CLOSE ENCOUNTER REVISITED
By Joel Brown, Globe Correspondent
September 1, 2005
Forty years ago this Saturday, New Hampshire teenager Norman Muscarello walked down a dark country road into weird history. In the wee hours of Sept. 3, 1965, the 18-year-old Muscarello set out to hitchhike home from Amesbury to Exeter. At about 2 a.m., he was walking on a deserted stretch of Route 150 in Kensington, about a half-mile short of the Exeter line. ''Near an open field between two houses, the Thing, as he called it, came out of the sky directly toward him," John G. Fuller later wrote in his best seller, ''Incident at Exeter." ''It was as big as or bigger than a house. It appeared to be 80 to 90 feet in diameter, with brilliant, pulsating red lights around an apparent rim. It wobbled, yawed, and floated toward him. It made no noise whatever."
Muscarello told Fuller that as the unidentified flying object floated toward him, he dived onto the shallow shoulder of the road. It hovered over the Clyde Russell farmhouse, lighting everything blood red, then floated away. Muscarello ran to the house and banged on the door, but no one answered. A car came from the south, and Muscarello flagged it down, begging a ride to the Exeter police station. There he blurted out his story to desk officer Reginald ''Scratch" Toland, who sent patrolman Eugene Bertrand, an Air Force veteran, out to the scene with him. A few minutes later, Fuller wrote, ''Scratch Toland was nearly blasted out of his chair by Bertrand's radio call. 'My God. I see the damn thing myself!' " As the brilliant red lights emerged over the woods behind the Carl Dining farm, Bertrand drew his service revolver, then thought better of it. He put the gun away and pulled Muscarello back to his cruiser. Officer David Hunt drove up in time to see the hovering UFO before it darted away to the east.
Like all Seacoast residents, the trio were accustomed to seeing planes from Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth flying overhead. ''There was no comparison," Hunt told Fuller.
Bertrand and Hunt took Muscarello home to his worried mother at their Front Street apartment. Meanwhile a motorcycle-riding Manchester Union Leader reporter dropped by the Exeter station. At a later panel discussion, Toland said that when he looked up and saw the man walking up in his helmet and goggles, ''I got under the desk. I thought he was one of them."
No one, though, had actually seen any space aliens. The news spread quickly. Others reported strange lights in the sky that night, and the two officers added credibility to Muscarello's fantastic tale. In true ''X-Files" fashion, a couple of Air Force officers from Pease dropped by the Muscarello apartment within hours, one with a metal briefcase handcuffed to his wrist, according to Muscarello's younger brother, Thomas Muscarello. ''That was real shady," Thomas said recently. ''They told Norman to be quiet, keep his mouth shut, don't say nothing, don't talk about this." But it was too late. The officers argued with Norman Muscarello and his mother, and Norman told them to get out.
The following days and weeks were ''just chaos," Thomas Muscarello said, with news crews, reporters, neighbors, and UFO investigators all asking questions. The Air Force and others offered explanations, including one newspaper story that suggested an advertising plane was what the three had seen, but none panned out.
Soon, Fuller, a Saturday Review columnist, came to town. He filed stories about the case in the Review, Look, and other magazines. His book, ''Incident at Exeter," became a bestseller in 1966, although the title misstates the location of the sighting. While in the Granite State, Fuller met Barney and Betty Hill of Portsmouth. Their lurid tale of alien abduction in the White Mountains in 1961, elicited under hypnosis, became his second bestseller, ''The Interrupted Journey," the basis for a 1975 TV movie starring James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons as the Hills.
Fuller's two books shaped pop culture's UFO paradigm: the dark country road, the blinding lights, the sinister government officials, the abduction, and the experiments. ''It's almost as if this became the blueprint by which a lot of stories would be told," said Robert J. Thompson, a professor of TV and popular culture at Syracuse University. ''Anybody who watches 'The X-Files' or reads UFO fiction can see a lot of echoes of these two books in the background, even when Homer Simpson gets abducted."
For longtime Kensington residents, though, the incident is a reminder of a more innocent time. At the Brewer farm, across Route 150 from the Russell place, reports of Muscarello's sighting didn't exactly spark panic about little green men. ''We just thought it would be kind of neat to see it if it came back," Bernice Brewer said recently. The Brewers owned land behind the Dining farm. Her son Peter, then 10, and some of the neighbor children put up signs along the road advertising UFO CAMPGROUND. There were no takers, but Brewer said people ''used to go out in the field with their blankets and their popcorn, waiting" for the UFO to return. ''I do remember someone came to our school once and asked if anybody had seen anything. I think I lied and said I saw it," Peter Brewer said with a cackle. ''I don't think he believed me."
A co-worker of Peter's father at Exeter Manufacturing brought over a ''UFO detector," with mysterious circuits in a glass jar that were supposed to set off an alarm when they sensed the electromagnetic signature of a UFO. It only worked, though, on days when a certain friend of Peter's sister came to visit. ''Every time her mother drove in to pick her up, it set the thing off," Mrs. Brewer said, laughing. Did she drive a UFO? ''I think it was a Buick, I'm not sure."
Norman Muscarello started Navy basic training three weeks after the incident. ''Everybody made all this money and he never made a penny," Thomas Muscarello said recently, at his auto detailing business in Exeter. ''And then he did three tours of Vietnam. I mean, come on, that doesn't seem right, does it? After he came back from Vietnam the third time, he wasn't the same person. They got pretty close to shore, they got mortared. They were picking up wounded."
At home in Exeter, Norman Muscarello lived a quiet life, working at the Alrose Shoe Company, not far from the family's old apartment. His brother says he never brought up the UFO but shared his story with some who sought him out. He even went to Exeter High School to speak to students who devoted an edition of the school paper in 1980 to the incident.
Others got a different reception. ''He [Norman Muscarello] wasn't a happy camper," said Peter Geremia, director of the Mutual UFO Network's New Hampshire chapter. ''I got to his place [for a 1990 interview] and he started talking, and then he accused me of having a hidden tape recorder. And so I assured him I didn't, and he started ranting and raving. And I said, 'OK, I don't need this, I'm heading out,' and he calmed down. It was a strange interview, to be sure."
Muscarello died in 2003 after a sudden illness. Fuller has died, as have Bertrand, Toland, and Barney and Betty Hill. Hunt now works as a bailiff in the Rockingham County courthouse in nearby Brentwood. He declined to be interviewed, as he has since the 1960s. In a brief phone conversation, he conceded that the attention given to the case became bothersome after a while, and not just from those who doubted the story. ''People on both ends of the spectrum, really. People that don't believe it at all and people that go overboard," he said. ''People in the middle make more sense."
Asked if he was glad that the incident seems to be fading into history, Hunt said, ''It doesn't really matter any more." Pease Air Force Base shut down in 1991, as the Cold War ended. The Exeter Historical Society's material on the incident consists of a slim folder of photocopied newspaper stories. The Muscarello and Hill stories ''kind of set the iconography, the theme, the general way in which we perceive alien encounters in pop culture," said Thompson. ''But at the same time, the references themselves . . . kind of disappeared." Fuller's two bestsellers were reprinted in a single volume in 1997. Its recent Amazon.com sales rank: 412,640.
Marden Marshall said he wasn't aware of the incident when he bought the Dining farm about 10 years ago. ''I did not know anything about it until after I handed over the deposit check," he said. ''And as soon as I handed it to [the real estate agent], she said, 'By the way. . .' " A previous owner told Marshall that UFO devotees used to camp out at the farm on the anniversary. But Marshall has seen no campers -- and no UFOs. ''It's so long in the past, I think everyone has forgotten about it," he said.
This summer, two Exeter-area residents reported seeing huge unidentified flying objects in broad daylight. But they held onto their anonymity. Muscarello's brother is one of the few who find their accounts credible. He still firmly believes there's something out there. ''All these years I haven't seen anything, and I really want to," Thomas Muscarello said. ''I would say four, five years ago, I sat down and I said, just out of the blue, 'What do you think, Norman? Would you like to experience something like that again?' And he said, 'Absolutely.' He would act differently this time. He wouldn't be scared of it."