During the late fall of my fourth year, I experienced two unusual events. I saw an officially recognized UFO, and I disturbed a sleeping rattlesnake under the front gate to my house.
The UFO, which even the Air Force couldn't explain, remains a wonder in my memory. It was dark, chilly, I recall, as we got out of the car at the house. I looked up and exclaimed, "Look, Daddy! Look at the Christmas tree." A huge Christmas tree shape filled the southern sky, emanating from a single white light high in the sky and reaching apparently to the earth. My recollection is that it was red. It looked exactly like the outline of a Christmas tree. It was distant from us, and looking back, to see it so clearly, even in the dry, clear air of New Mexico, it must have been high in the sky. At four, I was remembering pleasurably the Fourth of July fireworks I had seen the previous summer. I waited for more to come. My dad excitedly told my mother to look. We stood there, not too long, and the Christmas tree abruptly vanished. The light remained and was joined by a second light. The two lights moved swiftly across the sky. My dad loaded us into the car and drove to a higher vantage point. He speculated that the lights were somewhere over White Sands Missile Base. He exclaimed when the lights moved in what he said were 90-degree angles.
Most four-year-olds can't see 90-degree angles and will copy them as a curve. I couldn't discern the abrupt turns. I could see they moved wicked fast and changed direction. We watched for awhile, then my conscientious mother told my dad we had to go home to get me ready for bed. So we did.
UFO sightings in the Tularosa Basin of New Mexico were frequently reported in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A book, Project Blue Book, eventually came out to debunk most of the sightings with logical explanations. The incident I relate was included and simply listed as unexplained. There was no mention of the Christmas tree my family saw, only of the lights that indeed were over the Navy missile base. The author was extremely skeptical about the 90-degree turns.
We didn't have television, and would often sit out in the front yard at night, while my dad taught me constellations and let me look through his powerful binnoculars at the full moon. The Tularosa Basin is the site of the first atomic bomb test (more on that later), the White Sands Navy Missile Base which still tests missiles and conducts research, and Holloman Air Force Base, where a great deal of aerospace research was done. Theories and sightings abounded. We had a lot of eggheads in the community from all over the world in addition to the ordinary Hispanic, Anglo, Apache and black population.
What did we see that night? I will never know. I will never forget.
A few weeks later, I think, I was with my mother in the same parking spot in front of the house, probably about the same time of evening. My father had a horrible cold, and Mother had taken me with her to go to the drugstore for some medicine. What the medicine was, I haven't a clue.
In 1947, doctors had sulfa and penicillin available and nothing else. There probably were some cough medicines--my father was partial to Smith Brothers Cough Drops, which came in his favorite licorice (shudder) and cherry. No antihistimines. Stuff to gargle with, though. So we had been to town and come home (we lived about three miles outside on a dirt road). I hopped out of the car and reached the front gate before my mother. My dad had fenced the whole yard, poured a cement walk from the front porch to the fence, and hung a heavy wooden gate at the entrance.
As I reached for the latch, I heard a tell-tale and familiar sound--I had disturbed a rattler snoozing under the gate and it was now coiled and threatening. My parents allowed me quite a bit of freedom around the place, figuring rightly that most of the time, any iconoclastic rattlesnake would hear me coming and slither away. Over time, several snakes had coiled rather than slither, usually when my dad happened on them. Then my father would shoot them. We had probably a dozen rattles on the mantle over the fireplace. My parents drilled me on what to do in such a confrontation, even to the point of what to do if I were bitten. This was perfectly acceptable good parenting in the New Mexico desert in 1947.
So I turned around and ran back to the car even as my mother was saying,"Get in the car!" The rattler was very loud. Our two dogs ran up and made short charges at the snake. I was afraid they would be bitten. Mother yelled for my dad, inside with a stopped up head listening to the radio. I don't think he ever heard my mother, but he eventually came to the door to see why the dogs were barking. Mother told him about the rattler. He got his shotgun and came out. He lamented the shot, which was at such an angle he not only shot off the head but the tail, and this was a big rattler.
I climbed out of the car to look at the pulsating, writhing dead snake. Dad commented that at least with the head gone, the dogs were safe. He lifted the body with a stick and threw the snake on the other side of the road. It was gone the next morning. My mother was delighted I remembered my snake lessons so well. I took my bath, put on my pajamas and went to bed. Mama told me a story. I was very proud of myself for remembering what to do.
Rattlesnakes have such good manners. Now I live in copperhead country. They don't tell you they are there.