The risky business of looking back

Can the newly reinvigorated UFO subculture expedite the economic recovery in Smalltown USA? At Marker 48, a beer named for a ‘60s-era experiencer is part of the plan/CREDIT: Billy Cox

BROOKSVILLE, Fla. – On May 22, 1856, inside the Capitol Dome, hothead U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks, D-S.C., hobbled over to the desk of abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner, R-Mass., intent on settling a “libel” score. Two days earlier, Sumner had railed against slaveholders and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and condemned by name one of Brooks’ cousins, a fellow U.S. senator.

Wielding the heavy cane that had been a constant companion since sustaining a gunshot wound to the hip in a duel 16 years earlier, Brooks tore into Sumner with a rage. As Sumner rose from his chair, Brooks bludgeoned the Yankee again and again, forcing Sumner under his desk. Others attempted to break it up, but one of Brooks’ allies held them at bay by drawing a pistol. Sumner was bloodied into unconsciousness, and the assault ended only after the cane broke and Brooks had cut himself in the head on an errant backswing.

Shortly thereafter, nearly 900 miles away, in a small antebellum Florida hamlet north of a new coastal village called Tampa, cheered by the news from Washington, community leaders decided to name what would become the seat of Hernando County in honor of the man with the cane. True story. And so is this – after 40-plus years of reporting from the Sunshine State, I’d never visited sleepy little Brooksville. Until last weekend.

“They” say when one door closes, another one opens, and I’ll testify right here and now. On the very day I submitted my resignation to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, a former newspaper colleague made an offer I couldn’t refuse – a $100 appearance fee, an overnight stay in a Brooksville hotel, and all the free beer I could drink and/or carry home. It was like being bathed by a beam of light in the dawn of a third eye. All I had to do was talk UFOs.

The occasion: A local brewery, Marker 48, was attempting to nudge Brooksville’s image into the 20th century by resurrecting the seasonal rollout of a hazy IPA called The John Reeves Incident. The Google crash course indicated the area had once billed itself as the “UFO Capital of the World,” on account of numerous sightings in the 1960s. This was all news to me, but then, so was Brooksville’s namesake.

The John Reeves Incident premiered in 2016, with designs on becoming an annual spring tradition. COVID-19 derailed the streak last year. The 2021 comeback plays out on the day before “60 Minutes” mainlines the UFO controversy directly into the American bloodstream.

An unmasked, decent-sized, demographically diverse crowd gathers at Marker 48, formerly an auto garage. The mood seems equally relaxed and relieved, the long exhale of gratitude after being sprung from jail. The place is festooned with space alien kitsch, cardboard cutouts, and green inflatables. Its center of gravity comes in 16-ounce cans that showcase an idealized version of what happened (more or less) to Brooksville’s most famous dead raconteur. On the label, near a treeline in silhouette against a full moon, a flying saucer has landed in the distance. In the foreground, the bespectacled Mr. Reeves clinks a glass of suds with a lightbulb-headed grey alien.

Behold — The John Reeves Incident, in ample supply/CREDIT: Billy Cox

The lore has all the ingredients of a classic midnight campfire tale – a journey into the unknown, an eccentric with a vision, high-level subterfuge. Instead, the story unfolds on a postcard afternoon with a light joyous breeze. Marker 48 co-owner Tina Ryman, wearing alien spaceship earrings and a beer-label T-shirt, takes the microphone and enlightens the patrons. The story goes like this (more or less):

March 2, 1965, Reeves, 66, is scrounging around for snakes in the woods around his trailer home outside Brooksville, towards Weeki Wachee. He is startled to see a parked flying saucer and a robot-like occupant. The brief rendezvous ends with the alien reboarding the craft and taking off, but not before it leaves behind two thin sheets of paper bearing hieroglyphics-looking script.

Homeboy immediately takes his story to a St. Petersburg radio station. Consequently, two Air Force investigators show up at Reeves’ door and convince him to lend them the mysterious papers. Reeves says they swapped out the original sheets and returned with fakes. The episode – known as case number 9337 in Project Blue Book – is declared a crude hoax by military authorities. Reeves, however, couldn’t care less.

Over the next six years, the old longshoreman will relate multiple encounters with beings who come from a planet that sounds like an old Hollywood Indian rain chant – Moniheya. In 1968, a year before Neil and Buzz leave bootprints on the Sea of Tranquility, Reeves claims the Moniheyans ferried him to the dark side of the moon. He tells friends and neighbors he collected soil samples and a lunar rock and brought them home. But he refuses to submit them for analysis, to federal thieves or anybody else.

Friends say Reeves begins to behave like Roy Neary in “Close Encounters.” He converts his obsession into a full-scale model flying saucer and sticks it in the yard, where cultural bookends like Jimmy Page and Pat Boone swing by for a look-see. Reeves knocks out part of a wall to install his TV set, like those futuristic flat-screens he sees in the interiors of the spaceship. People swear his silver hair begins to turn dark again. Gym rats find him clanging ridiculously heavy dead weights well into his 90s. Reeves leaves Earth at age 103 and never comes back. Nothing remains of the UFO mockup or his lunar collection.

Ryman tells patrons it all may have happened right here, on this very spot, at Marker 48.

I ask for a show of hands: How many of y’all have been following the latest UFO coverage, the videos, the testimony of military veterans? Only a few go up; fortunately, all seem mildly attentive to my jumbled rehash. Beer can do that. I tell them:

Hey, I usually shy away from abduction stories because, well, they’re so weird and subjective and the material evidence usually sucks. But now that the Pentagon has formally acknowledged UFOs can and are outperforming everything we’ve got in the air, and the ocean, where does it end – the possibilities? Where are the limits? How far have “we” gamed out the best- and worst-case scenarios? Who’s in charge here?

Twenty-four hours later, 60 Minutes opens the floodgates to a surge of saturation coverage, on an unprecedented scale, with unprecedented sobriety. The mainstream media is beating the drum for next month’s scheduled delivery of the UAP Task Force audit to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. It will likely be the first in a series of disappointing installments.

But going forward demands looking backward, to uncover and examine the many ways we enabled this reckless dereliction. There is no revisionist history to write because there is no official history to study. We need full and clear-eyed access to our buried past. And like so much of what we manage to “rediscover,” this could get ugly. But just how ugly?

That can wait for now. It is Saturday evening, just outside a town named for the notorious Preston Brooks. A local band strikes up 38 Special’s “Hold On Loosely.” If you’re into citrusy and crisp, The John Reeves Incident is your beer. And the night is young.