The Earth Is 6000 Years Old… Or So My father Told Me

My father, Herb Mekemson. I believe this photo was taken by Glen Fishback of the Glen Fishback School of Photography.

My father. I believe this photo was taken by Glen Fishback of the Glen Fishback School of Photography.

I invited my father, Herb Mekemson, up to Alaska for his 80th birthday. My brother Marshall put him on the airplane in Sacramento and I met him in Anchorage. He got off the plane grinning. We shook hands and embraced. He still had a strong grip.

“Curt, have you been causing problems again?” he asked. These weren’t the first words out of his mouth but they were close. There was a twinkle in his eyes, sort of.

“What do you mean, Pop?” I asked in mock innocence. He was gripping his pipe like it was the last life raft on a sinking ship.

“I got off of the plane and the first thing they announced was I couldn’t light up in the airport. I’ve needed a smoke since I left Seattle.” I had been an advocate for smoke-free areas in Sacramento and continued my efforts in Alaska.

I laughed. He and I had been through the tobacco discussion dozens of times. We had it down to a routine. I’d point out there was a direct correlation between his smoking and the heavy cough he had in the morning. He’d note that he had been smoking for over 60 years and was still going strong, thank you. I’d observe that somewhere his Scotch Presbyterian mother was rolling over in her grave, and so it would go. He liked his tobacco straight up. For years he had smoked unfiltered Camels but they lacked the kick he needed. In his words, he had switched to ‘roll-your-owns’ as opposed to the ‘new fangled tailor mades.’ As a result, most of his shirts were aerated from burning tobacco. Out of self-defense, he had switched to a pipe. He liked to tease me that most of my efforts in the tobacco wars were designed to thwart him.

“Well, Pop,” I announced, “in honor of your visit, you have been granted special dispensation. You can smoke in my truck.” He hurried me out of the airport, barely taking time to pick up his suitcase.

Pop, as in "don't you even think of taking my pipe away from me. (Photo by Glen Fishback.)

Pop, as in, “Don’t you dare think of taking my pipe away from me.” (Photo by Glen Fishback.)

We had quite the adventure planned but first there were social responsibilities. I took him over to meet my roommates Cyndi and Roger. Cyndi owned the house and Roger and I paid rent. It was a good arrangement. Cyndi was a slope worker, which meant she worked for two weeks up on the North Slope in the oil industry and then had two weeks off. Roger was in the vending machine business, which included cigarettes. Surprisingly, the three of us were quite compatible.

When Cyndi and I first met to interview each other over possible roommate status, I mentioned that I was Executive Director of the Alaska Lung Association. She became quite excited and announced she had a Lung Association connection.

“I was a Trek leader in Minnesota before I came to Alaska,” she said. When I informed her that I had created the American Lung Association’s Trek Program, we decided that fate had brought us together. As for Roger, he and I had a penchant for weird movies, the weirder the better. Strange Brew is an excellent example. Many a winter evening was spent happily vegging on the couch, drinking beer, and watching videos.

Once Pop had visited my home, our next responsibility was visiting the ‘girlfriend.’ I had been dating a pulmonary physician and we hung out a lot together. I had an open invitation to move in.

“Why don’t we get married,” she suggested. “You can stay home, write, and raise the children.” I liked the staying home and writing idea but wasn’t ready for the kids and married part. Her English Spaniel had a different perspective. I kicked him off of the bed when I was around. His response was to pee on my side of the bed and mark it as his territory. I would have gone and peed on his bed if he had one. Two can play the dominant male species game.

My friend cooked dinner for Pop and me, which was a little scary. Cooking was not her forte. Our meal was good though and the dog was on its best behavior. We had a very pleasant evening.

Pop liked the idea of me getting married and having kids. He had always wanted me to produce grandchildren and both our biological time clocks were ticking. At 40 plus, I was rapidly approaching the point where having children was impractical. At 80, he was rapidly approaching the point where he would never see them. Actually, Pop had three wishes for me. The first was the married with children bit. The second was that I would become a photographer and take pictures of all the beautiful sites I saw in my wandering. The third was that I would become a good Christian boy and return to the flock.

A few years later I would fall in love, get married, inherit two great kids— and take up photography. I always figured that two out of three weren’t bad.

The next day we headed off to Denali. I had a permit for camping in the Park. Pop went crazy with his camera and the Alaskan scenery; we had to stop every 20 minutes or so for photo ops. Even a moose waited patiently beside the road to have its picture taken. By the time we reached camp, heavy black clouds were swirling overhead and a cold wind was reminding us that summer had yet to arrive. I hurried in setting up the large Coleman tent I had brought along while Pop, who insisted on being part of the action, went in search of firewood. A few minutes later I noticed that he had disappeared.

“Oh damn,” I thought to myself, “how do I explain to my sister and brother that Pop had become lost in the Alaskan wilderness gathering firewood.”

Then I spotted him off in the distance on top of a hill taking pictures.

“I saw some mountain goats up on the opposite mountain and I wanted to get closer for pictures,” he explained to me after descending.

“Do you know there are grizzly bears wandering around up there,” I said pointedly. He just smiled. At 80 he was ready to meet his maker. If it happened with the help of a grizzly bear, so be it. But it wasn’t going to happen on my shift, if I could help it.

After dinner we sat by our crackling campfire and talked for a couple of hours as snowflakes danced around the perimeter. Our family, his past and my future were all topics of discussion. There was something magical about the setting and Pop was obviously enjoying himself tremendously. Sitting in the Alaskan wilderness in the midst of a swirling snowstorm at age 80 was something that he had never envisioned for himself. I had him bundled from head to toe and he insisted he was toasty warm. Eventually the topic got around to one of his favorite subjects, religion.

“You know, I’ve been reading the Bible a lot,” he started. The Pearly Gates were beckoning and Pop wanted to be sure his credentials were in order. He was about to jump in to his ‘You should read the Bible too, Curt’ lecture. To forestall the inevitable, I asked a question out of curiosity.

“Assuming you make it to heaven, what do you think it is like?”

He laughed. “I am afraid my view’s a little unusual. I see myself as a spacecraft hurtling through space. I am not in the spacecraft. I am the spacecraft and I am exploring the universe and seeing all of the glorious sights it has to offer.” Apparently there would be no jewel encrusted buildings and streets paved with gold for him.

While I was contemplating this rather wondrous view of the after-life, I took too long in coming up with my next question.

“You should read the Bible too, Curt,” Pop began. “I’ve been listening to a radio minister and he is going through each Book in detail and explaining what it means. There’s a lot of great stuff. I’ve bought a complete set of his tapes.”

The radio minister part hoisted a red flag for me. Marshall and I had cut our religious eye teeth on a slippery southern radio preacher in the 1950s and I had recently been tuning in to Jim and Tammy Baker. They were prime time in Alaska. It was quite clear to me that they were bilking their flock and the process fascinated me. This didn’t mean that I believed all radio preachers or televangelists were frauds. It seemed reasonable to me that sincere religious people would want to take advantage of modern communication opportunities to share their views. Still, I decided to gently pursue where Pop’s radio minister was taking him.

“Um, what do you mean by great stuff?” I inquired.

“The stories, the history, the messages,” he replied enthusiastically, giving me a catalog to choose from. He was prepared to wax eloquently on the subject, to convert me on the spot. It wouldn’t be easy. I had read the Bible, and found it interesting, educational, and meaningful. But I wasn’t about to accept it as literal truth. I was curious as to where my father stood on the religious continuum between liberal interpretation and fundamentalist dogma. He had always been deeply religious but somewhat tolerant of other perspectives.

“So, Pop,” I queried, jumping to a litmus test of Christian fundamentalism, “do you believe that the world is 6,000 years old?”

“Yes,” was his simple reply and it was immediately clear where the radio minister was leading him: it was over the foaming falls of fundamentalism where a leap of faith assures a righteous landing. On one level this didn’t bother me. Life can be rather short and brutish as Hobbes noted, and full of suffering as the Zen Buddhists like to point out. We find our comfort where we can find it. If Pop’s belief helped him deal with the present and face his future, then it had value for him. Who was I to say otherwise? It wasn’t exactly like he was being misled, either. The Mekemson side of my family comes from a long line of true believers dating back to John Brown the Martyr of Scotland in the 1600s— and undoubtedly beyond.

I have my own share of spiritual genes. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years considering different religious traditions and pondering imponderables. Crass materialism, in and of its self, seems to be a poor reason to exist. I tend to believe that there is a deep, underlying unity in the universe and that all of life on earth is connected. It’s hard to get much more mystical than that.

I was a little concerned that Pop had paid several hundred dollars for the tapes. He lived off of his Social Security pension and the amount represented a lot of money. Bilking came to mind. I was more concerned with the implications of his beliefs as we chatted into the night. It wasn’t enough that he believed the earth was 6000 years old. I, too, should believe it. School systems were wrong for teaching evolution and should be required to teach creationism. He also expressed a strong bias against homosexuality and gay people that he had picked up from the radio preacher. The latter made me particularly sad.

The best man at my first wedding and a friend from childhood, Frank Martin, was gay. When my mother was dying of cancer while I was at Berkeley, Frank would often stop by and visit her, bringing whatever comfort he could. Later, when my former wife and I returned from serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Africa, Frank and his partner hosted several anniversary parties for us in San Francisco. He was always generous and kind to our family. Now, my father was being taught that Frank was a sinful man, condemned to be burned in Hell.

Beyond expressing my disagreement as gently as I could, I mainly listened. My point of view wasn’t going to change what my father believed. Besides, the old fellow may have expired from hypothermia listening to me. We put out the fire, retired to the warmth of our down sleeping bags, and dreamt we were spaceships hurtling through space.

Over the next few days, Pop and I covered a good bit of Alaska, ending up in Homer. His sister Francis had raised her children there and he wanted to see the town. Afterwards, I drove him back to the airport and made sure his pipe was out before taking him inside and seeing him off. It took months for my truck to stop smelling like tobacco smoke.

NEXT FRIDAY’S BLOG: A final story about Pop. Did he really leave me a message after he passed away or was it the invention of my over-wrought imagination? Plus— My final thoughts on religion.

Area 51: Where Conspiracy Theories about Aliens Breed Like Rabbits

 

Gate to top secret Area 51 in southern Nevada.

The back gate to Area 51. Do you get the idea they don’t want you trespassing? (Photo taken by Peggy Mekemson)

When Peggy and I were planning our three-week foray into Nevada recently, we decided to include Area 51, that most secret of secret places.

And how secret is it, you ask?

Since we are talking about aliens, let me ask a probing question– or two. Do you believe that UFOs exist? Or even more to the point, have you ever seen one? Consider this: If they do exist and one actually crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, Area 51 is where the US Government would have it stored and tested. That’s how secret the facility is.

For decades, the government even refused to admit it existed. Top-secret clearance might get folks through the first gate, but not necessarily the second. Workers were flown in on Monday and flown home on Friday. They couldn’t tell anybody, not even their spouses, where they had been. No wonder the area became a legendary breeding ground for conspiracy theories about the government hiding things.The government was hiding things.

The U-2 spy plane was tested here, as was its more sophisticated sibling, the A-17, and almost every other secret airplane the US has developed since. When the US captured a Soviet Mig at the height of the Cold War, it was brought to Area 51 to check it capabilities. Top Gun pilots from the navy were brought in to fly against it. Think drones are new? The CIA was experimenting with them here in 1962. And I can’t begin to imagine what we don’t know about.

But what about UFOs, the mysterious flying saucers that seem to appear from time to time. There were several ‘sightings’ in Northern California and Southern Oregon earlier this year. Glowing objects flew across the sky in unison, stopped to hover, and then zipped off at lightning speed. Reports appeared on local TV shows. Flying saucer aficionados will swear they were the real things. Naysayers will argue vehemently that they weren’t. Neither Peggy nor I saw them. Darn.

I did see one once, however. Or at least I can’t think of what else it might have been. I was standing on my porch in Sacramento in 1969. A movement caught my attention and I looked up just in time to see a round, saucer-shaped, grey metallic object disappear into a cloud. As my jaw dropped and my rational mind shouted at me to toss the scotch, the object flew out the cloud in the opposite direction and accelerated away, disappearing in a matter of seconds.

Needless to say, I have been interested in UFOs ever since. Hundreds, if not thousands of other people have had similar experiences including both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan– not to mention several astronauts.

Area 51 is a mecca for UFO enthusiasts. The big story is that the remains from Roswell are housed here. But frequent sightings of UFOs are also reported in the region. A government explanation is that the experimental planes being tested are what people see. It seems plausible. A plane flying at 60,000 feet while traveling over 2000 MPH is pretty UFO-ish. There have even been correlations made between when the test flights have been held and UFOs spotted.

A good conspiracy theorist will be quick to point out, however, that the correlations have been made for some, but not all of the sightings. She might also argue that when the flights are made is when you would expect to see UFOs. The little green men with big eyes are checking us out. The experimental flights represent some of the world’s top technology, the gateways to space… the final frontier. And do the little green men really want us out among the stars?

A possible reason for not is right next-door– where America carried out the majority of her nuclear bomb testing. Over 100 above ground tests and 800 underground tests were performed between 1951 and 1992 when President Clinton finally shut down the operation. It makes you want to travel through the area with a Geiger counter as well as your binoculars and a camera– the latter to capture UFOs and the former to check out how much radiation your body is absorbing.

Monitoring for radiation downwind from the Nevada Atomic Test Site is serious business. Even today– years after the testing was halted. This station is found in Rachel but there are several more scattered throughout the region.

Monitoring for radiation downwind from the Nevada Atomic Test Site is serious business– even today, years after the testing was halted. This station is found in Rachel but there are several more scattered throughout the region. Regular reports are issued on how much radiation is found.

And where do I stand on Area 51? Amused. Okay, and I confess curious. The region makes me want to break out theme music from the 1962 Twilight Zone TV series: neenar-neenar, neenar-neenar, and do a UFO dance. Hey it works for rain, right? Maybe I could attract a flying saucer.

I was in the Nevada town of Tonopah doing my research on Area 51 and the Extra Terrestrial Highway when I discovered the tiny community of Rachel and its sole motel: the Little A’le’Inn. Boy did I get excited. Rachel backs up to Area 51. We could stay at the A’le’Inn. I called and made reservations. The next morning, Peggy and I were up early and on the road.

Peggy and I always stay at the Tonopah Station motel in Tonopah. You are invited to roll dice for a free room. I also like the bear.

Peggy and I always stay at the Tonopah Station motel in Tonopah. You are invited to roll dice for a free room. We also like the bear.

Business card for Little A'le'Inn in Rachel Nevada.

Since we were headed for Area 51, we decided it was important to stay where Earthlings were welcome.

Driving the back roads of Nevada is a lonely occupation. Thirty minutes or more can pass between meeting cars. I like it. We headed east out of Tonopah on Highway 6, passed by the Tonopah Test Range and climbed over Warm Springs Summit, which brought us to Highway 375, the Extraterrestrial Highway. The highway received its designation in 1996 when the Nevada Tourism Commission thought it might serve to draw tourists to this remote part of Nevada.

Tonopah Test Range in Southern Nevada.

The vast openness and minimal population of the deserts of Southern Nevada make it an ideal location for testing everything from airplanes to rockets.

ET Highway in Southern Nevada.

It isn’t unusual to travel 20-30 minutes along the ET Highway and not meet another car. There is no need to worry about rush hour traffic.

In fact we saw more cattle than we saw cars– and we didn't see many cattle. Open Range, BTW, means no fences and public land. It does not mean Free Range as Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who runs his cattle on BLM land and refuses to pay a grazing fee would have you believe. It's our taxes that pay to feed Bundy's cattle.

In fact we saw more cattle than we saw cars– and we didn’t see many cattle. Open Range means no fences and public land. It does not mean Free Range as Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who runs his cattle on BLM land and refuses to pay grazing fees would have you believe. It’s our taxes that help feed Bundy’s cattle.

Southern Nevada Steer.

BTW: I thought this cow looked a little alien. Hmm. Or is it just a bum steer?

The ET designation definitely caught the attention of Twentieth Century Fox. The media giant used the highway’s renaming as a promotion for its movie, Independence Day, which revolves around an alien invasion of the world, features Area 51 prominently, and came out in 1996. It’s one of Peggy’s favorite movies, which means I see it a lot, every July Fourth to be exact.

Twentieth Century Fox placed this Independence Day movie memorial in front of the Little A'le'Inn. Numerous sci-fi movies, TV series and books about aliens have included Area 51– including Indiana Jones.

Twentieth Century Fox placed this Independence Day movie memorial in front of the Little A’le’Inn. Numerous sci-fi movies, TV series and books about aliens have included Area 51– including Indiana Jones.

Rachel is located about halfway along the 98-mile road. One sticker-covered sign outside of town proclaimed we were on the Extraterrestrial Highway. Another welcomed us to Rachel and announced that the community is made up of humans and possibly aliens. You can’t miss the A’le’Inn. A tow truck carrying a flying saucer is parked out front.

Extraterrestrial Highway sign in Southern Nevada.

So many stickers are posted on the ET Highway sign, it is difficult to read. I figure it’s a toss-up between free advertising and people saying “I was here.”

The welcome sign to Rachel, Nevada.

The welcome sign to Rachel, Nevada.

Tow truck and 'flying saucer' in Rachel, Nevada.

The Little A’le’Inn has a tow truck carrying a broken down ‘flying saucer’ out front. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Advertising sign on the side of the Little A'le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada.

The Little A’le’Inn is not subtle in drawing attention to its Area 51 connection. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Self parking sign at the Little A'le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada.

Self parking sign.

We walked into the bar/restaurant/motel office. It was crammed full of ET memorabilia and souvenirs. The ceiling of the bar was covered with dollar bills hanging down in rows. An older woman, looking a touch crusty, was perched on a bar stool while a younger woman stood behind the bar. I mentioned we had a reservation. “But do you have a name,” the bar stool occupant demanded. I gave it, our reservation was found in a card box, and the bartender/waitress was directed to show us to our room. She strolled across the restaurant, opened the back door and pointed to a blue and white trailer about 100 yards away.

“Oh, and by the way, you will be sharing the trailer and its bathroom with another family tonight.”

Dollars were stuck above the bar at the Little A'le'Inn.

Dollars were stuck above the bar at the Little A’le’Inn. Each one includes names of visitors to the restaurant/motel.

An alien at the Little A'le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada.

The restaurant was filled with souvenirs and memorabilia relating to UFOs and aliens.

A view of our motel 'room' from the Little A'le'Inn restaurant. Peggy is standing in front of the trailer.

A view of our motel ‘room’ from the Little A’le’Inn restaurant. Peggy is standing in front of the trailer.

With some trepidation about who our ‘neighbors’ might be, we drove over to check out our accommodations and unpack. The neighbors weren’t there yet so we did a walk-through. An old style kitchen gave way to a living room with comfortable furniture,  bright red curtains and an old, non-working TV. Our small bedroom contained an even smaller bed. We’d have a cozy night. The joint bathroom was next. Two more bedrooms finished off the trailer. Apparently the kitchen and living room were also common property. We’d be one big happy family.

Motel room at Little A'le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada.

Our living room complete with red curtains and a TV that didn’t work.

We had just unpacked when a car drove up to the back door. I soon heard keys rattling but apparently the lock didn’t want to cooperate. I walked over to the door and opened it, and met (drum roll please)… aliens. I kid you not. The Hibberts were from England. And they were delightful. Within 30 minutes we were sitting around the living room, drinking wine and swapping tales.

Roy, Brian, and Lynne Hibbert from Bolton, England.

Roy, Ryan, and Lynne Hibbert from Bolton, England.

Roy travelled the world for the software giant Citrix. On his off time he travelled more but he also delivered medicine in Africa by motorcycle. Lynne was a Sister at a hospital in Bolton, where they lived near Liverpool. I was still getting my head around Lynne being a nun and having a family when she explained that Sisters in English hospitals are what we call nurses in the US. Apparently, she was a jack-of-all-trades, assisting in everything from open-heart surgery to baby delivery. You’d want to keep your operations straight. Their son, Ryan, was a student, presently studying Russian as he prepared for a road trip to Russia. He already spoke French.

“How did you choose this remote corner of the earth to visit?” Peggy asked with a leading question. Peggy’s good at leading questions; she’d make a great detective.

“It was the movie Paul,” Roy explained. “It was filmed here.” We looked blank. “You haven’t seen Paul?” he asked, his voice dripping in disbelief. The family jumped in to enlighten us.

We found the movie a few nights later when we were channel surfing on our TV at the Hilton Grand in Las Vegas. I would describe Paul as an R-rated ET. He’s got the same look, but his language is a lot more colorful than “ET call home.” Besides being peppered with swear words and probing jokes, the movie pokes fun at religion and has references to numerous sci-fi movies ranging from Star Wars, to Men in Black, to Close Encounters. Sci-fi movie buffs must love it. There is even a cameo voice appearance by Steven Spielberg. Peggy and I found the movie quite funny, but we do recommend reviewing it before sharing with children.

Our discussion with the Hibberts continued over dinner at the restaurant. A movie poster signed by Paul and the cast of the film overlooked out table. We learned from our waitress that the movie wasn’t actually filmed on location, much to the dismay of the motel’s owners. A replica of the A’le’Inn was recreated in New Mexico. Roy was even more dismayed. He’d come a long ways to see the original setting.

Poster for the movie Paul hanging on the wall of the A'le'Inn in Rachel, Nevada.

A poster from the movie Paul hung on the wall above us. Cast members had signed the poster, including Paul who proclaimed his love.

We parted from our new friends the next morning. They were headed back to Las Vegas (via Santa Barbara) and we were headed out to the back gate of Area 51. Fortunately, the A’le’Inn had a 25-cent map. There are no marked roads. In fact our GPS didn’t show a road. It did show, however, that we were rapidly approaching somewhere we definitely shouldn’t be. In case there was any doubt, numerous signs at the gate made it abundantly clear: Keep Out. Having satisfied our curiosity we took a few photos and headed back for the Extraterrestrial Highway. We had a final stop to make: the Black Mailbox.

Map showing Rachel, Area 51, and roads. We followed the road next to Rachel that led to the back gate. The main part of Area 51 is located at Groom Lake, located just below the Area 51 name.

Map showing Rachel, Area 51, and roads. We followed the road next to Rachel that led to the back gate. The main part of Area 51 is located at dry Groom Lake, found just below the Area 51 name.

The unmarked, unpaved road into the back Gate of Area 51.

The unmarked, unpaved road into the back Gate of Area 51. Groom Lake is located behind the mountains on the left.

GPS view of Area 51 in Southern Nevada.

What our GPS showed. According to it, we were off-road heading somewhere we had no business being.

Back gate to Area 51 near Rachel, Nevada.

We slowed down as we approached the back gate to Area 51. I was driving and Peggy was snapping photos. A close up of the gate with its warning signs kicks off this blog.

The Black Mailbox is the only sign you will find marking the front entrance to Area 51. Flying saucer fans claim it is one of the best places in America to see UFOs. They gather around it at night and scan the skies. Actually, the mailbox belongs to a local rancher and is now painted white; or it is if you can see through the graffiti and stickers.

The Black Mailbox noting the entrance to Area 51 on the ET Highway in southern Nevada.

The infamous Black (white) Mailbox with its numerous stickers and graffiti. Its location is shown on the map I posted above.

We were taking photos of the mailbox when a car screeched to a stop across the highway and a guy jumped out. He dashed into the desert. My first thought was, wow, that guy really has to go. But he ran back to his car, jumped in and took off like a hundred mad aliens were on his tail. “What the heck?” we wondered. And then it struck me. He was involved in the sport of geocaching where you find hidden treasures along the road. Apparently it is quite popular on the Extraterrestrial Highway. I took a picture of the area. It was time to leave the lonely desert and head for the bright lights of Las Vegas, where many more treasures are lost than found. But back to my original questions: 1) Do you believe in flying saucers? 2) Have you ever seen one?

Geocache site on the Extraterrestrial Highway.

The man ran past the Joshua Trees and into the desert. I believe a geocache is located to the right of the tree under the white rock.

The Extraterrestrial Highway of Southern Nevada.

I selected this as my last photo of the Extraterrestrial Highway because I love the way it mystically disappears into the distant mountains, appropriately symbolic of the highway and Area 51.