A couple acquaintances introduced me to Doug Hiner and he immediately got on my radar as someone I’d like to profile when I learned he regularly sailed down to Cuba on missions that were partly about delivering medical supplies and partly about secreting back contraband, as in cigars. Hiner is a wheeler-dealer type who denied the illegal trafficking at the time I interviewed him, then expressing upset at my story’s suggestion that he engaged in anything like that, but subsequent events confirmed his smuggling activity because he got caught in the act down in Florida and faced serious federal charges. He pleaded guilty to one count and received 36 months probation.
Aside from the intrigue, which occurred after my story appeared, his story is really a classic tale about his taste for adventure and his passion for all things Cuban. A version of the following story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Seafarer Doug Hiner and His Cuban Medical Supply Runs
©by Leo Adam Biga
A version of this story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
More than any other country, Cuba both seduces and vexes Americans. This island of paradoxes is at once a natural paradise fulfilled and a socialist promise unrealized. In a place where bare necessities do not go for want, chronic shortages make hustlers out of peasant and professional alike. Within a closed society and controlled economy, anything, for a price, is a black market possibility.
Social/economic problems don’t change the fact that Cuba, at least geographically, is a tropical island idyll. Sun, ocean, jungle, mountains — much of it pristine. Politicians/bureaucrats aside, the people embrace life with a live-and-let-live Latino insouciance. Music, dance, food, art, love, sun, surf. Fun prevails, if not for all, for tourists.
Omahan Doug Hiner sees the schizoid nature of Cuba every time he sails there on his 53-foot cutter, the Vitamin Sea. He captains the Tampa-docked boat on voyages that transport medical equipment to hospitals and clinics on the island. He’s been making runs like this to Cuba for seven years, a period when official American policy toward that intransigent Caribbean nation has gone from rigid to ultra hard-line. Embargoes of one kind or another have limited trade with Cuba and, in some cases, denied aid.
With Fidel’s recent stomach surgery making his mortality and his grip on power a renewed subject of world interest, Hiner prepared for a late December sail to bring in another boatload of supplies. But the gringo’s boat blew an engine, pushing the trip back until this month. He arrived February 10 in Havana, where the gear still sits, waiting for the red tape to be cut so he can move stuff inland.
His artist wife, Christina Narwicz, usually joins him on these maritime adventures but she wasn’t feeling up to it when he shoved off this time around.
The Man and the Sea
Hiner, 67, is a former hair dresser and a retired real estate developer and landlord. He made and lost a fortune. He’s not oblivious to the political realities that hold Cuba hostage in a state of suspended animation. Far from it. He has strong views on what Cuba and its paternalistic neighbor to the north should do to ease restrictions and tensions. His awareness of Cuban medical needs drives his missionary trips there, even as he brings in and takes back his share of contraband.
His journeys go well beyond idol curiosity. Hiner and his wife feel they have a fair handle on Cuba by virtue of not only having traveled there several times — it’s 15 trips and counting for him and about the same for her — but their stays usually last weeks or months at a time. They get around to different parts of the island and really immerse themselves in the place.
“We’re not tourists, we’re travelers,” Hiner said. “A tourist wants to have MacDonald’s no matter where he’s at. We like to enjoy the cultures of different countries and not live like Americans. We try to blend and be friendly with the people, and that’s all it really takes to be accepted. They love Americans, especially if you’re friendly to them. They don’t like the ugly-American types.”
Whatever motivates him, he ultimately makes these journeys because they put him in touch with three of his favorite things — sailing, the sea and people.
Though he grew up in landlocked South Dakota and Nebraska, Hiner long ago felt the call of the open sea.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the sea,” he said, “and I’ve always had this dream of having a boat to sail around the world.”
Years ago he and Christina “were planning to do a sail around the world …” when his “business fortunes changed,” making such a trip “impractical.” Circumnavigating the globe is not such a passion now, not with the expanse of warm southern waters to explore. “You can spend your whole life in an area like that and never see everything,” he said. “The Caribbean is a whole chain of islands. We’ve never been to Colombia or Central America, so eventually I’d like to do that.”
Besides, it’s the carefree, unrestricted, port-of-call lifestyle he enjoys, more than the challenge of seeing how far Hiner can push his sailing skills.
“A boat is like your home. You’ve got everything on it. You’re totally self-sustaining … It’s a real nice feeling,” he said. “You can anchor anywhere you want for nothing. We spent a couple New Years Eve’s anchored off of Key West, one of the liveliest New Years places in the world.”
Still, the allure of cruising wave and wind is like the call of the sirens — hard to resist. Half the challenge is dealing with weather and the other half comes with the inevitable mishaps.
“Weather on the high seas — that’s your biggest danger,” Hiner said. “We’ve gone through some pretty turbulent stuff, some accidentally, some on purpose because we had to. But it’s never been a safety issue. You’re never really out of ear shot of weather” reports via radio/radar.
Nature-related or not, things do go wrong. Take the couple’s 1999 trip to Cuba for instance.
“Going down on the second trip we blew out the sail. We ran into some bad weather. We had to have it repaired. It’s usually mechanical problems. It’s like, not if it’s going to break, but when it’s going to break. The last time we left Cuba the autopilot failed and we had to hand steer for 40 hours. Oh, and coming back from Cuba once we lost our fresh water pump, so we had no engine. There was no wind and we drifted for a day-and-a-half or two days before we finally got close enough to Key West to get a boat to tow us in.
“Our boat is about 20 years old and it needs extensive rewiring and stuff and I really haven’t been able to afford that, so we just kind of patch things together. It’s safe but it’s always a little bit of an adventure.”
Sea-faring is an apt avocation for an inveterate beach bum who, whether inland or coastal, enjoys kicking it with friends over drinks in the Old Market, where he developed some of the first condos, or partying on his boat.
He enjoys the simple, well-done pleasures of good food, good drink and good company. His wife’s the same. The residence they fashioned from an old brick-faced bar and parking lot on South 13th Street reflect their shared interests. The grounds’ richly decorated Great Wall that fronts 13th Street has a gated entry whose mammoth door opens onto a large courtyard filled with her plantings.
Hiner’s no stranger to graceful living, as he once owned a Fairacres mansion “back,” as he likes to say, “when I was rich and famous.” He made big bucks and moved in tony circles in the ’70s and ’80s. Then it all crashed. He alludes to a business partner running his development company into the ground.
The house, featured in the Spring 2000 edition of Renovation Style magazine, is designed with walkouts along the length of the courtyard that connect to a wood deck, creating a veranda. The interior opens up to a loft master bedroom and guest quarters, revealing a 32-foot-high ceiling and a bank of large windows that stream light in. At one end of the property is a screened-in porch. At the back of the lot is Christina’s well-lit studio. It all works toward a cozy hacienda feel.
As soon as he laid eyes on the spot he knew “it was exactly what I had in mind.” When he bought the former Glass Front Bar it was only a shell. But, he said, “I had this vision.” He designed the place himself. The work fit neatly into his years of “retrofitting old buildings. I’ve always had a knack for design and style and just living comfortably.” The result, he said, adheres to “the European concept of zero lot lines…where you basically use the whole property. We don’t have a back yard or front yard or side yard — we have a court yard. The same with our house. We utilize the whole house. We don’t have formal spaces. It’s just more practical and creative in my estimation. It’s just a feeling of well-being.”
His passion for this getaway within the city dovetails neatly with his ardor for Cuba. It always comes back to communing with people.
“It’s just a wonderful country. The people are so friendly and so caring and loving,” he said. “It’s hard to explain. I’ve traveled all over the world and I don’t think I’ve ever been to a country that is so warm and safe. There’s virtually no crime in Cuba. It’s true there’s a policeman on almost every corner, but the people there are so law-abiding. They’ll steal, but their attitude is, ‘If you don’t lock your bicycle up with a chain or padlock, then you must not want it.’ I’ve never had anything stolen off my boat in the marina and I can’t say that in almost any other country.”
Years living under the thumb of a dictatorship has its palliative effects.
“If a policeman on the corner points to a driver and signals him to stop,” Hiner said, “he’ll almost come to a panic stop to obey the order. They wouldn’t even think of not [stopping]. A police chase over there would be unheard of.”
Back to the contradictions bound up there, he said Cuba can seem chaste one minute and carnal the next. “It’s a real straight-laced island. Pornography is totally illegal. Drugs — zero tolerance. One marijuana cigarette would throw you in jail for a week before you’d be expelled from the country and told never to come back.” On the other hand, he said, “Cuba’s a very sexually open country. Even though prostitution is illegal…a lot of people are shocked by the young women that are readily available for sexual encounters. One, there’s a serious lack of men on the island. And two, their culture is not uptight about sex at all. I mean, geez, if some foreigner wants to give you twenty bucks, that’s even better.”
Besides, he said, “Cuba’s all extended families — there’s four-five generations that live under the same roof, and so it’s everybody’s responsibility to help support the family group.”
While Cuba prides itself on a system that accounts for citizens’ basic needs, rampant poverty compels most everyone to be on the make.
“You see very little begging, yet the young Cuban kids and the old folks are out hustling for the family,” Hiner said. “Everybody is sort of doing whatever needs to be done to provide extras. They have to have some access to dollars to really have any quality of life.”
Amid all this naked human need, Cuba takes great pains to put on a good face. “They sweep each block of Havana every day. If you don’t have anything to do, they’ll put a broom in your hands,” he said.
By Western standards, he said, Cubans lack everything we take for granted. He tries to give friends there some creature comforts otherwise unavailable to them.
“I’ve taken personal things down for people, like a microwave oven or VCR or DVD player, because all that stuff is illegal. Everything’s illegal in Cuba. Mainly, if it plugs into the wall, it’s illegal. They have an energy problem and they’re just trying to keep people’s lives basic.”
Even more basic than that, he said, he brings items like toothbrushes and razor blades that are “not a big deal here, but are a big deal there.”
He’s also brought back, on consignment, works by Cuban artists he and Christina sold in Old Market art shows, the proceeds going toward supplies for the artists.
Beat the Bushes, ‘Bend a Few Rules’
He’s sympathetic to the plight of the Cuban people, whose deprivation goes deeper than a lack of material things, to essential services. Sure, Cuba provides free health care, but many clinics and hospitals lack equipment and technology that can not only improve care but save lives. And while average Cubans and natives of nearby Latin American countries have access to free care, some medical centers are reserved for the elite. It’s why he got involved as a medical supplier in the first place. His awareness began on his inaugural visit to Cuba in 1998. The marina in Havana introduced him to fellow travelers, including many Americans, some of whom became a model.
“I met a lot of people that first time. A lot of just normal people. Some were bringing medical equipment on their boats down there,” he said. He soon discovered an informal network of doctors and suppliers. “As I met people in the marina and friends of theirs I was put in touch with various doctors and got lists of things they needed.”
Over the next year Hiner beat the bushes and made contact with “various organizations” that run aid into Cuba.” He cultivated the names of key suppliers, like Jack Oswald in Chicago, and key recipients, like surgeon Gilberto Fleites in Havana. When Oswald, who works with a group called Caribbean Medical Transport, ran a check on Hiner’s then-fledgling medical mission activities he was duly impressed.
“The medical equipment he gets is a cut above most of the stuff humanitarian aid groups get and I’ve been doing this a long time. His stuff is absolutely flawless,” Oswald said. “I went with him on his last trip because he was packing some really heavy equipment…I came from Chicago to help him figure out a way to put some of this stuff on the boat without it sinking. We put thousands of pounds on the bow…and you no longer could see to navigate…so we had to have somebody at the front of the boat calling instructions out to the captain just to avoid the reefs and boats and weather we came across on our way to Cuba. It got a little adventurous here and there.
“I’ll tell you, the guy’s fearless, he really is. He’s mission-oriented, there’s no question about it. Almost militaristically I might add. He doesn’t really let anything get in his way. Some of the stuff he does is a bit risky. And sometimes he doesn’t have the money, the equipment or even the plan…but he just keeps doing it. I think both sides are willing to let him operate, maybe even bend a few rules here and there…because they know what he’s doing is valuable.”
Joining Oswald, Hiner and his wife Christina on the voyage was a Cuban American physician who brought medical supplies to a cousin physician in Cuba. The Americans also brought art supplies for an artists collective there. Oswald said of Hiner and Narwicz, “They just know a whole lot of people and they just really enjoy Cuba. The folks I met that know them are like family.”
On Hiner’s first supply run in 2000 he was introduced to Dr. Fleites. “I met Gilberto and his wife Teresa and they were really neat people and we became really close friends and we had a really wonderful time there,” Hiner said.
Hiner calls Dr. Fleites “a bit of a renegade. He ran the national cancer institute in Havana. He was on the Cuban ethics board. He tried to get some doctors removed from practice because he thought they were killing more people than they were saving,” Hiner said. “But his superiors kicked him off the board because he wasn’t ‘a team player.’ He still performs surgeries … but only on important people because they know he’s very, very good. He’s sort of like freelance. It’s kind of a bizarre situation.”
The Omahan’s “become sort of an emissary” to Dr. Fleites. “I get lists of stuff from him” the Cuban medical community “needs,” he said, “and come back and hustle my friends. I know a lot of doctors from when I used to be rich and famous.” As Hiner’s refined his networking, tons of things get donated — once, an entire operating suite. Omaha’s Children’s Hospital donated an anesthesia machine. He works with established humanitarian nonprofits that authorize him use of their license for delivering free medical goods abroad. Much of what he takes there goes to Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Medicine, an AIDS hospital directed by Dr. Jorge Perez. It’s not an impersonal process for Hiner, who’s visited there and other sites he’s supplied. He’s impressed by Cuba’s “incredible medical system.”
What began as annual trips became twice-a-year voyages. Their last trip, in 2005, they were in Cuba four months.
He’s transported medical gear worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, including mechanical operating tables and surgical instruments ranging from forceps to retractors to endoscopic devices. The goods ship to a central location and, when there’s enough for a full haul, he loads a truck and drives it to his boat in Tampa. After everything is securely stored and lashed aboard, he rigs his boat and sails for Cuba. Once there everything must be checked and approved by customs officials, a process that can take weeks. Various government stamps and seals are needed. From start to end, a single supply mission can take months.
He cuts what red tape he can with “gifts” to marina workers and ministry officials.
For the current trip, he amassed a large inventory that includes an entire delivery room donated by a hospital, complete with delivery table, incubators and monitors. So large is the haul he left half the load in Florida for a return trip next month.
Donations have never been better, but he said navigating the bureaucratic waters to get them to Cuba has become more problematic. He blames the Bush administration for “tightening travel restrictions,” especially since 9/11. He said the feds have made it harder for the nonprofits he works with to obtain or renew licenses. The main clearance he needs is from the U.S. Coast Guard that grants free passage through “an imaginary security zone between Key West and Havana that no one can define.” Without the permit, he said, “they can seize your boat, fine you $250,000 and put you in jail for 10 years.” When things were more “more relaxed,” he could slide by. Not now.
There are also new Commerce Department and Council of Foreign Currency Control approvals needed.
Cuba’s hardly immune from bureaucracy, but the tropics make the paperwork and graft more bearable. Besides, as “well accepted” as Hiner is there, he can play Lord Jim. He hopes a meeting he’s been angling for with Fidel, whom he admires, happens one day. He knows just what he’d say to the dictator. “I would tell him he needs to make more opportunities. The people there are very industrious but he keeps stifling any kind of private enterprise,” Hiner said. “He’s getting old and overly restrictive. I would tell Fidel, ‘You’ve got to loosen up. If you were a young man today you’d start a revolution against yourself.’”
To Cuba with Love
Ironically, Hiner’s romance with Cuba may never have happened if not for an accident. It was late 1998. Doug and Christina were on one of their Caribbean sailing jags and had put into port in Jamaica. There, Christina took a fall and broke her ankle, putting her in a cast. He hired a young Jamaican boy to help him crew. The trio sailed to the Camyan islands, where Christina’s pain worsened. Doug sent her home by plane. That left Doug and the boy. The idea was to make for Florida, but Doug knew the boy would be denied entry without papers.
“So, we decided to go to Mexico,” Hiner said. “I got in big trouble there because, unbeknownst to me, a Jamaican needs a visa to get into Mexico. They almost threw us in jail. I talked my way out of that.”
Next, Hiner set his sights on Key West, but learned that, too, was off-limits. Desperate, he asked officials, “Where can we go?’ ‘Cuba,’ they told him. “So, the next morning off we went to Cuba. That was my first time. We were there almost 10 days before I was able to get a plane to fly him out to Montego Bay. And while in Cuba I just loved the country. When I got back home I told Christina, ‘I loved it so much we need to go back there.’” Go back they did.
- Governor seeks release of American held in Cuba (reuters.com)
- The Cuban Embargo Myth (pajamasmedia.com)
- Cuba stubs out cigarette rations for older people (guardian.co.uk)
- US company in Haiti blames Cuba for loss of barge (sfgate.com)
- Cubans dream of being tourists – abroad (worldblog.msnbc.msn.com)
- New rules usher in a tasty comeback for Cuban food (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
My lukewarm feeling about baseball got raised to a high fever the summer of 1998 because of an assignment I did that found me joining a baseball tour of the Midwest with some two dozen die-hard fans. The tour was actually offered as part of a local community college class looking at baseball in the context of popular culture. It was a good if exhausting experience that I may repeat one day.
The thing that sold me on the trip is that it coincided with the great home run race that season between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, each of whom was chasing the single season record of Roger Maris. The fact that two star players involved in history were on two of the teams that we would be seeing play, in their home ballparks no less, was enough to convince me the timing was right. That and the fact that I felt a bit stale by then with my usual story projects. This would be something different, something away from my home base of Omaha, something that would push me out of my comfort zone.
I was happy with the results of the trip and with the story I wrote about it. The piece appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
My Midwest Baseball Odyssey Diary
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Hearts and Minds
An overcast Sunday afternoon last summer found me joining 22 other pilgrims at Iowa Western Community College for the start of an eight day bus journey (July 26-August 2) exploring America via its most cherished game — baseball. As part of IWCC’s first “Baseball and American Culture” class/tour, we made a Midwest circuit of professional ball, attending games, visiting archives and speaking with players and officials, past and present.
Synergy was on our side too as, in the Year of the Home Run, we saw the two men chasing Roger Maris’ single season record in action.
Before departing we filed inside a lecture hall for an orientation by class instructors John Shorey and Bill Ricketts, young professors with the shaggy good looks of sandlot bums. In the spirit of the class, Shorey, a Cubs fan, and Ricketts, a Mets fan, showed their team colors. They laid-out the groundrules for the tour and had Creighton University professor and baseball author, Jerry Clark, steel us with diamond lore.
“Baseball is America’s game,” Clark told us. “There are those who feel this is no longer true. With things like players’ strikes and runaway salaries souring a lot of fans and sportswriters, some have been predicting the demise of baseball. Its demise has been forecast before. But baseball has always bounced back. It survived the Black Sox Scandal, the talent drain in World War II, the coming of TV. Now, we’re seeing a new resurgence of fans, fresh talent and new ballparks. What’s THE story in sports this year? Mark McGwire. He’s a folk hero. I envy you guys.”
Why follow the baseball muse down Mid-American byways? For me, it was about discovering what this game, that looms so large in the collective American conscience, means to people. These diaries are a compendium of what my fellow travelers and I found on our 1,700-mile journey. The result is a road story winding through the very heart of baseball and America.
Day One — On the Road
We look like any other tour group in our assorted ball caps, T-shirts, sneakers, shorts, shades and cameras. Our ranks range from die-hard fans (mainly Cubs rooters) to casual followers. The youngest aboard is 18, the oldest 65. Most squarely fit the demographics of baseball fans: white middle class Baby Boomers with disposable income to burn. Among our ranks are teachers, coaches, professionals, retirees. Most hail from Iowa. The rest from Nebraska. Eight days of total baseball immersion await us.
“Our traveling class,” as Ricketts calls it, finally hits the road at 3:30, bound for Kansas City. Hauling ass south on I-29, the Grant Wood Iowa landscape sweeps by in flat green and gold-speckled corn-row swatches. Marshy fields and roadsides are evidence of recent flooding along this bottomland. Traffic grows heavier the farther south we go, the undulating landscape taking on Thomas Hart Benton dimensions, spilling over itself like a wind-swept ribbon of earth. We arrive, just before dusk, at the Holiday Inn Sports Complex across from Kauffman Stadium. That night, a group of us descend on the sports bar off the lobby for some grub and get-to-know-you gab.
John Hazel of Omaha sports the full brush mustache, slicked-back hair, middle-age paunch, seasoned insight and avuncular ease of an old-time manager. His soulful eyes reveal hard times (He’s a recovering alcoholic working as a drug and alcohol counselor at St. Gabriel’s). His wiseguy voice betrays his Chicago roots. This lifelong student-of-the-game and Cubs fan is soon my personal guru on tour. Always ready to talk baseball, he explains what makes the game so special.
“Baseball is very unique in that there’s no time limit. A game can go on forever. It’s a team sport that’s built on individualism. There’s nothing like the one-on-one confrontation of pitcher and batter in any other sport. And there’s so much going on on any given play. There’s always something new, always something unexpected. In most sports you control the ball to score points. In baseball, the other team controls the ball while you try to score runs. It can be as cerebral as you want. It can be as basic as you want. It’s different things to different people.”
Speaking of differences, we’ll view baseball through the prism of the black experience, followed by the Royals-Anaheim Angels game tomorrow.
Day Two –The Best of Times, The Worst of Times
Setting out this morning we cross the George Brett overpass and traverse age-old racial lines en route to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum at the epicenter of Kansas City’s 18th and Vine historic district, a traditional hub of black commerce and culture in the midst of a revival.
We pass the Holy Ghost New Testament Church, whose sign out front implores passersby “Don’t Give Up!” As we pull up to the baseball museum, which shares the same building as the Kansas City Jazz Museum, the area’s renaissance is apparent in the glut of nearby restaurants, clubs and theaters, which stand silent this early in the day. Lamp post banners proclaim “The Legacy Plays On,” no doubt referring to the legends honored inside and displayed in life-size neon cutout figures above the entrance.
We’re led into a small screening room with bleacher-style seating and watch a short film on the Negro Leagues. Later, we tour the museum’s vibrant exhibits, which give a fine sense for the dynamic flavor of black baseball and the heady impact it had on many communities. But the real treat is meeting Negro Leagues veteran Henry “Pistol” Mason, who still cuts a trim figure in his 60s. With the fervor of a Pentecostal preacher (He is a United Methodist minister today.) the former hard-throwing pitcher recalls breaking in with the Kansas City Monarchs . “I dreamed of being in the Negro Leagues. I came up by bus to Kansas City in 1951 from my hometown in Marshall, MO to try out. I can remember it as if it was yesterday.” Arriving with nothing but the clothes on his back, his strong right arm so impressed player-manager Buck O’Neil he was signed on the spot.
Mason toiled with the team during the 1951, 1952 and 1954 seasons, earning $250 a month. After their some 100-game regular season, Negro Leaguers like Mason went barnstorming in the off-season. Then, he says, it was all about “the love of playing baseball.” And wowing the crowd.
“We had a different brand of baseball. People wanted to see our brand of baseball, with its action and enthusiasm, running and bunting. It was more festive when we played. The fans enjoyed the game. Going to the ballpark was just like going to a picnic. We had something to prove too. We wanted to prove we were good enough to play in the major leagues.”
The then recent emergence of black players in organized ball gave new hope. “It meant that maybe, just maybe someday I could be signing a major league contract, and that dream came true when I signed my first contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.” In the Phillies minor league system he played for the Miami Marlins, with the legendary Satchel Paige as a teammate, and for the Schenectady Blue Jays. Off-seasons he earned big bucks playing south of the border. Back home, he endured racism.
“When we sent to spring training in Clearwater, Florida we couldn’t stay in the hotels. I was the only black baseball player in Schenectady. I ran into some difficulties there. When I walked into the clubhouse the first time I could just feel the tension. But you learned not to shoot your mouth off and to let your ability do your talking for you, and that’s what I did.”
Mason finally made it to The Show in 1958, recording only a few innings that year and in 1960. By then the Negro Leagues were dying, a casualty of the majors siphoning off the best black talent. Mason says the end of all-black baseball meant progress, but at a price. “It was good in one way because we were finally getting a chance to play in the majors, but bad in another way because it hurt a lot of black businesses that thrived off it.”
The game that night proves a let down. The reeling Royals lose 6-1 in a boring affair. The action’s scarce. The pace lethargic. The 17,000 fans apathetic. No spark, no panache, no pizzazz. That, and the scarcity of black players today, is why Mason doesn’t care to attend. Kauffman Stadium is a dreary concrete fortress outside and a gentrified gated-community inside. A white bread theme park with all the bells and whistles but minus the grit of the old stadiums or the charm of the new ones.
Day Three – Flirting with History
On the road by 8:30, we head east on I-70 for St. Louis and a rendezvous with destiny, we hope, in the form of a McGwire blast. But the Cardinals rate a poor second on this trip. Fittingly, Shorey announces, “It’s a great day today. Sammy hit two last night and we picked up a half-game on the Mets in the wild card race.” His fellow Cubbies roar approval. Ricketts stews. A daily tour ritual is getting USA Today or the local daily for overnight game summaries and box scores. The results invariably spark debate.
While in-transit Shorey prompts a discussion about yesterday’s activities. Dan Schleisman, a coach-teacher from Shelby, Iowa who likes getting a rise out of the home fans with his bench-jockeying, remarks, “I was really disappointed in the Kansas City crowd. Here I am cheering for the other team and they’re not even saying anything. Usually you can get a reaction from the home team.”
As for the museum, Laura Barker of Council Bluffs says, “Before I started this class I had no idea what blacks went through in baseball. Now I suppose every time I think about baseball that will be a part of what I think about.” From an educator’s viewpoint, Shorey feels “it reinforced what we’ve been talking and reading about and made it come to life.”
Heading into St. Louis a bridge takes us across the majestic Mississippi River. We check in at the Henry VIII Lodge and Inn and catch a bite before reaching Busch Stadium. First, we wend our way through the club’s front office for a briefing by P.R. man Marti Henden. In keeping with the Cards-Cubs rivalry, the big huckster needles us, saying, “Let me show you something you haven’t see before,” and holding out a fat finger adorned by a World Series ring. Cubs fans are used to such abuse, even revel in it. Calling 1998 “a very abnormal year for us,” he adds, “Thanks in large part to Mr. McGwire we’re going to sell three millions tickets for only the third time in our history.” St. Louis averted losing its fan base (as some cities did) during the ‘94 strike season, he says, by courting fans as never before. “That started the turnaround.”
Next, we tour the Cardinals Hall of Fame Museum across from the stadium. It recounts the club’s rich heritage in loving detail. With the gates opening at 5:10 for the start of batting practice, I join the line. Any other year, you’d find a mere trickle of fans this long before game time (7:10 start), but with the McGwire phenomenon in full swing the queue snakes around Busch. It’s humid, and by the time we settle in the upper right center field bleachers, downright stifling. Hardly prime home run hunting territory as McGwire, a dead pull hitter, rarely hits one out here. The stands are packed anyway. His every move scrutinized. His every swat “Ooohed” and “Ahhhed” by the faithful.
None of his pregame moonshots come our way.
In the game Big Mac is kept well in check through the 7th by the Milwaukee Brewers. Even with his Cards trailing 8-5 and the putrid air hanging still in this fish bowl of a stadium, the crowd is alive and involved, a sharp contrast to K.C. The excitement builds as the Cards stage a dramatic comeback in the 8th, loading the bases with Ray Lankford up and McGwire on deck.
Lankford caps the rally with a grand slam, pulling the home team ahead, and igniting a wave of noise. With the place still buzzing McGwire settles in and suddenly, sweetly IT HAPPENS. His powerful uppercut sails a ball directly toward us, carrying up and over into a tangle of bodies rushing the lip of the fence for a crack at the prized souvenir. In the ensuing melee one lean young man emerges with the ball and, improbably, it’s our own Matt Oviatt, 18, of Logan, Iowa, who leaped several rows below. He deliriously holds the ball aloft, twirling around, charged with the good vibrations of 38,000 cheering fans, repeating over and over, “Oh, my God.” For one moment anyway, he shares the stage with a superstar.
The solo shot is only the second opposite field homer of the year by McGwire, his 45th overall, and gives him his 100th RBI.
Later, a still juiced Oviatt says, “I can’t believe I caught this ball. I’m feeling nothing but freaking joy. I was just hoping we could see Mark McGwire bat one more time before we go. I never thought I’d catch a home run ball. Then, I saw it coming and I just jumped for it. It hit my left hand, bounced, and I caught it in my right hand. I just had to squeeze hard when everybody started tackling me. It’d be awesome if I could get it signed.”
An ESPN Magazine reporter on the scene interviews The Kid and tries pulling strings to secure The Man’s autograph, but to no avail. Meanwhile, the Cards’ weak relief pitching falters in the 9th, giving up five runs, and the home team goes on to absorb a numbing 13-10 loss. Later, on the bus, Hazel expresses all our sentiments about Matt’s feat. “It’s got to be the thrill of a lifetime. One he’ll treasure for years. That’s what this game’s all about. It’s one of the reasons people keep coming back.”
Day Four – If It’ll Play In Peoria, It’ll Play Anywhere
The morning after, and The Catch is still the topic of the tour. Matt’s grab even made ESPN’s Sports Center highlights. His celebration must have lasted into the wee hours as he and his roomie straggle aboard some 15 minutes late. A sheepish Matt’s given a good razzing too. “This grandstanding has got to stop,” jokes Ricketts. Our star stores his coveted possession in a backpack he never lets out of sight.
Our next stop is Peoria, Ill. and a date with Rocky Vonachen, general manager and co-owner of the Peoria Chiefs, the Class A Cardinals affiliate we’ll see play this evening. We tool northeast on I-55, crossing the grand Mississippi again into Illinois. Shorey pops in a tape of “Bull Durham” to get us in a minor league frame of mind. You know, the band box parks, the kitsch sideshow antics, the groupies. As groupie extraordinaire Annie Savoy declares: “The only church that truly feeds the soul is the church of baseball…” Shorey asks, “Is baseball a religion?” Nancy Mulholland of Malvern, Iowa replies, “No, it’s an addiction though.” Shorey says we’re getting a taste of what life on the road is like for minor leaguers with the long bus rides, the motel stays, the fast food pit-stops. It’s getting old fast.
Ensconced at the Fairfield Inn, we head for the ballpark. It’s about on par with a major college baseball stadium. The outfield fence screams with ads for River City Demolition. Bliss Implement Co. and Butternut Bread. Dressed in sport shirt and shorts,Vonachen greets us in a small picnic area down the right field line. He’s a genial guy eager to share the ins and outs of running a minor league franchise. His father, Pete, for whom the stadium’s named, owned the club in the 1980s. Then, when the Chiefs languished under outside ownership and were in danger of moving, Rocky and a group of Peorians bought it in 1994. The timely investment came in a booming market. Where the franchise sold for $100,000 in 1982, it brought $2 million in 1994. Triple A clubs sell for five times that. Gate receipts are up too.
“Minor league baseball is growing by leaps and bounds. Back in the early ‘80s it was more of a Mom and Pop business. Now it is big business,” he says, adding the ‘94 strike provided a catalyst for the minors.“People still wanted to see professional baseball and started going to minor league parks. Parks across the country saw an influx of fans during the strike. As people got to see minor league baseball they found how affordable and fun it was. At the minor league level, it’s entertainment, folks. We do all the goofy promotions and all the giveaways at the gate because that’s what families come out for, and we focus on families.”
Chiefs tickets, typical of the minors, range from $3.50 to $5.50. During a pregame picnic-style repast players (in full uniform) grab supper at the concession stand. The game is marked by sloppy play, including drops of several easy fly balls. Maybe it’s the uneven grass field, which suffers from some kind of rot, or the low wattage lights overhead. The Chiefs’ fan-friendly attractions include a grocery cart race, a mascot, a contraption flinging T-shirts in the stands and Trash Man, a Generation-Xer in black tie, shorts and Day-Glo tennis shoes who dances in the aisles when not retrieving refuse. The distractions include the local groupies, brickhouse babes whose conspicuous primping behind the dugout and bullpen has heads turning all night. Still, far more families than singles are on-hand.
By 8:30, Magic Time rolls around, the setting sun muting the night sky in pastel shades of blue, purple and pink and, with the light towers, casting a burnished glow on the field that etches players in a kind of soft electric haze. Very Rockwellian. The Chiefs win in a rout 9-2 and personally greeting fans on the way out are Rocky, his dad and staff. “Thanks for coming. Hope you come back again.” They mean it too.
“That’s what minor league baseball is all about,” Rocky says.
Day Five – Baseball of Another Kind
By now we’re a caravan of gypsies wheeling from one baseball camp to another. We depart a little past 7 a.m., our earliest start yet. The discussion centers on last night. Everyone agrees the Chiefs put on a good show. Tom Lustgraaf of Council Bluffs, says, “To me, the things they’re doing are the things that will keep baseball alive and make it a positive experience for fans.” Lana Taylor, a nurse from Hastings, Iowa, notes how much more “relaxed” and “friendly” the confines were compared to the big league parks. “The goings-on really got me excited.”
Traveling northeast on I-80, we navigate our first toll roads and pass our first rock quarries. The Holy Scriptures of the tour, “The Baseball Encyclopedia,” is reverently consulted in settling trivia disputes. We’re bound for South Bend, IN, where we’ll meet All-American Girls Professional Baseball League veterans and catch the hometown Class A Silver Hawks. For proper inspiration we view “A League of Their Own.” Later, Shorey strikes a nerve asking why girls play softball, not baseball. A battle of the sexes erupts but nothing’s settled.
The site of our panel discussion with the All-American Girls is the Northern Indiana Center for History, an old stone mansion with extensive gardens. Inside it’s bright, modern, airy. We sit in an auditorium to watch a documentary on the women’s league, with some of the featured players right beside us. When the video shows a reunion of players singing the league’s anthem, the teary-eyed veterans present sing-along.
The five panelists, who played in the ‘40s and ‘50s, soon enchant us. We pepper them with questions about their uniforms (they began with skirts and went to pants), about the charm school set-up for them (“It didn’t rub off,” one quips), about breaking tradition (“We weren’t out to strike anything for women’s lib. We were just grateful we got to play baseball,” explains Janet “Pee Wee” Wiley.). Elizabeth “Lib” Mahon says when a scout asked her, “‘How’d you like to play ball for money?’” she replied, “‘Money? I’d play ball for nothing.’ It was the opportunity of a lifetime. It changed my life completely. I have friends all over the country now because of it.”
Betsy Jochum notes the attention the league’s received this decade “has made us realize how unique it was to have a league of our own.” Frances “Big Red” Janssen adds, “It’s amazing to us people would still be interested in what we did.” Adds Lou Arnold, “It’s a pleasure for us to be meeting you people today. It’s like the feeling at our reunions — so warm.” The feeling’s mutual.
After the Q & A we rush the stage for autographs and a chance to kibitz one-on-one. Then we all go downstairs, where the veterans proudly show us a case filled with league memorabilia. Later, at our Super 8, it’s clear the women left quite an impression.
“The ladies were fantastic. I’d love to sit in a bar some night and really have a ball,” says Mulholland, a lifelong fan who grew up a tomboy on an Iowa farm, played catch with her dad when he came in from the fields and avidly followed town ball. “They’re just plain ordinary women, as common as dirt, who made a great difference in baseball and America in general.”
Chris Hartwig of Logan, Iowa adds, “Hearing the women’s stories and seeing their emotion and excitement about being part of history touched me quite a bit. I think it gives me a more complete love and appreciation for the game.” Hazel, who saw All-American games as a boy with his dad, says, “Once the game began there were no differences. It was a baseball game.”
South Bend Stadium is a spiffy new facility out of character with the old brick and mortar warehouse district it occupies. The immaculate grass field puts Peoria’s to shame. The South Bend-Kane County Cougars game goes by in a blur, overshadowed by nearly non-stop music, promotions, gimmicks. The star attraction is Myron Noodleman, a Jerry Lewis knock-off whose geek show leaves us cold, though the abundance of kids present eat it up. Still, on a cool clear night like this nothing can detract from the magic amber dusk illuminating this Elysian field where men are made boys again.
Day Six – Take Me to the Promised Land
A sound night’s sleep and late start (9 a.m.) buoy us in advance of Chicago’s Wrigley Field, mecca for our Cubs contingent. After St. Louis, we feel fate leading us to Mr. Sosa, who’s been on a tear. As an added bonus, pitching phenom Kerry Wood is on the mound today. It’s gorgeous out and soon the virile Chicago skyline crops into view. Nearing downtown, a Cubs video treats us to a swinging version of “My Sweet Chicago” and Harry Caray’s signature “Holy Cow.” Tidy row houses and cozy bars line the narrow congested streets of the neighborhood around Wrigley Field.
Parked by noon, we walk to the promised land. The Cubs-Colorado Rockies game has a 2:20 start, leaving ample time to eat, shop, browse. The energy is palpable. A Chicago Sun-Times vendor notes my K.C. Royals hat and asks, “Sir, you have the wrong cap on today, don’t you?” Boy, do I.
Wrigley is a tavern of a stadium. A homey place where beer flows freely and patrons mix easily. It throbs with the pulse of the city, as fans root atop adjacent brownstones and arrive via L’s lumbering overhead. Back on his home turf, Hazel beams like a kid again on his old stomping grounds.
“That’s exactly what Wrigley Field is — home. So many memories are coming back of my Cubs childhood. I was born and raised within walking distance of Wrigley. I remember coming home from school in the middle of summer to our hot apartment and finding my mother in her bra and half-slip with a quart of Pilsner beer in one hand and an iron in the other, watching the Cubs game on TV. I was about 8 when my folks took me to my first game. Later, I went with buddies after school to catch the last couple innings of games. They let us in free. The homework could wait. Summers, we sat in the bleachers for 50 cents. It’s a fantastic place. There’s nothing like it, eh?”
Even with the Cubs winning handily (by a final score of 9-1) most fans remain boisterously attentive throughout. The few idiots who dawdle in the aisles elicit cries of “Down and front!” The 40,000 Cubs faithful leave happy, having seen Sosa smash his 42nd homer (it lands no where near us) and Wood notch his 11th win. A briskly played game on a crisp afternoon in the Tottling Town. Who could ask for more?
After crawling through rush-hour traffic we spend the night at a Quality Inn. Some do the town, scoring autographs at Harry Caray’s place. I enjoy my first decent meal at a Greek Town eatery. Sated, I sleep soundly.
Day Seven — Dream State
Another fair weather day finds us still in high spirits from the the Wrigley trip, which rates a rave from most. Ricketts sums it up with, “For me it was like going back into history. I feel like I could have been there in 1902 and experienced the same thing. I’m a Mets fan and I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Wrigley Field.” Adds Hazel, “On behalf of the city, I appreciate the comments…It is a special place.”
Illinois-20, a classic American back country highway, follows the rolling contour of the planted fields and patchwork meadows spread out on either side. As we watch “Field of Dreams” I realize it’s search for simple truths parallels ours. Seeing it right before arriving in Dyersville, Iowa lends a surreal quality to an already other-worldly site. Sure, it’s a tourist trap, but with a difference. It may only be the film’s influence, but a ballpark merging with a cornfield into an endless horizon is a kind of never-never land come to life. A place where time stands still and dreams unfold.
The place is crowded, kids and adults alike lined up waiting for a crack at the ball, others jostling for a spot in the field. Why do we come? A pretty young Texas woman, traveling with her sister on a baseball pilgrimage of their own, offers a clue. Peering out at the field, Kris Flabiano says, “I mean, just look at this. There’s people here from every state and they’re all playing ball together. Everybody’s talkin’ to everybody like they’re next door neighbors. Baseball’s a staple. It holds people together.” Our own Lana Taylor adds, “It’s like living a baseball dream out there. It’s reliving things.”
Once back on the Illinois side of the Mississippi we meet two minor league umps who compare their travails of making it to the majors with that of players. They describe a “brotherhood” among The Men in Blue and the restraint needed to weather expletive-filled temper tantrums on the field.
Hopping the border to Davenport, we stow our gear at an, ugh, Super 8 and then make the Quad Cities River Bandits-Burlington Bees game. Davenport’s downtown riverfront provides a scenic backdrop. Just outside the quaint, brick-faced Quad Cities stadium, casino and cruise boats course down the Mississippi on one side and freight trains rumble past on the other. Added to the organ tunes, the vendor barkers, the lively fans and the heroics under the lights, it makes for a carnival atmosphere. After the River Bandits thump the Bees 11-1, a fireworks show sends us off with a bang.
Day Eight — Coming Home
Daytrippers at last. No more motels after tonight. “Headed for the home stretch” is how one of our group puts it. By 8 a.m. we’re bound for the Amana Colonies and a hearty brunch. We hit our first patch of inclement weather nearing the Bob Feller Hometown Exhibit in Van Meter, Iowa, a shrine to the fireballing Hall of Fame pitcher. A sculptual relief mural outside shows “Rapid Robert” delivering one of his high hard ones. Moving ever eastward, we gather at Sec Taylor Stadium in Des Moines, home of the Iowa Cubs, to hear hitting instructor Glenn Adams talk about helping players “be selective” at the plate, pitcher Kurt Miller describe life in the minors as “a job” and G.M. Sam Bernabe extol the virtues of “group sales.”
After a steady diet of Class A ball, this Triple A outing is a welcome way to end the trip. The park, a smaller version of Omaha’s Rosenblatt Stadium, features 44 skyboxes. Fixtures aside, the scene here or at any ballpark is much the same. Baseball invites fans to take it in their own measure. To banter back and forth about the game or life (maybe it’s the same thing), whether it’s Dan Schleisman yelling “C’mon guys, rally time!” or John Shorey musing why “there’s no phrase for an easy grounder,” unlike, say, “a can of corn” for an easy popout.
“Due to the nature of the game, with its momentary lulls,” says John Hazel, “there’s a camaraderie in the stands among the fans, be they rich-poor, whatever. It’s a real simpatico type thing.” Jack Duggan of Omaha adds, “What I like about it is you can keep up with what’s happening on the field and converse at the same time.”
Yes, the game flows like a great river from town to town, its mighty current rolling slowly, methodically on. You can return to it at your leisure and know it’s still there. “I think that’s the beauty of the sport,” says Shorey. “The times, the players, the issues, the settings may change, but the game itself doesn’t change.” There’s comfort in that. In its continuity and connection to more earlier times, like Nancy Mulholland playing catch with her dad or Hazel sneaking into Cubs games. In its being a proving ground and launching pad for the Henry Masons or Elizabeth Mahons of the world.
If I had to boil it down to one truth, baseball is big and enduring enough to embrace America’s dreams. It’s like coming home.
P.S. Iowa lost 6-4 to the Colorado Spring Sky Sox. But that’s besides the point, isn’t it?
“This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that was good, and that can be good again…”
From the film “Field of Dreams”
- Museum trying to keep history alive (thestar.com)
- Andre Dawson day at Wrigley Field (cubhub.net)
- Polish Heritage Night, First Time at Wrigley Field, sponsored by PEPSI (gloucestercitynews.net)
- Herzog’s teams surfed on artificial turf (mlb.mlb.com)
- Royals, Cards set to renew storied rivalry (mlb.mlb.com)
About 10-12 years ago an Omaha World-Herald newspaper column mentioned that a certain physics professor at my alama mater, the University of Nebraska at Omaha, was actively involved in a community of individuals who believe that extraterrestrial contact is a reality. Dr. Jack Kasher led me to a family living not far from me who believe they have been the victims of repeated alien abductions. The family in turn led me to a group of fellow believers.
The subject matter fascinated me and I began to read up on this alleged phenomenon. As I met the people and heard their stories and read a couple books, including Whitley Strieber‘s Communion, my curiosity was peaked and my skepticism was challenged. I was also seriously freaked out by it all.
I ended up writing the following story, which appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), and much to my amazement it didn’t seem to make much a of splash. Perhaps the alien abduction theme was already played out by then. I’m interested to see if the story generates any buzz this time around.
Separate Voices, Separate Lives: The Alien Abduction Chronicles
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Late on a Tuesday night in September I find myself being taken for a ride by a married, middle-age couple who are among a group of Omahans and Lincolnites purporting to be alien abductees. Jim drives, I sit beside him and the chain-smoking Sue crouches on the floor in back. Having left the couple’s north Omaha home, we head south on Highway 75 – bound for Bellevue and the site of a certain incident. I try remaining dispassionate, but my professional veneer is cracking under the strain of their weird tales.
Swirling in my head is Jim’s cautionary note about poking into things others want concealed: The Men in Black factor. “What you will find, whether you want to or not, is that when you start looking into this stuff, things start happening,” he says. “You start talking to people and asking questions and the next thing you know you start getting strange phone calls in the middle of the night and somebody saying, ‘You don’t want to know about this.’ This is not something to be treated lightly.” Sensing my apprehension, he asks, “What are you prepared to hear?” I answer truthfully, “I’m not sure.” He proceeds to test me.
“The fact is, as far back as I can remember I’ve always known things I had no basis for knowing,” says Jim, a former Air Force intelligence staff sergeant, who worked until recently for a high-tech Bellevue firm that is a major U.S. defense contractor. Today, he’s an independent computer consultant. “My work is a case in point. It has always been with advanced, leading-edge technology, yet my degree is in history,” he says. Referring to his peculiar gifts, he continues: “I developed a conceptual model of this advanced computer intelligence system, and I don’t have a f_ _ _ ing clue how. I just knew what it was supposed to be like. I’ve had the distinct feeling all my life that someone is plotting out what I’m going to do next and that somehow knowledge is communicated. That information is just there and it becomes like second nature. Not that I don’t read a lot or don’t immerse myself in a lot of things. Some of it’s inspiration, but I’ve always known inside that some of it’s not. I’ve always felt fiddled with.”
Sue has too. Despite no formal training, she claims an unusually deep grasp of all things medical. Further, the couple say their three children unaccountably display detailed knowledge of historical periods and recall living past lives. “I have this haunting sensation that what we’re doing and contributing is part of some other purpose,” Jim says. “You can easily dismiss it as creativity, but when you’re in the middle of it, there are pieces of it that don’t add up that way. It scares us.”
And alone with them in the van, their tales of alien intervention weighing on my mind, the clear cool night turns ominous. I dread what the horizon obscures. I scan the sky for strange lights. I sense danger in shadows. Claustrophobia and paranoia grip me. I feel utterly trapped and vulnerable.
Then I make the mistake of asking if there are tell-tale signs of an impending abduction. “Oh, yeah,” Jim says. “It’s a restlessness, a feeling of foreboding, of uneasiness. A real funny kind of agitation. It’s equivalent to that state animals go into before an earthquake. There must be some low level rumble going on. We don’t know if we pick it up psychically or at some low communication level.” Noting I have all the symptoms, I cringe to see my companions looking tense too.
Jim continues, “Sometimes, if there’s going to be a visitation, you will get absolutely, uncontrollably knockout-tired – totally inappropriately.” Then I remember Sue telling me Jim suffers from sleep apnea. I glance to see if he’s still alert. He is, thank God. Indeed, he and Sue are hyper-alert, having become night owls as a way of warding off sleep and the phantoms it brings.
“Now sometimes there’s no warning at all,” he adds. “Like with missing time, you only know afterwards that something doesn’t feel right. Other times, things go quiet or don’t look right.” Then, as if on cue, having earlier turned onto a Bellevue side street, we reach a dark, isolated dead-end and Jim says cryptically, “That’s weird…Where’s the road?” I wonder, ‘Does he mean run-of-the-mill weird, or alien weird?’ Conditions are ripe for an “X-Files” case. As if we’ve been drawn to this spot. To my relief though, we right ourselves and uneventfully retrace the route of what the couple calls “the swimming pool incident.”
It was a February night in 1989. The entire family was already besieged by paranormal phenomena at their former home in Bellevue’s Leawood Oaks. There were disturbing dreams: The youngest child, Dan, complained of “starlights“ and “robot doctors” coming for him at night. Eerie presences: Sue’s dead father is said to have appeared in the front room. It all hearkened back to weird occurrences in Jim’s and Sue’s own childhood, but no firm connection was made with that. Certainly not with aliens.
One night the couple drove to the nearby South Cinema 7 to catch the late show. He insisted on taking a “short-cut” home even though the route led in the wrong direction. “I knew I had to go this way – like a person possessed. In our delusion, or whatever you want to call it, we pulled into this parking lot,” Jim says, parking just as they did that earlier night. It’s a nondescript lot bordered by a chain-link fence and trees. “We found ourselves stopped at a swimming pool at midnight. We sat there a long while looking at it, with snow falling outside. What we didn’t find out until months later was that not only wasn’t there any pool there, there never had been or anything resembling one. It was a craft.”
Even years later, the site upsets them. “I’m still saying, Where’s the pool? How did someone create a pool there?’ I don’t like to be in that lot,” Jim confides. “I was going to have you turn the van back around, Jim – I really was,” says Sue. To everyone’s relief, we start home. With the long unnerving night nearly over, I’m just calming down when Jim sends the panic edging back up my throat, asking, “How scared do you really want to be?” I think: ‘Oh no, here we go again. How’d I ever get in this mess?’”
It began last spring when I read about a local physics professor, John “Jack” Kasher, who investigates UFO sightings and alien abduction reports. He put me in touch with Doreen, a member of an Omaha abductee support group. She arranged an interview with several group members, including Jim and Sue. My first meeting with THEM took place on a mild July night at the couple’s plain north Omaha home.
The home’s been the site of many unsettling events. Perhaps the most compelling occurred one night in 1992. First, the family’s dogs reacted to an unseen presence in a closet. Later, the whole family was disrupted by bizarre, vivid “dreams.” In the morning Sue said she recalled her and Dan having been aboard an alien craft, where she was examined. Dan said he recalled aliens grabbing him in the night. Bruises were found on his shoulder. Odd circular marks were detected in the front yard. Some nights later, Jim said, a stealth-like helicopter hovered over the house, training a searchlight on the property – as if someone knew where to look.
Despite the home’s reputation, I found nothing unusual there on that July visit or later visits. No bad vibes. No spectral auras. No bumps-in-the- night. What I did find that first meeting was eight adults and two children who’ve been traumatized and transformed by their mysterious encounters and who speak about them the way charismatics speak about their revelations. Most insisted on anonymity. An exception was John Foster, 60, a retired engineer living in Lincoln who claims his alien encounters span nearly half-a-century.
The group filling the living room variously sat on chairs, a sofa and the carpeted floor. Lit candles lined the front window sills. A light breeze (or a blithe spirit?) puffed the drapes. They were a huddled few gathered for one reason: To testify. And, like true believers at a revival meeting, each testified to their extraordinary experiences. Experiences unique to each, yet shared by all. That are part ephinany, part nightmare. Part inspiration, part trial.
A cottage industry has sprung up around alien abduction phenomena and as research I read books by two of its gurus – Budd Hopkins and John Mack. Although troubling stuff, it’s easy to distance oneself from written/filmed accounts and to dismiss them as fabrication, hysteria, psychosis. However, it’s quite different when people tell you their accounts first-hand. Then – peering into their sad, plaintive eyes, hearing their anxious, stricken voices and feeling their sincere, sober emotions – you cannot patently reject the tales as hokum or hallucination.
Yes, the experiencers described inexplicable things, but these people struck me as intelligent, rational, earnest and completely genuine. They told, without dramatics, of traversing a shadowland whose boundaries stretch beyond our known universe. A shadowland of this Earth and not. An ethereal realm intersecting both hard visible reality and soft invisible dimensions where metaphysical wonders occur and supernatural entities roam. They told of their communion with the Other Side. Of being plugged into a mysterious life force known by mystics, shamans, psychics and prophets. Of relating their encounters to revelations recorded throughout history. Of participating in an ancient ongoing experience with profound implications for the planet. Of feeling their role is preordained.
“Whether it’s alien or angelic, I think in the end they’re all different faces of the same kind of phenomena,” Jim said. “We’ve called it by lots of different names and I think it comes in a lot of different forms. Mankind has always recognized there is something beyond us that interacts with us, and it may be interacting with us in whatever form we’re comfortable with. Or maybe it plays to our own innate psychic abilities or sensitivities. For whatever reason, some people are more attuned to it than others. Another strong aspect of the experience is that it seems to be very personalized, tailored and aimed at you, where you’re at and where you come from.”
They believe they share a group consciousness. “When one of us has experiences, we all seem to have experiences,” said Alan, a Bellevue avionics systems expert. “There is a synchronism. It’s like a mass mind through the group.” On one occasion Jim said he rudely awoke to find himself slamming onto the bedroom floor of his Omaha home, only to find an experiencer named Julie, a Lincoln housewife and mother, had the same thing occur that very morning. Other times, experiencers have recounted identical dreams. Jim speculates “something is stimulating that area of the brain responsible for psychic sensitivity, which may explain “how experiences often happen at the same time.” And then, as if to illustrate the subject’s tenuous nature, he said, “But if that’s true, you get back to: Who’s doing that? Why are they doing that? And is it targeted or random?”
Like the other contactees that night, John Foster said he had had UFO sightings for some time, but never suspected an alien connection. He was troubled, however, by the unaccountable anger he felt in the early 1980s. Then, suddenly, came “a flood of recollections” in 1986 and 1987 that, he believes, revealed a lifetime of alien encounters extending back to early childhood. “I began to get angry at home and at work for no apparent reason,” Foster said. “It was all that unknown information I had in my subconscious that wasn’t able to come out.”
The recollections came to him in his waking and sleeping hours and what they revealed “completely devastated” him. He adds: “There’s an anxiety that just completely consumes you sometimes. Once I did accept that I did have encounters with beings…it was a real turning point for me. I realized the dreams and experiences I had been having, which were increasing in number, were not necessarily dreams – but memories. It was like a whole other part of my life had been kept from me.”
There is great similarity in contactees’ descriptions of how abductions unfold. It often starts with a disturbance in the air, as if the surrounding energy field becomes charged. The contactees enter a hypnotic-like state, while non-contactees present are paralyzed. Then, a brilliant light appears, followed by the beings and their craft. The beings – most often the frail-bodied, bid-headed, bug-eyed Little Grays – communicate telepathically. They escort the contactee to the light and levitate together to the craft above, where medical-like procedures are performed on the subject and prophetic-like information shared. Then the contactee is returned to the abduction site.
A disjointed feeling follows and there’s no accounting for lost time. Immediate memories of an event are rare. Afterwards, contactees may find strange marks on their bodies. For example, Julie said after some experiences she found “burn or brand marks” on her left forearm that she later interpreted as historical and alchemic symbols.
According to Foster, his first remembered abduction occurred at age 13 amid dozens of people on the playground of Lincoln’s now defunct Bethany Grade School. He said a craft landed nearby and “a voice” from within addressed the crowd. He recalls being levitated aboard with others and undergoing “excruciating conditioning” sessions that exerted “strong forces on our bodies and minds.” He views this as his “initiation experience.”
There are as many variations to the classic pattern as there are contactees. Foster said the majority of his experiences have been more on the order of sightings rather than abductions, including one vision or visitation during a University of Nebraska football game in Memorial Stadium. On that occasion, like others, he said, “The craft manifests out of a distorted atmosphere – a blue haze or a dense gray fog – and into our visual spectrum, and it controls the minds of the individuals involved.” He and other contactees discount any suggestion such sightings are figments of the imagination. “It’s not in any way a mental or psychological condition. I know that this is an external intelligence that is other dimensional and usually not seen and that is communicating with me. It’s what you might call a holographic image, rather than a physical object.”
Foster said he’s never encountered the Grays, but instead a variety of “lizard-like beings” and “humanoid” figures. He said he’s experienced time travel episodes in which he and fellow experiencers glimpsed the future and were told of their role in an ongoing alien project impacting the Earth. “I believe it was planned for me to be involved. They said they were here to change humankind, and the way they did it was to enlist people like myself.”
Many experiencers feel they are harbingers of a dawning new age and pioneers in a cosmic mission having to do with preparing for a new world order. Foster said, “I believe that we’re all brought together for the purpose of this project, so it’s real meaningful that we do interact with each other in order to carry out certain plans set out by the so-called E.T.’s, which I believe are the ancient gods that have been with us since pre-history.”
Jim feels contactees are used as vessels to “convey a message about ourselves – that something transcendental is upon us.” Sue sees a clear generational thread, adding: “I know it has something to do with what our children are going to do with their lives. That sense has been given to me.”
“We’re kind of a chosen few,” said Alan. “We’re kind of the precursors to what all of mankind is going to be walking into in our evolutionary development, when we’ll be able to interface with other dimensions at will.”
Despite the elaborate framework contactees apply to their experiences, most have more questions than answers. Julie said, “I think at the very least, having these experiences is kind of an awakening. And I think everyone would agree that one positive aspect…is the fact that it’s caused us all to look at ourselves and to know ourselves. Even if the experiences are of a horrifying nature to some people, it still causes them to take a closer look at themselves in their search to find out, ‘Why me?’ I think the truth is different for all of us. It’s a matter of our interpretation and our personal belief systems.” And Jim said, “I don’t really pretend to know what the interaction is about, other than that it seems to be directed, targeted and long-term. It’s not something haphazard.”
While most experiencers keep a low profile for fear of ridicule, they exhibit a certain zeal for telling their stories and reaching out to others like them. As Jim explains, “In a way it’s like early Christianity. You’re afraid of the lions, but you feel this compulsion to bear witness, because you know there are people out there (like us) who are afraid and alone, walking around with this terrifying secret.”
It was months before Jim and Sue could tell others about the pool that wasn’t. The first oddity they noticed that night eight years ago, she said, is the fact they “got home much later ” than they “should have.” Missing time.
“It gnawed at us so deeply. I’d check the time when I left home and check the time when I got back. I still do that too, because once you’ve had missing time, and we’ve had several episodes, you begin to be a clock watcher. Then we went to where we thought the pool was, but there was no pool there. We kept searching and searching because we thought, ‘Well, maybe we were somehow disoriented.’ It became such an obsession.”
As anomalous events mounted, the incident proved the catalyst that sent them in search for answers. Said Jim, “It was so disturbing an event in a whole series of disturbing events – encounters, sightings, all sorts of things – that we finally tried to figure out what was going on. We were in a place where life didn’t make sense at all. It was totally intruding on our lives. People were even getting afraid to be around us. We’d be in the car with a friend and here’d be strange lights dancing around in the sky. Or someone would be staying over the house and pots and pans would clatter across the room. One bizarre event after another.”
Sue, whose family is Catholic, called their parish priest for counsel. “I talked to him about the very bizarre things that were happening and he said, ‘You’re not praying enough.’ Well, that really wasn’t an answer for me,” she said. “I do pray. I do believe in God. But this is something beyond that. Still, I believe whoever visits our skies is also part of God’s plan.” They say they did consult mental health professionals, but took little solace in being told they were of sound mind – as they were left to sort out their experiences for themselves. Their frustration with the mental health community’s resistant attitudes echoes that of other experiencers.
Jim and Sue also wondered if some strange childhood visions might be related. Sue recalled a “dream” she had at age 8 while living in Thornton, Colo. In it, she was enveloped by a blue light while walking to school. “People” appeared who whisked her away to a “vehicle” that brought her to a magical “playground.” She recalled a conscious episode at age 14, while living near Yutan, Neb., in which an “egg-shaped” silver craft appeared to her and her younger brother outside their house. She felt she and the craft’s occupants read each other’s minds. Her parents dismissed it as a dream.
Jim recalled a dream at age 12 in which “skeleton” creatures took him from a schoolyard adjacent to his Napa Valley, Calif. home and flew him high overhead, from where he viewed his house below.
Did these memories fit in with all the rest? “We didn’t have any way to tie all that together,” he said. “All we thought was, ‘We’re in this spot from hell.’ “It had progressed to the point where I would have been more than happy to be told, literally, ‘You’re crazy.’ At least it was an answer. We didn’t know anybody in Omaha who was tracking any of this. It was like, ‘We can’t be the only ones having weird things happening,’ so we found ourselves following reports of strange things.” Eventually, they contacted Scott Colborn, a Lincoln abductee support group leader and paranormal investigator. “He basically reassured us that we were not alone in experiencing strange events,” Jim said, “and that there were possible explanations for these and that there are people we could talk to about this.”
Colborn referred them to Fowler Jones, a clinically-trained Kansas City, Kansas psychologist. In separate 1993 hypnosis sessions with Dr. Jones, the couple relived memories of alien abductions. Sue said she accessed repressed memories extending back to infancy, including repeated contact with an alien “doctor” figure present during apparent medical procedures.
She feels one of these procedures may have caused a rare blood disorder she suffered from – Factor VIII Clotting Deficiency – to miraculously vanish. She also suspects an alien cure factored in the unexplained disappearance of an ovarian cyst: On the eve of surgery, she recalls a female doctor, whom she never saw before or after, examining her in her room at Bellevue’s Ehrling Bergquist Hospital. The next morning, she said, her regular physician informed her the cyst was gone.
Many female experiencers recall abductions involving medical procedures, particularly those dealing with childbirth. Such women, including Sue, report “missing pregnancies” and believe they’re used as part of an alien cross-breeding program. Sue’s youngest daughter, Ellen, has had dreams of being escorted to places filled with part-human, part- alien infants, whom she was encouraged to hold and fondle.
Jim said under hypnosis the skeleton creatures of his boyhood dream turned out to be the Grays, who floated him away, performed an exam and inserted an implant up his nose. “It was a terrifying experience to relive.
In the end I was left with this notion that they take you when you’re young because you’re more receptive then. They do something to your brain so that they can better communicate with you…telepathically and symbolically.”
The regression offered more clarification than relief. He said, “I’d known since I was very, very young that I was carrying a terrifying secret. Like I was living a separate existence. The hypnosis didn’t so much relieve that feeling as it did justify it by adding missing pieces.” Armed with this startling new information and still bothered by what might lie behind the pool incident, the couple was next regressed in Lincoln by Richard Boylan, a visiting California psychologist. Under hypnosis the incident took on the features of an alien abduction. Sue said she recalled entering an altered state, then spinning wildly in the car and next finding herself lying unclothed on a table inside an alien craft, surrounded by Grays. Then the “doctor” appeared and a procedure caused tingling in her legs and sharp pain in her hip. The next thing she knew, she was back in the car – Jim restrained by the aliens. He recalled being “switched off” or immobilized, helplessly watching the aliens take Sue into a light and later return her to the car. Driving home, they remembered only the pool.
As a pattern of alien abduction emerged, the couple began coming to terms with the Pandora’s Box they’d opened and the expanded reality it suggested. “I was desperate for any answer,” Jim said, “and after time, as the stuff started coming out, it was rational that alien beings were doing something to us. As we became more comfortable with that, we started talking to other people who were dealing with the same discontinuities.”
The support group has helped them cope. “It has been like an absolute God-send for us,” said Sue. “We’ve all had our own experiences, and some might sound a little weirder than others, but we accept them because each of us is getting the information in the way that we can best assimilate it and understand it. I feel like we all have pieces of the puzzle. If we could just get the puzzle together…” That puzzle has at times strained Jim and Sue’s marriage. Amazingly, their kids seem well-adjusted and do well in school.
Even as they teeter on the edge of infinity, the family feels safe in their home. Helping ease their minds is their belief that the alien interaction is benign. They don’t feel they’ve ever been harmed. Still, they’re wary enough to stay up late – trying to hold off the night and its intruders.
“I don’t think there’s one comfort zone people find,“ said Jim. “Given the nature of the incidents my family has had and the way we’ve been able to integrate them and go on, I feel comfortable. We don’t sit around quaking in fear. But at the same time we’ve had enough disturbing things go on that we don’t know what’s going to be thrown at us next.”
“We have gone through hard times. We don’t really know where this will all end,” said Sue. “We may never know what it all means.”