There is something disturbing about this corner of America, a sinister suggestion of transience. There is a quality, hostile to men in the very earth and air here. As if we were not meant to make our homes in this oddly enervating sunshine…..California will be a silent desert again. It is all as impermanent and brittle as a reel of film.
Located in the Mojave Desert near Landers, California, Giant Rock is more or less what its name suggests: a massive boulder that covers 5,800 square feet and stands some seven stories high. Historically, the spot was considered sacred to the Indians of the Joshua Tree, and it is believed that the Hopi and other tribes convened large celebratory gatherings at the foot of the vast stone. In the 1950s, Giant Rock became the locus for a new and short-lived variety of religious experience which was predicated on the notion that the deserts and highways of America were being visited – by benevolent Space Brothers in flying saucers. Today, a dome-shaped wooden structure called the Integration stands nearby as an unfinished testament to the strange visionary folly and Utopian dreams of the contactee era.
1947 is an auspicious year for doyens of weird history and conspiracy theory. It was the year that a sickly and near destitute Aleister Crowley shuffled off the mortal coil, and with him fellow Golden Dawn traveller and gifted author of weird fiction Arthur Machen. It was the year that the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered; the year Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act into law, giving birth to the Central Intelligence Agency. It was the year that one Jacob Leon Rubenstein changed his name to Jack Ruby, as though grooming himself for some vaguely defined future notoriety. If you take the release date of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as a marker, the summer of 1947 was the precise period in which Sgt Pepper taught the band how to play; the same summer that the mysterious flying disks arrived in droves over the skies of America. 1947 was also the year that George Van Tassel moved his family out to Giant Rock, but that’s a story in itself.
Van Tassel was born in Jefferson, Ohio. From a young age, his attention seemed to be focused firmly on the skies, being much preoccupied with airplanes as a child. He dropped out of school in the tenth grade, went to work out at Cleveland Municipal Airport, and obtained a full pilot’s license while still in his teens. In 1930, he found himself in Santa Monica, working in an uncle’s automobile garage. Pictures of the youthful Van Tassel suggest a solid, decent type he could probably throw a whopper of punch if he had to. It was in the garage that he first encountered Frank Critzer, a meeting that would change the subsequent course of his life. Critzer was a German emigrant who had been attempting, with little success, to strike it rich as a prospector. He was apparently an ornery, eccentric character, but Van Tassel and his uncle took to him for some reason or another. They repaired his car for free, and sent him on his way with canned food and money; Critzer promised to remember them should he ever hit the big claim.
A year later, Critzer wrote Van Tassel inviting him to check out the current area he was mining. George and his uncle obliged, finding themselves out at Giant Rock. Remarkably, their host was not simply living near the massive boulder – he was living under it. The strange German had excavated 400 feet of space under the rock, and constructed a one room living area there. The meeting was brief and inauspicious, and nothing would really come of it at the time. Nevertheless, something about the stillness of the desert and the majesty of the great rock must have gotten under Van Tassel’s skin, as though rooting itself in his mind for some obscure future purpose.
Things went well for George Van Tassel in the years that followed. He established himself as an aeronautical engineer, flight inspector, and test pilot. For much of the thirties, he worked for the aeronautical and defence giant Lockheed, a corporation destined, in the fullness of time, to play its own murky part in the saga of the saucer. During the war years, Van Tassel worked for and befriended the legendary film producer, aviator, and business magnate Howard Hughes. Those years were also busy for Frank Critzer, but not, in the long term, as fortunate. He dragged five straight roads leading to Giant Rock and built an airstrip on a nearby dry lake. After the outbreak of World War II, however, things went bad for Critzer. He was German, a loner, and a radio enthusiast, and the combination of those qualities lead to a growing, apparently unfounded, suspicion that he might have been a Nazi spy. Although the precise circumstances remain murky, Critzer was killed in a 1942 showdown with three Riverside County deputy sheriffs. He had never hit the big claim.
In 1947, George Van Tassel decided to settle with his wife and three daughters at Giant Rock. His reasons for doing so aren’t entirely clear, although his wife said that he simply “got tired of the rat-race because California was growing too much.” Considering the subsequent course of his life, we might speculate that Van Tassel possessed some kind of vague longing for a mystical, direct religious experience; a kind of experience that seemed impossible in the noisy, urbanized daylight world of the expanding Californian cities and suburbs. This type of experience might, however, have appeared possible in the desert. In the original myths of the American settlers, the desert was a dangerous, alien place that needed either to be conquered, civilised, or avoided altogether. After the War, however, the desert would gradually come to occupy a new kind of significance in America’s mythic landscape. For people who felt alienated from the mainstream of American life, from its faith in technology and competition and wealth-production as the ultimate goal of individual and social life, the desert offered the opportunity to experience a different kind of America: an America that was unfathomably old and unaltered by the nature-conquering impulses of Western civilisation. Hence a kind of pilgrimage out into the desert had begun, first among post-Romantic bohemians of the immediate post-war period, and after them the children of the fifties who would be called Beatniks, and the children of the sixties who would be called flower children or hippies. The desert, and the initiatory peyote-rituals and holistic beliefs of the Native Indians, offered a heavily romanticized alternative to the main thrust and culture both of America and of the modern world in general. With its vast open, empty spaces, and its great unbroken meditative stillness, the desert seemed like a place where spirits and strange gods might appear, and some ancient, long-forgotten order of the world reveal itself. Among those who went looking for strange gods in the desert were the Contactees of the fifties, the comical hierophants of a new religion that fitted perfectly the interregnum between the Atomic and Spaces Ages.
Human culture has been shaped to a surprizing degree by the supposed interaction of certain human individuals with Other Things. The authority of the ancient shaman was vouchsafed by his ability to communicate with the denizens of an invisible world whose reality and ability to influence the visible world was rarely questioned. Julian Jaynes makes the arresting point (in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind) that for many centuries the supplicants who travelled to Delphi for advice no more doubted that a God spoke through the Pythian priestess than a modern person listening to a radio would doubt that the voice coming through the machine was that of a broadcaster speaking into a microphone in some distant studio. Moses, or so the story goes, lead the life of lowly shepherd until the day he led his flock to a lonely spot on Mount Sinai and encountered a burning bush, through which the voice of God commanded him to lead the Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt. The prophet Mohamed is said to have received his first divine revelation at the age of 40 when the angel Gabriel visited him as he was meditating in a cave. And so it goes. The first communications revolution in history was the communication channel opened between human beings and Other Things – Gods, Daimons, Ancestor Spirits, Aliens, and so on - beings actual or imaginary that are perceived to be wiser and more powerful than mere mortals. Throughout history, ordinary men have been elevated to the status of prophets by virtue of speaking – or claiming to speak – on behalf of higher beings. Of these various prophets and visionaries, some surely believed that their encounters with higher beings were entirely genuine, while others more than likely invented their stories from whole cloth to win power and influence under a guise of divine sanction. Some were ridiculed, mocked, and forgotten, and others changed the course of history. But the communications channel has never quite ceased broadcasting, nor has it ever stopped finding fresh confidence tricksters and entrepreneurs who would claim to have tuned to its frequency. Many of the most prominent occultists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – including Madame Blavatsky and MacGregor Mathers – cemented their occult authority by claiming to be in communication with a hidden sodality of spiritually exalted beings that were called the “Mahatmas” or Ascended Masters. The pattern of claiming – and sometimes blatantly fabricating – contact with a higher being in order to spearhead a spiritual movement becomes extremely familiar. It was a very old game indeed by the time Space Brothers landed in the Colorado Desert in 1952.
The earliest and most influential contactee was a Polish-born mystic called George Adamski whose family had immigrated to America when he was two. As an adult, Adamski had been a member of the US Calvary Regiment that fought against “Poncho” Villa during the Mexican Revolution and worked a variety of jobs before a fascination with Theosophy and occultism drew him west to California. In Laguna Beach, he formed a small group of like-minded explorers called the “Royal Order of Tibet”, and this group, numbering about twenty, eventually bought a ranch near Palomar Mountain where they built a retreat and opened a restaurant called the Palomar Gardens Café. In the early days of the Royal Order of Tibet, Adamski and his cohorts had been relying on the old occult stand-by of channelled messages from the ascended Tibetan Masters of Blavatsky’s lore. However, in 1947, as George Van Tassel was busy re-opening Critzer’s Giant Rock airstrip and building a nearby café, and Adamski himself was washing dishes and clearing tables in the Palomar Gardens Café, something new arrived on the American scene that made the Ascended Masters seem suddenly passé: the mysterious flying saucers. Whatever really lay behind the rash of sightings in the summer of ’47, the idea of the saucer – like a free-floating Rorschach inkblot in the skies – had a galvanizing effect on the imagination of Adamski and people of his elk. Like the desert, the flying saucer seemed to offer an Enchanted Way Out of the materialistic values and certainties of mainstream American life. In November 1952, Adamski lead a small group of his friends into the Colorado Desert, apparently at the behest of channelled instructions. All six claimed to have witnessed a UFO in the desert that day, while Adamski himself insisted that he met its pilot: a beautiful, androgynous, telepathic Venusian called Orthon. Orthon refused to be photographed, but Adamski managed to take a plaster-cast of the Venusian’s footprint. Like the Apollo 11 astronauts some 16 years later, Orthon had left his footprints on the arid soil of another world. And some people didn’t believe them either.