A disclosure statement on the "Operation EMU" home page gets right to the conspiracy-theory point:
The Web site (operationemu.com) is a collection of odds and ends "related to the alleged 1974 NASA experiment during which an entire Hollywood film crew, contracted by the government, disappeared in a remote section of Nevada."
Travis and Mabel Mountjoy vanished, too.
The 17-year-old twins from Rockville -- child-prodigy physics students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- assumed leadership of an obscure Maryland research organization founded by their late father. He'd had murky connections to NASA, which was then developing an alien-encounter contingency plan known as Operation Experimental Mitigated Universe (EMU).
The young Mountjoys, according to the Web site, met in California with a director named Enoch Jeffries. In April 1974, Jeffries led a group of technicians and actors into the desert near top-secret Nellis Air Force Base as part of an elaborate NASA training exercise.
Nellis is in the heart of Nevada's "Area 51," notorious for being the Times Square of UFO activity and unexplained phenomena.
Coincidentally, several hundred Meemaw Indians from Wyoming entered Area 51 around that time to perform a solstice ritual.
They never returned either.
Sounds like quite a news story waiting to be uncovered in the Nevada desert. Curiously, MIT has no record of Travis or Mabel Mountjoy ever having matriculated.
Other pieces of the puzzle don't quite fit. Online searches for more information about "Enoch Jeffries" and "Operation EMU" come up empty.
And researchers at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington say there has never been an Indian tribe called the "Meemaw" (rhymes with "heehaw").
Indeed, precious few facts hold water. Turns out the strangest thing about Operation EMU is the extremes an aspiring author will go to these days in hopes of getting into print.
"It's my own little, tiny hype machine," says B. Brandon Barker, who launched the Web site without fanfare in December and claims it has attracted some 60,000 visitors.
Barker, a 34-year-old writer at America Online Inc. headquarters in Dulles, Va., cranked out a satirical first novel titled Operation EMU, which he says skewers pretentious sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and the cult of alien-life true believers.
An agent expressed interest in the manuscript, but nothing more. In an effort to generate some attention-getting buzz for himself, Barker figured he had two choices: "Do I do a boring author's site or do I do something different?"
He opted to go the latter route and, for about $100, transplanted his Operation EMU idea to the Internet. Given the current anything-goes culture of truth-bending memoirs and semi-scripted reality TV shows, what's the harm?
"Maybe 'hoax' is too strong a word," Barker says of Operation EMU. He prefers "parody."
The Web content is drawn from plot lines of his novel, supplemented by air-of-authenticity window dressing. Those photos of "Enoch Jeffries" are actually Barker's high school drama teacher, now deceased; the "Travis Mountjoy" college yearbook picture is an early publicity shot of the late actor Brandon de Wilde of Shane fame.
Barker added excerpts from a (bogus) congressional hearing, an online store that hawks Operation EMU T-shirts and coffee mugs, and even a discussion forum.
After the site had attracted about 10,000 visitors, he recontacted Byrd Leavell of New York's Waxman Literary Agency. Impressed by Barker's promotional skills, Leavell signed him to a contract and is about to start shopping his Operation EMU manuscript.
Publishers today, explains Leavell, look for authors who've shown they can "drive readership," regardless of what type of car. The reigning media-crossover role models are Tucker Max, the eternal frat-rat who wrote the book I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and George Ouzounian (pen name "Maddox"), who made an equally sophomoric splash with The Alphabet of Manliness.
Both began as unknown bloggers, cultivated a loyal online following, then made the jump to books. Kensington Publishing, which released Max's I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, says it sold more than 70,000 copies. Maddox sold 7,000 copies of The Alphabet of Manliness before publication via a link from his Web site to Amazon.com.
Now Barker is taking that synergy concept to another level by building himself an audience without having a book deal in place, just a manuscript and a dream. What's more, that audience may not realize what it's reading. Some apparently think Operation EMU is for real.
"It seems only logical that there are cover ups of major proportions that aren't discovered," forum member Robyn Zimmerman of Michigan writes in response to an e-mail query.
Forum member John Nesbit, a 52-year-old crawfish farmer in Martinsville, La., used to be an Air Force mechanic and was stationed at Nellis in the early 1970s. He claims to have first-hand knowledge of Operation EMU.
"I get less dubious the older I get," says Nesbit. "I did know about Operation EMU, but it was a NASA training thing. That's what we were told. Only much later did it come out that it was broader than that, that they were training the military to fight aliens. ... The film crew thing, that's documented."
All of which comes as news to Barker. Operation EMU is "purely just a story," he insists.
"Maybe we're running out of conspiracy theories," Barker says in response to Nesbit's assertions. "You throw something out like this and people either have faulty memories or it sounds like something they heard about."
Ken Schlueter is a Navy veteran now working as a psychiatric nurse on Long Island, N.Y. He was involved in weapons research and participated in war games in the Nevada desert.
"There was no film crew that disappeared. That's B.S.," says Schlueter, who has browsed the EMU Web site.
What was going on in Nevada, he adds, was a lot of top-secret testing of enemy airplanes, next-generation helicopters and the then-experimental B-2 stealth bomber. All those goose-bumpy stories emanating from Area 51 about aliens and glowing spaceships are military sleight of hand, a grand misdirection play.
"They wanted the public to believe in conspiracy theories," says Schlueter. "How do you keep something like the B-2 bomber secret when it's flying in the damn desert?"
In other words, take a chill pill, Area 51 conspiracy theorists. In Schlueter's opinion, all the Twilight Zone talk is the byproduct of a government disinformation campaign. A very sophisticated, very successful one.
Hmm. But that raises an interesting question. Suppose, in fact, something terribly weird did happen to a film crew and a pair of twins and a lot of wayward Indians in the blistering outback of Nevada. What better, more clever way to cover up that truth than to have some guy write a preposterous novel about it? Brandon Barker, goose-chase fiction specialist?
It may be time for somebody to launch a second Operation EMU Web site.