I-Bar Christmas-light Coat-hanger Thing in the City Night Sky (1986)

It was some weeks ago that I remembered this event. I wouldn't call it buried, but for some reason I’d simply forgotten about it until then. After working for a while with my writing group, the few of us walked from our regular coffee shop on the pier to the local tavern up the street (I had coffee; the others by now preferred wine), and we got to talking about local author Tom Robbins, who was hugely popular when I was in college in the 1980’s. I remarked that I’d seen him speak once at the UW, back in the day. Soon after telling the others the bare facts about this, and that he was an engaging speaker, there was something that nagged at me, though, and I knew there was more to the story. I just couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Yes, I’d gone to see the author. A friend and I drove up from Olympia for the event, to see him at the University’s Kane Hall, a mammoth auditorium where I’d once taken a 101 Psychology course with 700 other freshmen before transferring to another school. The lecture hall was even more crowded on this occasion, and I remembered that Robbins, the author of “Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”, “Jitterbug Perfume”, et al, was funny and entertaining, and seemed to know how to work the audience. But I knew there was something more to it, and I was sure there was a UFO connection. It bothered me, because this idea seemed tacked onto my recollection of the event, like a flag or a post-it note. It felt artificial, like I was reaching for something not there.

It wasn’t until the next morning that the rest of it came back to me. I was surprised that I’d not remembered it sooner, because it was something I’d been aware of for all of my life since the day it happened. It wasn’t a buried memory or traumatic, just weird. This would have been sometime in 1986, and my friend Birdy and I drove the 70 miles north on I-5 in my dilapidated Impala for the event. It was just as we entered the city, reaching downtown, with the financial district on our left and 1st Hill on the right, where several hospitals are (the neighborhood is nicknamed “Pill Hill”) that something floated directly, noiselessly over the car. I think it moved from right to left, and it flew more or less like a helicopter, crossing the freeway and going between the tall buildings of downtown. It was easy, superficially, to dismiss this as a helicopter, except there was no helicopter there, not that I could see. Rather, it was all glowing and golden, seemed to have a plain shape like an iron I-beam, and was strung with all colors of hanging lights along tangled wires like a Christmas tree, one rather sloppily decorated. Add to that how it flew into the narrow spaces in between buildings, and the whole picture becomes very strange. I’d thought at the time that it must be a helicopter, though, landing at the helipad of one of the hospitals – which maybe it was. Maybe I remember it in reverse: that it came out from between the buildings and headed for the hill. This was certainly how I thought of it for at least a year afterwards. But it always haunted me, because there was something subtly not right about it – like, for instance, the ridiculously gaudy decorations and unsafe flight pattern.

Neither Birdy nor I said anything about it. We’d both seen it, clear as day, although it was night. It was impossible to miss. We had some time after parking the car to nose around the University Campus before the reading. Still, I can’t remember it ever coming up between us. We found a dark corner and smoked a little weed, then went on into the lecture hall for the event. When Robbins came to the stage, after the applause had died down and a few introductory remarks, he read from a new story, something not yet published, which he explained, “This is a story about how I saw a UFO.”

Addendum to the above entry:

Riding the airporter shuttle back to Whidbey from SeaTac last week, I had a chance, as we passed through the above-mentioned stretch of the I-5 corridor, to take a good, close look at the conditions there as I would have seen them so many years ago, approaching from the same direction. The spaces between the buildings at that exact spot were much wider than the concentration of high-rises only a block or two further north, and there seems in fact to be a helipad at Harborview Hospital that more or less abuts the freeway. Everything about the location admits the likelihood that what I saw was exactly what I half-way took it as: a Medivac helicopter coming in for a landing, or, alternately, taking off again.

Except there is still the matter of its appearance. I perhaps didn’t see it entirely clearly, but I have always remembered in such stark detail the weird, loose hang of that string of lights beneath the aircraft, run from one end to the other, and the vivid golden color of something – these details and the lack of any coherent shape to the object. There was no “helicopter” that I could see, only a minimal structure supporting sloppily-hung, ornamental lights. There was also no sound as this machine floated low and directly overhead.

Like with so many of these “encounters”, I feel like I’m being played with, and it may be no one but myself and my imagination in this tricksterish role. Yet there is, so often, just enough unlikely detail to let me doubt these dismissals, and either add support to self-delusion, or ask that I look more deeply through the cracks.

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