By SARAH KOENIG, Monitor staff
On September 19, 1961, Betty and Barney Hill were heading home to Portsmouth when they encountered aliens -- or so they believed. Whether true or not, their story catapulted them into national celebrity.
The military investigator walks square-shouldered up the street of the New Hampshire town. He stops at a house and knocks at the door. It opens and a tall, blond woman appears in the threshold.
That's when Betty Hill turned off The X-Files, never to watch it again. A 5-foot brunette, Hill did not like to see herself - or her world-famous story - exploited by Hollywood.
That's her job. The 80-year-old grande dame of alien abductees, Hill is about as shy as a circus barker, as jolly, and as engaging.
Disregard for now that the senior publicist at The X-Files is pretty sure there never has been an episode based on the Hill case. Accept for the moment that Hill sees UFOs more frequently than some of us see Honda Civics. To talk to Betty Hill is to suspend certain Earth-bound assumptions.
"Want to see Junior?" she asked visitors to her Portsmouth house this month as she launched from her chair to fetch the model of an alien head she has carried with her to seminars across the country. She cradled it and stroked the back of its head where the dark paint has come off. "He fell off the podium in St. Louis," she explained.
The 1961 case of Betty and Barney Hill was the nation's first bona fide alien abduction story. Carl Sagan called it the first of its kind in the modern genre. The case was painstakingly chronicled by John Fuller in the book The Interrupted Journey, which was made into a movie, The UFO Incident, starring James Earl Jones.
The case involved a torn and stained dress, strangely scuffed shoes, a mysterious hand-drawn map, and, most intriguingly, two missing hours that would only be accounted for years later through medical hypnosis.
"What made it so prominent was that it was so well documented, so from the standpoint of the public consciousness, it became the most important case," said John Mack, the Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and author of Passport to the Cosmos: Human Transformation and Alien Encounters. "I don't think anybody has debunked it effectively."
Perhaps the Hills' most convincing evidence they were not crackpots was the Hills themselves. She was a social worker and he worked at the Post Office. They were active in social and political causes, and were responsible, loving parents.
According to Peter Geremia, director of the state chapter of Mutual UFO Network and a friend of Betty Hill's, the last thing the Hills and the doctor who treated them wanted was to become UFO freaks. "The abduction scenario at that time was something that the nut cases were talking about," he said.
In other words, Barney Hill was no George Adamski, the California handyman who made a living in the 1950s lecturing about his desert encounter with a Venusian who had long, blond hair.
Seth Shostak, an astronomer with Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, a research group in California, agreed the Hills' utter respectability was what catapulted their story into the mainstream. "They were more or less Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch, after all," he said.
It was September 19, 1961, and the weather report predicted a hurricane along the New Hampshire coast, so Betty and Barney Hill cut their long weekend in Montreal short and headed back to Portsmouth in their 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air.
They stopped at a restaurant in Colebrook, where Betty ate a piece of chocolate layer cake and Barney ate a hamburger. At 10:05 p.m. they were back on Route 3 heading toward the White Mountains.
The sky was clear, and just past Lancaster Betty noticed a bright light close to the nearly full moon. As it got closer and brighter, she pointed it out to Barney, a World War II veteran who knew something about planes. He assumed it was a satellite, perhaps off-course.
Their dachshund, Delsey, was getting antsy, so they pulled over to let her out. Betty took binoculars from the car. With hyperbolic finesse, Fuller described the moment this way: "Betty put the binoculars up to her eyes and focused carefully. What they both were about to see was to change their lives forever, and as some observers claim, change the history of the world."
Afterward, Barney was disinclined to discuss what he had seen, but Betty did so in a letter she wrote soon after to the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomena. "He did see several figures scurrying about as though they were making some kind of hurried type of preparation. One figure was observing us from the windows . . . and seemed to be dressed in some type of shiny black uniform," she wrote. "At this point, my husband became shocked and got back in the car, in a hysterical condition, laughing and repeating that they were going to capture us."
Back in the car, Barney drove wildly in an effort to escape. Past Franconia Notch they left Route 3 and headed down a smaller road.
Betty Hill said recently she was more curious than afraid at the time. "I understood something's going to happen and I don't know what it is, but I'm ready for it. At that point I rolled down the window and waved hello to the craft," she said, laughing into the crook of her arm. "At this time I was sure it was a flying saucer, but I didn't say so."
Suddenly a cluster of beings was blocking their way. Barney stopped the car, but could not restart it. The men came toward them.
For almost three years, their memories would stop at that scene, only to pick up sometime later that night, when they found themselves driving south near Ashland.
The following day Barney, a fastidious dresser, noticed the tops of shoes were badly scuffed. Betty's dress, which she still can retrieve in a flash from her living-room closet, was ripped near the zipper and covered with powdery pink stains. There were shiny spots on the car trunk that caused a compass to flutter.
Against Barney's wishes, Betty told her sister about the incident. On her sister's advice, she reported it to Pease Air Force Base, which took the sighting seriously. According to Pease records, officials there, too, had logged an "unknown" at about 2 a.m. the same morning.
Only after investigators from NICAP and other scientific organizations visited the Hills did they realize their trip had taken at least two hours longer than it should have. They remained haunted by the feeling that something unexplained had happened to them. Betty had recurring nightmares.
In February, the Hills began making pilgrimages to the White Mountains to try to retrace their route. They were unsuccessful, but they did meet many people in the region who had seen strange lights and flying objects.
"Actually, that was just the beginning," Hill said of the initial encounter.
Betty Hill grew up in Kingston, the oldest child of the Barretts, liberal Irish-American parents. Her mother was a labor organizer and her father worked in a Haverhill, Mass., shoe factory. At a time when even fewer minorities lived in New Hampshire than now, she was taught tolerance.
She remembers being 6 years old and ringing the doorbell of the house across the street, where an interracial couple lived. When the black wife answered, Betty stroked her hand, fascinated. As a student at the University of New Hampshire, she befriended a black girl her dorm-mates shunned.
A divorce and several business ventures later, Betty earned her social work degree and took a job with the state department of child welfare. She married Barney, who was black, in 1960. Asked if they were targets of racism, Betty laughed. "It was wonderful, because it screened out all the people we didn't want to associate with anyway."
The Hills were well-known and well-regarded in the community. They were active in local and presidential politics, helped set up community action programs for the poor, lectured school and church groups about civil rights, and held official positions with the NAACP.
Their public lives continued more or less as usual after their UFO encounter, but by 1964 their psychological anxiety still had not abated. Barney had an ulcer that was not responding to treatment. He missed work and both were depressed.
Eventually they were referred to the Boston office of Dr. Benjamin Simon, a noted psychiatrist who specialized in hypnosis. The conversations that transpired during their trances became a permanent chapter in the annals of ufology.
Fuller made liberal use of the tape recordings of the hypnosis sessions, which revealed episodes of rapture and terror.
"BARNEY: Heh, heh, Betty. That's the funniest thing, Betty. They funniest thing. I never believed in flying saucers but - I don't know. Mighty mysterious. Yeah, well, I guess I won't say anything to anybody about this. It's too ridiculous, isn't it? Oh yes, really funny. Wonder where they came from? Oh gee, I wish I had the - I wish I had gone with them . . .
DOCTOR: You wish you had gone with them?
BARNEY: Yes. Oh what an experience to go to some distant planet. (A pause as he reflects, then:) Maybe this will prove the existence of God. (Another brief pause.) Isn't that funny? To look for the existence of God on another planet?"
Betty was interviewed separately. "BETTY: (She is beginning to get upset again.) It won't hurt me. And I ask him what, and he said he just wants to put it in my navel, it's just a simple test. (More rapid sobbing) And I tell him, no, it will hurt, don't do it. And I'm crying, and I'm telling him, 'It's hurting, it's hurting, take it out, take it out!' And the leader comes over and he puts his hand, rubs his hand in front of my eyes, and he says it will be all right. I won't feel it."
MUFON's Geremia has listened to the tapes. "It's enough to make you not sleep at night," he said. "There's one particular portion, when Barney is reliving what happened, really reliving every moment, and he lets out a scream on that tape that's absolutely bone-chilling."
After months of hypnosis, a fantastic story had emerged. Simon could not entirely dismiss or accept the results; he did not think they were lying, but he attributed their story to some kind of shared fantasy, perhaps a folie a deux.
The Hills recounted that they were taken on board by beings whose eyes were disproportionately large and slanted. Betty said one of them spoke English to her, though not very well.
They were medically examined - flakes of skin scraped off Betty's arm, her reflexes tested, and a needle inserted in her navel. Although it does not appear in Fuller's book, Mack reports that a semen sample was taken from Barney, who was examined in a different room from Betty.
When they finished with her, Betty asked the "leader" where he was from and he showed her a complicated cosmic map, which Betty later drew. She asked for proof of their visit and he gave her a book written in strange symbols, but then changed his mind and took it back.
"I recognized the importance of what was happening," Hill said recently. "I knew these were astronauts from another solar system. I told the leader, 'This has been the most wonderful experience of my life,' and that I really appreciated meeting him and would he please come back because I had a lot of friends who would like to meet him."
She and Barney, who died of a stroke in 1969, never did see these aliens again, but soon there were people all over America who wanted to meet the Hills.
Someone had leaked their story to the Boston Herald Traveler, which played it on the front page for almost a week. One day Betty Hill came home to find dozens of reporters at her doorstep. "My first concern was, how was the state going to take this?" said Betty.
Her bosses were supportive. It was 1965, and the existence of UFOs and extraterrestrial life was a possibility admitted even by the U.S. government.
After WORLD WAR II, people began to look up more often, said SETI's Shostak, adding that from the late 1940s through the 1960s the UFO phenomenon attracted broad interest. Setting the stage was the mysterious Roswell, New Mexico, crash in 1947, which the press reported as UFO wreckage; many people suspected a federal cover-up.
"A lot of that interest came from the government. Not so much because they thought alien craft were buzzing all over the countryside, but because they wanted to find out if there were Soviet aircraft they didn't yet know about, for example," he said.
Official commissions consisting of scientists and military experts were set up, and by the late 1960s they had come to the conclusion that national security was not at risk from these unknowns.
The extraterrestrial debate was alive in academia as well. Elizabeth Bilson, administrative director of a space research center at Cornell University, joined the astronomy department in the early 1960s, when Carl Sagan was investigating UFO stories.
"It's true that at that time there was a wave of belief, even among scientists," she said. "At that time, it wasn't ruled out, for example, that on Mars there is some more important life than just microbes or bacteria. . . And Mars is not so far away. If it were true, that there was really intelligent life there, it was not at all outrageous to think they would visit us."
If the nation's intelligentsia took the issue seriously, so did average people. Even today, Shostak points out, polls consistently show that roughly 50 percent of Americas believe in UFOs, about the same percentage that believes in angels. Every year, thousands of people say they have been abducted.
After the Hill story broke, then, it was only a matter of weeks before it became international news. The Hills were so inundated with media calls, for weeks they avoided being at home. Look magazine did a series about them. Eventually they were approached by Fuller.
Although Betty Hill now says she never hesitated to talk about her encounter, and that the press attention did not ruffle her, a letter she wrote to her mother explaining why she and Barney had agreed to work with Fuller tells a different story. "In the beginning we felt this was our own personal experience, and believed there really was not any great public interest," she wrote. "We were fearful for we believed that we would face scorn, ridicule, and disbelief."
After the book's publication in 1966, the Hills went on a book tour that took them to television and radio studios all over the country - a circuit Betty would continue to travel until her retirement in 1991. She appeared on F. Lee Bailey's televised Lie Detector Test (and scored well), sat next to astronauts, scientists and movie stars on programs like The Merv Griffin Show, and gave lectures alongside Sagan and members of the crew of Star Trek.
Instead of dying out, the Hill story gained steam. A noted astrologer became convinced after years of research that Betty's hand-drawn star map corresponded to some recently discovered stars. The procedure of amniocentesis was introduced years after Betty reported having the needle inserted into her navel as a "pregnancy test."
Meanwhile, the Hills, and later Betty alone, began to look - and to find - UFOs. For 15 years, she said, she organized a secret network of ufologists whose members included policemen, retired military officials, reporters and other professionals. She claims to have more than 250 photographs of UFOs. To this day she sees them, sometimes flying over her house in Portsmouth, or hovering above her yard, where her cats and chickens roam.
She became interested in the scientific aspects of the field. "Anybody can tell a weird story," she said. "I want people to get beyond the experience and into the proof."
Hill retired from the UFO circuit because she was "bored, bored, bored," she said. She got annoyed with fakers, whom she believes she can identify, and wanted more time for her own projects, such as her 1995 book, A Common Sense Approach to UFOs. It includes passages such as, "Sometimes, I am asked if I think Big Foot might travel around on-board UFOs. Basically, my answer is no."
Hill has other interests as well, including her colonial family history, which dates to the 17th century, and politics. She describes herself as a Social Democrat, and reads left-wing publications. Unconvinced by Western accounts of life in the Soviet Union, she visited the country in 1986; one of her four cats is named Raisa Gorbachev.
Reporters continue to seek out Hill, and her story still engenders debate; lengthy articles and rebuttals about whether Barney was influenced by the sci-fi series The Outer Limits cram UFO Internet sites, for example.
Hill does not regret her abduction experience, but it still causes her lingering confusion. "The only thing I wish they'd tell me is why they heck they were here," she said.
Although she says her group has worked "undercover with the government, you might say," she does not want the government to admit UFOs' existence. "Because people will say, 'Shoot 'em!' 'Get rid of 'em!,' " she said. "We're Americans. If we don't like it, we kill it."
'Things I can't explain'
In the mid-1980s, Tom Elliott, a television producer from Waltham, Mass., was one of the many ordinary, educated people who joined Betty's expeditions. More than 10 years later, he still has no explanation for the purplish glow on the railroad tracks they visited near Exeter, or the pyramid of lights that hovered overhead.
He stopped going after Betty became furious with him for getting out of the car during a sighting, which she forbade.
"I saw things I can't explain, but I guess my main problem is I can't make the jump that because it is something interesting, it must be from 'out there,' " he said. "I'm one of those people who think she's sincere. I don't think she's making it up. But I don't know why she believes what she believes."
That is the consensus of many people who know Hill, including Geremia and Mack; she is committed to the truth, they say, but her version of it is not necessarily ours.
That doubt does not concern Hill. As she wrote to her mother in 1965 about The Interrupted Journey, "We hope the publication of this book will enable the reader to judge for himself and to decide if this is illusion, hallucination, dream or reality. Love, Betty and Barney."
(This story was originally published in December 1999.)
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