Area 51, the highly classified military installation at Groom Lake in the Nevada desert about 90 miles north of Las Vegas, may be more a state of mind than a physical place. Certainly that is the way it is treated in this engagingly written, witty, and sometimes insightful report on the desert base as it is understood in the mid-1990s and the strange cast of characters seeking to learn its mysteries. This is never more true than in the general public’s perception of the installation as depicted in such television programs as the “X-Files” and films like “Independence Day.” The base serves as a metaphor for all manner of obtuse and sinister plots foisted on an unwitting and much too trusting American people.
Area 51 begins with a discussion of the first trip the author, an investigative journalist and author of three earlier books, made in 1993 to the ramshackle town of Rachel, Nevada, on the north side of the Groom Lake facility and haven of Area 51 watchers. There he met seemingly the most rational of the lot, Glenn Campbell (not the country and western singer), who was on a one-man crusade to find out what the government was up to at this super-secret base that it even refused to acknowledge at the time existed. It ends in 1997 with the revelation that Campbell was leaving his crusade to marry and raise a family somewhere other than in Rachel.
Between these two Campbellite bookends the author weaves a set of weird stories tied to the base. It apparently began something like this. In the early 1950s Lockheed Skunkworks director Kelly Johnson needed a truly secure place to test the U-2 reconnaissance airplane. The Air Force’s test facility at Muroc dry lake, site of the now famous Chuck Yeager X-1 flights of 1947, was too well known and had too many people watching it. Groom Lake’s dry bed provided just as good a runway in much more desolate surroundings and thus Area 51 was born. It has been the site of numerous other equally secret Air Force test programs over the years; those acknowledged now include the SR-71 reconnaissance aircraft and the F-117 stealth fighter. Other secret high-technology research projects, both real and imagined by the residents of Rachel, periodically make their way into this book.
But the really enticing thread running through the story of Area 51 is the belief held almost universally by the Rachel residents that the U.S. government is using the base to hide, reverse-engineer, and test alien technology that crashed on Earth. Thus, Area 51 has gained Mecca-like status for UFO hunters the world over. Using well the tools of the investigative reporter, first-hand observation and interviews with those who will talk supplemented by a modicum of secondary sources and virtually no archival materials, Darlington creates a series of personal portraits and experiences relating to the base and its mission as it unfolded in the mid-1990s. One would have to look for a long time to find as colorful a collection of characters to grace a non-fiction work. If those involved in America’s space program look like stuffy establishment types who have taken the adventure out of spaceflight, this crew provides an extreme on the other end.
Bob Lazar serves as a centerpiece for Darlington’s account. He says of him, “within the world of ufology, meeting Bob Lazar is tantamount to meeting Bob Dylan. Lazar is similarly a reclusive superstar and a legend in his own time; if not exactly the voice of a generation” (p. 61). Lazar claims to have worked at Area 51, tested alien spacecraft, and actually to have seen extraterrestrials involved in the reverse-engineering process. As such, if one accepts his story without verification, he provided much-needed confirmation and coherence to a range of diffuse anecdotes circulating about Area 51. Darlington, to his credit, does not accept Lazar’s story at face-value. Neither did Glenn Campbell and a few others interested in Area 51. They found that many of the verifiable facts of Lazar’s life did not pan out and that his wide-ranging statements about the base had serious inconsistencies. All these raised serious questions about his credibility. Ultimately, Lazar emerges in this account as little more than an inventive and charismatic charlatan.
But that does not much matter to many of the UFO hunters centered on Rachel. Most accepted his story, and some even added to it. Bill Uhouse, for instance, spun his own story of working as an engineer inside secret government facilities side by side with extraterrestrials who were doling out technological knowledge with an eyedropper to eager government officials. Then there was Ambassador Merlyn Merlin II of Alpha Draconis, who claimed to be an alien in human form sent to Earth to usher in a new order of contact with alien species. Joe and Pat Travis, proprietors of the Little A-Le-Inn in Rachel, have provided the safe haven for many of the UFO hunters in town, even sponsoring 1993’s “Ultimate UFO Seminar” in which Lazar and others described their experiences. Finally, Agent X, as he likes to be called, stalks Area 51 to learn about the secret programs conducted there and claims to be a pacifistic hawk and purveyor of privileged national security information.
One over-arching observation springs from Darlington’s narrative. There seems to be an unusual linkage between the more strident ufologists and the radical right wing of politics and anti-government militia groups. At numerous points in the drama of alien encounters and spacecraft, anti-government rhetoric is voiced about attempts, intergalactic or not, to overthrow the U.S. Constitution and replace it with a “New World Order” in which Americans would become defacto slaves. Ambassador Merlyn Merlin II put an unusual spin on this connection, demonstrating that anti-government sentiments are not pervasive among ufologists but reaffirming that a conspiracy leading to a “New World Order” existed. “I’m not a government conspiracy wacko,” he told Darlington. “These people are radical right-wing conservative Christian fundamentalist militia supporters.” Then he offered his own equally strange perspective. “I’m for the New World Order. When the United Federation of Planets is connected to the United Nations, that will be the New World Order—a permanent golden age” (p. 203). Slavery or salvation, Area 51 seems to serve as a beacon for each possibility in the minds of those who watch it.
None of this, of course, bears much relationship to the actual activities taking place at Area 51. And Darlington does not provide much serious investigation of those activities. That would have required research in tons of government records, probably using the “Freedom-of-Information Act” to gain access, and probing among those who live in Washington rather that in Rachel. What he does offer, however, is a fascinating account of what a fringe element of American society believe about what is taking place at Area 51. As such, it is a study of modern popular culture rather than a serious attempt to write history. Accepted on those terms it is an enlightening book.