March/April 1999 Table of Contents
week I was stranded on a country road. In the middle of nowhere
special to anyone really, except the people owning the surrounding
farms and the cows and the Tennessee Walking horses grazing nearby.
My car was dead, a dark, jagged hulk alien to the surrounding smoothness
of a late winter afternoon. Out of the corner of my eye I detected
movement, a flash of red...and let me tell you that anything sudden
like that in near darkness on a country road can make you start.
But there it was: round and red and followed by twin tendrils of
light blueness. It moved at a casual, nonchalant, liquid pace, floating
eye-level above the ground. Out of the dark blue it had come. An
alien surprising me, the local alien. Von Däniken's ancient
astronauts had leapt into the future to explain to me the Nazca
lines and the movement of megalithic stones.
it was only a balloon. A red balloon with two long pieces of blue
ribbon attached to its knot. It came from behind me, following the
road north. Yes, following the northbound lane at a speed of about
10 km/hr. As the few autos heading north passed me, the balloon
would lift, seemingly as if to let them pass under it. And it kept
my visitor I began to think of things out of place, askew from what
we might think or imagine. When we search the heavens for signals
from Galactic siblings-literally put our ear to the cold wall of
space above-we listen for something we can understand to be a signal.
A pleasant tune from not-of-this-world beings wafted on zizzing,
mated electric and magnetic fields through the interstellar murk,
or a lance of laser energy slung at us and carrying the yell, "WE'RE
HERE BUT WE'RE COMING THERE..." Yet there are complications to this
passive interaction with something(s) that may not realize that
Milton Berle in a dress is funny or that may not even have a clue
to our fascination with prime numbers-"Oh, I'm 37 this year, and
that's a prime number!"
should probably disavow ourselves of the notion that anyone out
there is a biped with silvery hair and an embedded universal translator
making English, Spanish, and Chinese sound like &*(#-grr. And this
is where, to me, the nauseating thrill of SETI lies: attempting
to fathom the deep of language among creatures with possibly different
desires and motivations and with probably different physiologies.
How does one communicate with something one does not know? And in
light of our SETI efforts, how does one realize when something is
knockin' at the front door? How?
don't remember the details because it was long ago, but two cartoons
I saw as a child affected me. One was of a small, round-faced, rumpled-skin
alien caressing an orange. "You don't say much, do you?" asked the
visitor. And in the other, one that I've a copy of, a hapless ET
crawls through the desert, its spaceship ("yep, it looked like a
cee-gar and had 'UFO' painted on the side") crashed behind it and
a saguaro planted prickly beside. As it pulls itself along, it moans,
"Ammonia...Ammonia..." This is funny, even touching in cartoons
of personified alien creatures, but the real thing is far more serious.
balloon visitor continued north, drawn on by a breeze, and I finally
lost it in the dusky twilight. It stood out from the surroundings.
It wasn't supposed to be there, yet that is what made its presence
so pronounced. Will signals from other intelligences in the Galaxy
be so obvious-like a bright red balloon floating amid a sea of winter-pasture
brown and Angus hide? I think not: Other intelligences wishing to
be heard may not deliberately hide their signals from us. They just
may be so very different, so Other, that we are stressed to discover
and decode their greetings (or warnings).
C. White II