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Saucers Full

For the Cleveland Ufology project, the search never ends

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While the government publicly dismissed such reports as "temperature inversions" and the like, behind closed doors there was quiet concern. Many secret government documents from the 1950s and '60s show officials speculating about the possibility of extraterrestrial visitors, and whether they pose any threat to the U.S. One of the best was shown by Peter Robbins in his talk — a July 10, 1947 FBI memo in which J. Edgar Hoover, apparently reacting to the Roswell report, is already in a turf war.

"We must insist upon full access to discs recovered," he writes, complaining that "in the [unintelligible], the Army grabbed it and wouldn't let us have it for cursory examination."

Still, the early '50s was no time to advertise one's esoteric interests. The Red Scare was in full bloom, and as movies of the period show — most notably the 1951 classics The Thing from Another World and The Day the Earth Stood Still — any unidentified object dropping out of the sky was a threat to be met with a gun. So it wasn't until 1957 that CUP members moved out of the privacy of their homes and started to hold their meetings at the Central YMCA.

Over the years, that stigma stuck with the group. The Red Scare passed, but as UFOs came to be seen as a fringe pursuit for fabulists, CUP was shunted from place to place. After the YMCA, members gathered at the Red Cross, in a bank meeting room, in a church basement, at Tri-C, and at a funeral home in Parma. They got kicked out of the funeral home when its name appeared in a television news story about CUP, generating harassing phone calls. Now the group meets at a yoga studio in Middleburg Heights where the owner shares their interests.

Not wanting the CUP faithful to feel like total outcasts, we occasionally drop by. Just two months ago, on the night of the group's August meeting, one of our craft flew over the yoga studio and a Perkins restaurant where they went afterward. This was later reported on CUP's website as "an orb" sighted south of the airport that appeared "to have passed over CUP members as they were dining out after the meeting." A friend on their Facebook page said: "That's like a bank robbery next to a doughnut shop!" We don't get the joke, but we trust it's a good one.

The heyday of CUP was the l960s, when UFOs moved into the mainstream and became a subject of fascination rather than fear. This was the golden period when the scientific community was still engaged, and the Air Force's Project Blue Book, a systematic study and evaluation of UFO reports, was in high gear. After starting out as a skeptic, J. Allen Hynek had become a believer, founding the Center for UFO Studies and developing the "close encounters" classification system: first kind, sightings; second kind, sightings plus observable effects on nearby objects; third kind, sightings of UFO occupants.

Interest in Cleveland was intense. Along with Frank Edwards, Major Donald Keyhoe, author of The Flying Saucers are Real and founder of the National Investigations Committee on Aerial Phenomenon (NICAP), came to speak. The Congress of Scientific Ufologists held its first meeting in Cleveland in June 1964. Other local UFO groups sprang up; by the late '60s, CUP had at least three rivals.

The man who personified this newfound enthusiasm was Earl Neff. A successful commercial artist whose murals still grace the walls of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen offices in the Standard Building downtown, Neff developed an interest in UFOs after he and his wife saw one in the 1950s. But when Neff joined CUP and became its chairman a few years later, he was more than just another wide-eyed amateur.

For a year and a half during the 1930s, Neff was the head of the local WPA (Works Project Administration) office. He discovered fraud in the program and reported it to the feds, who assigned then-Cleveland Safety Director Eliot Ness to investigate. The two men became friends, and when Neff joined CUP, he was eager to use the investigative skills that he had learned from Ness.

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