Interview-Alternate Perceptions Magazine, October 2015
An Interview with:
Keel, Mothman, and One Man’s Ufological Journey
by: Brent Raynes
Steve Ward, 62, was born and grew up in the Detroit area. He has an associate degree from Wayne State University and New York Regents. In 1973, he backpacked through Europe. High points of his travels were Loch Ness and Stonehenge. The next year, he traveled to Belize and Guatemala and got to see Tikal.
He served four years in the US Navy on a nuclear sub, the USS Billfish SSN 676. He has worked at three different electrical wholesale companies over the last 29 years. He has been married to his wife Sarah for the last 27 years and has been interested in UFOs and the unexplained since the mid 1960's. Steve also says that he has two fantastic step-children and seven grandchildren.
Brent Raynes: For my family and I this was our very first Mothman Festival this past weekend (Sept. 19 & 20). My grandson Conner went twice down the zip line on main street, we had our picture taken together with Mothman (later my grandson looked at me and said, "I didn't think Mothman was real!"), and the inner child in me had my picture taken with the ghost busters (in front of the gigantic Staypuff Marshmellow Man), and an MIB who was photobombing everyone he could. We checked out the many street vendors (I had my first hillbilly hot dog) and, most important and thrilling for me, I got to connect in person with a variety of noted paranormal authors, researchers, and experiencers too, most notably Faye Dewitt, whose own fascinating Mothman experience from 1966 seems chillingly clear in her memory.
Rosemary Ellen Guiley had told me you were a part of an inner circle of paranormal minded friends she often connects with at these festivals, and how you this year was a tour guide. Then that evening, lo and behold, my family and I had signed up for the hayride event out at the TNT area and there you were giving us the low down on everything, answering questions, and protecting us from those MIBs coming at us in a golf cart (the economy has affected everyone, obviously), plus getting to see Mothman (complete with glowing red eyes) sail over our heads during our semi-hazardous tour.
So to begin with, how did you become so deeply involved with the Point Pleasant crowd? You're from Michigan right? I'll bet reading John Keel's Mothman Prophecies had something to do with all of this? What does the Mothman Festival mean for you?
Steve Ward: When I was in grade school my friend Billy, who lived down the street told me about something he had seen the night before on a show called "You Asked For It". It was an old show that people could write in and request to see certain subjects presented on a particular program. What they had showed that night was some 8mm footage of what were supposed to be flying saucers that flew over a town somewhere out west. Now I didn't even see the show and I don't really know what film they had but the mere thought that there could really be spaceships from another planet fueled the mind of a young kid that was already interested in astronomy and science fiction.
A few years later that same friend introduced me to the books of Frank Edwards -- this was before his famous "Flying Saucers: Serious Business" book was published. These were his earlier anthologies of the weird like "Strange World" and “Stranger Than Science.” He had all kinds of sensational "true" stories about all kinds of unexplained events. The stuff about the moving coffins and other ghost stories scared me a little -- I didn't like those, but the ones that told about the Flatwoods Monster and the Kelly/ Hopkinsville aliens and other UFO encounters were right up my alley. He even had one chapter entitled "Monster Apes of Oregon" ---- my first introduction to bigfoot, before everyone was calling it the hairy biped bigfoot..
But in about 8th or 9th grade the mother load hit. That March in 1966, the invading hoards from outer space came to Michigan and buzzed the towns of Ann Arbor, Dexter, and Hillsdale, which were not too far from where I lived. I'm sure I thought we were bring invaded by real alien space craft. It was awesome. It was still awesome even when a beleaguered Dr. J. Allen Hynek tried to tell us it was just swamp gas. That November yielded an even bigger surprise. Across the wire services came an incredible story out of Point Pleasant, West Virginia, about a giant man-bird that chased two couples down Route 62. I couldn't have known it at the time but I would be chasing that "bird" for the next half century.
In high school a few of us formed the classy sounding Aerial Phenomena Investigation and Research Center. We thought that the term "flying saucer" was old hat so we used “aerial phenomena" which we thought gave the name some respectability. The "international" headquarters were housed in Kevin's uninsulated and spider infested garage. We spent our time combing the library's for books on ufos, discovered Jim Moseley's "Saucer News" magazine, and held sky watches for alien spaceships in our back yards in the middle of the crowded suburbs in which we lived.
In 1967, Kevin who held the position of "director" in our four member group conned his mother (we were all too young to drive) to attend the infamous Flying Saucer convention at the Commodore Hotel in New York City, headed by Jim Moseley. He met people like Gray Barker, Timothy Beckley, and Allen Greenfield. My parents were less than excited to have me wandering New York, so I couldn't go. I had to live vicariously through Kevin's experiences.
Kevin & Rick (our 4th member) started one of the small amateur UFO magazines which was called "The UFO Phenomenon." In one of the issues the article was entitled "Mothmania in Point Pleasant" which was actually a debunking article in the Mothman encounters. You can see that very magazine in the Mothman Museum in Point Pleasant today.
In the fall 1973, I had an opportunity to back pack through Europe for nearly four months. I was able to visit Stonehenge when you could still walk up and touch the stones. And I also got to stand on the shores of Loch Ness on a beautiful day when you could see a long distance down the narrow loch before it was lost in the distant haze. After having read "The Great Orm of Loch Ness" by F. W. Holiday I almost expected to catch a glimpse of the beast.
Over the years, two of our group lost interest and the magazine went by the wayside. For a short time toward the mid 70's Rick and I were in an informal UFO group that actually included some professional people. --- but there was to be another important event for me that influenced my thinking on UFOs and the paranormal, and that was a book written by John Keel.
I had followed Keel's writing for years. His "Strange Creatures from Time & Space” gave us his early thinking on "window areas" which hinted that we might not be dealing with mere flesh and blood creatures that have remained hidden. It was his "UFO's: Operation Trojan Horse" that hit me between the eyes and was responsible for completely turning my thinking upside down. Keel made the case that all these seemingly different types of phenomena were connected -- UFO's, cryptids, and haunting phenomena. He introduced words and phrases like silent contactees and Ultraterrestrials. Then I read Jacques Vallee's "Passport to Magonia" in which he made the case that modern day UFO experiences originated from the same source as the stories found in Celtic folklore.
After reading the books of these two giants in the field I would never be able to think again that we were dealing with nuts and bolts spacecraft from elsewhere and that all of the different types of experiences that you might find in the long published "Fate" magazine were completely separate and unrelated.
Brent Raynes: I followed a similar path. I also even had a friend named Billy who entered the UFO quest with me. I was 14, and it was early 1967, and I had been greatly inspired by the book “Flying Saucers: Serious Business” by Frank Edwards. But soon down the road reading Keel and Vallee likewise redirected my focus and perspective and in August 1971, on a trip to Toronto, Canada with my parents, I looked up and spent a couple hours or so with a contactee named Joan Howard, who I had read about in a book by Brad Steiger.
Life hasn’t been exactly ordinary since.
Steve Ward: There was another book by John Keel that was a huge influence on me that came out about this time. Keel had written about the bird creature that soon was dubbed "Mothman" -- that same winged unknown I had read about back in the newspaper in 1966. Occasionally Keel would give up tantalizing tidbits about his experiences in Point Pleasant, chasing down the Mothman and MIBs in various articles published in magazines like Saga and UFO Report. Finally in 1976 "The Mothman Prophesies" book was published. I grabbed the first edition hardcover off the rack & was completely captivated with one of the strangest stories ever told. I read it over and over. You can still see my notes in the margins of my book with it's partially intact dust jacket. I knew that one day I wanted to go there and see what the little town and surrounding areas looked like.
I attended the 1976 M.U.F.O.N. Symposium in Ann Arbor, Michigan that was held at the Weber Inn -- close enough for me that I could actually drive there. Dr. J. Allen Hynek was the keynote speaker and his talk was entitled "Swamp Gas + 10 & Counting". It had been 10 years since he had uttered the words "swamp gas" and he had left the Air Force’s Project Blue Book after he came to believe that there was some real substance to what people were reporting. He had written "The UFO Experience" where the Close Encounter categories were first introduced. He also established The Center for UFO Studies in Evanston, Illinois.
James Webb, the author of "1973: Year of the Humanoids" was one of the speakers. Veteran investigator Ray Stanford was there talking about his Project Starlight International where he had build a fake landing port to hopefully lure in the "space brothers". Jerome Clark was subbing for Jacques Vallee who was unable to attend. He covered the Sandy Larson case out of Fargo, ND., which was one of the early abduction cases that had very pronounced paranormal trappings.
I'm afraid I may have been just a little annoying at times (who would have thought?). The reason was that I was a convert to the Immaculate Church of John Keel and Jacques Vallee. I was presenting the paranormal theories (sometimes labeled as the 4D Theory) with a great deal of enthusiasm to any that would stand still for a few moments. There were a few sympathetic ears but most of them, from their expression made me think of an old Woody Allen line which goes, "Of course, there are things worse than death. Did you ever spend an evening with an insurance salesmen?" I think they probably would have.
The most memorable moment came when I came face to face with Gray Barker, the Gray Barker of Saucerian Publications, the man who wrote "They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers" and so many other classics in the field. He was first on the scene in 1952 at the Flatwoods Monster landing site and one of the people that my friend Kevin met back in '67 at the Flying Saucer convention in New York City.
Gray towered over me. He had longish hair, not at all like the pictures I had seen of him with it much shorter. He had on very thick glasses and a stigmatism in one eye. He had a booming voice and as I walked into the book room at the symposium he had just cracked a joke using an "F" bomb (which I didn't catch all of) and every one present was roaring with laughter. I was sorry I missed it!
I sort of cornered him and "interviewed" him for about 10 minutes. He remembered Kevin from 10 years before and I also remember asking him about the veracity of his book, "The UFO Warning". The principals supposedly encountered evil Men in Black and endured several psychic attacks. Barker said he thought there might be some truth in it and I squeezed in as many questions as I thought I could get away with, but what I really wanted to know was about the difference between his book on the Mothman, "The Silver Bridge", which I did not have, and Keel's "Mothman Prophecies" book. I had heard some claim that Keel had ripped off Barker, so I thought I would ask him what he thought. I wish that there was some way that I could convey his manner of speech. He said something like, "Well, none of us like to get our literary toes stepped on but I'm sure John wrote his own book". In fact he did. With the advent of "New Saucerian" publications "The Silver Bridge" was republished and while it is another piece of the puzzle and an interesting book, it is not "The Mothman Prophesies". Gray was very kind to put up with all my questions and he was a really nice guy and I am glad I got to meet him. In recent years, I have visited the Barker archives in Clarksburg and spent many hours there examining that great collection of information.
The first time I made the journey to Point Pleasant wasn't for the Mothman Festival. After reading "Prophecies" I knew I had to see the town and see for myself some of the places described in the book. With passages from the Mothman Prophecies like, "A dark force was closing over a little town I had never even heard of: Point Pleasant, West Virginia. In a matter of months I would be arriving there like some black-suited exorcist, lugging my tattered briefcase, waving the golden cross of science. My life would become intertwined with the people of the Ohio Valley." How the hell could I resist that?
It was June 1977 and I had been visiting some good friends south of Buffalo, NY. Just to show how badly I wanted to see Point Pleasant, I had an opportunity to stick around on Sunday, go for a sailboat ride on a beautiful day with some pretty ladies. Go figure. I had Monday off so I fired up my green VW bug and headed for the lair of the Garuda. I ended up marrying a gorgeous redhead named Sarah years later, so I got better..... I got to Point Pleasant after dark and somehow found the historic Lowe Hotel late that night and hit the rack.
That first Mothman sighting occurred about 6 miles north of the town in the infamous TNT area. During WW 2 they built explosives and housed them on site in 100 concrete "igloos". In 1967, and certainly in 1977, it was long abandoned and is now a wildlife area. The magazine that our group had published on "Mothmania" included a map of the TNT area, so the next morning I headed out into unknown territory. I really don't remember too much.... It was a long time ago but there were no fences or guard rails and I was able to drive into the area with my car. If only I'd had the foresight to have taken more pictures. Eventually I found the old North Power Plant where the creature was first seen. It was in very bad shape. I started walking toward it with my 35mm camera in hand and was met half way by a construction guy in a hard hat. He asked what I was doing there and when I told him I got a pretty major eye roll. He didn't give me a hard time --- he let me in the plant to take pictures - his main concern was that I not injure myself in what was an unsafe building. I took several b&w pictures (which currently remain elusive) and headed for my next stop.
Next I wanted to find a road that Keel referred to as Five Mile Creek Rd. mentioned in the book. He and the newspaper reporter Mary Hyre and others would go up there at night and watch those "damn meandering lights." I wanted to see that place. I didn't want to ask any one any questions in town -- the Mothman sightings had occurred only ten years before with the culmination of the horrible collapse of the Silver Bridge. That tragedy was connected in the minds of many with the strange phenomena that occured that year. I didn't want to bring up anything that might bring back bad memories for anyone. It was the peak of the popularity for CB radios. My handle was Spring Heel Jack. I tried to find Five Mile Creek Road asking for local information, but failed. Later I would find out it was much further down south than I realized, east of Gallipolis Ferry. It was to be 29 years before I would return to Point Pleasant and 3 more years before I would finally find Keel’s hill off of that road.
Time passed. I did a 4 year stint in the Navy as an Interior Communications Electrician on the USS Billfish SSN676. It was a nuclear fast attack sub. On one of our runs, I got another brief chance to get back to the British Isles. We pulled into Portsmouth, England and with a few days liberty I went back to Stonehenge only to find that you could no longer go and put your hands on the stones. It was 1981.
Now keep in mind that sailors are some of the most accomplished BSers in existence but, the sonar techs told me that when they steamed through the Bermuda Triangle that they sometimes heard some pretty weird stuff. One sound they encountered over their ear phones was similar to a woman screaming. Of course, there are all kind of "biologics" to be encountered in the ocean depths but the guys are well trained and are very familiar with most of those sounds. The other thing they heard was something like "wind chimes" in the same area, and they didn't hear these sounds anywhere else except near Bermuda. Does Poseidon have a patio? A guy named Shorty, a senior sonar man confirmed it for me and I found him credible enough that it might actually be true. I never heard anything about those "mystery subs" that are said to pop up now and then.
In the Spring of 1974, I had a chance to visit Central America. My friend Bob's uncle was the Roman Catholic Bishop of Belize. We stayed at bargain basement prices at the "Presbytery" with all the priests for two weeks. I got to go snorkeling along the 2nd largest barrier reef in the world and see the partially uncovered Aztec ruins at Altun Ha. Bishop Hodapp chauffeured us in his white WV bug to the west side of the country not too far from the border of Guatemala to stay with another priest. The next day, one of the workmen there took us across the border in a pickup truck and we came upon the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. Years later (geek alert) it would double as the Rebel Base in the first Star Wars film. I was pretty blown away. This was about on par with Stonehenge. We spent the afternoon there under a very hot sun and climbed up and down the pyramids. It was an amazing view from that high up. What we could see was only a very small area of what was still hidden under the jungle. Crossing the border back and forth between Belize and Guatemala was a bit tense. Think of any movie you have seen with stereotypical border guards. Looking mean & holding assault rifles. That's what we had. Of course, we didn't get shot but we did get several extra fees (made up on the spot) attached to the normal crossing fees. Our driver did the negotiations --- we (Bob & I) stood there and kept quiet.
By 2006, I'd been married to Sarah since '88 and my two fantastic step-children, Jen & Scott had long ago flown the nest. (We currently have 7 grandchildren between them.) It had been a long time since I had been part of any conventions, symposiums, or been associated with any UFO/ paranormal groups. I had amassed an enormous library of hundreds of books on the paranormal, including books on the history of the New thought movement and all the people and events that led up to that era and its continual unfoldment.
Over the years, I subscribed to dozens of magazines on all kinds of subjects. UFO's, Atlantis, Faithist/ Oahspe publiations, magazines like INFO, Fortean Times, Fate, Saucer News, The Ley Hunter, Magonia & even The Flying Saucer Review was still being published out of England. I discovered radio shows like Coast to Coast AM and a few others that covered that kind of subject matter. I still had a huge archive of magazines and books from the 60's through the 90's. I never lost interest – it became more intense. But still at the center of my fascination with the unexplained was Point Pleasant, West Virginia and the Mothman.
John Keel introduced the term "window area" to denote a geographical area of high strangeness --- where UFO's, cryptids, ghost lights, ghostly occurrences all seem to congregate. Point Pleasant fit the description as one of these. Whatever was going on there wasn't as simple as metallic spaceships buzzing the TNT or some hidden creature. There were many different types of phenomena that were reported in these, sometimes relatively limited areas, that one would at first think were completely unrelated. This was the type of research I was most interested in -- "windows", "portals" or whatever name you wish to use and the WHY of it all. It always seemed to me that if we had any chance of solving some of these mysteries that it would be by studying these types of locations.
I was at work one day reading Fate Magazine. They had a list of upcoming paranormal events. The Mothman Festival was listed for September 2006. I mentioned to Sarah that the festival was something I would really like to go to. She made a reservation for the Lowe Hotel and we set out early Friday before the 5th annual Mothman Festival.
It's not going to be easy to convey just what an amazing experience the Mothman Festival is. You have the history of the area going back to America's founding and the legend of Chief Cornstalk as part of the backdrop. Great speakers on all kinds of subjects in the realm of the unexplained and the nighttime hay ride in the infamous TNT area. The stunning West Virginia countryside and the amazing people that come to the festival for the same reasons that you do. The local residents make you feel that you haven't left home.
The first Mothman Festival started from humble beginnings in 2001. The co founders are Carolyn Harris, proprietor of the Harris Steak House aka the Mothman Diner and Jeff Wamsley, who teaches in the local high school and is also the curator of the Mothman Museum. The famous Mothman statue was created by Bob Roach and commissioned in 2003. That was the same year that John Keel attended and witnessed the unveiling of the statue. The stainless steel Garuda stands in the center of town and people from all over the world come to see it and get their pictures taken with it. Note: Bob Roach just passed away at the end of August this year (2015), but he created a legacy with his work that will match the longevity of the folklore that surrounds the Mothman. That statue will out live all of us.
I wasn't there for the early years, but when my wife and I arrived in Point Pleasant in 2006, I hit the ground running. The first person we met was Rosemary Ellen Guiley, author, researcher, and responsible for dozens and dozens of books on all aspects of the paranormal as well as several detailed encyclopedias. She was seeking out the personal ghost stories of the people staying at the hotel (the Lowe was supposed to be very haunted) and also doing research on individual’s experiences with shadow people. In the years to follow I would have the privilege of being part of some of Rosemary's investigations -- in the TNT area, the mysterious stone chambers in Upstate New York. -- And even an Ouija board experiment! Not to mention a paranormal hot spot where different types of phenomena were all occurring in the same place.
Then I met Jeff Wamsley and Donnie Sergent Jr. They were the authors of two recent books on Mothman, "Mothman: The Facts behind the Legend" and "Mothman: Behind the Red eyes." These books were extremely valuable because the authors had gone back to some of the original witnesses (in 2006, 40 years had passed) and interviewed them in the present day, demonstrating that this wasn't merely some tired old legend or a story told from father to son that had become distorted over the years. The encounters with the Mothman were still as real to some of the witnesses as the moment they first saw the winged figure in 1966. I would be able to speak to some of those very witnesses in upcoming festivals.
I told Sarah that this might be my chance to find the elusive Five Mile Creek Road where John Keel had seen the mysterious lights pass overhead all those years ago -- the road I had failed to find back in 1977. So I asked some of the locals to direct me and they sent me south down Route 2 to Gallipolis Ferry. One gentleman said, “don't get lost in them hollars." I thought he was joking. He wasn't and I got lost in "them" hollars in no time.
We headed down Route 2 crossing the Bartow Jones Bridge, followed the Ohio River to Crab Creek Road and then turned east. It was growing dark and to set the mood I had on Michael Stearn's music CD entitled "Encounter". Everything was pretty cool until I realized that the winding roads seemed to go on forever and pretty soon this Michigan boy had absolutely no clue as to where the heck he was. I had no luck finding my road and the gas gauge was quickly moving towards empty. I wasn't real sure how I was going to explain this to "the redhead", that I had stranded us in the middle of nowhere in West "by God" Virginia on the first night we arrived there for the festival. The admonition, "don't get lost in them hollars" came back to me more than once.
Somehow good fortune smiled on us because we finally came out on the river not too far from the bridge. I didn't realize it at first but we went in on Route 2 from the Ohio River and came out onto I-35 along the Kanawha River. It threw me for a moment because I thought that the river should now have been on my left and I was pretty sure we hadn't teleported! We were near to "Where the Waters Mingle" (the title of Mary Hyre's column in the 60's.) where the rivers cross. Both rivers are connected by a labyrinth of narrow roads. If you don't know where you are going (like I didn't) you can end up at either one. The rivers are spanned by two bridges. The Bartow Jones Bridge crosses the Kanawha River and the new Silver Bridge crosses the Ohio. The original Silver Bridge stood further up river & emptied in the heart of downtown Point Pleasant. It collapsed on December, 15th, 1967, at the culmination of most of the Mothman sightings and other strange goings on in the Ohio Valley.
I'm going to skip around a lot as I talk about people I have met at the festival and the many experiences I have had. -- but I wanted to say one more thing about that first night in Point Pleasant. Sarah &and I met Brian and Fran Zeller and their friend Kathy from Tennessee. We hit it off right away. Brian had an interest in Mothman lore for years like I did and Sarah had family connections in Tennessee. We had a lot to talk about. They were the first of many great people that we would meet in connection with the Mothman Festival. Brian would years latter write a song entitled, "What You Going To Do Now" which was all about the Mothman, the Point Pleasant weirdness, and the Silver Bridge.
Sarah was beat from the trip and went up to bed and Brian and Fran took me on a tour of the town and showed me the ropes. We walked past Mary Hyre's former office on 6th street and by the Athens Messenger building. Then we walked down to the amphitheater to the edge of the river. Later we walked down to the park where Chief Cornstalk is buried. From there you can see the two bridges lit up. It was a great first night of the festival. After 29 years, I had come home.
Part Two continued in the next issue!