“You ever been to Montana?” Stan was asking Aaron. Aaron was falling asleep in the window seat of the airplane that Stan had booked for them not twelve hours ago. From the moment that he had agreed to go on this little sojourn into the upper Midwest, Aaron’s head had been spinning.
He had cured his hang-over by having a few cocktails at the Lone Nut offices while Stan and Kite had made their travel arrangements. Since then, he had maintained a steady heavy buzz. Stan had realized that there would be a lot of driving involved and neither he nor Aaron were good candidates for that part of their journey, so he had invited another photographer along to act as a driver. The photographer’s name was Martin something, but Stan just kept referring to him as ‘Scoop,’ taking what he probably thought was a secret delight in the way that nickname annoyed the young man. Now all three of them were wedged into those tiny little economy airplane seats, somewhere in the skies between Pittsburgh and Great Falls, Montana. Aaron was drifting off again, so Stan turned his banter on young Martin, who occupied the unfortunate middle seat between them.
“How ‘bout you, Scoop? You ever been to Montana?”
“Not yet,” the photographer replied.
“Beautiful up there,” Stan informed him in his best Indian Chief voice. “Big Sky country! Elk and…whatnot.” He took another sip of his Gin and Tonic and rang for the flight attendant.
“Hel-lo…Janet.” He said, reading her nametag and handing her a business card. “I’m with Lone Nut magazine. Would you ask the pilots if they have any UFO sightings they’d like to report? Professional pilots are always good witnesses, even if they are drunk.”
Janet smiled, and a small, fake-polite laugh escaped her. “I don’t know, sir. I’ll ask,” she said, taking the card. Stan watched her walk down the aisle.
“See that, Scoop? You never know where you might find a good story.”
“Marty,” replied the photographer.
“My name’s Marty.”
“Sure thing,” Stan continued. “You’re gonna love Montana, Scoop. Did you remember to bring film?”
“Good. Some people might forget, but not you, Scoop.”
“Why do you insist on calling me Scoop?”
Stan studied Marty for a moment. “So you’re a traditionalist?”
“You’re a traditionalist,” Stan said, gesturing to Marty’s camera with his drink. “You still use film.”
Marty smiled. “Yeah, I like film. Digital, anybody can screw with it. Film is more truthful.”
“Good. In this line of work, we need all the truth we can get.”
“Really?” Marty turned to face Stan for the first time on this flight. “I get the opposite impression. Seems to me, you need all the hype you can get.”
Stan was caught off guard, but he shrugged it off. “Well… hype, truth… can’t they be the same thing once in a while?” Marty just shook his head, and Stan took that as a teaching opportunity. “Have you heard of the Mystery Airships of the 1890s?” he asked.
“Of course,” Marty replied. “Anyone who has studied UFO folklore has read something about them.”
“Excellent. You’ve done some research. What can you tell me about them?”
Martin thought for a moment. “Well, if I remember correctly, there was a rash of sightings around North America in the 1890s, most famously in the San Francisco area, of what were described as long dirigible-like craft that were occupied by a bunch of partiers dressed in the current fashions.”
“Okay,” Stan pushed him. “And what were they doing?”
Martin shrugged. “Nothing, really. Just flying around, scaring locals and making headlines in little Podunk newspapers.”
Stan winced. “No, Marty. No newspaper is ‘Podunk.’ The printed word is power. A free press is essential to a free democracy. And that is a big part of what has happened to the U.S. Our non-corporate press is ignored and overshadowed by the big corporate propaganda news agencies. Never call any newspaper ‘Podunk.’ They are free.” Stan took another sip of his G&T. “So. What did these Podunk papers say about the airships?”
Martin found himself a little touched by Stan’s passion for the free press. He started to take the conversation a little more seriously. “I really don’t remember. One allegedly landed in a farmer’s field and asked the farmer and his son for some water. When the farmer asked them where they were from, they said they were from Mars.”
“Precisely!” Stan said, spilling a little of his drink on Martin’s knee. “So what do you make of that?”
Martin shook his head. “What’s to make of it? They obviously weren’t really from Mars.”
“How do you know that?” Stan said.
Martin looked incredulous. “It was an airship, a balloon… technology like that from the 1890s simply wasn’t capable of… it would have burned up in the atmosphere. It certainly couldn’t have traveled through space.”
Stan waved his hand. “Never mind that. You’re right, but the technology. In the 1890s, Zeppelins were the big transportation craze.”
“Until the Hindenburg,” Martin offered.
“Among others. But the technology, Martin. Why were people seeing airships from Mars?”
Martin stared at him. “I have no idea. Mass hallucination?”
“Yes!” Stan said. “Or hype, as you call it. One town reports seeing an airship, and other towns want in on the story. It was an attention-grabber in a time when these towns all wanted to appear as though they were on the cutting edge of technologies like airships and… why Mars, Marty?”
Martin thought for a moment. Then it hit him. “Telescopes!” he said. Stan was nodding. “Telescopes had become household items and amateur astronomers could actually view Mars from their own backyards then. It was a hot topic in parlors and drawing rooms across the U.S.”
Stan smiled. “That’s it. Mars was big news. H.G. Welles was fueling the national imagination with books like The Time Machine and War of the Worlds and people were fascinated by our little red neighbor. See, whatever the current edge of technology is, that’s what people start seeing with their hype… and the hype eventually becomes our reality. After airships came airplanes, and within 40 years we had rockets. By the 1960s we had astronauts. The atomic age, the space age. And what was on every Podunk newspaper’s fifth page during that time?”
Martin thought for a moment and said, “Russians!”
Stan shook his head as he tried to take a sip of his drink. “No, no, Russians were usually first-page news, what with the Cuban missile crisis and all. What did people turn to, to escape that nuclear terror?”
Stan moved his head to the side. “Yes, in some respect. I mean, Hollywood picked up these stories and ran with them, but what were the stories running in the papers then? Airships were 1890s, but the space age brought us…”
Martin got it. “Spaceships!”
“Spaceships, exactly. See, this ‘hype’ as you call it is often based in reality. Whatever the pinnacle of our technological abilities are, that’s where imagination points us to the next step. These so-called mystery objects have been viewed throughout human history, but they are always described as something just one small step beyond our current technologies. Ezekiel saw wheels within wheels, Alexander the Great’s armies saw flying shields, Zeppelin buffs of the 1890s saw Zeppelins, then when we reached space, people started seeing space ships. Whatever this ‘hype’ is we are chasing, it is always just one step ahead of us in our scientific understandings. First the Stealth Bombers were seen as UFOs until the Air Force went public with them in the eighties. Now it’s the Flying Triangles because they haven’t told us about the TR-3B yet.”
“The TR-3B? What sort of…”
“Never mind. The point is the correlation between ‘hype’ and ‘reality,’ Scoop. And that’s what you’re here to capture.”
“Shouldn’t you be Scoop?” Martin said in a sly attempt to escape his new moniker. “You’re the reporter, after all.”
“I know,” Stan said, reaching down beside his seat. “That’s why I got this cool hat.” He produced a ’38 Fedora. Sticking up from the headband was a white card that simply read “PRESS” in big, bold letters.
Marty smiled again. “Nice.”
“It sure is, Scoop. And the ladies love it. Speaking of which…” he popped the hat onto his head when he saw the flight attendant returning. She smiled, and leaned in to tell him:
“The flight crew told me to tell you welcome aboard, but none of them wishes to comment on any UFOs they may or may not have witnessed over the course of their careers.”
“Are they drunk?” Stan inquired.
The attendant laughed. “No sir. Our pilots never fly when they’ve been drinking.”
“Have you seen any UFOs?”
“Are you drunk?”
“You wanna be? Want some of my G&T?”
“No, sir,” the attendant replied, smiling a smile that said she might cut him off from the beverage cart at any moment. “Who did you say you write for?” She asked.
“The Lone Nut. It’s not what you think. Our editor only has one ball.”
“Really? Is it a periodical?”
“No, it’s always there, it’s just by itself.”
“No sir, I meant…” she could see her explanation would fall on deaf ears. She would have to watch this guy. He had had enough to drink, she thought. “Enjoy your flight” she said, and returned to her duties.
“Thank you, Janet,” Stan said as she walked back toward the crew cabin. “See that Scoop? Ladies love the hat!”
In the seat by the window, Aaron had begun to snore.