Getting the final bits of yard work done - raking leaves, mowing the grass one last time, putting the grill and lawn chairs away - often keeps you outside well into dusk. The shadows and thinning foliage and clear skies change the familiar horizon into something just a little spooky; along with the inevitable wave of Halloween inspired TV shows and the assortment of UFO, Bigfoot and unsolved mystery shows running continuously on the cable channels its easy to imagine glowing eyes watching you from the shrubbery or a headless horseman riding across your backyard.
So it wasn't too surprising when on an October visit to my parents in Westmoreland county (two turnpike exits east of Pittsburgh) I saw neatly printed signs planted along the roadside announcing a UFO convention at the local community college. I grew up in the area and had heard all the stories about big hairy creatures killing big mean farm dogs and how the army hauled something out of a Kecksburg field in the middle of the night, but usually I heard those stories from my Dad and his friends on all night fishing trips, when I figured their goal was to scare the crap out of us kids so we didn't go wandering around the woods in the dark. In high school I had close friends who lived in Kecksburg that I spent a lot of time with, and while we discussed all the mysteries of life that are important to 17 year old boys, the subject of aliens never came up. As a teenager I drove the dark back roads of Kecksburg many times and can tell you its easy to imagine all sorts of things lurking in the shadows that 1960s sealed beam headlights couldn't penetrate, but I never saw anything big and hairy or thin and grey-skinned step out on the pavement.
But now we have the internet. I came home from my parents and typed "kecksburg ufo" into Google and spent a guilty evening reading alleged eyewitness accounts and conspiracy theories about something that happened in my own backyard. I have grave doubts any extraterrestrials dropped into Kecksburg, but it seems likely that something happened there in December of 1965.
Here is what we're reasonably sure of. About 4:45 pm on December 9th, 1965 - a Thursday evening just before sunset - a fireball blazed across the sky over Detroit and appeared to to head south over Lake Erie. More sightings came in from Ohio, from Cleveland to Columbus, including reports of grass fires started by flaming bits of something falling to the ground. I emphasize appeared to because depending on the object's trajectory it may well have dropped straight into Lake Erie, and still been visible far to the south. Natural meteors (rocks) can enter the atmosphere at a steep angle such as this.
If the fireball was actually a piece of space junk falling out of orbit (or a reentering spacecraft), it would have entered the atmosphere at a shallow angle, essentially following the earth's surface as it shed speed and eventually fell to the ground. If this was the case, the object would have been moving at 1000s of miles per hour in the general direction of Pittsburgh, passing over Cleveland and Akron on the way.
In Kecksburg - a tiny town (really just a few farms sharing a VFD) about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh, some kids came inside to tell their Mom they had seen a "burning star" fall into the nearby woods; Mom looked and thought she saw a bright light in the woods. About 6:30pm - probably after the supper dishes were cleared - Mom called the story into local radio station WHJB (talk radio shows were the social networks of 1965). The radio station notified the state police. It was a dry, warm night with a full moon and the word was out: reporters, police, volunteer firemen and curiosity seekers descended on Kecksburg en masse.
And then it gets fuzzy. Those who got there early - including WHJB announcer John Murphy - claim to have seen a few PA state troopers walking around with flashlights and a bronze-colored, bell or acorn shaped metal object about 6 feet in diameter and 10 feet long half buried in the ground in a wooded lot. Those who arrived a little later saw armed soldiers guarding the site and warning onlookers they would be shot if they tried to go into the woods. Some witnesses reported there were men in hazmat suits with NASA logos walking around. Much later, after most of the civilians had left, the military types used a bulldozer (where did that come from?) to load the something on to a flatbed truck that drove off into the night. The official police report issued the next day was that nothing was found the night before.
Over the years more and more witnesses have come forward to tell their stories of that night. Members of the Kecksburg VFD have told about the massive military presence that rolled into town. A former Air Force officer claimed to have guarded the truck during a brief stay at Lockbourne AFB near Columbus Ohio, allegedly on its way to Wright Patterson AFB in Dayton (it seems a little odd that the truck would stop an hour short of its final destination). A contractor claims to have delivered a load of bricks to a Wright Patterson hangar where he caught a glimpse of a bell shaped object.
Today there is precious little proof of anything, including whether the Army was ever there. In 1965 cameras didn't fit in your pocket, and no photos seem to have been taken. Most of the details of the story came out in interviews done for a TV show in 1990, 25 years after the event; plenty of time for records to be lost and memories to fade and shift.
There may be no proof of a recovery because it never happened. There are lots of reserve and National Guard armories scattered around southwest PA, but they are primarily training centers for part-time soldiers; there aren't teams of men and equipment sitting there waiting to deploy on a moments notice. The nearest actual Army base that could have mounted a major deployment would have been in Letterkenny PA, 120 miles east of Kecksburg. Unless the military had advance warning (unlikely, unless whatever it was was one ours) it seems doubtful any of them could have assembled a detachment of men and equipment and got them to Kecksburg by late evening.
According to some websites there are documented reports - obtained under the Freedom of Information Act - indicating that the Air Force sent 3 men from the Oakdale PA radar station to recover whatever had fallen there. Oakdale is just south of the main Pittsburgh airport and about 50 miles west of Kecksburg; until 1969 the Air Force had an air defense radar there to guide fighter planes to Soviet bombers should the Cold War ever turn hot. You can find reports from the Oakdale site online suggesting that investigating stuff that may have fallen from the sky and answering queries from UFO buffs was a common and less than rewarding job for the unit. Oakdale was just an hour away from Kecksburg; that would have fit the time line. It seems likely that the 3 airmen from Oakdale (maybe they took a few extra men to help guard the site) were the only military there, and the stories of a large Army presence were exaggerated by time and imagination.
But did they find anything in those woods? Or did an Air Force truck roll out of Kecksburg loaded with nothing more than the search lights and shovels and winches they brought with them? And if it was a piece of space junk, why all the secrecy?
Remember that in the early 1960s both the US and USSR were launching lots of stuff into space. Mixed in with the scientific probes and commercial communication satellites were spy satellites, military communication and navigation satellites and probably a few missile component tests. But aside from manned spacecraft, the only things meant to come back from space were film canisters and warheads. Moreover, the Soviets had been hinting they had an ICBM with fractional orbit capability that could lob a nuke around the south pole into the US, undetected by the north facing early warning radars - a development that would have seriously derailed the "mutually assured destruction" doctrine that was seen as the only thing preventing WWIII. Against that backdrop, anything that reentered the atmosphere and made it to the ground in one piece would have been extremely interesting to the military and men in black suits, and unlikely to ever be declassified; you'll have to make up your own mind about what happened in Kecksburg.
Obligatory scale modeling reference: Are you a military vehicle modeler who is tired of the SciFi modelers having all the fun lighting up their models with LEDs? How about building a deuce-and-a-half with a tarp covered load that glows and pulses blue light? Put it on a base with some trees and a Kecksburg road sign. I'd love to see that diorama! Imagine the fun of convincing the judges it does not belong in the Sci-Fi category. And if someone tells you the details are wrong, ask him exactly how he knows?