Many moons ago, when I was a young reporter starting out on the rewrite desk, I answered the phone and heard an agitated lady say she'd just seen a brightly colored UFO flying low over a suburb about 15 miles north of the city.
I put my hand over the mouthpiece and eagerly related this piece of intelligence to the city editor, who like most city editors, was a man of great experience, tact and unflagging personal charm.
"Tell the old bat it's a chicken hawk with a flashlight," he snapped.
That sums up the attitude of most metropolitan newspapers to the subject of Unidentified Flying Objects. UFO reports bring to mind crazies who call when the moon is full, Elvis sightings in 7-Eleven stores, tabloid headlines about schoolteachers kidnapped by aliens. Respectable newspapers want nothing to do with them.
So with some trepidation, I commend to your attention a program called UFO, from the Software Marketing Corp., a Phoenix publisher that specializes in informational packages such as Chemistry Works, Body Works, Auto Works, Computer Works, B.A.B.Y. and other programs that explain the workings of the world in easy, illustrated formats.
UFO, which runs on IBM-compatible computers under Microsoft
Windows, is a data base of documented UFO sightings. It comes disk-based and CD-ROM versions. Of the two, the CD-ROM is far more extensive, with more than 1,200 descriptive accounts, 200 photographs and 30 digitized video clips of UFO films.
Using the program's graphical interface, you can search the data base by date, location, type of sighting, witnesses and the availability of photographic evidence.
A map of the world, with the location of each sighting represented by a dot, allows you to zoom in and out. Clicking the mouse pointer on any dot brings up the information about that sighting.
You can replace the map with a list of sightings displayed alphabetically by location, which is often easier to work with. A summary box shows the basic information about the sighting you've highlighted, while a description box displays a narrative account and a photo window shows the associated picture or plays the video, if one is available.
Using the Windows clipboard, you can copy still photographs or text and paste them into other Windows applications, such as word processors or graphics programs.
If you don't know much about UFOs to start with, the program and manual provide a fascinating introduction to the subject. Serious UFO students, and there are more than a few intelligent and sane people who believe in their existence, will love having the information at their fingertips.
At its most basic level, the program classifies UFO sightings by encounter type. A Type 1 encounter, the most common, is a simple UFO sighting. A Type 2 encounter involves a sighting and some environmental evidence, such as a scorched landing site, or so-called "angel hair," a spider web-like substance that allegedly falls from spacecraft.
A Type 3 encounter, made famous by the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," involves actual contact with aliens. There are only 14 in the data base and all of them occurred in Europe or the former Soviet Union.
To these classifications, the authors have added two more, contacts involving death or injury and cattle mutilations, which are often associated with aliens in the tabloid press.
How seriously should you take all of this? The program and data base were compiled with the help of serious ufologists, led by Wendell Stevens, a retired Air Force colonel who has one of the world's largest collections of UFO material.
The problem is that serious ufologists range from hard-nosed scientists to self-styled psychics and conspiracy theorists who believe that aliens and Earth-based governments have created huge installations in the Southwest where human beings are used for genetic experiments.
And the accounts themselves range from reports by Air Force pilots and observations by police, journalists and other solid citizens to sightings of men in space suits by Russian schoolchildren. The documentation, too, is often vague.
The photographic evidence is likewise all over the spectrum, from fuzzy black-and-whites snapped in 1947 to sharp color photographs from the 1960s, '70s and '80s that appear to be unretouched, although advances in computer imaging make this kind of thing hard to detect. Owing to the crude nature of PC video, the motion picture evidence is even more difficult to evaluate.
The brief manual steers a gentle, middle-of-the-road course, debunking some of the really far-out abduction and star wars stories while allowing the possibility that UFOs may be from another dimension, since they can seemingly defy Earthly laws of physics.
The program itself, which requires two megabytes of memory and a VGA card capable displaying 256 colors, is not exactly state of the art by Windows standards. It's slow, even on a fast computer, which leads me to believe the programmers could have used a close encounter with a good data base manager.
Even so, in a world of boring software, this is fascinating stuff. Serious UFO buffs will find it an invaluable data base. If you're not so serious, you can indulge your curiosity without the embarrassment of buying a tabloid at the supermarket checkout.
UFO is priced at $49.95 on floppy disk, $59.95 on CD-ROM. For information, contact Software Marketing Corp., 9830 S. 51st St., Building A-31, Phoenix, Ariz. 85044.
(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)