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

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    Everyone agrees that something crashed in the desert outside Roswell in mid-June or early July 1947. On July 8, the Roswell Army Air Field issued a press release saying it had recovered the wreckage of a "flying disk," sparking incredulous news stories around the world. A few hours later, a general at the regional Army Air Force command in Fort Worth, Texas, where the debris had been sent for further analysis, announced that what had really been recovered was a weather balloon. This is the indisputable core of the Roswell Incident. Whether one chooses to believe that the government has been covering up an affair involving extraterrestrials is, of course, a more subjective matter. But because Roswell represents the only time the U.S. military has gone on record saying that flying saucers exist, it has become a cornerstone of belief for the UFO community. They are, by the way, quite a diverse and fractious group of folks — studies say they tend to be better educated than the norm — whose numbers include casual believers; so-called UFOlogists, most of whom are pretty earnest in their efforts to document UFO sightings with something approaching objective rigor; contactees, who believe they have had telepathic communication with aliens; abductees, who believe they have been subjected to experimentation by E.T.s; and cultists like the Heaven's Gaters, who are an enormous source of embarrassment to their comparatively sober-minded confreres. But despite their many differences, for nearly all of them Roswell is central, a way into the darkness. Peculiar theories ripple out from Roswell. So do further-ranging cultural tides.

    According to a TIME/Yankelovich poll, 34% of Americans believe intelligent beings from other planets have visited Earth; of those, 65% believe a UFO crash-landed near Roswell, and 80% believe the U.S. government knows more about extraterrestrials than it chooses to let on. But those numbers don't quite capture Roswell's current hot-button status. "Five years ago, if you made an offhand reference to Roswell, nobody would know what you meant. Now everybody does." So says Kevin Randle, a UFOlogist who, as co-author of the seminal UFO Crash at Roswell and its follow-up, The Truth About the UFO Crash at Roswell, is one of the Incident's heartiest champions. His efforts achieved a not entirely positive validation on Dec. 1, 1995, when President Bill Clinton, on a state visit to Ireland, said the following during a speech in Belfast: "I got a letter from 13-year-old Ryan from Belfast. Now, Ryan, if you're out in the crowd tonight, here's the answer to your question. No, as far as I know, an alien spacecraft did not crash in Roswell, New Mexico, in 1947. [Pause for laughter, according to an official transcript.] And, Ryan, if the United States Air Force did recover alien bodies, they didn't tell me about it either, and I want to know. [Applause.]" UFOlogists will tell you bitterly about the way Jimmy Carter, while running for the presidency, admitted he had seen a UFO, but then, once in office, reneged on promises to open the government's flying-saucer files.

    A lost opportunity. But on the cultural radar, presidential recognition barely registers next to playing a pivotal role in a popcorn movie. In last year's Independence Day, the seventh highest grossing film of all time, Bill Pullman's President Whitmore also assures an audience the government has nothing up its sleeve concerning UFOs and Roswell, only to be told by his Secretary of Defense, "That's not entirely accurate." Well, sure — otherwise the movie would be finished halfway through. Fortunately, the embattled Earthlings are able to use the recovered Roswell saucer against the invaders and triumph. Talk about vindication.

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