Column: Close encounters of a different kind


We Are Not Alone. That was the tagline for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (CE3K), which premiered 40 Novembers ago.

The movie trailer on TV included a scene involving tense air traffic controllers in Indianapolis conversing with pilots about a near-miss with an unidentified aircraft. That the movie was set in my home state excited me, made it more personal. The movie’s topic was right up my alley too: UFOs, my latest adolescent obsession.

Before CE3K, I was obsessed with sharks, thanks to “Jaws.” I reported countless shark fin sightings in the Ohio River. My parents refused to alert the police about fresh water sharks. Two years after that, Steven Spielberg again worked his movie magic on me, this time inspiring me to stare skeptically at the stars. I reported countless UFO sightings to my parents, again to deaf ears. I was 13.

I anxiously anticipated the arrival of CE3K to The Swiss Theater in Tell City. In those days, it took a while for new movies to reach our little river town. To aid me in the wait, my parents gifted to me a $1.95 copy of the Steven Spielberg-penned paperback novelization for Christmas. The cover, like the movie poster, showed a brilliant, mysterious, blue-edged glow on the horizon, a dark, desolate, white-lined highway running toward it, stars hovering. I refused to read the book before seeing the movie, but I cherished it just the same, keeping it by my bed pillow. I stared at that book cover a lot, wondering about the source of that mysterious light at the highway’s end. When dad backed down our driveway to make the midnight shift at the aluminum plant across the river, his truck’s beams filled my bedroom with an eerie, twin glow, sending me deep beneath the covers before fully realizing the effect was not due to an alien invasion but to Ford headlights.

CE3K finally arrived in Tell City just before the great blizzard of 1978. I went alone. My buddies really weren’t into UFOs like me, though there were a couple of guys from my class there that night on what was likely their first official dates, sitting by girls in a double-date situation a few rows ahead.

I was there for a UFO experience. They were there to experience a close encounter of a different kind, a fresh phenomenon that boys and girls my age were starting to succumb to, pulled toward one another in that eternal gravitational pull of hormones.

CE3K’s title was based on the three classifications of UFO encounters: Sighting; Evidence; Contact. As the movie explained: Close Encounter of the First Kind — Sighting of a UFO. Close Encounter of the Second Kind — Physical Evidence. Close Encounter of the Third Kind — Contact.

As much as I tried to focus on the movie screen that night, I stared more at the silhouettes of my classmates’ heads, studying how they tilted closer to each other as the movie progressed, seeing two male arms rising in the air and then reaching around the girls’ shoulders, the couples’ heads eventually touching.

The three classifications of UFO encounters apparently applied to relationships: Sighting (initial attraction at school); Evidence (a date); Contact (arms around shoulders, heads touching).

“Have you recently had a close encounter with something very unusual?” the main character, Roy Neary, is asked by the Frenchman, Claude Lacombe, during the interrogation scene near Devil’s Tower.

I imagined the boys in front responding to Lacombe in unison, “Yes. Just now.”

The wonderment I felt watching my classmates likely equaled the wonderment of the little boy, Barry, when he opened the front door of his house and faced that alien orange glow on the other side, an invitation for him to step forward and encounter a new world.

CE3K was mostly lost on me that night. All I really remembered was how the little boy was abducted, how he was whisked away solo into unchartered territory, a Hoosier boy lost in space, forever changed. Ironically, my obsession with UFOs ended during CE3K. Something seemingly even more heavenly started weighing on my mind: girls. 

Sitting by myself at The Swiss watching CE3K, well trying to — more so watching those arms make first contact with shoulders, those heads touching — marked my first memory of personal loneliness, a terribleness that would dog me for much of my life.

Flash-forward: Sept. 2017. I read how, in celebration of its 40th anniversary, CE3K was being rereleased in theaters for an eye-blink run. Suddenly, a nostalgic jolt of excitement returned. My out-of-this-world girlfriend Brynne sat beside me. We became lost in the movie, contented knowing each would be there for the other when the credits rolled. At some point our heads tilted and touched — and we stayed that way. Forty years later, CE3K’s tagline proved correct: We Are Not Alone.

Everyone is invited to Will Read and Sing For Food show No. 123, which benefits Mentors For Youth at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 30, at Hedinger Beverage Distribution in Jasper. Admission is a $10 donation.

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