ROSWELL OR BUST

A town discovers manna crashing from heaven and becomes the capital of america's alien nation

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The city of Roswell, N.M. (pop. 49,000), is the birthplace of Demi Moore. It is also home to the nation's largest mozzarella plant. On warm spring nights, visitors deplaning onto the tarmac at the local airport may be struck, in a not necessarily unpleasant way, by the rich, manurelike odor rolling in from the surrounding ranchlands. But none of these things is what Roswell is most famous for.

A half-century has passed, and Roswell's citizens are still struggling to come to grips with the strange events that put the city on the national map and made its name a national buzz word connoting both otherworldliness and governmental perfidy. "Some people come up to me and say, 'Gosh, I don't like this. I don't want to be known as the kook capital,'" says Bill Pope, interim CEO of the Roswell Chamber of Commerce, speaking with the easygoing charm and booster's earnestness one expects in a Southwestern city father. He is referring to next month's three-day gala marking the golden anniversary of the alleged crash in 1947 of a flying saucer near Roswell. It is a civic distinction that was long ignored by most Roswellians — Moore, for one, says she never heard of it while growing up — until a recent surge of national interest in extraterrestrial phenomena, both "real" and fictive, convinced locals that rather than be ashamed of their heritage, they might instead make some money from UFO-related tourism.

Pope puts it this way: "I've been in a lot of communities in my lifetime. I was near a community in Oklahoma one time that had the champion cow-chip-throwing contest. And there's a little community not far from us over here that has lizard races. What it all comes down to is having something to create an interest in your community. And we have something to create interest, and that creates an inflow of people, and that creates dollars, and that's what we're all about." He hands a visitor a lapel pin emblazoned with the legend ROSWELL 1947 and the image of a smiling spaceman waving from a flaming UFO shaped like a Stetson hat — a unique spin on an event that, if it actually occurred, was surely one of the most momentous in history; no one would argue that it doesn't trump lizard races. And so the town is gearing up, not entirely wholeheartedly, for what it is calling Roswell UFO Encounter '97, a celebration that will include a flying-saucer Soap Box Derby, films, symposiums (speakers include Erich von Daniken, author of Chariots of the Gods?) and what an organizer describes as "a UFO belly dancer." Crowds of upwards of 100,000 are hoped for.

Outside city limits, the name Roswell speaks to less tangible concerns. Like the black helicopters of the new world order or the racist-police conspiracy to frame O.J. Simpson, the Incident, as it is known, is either pretty sensational stuff or yet another of the ingenious tales those of us who mistrust mainstream institutions tell ourselves to help make sense of a scary, sometimes depressing world. In this case, it is a tale that combines deeply American strains of spirituality and paranoia as well as — let us be frank — a large scoop of native wackiness. One could even say, if one were inclined to put yet another spin on the following cliche, that we have met the aliens and they are us. In fact, to judge from the way they are most often depicted, aliens have sprung from the same corner of the national psyche that has a thing for Walter Keane's paintings of grotesquely doe-eyed children. Unless, of course, aliens actually look like that.

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