In the early morning hours of July 6, 1996, 19-year-old Dawn Sprunger was driving home from a friend’s house when she spotted an unidentified flying object hovering above her in the sky. “It looked like a vertical jet,” she later told reporters, “triangular in shape. At certain times you could see red and blue lights in it.” Sprunger remained calm and drove home, though once inside, peeked out the window to find that the aircraft had apparently followed her. She woke her parents, who upon witnessing the red and blue lights themselves, quickly called the authorities. By sighting’s end witnesses would include several police officers, the police chief, as well as the mayor of Berne, Indiana, who, fine public servant that he was, even managed to record a bit of video footage of the encounter.
The sighting baffled the people of Berne, though it was hardly the first instance of unusual activity to have occurred in the region that week.
Two days prior and fifty miles away, the town of Paulding, Ohio experienced its own close encounter, or at least the aftermath of one. In early evening on the Fourth of July, as a pilot and his wife took a joyride with friends in a private plane, the pilot’s wife spotted a mysterious circular shape pressed into a wheat field far below. They contacted landowners Don and Sue Arend, who in turn contacted John Timmerman, a nearby resident affiliated with the Chicago-based Center for UFO Studies.
Timmerman received the call at around 9 AM on July 6, just a few hours after Sprunger’s alleged UFO encounter in nearby Berne. He drove to the scene to take measurements and aerial photos, but baffled as he was, soon determined that further experts were needed to weigh in. The problem, though, was that the press corps arrived before the experts could.
By July 9, the story had made headlines in several regional newspapers, the words “crop circle” and “aliens” prominently displayed above the fold. Soon after, the crowds descended like locusts, transforming the small, agrarian town into a mecca of sorts, carload after carload making the drive down Country Road 126 to catch a glimpse of the otherworldly spectacle.
I was among them, sitting in the backseat alongside my brother as Mom pulled to the side of the road. I was 12, my brother 7, and though we were supposed to be visiting my aunt in Toledo, a brief detour at the crop circle certainly seemed in order. Days prior, my brother and I had watched aliens blow up the White House in the summer blockbuster Independence Day; thus, we deemed ourselves experts in all things extraterrestrial.
My brother and I began our investigation by visually scanning all 93 feet of the crop circle’s diameter, sticking close to the yellow police tape that cordoned us off from the newly flattened field. We knelt, reached toward the crushed wheat, and rubbed broken stalks between our fingers. We were curious—What could have caused such a thing?—though the land offered us few clues.
Dawn Sprunger was equally curious, and upon hearing of the crop circle that had appeared just days after her own sighting, immediately made the trip to Paulding herself. When asked of her impressions on the crop circle, Sprunger replied, “It reassured me that I wasn’t crazy. I didn’t feel that it was something that was man-made. I sensed within myself that it was something that was related to what I had seen.”
However, my brother and I remained less certain of what to make of it. Though we’d been raised on the oft-quoted X-Files-mantra, “I want to believe,” our desire to do so was tempered by a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, even dumb kids like us were supposed to know that aliens didn’t exist. Our best proof: an inability to fathom a universe in which we weren’t at the center.
Yet we of modest Midwestern stock knew better than to take such proof to heart. In an effort to counteract the rest of humankind’s arrogance, we of the region hemmed and hawed right there in that wheat field. Aw shucks, we thought. Why would aliens bother stopping here? Don’t they know we’re a flyover state?
More than a few journalists poked fun at the story, including Ben Smith of my hometown paper in Fort Wayne, who believed Paulding’s so-called “crop circle” (along with Sprunger’s sighting) were the result of “imaginations overheated by cinematic slimy gooky alien thingies.” Though admittedly, and as Smith pointed out, the coincidence between the release of Independence Day and the emergence of Paulding’s crop circle seemed “too strong to ignore.”
But what to make of it? Was the Paulding crop circle a clever marketing ploy dreamed up by the execs at 20th Century Fox? Or was it the result of a few inspired moviegoers anxious to bring the big screen to the small town?
It wouldn’t have been the first time. After all, small towns have long been targets of alien encounters—at least within the entertainment industry. Most notably: Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, an unincorporated community an hour south of New York. On October 30, 1938, the community was attacked by martians, whose heat rays decimated U.S. military personnel, thereby paving the way for the invasion to come. At least this was the story Orson Welles dreamed up in his now infamous radio drama, The War of the Worlds. I own a recording, and at least once a year find myself fitting the needle to the record, dimming the lights, and settling in for the heart-pounding terror that “occurred” in Grover’s Mill so many years ago. Though the drama’s news bulletin format was responsible for the mass hysteria that followed, today—long after the gig is up—it’s the location of the attack that strikes fear into modern audiences. After all, Grover’s Mill serves as a perfect stand-in for our own towns—just some ordinary place that one day became extraordinary.
Which was indeed what happened in Paulding, Ohio in the summer of ’96.
“It was just one of those … odd occurrences,” Sue Arend tells me in a phone interview nearly two decades after the fact. “Just one of those bumps in the timeline of life. A fluke.”
“So what do you think it was?” I ask her. “What does your family think?”
“You know,” she says, pausing, “when we do talk about it—which is rare—everyone is just kind of mixed. Nobody knows for sure what it was. We just kind of scratch our heads and move on.”
“It must’ve been so strange,” I say. “I mean, of all the places in the world for this to have occurred, the circle appeared in your field on your farm in Paulding, Ohio. Thousands made the pilgrimage, including me.”
“And we were just on the ride with everybody else,” she laughs. “It’s still a mystery.”
In 1997, a newspaper reported what researchers believed to be the cause of the Paulding crop circle. The answer: atmospheric plasma vortices.
“Although little is understood about the concept,” reporter Jim Langham wrote, “it is characterized by down rushing whirlwinds of partially ionized air that spin to life from the turbulence of weak front systems.”
(It’s an explanation about as satisfying as chalking up Sprunger’s sighting to swamp gas.)
But perhaps there’s another theory as well; one in which somebody is simply trying to send us a message the best way they know how. Now, they just wait for the static to recede, for the signal to find its receiver, and for the wide-eyed 12-year-old to walk into a field, lift his head to the sky, whisper: Hello there, and whom may I say is calling?
Photo courtesy of Jabberocky via Wikipedia.