One night in 1977, John Royer went out on the second-floor deck of his Bethlehem house to get some air, something he had done a hundred times without any complications. This time, however, he happened to look up into the sky as a big, black triangle with lights at the three corners passed overhead.
Big as the object was — it blocked out a sizeable swath of stars — it didn't make a sound.
Royer, a Lafayette College graduate and engineer — and, by his own and his wife's testimony, a sober and level-headed man — went inside and summoned the closest person, a houseguest. She came out and saw it too."Oh, my God," she said, and went back inside. Royer watched the object drift west until it disappeared beyond the tree line. And just like that, his life had changed.
It didn't change the way the Richard Dreyfuss character's life changed in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." He didn't lose his job and start sculpting his mashed potatoes and shaving cream into renderings of Devil's Tower. And he didn't start seeing UFOs everywhere he looked, though in 2003, after moving to his current home in Emmaus, he saw another triangle flying over Emmaus High School.
But these experiences made him keenly interested in UFOs. And that led to his current position as a volunteer field investigator for the Mutual UFO Network, called MUFON.
It's a 42-year-old international group of enthusiasts who investigate sightings, compile statistical summaries— there were 14 UFO reports in Pennsylvania in June, for example — and pressure the government to be more forthcoming about what it knows regarding the phenomenon.
"Many reports are mistakes," Royer acknowledges, leafing through the dozens of sightings he has investigated across the Lehigh Valley and beyond in the past couple of years. "Some of them are idiots trying to play a game. Some are drunks. Some are people on drugs."
Some, though, are sincere — and often frightened — regular folk who have witnessed something strange and want the relief or reassurance that comes from sharing the story.
A few examples: A witness in York County saw a boomerang-shaped mass of green lights flying south over the borough. A Shimersville resident watched a red light bobbing in the sky. And a man in Emmaus had virtually the same experience as Royer, watching a dark triangle move above Chestnut Street and disappear beyond South Mountain.
Royer, 65, a retired Lincoln Technical Institute instructor, makes no firm judgment about any of these sightings — not even his own. He knows he saw something, but he can't say what.
"I think some of it is manmade technology," he said. "I also believe there is something flying around out there that we don't know anything about."
Preserving the anonymity of the witnesses, he notes the details and commits them to the growing record of sightings around the world. Like other buffs, he figures the phenomenon will reach critical mass one day and lead to something — alien contact, perhaps, or government acknowledgement that we are not alone.
"There are multiple people around the world who are politicians, who are in the military, who are saying 'Enough is enough,' " Royer said, citing cases of jet pilots who have been ordered into fruitless pursuit of bizarre sky craft but told to keep their stories quiet.
He does most of his research in a home office with a few framed painting of UFOs on the wall and a model of the Mir Space Station dangling from the ceiling fan light pull. Here, he has begun writing science fiction and has formulated his own theory about aliens — that they are "flying archeologists" in a long-term study of humankind. UFO reports, he pointed out, date back thousands of years.
Playing Scully to Royer's Mulder is his wife, Mary, a friendly woman who seems to find his hobby interesting in the way many wives find football interesting.
"It's John's thing," she said. "All I can say is 'Anything's possible.' "