which a whole group of people have a UFO encounter together – a group of school children, or pilots, or family members all looking up, together. I imagined the feeling of being alongside others when you had that experience, and how you would be forever bonded, in some terrible way. It was the ultimate fantasy of friendship, of closeness – of being understood, and a part of something bigger than yourselves.

The depiction of aliens in fiction is spookily consistent. (Image: Getty)

I’m on a roll after talking to Uncle John, so I ask my Aunty Heather, who lives in Ontario, if she remembers anything about that day in 1972, but she doesn’t, only that her dad, my granddad, had a telescope and loved looking at the night sky. “Sometimes, if you sit with it for a while the memories come back, but I don’t trust them anymore,” she writes in an email. “Besides, my head is still chock-full of images of Dad, foaming toothbrush in hand, ripping the hand basin out of the wall in the bathroom and falling into the bathtub after his knees succumbed to the strawberry wine – ha, ha.” 

Aunty Heather manages to make contact with Uncle Neil for me, as – I guess due to some family tensions –he won’t speak with me directly. He sends a message via Heather. “I had a very frightening experience with the unexplained when I was living on the farm. I came out of our old bedroom early in the morning and suddenly became aware of a very bright light like a searchlight shining down on me. It wasn’t the moon. It really shook me up.” And he remembers the space balls, too, as “bright little spheres at a great height”. I try to imagine my Uncle Neil – a tall, thin, nervy man who loved cats and dogs and was able to build anything you could ever want out of wood – as a boy. His and Uncle John’s bedroom was out in the washhouse, which was separate from the house and smelled of the hot water and yellow soap and white sheets of the old wringer. I imagine him creeping out into the garden in the early morning, alone, standing in the bright light of something that wasn’t the moon.

“I did once believe in aliens,” my brother Neil messages me when I ask him. As a twelve-year-old, he too was steeped in “in the lore of Roswell, Close Encounters’ sculpted potato mountain, Whitley Strieber’s terrifying probe-narratives, the unforgettable image of the bike rising into the sky in ET, Mulder’s unshakeable fervour, Uncle John’s story of the metal balls spinning at 40,000 feet up – and all the rest.”

It has only occurred to me that this is the one conversation we’ve never really had – about whether we actually believe in extraterrestrial life. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, and I’m not sure what I’m looking for here; have never been sure what I’m looking for. So I’ve asked my brothers, at last, whether they believe, after stating firmly, for the record, that I believe. Neil goes on: “Maybe these stories are an expression of their (the aliens’) imprint on our lives – telltale twitches on the Geiger meter of their radiant presence – but increasingly I’ve felt as though they mainly express a kind of loneliness and worry about our place in the universe, and what we’re doing to the earth.”

With this answer, I suddenly feel like that small girl again, looking furiously at the lights of houses. 

“I think a mark against UFOs and aliens is how they too have been drawn into the crazed QAnon and generalised conspiracy stuff,” JP writes. “For instance, the guy who just attacked Pelosi’s husband was apparently a fan of UFOs and related conspiracies. So, I’m inclined to disbelieve in them simply on principle. I don’t want to part of the same crowd.” He is also curious to know where the Betty and Barney Hill kinds of stories are today. (The story of the married couple Betty and Barney Hill’s 1961 alien abduction – the first story of its kind, involving memories recalled under hypnosis – became infamous. The details I remember most are Barney’s burnt dress shoes, and the huge needle that Betty says the aliens put through her belly button.) “Is anyone still getting abducted? You don’t hear about it so much these days. It’s a bit old-fashioned and hokey now, I reckon – getting abducted by aliens. I’d point that out to them too, if it ever comes down to it.”

But, though he can no longer make the jump to “Mulder-levels of belief” so easily anymore, JP also wants to keep a door of mystery open, and remembers a friend at school, whose father was involved in the Waitomo Unexplained Phenomena Society, reminding him that “there are dimensions and phenomena which we’re just not equipped to measure of even perceive yet”. And this is a notion I have clung on to for a long time – the one that always moves me out of the clouds of doubt and into a clear sky once more. But then Neil ends it. It’s something I was not expecting, and it leaves me stunned, momentarily grief-stricken, appalled.

“I think there’s nothing out there,” he says. “The fields are empty. The skies are empty.” And, in the bubble of our Whatsapp group called “Youngs”, with its long spaces between messages, its occasional photos and links to articles and songs, he imagines us like lonely airborne cyclists, riding towards stars. 

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