Dumb as cabbages


PEOPLE who believe in UFOs demonstrated at the White House the other day demanding that the government come clean. Their placards said the government knew UFOs "are real," and they want it to quit pretending they're not and tell what it knows about these visitors from out yonder.

I tend to believe almost anybody who says the government is suppressing the facts. That's what comes of living through the Vietnam War, Watergate and the CIA's reporting on the robust health of the Soviet Union.

Well do I recall stories of Ernest Hemingway telling friends the FBI was watching him. Everybody said it was sad evidence that Papa had gone round the bend into raving paranoia. Later Herbert Mitgang of the New York Times won access to the files and -- how about this, paranoia fans! -- the FBI had been watching Hemingway all along.

So I am in no hurry to ridicule people who say the government is engaged in a UFO cover-up. Truth to tell, being a romantic as well as a skeptic, I'd like there to be extraterrestrial things fooling around with Earth.

The same romantic streak makes me want Elvis to be still alive somewhere making music privately, or maybe with Nat "King" Cole. (Have you noticed that another Nat "King" Cole record comes along almost every year even though the papers reported his death back in 1965?)

Still, the skeptical part of me resists the UFO people. The question I have never been able to answer satisfactorily is, Why Earth? Let's try a little role reversal and imagine that we, you and I, live somewhere far out in the cosmos where the intellectual brilliance is so dazzling that traveling faster than light is no problem.

Having cracked the light barrier, we have the whole gigantic universe at our disposal, so I can imagine us one night tooling around faster than light, maybe just taking the old FO out for a spin.

As an Earth person old enough to have experienced the un-air-conditioned house, I remember an uncle piling everybody into his Whippet one breathless summer night and driving from Belleville, N.J., all the way up to Suffern, N.Y., on a search for

cool air.

We might do the same thing if we had a machine that could leave light in the dust: just pile in, going for a drive as it were, and nipping off to some lively corner of the universe. Off the beaten track maybe we spot this funny little place full of funny little things called people.

Maybe we've been headed out toward the big rock-candy galaxy where the hens lay soft-boiled eggs and the cops have rubber legs when we see this little place -- Earth, of course -- sitting well off the side of the road, as it were. Strange sounds come off it. Curious to see if maybe it's a revival meeting in progress, we pause for a glance.

Now I am making us sound a lot more like Earth people than we are. The fact is that compared with us, Earth people are as dumb as cabbages. So dumb they haven't even figured out how to crack the light barrier.

They creep around their dreary, desiccated old planetary neighborhood in ancient heaps made of primitive metals, inside which they are comically dependent on an artificially provided nitrogen-oxygen compound to maintain what they think of, with their utter lack of imagination, as life.

Mostly, however, their activity consists of moving about slowly in clotted masses when not positioned motionlessly, apparently narcotized, in front of boxes. This, I submit, is not a place where creatures like us are likely to tarry.

By our standards, it is strictly pre-history. In fact, there is an excellent replica of it back home in the Museum of Prehistoric Absurdity. Oh sure, maybe to amuse ourselves we stop, pick up a couple of these cabbage brains, bring them into our FO and have a little fun with them. You know, pretending we're not going to let them go unless they can name the capitals of all 50 states or sing the second verse of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

I can't see us ever returning to this place. Or even hanging around.

Russell Baker is a columnist for the New York Times.

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