EXETER, N.H. (AP) — They say a lightning strike started a fire in the Exeter, New Hampshire, town hall that caused the cancellation of a UFO festival the first year it was hosted by the local Kiwanis Club.
That's what they say anyway. (Cue the eerie music and get Steven Spielberg on the line right away.)
Fifty years ago, a frightened 18-year-old high school graduate and future Navy seaman named Norman Muscarello told police he had seen an unidentified flying object. The event that became known as "The Incident at Exeter" sparked an Air Force investigation and became one of the nation's most celebrated and scrutinized sightings.
The Exeter UFO Festival that runs through this weekend brings together a gathering of notable UFO-logists, true believers, skeptics and the merely curious to raise money for kids' charities and talk about just what the heck happened that night.
Bill Smith, president of the Kiwanis Club of the Exeter Area, said the festival was the brainchild of Dean Merchant, a Kiwanian and UFO enthusiast and researcher. The Kiwanis has been sponsoring it for the last six of its seven years.
"He just was fascinated as to just what happened 50 years ago," Smith said. "He was saying, 'Nobody talks about it anymore. Nobody recognizes the significance of the event anymore.'"
Here's the story:
Muscarello, who died in 2003, was hitchhiking home on Sept. 3, 1965, when he saw strange lights in the woods in nearby Kensington. The lights moved toward him. He panicked, dove into a ditch and, when the lights moved back into the woods, bolted for a nearby farmhouse for help. The house was empty so he flagged down a motorist who took him to the Exeter Police Department. An officer went back to the farmhouse with Muscarello and later said he had also seen a flying object that he couldn't explain. Sightings came in from others in the area, too.
The U.S. Air Force said the sightings were either a mirage caused by a temperature inversion or one of five B-47 planes in the area at the time. A definitive answer was never given.
The Exeter festival is still, at its heart, a fundraiser for children's charities supported by Kiwanis. It's not the big affair that draws thousands each July to Roswell, New Mexico, where the 1947 crash of a flying object ignited a still-burning debate over the existence of extraterrestrial life.
But this anniversary year will attract 600 to 700 people who'll buy little green aliens, spaceships, T-shirts, coffee mugs and hot dogs. They'll also hear from UFO researchers including Stanton Friedman, Richard Dolan and Jennifer Stein.
The event is family-friendly and geared for fun. But Smith cautions that there's a line between having fun and poking fun.
"A large percentage of the audience are true believers," he said. "They do take it seriously."
Not everybody does, he said.
"Quite frankly, we'll get people who aren't happy about this and they'll say, 'Do you really believe in this stuff?' "There's still some of that. Not as much as in the past when they'd say, 'Man, you guys are a bunch of whack jobs!"