[CNI News thanks Patricia Welsh (SPWLBC@nuls.law.nwu.edu) for forwarding this story from the Chicago Tribune of October 7, 1995.]
There are tables of literature. Outdoor displays. Serious speakers. Slides. Membership forms for three national organizations. And a two-volume compendium of what organizers call "a preponderance of research material."
Like any scientific and educational group that descends on Chicago every year, the group will try "to broaden the minds of our audience and stimulate thought on the incredibly vibrant, beautiful universe of which we are a part."
What might raise eyebrows, however, is the topic.
This year, it is "alien abductions."
That is, the luring or grabbing of humans by non-human intelligences, hustling them aboard spacecraft, then poking and prodding them in not always fully remembered ways.
Such is the world, much of it beyond Earth, of the Chicago celebration of National UFO Awareness Week.
It is a gathering that, while scarcely drawing every Tom, Dick and E.T., has generated enough mainstream interest to hop around to large rented space at such venues as the College of DuPage and the Museum of Science and Industry.
The conference opened Friday and runs through Saturday.
At noon Friday, the Chicago UFO Education Committee, organizers of the event, took its evidence -- pictures of flying saucers over Manhattan, among other displays -- to the sidewalk in front of the Kluczynski Federal Building, 230 S. Dearborn St.
It stopped lunchtime passersby in their tracks and provoked debates about their authenticity.
"I think it's possible -- it just seems a little naive to think we are the only living beings in the universe," said David Fiorito, 32, a banker with Bank of America.
His co-worker scoffed.
"I don't know -- some of these photos look a little cheesy," said David Lehner, 28.
While the images provoked a few snickers, most observers professed a belief in extraterrestrial life.
"I think there is a chance that alien beings have come here, and I think there is a chance that the federal government has tried to keep it a secret to prevent a panic," said Robert Brownstein, 49, taking a break from his work at the Board of Trade.
"You know, cameras can do a lot of tricks these days," said Maria Quinnes, 34, on lunch hour from the federal Department of Employment Security. "No, I don't believe it unless I see it."
Serious science often has derisive beginnings, as French chemist Louis Pasteur found out when he urged people to boil milk before drinking it -- and found people were laughing at him. UFO believers know how he felt.
"Yes, we do get questions," murmured Mary Kerfoot, a member of the Chicago UFO Education Committee. She was sitting on a beige sofa in Schaumburg, in a Living Room Encounter of the Close Kind.
She wanted to talk about the work of the Chicago committee, an umbrella group for hundreds of local members of MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network; CUFOS, the Center for UFO Studies; and FUFOR, the Fund for UFO Research. These national organizations each claim several thousand members.
For those who believe, often passionately, in strange whirring lights, whizzing objects, small gray creatures undertaking invasive medical procedures, sinister-looking men in black suits and abrupt feelings of deep peace, it is not easy to face a newspaper reporter, barely 2 feet away.
But Kerfoot, 53, has dealt with more frightening phenomena.
During her childhood in Ottumwa, Iowa, she said, a group of "higher beings" used bright lights in her bedroom to reduce her to stupor. Only later, when she took to remembering these "higher beings," was she overcome with "a feeling of overwhelming love. I felt 'them.' I felt totally secure. It was so neat."
Others gathered in Kerfoot's home one evening before the conference began reported similar experiences.
Jim, 22, a night groundskeeper in Evanston, said: "I like to look at stars, and while I've been looking up, I've seen quite a few UFOs. Recently, I saw this tricolor vehicle, a collection of light, appear above the north end of the Northwestern campus and head out over the lake, real slow."
Pat, 39, said that under hypnotic regression, she had relived three scenes of encounters with extraterrestrials, including one in which "a twiglike nude creature touched the left side of my neck, causing extreme pain."
Holly, 21, reported seeing "fast-moving stars outside my bedroom window that dip then zoom away," a helicopter-like machine that chased her and, on a recent trip to upstate New York, "a see-through dog" in a parked car.
For many humans, even talking of such matters smacks of the far side of reality.
Yet the serious study of UFOs comes amid a recent upsurge in such hard-to-explain matters as ghosts and out-of-body experiences, plus the decline of certainty in the traditional Western idea that the Earth is the be-all of the universe.
There has been a wealth of sighting material, notably a 1947 incident in New Mexico. Some said they saw a spaceship crash, though the Air Force wrote it off as a distressed weather balloon.
Many others have come forward, including at least one mainstream scientist, the late Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an astronomy professor at Northwestern University. Hynek began as a debunker of UFO sightings. He ended up working out a classification system later used in Steven Spielberg's movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
Building on such recognition is a motive force behind National UFO Awareness Week, founded a decade ago by a consortium of alien-interest groups to "promote understanding of this field as a legitimate area of study."
"There is lots of documentation," Kerfoot said, passing chips and soda to guests and thumbing through a two-volume manual of UFO source materials, copies of which were piled high on her dining room table.
"We want to help the public understand. This is a real scientific endeavor, not just the tabloid sensationalism most people think it is."
Kerfoot also, in a way, made a plea for tolerance.
"A lot of us have problems with our place of employment. People have lost their jobs because of this," she said, explaining why Jim, Pat and Holly declined to give last names. Nor, she added, would speakers at weekend events tell all they know. "There can be fairly heavy reaction, from institutions whose auditoriums we use, when we go into too many details," she said.
Much of the talk over the weekend will be about what UFO enthusiasts call "the abduction phenomenon," though, as Pat noted, "some people prefer 'encounter,' a word with fewer implications of coercion and victimization."
That, Pat explained, can be "an encounter with a kind of non-human intelligence, where you are taken aboard a craft. Or it can be a face-to-face encounter with another being -- and you don't go anywhere."
"We explain that when you have encounters with other life forms, you take a more expanded view of the universe," Kerfoot noted. "The Creator is not restricted to our own neighborhood."
Original file name: CNI - Chicago UFO event 10.16
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